Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too. Book by George Lakey Reviewed by Roscoe Mathieu
George Lakey’s Viking Economics isn’t a treatise on the economic advantages of pillaging the Northern European coast, although Friends would be forgiven for thinking so! Rather, Viking Economics is an analysis of the “Nordic model” of macroeconomics, liberally laced with Lakey’s own experiences in Norway and the rest of Scandinavia. Mr. Lakey interviews noted economists, Nordic political leaders, community organizers, teachers, farmers, and fishermen to answer two basic questions: 1) How have the Scandinavians succeeded in building progressive, democratic, egalitarian and free economies where others failed? and 2) How can the United States (and others) replicate this success?
Based on Lakey’s findings, the high-ranking and widely admired Nordic model does not come from any one institution, but from the way Nordic institutions mutually support and reinforce one another. From Iceland to Denmark, universal social services, strong cooperatives and unions, and “flexicurity,” all paid for by high taxes, help the Nordics achieve their twin goals of freedom and equality. Universal services like health care, education, and retirement benefits both reduce bureaucracy and create a secure social network. Cooperatives and unions lead innovation and protect individual civil and economic liberties. “Flexicurity” initiatives like job retraining create a platform for innovation while strengthening the social net. And an aggressive civil rights framework allows all the Nordics to participate fully in their societies.
I was initially skeptical of Lakey’s claims. I am more than familiar with overheated praise and near-idolatry of the Scandinavians. However, George Lakey is trained as a sociologist, and it shows. He supports his arguments with UN numbers, personal interviews, and deep citations. He also refuses to shy away from some of the darker aspects of Nordic life – struggles with racism and Islamophobia, the threat of climate change, and the tensions of all those “non-violent” successes. He dedicates the final chapter entirely to difficulties in applying the Nordic model to the United States, where he remains just as clear-eyed.
What I found most engaging, though, were the middle chapters: “More Start-Ups than the United States” and “Preventing Poverty.” The Nordics are free to take risks and innovate, because even if their businesses fail, they can still afford education, healthcare, and retirement. Their workers, too, can retrain on the government dime and find new employment. There is no discussion in Norway about “keeping coal jobs,” because they don’t feel obligated to defend inefficient corporations. Cooperatives of every stripe are encouraged by Nordic governments, and are fundamental to Scandinavian life. It’s telling that the Norwegian government refers to cooperatives as “nontraditional entrepreneurs.”
The chapter on “preventing poverty” describes how Nordic societies have reduced absolute poverty to a bare minimum by providing universal services that go beyond education, healthcare, and retirement benefits to include additional supports like housing cooperatives, fuel subsidies, and job-skills training. Building on their success in reducing absolute poverty, Nordic societies are now hard at work on reducing relative poverty. Rather than being in conflict, these economic initiatives reinforce each other and contribute to a better life for all Scandinavians.
Friends, though, will want to pay close attention to the opening chapters and the final chapter. Lakey is over-optimistic about how easily the United States could adapt the Nordic model, but he is perfectly clear on the means to do so. Scandinavia did not create a fair and free society through the ballot box, but through mass protests, community organizing, and non-violent direct action. He specifically notes the role that organizations like cooperatives, unions, and civil societies played in achieving seismic social changes. I would add that faith groups have been known to make such contributions as well. If Friends will remember how our Society supported and advanced causes like the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and conscientious objection to war, and if Friends can imagine themselves taking such pivotal roles again, Lakey’s book outlines the means of creating a more egalitarian and more free society. We have done so before, why not do so again? ~~~
Roscoe Mathieu is a connoisseur and writer of science fiction. He lives in Moro Bay, California, and attends Central Coast Meeting (PYM).