The Danish Mirror

Writing has not come easy over the past six months.

Some more hardened penmen thrive, and even seek out, their deepest fears and anxieties, channeling it into power, into their words. If there is one thing I’ve learned about myself in the 2.5 years since starting this blog, it is that fear doesn’t drive my creative process.

Thus, this world aflame has left me hopping and skipping away, avoiding the smoldering earth at all costs, to the detriment of the one creative outlet that grounds me to it. While other wordsmiths bask in the inferno, burn brighter, and deliver, I’ve found the unusual, chaotic times we live in have driven me to a state of fearful paralysis, a feeling I just haven’t been able to shake, nor harness toward production.

Fear. Aside from hope, fear is perhaps the most consequential and driving force that generates societal change. Indeed, the change we have seen in this country over the past two years can largely be attributed to this propagated, exploited sentiment: that it is important to be fearful. Fearful of your fellow man, of an evolving society, of an advancing world.

When you can’t access your hopes, all you have to live by are your fears.

Fear is not productive. It certainly hasn’t been for me. From atop my privileged, comfortable perch, the fear that can be best attributed to my writer’s block is this: a crushing sense of powerlessness to what is happening in this country (and across the world, for that matter, with Brazil being the latest). A fear that nothing can be done in the the fiery face of insurmountable power.

But we all have power, no matter how small. And a world aflame in fear does not merit abandonment of what moves our own power. For me, it’s the power of hope, and of words.

So let’s get back to it.


 

Will it ever get better?

Back in August, Trish Regan of Fox News shot her shot at the societal and economic constructs of Denmark, and received a scathing response from a Danish journalist. In the wake of spirited leftward momentum in the US, Regan sought to undermine the notion that we might learn a thing or two from the Danes.

Six months ago I set out to write about what I learned during my trip to Denmark, and ended up with this verbose, 1,800 word rant about our President and the current administration. 

It has taken a while to circle back and rediscover the original rabbit I set out to chase.

No more needs to be said about the walking, talking, tweeting insult to democracy, decency, morality, and patriotism, whom we elected to our highest office. Instead, dear reader, let’s walk a different path and answer two important questions:

How does it get better, and where do we look for direction? 

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First, some context.

Back in February, my parents and I ventured to a sleepy, 750 year-old market town on the northwestern coast of Denmark called Lemvig. With a population of just over 6,000, a bustling metropolis, Lemvig is not. But it IS home to a professional basketball club, and on the roster, was a very special and talented player.

Over the course of a week, we got a chance to see Lisa, my sister, my favorite pro athlete, do her thing on the court, on the sidelines as a youth coach, and in her day-to-day life navigating the cold north.

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Lisa (on the right)

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With the mini-Danishes.

Leading the team in scoring, coaching several levels of the Lemvig youth program, living and working in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, Lisa is a tour-de-force. Pride doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling.

Lisa isn’t one to brag about her accomplishments, so her and Denmark were a match made in heaven.

“Bragging is a big no-no in Denmark. Talking about your achievements or how good you are is strange.”

Much more than just a colloquial disposition, this attitude is all but codified in Danish society. It is called the Law of Jante – a Nordic mentality that diminishes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while simultaneously denigrating those who try to stand out as individual achievers.

(Would our braggadocios President have made it in a place like this?? Oops, so much for not bringing him up…)

This served as a springboard for an unfolding narrative. Let’s take a deeper dive and explore some of the specific elements of Danish society that Trish Regan barely touched on or skipped altogether in her tirade.


A Healthier Society

During her time in Denmark, Lisa was blessed not to have any bouts of major sickness nor injury. Her American teammate, Deanna, had no such luck. While there she had a severe knee injury, and had to have an MRI. Since she and her teammates had resident status, they were able to take advantage of the Danish healthcare system, which guarantees healthcare to all citizens as a basic human right.

Deanna’s cost for her MRI? A whopping zero dollars. The average cost of an MRI in the states costs $2,600.

Providing healthcare to all citizens is not uniquely Danish – the country is one of many in the developed world to provide healthcare to all as a basic human right. The Danes also enjoy more robust sick leave and vacation policies, subsidized childcare, and 52 weeks of paid family leave.

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Barack Obama seems to be well regarded in Denmark. Above, he is stylized in streetwear alongside Albert Einstein and the Dalai Llama at a boutique art gallery in Aarhus, a city about two hours from Lemvig.

Obamacare was the first step that the US took toward universal healthcare. Since dialed back of much of it’s key provisions, we now must look forward at our next iteration of a more equitable healthcare system. Knowing that we likely won’t make any progress on this front in the next few years (hindsight is 2020!), we have a bit of a runway to learn from Obamacare’s pitfalls, and the GOP’s sputtering repeal.

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Most in other developed countries would agree that universally guaranteed healthcare is the morally sound choice, that the health and wellbeing of an individual should not be tied to their capacity to produce societal value in that given moment. Opponents of medicare for all will cite costs as the primary barrier to shaking things up, but this argument doesn’t really hold up.

Don’t take it from me, check out the unlikely report funded by the Koch brothers, GOP mega-donors, that found universal healthcare would save the US trillions.

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So, there is both a moral and economic argument to be made.

From conversations I’ve had, many Americans don’t understand the true cost/benefit of a universal healthcare system.

Total costs are lower under single-payer systems, like Denmark’s, for several reasons. For example, administrative costs average only about 2 percent of total expenses under a single-payer program like Medicare, less than one-sixth the corresponding percentage for many private insurers. Single-payer systems also spend virtually nothing on competitive advertising, which can account for more than 15 percent of total expenses for private insurers.

The most important source of cost savings under a single-payer system is that large government entities are able to negotiate much more favorable terms with service providers and big pharma.

Life saving, essential drugs and medical services often cost at least three times more in the US than in other developed countries. For example, the average cost of coronary bypass surgery is more than $73,000 in the US, but less than $23,000 in France.

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Under a universal healthcare system, while your taxes might go up, you won’t have to pay insurance premiums anymore. You won’t have to pay deductibles. You won’t have to pay copays. You won’t have to pay the emergency room costs for people who had easily-preventable conditions. There won’t be some middleman trying to make a profit between your payment to the hospital. Instead your tax dollars will go directly to the hospital.

The expanded risk pool will lower overall costs for everyone. No longer will some 800,000 people annually go bankrupt from healthcare costs. No longer will 45,000 men, women, and children die, each and every year, due to lack of access to health insurance.

The Hard Reality: In this country, workers work among the longest, most extreme, and most irregular hours; and have no guarantee to paid sick days, paid vacation, or paid family leave; and pay significantly more for health insurance, life saving drugs and medical services, yet are sicker and more stressed out than workers in other advanced economies.

Is it time for the US to join Denmark and the rest of the developed world by treating healthcare as a basic human right, implementing a more cost-efficient single payer healthcare system?


 

A More Educated Populace

“School’s free. Education’s free. That’s lovely. But you see, not only is school free, they actually pay you. Not bad, eh? Well you know what happens then? No one graduates, they just stay in school!”

Regan’s world class journalistic analysis of Denmark’s education system is delivered with more than a hint of scoff. Moreover, she’s just plain wrong.

According to the World Economic Forum, Denmark ranks sixth in the world in most educated countries (so, people actually graduating from university), sitting two places higher than the US, and they rank 5 spots higher than us on the list of the best countries to do business.

This is just the tip of the Iceberg. Regan’s viewers might take her word, without consuming any actual factual data, and move on with their lives. But one only need to peek under the hood to understand that her thesis, that the US has a more equitable, prosperous, productive education system than Denmark, is empirically false.

The lynchpin of a society’s level of education equity is how well it enables access to higher learning. An educational resources website, Student Loan Report, compared the cost of college in 25 countries around the world to show where the U.S. stands in terms of price. The outlook isn’t great: In only one country analyzed, the United Kingdom, is the average annual tuition even comparable to the U.S.

According to the College Board, the average cost of one year at a public university for an in-state student is $20,090. That increases to $34,220 if you hail from out of state. And in order to afford a college diploma, many American students rely on loans. Today, over 44 million Americans hold a total of $1.4 trillion in student debt.

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The US’s private institution of higher education has always been a thing, but with deregulation of student loans and the broad application of the GI bill, tuition became a gold mine for schools. Coupled with rising interest rates, skyrocketing textbook costs, middle class blue collar jobs in the mines, mills, and factories now offshored to China and Mexico, a college degree has never been more expensive nor essential than it is at this very moment.

These days, the best and brightest of our youth are treated as profit centers. As Lisa notes, this impending financial burden often steers US high school graduates toward high-income careers, as opposed to those they feel most passionate about.

“Due to the government taking care of it’s citizens, the Danes also choose careers they are genuinely interested in and don’t necessarily take income into account. I found there was less of a focus on financial earnings/status, and there is less pressure than there is in the States on success and therefore the need to succeed is self-driven rather than socially embedded”

What a novel idea.

And the pitfall’s of the US’s education system hardly starts at the college level. You would be hard pressed to find evidence that we have kept pace with the world in educating our youth. After years of growth in the back half of the 20th century, we have fallen behind most other developing countries in arguably our most important shared goal as a country: readying our youth for a rapidly changing global landscape.

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The Hard Reality: Schools in the United States are closing left and right, they are overcrowded and under-resourced, school spending has stagnated despite an improved economy, teachers are woefully underpaid and face high attrition rates. Students are falling behind in the world in cornerstone academic disciplines. Violence and drug abuse in school, and the school-to-prison pipeline are abundantly prevalent, especially in underfunded, underserved areas. College tuition is more inaccessible, costly, and critical than ever, and millions of students are entering the workforce anchored with massive, high interest debt.

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Is it time to revisit our education system to provide more opportunity for our nation’s youth, in the vein of Denmark?


A Stronger Democracy

 “There’s something rotten in Denmark”

This, perhaps, is the underlying theme of Trish Regan’s tirade against our Danish friends. That Denmark is bad, and all these things that might look good are actually bad.

Regan’s tirade is just a microcosm in a much larger, more sophisticated effort by the conservative political apparatus to dissuade any discussion around socialist reform.

(Did you feel a bit of cringe or discomfort when reading that word?)

Socialism. Politicians and pundits, from both sides of the aisle, for generations, have effectively anchored the word to the dock of fear, on the island of impossible. Healthcare, education, opportunity for all. It’s just too expensive. Americans don’t want these things. Sean Hannity told me as much. Just look at the horrifying agenda of budding progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Hannity shared on his show:

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That some will look at this slate and get angry, or fearful, is a testament to the wildly effective propaganda that Fox News has pushed for decades.

If we take this as truth, that these policies are indicative of a big, bad, overreaching, corrupt government, then Denmark’s democracy should be the one set afire right now, right?

In fact, by turning off our TV’s and applying some practical research, we find that is not the case.

Not only do the Danes largely approve of their government, they participate in their civic duties at rates far higher than ours. At our best, we can hope to have around 53% voter participation in a presidential election (the rate is far lower for local elections). Across the board, Denmark sees an average turnout of 85%, good for top five in democratic countries across the world.

Denmark is consistently rated among the top five strongest democracies in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. In 2016, for the first time, the US was rated as a “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy, which measures the state of democracy by rating electoral processes and pluralism, the state of civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture in more than 160 countries worldwide.

Why are voters so engaged in Denmark, and so disaffected in the US? Lisa has some insight:

“Denmark has a multi party system but I never felt there to be a lot of animosity or strife between parties. With the high degree of income equality it seemed like a country where people truly are ‘in it together'”

A government that delivers, and is responsive, to the needs of their constituents, and doesn’t get consumed by hyper-partisan rhetoric, will always inspire greater levels of participation.

One of the more stark and visual examples of this responsiveness is Denmark’s action on combatting climate change.

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Driving across the snowy Danish countryside, it is hard to miss the towering, ubiquitous wind turbines dotting the landscape.

In response to popular demand, Denmark has made conversion to a clean energy grid a central priority. Wind energy makes up a staggering 42% of Denmark’s total energy consumption, and the Danes have ambitions to reach 85% clean energy production by 2035.

Doing. It. Right.

Indeed, a cornerstone of a strong democracy, and promoting civic participation, is the ability of a government to deliver for the needs of ALL citizens.

Beyond responsiveness to important, widely supported initiatives, like combatting changing climate, a key economic indicator of a strong democracy is, as Lisa suggested, wealth equality. It is no secret that the US has seen a massive shift in wealth over the past 30 years. But many American’s don’t quite grasp the actual scale of this shift, and how things stand today.

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Damning statistics follow damning statistics when analyzing the US’s wealth distribution.

The net worth of U.S. households and non-profit organizations was $94.7 trillion in the first quarter of 2017, a record level both in nominal terms and purchasing power parity. Divided equally among 124 million U.S. households, this would be $760,000 per family. However, the bottom 50% of families, representing 62 million households, average $11,000 in net worth.

Right now, the wealthiest 1% of US citizens possess 40% of the nation’s wealth, and the bottom 80% own 7%. The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%, and that gap increases another 1,000% for the top 1%.

Wages have stagnated for the middle class, as has their ability to invest in the marketplace. Since the early 1970s, despite an economy that has maintained steady productivity, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2% per year.

Productivity_and_Real_Median_Family_Income_Growth_in_the_United_States

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We are the richest, most productive nation in the history of the world. So why do we have 43 million men, women, and children living in poverty? Why are 1.5 million children living in homelessness? Why are our future, our youth, burdened with $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loan debt? Why do 40,000 people die every year because they don’t have access to healthcare? Why have the rich gotten richer, and the middle class shrunk astronomically?

To use Regan’s words, there is something rotten in this country.

Over the last 50 years, we have seen unprecedented, unchecked corruption at the highest levels of our society. The marriage of big business and politics is, perhaps, at the root of the plights that have been discussed in this post.

You won’t hear this from Regan and Fox News (or CNN, or MSNBC, for that matter), but dark money in politics has influenced your life far more than the stories you typically hear every news cycle. In this country, big business and special interests, because of Citizens United, using Super-PAC’s as a vehicle, can contribute unfettered capital to the campaigns of politicians, often under the guise of anonymity, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Why have companies, special interests, and wealthy individuals, poured so much money into political campaigns, if not to expect some kind of return?

Pick your initiative. Universal healthcare, education for all, climate change mobilization, criminal justice reform, curbing military spending, equitable wealth distribution. These solutions are not profitable for, respectively, big pharmaceutical companies and medical insurance providers, big banks who underwrite student loans, big oil companies, the private prison apparatus, military industrial complex, and billionaires.

So, these entities invest their capital in the most profitable way: by bankrolling politicians who will carry out their agenda, ensuring maintained profits and wealth, at the expense of hundreds of millions of people. Massive tax breaks for the wealthy. Skyrocketing healthcare costs. Huge interest rates on student loans. Government subsidies for large corporations. Trillions spent on endless war. An ever widening gap in wealth inequality. These things don’t exist by coincidence. They exist because the vast majority of our elected officials have reached their perch by relying on special interests to fund their campaigns, thereby codifying their investors’ preferred agenda into law, and going back to them for more money when it’s time for re-election. Rinse and repeat.

 

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Outside, “dark money” spending has increased dramatically since the passage of Citizens United.

To quote America’s favorite grandpa, Bernie Sanders:

“The System is Rigged”

If you’re looking for further learning, this 2017 Allianz Report and the 2017 Corruption Perception Index might be of interest. The former found that the US ranks dead last in terms of wealth distribution, while the latter ranks the US behind most developed countries in its ability to curb corruption.

For those keeping score at home, Denmark ranks 2nd in wealth distribution, and 1st overall in mitigating corruption.

The Hard Reality: The US is the richest, most prosperous, most productive country in the history of the world, but the working class, those contributing most to this output, have seen a dramatic decline in relative wage growth and social safety nets.  The middle class is shrinking, underpaid, overworked, and without enough consistent income to access basic necessities like education and healthcare. Ever-consolidating multinational corporations have grown tremendously, as has shareholder pressure to increase profits. As such, markets are humming, and top floor executive pay has skyrocketed, yet labor has been cut, jobs have been offshored (and so have profits, in tax havens) or replaced by automation, and the resulting wealth has flown to the superrich, who use legalized bribery to bankroll our politicians and ensure our evolving systems benefit them over the common man. Our freedom is an illusion.

Do we need to take action on the corrupt, incestuous relationship between big business and politics to create a stronger democracy that works for all, in the vein of Denmark’s?


 

So, how does it get better?

Trish Regan is just a simple cog in the system. A talking head. A mouthpiece molded by the powers that be. But her influence, and that of Fox News, is far-reaching.

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Fox News is owned by News Corp, one of the six media conglomerates that control the vast majority of information we consume. Much like the concentration of wealth at the top, this concentration of information has been steady since the 1980’s, when 50 companies maintained the same degree of influence that the six titans do today.

I cannot fault Regan for doing her job. The narrative she pushes flows downward, from News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, to the hundreds of news outlets he oversees across his $50 billion+ media empire across the world.

Even if you haven’t clicked on any of the links in this post, please, watch this video, it is a terrifying example of the concerted messaging propagated across our airways, coming from the very top.

Media plays a powerful role in our ability to download and take action on the key issues that prevent our advancement as a society. This industry, too, has seen unprecedented concentration of power and wealth, to the detriment of our collective understanding of our true plights.

Regan’s biased, fact-less, angry tirade against Denmark is just a microcosm of this.

(And, to be clear, liberal-slated media outlets like CNN are also guilty of drum beating, pandering, misleading, clickbaiting, and altogether avoidance of the true issues.)

In 2018, the media isn’t journalism. It is public relations for the government and corporations. Journalism is printing something that someone doesn’t want to be printed.

One thing that Regan and I will agree on is that the US can never be Denmark. With a mostly homogenous population of around 6 million people, Denmark is about the size of Maryland.

That said, what can we learn from our more successful European counterparts, who sit atop the happiness index?

You can glean from this post that my position is abundantly clear.

There was a time when we instituted a New Deal in this country which established many of the beloved, crucial, widely supported (socialist!) institutions like the minimum wage and social security. I think it is time for a *New* New Deal that creates a government that works for ALL citizens, not just those at the very top. We need to provide accessible healthcare and education. We need to tackle key issues like climate change and automation. We need to get big money out of politics.

What do you think? Knowing the key, material issues that face our society, how would you go about practically bringing change?

Will your vote on November 6th reflect this need for change?

Channel your fears and hopes into action next Tuesday. Don’t rely on mass media to tell you what to do. Do your research, make a decision that will help the most people. This country needs you.

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