Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Danish ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen addresses a gathering Sunday at Montpelier High School. The ambassador has been on a speaking tour of Vermont with Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.
MONTEPLIER — Sen. Bernard Sanders has been introducing Denmark’s U.S. Ambassador Peter Teksoe-Jensen around the state for the past few days at a series of town hall meetings designed to provoke a reset in thinking about the words “welfare state.”
Sure, says Sanders, the Danes pay the highest income taxes in the world, but they are also recognized as some of the happiest people on the globe. Sunday the senator and his guest challenged the packed audience at Montpelier High School to think beyond our national boundaries, and examine how one country has achieved the “good life” for the vast majority of its residents.
“One of the things that we don’t talk about as a nation is the degree to which our people are stressed out,” said Sanders. “The debate needs to take place. What kind of society do we want to live in.”
If you listen to the ambassador extoll the virtues of the Danish social welfare state, it sounds almost Utopian. “No one is allowed to be poor,” said the ambassador,adding that one would actually have to struggle to avoid the safety net built into the Danish system.
“There are two sides of the coin,” he said. “What is the cost of having a welfare state? We are the country in the world that has the highest taxes. We have an income tax of 40 percent but if you are wealthy it is 63 percent. We have a value added tax of 25 percent. We pay $8 at the pump for gas.”
So what does that tax system buy the average Dane? According to Teksoe-Jensen, what they get for the tax dollar is a system in which no one goes hungry and there is free health care from cradle to grave. The country pays for assistance so elderly people can remain in their homes. There is no cost for education from kindergarten through university. Mothers can take a year off on paid maternity leave. Everyone enjoys five weeks vacation.
“When I go back to Washington tomorrow, the debate is do we do what the House wants and cut $20 billion in food assistance, or do we do what the Senate wants and cuts $4 billion in assistance,” Sanders said, adding that instead we should be looking for ways to end hunger once and for all.
Sanders is the one of the nation’s strongest advocates for progressive values. And the independent senator’s office fields calls from around the nation. “I have lots of respect for the people answering those phones. They are hearing ‘I’ve lost my home.’ ‘I can’t feed my kids.’ ‘My mother can’t keep warm and she can’t get heating assistance.’”
Those kinds of calls don’t happen in Denmark, he said. And the health system in Denmark is a marvel.
Danes have absolutely free care. “Do you know the anxiety that people feel when they are sick?” asked Sanders.
“We lose 45,000 people every year who don’t get to the doctor when they should. What would it mean if the cost of health care was off your shoulders?” But despite universal access to free care, Sanders says the actual cost of health care for Denmark is lower than that in the U.S. despite the benefits.
“Denmark spends 9.5 percent of their gross domestic product on health care. We pay 17 or 18 percent,” Sanders said.
And, he added, the health care in Denmark is as good as we get here. Teksoe-Jensen admitted that he had “no concept” of the notion of pre-existing conditions.
But while the Danish system seems generous beyond belief, Teksoe-Jensen said that Denmark was having to take a close look at trying to make sure that it had a working population that could pay the taxes so that the next generation could continue to enjoy the same generous benefits.
When asked about pay scales for teachers in his nation, the ambassador said he didn’t know the exact amount of money but that it was a middle income job. He added that there had recently been a month-long nationwide teachers’ strike.
Sanders put in a plug for a progressive and simplified tax system after an audience member asked about a 6 percent flat income tax. “The more you make the more you pay,” he said. “On the other hand what we have is an enormously complicated system. It is not complicated by accident but because powerful special interests can get language put in the tax code.”
But if the Danish ambassador cast a spell over the assembled that will probably result in more than a view dreams of Copenhagen, the reality is that Denmark first set out on its system of social welfare back in the 18th century, when it instituted payments to the poor. There are 5.5 million residents in the country, compared to the U.S. population of 315 million. And it is governed as a constitutional monarchy, with a prime minister and parliament. Election seasons last all of three weeks. And any super-wealthy Dane with an eye towards achieving political power through the purchase of television ads wouldn’t be taken seriously, according to Teksoe-Jensen.
“It just wouldn’t work,” said the ambassador.
As one audience member pointed out, “Our country started in the 17th century with everybody wearing guns.”
Not surprisingly, the conversation eventually turned to a discussion of whether or not Denmark was a socialist welfare state. Teksoe-Jensen was firm in his assertion that Denmark was a capitalist economy, but with a different set of values. “I am not arguing against capitalism,” he said. “We consider ourselves capitalist, but we’ve added a social dimension to our capitalist system.”MORE IN Vermont NewsBURLINGTON — Vermont has a new chief federal prosecutor. Lawyer Eric Miller was sworn in as U.S. Full Story
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