This is not Denmark

Aspiring presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told a receptive audience that “we are not Denmark…we are the United States of America.” I thought this hokey and dumb, for it betrays a profound insularity to possible lessons from abroad. It’s as if the whole world extends no farther than the 50 states, and that we have absolutely nothing to learn from beyond our borders. Such a shame.

In these pages I have mentioned frequently that the U.S. remains glibly ignorant of Finland’s successful approach to education, a system that, ironically, incorporates the tenets of John Dewey, yet is completely antithetical to America’s top-down, test-driven madness.

Now it seems that we might want to look at what’s going on in Sweden, a country that, like the U.S., suffers from both lessening productivity and stagnant, if not falling, wages. Economist Dean Baker suggests that we might take a look at Sweden’s six-hour work day experiment. He writes:

If this reduction in work hours proves successful, it will address both sides of the problem. It would first mean that we would see a surge in productivity growth as workers produced more hour in their six-hour days than in their eight-hour days. This would justify higher hourly pay. The second part of the story is that by reducing the average amount of work-time per worker, we would be opening up more jobs.

This point is straightforward. If there is demand for the same number of labor hours, and the average worker puts in fewer hours, there will be more demand for workers. This is a way to sustain higher levels of employment, thereby ensuring that workers have more bargaining power. With short enough workweeks/work years we can keep the economy near full employment and make sure that workers have the necessary bargaining power to get their share of the gains from growth.

For these reasons, the six-hour day sounds like a very intriguing idea, in addition to the fact that it will give people more time to do things they enjoy.

UPDATE (October 17, 2015):

Timothy Egan, writing for the New York Times:

She also said, “We are not Denmark.” Nope. Not by any stretch. Denmark has a slightly higher tax load on its citizens than the United States. But it also has budget surpluses, universal health care, shorter working hours, and was recently rated by Forbes magazine as the best country in the world for business.

UPDATE 2 (October 17, 2015):

Vox‘s Matthew Yglesias gives us much detail on Denmark vis-a-vis the U.S.

In other words, while at times it’s the case that Denmark is able to deliver superior public services because it is willing to spend more money (you can’t have a paid parental leave program without someone footing the bill, for example) the causation also goes in the other direction. Danish political economy places a greater emphasis on identifying and eliminating waste, which both improves the quality of public services and fosters greater willingness to pay for them. The United States is in a different political equilibrium where the service providers themselves are often the key political constituency for services, which makes it difficult to focus on cost-effectiveness, while conservatives prefer eliminating programs to trying to improve them.