Nordic nations offer a positive example of social democracy
Jan 27, 2014 at 9:15 AM
This space recently featured a piece I wrote describing Denmark’s social democracy policies. I expected and hoped to stimulate discussion. The only published response came as a challenge to Denmark’s No. 1 ranking on the happiness scale.The challenge cited an article in Forbes magazine that ranked the U.S. highest for happiness. Forbes comes to my house, too. The “article” was a single 100-plus-word paragraph that compared 20 countries (not including Denmark). Employees in an unspecified number of enterprises were measured as to “engagement,” a synonym, apparently, for happiness. The companies were not identified nor was the author. The magazine had featured in the previous issue a lengthy article on London’s 2013 Legatum Institute Prosperity Index that included a happiness rating involving more than a hundred countries. The United States — for the first time — had dropped below a ranking in the top 20. (Denmark scored among the highest.) The little paragraph offered a feeble defense.There’s an intriguing related article in the January/February 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by Professor Lane Kenworthy that makes a convincing argument for why the United States — in fits and starts and setbacks and advances — will in time be a Nordic-style social democracy. As background, social democracy, as a political party platform and policy direction, was conceived in the early 1900s as a strategy for improving capitalism, not replacing it.The genius of social democracies is that their policies have calculatedly been ongoing processes. In the 1960s and 1970s, social democracy pretty much meant maintaining a large social safety net. Since, their still generous safety-net programs have been supplemented by services designed to boost employment and productivity. They fund child care, preschool, job training and job placement, big infrastructure projects and public support for private-sector research and development. They also adopted a market-friendly approach to regulation. Measures to protect workers and consumers and the environment are solidly maintained and enforced, but those protections are balanced by a system that encourages entrepreneurship and flexibility. It’s easy to start or close an enterprise, employ or dismiss workers and to manipulate work hours. The population is on the job and engaged. Economically, they thrive.Conservatives should be impressed. Present-day social democracies prove that economic security and economic flexibility can be combined to support social justice and prosperity. We may have lower taxes and less government spending than Denmark, Finland and Sweden, but they beat us on other measures. They establish and run enterprises without state interference, have less regulatory barriers to international trade, and have fewer restrictions on the movement of capital.Over the last hundred years, the United States has edged closer to the best of both worlds. Contrary to apocalyptic conservative predictions at the time of their inception, and which still abound, the United States not only became a more just and compassionate nation with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (and Pell Grants and Food Stamps and Unemployment Insurance and housing and energy assistance and more) At the same time, until recently, we experienced upward mobility and prosperity.Kenworthy says that even though the ongoing war between liberals and conservatives will persist for a while and will impede our progress toward social democracy, it will happen. Look at health care reform. The tea party and cohorts have tried to block the law at every turn, voting 40 times with huge waste of legislative time and money to repeal it, and at an obscene cost to the economy actually shut down the government in their fool‘s errand. But the most significant reform of our ridiculously complex and costly health care system in half a century is law. Further, Vermont will initiate a single-payer health care system in 2017. More just and fair steps forward solidly in place.The professor contends that today’s bizarre politics will only temporarily blind us to our inevitable future. He says that despite our riches — set to expand, even — we have serious economic failings that only much greater social insurance can solve and that moderate Republicans will join Democrats to make it happen. They will be forced to turn away from their current disciplined obstructionism and will come to resemble the center-right parties of western Europe who accept a generous welfare system and relatively high taxes. Why?Mainly this. Republicans depend on the electoral support of the white working class. In the economic downturn this group has suffered disproportionately. Jobs have vanished or their wages have stagnated. A heretofore unthinkable slide into poverty for hard-working people is already reality or a threat, and with the grossly widening income gap unlikely to change soon. They’re struggling and, quite simply, need government support. Thoughtful right-of-center voices are admitting uncertainty about their electoral loyalty. More and more Republicans will either favor or not oppose expansions of programs to lend these constituents a hand, and we‘ll be a better country for it.Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.