Money, Money, Money: Jon Stewart on Abba, Taxes, and Sweden


In case you weren't watching, on Monday The Daily Show explained to its viewers that, contra those loony libertarians, socialism works quite well, thank you very much. From the Comedy Central blog: "This week on The Daily Show, [correspondent] Wyatt Cenac traveled to Sweden for a two-part segment about Socialism, which, according the the (sic) conservative pundits, will be arriving on US shores any moment to rape your pets and force you to work in a borscht factory. Considering the racial homogeneity in Sweden though, you have to think it pains the Fox News crowd to hate on them."

Both segments can be viewed here.

Not a particularly funny bit, considering the available material, but a few points about the total awesomeness of Swedish social democracy and the show's but-we're-only-joking case for the Swedish model. (They are, after all, making a serious political point in an unserious way.) Cenac's interview with ex-Abba frontman Björn Ulvaeus, during which he attempts to get him to admit that the song "Money, Money, Money" is a paean to American capitalism, leaves one with the impression that the millionaire songwriter is rather pleased with his country's glorious socialist history. Well, no. 

In 2007,  the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter (DN) reported that governent "authorities claim[ed] Ulvaeus, using the services of a tax haven company, concealed millions in music production income to avoid paying taxes." DN points out that "Since 1990 Ulvaeus royalties have been collected in a Dutch company, now known as Fintage. The company made a deal with the tax haven company Stanove, on the Dutch Antilles, to transfer 95% of [Abba's] royalties there." And avoid giving it to a mother desperately in need of a second year of maternity leave.

Nor is this a new issue for Ulvaeus. In 1982, before the Social Democratic Party returned to power on promises of soaking the rich, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Abba's manager Stig Anderson was "deeply concerned by the threat of a Socialist takeover of his [business] empire. 'If we had had these funds today, we would have been forced this year to part with about $US2.16 million…Why should I continue to work 14-15 hours a day to give money away like this?…We don't want to leave Sweden. Our roots are here. We have our friends here. I intend to stay here and fight these funds even if the Social Democrats are elected. But if it becomes impossible, of course it would be very easy for us to move out.'"

After explaining the benefits of high taxation to Cenac, former culture minister Leif Pagrotsky is asked, with the Daily Show's trademark faux jingoism, how Sweden could possibly be better than the United States. Pagroysky quickly reels off "free health care," "free education," and Ingmar Bergman. We can quibble about whether any of this qualifies as "free" (the family Moynihan just paid our Swedish taxes, and believe me, it ain't "free"), but after his presentation on the brilliance of a high tax burden, Pagrotsky might have acknowledged that in 1976 Swedish authorities arrested Bergman on charges of tax evasion. In response, the director ripped the ever-expanding Swedish government bureaucracy which, he wrote in a letter to the newspaper Expressen, "grows like a galloping cancer" and very publicly decided to abandon the country for West Germany. Such outbursts were—and still are—frowned upon for those lorded over by Jante's Law. As one of his Swedish biographers noted, the "Social Democratic press campaign" against the director lasted into the late 1980s, after he had returned from exile.

On a related note, Bergman's political views were often heterodox, as demonstrated in his 1988 autobiography The Magic Lantern. Here he is bellyaching about the radicals of the 1968 student movement:

"It is possible some brave researcher will one day investigate just how much damage was done to our cultural life by the 1968 movement…Today, frustrated revolutionaries still…do not see (and how could they!) that their contribution was a deadly slashing blow at an evolution that must never be separated from its roots. In other countries where varied ideas are allowed to flourish at the same time, tradition and education were not destroyed. Only in China and Sweden were artists and teachers scorned…"

Last year, I explained to The American Prospect that, no, everything we think we know about Sweden isn't wrong.