Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

How I spent my summer vacation

The trip took ‘only’ 18 hours, on which I can say the sun never set.

Tracing the northern latitudes, my journey took me from Portland International to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, then Amsterdam to Stockholm, then Stockholm to the Swedish port city of Nynäshamn to catch a three-hour boat ride to an island 143 kilometers off the coast in the Baltic Sea.

A few days later, near the spot where one of my best friends got married to his longtime Swedish-British-American-citizen girlfriend, there was a competition among the assembled international guests to see who had traveled the farthest.

With nearly 5,000 miles and nine time zones under my belt, I won, hands down.

“So what do you do back in the states?” one of the guests, a Swedish stepmother of the bride, asked.

“I edit a business journal,” I said. “In Vancouver.”

After the customary minute-and-a-half of geographic clarification (shouldn’t all Southwest Washingtonians just print pocket-sized index cards to give out on such occasions?), the conversation shifted to a subject seemingly of great interest to most Europeans: America.

While abroad, I am unflinchingly polite. In my conversation with the bride’s family, I credited their country for being beautiful and orderly – an almost-seamless utopia filled with beauty pageant contestants.

However, what I did not mention was the darker side to this Nordic paradise.

Swedes pay up to 57 percent in income tax, one of the world’s highest, to their government. For Washington residents who balk at paying 8 percent state sales tax, the 25 percent that one pays in Sweden would seem a giant-sized slap in the face – even with the favorable U.S. dollar to Swedish kroner exchange rate. Regulations covering apartment rentals in Stockholm are so onerous that most residents resort to the black market to find a decent flat.

And while the government undeniably takes good care of its citizens, providing mostly free health care, mandating upwards of four weeks of vacation and generous retirement benefits, it strongly discourages businessmen and women from striking out on their own.

Which is not to say entrepreneurs do not exist in Sweden, however, they survive despite long odds, with a tax and regulatory system set against them.

During my trip, I reflected on the economic tumult that has rocked our economy, on whether our whole system may need to be changed to reflect a new reality. I thought of the Swedish model and wondered if it would work in Vancouver, Washington, or in any number of communities throughout the nation.

I imagined what it would be like to grow up in such a country, with the knowledge that the state would always take care of you, albeit on their terms, not your own.

And I felt my individualistic, slightly-stubborn American backbone shutter a bit.

So it was with more than a little bit of relief that I retraced my long journey, embarking on a three-hour ferry, Stockholm to Amsterdam and then home.


Mike said...

The other guys deal always looks better until you are in the middle of it..............sometimes we forget how good we really have it. MM