May 28, 2013 by David K. Sutton
What Can Denmark Teach Us About Ourselves?
On The Huffington Post, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders asks (“What Can We Learn From Denmark?“). But I think a better question is: What can Denmark teach us about ourselves? — Senator Sanders talks about the town hall meetings he attended with Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen. During those meetings, people learned about the major differences in quality of life of the average person in Denmark compared to the average person in the United States.
In Denmark, social policy in areas like health care, child care, education and protecting the unemployed are part of a “solidarity system” that makes sure that almost no one falls into economic despair. Danes pay very high taxes, but in return enjoy a quality of life that many Americans would find hard to believe. As the ambassador mentioned, while it is difficult to become very rich in Denmark no one is allowed to be poor. The minimum wage in Denmark is about twice that of the United States and people who are totally out of the labor market or unable to care for themselves have a basic income guarantee of about $100 per day.
Of course paragraphs like that result in a fireball of rage from the conservative right in America, along with claims of “socialism” plastered in right-wing media headlines for good measure. After all, how could a freedom-loving people accept such government intrusion?
Health care in Denmark is universal, free of charge and high quality. Everybody is covered as a right of citizenship.
Is that all you’ve got?
In order to give strong support to expecting parents, mothers get four weeks of paid leave before giving birth. They get another 14 weeks afterward. Expecting fathers get two paid weeks off, and both parents have the right to 32 more weeks of leave during the first nine years of a child’s life.
But we’ve got to look after all those wealthy job creators don’t we? Won’t they get the shaft if we offer such protections?
In Denmark, there is a very different understanding of what “freedom” means. In that country, they have gone a long way to ending the enormous anxieties that comes with economic insecurity. Instead of promoting a system which allows a few to have enormous wealth, they have developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all — including the children, the elderly and the disabled.
No super-wealthy people? That is un-American, and I will not stand for it! Do not attempt to import your Danish nanny state to the greatest nation on Earth!
And it doesn’t end there. How about these freedom diminishing Danish perks:
At a time when college education in the United States is increasingly unaffordable and the average college graduate leaves school more than $25,000 in debt, virtually all higher education in Denmark is free. That includes not just college but graduate schools as well, including medical school.
If a worker loses his or her job in Denmark, unemployment insurance covers up to 90 percent of earnings for as long as two years. Here benefits can be cut off after as few as 26 weeks.
Every worker in Denmark is entitled to five weeks of paid vacation plus 11 paid holidays. The United States is the only major country that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation time.
“Land of the free, home of the brave,” takes on a whole new meaning.
Look, I’m not trying to argue semantics here. By any account, Denmark looks pretty socialist to me. And to that I say: so what? Do Americans enjoy more freedom than citizens of other modern democracies? Is socialism really an impediment to freedom? And I’ll ask again, what can Denmark teach us about ourselves?
I guess what we can learn depends on how we define freedom. If freedom means having personal choice that disregards social impact and pretends each individual can exist in a vacuum, then I guess you can say the Denmark model is less free. If, however, freedom means living with less fear and anxiety about how you will pay the mortgage, feed your children, find a job, receive medical treatment, then the Denmark model is clearly superior. Whether that model can work in a country with over 50x the population and greater diversity I cannot say. What I can say is this: we Americans could afford to spend a little less time patting ourselves on the back, and saying we are the most generous people, because at least from my vantage point, many times we are downright stingy with our generosity outside the purview of a tragic event.
Do we band together after a horrific terrorist attack? You bet. — Do we show solidarity after a devastating hurricane or tornado? Absolutely. — Do we stand united in a mission against joblessness, poverty, greed, cronyism, sexism, racism, homophobia? Not so much. — Do we REALLY care that half the country is just scraping by each day? It doesn’t seem so. — Are we deeply concerned that millions of Americans cannot afford basic health care? I’ve yet to see the evidence.
My fellow Americans, we do not live in a country that is overflowing with empathy. Instead, America is a country where even the poorest of its citizens believes they might some day “make it,” and live the “American dream.” We live in a country where we tolerate high levels of poverty because it allows for modest numbers of “well-off” people to live really cushy lifestyles. But there are countries on this planet that have much more income parity. I’m not saying America needs to become Denmark, I’m simply saying the Danish way of life can teach us much about our own way of life.