Compared with other cultures around the world, Scandinavians tend to be a rather stoic bunch. But apparently, on certain occasions, they can get quite animated.

About a week ago, I published an interview with Michael Booth, the author of the recent book "The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia." Long story short, that interview provoked a furor.

In his comments, Booth, a U.K. native who has lived in Scandinavia for over a decade, critiques what he sees as the U.S. and the U.K.'s generally uninformed adoration of all things Nordic — and specifically of Denmark, where he lives. Booth has a cutting, dry sense of humor, and in the interview he doesn’t pull any punches in dispelling what he has called people’s “decades-long Scandi-trances.”


“Denmark is a pretty good place to live but it is by no stretch of the imagination the utopia many in politics and the media in the U.S. claim it to be,” Booth says in the original interview. "...Few actually actively seek to move to Scandinavia, for obvious reasons: the weather is appalling, the taxes are the highest in the world, the cost of living is similarly ridiculous, the languages are impenetrable, the food is (still) awful for the most part and, increasingly, these countries are making it very clear they would prefer foreigners to stay away."


Since the interview was published, I received tons of intelligent, heated, fascinating and/or downright weird responses from people who love things about Denmark, people who don’t, and pretty much everyone in between.

“Count me as a Texan American married to a Dane (25 years this December) who finds Booth's assertions as preposterous. He wouldn't be happy if he was forced to live in The Garden of Eden.... As we say in Texas, ‘Booth is all hat and no cattle,” wrote one reader.


“Visitors do like the food, I love herring, Danish pastries and Swedish meatballs. I love salmon, lingonberries and have you tried Finnish pea soup. Delicious. I bet you have not! The weather is spectacular, but then I ski,” wrote another. (For the record, I have not tried Finnish pea soup. But as someone of Swedish heritage, I will go to bat for pickled herring.)


To these comments, Booth wrote me, "This is nothing compared to what happens if you annoy the Norwegians."

As Booth has pointed out, his book is actually more nuanced. It includes these same criticisms but also reflects on many positive parts of Nordic societies, including their high levels of gender and economic equality, social cohesion and work/life balance.


In an email to me yesterday, Booth reiterated this. "Denmark is a great place to live. I genuinely like it and think there are many, many aspects of Danish society from which the world could learn but, as with any country, and as most Danes will readily agree, it is not perfect." Booth says he actually thinks the U.S. and the U.K. could benefit from a sharp dose of Danish-style economic equality, but that Denmark could do with a little readjustment the other way, especially given its unsustainable public sector.


To clarify, the original interview wasn't supposed to be a definitive article comparing Denmark and the U.S. (if such a comparison is even possible). The interview presents one man’s provocative view. But it seems only fair to also share some of the more interesting comments that I received.

The most high-profile one comes from the ambassador of Denmark to the U.S., Lars Gert Lose:


“Let’s be honest, no country is Utopia! We all know that! 

...Denmark does of course have its challenges. The Danish welfare state has been developed over more than one hundred years - it obviously did not emerge overnight and out of the blue but under specific historical and cultural circumstances and we do continue to improve the model. The Danish model is also challenged in some respects, including the size of the public sector. We have to continuously reform our society in order to preserve the welfare state and the public support for it.


But as the Danish Prime Minister put it recently in a speech at Harvard University: The bumble bee actually flies. And although the weather may not always be very pleasant in the winter time (we import it from the UK by the Wests Atlantic wind flows!) the Danish economic and societal model is very much alive and kicking and offers attractive solutions within a very broad spectra.


There are some undeniable facts about my country. Denmark is a small nation of 5.7 million people with both prosperity and welfare. We have created a both rich and harmonious society with economic and gender equality. And, that question on everyone’s mind – yes, taxes are high! But the large majority of Danes highly appreciate the welfare state and the services and security that the taxes pay for. It matters that people in general trust each other and the government. According to Transparency International, Denmark is the least corrupt country in the world. This is important when we ask our citizens to pay half of their salaries in taxes. They know the money will return in the form of services and safety.

The Danish economic model is doing well – we rank top 10 on most competitive European economies, top 12 in the world. The Heritage Foundation finds that our economic freedom is at the level of the United States. We are one of only nine countries with a triple A rating of public finances....


...As to the refugee crisis in Europe, Denmark is in fact taking upon itself more than its fair share of responsibility. In 2014, Denmark was the fifth largest recipient of asylum seekers in the EU per capita and the second largest recipient of Syrian asylum seekers in the EU per capita. In absolute terms, Denmark ranks #10 in the world in terms of total humanitarian aid contributions from governments. Denmark is one of only five countries to meet UN’s target of spending 0.7% of GNI on the world’s poorest, thus contributing to tackling the root causes of migration.


Denmark is known for our healthy life style. Copenhagen is the world capital of the biking culture – 50% of Copenhageners bike to work and school each day. We do drive cars too of course and we, like most other countries, have an ecological footprint. That we are doing something about!

Denmark and the Nordic countries are well-known as global frontrunners on green technologies. Since the 1970s Denmark’s economy has doubled while we have kept energy consumption stable and reduced CO2 emissions. In 2020 half of Denmark’s electricity consumption will come from wind [up from almost 40 percent last year]. Denmark has taken the lead on developing offshore wind farms over the last decades. I hope offshore wind energy will also soon take off in the U.S.  We Danes are very happy about our windy days!


Truthfully, the weather does leave a lot to want for as the days can seem mind-blowingly dark. That said my happy place is during Midsummer in Denmark when the sun is out all day and late into the evening. That is the time I enjoy a great Danish meal and a good micro brewed beer. That is my Utopia and I encourage you to travel to Denmark and you will discover why we are so happy with our life.”


Booth responds:

"The ambassador and I agree. Utopia does not exist. In fact, the word itself literally means ‘no place’ in Greek. It was coined by Sir Thomas More.

My point is that a) [Bernie] Sanders is wrong to describe Denmark as ‘Socialist’ - something the Danish Prime Minister also made very clear in the speech the ambassador (selectively) quotes and, b) it is fatuous to compare the U.S. to Denmark in the way [Sanders] does and to imagine that the U.S. could adopt the Danish system. The Danish system developed over 100 years. It can not be used as a template for the U.S. and is ‘challenged’ in terms of the size of its public sector.


In terms of the refugee crisis, the ambassador neglects to mention the recent campaign in various Arabic media by the Danish Integration Ministry advising refugees and migrants not to come to Denmark! It was quite infamous in this part of the world. Fact: most of the refugees who have been arriving in Denmark simply want to cross the country to get to Sweden.


...As I wrote, the Danes are very good at promoting themselves as a ‘green’ country, largely in order to sell their green energy sector products to the world, which though fundamentally dishonest is, I guess, fair in a 'love and exports' kind of way. 

The ambassador states: “we, like most other countries, have an ecological footprint” but of course, Denmark’s [per capita] ecological footprint is not ‘like most other countries’. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, it is the FOURTH largest in the world, ahead of the US! ...Denmark has been an oil-producing country for the last 40 or so years, and still burns a lot of very dirty coal as it has no nuclear or hydro-electric power."


Another letter came from Mathias Nordvig, a visiting assistant professor of Nordic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, who sent me a response to Booth’s comments on the Nordic welfare states:

“Denmark does not have the highest taxes in the world. The latest OECD report tells that Belgium is the country with the highest taxes in the world. Similarly, Booth’s statement that Danes either work for, or receive benefits from, the welfare state is as stretch. The August 2015 statistics from the Danish government show that just a little less than 2,850,000 Danes are in employment, and, out these, 800,000 are employed in public service, the rest work in the private sector. The public sector is still big in the Danish welfare state, but it is not the behemoth that it is made out to be.”

It is also important to remember what value comes out of the welfare economy. So far, it has been a beneficial social contract –this is obvious when considering that the Nordic countries are some of the richest countries in the world. When it is pointed out that the Danish educational and health systems are substandard, it should be taking into consideration that for the last fifteen years, public services have been deliberately cut, and tax funding has in many areas been relegated to private providers. There is a direct line of causality between lack of funding and these systems’ ability to function properly.”

None of the Nordic countries are perfect, and as with any Western democracy they have their different policymakers depending on public opinion. They are not fabled paradises, but real countries facing the same economic issues as everyone else. They choose to solve these issues in a certain way, which by some is called socialism. It is not. All the Nordic countries are free market economies. Whether the Nordic form of economic redistribution would benefit America is a topic for a lengthier discussion.”

Here's how Booth responded:

"Basically, with tax, you can read many different figures many different ways, but the Belgium figure is very misleading because it only concerns income tax. As I pointed out, there are many forms of direct and indirect tax in Denmark and when you take them all into account, Denmark has the highest tax burden in the world - even the OECD agrees! One of the best ways to measure the overall tax burden of any people, the only really interesting story here, is the ratio of GDP raised via taxes: Denmark is No. 1.

[Nordvig] also misread my point about the benefits system. I said that most Danes either work for or receive benefits from the public sector/welfare state. This is true. I am not just talking about the number of people who receive unemployment benefit or work in the public sector: many, perhaps most, Danes who work in the private sector still receive benefits (child payments, ‘børne checken’ for example - which is universal).

Nordvig agrees that the education is substandard because it has been cut for the last 15 years. Why has it been cut? Because the public sector is economically unsustainable."

Other readers comments touched on the controversial topic of Danish happiness.

Though Danes consistently rank near the top of global happiness surveys, Booth describes them in his book as a “frosty, solemn bunch,” and argues that the global happiness ranks are misleading. Booth also says that the Danes have dropped from the top spot in recent surveys, mostly because they are not as rich as they once were. He adds: “I don’t think they ever were the 'happiest' people in the world, but you could argue they have been the most 'satisfied.' They are good at appreciating the small things in life and making the most of what they have...."

I received one email on this topic from Kjartan Sveistrup Andsbjerg, a researcher at the Happiness Research Institute, a think tank in Copenhagen. Andsbjerg notes that Denmark has consistently ranked between #1 and #5 in international happiness surveys like the OECD's Better Life Index, the UN-commissioned World Happiness Report, the European Social Survey, and that, while Denmark fell a few places in the latest World Happiness Report, they are still ranked first in other surveys. Andsbjerg writes:

"Denmark is not a utopia but it is a very good place to live - especially for people who are not well off. Data shows that the average Dane is not a lot happier than your average American, but that there are not nearly as many unhappy Danes as there are unhappy Americans. Denmark is doing exceptionally well at raising happiness levels for the most vulnerable citizens (primarily due to the welfare system) which contributes to a high happiness average.

There is not much data to support the idea that happiness is primarily determined by wealth - neither on individual nor international level. It is true that richer countries and people are happier than poorer people and countries but the variances in wealth do not explain the variances in happiness. Other factors are at least as important in determining our happiness – e.g. trust, safety, health and social relations."

Another fascinating response on Nordic culture, and Sweden in particular, came from Eleanor Adams, who just finished a dissertation on the apparent contradictions between the Nordic miracle and the crime-laden, violent genre of fiction of the region, called “Nordic Noir.”

“Nordic Noir, the popular television genre, has seen an exponential rise in the last 10 years with programs such as The Killing, Wallander and The Bridge receiving great success in the UK and America. Spurred by the immensely popular Steig Larsson trilogy [i.e. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"], the genre now stands as a successful pillar in the crime drama foundation, with comparable projects around Europe utilizing similar frameworks; expressively melancholic cinematography, brutalist architecture, psychologically complex key characters and, of course, heavy woolen sweaters. Dark, damp and depressing, these Nordic bodies of work offer a miserable glimpse into the criminal structure of modern Scandinavia. This far-from-perfect view of a crime ridden, broken and deeply troubled society is somewhat at odds to the increasingly exaggerated, egalitarian, gender-equal, liberal picture that has recently been painted by British and American politicians alike.

It is interesting therefore, that it seems the supposed Nordic Miracle is a concept entirely lost on Scandinavians. Swedes are aware of their societal and political strengths, deep rooted in the folkhemmet [defined as “a tight-knit national community striving for a class-transcending social order”] ideals that are the heart of their golden welfare state. They are, however, an immensely self-effacing nation. As Booth outlines in his Swedish chapter of The Almost Nearly Perfect People "[…] the Swedes don’t hold themselves in terribly high regard."...

Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Larsson’s trilogy is, at first glance, a contemporary Scandinavian woman, adhering to the Nordic myth. Tough, different, commanding, bisexual and highly intelligent she is an embodiment of modern feminist, gender equal and egalitarian Nordic structure. Fictionally however, Lisbeth is subject to horrific crimes and her long list of misfortunes are all inflicted upon her by men, firstly by the fictional men that abuse and rape her and by Larsson himself, who utilizes her as a political tool.... As Salander embodies the supposed contemporary society, her legal guardian takes on the horrifically visceral personification of the corrupt and inherently immoral Swedish State. Larsson’s message is clear. His disillusionment with the welfare state stems from perceived political decay of the golden age of the folkhemmet.

Thus, this outwardly negative expression of Nordic society, although well received elsewhere, appears to have a deeper meaning to Swedes especially.... The Noir genre, however popular, is an important political statement. Inherently, it is exclusively Scandinavian, and in this case, Swedish. The giant question mark it breeds is for Swedes only; why are we like this? Where did it go wrong? When will the rest of the world see?”

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