Roughly a century ago, many Swedes immigrated to America. They've done very well here. Only about 6.7 percent of Swedish- Americans live in poverty. The Swedes who decided to remain in Sweden have done well there, too. When two economists calculated Swedish poverty rates according to the American standard, they found that 6.7 percent of the Swedes in Sweden were living in poverty.
In other words, you had two groups with similar historical backgrounds living in entirely different political systems, and the poverty outcomes were the same.
A similar pattern applies to health care. In 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden and the U.S. diverged politically. Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? There was basically no change in the life expectancy gap.
Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.
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This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and other factors.
You can observe the same phenomenon within the U.S. Last week, the American Human Development Project came out with its "A Century Apart" survey of life in the U.S. As you'd expect, ethnicity correlates to huge differences in how people live. Nationally, 50 percent of Asian-American adults have a college degree, compared with 31 percent of whites, 17 percent of African-Americans and 13 percent of Hispanics. Asian-Americans have a life expectancy of 87 compared with 79 for whites and 73 years for African-Americans.
Even in struggling parts of the country, Asian-Americans do well. The region you live in also makes a gigantic difference in how you will live. There are certain high-trust regions where highly educated people congregate, producing positive feedback loops of good culture and good human capital programs. There are other regions with low social trust, low education levels and negative feedback loops.
If you combine the influence of ethnicity and region, you get astounding lifestyle gaps. The average Asian-American in New Jersey lives 26 years longer and is 11 times more likely to have a graduate degree than the average American Indian in South Dakota.
When you try to account for life outcome differences this gigantic, you find yourself beyond narrow economic incentives and in the murky world of social capital. What matters are historical experiences, cultural attitudes, child-rearing practices, family formation patterns, expectations about the future, work ethics and the quality of social bonds.
Researchers have tried to disaggregate the influence of these soft factors and have found it nearly impossible. All we can say for sure is that different psychological, cultural and social factors combine in myriad ways to produce different viewpoints. As a result of these different viewpoints, the average behavior is different between different ethnic and geographic groups, leading to different life outcomes.
In her book, "What Money Can't Buy," Susan E. Mayer of the University of Chicago calculated what would happen if you could double the income of the poorest Americans. The results would be disappointingly small.
So when we're arguing about politics, we should be aware of how policy fits into the larger scheme of cultural and social influences. Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it. Therefore, the first rule of policy-making should be, don't promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you're lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships.
Finally, we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE