If the U.S. presidential campaign has made one thing clear, it’s this: The United States is not Finland. Nor is it Norway. This might seem self-evident. But America’s Americanness has had to be reaffirmed ever since Bernie Sanders suggested that Americans could learn something from Nordic countries about reducing income inequality, providing people with universal health care, and guaranteeing them paid family and medical leave.
“I think Bernie Sanders is a good candidate for president … of Sweden,” Marco Rubio scoffed. “We don’t want to be Sweden. We want to be the United States of America.”
“We are not Denmark,” Hillary Clinton clarified. “We are the United States of America. … [W]hen I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.”
Opportunity. Freedom. Independence. These words are bound up with American identity and the American Dream. The problem is that they’re often repeated like an incantation, with little reflection on the extent to which they still ring true in America, and are still exceptionally American.
Anu Partanen’s new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, argues that the freedom and opportunity Americans cherish are currently thriving more in Nordic countries than in the United States. (The Nordic countries comprise Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland.) But she also pushes back—albeit gently—against the trendy notion that Nordic countries are paradises.
Partanen is an unusual messenger. After all, her personal story is a testament to the Land of Opportunity’s enduring magnetism and vibrancy; she recently became a U.S. citizen, after moving from her native Finland to the United States in part because she felt she was more likely to find work as a journalist in New York City than her American husband was as a writer in Helsinki. But her time in America has also convinced her that Finland and its neighbors are doing a better job of promoting a 21st-century version of the American Dream than her adoptive country.
Partanen’s principal question is the following: What’s the best way for a modern society to advance freedom and opportunity? She explains that Nordic governments do so by providing social services that the U.S. government doesn’t—things like free college education and heavily subsidized child care. Within that big question, Partanen poses more pointed questions about contemporary life in the United States: Is “freedom” remaining in a job you hate because you don’t want to lose the health insurance that comes with it? Is “independence” putting your career on hold, and relying on your partner’s income, so you can take care of a young child when your employer doesn’t offer paid parental leave or day care is too expensive? Is “opportunity” depending on the resources of your parents, or a bundle of loans, to get a university degree? Is realizing the American Dream supposed to be so stressful?
“What Finland and its neighbors do is actually walk the walk of opportunity that America now only talks,” Partanen writes. “It’s a fact: A citizen of Finland, Norway, or Denmark is today much more likely to rise above his or her parents’ socioeconomic status than is a citizen of the United States.” The United States is not Finland. And, in one sense, that’s bad news for America. Numerous studies have shown that there is far greater upward social mobility in Nordic countries than in the United States, partly because of the high level of income inequality in the U.S.
In another sense, though, it’s perfectly fine to not be Finland. As Nathan Heller observed in The New Yorker, the modern Nordic welfare state is meant to “minimize the causes of inequality” and be “more climbing web than safety net.” Yet the system, especially in Sweden, is currently being tested by increased immigration and rising income inequality. And it’s ultimately predicated on a different—and not necessarily superior—definition of freedom than that which prevails in America. “In Sweden,” Heller argued, “control comes through protection against risk. Americans think the opposite: control means taking personal responsibility for risk and, in some cases, social status.”
Last week, I spoke with Partanen about what she feels Nordic countries have gotten right, where they’ve gone wrong, and why, if Finland is really so great, she’s now living in America. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Uri Friedman: You make an argument in the book that if you think about the American Dream in a certain way—if you define it in terms of opportunity, independence, and freedom—it is actually flourishing in the Nordic region more than in the United States. Why?
Anu Partanen: For a long time now, we’ve all, both in the United States and in Europe, thought that the United States is the land of freedom. For a long time, it was certainly true: American democracy was leading the way, the American middle class was the wealthiest. America was really the place where you could make your own life and you could decide who you wanted to be and pursue the dream.
When I moved to the United States in 2008, that was the idea I had. [But] when I came here, I was actually surprised [to learn that] people were very anxious. They were in many ways very dependent on their circumstances, the opposite of being a self-made woman or man. And a lot of this is related to family: if, [when] you were a child, your parents could provide opportunities, if they could offer you a life in a good neighborhood, offer you a life in a good school.
In my youth, [I] read a lot of American literature and admired American women as these feminist leaders. And I still think that certainly exists in America. But I was surprised to realize that in America, the gender roles are actually more traditional than in Nordic countries. This was partly because of the way society supports or doesn’t support families. American women, [and] sometimes men, become much more dependent on their partners once they have children because [of] parental leave, day care.
What I concluded was that our notions [of the U.S. as a land of freedom] are trailing behind [reality]. Over the past 30 years, the United States has changed, Nordic countries have changed. The choices Nordic countries have made in arranging society have ended up bringing people a lot more freedom, a lot more equality of opportunity, than what people used to have. Now many of these polities [provide] support for women and men to work and take care of their families, and for children to be able to rise above their parents’ educational levels or income levels, which is traditionally what the American Dream [has been] about.
Friedman: Why do you think the Nordic approach is not just a better way to structure society than the U.S. approach, but a more modern way?
Partanen: We’re all struggling with, in all countries, globalization and its effect on people’s lives. There’s this trend toward less stable relationships with employers; more people either want to become entrepreneurs or have to become entrepreneurs. They work for Uber, or they start their own company, or they are forced into short-term contracts. For this kind of world, old structures that rely on family support and employer support, such as health insurance in America, [don’t] really work anymore.
In today’s world, I think it makes a lot more sense, for example, [for] health insurance to be provided regardless of a specific employer. It supports this more mobile work environment and career path.
[What] young people in America today expect, when they’re in college, is that both partners—whether they’re men and women or two women or two men—will take care of children. And then when these kids come out of college, they go to start their family, and all of a sudden it doesn’t work that way. Women still are taking care of the family more, and the other partner ends up working more.
Friedman: What is parental leave and child care like in Finland, for example, and why do you feel, compared with America, that that approach provides more independence, opportunity, and freedom for people?
Partanen: In all Nordic countries, the minimum amount of paid parental leave that everybody gets is about nine months. You can share [that leave] between parents, and some of it is also earmarked for fathers, in order to encourage them to take more leave.
What does this do? Well, first of all, it allows families to have children and take care of their children and still have a job to go back to. But it also allows for men and women to share the work and share the home more equally. From an employer’s perspective, I think it also makes sense because when these [policies] are enshrined in a national law and every employer has to offer these benefits, then it levels the playing field for all employers.
In Nordic countries, you [also] have subsidized child care, which is regulated, often operated, by the public sector, sometimes with private providers. It’s paid for generally on a sliding scale according to income. If you don’t have any money, you get it for free; if you make more money, then you pay more. Again, this makes family life saner, it helps parents to work, it gives all children access to early-childhood education.
Friedman: How does health care work in Nordic countries?
Partanen: Health care is a taxpayer-funded service, [in the same way that the] police, fire department, or public schools are [in America]. Generally, the government runs hospitals—doctors, nurses, they get paid [as] government employees. Americans often worry about not having any choice [in medical care]. There’s certainly private doctors as well that you can choose, there’s private health insurance you can buy if you want to have it in addition to the public coverage. Many employers do offer some sort of primary-care-physician access as a benefit, but things like that are usually [provided through the] public sector.
When I moved [to the United States], I was shocked [by the health-care system]. Companies and businesses are supposed to make money, not provide social services. That’s the job of the government. From the employee’s [and] the family’s perspective, it also seems really imprisoning, because the whole family, often, is included in one person’s insurance. So it means that the person who is employed and who has the health insurance certainly has to think twice about whether they want to change jobs, whether they want to become an entrepreneur. When it comes to family, I think it’s also problematic that such a fundamental, basic social service that everybody needs [can require] you to be dependent on one person: your spouse. Even grown children are [often dependent] on their parents’ health insurance.
Friedman: One criticism people will have is that the histories of Nordic countries are so different than America’s, the populations are so vastly different, the demographic makeups of these countries are really different. But my sense of what you’re arguing is less, “Let's import X policy,” and more that we should rethink how we define the terms “independence,” “opportunity,” and “freedom.” If Barack Obama is looking for beach reading this summer and he picks up your book, what would you want him to take away in terms of the way the U.S. government thinks about cultivating the American Dream?
Partanen: What I wanted to do with the book was discuss the philosophy, the ideas, behind these policies and how we can understand independence and equality of opportunity—what it means today, what kinds of solutions can support that, and what the purpose of government [is].
I think giving handouts here, handouts there, and one benefit here, [as in the United States], that’s complicated. That’s inefficient. And that’s actually problematic when you look at, for example, [Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union]. Why do so many people who benefit from government policies vote against their own interest? In a lot of countries in Europe, for example, farmers who get a lot of subsidies from the EU are very opposed to the EU. The question is: Why? And I think partly it is that, of course, nobody likes handouts. Nobody likes charity. Even if it helps you, you’re going to resent it. That’s logical, that’s normal, and that’s the idea that America has been built on too—that you want to [find] your own way.
I think the Nordic approach of basic universal social policies—that allow everyone to fulfill their potential, allow everyone to work, allow true equality of opportunity—that makes sense, and people can accept that without feeling, “Oh, this is something that is being given to me in particular and I have to be ashamed of it.” And then after you give those basic services that help people to make their own way, you could step back and let commerce take over and businesses do business and people work.
Part of America’s problem now [is that] government is unwieldy and it’s everywhere and it’s complicated, but then it fails to offer these basic services that are really important and would make everyone’s life better.
Friedman: You talk about how the Nordic model seems particularly geared to the modern era. Now that you’ve lived in the United States for awhile, what era do you feel the American model was suited for?
Partanen: I think the American model still relies on family support. I love family. Everybody loves family. I’m not saying at all that family is a bad thing. But I think it was better-suited for a time when people lived close together, [when] people didn’t move around so much. The American system now has this very globalized economy [that’s] very different from what it used to be. But it still relies on family to help people through problems. When it comes to family, I really think that the Nordic theory of love—
Friedman: Can you define that?
Partanen: The idea that true love is really only possible if individuals are independent and equal. It means that they can love each other and be more authentic. There’s less resentment, there’s less need to hide your true feelings because you’re not dependent on the other person.
Friedman: Do you see that approach to love in the United States, or do you think there’s an American theory of love that’s starkly different?
Partanen: I think America has had more of this idea of a family unit where people have different tasks and then they work for the good of the whole. That sounds wonderful, and that’s how it works in many Nordic countries still today. But I do see change as well in the younger generation: People get married less, people have children later, women and men both want to have careers, they both want to take care of children. The idea of how power in a family unit should work, and how love and relationships should work, has changed in the United States too. [That] requires society as a whole to adapt because people’s idea of what they want has changed, [but] the logistics do not help them do that or make it impossible to do that. No wonder marriage [rates are] declining.
There was a really interesting study that The New York Times just had an article about—about the “happiness gap” in families. These researchers have been studying the gap between people who don’t have children and who have children, and how happy they are in different countries. In America, people who don’t have children tend to be happier than people who do. There are other countries, like Nordic countries, where people who have children are happier than people who don’t have children. The question becomes: Why is this? The researchers looked into it, and what they boiled it down to was affordable day care, paid sick days, and paid vacation days. These are the reasons that explain why American parents are unhappier than people without children.
I know [you might say], “Relationships are so much bigger and happiness is bigger than access to day care,” but these are the logistics that define our relationships and our everyday existence, and they should not be ignored. I think it really makes sense to at least provide for the basics and then after that, if people aren’t happier, they have to look inwards and try to figure it out.
Friedman: What do you think is the most misunderstood part of the Nordic model among Americans?
Partanen: As much as I think that [the policies] Bernie Sanders [is] advocating are the right ideas, I’m not a big fan of him using the word “socialist.” Nordic countries are very much capitalist, free-market societies, and there’s this very strong strain of individualism in them. The idea that these Nordic countries are these socialist collectivist countries where everybody thinks of the good of one another—that’s just not true at all.
Friedman: How do you think about your own decision to move to the United States? I noticed in your explanation of why you decided to move to the U.S. in 2008, that part of it was you spoke English, and you thought there’d be more opportunities for you as a freelance journalist in America than there would be for your American husband in Finland. You’re living now in the United States despite all these amazing things about Finland. Defined in one way, you personally felt there was more opportunity in the United States than there was for your husband in Finland. How do you make sense of that?
Partanen: There are so many things going for the United States. When people are pessimistic about the U.S. and its future—that to me is just ridiculous. The United States is big, for one thing, [and] the English language is a language spoken all over the world. That’s a gigantic benefit that [you don’t have] if you come from a small country with a strange language. If you start something in the U.S., and you do it in the English language and the whole world is interested in the United States, that alone gives you opportunity.
The diversity of the United States is phenomenal. Nordic countries have become much more diverse than they used to be—Sweden is one of the most diverse countries now in Europe—and they have taken in huge numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees and immigrants over the years. But still, in the United States, the whole world is there and all these ideas are there, all these experiences are there.
One of the wonderful things about Americans is [they] have this huge faith in everyone’s ability. It’s like, “Let’s go to the moon!” The curious thing is Americans lose that faith immediately when they discuss something like affordable day care. It’s like, “Oh, no, if we give this to people they will never work again.”
Friedman: What are the biggest drawbacks of the Nordic approach?
Partanen: One is [the failure of women to rise in large numbers] to management-level positions in private industries. Finns have this system where one person can stay home for three years [of parental leave] without losing their job. They don’t get paid the whole time. The thinking has taken over [in] Finland that [children] should not go to day care until they’re at least two years old because they need to be able to talk and walk before they can comfortably be in a day-care center. In other Nordic countries, parents tend to go to work much quicker, after one year. I think this is a drawback for women’s careers in Finland because even though men take parental leave, women do it more. That’s a problem, and you have to design [these policies] in a way that really encourages people to work.
In terms of immigration, if you have a situation like you have now in Europe—huge numbers of immigrants coming in all of a sudden—that’s a very difficult situation for any country. But if a lot of these immigrants also [have] education levels [that] do not help them in this society to find work, then this puts strain on the system. The system is built on the idea that everybody works, everybody pays taxes, and then they get these things in return. Whereas in the United States you don’t really have any [government-provided] benefits. That’s not so much of a problem in terms of immigration.
In higher education, the Nordic approach of offering everyone free tuition is a really good system for educating the whole population well. On the other hand, the U.S. has fantastic research institutes, leading Ivy League universities [that] are amazing, [and] their resources are very different from the resources that Nordic [universities] have.
Friedman: Many Americans might say, “This all sounds great, but you guys are paying sky-high taxes. We don’t want anything to do with that.” How would you respond?
Partanen: First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, “You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.” No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.
The second thing is that there’s no point in discussing the levels of taxes in different countries unless you discuss what you get for your taxes. Americans in many states, certainly, or cities—they might pay less taxes [on] their income or [on] property than Nordics do. But then, on top of that, they pay for their day care, they pay for their health insurance, they pay for college tuition—all these things that Nordics get for their taxes.