Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Daniel Brook: How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus

Brook, Daniel. How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus." Dissent (Fall 2004)

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 cafés, 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.

... Choosing between the American and Swedish systems is a matter of choosing one's problems. Is it better to have higher rewards for those at the top or free higher education available to all? Is it better to ensure that no one who works full time lives in poverty or that every immigrant who is willing to work hard at a low-skill job can find one? Should the government be more concerned that its citizens can raise healthy families or build healthy companies? There are trade-offs between equality and economic growth, and each society must strike its own balance.


WebGuy said...

I think you've nailed the question of debate for this century:

Is it better to have higher rewards for those at the top or free higher education available to all?

although the question goes beyond higher education to allocation of all resources.

Michael Benton said...

Yes, we have a supposed consensus for a shift toward stronger social morals/values, well here is my question, how can a society that is the one of the richest, and definitely the most powerful nation in the world, how can it allow people to go hungry, to continue to deny people health care, or, free education (I'm talking about "real" education, not standarized testing education) all the way through university, and continue to support various racist and discriminatory practices. Is this moralistic, is it an example of strong values?

I think the post right before this one, "labor pains," demonstrates the current administrations view of the needs of the "working" people...