November 21, 2020


Meatballs and MillionairesDearest AOC, fly with me to Sweden. A lovely place, but you might not want to live there. (Hannes Stein, 20 Nov 2020, American Purpose)

Dear Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, could I persuade you to spare some time from your quarrel with my conservative Never Trump friends at the Lincoln Project and take a trip with me to the Kingdom of Sweden?

I happen to know a little something about Sweden. First and foremost, I would like you to try the Swedish national dish. It is called "köttbullar." Köttbullar are meatballs, usually served with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Actually, they're Turkish. The story goes as follows: King Charles XII, who ruled Sweden at the beginning of the 18th century, waged war against Russia. The war went badly, and King Charles had to flee to the Ottoman Empire. There, he encountered köttbullar; the Turks call their version köfte. Charles loved them. When he was finally able to return to Sweden, he brought the recipe home with him.

Can you guess what I'm driving at? This was an act of cultural appropriation, just like spaghetti with tomato sauce! Noodles come, via Marco Polo, from China. The tomatl, a distinctly Aztec fruit, was unknown in Italy before the 16th century, when it was imported by the conquistadores from Peru.

Thus, we arrive at Swedish Lesson Number One: no cultural appropriation = no tasty food.

Yes, your sense of cultural appropriation is likely more nuanced than mine, but perhaps we can agree that navel-gazing about cultural intermingling is a distraction from more important topics.

Now that we've eaten, on to some statistics. Sweden has one of the world's highest rates of greedy capitalists per capita--one billionaire per 250,000 inhabitants, to be exact. Together, those billionaires control around a quarter of the country's annual GDP. So, we're not talking economic equality here.

Yet the Heritage Foundation ranks Sweden number twenty-two on its index of economic freedom--slightly lower than the United States, at number seventeen, but much higher than France, number sixty-four. So, what explains Sweden's high grade? For starters, it is relatively easy to found a company in the country, because there's not much red tape and, what with Scandinavian virtue, you don't have to bribe anyone. Furthermore, it's easy to hire and fire people--much easier, say, than in Germany, ranked number twenty-seven. And the Swedes, like their fellow Scandinavians, are committed free marketeers. Any rapacious outsider can buy a Swedish company. Swedish authorities will exercise benign neglect.

Thus, Swedish Lesson Number Two: Your socialist paradise is in fact a highly enthusiastic capitalist country.

What makes all the neoliberalism tolerable, of course, is Sweden's famous welfare state. Swedes don't lose their health insurance when they lose their jobs. They get unemployment benefits (arbetslöshetsersättning, if you're interested) for sixty weeks after they've been fired. The state helps them find a new job.

When a child is born, the state makes it possible for a parent to work from home for up to 480 days. There are lavish housing benefits. There is child support. And who pays for all those beautiful things? Not the billionaires, or not just the billionaires. Anyone earning more than about $42,000 per year will end up paying between 49 and 60 percent of his or her income for these services, through a combination of local and national income taxes.

In addition, I must tell you that Sweden's cost of living is quite high. If we had a bottle of wine with our köttbullar at a restaurant, the tab would be about 270 krona, or more than 30 bucks.

Ah, yes, and another thing: Health care in Sweden is not "Medicare for all." Private health insurance may be rare, but it does exist, as it does in all European countries, including the United Kingdom.

Which brings us to Swedish Lesson Number Three: The Swedish welfare state is by no means Marxist.

The properties have not been expropriated. The banks are still owned by filthy rich capitalists. There are no five-year plans. The manufacturer of Wasabröd crispbread has not been nationalized. The foundation of the Swedish welfare state is a moral and social pact: The loyal subjects of Carl XVI Gustaf (did I mention that Sweden is still a monarchy?) simply choose to sacrifice large chunks of their incomes to help one other.

Posted by at November 21, 2020 12:00 AM