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The Almost Nearly Perfect People:
Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

by Michael Booth, published in 2014

Michael Booth is a British journalist who married a Dane, lived in Denmark and did four years of research for this book, including travel to Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. He wanted a picture of the Nordic region not with the glow of a promised land. He managed to write a book, according to Ian Thomson of The Guardian, that was "informative, if strenuously humorous."

Booth looks out his window on an April morning and sees a dark, wet, dull, flat Denmark. He writes that of the fifty or so nationalities that he has encountered traveling the world, the Danes are in the bottom quarter in visible joyfulness. He wonders about the Danes scoring high in happiness surveys and the media describing Denmark as "the happiest place in the world.

Booth acknowledges that Danes were on top of a European Union well-being survey, that more than two-thirds of the thousands of Danes polled claimed to be "very satisfied" with their lives. He mentions that good health is instrumental to happiness but that the Danes haven't scored well regarding their health. Their cancer rate is comparatively high and they have a high level of alcohol consumption — higher than "the boozy Finns". (Danes rank 47th in life expectancy in the CIA's World Factbook, behind the US, which ranks 43rd).

So what's going on? Apparently there is a connection between happiness, well-being and being satisfied with one's life. Booth points also to the claim that there is a relationship between economic equality and happiness. And he writes about sociability and trust among the Danes. Booth describes the Danes as "arguably the most sociable people on earth." He writes of the Danish think tank Mandag Morgen describing the Danes as belonging to "more associations, clubs, unions, societies, and groups, and [as having] larger social networks than any other nationality."

Regarding economic equality, the CIA's World Factbook has Denmark doing well in the distribution of family income (the Gini Index): Denmark has a score of 29, Sweden leads with a score of 24.9, Finland scores 27.2, Norway 26.8, Iceland 28. The US score is 45, the 39th worse among the nations of the world (higher scores equals less equal). Morse doesn't give us these figures, but his book suggests that people in societies with a better distribution of wealth are less stressed about class and status differences or politics. Writes Booth writes that the Danes are informal and "do not generally appreciate heated discussions when they gather socially." They just want to enjoy each other's company.

Booth describes greater trust as contributing to Denmark's economic success. Denmark has wealthy capitalists. It has a market economy with a lot of public sector activity, a lot of investment in people, and something like 50 percent working in the public sector. Booth writes that "The Danes have the highest tax rates in the world, both direct and indirect." There is individuality, diversity in opinion - certainly none of the conformity in Stalin's Soviet Union. Taxes are not seen as robbery. Booth quotes an editor of a Danish weekly newspaper describing "a matter of pride to say 'I pay a lot of taxes'" that it's a status gesture" as well as a community responsibility.

Booth writes of Denmark's Liberal Alliance party calling for tax reduction, but "they won a measly 5 percent of the vote at the last election." (Denmark's biggest political party is the Social Democrats, and their coalition government was replaced in 2015 by a center-right coalition, but —surprise— the new government isn't significantly changing the personal tax rate of around 56 percent, and that rate is expected to remain to 2020, compared to 37 percent generally in the US.) The Danes, of course, are voting freely in accordance with their experience.

Booth describes the Danes as appreciating the safety net of their welfare state and the way most things function well in their country. They appreciate "all the free time they have." And not feeling pushed to have Denmark appear as king of the hill, according to Booth they are not taking seriously the claim that they are the "happiness champions."

Denmark takes up around a third of Booth's book. Iceland, Norway, Finland and finally Sweden are described to some extent by personality and cultural differences. All are high tax countries and rank well on happiness indexes (ranked by Wikipedia as the top four in happiness for the year 2018). Booth describes these societies as like Denmark in ranking high for equality of opportunity.

The book tells us about the benefits of security and equality in societies not striving for collectivism, where people have foibles and not striving for conformity, where one can feel free like the Swedish actress Greta Garbo, famous for saying, "I just want to be alone."


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