Sweden at the Crossroads

Sweden holds a national election on Sunday, September 14. The current parliamentary majority, a center-right coalition called The Alliance, is set to lose its majority. A three-party group of red-and-green socialists is expected to come in a few parliamentary seats short of majority, leaving the next prime minister and his cabinet dependent on nationalist, self-proclaimed “socially conservative” Swedish Democrats.

Not a lot has been said about the election outside of Sweden. This is unfortunate, because the country that American liberals used to tout as their role-model society is on the brink of a social and economic disaster up and above what any European country has experienced since the military coups in Greece and Portugal in 1967 (not counting the Balkan War).

I have covered Sweden in scattered articles, and my new book Industrial Poverty has an entire chapter on the crisis of the Swedish welfare state. However, time constraints have precluded me from analyzing the situation there in more detail on this blog. Therefore, I am grateful that the Economist reports on the pending election and its consequences. Unfortunately, the reporting is not entirely accurate:

For a decade Sweden could plausibly claim to be Europe’s most successful economy. Anders Borg, the (formerly pony-tailed) centre-right finance minister since 2006, likes to trot out numbers for his time in office: GDP growth of 12.6%, a rise in gross disposable incomes of almost 20%, a budget moving into surplus and a public debt barely above 40% of GDP.

I have no idea where they get these numbers from. But I also do not see what is so impressive with them. A GDP growth of 12.6 percent in eight years is less than 1.5 percent per year if you factor in the compounded growth effect. According to Eurostat National Accounts data, GDP growth has averaged just over 1.3 percent per year since the center-right government won the 2006 election. Private consumption has increased a bit faster, but only at the expense of a doubled debt-to-income ratio for Swedish families. In 2000 the debt-to-income ratio was approximately 90 percent; ten years later it had doubled. (By comparison, the U.S. debt-to-income ratio topped out at 140 percent before the Great Recession began.) In my new book Industrial Poverty, which has an entire chapter on Sweden, I adjust consumption growth for a constant debt ratio. The result is a staggering loss of spending (you will have to buy the book to get the details…) which shows that the only reason why the Swedish economy has grown a bit faster than the EU average over the past decade is that Swedish families have accumulated a lot more debt.

In fact, from 2006 to 2012 household debt as share of GDP grew by 22 percent, faster than in two thirds of EU countries. By 2012 Swedish households are the seventh most indebted in the EU; an extrapolation of the 2006-2012 trend would place Sweden among the top five in 2013 (for which no complete data has been reported yet).

Debt-driven growth is not the way forward, especially since the debt drive is based on an out-of-control real estate market. Swedes have access to mortgage loans that only cost them interest payments, and the Swedish central bank has the most aggressive in the EU – after the ECB – in pushing more cash out into the economy. Long story short: there is nothing to brag about in the Swedish economy.

The only sector that is thriving in Sweden is the exports industry. They, on the other hand, are increasingly operating as an isolated sector from which little more than tax revenue trickle down.

The Economist again:

[The center-right government] has overturned Sweden’s old image as a high-tax, high-spending Socialist nirvana. Twenty years ago public spending took an eye-watering 68% of GDP; today the figure is heading to 50%. Although the tax burden remains high by international standards, top rates have been cut, as have corporate taxes. Taxes on gifts, inheritance, wealth and most property have been scrapped.

This is a bad case of statistical trickery. The reason why government spending reached two thirds of GDP in 1994 is that the country’s GDP had been contracting for three years at that time, that unemployment exceeded 15 percent and that there had been no major cuts in income security programs. During the three years that followed that 1994 figure government spending was cut by an equivalent of five percent of GDP. That would be $850 billion here in the United States.  Later, the Swedish government laid off one fifth of the employees in its socialized health care system. Replacement ratios in income security systems were pushed down from 90 percent of your current income to 50 percent in the worst case and nowhere more than 80 percent. Student-to-teacher ratios grew in public schools and the number of hospital beds per 100,000 citizens was reduced to the lowest level in the European Union.

If you make such heavy spending cuts you will no doubt see a decline in the ratio of government spending to GDP.

On the tax side, the Economist perpetuates the mythology that Sweden has cut its top income tax rates. In 2013 the top rate was still 60 percent, a figure that anyone can find who is willing to examine Swedish tax tables. What has been cut is the tax burden at the lower end: Sweden now has its own version of the American Earned Income Tax Credit. However, its effect has been the same as the EITC, namely to increase the discouraging marginal effect in the income tax system. While it is cheaper to live on a low income, the price tag on a promotion or an education has risen significantly.

Ignoring reality on the ground in Sweden, the Economist is surprised that Swedish voters seem ready to hand government over to the green-socialist left. Needless to say, the magazine struggles to explain the predicted election outcome:

Although the polls have narrowed sharply in the closing days before the September 14th election, all the signs are that Swedes will toss out the centre-right alliance in favour of a centre-left government led by the Social Democrats. … Inequality has risen fast, as almost everywhere—but Swedes care about this more than most. Mr Reinfeldt boasts of the creation of 300,000 private-sector jobs, yet unemployment is stubbornly high at almost 8%, and far worse among immigrants and the young.

The number for job creation is flat wrong. According to Statistics Sweden, quarterly workforce data, a total of 227,000 jobs have been added to the Swedish economy from first quarter of 2007 to first quarter of 2014. Of those jobs, only 47 percent are full-time permanent positions. The rest are temporary, primarily low-wage service jobs. Furthermore, youth unemployment – which government has tried to manipulate down – persists around 25 percent, which is close to the EU average.

With all this in mind, there is no doubt that Sweden is better off today than it would have been under a left-wing government over the past eight years. The social democrats and their prospective coalition partners – the greens and an unapologetic communist party – have promised to raise a slew of taxes as soon as they get into office. Among the more controversial proposals is to return the payroll tax for young workers from its current rate of ten percent to the normal rate three times higher. It is difficult to estimate what the actual effect of this would be on the Swedish labor market, but the attempts made thus far point to 10-20,000 lost jobs for people between high-school age and 25.

Again, Sweden would be better off under the current Alliance government, but it is, frankly, not very difficult to provide better policy than socialists whose idea of growth and prosperity is a higher tax bill. What Sweden truly needs is a turn in the libertarian direction, with major reforms to dismantle the welfare state. Such reforms would start with privatization of the country’s anorectic health care system, proceed with a strengthened – and truly private – school choice system, then privatize the country’s costly and inefficient income security system, and top it all off with a major tax reform that would cut the current world’s-highest tax burden in half.

Such reforms, however, will have to wait until there are true libertarians in Sweden’s parliament. And that won’t happen over night.