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The Myths of Swedish Socialism

I can’t tell you what’s different between a visit to a Swedish or American doctor.  I can tell you, however, that when I hear Americans use the word “socialism” to describe places like Sweden, they’re getting it wrong.  Both sides are getting it wrong.

For me the problem is always the medical bills.  There’s the $4,000 I owe for my daughter’s emergency dental surgery after she fell.  There’s what’s left of the $3,000 I owe for a colonoscopy.  The fact that my previous colon procedure from two years before only cost $300…?  Well, that certainly counts as salt in the wound.  It’s always the medical bills.  Always.

Six days in Sweden doesn’t exactly give me the chance to formulate an effective “on the ground” feel for the impact of The Nordic Model.  But I did see a world that looked a lot different than mine…on some potently visceral levels.  So no, I can’t tell you what’s different between a visit to a Swedish or American doctor.  I can tell you, however, that when I hear Americans use the word “socialism” to describe places like Sweden, they’re getting it wrong.  Both sides are getting it wrong.

When liberals and Democrats hearken comparisons to the Nordic Model, they do so with a sort of wistful bit of pseudo-sentimentality.  “If only we could be like Sweden or Finland,” they say.  I often said the same thing myself before my trip to Europe.  And yeah, I saw (or more accurately didn’t see) some tangible benefits.

For example, after traipsing around three Swedish cities with a combined population of almost two million people, I saw a grand total of zero homeless people.  No panhandlers squatting cross-legged under blue tarps.  No pleas for mercy scrawled on bits of cardboard.  No polite-but-awkward “excuse me’s” from scraggly old men in camo and khaki claiming homeless vet status.  When it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t witnessing it in every other alcove and street corner, I immediately ran all my visits to U.S. cities through my mind—all them populated with images of Styrofoam cups holding a smattering of coins or aggressive “tour guides” giving me their take on Beale Street in exchange for a $5-dollar bill.

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It’s Not Shangri-la

My daughter, a sociology major who had been studying this very topic for three years (and this very topic in Sweden for the last three months), reiterated much of what most of us know: the tax rates are high, and the safety net is broad.  There’s some blowback, she pointed out…and there’s abuse of the system, too.  Living in my liberal silo, I wasn’t aware of either, but after seeing how those social systems bleed into the cost of living, I have no doubts that the pushback is real.

That’s because thorough safety nets and free health care aren’t cheap.  The costs appear everywhere.  The expansive and convenient train system is no doubt sustained by the almost $7 per gallon cost of gasoline—a price propped up thanks in part to heavy taxation.  And the wage system, which all but eliminates tipping, means that your beer and hamburger (American food is everywhere in Sweden) runs between $30 and $35, rather than the $17-plus-tip at home.

It’s Not a Russian Ghetto

As wrong as American liberals are when it comes to understanding the relationship between Sweden and its government, the conservative Republicans are even more off.  Here at home, Republicans use the term “socialism” as a cudgel of sorts.  A pejorative word designed to evoke fear among the Fox News/Talk Radio faithful while boxing-in most liberals into a defensive, rhetorical corner.  When these folks say that Sweden is a “socialist” state they’re always trying to conjure up Cold War iconography: Muscovite ghettos, dark, dilapidated housing decorated with peeling wallpaper, moldy bread, rotten milk, ruddy-faced people wearing fuzzy ushankas standing in long lines for toilet paper.

On the ground, however, Sweden looks nothing like Hollywood’s version of the Soviet Empire. On the ground, Sweden is a clean place.  By any relative standard the streets feel pristine, the environment exudes safety, and both of those vibes translate into an experience best described as welcoming.  Yeah…the fellow who almost ran me over with his bicycle wasn’t feeling all that friendly toward me, but by-and-large the tenor that virtually everyone across the country sent me told me that everyone was happy to have me there.

It’s a happiness vibe.  Swedes acted like they wanted to be there.  I felt it when the lady working the desk at the train station placed her hand on mine, told me everything would be okay, and even took the time write down all my stops and changes on a post-it-note.  I felt it when I chatted deep into the night about “here versus there” with Salna, our hotel receptionist and Växjö-lifer.  I even felt it when I nodded and traded “hey’s” (or they call them “Hej’s”) with fellow beer-drinkers at the town’s popular weekend pub.

You Miss It Once You Leave It

By the time we had left “The Elongated Country” and had wandered a day or two in London, Sweden had crystalized itself in my mind as a dazzling place.  The festering stench oozing from London’s famed telephone booths reminded me that Göthenburg didn’t stink like impoverished urine.  The gruff tones and dismissive treatment by the British bartenders stood in stark contrast to the smiling Swedes working the taps and the coffee machines.  The perpetual fear of—and eventual victimhood to—the swarm of English pickpocketers sent my thoughts back to the comfortable streets of Stockholm.

Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’m reacclimating myself the incessant thrum of anger which courses through this nation.  The general hostility we carry toward anyone who’s in a jam and needs a bit of hand.  Some Americans proudly chalk it up to their Protestant origins.  They further proudly talk about “bootstraps” and “self-reliance.”  But when I put my ear to the ground in this country, I don’t hear a lot of “pride” in those tremors.  Mostly what I hear is hostility and fear and dread and despair.

I will probably always be fighting medical costs for the rest of my life.  No one says this outright, but in between the lines I hear the American message: I probably wouldn’t have gotten cancer if I’d been smarter.  It’s the sort of thing Americans say to themselves when something shitty happens to the other guy but not to them.  I don’t know.  It’s all silly to me.  There are people around me who are fatter, who eat much worse, who drink much more, who smoke like the Industrial Revolution and have never been under the knife—even to remove a skin-tag…let alone a tumor.  If you have a great job and never go to the doctor, you can live the best life in the United States on the cheap.

Sometimes that sort of thinking makes me angry.  Most of the time, it makes me sad.  But now that I’m back home, more often than not it stirs my imagination.  Yes, “socialism” (still a dumb word for what we’re talking about) costs more.  But when I think about how much it costs us over here to look out for ourselves, I would definitely pay what it costs over there to look for each other.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

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