Wednesday, June 07, 2006

How Swede It Is

So, Sweden. Is it a socialist paradise?

In a contentious European debate marked by hostility, riots and unrest, Sweden looks like a safe bet--neutral, uncontroversial and with no natural opponents. ... The only thing British reformists and French protectionists could agree on at the EU summit in Brussels in March was that Europe should learn from the Scandinavian model's combination of generous social provisions and a high-growth economy. Sweden is seen as the proverbial "third way", combining the openness and wealth creation of capitalism with the redistribution and safety nets of socialism. It is the best of both worlds.

Or, if you lift the lid, is it a society simmering with destructive forces?

Long the paragon of social democracy, the Swedish model is rotting from within. Ironically, the unique social and economic foundation that first allowed Sweden to construct its political edifice--and which makes it such a difficult model for other countries to emulate--has been critically weakened by the system it helped create. Far from a being a solution for the new sick men of Europe, Sweden must face serious and fundamental challenges at the heart of its social model.

Well, both pictures were painted in the same article, but he's arguing for the second. And a crucial component of the tottering state of Scandinavian paradise, as the article presents it, is the unassimilated flood of Middle Eastern immigrants.

One thing I didn't realize was this:

Gunnar and Alva Myrdal were the intellectual parents of the Swedish welfare state. In the 1930s they came to believe that Sweden was the ideal candidate for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. First of all, the Swedish population was small and homogeneous, with high levels of trust in one another and the government.

The perils of provincialism; I know Gunnar Myrdal as a major player in American history, but I was only vaguely aware of his importance in his native land. He was commissioned by the Carnegie corporation to do a study of race relations in America (they reasoned, with some validity, that only an outsider could see things here plainly), and the result was the 1944 study, "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy." The "dilemma" was American virtues and ideals, on the one hand, and the poverty and ignorance of American blacks on the other.

On the one hand, his worked opened the eyes of many Northeastern liberals and set in motion a key component of the Civil Rights Movement. On the other, it midwived the destructive notion that all problems in the black community were the result of white racism. At the same time, while he sympathized with the plight of blacks (and despised Southern whites), his assessment of American blacks was frankly racist:

"Negro thinking in social and political terms is thus exclusively a thinking about the Negro problem. . . . Particularly in the lower classes, and in the Southern rural districts, the ideological structure of Negro thinking – even in its own narrow, caste-restricted realm – is loose, chaotic and rambling."

"[M]any Negroes, particularly in the South, are poor, uneducated, and deficient in health, morals, and manners; and thus not very agreeable as social companions." Blacks are "more indolent, less punctual, less careful, and generally less efficient as a functioning member of society." He is contemptuous of Christianity in general, and particularly of its practice in the black churches, which consisted of "rolling in a sawdust pit in [a] state of ecstasy, tambourine playing, reading of the future, healing of the sick, use of images of saints, footwashing, use of drums and jazz music, etc." "These 'rousements,' bring most of the congregation into some degree of 'possession.' "

And there you have it: The first major intersection of modern Europe and modern America. But what's curious is that, thanks in part to the awakening of shame that Myrdal helped spark in us, America has come a long way in its race relations since 1944. But Myrdal's Sweden now has a percentage of dark-skinned minorities that nearly matches America's black percentage in 1940, and by all accounts they are separated, segregated, a drag on the welfare state, highly unemployed, mired in an alien religion.

Since the early 1980s, Sweden has received a large number of refugees from the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, which has ended the country's homogeneity. Today, about one-seventh of the working-age population is foreign born, but no where near that proportion is actually employed. Sweden has one of the developed world's biggest differences between the labor-market participation of natives and immigrants. Many immigrant families are discouraged by the lack of job prospects and end up in welfare dependency.

Unemployment problems in turn result in de facto segregation. Despite little history of racial conflict, the labor market is more segregated than in America, Britain, Germany, France or Denmark--countries with far more troublesome racial histories than Sweden. A report from the free-market Liberal Party ahead of the election 2002 showed that more than 5 percent of all precincts in Sweden had employment levels lower than 60 percent, with much higher crime rates and inferior school results than in other places. Most of these precincts are suburban, so outsiders rarely see them. The number of segregated precincts has continued to grow. In some neighborhoods, children grow up without ever seeing someone who goes to work in the morning. Pockets of unemployment and social exclusion form, especially in areas with many non-European immigrants. When Swedes see that so many immigrants live off the government, their interest in contributing to the system fades.

Like in other parts of western Europe, the segregation of immigrant areas leads to insularity, crime and, in some cases, radicalism. Last year, Nalin Pekgul, the Kurdish chairman of the National Federation of Social Democratic Women, explained that she was forced to move out of a suburb of Stockholm because of crime and the rise of Islamic radicalism. The announcement sent shock waves through the entire political system. "A bomb waiting to explode" is one of the most common metaphors used when social exclusion in Sweden is discussed.

... The Swedish economic historian Benny Carlson recently compared the experiences of Somali immigrants in Sweden with those of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Only 30 percent had a job in Sweden, about half as many as in Minneapolis. And there are about 800 businesses run by Somalis in Minneapolis, compared to only 38 in Sweden. Carlson quoted two immigrants who together summed up the disparity. "There are opportunities here", said Jamal Hashi, who runs an African restaurant in Minneapolis. His friend, who migrated to Sweden instead, told a different story: "You feel like a fly trapped under a glass. Your dreams are shattered."