Sunday, November 8, 2015

Are the Scandinavian countries almost nearly perfect?

This question is prompted by Michael Booth’s book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People. The author is English; he is married to a Dane and lives in Denmark. The subtitle (of the version I read) suggests that the author has exposed “the truth about the Nordic miracle”. The book is indeed informative, but the author’s main aim seems to be to entertain readers with his observations on the different character traits of the people in the five Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland - and what they think of each other.

The book could be viewed as essential reading for people thinking of spending time in Scandinavian countries. Visitors might need to be warned, for example, that Swedes tend not to be as well-mannered as observers of the on-court behaviour of Swedish tennis players might expect. Booth describes their behaviour when boarding public transport as “breathtaking rudeness” (but he comes from a country in which people do tend to apologize excessively).

The book also has much to offer people, like myself, with an interest in explanations for the high average happiness levels of these countries (as recorded in numerous international surveys) and those attempting to understand why Scandinavian welfare states have not yet collapsed.

The book was recommended to me by Jim Belshaw, an old friend and fellow blogger, because of my interest in happiness research. Jim has recently visited Denmark and has written on his blog about hygge – which translates as cosiness and has some similarity to the Australian concept of mateship – as well as about ethnocentricity and migration.

Michael Booth is bemused that the Danes tend to be consistently close to the top the world happiness rankings: even by comparison with the British they seem to be “a frosty bunch”. He suggests that the Danes are among “the least demonstrably joyful people on earth, along with the Swedes, the Finns and the Norwegians”. The author suggests that many Danes are themselves similarly bemused: “they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is”.

It is often difficult to know when Booth is being serious, but he offers several more or less plausible explanations for the apparent contentedness of the Danes. These include low expectations resulting from their turbulent history, and a facility for denial of the costs of being Danish - including the high taxes and the loss of freedom of expression and individualism associated with hygge and Jante Law (the social norms of a small town). Such speculation is fun, but it may not be necessary to an understanding of why the Danes tend to be relatively satisfied with their lives. The relatively high average happiness levels of the Danes and other Scandinavians can be largely explained (statistically at least) in terms of such variables as average income, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), healthy life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life choices, generosity and relative absence of corruption. There is a good discussion in World Happiness Report 2015 (pages 21-26).

There is another possible explanation for Scandinavian happiness that I was hoping Michael Booth might have had some fun with. Last year Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald published exploratory research findings suggesting that cross-country differences in happiness are associated with “genetic distance from Denmark”. Apparently, the closer a country is to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the happier are the people in that country, other things equal. The study seeks to control for a fairly wide range of other variables. One part of the study is based on information on the incidence of people with short alleles (those who draw the short straw in terms of the serotonin-transporter gene) who have a genetic predisposition to overreact to stressful events. I was hoping that Michael Booth might have speculated about whether there might be something in the cultural heritage of the Scandinavians that could explain their genetic makeup. Unfortunately, the research paper was probably not published before his book was finished. When Booth did comment he cast doubts on the validity of the research findings, citing “the Dane’s record high consumption of antidepressants, which would appear to contradict the report’s assertions regarding clinical depression”. Well, who knows? More research might be required.

The thought of Scandinavians as being “almost nearly perfect” raises the question of how well these countries rate in terms of the “good society” characteristics, which I have previously proposed on this blog (in my most popular post) and in Free to Flourish as criteria that nearly everyone would consider to be important. For convenience, relevant information is summarised in the table below. The table shows data for the top 20 countries, according to their average ranking on the three criteria: peacefulness, individual opportunity and economic security. The shading - from green, through yellow to red - denotes levels of performance on each criterion from relatively strong to less strong for these top performers. (The indexes combine 15 indicators, using methodology described in Free to Flourish.)

It is obvious from the table that the Scandinavian countries are relatively good societies - according to the criteria I espouse. They rank very highly in terms of peacefulness and economic security - although, apart from Norway, they do not rank so highly in terms of individual opportunity. Equal weighting of the criteria might not be appropriate. If I had to choose whether it would be better for my grandchildren to live in a country offering greater individual opportunity or greater economic security, I would choose individual opportunity. However, my personal priorities are probably not widely shared in the Nordic countries. I wonder to what extent those priorities are shared among the large numbers of people who have migrated to Sweden in recent years.

The more contentious issue is whether these societies will remain “good” in the future. Michael Booth provides some hints in his discussion of productivity in Denmark:
I have read numerous articles in Danish newspapers of which the gist has been ‘Well, things are going well for the other Scandinavian countries so they will probably go well for us too,’ in which no mention is ever made of Norway’s colossal oil wealth or Sweden’s manufacturing supremacy and major public sector reforms. Denmark’s economy is far, far weaker than its neighbours’, and the country is facing far more serious problems, but the Danes are oddly reluctant to address their private debt levels or their gigantic welfare state”.

So, what about Finland and Iceland? There is apparently more to the Finns than taciturnity, modesty, trustworthiness and binge drinking. As well as Santa and forestry, they have a substantial electronics industry (think Nokia). Research and development spending is relatively high as a percentage of GDP and relatively little of this is public money. The Finnish education system seems to be relatively good by OECD standards (average PISA scores are very high) for reasons which seem to be related to the high regard for teaching as a profession and the simplicity of the Finnish language. The future economic growth prospects of Finland have been rated highly by the World Economic Forum, among others.

Iceland’s economy was almost wiped out by the GFC, but it now seems to be recovering. That is an interesting story, but it doesn’t deserve space in this post because the population of Iceland is tiny (about 330,000). That is less than the population of Canberra (which is admittedly somewhat bloated).

Since I have mentioned population I should note in passing that world-wide interest in the Nordic countries seems to be disproportionate to the size of their populations. The total population of the Nordic countries is only about 25 million – not much larger than Australia's. Sweden is largest, with 9.6 million people; the populations of Denmark, Finland and Norway (5.6, 5.4 and 5.1 million respectively) are all smaller than that for Victoria (5.8 million).

Coming back now to the question of whether the Nordic countries will remain good societies, it looks as though Norway will continue to be helped along for a few more decades by the rents from oil resources, while the Swedes and Finns will probably get by without too much trouble on the rents from their past investment in intellectual capital. All the Nordic countries will be helped by their high levels of social capital (trust) which seems to make changes in policy direction relatively easy to achieve as they endeavour to make their welfare systems more affordable. At this point I should mention the impact of immigration.  (So, I have mentioned it.)

Before I end this long post I want to give you a better indication of the flavour of the book by referring to some of the author’s comments on what the people in the different Scandinavian countries think of each other. According to Michael Booth, their Danish neighbours regard the Swedes as stiff, humourless, rule-obsessed and dull, and the Finns see them as “slightly foppish”. These days the Norwegians have enough money to rise above ancient resentments – they pay Swedes to wait on their tables and peel their bananas (to make a sandwich spread). The Swedes, who are wealthier than their other neighbours, tend to remain aloof from regional resentments, but they are inclined to make sanctimonious comments about anti-immigrant policies adopted by the Danes.

The overall impression I am left with, however, is that the lingering resentments among the Nordic countries are fairly tame by comparison with those among the different national and regional groups in the British Isles.


Jim Belshaw said...

Loved this post Winton, including the tongue in cheek elements! Will respond properly later.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Jim. I look forward to your comments.