Monday, November 23, 2015

Bernie Sanders and Social Democrats

Marathon, Florida

Presidential candidate, and fellow Vermont resident, Bernie Sanders gave a big speech last week about what socialism means. I think that Libby and I should share our experiences as Americans living in the socialist paradise Sweden under a Social Democratic regime in the 70s and 80s..

Yes, the taxes were high. On my $42,000 salary, I had to pay 60% total income tax, and 83% marginal tax. On the money left over after taxes, we had to pay 26% sales tax on all purchases. Ouch.

But there were financial benefits too. We had a mortgage on our house from the Swedish State that had a negative interest rate. That's right, after the first month, instead of a payment notice, they sent me a check. That blew my mind. 

I also got to rent a slip for my boat at the city marina for only $1.50 per year! 

One day a check (called barnbigraget) arrived in the mail on day with a notice, “Buy some new school clothes for your children.” Libby was deeply offended by that, so she sent the check back. Our Swedish friends were horrified. They said, “You can't send the check back.” 

In a nutshell, the essence of socialism is to tax heavily, but then to return most of the money in the form of benefits that the government thinks you should have.

But to enjoy those benefits, you must conform. Food and obesity was unfavored so food costs were very high. Outdoor exercise was favored and subsidized. Boating outdoor activity was favored and subsidized, motorcycle outdoor activity is not favored and penalized. Government committees in Stockholm decide what to subsidize and penalize.

Yes they did have universal free health care, but it had flaws. It was biased against immigrants. If you felt sick and called the number to request a doctor's appointment, you talked with an agent with a script that somehow always seemed to end with “Take two aspirin. You don't need a doctor.” Native Swedes, masters of the language and the culture, would cut off the script reader at the start. They would say, “Shut up. Cut the crap and make the appointment,” and it worked. Immigrants struggling with the language had a very hard time doing that. You were also not entitled to second opinions. If you doctor said that you are not ill, it could be nearly impossible to obtain permission to consult a second doctor, and private doctors were almost nonexistent.  People desperate for second opinions flew to England at their own expense.

To us, the dominance of group welfare over individual welfare was sometimes jarring. For example, there is a Swedish word, lagom, that means “good enough but not too good.” Swedes aspire to lagom whereas Americans aspire to excellence (lagom rejects excellence). We were shocked to learn that the schools deliberately neglected the smartest kids so that they could not excel over the average. We were also shocked to hear on the news one day that one of the hospitals was closing for the vacation month because they couldn't find volunteers to work over the vacation period. Patients were told “If you are still alive in August, you are welcome back.” I am not making that up. The Swedes valued their family vacation collective rights more than the rights of the small number of sick patients. The balance between collective versus individual rights is very different in a social democratic system.

But here's the real crux. Libby first put her finger on it. One day at home, she and I were discussing socialism. Libby said, “The most objectionable part is the loss of freedom. Government committees in Stockholm decide how I must run my life, and I resent that.” The next day at work, I mentioned Libby's statement to my friends. They all said, “We have no problem with that. We have total confidence that those people in Stockholm would make exactly the same decisions we would if we sat on the committee.” “Aha,” I thought, “That's the secret; a homogeneous society where everyone thinks alike.” In America where we are very (very very) diverse in our views, values and aspirations. That would never work.

Since we left Sweden, much has changed for the worse. They realized that too high tax rates were counterproductive, so they cut the total and marginal taxes to roughly the same as here in the USA. Also, a wave of immigrants (Sweden is very generous in taking refugees.), have introduced a major heterogeneous element to the society; about 15% of the population. That strained the whole system to the breaking point. 

From what we learned listening to Radio Sweden news every weekday, the excellent schools have become crap, the excellent training for immigrants is trashed. The health care system has degraded so much that native Swedes are reportedly stampeding to buy private health care to avoid depending on the free system. In an infamous incident, it was revealed that Stockholm with 800,000 people sometimes has only two ambulances on duty. A man having a heart attack called 911, and was refused ambulance transport by the script readers.  They told him with only two ambulances, they were forced to prioritize and that he should walk to the hospital or take a taxi.  He died the next day. I interpret all that as evidence in support of the premise that socialism works only for extremely homogeneous societies where there is near unanimity in every issue, and nearly uniform spectrum of needs and values, as little as 15% dissimilar people crashed the whole system.

Europeans criticize the American health care system because money is so essential to access to the care.  But Radio Sweden reported that in today's Sweden having a doctor or hospital administrator friend was the key to access.  In the USA we call that kissing the ass of the powerful.  That is the socialist free health care system today.

So, in light of the above, I think that Bernie Sanders' proposals could never succeed in America. Instead of being homogeneous, Americans seem to be divided nearly 50-50 into increasingly polarized liberal-conservative world views. America is about as heterogeneous as is possible.


  1. Excellent post, Dick---
    Thank you.
    Portland, OR

  2. Dick, interesting read. Healthcare however can't be all that bad in Sweden since their life expectancy is higher than us and their infant mortality is less than half that of the US. Education system seems to have gone downhill recent PISA test scores suggest they're down as low as we are so that's not very good. Poverty in Sweden seems to be nearly non-existent compared to us at 15%. But I guess the poor people here are that way because of their own doing.

    1. "But I guess the poor people here are that way because of their own doing."

      Whoa! That was an uncalled-for mean-spirited low blow.


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