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The Most Civilized Country.
May 17, 2008 10:55 PM   Subscribe

The Most Civilized Country. Fascinating article challenging conventional notions of how best to have a society.

"Best" being defined by what makes people happy and empowered, mind you. Makes me feel my own country and culture isn't such hot shit after all. Pretty much a dismal failure, by comparison...
posted by five fresh fish (78 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is a largely pagan country, as the natives like to see it, unburdened by the taboos that generate so much distress elsewhere. That means they are practical people. Which, in turn, means lots of divorces.

No argument there.
posted by Avenger at 11:30 PM on May 17, 2008


Well, if you went around and talked to ivy-leaguers at Harvard and Stanford you might come away with the idea that the United States is an awesome place too. I mean, the statistics are pretty accurate, but the article is a bit slanted. The people he interviewed are all A-type, very successful people. It's like he didn't even make an effort to find out about whatever social problems might exist.

Still, I don't doubt their model is pretty good. And the social taboos I do think get in the way of good public policy here in the U.S.
posted by delmoi at 11:41 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


No hardworking, white, bitter people in Iceland?
posted by orthogonality at 11:43 PM on May 17, 2008


It's like he didn't even make an effort to find out about whatever social problems might exist.

Well, that's true. I do note that even as I read it I was thinking "winters there would literally be the death of me." Groovy that they've got their social thing working so well, but it's still Iceland.

More it down to the Caribbean and I'm all in!

i suppose the unhappy types end up offing themselves the first winter in. the island population is probably very self-selecting...
posted by five fresh fish at 11:46 PM on May 17, 2008


Hey! I prefer winter, and cold grey days, so I'm suffering here. The only good thing to be said about a society in a warmer clime are fresh vegetables and scantily clothed women.
Also, I've heard it said that Greenland was so named to attract immigrants, Iceland, to repel them and keep the natural wonderland private. (or so says my Swedish sister-in-law)
posted by dawson at 12:00 AM on May 18, 2008


I was listening to Clive Anderson on the radio the other day, and he made an off-hand remark that went something like, 'Everything is always better in Canada or Sweden', meaning that these are the countries that are usually held up here in the UK as models of rationality and civilized practice. I guess now we can also add Iceland to the list, but it's curious that they're all such cold places. Maybe there's something about freezing your tits off that encourages empathy and social responsibility?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:04 AM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Too bad the language is so difficult
posted by maxyRO at 1:14 AM on May 18, 2008


True, Icelandic is an impossible thing. Purely impossible. Learning to say "luggage" almost killed me. I had to rest my tongue for two days. I took up Swedish instead, which is easy to pronounce by comparison.

I think living in a brutally cold place results in a society that's all about careful planning and hard work, punctuated by very serious partying. Knowing the long winter is coming means you have to be that much more thoughtful with what you use the summer to accomplish. And when you live to be 80 as Icelanders do on average, perhaps you feel liberated to take several advanced degree and become a poet, a lawyer, and a diesel mechanic.

Weather is just stuff that falls from the sky. But civilization? That's the real deal.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:48 AM on May 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


Sounds like Sweden to me, only more so.

(I spent a week in Gothenberg a couple of years ago. It was ... weird. Took a couple of days for what was wrong to click with me: then I realised — there were no beggars, no obviously poor people, and barely any graffiti or signs of vandalism. (A couple of tags on walls around the university area, that was it.) The whole place was rich and prosperous and neat and well-maintained in a way that makes the UK (or anywhere I've been in the USA) feel down-at-heel and blighted by poverty.

It is not nice to realize that you come from a poor neighbourhood.

(I get a little of the same feeling in Japan and that part of Germany I've visited, but it was at its most pronounced in Sweden; these people have gotten something very right, that the rest of us are groping around for or, worse, are vehemently denying is even possible.)
posted by cstross at 2:20 AM on May 18, 2008 [11 favorites]


One of the most depressing things I've read, a few years ago, was someone talking about their time in Sweden, with kids parks were there are ride-on toys left around and whatnot. The author, a Kiwi, noted that people were genuinely bemused when she asked them how many go missing.

I know what would happen to toys left in a park here. If the kids were lucky they'd get stolen. If they weren't they'd be asking their parents why they get smashed up.
posted by rodgerd at 2:36 AM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


these people have gotten something very right
It's called socialism. In the UK we had to manufacture lots of black propaganda and threaten a military coup in the early 1970s to prevent it.
posted by Abiezer at 3:11 AM on May 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


I was listening to Clive Anderson on the radio the other day, and he made an off-hand remark that went something like, 'Everything is always better in Canada or Sweden', meaning that these are the countries that are usually held up here in the UK as models of rationality and civilized practice. I guess now we can also add Iceland to the list, but it's curious that they're all such cold places. Maybe there's something about freezing your tits off that encourages empathy and social responsibility?

I think this is pretty bang on. If Canada treated its working class the same way England treats its working class they would all be dead.

I also think the cold causes people to up their standards as well. No way could British plumbing, heating, or construction exist in Canada or any other cold country.

-32C with windchill focuses the mind.
posted by srboisvert at 3:19 AM on May 18, 2008


Freezes your extremities off (metaphorically and literally)
posted by acrobat at 3:42 AM on May 18, 2008


...your protuberances also
posted by acrobat at 4:05 AM on May 18, 2008


Well, if you went around and talked to ivy-leaguers at Harvard and Stanford you might come away with the idea that the United States is an awesome place too.

Delmoi, one of the ppl they interviewed was Asvaldur Andresson. His background:
He left school at 12 and went to work on a fishing boat amid the icy storms of the Arctic circle's southern edge. His sister died of whooping cough at the age of three, and when his father died, Asvaldur, then 16, was out at sea, so he did not find out about it until after the burial. He worked 16-hour days all his life to keep his family fed.
Asvaldur, who was born in 1928 in a fishing town in Iceland's wild far east called Seydisfjordur, emigrated west to Reykjavik at the end of the war and found a job as a bus driver at the US base. After that, following long hours of hard night-time study, he spent most of his life as a refurbisher of bashed-up cars.
Hardly the comfortable life of an Ivy-leaguer. But he seems pretty proud of his country too and feels that it has done very well over his lifetime.

posted by Sitegeist at 4:09 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, that article seems to gush about the banking system, but we've been worried about Iceland for a while, and for lots of reasons. Its been a while since I've run the numbers (looking at other trades recently), but the quantitative data shouldn't be that different, while my subjective comments are current.

So lets see - first alarm bell, Credit Default Swaps (CDS) protecting against default by Kaupthing, Iceland's largest bank, are priced about seven times that similar European institutions (e.g., RBS). Glitnir and Landsbanki are also much higher than you'd expect. I've presented some Bloomberg data below summarising the markets view as of April.

Second, both Moody's and S&P have placed Iceland's banking sector on review, with implications of downgrades.

Third, Iceland just hiked their base rate to 15%, and in doing so took it up by 125 bps. That's right, a 1.25% single increase in rates (we could hear the squeals as far away as London). Not good.

Fourth, Icelandic banks have been marketing heavily into the UK, paying much higher rates than UK banks. For example, Kaupthing's pays 6.5% AER on a demand account, while HSBC pays 5.75% AER on a three year deposit.

So the relative rates are telling you the Icelandic banks are desperate to attract funds. Of concern here: the FSA hasn't taken a definitive stand on the protection of funds should one of these banks default. Last time I checked, this was still under review. So should it emerge that UK investor's funds are NOT protected, more conservative folks will be pulling out. Should one bank default and take UK investor funds with it, its a safe bet that a much, much larger number of UK investors will take their funds out.

Fifth, looking at their economic record, Iceland has skirted recession since 1992. As we're all aware of the inevitability of The Business Cycle, that's another alarm bell.

And finally, what may be the nail in the coffin, The krona has lost about 22% against The Euro since the start of the year, with the markets awash in rumours that several hedge funds are now unwinding very, very large structured positions using the krona. For example, a fund can borrow in Japan at 0.5% then invest the proceeds in krona based trades paying 15%, easy money! I talked about The Carry Trade and a 2006 krona collapse here

So all in all, while the article admits some concerns about the countries financial condition, its a pretty fluffy piece in that regard.

On the other hand, the market is telling you that Iceland's economy is gonna crash, unless something changes.
__________________________
Worst CDS Ratings, number reflects periodic cost of insuring one million dollars against default
  1. 1. Kaupthing 833.3
  2. Kazkommerts 766.3
  3. Glitnir Bank 757.5
  4. IKB 612.4
  5. Landsbanki 604.6
  6. Banca Italease 397.3
  7. Anglo Irish Bank 322.7
  8. VTB Bank 332.5
  9. HBOS 236.7
  10. Sberbank 221.2
  11. West LB 212.5
  12. UBS 209.0
  13. Bank of Ireland 202.5
  14. Natixis 201.2
  15. Allied Irish Banks 195.8
  16. Dexia 195.3
  17. RBS 191.7
Source: Bloomberg 1/4/2008

posted by Mutant at 4:12 AM on May 18, 2008 [34 favorites]


I always suspected you MetaFilterers were "Guardian" People....I read an article I like in the Observer, then go on the internet to see what people think of it...and here it is, already being debated.
posted by Claypole at 4:16 AM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


cstross writes "Sounds like Sweden to me, only more so.... (I get a little of the same feeling in Japan and that part of Germany I've visited"

An obvious similarity in all three is, compared to the US or the UK, a greater racial and cultural homogeneity, as un-PC as that is to mention.
posted by orthogonality at 4:19 AM on May 18, 2008 [7 favorites]


orthogonality - un-PC perhaps, but possibly true in some cases. A lot of what makes great social service systems work is the assumption that everyone is willing to contribute, and that everyone in the system shares your beliefs and values. And it helps if they look like you too.

Some links:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/jul/18/communities.guardiansocietysupplement
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/happiness_formula/5012478.stm
posted by rhys at 5:15 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


... there were no beggars, no obviously poor people, and barely any graffiti or signs of vandalism. ... I get a little of the same feeling in ... that part of Germany I've visited

If I may ask, which part was that? In the part that I live in, graffiti is everywhere, beggars and obviously poor people are common, and vandalism and theft are real problems. And it is worse in the large cities like Cologne or Berlin. Coming from a small (120k) city in southwestern Indiana, it was a real culture shock for me. I get a general impression that the middle and lower middle classes are better off in Germany than in the US, but the things you describe are much more in view here than in many parts of the US I've lived in.
posted by moonbiter at 5:18 AM on May 18, 2008


One of the most depressing things I've read, a few years ago, was someone talking about their time in Sweden, with kids parks were there are ride-on toys left around and whatnot. The author, a Kiwi, noted that people were genuinely bemused when she asked them how many go missing.

Ditto Denmark. I was just in Copenhagen for a few days last week, which has I think Europe's highest percentage of bicycling commuters (something like 36 percent of Copenhagen's labour force gets to work by bike). The bike lanes are often raised and differently surfaced and there are dedicated bike traffic lights, and every major subway station is completely surrounded by a tarmac covered in parked bikes.

I was walking toward the main train station through the vast sea of bikes when I noticed something so odd I stopped and all but cartoonishly rubbed my eyes to make sure I'd gotten it right. I had: at most half of the bikes were locked up in any way, and many of those that were had simple spoke locks built into the bike itself (i.e. they weren't locked to anything).

The train station, by the way, abuts a fairly rough-and-tumble neighbourhood (by Danish standards).

The organized bike-theft syndicates that absolutely plagued my smallish Canadian university town would've had a field day. I had to conclude that there simply wasn't any significant bike theft in Copenhagen.
posted by gompa at 5:23 AM on May 18, 2008


mutant, the emergency loan business is a bit worrying too

The offer of aid from neighbors ``will help stabilize the financial markets, but not the basic imbalances of the Icelandic economy,'' said Lars Christensen, senior emerging markets strategist at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen.
posted by infini at 5:32 AM on May 18, 2008


Lots o' white people. Yes indeed, orthogonality, everybody seems to be overlooking the ethnic homogeneity of Iceland (and to a much lesser extent, Sweeden), as a factor in all these good feelings. Ethnic homogeneity can be a good thing, sometimes. Sometimes diversity is a good thing. It's very situational.
posted by Faze at 5:45 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


sounds to me like the meth dealers have yet to discover iceland.
posted by kitchenrat at 6:21 AM on May 18, 2008


orthogonality: Munich. (And yes, there was rather more graffiti and rather less of the high level of prosperity there than in Gothenburg; I was comparing the relative prosperity there to the UK, however.)
posted by cstross at 6:30 AM on May 18, 2008


Ah, good point infini, I hadn't seen that - thanks for posting. I was hoping maybe they'd get the economy under control, but your link's sources seem pretty certain about a recession. Hopefully it won't be too long and deep.
posted by Mutant at 6:31 AM on May 18, 2008


If I may ask, which part was that? In the part that I live in, graffiti is everywhere, beggars and obviously poor people are common, and vandalism and theft are real problems. And it is worse in the large cities like Cologne or Berlin. Coming from a small (120k) city in southwestern Indiana, it was a real culture shock for me. I get a general impression that the middle and lower middle classes are better off in Germany than in the US, but the things you describe are much more in view here than in many parts of the US I've lived in.

I'd wager he went to Munich. On preview, yes. Even though I live in a lower-income neighborhood in Nuremberg, I've become so accustomed to walking around on safe, fairly clean streets that going back to the US for a visit was a huge culture shock.

There isn't a great deal of graffiti or vandalism or litter, and I've only seen a handful of beggars at the train station. Not much obvious poverty, either; all I've seen is one old man asking for kleingeld who has apparently fallen through the social safety net. Even the dodgy looking teenagers leave everyone alone!
posted by cmonkey at 6:39 AM on May 18, 2008


There's actually something to the "freezing your tits off" theory, to the homogeneity and the socialism. If you have a society where your survival directly depends on that of your neighbors, where the "us v. them" is minimized by the homogeneity and where you have minimized economic inequities, you do maximize empathy and social support.

In the US, we glorify economic disparities (the poor deserve to be poor), lionize independence (the cowboy, etc.) and therefore think taking care of people is "codependent" and "enabling" rather than kind. We end up with all manner of tough love, high crime and lots of difficulties connecting to each other, not to mention a crappy public education system and little support for child-rearing and families.
posted by Maias at 6:51 AM on May 18, 2008 [14 favorites]


Open your eyes, people: the elves have you all hoodwinked.
posted by gerryblog at 7:04 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


According to a seemingly serious academic study reported in the Guardian in 2006 . . .

FAIL
posted by obvious at 7:18 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I was also going to say "Munich".

Even here in Berlin, while there's certainly a fuck-ton of graffiti on every surface, there's little crime, especially considering the high unemployment rates. In the summer I can walk through the park at night without fear. There are lots of beggars but no-one's ever afraid of them and as far as I can tell the only ones who are literally homeless are a few illegal immigrants and a few of those too confused or insane for even the most basic level of self-advocacy...

A little bit of welfare state goes a long way.
posted by creasy boy at 7:29 AM on May 18, 2008


I had a brief holiday in Iceland last year, and it certainly seemed like a nice, civilized place.

But that article seems a little bit rose-tinted. People do get depressed in the winter, the cost of living is high, young graduates find it difficult to find professional jobs.

I think there's actually surprisingly little that small, sparsely-populated countries with homogenous populations can teach large, densely-populated countries with diverse populations.

Small countries can do really well by specializing in certain sectors and industries: mobile phones in Finland (pop. 5 million), aluminium in Iceland (pop 300,000). If you're a large nation you can't really create jobs for a significant fraction of people by specializing in one sector.

Similarly, sparse populations mean that you can have lots of cheap land, and cheap relatively housing. Nice for them, not a lot of use for us.

Iceland's very racially and culturally homogenous after being settled by small groups. Here in the UK, different peoples have been kicking the shit out of each other for 1,500 years or so since the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes decided they hated each other at least as much as the Celts.

Reykjavik's a nice city. But if it had seven million inhabitants instead of 130,000 it would be a different place entirely.

In short, there's not much we can do to benefit from learning about them. I suggest we raid them and loot their monasteries instead.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:31 AM on May 18, 2008 [8 favorites]


There's actually something to the "freezing your tits off" theory, to the homogeneity and the socialism.

you do realize that winters in new england, the upper midwest and other u s places are just as cold as many places in canada and scandanavia, right?

i don't think you can blame it on the weather
posted by pyramid termite at 7:37 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite - well, coming from the northeast, when I think of new england and the upper midwest, I think white and liberal. This may not be so true anymore, but I bet it wouldn't be so true anymore in Iceland if it was connected to the mainland and had an open immigration policy. So I don't think the weather should be ruled out just yet.
posted by rhys at 7:52 AM on May 18, 2008


There's a whole bunch of inaccuracies in the article. I see that mutant's done a good job expounding upon the sorry state of the Icelandic banking system. Here's one thing I disagree with:

Does nobody worry about losing the Icelandic language, when, after all, so few people speak it? 'Not at all,' declares Svafa. 'Our language is safe.' Not prey to the nationalist neuroses of other small countries (though practically none are smaller than Iceland), Iceland's obsession is with embracing the world, not fearing it.

Yes, the Icelandic language is perfectly safe (being surrounded by hundreds of miles of Atlantic ensures that. However, Icelanders are incredibly neurotic about language. Icelanders welcome linguistic diversity with the same enthusiasm as New Englanders discovering a family of skunks living in their basement.

Similarly, casual racism is accepted. People will maybe argue against the casual racism, but there's none of the opprobrium that would greet it in the US. This isn't something that's delineated by class or anything like that, casual racism exists among educated as well as uneducated, rich as well as poor. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not all-pervasive, but it's there. Recently there's been a huge uproar about taking in a very small amount of refugees, 60 people, mostly single mothers from Palestine and their children.

So... Iceland's certainly got nationalistic neuroses.

That said... yeah, Iceland's a good place to live. I currently choose to live in the US, but I'm certainly not running away from Iceland, I just wanted to live somewhere else for a while. Nice place, but no paradise.

For a good depiction of what it's like to live in Reykjavík, either read the novel 101 Reykjavík (by Hallgrímur Helgason, mentioned in the article) or watch the movie adaptation of it by Baltasar Kormákur (also mentioned in the article).
posted by Kattullus at 8:06 AM on May 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


Oh yeah... let me also mention that winters in New England are a helluvalot colder than winters in Reykjavík. Usually the temperature hovers around freezing during winter.
posted by Kattullus at 8:09 AM on May 18, 2008


TheophileEscargot: Small countries can do really well by specializing in certain sectors and industries: mobile phones in Finland (pop. 5 million), aluminium in Iceland (pop 300,000). If you're a large nation you can't really create jobs for a significant fraction of people by specializing in one sector.

Could you perhaps specialize in more than one sector in a larger country? Also, note that the aluminum industry in Iceland does not require a particularly large amount of labour, nor does the cell phone industry in Finland employ a significant fraction of the population.

Similarly, sparse populations mean that you can have lots of cheap land, and cheap relatively housing. Nice for them, not a lot of use for us.

Housing is not at all cheap in Iceland.

I think there's actually surprisingly little that small, sparsely-populated countries with homogenous populations can teach large, densely-populated countries with diverse populations.

I think you'll find there is surprisingly little you can learn about anything if you spend your time making up reasons why it isn't worth your time to learn anything.
posted by ssg at 9:04 AM on May 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them and, likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody for the children will be shared.

This is an interesting twist. One of the biggest complaints that you hear from divorced men is how often the ex-wife gets full custody, while the men must make child support payments for a number of years. Perhaps if shared custody were the norm in the US, people would be less likely to stay in bad marriages, and more likely to work together after the marriage had ended.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:59 AM on May 18, 2008


I think there's actually surprisingly little that small, sparsely-populated countries with homogenous populations can teach large, densely-populated countries with diverse populations.

I see this argument floated a lot by US commentators when discussing the Canadian welfare state or socialist models in general. Really though I have never seen anything to indicate that socialist models aren't scalable to larger countries. The US doesn't reject socialism because its too diverse; any big Canadian city has lots of cultural diversity and has two official languages, it doesn't reject socialism because Canada has a less violent and turbulent history (it doesn't, as Canadians participated in all kinds of wars as the British Empire, all kinds of 20th century conflicts and Afghanistan today), and the weather in most North American regions doesn't change much when you cross the 49th - when its tits freezing cold in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, its also tits freezing cold in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota; the people on the American side just suffer more or leave to somewhere else. The US rejects socialist models because they don't like them; corporate interests carry the influence.
posted by Deep Dish at 10:08 AM on May 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I see this argument floated a lot by US commentators when discussing the Canadian welfare state or socialist models in general.

Well, that's silly, since Canada has about as many people as California.

But at the same time, it's also sort of silly to compare Iceland, which has the population of a large town or small city, overwhelming homogeneity, and loads of free energy to any large country. There aren't many social lessons to be drawn from Iceland that have useful application to countries with long-standing and often unpleasant racial heterogeneity. There aren't a lot of energy or economic lessons you can draw from Iceland that are applicable to countries that don't literally have steam falling out of the ground.

On the other hand, Canada is pretty fucking far from socialist. Apart from single-payer health care, the differences between the Canadian and US welfare states are marginal.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 AM on May 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


But at the same time, it's also sort of silly to compare Iceland, which has the population of a large town or small city, overwhelming homogeneity, and loads of free energy to any large country. There aren't many social lessons to be drawn from Iceland that have useful application to countries with long-standing and often unpleasant racial heterogeneity.

I'm reading a lot about race in this thread and I'm not really sure why. Does anyone have any evidence that racial heterogeneity within a country causes (or even correlates with) specific social attitudes towards divorce, child custody, education, maternity leave, multilingualism, or any other issues that are dealt with in the article? I'd think that, in general, the correlation runs the other way (i.e. more "traditional", conservative societies are less likely to encourage immigration, especially from other racial groups).
posted by ssg at 11:09 AM on May 18, 2008


A beatiful icebox in the middle of nowhere with a population much smaller than Staten Island manages to have a charming little system where a lot of people seem to be "empowered".

Good luck transplanting that interesting model in an actual industrialised country with different geography, a population 100 or 1,000 times larger, massive immigration, etc.
posted by matteo at 11:15 AM on May 18, 2008


I'm reading a lot about race in this thread and I'm not really sure why.

I think the thesis is that people are more inclined to provide more social support to members of their own tribe. It's the whole 'charity begins at home' meme.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:15 AM on May 18, 2008


Depressed people don't step forward and give journalists a nice printable speech about how depressed they are. And even if you corner one and ask "how's it going?" they will say "fine" even if they want to die. So happiness gets over-reported and it's easy to get the impression that country x or person x is a lot happier than they actually are.
Also inhabitants of a small patriotic country like Iceland are unlikely to say anything bad about their own country to a foreign journalist. They will try and put a positive spin on everything.
I called bullshit the second they correlated divorce with happiness.
Man, I wish that part was true.
posted by w0mbat at 11:22 AM on May 18, 2008


Apart from single-payer health care, the differences between the Canadian and US welfare states are marginal.

Really? For one, I think the education systems are world apart. In Canada, I don't know anyone who didn't attend a public school (it is possible, I imagine there are a few). I don't know too many people who received a particularly shabby education from them either.

Some stuff doesn't happen in every province but there are plenty of examples of socialist or partially socialized industries:

Prescription Drugs. Where I live a retired person doesn't pay more than $15 bucks for any drug. If that happens in the States what were Abe Simpson, Homer and Mister Burns going to Winnipeg for?

Public auto-insurance. People tend to feel they have been better served by pubically owned auto-insurance here (well at least it is cheaper where it exists)

Naturally resources. Canada tends to think of timber and oil as property of the crown. You either need to buy license or pay royalties to extract it. Not all the wealth goes to bankers and industry.

Phone Companies, Public Utilities exist or used to exist in most provinces. They provide these services even to remote and unprofitable areas.

Home heating rebates, not provided by Hugo Chavez

Yes Canada does have a population the size of California but I addressed this in my first sentence, I have never seen any evidence that socialist models aren't scalable to larger countries. Can you show me any evidence that a large scale socialist system causes diseconomies of scale?
posted by Deep Dish at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


It doesn't seem like the Icelandic or Scandinavian models in general are applicable to other countries. Iceland and Scandinavia have extremely favorable conditions for a peaceful society. Consider:

Very low cultural and racial diversity (little racial and cultural conflict)
Buckets of natural resources (free money)
Sparse population (more resources and land per capita)
Little or no military (no militaristic/imperialistic mindset, no PTSD'd veterans, insignificant defense spending)
Already fully developed (little poverty)
Well respected internationally

(Note that most of these are also true of Canada, although it has a bit more diversity and military)

I don't think you can just export their models, particularly their economic models, to countries where these things don't hold true and expect it to work. I do support European-style socialism in the US though.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:55 AM on May 18, 2008


creasy boy writes "Even here in Berlin,... In the summer I can walk through the park at night without fear."

So you're not a Turk, then?
posted by orthogonality at 12:02 PM on May 18, 2008


Has anyone ever done a serious study of culture vs. weather? After spending some time in Finland, I'm convinced that their life in the 19th century pre-selected them for quiet, cooperative, unassuming amiability.

After all, if you weren't those things, living 20 to a house in 4 months of frigid nighttime, you probably had an 'accident'.

Shared adversity is good for human culture and spirit. It's too bad that we've succeeded so well in overcoming natural adversity that we're flipping the entire earth's climate.
posted by anthill at 12:12 PM on May 18, 2008


A nice thing our president (Finland) said, that summarizes how Nordic countries see it, roughly translated: "As a small country, we cannot afford to give up on anyone." Big countries need to find some other reason, but the later part of the sentence should hold. "As a moral imperative, we cannot afford to give up on anyone", anyone?
posted by Free word order! at 12:32 PM on May 18, 2008


I'm reading a lot about race in this thread and I'm not really sure why. Does anyone have any evidence that racial heterogeneity within a country causes (or even correlates with) specific social attitudes towards divorce, child custody, education, maternity leave, multilingualism, or any other issues that are dealt with in the article?

Well, as a thought experiment, imagine dropping 1000 conservative Iraqis in Iceland and see how that stirs the pot.
posted by rodgerd at 1:09 PM on May 18, 2008


I don't particularly care to get into a US/Canada pissing match. My point was that if you line up the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland on a dimension of social-welfare-state-ness, Canada is going to be an awful lot closer to the US and UK than it is to any of the Scandinavian countries. Whatever differences you see between the US and Canada are dwarfed by the yawning chasm between Canada and actually social-democratic or socialist states.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:10 PM on May 18, 2008


Mutant: I think you're spot on about Iceland living a financial fantasy. However, we don't have the benefit of even a decent progressive social system and we are in the shitter as well. In fact it may be our banking system already HAS collapsed [ link of terrifying illustration] We just haven't noticed yet.
posted by tkchrist at 1:27 PM on May 18, 2008


I was interested in the part on women's equality and the shared raising of children. I feel very strongly that US society needs to undergo a pretty fundamental shift in how we treat young women and children in order to produce more educated, cared for, healthy, financially and socially knowledgable young people capable of taking over the increasingly technical jobs that will need to be filled in 20-30 years.

Right now the vast majority of the people I know having kids are either much older (and won't be around to mentor their kids into adulthood by all odds) or don't put much of a premium on education letsjustsay. None of my women friends can afford to take time off to have a kid until they're into their 30s, and then if they can even get pregnant (about half of them can't) they are totally locked into their marital and work situation at that point. It is very, very hard to get hired for a high-powered job as a single parent.
posted by fshgrl at 1:34 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that the most significant thing in that article, and one of the keys to Iceland's success, is not climate, or banking, or "free" energy, but women's rights and prioritizing children, in a serious, not just paying lip service kind of way. Happy kids make a happy society, and content women, who are free to have their children young without sacrificing school or career, and who can trust on family and social support, makes a happy and prosperous society. Literacy, health care, free education, leave to look after children: that's what makes a civil society. Not ethnic homogeneity, or long winters. It's about what a society decides is important, and who is lets sink or swim in consequence.
posted by jokeefe at 1:35 PM on May 18, 2008 [8 favorites]


This got me thinking about the differences in how Iceland developed vs. another isolated North Atlantic island, Newfoundland. There was a post about this at a blog called The Head Heeb but it seems to be offline now, so here it is from Google's cache:
at The Head Heeb, but it seems to be offline now, so I'll copy the full text from Google's cache here:
Why Iceland and not Newfoundland?

In the emergent field of Island Studies, Iceland stands out as a highly positive example of a small isolated island society that has succeeded, admirably. Iceland's three hundred thousand inhabitants do face some problems, but by and large these are the problems of success. How can Iceland most effectively switch to a hydrogen-based economy (as detailed by Arno Kopecky in his recent article in The Walrus, "Water to Burn")? How can Icelandic inflation be restrained given the country's galloping economic growth? Is it good that Icelandic investors, flush with cash and finding nothing to buy in their homeland, have embarked on a spree of corporate buyouts in Europe?

To islanders in Atlantic Canada, used to living in some of the most economically depressed jurisdictions of North America, this is depressing. The island of Newfoundland, like Iceland, is a relatively inhospitable island in the North Atlantic famed for its fish stocks. For most of the 20th century, though, the two island nations have gone in separate directions. Where Iceland smoothly developed into an independent state throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War, Newfoundland's economic collapse prompted Britain's suspension of its statehood and eventual annexation into Canada. Where Iceland's fisheries have been carefully and aggressively managed, Newfoundland's fisheries have been famously devastated. Where Iceland is one of the richest countries in the world, Newfoundland remains the second-poorest province in Canada.

What did Iceland do right? What did Newfoundland do wrong? It all comes down, in my estimation, to the two nations' respective histories. Historically, Iceland's has been a much more homogeneous and egalitarian society than Newfoundland's, with a highly literature population united by a common language, a shared history, and political issues (the questions of self-government and nation-building, not to mention the fisheries) which galvanized the entire island. Newfoundland, for its part, has traditionally been riven by divisions: Catholic versus Protestant, outporters versus residents of the capital of St. John's, the poor versus the rich, the fishing familes versus the mercantile families. As a point of fact, in the 1948 referendum Newfoundland's pro-confederates secured their slim majority for union with Canada by invoking a Catholic threat in letters sent to the membership of the famously bigoted Protestant Orange Order. I'm tempted to conclude that the famous lack of initative taken by the Newfoundland state, whether in preventing starvation among outport children during the Great Depression or in effectively pressuring the Canadian government to regulating the Grand Banks fisheries, can ultimately be traced to this paralysis, to the fierce competition of different interest groups all demanding satisfaction. Compare, if you would, the situation of the autonomous Faroe Islands as a sort of intermediate situation, combining the self-assertion of Iceland with Newfoundland's paralysis.

Looking towards the future, it's interesting to note that although the 21st century is still young, Iceland and Newfoundland are starting to move towards a common model. Globalization is plugging Iceland ever more deeply into transnational movements, as the country's wealth has made it a destination for foreign immigration while the question of Icelandic membership in the European Union has recently been raised. Newfoundland, for its part, seems to be in the process of consolidating itself, what with the collapse of its traditional sectarianism, the recent economic boom driven by oil and natural gas, the evolution of the capital of St. John's into a prosperous metropole like Iceland's Reykjavik, and--after the tragedy of the Grand Banks cod fisheries--a new determination to control Newfoundland's natural resources. Iceland's prosperous and happy future seems to be secured, even with the complications of European Union membership and accelerated globalization. It might not be too much to hope that Newfoundland, within the Canadian confederation, might finally be catching up to its role model.
I think it's a pretty heavy indictment of the British way of doing things vs. the Nordic way.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:02 PM on May 18, 2008


What did Iceland do right? What did Newfoundland do wrong? It all comes down, in my estimation, to the two nations' respective histories.

Well, Iceland has all that easily-tapped geothermal power as well. What's your primary source of power in Newfoundland?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:42 PM on May 18, 2008


What's your primary source of power in Newfoundland?

They have these big dogs on treadmills. That's what some guy told me.
posted by tkchrist at 4:56 PM on May 18, 2008


Well, as a thought experiment, imagine dropping 1000 conservative Iraqis in Iceland and see how that stirs the pot.

Huh. I did not know that conservative Iraqis were a race.

I find it a little disturbing that "race" is repeatedly being mentioned as a factor, in preference to the word "culture," and how little the racism behind that mistake is being taken to task. Race is not a factor. How people look is not a factor. It's damn weird that any of you would even go there.

What does matter is that Iceland has solid equality and a generosity of spirit, both financially and "do your own thing"-wise. Plus that all-important focus on raising happy, healthy, smart children. A few generations of that sort of attitude, and one is suddenly living in freakin' utopia.

I am sincerely jealous. The spew upthread about how they've got all these unfair advantages is pathetic. North America isn't a land of incredible natural resources? WTF was all that fur-trading, oil-drilling, gold-rushing, fisheries, farms thing all about? No resources? That's a batshitinsane statement.

And besides which, it isn't money that's making the difference: it's their attitude toward raising their children the best way possible and living their lives to their fullest potential. The old fisherman they interviewed was all about attitude and drive.

We could have the same sort of a society. Focus on the kids, keep growing as an adult, and help others also succeed. Pretty simple.

But, no, let's pretend that it's racism and lack of resources that make it impossible. That's the ticket!
posted by five fresh fish at 6:23 PM on May 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


five fresh fish: I am sincerely jealous. The spew upthread about how they've got all these unfair advantages is pathetic. North America isn't a land of incredible natural resources? WTF was all that fur-trading, oil-drilling, gold-rushing, fisheries, farms thing all about? No resources? That's a batshitinsane statement.

I wasn't contrasting that particular factor with North America. The US is swimming in natural resources too, and we have a good quantity of them per capita (sure, we've got a lot of people, but it's a very big and very rich land we control.) However, the US also does pretty well economically. I think our natural resource abundance is a lot of the reason we were able to develop so quickly and well.

I was more contrasting that with countries which either don't possess good natural resources or dilute them out by having way too many people. Like, for example, Bangladesh.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:33 PM on May 18, 2008


Also, note that when you guys say 'The US is doing it wrong', remember, the US doesn't have one culture and doesn't do things by one method. Even among something that most people consider one culture, the middle class caucasian, many aspects of parenting are commonly taken to their diametric opposites. There's helicopter parenting vs. absentee, military strictness vs. no discipline at all, push to succeed vs. allow to be a child, bloodthirsty competition vs. everyone's a winner!, private schools vs. public, ACLU secular vs. bible-thumping. Who's doing it wrong? The statistics mix them all together and include the other very different cultures the US includes.

It is very difficult to look at the US statistics and the Icelandic statistics, compare them directly, and decide the US is doing something wrong. Who? Which groups of people? What methods?

You might get better results by comparing individual subgroups and methods.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:00 PM on May 18, 2008


Ah, gotcha. Though I suppose one could also say that North America is on the verge of losing its most important resource, ie. water. There's going to be hell to pay for draining the Ogallala.

Bangladesh has rich farming acreage and only 15 million people. Their biggest problem is not lack of resources so much as a defective government and exceptionally poor management of their resources.

If they pulled an Icelandic mode of thought, their next generation would be in a substantially better position to transition the country to one of efficient, sustainable farming and a professional, progressive governing system. Fifteen million people is smaller than some cities; given the farmland and gas resources, their nation could be sitting pretty for a long, long time.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:09 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


five fresh fish: If they pulled an Icelandic mode of thought, their next generation would be in a substantially better position to transition the country to one of efficient, sustainable farming and a professional, progressive governing system. Fifteen million people is smaller than some cities; given the farmland and gas resources, their nation could be sitting pretty for a long, long time.

Bangladesh has 2700 people per square mile. Farming is never going to give them a decent economy - if they are fantastically lucky, they may be able to feed themselves. Maybe.

While it's true some cities have even higher density, they also have high-tech industry that allows them to have a decent economy. Bangladesh is depending on the tiny amount of land they have split among an epic number of people.

They simply cannot follow the icelandic model. It would fail miserably due to poverty (also, lack of education.) What I'm saying is that lots of countries cannot follow their model, or at least won't achieve their results. Iceland is fantastically well set up to be a peaceful and pleasant place. Other countries aren't.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:31 PM on May 18, 2008


How come no one is mentioning the population issue? I mean, you're looking at three hundred thousand people vs. three hundred million. I'm sure there are tons of small chunks of America where people are all happy and wonderful. Here in Iowa things are pretty nice, most people are pretty happy, although there is poverty and no U.S. state could implement a welfare system on it's own.

And as to whether or not the geothermal power changes things, of course it does. Just think of a marriage between two poor people and two rich people. The poor couple is going to have a lot more problems, strife and fights as the rich couple.
posted by delmoi at 9:31 PM on May 18, 2008


Bangladesh has rich farming acreage and only 15 million people.

150 million people, you mean
posted by pyramid termite at 9:35 PM on May 18, 2008


The article seems to be ignoring an elephant in the room: Iceland is an amazingly homogeneous place. I can't think of many places in the U.S. that are less diverse, not even rural Maine, West Virginia, or the northern Midwest (which typically get stereotyped as some of the least-diverse places here in the 'States). There have also been historically tight immigration controls and a very low foreign-born population (6% according to the CIA, 10% some other sources).

I really have to wonder whether there isn't a link between the homogeneity and acceptance of some of their social policies. The main argument against socialism/welfare-state policies, at least the main one that I've heard over and over in the U.S., boils down to the Free Rider problem. Perhaps because so many people share the same culture, language, religion, and other core beliefs, it's easier to make assumptions about how others will act, and trust them not to abuse the system. Without that trust, people seem more inclined to try and keep whatever they can keep for themselves than to vote or agree to "common good" taxation, etc.

I'd be interested in seeing an empirical study, but it seems like there's at least a casual link between cultural/ethnic homogeneity and successful (voluntary, democratic) welfare states.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 PM on May 18, 2008


Oops. An order of magnitude difference, that. The Bangladeshi may be royally screwed, then.

As to homogeneity, Canada has several distinctly different cultures yet could pull off an Iceland if it got its act together. The problem is not one of diverse cultures; we're more or less dealing okay with that. The problem is more one of being willing to give freedom and willing to share. It's okay to have three legal systems¹ and two official languages and all that. By having a good school system, healthcare system, and employment/welfare system, we do make several long strides toward realizing that Icelandic sorta utopia.

Canada and Europe are obviousy a lot closer to it than the USA. IMO the biggest difference isn't one of demographics, but of will.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:17 PM on May 18, 2008


Perhaps because so many people share the same culture, language, religion, and other core beliefs, it's easier to make assumptions about how others will act, and trust them not to abuse the system.

Isn't this just a roundabout way of saying that certain ethnic groups have racist attitudes towards other ethnic groups in the same country, especially when one group is richer than another? Let's call it racism then, not heterogeneity.
posted by ssg at 10:19 PM on May 18, 2008


&sup1;One inherited from the British, one inherited from the French, and a developing Native justice system. Also, I just learned that &sup1; eliminates the need for fiddling with <small><sup> tags. D-oh.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:21 PM on May 18, 2008


Hey, wtf happened to my &sup1; entities? Curses! PONY!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:22 PM on May 18, 2008


² It'll always work when you just use the character directly!
posted by blasdelf at 12:18 AM on May 19, 2008


Kadin2048: I can't think of many places in the U.S. that are less diverse

Vermont is so white that it freaks me out, an Icelander. Seriously.

Also, Icelanders natter on about free riders too.

Also, viz Newfoundland... there's capital vs. outports antagonism too.
posted by Kattullus at 3:25 AM on May 19, 2008


> Isn't this just a roundabout way of saying that certain ethnic groups have racist attitudes towards other ethnic groups in the same country, especially when one group is richer than another? Let's call it racism then, not heterogeneity.

Not really, or at least not just that, because it's a broader issue than just "race" (a term that I don't really use, since I think it's invalid in any biologic sense and too imprecise to be useful in a social one, not to mention so loaded that it basically shuts down discussion). The more people feel they have in common with each other -- the more they can look at others and see themselves in the other person's position, perhaps -- the more willing people seem to be to share resources even when it's arguably to their own short-term detriment.

What I'm pointing out is merely that there seems on casual observation to be some sort of relationship between 'homogeneity' -- across a whole lot of factors, including but certainly not limited to the ones that are typically described as "racial" -- and the success of voluntary (i.e. 'soft') socialist policies. I'm not even convinced that the explicitly "racial" factors are even the most important, versus (say) shared ideology and a feeling that one person can accurately predict the actions that will be taken by someone else (this last factor being, I think, the most important, whatever it's derived from).
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:21 PM on May 19, 2008


Explain Canada, then, Kadin, which is dealing with three legal systems and umpteen cultures.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:44 AM on May 20, 2008


...and which isn't socialist or social-democratic by a long stretch, so it fits with what Kadin2048 is saying. Canada is different from the US. Canada is even more different from Norway or Sweden.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:04 AM on May 20, 2008


The more people feel they have in common with each other -- the more they can look at others and see themselves in the other person's position, perhaps -- the more willing people seem to be to share resources even when it's arguably to their own short-term detriment.

Absolutely. However, I think this has much more to do with the overall culture of a particular country than it does with the differences between cultures inside a country. US culture in general, for instance, is not much about empathy or sharing. I think you could point to a lot of reasons for that, but I don't think the heterogeneity (on whatever axes you wish) of the US population has particularly much to do with it.
posted by ssg at 1:58 PM on May 20, 2008


Canada is even more different from Norway or Sweden.

In the chats I was having f2f with a fellow in Oslo, it sure seemed that Canada and Norway were very much kindred spirits wrt the law, social welfare, healthcare, etc.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:29 PM on May 20, 2008


Well, you were wrong; it's really just that simple. Scandinavian social-welfare systems are vastly more comprehensive and generous than Canada's. This is neither rocket science nor a matter of opinion. Simply comparing percent of GDP devoted to social welfare is all you need to see:

Ireland: 13.8
US: 14.8
Japan: 16.9
Canada: 17.8

Norway: 24.3
Finland: 24.8
Belgium: 27.2
France: 28.5
Sweden: 28.9
Denmark: 29.2

It's not anything astonishing. The Anglosphere as a whole has weaker welfare states than continental Europe, by a long shot.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:16 PM on May 20, 2008


Iceland ranked most peaceful country in world by The Economist.
posted by ssg at 11:34 AM on May 21, 2008


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