Matt Yglesias is one of the smartest left-of-center pundits. He is rare because he is both knowledgeable about social science and capable of applying it to public policy. Informing policy is the main purpose of social science, so it's good to have a few guys around who can act as links between scientists and pundits.
Yglesias is clearly fascinated by the Nordic countries. He belongs to the majority in the American (and Scandinavian) left who believe that favorable social outcomes in Nordic countries are caused by welfare state policies. If America copied Nordic policies, America would achieve roughly the same outcomes.
I belong to the people who believe that Scandinavia, like Japan, is a cultural outlier. Scandinavians score unbelievably high on things such as work ethic, trustworthiness and cooperation. This interpretation of causality is different: Scandinavians has a large welfare state because they are homogeneous and culturally unique. When other countries (say, southern Europe) copy Nordic policies, the results tend to be worse, because the population is different.
Perhaps the most important social outcome is educational attainment. The fact that the United States has a large achievement gap in education is the root cause of many problems and injustices (the only comparable inequality is crime, but crime is probably to a large extent due to the lack of human capital). In comparison, lack of material wealth is not a major problem in the United States, as African-Americans and Hispanics earn about the same income as the average in Western Europe.
If liberals are right about the fact that America could eradicate the ethnic education gap through copying Scandinavian policies, it would be a disgrace if we didn't do it immediately.
However, empirical evidence suggests that liberals may be wrong about this interpretation of causality. The reason I can claim this with confidence is because I know that the achievement gap in Scandinavia is roughly the same as in the United States. Until recently ethnic minorities were very few in the Nordic countries, so the achievement gap didn't influence the mean score, and was not apparent to outsiders. But not anymore.
During the last 3 decades, the foreign born population in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (but not so in Finland and Iceland) has grown exponentially. First and second generation immigrants from outside of Europe are now over 10% of Sweden's population.
It turns out that the Nordic school system and society at large is no better at closing the achievement gap than America, or at least not yet. One reason may be time. Contrary to conventional wisdom among liberals, the United States has been trying hard to close the achievement gap since at least the 1960s, with a lot of resource and some success. Scandinavia is just starting to become aware of this issue.
Let's also repeat the obvious: The American public school system is simply superior to the Scandinavian system, because America is richer and can afford to spend much more on public education.
Before presenting you with statistical evidence, let me cite Scandinavian sources; if you don't trust me perhaps you will trust them:
DN (largest daily newspaper in Sweden), 2010:
"Only 25 percent of students born in Somalia finish primary education with grades sufficient to qualify them for entering college, compared with 82 percent of students born in Finland. [and 91 percent of native Swedes]"
Swedish National Agency for Higher Education 2009:
"Few students with African origins continue to college"
Skolvärlden (Swedish Teacher Union Journal) 2010:
"Children who have immigrated to Sweden leave the ninth grade with significantly worse scores than children born in Sweden. This is regardless of whether they have received throughout their primary education in Sweden or not."
OECD, The Labour Market Integration of Immigrants in Denmark, 2007:
"the gap in educational attainment between the second generation and persons of Danish origin has grown substantially over the past decade....there is a divergent trend, similar to what has been observed in Germany"
"the second generation in Denmark has an about 20% lower chance of completing a qualifying education than Danes without a migration background."
"about twice as many students from the second generation drop out of upper secondary education as do students of Danish origin"
Statistics Norway, Immigration and immigrants 2008:
"Large differences [between immigrants and natives] in education levels"
"Source Country Differences in Test Score Gaps: Evidence from Denmark"
"even adjusted [for socioeconomic characteristics] gaps [in PISA between native Danes and first and second generation immigrants] remain sizeable and statistically significant. The adjusted gap is largest for students from Lebanon (0.80 SD), somewhat smaller for students from Turkey and former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan (about 0.55 SD), and smallest for Pakistan (about 0.25 SD). Thus, while the results indicate that a major portion of the test score gaps can be attributed to less favorable socioeconomic background factors of immigrant students, educational achievement of young immigrants is poorer than that of native Danish youngsters even after conditioning on the socioeconomic status of their family."
Most of the immigrant population with social problems in Scandinavia is from the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. These groups have few problems in the United States.
However when I pointed this out, many readers remained unconvinced. They want me to look at African-immigrants in Europe, the group considered most comparable to African-Americans. When data is available I will present the figure for all Africa, and when it is not for whatever large group that is available. There are few Mexican immigrants in any Scandinavian country so while a good comparison group for Hispanics is hard to find, I will show you some figures for Chileans.
I will attempt as much as possible to look at children who were born or grew up in Scandinavia, and not recent immigrants. I will look at both Sweden and Norway. From what I understand the situation is even worse in Denmark.
Let's start with the biggest problem in America, the ethnic achievement gap. For High-School, I use Heckman's figures rather than Census data, because there is reason to believe that Census figures under-estimate the gap due to the GED. For college I use Census data.
This we already knew. But how about Scandinavia? Not a pretty picture.
There are some exceptions, such as the high-School enrollment rate of Ethiopians/Eritreans in Norway. However the overall results cannot be denied: There is a massive Majority/Minority achievement gap in Scandinavia, comparable in size with the gap in the United States.
Keep in mind, Scandinavia is doing so poorly despite the fact that the minority population is small, no more than 5-10% of the student population. In the United States, the figure is closer to 40% of pupils.
It would be interesting to see how the left explains this pattern, given that they believe that the Nordic social system (rather than Scandinavian norms and culture) is superior to the American one. If that's the case, why are those without Scandinavian culture doing so poorly under the exact same system? And why are Scandinavians doing so well in the United States, under another system?
My contrarian conclusion is that the Nordic countries should be learning from the American public school system and how it deals with disadvantaged students. In particular, it is important to spend much more, put a lot of emphasis in teacher education, and build external support structures outside the classroom. Another important task is to make sure immigrants children speak the language as well as possible. The politically correct emphases on home-country-language instruction in Swedish schools may be harmful.
One important thing America can learn from Scandinavia is daycare, as James Heckman has argued.
One reason immigrants are doing poorly in Sweden and Denmark is ironically that their parents don't take advantage of day-care, even though it is virtually entirely tax-financed. One reason is that daycare is linked to having a job, which is a terrible idea (children of parents without jobs need daycare most). Another reason is that Muslim immigrants don't want their kids to adapt Swedish values. Perhaps in time we should move to make daycare mandatory in Sweden, with exceptions where it is needed.