A Very Danish Vibrancy

Many of Bernie Sanders’ policies would make America a lot more like Denmark, and David Brooks complains that the country would become “a lot less vibrant” as a result.  This tired canard came in for a lot of well-earned criticism on the NYT letters page:  it turns out that America’s current vibrancy doesn’t look so hot to those who are young, poor, middle-income, upper-middle-income, minority, or female.  Which is to say everyone except David Brooks and the rest of the plutocracy.


That’s a fair point, but I have a different beef, which is: What on earth does Brooks mean by vibrancy?  Denmark has a lively music scene, an enviably inventive cuisine, and the 7th-highest number of patent applications per capita in the world.  Denmark has long been an international leader in design and continues to build exceptional architecture.  Danish urban planning arguably leads the world in the creation of vibrant (yes, vibrant) urban spaces.  Denmark recently built an amazing bridge-tunnel to Sweden, for Pete’s sake, and here in the US  we can’t even build a simple tunnel under the Hudson river.


And Denmark is among the world’s happiest countries, which surely counts for something.


But perhaps Brooks doesn’t care about infrastructure, culture or happiness when he frets about a lack of vibrancy in Denmark–perhaps he only cares about economic growth.  But then there’s this:

a graph of Danish and US GDP per capita
Denmark has had 80-90% of US GDP per capita in every year since 1969


There’s no lack of vibrancy here.  Denmark’s GDP per capita is 10-20% lower than the US, and always has been.  Or, to put it differently, the Danish economy was about as well-off at any point in time as the American economy had been 5-10 years earlier. If vibrancy means economic growth over the long term—and why else would we care about it?—then it is simply wrong to suggest that Denmark is any less vibrant than the US.

Whether or not Sanders’ specific proposals are good ones is a separate matter. But this is a debate that should be had on the basis of known facts, not on the basis of unchallenged talking points, either from the left or the right.  If Brooks wants to weigh in, he ought to at least spend the 5 minutes on Google that it takes to verify his most basic premises.


But there is a deeper problem here, and that is with the old assumption that there must be a tradeoff between equity and efficiency, and that too much equality will lead to economic stagnation.  But careful theoretical work in economics by Rebecca Blank, Pranab Bardhan and others has shown that increasing equity doesn’t necessarily reduce efficiency, and in some case greater equity leads to greater efficiency.  That can happen, for example, if borrowing constraints prevent low-income people from making productive investments in their own education or health.   Moreover, actual examples of a hard tradeoff between equity and efficiency are hard to find in the real world.


The assumption of an equity-efficiency tradeoff is one of those Republican shibboleths that just goes shambling along, with no real evidence or justification, never to die a natural death.  David Brooks may prefer a more vibrant country, but he’ll have to shed his own sluggishness to get there.


2 thoughts on “A Very Danish Vibrancy

  1. Gerhard W. Mayer says:

    Very good post. I constantly struggle with a similar issue, namely that it is very had to make suggestions to Americans by comparing how well something already is working elsewhere. I travel a lot, and experience lots of different solutions in many countries, and many of those frankly are superior to what we are doing here. That has not always been the case, but it is the case now.

    A case in point is perhaps our ridiculous struggle to construct a high speed rail system. I have made the comment before that our main north south train axis along the west coast of the US, a single track rail line, with inadequate sidings, non electrified , would be an embarrassment for countries we are normally looking down on; some place like – let’s say – Bulgaria. Just about nobody else on earth (other than us) would be ok with a situation like this, but try saying this out loud in the US.

    I have an accent, and it is quite easy to earn a reaction like :”If you don’t like it here, go back!” All because I support catching up with where other countries have long been already.

    There is much need these days for the US to learn from other countries who are doing more and better than we are; and much ground to make up so that we as a culture can get to a position again where we will succeed and lead the world again, if this is what we think is our destiny; but the resistance is severe. It is almost like the US having been an Olympic champion once, but ever since gotten fat and lazy, and now all we want to do is bury our head in the sand so that we need not see how other people around us have pulled ahead of us.

    I actually think this is an endemic problem for this country. We must learn to embrace change again, to experiment, try stuff out, fail or succeed, but learn from all of that and once again advance. It’s not true in all fields, but certainly in urban design, transportation, architecture, sustainability, social equity and vertical mobility.

    We are no longer creating a better world for the many. Consequently, our plutocracy is demagogue-ing other places that are at least attempting it. If this is how we are continuing as a society, we are on a long slope downhill.

    • Fred Zimmerman says:

      I agree with you Gerhard, but have faith! I am an optimist that evidence-based policy will help tone up our body politic and bring us out of our stupor.

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