Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Capital of Scandinavia

Sweden is a fascinating country, although it doesn’t appear that way at first. The Stockholm airport tries hard to sell you on the city’s importance, lining the walls with the faces of famous residents, none of whom I recognize. Stockholm is “The Capital of Scandinavia”, at least according to the wall, the information desk, and the “You Are Here” signs spread around the city. All the signs are in English as well as Swedish and we didn’t see a single person the entire trip who couldn’t speak English (although one declined to).

Nor does the ride from the airport suggest anything special — the road is lined with the office parks of big companies, much like the streets of Silicon Valley. And the city seems, well, like a city, at least until you realize that’s your apartment, not simply downtown.

Most American cities are still suffering from the “urban planning” designed to keep non-existent factory fumes away from people’s homes. Even in San Francisco, where all sorts of crazy things are crammed into one small peninsula, there is still a clear separation of residence and business — blocks of victorian row houses, then a cross street with a bunch of shops.

But as far as I could tell, Stockholm doesn’t have any such residential zones. All the apartments seemed to be on the floor above the normal street life; the two deeply intertwingled; just the way I like it. (See The Death and Life of Great American Cities for more reasons.)

The apartments — all the apartments — are rent controlled, one of the socialist remnants in Sweden’s social democracy. In practice, this leads to some odd results. No one ever gives up an apartment, so tenants feel safe installing nameplates on their doors. Instead of giving up the place, they give it to their family, their friends, or let their children inherit it. Once you have an apartment contract, you can swap it with anyone else’s (and there are web sites to help you do this), but to get one you need to add your name to a list when you turn 18, and then wait for ten to twenty years for an apartment to open up. Those with money but not that kind of time instead pay under the table for a contract.

There are no homeless people in Stockholm, but one person I spoke to claimed that this was because the homeless didn’t know anyone with a rent contract, so they all stayed in the suburbs, which they were more familiar with anyway, and as a result there ended up being about as many homeless per capita as in a the average American city.

Backlash politics is incredibly popular in the US, where there’s not that much to backlash against, but it’s even more popular in Sweden, where there’s some justification. US-style libertarians are everywhere, this time with some actual justification for their persecution complexes. Although not much. A new conservative government has recently taken power and has pulled all the libertarians out to fill up the political positions.

Our roommate just happened to hang out with libertarians in college; now all her friends are top officials in the government. A smaller country, it starts to seem like everyone knows everybody here (I suppose they all went to college together).

Of course, there are still outsiders. The country has private email mailing lists on which all the gossip about how the county is actually run (and who the royalty is actually screwing) is shared among the prominent journalists and other figures. (There are similar secret lists in other fields, including one for the left-wing of the US Democratic Party.) Journalists know that sharing that kind of information with the public simply isn’t done and those who violate the rules are unceremoniously kicked off. Occasionally a young reporter uses their column to complain they’re not on the list, but the people in the know just laugh at them.

It’s the same kind of laugh you imagine Sweden’s IKEA founders having as you marvel at their clever tax-dodging schemes. IKEA, the famed Swedish interior design chain now sweeping the US, is owned by a company called Ingka Holding, which is actually owned by a tax-exempt not-for-profit — the world’s largest, even larger than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Not that selling interior furnishings is at all comparable to curing Malaria.) The not-for-profit channels its funds to a Dutch foundation which is operated by a Swiss lawyer friend but shares some of its assets with another Dutch company which is owned by a Luxembourg holding company which is owned by a company in the Netherlands which is run by a trust in the Carribean. You can probably guess where the tax-free money goes from there.

IKEA is everywhere in Sweden. Their couches fill the tiny rent-controlled apartments, their chairs are found in everyone’s offices, and when you finish your drink the light shining through the bottom of the glass illuminates the word: IKEA.

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January 10, 2007


Interesting piece as usual, although saying that there are no homeless people in Stockholm is a bit weird depending on your definition of “suburbs”. I see at least two or three of them each week, by just passing through the city by commuter train and metro as part of my daily commute. Maybe you’ve even heard of the magazine Situation Stockholm, sold by rehabilitating drug addicts (it’s not a 1:1 relationship between drug addicts and homeless but there’s a lot of overlap).

It’ll be fun to hear further reflections about what Sweden’s like. Living as I do (as we all do to a point these days) online and being so calibrated to the US viewpoint it’s fun to get someone else’s perspective on your own country for once.

posted by Jesper on January 11, 2007 #

It’s a lot harder to be homeless in places where you can freeze to death outside in the wintertime.

posted by Dustin on January 11, 2007 #

Please check any reliable Gini list to compare social inequalities between Sweeden and (for example) your country (and its malaria fundations).


posted by on January 11, 2007 #

Airports certainly says a lot about the culture of a country, they don’t even have to try.

posted by Gustaf on January 11, 2007 #

I agree with Jesper - there are homeless people in Stockholm, although I expect that most of them sleep in shelters, caravans, storage rooms and the like, rather than out in the streets. They can usually be found outside the underground stations or in the parks.

In central Stockholm I agree about apartments and other areas being intermingled, but that’s mostly in the areas that were built before the 1950’s. There’s no shortage of project housing (constructed during the “miljonprogram” years) 20-30 minutes away from the city centre, built with the ideal of separating living, work and shopping.

I also think you’re overstating how the housing market works. It’s a mixture between regulations and a free market - if you have money you can buy an apartment straight away.

You only have to wait in the apartment queue if you 1) don’t want to or can’t afford to purchase an apartment, or 2) want a cheap apartment in central Stockholm. You can get a nice apartment in a reasonable location after 12 months, and there are apartments you can get straight away. (For instance: a 2-room 59m2 apartment in Skarpn├Ąck, 5000SEK(~720USD)/month is available right now.)

I’m not saying that the apartment market is perfect, only that it isn’t as bad as some people claim, and not as regulated either. The nameplate thing is probably cultural - after all it only takes 5 minutes to put it up or remove it.

Getting your perspective on Stockholm and Sweden is interesting, although you should be aware that it’s a bit like someone visiting central SF and drawing conclusions about politics, housing, etc - not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily the whole picture either.

posted by false messiah on January 11, 2007 #

I wonder what IKEA’s tax burden would be if they didn’t engage in that dodge of theirs.

posted by Mike Sierra on January 15, 2007 #

it’s a matter of rather insanity that we have ‘extremes’ on both side on this issue.

tax rate can go up to 70, 80% or even more, (In many places including USA): and no major revolt.

and then we get those ‘neutrality’ ‘autonomous’ ‘super-national law and super-international’ zone, tax haven spots all over the world, and practices to use them.

and we still believe we understand how we live, and have ‘scientific’ discipine called ‘economics’.

posted by our brains are so so thing on January 15, 2007 #

Sweden is not socialist, nor is any other country in Western Europe. Read up on Socialism on Wikipedia. Socialism is basically a dictatorship under an equalitarian guise and not much different from communism. Sweden and other European countries basically have a free market economy with some exceptions thrown in to mitigate the worst effects of free markets. Calling European countries ‘socialist’ is unfortunately also typical of Americans that harbor fears of anything left of the Democrats.

posted by Hendrik on January 18, 2007 #

The housing market is indeed rather dysfunctional in that a flat in central Stockholm can be cheaper than one in the outer suburbs (by law!) but there are lots of condominium-type apartments that are wholly priced by the market. Thus expensive.

Also “socialism” is pushing it when describing Sweden, but the views on equality etc. differ so much from mainstream American views that the difference is felt to be larger than it actually is. For example, in Sweden you can lose an election for promising to lower taxes.

In cultural matters (music, movies, food) the American influence is greater than, in my opinion, the European. No-one can read French or German, but most can get by in English.

posted by Gustaf Erikson on January 21, 2007 #

Everybody knows everybody in Sweden? For god’s sake, there are nine million people living there, more than in New York City (excluding suburbs). Does everybody know everybody in New York? Did they all go to the same college? Jesus Christ.

posted by Tomas Jogin on January 24, 2007 #

Next time you’re in the area you might want to try Copenhagen - it’s a lot more fun than stuffy Stockholm.

posted by Peter on January 24, 2007 #

I don’t believe there are many “libertarians” in Sweden in the US sense. Oh, there are some pro-drugs people, but pro-gun, taxation-is-theft, Ayn-Rand-is-God people are practically non-existent here in Norway (can’t see why Sweden should be different). Bloggers are another case, because they/we read so much US news that we tend to think in US terms and political categories. But they are a vanishingly small minority. I doubt you’d find one scandinavian in 300 who has heard about Ayn Rand.

Homeless people in Oslo are offered places to move in to. Some still refuse, for various reasons. Perhaps it’s too far to get drugs, perhaps it’s because it doesn’t make much difference to them —- often they are so unable to take care of themselves that they can’t keep an apartement habitable.

“Most American cities are still suffering from the “urban planning” designed to keep non-existent factory fumes away from people’s homes.” You are born after the clean air act in the US, which mandated scrubbing out the worst of the soot, aren’t you?

posted by Harald Korneliussen on January 26, 2007 #

Maybe there ar few homeless people in Sweden but I have never come across a more odd nation. People dont talk to each other. they dont get married. 60% of the people in Stockholm remain single. A perfect vacation for a Swede is to sit all alone in a deep forest knowing nobody is neraer than 16 miles away. I have been to most countries all over the world. Scandinavians are the oddest particularly the swedes. I was happy when I reached the German border again and will never set foot on any Scandi nations again Mannin Sellam Lebanon

posted by Mannin Sellam on May 29, 2007 #

I dont know much about Sweden but I know the place is more or less a glaciar. According to a friend of mine Swedes often cross the Russian border and make life a hell for the Russians, They try to sell ice to rich Russians but never make it. Hopefully EU could help them by giving some kind of Afirmative benefit actions. Muztapha Hamzi Turkey

posted by Muztapha Hamzi on May 29, 2007 #

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