Anu Partanen does a good job critiquing the American mindset that pits individual liberty against “Big Government” or the “welfare state.” She argues that a system of social supports available to every citizen is actually liberating, contributing to more rather than less freedom, independence and opportunity. Of course, if critics of the Nordic countries could show that such a system makes people lazy and underachieving, that would undermine her argument.
Individual and national excellence
The American system does produce a lot of high achievers, with its relentless emphasis on competition and its concentration of rewards at the top of the distribution. The price we pay for that is leaving so many people behind, the slogan of “no child left behind” notwithstanding. By placing more emphasis on cooperation and the public good, Nordic countries are noted for a high standard of general excellence.
Partanen describes Finland’s educational system as “one of the highest-achieving public education systems the world has ever seen.” Finnish students consistently rank near the top in international assessments of reading, math, and science. Finnish schools accomplish this without lengthening the school day, assigning much homework, or skimping on less academic subjects like arts and crafts.
Finland rose to the top in international rankings by deliberately tackling educational inequalities that were once worse than in the United States today. It succeeded in reducing the disparities among schools in funding and educational outcomes, as well as the performance gap between different kinds of students. It raised standards for teachers, requiring at least a a master’s degree from the elementary level on. It promoted teaching excellence by supporting rather than attacking teachers, making the profession so attractive that “teacher-training programs are among the most selective university majors in the country.”
In contrast, the United States creates large resource disparities by relying on local property taxes to finance public education. It has a much higher rate of child poverty, many more underfunded schools, and a widening gap in test scores between rich and poor students. Educational reforms emphasize more testing, closer monitoring to identify poor teachers and underperforming schools, and more public support for private or privatized schools for students fortunate enough to attend them. Consistent with our competitive approach to things, such reforms help a few students while so far failing to produce much increase in excellence across the board.
In higher education, American universities are known for their excellence in research, but less for their undergraduate instruction. When the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment included university graduates for the first time in 2013, Finnish students scored among the best in the developed world, while Americans were below average.
Partanen does not prefer the Nordic model in all respects. She continues to admire certain aspects of American culture:
If I could choose, I’d want my child to have the best of both worlds. From Finland I would take the affordable, relaxed day care, highly educated teachers, high quality of all neighborhood schools, and lack of tuition. From the United States I would take the diversity of student populations and the systematic and inspiring way that the best American schools encourage students to express their individuality, think for themselves, and communicate their opinions and skills to others without self-consciousness or unnecessary timidity.
With regard to excellence in health care, Partanen says that world-class health care is available in both the U.S. and Finland, but is available to more of the population in Finland. There it is a universal service like public education, while here access depends much more on what you can afford. She cites a 2011 Commonwealth Fund study comparing developed countries on quality, access, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives, as well as on death rates from preventable or treatable conditions. “The United States ranked dead last.”
The pursuit of happiness
If Finland surpasses the United States on many objective indicators of well-being, why are Americans noted for being more upbeat and optimistic? Although Partanen does express some admiration for that “all-American optimism,” she thinks there is something a little compulsive and phony about it. We tell our children that everyone is special, and they can be anything they want to be, but then we expect each of them to rise above their peers and become a super-achiever through their own effort. In our winner-take-all system, you’d better be a high achiever, or you risk joining the ranks of the left-behind. So you embrace the can-do spirit and resist admitting defeat.
…In the absence of the kind of true security that comes from things like being able to pay your bills, having affordable health care, knowing your children will get a good education no matter what, or being able to take time to rest, all you can do is either give in to depression or try to build your own personal well-being bubble—with yoga, meditation, diets, and keeping your thoughts in check. That—or eating fast food and burying your worries with the TV remote.
The U.S. also has a huge self-help industry to sell you the means of personal success, from SAT prep courses to seminars on how to get rich in real estate. So corporations profit, even as Americans dream of what they may never have.
Finns have much lower expectations for standout success, and Partanen admits that they can take this attitude too far. They can emphasize equality to the exclusion of uniqueness. Perhaps they underestimate what some individuals can accomplish, as much as Americans overestimate it. But the upside of that pessimism is that Nordic citizens are less tolerant of social conditions that impede the development of whole classes of people. “They are quick to demand real changes that improve their external circumstances.”
Trying to find some middle ground, Partanen suggests combining American positive thinking with Finnish realism. For Americans, that means recognizing that individuals do have great potential, but they need supportive social structures and policies to help them fulfill it.
Toward a stronger economy
Defenders of the American system like to treat some of its worst features–notably, the extreme gap in wealth and income between social classes–as unavoidable side effects of a dynamic and growing economy. We must reward the biggest winners, even if there isn’t enough left over to provide other people with a decent life. The Nordic societies undercut that argument, since they have achieved economic growth and general prosperity with far less inequality.
The United States and Nordic countries both “rank among the most business-friendly nations in the world,” but accomplish this in different ways. U.S. businesses benefit from weak unions, low minimum wages, loose regulation, and, Partanen argues, government assistance to the poor. She points out that American taxpayers subsidize the fast-food industry by providing over half its workers some form of public assistance, so they can survive on low wages. Nordic businesses may have to negotiate with better organized workers, pay higher wages, and provide more family leaves, but they get workers who are on the average healthier, better schooled, and less stressed.
As in other books I’ve reviewed lately, human capital is key here. “…The Nordic nations have cultivated the single most valuable resource a society can have in the twenty-first century: human capital. That dynamism, innovation, and prosperity result should come as no surprise.”
There was a time after World War II when business was booming, unions were strong, and most Americans believed that business and labor could prosper together. Somehow we have gotten into a zero-sum mindset, believing that worker gains can only come at business’s expense. Investors interpret a modest rise in wages as a sign that the economic expansion is coming to an end, so it’s time to dump stock. The Nordic countries seem to have a better grasp of a basic truth–that if a country wants its people to prosper, it has to invest in them. The investment can pay off in higher productivity and a larger economic pie to be shared by all.