I’ve been thinking about writing this post for awhile now, seeing as I am studying in a country with a lot of socialist policies and welfare programs. Before I went to Denmark, I certainly thought highly of their political system and programs, but after living there, I feel very strongly that their policies are excellent and make Denmark an amazing place to live. I am finally getting around to writing this as the elections are coming up, and some of these policies are being discussed in the race. (Note for the non-Americans reading this: our elections are fall 2016. Yes, it is already election season.)
‘Socialism,’ in America, is seen as a dirty word. We associate it with communism and whatever else, so to be called a ‘socialist’ has really become an insult. To this point, I will quote Bernie Sanders, who summarizes exactly how I feel about this issue:I have always believed that the countries in Scandinavia have not gotten the kind of honest recognition they deserve for the extraordinary achievements they have made…. In Denmark, all of their kids can go to college; not only do they go for free, they actually get stipends. Healthcare is, of course, a right for all people. They have a very strong childcare system, which to me is very important. Their retirement system is very strong. They are very active in trying to protect their environment…. It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. So why would I not defend that? Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.”
Bernie also points out a lot of the amazing things that Denmark has to offer. But, as a disclaimer, I should say before I go on that the effective income tax rate in Denmark averages somewhere around 50%. YES, it’s a lot of money, but let’s discuss some of the things you no longer have to pay for or deal with if you live in DK:
- Health care. COMPLETELY free. As far as I am aware, the only health care expenses that you have are prescriptions.
- Parental Leave. Did you know that the US is one of FOUR countries in the entire world that does not guarantee mothers paid maternity leave? I don’t think this puts us in the “best country in the world” category, but it does give us a competitive advantage for the “worst” category. In Denmark, parents are given an entire year of paid leave. I absolutely cannot understand how you can claim to care about ‘families’ and ‘family values,’ but then support policies that don’t allow parents to spend time with their children. It’s the definition of hypocrisy.
- Unemployment & Sick Leave. You can receive sick leave benefits for up to one year, and I believe unemployment benefits can be collected for up to two years (though that might have changed/be changing). We currently have no federal requirements for sick leave, and our unemployment benefits are shorter and a much lower percentage of our salary.
- Education. How much college debt do you have? How many hours a week did you have to work in college to support yourself? Now, imagine a world where you have zero debt, and you were paid monthly, just for studying. Imagine no more, my friends. Just move to Denmark. University study there is funded for up to 6 years (so Bachelors & Masters degrees), and PhDs are fully funded and you are actually paid like it’s a job. (So, no need to eat ramen for dinner every night.)
- Childcare. Childcare is heavily subsidized by the Danish government. A Danish woman who gave an interview to the Guardian said: “I don’t know anyone who is a stay-at-home mother, and none of my mother’s friends was either. Nearly all women go back to work after having children in Denmark.” Now read that sentence and replace ‘Denmark’ with ‘the US.’ Did you laugh out loud? Me, too. I certainly don’t think that mothers need to work if they don’t want to (or fathers, for that matter), but how many times have you heard of a family where one parents stays home because his or her salary doesn’t make up for the cost of childcare? One is one too many.
- Retirement. Denmark was recently rated the best pension system in the world. Meanwhile, we have politicians trying to eradicate ours (great article on this topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/opinion/republicans-against-retirement.html)
Just for fun, I did a little calculation to compare Denmark to America. In the US, if you hold a Bachelor’s degree, you will make (on average) $2.1 million in your lifetime. This is around $50,000 a year, assuming you work about 42 years (and you might work even longer), so I’ll assume a tax rate of 25%. That leaves you with about $1.6 million. Let’s factor in the other costs: health care ($316,000 on average), college degree ($120,000 assuming 4 years at Pitt), and childcare ($94,500 more than DK, assuming you pay the average $18,000/year for 7 years and that Denmark subsidizes only 75% of the cost). Now we’re down to a bit over $1 million. If we assume your tax rate in Denmark is 55% (around the upper end of the estimates I’ve been reading), you have $945,000, which is just about $100,000 less than my US estimate. Then, you think about the things I haven’t included: retirement, unemployment, sick leave, etc., and they probably come out more or less even. So… are higher taxes really that bad? I would absolutely argue that no, they’re not – as long as your money is going to services that you will benefit from.
(Side note: yes, I realize that you cannot directly compare Denmark and the US. For example, salaries in the US are higher (but not for low-income workers) and living expenses in Denmark are generally higher. However, this is a crude way of showing that their taxes are often going to services that we are paying for out of pocket.)
There are also a lot of benefits of this type of society, beyond the $$$. For example, paid vacation time – they actually get it. We, apparently, get the least paid vacation time in the world. Also, low crime! Turns out, the combination of less poverty and more education creates a pretty safe society. Shocking. The list is virtually endless, but for me, the takeaway from all of this has been that there are very few drawbacks to making sure citizens are taken care of throughout their lifetimes in all sorts of ways, regardless of their background or socio-economic status, and very many benefits.
So, for people who want to prioritize ‘Freedom’ and ‘small government,’ that’s their choice. But if our ‘Freedom’ means sending mothers back to work two weeks after they give birth, crippling college debt, health care is a privilege, and working without vacation or the promise of retirement benefits, I don’t want anything to do with it.