Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Finland #1?

In this week's issue of Newsweek, the newsmagazine that until very recently was part of the Washington Post empire, there is a cover story ranking the nations of the world.  Finland is listed as #1.

These things are usually pretty silly but Newsweek outdoes itself when it attempts to explain why the Nordic nations typically do so well in these comparisons (Sweden is listed as #3, Norway #6, Denmark #10.)  It is full of absurd psychobabble about why cold and dark and depressing places should produce such stunning outcomes.

Since I have lived in both Finland and Sweden, I think my observations about these countries are at least as sound as Newsweek's so I'll attempt to improve on theirs.

1) The Nordic countries are Lutheran.  Since virtually no one in Scandinavia actually goes to church, this may seem an odd observation but I believe it valid for the following reasons.
restored organ in the Frauenkirche of Dresden
the original was dedicated by J.S. Bach 
click on picture to see a large version
  • The opening sentence of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 was Luther's famous line "Out of a love for the truth..."  As a Lutheran, you don't pursue the truth because your God will condemn you if you don't, you pursue it because it provides you with, as Richard Feynman said, the great pleasure of finding things out.  Of course, besides finding accurate descriptions of how the world actually works, folks who love honesty also demand honest governments and business dealings.
  • The preferred art form of Lutherans is music.  Luther himself was a composer but the big Lutheran composer was J. S. Bach.  He benefitted from such cultural manifestations as pipe organs--easily the most technologically difficult device of the 17th and 18th centuries.  People who can build pipe organs can build other very difficult things.  Not surprisingly, the countries that first built pipe organs are without exception, technologically very advanced.  In addition, Lutheran music was supposed to sung by everyone which widely spread the supposed benefits of learning to sing difficult music.
  • Lutherans are supposed to be literate.  Again--every Lutheran must read--not just the rich and noble.  In fact, in the 19th century, a Finnish bishop decreed that no one could marry until they had proven their literacy to a Lutheran clergyman.  (Now THERE is a way to spread universal literacy!) The Finns I know are astonishingly well read.
2) The Nordics love to travel and learn whatever they can from outsiders.  Nothing holds USA back more than the notion that "we're #1" because it assumes we have nothing to learn from others.  NOwhere in Scandinavia can you find this attitude even though they often CAN claim to be #1 at something.

3) The harsh environment over time has weeded out the less clever and creative. Besides making for extremely handsome people, this process has produced some of the most technologically advanced people on earth.  How else does one explain how tiny Finland has come to own virtually all the paper-making companies in Europe and North America?  Or other equally illuminating examples.

There are other quite valid reasons for the persistent success of the Nordic nations. These are just my favorites.

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