O.K., every other day of the year I promise to tell you why you should despair about genocide in Myanmar, starvation in Yemen, separation of children from parents at the border and so on. But today I want to encourage you: Take a nanosecond to celebrate a backdrop of human progress. People often assume that because I cover war, poverty, hunger and genocide, I must be perennially morose, the Eeyore of journalists. But I’m actually upbeat because I’ve witnessed such progress in my reporting career. When I was in university in the early 1980s, 44 percent of people on Earth lived in extreme poverty; now fewer than 10 percent do. When I was a kid, a majority of humans had always been illiterate; now fewer than 15 percent are. Every day, another 305,000 people get access to clean drinking water. One factoid I didn’t have space for in my column is that in the 1950s, two-thirds of parents worldwide suffered the loss of at least one child. That’s just about the most terrible thing that can happen to anyone, and it was very common. Now it’s very rare (only 4 percent of children worldwide die by the age of five). Of course, far too many kids still die, far too many people still live in poverty, and we see ongoing outrages in this country and abroad. But I think it’s important to acknowledge the progress for fear that people conclude that global challenges are hopeless and simply give up. I should note that while I have seen great progress in the world in recent decades, I haven’t seen that in the U.S. Simply the fact that life expectancy has fallen and that suicides are at a 30-year high should caution us that something is fundamentally wrong. That’s also the topic that my wife, Sheryl, and I are writing a book about, so we’ve spent plenty of time in the last year with the down and out. Stay tuned.
That lower G.D.P. number conceals two important points. First, by any measure people in the lower part of the income distribution are much better off in Nordic societies than their U.S. counterparts. That is, there is a lot less misery in Scandinavia — and because everyone has some chance of falling into low income, this reduces the risk of misery for a much larger share of the population
Second, much of the gap in real G.D.P. represents a choice, not a cost. Nordic workers have much more vacation, much more time for family and leisure, than their counterparts in our “no vacation nation.”
.. They aren’t “socialist,” if that means government control of the means of production. They are, however, quite strongly social-democratic: as Exhibit 1 shows, they have high taxes, which finance much more generous social benefits than we have here. They also have policies on wages, working hours, and more that tilt the balance toward workers in a number of dimensions.
.. Clearly, the Nordic economies are better for lower-income families — roughly the bottom 30 percent of the population.
.. But this understates the case, because these data don’t include “in kind” benefits like health care and education. All of the Nordic countries have universal health care — not just single-payer, but for the most part direct government provision (a.k.a. “socialized medicine.”)
Nordic education also lacks the glaring inequality in quality all too characteristic of the U.S. system.
.. Once you take these benefits into account, it’s likely that at least half the Nordic population are better off materially than their U.S. counterparts. But what about the upper half?
.. a large part of the difference — in the case of Denmark, more than all of it — comes from a lower number of hours worked annually per worker. This does not reflect mass underemployment. Instead, it reflects policy: all of the Nordic countries require that employers give workers a minimum of 25 days of paid vacation every year, while the U.S. has no leave policy at all.
.. Once you take vacations into account, Denmark and Sweden basically look comparable in performance to the U.S.
.. The point for welfare comparisons is that while Nordic families at, say, the 60th percentile of the income distribution have lower purchasing power than their American counterparts, they also have much more free time and an arguably better work-life balance. Are they really worse off? You can make a good case that taking all of this into account, the majority of Nordic citizens are actually better off than Americans.
.. The O.E.C.D. publishes measures of self-reported “life satisfaction”; all of the Nordic nations rank above the U.S. Objective measures like life expectancy and mortality rates are also much better in Scandinavia.
I’ve been especially interested in the way Britain revived itself between 1820 and 1848. Its comeback has some humbling lessons for us today.
Britain was roiled by economic and demographic changes. There were financial crises, bad harvests and a severe depression. There was crushing inequality. The average life expectancy nationwide was 40, but in the industrial cities of Manchester and Liverpool it was around 28.
.. The Chartists cohered around The People’s Charter, which had six demands, including universal male suffrage, vote by ballot and equal electoral districts. In 1842, the Chartists presented a petition to Parliament with three million signatures.
.. Finally, there was the Anti-Corn Law League. This was the best organized and best funded pressure group in 19th-century Britain. It promoted free-trade legislation to reduce the power of the landed gentry, to make food cheaper for the working classes and to encourage international exchange and cooperation.
.. Britain was blessed by a stable parliamentary system and by a legislative culture that valued deliberation and debate. Political leaders in both parties understood that the winds of change were blowing and they had better initiate reforms if they wanted to head off a revolution.