Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

by Anu Partanen
Harper     2016
432 pages     Nonfiction

Americans have long heard about the superiority of the Nordic form of Socialism, and more recently we have heard about the Finnish schools and the superiority of their education system. Frankly, this is not news to me. I have been hearing about it for years from my Norwegian sister-in-law, Arna. For all the years she has been married to my brother, she has bragged about how much better the Norwegian theory of everything is compared to the American theory of anything. And then, lo and behold, a book by virtually the same name, The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen appeared on my Kindle from the publisher. Would I review it? Of course, I thought. Now I can finally figure out what Arna was talking about. Well, it has taken me several months to get through the book, which I read in fits and starts, but I can now assure you that for the most part, Arna is right. The Nordic way is the best way for many of life's situations.

Partanen is a journalist who came to the United States when she married an American. She begins by discussing all the things that most confused her when she arrived in the United States, including the things she took for granted in Finland, her home country. (The same social conditions she speaks of regarding Finland apply to the other Nordic countries as well). For example, she had a difficult time figuring out co-pays for health insurance. No such thing in Finland. Taxes were also a problem, including the complicated nature of the forms and deductions. One of the things that most surprised her was parental leave and childcare—something that is taken for granted in the Nordic countries.

The central thesis of the book is contained in the prologue: "What could a bunch of tiny, cold, insignificant countries, where everybody looks the same, acts the same, and thinks a good time is a plate of pickled herring have to offer the diverse and dynamic United States?"

The Nordic Theory of Everything addresses four major concepts that Partanen finds difficult to understand in the United States: healthcare, the educational system, the family unit, and governmental participation in everyday life. I found the entire idea of family leave and childcare to be the most fascinating, particularly because we in the United States are embroiled in a huge debate regarding these issues. Partanen calls this the "Nordic theory of love." She says that "authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal." Most Nordic countries are quite egalitarian when it comes to new parents. Both parents are allowed leave when there is a new child in the family, and the parents return to their jobs exactly where they left off. Although companies in the United States are getting better about family leave, there tend to be many more constraints on the leave than in the Nordic countries.

And then there is education—free education for all through university. My nephew Will, born and raised in the United States, is a Norwegian citizen because of his mother. He is attending graduate school in Norway tuition free. University education for all is a concept that is also being debated in the United States, and Partanen has a lot to say on this matter as well. All of her informative book is well-researched but also shows a great deal of common sense. She believes that the Nordic model for the role of government in the lives of a country's citizens is not inhibiting, but frees the citizen for social mobility, entrepreneurship, and effective citizenry. Ultimately, she believes that America's social systems are out dated and old fashioned, but in the closing chapter of the book, she maintains that the United States can fix many of our social concerns and constraints and reinvigorate our society if we follow the Nordic model.

So—I was discussing the book with my nephew, Will, who is finishing his fifth year living in Norway with all his education free. He espoused everything that Partanen says in her book. When I asked what he felt were the weaknesses in the system, he suggested that the Nordic countries are quite insular and unwilling to accept people unlike themselves. "Are they racist?" I asked. "Yes," he replied, "I would have to say that there is a streak of racism in the culture." My conclusion is that no culture is without its problems, but Partanen offers a "careful and judicious" case for some remodeling that should be happening in the American theory of everything.

A review in the New York Times.
A review in the Seattle Times.
Anu Partanen website

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