Bernie - "president of Norway"

It’s OK to adopt best practices from other countries

As a young American college grad, I spent a few adventuresome years living and working abroad: in the early 90's teaching English in Japan during its boom years, in Russia teaching English and an intro to western economics immediately after the collapse of the Soviet system. I then came home to Seattle in 1993 and worked for a software company for the next 20 years through the dotcom boom and the bust on the other side.

For the past 6 years I’ve lived in Norway.

These unique experiences have given me a chance to compare and contrast very different cultures with very different political economic systems. Naturally I have formed some little nuggets of personal wisdom. Here’s one of them: Living well in an affluent society is a good thing. Living well in an affluent society where others are also doing well and have opportunities – better.


Ann Jones / The Nation
After I lived in Norway America felt backward. Here's why

There’s no question Norway has a lot going for it right now. Historically things have never been better for the small country of 5 million. Though it has oil wealth, Norway has used it to benefit the country as a whole (there’s nearly $1 trillion in savings though that’s being dipped into now for the first time). There are no Koch brothers using their oil money to buy elections. The middle class is large and dominant. The country is doing well on all the social metrics and dominates the “best-country” lists.

Lest you be tempted to disregard the Norwegian example due to its oil wealth, it's worth remembering that the other Nordic countries without the oil funds top the metrics as well. And some countries (and indeed states like Texas) with even more oil revenue are doing much worse for their citizens. Oil wealth is not the determining factor.

So it’s not surprising that someone in the U.S. would eventually sit up and take notice. Bernie Sanders has made the Scandinavian model part of the national conversation in the U.S. over the past 6 months. Overall he has done more than any other candidate in recent history to highlight the plight of the middle class and the urgent need to wrest control of the political process and the levers of power from monied interests in the U.S. He’s also the first major political candidate to fearlessly break out the word “socialism” or "democratic socialism" since before WWI. Incredibly, loads of Americans (particularly young people) now call themselves “socialist” or social democrats.

Of course, when Sanders talks about socialism, he’s talking about the kind of practical, metrics-driven government that is focused on the well-being of society and the individuals living in it (vs. casino capitalism and not to be confused with Stalin or Mao’s communist governments). It’s the kind of democratic socialism practiced in northern European countries like Norway and Denmark.

Last week Marco Rubio (top GOP contender for president) said that Bernie Sanders is talking so much about this model he'd be "a great candidate for president of Norway."

I’ll give Rubio the benefit of the doubt that he understood that Norway’s parliamentary representative democratic constitutional monarchy doesn’t have a president (it has a parliament, a prime minister and a monarch) but I guess he figured the voters he caters to would eat up the soundbite anyway (this is, after all, the same constituency that was whipped into a frenzy over Obama’s appointment of various “czars” to head policy initiatives...). There’s hardly a better way to denigrate an idea or a concept in the U.S. than to claim it’s some fancy foreign (particularly European) construct. And it helps that the majority of Americans couldn’t locate Norway on a map. A large percentage believe it’s the capital of Sweden...

Oddly enough, Republicans have blocked Obama’s nominations to regular, non-controversial appointments including ambassador to Norway. Since 2013, Norway has been without a proper U.S. ambassador and, as it stands now, there will be no one to cut the ribbon on the brand new $500 million embassy when it opens in May.

Hillary Clinton too, during the first Democratic presidential debate, dismissed Bernie Sanders’ ideas for addressing inequality and restoring the middle class exclaiming that “we’re not Denmark” (she has since adopted much of Bernie’s rhetoric if not his policy positions).

It’s true the U.S. is not Norway or Denmark or Sweden or Germany or any of the other countries that rank higher on various social and economic metrics. The U.S. has its own unique history and culture, unique demographics and geography. And no country is perfect. Norway's exact model wouldn't work as is in the U.S. (high prices, small country, different demographics). And Norway has significant economic challenges ahead pivoting to an economy based more on green energy, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Still, it really is a thing in the U.S. to believe that the U..S. is so exceptional and so special that we have little if anything to learn from other countries. To suggest that the U.S. may not be #1 in all facets is to risk being accused of disloyalty. This is especially true for expats living abroad. The thing is, expats are useful to their mother countries precisely because they have valuable insights from living and working in an entirely different system and can criticize with the benefit of perspective. Expats have eyes and ears to entire other worlds where people have tried and proven other ways of doing things. Oh, and by the way, American expats are still citizens, still have U.S. passports, still file and pay U.S. taxes, still retain the right to vote. But I digress...

When I lived in Japan in the very early 90’s I was amazed at how open the culture was to taking in best practices from around the world (there’s even an entire alphabet dedicated to taking in foreign words). In its more colorful implementations, cultural appropriation can be quite amusing. But the Japanese understand that to be the best, to compete, to improve one needs to be open and ready to take in new ideas, new thinking. Learning doesn’t necessarily mean copying unchanged. Best practices can be adopted without leaving behind what is unique and special about a culture and a country.

Norway has not been trapped in that same narrow ideological framework. Tucked away up north, it’s quietly developed its own unique mix of a market economy with practical social outcomes.

And the U.S. desperately needs new thinking. Having fought and “won” the cold war, the U.S. is trapped in an ideological prison of our own making, a casualty of our own rhetoric and propaganda. For too long the political debate has drifted between a narrow set of rigid ideological extremes. It’s either the completely unfettered Invisible Hand of the free market or it’s communist damnation. The level of cognitive dissonance has become acute. Generally political discussions are devoid of, indeed impervious to, facts about healthcare, infant mortality, violence, education levels, prison rates, gun deaths, teen pregnancy, etc. Such inconvenient truths, if they are cited at all, are immediately dismissed as “cherry picking” or not applicable. Social outcomes are rarely the point of any political contest and there's next to zero accountability based on the metrics.

What Bernie has done, more than any politician, is speak those truths on the national stage, to break down those barriers, to open up and change the conversation, to enable Americans to envision new possibilities. And he’s doing it with a barrage of facts, data, stats, and yes examples. Though Bernie is the oldest candidate for president he's arguably run the most technically savvy and modern campaign using data and digital platforms effectively. And he’s done it without taking a dime in superpac money.

And, of course, Bernie is pointing to Scandinavia’s example because those are most applicable to our own. The ironic thing is that most of what Denmark or Norway have to teach us we knew once ourselves, we’ve just forgotten. The U.S. of 1950’s and 1960’s had more democratic socialism of the kind Bernie is talking about now than we have today. There was more income equality, tax rates were more progressive, there was relatively less influence of special interests on the political process. Social mobility and opportunity, at least among privileged whites, was more accessible. We've lost a lot of ground the last 30 years.

That is not to suggest, as some would, the old days were better or more glorious for everyone (certainly not for women, gays, minorities or people of color) or that we need to “make America great again” by focusing on the past. But our own historical legacy tells us that it is in fact possible, and very American, to take the best of the free market and put it to work for the middle class, and do it while preserving the social progress that has been made in the last 30 years.

To the extent that Scandinavia can serve as a reminder of America's own progressive legacy and source of inspiration for a new generation of politically active youth, it's a very good thing. And regardless of what happens over the next few weeks in the presidential campaign, we have Bernie to thank for that.

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