December 13th, 2012
01:33 AM ET

Should America try to be like Scandinavia?

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By Global Public Square

Here at GPS we often report how the United States has fallen behind in a number of global rankings. For example, The Economist has just published what it calls the "Where to be born" index: a list of countries which provide the best opportunities and the highest quality of life. In 1988, America was #1; now it is joint 16th. Three of the top five countries today are in Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Or look at the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index. The U.S. has fallen to #7 in the latest rankings. Finland and Sweden are in the top five.

Or look at corruption. The United States ranks 19th in Transparency International's new index. Denmark and Finland are rated the cleanest countries.

Now you can spot two trends. On the one hand, America has been losing its edge. But I'm also struck by the rise of Scandinavia, a region that includes Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and if you broaden that definition, Finland and Iceland. Each of these countries seem to dominate global ranking lists. Why? What is their secret sauce?

Well, Scandinavia is actually much more free market-oriented than most people realize. Capital is allocated by the market, the government doesn't own companies, regulation is usually light, corruption is non-existent. Companies can hire and fire easily, labor moves around. But these countries do tax a lot and spend a lot – on education, childcare, health and other things.

Now,  a recent MIT paper suggests there are limits to this model. It's called "Can't we all be more like Scandinavians?" In brief, it points out how the Scandinavian welfare system provides a number of benefits: more vacations, better healthcare, more equality. But when it comes to innovation, the U.S. still wins. For example, if you look at patents filed per million residents, the study shows the U.S. has moved far ahead of Scandinavian countries.

Here's why this is important. Unlike say, a healthcare system (which only benefits people of one particular country), innovation has global impacts. New American inventions spread around the world. According to the paper's authors, Scandinavian countries "free-ride" on U.S. research and development. But if the U.S. became Scandinavian, it would spend less on innovation, which might reduce global growth rates (and thus, discredit the Scandinavian model).

The paper has been criticized for using patents as the marker for innovation. But even so, this is an important discussion. And it ties in to many of the questions our leaders are grappling with. Does the state need to make societies more equal? Does that come at a cost?

There is much to admire about Scandinavia: on education, on healthcare, on energy. But that doesn't mean we need to become Scandinavian. We are more individualistic, free-wheeling, ready to take risks. Americans don’t need to stop being American. But why not look at how these countries in Scandinavia make investments in healthcare and early education and how all of these things create greater equality of opportunity. That is after all what helps people succeed, no matter where they come from or how poor they are.

The truth is, Scandinavian countries are fulfilling a huge part of the American dream better than America these days. Thankfully, we're still an innovation powerhouse, and we need to spend more on R&D rather than cutting those budgets. And perhaps we need to target some of that innovative thinking towards restoring the American Dream of equal opportunity. That would be a truly American solution to an American problem.

soundoff (586 Responses)
  1. MD

    What do we expect?!!!!! We are a nation that watches Honey boo boo. The dumbing down of America has been going on for years. Our super power days are gone......

    December 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Franco

      Bring back Andy Griffith

      December 13, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
      • Zland

        I believe Andy Griffith is dead... but if you mean "Revive" Andy Griffith, then I would accept Pay-Per-View prices to watch Undead Andy and Zombie Knotts devour Ron Howard.

        December 13, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • jj

      For sure!

      December 13, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  2. us_1776

    All of this will fall on deaf ears in the GOP/TEA Fascist party who will cling to the idea that America is the biggest, baddest, greatest and No.1 until they are all finally sitting in dung and wake up. GOP/TEA is hell bent on destroying the middle-class which was the very engine that powered America to greatest years ago.


    December 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Bill

    The only reason a nation like Norway, for instance, is in such good financial shape has to do with its enormous oil wealth compared to its tiny population. This does not mean it is doing something better, it just means it is lucky to have such resources. Qatar is another example of a tremendous amount of wealth due to its natural resources. I am shocked that the article does not mention this advantage. It also mentions how much they spend on education, but the U.S. by far spends the most. The failure of U.S. students is cultural, as opposed to the system. If you want to follow an economic example, I think Singapore would be a good way to go. Lack of corruption and free trade, and innovation have made it extremely prosperous, not natural resources. The problem is that journalists live the author above have very litte knowlege regarding any of these topics.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • pandora

      I don't know how much the US spends on education, but that's not really the measure we should use. It's how successfullu those dollars are spent. The fact is that our children grow up more and more ignorant-they don't know how to reason or write, and they are ignorant of this nation's history.

      December 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • 123

      Quite convenient to dismiss all of these countries because one of the has oil. The natural resources of Sweden and Finland? Some timber. Denmark doesn't even have that.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Garm

      Actually, Norway saves all its oil wealth in a fund for a rainy day. Sweden has timber a guess. Denmark has a very little bit of north sea oil. Finland has...darkness and snow I guess. And Iceland doesnt even have that.

      December 14, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  4. Hate Wins

    If we are not #1 why is everyone on our case?

    We give more per person to charity than any other nation on this planet and what do we receive from that a slap in the face for not giving more.
    Since we are no longer #1 as some of you say I think we should stop all the aide we give to the world and take out marbles and go home like we din in the 1930's. Then every little Hitler can run amuck in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Have fun playing Planetary Police Sweden, India, China and Russia we quit.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Brett

      We beg you to please do just that, take your marbles and go home. While you're at home,work on fixing your greed, corruption, hypocrisy and try and care for your whole population not just the rich. And damn it make he USA great again!

      December 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  5. JackDW

    I've long said Scandinavia is a model the US should be pursuing, as it makes flawless economic sense. Why? – Well, for many reasons, but one of the most important is because we ALL now live in a knowledge-based economy, and the only way previously-wealthy Countries will stay wealthy is advanced higher education. So, why on earth in the face of that ever-growing reality, would the US keep colleges private and overpriced, and increasingly out of reach of working & middle-class citizens? – It's a fool's move.
    College is nationalized in Scandinavian nations, available to all who pass entrance exams, and their citizens are among the highest educated on earth. This makes for a nation which earns more, which attracts the best companies, which creates more tax revenue, which makes for a wealthier nation. On top of that, they have VASTLY less extreme class difference, so people suffer far less than in the US, yet they STILL pursue college degrees more than we do, which deflates the whole "make them suffer or they wont strive for better" medieval concept (excuse to exploit, really).

    December 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • conrad

      You know what it comes down to here? Hatred for people who don't look like the founding fathers. People are small minded and afraid their tax dollars will go to educating an illegal and they'd rather everyone suffer than risk accidentally lifting up someone they believe doesn't 'deserve' it. We are very classist in our thinking here. We use big words like all men being created equal, but we don't live by those words.

      December 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  6. BadPolitx

    This article may all be true, I don't see many people wishing to live there. It is very cold, one reason I will never live there.
    They speak a difficult language to learn, thats a year out of my life. Sorry I don't see it. But good luck to them in the freekin arctic!

    December 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  7. MJER

    If you want to be a Norwegian, you just need to LEARN THEIR LANGUAGE and live there for at least 7 years, or marry someone and some other minor requirements .

    December 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  8. Bill

    I don't think we need to be like Scandanavia, but we should take a look at their primary and secondary education systems. The countries in Scandanavia have 100% literacy rates and quite possibily the best education systems in the world. We could learn from that.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  9. Sandra

    Interesting that women make up a good percentage of the top 5 governments and gender equality is at the highest levels in these Scandinavian and Nordic countries.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  10. Just for Fun

    They do have some long cold winters.
    Some battles are won between the sheets.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  11. Just for Fun

    Could someone tell me how much the U.S. spends per child in school? Also what is apent per child in Germany, U.K, and Sweden?

    December 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • RickInNY

      Google is your friend.

      December 13, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  12. Max

    Obviously we cannot be the same as these Scandinavian countries. But we should not be too arrogant to think that we cannot learn something from them. Education in the US needs serious reform as well as our health care system, and we can examine how these other countries successfully implement their plans and tailor something that fits the US.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • RickInNY

      It's called taxing the population 50-60%. Well, that and not having decade long wars...

      December 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  13. Socialista

    I love America. I have served in its military, voted every year since I was 18 and I want America to be the land and country that the whole world looks up to, admires and wants to emulate. But I fear that this will not be the case a long as we continue to be #1 in exporting death and hate in the world.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Brett

      Sorry Socialista, it hasn't been that way in decades. But self awareness has never been one of America's virtues.

      December 13, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  14. conrad

    So ... we sacrifice every other aspect of life to the god of 'innovation'? What bunk!
    I say American's would be even more innovative with better education, health care, and well oiled cities and infrastructure! It's not about massive amounts of money being spent on innovation, it's the American mindset and culture that yeilds so much innovation. Most huge money making success stories began with an idea, $1,000, and lots of determination.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Garm

      There was a very interesting article by Inc, magazine on the startuprates of Norway, and how the system encourages startups by making failiure less catastrophic:

      December 14, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  15. Mr. hand

    Sounds like other countries should start paying the US an R&D subsidy.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • RickInNY

      More like a "We bailed your butts out with our military" fee.

      December 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  16. Mark

    "every hear anybody talk about tort reform to combat defensive medicine and its prohibitive costs to everyone"

    Is what you are saying is that citizens on a jury are not capable of deciding how they want to orient their local community at the state level so therefor we need to restrict them? Are you saying that product liability lawyers have magic fairy dust and wands when they enter the court room? So, because of this we need to put further restrictions on the seventh amendment.

    What reform are you talking about? What is your evidence of the cost of defensive medicine? Is it anecdotal evidence? Is it the few hyped lawsuits you initially hear in the news media? How have you arrived at this conclusion?

    December 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  17. Mark

    "Another stupid liberal hate on america article on CNN."

    It is an article talking about facts. Now you can argue if the facts are statistically correct and if they are interpret those facts differently but an article of "hate"? Get over it. Quit buying into the conservative myths.

    December 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  18. Samuel

    Ironic, given how often we tell other countries they need to become more like America.

    December 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  19. Just for Fun

    Well what you can expect from a country that elected a community organizer with no business leadership or any experience running even a small government.
    We get what we ask for.
    Sorry for the rest of the world that looks to the U.S. for leadership we have none.

    December 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  20. Yes1fan

    I've often thought it odd that there is a pretty good commercial+public system in place to identify athletes at a young age, but no similar collaboration for intellectuals at a young age.
    In 3rd grade, I tested at 181 IQ, yet never graduated from college due to family / money issues...i.e...."fell through the cracks".
    I'm pretty sure I no longer have that high an IQ, but in a proper environment, who knows what could have happened.

    December 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Mensa Kids


      We are so glad you posted. Your IQ score of 181 at the age of eight (8) was one of our highest scores ever. We have spent many years trying to track you down. Your Mensa Kids Acceptance Letter and Members' Full Scholarship Information Packet were returned to us undelivered so many years ago.

      We hope that in spite of this unfortunate twist of fate, you have applied yourself academically, worked/borrowed to pay for an education and not used your family situation as an excuse for not meeting your potential (a trio we call "falling through the cracks"). Otherwise, we hope you were a stellar athlete, as at least a fraction of a percent of college entrants and graduates are sailing through on that easy ride.

      Kind regards,

      Mensa Kids

      December 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  21. peterweicker

    Abandon paranoia and you'll be able to solve your problems in your own way and on your own terms. That's not easy, though. Paranoia can't be reasoned away. Unless people first abandon fear they'll always be slaves to it.

    December 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  22. Josh

    Easy to prosper when you let yourself get conquered by Nazis then wait for another country to come free you then wait for that country to pay to rebuild you and also pay to keep the Soviets from expanding and destroying that prosperity which you get to take credit for when a silly writer ignores all those facts in about 60 years and yearns to be you. Go eat some Swedish meatballs at IKEA, sine obviously you are not a man of logic or facts, but of feelings. Once you do you'll probably wish we were like China. Go eat some Panda Express when you do.

    December 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Manclad

      Sweden wasn't conquered in WW2 and it could be argued it never has been by ANY nation. Their modern military is top notch, they have their own stealth aircraft and if they REALLY wanted to could develop their own nukes, however they don't as regional/political alliances are the smart way to go!. Also pretty arrogant to think that the US funded and protected Sweden from USSR without the help of the rest of NATO. We all shared the common ideology and stuck together for those ideals. The US would not succeeded in its own Geopolitical goals without the rest of NATO....

      December 13, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
      • Josh

        You mean the Nazis didn't want to attack and kill a nation with an abundance of blonde and blue eyed people? Shocker. Also, obviously, Sweden is not the only nation in that region... and yes, clearly NATO was necessary for repelling the USSR, because if European nations wanted to join the USSR they could have. It is the choice to be in NATO that put nations under the, let's face it, American's protection. It's arrogance of European nations to dismiss the value of American soldiers blood that makes it difficult to swallow such a hateful stance towards us in America. But, you all are still worth it.

        December 14, 2012 at 5:40 am |
  23. ES

    Here are main issues with America compared to the other top countries on the list, on average:
    1. Enourmous military spending which bankrupted many empires before
    2. Out of balance serive sector, which doesn't produce wealth. Only in the US you have huge shopping centeres on every corner, 5 churches per street, huge insurance companies, so many restaurants. All these are services, they don't add to the wealth of the nation. Somebody has to create wealth and then pay for all these services.
    3. Too many irresponsible people who don't pull their weight compared to other countries. US is very politically correct and avoids asking people hard questions in order to avoid potential "blame the victim" situations. Many US citizens on welfare have no shame milking the system for all its worth through not completely hones means. IN those other countries it is still considered a shameful thing to do.

    December 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • JP

      1.)I would like to note that the US is not actually spending that much on its military compared to the total size of the American economy. It is very close to that of Russia and China as a percentage of GDP.

      Now it still is a massive sum of money that should be cut considering even though it is a small percentage it is almost as much as the rest of the world combined.
      2.)Not even sure what you mean. Sure there are a lot of shopping centers, they are all PACKED usually though. At least where I'm from, and I live in a town of less than 20,000.
      3.)I agree that someone has to ask the hard questions. I personally believe welfare should be limited to a year unless the person is at least trying to work (ex. Working full-time minimum wage).

      There are no easy answers to the problems unfortunately.
      I believe that cutting military spending and putting it towards, health, science, and education are a great start.

      December 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  24. Leftcoastrocky

    The US should have a highly efficient health care system like the French system.

    December 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  25. Parker

    No. Norway and company do not have open borders and a population the size of ours that is so diverse. America is an instrument of fraud for government and corporations in this fascist state.

    December 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  26. DickPerry

    LMAO.. USA can't come close to the nordic countries. First it must reject its barbaric traditions of death penalty, torture, crimes against humanity and mass killings. So perhaps in a couple of hundred years it can become the utopia the Nordic countries are. 🙂

    December 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      Spoken like someone who has probably never been out of his home state.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  27. Andy

    would never work. we have too many black people to take care of here.

    December 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  28. Barry G.

    If Scandinavians do a better job, preventing wealthy individuals, corporations and concerns from corrupting and influencing their politics, then–yes, we should become more like them.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      No, they don't. Different structure, same problems. History has shown that whatever the political structure, there will always be and always has been the 1%. Communism, monarchies, republics, social democracies: all had and have a purported corrupt ruling class.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
      • Barry G.

        Dear Polar Bear,

        I appreciate your comments and believe you are right.

        My comment was intended to call attention to the inevitability of human greed and corruption, which has, no doubt, been here since the times of the ancient Mesopotamians, and will, no doubt, be here long after our generation passes on.

        As Koeheloth wrote: "There is nothing new under the sun." "What is has been before and will be again."

        I take a certain degree of pleasure, however, in calling attention to the evil and greed of people. At least I can do that.

        Thanks again.

        December 14, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  29. Wash123

    One word: Greed

    December 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
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