Take It from a Dane - Why Bernie Sanders Is Right to Push to Make America More Like Denmark

Bernie Sanders has expressed nothing but praise for the Scandinavian countries. During the first Democratic debate he stated: “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” In an interview with ABC News in 2015, Sanders steadfastly stated he wanted the United States to look more like Scandinavia.

So what exactly is Denmark doing right? As a Danish citizen, I can give an insight into why Bernie Sanders thinks the small Kingdom of Denmark is so great.

The typical reaction when I tell an American I’m from Denmark is a nod and a blank expression. Some Americans I have encountered have heard of Copenhagen, Danish design or associate Denmark with a Danish pastry. So let’s start with some facts. Denmark is a small country of 5.6 million people. The capital is Copenhagen and neighboring countries are Germany, Sweden and Norway. We speak Danish, not Dutch, which is the language of the Netherlands (Holland).  

I asked my American coworkers what they thought of Danish people. “Everybody is tall, blond and beautiful,” was one answer. “Everybody gets along,” was another. Someone else brought up that we’re the happiest people on earth, but none of them knew much about Denmark before I started working there. And why would they? Denmark does not exactly make for dramatic headlines in the news on a regular basis. But one American who does know a lot about Denmark is Bernie Sanders.    
Many American citizens probably think Bernie Sanders proposes radical policies that seem unrealistic to carry out, but in Denmark Sanders’ visions are old news. None of his "radical, socialist" thinking would shock any Danish citizen. When talking about the benefits of the Danish model, Sanders often mentions:

  • Universal healthcare. Every citizen has a right to healthcare, which is free of charge and of a high quality.
  • Free education. College and graduate schools in Denmark are tuition-free. College students literally get paid to go to school; every college student who doesn’t live with their parents receives a monthly government stipend, which equates to $750.
  • Paid maternity leave. Mothers have a right to four weeks paid leave before giving birth and 46 weeks after giving birth. In addition, fathers have the right to two weeks paid leave. Combined, that’s one year of paid leave.
  • Five weeks paid vacation. Every worker in Denmark is entitled to five weeks paid vacation each year.  

So what is the downside to this Danish model you might ask? Taxes. We do pay very high taxes in Denmark. According to the Danish Ministry of Taxation, the average tax percentage of personal income in 2014 was 40.1%. Upper-income citizens will pay a higher tax rate, which will be around 50-60% of the income exceeding an annual limit of $70.000.

I’m aware that from an American perspective paying upward of 60% in taxes seems pretty outrageous, but this is only true for a small portion of Danish society. In the U.S. upper-income Americans pay between 33-39.6% in tax. The majority of Danish citizens feel their taxes are the necessary price to pay in order to receive all of the benefits.

But where does the tax money go in America? I was shocked, when I read that 53.71% of discretionary spending in the American federal budget in 2014 went to the military. In sharp contrast Denmark only spends 2% of the budget on the military. In dollars this means Americans spend the absurd amount of nearly $600 billion on military arms, planes, ships, bases, etc. That’s more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, United Kingdom and India spend combined! So it’s no wonder to me that Americans generally are hesitant about paying taxes, because the majority of the money doesn’t benefit the society as a whole, but goes directly to the military.  

In America, a homeless person would probably say yes to an offer of housing and free meals. A pregnant woman would probably say yes to paid maternity leave. A college student would probably say yes to a less expensive (or even free) education. But a lot of these Americans would probably say no to paying higher taxes. I think this attitude could potentially change if more than half of the federal budget wasn’t devoted to the military, and they had the experience of seeing what tax money spent providing for their security and general welfare could to make their lives better.

A Night Out

Recently I experienced a very visible difference between Denmark and the U.S. My Danish roommates and I were out dining one night in downtown Los Angeles. We were at a lovely restaurant in the Financial District, with tall impressive buildings surrounding us. Even though I’m from Copenhagen, I’m not used to skyscrapers. After the meal we took Uber to our next stop for the evening, a comedy show at a warehouse. While we were driving there, we looked out and talked about how thrilling the area was, in awe of the bright lights, fancy people and remarkable buildings. But in a short time, it seemed like we had been transported to a completely opposite world. The lights were dim. The buildings were not impressive, but decrepit. One of my roommates said, “Look at all the tents! What are they doing there?” I said, “Homeless people.” 

We were driving through Skid Row. It is a peculiar sight. Tents lined up on both sides of the road, homeless people wandering around, piles of clothing and other belongings on the street, trash piling up. Everybody in the car was silent. When we reached our destination and got out of the car, one of my roommates said, “I’ve never seen so many homeless people in one place before! In Denmark I literally only see one or two, if I ever see any.”

It was hard for any of us to comprehend that such a drastic change of environments takes place within minutes of driving. It really is a symbol of the extreme inequality in U.S. society. You do see homeless people in Denmark: A homeless man sleeping on a bench at the train station; a couple sleeping with blankets on the street in the inner city. But you will not be able to find an equivalent to Skid Row anywhere in Denmark.

I was actually a little scared when I saw Skid Row for the first time, and the first thing that popped into my head was, “Why is the city not doing anything to help these people?” The Skid Row area provides an antipole to the awe-inspiring, wealthy area of downtown L.A. I don’t find it very charming that the downtown area for some people is luxurious and for others completely deplorable. I like the fact that Denmark doesn’t have that kind of inequality; that everybody provides, through taxes, for a system that also works for the benefit of the people placed at the bottom of society. If I had the choice, I wouldn’t want lower taxes, if that meant the resources for homeless people were cut off. And I think a lot of people in Denmark feel the same way.    

Stress-Free Student Life

I personally highly benefit from the Danish model. As a college student in Denmark, I’m studying for my Master’s in Journalism, without paying any tuition whatsoever. On top of that I receive the monthly $750 government stipend for living expenses. I do pay a lot in taxes, but the fact that I don’t have to worry about medical or college bills pays itself back in value of life many times over.

I’ve studied at a college in California, and when talking to my fellow American students, I realized how fortunate I am. I don’t have to work a part-time job (or in some cases even two) to pay for my college education. Many Danish students do have part-time jobs besides studying, but that extra income goes to shopping, a night out, savings, etc. It seems that being a student in Denmark is a very stress-free experience in comparison to U.S. student life.

Besides tuition-free education, I’m grateful for free healthcare. During sickness the last thing you need is to worry about medical bills. I think this aspect is really important. Focusing on your health and getting better needs your energy, thoughts and attention way more than to worry about how you’ll be able to pay for the expensive nights at the hospital.  

Navigating in America

Even though Denmark is associated with "socialism," we're actually not very social. Friendly public interaction is not a thing in Denmark, at least not in Copenhagen. I don’t talk to strangers on the bus. I never strike up a casual conversation with someone in the supermarket. In Denmark, I can mind my own business, get my groceries, pay for them, and literally have talked to nobody, except uttering the word “hi” at the cashier.

In a U.S. supermarket that scenario is almost impossible. Very often I talk to other people while finding my groceries, and at the register I will always get asked about my day. I really appreciate this kind of interaction, and I think Danes in many aspects have a lot to learn from America.

Who Wants to Be a Socialist?

It seems that nobody likes the word socialism (or welfare state for that matter). There are many negative connotations attached to the word. At the first Democratic debate, the host Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders: “You call yourself a democratic socialist; how can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”

Sanders answered: “Well, we’re going to win. Because first we’re going to explain what democratic socialism is.”

What Bernie Sanders means when he talks about democratic socialism, is a society where the resources benefit the whole society; from high-income to middle- and low-income families. And to be fair, a lot of people don’t like the word capitalism either! If I’m a socialist, because I don’t support the idea that all the wealth should go to the top 1% of society, then so be it. I would much rather live in a society where the resources are distributed so the majority of citizens benefit from it, and not the other way around.  

Of course, no country or model is perfect. I’m not trying to paint a perfect picture of any model. There are several negative aspects of the Danish society; some citizens suffer from xenophobia (the irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries); some people take advantage of the system; there is an insanely high tax on cars—just to name a few.

In the first Democratic debate Hillary Clinton said: “I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.” That’s very true. It is a difficult task to even compare the two countries that are so different in size and population. It’s hard to even find Denmark on a world map. But that doesn’t mean the two countries can’t serve as inspiration for one another.

Bernie Sanders seems to have a very good understanding of the Danish model. In a Huffington Post blog from 2013, he wrote: “They have gone a long way to ending the enormous anxieties that come 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." Sanders makes a brilliant point here. Having a safety net and all the benefits that come with the Danish model makes for a more carefree and stress-free living. Which probably are some of the factors placing Denmark in third place in the 2015 World Happiness Report. The U.S. ranked number 15 on the list in 2015.

American vs. Danish Mindset

I don’t think Bernie Sanders has an unrealistic or too optimistic view of Denmark. He emphasizes democratic policies that actually do exist and work for the Danish citizens. The question is, if that same system would work for America. One of the reasons the Danish model works for us is that the citizens have a high level of trust in our elected officials. We believe the government is working for us, and not against us. We trust that our taxes are used for the common good. In my perspective, Americans don’t trust the government to the same extent.

The American and Danish mindsets are completely different. Americans are individualistic, seeking success and prosperity for themselves in a competitive society where everybody wants to climb the social ladder. Danes have a more collectivist mindset, where a good welfare state that ensures equality is very important. To make the system work, the Danish people have to accept that a large amount of their personal income will go to improving the society as a whole. Not necessarily something that benefits only you. I think that aspect in many cases goes against the American mindset.

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the defense budget makes up 53.71% of the federal government's discretionary spending, not its overall expenditures. 

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