Tyler Cowen’s Aug. 21 commentary “Should the U.S. be more like Denmark? Vice versa?” touches on an important subject. We should compare ourselves with other countries, and the Nordic countries are a good benchmark. Cowen compares the incomes of American descendants of Nordic immigrants with incomes in their homelands and concludes that Americans are more prosperous. Yes, we consume more, including driving bigger cars and living in larger homes or apartments. If the comparison is limited to dollars of consumption, we win. But what if people have other values?

Consumption often produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), and many Americans are concerned about climate change, which is related to increasing levels of greenhouse gases. The World Bank estimated that the average American produced 17 cubic meters of CO2 in 2015, while each Dane produced 7.2. One American produced as much CO2 as 2.36 Danes. Do we value our climate?

What if college tuition in the Nordic countries is free or low-cost, while tuition in the U.S. is high enough to discourage some good students from attending college? In Finland, tuition is free, and students receive a reasonable living allowance. Do we value higher education?

Save the Children, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., annually publishes a “State of the Mother’s Report” based on factors such as maternity care and infant mortality. The rankings published in 2015 for 179 countries included: Norway first, Finland second, Iceland third, Denmark fourth, Sweden fifth and the U.S. 33rd. An American mother has about twice as much chance of dying from maternity-related causes as a Danish mother. Do we value mothers and babies?

The World Bank, also with headquarters in Washington, publishes data comparing countries on effective democracy under “Voice and Accountability.” In the ranking published in 2015, Iceland was ranked at 94.1; otherwise, the Nordic countries ranked in the 97th percentile or higher. The U.S. ranked at the 79.8th percentile — noticeably lower than where we ranked in 2000. Do we value democracy?

Nordic immigrants were successful in America; Nordic countries are successful today, and the U.S. is slipping behind other industrialized countries on many measures of progress. Why? “Diversity” is the easy rationalization. But other countries with diverse populations don’t have our problems. Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg indicates that, with up to 20 percent immigrants in Finnish schools, there is no significant decrease in achievement. Norway’s oil is another rationalization. If oil accounts for Norway’s progress, why aren’t other oil-exporting countries at the top of progress indexes? Finally, progress is easy for the Nordic countries because they are small. But most small nations are very poor.

Cowen touches on the real foundation of progress when he repeats Swedish author Nima Sanandaji’s comments about “hard work, honesty, a strong civil society, and an ethic of cooperation and volunteerism.” Nordic societies teach and reinforce mutual responsibilities: respect, cooperation, equality, honesty, fairness. Parents hand down these responsibilities by example; they are taught in school, and they are reinforced among adults by social sanctions. People are expected to practice them and are expected to take care of themselves. This is the foundation of Nordic success; these responsibilities (values) are the reason that states such as Minnesota, which had a large number of Nordic immigrants, are more progressive.


Jim Hove, of Isanti, Minn., is the author of books about Nordic immigrants and Nordic culture.