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The Nation

Bernie Sanders Does Small 'd' Democracy

Katrina vanden Heuvel and Greg Kaufmann

Last Monday, well over 300 Vermonters packed City Hall in downtown Burlington. It was standing room only with every seat on the floor and in the balcony occupied. The occasion was a town hall meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders, a forum he thoroughly enjoys and frequently hosts throughout the state because, as he said later, "it brings the government close to the people."

Ambassador Pekka Lintu of Finland was the guest speaker. Sanders invited him because he wants his constituents to know about a country that has quality universal healthcare, free childcare, free college education, employment benefits unimaginable to most American workers, virtually no childhood poverty, and one of the most competitive economies in the world. While Sanders anticipated a good turnout, the actual attendance exceeded his expectation. "It shows," he would later say, "that people are hungry to hear about alternative visions to the way we are doing things in this country."

Neither Lintu nor Sanders denied the differences between the US and Finland - in population, size, and diversity. "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," Sanders said. "Is there something that we can learn from [Finland's] model?"

Lintu is a striking presence - tall and debonair. (One woman in the audience joked that he was "Finland's best evidence of the quality of its healthcare system.") But while Sanders has a straightforward, fearless style that his constituents have grown accustomed to, Lintu has a dry sense of humor and is soft-spoken. So much so that as he began his remarks several audience members called out for him to speak louder. Lintu finally joked, "Finns are rather non-talkative people, rather known as shy people. We say that you can know the difference between an introverted Finn and an extroverted Finn. An introverted Finn, when he talks to you, he's looking at his own shoes. An extroverted Finn, when he's talking to you, he's looking at your shoes."

Lintu spoke openly of some of the challenges now facing his country - an aging population, a need for alternative energy, unemployment just under 6 percent, alcohol that is "still a mythic thing for young people." There was an economic crisis in the early 90's when unemployment rose from 4 percent to 17 percent in just two years. Lintu said that Finns by no means enjoy paying taxes - the total taxes per capita were 43.1 percent in 2007 - but they do enjoy what they get for their money. It allows for stability and confidence in planning a family, and for adjusting to the pressures of a global economy.

Lintu described Finland as both a welfare society and a competitive country. He believes that the strength of the welfare society stems in part from women getting the vote and the right to run for political office in 1906. "The decision to involve women in decision-making [early on] has a lot to do with it," he said. "Maternity and childcare, education, healthcare... many of these issues that are important 'family issues' I trace back to early involvement and ownership of women in politics."

Today, women in Finland hold 83 of 200 Parliament seats; 12 of 20 cabinet positions; and the presidency.

The keys to Finland's economic success, according to Lintu, are the safety net which help people adapt to the pressures of globalization and change; an education system recognized internationally as one of the best in the world; economic development that uses environmental sustainability as a framework; and good governance - ranked as the "#1 least corrupt government" by Transparency International, a global network that fights government corruption and advocates for reforms. Finland also ranks second in the world in percentage of GDP spent on Research and Development.

Lintu quickly turned the floor over for a Q&A and they fired away. (In fact, two hours later a number of hands would still be in the air when Senator Sanders called it a night. Lintu had spent the day meeting with college students and professors, business and community leaders, labor representatives and activists, and Sanders didn't want to wear out his guest.) Does universal healthcare mean long waiting lists and poor care? Do people fear immigrants inundating the country with different languages and values? How do you create a culture that sees taxes as a positive thing? Does Finland invest in teachers and give them room for creativity in the classroom? Does the government tax greenhouse emissions and how does that impact the economy? How much of the budget is devoted to defense spending? What is the gap between top-paid CEO's and workers? Is there a strong lobbying presence and are campaigns publicly funded? What is Finland's view on globalization?

Lintu said of the healthcare system that waiting lists were indeed a problem for non-urgent operations a few years ago. So the government allowed people to pay a premium for an earlier appointment - for non-emergency operations only and on the doctor's own time, not during regular hours of the free system. This has shortened the queues. Sanders noted that despite healthcare being almost free for everyone, it still "ends up costing about half as much per capita as our system." (Even with almost 50 million people uninsured, the US spends 14 percent of GDP on healthcare, Finland spends 7.5 percent.) As for quality of care - infant mortality is quite low, and the average lifespan is approximately 75 years for men and 82 years for women.

The economic gap between people isn't "enormous.... at least it's on the same planet," and Lintu sees this allocation of resources as important to the success of the welfare society. There are no caps on what people can earn but the very largest corporations pay CEO's 3 to 5 million US dollars. Sanders asked Lintu why CEO's aren't asking for outsized US-style salaries? Lintu said that companies are free to pay what they want to but the CEO's are sometimes criticized for their salaries.

Lintu tied the success of Finland's education system to the holistic approach raising kids. There is maternity leave for 3 months at full-pay, and 7 more months of either maternity or paternity leave at 70 percent of salary. Then a parent is permitted to take two more years - without pay, but with a guaranteed job to return to when the child is three years old. (Sanders contrasted this with the Herculean fight in Congress over the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides three months leave without pay.) For parents who work, states and municipalities are required to provide daycare with accredited staff for every child. When children turn six they are entitled to enroll in pre-school if desired, and compulsory "basic school" begins at age 7, through age 16. The graduation rates are astounding - 99.7 percent complete basic school; 87 percent complete "upper secondary" (ages 16-19); and 70 percent of upper secondary graduates go on to study at a university or polytechnic.

Lintu said it's true that the curriculum is more flexible than in the US, allowing teachers freedom to adapt to the needs of the class. But the nation is perhaps most proud - not of the high-rankings internationally - but that "the system produces a rather egalitarian result, with less than a 5 percent difference in the testing results between the best and worst schools."

And then there are the workers. Imagine, one of the most competitive economies in the world, 80 percent unionized, 30 days paid vacation, 10 national holidays. Sanders noted, "The American worker now works the longest hours of anyone in a major country... many of our families are stressed out and exhausted.... The benefits that workers receive [in Finland]... dwarf what workers in this country receive." As for immigration, the government doesn't view it as a threat, but as one of the possible solutions to the problem of an aging population and the need for skilled labor. There are now 1.7 employed workers to every welfare recipient. Given current population trends, the ratio would be 1:1 in 2030. What about paying for all of these services? "Well, I think it would be an exaggeration to say that Finns love taxes," Lintu joked. "But taxes are not a bad word.... I think that the success of the system... what you get, a family with two kids... free daycare, free preschool, primary school, high school and university. And then healthcare." Sanders added, "I think the issue is not so much what you pay - it's what you get for what you pay."

The Ambassador and the Senator spent a half-hour continuing to speak with Vermonters after the meeting had adjourned. When his last constituent had left, Sanders reflected on the importance of this gathering. "If you think about human history, the fact that a nation has been able to virtually abolish poverty, take care of its people, and be so competitive - it's amazing. People need to know about it. Agree or disagree, we should learn from it, debate it, and adopt these models where they make sense."

It was a good night in Burlington. A good night for small-d democracy. A good night to express the yearning citizens feel for a better way for America. A good night for looking beyond our own borders for vision, inspiration, and concrete examples of how things are working - and working well - in another nation.

Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995 and publisher since 2005. Greg Kaufmann is a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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