Monday, April 30, 2007

The Swedish Model: Economic Observations 101

For those of you who might be completely bored by this title, trust me, I agree. For those of you who have been waiting for me to finally broach the subject of America and Sweden’s, shall we say, “differing” economic approaches, this is your special day.

When I started this blog, I promised that it would not get political, would not be a soapbox for you to listen to my rants about life and generally would not be inappropriately personal—all approaches to blogging you can find on another of the other 40 million blogs out there. The goal of this blog is help those who know me (and have come to know me through the blog) understand a little about my experience of two years living and working abroad. But really, what worth is a blog about Sweden if it doesn’t devote at least one entry to the well-known Swedish economic model?

While discussing varying economic approaches is inherently political, I assure you that I am the last one to make any final assertions or grand conclusions about economic approaches. I am many things, but an economist is definitely not one of them. With that, I will do my best to share some simple observations about the contrasting economic models of my two countries based on my relatively brief stay here in Sweden. Reader awareness of (and familiarity with) the strict capitalism found in the U.S. and the “middle road” between social welfare and capitalism of Sweden is assumed.

The first observation is that, no matter which country you discuss, the preoccupation with and social focus on the economy and money is very similar. Americans love their money and so do Swedes. While materialism (along with the sheer size and amount of things) is higher in the U.S., Swedes are also concerned with the security and image that comes with this material gain. I won’t claim that materialism is “human,” but it’s tough to argue that it’s not the latest religion of the West.

A few blogs ago, I presented an article from The Local, an online Swedish news website in English. It stated that the average Swedish income was roughly 335,000 Swedish Krowns per year, or about $48,000. This is one of the highest average salaries in the world, but the progressive tax scale keeps taxes for everyone, and especially the rich, very high. Just to give some perspective, tax on this average salary is about 33%, as I understand, whereas in the U.S. this salary would be taxed at approximately 27 – 28%. In Sweden, goods and services are taxed at 25% and food is 17%, whereas in the U.S., everything is 8.8%. Please offer your corrections on these all-important numbers if you have them.

In Sweden, the “cradle-to-the-grave” benefits are well known and well appreciated by everyone. Though no one embraces high taxes, most I’ve spoken with are content with the greater good. This blog has already discussed the 12 – 16 month maternity and paternity leave due to all new mothers and fathers. As for vacation time, in July you will see the world-renowned Swedish vacation time employed on this blog (as virtually all of Sweden shuts down for the month) and in the U.S., you have about two weeks vacation per year, depending on your job, because if you don’t like it, someone else will gladly take your place. Tough to argue with the enjoyment that comes with six weeks of vacation for everyone. Retirement is also healthy in Sweden and comfortably supports the average Swede throughout the non-working years.

I read an article in Newsweek this week that stated plainly the importance of attitude in economics. A society’s attitude towards work and achievement is vital to the economic outlook. My observation is that Swedes take pride in a job well done, but one rarely finds the work obsession that you find with many in the U.S. Work is a part of life, but certainly not all of it as is so often the case Stateside.

One of the reasons this “middle road” works here in Sweden is that Swedes are motivated by a “job well done” as well as financial incentives, not just the financial incentives as is common in the U.S. Very broad generalizations here, I know, but applicable on the whole. There are reasons, I believe, that the Swedish model seems to work here and there are reasons why, I believe, it would fail in the U.S. “Job well done” is one reason and another is the trusting society of Sweden. Generally speaking, I’ve noticed that Swedes, presumably since there are so few of them, trust each other more than Americans. Certainly the sheer numbers affect the trust in a society, but this is a reality to consider nonetheless. A social welfare model of any form must be founded on some level of trust throughout society and especially of, gulp, the government.

Nationwide, comparing the quality of life of the two countries is a very tricky process. When comparing economic models, how do you compare 9.5 million Swedes (roughly half the size of Los Angeles County) to 300 million in the U.S? As a whole, there’s no question in my mind that the overall quality of life is dramatically higher here in Sweden. “Cradle-to-grave” benefits for everyone is hard to overcome in the argument of quality of life, even if the highest quality of care may be harder to attain here than in the U.S. due to the numbers of people involved in the process. In the give and take between individual and society, 9.5 million people is much easier to deal with than 300 million. On this topic, I just can’t let go of the 40 million people in the U.S. without what most everyone agrees is a basic right of life, basic health care. That's an astonishing number for what many people argue is the best economic model the world has ever seen...

If you’ve read this far, consider yourself a Linköpinglivin reader Hall-of-Famer. I hope it wasn’t as boring to read as it was to write. Alas, a very important topic. Again, please feel free to share your insights should you be so compelled.

I have spoken with both Swedes and Americans who think their system is the world’s best and I have spoken with both Swedes and Americans who think the other’s system is the world’s best. The debate continues…

For those of you interested, LHC lost in the finals of the Eliteserien, a disappointing conclusion to their best season ever. And last week I attended my first-ever womens soccer game, Linköpings Fotboll Club against mighty Umeå. In a very good game, Umeå finally prevailed 2 – 0.

This coming week, we literally set Sweden ablaze in celebration of spring, so see you next week for a Swedish bonfire extravaganza!

And yes, these pictures have been a shameless attempt to keep the waning interest of this week’s readers. Some of my favorite places in the world: Prague, Copenhagen, Linköping and Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California is as close to the Mediterranean as you’ll find in the U.S., and a favorite locale for my family this time of year.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Swedish Easter ("Påsk")

After a quiet, calm and relatively peaceful winter, April has proved to be an exciting month so far. "Jätte spännande!" So, two weeks after the fact, I am finally addressing an important holiday in Sweden, "Påsk." (Blog hijackings and visits from Mom have a tendency to interrupt routines and schedules.)

Throughout Europe, and Sweden is no different, Easter is truly the glorification of the almighty egg. In the U.S., Easter eggs are popular and fun and hidden, but in Europe, ornately decorated, ever-present, larger-than-life or smaller-than-a-thimble Easter eggs are everywhere, coming in all forms and containing just about any treasure you can think of from candy to krona to jewelry.

The cultural celebration of Easter in Sweden, in addition to the egg, is centered around the long holiday weekend ("Long" Friday and Monday are "Red Days" or bank holidays), possibly visiting the country cottage/summer house for the first time since the previous summer and, if children are involved, dressing up in witch costumes (The Easter Hag), making paintings and drawings for the neighborhood, then exchanging these creations for, you guessed it, candy. Something similar to our Halloween, but steeped in much more history and tradition.

And, while I didn't personally have any children distributing drawings in exchange for candy, I was able to take in a very meaningful church service and experience a classic Swedish Påskbord (Julbord, smörgåsbord--you should be familiar with this by now) during Easter. And Mom's presence only made this year's Swedish Easter celebration that much better.

We're starting to hit a new season of Swedish holidays. In the next couple months, we will become pyromaniacs (April 30), display yet more flags than we already do (June 6) and dance around a Maypole singing songs and drinking yet more schnapps than we already do (June 23). You have a lot to look forward to here on Linköpinglivin.

The pictures, you ask? Despite an egg in every storefront and on every corner, I somehow managed to miss all of them on my camera, which presents an opportunity to share pictures which, let's be honest, are a lot more fun than pictures of eggs.

1. Family in Prague last weekend sending a message to various missing members...

2. A famous bridge in Stockholm, Skeppsholmsbron, overlooking Kungliga Slottet (The Royal Palace) and Gamla Stan in the late afternoon spring sun.

3. Southern California spring time roses taken in her garden and reminding me of my Grandma Dorothy who passed away in 2000, but not before attending a concert at Linköping's very own Domkyrkan during a tour of Scandinavia way back in 1983, 23 years before her then 10 year-old grandson would begin living, working and having a blast in this fantastic, little town. We know this from her travel diary, which of course means that Grandma would have been a blogger! Go Grandma!

4. My Dad on a recent trip to Budapest with the Danube in the background.

5. For all of you Todd fans out there, this is a picture from when he was dating Sheryl Crow.

"Glad Påsk" and Happy belated Easter, everyone.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Min Mamma Kommer Till Stockholm, Linköping och Prag

Just kidding.

Earlier in the year, after my Dad visited Linköping, I took advantage of the simply summarized weekend to show off on Linköpinglivin the results of my months of Swedish language class. However, this time around, especially as my self-imposed weekly deadline of Monday night approaches, I think English will do just fine.

Since I was successfully able to wrestle my blog back from my brother this week, I can share that a much-anticipated visit from my Mom took place over the last ten days. Arriving all the way from Southern California in time for “Påsk” (Easter) and traveling from Sweden to Prague, Mom made quite the effort and her time included a little bit of everything Sweden and the surroundings has to offer.

After a long flight here and with virtually no sleep, Mom arrived to Stockholm early in the morning, thus only just beginning her day that included a walk around Skansen Outdoor Museum, witnessing the spectacular Vasa preserved ship museum up close and walking the cobblestone and tourist-ridden streets of Gamla Stan. At least the bright arctic spring sun helped keep her awake until that jet-lag reducing goal of 9:00 p.m.

We were welcomed to Linköping with a fantastic Swedish “Påskbord” (Easter table) provided by friends Andreas and Sara. Soon after this, our delightful Swedish spring reverted about six weeks and a Swedish snowfall became a memorable part of Mom’s Linköping experience. Being from Southern California, this was one of the coldest climates she had ever been in, and it was "only" 0 degrees Celsius (32 Farenheit). Finally, among other Linköping adventures, Mom was delighted by Gamla Linköping and even tried a little Swedish at “min svenskakurs.”

Eventually, we were off to meet multiple family members in Prague for a mini-reunion including my Dad and cousins, the Filipek family (Mike, Julie, Ashley and Devin). In addition to the stunning Baroque and Gothic architecture of Prague, this trip included the discovery of Prague in warm weather. This city only improves as the temperature increases as I discovered Mala Strana and the natural beauty of Prague previously overlooked during cold weather visits. Great Czech dinners, National Theater opera, multiple-course European breakfasts, breathtaking views, reading about the incredibly tragic and triumphant history of the people of Prague, all this made for a memorable birthday weekend, in a most unexpected place.

This morning, Mom’s latest European escapade came to a conclusion. While she is currently in the air (probably somewhere over the Midwestern United States at this point), her trip will never be forgotten (especially now that it’s captured forever in blog lore). Thanks for coming all this way, Mom. See you in July!

Pictures above:

1. Mom (Dianne), Dad (John) and I sharing in Prague's best version of a "French" breakfast.

2. Prague Castle across the Vltava River at night.

3. Cousin Devin enjoying the Mala Strana Park view over the old city.

4. Mom and I in Gamla Stan with the wind whipping through the narrow streets.

5. The "Dancing Building" structure in Prague.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Birthday from THAT Brother

To celebrate Sean’s birthday, I, his younger, smarter, taller and better looking brother, Todd, have officially hijacked his blog and given him a week off.

Now that we’ve cleared that’s time to celebrate Sean. And what better way for me to celebrate him and his Swedish experience, than to devote a day to everything that is Swedish in New York. I wasn’t looking for just anything Swedish (Volvos, Saabs, meatballs, etc). I wanted a true Swedish experience. Yes, there are a few Swedish gems in New York if one looks hard enough...and by “looks hard enough” I mean a few hours on the internet and a few miles of walking.

Oh, and before anyone, I did not go to Ikea. That would have required me to go to New Jersey. Not even Sean’s birthday will make me purposely go to New Jersey.

So, with list in hand and armed with my new t-shirt (“You bet your Smorgasbord I’m Swedish”), I began my trek. Here are the highlights...

Fika, Fika, Fika...Sean loves Fika. And now, so do I. I finally visited the much anticipated FIKA coffee shop. Not being a coffee drinker, I forced down a cup....tasted like any other cup (sorry!). However, I did partake in a KOKOSTOPP....a coconut pastry with a crunchy outside and softer inside. Ok, was a macaroon...but it was still tasty! My first FIKA experience was a good one.

Next stop...a restaurant called Aquavit. If the restaurant was as good as the bottle of Aquavit that Sean gave me, I was in for a treat. And with only a kokostopp in my belly, I was ready for some Swedish delights. I walked in the unassuming door in my holey jeans, Swedish t-shirt and back pack. Have you ever walked into an establishment...the music comes to a screeching halt...everyone looks at you and there’s e an uncomfortable silence? Welcome to my Aquavit experience...except the screeching music was Swedish. Apparently, Aquavit is a VERY NICE restaurant. I quickly left, but managed to snap this photo...holey jeans and all...before the Swedish mafia caught up with me. I wonder if it was the t-shirt?

Perhaps it was time to re-evaluate my adventure. And what better place to reflect than Svenska kyrkan. No, I did not go inside (lesson learned) and no, I did not take a funny picture with me and the church. Instead I took a picture which is very fitting of New York...the beautiful architecture of the old church, surrounded by skyscrapers towering high into the sky. It’s a great oasis for Swedes in New York as every service is conducted in Swedish. My curiosity has someday soon, I will attend.

So...there you go...after a few hours of trekking around New York (yes, it took that long!), my Swedish adventure was coming to a close...BUT not before I enjoyed some of the true gems of the Swedish...including my Christmas present, a mug made from some large animal’s horn. Perhaps I “enjoyed” a little too much.

And a shout out to all Linkopinglivin readers....if you see Sean walking around Linkoping this week (and particularly on the actual day - April 13th), spontaneously scream HAPPY BIRTHDAY. He’ll get frightened, you’ll start laughing and I will have made his birthday all the better...from thousands of miles away.

Grattis På Fodelsdag, Sean!!!

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Linköping Spring: Unlike Any Other!

As hinted at in previous blog entries, and as experienced throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere at this point, spring has arrived. And with spring (Swedish "vår") comes longer days, increasing temperatures, cloudless skies, blossoming flowers, romantic ideals and dreams of upcoming vacations to ocean and lakeside locales as the summer approaches. The month of snow in Sweden has melted and as the seasons change, my heart always skips a beat, and once again, experiencing a change of season in Europe has been just a little extra special than normal.

While Linköping too, experiences the above rites of spring, though the blossoming is not quite underway, there are two uniquely Linköping spring experiences that you don't have unless you are here.

First, there is a subtle, but all-too-clear tradition in Linköping that all Linköpingites wait upon and yet are still caught surprised by, and joyfully so. No one should be shocked that this first unique spring rite is a simple thing. Indeed, it wouldn't be truly Swedish if it was grand, a spectacle or too far out of the ordinary. This is something you stumble upon as you are doing errands, sitting for a Saturday afternoon fika or merely walking across Stora Torget after lunch heading to your workplace. As one contemplates the next task or says "Hej" to a familiar face while walking around Linköping Centrum, this spring tradition hits you seemingly out of nowhere. As you pass by one of many Swedes strolling about town taking in the sunshine and warmth, you notice something:

"What was that?"

"I think they had...."

"No. Could it be?"

"Is it open?"

"Bosse? Bosse, are you back?"

"Is Bosses open again?"

From what I've been told, and experienced multiple times for almost two weeks now, a time-honored tradition and one of Linköping's favorite parts of spring and summer is Bosse. Bosse is our friend because Bosse has a "glassbar" or "ice cream shop."

Bosses Glassbar is just off of Stora Torget and never fails to keep Linköpings snack and dessert dreams coming true, but closes down between October and March. When Bosse returns, it means much more than simple ice cream indulgences to finish off that great Swedish meal. It means that Swedes have survived the winter and that glorious days of sunshine, warm temperatures, never-ending Swedish vacation (relatively speaking) and the beloved Swedish outdoors are on the horizon. The picture below is usually the only obstacle between you and a refreshing reminder of the renewal of spring. Here's to Bosse!

The second sign of spring that you don't have where you live is the Linköping Hockey Club taking the Eliteserien by storm and finding themselves, for the very first time, in the championship series, "Finalen." The championship series starts this week at the Cloetta Center.

This season, LHC finished a mediocre fourth in the world's highest rated hockey league outside of the NHL, but when the playoffs arrived, they kicked it up about 12 notches and have blown away their first two opponents, including the defending champion, a team that finished the season in first and had reached the championship series for the past six years, Färjestads BK. Read all about it, in English no less:

"We" Linköpingites look forward to the day when LHC reaching Finalen is as traditional a spring rite as Bosse returning to warm our hearts with his cold delicacy.

Trevlig Vår! Happy Spring.