Glenn Reynolds has many virtues, but his stubborn refusal to admit that he’s wrong — indeed, his insistence that he’s right when the evidence is flatly against him — is not among them. Consider the following:

Hey, I only just now noticed (via Atrios) that Krugman mentions me in the piece — to say I was right about Sweden, and then to say it doesn’t matter.


I will note that Krugman’s comments about Sweden remind me of the standard cry of economic fall-behinds: “we’re poor, but we’re rich in the things you can’t count.” Such statements may be true, of course, but they’re awfully convenient.

Well, actually, no. Krugman does not say that Reynolds was right about Sweden. Krugman points out that Reynolds was completely and utterly wrong about Sweden. And it has nothing to do with “things you can’t count,” unless Reynolds thinks that only money can be counted. Here’s what Krugman actually says:

A few months ago the conservative cyberpundit Glenn Reynolds made a splash when he pointed out that Sweden’s G.D.P. per capita is roughly comparable with that of Mississippi — see, those foolish believers in the welfare state have impoverished themselves! Presumably he assumed that this means that the typical Swede is as poor as the typical resident of Mississippi, and therefore much worse off than the typical American.

But life expectancy in Sweden is about three years higher than that of the U.S. Infant mortality is half the U.S. level, and less than a third the rate in Mississippi. Functional illiteracy is much less common than in the U.S.

How is this possible? One answer is that G.D.P. per capita is in some ways a misleading measure. Swedes take longer vacations than Americans, so they work fewer hours per year. That’s a choice, not a failure of economic performance. Real G.D.P. per hour worked is 16 percent lower than in the United States, which makes Swedish productivity about the same as Canada’s.

But the main point is that though Sweden may have lower average income than the United States, that’s mainly because our rich are so much richer. The median Swedish family has a standard of living roughly comparable with that of the median U.S. family: wages are if anything higher in Sweden, and a higher tax burden is offset by public provision of health care and generally better public services. And as you move further down the income distribution, Swedish living standards are way ahead of those in the U.S. Swedish families with children that are at the 10th percentile — poorer than 90 percent of the population — have incomes 60 percent higher than their U.S. counterparts. And very few people in Sweden experience the deep poverty that is all too common in the United States. One measure: in 1994 only 6 percent of Swedes lived on less than $11 per day, compared with 14 percent in the U.S.

Life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, leisure, income at the bottom end of the distribution (and, Krugman didn’t add, homicide rates and prison populations) — all measurable and countable, and Sweden is way ahead on every one of them. Not ahead of Mississippi, but ahead of the United States of America, the richest, freest, greatest country in the world.

That doesn’t mean that Sweden’s public policies are better than ours in some absolute sense. Even if they were, that wouldn’t mean that we ought to adopt them; Sweden is a different country, with a different history and a different population, and one size doesn’t fit all. (For a longer exposition of these issues, see here and here.) But it does mean that the right-wing attempt to portray Sweden (richer than France, richer than Britain, richer than Germany) as some sort of disaster area is simply false-to-fact. Enough already.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com