December 17, 2007

What Can Denmark Learn from the United States?

In my last blog I pointed to some areas where the United States might learn from Denmark. Now it is only fair to do the reverse: what can Denmark learn from the US? Quite a lot, actually. I want to point to four areas.

First, Danes have only a generation of recent experience in living with minorities from other cultures, and they have not done a good job of integrating them into their society. Refugees and immigrants have come to Denmark from more than 100 nations, but Danes speak of them as if they were a singe group, with few nuances. They speak of them collectively as "new Danes," which is code phrase that signals that these are people that are not really accepted as full members of society, even if they were born in the country and speak Danish as their first language. Politicians on the Danish right angrily demand that foreigners give up their own cultures and assimilate. They talk much like the anti-immigration leaders in the United States c. 1910. I personally know a lovely young women whose parents came to Denmark from Sri Lanka. She got an engineering education and speaks the language like a native - and Denmark is screaming for engineers - but nevertheless she never got a decent job offer inside the country. Instead, she has a terrific position in London. That is crazy, of course, but there are all too many examples of such discrimination and failed integration. The unemployment rate for "new Danes" is much higher than for the rest of the population. So, Danes should go to school to Canada and the US to see better models of how to welcome and integrate new citizens. The need is great, because Denmark has an unemployment rate that is now under 3%. Not only do they need to retain their own minorities, but they desperately want to recruit and then retain skilled people from abroad.

Second, Danes are losing some of their cultural heritage every year, particularly books and paintings, but also other important cultural objects. This is because of tax laws that do not encourage donations. In the United States, of course, donations are a tax write-off, so someone with a valuable painting can both be benevolent and also get full value for philanthropy. Another example is close to my heart. When a university professor retires in the US, he or she might well donate valuable books and collections to the library, again in exchange for a tax write-off. But in Denmark, no such rules apply. I know of one case of a man who had a valuable personal library, which almost was broken up and sold. Finally, the family did agree to sell it to the university for a fraction of its total worth. But in most cases, nothing of the sort happens. This would not matter so much if Danish libraries were well stocked. However, there is little tradition of building up good research libraries in Denmark, because this sort of thing is left to the State. But national governments, in my observation, are irregular in supporting libraries and museums. So, the Danish nation could benefit from changing the tax laws, because for a pittance they could preserve far more of their cultural heritage. The United States has some amazing libraries and museum collections built up by knowledgeable collectors. There is little monetary incentive for Danes to do the same.

Third, while I praised the Danish socialized medical system in my last Blog because it is free and works pretty well, it could be improved if it adopted a more proactive approach. In the US doctors give their patients an annual medical exam, and so can track their weight, blood pressure, and other vital indicators. Danish doctors only see a patient when something goes wrong. In other words, they wait, often until it is a bit late in the game. Preventive medicine would raise life expectancy, which currently is a bit lower than the US, and quite a bit lower than next door Sweden. I mention Sweden to indicate that this is not a problem with socialized medicine per se, but rather a specifically Danish problem.

Fourth, and finally for today, the Danes could learn from Americans how to meet new people. They are a rather shy lot, hanging back in the corner of the room if they find themselves in a group of strangers. In the US people are quite ready to mix it up at a cocktail party, the more the merrier. Danes feel most comfortable at a smaller gathering, preferably where they know everyone else in advance, and ideally where there is a seating plan. Spontaneity is not the Danish strong point, in other words. Most of my Danish students who take a term in the US are able to make this adjustment, so there is a chance that the country can and will open up a little.

If both nations have something to learn from the other, however, I am not advocating cultural homogeneity. Fortunately, in my view, the Danes are not becoming Americanized, but that is a subject for another blog.