I’m headed to Denmark soon. The country often features in “happiest place on earth” books and Americans sometimes get interested in what this country, whose population is about the same as the greater Boston area, can teach us (see this April 20, 2013 nytimes article for example and this posting be Senator Bernie Sanders). One thing that might be hard to apply is that people are simply happier in smaller countries, an argument made in A Pattern Language where, a maximum country population of 10 million is suggested (otherwise the leaders become too remote from the people and it is impossible for an average citizen to have any influence on the government; consider the situation of someone in Hawaii or California who wants to talk to the bureaucrats in charge, a 6- or 11-hour airline journey away). In theory we could try to capture some of the Danish magic by turning federal power over to the 50 states, but in practice the federal government has been taking programs and power away from the states for 100+ years.
Another challenge is income. The Danes measure out as having a more enjoyable lifestyle but that lifestyle produces only $37,700 in GDP per capita (CIA Factbook). Running U.S. local, state, and federal government costs about $21,000 per year per American (CIA Factbook GDP times 42 percent). So if we had a Danish level of economic productivity and our American system of government spending on health care, military, nation-building, etc. the required tax rates would be about 58% (i.e., workers would be permitted to choose how to spend 42% of their earnings).
Senator Sanders implies that it would be easy to import ideas from Denmark. If we make health care universal and free our spending will suddenly drop from 18 percent of GDP to 11 percent. But what if our spending is high because Americans are not competent at delivering health care? If we organize 75 of Americans into trade unions, everyone will make more money implies Sanders. But he doesn’t address the fact that American managers are historically too oriented toward the short term and/or too foolish not to bankrupt unionized companies with pension commitments (see this posting about General Motors). Maybe unions result in sustainable business in Denmark because Danish managers are smarter than American managers and/or because a Danish manager cannot make $100 million/year on the basis of some short-term results.
With a realistic view towards our own limitations and what we have managed to accomplish as a country thus far, what ideas for political and social organization could we import from Denmark?
[Update: coincidentally, yesterday’s New York Times carries an article on the subject of whether the U.S. can be like the Nordic countries: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/29/why-cant-america-be-sweden/ ]