Not so dark lands: When inaccuracies meet sensationalism

Recent Guardian piece on Denmark and the other Nordic countries created a stir, but was it accurate?

A few days ago, Michael Booth published an article in The Guardian called ‘Dark lands: the grim truth behind the 'Scandinavian miracle'’. The piece has many qualities: it is thought-provoking and entertaining. It is also refreshing to completely rediscover a country you are living in. But a lot of the points Booth made about Denmark are unfortunately false or misleading.

Of course, things are far from perfect in Scandinavia in general and Denmark in particular. Booth is right that racism may be rampant (but where is it not, even in multicultural countries like the UK or France?), that the TV sucks (but honestly is British, French, American or Canadian TV always thrilling or intellectually stimulating?) and that the level of personal debt should be a source of public concern since it is the highest among OECD countries (even if one may argue that there are different kinds of household debts: those used for consumption and those used for investment).

These points are right and it is definitely good to remind readers that reality is never one-sided: Scandinavia is not the new Eden. Nevertheless, the article constantly misrepresents the situation of Denmark, which may puzzle the reader about the general intention of the author. Booth seems to over-state his point, and by doing so he is undermining the promotion of his book, which presumably is the purpose of this piece.

The piece contains gross errors or misrepresentations. For instance, Booth claims that because Danes work fewer hours per year than the rest of the world, their productivity is low. Two dimensions are conflated here: work hours and individual productivity. It is not because people work fewer hours that they are less productive. History shows the opposite: people work fewer hours because they are more productive per worked hour. This is a solid fact for all industrialised nations since the 19th century.

According to the OECD, Danes work less hours than those in the United Kingdom, but more than in Germany or the Netherlands. But a closer look shows that the productivity per worked hour is higher in Denmark than in the UK, Germany or Canada. So Danes work less hours than Brits while being more productive.
Booth affirms that Denmark was the first EU country to export oil. He is right … if we exclude the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, France, Germany and Belgium from the list.

Denmark also has, he claims, the highest tax rates in the world. The concept of higher tax rates is known by economists to be tricky to calculate. Do we consider corporate tax, individual tax, payroll tax or VAT? In all these cases, Denmark does not have the highest maximum rates. Maybe it is the volume of taxes paid, but in this case, again the data is not that clear. Sweden appears to have higher tax rates.

For proving his point about the misuse of public money, Booth points at the high cancer rates. The problem is that high cancer rates tell you more about lifestyles than healthcare. It’s right that the Danish lifestyle contains unhealthy aspects (heavy smoking, heavy drinking), but it has nothing to do with the state or specifically Denmark. But let’s take the problem seriously: maybe it could justify more intrusion by the Danish state into private lives. Why not ban smoking in all public spaces or increase the price of tobacco via more taxes? It is not clear if Booth would be up for that.

In that context, how should we understand the point about declining equality? For anyone who worries about the high level of taxation, it should be something to celebrate rather than to deplore. Yes, equality is declining in Denmark, but it has been in most industrialised countries since the 1970s, often in direct correlation with the reduction of tax rates.

Without going through the data for the other Scandinavian countries or engaging all the other disputable/false points about Denmark, the question is still begging: why present Denmark under such a non-charitable light, especially after having personally contributed to the popularity of Scandinavia as Booth, by his own admission, has done?

There could be various reasons. Two are more or less plausible. Firstly, there is always a good reason for creating buzz, especially for commercial purposes. And there is a book to sell. There is nothing wrong with that, just business as usual. But one may wonder if the strategy – overshooting the target – is the right one.

Secondly, it reminds me of when Metallica issued the so-called ‘Black Album’. My friends and I, who were following Metallica’s early work, were horrified by the release of this album, not so much because of the music, but because it sold too much. The fact that Metallica quickly gained a huge following changed our status as fans from being the cool guys listening to confidential and brutal music to being mainstream. The same dynamic is at work here: a shift in status, from belonging to a small circle of Scandinavia connoisseurs to being just one in the middle of an anonymous crowd.

The problem is that the strategy at work in the article is self-defeating. The good points are drowned in false and misinterpreted facts that may diminish the credibility of the book that the article aims to promote, which is a shame because Booth probably has many interesting thoughts to share about Scandinavia.