Swedish Models

June 1, 2006 Topic: Economics Regions: Northern EuropeEurope Tags: Sociology

Swedish Models

Mini Teaser: Everyone always wants to be like Sweden.  What happens whenthe socialist paradise fails.

by Author(s): Johan Norberg

In the early 1990s a deep recession forced Sweden to abandon a lot of the excesses from the 1970s and 1980s. Marginal tax rates were cut, the central bank was made independent, public pensions were cut and partially privatized, school vouchers were introduced, and private providers were welcomed in health care. Several markets were deregulated, like energy, the post office, transportation, television and, most importantly, telecom, which opened the way for the success of companies like Ericsson.

But Sweden retained the world's highest taxes, generous social security systems and a heavily regulated labor market, which split the economy: Sweden is very good at producing goods, but not at producing jobs. According to a recent study of 35 developed countries, only two had jobless growth: Sweden and Finland. Economic growth in Sweden in the last 25 years has had no correlation at all with labor-market participation. (In contrast, 1 percent of growth increases the number of jobs by 0.25 percent in Denmark, 0.5 percent in the United States and 0.6 percent in Spain.) Amazingly, not a single net job has been created in the private sector in Sweden since 1950.

During the recession in the early 1990s, Sweden had an unemployment rate of about 12 percent. The official rate has been halved since, but the difference has been offset by a dramatic increase in other forms of absenteeism. For example, there are 244,000 openly unemployed workers in a total population of 9 million. But this does not include 126,000 working in labor-market projects (the largely unsuccessful programs geared towards helping people acquire the skills to find employment) or the 89,000 job-seekers who are receiving some form of education. And there are another 111,000 in "latent unemployment", people who are not defined as part of the work force, but who can and would like to work. If all of these workers are included in the calculation, Sweden's true unemployment rate is still 12 percent. (Although other countries' unemployment figures, including those for the United States, also fail to reflect the real rate joblessness, Sweden's array of government-funded projects for work and education particularly distort the data. In addition, Sweden does not include in its figures students that are seeking employment, breaking with international norms.)

Moreover, the unemployment rate says nothing about another hidden labor problem: rampant absenteeism. Swedes are healthier than almost any other people in the world, but they are also out sick more often than any other people, according to available data. In 2004, sickness benefits absorbed 16 percent of the government budget, while health absenteeism has doubled since 1998. With a sickness benefit of up to 80 percent of a recipient's income (depending on his or her wage level), it is not surprising that there is an epidemic of absenteeism. Moreover, about 10 percent of the working-age population has retired with disability benefits. A researcher at the main trade union, LO, recently left his job when he was not allowed to publish his estimate that close to 20 percent of Swedes are unemployed, either openly or hidden in labor-market projects, long-term sick-leave and early retirement.

Immigration and Politics

SWEDEN HAS no official minimum wage, but trade unions with political power set de facto minimum wages through collective bargaining. That de facto minimum wage for workers in Sweden is equal to about 66 percent of the median wage in the manufacturing sector, compared to 32 percent in the United States. In economic terms, this means that if you are less than 66 percent as productive as the median Swedish manufacturing worker--perhaps because you are unskilled, have no experience or live in a remote area--you will probably not find a job. Any company that would hire you would be forced to pay you more than what you are able to produce. And if you are never successful in gaining employment, you will not gain the skills and experience to raise your abilities and productivity.

Immigrants are the hardest hit. Since the early 1980s, Sweden has received a large number of refugees from the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, which has ended the country's homogeneity. Today, about one-seventh of the working-age population is foreign born, but no where near that proportion is actually employed. Sweden has one of the developed world's biggest differences between the labor-market participation of natives and immigrants. Many immigrant families are discouraged by the lack of job prospects and end up in welfare dependency.

Unemployment problems in turn result in de facto segregation. Despite little history of racial conflict, the labor market is more segregated than in America, Britain, Germany, France or Denmark--countries with far more troublesome racial histories than Sweden. A report from the free-market Liberal Party ahead of the election 2002 showed that more than 5 percent of all precincts in Sweden had employment levels lower than 60 percent, with much higher crime rates and inferior school results than in other places. Most of these precincts are suburban, so outsiders rarely see them. The number of segregated precincts has continued to grow. In some neighborhoods, children grow up without ever seeing someone who goes to work in the morning. Pockets of unemployment and social exclusion form, especially in areas with many non-European immigrants. When Swedes see that so many immigrants live off the government, their interest in contributing to the system fades.

Like in other parts of western Europe, the segregation of immigrant areas leads to insularity, crime and, in some cases, radicalism. Last year, Nalin Pekgul, the Kurdish chairman of the National Federation of Social Democratic Women, explained that she was forced to move out of a suburb of Stockholm because of crime and the rise of Islamic radicalism. The announcement sent shock waves through the entire political system. "A bomb waiting to explode" is one of the most common metaphors used when social exclusion in Sweden is discussed.

Those immigrants who do keep their entrepreneurial spirit intact often take it elsewhere. Hundreds of unemployed Somalis and Iranians leave Sweden every year and move to Britain, where they are often successful in finding work. The contrast in experience can be staggering. The Swedish economic historian Benny Carlson recently compared the experiences of Somali immigrants in Sweden with those of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Only 30 percent had a job in Sweden, about half as many as in Minneapolis. And there are about 800 businesses run by Somalis in Minneapolis, compared to only 38 in Sweden. Carlson quoted two immigrants who together summed up the disparity. "There are opportunities here", said Jamal Hashi, who runs an African restaurant in Minneapolis. His friend, who migrated to Sweden instead, told a different story: "You feel like a fly trapped under a glass. Your dreams are shattered."

A Model No More

SO IF THE Myrdals were right when they said that if the welfare state couldn't work in Sweden, it wouldn't work anywhere, what will it mean if Sweden's system fails? The answer seems obvious.

The Swedish model has survived for decades, but the truth is that its success was built on the legacy of an earlier model: the period of economic growth and development preceding the adoption of the socialist system. It is difficult to see how other countries--especially the troubled systems of Western Europe so keen to adopt the Swedish approach, but which lack the unique components for a welfare state first noted by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal--could cope with a similar welfare state. Bigger and more diverse countries with a weaker faith in government and more suspicion towards other groups would likely see an even stronger tendency to exploit the system, work less and abuse social assistance. The United States and much of Western Europe face immigration challenges at least as daunting as Sweden.

The economy has rebounded since the recession of the 1990s and the reforms that followed--in contrast to the stagnant continental economies--mostly because of a small number of successful global companies. But the problem is that a growing part of the population is left out and old attitudes about work and entrepreneurship are fading. Since 1995 the number of entrepreneurs in the European Union has increased by 9 percent; in Sweden it has declined by 9 percent. Almost a quarter of the population of working age does not have a job to go to in the morning, and polls show a dramatic lack of trust in the welfare system and its rules.

The system of high taxes and generous welfare benefits worked for so long because the tradition of self-reliance was so strong. But mentalities have a tendency of changing when incentives change. The growth of taxes and benefits punished hard work and encouraged absenteeism. Immigrants and younger generations of Swedes have faced distorted incentives and have not developed the work ethic that was nurtured before the effects of the welfare state began to erode them. When others cheat the system and get away with it, suddenly you are considered a fool if you get up early every morning and work late. According to polls, about half of all Swedes now think it is acceptable to call in sick for reasons other than sickness. Almost half think that they can do it when someone in the family is not feeling well, and almost as many think that they can do it if there is too much to do at work. Our ancestors worked even when they were sick. Today, we are "off sick" even when we feel fine.

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