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Archive for the ‘Swedem’ Category

There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

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While I mostly focus on bad government policy in the United States, I also think we can learn lessons from what’s happening in other nations.

In some cases, I share positive stories, such as the success of privatized Social Security in Australia, nationwide school choice in Sweden, and genuine spending cuts in the Baltic nations.

In most cases, though, I’m pointing out bad policy.

Some topics deserve special treatment, such as the ongoing horror story of government-run healthcare in the United Kingdom.

In other cases, though, I share one-off stories about government incompetence and stupidity.

*Such as taxpayer-financed friends for mass murderers in Norway.

*Financing a giant “Burger Boy” in the United Kingdom.

*Promoting welfare tourism in the European Union.

*Spending $30 to collect $1 of tax in Germany.

*Regulation of coffee enemas in Japan.

Today, we’re going to share more stories of feckless behavior by foreign politicians and bureaucrats.

From Canada, we learn that the government of Manitoba is micro-managing daycare lunches in such bizarre ways that a family was fined because “grains” weren’t included in their kids’ meals.

Kristin Barkiw of Rossburn, Manitoba, Canada brought two of her children home from Little Cub’s Den daycare when she saw that her kids were sent home with a note. …the message told the mom she had failed to provide a nutritionally balanced lunch for her children, 5-year-old Logan and 3-year-old Natalie.  Not only that, Kristin was fined $10, $5 per child, for missing grains in their lunch of leftover roast beef, carrots, potatoes, an orange and milk. Further, the note said that the daycare staff gave Logan and Natalie Ritz crackers to fulfill the nutritional requirement of grains, which some see as a less than nutritious option. The nutritional regulation for daycare lunches is actually law in the province. The Manitoba government’s Early Learning and Child Care lunch regulations state that daycare programs must ensure children are given a lunch with a meat, a grain, a milk product and two servings of fruit and vegetables and any missing food groups must be supplemented by the care provider.

Heaven forbid that parents actually be in charge of what their kids eat!

You won’t be surprised to learn that France is on the list. It appears the government’s rail system is staffed by numbskulls.

France’s SNCF rail company has ordered 2,000 trains for an expanded regional network that are too wide for many station platforms, entailing costly repairs, the national rail operator said on Tuesday. A spokesman for the RFF national rail operator confirmed the error, first reported by satirical weekly Canard Enchaine in its Wednesday edition. …Construction work has already begun to displace equipment and widen hundreds of train platforms to accommodate the new trains, but hundreds more remain to be fixed, he added. …The RFF only gave the dimensions of platforms built less than 30 years ago, but most of France’s 1,200 platforms were built more than 50 years ago. Repair work has already cost 80 million euros ($110 million).

I guess I’m not surprised by that story since the French once built an aircraft carrier with a flight deck that was too small.

In Sweden, a novelty tourist hotel made of ice will have to install fire alarms.

The Ice Hotel, which is rebuilt every year in northern Sweden out of enormous chunks of ice from the Torne River in Jukkasjärvi, Kiruna, will this year come equipped with fire alarms – and the irony isn’t lost on the staff. “We were a little surprised when we found out,” hotel spokeswoman Beatrice Karlsson told The Local. …While it might sound crazy that a building made of water needs to be equipped with fire alarms, the fact that the hotel is built from scratch every year means it needs to abide by the rules that apply to every new building, rules set by the National Housing Board (Boverket).

If I had to pick a prize from today’s list, this might win the prize. It’s a stunning display of government in action. Though probably not as bad as the time it took a local government in the U.S. two days to notice a dead body in a community swimming pool.

And from Germany, we have a story about massive cost overruns incurred by a pan-European bureaucracy that supposedly helps encourage fiscal discipline.

“Do as we say, not as we do”

It was meant to cost £420m of European taxpayers’ money but the bill for the new headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) has more than doubled to £960m and could rise even further. The bank is the key enforcer of austerity measures in the troubled eurozone nations, but appears to be having trouble keeping its own finances in order. The 45-storey glass and steel building, made up of two joined towers, will be more than 600ft tall when it is finished. But it has already been under construction for a decade and is three years behind schedule.

Of course, it goes without saying that cost overruns and delays are par for the course with government.

Just in case anyone thinks I’m picking on foreigners, here’s a story that makes me ashamed to be American. Or, to be more precise, it makes me ashamed that we have some of the world’s most pathetic bureaucrats.

Honors Night at Cole Middle School is no more. Parents got an email from Principal Alexis Meyer over the weekend saying some members of the school community “have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night.” The email goes on to say students will be recognized in other ways. …Parents and students are not happy with the change. “How else are they suppose to learn coping skills, not just based on success, but relative failure, it might not be failure, but understand what it takes to achieve high levels,” said parent Joe Kosloski. …“That made me wanna work harder and a lot of other people work harder, so just the fact you can’t work towards it anymore then there is no goal,” said 8th grade student Kaitlyn Kosloski. Changes are also being made to the middle school’s sports awards.

You read correctly. They also won’t recognize athletic success.

I guess everyone gets a participation medal.

Except, of course, we still single out kids who commit horrible crimes in school. Such as having toy army men, eating a pop tart the wrong way, building a motion detector for a school science experiment, or countless other “offenses” that trigger anti-gun lunacy by brainless bureaucrats.

The moral of these stories, both from America and around the world, it that government is not the answer. Unless, of course, you’ve asked a really strange question.

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When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

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Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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Since part of my job at the Cato Institute is to persuade skeptics to support a free society, I’m always trying to figure out how best to convince people to favor liberty over statism.

I start with the premise that most statists are misguided rather than evil and I try to understand how they see the world. If I know what makes them tick, after all, then perhaps I can explain to them how freedom is preferable to big government.

In my efforts to win people’s hearts and minds, I run into the same obstacles over and over again.

  • Many people equate Republicans with limited government, so you have to explain that there’s a giant difference between the views of the Cato Institute and the decisions of statists like Richard Nixon or George W. Bush.
  • Some folks think capitalism and cronyism are the same thing. I try to show them that there is no role for corrupt favoritism in a genuine free market, which is why it is doubly counterproductive when Republicans support policies and programs such as TARP, the Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac handouts.
  • Lots of people mistakenly believe the economy is a fixed pie, so they think if someone such as  Steve Jobs becomes wealthy, then other people necessarily have less money.

I have ways of dealing with all these myths. I don’t pretend to be successful in all or even most cases, but I think I’ve helped lead some people out of the darkness.

One of the other challenges I face is that some people believe in equality of outcomes. It’s hard to reason with these folks. I try to explain to them that this system requires massive redistribution, which cripples incentives for productive behavior by both rich and poor.

I cite the famous Churchill quote about “equal sharing of the misery.” And I ask them to show me evidence of one nation – anywhere in the world or at any point in history – that has ever succeeded with this approach.

But the folks with this ideological outlook seem impervious to logical argument or moral reasoning. Indeed, they sometimes go to absurd lengths. Here are some Orwellian details from a Swedish news service.

Annika Eriksson, a lunch lady at a school in Falun, was told that her cooking is just too good. Pupils at the school have become accustomed to feasting on newly baked bread and an assortment of 15 vegetables at lunchtime, but now the good times are over. The municipality has ordered Eriksson to bring it down a notch since other schools do not receive the same calibre of food – and that is “unfair”. …”A menu has been developed… It is about making a collective effort on quality, to improve school meals overall and to try and ensure everyone does the same,” Katarina Lindberg, head of the unit responsible for the school diet scheme, told the local Falukuriren newspaper. …From now on, the school’s vegetable buffet will be halved in size and Eriksson’s handmade loafs will be replaced with store-bought bread. Her traditional Easter and Christmas smörgåsbords may also be under threat.

I’m almost at a loss for words. What sort of sickness is required to deny something to one group of kids just because the same benefit is not universally available?

Equality of outcomes is catnip to the left, but it doesn’t apply to the ruling class

I’ve written some nice things about Sweden in recent years, noting that the government has sought to minimize the damage of the welfare state with free market reforms in other areas.

Sweden has a good school choice program, for instance, and the country has reformed its pension system so that it has personal retirement accounts and is more fiscally stable.

But this story shows that Sweden still has a long way to go.

P.S. Using Elizabeth “High Cheekbones” Warren as a philosophical punching bag, here’s another example of redistribution and equality of outcomes run amok. But at least this is satire and not reality.

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In my travels through Europe, I often wind up debating whether policy is better in the United States or Europe. I generally try to explain that this is the wrong comparison, both because Europe is not a monolithic bloc and also because most individual nations have both good policies and bad policies.

But sometimes you have to use blunt comparisons, which is why this data on living standards is powerful evidence that Europe is paying a high price for excessive government.

When I cite such data, proponents of statism often respond by arguing that I’m being unfair by lumping together more efficient welfare states in Northern Europe with poorly run welfare states in Southern Europe.

That’s a very good point, and I’ve acknowledged that nations such as Sweden and Denmark are examples of how to do the wrong thing in the best possible fashion. They have large welfare states, but they compensate with very pro-market policies in other areas.

Indeed, Sweden is a good example of a nation that has implemented some good reforms in recent years, such as school choice and partial Social Security privatization.

But I argue that these good reforms don’t fully offset the damage caused by excessive government spending. And now I have a new – and very pointy – arrow in my argumentative quiver. A study from the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs has found that Swedes in America earn significantly more money than Swedes in Sweden.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the IEA study.

The 4.4 million or so Americans with Swedish origins are considerably richer than average Americans, as are other immigrant groups from Scandinavia. If Americans with Swedish ancestry were to form their own country, their per capita GDP would be $56,900, more than $10,000 above the income of the average American. This is also far above Swedish GDP per capita, at $36,600. Swedes living in the USA are thus approximately 53 per cent more wealthy than Swedes (excluding immigrants) in their native country (OECD, 2009; US Census database). It should be noted that those Swedes who migrated to the USA, predominately in the nineteenth century, were anything but the elite. Rather, it was often those escaping poverty and famine. …A Scandinavian economist once said to Milton Friedman, ‘In Scandinavia, we have no poverty’. Milton Friedman replied, ‘That’s interesting, because in America, among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either’. Indeed, the poverty rate for Americans with Swedish ancestry is only 6.7 per cent: half the US average (US Census).

This is remarkable information, and it reminds me that Thomas Sowell had similar stats for other groups in his great book, Ethnic America.

I’m not familiar with the methodological issues involved in this type of research, but is certainly seems like this is a good way of getting apples-to-apples comparisons of different economic systems.

Like many other people, I’ve argued that the success of the overseas Chinese community (compared to their counterparts stuck in Communist China) is a damning indictment of statism.

Now we see that Swedes do reasonably well when living in a country with a big welfare state, but they do even better when living in a nation with  a medium-sized welfare state.

So you can imagine how prosperous they would be if a bunch of them lived in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore!

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Sweden must be a schizophrenic country. Something strange is happening, after all, if a statist like Jeffrey Sachs and a rabid libertarian like yours truly both cited it as a role model in our remarks last month at the United Nations.

So who’s right? Well, it depends what you care about.

In a column for Bloomberg, Anders Aslund elaborates on Sweden’s efforts to reduce the size of the state.

Not so long ago, Sweden could claim world leadership in unmitigated Keynesian economics, with a 90 percent marginal tax rate and a welfare state second to none. …but in the last two decades the country has been reformed. Public spending has fallen by no less than one-fifth of gross domestic product, taxes have dropped and markets have opened up. …no turnabout has been as dramatic as Sweden’s. From 1970 until 1989, taxes rose exorbitantly, killing private initiative, while entitlements became excessive. Laws were often altered and became unpredictable. As a consequence, Sweden endured two decades of low growth. In 1991-93, the country suffered a severe crash in real estate and banking that reduced GDP by 6 percent. Public spending had surged to 71.7 percent of GDP in 1993, and the budget deficit reached 11 percent of GDP. …Sweden’s traditional scourge is taxes, which used to be the highest in the world. The current government has cut them every year and abolished wealth taxes. Inheritance and gift taxes are also gone. Until 1990, the maximum marginal income tax rate was 90 percent. Today, it is 56.5 percent. That is still one of the world’s highest, after Belgium’s 59.4 and there is strong public support for a cut to 50 percent. The 26 percent tax on corporate profits may seem reasonable from an American perspective, but Swedish business leaders want to reduce it to 20 percent.

Interestingly, the Swedish people and the Swedish elite (just like the Estonians, as I discussed in my takedown of Paul Krugman) seem to understand that there’s no going back to the statist era of the 1970s and 1980s.

Where are the left-wing intellectuals to challenge this new order? They have disappeared. The old socialist research organizations have closed down. The Center for Labor Market Studies was a state institution that generated propaganda, not research, and the government closed it. The Trade Union Confederation had a sophisticated research institute, which it eliminated for not being sufficiently political. The union economists, who dominated Swedish economic debate in the 1970s and ’80s, have been replaced by bank economists. The free-market right has influential research centers in Stockholm. After many years of absence from the debate, I attended a conference on the Swedish economy in the southern city of Malmo last month. …the 180 speakers represented the full range of Swedish views. I was amazed to hear how far the consensus had moved to the free- market right, even among Social Democrats and trade-union leaders. …The Social Democrats haven’t only joined the free-market consensus, but seem to attack the current government from the right, pushing for a better business environment. Gone are demands for the restoration of social benefits. Opinion polls have rewarded the Social Democrats for their right turn with sharply improved ratings.

In other words, Sweden is a lot like Canada – a nation that took a misguided turn to the left but since then has moved significantly in the right direction.

I’m not willing to trade places with either nation, but that may change at some point. The Bush-Obama policies of bigger government and more intervention have made America less attractive, while other nations have learned from their mistakes.

If Sweden adopts a flat tax and figures out how to cancel winter, I may have to move there.

P.S. Sweden’s government-run healthcare system can be quite emasculating.

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