Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right-and How We Can, Too
A few years ago, I sat in a living room in the Norwegian town of Skien, surrounded by relatives. As a young man I’d married an international student from Norway, and her family had adopted me. Whenever I was back in Norway, we’d get together for pastries and coffee. I’d lived in Oslo more than half a century ago, but I’d come back many times. Gathered in the living room that day were relatives of a variety of ages and occupations: teacher, industrial worker, owner of a garden center, social worker, organic farmer, middle manager in a business.
As we talked about this and that, one of the cousins mentioned that she’d just heard about the results of an experiment for shortening the workweek. She told us with some excitement that the study measured people’s productivity when their workweek was shortened from forty to thirty hours. The researchers found that the workers got more work done.
I watched the ripple of satisfaction around the room as the relatives started speculating about whether a reduction in hours could work in their jobs, too. They wondered about the implications of having more time off with the same total paycheck. On average, Norwegians work only 1,400 hours per year—the lowest in Europe—and are famous for their high productivity. I was struck by the quiet confidence everyone in the room seemed to have that as soon as the research was done, their employers would change policies easily.
“What about you, George?” a young woman asked. I had been quiet throughout the conversation. “What’s the trend in hours worked in the States?”
“Actually,” I said, “the trend with us is in the opposite direction. Overall, people with jobs work longer hours than before.”
She was visibly surprised. “Does that mean that you take the time off in other ways, like super-long vacations? Here in Norway the national law is a month paid vacation for all, but some occupations get more because they are more stressful.”
“Well …” I paused, trying to ensure my Norwegian vocabulary was up to the task of conveying disappointing news. “In the United States, we don’t tend to have long paid vacations. Lots of people have two weeks, lots have one week, and some don’t have any paid vacation.”
The room became very still. I could sense my interlocutor trying to imagine living under such conditions. After a while, she chanced another question, clearly wanting to allow for cultural differences.
“Maybe people in your country don’t want to have free time to enjoy your families, and go hiking and do recreation, and have hobbies?”
I was slow to respond. “Yes, we do want those things, just as you do. It’s just that, well, we don’t know that we can have them.”
Hence this book. I wrote Viking Economics because so many of my fellow Americans experience the stark impact of our economic challenges every single day, yet feel socially powerless about solving them. One reason we’ve gotten stuck is that we’ve forgotten how successful Americans have been when we’ve formed social movements. Everything from child-labor laws to Social Security, after all, is a result of popular action.
But it’s not just our own history we have to look toward. Too often, we’re unaware of other societies that have tackled similar economic problems and taken giant strides forward; without that knowledge, it’s hard to visualize the big changes we need to make.
Equality is probably the most potent example of this gap. Most Americans are deeply aware of the wealth gap—even Republican politicians are starting to talk about it.
Yet even as the wealth gap continues to grow, very few politicians seem to know what to do about it. Fortunately, bits of news are seeping into our country from the northwestern periphery of Europe. More Americans have now heard that over there, they have free higher education, robust support for families, a healthy work/life balance, active response to climate change, and an abundance of high-paying jobs for young and old alike. Almost no one connects the dots, however, to realize that these positives represent an egalitarian structure. Economists call the set of connections “the Nordic model.”
The conversation in that living room in Skien reveals what’s been going on: the descendants of the Vikings set themselves up to conduct experiments that support abundance for the people as a whole. Only one of the countries—Norway—struck it rich with oil, but all of them progressed in similar ways. Their economies have a sixty-year track record of delivering increased freedom and equality.
I want the United States to benefit from the living laboratory that Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Icelanders have created, and I’m confident that their experiments with egalitarianism can be inspiring, useful, and applicable to Americans.
The Nordics weren’t always this way, of course. To get to the top of the global ratings, they paid their dues. They started out far behind: for decades Norwegians and Swedes fled poverty, emigrating to the United States and elsewhere. A century ago, their wealth gap was huge. Their economic elites, who held the power, were unwilling or unable to steer their countries toward justice and prosperity.
But eventually, the people mobilized—nonviolently—to displace their ineffective leadership and open the space for democracy. It did take open struggle, but they finally created a situation where they achieved a remarkable degree of freedom and equality key to the Nordic vision—and our own.
I believe we can catch up. We have a long tradition of citizens standing up for themselves and for their collective interests, and I have every reason to think that we can take any lessons we choose from the laboratories of the North, and run with them. I sincerely hope that Viking Economics can help in that effort.
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