The New Yorker
Some say that the American Dream is not what it once was: wages are low, retirement is not a parachute glide but a plunge, and those chosen to fix such problems labor at undoing one another’s laws. For these doubters, there are the Swedes. On any given day, a Swedish man—call him Viggo—might be reclining on a sofa underneath a Danish lamp shaped like an artichoke. He is an artist, and he has a pension. He is wearing boldly colored pants. His young wife, Ebba, is a neurosurgeon, though she has never paid a krona in tuition, and her schedule runs between the operating table and the laboratory. Things are busy. She and Viggo have small kids (the government gives them a combined four hundred and eighty days of maternity and paternity leave for every child), and when the younger ran a fever yesterday he needed to be whisked from day care to the doctor (both charged mostly to the state). Now it’s the weekend. They are in their country house. It’s nothing fancy, just a little place among the birches near the Øresund, but Viggo spiffed it up with some IKEA deckware, and their friends drop by for oysters and beer. As dawn comes, he brews coffee. He is listening to a radio report on the Prime Minister, who brokered a budget agreement among six parties, and then Stieg Larsson, who is being memorialized on-air. He turns the dial to the multiethnic band Icona Pop, which has soared across the global charts. Icona Pop sings, “We’re just living life, and we never stop,” and that is what Sweden now means to Viggo. Freedom to follow your talents. Community and coalition-building all around. American life promises liberty, cultural power, and creative opportunity, but by many measures it’s the Swedes who turned this smorgasbord of concepts into a sustaining meal.
And not only the Swedes. Look to the south, and there is Denmark, where wind power is ascendant and the gorgeous armchairs are as plentiful as herring. Norway has been No. 1 on the Legatum Prosperity Index for years. What unifies the Scandinavians is at once specific (social-democratic government, mutually intelligible languages, a love of sauna) and ineffable (something to do with modesty, a naturalistic cast of mind, and candles). If trivial things are vital to the French, as Mark Twain once suggested, Nordic culture runs to the soft power of a hard settee.
Peek behind a fad these days, in other words, and you are apt to find a Scandinavian, pedalling hard. Finland has the West’s finest education system, according to the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development. Sweden has taken in more refugees, proportionally, than any European country. Icelanders—spawn of a Scandinavian settler colony—buy more books than anyone and draw most of their energy from geothermal power.
The most galling measure of Nordic superiority, though, comes from the Danes. In 2012, Denmark took first place in the United Nations’ inaugural World Happiness Report, having topped similar surveys for decades. By the numbers, there is very little rotten in the state of Denmark, and its neighbors aren’t far behind. Bliss of this kind is startling from a group of countries that are frozen half the year, subsist substantially on preserved fish, and charge among the highest tax rates in the modern world.
Picture: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons