There is this odd story about bumblebees and flying. You know, these oval, buzzing, funny-looking insects that we often find hovering around our gardens in summer. The story, as I heard it, is that the bumblebee defies the laws of aerodynamics: it shouldn’t be capable of flying with those tiny wings and that monster of a body (for an insect, anyway). Allegedly, it doesn’t generate enough lifting power for its chubby body to take flight. (Just to make sure: this is false and the bumblebee’s flight is perfectly consistent with the laws of aerodynamics).
Yet, the bumblebee is flying. Clearly, these annoying little insects defy gravity every single day, suggesting – commonsensically – that there wasn’t much point in supposing that they couldn’t. In any case, the bumblebees of the world didn’t care much for the musings of mice and men; they kept buzzing around, blissfully ignorant of their apparently supernatural powers.
In the world’s eyes, Sweden holds a similar position. Its economy always did much better than we’d except at a first-pass analysis. With the corona pandemic, we now have another episode of the Swedish Bumblebee story.
Economically, Sweden shouldn’t be as successful as it is. According to most economic thinking, a large government sector, the world’s highest marginal tax rates, strong unions, and a generous welfare state should result in an economy with lots of slack and a society of slackers. Yet, it prevails: in GDP-per-capita terms it does at least as well as its European peers, markedly outperforms the allegedly free market-loving Britain and trails the United States only by about 14–15% on aggregate levels. While its unemployment rate usually hovers a few percentage points above the British or American one, Sweden routinely scores well on quality-of-life rankings – and it has long had the highest labor participation rate in the European Union. On top of that, Stockholm’s tech start-up scene rivals the global metropolises of the world.
There is no shortage of explanations to account for Sweden’s odd economic behavior. Those on the left have usually invoked feedback loops from a large social safety net, redistributive taxes, societal trust, or universal health care. Others point to early widespread literacy, universal schooling, a strong work ethic, and strong cohesive communities. Right-wing explanations often rely on shared identities, values, and sometimes even ethnic homogeneity. Free-marketeers of one variety or another have usually said that it’s because at heart Sweden is a hyper-capitalist economy – how else could it afford to pay for such an outrageously large and generous state apparatus?
None of these explanations are ironclad; if they were, we wouldn’t have an argument over them. Virtually every Western country has high-quality universal health care; literacy has been near-universal for generations; and Sweden doesn’t score that well in rankings of economic freedom.
While international academics and policy wonks debate what’s fueling Sweden’s success – and what portion of Swedish society could effectively translate into their countries – the Swedish bumblebee hovers along, unperturbed by stories about its success. Blissfully ignorant of the many ideological attempts to prove its inability of flying, it flies all the same.
With the pandemic, we’ve now received another data point for the Swedish bumblebee saga. Naturally, this one also comes ready-made to fit one’s prior ideological beliefs. For those who say that lockdown is the answer to every problem, Sweden’s relatively more open approach should have led to mass casualties, topping the charts of per-capita deaths. It doesn’t. Its admittedly dismal outcome is surpassed by the heaviest of lockdowners: U.S., U.K., Spain etc.
If you believe that lockdowns work to prevent the spread of the disease and deaths, Sweden is performing annoyingly well and should be a sobering wake-up call. It hasn’t done too much in the way of closing society: it didn’t close borders, schools, bars, shopping malls or almost anything else, but it still has fewer per-capita deaths than many countries that threw everything and the kitchen sink against the virus.
For those who say that lockdowns are pointless power moves and symbolic expressions of societal self-harm, Sweden is the grand hero in terms of keeping society open. Then again, many, many more have lost their lives there than in the fortress-style lockdowns of Australia and New Zealand, South Korea and Iceland – not to mention the neighboring countries of Norway, Finland or Denmark whose death rates are one-tenth to one-fifth of Sweden’s. That’s awkward if you, myself included, think that politicians of the world have reacted too harshly for too long.
While the partisan stories line up and the spin doctors have sharpened their Sweden story, Sweden itself has ignored their musings – just like the calm, humble bumblebee it is. Wide-eyed, most Swedes have watched remarkably inaccurate international coverage of its pandemic policy – then shrugged it off, returned to their home offices, washed their hands with sanitizers and kept their distance while out and about.
Throughout the pandemic Sweden has followed its own decentralized public health governance and its politicians have mostly stepped out of the way, dealing with the pandemic calmly and prudently. Despite an avalanche of foreign criticism of its pandemic response, it has held its ground, mostly immune to foreign rumblings, denunciations, and indignant judgments. The bumblebee keeps flying, unflustered by all the attention.
Outliers be outliers
In any scientific venture, outliers attract attention. They’re either intentionally ignored, waved away as something peculiar, or ruthlessly attacked for misbehaving. Of course, outliers point out that something is fundamentally wrong with our basic model.
On economic well-being, it’s clear that a country with an invasively large government sector and extraordinarily high taxes can still perform well. In the corona debates, the simplified story that lockdowns prevent spread and open societies kill people should be relegated to the dustbin of impressive theories at odds with reality.
Admiring the Scandinavian land of IKEA, Volvo, ABBA, Spotify, and Klarna, everyone can fuel their priors; confirmation bias for all! All the while the bumblebee bumbles along, uninterested in your imagined reasons for why it flies.