John Menadue. Postcard from Denmark on the Nordic Success

Jan 17, 2015

For holiday reading, you may be interested in this repost.

I have been interested for many years in the economic and social success of the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. Together they have a population of about 26 million.

But what triggered my recent interest and decision to visit Denmark was the sheer pleasure of watching several Danish TV series –Borgen, The Killing, The Bridge. They are the best TV series that I have seen in years and far superior to the tosh that we often get from the US and sometimes from the UK. The Danish film industry receives government finance, but more importantly the Danes have invested heavily in human capital and the talent shows in these TV series. Portrayal of a country’s cultural life is important for the country to understand itself better. But in the case of Danish films, I have found them attractive enough to come and visit Copenhagen and spend some tourist dollars. Although I should say that Copenhagen is expensive.

In 2012, the World Economic Forum and several related agencies ranked the four Nordic countries the best performing in the world. The ratings covered global competitiveness, ease of doing business, global innovation, corruption perception, human development and prosperity. Whilst the Nordics ranked 1 to 4 in the world, Australia ranked number 12.

Last year The Economist, a conservative magazine, published a special survey of ‘The next supermodel’. The Nordics were the supermodel. It said ‘If you had to be reborn anywhere in the world as a person with average talents and income, you would want to be a Viking. The Nordics cluster at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health to happiness. They have avoided both southern Europe’s economic sclerosis and America’s extreme inequality. Development theorists have taken to calling successful modernisation “getting to Denmark”.’

It added ‘The Nordics also offer something for the progressive Left by proving that it is possible to combine competitive capitalism with a large state; they employ 30% of their workforce in the public sector compared with an OECD average of 15%. They are stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies. Sweden let Saab go bankrupt and Volvo is now owned by China’s Geely. But they also focus on the long-term – most obviously through Norway’s ($US884billion) sovereign wealth fund and they look for ways to temper capitalism’s harsher effects. Denmark, for instance, has a system of “flexicurity” that makes it easier for employers to sack people, but provides support and training for the unemployed. Finland organises venture capital networks.’

The Nordics have traditionally had high taxes and high welfare spending along with strong economic growth and low unemployment. But the global financial crisis and membership of the European Union has forced readjustment and reform to reduce taxes and welfare spending.

These changes are broadly supported by all the major parties. But the sales tax on new cars is still 180%. There are also heavy fuel and parking charges. This shows up in Copenhagen where it is one of the few major cities in the world not being strangled by cars. On the road you have to watch out for bicycles as much as cars. The 25% VAT includes food and restaurants.

Taxes generally are amongst the highest in the world but the community seems broadly to accept them because it is confident that the government will spend the tax money for worthwhile purposes and with equity.

In Denmark there are two or three strong parties and four or five other significant parties. No party has won an outright majority since 1901. No single party has formed a government alone since 1982. With multi parties, negotiation and compromise is essential. The record shows that new governments maintain the thrust of previous government policies although making changes around the edges.

Capitalism is given a fairly free hand and there is acceptance that firms will go bust. But the Danes and others go all out to protect the most valuable resource, their human capital. People who lose their jobs through structural change are given good income support and meaningful retraining.

The Danes have excellent schools and government funded and free health care. They root out corruption and rent seekers. If only we would do the same! Denmark has one of the most liberal labor markets in Europe with a very high rate of social mobility. In information technology and the internet they are ahead of most. 79% of eligible men work and 72% of eligible women work. Child care is readily available. The Danish gross government debt as a proportion of GDP is well below the US and Europe.

In Denmark there is a strong tradition of different classes getting along with each other which is not surprising with such a small population (5 million) and a strong neighbour like Germany to the south.

The absolutist monarchy took serious note of the French Revolution and decided that their survival depended on not resisting democracy and living modestly. Politicians think that it is smarter to be seen riding a bike to work rather than using a government limousine.

The Nordic model is still work in progress with many changes necessary with I suspect more means testing. But they have probably reached the future ahead of others and are grappling with problems that others will face in the years ahead.

The major stain on public life in Denmark, as it is with so many other countries in Europe, and even in far-away Australia, is the xenophobic attacks against refugees and migrants by political conservatives. Only last weekend in neighbouring Sweden the anti-immigration party, Sweden Democratic, polled 13% of the vote.

In my next postcard from Denmark, I will try to describe why the Nordics and Denmark in particular have been so successful, despite high taxes, generous social services and more recently, significant increases in refugees at least compared with the size of their populations.

Obviously organisation is easier in countries with small populations, but I suspect that the most important reason for Denmark’s success is good government. The Danish people see government not as a dead hand or the purveyor of red tape, but very largely an enabler of opportunity and freedom.



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