The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen was born in Finland and, as she details near the end of the book, became a US citizen. InĀ The Nordic Theory of Everything she details what she noticed as the differences between US and Nordic culture and offers a clear perspective on both.

While American-born citizens still look on their country as the shining example to the world of democracy and prosperity, the country frequently shows up lower than other countries in terms of health, happiness, education, and the ability of citizens to rise from poverty to higher class and income levels.. Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), on the other hand, are frequently at or near the top.

Partanen outlines the difference in thinking about government and society in the two regions. This is not done with a radical or jingoistic attitude. She’s clear that Finns might be the last to perceive their country as one of the happiest on earth and that they complain about their government as much as the citizens of any other country. But she also clears up misperceptions about Scandinavia and the “socialized” governments they contain.

She rejects and even resents the idea that these are socialist havens. Finland, she notes, bordered the former USSR and, despite a much smaller population, lost more people than the US did in Korea and Vietnam in its fights against socialism in the 20th century. Finland also was the home of several entrepreneurial technology companies, most notably Nokia, throwing water on the notion that these countries curb free enterprise.

She states, however, that these countries are willing to invest in their young and in each other. She talks about the anxiety she felt in moving to New York City when she received a letter than her Finnish health insurance would end because she was living out of the country. She found herself having to try to understand the complex contract law that private insurers put their customers through, the oddities of learning what it means to have a job with “benefits”, and the exorbitant costs of for-profit hospitals. She details the ease of a single-page Finnish tax form, leaving her with more money at the end of the year than in America paying for health care and child care out of pocket. She also wonders why employers would want to add to the work of running a business by adding the insuring of employees, or why employees would want to be financially tied to an employer (rather than each other) for the same benefit.

Partanen differentiates between “big government” and “good government”. She’s clear that the nations in the Nordic regions still face challenges, such as Finland’s adoption of the Euro and sanctions against Russia hurting enterprise with its largest trading partner. On the other hand she sees the dangers Americans face from the stresses of a system that isn’t working for them in the same way it did decades ago.

The book is a non-radical and rational look at a different way of thinking about government and society that wouldn’t hurt the US to consider. She doesn’t approach her arguments as a firebrand demanding change but she does provide a different perspective on an improved way of thinking about government that could offer some positive changes.