Viking Economics (part 3)

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Even the wealthiest, most economically developed countries in the world face serious challenges in the years ahead. An important question for the future is whether a more egalitarian social system is an advantage in dealing with these challenges. If so, that makes the Nordic model even more relevant to current policy discussions.


In much of the developed world, globalization has benefited capital more than labor, as global corporations profit by offshoring work to cheaper sources of labor. Nordic countries have a long history of global trade. Countries like Norway “lacked the extensive land, abundant resources, and large population that enabled countries like the United States and Germany to generate robust, internally driven economies.” But Nordic countries also have a strong commitment to high employment and good wages. Can they sustain that in the global economy?

One way of reconciling an openness to foreign trade with a desire to protect domestic workers is a policy of “flexicurity,” a Dutch concept that has become central to economic policy in Denmark. “The Danes changed the social contract between the state and the workforce. Instead of guaranteeing workers their existing jobs, the government would guarantee workers ongoing support and retraining so they could get new jobs.” By providing the universal services of education, training and a strong social safety net, Nordic countries help their workers cope with a world of enhanced foreign competition.

Although immigration is a controversial issue almost everywhere, Nordic countries have also had the confidence to extend economic assistance to newcomers. Both Norway and Sweden have about a 14 percent foreign-born population, even a little higher than the US’s 13 percent. Norway will support immigrants for a year while they learn the language and culture and receive job training. “Norway is ranked number one among the twenty-seven richest countries for its policies on migration: acceptance of asylum-seekers and refugees, open borders to immigrants and students from developing countries, and friendly integration practices.”

That is not to say that conflict between immigrants and natives is nonexistent. Sweden has experienced youth riots in immigrant neighborhoods, especially during the period after the mid-1980s, when it was cutting public spending and allowing inequality to grow. In general, however, Lakey believes the Nordic model goes a long way to reduce social conflict. While American-style inequality “institutionalizes scarcity,” making people of different races and ethnicities compete for too few opportunities, the Nordic model:

generously funds agencies and programs that assist people who otherwise might lack opportunity. It seeks out barriers to advancement, such as burdens of childcare and dependent elders, and tries to alleviate those to free everyone to move ahead. By universalizing such programs, as well as health care, vacations, access to public transportation, and other enhancements that otherwise can become racialized for disadvantaged populations, the model carefully avoids setting categories of people against each other.

Of course, doing all these things is costly. But who can calculate the social and personal costs of our failure to do them?

Climate change

As I have argued elsewhere, environmental issues highlight the tension between private gain and public cost. Fossil fuels provide profits for producers and cheap energy for consumers, but their market success depends on not factoring in the social and environmental costs of climate change and other environmental damage. Renewable energy will become cheaper and more profitable over time, but the government may need to put a big thumb on the scale to discourage what is publicly dangerous and encourage what is publicly good as quickly as possible.

Because Nordic countries are more receptive to market interventions for the public good, they have generally been leaders in national and international action on climate change. Sweden, Denmark and Norway were among the first to impose taxes on carbon emissions, back in 1991. Denmark has been a world leader in wind power, because of national policies like incentives to form local wind energy co-ops. In 2013, Sweden was already getting over half of its energy from renewable sources, compared to an average of 15% in the European Union and even less in the U.S.

Norway is in an awkward position on climate change, because oil accounts for almost half of its exports. How much of the Arctic oil reserves it can actually develop without unacceptable environmental damage is a vital but unresolved question. On the other hand, Norway’s large public pension fund has divested from coal, as well as from Canadian tar sands oil. Norway also doubled its carbon tax in 2012 because the government wasn’t satisfied with the country’s rate of emission reductions.


Lakey does not discuss the potential impact of automation on employment, but it is a challenge that is receiving more and more attention. I recently reviewed Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, which warns of a “jobless future” for millions of workers whose jobs are vulnerable to automation. Ford and others envision an expansion of public welfare programs to support the jobless multitudes.

Lakey has described Nordic countries not as welfare states, but as “universal service states.” They place a strong emphasis on helping people to become productive citizens with good jobs. Does that make them more or less prepared to cope with a more automated economy?

In Parts 2 and 3 of my discussion of Ford’s book, I described my somewhat different vision of the future, emphasizing the transformation of work rather than just the elimination of jobs. I have no doubt that robots will take over many tasks that they can do more efficiently than humans. But as in the transition from farming to manufacturing in an earlier time, I would hope to see human labor shifted to new frontiers of economic activity, especially in the area of skilled personalized services. I would also like to see the extension of the twentieth-century trend of shortening the typical work week, which would have the effect of spreading the available work to more people. As the twentieth-century experience showed, fewer hours is compatible with high pay as long as workers have the skills and the technological support to achieve high productivity. That in turn depends on the development of human capital, which requires broad access to education, health care and other human services, industries that both create jobs and equip people to get jobs. Since the development of human potential is a public good that not every family is able to pay for, a strong public role in such areas as health insurance is called for. There is also a role for non-market work–labors of love if you like–which can flourish when people have the leisure to balance their work and family responsibilities and participate in volunteer work.

Although I hadn’t read Viking Economics when I developed these ideas, the Nordic model seems relevant to everything on my list. The same “flexicurity” policies that reduce fears of globalization can also reduce fears of automation. If you lose a job, you can expect help in finding and qualifying for a new one. The Nordic work week is already shorter than ours. The universal services model is more conducive to the development of human capital, and citizens are already accustomed to paying high taxes to support it. Finally, “Thanks to an economic model that fosters work/life balance, people have abundant time to volunteer in the community.” It’s a way of life that compares favorably to the American system, where workers cling to technologically and environmentally obsolete jobs like coal mining because they expect little help to become something new. We can do better.



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