I’d been in Sweden for about four days when I first became jealous. I’d been invited there, as a former staffer from the Bernie Sanders campaign, to lead a series of trainings for a moderately sized national political party, unambiguously named “The Left Party,” to teach about the importance of face-to-face interactions in political campaigning.

Although I already knew before arriving that I would be envious of people who lived in a country where they can travel everywhere by train, get medical care for free, and where even small towns have immaculate parks and beautiful museums free for the public, after having been there for a few days it was none of those things that made me pang with resentment and longing as an American who lacked all of those things. Incidentally, it was my friend’s apartment, situated directly in downtown Malmö, the country’s third-largest and southernmost city, that really turned me green. At 1,200 square feet, with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a spacious kitchen, the place was also ideally located with only a three-minute walk to the train that could take you anywhere in the country, and also perched right on top of one of the city’s famous falafel establishments, where for about the same price as a regular coffee one could eat healthy and filling food. It was none of those features, which one might expect to see lauded in a craigslist advertisement, however, that really made me stew — it was the apartment’s cost.

“So, uh, how much do you pay to live here?” I asked my friend, hoping to conceal the covetous nature of my question.

“About 3,000 krona a month,” he replied, “but that’s only because I have the master bedroom. The other three rooms are cheaper. I’ve been here for 12 years though, I’m planning on buying my own place soon.”

My jaw dropped. 3,000 krona is roughly the equivalent of $300.

I catalogued the numerous living arrangements I’ve found myself in since graduating from college in 2008. I paid $650 for a bunk in a room in Berkeley, California, in 2009, and that was discounted because I helped do maintenance on the building. For about three years I spent between $300 and $600 a month for a room in a sort of anarchist commune in a small town in the mountains of Arizona, which was affordable, but it was about three years too long for a person in their 20s with ambitions to do anything in life beyond playing music on the street and living in an anarchist commune.

Since moving to Portland in 2014, I’ve been spending between $600 and $800 a month for shared spaces. I’ve been forced to relocate several times because of the familiar cycle of property owners selling their buildings and the new owners in turn renovating those properties with the aim of increasing the rent.

I know very few people in their 20s or early 30s who have occupied the same address for more than a few years, let alone more than a decade. I don’t know anyone who isn’t stressed about the rent, or the bills, or the taxes, or their basic security in their places of residence, whether they own or rent. That stress was entirely absent from my friend and most other people I met in Sweden. As an American, there was a bit of cognitive dissonance that came from being around such people. Economic anxiety is so prevalent and such a motivating factor for most people here, that its absence produces a sort of strange ambivalence of its own at first. Although I think most people would find its absence welcome after a short period of time.

Sweden is known for its generous welfare society, but what most people don’t know is that it’s not just the government that forms the structures that allow the system to flourish. There is a nationwide renters’ union that negotiates prices with landlords, and actually implements rent control — which, far from the conservative argument that such policies result in Soviet-style tenement housing and economic stagnation, has actually resulted in far more livable housing stock in which tenants actually have a stake in keeping the buildings in good shape.



 




Ironically, the only public-housing “projects” that I visited in Sweden — occupied mostly by college students, unemployed 20-somethings, and refugees, in which the bike racks were full of colorful and functional bicylces — were actually kept warmer during their cold winters than the average apartment in the States. This owes primarily to the fact that each city provides municipal hot water, produced by a large central incineration facility that burns either biomass or trash from which all the recyclable and inorganic materials have been removed. When I told one of the tenants at this project that I felt warm in their apartment, which was kept at a comfortable 75°F, and I told them that in the US many people keep their homes in the 58-60°F range and bulk up on clothes in the winter to save money, his response was, “It sounds like the Soviet Union.” That made me laugh. Incredibly, it turns out that in Sweden, if your landlord can’t keep your heat above a comfortable 68°F, you are entitled to reduced rent.

Much of Sweden has a similar climate to New England, and many of the towns I visited were old mill towns that superficially resembled Lewiston, Augusta, Biddeford and Skowhegan. The huge 19th-century brick structures that lined the rivers were familiar, as were the red-brick downtowns. That was where the resemblance ended, however. In contrast to the old Maine mill towns of today — which are often at the receiving end of jokes about drug use and poverty, where when walking down the streets there is a palpable sense of hopelessness and despair, where the downtowns have fallen into neglect, where all the young people with the means of doing so leave — the Swedish towns were vibrant and full of life, even without the operating mill. In one town called Norrköping, the old industrial landscape had been preserved as a sort of museum, and a large section of it had been converted into a university (a public, tuition-free university). I remember in Camden back in the ’90s there was talk of converting the woolen mill building into a university that never materialized, and Camden as a tourist destination had a diverse enough economy to keep the building occupied, but that has not been the case for dozens of other cities throughout Maine. Many of those old mills have sat vacant for decades, even in the midst of a drastic housing shortage.

Sweden’s taxes aren’t even that much higher. People were surprised when I told them I paid roughly 25 percent in state and federal income taxes. Most people in Sweden pay 30 percent income tax, with a graduated scale for people higher up the bracket. Many taxes are collected through “value-added” tax, which is higher on non-essential items — essentially a graduated sales tax. This has the added benefit of preventing conspicuous consumption for conspicuous consumption’s sake. Most people I ran into there were happy to pay their taxes, as they saw the results. In America our taxes get squandered on military contractors and corporate subsidies, and we don’t see much in return for it.

Sweden has its fair share of right-wingers who demonize the welfare system that has been the bedrock of the country for decades, and they would find much in common with America’s conservatives. I would challenge those folks to come live in America for a few years and see what life is like for people who can’t count on being able to afford a doctor’s visit in times of need, who know they can be removed from their apartments on short notice for either being unable to pay or simply on the whim of a landlord, who have to work long hours for low wages to keep a functioning vehicle on the road to get to work, and who can only afford to keep their homes at a chilly 58 degrees all winter.

Conversely, I would challenge American conservatives who demonize the welfare state as a system that creates economic stagnation, encourages laziness and enables drug-users and criminals to travel to Sweden. It is clear that they are dead wrong. They must be thinking of American 21st-century corporate capitalism. It goes without saying that Sweden is not in fact a utopia, and there are in fact some homeless people there, but it was eye-opening for me to see a functioning government and society that places human need first. As a famous British professor, Richard Wilkinson, said on a PBS interview in 2011, “If you want to live the American dream, you should move to Denmark or Finland.” Sweden wouldn’t be a bad bet, either.