Concluding Remarks

The Power of Politics

Carl Tham, Secretary-General
Olof Palme International Center

Thank you very much, indeed, for this fascinating discussion.

I think it is very useful that Werner Wilkening has reminded us of the forces and constraints that are associated with the global economy, and how they relate to the changes that have taken place in recent decades. All of this has had consequences for the Nordic model of society.

Carl Tham
A basic premise of today’s discussion is that it should be possible to resist those powerful economic forces, and adapt society to the values and ideas which we would like to uphold-- that we need not be prisoners of the highly-paid corporate leaders to whom Prof. Wilkening referred. We have a number of them in Sweden, of course, and they are trying very hard to grasp the same kind of wealth, almost, as their counterparts in the United States.

The key question in this context is: What kind of political power do we have? In Sweden as elsewhere, there are different views on this matter. There is a strong conservative party. There are many economic interests that would like to reduce the power of politics and establish another kind of society than we have today.

It is important to keep those forces in mind. Gösta Esping-Andersen is certainly aware of them, but his presentation earlier today was based on the assumption that we do want a society with a certain level of equality, that we do want a society in which men and women enjoy the same possibilities. Needless to say, however, that was merely an assumption. There are many who feel that such goals are not very important, and others who feel that it is not at all a good idea to pursue a policy of greater equality.

The mark of the European Union

This is what politics is all about, of course. We need to analyse how the welfare system can be redesigned so that it becomes more viable. It is not a question of admitting defeat, but rather of making the system strong enough to resist the economic forces which threaten it. But as several speakers have pointed out, the Nordic region comprises only a small part of the world economy, to which we have always adapted. We have been forced to do so, even during the so-called ”golden age” of the Nordic model in the post-World War II era.

At present, we are bound by some of the basic elements of the European Union’s economic policy. Unfortunately, there is a serious fallacy in that policy: It seems that the people who constructed the Maastrich Agreement thought they had discovered the eternal truth of how an economy should be run, and have embedded those ideas in the Agreement forever. But history clearly shows that there is no eternal truth as to what kind of economic policy a nation should pursue. This is a serious problem: There is a lack of flexibility which, in the end, may cause great harm to Europe and the member-states of the EU.

The European Union’s economic policy has already left its mark on Sweden. In recent years, there has been a shift in priorities from an emphasis on full employment to combating inflation. That shift has led to many other changes that we have experienced, many of them negative.

Nevertheless, it appears that the Swedish welfare system not only survived the economic crisis of the 1990s, but even demonstrated a fairly high level of resilience. The system was able to cope with the pressures to which it was subjected, and thus prevent drastic reductions in the incomes and general welfare of the great majority. That is a conclusion which clearly emerges from several studies, including a national inquiry into the effects of the economic crisis which was conducted by Joakim Palme and his associates.

Meeting future challenges

The question now before us is how to design the system so that it is able to meet future challenges. I do not intend to review everything that has been said today. But as one who has been deeply involved with matters of educational policy, I would like to underscore two very important points that have been made in that regard.

The first is Gösta Esping-Andersen’s observation that it is not especially useful to devote a lot of resources to life-long learning if people do not have a solid foundation to build on. That foundation consists not only of good schools— which are crucial, of course— or day care, or high quality in the overall cultural environment. It is also a question of family policy.

We know, for instance, that children who grow up in poverty have a much poorer chance of acquiring a good education than children who are better off.

There are some indisputable social facts that must be taken into account when a policy of life-long learning is designed. This includes a lot of things that are not related to the educational system, but rather to family conditions, as Esping-Andersen has explained. His point was well-taken, that when England’s Prime Minister Blair promises to spend a lot of money on education, he would be well-advised to invest in reducing his country’s extremely high rate of child poverty. It is roughly the same level as in the United States, perhaps even higher.

Equally important is Werner Wilkening’s point concerning emotional factors as the driving force in education. I believe that the significance of these factors are underestimated by many of those who deal with educational policy. It is difficult to get good results without emotional commitment and involvement.

Repairing the cracks

Regarding all of the issues raised today— labour markets, education, family structure, etc.— it is necessary to understand their complexity and how they are related to each other. It must also be noted that there are ”cracks” in the system— due not only to the powerful economic forces that have been mentioned, but also to what I regard as self-inflicted problems resulting from political decisions.

For example, we have to make up our minds on whether or not we really want a general welfare system. If we do, we have to deal with the problem that the current ceilings on benefits have the result that more and more people do not get what they have reason to expect from the system. When they get sick or take parental leave, many experience an increasing gap between their regular earnings and what they receive from the social insurance system. In many cases, the compensation levels are lower than the average income in Sweden.

As a result, growing numbers feel that it is necessary to supplement their coverage with private insurance, and this poses a threat to the entire system. If it is increasingly necessary to take out private insurance, why pay taxes to the general, public system? This is one of the issues that must be dealt with, and it is not something that we can blame on Wall Street. It is not. We have to decide for ourselves and set our own priorities, here in this country.

Another obvious question is whether or not we want a public school system. Even though education may be a tempting market in some respects, it is not one that is likely to attract the interest of major corporations. It is largely a political issue: Do we want maintain schools as public institutions, or do we think it is a good idea to have more private schools? It is an ideological issue. As for myself, I feel that it is very important to retain our system of public schools for a number of reasons, some of which have been mentioned today. But, again, this is the kind of issue that we can and should decide for ourselves.

Cultural values and traditions

In contrast to what many what like us to believe, there is a great deal of room for political decisions. It is not at all necessary for all European countries to have the same kind of system. There is plenty of room for political decisions based on our respective values and cultural traditions,

So, we must not hide behind the fact that we are internationally dependent and say that, well, everything is decided somewhere else. That is true for some things, no doubt. But not for everything, and that is one of the reasons that we organize this kind of seminar.

It has been a day of very interesting and fruitful discussion, including Werner Wilkening’s very useful reminder of the powerful forces currently shaping the world and our society. We should certainly continue this discussion in various forums. But for now, I would like close by thanking the speakers for their excellent contributions, and to everyone in the audience for joining us. Thank you all very much.

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