Where in the world is it easiest to get rich?
That’s the question I asked my professor when I studied sociology in the early 90s because he was having a lecture about social democracies, the Scandinavian welfare state, and he was a classical left-wing sociology professor, and he could not hide his enthusiasm when he talked about these egalitarian societies with no rich people and no poor people.
But I, on the other hand, I was writing my master’s thesis about rich people.
When I interviewed my informants from the upper classes, they all said the same thing: “Life in Scandinavia is tough.”
- HIGH TAXES
- STRONG UNION
- GENEREOUS WELFARE STATE
“We have to work twice as hard to earn money because we have to struggle against: high taxes, strong unions controlling the wages and a generous welfare state that makes people lazy.” As one rich guy told me, he said, “They call it a social security net. Well, I call it a hammock.”
And as every aspiring social scientist, I started to go native; I started to feel sympathy for these rich people.
And that’s why I raised my hand and asked my professor, “Well, what if you don’t care so much about equality?
What if your dream is to become rich?
Where in the world should I have been born to become really rich?”
I still remember the puzzled look on my professor’s face.
But he answered the best he could.
Something like, “Well, if that’s your goal in life, you should probably have been born in a society with free markets, low taxes, and minimal government intervention.
And he added, “If you want to become rich, you should probably not study sociology.”
That was a good answer and the best guess we had back then.
That is until I saw that the University of Oslo professor in Economy, Karl Moene, actually had checked the facts:
“Where in the world is it easiest to get rich?”
And before I share with you where you should go to earn money, we have to define “rich.”
The UN talks about the poverty line.
You know, if you earn less than one dollar a day, maybe two dollars a day.
But we have to define the richness line.
It’s a more fun line, actually.
And the most reliable report, when it comes to rich people, the Wealth Report, they set the richness line at individuals with net worth more than 30 million USD.
In the consultant jargon, these people are called UHNWI’s.
That is Ultra High Net Worth Individuals.
That guy, by the way, is not rich. He is just a model.
Actually, on the lower part of the model.
And I have saved some money by keeping the watermark there as well.
So, according to The Wealth Report, there are more than 170,000
UHNWI’s in the world.
And here is the top five list of countries with the richest people.
Number five: China, with more than 8,000.
UK, Germany, Japan, and on top, of course, the United States with more than 40,000 rich people.
But of course, we are not interested in the absolute numbers here.
We are interested in rich people per capita, per million inhabitants.
And if we leave out the pure tax havens, like Cyprus, and Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Monaco – where we have an artificially huge share of rich people – it turns out that we have on number 5 Denmark – with 179 rich people per one million inhabitants – Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and on top: Norway.
But where’s the US? On place 13.
So what happened to my old professor’s, you know, social democracies?
There are no rich people there.
But OK. 30 million dollars, that’s just pocket money in a country like the US, where people can get insanely rich.
So, let’s raise the richness line up from 30 million dollars up to 1 billion dollars.
And the most reliable source here is the Forbes billionaires list.
And according to the Forbes, if you look at billionaires per million inhabitants.
Number 5, Germany: 1.2 billionaires.
1.2 billionaires per million inhabitants.
The United States 1.7, Norway 2, Sweden, and on top Iceland with 3.1
With a single billionaire: Thor Björgólfsson.
He could have been a model.
But the point is, the United States: 1.7 Scandinavia taken as a whole: 2.1
And the big mystery is …
How can this be?
How can Bernie Sanders’ dream societies, these socialist paradises be such a breeding place for rich people?
That’s a mystery.
There are two reasons.
Reason number one is free education.
Social democracies give free higher education to everybody, and cheap student loans, and grants.
That enables more people to use their talents and earn money.
We can see this in the social mobility numbers.
Imagine all fathers in a society, and we divide them into five groups based on income: from the bottom fifth up to the top fifth.
Then we look at their sons and divide their income into five steps, and we see how many sons of the fathers from the bottom income end up on top.
How many sons go from rags to riches?
If it was perfect social mobility, if talents and opportunities were equally distributed, 20% from the bottom would end up on each of these five ladders.
So let’s look at the numbers for the different countries.
In Denmark, they are pretty close to perfect social mobility with 14% that goes from rags to riches.
In Norway 12, Sweden 11, the United States 8.
Because of free education, there are more self-made men in Scandinavia than in the US.
And if we look at those sons who don’t end up on top but stay at the bottom, that go from rags to rags.
Again, 20% would be perfect mobility.
In Denmark, 25% ends up at the bottom,
Sweden a bit more. Norway.
And look at the United States.
This is because education in the United States is very expensive.
But the second and most important explanation for Scandinavia being such a breeding place for rich people is this:
Have you ever noticed if you have been to the United States when you drive around and drive through a toll plaza, there are actually people sitting there taking your money.
Compare that to my local toll plaza.
Just a sign with some gizmo attached to it.
And when you go to a supermarket in the United States, there are actually people there helping to pack your things into your bags.
It’s very friendly and convenient compared to my local grocery store.
There’s nobody there.
The biggest shock I had when I went to the US for the first time, when I went to the restroom, there were actually people working there.
Compare that to my local public toilet.
There’s not even a cleaner there; it cleans itself automatically.
And the reason for this difference
is that Scandinavian unions are pressing up the minimum wages.
It’s so expensive to have these people working there.
In Norway, tollbooth operators, supermarket packers, and a restroom janitor would earn almost three times as much as in the US.
And that’s why we have replaced these people with machines.
That is why I was surprised when I saw this article in The New York Times in 2014.
Preparing for Chip-and-PIN Cards in the United States.
Because in the United States people are still using paper checks as a method of payment, while Scandinavian banks have made us start using Chip-and-PIN cards long ago.
Because the minimum wages here are so high.
So Scandinavian banks can’t afford having people manually control the checks.
So Scandinavian companies, because of the unions pressing up the wages, they have to downsize and introduce new technology or else they will go broke.
And new technology increases the productivity in a society, which in the long run also increases profit.
And on the upper end of the wage ladder, in the name of solidarity,
Scandinavian unions hold back the highest salaries of the skilled workers.
So for example, a Norwegian senior engineer.
He earns, on average per year, 76,000 dollars, while his American colleague earns more than 100,000 dollars.
So American engineers …
They are not only more good-looking, but they are more expensive.
Of course, this wage restraint on high-skilled work is good for profit.
So, the unions are in effect subsidizing the capitalists.
I wish I knew all this when I gave up a career in social science because the beauty and the irony of these findings, I think, is amazing.
On the one hand, you have my rich informants that complain about how hard it is to get rich in Scandinavia.
They had it all wrong.
Not only is it easier to get rich in a social democracy, but they are critical to the very institutions that have helped them get rich.
High taxes, which gives free education and more talent into the economy.
Strong unions that are helping to increase productivity,
and a generous welfare state that makes the unions accept downsizing because they know that their members will be well taken care of.
So the unions cooperate because of the safety net.
So rich people are a bit like Immanuel Kant’s famous bird, who thinks she could fly even faster in airless space, forgetting that it’s the air itself that gives her lift.
On the other part of the political spectrum, when Bernie Sanders is praising Scandinavian societies, he forgets that these are not anti-rich or anti-capitalist systems.
Because the welfare state and the unions work in tandem with capitalist dynamics.
And I think that is the most important lesson here.
The economy is not a zero-sum game.
We are in this together.
And that is why Scandinavia is a better place
to fulfill the American dream…
than America itself.