People like to complain that American news outlets never spend any time covering foreign news. In contrast to Swedish broadcasters, which spend ample time covering international affairs, US national news programs rarely devote much air time to other countries (save those with which the US may be at war).
Thus, imagine our surprise upon seeing that NBC News, one of the traditional ‘Big 3′ television news networks in the US, devoted a precious 3 minutes and change (more than 10 percent!) of Monday evening’s broadcast to Sweden and it’s penchant for green living.
The King is eloquent as usual, but the mayor of Växjö left us puzzled with his talk of ‘whips and carrots’. See for yourself:
Now the question is whether SVT would ever bother to find a topic where the US can teach Swedes a thing or two, and dedicate an equal amount of air time to it.
What would you suggest?
For Polly Toynbee, doyenne of the column pages of the Guardian, Sweden has long been the promised land. For her, it was the one place that prioritised welfare over tax cuts, took redistribution of wealth seriously and gave the state a sufficiently big role in the lives of its citizens. She has vehemently expressed her displeasure with the Swedish electorate for voting out the Social Democrats in 2006. So far, fair enough.
Problem is, to judge by her latest article, she doesn’t really know an awful lot about Sweden. Despite frequent trips over here, the article is riddled with misunderstandings and embarrassing factual errors – as contributors to our discussion forum have pointed out.
It’s tempting to leave Polly be, given that we’re bound to be accused of grinding political axes, but the readers of her article deserve to be given an accurate account of the facts. Here is what she got wrong:
What has Reinfeldt done? A lot more than voters bargained for. Welfare reform has been radical: benefits are cut and so are taxes. Everyone in work gets new tax credits: in Britain tax credits are benefits aimed at the poorest, in Sweden they are tax cuts for all.
All this was in the Alliance’s joint manifesto and was debated ad nauseam in the run-up to the election in endless news programmes and televised debates.
Tax credits for people in work were a central plank of the Alliance’s plan to get more people into the labour market.
The Swedish media are nothing if not thorough when it comes to debating the minutiae of policy, and this proposal was no exception. Other tax cuts included the reform of property tax. In fact, the cuts to this tax have been smaller than initially suggested.
In short, while it can be claimed that the ideas have since lost popularity, Toynbee should not imply that the policies of the government differ from those on which they won the election.
Cuts have been made to benefits for the long-term unemployed and to people on long periods of sick leave.
Again, all in the manifesto.
Also, worth remembering that Swedish unemployment benefits are still pretty generous compared to most other countries. For a start, even now Swedes who are members of the unemployment schemes earning under 23,000 kronor a month (about £23,000 a year) get 80 percent of their former income for the first 80 days of unemployment. The difference is that after 200 days this falls to 70 percent. After 450 days it falls to 65 percent. People whose previous earnings were over 23,000 a month get 680 kronor a day for the whole time.
National insurance contributions have been raised sharply, with the unplanned effect that nearly half a million of the lowest paid have walked away from the scheme, leaving them nothing if they lose their jobs.
What Polly is referring to is premiums to the union-run unemployment insurance (A-Kassa) schemes. The rises have indeed led to lots of people leaving the schemes.
However, those who leave the schemes are not ‘left nothing if they lose their jobs’, contrary to what Toynbee says. Everyone is eligible for council-administered subsistence benefits, even if they are not members of the A-Kassa.
Since the scheme is administered via the unions, union membership has dropped by the same amount
True that union membership has fallen, but wrong to imply that this is simply down to A-Kassa changes. The picture is more complex.
Contrary to what Toynbee appears to believe, although the A-Kassa schemes are run by the unions, membership of the A-Kassa and membership of the union are today completely separate. You don’t have to be a union member to belong to a scheme, nor is there any obligation on members of most unions to belong to a scheme.
In service sector union TCO, for example, many have left the A-Kassa while staying in the union. TCO’s boss, while blaming the increased A-Kassa premiums for a portion of the drop in membership, has admitted that much of the fall is due to the fact that many young people no longer see the point in joining a union. Union membership was already falling before the current government took office.
This wasn’t what the public voted for and polls show Reinfeldt’s government extremely unpopular.
The second half of this statement is partially true, to judge by opinion polls (see below). The first half is more debatable – pretty much everything the government has done was in its manifesto.
Meanwhile more of the health service is contracted out, with GPs free to charge for the first time, raising alarms that they are moving out of poor areas to richer places where they can earn more.
It is true that healthcare providers in Stockholm have been given more freedom to decide where and how to establish surgeries. It is also true that there are signs that this is leading to clinics leaving poorer areas and moving into middle-class areas. But it is not true that GP’s are ‘free to charge for the first time’. Even under the Social Democrats, Swedes had to pay to use the health service – including paying a fee every time they visited the doctor, had an x-ray, went to the dentist etc. That remains true today, but the current government is not to blame.
State-owned Absolut vodka has been sold to the French, and state-owned liquor stores are about to be sold off too.
First part true; second part absolutely made up. Some people in the Moderate Party would love to abolish the Systembolaget liquor stores, but it is light years from being government policy. In fact, the government has made strenuous efforts to defend Systembolaget against challenges to various aspects of the monopoly from the European Commission.
Something Toynbee also seems to have failed to notice is that this is not a Moderate Party government, it is an Alliance government of four parties, three of which are strongly opposed to getting rid of Systembolaget. In fact, the public health minister, responsible for Systembolaget, is a Christian Democrat – and they are if anything even keener than the Social Democrats of keeping booze sales in government hands.
Museums that were always free now charge high entry fees – for British visitors a crisp reminder of the Thatcher years.
True that museums are now charging entry fees. False that they were ‘always free’. Entry charges were abolished by the Social Democrats in 2005.
At present, the Swedes look certain to vote out the right: the nation’s history is of social democracy punctuated by brief evictions as wake-up warnings. This time they voted for a wolf in sheep’s clothing and are now appalled at what may be permanent damage to the successful Swedish model of cooperation between unions and industry, with high taxes and a generous welfare state.
True that the Alliance has trailed in the polls since being elected, and the Social Democrats look like a reasonably fair bet for 2010, but it is frankly taking it a bit far to suggest that they ‘look certain to vote out the right.’ In a Skop poll two days ago, the opposition was leading the government by about 5 points, Reinfeldt & Co having closed the gap substantially since their nightmare start. If Reinfeldt’s five percent poll deficit is a signal of certain defeat, then Gordon Brown, trailing by 11 points, must be heading for electoral annihilation.
The Swedish social democrats have a popular new leader in Mona Sahlin.
Well, she’s reasonably popular, and certainly more popular than Göran Persson was in the run-up to the last election. Thing is, she’s still less popular than Fredrik Reinfeldt, according to a poll published by Synovate last month. In another poll released by Demoskop last month, Reinfeldt is more popular among both women and men, and beats her in all age categories.
Miscellaneous: April 7th, 2008 by JS
How has a country the size of Sweden produced so many top golfers? With only nine million inhabitants and with harsh winters that render golf courses inaccessible for much of the year, golfers from this ‘icebox of a country’ should be at a distinct disadvantage compared to people from places such as Florida and Spain. Despite these apparent obstacles, Swedes such as Henrik Stenson and Jesper Parnevik are among the most successful male golfers in the world. Annika Sörenstam, meanwhile, has been more responsible than perhaps anyone else for raising the profile of the women’s game.
This article in the Wall Street Journal argues that Sweden’s success is due in large part to the fact that the game here has long been free of the snobbish elements that characterize it elsewhere:
In the 1960s the country’s golf federation began promoting the game as an inexpensive family sport. Today, some 600,000 Swedes are registered golfers, with 90,000 under the age of 21. The country counts 480 golf clubs. No municipal courses exist because none are needed; the private clubs are open to all.
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