Sweden hardly a ‘socialist nightmare’

As Obama tries to rein in Wall Street and raise taxes on the wealthy, critics say he is trying to turn America into Sweden. Meanwhile, in Sweden, it's full-speed ahead for capitalism.

Stockholm, Sweden – There is a long tradition of using Sweden as a socialist model to highlight social shortcomings in the United States. Recent tax change proposals by the Obama administration, for instance, had conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly asking his viewers, "Do we really want to change America into Sweden?"

Yet if the Scandinavian model were shipped across the Atlantic, the changes would have little to do with socialism, say analysts here. In fact, some believe it should be held up as a bastion of market capitalism.

Last week, the country’s center-right government began selling off state-owned pharmacies, one of the country’s few remaining nationalized companies, as part of an ambitious program of liberal economic reforms started in 2006. In the same week, a study by the Swedish Unemployment Insurance Board revealed that almost half of the country’s jobless lacked full unemployment benefits. Many opted out of the state scheme when the cost of membership was raised last year; others were ineligible.

State pensions, schools, healthcare, public transport, and post offices have been fully or partly privatized over the last decade, making Sweden one of the most free market orientated economies in the world, analysts say.

“Sweden has always been on the side of the market economy. This is not socialism,” says Olle Wästberg, director of the Swedish Institute in Stockholm, and a former Consul General to New York. “In many fields, we have more private ownership compared to other European countries, and to America. About 80 percent of all new schools are privately run, as are the railroads and the subway system.”

Stereotypical images of Sweden as a socialist utopia date back to the 1930s, when a best selling book by Marquis Childs lauded the country as a middle way between capitalism and socialism.

“Eisenhower also helped to propagate a number of myths in the '60s when he said that Swedes were ‘addicted to sin, socialism, and suicide,' " says Brian Palmer, professor of anthropology at Sweden's Uppsala University (read a past Monitor story on the professor here).

Images of all three Swedish vices were given a good dusting off and a 21st century remake last month on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (watch the first part of the report here and the second part here). The hilarious "investigation" into the "socialist nightmare" state revealed that, apart from producing famed meatballs and red gummy fish candy, "socialism has left this population ravaged, dispirited, and hauntingly thin." The last observation was made as the reporter watched beautiful Swedish women walk down the street.

Jokes aside, Professor Palmer, who ran a controversial course on globalization at Harvard University from 2000 to 2004, believes that Sweden has been one step ahead of the US in adopting and extending economic reforms.

“To speak of Sweden as socialist today is pretty far off the mark,” he says. “Neoliberal reforms have gone much further here in some sectors than in the US. Sweden has become a sort of laboratory for privatization in a way that the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute could only dream of.”

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