How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus

How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus

Living last fall in Sweden, I often felt as if I were in the richest country in the world. In my two months there, I never saw a boarded-up window or dilapidated house. Cell phones were ubiquitous, carried by everyone from children to seniors. In small Swedish towns, I saw the trappings of upper-middle-class American life-travel agencies, chic caf├ęs, and such Swedish chain stores as H&M and Ikea, whose aesthetic quality limits their range in the United States to a handful of sophisticated metropolitan areas. The general outlook of Swedes in all but the most remote parts of the country was like that of America’s upscale, educated, urban elite. The nation still reflected Susan Sontag’s 1969 observation that “the ideas and attitudes of, say, The Village Voice, are ‘establishment’ opinions” in Sweden.

As I chose among the eight varieties of pickled herring in a Stockholm supermarket, I heard Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” pumped in over the sound system. In provincial train station newsstands, I saw an array of books like that in small, independent bookstores in Berkeley or Cambridge. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed was prominently displayed in English, and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was available in Swedish. The Parliament (Riksdag) had long-ago enshrined gay civil unions and outlawed spanking one’s own children. A sex education magazine for teenagers put out by the Swedish National Institute of Public Health seemed concerned not merely that teens were having safe sex, but that they were enjoying it. The lead article included an excerpt from the Kama Sutra detailing a rather acrobatic sexual position and informed its teenage readership, “The clitoris is for enjoyment. It is in just the right place for fondling.” A government-funded publication of this sort would be almost unthinkable in the United States.

And yet, Sweden is not the richest country in the world. It is not even close. It is far poorer than the United States. Current statistics put it in the low teens internationally, just below Italy (by contrast, in 1970, Sweden ranked fourth). Frederick Bergstrom, a neoliberal Stockholm economist I interviewed, recently put out a study comparing Sweden to the fifty American states. He found that in terms of gross domestic product per capita, Sweden is poorer than all but West Virginia and Mississippi. Yet Sweden ranks high on broader indexes of societal health as well as economic competitiveness. Sweden topped University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Estes’s “weighted index of social progress” in 2003, a ranking of nations based on a slew of social indicators including life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy. In Foreign Policy magazine’s annual globalization index, which tracks global integration of money, people, and information, ultra-wired Sw...