A while back, Vermont’s socialist congressman Bernie Sanders went into a frothing rage when Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan credited the United States for having “the highest standard of living in the world” at a congressional hearing.
Sanders responded, quite angrily, “No, we do not. You go to Scandinavia, and you will find that people have a much higher standard of living, in terms of education, health care and decent paying jobs. Wrong, Mister.”
Now, I’m no Nostradamus, but I feel secure in predicting that Bernie isn’t going to get his normal enjoyment out of reading the Sunday New York Times today. The Times (to my surprise and the paper’s credit) ran a really interesting and data-chocked analysis by Bruce Bawer, an American freelancer living in Oslo, Norway, comparing the standards of living for Americans and various Scandinavians. Bawer includes both telling anecdotes from his own experience:
After I moved here six years ago, I quickly noticed that Norwegians live more frugally than Americans do. They hang on to old appliances and furniture that we would throw out. And they drive around in wrecks. In 2003, when my partner and I took his teenage brother to New York – his first trip outside of Europe – he stared boggle-eyed at the cars in the Newark Airport parking lot, as mesmerized as Robin Williams in a New York grocery store in “Moscow on the Hudson.”
One image in particular sticks in my mind. In a Norwegian language class, my teacher illustrated the meaning of the word matpakke – “packed lunch” – by reaching into her backpack and pulling out a hero sandwich wrapped in wax paper. It was her lunch. She held it up for all to see.
Yes, teachers are underpaid everywhere. But in Norway the matpakke is ubiquitous, from classroom to boardroom. In New York, an office worker might pop out at lunchtime to a deli; in Paris, she might enjoy quiche and a glass of wine at a brasserie. In Norway, she will sit at her desk with a sandwich from home.
It is not simply a matter of tradition, or a preference for a basic, nonmaterialistic life. Dining out is just too pricey in a country where teachers, for example, make about $50,000 a year before taxes. Even the humblest of meals – a large pizza delivered from Oslo’s most popular pizza joint – will run from $34 to $48, including delivery fee and a 25 percent value added tax.
Not that groceries are cheap, either. Every weekend, armies of Norwegians drive to Sweden to stock up at supermarkets that are a bargain only by Norwegian standards. And this isn’t a great solution, either, since gasoline (in this oil-exporting nation) costs more than $6 a gallon.
… and a great deal of statistical analysis from several sources:
All this was illuminated last year in a study by a Swedish research organization, Timbro, which compared the gross domestic products of the 15 European Union members (before the 2004 expansion) with those of the 50 American states and the District of Columbia. (Norway, not being a member of the union, was not included.)
After adjusting the figures for the different purchasing powers of the dollar and euro, the only European country whose economic output per person was greater than the United States average was the tiny tax haven of Luxembourg, which ranked third, just behind Delaware and slightly ahead of Connecticut.
The next European country on the list was Ireland, down at 41st place out of 66; Sweden was 14th from the bottom (after Alabama), followed by Oklahoma, and then Britain, France, Finland, Germany and Italy. The bottom three spots on the list went to Spain, Portugal and Greece.
Alternatively, the study found, if the E.U. was treated as a single American state, it would rank fifth from the bottom, topping only Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia and Mississippi.
As a native of Alabama and current resident of Georgia, I must admit that I take no small satisfaction in the last. Continuing:
In short, while Scandinavians are constantly told how much better they have it than Americans, Timbro’s statistics suggest otherwise. So did a paper by a Swedish economics writer, Johan Norberg.
Contrasting “the American dream” with “the European daydream,” Mr. Norberg described the difference: “Economic growth in the last 25 years has been 3 percent per annum in the U.S., compared to 2.2 percent in the E.U. That means that the American economy has almost doubled, whereas the E.U. economy has grown by slightly more than half. The purchasing power in the U.S. is $36,100 per capita, and in the E.U. $26,000 – and the gap is constantly widening.”
Believe it or not, there’s plenty more. Read the whole thing, and try to imagine Sanders’ apoplexy as he was flipping through the Times this morning…