"A rising tide lifts all boats" is particularly germane for Sweden. You can physically witness the daily occurrence walking around Stockholm’s famed archipelago, but it is socially that President John F. Kennedy’s idiom rings most true in the capital of Scandinavia.
Over the past several decades, Sweden has laid a strong economic foundation by committing to economic fairness and has positioned itself as one of the world’s strongest economies. Today, Sweden, along with the rest of Scandinavia, is among the leaders in terms of quality of life, enjoys one of the world’s highest GDPs, and not surprisingly, continually ranks as having the happiest people on the planet.
By contrast, American exceptionalism is declining as fast are our rapidly deteriorating middle class, in large part because of policies that are geared towards benefitting solely the wealthiest in our society.
Beginning with the Reagan era, Americans have bought into a notion that big government is bad, that taxes are wrong, and that rugged individualism trumps the what’s best for the collective society.
Socialism has become almost synonymous with evil. Consvervative critics hail Obamacare as government intrusion on our private lives and lambast the president for bludgeoning our economy into submission with overbearing regulation.
Yet Sweden is a thriving economy and society based on a government of socialist principles, higher taxes, and healthy regulations. A higher tax rate of 51.1% (nearly double that in America) is accepted not only because their salaries are adjusted accordingly but because Swedes recognize and believe in JFKs adage.
While it may make vacationing in Sweden as an American painful on the wallet (a pizza, salad, and cider can run you $60+), the taxes and high cost of living have not negatively affected business. In fact, corporations are flocking to Stockholm. In the World Economic Forum's 2010-2011 Global Competitive Report, Sweden ranked second in the world in overall competitiveness and was predicted by Richard Florida, University of Toronto Economist and author of The Flight of the Creative Class, to become a talent magnet for the world's most purposeful workers.
Already most Americans are familiar with numerous Swedish companies. Clothing store H&M, Volvo, Sony Ericsson Mobile, and Ikea are all of Swedish origin. Sweden is also home to a thriving entrepreneurial tech scene. Skype was founded in Stockholm, and recently during my visit, I spotted Ashton Kutcher, who was in town over the holidays to invest in the Swedish music startup Spotify.
One reason for Sweden's sound economy and predilection for creativity is the country's premier education system. Sweden has more female university graduates per capita than any other country in the world, and Swedes are considered to be among the world’s smartest people in large part because public education is guaranteed by the state, which in turn is funded by the higher tax rate.
Visit for a week, and you are blown away. Public transportation is efficient, the poverty so pervasive in America's big cities seems negligible by comparison, and people in general seem content (and not just because it was Christmas). Surely Sweden has it's numerous untold problems, but it's idyllic country built on a belief that the collective whole of society is stronger than the success of of an elite few.
Reaganites would have you believe that higher taxes and strict regulations and a prosperous economy are incompatible. Sweden and Scandinavia prove otherwise.
Conservatives would be right to say that Sweden's political system would not work to the same effect in the United States. One reason Swedes benefit from such a system is because of its small size. Governing a society of nine million is unquestionably easier than trying to regulate 300+ million people. That being said, it is time America gets back to the days of JFK when America and its leaders measured our country and the success of our society as a whole, and not by how much money its wealthiest made. Constantly lowering taxes, slashing critical government programs, and catering to Wall Street by dismantling regulations is not the answer. It is part of the problem. It is no coincidence that the world's strongest and most stable economies (Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia) all are able to mesh social welfare with an advantageous business climate.
If America wants to regain it's global edge and cement its economic dominance, the U.S. must look to countries like Sweden, Norway, and others as a model of how the health of society is measured by the vivacity of the middle class. In doing so we must finally accept that taxes, regulations, and government programs do not necessarily impede economic growth, but can ensure it.
Photo Credit: David Dietz