What we need to learn from Viking economics

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In these days of Trumpian madness, George Lakey offers hope for progressives looking for strategies of social change. He has written a wonderful book entitled Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got it Right — and How We Can, Too (Melville House, 2016), which is both scholarly and warmly personal.

Lakey recently retired from Swarthmore College where he was Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change. He has spent a lot of time off and on for decades in Scandinavia where he learned about “the Nordic model” of economy which consistently places Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden at the top tier of international ratings for education, abundance of jobs, health care and even happiness.

It all started in 1959 when a 21-year-old Lakey fell in love with Berit Mathiesen, a Norwegian woman he had met at a Quaker student project. He sailed to Norway to marry her and ended up living, studying and working there.

In the 1960s, the couple came back to the U.S., and Lakey became a sociologist and activist. He went south to train civil rights workers in nonviolence and civil disobedience. During the Vietnam War, he sailed through the war zone on a Quaker peace ship to deliver medical supplies and publicize the anti-war movement. He has led over 1,500 workshops on social change and education on five continents. He has co-founded and led numerous organizations and campaigns for justice and peace. He has written for Waging Nonviolence, Common Dreams, and YES! Magazine.

Lakey says the Nordic countries don’t have welfare states in the sense of the U.S. word welfare. For Americans, welfare refers to social services which are stingy, means-tested programs for the poor that aren’t properly funded and are vulnerable to political attack because they are resented by many who live just above the poverty line.

By contrast, Lakey says the Nordics have “universal service states.” Everyone receives high-quality, publicly-financed health care, child care, education, transportation and pensions. The people who benefit the most are the political majority composed of the working and middle classes. If a politician proposes to undermine the quality of the universal systems, the majority launches a defense.

He describes what this system looks like:

“In Norway, all babies can be born in birth centers and hospitals without regard to income, and all moms and dads can take time off from work with pay to take care of the young ones. All parents have access to day care. All parents, whatever their means, automatically get a family allowance for children below the age of 18. This applies to all adopted children, and to same-sex parents.

“Education is free to all, as is retraining for a new job and support while looking for one. Public transportation is subsidized for all, and so are tickets to the new opera house in Oslo.”

The Nordic model emphasizes economic security, efficiency and productivity. Lakey contrasts this to the U.S. economy model based on insecurity, high unemployment and a fear of poverty and hunger.

Lakey says the Nordic countries’ high taxes and regulation do not stifle business and entrepreneurship. Their productivity rates are much higher than ours — and they have a shorter workweek.

The rate of start-up firms in Norway and Denmark is markedly higher than the U.S. Researchers from the U.S. found that Nordic entrepreneurs are greater risk-takers because they don’t worry about old student debt, retirement and medical expenses.

Scandinavians understand that entrepreneurs aren’t the only “job creators.”

Lakey notes, “Although Nordics value the vision, risk and innovation contributed by entrepreneurs, they have a more complicated view of who lays the golden eggs. For one thing, they think the workers do a very large share of the egg-laying, which is why they invest so heavily in human capital and get higher productivity from their workers than in many countries. For another thing, their track record with cooperatives, state-owned and municipal-owned enterprises gives them a positive perception of other sources of egg-laying.”

Lakey acknowledges that the Nordic countries aren’t utopias. There is discrimination against the Sami, the nomadic Indigenous people of Scandinavia. As immigration rates rose, there was an increase in racism and xenophobia. Statoil, the oil company mostly owned by the Norwegian government, has been a major investor in the Canadian tar sands. However, Lakey argues that Scandinavians are responding to these problems. The Sami have made significant progress. The public forced Statoil to divest from its tar sands holdings. Public opinion polls show that there is considerable support for immigrants and ethnic diversity.

He emphasizes that the Nordic “universal services” states aren’t the result of some cultural quirk but emerged in response to an ugly social order with “a huge wealth gap, major poverty and a pretend democracy.” It took many decades of hard struggle by militant labor movements and social democratic parties to end the dominance of an arrogant economic elite.

We can also fight our 1 percent and win. Look at what our labor and civil rights movements accomplished in the past. We can take charge of our country and make big changes.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.