What aspects of Denmark could be adapted to the United States?

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/ ]

19 thoughts on “What aspects of Denmark could be adapted to the United States?

  1. According to Wikipedia, 89.6% of residents of Denmark are ethnic Danes. I realize it is politically incorrect to say so, but ethnic, linguistic and cultural homogeneity greatly increases social cohesion, which in turn increases happiness. Additionally, I don’t think it is far-fetched or bigoted to suggest that people are happier living in a place where they feel a sense of ancestral connection and common heritage.

  2. Patrick: If you’re right could we achieve more happiness by creating political divisions along ethnic lines? So the Brazilian community in Massachusetts would concentrate in one area (obviously they do this to some extent already) and then implement laws that that were to their liking. Currently our laws and regulations actively discourage this. We force communities to have a mix of incomes (or of housing affordable to different incomes anyway) and I think it would be illegal for a town or neighborhood to say “You can’t live here unless you are of Brazilian origin.”

  3. To make another politically incorrect point: are there any indications whatsoever that the Brazilian community in MA is likely to do anything other than reproduce the conditions in Brazil?

  4. A: If it makes them happier what is wrong with reproducing Brazilian conditions? America is supposed to be about the pursuit of happiness!

  5. I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or not. I don’t live in MA (or even the US), but I figured that you might be a little concerned about what happens when the problems of the recreated favelas spill over into Greenspunville.

  6. For examples of ethnically segregated communities you could look at some of the Orthodox Jewish communities such as Kiryas Joel (which receives significant public assistance in the form of food stamps) or some of the polygamous communities such as Centennial Park in AZ which purportedly receives millions in public assistance. Are these communities happier than more diverse US communities? I know I am not happy with the public assistance meted out to them. And then we could also look at some of the big Indian reservations and posit a guess that the level alcoholism does not indicate happy natives. But what do I know, maybe they are happier than the average Joe in the ‘burbs.

  7. I realize now that my comment isn’t really applicable to the US, so I suppose it’s a bit off-topic in that I was answering the question, “Why are Danes happy?” and not “What aspects of Denmark could be adapted to the United States?”

    Politicized ethnic neighborhoods are quite a different thing than feeling a sense of connection to and responsibility for the place one’s family has lived for generations. My hypothesis was that Denmark is happy, in part, because it doesn’t have Balkanized cities full of ethnic enclaves vying for political influence. Unfortunately that isn’t something that can be exported here for obvious reasons, so I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to the question you actually asked.

    Well, maybe, we could try to foster a sense of reverence for the country of one’s birth (or naturalization), and of the value of national unity. But when moral absolutes are considered a form of obscenity among many in high positions, that’s hard to do, because there is no center to gather to, or even to explain one’s distance from.

  8. NPR’s Planet Money did a story on Denmark’s economy back in 2010: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/01/podcast_the_awesomest_economy.html

    One of the things the article pointed out that struck me as being worth pursuing or at least interesting was the idea that companies were more likely to hire because they could easily fire/lay off people if they didn’t work out or if their business situation changed. Denmark supposedly has a combination of a) a large social safety net for the unemployed and b) almost no social stigma attached to job loss or being out of work/between jobs. Contrast this with France where they have the combination of large social safety net *plus* regulations making it difficult/impossible to lay people off, so hiring people represents a huge commitment employers can’t make very often.

    Based on your “99 weeks of XBox” posts I know you’re not a fan of extended unemployment benefits, but imagine being able to not bail out GM and Chrysler (and maybe not Wall Street either) because they couldn’t argue “people will lose their jobs and starve/not have health care”. (Of course, that assumes that the federal government bailed those companies out because we mainly cared about their workers, and not the executives and their bonuses…)

  9. Don’t know if it’s still the case or if I was just there during a particular economic blip when the dollar was very weak to the kroner.but when I was in Copenhagen in 2005 prices were insanely high. Three I recall; $10-15 for a basic sandwich, $100+ for a pair of what seemed to non-fashion conscious me generic Levi’s blue jeans, and what became my catch phrase for the place; “I can afford to spend $4 for a can of Coke in a 7/11; I *don’t want* to spend $4 for a can of Coke in a 7/11!”.

  10. I used to work with a Danish start-up acquired by an American company. I found Denmark pleasant but frustrating to work with Danes. They do good work but Danes are not in a rush to solve problems. While that may be okay in a slow moving precision field like process control or biotech/drug development, for semiconductors that go into the items featured in the Fry’s weekly ad, forget about it. The response when asked to work weekends was ‘that’s impossible, we only work 37 hours/week.’ When asked to keep a per-diem when on travel, they were outraged. On top of everything else, they got five weeks of vacation. I think they are the happiest people on earth because they are never at work. For my perspective, I don’t see anything we can import from Denmark and apply to the US.

  11. http://www.forbes.com/best-countries-for-business/list/
    may have some clues.

    What’s special about Denmark?

    Homogeneous bunch: It’s not a country, it’s a tribe.

    Trust: we do not spend a lot on lawyers and small print. There’s a high level of trust. You can’t cheat your tribe.

    Transparency and very little corruption: no bribing of the police or the politicians. Well, at least not as much as elsewhere

    Protestant work ethic: 37 hours/week, 5-6 weeks of vacation may not sound like a lot to Americans. But there isn’t as much goofing off and busy work in danish companies as in american companies. Lego is a fine example of old school protestant work ethic

    Free education: young people are actually *paid* to study: because dimwits will not be able to pay your generous state pension. Free education is a way to raise fewer dimwits and use the populations skills efficiently.

    Legoland: well, just go there.

    Legoland could be adapted to the US.

    All the rest is just dumb luck, a special culture and humane political decision. Nearly impossible to recreate.

    My guess, though, is that you’ll come back Keynesian and happier.

  12. Another Danish expat, Eolake Stobblehouse doesn’t see to miss Denmark either. Here are some of his posts about Denmark. The link to the article in the first post is from a not so reputable site, but is interesting in how it describes huge denial, passivity and lack of interest for the rest of the world in that country. http://eolake.blogspot.be/search?q=denmark

  13. I traveled to Denmark in 2011, and I was impressed with many facets of their culture. One thing in particular stood out to me: I was told by the Danes I talked with that they generally love their government. They believe their government works for them, is there to support them, and can be counted on to do what is write for them.

    As an American (even a liberal american!), I had never heard anyone talk about government this way. I don’t think this is something we can easily import to the US because of the differences in population and diversity, but it’s a symptom of how differently the countries are run.

  14. I am a half-Danish American with a unique take on the differences. The countries are so different that it’s somewhat absurd to compare policy, but one can safely say that the social welfare state (depleted as it may be) does mitigate against material suffering for vulnerable populations. Of course, it does, in some cases, stifle initiative and create a system of dependence not compatible with healthy and happy individuals. All this is illustrated in a memoir I recently translated (and currently translating on Kickstarter) titled “Dødens Pølse”, which examines life in Danish prisons.

Comments are closed.