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. Greg Faith

    We are headed into the toilet and should be a third world country in a matter of years. We allowed the Federal Government to bankrupt ourselves and we will have to pay the price very, very soon. Be looking for all the rich folks to start expatriating just before the economy completely tanks. Then watch all of the animals as they tear this country apart trying to survive in it. I'm heading for Canada!

    December 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  2. Heidi

    Innovation is wonderful, for both America and the world at large. However, why should the American people be pushed further and further down the social rungs so that a small percentage of innovators and risk-takers (that succeed, lots that don't) can reap fabulous rewards? The trends show that innovation is being had at the expense of the American people and their former way of life. I would prefer a society with better lifestyles for all, even at the expense of some innovation, to one that randomly sacrifices anybody who is not educated and a workaholic and lucky on the altar of progress. Do we always have to throw away things that are perfectly good to chase after something new and only infintesimally better?

    December 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  3. abbydelabbey

    Would love for America to be more like Scandinavia ... have visited those countries - really, really nice ... got their acts together in so many ways.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  4. Nick H

    Sorry, cannot be done with our large population.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • SSE

      Uh, why not?

      December 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
      • ES

        Too many freeloaders gaming the system for everything they got.

        December 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
      • JR

        Too many uneducated minorities that vote for handouts, simply because they don't know what's best for the country or their own success. The minorities are become a majority coalition, but are have remained statically uneducated

        December 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
      • JR

        have become*

        December 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
      • SSE

        JR and ES, statistics almost universally show that the freeloaders and system players you are worried about are a very small part of the population and not enough to do any significant damage to an economic system that integrates such social safety nets. The benefits of implementing such functions in society far outweigh the problems we are witnessing today without such functions.

        February 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  5. gstlab3

    Did you all see that?

    The government controls less and taxes only certain things and leaves the markets alone.

    This means their government is much much smaller and more efficient than our bloated to big fail government that is run by a central bank and the interlocking corporations.

    They are trans parents too.

    I bet that mean they do'nt lie to their citizens about terrorism and the drug and oil wars that their own government manufactured to make money and gain power.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  6. ffacts

    visit the poorest projects in most any large U.S. city. These are the people who infest this once great country, and will always prevent greatness. Their chosen life of crime, gang activity, absent parenting, drug dealing, phenomenal amount of violence, welfare as a career, primitive violent instincts, and more will continue to drain society. It's not popular to point out these facts.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  7. Whoa

    Patents really, we have companies that patent round corners. Most companies these days don't patent for innovation, the patent to stifle innovation and sue other companies that dare try to innovate from what they have attempted to do.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  8. Bob

    You don't want to be like Scandinavia . . . he never mentioned the top country on these lists. Switzerland is a country that the U.S. should aspire to.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • ES

      Switzerland has no standing army. Let's start there, lol .A trillion dollar a year saving right there.

      Everything is 2-3 times more expensive than elsewhere in order to support local labor. Only rich can afford a house for this reason. Women cannot work and stay home because they cannot afford a nanny with all the benefits at 2-3 thousand euro per month,

      Switzerland and US couldn't be more diferent if we tried. Can you imagine only 1% of the population ever being able to afford the "american dream", a house? We'd have a revolution.

      December 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
      • jaysun

        Every young male is Switzerland is required by law to be in the army. And they all get to keep their guns afterwards.

        December 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  9. ffacts

    Maybe we should try to be like Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe, The Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia?

    December 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      Some cities in America are very close.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  10. jnasir

    The beauty of America is it attracts best mind from rest of the world and absorb. We are ahead in R&D and innovation not because we produce great kids .. but because we get them to migrate and this will only take us so far. We got to invest into education. Go to major universities and major program .. just Chinese alone out number born Americans. Look at list of Noble price winners .. their address is US .. but if not most then atleast half they were born outside US and then migrated here. We got to keep on doing that .. and also produce our own great kids.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  11. Mike H.

    "when it comes to innovation, the U.S. still wins."
    True that... what country can claim it invented the iPhone?

    December 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Garm

      Well, the Iphone is just an evolved mobile phone...which was invented in Finland.

      December 14, 2012 at 7:43 am |
      • Oddi

        The GSM system was invented in Norway

        January 8, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  12. TDD

    "A Scandinavian economist once stated to Milton Friedman: "In Scandinavia we have no poverty." Milton Friedman replied, "That's interesting, because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty either."

    Scandinavia is the way it is because it's full of Scandinavians. It's not just the "policies". You can't just apply the same set of policies to all people of the world and expect the same result – the people matter. This fantasy that "we're all the same" is getting really tiring.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • ffacts

      TDD is correct. it is not popular to point out the fact that there are various levels of quality with different peoples.

      December 13, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Garm

      Scandinavian immigration to the US was a hundred years ago. When you look at the people who self-identifies as "Scandinavian" in the US, you are looking at people who have a sufficiently stable family background that they can trace their realtions back a century. And who have been established in the US for a century as part of the top of the ethnic heap.

      I don't think there is a lot of poverty among people whose ancestors came over on the mayflower either.

      December 14, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  13. gary

    Assinate the 1%. Then this country can start over. Perhaps the way our founding fathers wanted it to be.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      Illiterate much? The founding fathers were part of the 1% in their time. That government school education is serving you well.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  14. John3345

    No thanks. We prefer freedom.

    Take your socialism and shove it where the sun don't shine.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Garm

      You know, if its freedom that you want, Scandinavia is the place. Your education is limited only by your drive and ability. You can go for your dream job without worrying about whether it has healthcare for you and your family. You can have kids when you feel its right. You can have a career as well, both men and women. You can start your own business without worrying about the healthcare of your dependents. You can take a year off for personal reasons, and have the vacation time for an actual life of your own. You can retire early witholut hanging grimly in there untill you can get on medicare.

      Those things in total -your education opportunities, choice of job, kids, free time, your own business, retirement- that totals up to your whole life, John. Scandinavians have more freedom and the difference is monstrous!

      December 14, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  15. jj

    Should the US try to be like Scandinavia? In a word – YES

    December 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  16. Eli Cabelly

    We should only aspire to be like Scandinavia if we want effective healthcare, low crime, good education, and a strong economy.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  17. CJ

    As the least religious region in the world, Scandinavia sure gives lie to the idea that people need religion in order to prosper.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  18. stoshk

    I think America is still a great country – this is evident by how many people still want to come here – and we're justified in being proud of that. But there's a big difference between being proud and being guity of hubris, which I feel we are. I think a lot of our systems are the best or are on par with other country's various systems (or, as is said, we're the worst, except for all others). Any time another country comes up with an improvement to a system, we just yell "'Merica! – we don't follow; we lead!" and we dismiss it without seriously considering whether adopting that improvement (or even taking it and making it even better – something we used to be very good at) would serve us well. We are a nations that is mostly made up of other nations' people; the same should apply to systems as well. Instead of just dismissing other countries' ideas as being unAmerican, we should look at the successful ones and, if you will, consider how to make them American.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  19. infonomics

    Deport the liberals and America will ascend to greatness again.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • I Am God.

      Don't need to deport Liberals. We need to insure you die out and don't spread your idiotic ideologies to the next generation.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      No. What's going to happen is they will run it into the ground. Then the sober Americans will rebuild it and put them in their place.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
      • I Am God.

        Obviously you are clueless. If that were so true then there probably wouldn't be a United States now.

        December 13, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  20. rhondajo3

    These Scandinavian countries are becoming Muslim countries, so no, I would not want to be like them....

    December 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • I Am God.

      Seems like you have some Islamophobia in you. Don't be daff.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
      • Polar Bear

        Fear is perfectly normal when it's justified.

        December 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
      • I Am God.

        Polar Bear fear is what brings destruction to a country.

        December 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
      • RickInNY

        Nah, there's plenty of justification to not wanting the ragheads invading once awesome places.

        December 13, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      Been to Paris lately? Yikes! Baghdad with arc en boutants.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  21. worldbarista

    As I have stated before and repeat again here, the United States should advance more in health care and education, particularly, provide free health care and free education to its own citizens. We should stop this ridiculous students loan system, let the eager ones and talented be educated and get education, if they can't afford, let our government pay for it. The strong country consist not of string army but strong and healthy and educated citizens. Health care and higher education should be free. We can manage that as other prosperous countries around the world managed the system. We can have private Universities and public universities (free). Stop being greedy start showing care for your citizens.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • JR

      Lenin couldn't have said it better

      December 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  22. Pete

    I wish the US population were the population of Denmark.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      Before or after they get rid of the Muslim scourge that's invaded and infested their previously nice little country to live in?

      December 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  23. NorthVanCan

    Do we need more RnD or do we need to work efficiently with what we have, and make peace with our environment?
    Sure America leads in RnD , but spending more on fixing their culture would serve them better.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  24. Al Sanchez

    Funny, how around 1988, we were #1, and and a couple years earlier, Reagan granted amnesty to 6,000,000+ illegals. That's when everything started the downtrend real fast! I saw L.A. go from normal city to Mexico City in just about 20 years. Check out the public schools in California–almost all Latino and Black!!!! This is why we are losing it all - All the Mexicans keep on getting pregnant early, more so than blacks, and they all want to listen to all the latest and greatest RAP and Hip Hop records–that's what's important to youngsters nowadays. This is the plain truth. If you disagree with me on this then you are part of the problem. Keep on bringing in the illegals, let them have tons of kids and not speak English anymore. We are in such a mess because of too liberal policies aka Democrats!!! Thank God I'm not a Democrat anymore!!!

    A. Sanchez

    December 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  25. jjy251

    I went to visit last summer and I realized how much I love the U.S after that trip. I agree that we have many issues but so does every other country. I hated the fact that I had to pay to use the restroom at rest stops and for ketchup at McD! Its not as exciting as the U.S where we have so many different cultures that even though we don't get along all the time, it makes life interesting. I might not enjoy every flavor of ice cream but its better than having no other choice besides vanilla for the rest of my life.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Al Sanchez


      A. SANCHEZ

      December 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • JR

      You went all the way to Scandinavia to eat McDee's?

      December 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  26. Izoto

    The cultural context of Scandinavian countries are completely different from America.

    December 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  27. John3345

    Scandinavia is a dump.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Polar Bear

      You make it obvious you've never been there.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • what1ever

      Every person that I know that is from there, and that is quite a few, always say that OUR country is the dumpiest place that they've been.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  28. Polar Bear

    No. I go to Norway once or twice a year. Nice place to visit. Most of my family's there. Great people. But the only reason Norway's social democracy is thriving is because of the offshore oil and gas. When it runs out, so does the standard of living. Taxes are 72% and most have what everyone else has. Working hard will only get you another couple hundred square feet. The sun comes up at 9am and goes down at 3pm in the winter. It's cold half of the year, brutally cold. Few notables out of Norway because individual exceptionalism is not encouraged. Their socialist experiment may be peaking now, but in time, it will collapse as all of the misguided attempts at socialism have.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Garm

      You've nevere been to Norway:) Or met anyone that has:) Total taxes are comparable to New York, with income taxes running 10-32 %, average 25 %. Norway doesn't SPEND any of the oil and gas income, its saved in a wealth fund for when the oil runs out.

      Norway runs for a thousand miles north-south. Climate and daylight hours vary exceptionally. And Norway wins a lot of olympic medals because of the fostering of excellence.

      I mean, if you are going to make up visiting a country, at least do a minimum google first!

      December 14, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  29. I Am God.

    What most people seem to forget the fact that the Scandinavian countries are a lot smaller and have a much lower population then big countries. This is what allows them to keep a strong economy.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  30. OrionStyles

    " you look at patents filed per million residents, the study shows the U.S. has moved far ahead of Scandinavian countries."

    This is not a measure of innovation, it a measure of how innovation is being stifled by an out of control patent system that will give a patent out for anything, as long as you pay the fees.

    You need a minimum of 1 million dollars to sit at the patent dispute table and see it through. As such patents are weapons for large corporations who have the legal resources to punish you for challenging their obvious / prior-art patents.

    Want to know where all the corporate profits are going instead of into your investments? Into a never ending war on the patent battlefield.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Skeptimist

      Thank you for opening the window on that.

      December 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
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