Hardy Finnish economy may well weather trading -- partner downturn
There's a telling group of immigrants coming to Finland recently: Finns. The numbers aren't stunning, but after losing thousands of skilled workers to higher pay in Sweden in recent decades, it marks a change of status for the Finnish economy.Skip to next paragraph
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Compared with sophisticated, modern Scandinavia, Finland is a country not yet jaded by prosperity.
Finland's economy has been in the fast track over the past two years, outpacing growth in every other Western country. Now a recession is descending on Sweden, Britain, and West Germany -- its main trading partners to the West -- but the Finns remain carefully optimistic.
Yet, next to cosmopolitan Stockholm with its stainless steel parliament building an d sociable Old town, Helsinki's pastel plaster mien retains, in its affluence, a certain plainfaced simplicity.
Finland has never had the money other Scandinavian countries have had to bridge lean times with government spending. The cost has been high unemployment at times. the benefit has been a lean, fighting-weight economy based squarely on private demand, rather than Keynesian pump-priming.
The Finns began cutting government growth and encouraging business profits in 1976, long before the Swedes, Danes, or Americans.
A prominent Swedish businessman in Stockholm, just back from Finland, remarked that he hadn't had much sleep. "The Finns are tough," he explained, smiling.
"We are a poor country," businessmen often comment, a country without the options of Finland's rich neighbors. The label falls oddly in clean, consistent Helsinki, without bad neighborhoods or urban blight. But it speaks for a Finnish attitude.
The Finns carry into their sleek, industrial world some of the values of their peasant roots.
Americans can see this in the subtle yet simple and forthright prints on Marimekko textiles, the plain grace of the best of Arabia porcelain tableware, and in the buildings of Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen.
Juhani Pallasmaa, director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki, calls it the value of "noble poverty." It shows up in the economic life of the country, but it's the value without the poverty.
For example, five weeks each summer Finnish workers and managers alike vacate modern industry for the islands west of Helsinki or wooded lakes to the north.
The Finns, American Ambassador James E. Goodby observes, still think of themselves as survivors, struggling to eke a living from tough ground. How industrial affluence will change the Finnish self-image, he notes, is yet to be seen.
"We have only two things to sell," says Juha Haapameri, bundled up and talking international trade as he sells leather gloves at Helsinki's outdoor market: "wood and brains."
The Finns must struggle for what they get, he explains. "EVerything's a fight."
Finland has built up a metalworking industry in recent years that gives it considerably more than wood and brains to sell, but the national sense of economic struggle against the odds is echoed elsewhere.
The Finnish economy is, in the Scandinavian manner, a welfare state based on the marketplace. Incomes are spread more evenly than in the United States -- some think too evenly, according to one Finn -- and cities are cleaner. Even Helsinki shipyards lack the grime of many industrial cities elsewhere.
On the edge of Europe, with an Eastern language, Finland is more Western in an economic sense than much of Western Europe. A cue is its 34 percent total tax burden, near the US figure and well under that of most Western European countries.
Another cue, perhaps, is 4.5 percent unemployment --high by Scandinavian standards, but evidence of an economy where labor market forces are allowed to work. It peaked at 8 percent in late 1978.