Thursday, March 09, 2017

Thoughts on The Nordic Theory of Everything

Over the last few weeks, I listened to The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen.  Had I known how good it was, I would have bought a paper edition and done a proper review.  It’s hard to review an audiobook, given that you can’t really quote it.  That’s especially true when most of the listening is in the car, going to and from work.

Even if I had read a paper copy with pen in hand, though, it would still be hard to review.  So much of what she says is so utterly intuitive -- even painfully obvious -- that I forget that most Americans don’t think this way.  

She bases her theory of Scandinavian welfare states on what she calls “The Nordic Theory of Love,” which boils down to the idea that only when two people are fully autonomous in terms of economics and survival can they form a healthy, loving relationship.  Freeing romantic and familial relationships from the bonds of economic dependence allows people to base relationships on compatibility, rather than economic need.  So hallmarks of Nordic welfare states like universal free healthcare, free college, subsidized day care, and free elder care exist not to lull people into dependence on the nanny state, as American conservatives tend to argue.  They exist to allow people to live the lives they choose.  It’s easier to start a company when leaving your job doesn’t mean giving up your health insurance.  It’s easier to raise kids when every public school is good, and college is free.  Their social programs aren’t about dependence on the state; they’re about independence from each other, the better to allow healthy and free bonds to form without the distortions of constant economic need.

To which I kept saying, duh. (In the context of an audiobook in the car, “saying” is the right verb.)  When the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are securely met, you are free to pursue more interesting things.  I’ve seen that at my last few jobs: at each, there have been some folks on staff who keep working at the college for the health insurance that allows their spouses to be self-employed.  To Partanen, that would seem barbaric or insane.  If health insurance came with citizenship, they could find jobs they actually enjoyed, and people who wanted to strike out on their own could do so without risking everything.

The funnier moments in the book detail Partanen’s culture shock at living in America.  She married an American and moved here with no concept of “co-pays” or “deductibles” or “saving for college.”  She comes up short, repeatedly, when faced with the dilemmas that Americans accept as inevitable and natural, like trying to afford a house in a “good” school district, or trying even to afford decent daycare.  I laughed out loud, then hit the steering wheel in frustration, at her recollection of dealing with customer service at the cable company.

She concedes the inevitable point about higher taxes, though she also points out -- correctly -- that an apples-to-apples comparison would add our health insurance premiums to the total of what we pay.  Also tuition.  And daycare.  And 401(k) contributions.  And everything else we buy a la carte that Finns (or Swedes, or Norwegians) don’t have to.

The real shock of Partanen’s book is how shocked she is at us.  She tries to be nice, praising Americans’ optimism and diversity, but there’s an element of “how can you not see this?” that’s painful because it’s substantially true.  As a parent, I house-hunted based in part on public school districts.  I squirrel away what I can in 529 plans for my kids, even knowing that it won’t come close to being enough.  I take it as given that I have to pay for doctor’s visits, and that later I’ll have to pay more when I get an inscrutable “explanation of benefits” designed by a for-profit company to defeat my will to fight its decisions not to cover what it promised.  

None of that is given.  None of it is inevitable.  Simply put, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Partanen’s view reflects the daily life of a youngish, educated woman.  She doesn’t dive into American history to explain why we can’t have nice things.  Students of American history know that racism has played an outsize role in demonizing social benefits; Partanen leaves that mostly to the reader.  She treads lightly on American politics.  Some reviewers took her to task for that, but I actually appreciated it.  She sticks to what she knows, and to what many of us quietly suspect.  The book is meant, I think, to demystify a different kind of “normal” that seems hopelessly aspirational from here, but that actually exists in many places.  We just have to get out of our own way.

It would be easy to assume that Partanen’s book is some sort of brief for Bernie Sanders, but that would be missing the point.  It’s about explaining, in accessible and concrete ways, that we’re making a basic mistake in assuming that “government” is the enemy of freedom.  It can be, certainly; it’s no coincidence that the Scandinavian countries were strongly anti-Soviet, and that now they’re the most alarmed about Russia.  (Sweden just expanded its draft to include women for exactly that reason.)  But to assume that “freedom” and “government” are engaged in a zero-sum battle is to miss entirely the role of economic coercion in the decisions we make in daily life.  To the extent that governments can reduce the strength of economic coercion -- through, say, free community college -- they can actually increase their citizens’ freedom to live the lives they want to live.  If healthcare is a right of citizenship, then it’s easier to leave a crappy job and start a new company.  If every school is good and college is free, parents don’t have to strain to salt away money for tuition, and new graduates don’t start their adult lives with student loan debt.  If women and men fare equally well in the workplace, and parental leave is paid, then each family can determine the childcare arrangements that make the most sense for them.  The conditions that make certain decisions “rational” are, themselves, subject to conscious change.

Listening to Partanen patiently lay out what sounds to American ears like an alternate universe is alternately electrifying and frustrating.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  We can have nice things.  We just have to stop telling ourselves false stories, and start from the premise that it’s possible.

How hard can that possibly be?

Oh, right...