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Ear to the Ground

Gaze Upon the Danish Dream of Freedom

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Posted on May 28, 2013
johan wieland (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Unlike the Danes, American society has abstracted freedom from its prerequisite of economic security. Vermonters learned of enviable Danish freedom in a series of town meetings this month with one of their senators, Bernie Sanders, and Peter Taksoe-Jensen, the Danish ambassador to the U.S.

“Large crowds came out to learn about a social system very different from our own which provides extraordinary security and opportunity for the people of Denmark,” Sanders wrote of the meetings in an editorial in The Huffington Post on Sunday.

Most Americans are gripped with “a massive amount of economic anxiety,” Sanders continued. “Unemployment is much too high, wages and income are too low, millions of Americans are struggling to find affordable health care and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider.

“While young working families search desperately for affordable child care, older Americans worry about how they can retire with dignity. Many of our people are physically exhausted as they work the longest hours of any industrialized country and have far less paid vacation time than other major countries.”

Not so in Denmark. There, “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,” Sanders wrote. Taksoe-Jensen told his American audiences that although Danes have a difficult time becoming obscenely wealthy, no one is allowed to be poor, Sanders noted. Minimum wage is twice what it is in the United States, and people who are unable to find jobs and care for themselves have a basic guaranteed income of $100 per day.

Health care is a right of citizenship, Sanders explained. No one pays at the time of service and the care is of high quality. Patient satisfaction is much higher than in the United States and everyone can choose a doctor in his or her area. Prescription drugs are inexpensive or free, and Danes spend 11 percent of their GDP on health care in contrast to Americans’ 18 percent.

“When it comes to raising families,” the senator wrote, “Danes understand that the first few years of a person’s life are the most important in terms of intellectual and emotional development.” Mothers get four weeks of paid leave before giving birth and an additional 14 weeks afterward. Expecting fathers get two paid weeks off, and both mothers and fathers have a right to 32 more weeks during their child’s first nine years of life. The government covers three-quarters of the cost of child care. For low-income workers, it pays for more.

Virtually all education in Denmark is free, including graduate programs such as medical school, Sanders pointed out. The Danish government also invests in job training programs. For those who have lost their positions, unemployment insurance covers up to 90 percent of their earnings for as long as two years. In the U.S., benefits are cut off after as few as 26 weeks. Danish workers get five weeks of paid vacation and 11 paid holidays. Americans are entitled to no guarantee of paid vacation time. Fewer than half of lower-paid hourly wage workers in America receive any paid vacation days.

What is the result of all this social beneficence? According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Danes rank among the happiest people in the world, Sanders noted. Americans didn’t make the top 10.

“As Ambassador Taksoe-Jensen explained, the Danish social model did not develop overnight,” Sanders wrote. “It has evolved over many decades and, in general, has the political support of all parties across the political spectrum. One of the reasons for that may be that the Danes are, politically and economically, a very engaged and informed people. In their last election, which lasted all of three weeks and had no TV ads, 89 percent of Danes voted.

“In Denmark, more than 75 percent of the people are members of trade unions,” Sanders continued. “In America today, as a result of the political and economic power of corporate America and the billionaire class, we are seeing a sustained and brutal attack against the economic well-being of the American worker. As the middle class disappears, benefits and guarantees that workers have secured over the last century are now on the chopping block. Republicans, and too many Democrats, are supporting cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition, education, and other basic needs—at the same time as the very rich become much richer. Workers’ rights, the ability to organize unions, and the very existence of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are now under massive assault.”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at The Huffington Post:

In the U.S. Senate today, my right-wing colleagues talk a lot about “freedom” and limiting the size of government. Here’s what they really mean.

They want ordinary Americans to have the freedom NOT to have health care in a country where 45,000 of our people who die each year because they don’t get to a doctor when they should. They want young people in our country to have the freedom NOT to go to college, and join the 400,000 young Americans unable to afford a higher education and the millions struggling with huge college debts. They want children and seniors in our country to have the freedom NOT to have enough food to eat, and join the many millions who are already hungry. And on and on it goes!

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.

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