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Meatballs and Millionaires

Dearest AOC, fly with me to Sweden. A lovely place, but you might not want to live there.

Hannes Stein

Dear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,

I write to you as a fellow citizen of the Bronx (in my case, Riverdale) who is inspired by you, infuriated by you, repelled by you, but who also finds you highly appealing. Please let me explain.

I immigrated to the United States some thirteen years ago. I was born in Germany and grew up in Austria. My mother belonged to the SPÖ—the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreich, aka Austria’s socialist party—for as long as I can remember. I was raised on stories about the Spanish Civil War and the perfidy of the Austrian fascists. I can still deliver some spirited and impolite versions of anti-Franco songs.

I stopped considering myself a socialist some time ago, but many of my friends were and are on the left. One of them was an old kibbutznik named Benni Katzenelson. He educated me about decency, about Israel, about democracy. Do you know how socialist a country Israel was until well into the 1980s?

How my chaver Benni loathed Bibi Netanyahu. How he, together with you and me, would have celebrated the demise of our would-be autocrat Donald Trump.

But this isn’t the occasion to talk to you about Israel; that’s for another time. Instead, I’d like to talk about Sweden, because I think you see Sweden as a role model but don’t look closely enough to see the lessons it really has to offer.

Dear Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, could I persuade you to spare some time from your quarrel with my conservative Never Trump friends at the Lincoln Project and take a trip with me to the Kingdom of Sweden?

I happen to know a little something about Sweden. First and foremost, I would like you to try the Swedish national dish. It is called “köttbullar.” Köttbullar are meatballs, usually served with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Actually, they’re Turkish. The story goes as follows: King Charles XII, who ruled Sweden at the beginning of the 18th century, waged war against Russia. The war went badly, and King Charles had to flee to the Ottoman Empire. There, he encountered köttbullar; the Turks call their version köfte. Charles loved them. When he was finally able to return to Sweden, he brought the recipe home with him.

Can you guess what I’m driving at? This was an act of cultural appropriation, just like spaghetti with tomato sauce! Noodles come, via Marco Polo, from China. The tomatl, a distinctly Aztec fruit, was unknown in Italy before the 16th century, when it was imported by the conquistadores from Peru.

Thus, we arrive at Swedish Lesson Number One: no cultural appropriation = no tasty food.

Yes, your sense of cultural appropriation is likely more nuanced than mine, but perhaps we can agree that navel-gazing about cultural intermingling is a distraction from more important topics.

Now that we’ve eaten, on to some statistics. Sweden has one of the world’s highest rates of greedy capitalists per capita—one billionaire per 250,000 inhabitants, to be exact. Together, those billionaires control around a quarter of the country’s annual GDP. So, we’re not talking economic equality here.

Yet the Heritage Foundation ranks Sweden number twenty-two on its index of economic freedom—slightly lower than the United States, at number seventeen, but much higher than France, number sixty-four. So, what explains Sweden’s high grade? For starters, it is relatively easy to found a company in the country, because there’s not much red tape and, what with Scandinavian virtue, you don’t have to bribe anyone. Furthermore, it’s easy to hire and fire people—much easier, say, than in Germany, ranked number twenty-seven. And the Swedes, like their fellow Scandinavians, are committed free marketeers. Any rapacious outsider can buy a Swedish company. Swedish authorities will exercise benign neglect.

Thus, Swedish Lesson Number Two: Your socialist paradise is in fact a highly enthusiastic capitalist country.

What makes all the neoliberalism tolerable, of course, is Sweden’s famous welfare state. Swedes don’t lose their health insurance when they lose their jobs. They get unemployment benefits (arbetslöshetsersättning, if you’re interested) for sixty weeks after they’ve been fired. The state helps them find a new job.

When a child is born, the state makes it possible for a parent to work from home for up to 480 days. There are lavish housing benefits. There is child support. And who pays for all those beautiful things? Not the billionaires, or not just the billionaires. Anyone earning more than about $42,000 per year will end up paying between 49 and 60 percent of his or her income for these services, through a combination of local and national income taxes.

In addition, I must tell you that Sweden’s cost of living is quite high. If we had a bottle of wine with our köttbullar at a restaurant, the tab would be about 270 krona, or more than 30 bucks.

Ah, yes, and another thing: Health care in Sweden is not “Medicare for all.” Private health insurance may be rare, but it does exist, as it does in all European countries, including the United Kingdom.

Which brings us to Swedish Lesson Number Three: The Swedish welfare state is by no means Marxist.

The properties have not been expropriated. The banks are still owned by filthy rich capitalists. There are no five-year plans. The manufacturer of Wasabröd crispbread has not been nationalized. The foundation of the Swedish welfare state is a moral and social pact: The loyal subjects of Carl XVI Gustaf (did I mention that Sweden is still a monarchy?) simply choose to sacrifice large chunks of their incomes to help one other.

This state of affairs leads us to Swedish Lesson Number Four: the Green New Deal.

Not your Green New Deal, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, but ecological policy as practiced in the fädernesland, the native country, of Greta Thunberg.

Question: How does Sweden produce its energy? More than half of it comes from hydroelectric power stations, about 10 percent from wind turbines. And more than 35 percent is produced by a fabulous invention called kärnkraft—yes, nuclear power. With this mix, Sweden has managed to cut its CO2 emissions from 11.49 metric tons per capita in 1970 to 4.48 metric tons per capita in 2014. Not so bad. Furthermore, electricity is cheap in Sweden—much cheaper than, say, in Germany, which is not doing so well on the CO2 front either (it’s still spewing 8.89 metric tons per capita).

So, what went wrong in Germany? I’ll let you in on the secret: After the accident in Fukushima (where no one died, by the way), the Germans decided to get rid of nuclear power altogether. The result was that Germany found itself slinking back to coal (lignite, to be more exact, the type of coal most harmful to human health) like an old alcoholic who tiptoes into his favorite bar under the cover of darkness, mumbling all along the way that this will be his last drink for sure.

The Scandinavians, meanwhile, are going heavily for kärnkraft. Finland, for example, is now building its fifth nuclear reactor.

Therefore, Swedish Lesson Number Five is that kärnkraft will have to be an integral part of any attempt to fight man-made climate change.

The next issue is painful for me to write about, but let me push through the discomfort and say it out loud: A critical difference between Sweden and other European countries is that the Swedish Social Democrats have remained politically relevant. True, they are no longer as powerful as they were in the 1970s. But the Swedish Prime Minister is a Social Democrat—unlike the head of state in Germany, unlike in France, unlike in Austria.

The party’s decline in Germany is particularly galling. After all, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has a proud history. It was the only party that voted against the 1933 Ermächtigungsgesetz, the Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers. After World War II, when the Buchenwald concentration camp was reopened under new and improved Soviet management, German Social Democrats were among the first victims. In other words, the SPD fought both against the Nazis and the Stalinists. Not bad; not bad at all. Yet the German SPD has been shedding supporters since 2009. Now they hold about 20 percent of the population.

In Sweden, by contrast, the Social Democrats still rake in about 30 percent of the vote. Why?

One reason—I told you this was going to be painful—is that your Swedish comrades have veered sharply to the right on the issue of immigration.

No, they don’t put children in cages; they’re not barbarians. But Sweden’s progressives understand that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You can have either a functioning welfare state or open borders, but not both. Having taken in more than their fair share, they have decided that they need to curb the number of immigrants going forward.

So, here is Swedish Lesson Number Six: You’ll have to talk about immigration, and talk about it clearly—because if you don’t, the extreme Right certainly will.

This doesn’t mean we should renounce the vision of America as a multiethnic democracy, let alone condone racism. (When Trump’s supporters called you un-American and chanted, “Send her back!” I wondered, “Where to? Yorktown Heights?”) Immigrants who have been here for decades, who have worked and paid their taxes and never done anyone any harm, should get their green cards immediately and without harassment or humiliation. But, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, we have to talk about the difference between immigrants and refugees.

Refugees we have to take in for humanitarian reasons—but not forever. And they certainly do not have a God-given right to benefits from the welfare state that you and other progressives intend to build.

In contrast, with immigrants, we have a right to pick and choose. Let’s do it the way Canada does and try to attract the smart ones from among all ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations. But capitalists who try to benefit from hiring undocumented workers should face steep fines.

Then, too, we need to secure our borders. Not with a wall—that’s just stupid—but with drones and cameras and lots of lawyers. Let me say it again: If you won’t talk about limiting immigration, the Republican Party will.

So, please learn from Sweden, dear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—but from the real Sweden, not some dream country that exists only in your mind.

Fraternally,
Hannes Stein

Hannes Stein, born in Munich, Germany, in 1965, works as a cultural and political correspondent for Die Welt. He has published two novels. His third novel, Der Weltreporter (The World Reporter), will be published this winter by Galiani Berlin.