Frozen Darkness Is Depressing

Every so often, a major publication publishes an article about how everyone has the Nordic countries wrong and that they aren’t utopias. My favorite example of this is a 2005 article in the New York Times purporting to dispel the myth that Norwegians are rich and wealthy via the author’s anecdotes about such things as Norwegians taking their lunch to work rather than buying them from restaurants (actual statistical efforts to quantify Norwegian income and wealth show them to be actually rich and wealthy, especially the bottom half of the country, even adjusted for prices). To promote the paperback version of his book on this basic subject, Michael Booth has been making the rounds with op-eds of this sort, showing that the Nordic countries aren’t so great after all (I, II).

As someone who likes to point out that Nordic economic institutions have largely solved the economic problems that the US has not (poverty, inequality, insecurity, etc.), articles like Booth’s occasionally get thrust in my direction. “See,” people say, “the Nordics are actually bad.”

But very few of Booth’s points regarding the Nordics are about economic institutions. His points are generally relevant to those considering whether to move to Nordic countries, but rarely relevant to whether Nordic economic institutions are effective (arguments he does make about economic institutions actually tend to reinforce their attractiveness, including that people work less hours in Nordic countries, reserving more time for their friends, families, leisure, and personal projects instead).

For instance, in his latest list of issues, Booth mentions such things as Swedes being racist, Danes being women-beaters, and the Nordics more generally having high rates of anti-depressant use. The latter problem is my favorite of the bunch because it so well encapsulates the general irrelevancy of Booth’s points to the usefulness of Nordic economic institutions. One of the main reasons the Nordics find themselves down is because their countries are so cold and dark, which means Seasonal Affective Disorder is a much more prominent problem (see, e.g., I, II). In fact, it’s so common an issue that quick searches pull up loads of advice targeted at Nordic populations to try to help them shake off the winter blues and get through the frozen darkness (see, e.g, I, II, III).

As with racism, violence against women, bad local television (all of which the US has plenty of as well), the depression-inducing long, dark, and cold winters are all relevant factors to whether the Nordic countries are “utopias.” But they don’t tell you anything about whether Nordic economic institutions are successful and whether they are therefore worth borrowing from, just as the high suicide rates in high-altitude US counties tells you little about whether those counties have their economic institutions in order.