Risque reality TV, hip finance ministers and other Swedish stereotypes

Blogger Steve Kelman finds that some stereotypes of the Scandinavian country are fairly accurate, while others are not.

But not every stereotype is confirmed. Sweden is to my knowledge the only country in the Western world with a budget surplus, running at over 1 percent of the gross national product (I believe its Scandinavian neighbors Norway and Denmark come close, though Norway's government benefits from huge oil revenues). Sweden's national debt runs at 40 percent of its GNP, well below the U.S. level. The Scandinavian welfare states may be free-spending, but they at least raise the taxes to support their system, which is more than we can say. The Swedish economy is also recovering from the economic crisis more rapidly than in the U.S., despite high taxes well above American levels. The Swedish economy, I commented to a friend this morning, seems to work better in practice than in theory.

As faithful blog readers may remember, I do some work for TV4, Sweden's largest TV channel, commenting in Swedish on U.S. politics. I am in Stockholm now for an appearance Wednesday morning. One thing that has struck me is how some things I have noticed since arriving confirm stereotypes Americans have about Sweden, while others don't.

Most stereotypes get formed in the first place because there is a grain of truth to them, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that some things I've noticed are in line with common preconceptions.

In an airport lounge in Oslo, before even arriving in Sweden, I read a Swedish newspaper article about the new season of reality shows that will start shortly on Swedish TV. (The phrase in Swedish for reality shows is an unusual one, which translates as "documentary soap operas"!) According to the article, this year's lineup will include a show where people actually have sex, naked, in front of the reality TV cameras. This new step, the article noted, goes beyond what has already become commonplace on reality shows the last few years, which is people having sex in front of the reality camera, but with their bodies partly covered under sheets. Actually, the major discussion about this in the article was whether women who participated in this were regarded differently ("tramps") than men who did so ("conquerers").

Sweden has elections in September, and the campaign was informally launched over the weekend with speeches by the two major party leaders. Incidentally, both candidates moved their speeches from their traditional locations to the area in Stockholm where Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, heroes of the Swedish "Girl with..." thrillers, live in their fictional world. in fact, the Prime Minster's speech was given just about halfway in between the apartments where the two live in the books, which are international best-sellers.

At any rate, the Prime Minister spoke fondly in his speech about Sweden's finance minister (corresponding to the U.S. Treasury Secretary and Office of Management Budget director rolled into one). Anders Borg, the 40-something finance minister, must be the only male occupant of this position in the world today -- perhaps ever -- who wears his hair in a ponytail and has an earring. Add onto this that he is a member of Sweden's Conservative Party!

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