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Still Searching for a “Minnesota Middle Way”

May 31, 2011 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

There is irrefutable evidence that neither hell nor Valhalla has frozen over, but Minnesota is still sliding along on thin ice.

The Minnesota Legislature made good on special interest pledges to some privileged classes, and went home. It left in doubt future programs for education, health care, economic development and infrastructure investments for transportation and other building projects.

So complete was the walking away from meeting Constitutional duties that the Legislature’s inactions now threaten a state government shutdown come July. Before the legislative session, Minnesota 2020 had hoped policymakers would move toward public policy goals set out in our July 2010 report, Prosperity Ahead, which examined Nordic economic models Minnesota could adapt to move the state forward.  

It just so happens that amidst this chaos in Minnesota, a California scholar who helped inform some of the research on that project checked in on our state's progress. "It's not going well," we informed Marilyn Jackson, a scholar on Nordic social action and theology at the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR) in Berkeley who operates a blog about the folk school movement that came out of Denmark in 1840s.

Denmark has had a profound but little known impact on shaping Minnesota, its institutions, its cooperative business models, and its vital extension service arm.  One aspect of that is 4-H. The four-leaf clover symbol of 4-H (head, heart, hands and health) is essentially the same as the folk schools’ icon of Danish bishop, social reformer and political activist N.F.S. Grundtvig’s clover (king, the people, the homeland and native tongue, the latter because he deemed formal studies in Latin and Greek at that time to be of little use to people in rural Denmark).

Jackson’s work and the Minnesota 2020 report helped establish a framework to remind Minnesotans how people in Northern Europe—cousins to so many of us—responded to the global Great Recession without throwing more people out of work, lowering the quality of schools, and denying fellow citizens access to health care.

The report also keyed off successful “Middle Way” responses to the global Great Depression 80 years ago in Sweden that was made popular by American author and journalist Marcus Childs’ 1936 book, Sweden: The Middle Way.

It showed what other northern European countries have done by forming what is known as the Nordic Model in other parts of Scandinavia, the Polder Model in the Netherlands, and by more recent actions in unified Germany.

When Congress was debating national health care reform a year ago, vested interest groups turned loose their apologists to warn that America might become like Sweden. The scare tactic didn’t work. Our Minnesota 2020 report explained why: “Truth be told, we won’t become like Sweden; we don’t set our goals that high.”

So far this year, we have lowered our goals to unprecedented depths. Divisiveness has become the operable political strategy, keeping the people at bay.

This is in stark contrast to folkhemmet, or “the people’s home” concept, which Sweden’s Middle Way established to protect and care for all. This ideal is still in use today under Stockholm's center-right political leadership.

The Swedish concept of the people’s home was greatly influenced by reformer Grundtvig in Denmark. This is also true of the social models, political reforms and economic systems in neighboring countries that are out-performing the United States in most social and economic measures used by international research groups.

In contrast, we are merely arguing over ways to limit the amount of harm we will inflict on our fellow Minnesotans—our elderly, our businesses and future generations that depend on public education.

Going forward

A compromise on a state budget that combines lesser state services with enhanced state revenue is nowhere near a Minnesota middle way.

But a compromise now would be an important first step in reducing the damage to the state, its people and its economy; it won’t eliminate all the harm such a budget will cause.

It’s like throwing a five-foot rope to a person falling through thin ice 10 feet from shore. It is a gesture; it isn’t a solution.

Hopefully, lawmakers will use the interim period before Governor Dayton calls the special session to listen to real people—their constituents—and not just the well-heeled special interests that have little interest in public education or the general public's well being.

We won’t make Minnesota like Sweden, or Denmark, or modern Germany. But there is still time to move Minnesota back in step with its 150-plus years of progress.

That history, now being rejected, was moving Minnesota towards becoming a latter day folkhemmet. And just as in Grundtvig’s day, we need to know whom we are to choose a path for where we might go.

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