Lessons In Equality From Sweden

I’m spending the afternoon today wandering around the Sodermalm district of Stockholm, currently sitting in a coffee shop with a bunch of hipster Swedes. It’s kind of like the Williamsburg Brooklyn of Sweden. I’m here  for another day before I head to London for a quant conference.

For the last few days I’ve been down in Linkoping visiting one of the guys on our team at Estimize who moved here a few months ago with his Swedish girlfriend who I can attest makes some amazing meatballs. Just for perspective, Linkoping is a city of a little more than 100,000 people, about 25,000 of which are students. Stockholm has about 3,000,000, and the whole country is a bit over 9,000,000.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the world, specifically through much of central and south America and most of south east Asia. I studied international relations and economics in school, and I’m generally a well read person. But I’ve got to say, until you experience the nordic culture, it’s hard to really get it.

Just to lay it out, here are some of the things that struck me as really interesting.

First off, the women are just amazingly beautiful, there’s no exaggeration in that stereotype, it’s completely true. Where as the median American woman is a 3 (undatable according to Jerry Seinfeld), the median here is much higher, like a 5. And you just walk down the street and five girls that could easily be supermodels come speeding by on their bicycles.

But that’s not what’s interesting. The interesting part is that they don’t know it, or at least they don’t act like it. The culture here is much different in that there is a general feeling of equality amongst everyone, in many ways. Competitiveness is not looked down upon, but it is generally avoided, and that extends into many parts of life from the things you buy, the way you dress, and how you act.

I spent some time thinking about this and came to the conclusion that it’s largely the result of the median of everything being so high. Everyone has a good education, everyone is generally good looking, everyone makes a decent wage, everyone dresses well, and the population is extremely homogeneous, immigrants stick out like a sore thumb and I get the feeling that they are the underclass if there is one here.

Unlike the US, and frankly many nations, the people working government jobs aren’t morons. All aspects of government seem to run extremely well, in part because they don’t pay their workers a crap wage like we do. Smart people work government jobs and it isn’t looked down upon in any way, it’s just another job. For that matter, it doesn’t seem like Swedes generally associate who they are with their job as we do especially in America. The median here is pretty good for them already and it seems as if most don’t feel the need to strive for more.

As many of you know already, taxes are really high, over 50% for the average person, and if you’re making a good deal more than that it’s upwards of 70%. But they don’t look at that as a burden, largely because the government and social services work so well, you really feel like you’re getting your tax dollar’s worth. The schools are great as we know from education rankings, everything is amazingly clean and the cities are extremely well thought out down to the heated streets to melt the ice. Publica transportation is not only abundant and works extremely well, but they really frown upon cars here, they make it difficult to own one in the city for a reason. The air is extremely clean.

There’s no urban sprawl, everything is mixed use communities. You go from the “city” to the wide open untouched country within a matter of a mile.

There’s also an interesting do-it-yourself attitude. Swedish girls make their own jam, they grow their own vegetables, and they don’t eat out a lot. These are generalizations, but again, we’re talking about the median.

The guys are very reserved. I went for a run the other day and said good morning to a few guys, they mumbled good morning back under their breath without looking up. The girls though are very chatty. I see the reserved nature in public of the guys as another example of the equality thing, there’s just very little emotion shown by them. I’ve also heard they are relatively shy towards their own women, something that gives foreign guys a step up, even though a half balding 5’9 jewish kid like me looks like a ogre next to the 6’2 blond haired, square jawed guys here. It’s interesting, the girls are so starved for emotion.

All of this poses interesting questions and illuminates certain discussions about taxes, transportation policy, education, and equality.

What makes all of this possible here is that they’ve got only 9 million people in the country. By comparison, New York City has more than 9 million people alone. They don’t have to deal with many poor immigrants to assimilate. They don’t have to deal with much in the way of legacy social issues and a large underclass as we do in the states. Again, general equality.

The idea that the US could copy a model like this is insane largely because of the scale and diversity of the US. We are really many different countries in one, even within states we are so different that there’s no way it can work. Back in the 1950’s when our government completely didn’t give a crap about the underclass in any way (read African Americans), there was a feeling that everyone (except the underclass) was in this together, building something together, reaching for something together. And then we got there, we won the future. And it all became about who had more, who had more things, shinier things, bigger houses, more toys, made more money. We stopped working towards things together and started competing against each other.

Maybe that’s a natural outcome of the level of prosperity we reached, or maybe it’s the result of our increasing diversity and emotional distance between races and classes. There’s definitely an income inequality component to it as well. It’s hard for people at either end of the spectrum to relate these days, unlike Sweden our experiences are so vastly different.

On a smaller scale though there are many things to copy, mostly on a local scale with the way their cities and towns are run. There is no reason that we should be allowing the urban sprawl that has destroyed the living standards of our citizens due to lack of access to public transportation. People simply don’t own cars here because they don’t need to. Light rail, busses, and especially bicycle lanes are amazingly important. Mayor Bloomberg in NYC has done a great job at copying or at least attempting to pass legislation in this vein. It’s a shame congestion pricing got smacked down.

Taxing Americans to the extent they do here would never work, largely because our government is poorly run by idiots. It’s run by idiots because we don’t pay those positions enough for people to actually want to do those jobs without being corrupt. Look that’s just not gonna change, you can want smaller government all you want, but it won’t help that. It’s just very hard to rely on our government to provide services efficiently and intelligently at our scale and differentiation.

And that goes through to the education system which is amazing here, largely because they pay so much in taxes. When people cite those stats, they just aren’t relevant. It is very true that the US is falling behind, but that’s a result of our sheer size and diversity. I can easily pick 3 million primary school students from the northeast that would blow these kids out of the water. Our median is just much lower.

At the end of the day this is an amazing place, but the emotional restraint and the blaze feeling about ambition bothers me. They live very comfortably here, there isn’t a lot of suffering, which according to a lot of behavioral research is the most important thing for societies as a whole, the lack of suffering. But I still love the entrepreneurial spirit of the US, the speed of NYC, the fact that everyone is trying to make it somewhere. Maybe we are all masochists and love the struggle for the sport of it, to see how high and how far we can go, to see what we’re made of. We would rather have a lower median and a higher ceiling, even if only a few of us made it up there.

In all my travels it’s been easy to associate with the other cultures. This one is a bit different.


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