Day 265 –Fundamental difference between the U.S and Sweden

Far be it for me to turn over the keeping of this blog to someone else but I saw this article today and it relates to one of the things I wanted to communicate here, namely what makes America different from Sweden, or vice versa. This article from Mother Jones magazine reports on an interesting study undertaken by a Harvard professor and an economist about why Americans tend to vote against their own better interests.

It also points out what I felt a couple summers ago here in Sweden while talking to a lifeguard at our local swimming area. It was an unbelievably beautiful summer morning and I was chatting with the twenty-something lifeguard about nothing more significant than the weather when it dawned on me that 99% of all Americans would trade what their government provides them for what the Swedish government provides for its citizens. Today I find out that my assessment was correct and that 92% of those participating in the study chose a wealth/income distribution model that exists in Sweden.

Here is the article complete with charts (sorry that you have to slide the bar across the bottom to read the full width of the text):

You’ll see this question posed on talk shows and in blog post comments: why do Americans vote in a way that is contrary to economic self-interest? Why do Americans support policies that shift capital to the richest one percent of the population?

Some think it’s the myth of American individualism: that anyone can be a billionaire – just work hard and riches will be yours. Malcolm Gladwell shut the door on that myth with his book, Outliers, but most Americans don’t read.

Wealth InequalityAmericans Wear Blinders: Comparison Of Actual V Perceived Distribution Of Wealth In The United States
Source Mother Jones

Mother Jones (March-April 2011 issue) has pulled together “eight charts that explain everything that’s wrong with America.”

Seeing this chart — the difference between perception, preference and actual wealth distribution — was like having my head slammed up against a car door. The chart is derived from research conducted (pdf) by Michael L. Norton (Harvard Business School) and Dan Ariely (Duke University) for Perspectives on Psychological Science. The authors note that most scholars peg wealth inequality in the U.S. at historic highs, greater than the roaring 20s; the estimate was that the top 1% hold almost 50% of the nation’s wealth.

Their nationally representative sample of 5,522 (December 2005) began with a recap of what wealth means:

Wealth, also known as net worth, is defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt that he or she owes. A person’s net worth includes his or her bank account savings plus the value of other things such as property, stocks, bonds, art, collections, etc., minus the value of things like loans and mortgages.

wealth inequalityRespondents Preferred Sweden – How About You?

And then the researchers asked what they considered a “just” distribution of wealth. When faced with three unlabled pie charts, one “perfectly equal”, one representing wealth distribution in the the US and one the distribution in Sweden, 92% of the respondents preferred Sweden. This preference crossed party lines and gender. Look at the three charts and you will understand why.

Next task: draw the perfect distribution and the one that you think represents the U.S. today. The respondents understood that America was not Sweden, they simply had no idea that the top quintile (20%) of Americans control the vast majority of the nation’s wealth:

[R]espondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%.

I’d like to know how they thought wealth was distributed inside the top quintile. The top 5% holds more than half the nation’s wealth.

In picturing the ideal wealth distribution, party affiliation did play a role: “women, Kerry voters, and the poor desired relatively more equal distributions than their counterparts.” However, the researchers note that the more “striking” finding was the level of consensus:

All groups – even the wealthiest respondents – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than what they estimated the current United States level to be, while all groups also desired some inequality – even the poorest respondents. In addition, all groups agreed that such redistribution should take the form of moving wealth from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles.

These charts and the others featured at Mother Jones reveal basic economic inequality, inequality that helps explain why the United States ranks in the bottom third on the world’s list of countries by income inequality, based upon the Genie coefficient (excluding countries with no Genie coefficient). [Yes, I know that wealth inequality and income inequality are not the same thing. But the former rests soundly upon the latter.]

What is the Genie coefficient? Based on mathematical analysis from the early 20th century, it is a measure of the inequality of a distribution — any distribution. It has been criticized because it measures income, not returns on investment or food stamps. For most advanced economies, the Gini coefficient for income is pretty low: Sweden, for example, is 0.23; the European Union is 0.307. The United States is 0.45 (2007 data).

And income inequality is real, too. Here are some numbers from the Institute for Policy Studies:

  • Percentage of U.S. total income in 1976 that went to the top 1% of    American households: 8.9.
  • Percentage in 2007: 23.5
  • Only other year since 1913 that the top 1 percent’s share was that high: 1928
  • Combined net worth of the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans in 2007: $1.5 trillion
  • Combined net worth of the poorest 50% of American households: $1.6 trillion

If you can’t see the inequality, if the picture you hold in your mind is so vastly different from reality, then it should be no surprise when you vote against your own economic self-interest.

–end of article–

I have done a lot of blog posts pointing out differences between the two countries such as the Swedish penchant for sing alongs or the ubiquity of soccer on television, but this article here gets to the heart of a much more fundamental difference. Now, WHY that difference exists, I don’t yet have a hold on. I notice, however, that as this is Day 265, I am 100 days (101 actually since it is a Leap Year) away from finishing this little project and I really hope I can understand it by that time. I would hate to end the blog with a big “I dunno.”


Days 263 and 264 — Back home

I spent the last 2 1/2 weeks in the U.S., which is why posts were infrequent and filled with other sights from around Sweden. If you are looking to travel to a place where the weather is nice, my advice is to choose Sweden. California from LA to San Francisco was overcast, rainy and chilly most of the time, while here it was warm and sunny. Spring has arrived as Mariette shows in some shots taken in our yard recently.

You get the idea. Sometime in the next few weeks there is going to be an explosion of flora around here. Already the days are nice and long, light at 6:00, dark at 7:30 or so and it is going to continue for the next 3 months.

In related news, Sweden’s defense minister has resigned over the flap that broke a few weeks ago about Sweden secretly helping Saudi Arabia to build a munitions factory to produce anti-tank missiles. Swedes are such wusses. Much worse stuff goes on in the name of the U.S. every day and it doesn’t even draw a yawn.

I learned today that the U.S. cost of health care is now 17% of the countries GDP. Sweden was not in the top 10 even. The cost of health care in the U.S. is about $7,500 per person which is about twice what it is in Sweden. Sweden has a single payer healthcare system, the government.

Not to be critical of the U.S., baseball season has started.

Day 262 — Sweden’s mountains

Down where we live way in the south of Sweden, the winter was very mild (though I heard a rumor we may be getting some more snow soon), but up north they engage in months of biathalon, ski jumping, alpine racing, cross country racing and luge if the sports shows on TV are any indication. About the northern 60% of Sweden has mountains, not giant peaks like the Rockies because the Ice Ages of the recent past have kind of shaved everything down, but still there are nice skiing areas. We visited one a few summers ago and it is very different topography from Halmstad but every bit as beautiful.

Little crafts stores abound in Sweden, often in the middle of nowhere. One wonders how they manage. This place was literally in the middle of nowhere, admittedly a beautiful nowhere.


View from the top of the tower.

Two-man drum circle with Olof who was about 4 at the time. (Olof is Ackie’s son; who is Ackie? See next picture.) 

On a bike/hike with Mariette’s looooong time friend Ackie.

It looks as though I am admiring the view but in truth I was sucking wind from a particularly steep part of our climb.

On a hike with Ackie.

Don’t try this at home if home is the U.S.: drinking out of a lake.

Mariette on a bike trip taking on a summer rain storm.

The town of Are (the A should have a little circle over it and the word is pronounced Ohrah) is the prime ski area in Sweden and here is a shot of one of the ski runs.

Day 261 — Mora

Located in about the middle of the country, Mora is important historically for Sweden. It was there in 1520 where Gustav Vasa organized the rebellion against the Danish king which ultimately led to Sweden’s independence from Denmark. In the center of the town is the finish line for the Vasaloppet cross country ski marathon. We visited there a few years ago and here are some photos of our visit.


The town lies on this beautiful lake.

The most famous resident of Mora was the artist Anders Zorn. Along with Carl Larsson, Zorn stands atop Sweden’s artist mountain. Here is the entrance to Zorn’s house and the museum that houses some of his works. (Gustav Vasa was never a resident. Like us, he was merely passing though, albeit on skis in winter. We were in a car in summer. Big difference. He was being hotly pursued my murderous Danes. We were pursuing a vacation.

Zorn’s house.

Mora lies in Dalarna County and the Dalarna horse comes from here. These are literally all over the country especially during Christmas season.

Nice looking church with St. George killing the dragon.


Interesting teepee/cabin in the campground where we stayed. Our lodging was much less interesting than this.


Days 259 and 260 — Way up north

Sweden is a loooong country but not too wide. Sizewise, it is about 9,000 square miles larger than California and somewhat similar in shape. Several summers ago we went up north and here are some pictures of our trip to the Arctic Circle.

Our little hut at the campground where we stayed, very much like a Sami hut. Samis are the indigenous peoples of the north.

Dining hall at the campground.



Here I am right at the Polcirkeln.

Church in Happaranda. Very different architectures from churches further south. Heavy Finnish or Russian influence.

Golden hour at about 10:30 at night.

This is about midnight just below the Arctic Circle in the town of Happaranda which is way up north there Sweden and Finland come together. The sun does not rise and set up here in summer but travels in a large circle and where we were, just dips below the horizon and then comes back up.

Me in our Sami hut. We slept on reindeer hides and roasted hot dogs over the open fire. It is such a nice day outside, so why weren’t we out there? One thing the camera does not show is mosquitoes. LOTS of mosquitoes. We knocked ourselves silly swatting them on our skin but after a couple days learned how to keep them at bay. You get some pine cones and light them on fire, then damp out the fire so the pine cones smolder. The smoke drives them away. Clearly though, they were driving me crazy anyway as you can tell.

This could be the most amazing person I have met in Europe. We saw this guy wheeling along the highway in a wheelchair. He was going from Moscow to Lisbon, Portugal and wheeling all the way. He is part of a group of handicapped people in Russia who take on challenges like this. We stopped and did not have any cash but gave him some food and wished him well.


Day 258 — Viking culture alive and well

The southern part of Sweden looks very different from the north. There are fewer forests and more open fields and agricultural land. At the very southern tip of the country is the beautiful town of Ystad. Near Ystad is an actual Viking village, recreated from hundreds of years ago. Viking culture is alive in this village and the people here operate much as the Vikings did 1000 years ago.


This is a reproduction of actual operating lathe that was used in Viking times. You push on the pedal on the ground and it spins the stock. Pretty ingenius.


Day 257 — Skansen

In the 1890s, the Swede who founded the Nordic museum in Stockholm also founded the first open air museum in Sweden called Skansen. It is an amazing trip back to pre-industrial Sweden, going back as far as the 1600s including the accurate recreation of a 19th century Swedish town complete with bakery, hardware story, glass blowing shop, apothecary and much more. The founder went around Sweden and took 150 buildings, pulled them apart, transported them to the museum site and reassembled them. It is an amazing, amazing place and can easily take two days to fully explore. There is also a zoo with all nordic animals including bears, wolves, moose, seals and lots more.The guy’s grave is in one corner of the park.

(Sorry that I cannot exercise enough control over the computer I am currently using to arrange these in a logical sequence or supply proper commentary, so the pictures themeslves will have to suffice.)

You get the idea. When I get back home I will try to revisit Skansen again with more pictures and more text. It is one of my favorite places in Sweden.