The Technology Trap (part 4)

August 12, 2019

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In the last section of The Technology Trap, Carl Frey looks toward the future, trying to anticipate further impacts of technology on jobs, and suggesting policy measures to ease the transition for affected workers.

Smarter machines

Artificial intelligence is enabling machines to do even more of what humans used to do. “The fundamental difference is that instead of automating tasks by programming a set of instructions, we can now program computers to ‘learn’ from samples of data or ‘experience.’ When the rules of a task are unknown, we can apply statistics and inductive reasoning to let the machine learn by itself.” When a computer beat the world’s best player of the game Go in 2016, it did it not just by following a fixed set of rules, but by inferring its own rules from a series of trials using a large data set.

The range of tasks that smart machines can perform is broadening to include jobs like driving a truck, answering phone calls, picking up and packing products, taking consumer orders and accepting payments.

Still, there remain things that humans do better:

Even if we assume that algorithms at some point will be able to effectively reproduce human social intelligence in basic texts, many jobs center on personal relationships and complex interpersonal communication. Computer programmers consult with managers or clients to clarify intent, identify problems, and suggest changes. Nurses work with patients, families, or communities to design and implement programs to improve overall health. Fund-raisers identify potential donors and build relationships with them. Family therapists counsel clients on unsatisfactory relationships. Astronomers build research collaborations and present their findings in conferences. These tasks are all way beyond the competence of computers.

In 2013, the author and his Oxford colleague Michael Osborne reported on their detailed analysis of tasks and their estimate of the automation possibilities for 702 occupations covering 97% of the American workforce. They found the greatest risk of automation in the occupational categories of office and administrative support, production, transport and logistics, food preparation, and retail jobs. Overall, they classified 47% of jobs as vulnerable to automation.

Other research has yielded somewhat different percentages. But one general principle that has emerged from such research is that a job’s probability of automation varies inversely with the education it requires and the wages it pays. A study by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that “83 percent of workers in occupations that paid less than $20 an hour were at high risk of being replaced, while the corresponding figure for workers in occupations that paid more than $40 per hour was only 4 percent.” That could be good news, as long as we can keep expanding the good jobs and help workers acquire the skills they need to do them.

Unemployment, leisure, or new jobs?

Frey describes a “widespread dystopian belief” that technology will create a future of mass unemployment and low wages. Others envision a utopian future in which technology enables us to produce so much so easily that we can work very little and live lives of affluent leisure. Neither mass unemployment nor lives of leisure are evident in today’s society, and Frey doesn’t expect them. Instead people will have jobs for the foreseeable future, both because there remain things people do better than machines, and because people generally choose to take the benefits of high productivity in the form of more goods and services rather than more leisure.

Although new technologies have been replacing more middle-class jobs than they have been creating, Frey suggests that this may be just a “first-order effect.” He believes that the greatest gains in productivity and job creation are yet to come. That reinforces my belief that whether a new technology turns out to be replacing or enabling depends on how we use it in a social context. Replacing existing jobs may happen first because it’s easier than creating new jobs and upgrading skills, which requires some social reorganization. Frey points out that “it took roughly four decades for electricity to appear in the productivity statistics, after the construction of Thomas Edison’s first power station in 1882….[H]arnessing the mysterious force of electricity required a complete reorganization of the factory.” And of society, I would add, considering the changes required to turn workers and their families into affluent consumers of the products coming off the assembly lines.

Public policy

In the end, Frey remains optimistic about technology, but concerned about the divisions between current winners and losers and their immediate effects on society. Mitigating those effects is the main challenge for public policy. Among his recommendations:

  • Investments in education, especially early childhood education to offset the disadvantages of children from low-income, low-education families; such education pays for itself in better health outcomes, higher productivity and reduced crime
  • Wage insurance, especially for middle-aged workers who lose good jobs
  • Expanded tax credits to supplement low wages
  • Easing of licensing requirements that make it too difficult to move into new occupations
  • Vouchers to pay for moving to areas with better job opportunities
  • More affordable housing in thriving communities, supported by an easing of zoning restrictions like minimum lot sizes

I see a role for government not only in helping disadvantaged workers, but in creating economic demand for the good jobs they need. If the manufacturing sector is no longer expanding, and if the low-wage service sector is most vulnerable to the next wave of automation, then that leaves the skilled services as the most likely frontier of job creation. But skilled services like education, health care, counseling, mental health services and quality child care are also what people need to enhance their human capital and qualify for good jobs. Public investment in those services pays off in two ways–better jobs and more qualified workers to do them. It also strengthens democracy because successful workers are more politically active and less alienated.

Why public investment rather than private investment? Because the families most in need of such services often cannot afford them. And because employers have only limited incentive to develop the human capital of their own workers. Employers own the machines they buy, but not the workers they hire. The workers can take their enhanced human capital and go to work for someone else. For that reason, human capital is a public good that cannot be entirely privatized. A healthy, well-educated population is good for all of us. So, of course, are other public goods like a solid infrastructure and renewable energy.

But can the country afford new investments in health or education? If the government seems tapped out, it’s not because the country is poorer than it used to be, but because the wealth and income are so unevenly distributed, and those who have them support such low taxes on themselves. From the Reagan administration on, the tax cuts were supposed to stimulate the economy from the top down, by making more money available for private investment. The results have been disappointing, with slower economic growth than in the mid-twentieth century, when taxes were higher. Now we should consider the possibility that we can grow the economy faster with high domestic spending than with low taxes, if the spending is concentrated on human capital development and needed public goods. In order to make human services affordable for consumers and for the taxpayers, they need to be cost-effective. Providers will need to apply new technologies not to replace labor–which would defeat the purpose of creating jobs–but to enable labor to serve clients as efficiently as possible. In the predominantly service economy, a productivity revolution in skilled services is the key to fulfilling the positive potential of information technology.

Advocates of new government spending have their work cut out for them to mobilize public support. They need to convince the less educated half of the population that they will receive more benefits than costs, since their incomes are too low to be targeted for tax increases. If they can also convince the more educated middle class to vote in the public interest, they can achieve a democratic majority. As Frey says, “Redistributive taxing and spending depend on whether the middle-income voters feel an affinity with people with lower incomes.”

Although my interpretations and policy preferences differ from Frey’s in a few respects, I found this book enormously helpful in thinking through the relationship between technology and employment. I highly recommend it.


The Technology Trap (part 2)

August 10, 2019

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Carl Benedikt Frey uses the distinction between labor-replacing and labor-enabling technologies to explain why industrialization can have quite different short-term effects on jobs, wages, and the demand for labor. The Second Industrial Revolution did more than the first to raise labor demand, create good jobs, and increase labor’s share of national income. Here I will take a closer look at that process for the United States in the twentieth century.

New technologies

Based on the research of Michelle Alexopoulos and Jon Cohen, Frey identifies electricity and the internal combustion engine as the most important general-purpose technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution. Both originated in the late nineteenth century but were widely applied in the twentieth. Both were essential to what became the country’s largest industry by 1940, automobile production.

A distinct “American system” of manufacturing was substantially boosting productivity by the 1920s. The model-T Ford was the first product to be assembled without any hand labor for fitting pieces together, since machine tools could now produce completely standardized and interchangeable parts. Another innovation was “unit drive”–machines with their own electric motors–which “allowed factory workflows to be reconfigured to accommodate assembly line techniques, as machinery could now be arranged according to the natural sequence of manufacturing operations.”

Electricity also enabled the production of new home appliances, “such as the iron (first introduced in the market in 1893), vacuum cleaner (1907), washing machine (1907), toaster (1909), refrigerator (1916), dishwasher (1929), and dryer (1938).” These time-savers made it easier for women to enter the labor force, earning money with which to buy more of the products being made.

The internal combustion engine revolutionized transportation, as the share of households with cars went from 2.3% in 1910 to 89.8% in 1930. The share of farms with tractors went from 3.6% in 1920 to 80% in 1960. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created better highways for cars and trucks to travel. Economists have attributed over a quarter of the increase in productivity between 1950 and 1970 to spending on highways.

Frey summarizes:

America’s great inventions of the period 1909–49 were predominantly of the enabling sort. Some jobs were clearly destroyed as new ones appeared, but overall, new technologies boosted job opportunities enormously. Indeed, gigantic new industries emerged, producing automobiles, aircraft, tractors, electrical machinery, telephones, household appliances, and so on, which created an abundance of new jobs. Vacancies rose and unemployment fell as the mysterious force of technology progressed.

Wages and working conditions

In general, wages rose along with productivity from 1870 to 1980. Since this hasn’t been true throughout history–and especially not lately–we have to say that rising productivity is helpful but not sufficient to produce wage increases. Frey suggests that concerns about worker turnover were one motive for employers to raise wages. “[T]he assembly line could be slowed if an experienced worker quit and was replaced by someone who could not initially keep pace.” Keeping labor peace in the face of worker organization and agitation was another motive.

A democratic society can also legislate on behalf of workers, especially if middle-class voters identify with their concerns. That was more the case during the Great Depression, when New Deal legislation supported worker interests. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed the right to organize and bargain with management, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 defined the standard work week as 40 hours and required employers to pay overtime for additional hours.

New technologies also created safer and less physically demanding workplaces. “Machines meant the end of the most hazardous, dirty, and backbreaking jobs,” and disabling injuries were cut in half. “Belts, gears, and shafts [of the pre-electric factory] were the main sources of factory accidents, posing a constant danger to workers’ fingers, arms, and lives.”

The “Great Leveling”

In retrospect, the twentieth century up until about 1980 is noted not only for its greater prosperity, but its reduction in economic inequality. Inequality had increased between the American Revolution and the Civil War, as artisan jobs had been lost to factories, large fortunes were being amassed, and large wage gaps had opened up between the most successful urban workers and the masses of poor people both on the farms and in the cities. The late nineteenth century is, of course, known as the “Gilded Age” for its conspicuous consumption by wealthy capitalists.

The twentieth century was different:

As Americans in the middle and at the lower end of the income distribution became the prime beneficiaries of progress, inequality went into reverse. Along with every other industrialized nation, America saw the share of income accruing to people at the top, fall.

Here, explanations differ. Thomas Piketty has argued that the general trend of capitalism is toward greater inequality, and it takes some unusual shock to the system to interrupt that process. As summarized by Frey:

In Piketty’s world, there are no forces within capitalism that serve to drive inequality down. From time to time, however, macroeconomic or political shocks may disrupt the normal equilibrium. Two world wars and the Great Depression served to destroy the riches of the wealthy.

Without denying that such shocks have played a role, Frey does see forces within capitalism to generate equality, the first of which is investment in labor-enabling technologies. That creates the potential to empower and enrich workers. A high rate of unionization is helpful for realizing that potential. Beyond that, workers must be able to keep up with the skill demands of new technologies.

“The leading explanation for the great leveling comes from pioneering work by Jan Tinbergen that conceptualized patterns of inequality as a race between technology and education….” The enabling technologies of the twentieth century favored more skilled workers. Jobs like mechanic or electrician paid well, but only for those who had the skills to do them. Semi-skilled assembly-line work could also pay pretty well, for workers with the discipline, stamina and dexterity to keep up. That could have created a wide gap between a skilled few and the unskilled many, except for the fact that so many workers were acquiring at least the basic skills they needed for an advanced industrial economy.

[E]ven if technological progress favors skilled workers, growing wage inequality does not have to be the result. The return to human capital depends on demand as well as supply. As long as the supply of skilled workers keeps pace with the demand for them, the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers will not widen. While a number of short-run events and government interventions contributed to the great leveling, the most pervasive force—and certainly the best documented one—behind its long-run egalitarian impact was the upskilling of the American workforce, which depressed the skill premium.

The percentage of young people who completed a high-school education went from 9% to 40% just between 1910 and 1935, and proceeded upward from there.

The combination of enabling technology and a more skilled population created the largest middle class the country had ever seen. But that made the shrinking of the middle class that occurred after 1980 all the more surprising and alarming. Frey calls this the “Great Reversal,” and that is the topic of the next post.

Continued


Democracy and Prosperity (part 3)

July 19, 2019

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I have been discussing the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and democracy as described by Torben Iversen and David Soskice. So far I’ve ignored variations among advanced capitalist democracies. But the authors warn against using any one country–such as the United States in discussions of the “Washington Consensus”–as a model for how ACDs have developed or should develop.  The American version of the emerging knowledge economy is only one version, and one that has its origins in a certain kind of history.

Two paths to capitalist democracy

The symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism developed along with the industrial economy. One link between the two was human capital development. Industrialization required a labor force with at least some basic skills, such as reading and writing, and that required some commitment to democratic institutions such as the public school.

How was the political order to be broadened to include the opinions and interests of workers? In some countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, pressure from the working class itself played a major role. In others, such as Britain, U.S., France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the initiative came more from modernizing elites who were challenging the power of agrarian interests unsympathetic to industrialization and democracy.

Those differences had their origins in preindustrial patterns of organization:

[T]he countries in which democratization was eventually the result of working-class pressure were organized locally on a quasi corporatist basis both in towns, with effective guild systems, and in the countryside with a widespread socially rooted semiautonomous peasantry, rural cooperatives, and/or dense rural-urban linkages…. [A]ll of these states were Ständestaaten in the nineteenth century—a system in which the different estates (including organized professions) played a direct role in governing. We therefore refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protocorporatist.

The authors do not give any simple definition of corporatism, but I think of it as the opposite of rugged individualism. While classical British and American liberalism celebrates the self-interested individual, corporatism sees people more as representatives of strong group interests, such as guilds or churches. To make a long story short, the protocorporatist countries provided more fertile ground for the emergence of strong worker organizations.

Things were different in Britain and America:

The elite-project societies, in essence Anglo-Saxon (apart from France, which we discuss separately), functioned quite differently: well-developed property markets with substantial freedom of labor mobility, towns with limited local autonomy, and guild systems which had either collapsed (Britain) or had hardly existed (the settler colonies and the United States, minus the South). We refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protoliberal.

In both kinds of countries, some democratization accompanied industrialization, but it took different directions. In the protocorporatist countries like Denmark and Germany, “effective training systems were built on guild and Ständestaat traditions and provided a large pool of skilled workers, which in turn led to unified labor movements with the capacity to extract democratic concessions from elites.” In the protoliberal countries like Britain and America, “the absence of either guild or Ständestaat traditions led to fragmented labor movements with privileged craft-based unions but no effective training system. Here democracy emerged as the result of industrial elites compelling a reluctant landed aristocracy to accept expansion of education and other public goods required for industrialization.”

Political representation

These two paths to democracy had consequences for electoral systems. Where the working class was highly unified and organized, the more socialist left came to be better represented in politics. The elites and other prosperous members of society might resist democratization until the demands of the working class became too strong to ignore. Then they supported a system of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections, to protect themselves against the possibility of a working-class majority. Some of these democratic countries (Germany, Austria, Italy) reverted to authoritarian rule for a time in order to counter a perceived threat from the left, but democracy eventually prevailed.

In countries like the United States and Britain, where organized labor was weaker and more politically divided, majority rule worked better for the modernizing elites and other beneficiaries of industrial capitalism.

In these cases industrial elites had little fear of the working class, but they had a strong incentive to expand public goods, especially education and sanitation, required for the development of an effective labor force (in part to circumvent union control over the crafts). The key obstacles to this project were landowners and more generally conservatives who had no interest in an expansion of public goods and who held strong positions politically, especially at the local level. Majoritarian democracy in these cases essentially emerged as a means to force the landed elites to accept major public investments in education and infrastructure needed for modernization. At the same time, a majoritarian system with a strong bias toward the middle classes effectively excluded the radical left from influence over policies.

Iversen and Soskice see a perfect correlation between the alternative paths to democracy and the electoral systems. The “protocorporatist” countries adopted proportional representation systems that gave worker parties more voice, while the “protoliberal” countries adopted majority-rule systems where major parties had to be more-or-less centrist to win a majority.

Inequality and educational opportunity

Democratic governments of different kinds have adopted many of the same policies to support the growing knowledge sectors of their economies, for example by liberalizing trade and investing more in education. All of them have experienced some increase in inequality as technological innovation has rewarded workers with the right skills and penalized those without them. However, they differ markedly in the extent of the inequality and the associated decline of economic opportunity. The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers introduced the term “Great Gatsby curve” to describe the inverse relationship between economic inequality and intergenerational mobility among countries.

In general, the countries with weak worker organization and majoritarian electoral systems now have relatively high economic inequality and relatively low social mobility. This is true of the United States, United Kingdom and France. Canada and Australia are more average in inequality and social mobility.

In contrast, the countries with strong worker organization and proportional representation systems now have relatively low economic inequality and relatively high social mobility. This is especially true of the Nordic countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Germany is more average in inequality and social mobility.

I think this is an important finding, because it means that even in a world of global, hi-tech competition, countries have choices. Economic growth and global competitiveness do not necessarily require the extravagant executive salaries and tax cuts enjoyed by the American 1%! Nor do they require tossing aside former manufacturing workers without making provision for their economic security or retraining.

One of the biggest factors in economic opportunity is education, and here the international findings reflect badly on the United States. Here the authors use an index of educational opportunity based on such variables as the availability of vocational training, the public spending on preprimary education, the public/private division of higher educational spending, and the age at which students are tracked (since early tracking can restrict opportunity). Among advanced democracies, only Japan and South Korea scored lower than the U.S. on this index. The Nordic countries scored the best.

Many readers may find this puzzling because the U.S. has so many fine schools, especially major research universities. But the quality of individual schools is not the same thing as educational opportunity. A good prep school that serves only the affluent does little to provide upward mobility.

In our majority-rule system, the interests of the downwardly mobile minority are not being well served. Their interests have diverged more sharply from those of more successful workers, making it harder for the traditional party of labor to represent them. This relates very much to the next topic, the threat that populism poses to democracies with high inequality.

Continued


Democracy and Prosperity (part 2)

July 18, 2019

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In Democracy and Prosperity, Iversen and Soskice contrast the emerging knowledge economy with the system that preceded it in the mid-20th century.

The “Fordist” political economy

What many economists call the “Fordist” system was dominated by giant manufacturing corporations such as the Ford Motor Company. They performed a range of functions from “production to logistics and sales and marketing,” and usually had a very hierarchical structure of decision-making.

Assembly-line technology featured “strong complementarities in production between skilled and semiskilled workers. The companies needed large numbers of both, and either of them could obstruct production if they were well organized but dissatisfied. By the 1970s, unionization was at a peak in the advanced capitalist democracies, and so was “wage coordination,” the cooperation of large numbers of workers and companies in setting wages and working conditions.

Economic inequality declined during this period, as even workers with limited educations could quickly acquire the skills needed for many industrial jobs. Poverty declined, even for segregated racial and ethnic groups. “The Fordist economy was…by and large a force of integration and equalization of incomes across industries, skill groups, and geographic space.” The most advanced companies were concentrated in big cities, but peripheral areas often supplied them with materials or components for their products.

National governments helped organize and maintain the system. They supported the collective bargaining rights of labor. They provided a safety net of unemployment and retirement benefits, which gave workers a source of security in addition to short-term wage demands. They invested in public goods like infrastructure and education. They often engaged in Keynesian economic policies, using government spending to stimulate the economy and maintain low unemployment. It was a period of rapid economic growth and relative harmony among business, labor and government.

The knowledge economy

Much of this has changed since around 1980. Information and communication technologies have not affected all jobs equally, but have most easily substituted for routine semiskilled tasks. In some ways, this is a blessing, as such work was often deadly dull and uncreative. But, “As less-skilled workers became increasingly segregated into a growing tier of low-productivity service sector occupations–especially in low-end personal and social services–the complementarities between high- and low-skilled workers unraveled.” Inequality generally increased in advanced capitalist democracies, although with important variations to be discussed later.

New technologies can put a lot of computational power into the hands of individual workers, if they have the analytic skills to use it. In organizations of knowledge workers, decision-making becomes less vertical (hierarchical) and more horizontal (network-based), and relational skills also become more important. Knowledge workers benefit by participating in skill clusters, in which they can play specialized roles, and yet find other work within the cluster when and if a particular role is no longer needed.

These skill clusters are also embedded in larger social networks in which educated workers participate. “Big-city agglomerations” of knowledge are the “dynamic drivers” of the knowledge economy. They are usually places that already had a range of professional services and a strong university or two. Fordist-era cities whose prosperity rested on a single manufacturing industry, such as steel, have had trouble adapting, and many smaller cities have been left behind altogether. (Rapid transit between thriving cities and peripheral areas would help, but people who are already doing fine in the city may not have much incentive to support it with their tax dollars.)

The fact that education, urbanization and high incomes tend to go together increases the inequality among both households and places. Educated people live and work with other educated people, and also socialize with them and marry them, often forming affluent, two-income households. By clustering together, affluent households drive up the cost of good schools and housing in the successful cities, creating barriers to entry for the less educated.

The dynamic cities in the advanced economies of America, Europe and Asia compete with one another to attract capital and market their innovations. “Multinationals play a central role in tapping into multiple skill clusters and tying together complementarities of knowledge. The result is a major increase in multinational investment, trade and competition.

The “embedded knowledge”-based political economy

A central point of Iversen and Soskice’s argument is that knowledge within the knowledge economy is geographically embedded in innovative urban centers within the advanced democratic countries. That gives governments some power over activities that cannot easily be moved from where they are. It also gives them an incentive to support the knowledge sectors of their economies, for the good of the nations where they reside.

The availability of information and communication technologies does not automatically transform an economy. The authors believe that the Soviet Union collapsed partly because it resisted the decentralizing power implied by the new technologies. “It was felt necessary to maintain prohibitions on personal computers until the late 1980s.” The lesson to be drawn: “Without politically initiated reforms economies stagnate, even when they possess the necessary technologies and know-how.”

Beginning in the 1980s, advanced capitalist democracies made a number of “strategic choices” to promote the growth of their knowledge sectors. “Knowledge economies have been enabled by a different political economic framework from that which supported Fordism. We describe this framework as “embedded knowledge-based liberalism.” (In Britain and the United States, many of the leaders in this effort–Thatcher, Reagan–are known as conservatives, but they were working to liberate economic activity from what they saw as outdated restrictions. In that way, they were acting in the tradition of classical liberalism.)

Governments generally worked to reduce barriers to competition, free trade and international flows of capital. The authors measure this with an index of regulation covering eighteen regulatory domains, including such matters as trade barriers, differential treatment of foreign suppliers, and administrative burdens on creating new enterprises. The U.S. and Britain led the way toward competitiveness and away from protectionism, and the rest of Europe followed.

Governments also worked to transform the financial and insurance sectors, so that they went beyond their traditional financial products to provide more complex and customized services for knowledge workers and enterprises. Greater access to credit was important for new businesses, but also for workers following more complicated careers, with many changes in jobs, periods of schooling, and shifts in work/family arrangements.

Governments shifted their macroeconomic priorities from fighting unemployment to fighting inflation. One reason for this was the decline of unions and large-scale wage coordination, which had provided a degree of predictability and moderation to wage demands. A tight monetary policy was a more centralized way of curbing wage-price spirals. Another reason was to stabilize the exchange rates among national currencies for purposes of global trade and investment. Other countries would not be eager to invest in America if they couldn’t count on receiving their returns in dollars with a stable value.

And of course, governments continued to work for an educated workforce, again with important variations to be discussed later. Over the past twenty-five years, attainment of higher education has more than doubled in the ACDs.

Such policies have been most responsive to the needs of knowledge industries and knowledge workers, but less so to the needs of less-educated workers displaced or threatened by new technologies. “Unlike the Fordist economy, there is nothing that binds together the interest of the main social classes. A majority gains, and a small minority gains a great deal, but a large minority loses.” Whether that continues to be the case is an important question for the future.

Continued

 


The Nordic Theory of Everything (part 2)

February 8, 2018

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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.