Denmark: A Modern Beacon – Thom Hartmann

From Thom Hartmann

August 13, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

Excerpted from Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture

Our best hope, both of a tolerable political harmony and of an inner peace, rests upon our ability to observe the limits of human freedom even while we responsibly exploit its creative possibilities. ~Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959)

If it’s happening in Danish politics (or, for that matter, Scandinavian or European politics), Peter Mogensen knows about it. An economist by training, he’s the chief political editor of Denmark’s second largest national newspaper, Politiken, and for four years (1997-2000) he was the right-hand man (“head of office” and “political advisor”) to Denmark’s then prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. A handsome man of young middle years, he also plays in a “Bruce Springsteen look-alike” rock band, and cuts a wide swath through Danish popular society.

So it was particularly interesting to see this normally unflappable man with a slightly confused look on his face.

We were in the studios of Danish Radio (their equivalent of BBC or NPR) in downtown Copenhagen, where I was broadcasting the week of June 23-27, 2008, and I’d just asked Mogensen how many Danes experience financial distress, lose their homes, or even declare bankruptcy because of a major illness in the family.

“Why, of course …” he blinked a few times, “none.”

I explained how every year in the United States millions of families lose their jobs and their homes, and must sell off their most precious possessions to satisfy the demands of creditors, because they can’t afford to pay the co-pays, deductibles, and expenses associated with developing cancer, heart disease, auto accident injuries, or other serious illnesses. “Over half of all the bankruptcies in America are because people can’t afford these expenses, and their insurance companies don’t cover all their expenses or they don’t have health insurance.”

Mogensen shook his head sadly. “Here in Denmark, we could not imagine living like that,” he said.

I asked him what the average Dane pays in taxes, and he noted that the average, middle-class taxpayer pays about 45 to 53 percent taxes, the most wealthy a bit over 60 percent, and the poorest (incomes under $31,000) around 30 percent.

In exchange for this, though, Danes don’t have the worries that wake so many Americans up in the middle of the night. If you lose your job, there is generous unemployment compensation while you’re looking for another. All aspects of health care are free, and if you need a treatment that isn’t available in the country, the government will even pay to fly you to another country where specialized health care is available, as well as covering all the costs of that health care. Education is free, from early childhood education (preschool) through public school, all the way up to Ph.D. or M.D. In fact, if you qualify to get into college or university (it’s based entirely on performance/grades in high school, not on income or social class), the government even pays students a monthly stipend to cover the cost of housing, food, and books; the same applies for trade schools. When Danes reach old age (the retirement age is sixty-seven, just recently raised from sixty-five because lifespan has substantially increased in the past few decades) they get a generous pension (Social Security) that allows them to live in comfort, all health care is free, and if they need to go into an extended- or assisted-care facility, or even a hospice, it’s all free.

Quite literally, from birth to death, while Danes have millions of choices to make with and about their lives, from partnership (gay marriages/partnerships have been legal here since 1989) to occupation to travel, they have few worries about the things that most nations in the world consider “quality of life” issues. Water is pure. Electricity is inexpensive (20 percent of Danish electricity is produced by windmills, with a goal of 50 percent within the next decade). Sickness and old age, while inconvenient, are not the threats to comfort or survival that they are in the United States.

So how, exactly, did the Danes get it so right? And why does the principle that their society is based on-higher taxes equals greater overall quality of life-seem so scary to Americans?