Friday, Dec 19, 2014
Columns

Flexible principled leaders

BY JOHN REINIERS, More Than Words
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What an oxymoron. The point is that facts are a moving target. “Facts” change because we learn more.

That is known as knowledge. We now know the sun does not circle the earth. It’s the other way around. That belief would have gotten you a prison sentence at one time — as Galileo found out. Confronted with “new” facts, the church reformed itself over time. Ideologues generally have difficulty with knowledge.

A typical path to compromise starts with collaboration, at which time knowledge is shared. This in turn promotes synergy which could be the beginning of compromise. Ideologues generally only collaborate with each other. Because of technology, the new paradigm is that everyone on the planet — for the first time — now has access to all the world’s knowledge. We should be getting smarter.

With this in mind both conservatives (like this writer) and progressive liberals need to study successful small social democracies in Scandinavia to determine the reasons for their economic success.

They are committed welfare states funded by redistributionist taxation. Sweden has been the Holy Grail — the most admired socialist welfare state.

For some reason the Scandinavian political process seems more orderly — not the rancor and militancy that plague the U.S. The overarching principle that seems to undergird the political process in all these countries is collaboration and pragmatism, not divisiveness and class warfare. It’s difficult to work toward compromise while at the same time depicting the other side as evil.

France is a large socialist country governed by an ideological, committed socialist president and legislature. It’s easy to get a lot of votes by saying, as François Hollande did, “I hate the rich,” but it’s hard to govern. France is now struggling with high unemployment and a slipping GDP. That’s not the Scandinavian way.

Just to focus on one typical Scandinavian country, Finland is a successful, highly industrialized free market economy. Its educational outcomes are the envy of the world. (OECD ranking No. 1 in science.) Only 8 percent of students who choose education as a major are accepted. Teachers are selected from the brightest and are highly respected but make only average salaries.

Finland is an extensive welfare state with a parliamentary multiparty political system. Like so many of these Nordic social democracies political decisions are based upon consensus.

Even though most of Europe is in recession, fiscally solid countries in Scandinavia are in the process of economic growth with Norway leading the way. Denmark’s economy is recovering the most slowly, yet it has an AAA credit rating with a budget deficit of 4 percent of GDP — compared to the U.S. at twice that.

Scandinavian politicians are not at all Looney Tunes. Anders Borg, Sweden’s finance minister, reportedly told The Economist, “If you want to run a big welfare state you need to run surpluses in good times.” He refers to his party as being “far more prudent in terms of fiscal policy;” strange words in this part of Europe. This ponytailed economist was elected best finance minister in Europe by the Financial Times.

Sweden reduced the size of their government, cut taxes and welfare, lured entrepreneurs back with reduced property taxes — and the result is economic growth and no deficit. All this during the Great Recession when the U. S. was committed to stimulus policies.

Clearly, Democratic progressive liberals can learn something from these Scandinavian countries. So can conservatives. How could this guy pull this off in the foremost welfare country on the planet?

Sadly, the lower socio-economic, low-knowledge core of the Democratic coalition favors the acrimonious politics of the left in southern European countries — all in recession. And the same bitterness between northern and southern European countries is evident in this country between those who pay income taxes and those who demand the redistribution of those taxes. Northern Europeans openly complain about “having to put up money” for the lazy southerners. Scandinavians pay the highest taxes in the world for what they have, so their anger is understandable.

Is there anything our principled leaders can learn from these countries?

It’s hard to imagine the Scandinavian model working in the U.S. One explanation was suggested by humorist Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame — a committed liberal progressive. Some years ago Keillor sought refuge from America in Denmark, but later returned to New York City. When asked about his impressions of Denmark, he reportedly said that in Denmark a person is guaranteed not to fail, but likewise guaranteed not to succeed. So he returned home.

Here is the point. A majority of Americans are now being supported by a myriad of federal taxpayer funded entitlement programs. In Keillor’s eyes they have failed. In their eyes they have succeeded.

This is not the mindset of Scandinavians. They all work to support an admittedly scary, heavily taxed welfare state — but from which they all benefit. They all give as much as they take. Fraud and corruption do not seem endemic in a system that relies heavily on trust.

Another thought: they are beyond the point of integration and assimilation of disparate cultures. They are who they have been for centuries. They have concerns about Muslim immigration, but their culture remains intact. In part this is the result of restrictive immigration policies — so demographics and assimilation have not yet affected traditional culture.

Finally, we are too large a country with a massive central government and too many interest groups. Collaboration is a dream. Economies of scale may work in the business place to promote efficiencies, but not in government. Smaller is better. Bigger means more bureaucracy and inefficiencies. This lends credence to conservative beliefs that a decentralized federal republic of states is the more effective form of government. Our Founders were onto something. In a sense, our states mirror those of Scandinavia with their populations from only 5 to 9 million.

As Democrat Adlai Stevenson observed, “If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog to be tethered to a ten-foot chain.

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