2010-08-19 / Opinion

No Ole and Lena joke:

Nordic culture can rebuild Minnesota
By Lee Egerstrom

All across rural Minnesota, communities are under stress from aging populations, the continuing consolidation and horizontal expansion of agriculture and the recession’s spillover impacts.

For most communities, however, there is a pool of strength that local leaders and state officials may tap to create growth and prosperity. This source of strength comes from ancestors and immigrants from Northern Europe. Their relatives back home found ways to deal with the Great Depression and their legacy shows ways to rebuild after the current Great Recession.

This strength resides in our culture – a hybrid, for sure, but one that can be built on and reshaped for modern Minnesota that would serve all of us no matter where we or our ancestors are from.

In the Minnesota 2020 (www.mn2020.org) report, Prosperity Ahead: Sweden’s Past Points Minnesota Forward, I explore the cultural contract Swedish political parties and special interests made in 1932, three years into the global depression. That agreement aimed to avoid the worst impacts of the global depression and to keep Sweden from splintering behind extremes of capitalism and communism that were emerging between the world wars.

American author and journalist Marquis Childs made Sweden’s carefully chosen course known throughout the world with his 1936 best selling book, Sweden: The Middle Way. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congressional leaders adopted many of Sweden’s public policies to fight the depression here in this country. Since then, most of the developed world implemented even more of Sweden’s programs to eliminate poverty and hunger and to assure access to educational and healthcare opportunities.

But looking only at public policy action misses the mark. Scandinavian scholars in Europe and at Gustavus Adolphus College at St. Peter point to the depression-era cultural agreement as an unofficial constitution for Sweden’s problem solving. This approach

was called folkhemmet,

which translates as “a home for the people,” or “the people’s home.”

Until recent times, Minnesota and neighboring Upper Midwest states drew on their cousins’ experiences from back in the “old country.” This showed itself in above national average support for education, infrastructure to support business and people’s lives and health and welfare support for the elderly and disadvantaged. Another example of Nordic influence is the huge number of cooperatives formed by farmers and communities to overcome market problems; Minnesota leads the nation in co-ops with North Dakota and Wisconsin not far behind.

All such actions that made Minnesota and the Upper Midwest special in the past were built on the question: “What’s in it for us?” We may be losing that now as more people turn inward and ask: “What’s in it for me?”

Unfortunately, the answer to the last question is most likely more recession, more lost jobs, more lost savings, more economic decline. That’s because 70 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) comes from individual and household consumption; poverty, unemployment and neglected healthcare in our communities cost us all dearly, especially from lost economic activity.

Those are among the reasons why we’ve proposed a return to our Northern European roots in search of a Minnesota

Way to rebuild our state for

the future. It wouldn’t be a “middle way,” like Sweden

had in earlier times. Rather, it would be more like the modern Scandinavian and Northern European countries that still support education and health care for all while supporting business and employment for market growth and economic development.

To achieve this, we should act like the Swedes in 1932. We should ask our public officials to avoid special interest pledges that would restrict their ability to lead, we should anticipate consequences of our actions and we should ask

would-be leaders to weigh

policy options against a “folkhemmet impact statement.”

The latter could be achieved by asking how policy options would improve life and opportunities for all our citizens.

There is more to culture than lutefisk and lefse, storytelling and music. By looking at our cultural roots, we can shape a Minnesota Way culture with diverse peoples and new citizens that would make Minnesota prosperous and a home for all people.

Lee Egerstrom is an economic development fellow for Minnesota 2020, a St. Paul-based nonpartisan, progressive think tank that focuses on the issues that really matter: education, health care, transportation and economic development.

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