It is crunch time for Bernie Sanders. Super Tuesday could either end his improbable tilt at the White House windmill — or, should he hang on to win Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, and Massachusetts (and therefore still have a chance at getting the Democratic nomination), it might well represent the moment when the United States began to alter fundamentally its character and destiny. Will it turn away from neoliberal Ayn Rand capitalism toward the sunny uplands of empathy, equality, and fairness? In other words — in Sanders's words — is this the moment the USA charts a new course towards Scandinavian socialism?
Of course, ultimately America will probably just vote for the bullying reality show buffoon regardless, but I know who we are all rooting for here in my adopted homeland of Denmark. We're waving our Dannebrog for the old guy on the left from the balcony in The Muppets.
Sanders is our kind of politician. Principled, decent, beholden to no corporation or vampire squid bank and intent, it genuinely appears, on upholding the basic principles of social justice and democracy.
There is no question that America — heck, the world — would be a better place if it more resembled the Scandinavia that Sanders evokes
He gets it. Best of all, he gets us. Up here in the frozen lands just to the right of the UK and atop Germany, we have been basking in the attention lavished upon us during this most improbable of election years, thanks to the Sanders campaign.
"I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people," he said in the first Democratic debate last October.
Since then he has repeatedly invoked Scandinavia as his model for a better America, citing the region's world-leading levels of economic and gender equality, the generous welfare safety provision, and the free health care and education systems, and pointing to the great quality of life and self-perceived happiness enjoyed by these descendants of the Vikings.
There is no question that America — heck, the world — would be a better place if it more resembled the Scandinavia that Sanders evokes. Even I, a British transplant to Denmark and sometime-Scandiskeptic, can see that America is badly in need of a little Scandi-therapy. But Scandinavia doesn't offer a quick fix for what ails the United States — and in recent years even Scandinavia itself has been backing away from some of the qualities that Sanders praises it for.
Video: Here's why you might like living in Sweden
Scandinavia is more equal than the States
In terms of economics, the gap between richest and poorest, measured by the Gini coefficient, is far smaller here than in the States; in terms of gender equality it has a greater proportion of women in the labor force and more women in positions of power, and there is absolutely no question that women should have the right to decide over the inhabitants of their own wombs. Sweden was recently ranked the best country in the world in which to live as a woman.
And Scandinavia is more equal in terms of opportunity. It is far easier for a working-class Scandinavian kid to achieve a university education and attain professional qualifications than it is for a child from a similar background in the USA. Social mobility is far, far better here than in the States. As I only slightly grudgingly conclude in my book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, these are the true lands of opportunity.
As Sanders rightly points out, America badly needs a dose of wealth redistribution. Rapidly spiraling poverty, unemployment, and homelessness with record repossessions, while billionaires pay 17 percent income tax? That doesn't tend to happen up here "beyond the wall."
Scandinavia's multi-party system works better than America's two-party system
America's political system would also benefit from a little Scandi-style transparency and multi-party consensus. Both help temper the extremes of political dogma that have afflicted the US political landscape. "But doesn't that lead to political stalemate?" I hear you ask. Like Washington, you mean? No, it's not that bad.
But really it all comes back to equality, the bedrock of the so-called Nordic miracle and Sanders's campaign mantra. The awkward truth about capitalism is that without proper equality of opportunity, the market cannot distribute wealth fairly or democratically, nor can it provide a safety net for the vulnerable. That's the role of government, and I'm afraid it requires everyone to pay their taxes.
But prosperous, Scandinavian-style societies don't happen overnight
Though Scandinavia has much to teach the world, sadly there is no quick fix to be found here. As with any region, Scandinavia has attained its current state of almost near perfection as a result of decades, perhaps centuries, of evolution, conflict, and change. The region is a product of its history, climate, and topography — not to mention of living so close to Germany and Russia.
You don't impose tax rates like these overnight; they creep up on you like bindweed without people really noticing until, whoops, you have five weeks of holiday a year and free health care, and young people are paid to go to university — but you are also paying more than half your income to the state.
You don't pick up democratic systems like this at the checkout. These levels of political and corporate transparency, devolution, equality, and accountability are formed following decades of debate and negotiation. Decent public transport takes long-term cross-party will; consensus politics require multiparty systems free of interference from large-scale corporate interest; effective labor relations are only possible if trade unions remain strong and are integrated into the decision-making process.
Even as Sanders praises Scandinavia, Scandinavia is becoming more and more like America
The great irony in all this is that while Sanders advocates Scandinavia as the default reset for America, the region itself is busy changing and reforming itself in the face of regional crises and global challenges — often making itself more American in the process.
In my book, I explain why these societies are so successful and happy — but I also spend some time explaining why Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (plus Finland and Iceland, for the full Nordic spread) are not the utopias the global media has made them out to be this past decade or so.
I live in Denmark of my own free will and find a great deal to admire about the Danes and the society they have built, but I felt there was a need for a counterbalance to the Scandimania that has characterized much of the reporting on Denmark and Scandinavia.
In many ways, Scandinavia has had enough of being Scandinavian. It has certainly had enough of socialism. As the Danish prime minister said in a recent speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy."
In many ways, Scandinavia has had enough of being Scandinavian. It has certainly had enough of socialism.
These days, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are all mixed economies with relatively low corporation taxes, for instance. Many former state-run services are now privatized, and a large proportion of the population has private health care. Denmark regularly ranks high in global "ease of doing business" surveys, and Sweden in particular is currently experiencing impressive economic growth. Goldman Sachs recently bought a large stake in the Danish state energy company. Economies don't get much more mixed than that.
Some argue that high taxes are a disincentive to risk-taking and innovation and that generous welfare benefits engender a sense of complacency and entitlement, and I am sure there is some truth to this. There have been high-profile cases of able-bodied Danes playing the unemployment benefit system for years, and I once overheard a Danish parent complaining that her son's first choice of university did not have the surfing degree he wanted to take. Still, the region has given birth to a notable number of innovative global brands: Skype, Spotify, Novo Nordisk, Carlsberg, Ikea, and Lego to name just a few.
And Nordic governments are cutting back on their welfare states
Meanwhile, all of the Nordic governments have curbed the expansion of their welfare states over the past years to varying degrees, and many inhabitants of the region have opted out of their struggling state health and education systems. Politically, these countries began to move to the right 10 years ago, to the extent that far-right parties are now among the most popular with voters.
Neither do any of these countries have the "free" health care or "free" university tuition that Sanders wishes for. Bernie, let me tell you, we who live here pay for those free services with tax rates that would make your hair turn white. In Denmark I pay around 56 percent income tax, along with 25 percent retail tax, the highest energy taxes in the world, a veritable smorgasbord of property taxes, huge tariffs on alcohol and cars, and even a tax on air. (Soft ice cream is taxed based on its volume after the air is mixed in.)
And all of these countries have problems: Norway's oil income, upon which so much of its prosperity relies, has fallen off a cliff; like the teenager who advertised a house party on Facebook, the Swedes are now somewhat dismayed that tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants have turned up on their front lawn; and with its own modest oil revenues dwindling, Denmark is facing up to the fact that the growth of its much-vaunted welfare state is no longer economically sustainable.
Believe me, get a Dane talking about the country's school system or to ask a Swede about immigration, and you will unleash a torrent of moans, gripes, and complaints that would make a New York cabbie blush. But — and it's a big "but" — all of these countries remain highly affluent, well-educated, free, democratic, "happy," and relatively equal. So that's why I'm rooting for Bernie and his vision for a more Scandinavian America.
Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, out now in paperback from Picador.