Friday, May 25, 2012

Comparing Nordic apples with American oranges


The supporter of ideologically driven right-wing economic orthodoxy will often come up with truly pathetic arguments to justify their position. Sometimes it is because they hold their audience in such contempt that they think that they can get away with making rubbish arguments, but often, it seems the proponent has such low intellect that they can't even understand why their own arguments are so fundamentally flawed.


Simplistic direct comparisons between these economies are
bound to provide plenty of misleading conclusions
The argument by false analogy (comparing apples and oranges) is one of the most pathetic forms of fallacy used by thick people, or by people hoping to convince an audience that they assume to be thick. One of the finest displays of right wing argument by false analogy can be found in a Daily Telegraph article by Tim Stanley, in which he  lamely attempts to diminish the Scandinavian social democratic model.

After a lot of fairly predictable hot air about how he believes that high taxation, strong social mobility, high welfare standards, high general incomes and greater equality are all bad things he concludes with a quite remarkable paragraph.
"The sad fact is that sometimes the relentless pursuit of fairness in outcome imperils the creation of an atmosphere of opportunity. Put crudely, yes Scandinavia probably does ferry a child safely from cradle to grave with the result that levels of poverty and crime are conceivably lower. But where is the Swedish Facebook? How many Danes have walked on the moon? Does Norway have a Commonwealth? How’s that Finnish movie industry doing?"
The first thing to note about the four questions he asks in his concluding paragraph is the vast population disparity between the social democratic Nordic countries he is criticising and the neoliberal Anglo countries he is eulogising. To make direct comparisons between the outputs of such vastly differing economies is transparently misleading. Much fairer comparisons could be made between places with similar populations.
  • Finland vs Scotland
  • Norway vs Colorado
  • Denmark vs Wisconsin
  • Sweden vs North Carolina
It is clear that the pro-neoliberalism argument would be lost using fair comparisons, both in terms of actual wealth (GDP per capita) and in terms of utterly absurd questions (where is North Carolina's Ikea? Does Colorado have a coastline? How's that Scottish mobile phone manufacturing industry doing?) hence Stanleys's decision to use fallacious and absurdly disproportionate ones instead.

Returning to the remarkable display of fallacious reasoning in the quoted paragraph, let me address Tim Stanley's four questions in order:

"Where is the Swedish Facebook?"
Sweden doesn't have a Facebook but it does have another very famous website called The Pirate Bay, (which has more visitors than any British based website other than the state controlled BBC). Sweden also has a global retail brand with a turnover of €25bn called Ikea, which is surely of more economic significance than a website that produces nothing apart from spamvertizing revenue, costs the "real economy" billions in lost productivity (as millions of workers skive off work to check their updates on their smartphones on a daily basis) and which just provided one of the most farcical IPOs in recent history, hardly a glowing example of neoliberalism at work.
"How many Danes have walked on the moon?"
Ask yourself this; how many Americans have walked on the moon?  The answer is 12, making a ratio of 1 for every 28 million of their citizens. Given this ratio you would have expected less than 1/4 of a Dane to have made it to the moon so far. This question about moon walking is nothing more than a boast about American economic might which utterly disregards the vital bit of information that not a single American has walked on the moon since Apollo was cancelled in the early 1970s, meaning that since the rise of neoliberalism as the economic orthodoxy in the United States since the late 1970s, as many Danes as Americans have walked on the moon (none).
"Does Norway have a Commonwealth?"
This question is even more absurd than the moon walking one. Norway does not have a Commonwealth because it did not have an empire established during the mercantilist era and strenghtened during the era of industrialisation. Using the fact that Norway weren't successful mercantilists and empire builders several Centuries ago as a criticism for their social democratic stance over the last 50 odd years is just bizarre. Noting that Norway has not retained the remnants of an empire built up centuries ago and using that as an implied criticism of modern Norwegian economic policy is either the work of an idiot, or the work of a man that assumes his audience to be idiots. One remarkable bit of information that Stanley completely failed to mention in his article, is that Norway a country with a population of only 5.01 million (or 1.6% of the US population if you like) has the largest sovereign wealth fund in the entire world ($573bn), which contrasts sharply with the vast unfunded welfare deficits in the US and the UK.
"How’s that Finnish movie industry doing?"
Again, another apples and oranges comparison. Finland has actually produced some quite good films in recent years, but expecting a country with a 60th of the population of the USA to compete with Hollywood in terms of output and revenues would be utterly absurd. One way in which the Nordic film industry does out compete the US is in quality of output. For every genuinely well made and thought provoking film out of Hollywood, there are at least a dozen lazy, stereotype riddled, mindless action or romcom films. The discerning viewer of World cinema knows that "Scandinavian film" (lets incorrectly refer to Finland as a Scandinavian country instead of a Nordic one, as Stanley does throughout his article) has a long tradition of producing engaging dramas, which generally demonstrate much better grasps of realism, nuance and ambiguity than their cash addled US counterparts.
The lameness of these points in Stanley's concluding paragraph demonstrate what a weak case against social democracy he had managed to construct. The economic evidence is absolutely clear, the social democratic mixed economy model provides greater economic stability, greater productivity, greater social mobility and an equatable share of the growing national wealth for the vast majority of citizens. Neoliberalism on the other hand allows the inflation of vast speculative bubbles which result in severe economic crises, creates the illusion of growth through the creation of debt throughout all sectors of society, damages social mobility and is has only ever been proven successful at transferring wealth from ordinary working people to the tiny economic elite.

That a defender of neoliberalism would resort to misleadingly comparing Nordic apples and Anglo-American oranges in the conclusion to his attack on social democracy speaks volumes about the intellectual poverty of his position. The absurdity of Stanley's arguments underline the fact that he is either an idiot himself, or someone that believes he is preaching to an audience of idiots. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the intellectual capabilities of his audience of Telegraph readers.

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