Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 Detroit is a better candidate for social democracy than 1930's Finland

Image: An MRI machine allows doctors to examine tissues throughout the body from the outside. The technology available today would have seemed like science fiction decades ago. (source)

This short post concludes a series on racist assumptions underlying many debates about social policy. The scope of this series has been very wide, and this post will tie together some of these disparate ideas.

In part 1, focused on the violent, impoverished, and oppressed history of Finland. Finland's blood-soaked history--both in the years immediately preceding their transition to social democracy, as well as hundreds of years prior--demonstrates that a prosperous and harmonious society is in no way a prerequisite for social democracy. Such views are a smokescreen for underlying racism. Part 2 addressed the incredibly racist view that social democracy can only succeed in a racially, culturally or ethnically homogeneous society by focusing on the experiences of Kerala, India, and Sweden. Both places have extremely large minority groups; by most measures, Sweden is more diverse than France, the UK, Germany, and most other European countries. Part 3 took the superior societies vs. superior policies argument head on by looking in detail at the implementation of the first social democratic program in Finland, maternal health care. The superior societies argument holds that any policy will succeed in a superior society; the superior policies argument holds that superior policies can succeed in any society. That Finnish society is inherently superior to the rest of the world is absurd given Finnish society's initial resistance to the maternal health program. Widespread resistance to this policy cost the lives of thousands of infants and mothers.

Part 3 contains the most important argument in the entire series. When we assume that social democratic policies can only work in a society that is already prosperous and harmonious, we rule out the most effective solutions for improving quality of life in the places that most desperately need those policies. In particular, if 1930's Finland were a country today, their infant mortality rate would be the eleventh worst of any country in the entire world.

To conclude this series, part 4 will run with this idea by comparing the current quality of life indicators and resources of Detroit, the American city with the highest poverty rate, to those of Finland on the eve of the election of the first social democratic prime minister in 1927.

If you had nothing else except for data on the resources and quality of life indicators of Finland in 1927 and Detroit in 2014, which place would you expect to eventually lead the world in quality of life indicators? As we shall see--though quality of life indicators are appalling in Detroit--they are actually in a better position than Finland was decades ago. If Finland could transform itself a country with the best quality of life indicators in the entire world, Detroit can make a similar transition. Granted, it took extraordinary efforts over several decades for Finland to achieve these successes, and Detroit can expect a similarly long, difficult struggle. But it can be done.

Comparing 2014 Detroit and 1920's Finland
Detroit's infant mortality rate is a 15 per 1000 live births. That's a national disgrace. But Finland's infant mortality rate peaked at a whopping 90 per 1000 live births in the 1930's, a rate six times higher than Detroit. None of this is to say that an infant mortality rate of 15 per 1000 live births is anything but a catastrophe. Nevertheless, the situation in Finland in the first half of the 1900's was far worse than the situation currently facing Detroit.

Detroit's life expectancy is 77.6 years. The best I could find for Finland was a life expectancy of 43 for men and 49 for women in the 1910's; suffice to say it didn't leap past 77.6 by 1927. The Finnish illiteracy rate was 15.9% in 1930; the illiteracy rate of Wayne county was 12% in 2003 (not 47%), but even 12% is a little misleading since the survey included immigrants whose native language was not English. For health insurance, 18% of the residents of Detroit were uninsured in 2013, a number that was certainly decreased somewhat by Obamacare (but by no means reduced to zero). Any uninsurance rate higher than 0.0% should be considered unacceptable. But the Finnish Social Democrats had a bigger uphill battle. A majority of Finns had very little access to medical care; even those with regular access to medical care would think Detroit's hospitals came out of a science fiction novel.

Without doubt, Detroit's quality of life indicators are better in 2014 than those of Finland in 1927. But 2014 Detroit also has far greater resources than 1927 Finland. Detroit's annual per capita income* for 2008 to 2012 was $14,861 (note that this period includes almost the entirety of the Great Recession), compared to $25,547 for the state of Michigan as a whole. That's an unconscionable level of inequality, but per capita GDP for Finland in 1930 was $4683** in 2012 dollars (as far as the data allow us to estimate, if $1 purchases 6 eggs or a loaf of bread in 2012 Detroit, that same dollar would purchase those same 6 eggs or loaf of bread in 1930 Finland). In other words, 2014 Detroit has at least three times the resources of 1927 Finland, to say nothing of more advanced technology.

Violence and the prison-industrial complex may disproportionately affect Detroit, but--unlike Finland--Detroit didn't just fight a brutal civil war that killed 1% of the population, including tens of thousands who died from mistreatment in prison camps (some sent there for mere suspicion of their political beliefs). Detroit may have divisions, but nothing like Finland in the first half of the 1900's.

To repeat: none of this is to say that the situation in Detroit is anything but catastrophic. These quality of life indicators are a true national disgrace. But if Detroit started today as a social democracy, it would have a head start on 1930's Finland. If Finland can use social democratic policies to become the happy, healthy, and prosperous country we know today--starting out with worse quality of life indicators and fewer resources than Detroit--then obviously Detroit can do the same. It might take decades, but social democratic policies really work.

See also: For this same analysis for underdeveloped countries, this post compares the quality of life indicators of the social democratic state of Kerala, India, to those of underdeveloped countries.

This series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

*We have to compare per capita income in Detroit instead of per capita GDP so we don't count people who work and therefore earn money in the city of Detroit, but don't actually live in Detroit. For a country, there is still a difference between per capita GDP and per capita income, but it is much smaller. For our purposes, this rough approximation suffices.

**The Maddison project attempts to estimate GDP and per capita GDP of various regions before there were reliable data. Their estimate of per capita GDP for Finland in 1930 is $2,666 in 1990 Geary-Khamis dollars. A Geary-Khamis dollar is an estimate of the value currency; it is defined such that one Geary-Khamis dollar is equal to the purchasing power of one American dollar. Purchasing power parity is actually the most useful way this can be expressed for our purposes. Since the Maddison Project table uses 1990 dollars, I simply adjusted for inflation to 2012 dollars, arriving at the value of $4683. Again, these are rough estimates, but even rough estimates are useful for our purposes. If you're afraid I'm cherry-picking data, the Maddison project's estimations for per capita GDP for other years are:

1925 - $2328
1926 - 2392
1927 - 2557
1928 - 2707
1929 - 2717
1930 - 2666
1931 - 2581
1932 - 2550
1933 - 2702

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