Suellen and I lived in Stockholm for three years and generally loved it. The winters are long and dark but the people are sunny and positive. Taxes are high but services are great. And they write some of the best murder mysteries in the world. Here are some things we’ve found out about Sweden, Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) and the Nordic countries (Scandinavia plus Iceland and Finland).
They’re innovative — Sweden produces more patents per capita than any other country. Finland is second; Denmark is sixth. The U.S is ninth. In the Bloomberg Survey of Innovative Countries, the U.S. is first. Finland in fourth; Sweden is fifth; Denmark is ninth.
They’re happy — The Danes are the happiest people in the world. Finland is second; Norway is third; Sweden is seventh. The U.S. is 11th.
They’re free (from prison) — Sweden has about 70 people in prison per 100,000 population. The U.S. has 700.
Women are close to equal — Sweden is widely considered the best place in the world for a woman to pursue a career. Iceland usually ranks first in surveys of overall gender equality. Even in the Nordics, however, men still make more money than women.
They’re healthy — On the Bloomberg Survey of the World’s Healthiest Countries, Sweden ranks ninth. Finland is 22nd and Denmark is 26th. The U.S. is 33rd.
They get great vacations — typically six weeks of paid vacation plus various national holidays. If you want to take four weeks in a row, your company is obligated to permit it.
They’re egalitarian — the Nordic countries rank among the most egalitarian in the world in most measures of income distribution.
They’re well governed — according to The Economist‘s ranking of the best governed nations in the world, the top four are: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. The U.S. is eighth.
What explains all this? I think some of it is the Swedish concept of lagom. We have no equivalent word in English but lagom is usually translated as “just enough” or “just the right amount, not too much”. Here are two examples:
The Swedish soccer (football) team played another nation and won by a score of 5 to 0. The Swedish coach worried aloud, saying, “I wish we had won by 2 to 0. We humiliated them. It’s not lagom. They’ll be looking for revenge the next time.” Have you ever heard any coach, anywhere in the world wishing they had won by less?
Suellen got into a long conversation with some Swedish friends about public education. Somehow, the subject of special programs for gifted and talented kids in the U.S. came up. The Swedes were dumbfounded. “Why on earth,” they asked, “would you invest extra money to help kids who already have all the advantages? If they’re so gifted and talented, they’ll figure out how to succeed.” The Swedish way would be to invest more in kids who are below the norm to help them come up to the middle. That’s lagom.
Could lagom explain Sweden’s (and the Nordics’) successes? Probably not all of them. But it does provide a sense of balance and fair play that lubricates the country’s society and economy. It also prompts a questioning attitude — Why are we doing what we’re doing? What does it lead to? What do we hope to achieve? The answer is not just more. It’s more balance. Perhaps that’s why this week’s issue of The Economist claims that Sweden is leading a “quiet revolution”, “thinking the unthinkable”, and fundamentally re-inventing capitalism. It’s a great read — just click here.