December 17, 2007

Is Denmark a Model for the United States?

Can Americans Learn from Others?

For most of the time during the last 225 years Americans have been convinced that they live in the best country on earth. They have even seen it as exceptional, a nation like no other. But not too many Americans have looked carefully at the alternatives. They are told repeatedly that the American way is the best, and that the rest of the world is just trying to catch up.

So how about a reality check? I have been living in Denmark for long enough to make a knowledgeable comparison. I have written a short book to introduce outsiders to Denmark, but because it is addressed to people from anywhere who might be planning to visit or live there, I avoid making direct comparisons.

But in the next century I hope that Americans will look carefully at what they are not getting from their government. 

Imagine living in a country with universal health care paid for entirely out of taxes. I will not lie to you and say that Denmark has a perfect system, but it is one which supports both basic and applied research and that provides a high level of care. Quite possibly the Swedes have an even better system.

Imagine a country where handguns are illegal, and where the one or two murders that do occur in a week are almost all solved by the police. 

Imagine a country where the unemployment rate is less than 3%, and where those who are unable to get work receive free retraining and can get unemployment benefits for much longer than the six month limit in the United States.

Imagine a country which provides university education free to all citizens, and then, to make absolutely certain no one is left out, gives ALL students a scholarship big enough to cover housing and meals.

Imagine a country where automobiles are not absolutely essential to getting around, and where most families have only one, and middle-class people get along without one. this is possible because the state has made certain that there is a tightly integrated bus and train system. Certain parts of the US have begun to learn this again - they had it in c. 1905.

Imagine a country where the minimum wage is more than $12 an hour! This does make a restaurant meal more expensive, for example, but it is worth paying that, if it means almost no one lives in poverty. There is something deeply absurd about the US system where someone can work full time for the minimum wage and still be at the poverty line. 

How is the Danish system this possible? Taxes are higher, and much less is spent on the military. It is not unusual to pay 50% of your salary in taxes. I used to complain about the high taxes a lot when I first came to Denmark, but gradually I began to see that the quality of life in such a system is worth paying for. Danish parents all know that their children will have the chance to go to university if they graduate from gymnasium (high school). A Dane knows that full medical care will be available, even if one is unemployed. A Dane who does get laid off, can feel pretty confidant that they will get another job, and that in the meantime domestic life will go on without too many disruptions. In short, the Danish system reduces anxiety about the future and provides a basic safety net. 

There is no perfect society, but some are better organized, have better food, protect their citizens better, and so forth. We have all heard that joke about heaven being the place where different nationalities have specific roles. In my ideal world, the French run the restaurants, the Spanish operate the cafes, the Danes make the furniture, build windmills and run the social services, the English make TV detective programs, fill the theaters and organize pomp and circumstance, the Italians build the town squares and provide the opera, the Germans construct and maintain the cars, the Americans innovate, build the bathrooms, provide popular music, and make the pizza, while every country provides its own novels, classical music, and fine art.

Of course, nations do not remain static. They get better or worse. The English have learned to cook somewhat better in the last two decades, for example, even if they still build some quite awful houses decorated in what Danes are certain is terrible taste. But many of the English seem to know this, and to recognize that for them IKEA is a step up. So perhaps my fellow Americans can improve, too. My Christmas wish is that they will look seriously at other societies and see what they might learn from each.

If you want to read more about Denmark, have a look at 
David E. Nye, Denmark and the Danes: A Two Hour briefing
SDU Forlag, 2006 (available through