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:
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.