October 25, 2005


Egalitarian Finland most competitive, too: Despite hefty government spending on social benefits, Finland tops global economies. Second in a three-part series. (Peter Ford, 10/26/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

Today, this small Nordic nation boasts a thriving hi-tech economy ranked the most competitive in the world, the best educated citizenry of all the industrialized countries, and a welfare state that has created one of the globe's most egalitarian societies.

Envious policymakers from far and wide are beating a path to Helsinki to learn the secrets of Finland's success.

"We have a saying here," chuckles Stefan Nygård, a university lecturer, as he swings his baby daughter gently, soothing her to sleep. "If you are Finnish, you've won the lottery."

But as the leaders of other European countries desperately seek ways to preserve their expensive systems of social protection in a competitive globalized world, Finland's circumstances and mind-set aren't easily copied. "Finland is an exceptional case Europe," cautions Riisto Erasaari, professor of social policy at Helsinki University. "We are a small homogenous country, heavily state-based, and our social model as a whole is so typically Finnish that it won't travel. But parts of it," - such as the government-funded focus on innovation and education, "are exportable." [...]

Nowhere is this approach clearer than in Finland's schools, which at the end of World War II turned out some of the worst educated young people in the industrialized world, and now graduate the best, according to comparative studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Making sure that every Finnish child, wherever he lived and whatever his background, could get a decent education had a very deliberate goal, says Riita Lampola, head of international relations for the Finnish Board of Education, which oversees schooling.

"As a poor country with a small population, if we wanted to be a modern society and to develop our country, we needed everybody here," she says. "That meant everybody had to be educated."

High level education is the key to what Pekka Himanen, a brilliant young philosopher who advises the Finnish government, calls his country's "virtuous circle."

"When people can fulfill their potential they become innovators," Dr. Himanen argues. "The innovative economy is competitive and makes it possible to finance the welfare state, which is not just a cost, but a sustainable basis for the economy, producing new innovators with social protection."

Other European countries could copy Finland's efforts to improve its education system, Himanen insists, just as they could emulate Finland's heavy investment in research and development (R&D) - currently standing at 3.6 percent of GDP, the highest level in Europe after Sweden.

The tests will come when only about 60% of the population is Scandinavian and/or there are so few younger workers that taxes go even higher.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2005 5:33 PM

Well that will be just too bad. Everybody is supposed to take his share of misfits and malcontents--I know I read that right here.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 25, 2005 6:28 PM

You are correct. This model works only as long as there are Finns to the left and Finns to the right.

Posted by: Rick T. at October 25, 2005 6:44 PM

Yes, yes, Finnland is the new Japan. Remind me again why we need a new Japan?

Posted by: David Cohen at October 25, 2005 7:03 PM

Crichton has writers' block?

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2005 8:44 PM

Oh Rick.

Posted by: jefferson park at October 25, 2005 10:10 PM

Wait...a university lecturer and a brilliant young philospher opining about their country's greatness?! Can't find that in the USA...

Posted by: KRS at October 25, 2005 10:10 PM

It's like the old Russian joke: In Finland, the intelligentsia is supposed to talk about how wonderful Finland is. In the US, it's exactly the same.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 25, 2005 11:08 PM

Nice Jimmy Buffet reference. "Fin(n)s to the left, Fin(n)s, to the right..."

Posted by: Mikey at October 26, 2005 12:17 AM

With all of those entrepeneurs and philosophers,
who hauls off the garbage?

Posted by: J.H. at October 26, 2005 9:14 AM

Well paid Finns.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 26, 2005 11:41 AM

How much do they spend on defense?

Posted by: Scof at October 26, 2005 5:06 PM

whatever the russians tell them to spend

Posted by: anon at October 27, 2005 7:38 PM