Water drips from a leaky roof. The heat brings on a “moldy, rancid odor.” A child volunteer is tasked with killing giant roaches. Welcome to the Detroit public school system, which,according to a recent New York Times report, is “run down after years of neglect” and “teetering on the edge of financial collapse.” And yet, last Thursday, this was the closest thing to a “good news” story about Michigan on the front page of that newspaper. A companion piece covered the even more dismal “water crisis in the poverty-stricken, black-majority city of Flint,” a penny-pinching state “austerity” measure turned public health emergency that has left children there with elevated levels of lead in their blood, putting them at risk of lifelong adverse health effects.
How did it come to this? An America dotted with feral cities left to decay into ruin? Man-made catastrophes spawned by harebrained austerity schemes? A country of crumbling roads,unsafe bridges, failing schools, a woefully neglected mental health system whose ample slack has been taken up by a disastrous criminal justice system? Take your pick when it comes to rotten institutions and rotting infrastructure, since the list goes on and on. Presidentialcandidates are vowing to “make America great again” or talking about “reigniting” its “promise,” but perhaps a counterfeit, sepia-tinged trip to the beginning of the road that got us here isn’t really the solution to twenty-first-century America’s problems. TomDispatchregular Ann Jones has a different idea. In her latest piece, a joint TomDispatch/Nation article which will appear in print in the new issue of that magazine, Jones takes a welcome detour to a place where welfare isn’t a dirty word, the social safety net isn’t the preferred place for budget cuts, and axe-wielding children are — believe it or not — fostered, not feared: Scandinavia.
A world citizen who has journeyed across Africa, spent years living in the Afghan war zone, and was most recently a Fulbright Fellow in Norway, Jones examines how a couple of Nixon-era decisions led the U.S. down the road to ruin, while Scandinavian nations charted a different course, embracing principles of uplift, equality, and humanity. Yes, some American-esque values seem to be seeping into the Scandinavian scene of late, from the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Sweden to a Danish town attempting to stick it to Muslims by way of pork meatballs in school lunches. But even far-right parties in these Nordic nations champion a robust welfare state and a generous social safety net. So let Jones, an intrepid journalist whose latest book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, is already a classic of Iraq and Afghan War reporting, help explain why Norway, Denmark, and Sweden invariably top global indexes when it comes to affordable housing, education, health, life expectancy, and overall citizen satisfaction, while the United States has ended up with failing cities, crumbling schools, and poisoned water.