The Non-Stop Nordics

Image of Nordic flags by miguelb

This week, the advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders released its 2020 World Press Freedoms Index. The index ranks the world’s nations and some territories on the freedom journalists have to report on what is happening in their countries and to challenge power. At the top of list: Norway, Finland, and Denmark, and Sweden.

The Netherlands rounds out the top five. The largest European countries fall between 11 and 35. The United States is at 45. The world’s largest democracy, India, is at 142. Singapore, where I live, is at 158. China is fourth from the bottom at 177.

Seriously, is there anything these Nordic countries can’t do right? Here’s what I’m talking about.

Start with just how rich these countries are, using data from the World Bank. In terms of GDP per capita, Norway is at number 7.

Norway is that high, though, mainly because it is an oil state. On the other hand, it’s only that low because it’s sandwiched in with a lot of known tax shelter countries and territories, which cater to the global wealthy. Let’s look further down the list to more “normal” countries.

There they are – Denmark, Sweden, and Finland – right in the pack of the world’s richest economies.

And they’re among the countries with the least amount of inequality, as well. Here is a chart from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But, you might object, what about freedom? All kinds – individual, civil, and economic? After all, that’s what the western world prides itself on. The libertarian Cato Institute compiles an index. Three of the four Nordic countries appear in the top 11. The United States comes in at number 15 (tied with Estonia). Norway is just below the US at number 17.

(A special shoutout to the Netherlands, by the way, which is always high in all of these rankings, as well, and tied for 11th in freedom, just after Sweden.)

Suppose you want to dial in on just economic freedom, defined as the ease of doing business and whether the government is “big” or not. The conservative Heritage Foundation has you covered. Despite the Nordic governments famously collecting a lot in taxes (which get turned into services, like universal health care, etc.), Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway are right in there with the “mostly free” countries.

Maybe your focus is productivity. After all, it’s been humankind’s ability to become more and more productive over the last couple of centuries that has freed it from millennia of poverty and subsistence. Let’s turn to the World Economic Forum and its Global Competitiveness Report. There the Nordic countries are again.

Getting back again to those “big” governments of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Surely “big” government is a prescription for disaster due to the possibility of corruption, correct? Well, let’s turn to Transparency International and its measure of how corrupt the world’s governments are perceived to be, from least to most. The Nordics are in the top ten for least corrupt. The United States, by the way, doesn’t show up until number 23, just above France.

What about health care? How do the Scandinavian countries stack up? This one is harder to summarize in one simple chart because of the number of variables. Is everyone covered by health insurance? Is it affordable for individuals and the countries? How does the system perform on various life outcomes, like life expectancy, maternal mortality, infant and child mortality, etc? I found one ranking by the World Health Organization, but it was from 2000. Many changes have occurred in global health care systems since then, especially in the US with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act.

Even so, many organizations and media outlets have pressed ahead to rank systems. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation focuses on how the US spends far more money on health care than other countries, yet gets far worse outcomes. Note that two of the Nordic countries, Finland and Norway, are on the left as “best”.

The Commonwealth Fund also has a set of charts showing how non-US systems cost far less and produce comparable to better outcomes. Notice in the report how the Nordic countries are nestled comfortably in with the other countries with better outcomes. Let’s focus on one in particular – life expectancy. Norway and Sweden are in the pack, while life expectancy for the US actually declined in recent years.

To wrap up, what about the future for the citizens of the Nordic countries? After all, anyone with kids hopes their lot will be better than their own.

Let’s look at education first, because it is key to so many parts of a modern country’s success. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests are a globally accepted standard for comparing educational outcomes. Finland has long had a globally recognized education system. Sweden ranks highly, and Denmark and Norway are comparable or rank more highly than the US.

And finally, let’s finish with social mobility – that is, the chances that a person can do better economically than their parents did. The World Economic Forum has you covered.

Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden are the top four for future prospects, just like they were the top four for press freedom, where all of this began. Non-stop Nordics, indeed.

Medicare (Extra) for All

This is a couple weeks old, but still worth a look. Apparently the mainstream policy wonks of the Democratic party are embracing a version of single-payer – finally.

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Under the plan, dubbed Medicare Extra (because Bernie Sander’s Medicare-for-All shall not be named, it seems), Americans would have guaranteed health insurance, getting them needed medical care without the fear of bankruptcy. Oh, and it would be the US finally catching up with the rest of the developed world.

Waldman says the Republican party is to “blame” for the plan. By fighting the Affordable Care Act so much – which, except for the Medicaid expansion, was always a conservative/GOP plan, anyway – they forced the Democrats to embrace more radical health care reform.

For my part, I blame the Democrats for not seeing the policy and political logic of embracing a single-payer plan a long time ago. They could have at least embraced the public option when the ACA was being crafted, which would have tested the popularity of widespread Medicare coverage. Why did we have to waste so much energy and put so many people through health insurance insecurity to get to this point?

But of course, maybe that’s precisely what we had to do. Maybe it took that kind of pain to get Democratic politicians and the public to embrace the idea of universal coverage. It’s hard to say. Either way, it’s time to celebrate the release of this plan as a small moral victory.

How about Democrats embrace popular policies?

I’ve found the best way to understand American politics is by assuming that the Republicans are ruthless and the Democrats are inept. There’s more evidence here:

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While Republicans have made great electoral hay for decades by pushing an extremist gun agenda, the Democrats have consistently offered a milquetoast, muddled response. And here’s the rub: the polls consistently support stronger gun control.

This is low-hanging fruit. Take a popular issue and run with it. Make it into an issue upon which people VOTE.

Yes, I make it sound easy, but how could you do much worse than this:

And yes, I know there have been some recent election wins. But there’s a deep, deep hole to climb out of. And nothing is guaranteed in the midterms

In many ways this reminds me of the Medicare-for-All issue. Mainstream Democrats, Pres. Obama, and Hillary Clinton just couldn’t get themselves behind any version of it, even though it is reasonably popular – without any mainstream effort behind it at all.

Now, we can have a policy argument about gun control and Medicare-for-All. I’m convinced they’re desirable and feasible. You might disagree. Compromises on policy can be reached.

But politically, these issues can WIN. But one has to choose to try.

P.S. For the record, I don’t much care whether Democrats, in and of themselves, win anything. If a Republican embraced sound, humane policies, sure, I’d vote for a Republican. But, jeez. Trump? You make it so hard, GOP.