(Swans - August 26, 2013 For many years, almost on a daily basis, I moan when I hear someone on television or radio, often an elected official, proclaim yet again that the U.S. is the greatest nation on Earth. I am old enough (74) to remember past decades when I would have agreed with that viewpoint, but no more. As someone who worked in the US political and public policy world for a long time I have always appreciated endless streams of data on how countries stack up on many factors that contribute to quality of life. And there has always been one impressive observation. The Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as well as Finland that is strictly speaking a Nordic country, always appear far better than the U.S. Thus I decided to take a vacation tour of these four countries. My recent trip reinforced the view that all four of these advanced, industrialized democracies offer far better lives for all of their citizens than does the U.S.
No objective person with critical thinking skills could possibly place the U.S. above these nations. Naturally, they are not perfect, but nor are they socialist nightmares. Everything I saw firsthand supported the data, as well as what I heard in many conversations with residents of these four countries from people with service jobs in hotels and restaurants to highly educated professionals in the upper economic levels. Nearly everyone I met spoke terrific English. As a world traveler I have never met better, nicer, or more effective service people in hotels, shops, tourist attractions, ships, and restaurants than I found in these four countries. I can hardly imagine what the U.S. would look like or function as if we had similar workers catering to customers. Americans would think they had been transported to some strange planet.
As to democracy, I could see no difference in these four countries when it comes to personal freedoms and property rights. All four democracies function very well, with seemingly far less dysfunction, corruption, and incompetence than what now exists in the U.S. According to the Corruption Perception Index, Denmark was in first place, Sweden and Finland tied in fourth place, Norway in tenth place, with the U.S. in 22nd place.
According to the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom: Denmark has greater business freedom, monetary freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, freedom from corruption, and labor freedom while having comparable property rights and trade freedom scores to the U.S. Sweden has greater business freedom and freedom from corruption, while having comparable trade freedom, monetary freedom, property rights enforcement, investment freedom, and financial freedom to the United States. Norway has greater freedom from corruption than the United States while having comparable business freedom, trade freedom, and property right enforcement. Finland has greater business freedom, monetary freedom, and freedom from corruption than the U.S., while having comparable property right enforcement, financial freedom, and trade freedom.
The physical infrastructure in these countries is also incredible. In all four capitals (Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki), as well as smaller cities and towns, I never saw any of the devastation and failing infrastructure so evident in all American cities. In neighborhood after neighborhood I saw housing and commercial structures looking both beautiful and incredibly well maintained. None of the dilapidation so prevalent across America. Moreover, a delightful feature in all four nations is the vastly smaller amount of commercial signage and advertising so prevalent across America.
In the past year or so a number of studies have also examined the happiness level of people living in different countries. Once again the data are totally consistent with what I found, namely that residents in the four Nordic countries are far happier than in nearly all other advanced, industrialized democracies. Why not? The governments in the four countries really take care of their citizens -- all of their citizens. Sure, taxes are high. But people actually get cradle-to-grave social and economic benefits, not the least of which is free education all the way up to the doctorate and professional levels, as well first rate health care.
One sign of impending trouble, however, is the presence of dark-skinned people begging in streets. Controls on immigration are bound to be found necessary in these as well as nearly all other European countries.
Very recently, data have appeared on social and upward economic mobility. As noted in The Economist, "Using one-generation measures of social mobility -- how much a father's relative income influences that of his adult son -- America does half as well as Nordic countries." Economic inequality in the U.S. is appalling. Of course, there is an upper, wealthy class in the Nordic countries, but nothing like the US top elites that is light years above the vast majority of the population. In all four countries I visited I saw a vigorous, content middle class, unlike the sick and suffering American middle class. Moreover, there is a healthy capitalism driven by high-level entrepreneurs.
Days ago, this was reported: "Scandinavian countries have continued to dominate the top of the global index, which takes measurements from across eight categories: economy, education, entrepreneurship & opportunity, governance, health, personal freedom, safety & security, and social capital. Norway has topped the list of the world's most prosperous countries, followed by Denmark and Sweden in the annual rankings. [Finland was in seventh place.] The U.S. has dropped out of the Legatum Prosperity Index's top ten for the first time to 12th position. ... Jeffrey Gedmin, president and chief executive of the Legatum Institute, said the Legatum Prosperity Index allows us to paint a comprehensive picture of what makes a country truly successful."
About the only things the U.S. excels in include the highest prison population and the highest level of military spending. Like millions of other Americans I see my country in serious decline, with a political system totally incapable of putting the nation on the right track to a better future. Most Americans lead far inferior lives compared to the citizens in the Nordic countries, with many millions facing hunger, awful health care, housing problems, unaffordable higher education, job insecurity, underemployment, and unemployment. If you want to experience beautiful places and people, travel to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, preferably in the summer of course, and spend at least a week in Norway because of its widespread natural wonders. Be warned, however; you will better realize just how much the U.S. has sunk in nearly everything that defines high quality of life and standard of living.
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About the Author
Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior staffer at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association. He now writes about politics and government, and is the author of Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government and Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health And Money. He is also active with the Friends Of the Article V Convention (FOAVC). (back)