Questions about the Scandinavian way

Notes from the book tour trail with Viking Economics author George Lakey

Photo courtesy of George Lakey
Lakey speaks to a curious audience at a bookstore in Boulder, Colo.

George Lakey
Philadelphia, Penn.

“My great-grandmother was from southern Norway,” the 20-something said to me with a smile as she presented her copy of Viking Economics to be signed. “After she came here, she had six kids.”

“Last year I got to Norway for the first time and found that a cousin still lives there!” I recognized the shyness of the older man in his Norwegian sweater.

“My great-grandfather came here to Iowa to pastor the Norwegian farmers. They built a brick church that still stands, near here.” I saw the pride in the young man’s face as he handed me his copy of the book.

Signing books for proud Norwegian Americans is part of the fun of a book tour. Another part is seeing people who have a different heritage but are curious about the subtitle of my book: Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too. They are curious about why Norway has more start-ups per capita than the U.S. does, and why Norwegian young people go to university for free while American millennials struggle with enormous debts.

They ask if it’s the oil. I explain that Sweden and Iceland don’t have oil but do have free higher education. Another shake-up happens when I tell the crowd that the Scandinavians enjoy saving money by using a single-payer approach to health care, a kind of Medicare for all. They only spend two-thirds what Americans do with our market-based medical system that prioritizes profits over care, and the Scandinavians get better health outcomes in the bargain.

Stories people make up
After I shared Viking Economics at Norway House in Minneapolis, the director told me it was among the best author events they’d had. I used the format of question-and-answer rather than lecture, and people had great questions.

“Since Norway is such a booster of the United Nations, why doesn’t it join the European Union?” “How can little Norway handle all that oil without badly distorting its economy?” “How are people coping with immigration?”

I address those questions in the book, but I’m happy to do so in person because each question leads to another.

Some questions reveal stories that people have made up. “What is it about Norwegian culture that delivered such a free and democratic and prosperous nation?” I patiently explain that a century ago Norway had its culture but the people were hardly free and had little democracy. There was so much poverty that for decades masses of Norwegians fled. Many came to the U.S. and Canada!

“Back in the day” the strengths of Norwegian culture were suppressed, because the political economy was set up for widespread poverty, a huge income gap, and rule by the economic elite.

“Then how did they persuade their Parliament to change the system?” The made-up story behind this question is that Norway changed through a rational process of persuasion. I explain the actual history, in which brave Norwegians—working people, family farmers, and their middle class allies—forced a change through nonviolent, disruptive force. The struggle came to a head in 1936 when the economic elite was forced to give up its dominance.

“But didn’t they have an easier time unifying for the struggle because they were so homogeneous? That would never work here.”

I acknowledge that homogeneity does help a majority to unify, because groups can’t be played off against each other like happens in the U.S. That is why Norwegians made their power shift in 1936 while we are only now getting ready to follow their lead.

Traveling the country over
At the tour events I tell anecdotes, funny personal stories drawn from having lived in Norway and having relatives there. I also tell stories about how their economy works for the common good. Bookstore managers worry that the time will run out before people have a chance to buy the book!

I’m surprised by how widespread the interest is in what Norway has been doing. Already my tour has touched Arizona, New Hampshire, California, Maryland, North Dakota, Colorado, Delaware, Vermont, Maryland, and Alaska. I’m slated for two trips to the UK, and I’m keynoting a Nordic association of economists whose annual meeting this year happens in Norway. If your church or chapter of Sons of Norway wants to sponsor me in your area, write

Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too, Melville House Publishing, 2016.

George Lakey, 79, recently retired from Swarthmore College where he was Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change. While there he wrote Viking Economics after interviewing economists and others in the Nordic countries. It is his ninth book, all of which have been about change and how to achieve it.

This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.