[With] a reputation for being peaceful, egalitarian, progressive, liberal and educated, [besides] having excellent furniture and crime novels, too … Scandinavia countries just seem to do it better — an idea that supporters and critics label "Nordic exceptionalism."The Independent's Ana Swanson explores the idea of the utopian fantasy that Denmark and its sister nations are made out to be:
But how much truth is there in the popular idea of Nordic exceptionalism? Michael Booth, a British journalist, examines this question in detail in a recent book, "The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia." Booth, a U.K. native who has lived in Scandinavia for over a decade, plays the part of a cultural interpreter, examining, poking and prodding the reality of life in Nordic countries from every angle. Booth finds plenty to question in the rest of the world's assumptions about the Nordic miracle, but also lots that we can learn from them.Related: 52% of the Norwegian population receives government financial aid; A health care worker in Norway is "not hired as a guard dog but trained to see suffering"
Why is it that the Nordic model has attracted so many fans, but relatively few visitors?
Denmark is a pretty good place to live but it is by no stretch of the imagination the utopia many in politics and the media in the U.S. claim it to be.
We all like to have a "happy place" — somewhere over the rainbow where we imagine life to be perfect — don’t we? For many, that place used to be the Mediterranean: we all dreamed of a stone house among the vines. After the economic crash, I think a lot of people started to look towards Scandinavia for what they believed to be a less rampantly capitalistic form of society.
The difference is, few actually actively seek to move to Scandinavia, for obvious reasons: the weather is appalling, the taxes are the highest in the world, the cost of living is similarly ridiculous, the languages are impenetrable, the food is (still) awful for the most part and, increasingly, these countries are making it very clear they would prefer foreigners to stay away.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions that you find in how the rest of the world understands the Nordic countries?
Again, I think we've all been guilty of projecting some kind of utopian fantasy on them. … Denmark … promotes itself as a "green pioneer" and finger wags at the world about CO2 emissions, and yet it regularly beats the U.S. and virtually every other country on earth in terms of its per capita ecological footprint. For all their wind turbines, the Danes still burn a lot of coal and drive a lot of cars, their country is home to the world’s largest shipping company (Mærsk), and the region’s largest air hub.
Sweden is supposedly "neutral" (it’s not, and has not been for decades), yet since the days when it sold iron ore to Hitler, its economy has always benefited from its arms industry, which is one of the world’s largest.
The Norwegians have fallen prey to precisely the same kind of problems as other oil-rich states: their economy depends far too much on one industry (oil), they’ve taken their foot off the gas in terms of their work ethic, and now all young Norwegians want to do is be "something in the media" or open a cupcake place.
Politicians in the U.S. like Bernie Sanders praise Denmark for its relative income equality, its free universities, parental leave, subsidized childcare, and national health system. That all sounds pretty good, right?
It is fantastic in theory, except that, in Denmark, the quality of the free education and health care is substandard: They are way down on the PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] educational rankings, have the lowest life expectancy in the region, and the highest rates of death from cancer. And there is broad consensus that the economic model of a public sector and welfare state on this scale is unsustainable. The Danes’ dirty secret is that its public sector has been propped up by — now dwindling — oil revenues. In Norway’s case, of course, it’s no secret.
You describe the Danes as having a strong sense of work-life balance – specifically, being much more focused on life than work. What are the positives and negatives of that attitude?
Positives: Danes spend more time with their families. Negatives: Danes spend more times with their families. Plus, they have run up huge private debt levels, and no one answers the phone on a Friday afternoon.
… One thing that’s often glossed over among outsiders is the extraordinarily high tax level, which is high for the middle class as well as the wealthy. Do Danes think that they get their money’s worth in social services? Do you?
Denmark has the highest direct and indirect taxes in the world, and you don’t need to be a high earner to make it into the top tax bracket of 56% (to which you must add 25% value-added tax, the highest energy taxes in the world, car import duty of 180%, and so on). How the money is spent is kept deliberately opaque by the authorities. Danes do tend to feel that they get value for money, but we should not overlook the fact that the majority of Danes either work for, or receive benefits from, the welfare state.
Greater numbers of immigrants have been leading to rising xenophobia in some Nordic countries, as well as higher income inequality. Do you think these trends say anything about the strength of the Nordic model?
All of Europe is dealing with this issue, but of course smaller populations feel more threatened, and cynical right wing politicians (if you’ll forgive the tautology) take advantage of that fear. Also, there is no "Nordic model" when it comes to immigration and integration: there is the Swedish model (open door) and the Danish model (close the door and put up a "Go Away" sign), which the Norwegians and Finns are copying.
Denmark has won almost every happiness survey since 1973, but you describe them in the book as a “frosty, solemn bunch” who take a lot of anti-depressants. Do they really deserve to be consistently ranked as the world’s happiest country?
No, it’s a nonsense and, in fact, they have dropped from the top spot in recent surveys, mostly because they are not as rich as they once were. The sad take-away from that is, money does, in fact, make you happy. I don’t think they ever were the "happiest" people in the world, but you could argue they have been the most "satisfied." They are good at appreciating the small things in life and making the most of what they have — a legacy, I think, of experiencing the rough hand of geopolitics in the 18th and 19th centuries.