The logic of labor

I arrived in Copenhagen a couple of hours ago. I  waited 2 hours for a train from the airport because trains are running on the holiday schedule. I am now crammed onto a packed train, standing room only, to Växjö.

Why so crowded?

Today is Easter Monday, a national holiday in Sweden.  Most schools in the south of Sweden were off for Easter break last week as well (Stockholm has this week off). This means that today is a busy travel day as people return from their vacations to warmer climes.

So, given the fact that Easter Monday is a day when folks tend to be on the move, you might expect that mass transit would reflect that fact with, for example, more frequent and longer trains, right?

Wrong. That would be a pretty American way of looking at things. In the US, if more people are going to be free to shop, we seek to make it easier for consumers – letting black Friday bleed into Thanksgiving, and having additional staff on hand to stock the shelves and man the cash registers, for example. If more people are going to be on holiday travelling, we increase staffing at airports, and on toll plazas.  These efforts require workers and, as my friend Shamus Khan notes in a recent Time Magazine (November 19, 2012) piece, the rights and protections of workers are eroding in the face of a society that claims to be governed by the “logic of the market.”

In Sweden it is different. As my current traveling circumstances demonstrate, on holidays there are fewer trains and the trains are more lightly staffed. Stores and restaurants are open for fewer hours, if at all. We remarked on this when we first arrived in Sweden – complaining about the inconvenience of holiday schedules and expecting that we should use a holiday to walk downtown to see what was going on and have brunch. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed while the lakefronts and parks were full of people out and about walking, riding their bicycles, and picnicking.

Swedish holidays provide a day of relief for workers, not a day of shopping for consumers. It interesting how this distinction is more than just semantics – we are talking about the same collection of people after all. I have frequently encountered circumstances here in which it is obvious that the rights of the worker have trumped the convenience of the consumer (for example, you can no longer buy tickets on the train because that was found to be a source of stress for conductors. Instead, you must buy your ticket at the machine on the platform. Too bad for you if that means you miss your train).

If the US system is built around the logic of the market, Sweden’s relies upon the “logic of labor.”

It may surprise Americans who have bought into misinformation that equates welfare states with rising laziness and an “entitlement” mentality, but the Swedish system is actually built on the principle of supporting people as workers (instead of consumers making investment choices with their skills, time and funds). The system both depends upon and is built to foster maximum labor force participation. Generous family leave policies that explicitly seek gender equality, national healthcare, free college education, direct child support payments, well-funded schools with high quality and inexpensive after-school options, 6 weeks minimum annual paid vacation, and subsidies for home improvements and house cleaning services – all of it designed to increase the number of people working and working though the system instead of under the table. For example, the house cleaning subsidy takes a job that was often off the books and brings it and the workers into the system where they can be taxed and receive their services and protections. The family leave policies were designed to maintain the labor force attachment of women with small children. They have been quite successful in this country with one of the smallest gender gaps in the world (see page 8 here). It doesn’t just work for women. Sweden isn’t perfect, but a look at pretty much any list on productivity and efficiency, innovation and creative economy, good climate for doing business, and labor force participation demonstrates that the welfare state is not a drag on the national economy.

Sweden is not a nation that divides itself into “takers” and “makers.” Instead it is a country that has embarked on a path toward increased support for its people as workers whose everyday efforts, as opposed to the occasional “welfare queen” and rags-to-riches millionaire that occupy the US imagination, are the focus of the nation. I may be writing this on a crowded train that I had to wait twice as long as usual for, but, despite the inconvenience, the atmosphere is happy and relaxed. After all, folks are heading back to work after a well-deserved break. Some inconveniences are worth their price.

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