Googling the Welfare State

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The blogosphere overflows with Google Pundits; those who pooh-pooh, with a few search queries, an argument that runs counter to their own ideological assumptions, usually regarding a subject with which they possess only a passing familiarity. It's a familiar phenomenon, but a recent, particularly egregious, example of Google Punditry deserves to be singled out. In a blog post pompously titled "Everything You Know About Sweden is Wrong," American Prospect guest blogger K.A. Geier, who appears not to have previously written about Sweden, informs Atlantic writer and blogger Megan McArdle that she is "promulgat[ing] some misconceptions about Swedish social democracy." Unfortunately, it appears that everything Ms. Geier knows about Sweden is also wrong.

Geier argues that it is absurd to claim that Sweden's welfare "success" (cough) has benefited from a "homogeneous population" and cites "blogger and political science professor Lane Kenworthy to back me up on this point." According to Kenworthy, Sweden's "immigrant (foreign-born) share is virtually identical to America's, at about 13% of the population." Geier adds, with laughable understatement: "Obviously, Sweden does not have the same degree of racial diversity as the U.S. does, but its population is far from 'homogeneous.'"

This is a mind-bogglingly imprecise comparison. First, Geier, debunker of myths about Sweden and Swedish socialism, surely knows that the plurality of the foreign-born in Sweden are Finns and Finlandsvensk—Swedish-speaking Finns—who are very much a part of the Nordic welfare tradition. This will soon change, with the influx of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, and we'll soon see how much stress this puts on the "Swedish model." That said, and as Geier seems to concede but not comprehend, the remaining 87 percent are native-born Swedes with, for the most part, a common cultural, religious/irreligious, social, and political heritage. This is, obviously, not the case with native-born Americans, a patchwork of ethnicities and religious affiliations. (Incidentally, I am an American-born permanent resident of Sweden.)

Geier takes issue with McArdle's claim that Swedes have high "rates of long term disability, sick leave, and so forth," and huffs that her evidence consists of a single Swedish acquaintance bemoaning the disappearance of the "Protestant work ethic." The Google Pundit responds: "Scandinavians McArdle knows may indeed say all manner of things, but anecdotes are not data, and I don't think it would be a wild stretch to assume that McArdle's Scandinavian friends might be something of a self-selected (and hence unrepresentative) group." So Geier, debunker of myths, defender of the welfare state, upbraids McArdle for not providing any relevant data—and offers no data of her own.

Well, McArdle is correct. Sweden does have the highest rate of workers on sick leave in Europe, despite being consistently ranked by the OECD as Europe's healthiest country. As my former colleague Johan Norberg has observed, sick leave payments—which, at the time of the last election, were as high as 80 percent of a worker's salary—accounted for a staggering 16 percent of the government budget. It should be pointed out though that under the new, non-socialist government, changes to sick leave policy have resulted in a 13 percent decrease in the number of claims filed in 2007. (Personal, unrepresentative, and self-selected anecdote for Geier: An acquaintance of mine in Stockholm was on sick leave for six months, collecting three-quarters of his salary after his girlfriend left him, rendering him "burned out"—utmattningssyndrom—and incapable of work.)

She continues, again quoting, Kenworthy: "The country has a strong work ethos…During the 2000s the Swedish employment rate has averaged about 74% of the working-age population, two percentage points higher than in the United States." This is meaningless. Again, Geier surely knows that preceding the 2006 elections, when the Social Democrats were booted from power, the dominant campaign issue was the massive problem of unemployment. The government figure of 7 percent unemployment was repeatedly mocked by both former Prime Minister Göran Persson's detractors and allies. A study by McKinsey Global estimated the true figure—which included those on sick leave, in early retirement, in jobs programs—to be between 15 and 17 percent. Jan Edling, a researcher with the Social Democratic trade union LO, estimated the total figure of unemployed to be 19.7 percent. (Edling's report was suppressed and he was himself offered "early retirement.") The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise said the figure was 16.5 percent. Other studies ranged from 12 percent to 18 percent.

But Google Pundit Geier again goes back to her blog source, Lane Kenworthy, who writes that "The welfare state is generous, but most able-bodied Swedes of working age are expected to be employed." Yes, they are expected to be employed. But the Swedish daily Aftonbladet reported in 2006, "shocking figures" demonstrated that 109,000 people under 30 were unemployed, an 81 percent increase over 2001. These numbers, supplied by the government, are also almost surely understated.

And the problem of unemployment in Sweden loops back around to the difficulty Sweden has had in integrating its immigrants into the job market. As Swedish economist Esra Karakaya wrote in Aftonbladet in 2006, the unemployment rate among immigrants in Sweden is 29 percent—another staggering figure, in marked contrast to the joblessness rate among immigrants in this country. This, Karakaya convincingly argues, is "because the labor market is governed by rigid job security laws" that are incompatible with a globalized economy. Indeed, a recent study tracking the fortunes of Somali immigrants in Sweden and in Minneapolis (reported here in Swedish, summarized here in English) found that its sample group in the U.S. started approximately 800 companies. In Sweden, they managed only 38. In a recent editorial in the newspaper Expressen, Nima Sanandaji, a Kurdish immigrant, argued that it was "important to study how the Swedish system of benefits, taxes and [regulated] job market leads the same group of people to be successful on one side of the Atlantic and to social poverty and dependence in Sweden."

In other words, Swedish social democracy, and its concomitant hostility to entrepreneurship and overly generous network of financial benefits for immigrants and asylum seekers, is a significant contributor to high unemployment rates.

One final point. Amazingly, Geier revels that "the Swedish economy is competitive, the school system offers choice, and pensions are partially privatized" but fails to note—or is simply unaware—that almost all of these policies were either implemented or introduced by the conservative government of Carl Bildt, against the strenuous objections of the Swedish left, after the economy sunk into a deep recession in the 1990s.

NEXT: Barrwatch, with Special Guest Star Ralph Nader

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  1. notice that Grier never even tries to address the incomprehensibility of Swedish chefs? I can find no clearer indictment of the Swedish school system.

  2. A blog full of uninformed blathering. Stop the presses.

  3. It’s the only place where the clouds are interesting.

  4. But Mike, what about the pernicious use of aquavit?

  5. African Americans have a higher median income than Swedes. Thats really all you need to know.

  6. Sweden is a mythical land where all are posperous and the state is gentle and generous fairy godmother. [that takes 70% of your earnings so you might as well just have a mental breakdown and play WOW all day anyway]

  7. goes back to her blog source, Lane Kenworthy,

    Is this Ken Layne’s alter ego?

    Worst. Secret Identity. Ever.

  8. I can almost see joe hyperventilating in front of his monitor after reading this post.

  9. Damn.. I went to pieces after a girl broke up with me once, but I did it on my own dime. If someone were paying me 3/4 salary to stay home and cry about it, I might have kept it up for a lot longer.

    -jcr

  10. A nice illustration of RC’s First Iron Law:

    You get more of what you reward, and less of what you punish.

  11. JCR –
    so what you’re saying is that the capitalist Amercian system kept you from sufficiently grieving your relationship! You are mentally and emotionally broken, and it’s all because The Man is only concerned with Profits!

  12. One big factor usually left out when people talk about Sweden: total population. Sweden has a population of only 9 million making it roughly the same size as the city of New York.

    Organizational function is very sensitive to scale. Techniques that work for a group of dozen people will fail for a groups of hundreds. Small business techniques won’t work in large corporations and vice versa. Likewise, even if we presume that Sweden managed to pull of some sort of nifty welfare state program, that doesn’t mean we it will be able to scale a similar program up from Sweden’s 9 million to America’s 300 million.

    In a lot of ways, Sweden is the polar opposite of America: small, isolated, homogenous, static. I don’t understand why so many people see it as a kind of bell weather for America.

  13. Right On, Shannon Love.

  14. The Swedish Bikini Team: fact or fiction?

  15. Shannon Love:
    In a lot of ways, Sweden is the polar opposite of America: small, isolated, homogenous, static. I don’t understand why so many people see it as a kind of bell weather for America.

    Because: it’s European! They are so cool! And so hip! And they’ve been around for so long, they are so much wiser than us!

    Everytime someone talks about how we should do something that Europeans do, we should ask about the recent European contributions to the human experience: colonialism, two World Wars, socialism, communism, Marxism, the holocaust, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    America is not a perfect country by any means, but its track records of sins pales in comparison to the above.

  16. abdul
    Isn’t it The Swedish Bikini: fact or fiction? Lived & worked Sweden for a while. nice people, clean country…controlled & boring as hell, wished I was dead when I was there…they should merge with Norway and become the biggest turd pile in Scandanavia.

  17. In a lot of ways, Sweden is the polar opposite of America: small, isolated, homogenous, static. I don’t understand why so many people see it as a kind of bell weather for America.

    Oddly, the crypto-socialist/collectivists who see it as a bellwhether for America claim to not want to see America small, isolated, and homogenous (although I suspect they wouldn’t be opposed to a more static America – your crypto-socialist/collectivist is not generally a big fan of dynamic societies).

  18. This is the best Hit ‘n Run Post evar. It’ll be decades before we see another one like it.

  19. controlled & boring as hell, wished I was dead when I was there

    A friend of mine was in the Navy and was stationed in Reykjav?k. He used to be a submariner and is almost impervious to boredom, and even he said “don’t bother coming to visit, there is nothing to do”.

    Which leads me to believe that socialism is not just stupid and wrong, it’s a buzzkill too.

  20. I can almost see joe hyperventilating in front of his monitor after reading this post.

    Either this post, or the pop up ad saying “See Obama Naked”.

  21. To be fair, I don’t trust the official unemployment rate cited by the American government either. But no, I don’t wish to emulate Sweden – just sayin’.

  22. “Everytime someone talks about how we should do something that Europeans do, we should ask about the recent European contributions to the human experience: colonialism, two World Wars, socialism, communism, Marxism, the holocaust, genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

    We should also point out that none of the western european countries that American liberals are so enamored of would be in existence as independent nations today if they hadn’t been getting a free ride on U.S. military protection for the last 60 years or so.

  23. Back in the ’80s, PBS showed a documentary on Swedish socialism. The crew found drunken youth in many urban locations. Asked why, the youth replied “Nobody cares.”

  24. Rhywun,

    Totally agree. Sorta like inflation numbers that leave out gas, various types of capital equipment, and government deficits.

  25. You are mentally and emotionally broken

    If the government could provide me with an endless supply of hot chicks, I might actually become a pinko.

    -jcr

  26. I knew a mechanic who tried to emigrate to Sweden from the U.S. about ten years ago. They wouldn’t let him stay. Not that easy to get in, apparently.

  27. We should also point out that none of the western european countries that American liberals are so enamored of would be in existence as independent nations today if they hadn’t been getting a free ride on U.S. military protection for the last 60 years or so.

    But of course if you make that rather obvious point, then you’re accused of “arrogance.”

    Sometimes Euros are like teens bitching their parents only bought them a used car.

  28. Episiarch | June 5, 2008, 1:18pm | #
    controlled & boring as hell, wished I was dead when I was there

    A friend of mine was in the Navy and was stationed in Reykjav?k. He used to be a submariner and is almost impervious to boredom, and even he said “don’t bother coming to visit, there is nothing to do”.

    Which leads me to believe that socialism is not just stupid and wrong, it’s a buzzkill too.

    Not to denigrate your last sentence there but Reykjavik is in Iceland, not Sweden. It is also the only thing that qualifies as a city(pop 118,000) on the island. So, yeah, there isn’t shit in Reykjavik and there wouldn’t be regardless of the governmental structure.

  29. African Americans have a higher median income than Swedes. Thats really all you need to know.

    No Name Guy, your source for that fact, please.

  30. A study by McKinsey Global estimated the true figure-which included those on sick leave, in early retirement, in jobs programs-to be between 15 and 17 percent.

    If you were to add to unemployment the official estimates of people who weren’t employed but would like a job (but hadn’t actively looked for one recently, and thus not considered unemployed by official definition), I find the US rate in 2006 would go from 4.6% to 7.5%. That leaves out early retirees, though, along with non-civilians and non-instutionalized people (in prison, for example).

    “shocking figures” demonstrated that 109,000 people under 30 were unemployed

    I’d be interested to know how conscription plays into that, either as an official policy in light of youth unemployment or as another potential statistical curtain for concealing a problem.

  31. While it’s true that markets in Sweden are relatively unregulated (except huge negative incentives for small and intermediate business creation and growth) and business taxes are low, that’s not due to any lack of regulatory zeal or socialistic ideology but because of a small country facing international competition that has forced them to keep markets open. Instead, they have regulated labor markets to such an extent that old people are pushed out and young people are not let in — their youth unemployment rates are high and youth labor force participation rates low. Immigrants also face severe labor market adjustment hurdles. The reason lies in a seven-decades long unholy coalition between a massive and very centralized labor union movement and socialistically inclined social engineers. In exchange for providing unions with all they’ve wanted, social manipulators have gotten the votes to play around with social “welfare” to their hearts content. Take it from me, an economist who’s emigrated from Sweden to the US. I’m very happy I made that choice, and would never think of returning to that overcontrolled, inwardlooking, smug, and conformist country. As I tell all my friends: Sweden is a perfectly wonderful country, with only one problem — too many damn Swedes.

  32. Answer to somefed: conscription in Sweden has been reduced to a small number, and does not affect labor force numbers much.

  33. Not to denigrate your last sentence there but Reykjavik is in Iceland, not Sweden.

    I was merely relating an anecdote about another Scandinavian country. I know exactly where Reykjavik is.

  34. The tone of this post is pretty arrogant. Considering how much more knowledgeable you claim to be than this google-miner (I don’t doubt this), it seems wierd that you’d bother to devote a post to the deconstruction of his argument. Perhaps you should spell-check teenagers’ myspace pages instead?

  35. Perhaps you should spell-check teenagers’ myspace pages instead?

    Nah, 2 much wk 2 do dat. 2 hard 2 read 2.

  36. “…after the economy sunk into a deep recession in the 1990s.” It’s “sank”, not “sunk”.

    Anyway, Swedish hockey players can beat American hockey players, so Sweden must be doing something right.

  37. “Sweden’s “immigrant (foreign-born) share is virtually identical to America’s, at about 13% of the population”

    It should be added that the total number of foreign descendance is well over 20 % – including of course finns, americans and other westeners.
    The interresting thing is, how many are 3 worlds descendants ? Muslims alone are 4-500.000 out of a population of just 9 millions.

    with kind regards from Denmark

  38. My sister-in-law, who is Thai, is married to a Swede. They have a son who is disabled and he gets paid to be a caretaker for the boy. She went to school on the government’s dime and is a nurse. Not only that, when my wife and I were married in 1971 her sister spoke not one word of English. Now she speaks better English (American English) than either one of us do, and I’m a native born American.

    It is very hard to start a business there. They have tried twice to start restaurants, once at the Stockholm Airport, but didn’t make it either time. How can you fail with a Thai Restaurant at the airport. Half of Sweden spends the winter in Thailand.

    But the rate of drug and alcohol use among young people is sky high, and I believe they also have the highest suicide rate in Europe. There’s also a large population of crypto-Nazis.

    There’s good points and bad points like everywhere else. On the whole, I liked Phuket Thailand better.

  39. e, No Name Guy is referring to a study by the Swedish Research Institute of Trade (HUI) that concluded that if Sweden were in the USA, they’d rank behind Mississippi, and have an average income lower than the average African American. A perhaps valid criticism of the methodology is that the figures don’t include all the socialist benefits of free health care, etc.

  40. Too fucking long and I’m too fucking drunk.

  41. “”A perhaps valid criticism of the methodology is that the figures don’t include all the socialist benefits of free health care””

    I lived in Uppsala, Sweden about 5 years ago and there came across an interesting Swedish saying: One must be healthy to be sick. The waiting times before being attended to at public hospitals are such that death is more likely to occur before treatment if proferred.

    I resorted to calling up a doctor and hoping I’d get a verbal prescription. Incidentally, you get quicker & efficient service in some much poorer African countries – if you have US$20 to spare that is.

  42. As a Norwegian, I would like to add that pretty much anything you’ll read about Scandinavian society in political blogs and magazines is inaccurate at best. It’s hard enough getting the numbers right – but you’re almost certain to get the context and the culture wrong. I’ve yet to see an American pundit get the peculiar Scandinavian mix of socialist and liberal ideas right – they’re too eager to project their own political views onto it. Usually, any mention of Scandinavia is not actually about Scandinavia, it’s about a local American issue on which Scandinavia can serve as a remote and non-factcheckable source of rhetorical ammunition.

    This is not aimed at anyone in particular, (it’s aimed at _everyone_ including our friends at Reason), but a good rule of thumb is that if an article or blog post gives you the impression that Scandinavia is heaven or hell on earth, ignore it. A second rule of thumb is that if you want to share you strong opinions about Scandinavia with the world, check them with some scandinavians first. Use me, if you like, or just anyone, we’re not hard to find. Why? For the same reason that Scandinavians who express strong opinions about the US would have benefited from first talking to someone who actually knows the place. Because mistakes that in previous times would have gone undetected are today exposed to entire nations of laughing readers.

  43. Um, but Bj?rn, Michael’s a Swedish resident and married to a Swede as I recall.

  44. Bjoern Staerk is absolutely right that a shallow understanding of Scandinavia often leads to the Nordic countries being used as political paddles in internal US political debates. But what is equally true is that many Scandinavians have just as shallow an understanding of US political culture and history. For example, the notion of liberty in American history has no counterpart in Scandinavian political theory. And in Sweden, possibly also in the rest of Scandinavia, central political concepts are “det kollektiva, det allm?nna, staten” — all ideas of strong majority rights over political minorities and the awarding of an independent status to government interests and powers. The Swedish constitution explicitly requires the State to be responsible for the welfare of its citizens — a degree of paternalism that would be completely unacceptable in American politics. Just as Americans have a hard time grasping how deeply collectivism is embedded in Scandinavian culture and politics, so Scandinavians have difficulties understanding American ideal of individual liberty as the basis for political society. My own opinion is that we don’t have much to learn from each other — except that Scandinavians tend to pick up a lot of bad American habits, such as a tendendy to political correctness based speech controls and other loony left ideas invented here.

  45. Charlie: “Um, but Bj?rn, Michael’s a Swedish resident and married to a Swede as I recall.”

    Yeah, I read his blog in the old days, though I didn’t know he still lives there. It’s a beginning, but it does not equal in-depth understanding. As far as I know, Michael came to Sweden with some strong existing political views, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does create a barrier to understanding the mindset of the people you disagree with.

    For my part, the ideologists Michael respect, such as Johan Norberg, are the kind of people I generally vote for – liberals and free trade supporters. So I’m not here to beat on Michael, I wish more Scandinavians would look critically at for instance our labor regulations. But: If readers of this and other blogs are left with the impression that Scandinavia is a deeply troubled place, buried under a bureacratic iron curtain, that’s the wrong impression. Michael probably knows this, but if I didn’t know better that’s the impression I would get from this article. And it’s certainly the impression one gets from most other such mentions of Scandinavia, (either that or that it’s a heaven of progressivism).

    callejohan: “But what is equally true is that many Scandinavians have just as shallow an understanding of US political culture and history.”

    Absolutely. And this is something I want everyone to keep in mind: If you’re American, have you ever encountered some ignorant European who arrogantly condemns everything about your society without apparently knowing the first thing about it? And if you’re European, have you met an American like that? Well, that’s probably how you appear to them when you condemn _their_ society. You might be in the minority who actually knows what you’re talking about, but you’re probably not, so show a little humility. Read. Ask questions. Conclude later, if at all.

  46. Bjorn, It’s not fare yoo write Englisch betterr than 90 procent of Amyricans. Seriously though: Your foreign language program must be top notch!

  47. Seriously Bjorn, isn’t Norway heaven on earth? Everyone I’ve met from there is rich, young, and beautiful. And a gorgeous women told me that you can just impregnate all the women you want as a tourist and the chicks don’t mind because the state will raise them. Seriously, that’s what she said.

    I like my freedom and low taxes, but I don’t have a hard time figuring out why some people are so enamored of the place.

    More seriously, the negative statistics people cite about drug use and suicide could also have something to do with the fact that it is really freaking cold there and the sun rises at noon and sets at one in the afternoon in the winter. That kind of thing leads you to hit the bottle now and again.

  48. Bjorn, the takeaway from the article wasn’t, I thought, that Sweden is Hell. It’s that Sweden works well *for specific reasons that are almost completely peculiar to Sweden.* And that, therefore, glib commentators who say we should adopt Swedish-style policies here in the US should be held accountable for not having thought through just how Swedish policies would translate into American reality: not well.

  49. Maybe they can afford to relax a little because they aren’t busy launching stupid wars.

  50. Re: aatos,
    That’s cuz unlike europe or sweden we haven’t done 1/10th of our share of stupid wars—relatively speaking.

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