Not only did we learn this week that Harvard is the awesomest college in America, Newsweek decided that semi-arbitrary ordinal ranking of colleges is small time and decided to rank countries. Finland comes out as number one, followed by Switzerland. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—those fine countries were the locations of two of my favorite junkets. So listen up world leaders, the key to national success is to give me a free trip to your country.
Rounding out the top ten are Sweden, Australia, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark. The United States comes in at #11 but since Luxembourg is hardly a country I think we should grant ourselves top ten status. At any rate, you obviously shouldn’t take this kind of exercise too seriously. But what you see across a wide range of methodological approaches to quality of life is usually that the Anglophone and “small northern european” blocs of countries come out the best. And I do think there’s something telling in that about the success of broadly speaking “liberal” policies of both the higher and lower tax varieties as opposed to the more corporatist approaches you see on the continent.
Freshly returned from a great trip to Scandinavia, I can’t help but enjoy the FuckYeahScandinavia tumblr that I was first shown this morning. That said, no fan of northern Europe can avoid observing that several of the countries the tumblr covers aren’t technically “Scandinavian.” Americans often find this a bit confusing but Scandinavia, strictly speaking, only refers to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. If you want to add in Iceland and Finland and miscellaneous extra territories (Åland, Faeroe Islands, Greenland) the word you’re looking for is “Nordic.”
I don’t totally understand why the distinction has been drawn this way—but roughly the point is that Finnish is a very different language from the others and that Iceland is clearly a geographically distinct phenomenon from the rest.
You can tell MSNBC is liberal, because their daily 3 hour program hosted by a former Republican congressman is in the morning rather than in prime time. And here they are claiming that it’s impossible to name a single successful company that’s unionized:
Jamison Foser observes that General Electric, where they work, employs many union workers and seems to be quite successful. They also name UPS. It’s worth noting as well that all of Americans’ major professional sports teams are unionized, that the entertainment industry is very heavily unionized, much of the telecom sector is unionized, Safeway where I buy my groceries is unionized, etc.
But stepping back, the larger issue here is that you tended to see firms becoming unionized back when the legal climate was friendly to unionization. That was in the 1930s and 1940s. Since that time, it’s been exceedingly difficult to organize new union workplaces in the private sector. It’s been over fifty years since Taft-Hartley and the beginning of the anti-union backlash. Obviously, it should come as no surprise that many of the economic sectors that were huge in the 30s and 40s are smaller now. That’s because we have whole new economic sectors that didn’t exist back in the day. And when a sector has arisen—as the whole suite of things around computers and technology largely has—in the era in which the law tilts heavily against union organizing, you wind up with a sector with little in the way of unions. To take this history and read it as a story about unions causing sectors to fail is backwards. What’s happened is that unions have been locked out of huge swathes of the economy, denying workers their chance at securing a decent share of the value created in those areas.
In a country like, say, Finland where union density is in the seventies, there are obviously going to be tons of successful unionized firms. The difference is just that Finland made it easier to form unions. And it hasn’t crippled their economy—median living standard are pretty clearly higher over there than here.
The Daily Show did a nice segment the other day exposing the horrors of socialism as practiced in Sweden. Basically, most people are better off than most Americans, but rich Swedish people aren’t nearly as rich as rich Americans:
My sense of things is that, all joking aside, Sweden really has gone too far and if I were Swedish I’d be looking to recalibrate to something more like the model of social democracy on display in Denmark or Finland or the Netherlands which all, like Sweden, are ahead of us in the Human Development Index and would be regarded by Glenn Beck as little better than life in a gulag.
One of the craziest stories I heard while I was in Finland was the shocking tale of the 1999 school lunch reform. The way this worked is that in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter. A desert of berries or fruit is served “if the nutrient content of the main course is not adequately diverse or if it contains little energy” along with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and bread.
It was a crazy story not because the nutritional guidelines are crazy. Nor because the nutritional guidelines are perfect. This still actually leaves a lot of variance depending on exactly what’s served. But what’s crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!
It’s very hard to imagine anything like that happening in the United States, where something as basic as the food pyramid winds up being a locus for interest-group politics. Michael Pollan talks to Mother Jones about the way of the world:
MJ: Does WIC still specify that you buy dairy?
MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]
MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?
MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billon for what are called specialty crops—fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.
Or watch this video:
Democracy is democracy, politics is politics, and life is what it is. But still, it seems to me that Americans have a deplorable tendency to take pride in the dysfunctional nature of our political system, and actually revel in it. It makes, after all, for a fascinating game in a way that a simple outsourcing of nutritional guidelines to apolitical experts wouldn’t. But I think there’s a big challenge for progressives here. And not just with regard to school lunch, but with regard to the whole thing. There are certain ends that can only be accomplished by state action. But state action is only really tolerable if you can actually make the government work well and an awful lot of our basic institutions just don’t work very well. At the same time, the medium-term policy frontiers increasingly focus on questions of public health and environmental security that have a hefty technical element. A lot of the argument for universal health care hinges on the fact that, in principle, comprehensive reform could deliver a much more efficient system. But will it actually deliver such a system, or will it just deliver whatever happens to get lobbied for? Care that benefits patients, or care that benefits health care providers of various kinds? Those ultimately aren’t questions about the design of any particular plan; instead, they’re questions of whether or not progressive governance can manage to somehow deliver better overall governance.
CBO occupies a weird space in Washington. They decide what legislation costs. They may get it right or they may get it wrong, but the number they settle on is the number legislators agree to use. And so this morning’s hearings featured powerful senators begging a small, bearded budget geek for favorable judgments as if he were the Oracle at Delphi.
And the thing of it is that while the CBO’s methods aren’t perfect and its conclusions aren’t incontestable, it really does do a pretty good job—good enough that it can continue to be widely respected. And having an expert agency be widely respected and do a pretty good job, thus providing a convergence point for congressional consideration of legislation, is much better than having our legislative debates just proceed with everyone inventing their own cost estimates.
In the Prince George’s County community of Riverdale Park, town officials have noted a distressing sign of the national economic downturn: more children left home alone to fend for themselves by working parents too strapped to afford child care.
The problem was discovered by code enforcement officers who inspect apartments in the town of 7,000. They used to come across such cases once every couple of years. Then, six months ago, they found one child left alone, followed by another and another.
Have I mentioned that in Finland there’s a commitment to making high-quality child care services universally available and universally affordable?
For my own part, visiting Finland mostly confirms things that I think we already knew about education. But what’s interesting about visiting a prosperous, egalitarian social democracy with a high level of education is less that it teaches us things we didn’t know, but that it shows that certain kind of theoretical constructs we all understand can be realized in practice. I think if you asked just about anyone “would our school achievement be better if the child poverty rate were dramatically lower?” they would say that it would. Similarly, if you ask if school achievement would be more even if school funding were even, they would say that it would. And if you asked if providing higher-quality early childhood education more broadly would enhance achievement, everyone would say yes. And if you asked what would happen if we drastically increased the number of people who want to be teachers, such that slots in teacher training programs were highly competitive, people would tell you that student achievement would improve. And if you asked people whether higher levels of educational attainment would boost prosperity, people would tell you yes. And if you asked whether more equal education outcomes would lead to a more even distribution of income, they would tell you it would. And if you asked whether a more even distribution of income would lead to more even education outcomes, people would tell you it would.
But even though I don’t think anyone would really dispute any of that, we don’t just do that stuff. Instead, we’re trapped in a frustrating circle of passive acceptance of the idea that we just have to live in a country where public services are ill-funded and poorly delivered. And it’s not just that conservatives block reforms — progressives have let their horizons slip incredibly low. A country that once built transcontinental railroads and sent people to the moon has decided that for some reason it’d just be impossible to solve our current social problems. And when you point out to people that there are countries where the political system has taken decisive action to tackle these challenges, people kind of shrug and observe that the United States is very big. Which is true. But the country was also big years ago when we were building the world’s first mass literacy society. Indeed, it used to be considered advantageous to the United States that we were so big and people used to wonder whether small countries weren’t just inherently stuck in poverty.
The truth of the matter, however, isn’t that our problems couldn’t be solved it’s that we’re not seriously trying. And we’ve developed a political culture in which that’s considered okay.
Earlier this year, the Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell cited Finland as evidence for their view that universal preschool is a bad idea:
Early education in general is not so crucial to the long-term intellectual growth of children. Finland offers strong evidence for this view. Its kids consistently outperform their global peers in reading, math and science on international assessments even though they don’t begin formal education until they are 7.
For one thing, Dalmia and Snell are just wrong about this — Finland starts voluntary preschool at 6 and over ninety percent of children enroll. Compulsory education begins at 7. But more to the point, this is a situation where actually visiting Finland is informative. Children under 6 in Finland have an “unconditional right” to places in heavily subsidized centers. When speaking English, Finns call these centers “day care” centers and not “preschool.” But I went to three of them and spoke to teachers who teach there and administrators who run them, and they looked like preschool to me. Of course I’m not an expert. But Sara Mead is an expert and she says it “meets most of the standards for what we in the United States would call preschool.” In particular, you have college educated teachers, you have national curriculum guidelines, and while you don’t have much formal instruction you do see an enormous amount of emphasis placed on children’s intellectual development.
Beyond what Sara says, I would also observe that there are quite deliberate efforts to use early childhood education to help narrow achievement gaps. Finland has a relatively low poverty rate and relatively few immigrants compared to the United States, but the people we spoke to there talked about deliberate efforts to do outreach to immigrant families — even ones with unemployed parents — to help them learn Finnish. They also have a lot of special ed preschool teachers to specifically target kids with problems. Far from being an example of a country achieving educational success without early childhood preparation, I would say that excellent preschooling is one of the three main pillars (along with low levels of child poverty and high levels of competition to become a teacher) of Finland’s educational success.
Not that this will come as shocking news to anyone, but income in Finland is distributed much more equally than in the United States:
The difference is especially pronounced at the very top and at the bottom. The richest ten percent of Americans take a much larger share of income than do the richest ten percent of Finns. Meanwhile, the bottom twenty percent of Finns get a much larger share of income than do the bottom twenty percent of Americans. But of course everyone knows that the rich need money more than the poor, so the American system is fairer. Plus our way is worse for the middle sixty percent, too, but pointing that out would be class warfare and your populism would be sneered at by media celebrities whose incomes are all in the top twenty.
Meanwhile, note that an egalitarian social and economic environment actually hits the rich coming and going. Not only are Finland’s rich poorer than their American compatriots, but the relatively non-desperate state of the Finnish poor means that prices are higher than in the US for the sort of labor-intensive personal services that are primarily consumed by the prosperous. A tourist will note that restaurants are relatively expensive, but the same principle would carry over to maids and nannies and so forth.