“If Americans Want to Live the American Dream, They Should Move to Denmark.” ~ Ryan Pinkard

Via on Jun 29, 2012

The American Dream is dead. Sorry.

For a nation of great principles and great achievements, America has never been a society of equals. I think the folks participating in Occupy would back me up. But this isn’t about the Occupy agenda. This is about a better society—a better place to live with better people in it.

Thanks to a great TED Talk by Richard Wilkinson, we can see pretty clearly why a nation like Denmark promises a much better place for everyone.

The message is: inequality harms society.

Wilkinson looked at the health of society by a number of angles. This included government reported rates in health, crime and social statistics. The idea is that a better society has healthier people, less crime, more trust, more social mobility, and so on.

What was found was that the single common correlation to all these values is one thing: equality among its citizens. When people are socially and fiscally equal, society as a whole flourishes.

It turns out what’s not important is a country’s average income. In prosperous and struggling nations alike, there is little to no relation between average wealth and the above rates.

While America has a high average income, it has an intense gap between rich and poor. The U.S. scores depressingly low in nearly every other measure for a healthy society. Some statistics, such as obesity and prison population, are not surprising. However, rates of mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality are also terribly high in America–much, much higher than any other first-world nation.

How could this be? Inequality.

Bigger income gaps lead to deterioration in social relations (homicide, social conflict, trust), health (drug use, obesity, mental illness, infant mortality, life expectancy) and human capital (math and literacy, high school dropouts, teenage births and social mobility).

Across the board, “the countries that do well are the ones that are equal,” Wilkinson says.

Hence Wilkinson’s choice of my beloved Denmark, where I lived for six months last year. Denmark didn’t score first place in any single category but they consistently performed well in from all angles. Denmark has the smallest gap between rich and poor in the world, and it’s no coincidence. The Danes can thank a highly taxed socialized democracy for this fiscal egalitarianism, but it goes deeper than that.

As a cultural consciousness, Danes feel a sense of camaraderie when it comes to taking care of each other and themselves as a whole. Few citizens can be considered Richard Branson rich, but almost no one is suffering or concerned about getting by. All Danes are guaranteed health care, social security and a free college education, not to mention ample vacation time and generous maternity (and paternity) leave. It’s no coincidence Denmark is repeatedly rated the happiest place on earth.

Though the word socialism scares a lot of Americans, Wilkinson optimistically points out that it isn’t the only way to get there. Like Scandinavia, Japan also boasts a high rate of equality, with the same societal outputs. However, Japan has a very low tax rate akin to the U.S. And it isn’t like Denmark doesn’t love capitalism too. The Danes love to shop and I’d call them some of the most fashionable people I know.

Food is expensive, transport is expensive, everything except good beer is expensive—but it’s all worth it.

For all their taxes, Danes get what the pay for. People are skinny and streets are clean. I for one dream of raising children in a place where there is an absolute safety net for health and crisis. A place where a college education, fair wage, and pension is guaranteed. A place where women have an equal position in politics and culture, and every individual feels valuable to society. A place where they rides their bikes everywhere!

Maybe you have a different view of the American Dream. But as a nation that fosters a quality of life, America has some work to do.

Don’t listen to me though. Watch the TED Talk here.

Ryan Pinkard misses Denmark. An editorial intern at Elephant, Ryan is a wanderlust backpack journalist in training, and a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Find his writing and his images from around the world at ryanpinkard.com. Follow his reviews and exploits on music at milkdrinkscat.tumblr.com.

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10 Responses to ““If Americans Want to Live the American Dream, They Should Move to Denmark.” ~ Ryan Pinkard”

  1. [...] This is about a better society—a better place to live with better people in it. [...] Source Page 1 of 11 [...]

  2. Sarah says:

    Ryan, I'm really loving your articles for EJ. They are wonderfully informative and serve to the fan flames of my passion to get out and see the world. Thank you!

  3. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Some good thinking points here.

    But a number of problems also come to mind.

    I've read that the US looks a lot better on birth rates when the same standards are used (For example, how long do you have to live before being considered a live birth?) The US tends to be rather too honest about not making up standards that make the country look good.

    US numbers are skewed downward by our diversity. I bet if we could get rid of all Americans except Nordics, our stats would look really good, too. Maybe even better than Denmark's.

    If you have an ethnically homogenous nation of people who are culturally inclined towards non-violence, social cohesion, industrial know-how, and high educational standards, then you have a fairly good chance of getting getting low crime, civility, industry, and high levels of education. Thus, as the writer points out, you get these things not only in Denmark but in Japan.

    The writer assumes that "a highly taxed socialized democracy" is responsible for the good things. Maybe it works in Denmark, at least for the time being. But does a lot of the success come from borrowing from the future? (Generally unavoidable if you want all those social programs, especially if you live in a society with diverse viewpoints.) Borrowing from the future, as southern Europe is showing us, has limits. America is much more diverse ethnically, culturally, and politically than either Denmark or Japan, and has much higher levels of immigration (whether legal or not). A facile "it works there so it will work here" is not at all certain.

    • Mark Ledbetter says:

      Clarification. Borrowing from the future rather than paying now is probably more necessary in a diverse society simply because diversity and willingness to be taxed are an unlikely combination.

      Also, just googled Danish debt. Denmark has a relatively low national debt (still high and growing, just lower than most cou ntries), which indicates they are more willing than most to pay themselves rather than burdening their kids and grandkids. The bigger problem is the related boom and bust in the housing market which may portend serious problems in the future. On that…
      http://blogs.wsj.com/brussels/2012/04/02/househol

      In any case, I have myself talked before, on other venues, on the good in Danish society. But here, I have to play devil's advocate a bit with the idea that govt spending (i.e., debt for future generations and boom-and-bust cycles now) is the answer.

    • muks says:

      Is borrowing money what you mean with borrowing from the future? In that case, in May 2012 the US debt was 102 % of the GDP, whereas in Denmark it was 47%. The money is not borrowed from the future, by the way, but from other countries, corporations and private persons. It is taken out of the economy right now. In the medium- and long-term there is no difference between raising state debt and raising taxes. Denmark is in northern Europe btw, you cannot argue using other countries with other economics and other debt rates ;)

      Anyway, you can make up your own statistics, counting people who are better off than the average Dane. I do not know if the US is more honest. When I was there, I found public information rather too positive and dishonest. That was my experience.

      • Mark Ledbetter says:

        Hi Muks. I'm glad you called me on the "honest" reporting of statistics by the US govt. Almost certainly, you are right and I am wrong. I was thinking about two things when I wrote that: the method for calculating infant mortality rates and the method for calculating traffic deaths (How soon do you have to die after birth/traffic accident to be considered a death from birth/traffic accident? For some countries it's a shorter period, making the medical and auto industries look better in those countries.)

        However, the US govt changed the method for calculating inflation a while back to make it look lower than it really is. Cooking the statistics is probably the norm, as you point out.

        On borrowing from the future, I meant borrowing from our kids and grandkids, the ones who have to pay off govt debt that serves us. The future has come for southern Europe. The future WILL come, one way or another, for all other countries that pay for programs with borrowed money.

        You have confirmed what I pointed out, that the Danes are better about paying directly for govt spending. Thus, their debt is "only" 47% so they may be able to hold off the day of accounting a little bit longer. On the other hand, Pax Americana may be able to use its world wide military/economic domination to keep the American debt running smoothly into the future, hiding from Americans the true costs and delaying the day of reckoning. Unfortunately, delay will only make the shock bigger when it finally comes.

  4. Jenifer says:

    I love Denmark, too. We have been there twice — and it is probably my favorite place on earth. But, they wouldn't let us in long-term. Not yet anyway. So we came to New Zealand, which is pretty amazing. Not perfect — no place is — but it's great here, honestly. A nice lifestyle.

  5. [...] To the best of my recollection, there was no racism, classism or sexism inherent in my mother’s judgements. We lived in a pretty cookie-cutter environment, so there really wasn’t an opportunity to discriminate on the basis of these external factors. No, we were all middle to lower-middle class working, caucasians just plugging along at the ol’ American dream. [...]

  6. [...] "If Americans Want to Live the American Dream They Should Move to Denmark." ~ Ryan Pinkard… Koko koko Euro spoko Rispondi Citando [...]

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