Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Country Where I Quite Want To Be

Life is good in Finland. 

I have to confess that’s one of my main motivations for this blog – a certain satisfaction, maybe dangerously bordering on smugness, that I have in living in a country that has figured out how to do things right. The best place on earth.

Okay, that’s perhaps an exaggeration. An oversimplification. And it’s certainly nothing I can take credit for myself. It was mostly by accident that I was lucky enough to end up in one of the world’s sweet spots.

When I used to imagine myself living abroad (and I did sometimes), the expatriate life I envisioned for myself was, for some reason, in Mexico City. Yet, a series of random circumstances carried me, apparently rudderless, in quite a different direction. Maybe not exactly to my credit, but there it is.

Map credit: Legatum Institute (TM)

The lucky thing is the spot of earth where I did end up seems to about the best place I could hope for. Of course, I could just be telling myself that to compensate for not ending up in Beverly Hills instead, or in Monaco, quaint, unassuming towns that I’ve heard also  have their good points. At least, people seem to think so.

It’s no doubt healthy for everyone to accept, even embrace, our little corner of the planet as the place where we always wanted to live. Maybe that’s the coping mechanism that all of us, no matter where we reside, are forced to employ – unless we actually do live in Beverly Hills or Monaco. Maybe the happy residents of Fargo, North Dakota, open the door every morning, drink in the landscape of flat frozen fields and declare, with gusto, “By golly, this is the best place on earth.”

Like I say, a coping mechanism.

Still, despite some obvious items missing from my personal wish list (real mountains, intelligible local language, sunshine), I really am not deluding myself in thinking that life in Finland is good. There is proof.

By happy coincidence, that proof often comes in a form that appeals to some quirky, even geeky, weaknesses of mine: maps, metrics, and country comparisons.

Every few months, this or that international organization or think tank publishes their rankings of the best, the safest, the freest, the happiest, the whatever, countries to live in. Often this accumulation of massive country-specific data is presented in easy-to-grasp interactive maps or infographics, always a bonus in my book.

It’s good to keep in mind that these surveys may have their flaws in methodology and possible bias, but one thing is consistent and obvious in almost all of them: certain parts of the globe, especially the Nordic countries, always tops the lists. Every time. Finland, unsurprisingly, is usually in the top five or ten.

It’s a nice confirmation that, despite the mosquitoes, icy sidewalks and excruciating lack of sunshine for months on end – did I mention that? – there is no better place to be.

The most recent of these rankings that I’ve run across is the Legatum Prosperity Index™, published since 2009 by a think tank based in the London neighbor of Mayfair (reportedly, also not a bad place to live).

In the Legatum list for 2014, Finland ranks as the eighth most prosperous out of the 142 countries surveyed, unchanged from the 2013 report. In 2012, it was seventh; in 2010, third.

The top three countries are Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand, all places I could so see myself living (real mountains!). Norway has been number one for five years running. Oil obviously helps. The US barely made it into the top ten, rising one spot from 11th place last year (12th in 2012).

And this brings me to my not-so-honorable ulterior motive for fixating on such rankings. The poor showing that the US often merits relative to other developed countries confirms my bias that America is, well, going backwards. I blame Ronald Reagan. I seriously do.

Such rankings are always good for liberals, like myself, who like to point to Europe/Scandinavia as models of harmonious egalitarian societies with strong social welfare systems – the complete opposite of the type of society that politics has been tugging the US towards since 1980. It’s not as much about gloating (I hope), as exposing Americans up to the novel idea that the USA is not necessarily Number One. Reducing that message to hard facts and figures helps.

In most of the eight categories the Legatum Institute assessed for its report, Finland ranks ahead of the US by around six places, and the US outscores Finland only in two (Economy and Health).

Maybe it’s not much of a surprise that the US ranks nine places higher than Finland in “Economy” (17th versus 26th), though the two countries were separated only by two spots in 2013. I am guessing this is due mostly to the US finally pulling ahead of Europe in economic terms five years after the nominal end of the Great Recession.

Obviously, the US economy is humming along relatively better, while things are still pretty stagnant or even going downhill a bit in Finland, which has occupied the 26th place in the Economy category two years in a row. This is after dropping from its high-water mark of 9th place in 2010, when Finland ranked 3rd in the survey overall.

What is shocking to me, however, is that Finland’s ranking in “Health” is 14 places behind the 1st place finish of the US, especially when you consider the bad rap that US health care gets compared with the generally good reputation of Finland’s terveydenhoitojärestelmä (“healthcare system”).

Drilling down into the details of the report’s methodology reveals a possible reason for this disconnect. Legatum’s scoring for “health” seems to be based quite a bit on how much money a country spends on health care, not necessarily how effective or efficient all that spending might be.

It’s a bit like an airline passenger thinking his seat is much better than an entirely identical one because he paid twice as much as for his seat as his fellow traveler did. To make a more exact analogy, it’s like paying 151% more ($8895 in the US versus $3544 in Finland) for a middle seat (life expectancy of 78.7 years) instead of an aisle seat (80.6 years). If it costs more, it must be better! Right?

But the biggest differentiator between the two countries closest to my heart is the category of “Safety and Security”, where Finland ranks 3rd in the world compared to America’s much less comfortable 31st spot.

This category attempts to measure not only ordinary crime, which is low in Finland, but also levels of persecution and civil unrest, which are virtually non-existent here.

While in Finland more people feel safe walking alone at night compared to the US (83.5% versus 76.5%) and fewer report being victims of theft (11.1% vs. 17.%), more Finns have been assaulted than Americans (2.4% vs. 1.5%) according to the report. That last point is surprising and, I have to say, a bit doubtful.

Also, considering the violent reputation of American streets, it’s amazing to think that fewer than two Americans out of a hundred have ever been assaulted, thought when I think of it, I have never been attacked when I lived in the States. It might just go to show that the fear and hype of crime are sometimes greater than the reality.

In terms of persecution, both Finns and Americans have about the same freedom to safely express political opinions, but the US suffers three times more from “group grievances” (4.2 vs. 1.4, on a scale of 1 – 10) and “state sponsored political violence”.

You only have to look at Ferguson, Missouri, to see why this rings true. Such tragic, incendiary, high-profile incidents aside, I too often see reports from the US of police shooting citizens under circumstances that might be justifiable, but are often murky and incites distrust. That's something that doesn’t happen here. It helps that Finland isn't awash in guns, for which I'm thankful.

The Legatum ranking between the US and Finland is much the same when it comes to other indicators of civil unrest. Finland also does better than the US in all of those measurements – except one, “human flight”, which I understand to be an indication of population outflow from a country, apparently due to civil strife.

I’m not surprised by the US’s good score here, considering the fact that people risk their lives, and actually die, trying to get into the country. I can't imagine people trying to escape the US. I am puzzled, though, by Finland’s score, which is much closer to the global average. There are no major waves of people fleeing Finland that I’m aware of.

And why would they, since this is the best (well, 8th best) country on earth? Maybe they’re simply solar migrants, escaping to some elusive land where they’re heard that the sun, the long-forgotten sun, really does shine. 

Monty Python was wrong about the mountains, however. 


  1. I don't think it's an exaggeration. I live in the belly of the beast, as they say.

    I do have to admit that the Finnish woman who sometimes cuts my hair is horrified that you like Finland more than the USA. She can only take it in very short and very occasional trips back to see family and has zero desire to ever live there again.

    I don't generally like those charts that I find. I find them to mainly be limited and skewed. I see that New Zealand is even higher ranked than Finland. I have a pal there who immigrated from the USA. He's happy he did--he just got sick of our national situation and carefully began to research where to move. He did have the situation of only looking at English-speaking countries--having to learn another language was a further culture shock with which he didn't want to deal. And then he went about visiting those nations on his list and ended up moving permanently to NZ.

    Re: US versus European economies. Like China, the USA has realized a wealth potential based on raping Mother Nature. Due in large part to deregulation begun by our brain-dead pal, Ronald Reagan. And of course NONE of that wealth makes it to the regular folk here in this nation. It's almost all held by the super-wealthy elite, and will remain in their clutches until stripped from their cold, dead fingers.

    1. New Zealand would definitely be at the top of my list if I were looking for a place to immigrate to. I think your friend picked the right spot.

  2. "It helps that Finland isn't awash in gun". You might want to revise this statement: Finland ranks among the top countries in terms of firearms per capita. It's just that they are not usually used to shoot at other people ;)
    Checkout the source articles on the related Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country), they are quite interesting.

    (as a side note: thanks for this blog; as a French living in Finland, I really enjoy reading your thoughts on life in Finland!)

    1. You’re right of course that Finland has a higher number of guns per person than almost any other country in Europe. (Not to mention, there have been two horrific school shootings here in recent years.) But, like you say, Finns aren’t usually turning those guns on each other. Finland has a hunting culture, not a “gun” culture.

      It like another world in the US, where it seems almost everyone I know has one or more guns, often handguns, while I can think of only one or two friends in Finland who might own one, and only for hunting. Naturally, I much prefer the situation here.

      And many thanks for your comment – I’m glad to hear you enjoy the blog!