Tag: Sweden

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Sweden

I’m in Sweden today, where I just spoke before Timbro (a prominent classical liberal think tank) about the US elections and the implications for public policy.

My main message was pessimism since neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton support genuine entitlement reform.

But I’ve addressed that topic many times before. Today, motivated by my trip, I want to augment my analysis about Sweden from 10 days ago.

In that column, I highlighted some research from Professor Olle Kranz showing that Sweden became a rich nation during a free-market era when government was relatively small. And as you can see from his chart (I added the parts in red), this is also when per-capita economic output in Sweden caught up with - and eventually surpassed - per-capita GDP in other advanced countries.

Then Sweden began to lose ground. Some of this was understandable and inevitable. Sweden didn’t participate in World War II, so its comparative prosperity during the war and immediately afterwards was a one-time blip.

But the main focus of my column from last week was to show that Swedish prosperity began a sustained drop during the 1960s, and I argued that the nation lost ground precisely because statist policies were adopted.

In other words, Sweden enjoyed above-average growth when it relied on policies I like and then suffered below-average growth when it imposed the policies (high tax rates, massive redistribution, etc) that get Bernie Sanders excited.

In One Chart, Everything You Need to Know about Big Government, the Welfare State, and Sweden’s Economy

Sweden punches way above its weight in debates about economic policy. Leftists all over the world (most recently, Bernie Sanders) say the Nordic nation is an example that proves a big welfare state can exist in a rich nation. And since various data sources (such as the IMF’s huge database) show that Sweden is relatively prosperous and also that there’s an onerous fiscal burden of government, this argument is somewhat plausible.

A few folks on the left sometimes even imply that Sweden is a relatively prosperous nation because it has a large public sector. Though the people who make this assertion never bother to provide any data or evidence.

I have five responses when confronted with the why-can’t-we-be-more-like-Sweden argument.

  1. Sweden became rich when government was small. Indeed, until about 1960, the burden of the public sector in Sweden was smaller than it was in the United States. And as late as 1970, Sweden still had less redistribution spending that America had in 1980.
  2. Sweden compensates for bad fiscal policy by having a very pro-market approach to other areas, such as trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law and property rights. Indeed, it has more economic freedom than the United States when looking an non-fiscal policies. The same is true for Denmark.
  3. Sweden has suffered from slower growth ever since the welfare state led to large increases in the burden of government spending. This has resulted in Sweden losing ground relative to other nations and dropping in the rankings of per-capita GDP.
  4. Sweden is trying to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms. Starting in the 1990s, there have been tax-rate reductions, periods of spending restraint, adoption of personal retirement accounts, and implementation of nationwide school choice.
  5. Sweden doesn’t look quite so good when you learn that Americans of Swedish descent produce 39 percent more economic output, on a per-capita basis, than the Swedes that stayed in Sweden. There’s even a lower poverty rate for Americans of Swedish ancestry compared to the rate for native Swedes.

I think the above information is very powerful. But I’ll also admit that these five points sometimes aren’t very effective in changing minds and educating people because there’s simply too much information to digest.

As such, I’ve always thought it would be helpful to have one compelling visual that clearly shows why Sweden’s experience is actually an argument against big government.

And, thanks to the Professor Deepak Lal of UCLA, who wrote a chapter for a superb book on fiscal policy published by a British think tank, my wish may have been granted. In his chapter, he noted that Sweden’s economic performance stuttered once big government was imposed on the economy.

Though the Swedish model is offered to prove that high levels of social security can be paid for from the cradle to the grave without damaging economic performance, the claim is false (see Figure 1). The Swedish economy, between 1870 and 1950, grew faster on average than any other industrialised economy, and the country became technologically one of the most advanced and richest in the world. From the 1950s Swedish economic growth slowed relative to other industrialised countries. This was due to the expansion of the welfare state and the growth of public – at the expense of private – employment.57 After the Second World War the working population increased by about 1 million: public employment accounted for c. 770,000, private accounted for only 155,000. The crowding out by an inefficient public sector of the efficient private sector has characterised Sweden for nearly half a century.58 From being the fourth richest county in the OECD in 1970 it has fallen to 14th place. Only in France and New Zealand has there been a larger fall in relative wealth.

And here is Figure 1, which should make clear that what’s good in Sweden (rising relative prosperity) was made possible by the era of free markets and small government, and that what’s bad in Sweden (falling relative prosperity) is associated with the adoption and expansion of the welfare state.

But just to make things obvious for any government officials who may be reading this column, I augment the graph by pointing out (in red) the “free-market era” and the “welfare-state era.”

As you can see, credit for the chart actually belongs to Professor Olle Krantz. The version I found in Professor Lal’s chapter is a reproduction, so unfortunately the two axes are not very clear. But all you need to know is that Sweden’s relative economic position fell significantly between the time the welfare state was adopted and the mid 1990s (which presumably reflects the comparative cross-country data that was available when Krantz did his calculations).

You can also see, for what it’s worth, that Sweden’s economy spiked during World War II. There’s no policy lesson in this observation, other than to perhaps note that it’s never a good idea to have your factories bombed.

But the main lesson, which hopefully is abundantly clear, is that big government is a recipe for comparative decline.

Which perhaps explains why Swedish policymakers have spent the past 25 years or so trying to undo some of those mistakes.

The OECD’s “Perspective” on Swedish Education

The OECD has just released a report offering “its perspective” on Sweden’s academic decline. Its perspective is too narrow. In launching the new report, OECD education head Andres Schleicher declared that “It was in the early 2000s that the Swedish school system somehow seems to have lost its soul.” The OECD administers the international PISA test, which began in the year 2000.

Certainly Sweden’s academic performance has fallen since the early 2000s, but its decline was substantially faster in the preceding decade. PISA cannot shed light on this, but TIMSS—an alternative international test—can, having been introduced several years earlier. On the 8th grade mathematics portion of TIMSS, Sweden’s rate of decline between 1995 and 2003 was over five points per year. Between 2003 and 2011 it was less than two points per year. Still regrettable, but less grievously so.

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students’ falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday’s Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don’t support that narrative. Here’s the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Slate Publishes Inaccurate, Fallacious Piece on Sweden and School Choice

Last week Slate published a misinformed piece on Sweden’s school choice program and what we can learn from it. The errors of fact and logic are glaring. Apparently, they don’t have multiple layers of fact checking over there, so I decided to lend a hand and correct the record at Education Next.

Here’s a snippet:

First, [Slate] claims that “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth.”  In fact, neither of these claims is true. Taking the parenthetical claim first, according to the most recent data of which I am aware (from 2012), the majority of Swedish private schools are non-profit (in Swedish, “Ideella”).

As for overall private sector enrollment among industrialized countries, we can consult the OECD, an association of 34 industrialized nations that administers the PISA test:

“On average across OECD countries… 14% of students attend government-dependent [i.e., gov’t-funded] private schools…. In Sweden, the share of students in private schools increased significantly over the past decade from 4% in 2003 to 14% in 2012…. This brings the share of students in private schools close to the OECD average.”

Slate, in other words, is badly mistaken on this point. How badly? Here are the top five industrialized countries by share of private school enrollment, according to the OECD’s 2012 PISA database:

Belgium 68.4
Netherlands 67.6
Ireland 58.2
Korea 47.5
UK 45.2






Sweden doesn’t even come close….

Why Slovakia May Not Support Europe’s Bailout Plan

Slovakia is set to vote today on the European bailout plan and may well become a holdout. As my colleague David Boaz noted yesterday, this is due to Slovakia’s libertarian speaker of the house, Richard Sulik, who spoke at a Cato Institute conference in Bratislava last year, and who opposes bailouts of Greece and other EU countries based on sound ethical, political, and economic reasoning. Greece is already bankrupt and a bailout will only add to the country’s debt; an EU “rescue” will continue to create moral hazard, thus encouraging bad policies by reckless governments; relatively poorer and better behaved Slovakia should not be forced to support the irresponsible governments of richer European countries; the EU’s response to the Greek debt crisis has led to blatant violations of EU and European Central Bank rules, thus undermining democratic principles and the EU itself; the scare stories of not approving the bailout should not be believed; the best solution is for Greece is to declare bankruptcy once and for all.

In this document by his Freedom and Solidarity Party, Richard Sulik lays out his party’s opposition to the bailout fund. It is consistent with the views of other leading scholars including that of John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and a Cato adjunct scholar) as expressed in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on how to save the Euro.

Sulik has tapped into popular sentiment among Europeans about the “democracy deficit,” or huge gap between the designs of Europe’s ruling elites and the desires of the region’s citizens. The widespread (and accurate) perception of Eurocrats imposing their agenda on Europe to the benefit of their cronies (e.g., big business, labor unions, and politicians in power) and at the expense of the majority is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The Slovak government, which supports the bailout, may well fall on account of this vote, but the prime minister has already indicated that the vote on the bailout fund will be held repeatedly until it is approved. (No doubt there will be little possibility of a repeat vote repealing the bill.)

On a related note, a new Finnish think tank, Libera, provides more evidence that Europeans are rethinking big government. It published a study today which reassesses the record of the Swedish welfare state and praises the numerous market reforms that country has introduced out of necessity since the 1990s.