What, if Anything, Can America Learn from Norway?

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What, if Anything, Can America Learn from Norway?

A TomDispatch post about Norway's social democracy attracted a lot of reader comments over the past week. Here are some of the highlights of what you had to say.

Nidelva river in Trondheim, Norway. June 13, 2015. (Photo credit: Alexander Shchukin, Flickr, CC 2.0)

Who would have thought that Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, would give Hillary Clinton such a run for her money in Iowa. 

As journalist Ann Jones describes in “After Living in Norway, America Seems Backward,” Sanders believes America should look to “countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” He made those remarks at a Democratic presidential debate, adding that he believes in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” 

At that same debate, Hillary Clinton seemed to dismiss Sanders’ view when she said: “What Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”

Having lived in Norway for four years, Jones thinks Sanders is really on to something. She describes the country as a social democracy and a “peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.”

Scandinavian countries don’t suffer from the vast inequality so visible in America, but are among the most income-equal in the world, with living standards consistently topping the charts. Jones points to Norway’s “high but fair progressive income taxes” that pay for the state’s universal welfare system.

Her article inspired a flurry of people writing in to BillMoyers.com and close to 20,000 shares and over 1,500 comments on Facebook.

The most liked Facebook comment came from Beverly Dancy, who wrote: “Americans have this streak of false pride. We believe we have it better than everyone else, everywhere else and it just isn’t true. Why NOT look at what is working well in other places and apply it here…what is there to lose? Oh right, that false pride that, we are No.1!” Yes, we are number one, Nancy Griffin cynically agreed: “Number one in military spending and the percentage of our population that we incarcerate.”

Successful Democratic Experiment or Utopian Fantasy

A number of people, like Jim McCain, wrote in to support Sanders and agree that the United States should consider adopting some of Europe’s economic policies. “The laboratory of Europe and Scandinavia has already proven that Democratic socialism works better in providing a better life with less stress, less crime, more financial security and more happiness than other democracy experiments, even the American one… People like Bernie Sanders are America’s only hope and therefore must be vigorously supported.”

Michael Shaw, a Clinton supporter, believes Sanders politics are too extreme to actually work here in the US. “Bernie wants a revolution and to sort of re-do all of our social systems. Hillary knows the current system well, wants to safeguard progress made, and has a vast amount of compassion for women, children, families and working people…[E]ven if we work toward something like they are doing in Scandinavia, it will definitely look different because our nations values and traditions are vastly different – that’s a fact. Hillary sees reality while Bernie sees utopia.”

Jackie Matlock disagrees: “Bernie Sanders understands the difference between the US and countries that work for the citizens more than the elite. Hillary Clinton is so tied to big business and Wall Street, she cannot admit that she knows the difference also. Her path is different, she must support the 1%.”

Apples and Oranges

Some suggested that we shouldn’t look to countries such as Norway, because our politics are way different. As George Daddis put it: “The key phrase is ‘social democracy’…The US is NOT a social democracy, we have a Republican form of government based on a very unique Constitution focused on the value of the INDIVIDUAL. Our recent decline can be traced to the infiltration of social democratic (i.e. progressive) ideas and politicians. Read and then vote for the politician who upholds the values of the Constitution, regardless of party.” [Editor’s note: This article by Slate clarifies Sanders’ definition of democratic socialist, as does his election website.]

Jean Ellen Mynatt Oltvedt, on the other hand, believes we are getting in our own way by focusing too much energy on “our interpretation of the Constitution,” and “The good old days! (that weren’t all that good unless you were a white male).”

Others, like John Louis Lassen Perry, are not sure that the Nordic Model would work here, but believe the American model of capitalism is clearly “failing” and will “lead us to ruin.” He said, “Nations with better social protections and governments with a more cooperative view of the relations between labor, capital, government and finance are kicking our butts. The Reagan Revolution is over, we lost.”

Taxes and Priorities

A number of people write that American priorities — specifically our military spending — are a major problem. Pat O’brien says: “We can never be a Denmark or Norway, or Sweden as long as the United States spends more money on our military than most other countries combined…It seems we are in a constant state of preparing for war or in a war and as long as that is our top priority the social ideas that make life better for all must be put aside.”

Others express deep concern about the potentially high tax burden of adopting Scandinavian-like policies. “Taxes in Sweden are thru the roof,” writes Melanie Brown Osteen. “ I am friends with a a Coke executive that was born and raised there. He now lives in Atlanta. No thank you!”

Still, others would rather pay high taxes, if it meant a higher degree of security and a better quality of life. Kevin Mendelson writes: “I’m willing to pay more taxes if it’s put to productive use for EVERYONE, not just those with connections in government. No taxation without representation. Healthcare? Better public transportation? Better education? I’m ready for a healthy sprinkling of socialism in our capitalism for good balance.”

What’s your take? Visit the original article and add your comments to the mix.

Karin Kamp

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. Before joining billmoyers.com she helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship. She previously produced for NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International. Karin graduated from Rutgers University with an advanced degree in business and received a master's in journalism from City University in London.

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