Published January 18, 2011
I think I know where the confidence and swagger came from. Davíð Oddsson. Hard to explain how adored he was, other than to say Davíð is to economic policy as Ronald Reagan is to nuclear policy. Where Reagan horrified the world in the 1980s with his nuclear gymnastics, Davíð astonished those with even the faintest interest in economics with his bear hug of free market capitalism.
Davíð’s policies were barely examined daydreams set forward with the discipline and tact of a petulant child. And yet, they came true. In 2004, the first article I was assigned to write about Iceland was an explanation of Davíð Oddsson’s amazing economic policies. I knew nothing about economics—when I reached out to a Harvard friend’s economics professor, he replied: “It is a miracle. You don’t need to know economic theory. If debt is three times GDP, the country’s economy is doomed.”
Reality didn’t match the dream. I told my editor I was clueless, which she had already assumed. In the coming months, authorities ranging from The Economist to the Wall Street Journal backed Davíð as the wizard behind the Icelandic miracle.
It was another three years before everyone changed their minds.
But for me, Davíð Oddsson’s personality was the key Icelandic trait of the aughties in Iceland. A generation of artists, musicians, and even game designers, had within them this core quality.
In the arts, it worked. The Tate and then the Brooklyn Bridge were handed over to the Icelander-via-Denmark artist Ólafur Elíasson. Filmmakers Dagur Kári and Baltasar Kormákur drew international praise. Iceland Airwaves took flight.
The most impressive example, and the most positive, of the we dream big decade is what four guys from Mosfellsbær did. Sigur Rós invented a genre of music and an empire, operating entirely outside of the realities of the music business. It’s not that their music is, at its core, superior to a number of other bands’ music. But Sigur Rós presented it with such fearlessness and imagination.
There are hundreds of points I can’t cover here—not sure who’d read about the politics and business highs and lows, or the hundreds of musicians and artists who definitely did something worthwhile. My takeaway from a long time thinking about the country is just that Iceland approached the decade with no resources save personality, and they made a profound impact with only that. Now go listen to some kissing hot dogs.
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