Why did I ask the Ambassador from Finland, Pekka Lintu, to come to Vermont to talk a little bit about his country? The answer is pretty simple. We as a state and nation should do our very best to learn as much as possible about the best kind of economic and social models that exist throughout the world and, where these models make sense, we should see how we can adopt them to this state and this country. This is especially true today when the United States faces so many difficult problems.
It is no secret to anyone in Vermont that the American economy today is in pretty serious trouble: that the middle class is shrinking, poverty is increasing and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. It is also true that despite all the rhetoric about “family values,” the American worker now works the longest hours of anyone in a major country, and that many of our families are stressed out and exhausted.
It is no secret that our health care system is disintegrating, that 47 million Americans have no health insurance and, despite that, we spend twice as much per capita on health care as any other nation – 14 percent of our GDP.
It is no secret that the way we treat our children is nothing less than shameful; that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world; that our childcare system is totally inadequate; that too many of our kids drop out of school, and that the cost of college is increasingly unaffordable. And, in my view, one of the results of how we neglect many of our children is that we end up with more people behind bars, in jail, than any other country on earth. There is a correlation between the highest rate of childhood poverty and the highest rate of incarceration.
In talking about the United States and Finland, we should be very clear that these are two very, very different countries. Finland has a population of 5.2 million people. We are over 300 million. Finland has a very homogenous population. We are extremely diverse. Almost all of us have come from somewhere else in the not too distant past. Finland is the size of Montana. We stretch 3,000 miles from coast to coast, plus Alaska and Hawaii.
And yet, as we acknowledge the difference we should also acknowledge that we are all human beings with very much the same DNA, the same kind of intelligence and the same human needs.
In that context, we should ask how does it happen that in Finland they have virtually abolished childhood poverty, have free high-quality child care, free college and graduate school education and have, according to international reports, the best primary and secondary educational system in the world? Is there something that we can learn from that model?
In Finland, a high-quality national health care program exists which provides almost free health care for all – and ends up costing about half as much per capita as our system. In Finland, when students become doctors and nurses they leave school debt free – because there are no costs in going to school. Is there something that we can learn from that model?
In Finland, in the midst of having one of the most competitive economies in the world, 80 percent of workers there belong to unions and the benefits that workers receive there, such as unemployment compensation, dwarf what workers in this country receive. One statistic that I found particularly interesting is that in Finland workers receive 30 days paid vacation, plus ten national holidays.
Let us be clear. Finland is no utopia and it has its share of problems. Not so many years ago, in fact, Finland had a very severe economic downturn and its economy today is not immune to what happens in the rest of the world.
Having said that, there is no question that Finland, as well as other Scandinavian countries, have much to be proud of. When one thinks about the long march of human history, it is no small thing that countries now exist, like Finland, which operate under egalitarian principles, which have virtually abolished poverty, which provide almost-free, quality health care to all their people, and provide free, high-quality education from child care to graduate school. These are models, it seems to me, that we can learn from.