An Interview with Anu Partanen

The Finnish journalist compares the social support structures of her new home in America to those of her Nordic roots.


Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, grew up outside Helsinki and spent much of her adult life there as a journalist until she met a fellow writer from America, fell in love, and settled in the United States. But starting a life in New York City, exciting as it was, caused Partanen anxiety as she navigated the complex waters of the American insurance, tax, and healthcare systems.

She considered how lucky she had been in Finland, a country that deeply values an equitable and accessible social structure for all its citizens. As a result, she set out in her book to, in her words, “debunk commonly held myths about Nordic societies,” to showcase the many aspects of Nordic success in the 21st century that could help restore the American dream.

Early praise for the book comes from Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, who claims Partanen’s thoughtful analysis can show America how to embrace the values that have allowed Nordic citizens to enjoy more freedom, not less. Publishers Weekly calls her work “a passionate and intelligent argument.”

I sat down with the author to discuss how the institutions of marriage, healthcare, tax structure, and employer benefits in America differ from other Western cultures, as well as the notion that America is indeed world-class but may not be quite so modern after all.

You cite a study that reported nearly 90 percent of women surveyed felt financially insecure, while 46 percent (including those with an annual income of more than $100K) were fearful of ending up on the streets. The reality is, even if an individual American makes a good yearly salary, they are still likely to be stressed once basic needs (mortgage, insurance, daycare, commuting costs) are met. That shocked you.

When I first came to America, I had an idea of how the U.S. worked, but coming from a small place like Finland, we always think American people are wealthy, upwardly mobile, free, they can do anything. But that isn’t necessarily the case. I was aware that things would be a little more complicated in the U.S. than they had been in Finland, but I didn’t realize to what extent. I had always had a good job, I never worried about money, and I had a secure, comfortable, and interesting life.

But when I came to the U.S., I started to feel really anxious about things I had never worried about before, like healthcare, taxes, and insurance. When I saw that study, what I thought was, “Well, okay, it’s not just me.” The Americans around me, not just in Brooklyn, but also throughout my travels in the U.S., were pretty worried about making ends meet. In Finland, we don’t have to spend so much of our mental energy thinking about healthcare or comparing daycares and primary schools for our children, and we certainly feel more secure in having our basic healthcare needs met.

Some refer to European countries as socialist “nanny states,” which is antithetical to what, for example, Finland actually stands for. If anything, Finns are more likely to have a solid understanding of what true socialism is, sharing geographic proximity to Russia, and having fought two wars against the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Why do you think large swaths of U.S. citizens default to such a blanket classification of countries that simply have a different social construct than they do?

That’s an interesting question. I have come to conclude, in part, that Americans think about Nordic countries with rather antiquated notions of what it was like in the past versus what it’s like now. These countries have changed a lot since the 1970s and even the 1980s — they were more closed off back then, taxes were higher. Now that most of them have become members of the E.U., they have rapidly moved toward a more modern, progressive social construct with regard to education, healthcare, and the economy that supports people where they are and how they’re living in the 21st century. But people remember what it used to be like and haven’t updated their thinking.

European and Nordic people have very sensible solutions that support free markets, but for some reason, in America, the dialogue about their governments is still fraught with outdated notions and negativity. The term “big government” is such a swear word in America, but in some areas government can do good things with economies of scale, like Social Security and Medicare.

When the conversation becomes dogmatic, no one benefits, and I think that sometimes people forget that government can be used to support people’s freedom rather than take away from it. Governments have certainly used power against people instead of for them in the past, so in some ways, it’s perfectly rational to remember that the government can promote evil, but it’s self-destructive dogma to say that the government can’t and shouldn’t be helpful.

Let’s talk about the Nordic theory of love. What is it and how does its philosophy differ from marriage and having children in the U.S.?

I started looking at people’s relationships in America, and it was different from what I was used to. In Nordic countries, the emphasis is on each individual person’s independence and well-being; that children be independent of their parents, and that couples be independent from one another. In the U.S., people were more co-dependent on their parents and each other. This was very curious to me. Here you have the United States, the freest country of all — surely people must make their own way. But really in America, a child’s fate is tied to his or her parents’ wealth, abilities, and success — and their ability to navigate educational and career opportunities.

So the idea of what I call the “Nordic theory of love” is that authentic love is only possible between individuals who are independent and equal. This is actually an American idea. However, families are very much a financial unit in the U.S., where it’s generally expected for parents to pay for their kids’ education and for kids to pay for their parents’ eldercare.

In Nordic countries, the government helps provide basic services so that everyone can approach relationships from an independent position. This might sound undesirable in America — the idea that no one has to depend on anyone else. It might seem cold. But if you live in a Nordic country, you’ll know that people love their families just like everywhere else and that families help each other and stay in each other’s lives. It’s just based on the sense that to truly be able to express yourself authentically, you have to be independent of the other person. This allows people’s relationships to be based more on love than on logistics.

You quote a speech Senator Marco Rubio made in 2014, where everything he stated about defeating poverty and achieving the American dream was right in line with any given Nordic politician — until he said the key to ending childhood poverty was marriage. This is converse to what people in your position view as logic. Rather than providing universally subsidized daycare and paid parental leave, politicians are taking the simplified notion that merely having a mother and a father alone will alleviate childhood poverty.

Obviously, the ideal scenario is having two parents. That’s the best outcome for children, but it’s not often the reality. So it’s an outdated and unrealistic notion in this day and age to try to push people toward marriage. It’s neither a good nor satisfactory solution to pull them out of poverty. If people want to get married, they will, but you can’t force it. If a person is in a dysfunctional situation, pushing them to get married is not going to change that.

It makes much more sense to look at how people live now. They live outside of marriage; they’re single, divorced. Marriage today is not the only indicator of a family unit. It’s very interesting from a Northern European perspective to see that so much of government in the U.S. is actually interfering with personal and private morality. The idea that politicians give advice on what is and isn’t good for a woman’s body or who they should marry is so different from many other wealthy nations.

Recent studies have shown, for example, that it’s not great economic policy for married couples to file joint tax returns. It doesn’t reward a family where both adults work, and in fact, it might favor a family with only one earner. The focus politicians’ make on marriage would be considered meddling in Nordic countries. The world changes, and society and government need to keep up, not try to keep people behind the times.

In many ways, America is so modern, yet some of America’s social policies are completely backward in terms of meeting the current trends of social structures and support. What’s the result? Studies have shown that Nordic children are more likely to have two parents in the household than American children, regardless of whether the parents are married.

Finland’s education system is famous for being egalitarian and producing convincing results. You say, “High-quality public education for all would empower each individual, freeing him or her to receive a good education regardless of accidents of birth, family background and family finances…Everyone would benefit.” According to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish authority on education reform, the goal of reform, which began back in the 1970s, didn’t start with excellence, but with equity.

American public education used to be the world leader — with the philosophy that all children should get a quality education in order to contribute back to society. But then there was this other contending idea of competition as the key to attaining excellence in education. Competition works very well in many sectors, but because education, healthcare, and elderly care, for example, are such fundamental needs, people have to spend enormous amounts of energy comparing daycare, preschools, primary schools, and colleges. It’s very expensive and time consuming, and it means that children whose parents don’t have the means get left behind.

Some think, “Well, Nordic countries are wealthy so they can do all these things, but it won’t work in America.” But Finland was a very poor country when it was reforming the education system, so the main goal at the time was simply that we have to educate every child well. So the system started to work toward that goal. It wasn’t about how can we be excellent; it was that we needed every child to have access to a good school with well-educated teachers, which is incredibly important for opportunity.

The government focused on how best to use its limited resources across all socio-economic spectrums. When the international surveys started coming out in early 2000s showing that Finnish students outperformed their peers in most other countries, Finns were actually surprised because Finland’s focus had not been so much on producing the best students in the world, but rather on simply educating all kids well.

And one of the findings of these surveys that really caught the world’s attention was that in Finland there is relatively little difference between the poorest-performing students and the best. The system has managed to educate all students really well, which wasn’t the first goal — but Finns found that with equality as the first value, excellence followed.

Finland is small and relatively homogenous, so people find it sometimes hard to believe its success has anything to offer bigger, more diverse countries, but it’s really encouraging to think that this was a very poor country and…within the last 30 years, education reform has seen such dramatic positive success. Comparatively, America invests more money into a system with much spottier results.

America has a lot of middlemen; the biggest perhaps are insurance companies. It was baffling to you that providing an individual’s healthcare coverage was incumbent on their employer. On one hand, if you want the most pioneering, space-age surgeries or treatments, you want to be in the U.S. But according to cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar, if you have a run-of-the-mill disease, the system isn’t designed for you to find the best care. What was the most shocking thing you discovered when researching the American healthcare system?

I have to say it was probably two things — how much time and energy it takes from you and how much it costs. I was really struck by how much time it takes just to figure out your insurance plan. Who is your doctor? Are they in network? What are the deductibles? What is covered? It seems so inefficient. And then on top of that, when people do get sick, it’s very unequal. What kind of care you get and how much it costs you really depends on whom you’re working for at the time and what kind of insurance plan your employer offers.

All countries struggle with how to arrange healthcare as costs are rising and in many cases populations are aging, so this is not an easy question, and no country has the perfect solution. But the U.S. spends more on healthcare than any other country by a wide margin. Yet according to studies, American care is not significantly better than in other industrialized Western countries, and in many cases, it’s worse.

While the U.S. has some of the most innovative technology, techniques, and teaching hospitals, it also has a poorly managed healthcare system overall compared to other wealthy nations. I think Americans often don’t realize the cost of the cognitive load that comes with trying to find the right care compared to countries with universal healthcare. In America, the quality of life would be higher if people didn’t have to focus so much on how to get affordable and effective care.

You paid roughly 30 percent of your income in taxes when you were residing Finland, which is not far off from what many U.S. citizens pay here. In exchange, you got comprehensive health insurance, paid disability leave, paid parental leave, affordable daycare, and free university and graduate school. You explain that your taxes didn’t go toward a so-called American version of a “welfare state.” They went directly to you and your pursuit of autonomy. You found that many Americans who actually rely on government programs are the ones calling out the very programs they benefit from. There is the belief among certain circles that for every person who has paid into Medicare, another is reaping the benefits having put in no sweat equity. How do you explain to Americans that having a government system that benefits all truly benefits all? 

Americans have this outdated notion of how much each Nordic person pays for taxes, and what they get in return for what they put into the system. Overall, it’s true that Nordic countries do collect more taxes than the United States does, but in many cases for an average person, income taxes are really not that much higher than in the U.S. if you count in federal, state, and city taxes. But Nordic countries do tax the wealthy more than Americans.

My whole argument is that there’s no point in discussing taxes unless you’re going to talk about what you’re getting in return. The most sensible way to provide and receive quality social services is one that creates more equality, more opportunity, and greater accessibility for everyone. Even for wealthy people, if you have high-quality basic programs that are easily available when people need them, it creates a more positive social culture.

In the U.S., it’s understandable for people to wonder what they’re getting out of their tax payments since so many basic needs are arranged privately or through employers. But at the same time, many Americans don’t realize that they are actually benefiting from various forms of government programs, whether they’re masked through tax credits or otherwise.

The government needs to make it more transparent for people to understand what they’re paying for, and what they’re receiving in return. It shouldn’t be about who is lobbying the hardest for special-interest groups. When the system is rigged for certain sides, it easily becomes a negative system that no one likes and that creates more inequality than equality while still costing everyone a lot of money. It’s really important to create a system where people can easily see what the benefits are that everyone gets — like really good public schools for everyone. Then you’re much more likely to have happy taxpayers.

When you talk about taxes, you say the U.S. is stuck in the past, while the Nordic countries are already living in the future. Explain what you mean by that.

We have to be more efficient and transparent to function in today’s world. It would be much more suited to the current social and economic culture that basic social services are not centered on whether you’re self-employed or an entrepreneur or work for a high-tech company with the power to negotiate extraordinary benefits for employees.

Let’s just consider the fact that healthcare in America is provided by employers, and that those employers are required to support employees’ health insurance. But today, more and more people are working on short-term contracts or are self-employed, so it just makes sense to separate healthcare from your type of employment.

As far as taxes go, employer-sponsored healthcare is one of the biggest tax breaks in the American tax code, and as such, it’s a very inefficient social policy because it gives the biggest breaks to people with the highest salaries and insurance plans, whereas people who earn less, or whose employer doesn’t offer health insurance, get practically nothing.

Obamacare has worked to change that by offering subsidies that are managed through taxes for plans bought on the exchanges, but, again, it’s a really complicated way of doing things. In addition to that, there’s no longer a job economy where a person stays with the same company for 30 years. Every time someone changes jobs, they have to re-navigate their insurance plan, possibly changing doctors and networks. It’s not only a huge burden for the individual, but also to private companies, whose primary goal should be to create a profitable business, rather than to arrange healthcare for their employees. 

You were affected by a homeless (and possibly mentally ill) man you saw on the New York City subway, which made it clear to you that “in the United States, you are really on your own.” It caused you to examine how many of the people who exhibit exterior signs of wealth and comfort are living on inherited money. You hadn’t seen such inequality in any other nation in the industrialized world. In the years following the financial crisis, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the country’s gains in income, while the rest of the country faced stagnation. Reasons often cited have been globalization, free trade, and deregulation, but you’re saying the countries that are succeeding are the ones that put the health of their human capital first.

People often think it’s inevitable that globalization creates winners and losers and there’s not much you can do about it. But if you look at quality of life in the U.S. and elsewhere, people all have the same problems. They need education, healthcare, careers, and financial stability.

When technology shifted millions of jobs away from people with less education to those with a specialized skillset, governments had to figure out how to assist those left behind in making a living again. The U.S. is struggling to figure out how to develop a society that is built for all. And any American who is interested in supporting free trade and wants to have freedom — they really should be supporting the Nordic model, where individuals have access to basic social supports through the government and not through private enterprise.

A poll recently showed that support for the E.U. had risen in Nordic countries after the Brexit vote and, overall, Nordic workers tend to be much more supportive of free trade than American workers. There are concerns in Nordic countries, as well, for sure, but I think, overall, Nordic citizens feel like they still have access to basic services and retraining and so on, and their children still have the opportunity to do better than their parents, whereas in the U.S., workers feel like the winners of globalization are just abandoning the rest, and the rest have to fight back by turning back the clock and stopping free trade. This is going to put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

America is, as you note, “the accumulation of talent drawn to this one country from all over the world, which has produced astonishing levels of excellence in every field of human endeavor imaginable.” You are confident that the brilliance of American commercial and economic success can merge with a lesson from its European neighbors to create an even more sustainable and fulfilling world for its citizens. Do you think we’re heading in that direction?

I think it’s possible. The conversation is obviously very polarized, but I see many positive signs about the direction the conversation is headed. I see a lot of dialogue and initiatives that support many Nordic-style policies like affordable daycare, affordable tuition, and medical care for all. There’s a lot of discussion right now about paid parental leave, and that’s really promising.

In many of these areas, states and cities have already started to act on their own, with states like California and New York leading the way. I understand, of course, that it’s complicated to establish such policies at the national level. But I’m certainly hoping that the most powerful country in the world would want the highest quality of life for all its citizens.

[Photo by Kristiina Wilson.]

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