The Ulf Nilson column, 03.30.2009:
For some 59 years I have been writing for Swedish newspapers, most of the time the daily tabloid Expressen. I have had the opportunity to report on things as wide apart as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra’s farewell appearance as well as various wars, accidents and, of course, how Sweden has changed over the years. I, as they say, have been around.
This I tell you not to brag but to underline what I am going to add next. Namely:
Never, ever in all this time have I seen ordinary Swedes as mad as they are now. There is a rage sweeping the country, more remarkable — much more so — since Swedes are a fairly stolid sort, people who might boil on the inside but avoid showing their anger and resentment.
Not so now.
Papers, TV stations, columnists like myself are bombarded, fairly overwhelmed with e-mails, letters and cries in the streets. Everybody, it seems, would like to kill or at least seriously beat up a banker, a mutual fund manager, a financial adviser or, well, anybody belonging to the ‘elite.’
The elite. Meaning the people that brought us into the crisis. And who — lo and behold — are now going to take us out of the crisis, all the time making fabulous amounts of money. The number of elite in Sweden, it should be added, is very small: according to my estimation, perhaps 2,000 people. They all know each other, and everybody knows who they are. They work together, party together and go hunting (preferably moose) together.
And they grant each other fabulous salaries and bonuses. Take the SEB-bank, for example. It is owned by the Wallenberg family, which has dominated Swedish industry for one hundred years or so. The bank has lost enormous amounts this last year, mostly because of overexposure in the Baltic states. Several other banks have done the same thing, but only SEB has brazenly said that it would like the shareholders, of whom many are small people like me, to
1. pony up 15 billion SEK (a little less than $2 billion), and
2. pay its CEO, Annika Falkengren, not a bonus (no, no that would be too offensive) but a couple of million more in salary.
Well, even for Swedes, this was too much. I wrote a very angry column about it and so did just about everybody else who had a chance. Each and every commentator, as well as many of the bank’s employees got letters from depositors threatening to claim their money and put it in some other bank ... provided one could be found that wasn’t tainted (which has so far turned out to be impossible).
Mrs. Falkengren was forced to very quickly declare that no, no she would not accept the millions she was offered. Many other CEOs and smaller people did the same thing, but only after the storm grew to tsunami proportions. Right now, Sweden is experiencing a crisis of confidence, the likes of which, I am sure, has never hit the country before. The reason for this is, of course, that people in general have never had access to as much — and as detailed — information as now. What the newspapers don’t print and TV doesn’t show appears in one form or another on the Internet. A lot is true and a lot is not true, but taken together this information tsunami underlines the fact that regardless of what people say, we still live in a class society. What we experience is a clear case of “them” and “us.” “They” (the owners and bosses) will be bailed out — to avoid panic and save jobs, it is said — and “we” will have to pay by lower salaries (or unemployment benefits) and eventually higher taxes.
“We” will suffer; “they” will not. It feels really bad, even if most people are sane enough to realize that a socialist solution would be even worse.