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Why Denmark isn’t the utopian fantasy Bernie Sanders describes

Miss Denmark Mette Riis Sorensen visits a shopping mall in Tokyo on Oct. 23. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)
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There's one country that keeps popping up in the debate among the Democratic candidates for president. It's not China, or Russia, or Iran. It's a little country of 5.6 million people that — beyond a vague image of tall, blond, egalitarian people who like pickled fish and minimalist design — few Americans probably know much about.

Denmark, and to a lesser extent the other Nordic countries, are surfacing in the Democratic debates as examples of relatively equal societies that provide generous benefits for their citizens, including affordable education, health care for all, and subsidized child care. This is mostly due to Bernie Sanders, who likes to use Denmark to explain his vision of democratic socialism. "I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people," Sanders said in the first Democratic debate on Oct. 13. ("But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America," Hillary Clinton responded.)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton responds to opponent Bernie Sanders's suggestion that the United States can learn from countries like Denmark. (Video: CNN)

Sanders joins a long tradition of liberal politicians around the world who laud Denmark, Sweden and Norway (and sometimes Finland and Iceland, which aren't technically part of Scandinavia) for their equality and prosperity. These northern European countries enjoy a reputation for being peaceful, egalitarian, progressive, liberal and educated, and having excellent furniture and crime novels, too. For whatever reason, Scandinavia countries just seem to do it better — an idea that supporters and critics label "Nordic exceptionalism."

But how much truth is there in the popular idea of Nordic exceptionalism? Michael Booth, a British journalist, examines this question in detail in a recent book, "The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia." Booth, a U.K. native who has lived in Scandinavia for over a decade, plays the part of a cultural interpreter, examining, poking and prodding the reality of life in Nordic countries from every angle. Booth finds plenty to question in the rest of the world's assumptions about the Nordic miracle, but also lots that we can learn from them.

You say that many people around the world believe in Nordic exceptionalism without knowing very much at all about Nordic life. They can more easily picture the lives of some remote Amazonian tribe than the typical Swede or Dane. Why is it that the Nordic model has attracted so many fans, but relatively few visitors?

Denmark is a pretty good place to live but it is by no stretch of the imagination the utopia many in politics and the media in the U.S. claim it to be.

We all like to have a "happy place" — somewhere over the rainbow where we imagine life to be perfect - don’t we? For many, that place used to be the Mediterranean: we all dreamed of a stone house among the vines. After the economic crash, I think a lot of people started to look towards Scandinavia for what they believed to be a less rampantly capitalistic form of society.

The difference is, few actually actively seek to move to Scandinavia, for obvious reasons: the weather is appalling, the taxes are the highest in the world, the cost of living is similarly ridiculous, the languages are impenetrable, the food is (still) awful for the most part and, increasingly, these countries are making it very clear they would prefer foreigners to stay away.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that you find in how the rest of the world understands the Nordic countries?

Again, I think we've all been guilty of projecting some kind of utopian fantasy on them. The Nordic countries are, for example, depicted as paragons of political correctness, yet you still see racial stereotypes in the media here — the kind of thing which would be unthinkable in the U.S. Meanwhile, though it is true that these are the most gender-equal societies in the world, they also record the highest rates of violence towards women — only part of which can be explained by high levels of reporting of crime.

Denmark, meanwhile, promotes itself as a "green pioneer" and finger wags at the world about CO2 emissions, and yet it regularly beats the U.S. and virtually every other country on earth in terms of its per capita ecological footprint. For all their wind turbines, the Danes still burn a lot of coal and drive a lot of cars, their country is home to the world’s largest shipping company (Mærsk), and the region’s largest air hub.

Sweden is supposedly "neutral" (it’s not, and has not been for decades), yet since the days when it sold iron ore to Hitler, its economy has always benefited from its arms industry, which is one of the world’s largest.

The Norwegians have fallen prey to precisely the same kind of problems as other oil-rich states: their economy depends far too much on one industry (oil), they’ve taken their foot off the gas in terms of their work ethic, and now all young Norwegians want to do is be "something in the media" or open a cupcake place.

[The surprisingly fiery debate over whether Denmark is heaven on earth]

Politicians in the U.S. like Bernie Sanders praise Denmark for its relative income equality, its free universities, parental leave, subsidized childcare, and national health system. That all sounds pretty good, right?

It is fantastic in theory, except that, in Denmark, the quality of the free education and health care is substandard: They are way down on the PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] educational rankings, have the lowest life expectancy in the region, and the highest rates of death from cancer. And there is broad consensus that the economic model of a public sector and welfare state on this scale is unsustainable. The Danes’ dirty secret is that its public sector has been propped up by — now dwindling — oil revenues. In Norway’s case, of course, it’s no secret.

You describe the Danes as having a strong sense of work-life balance – specifically, being much more focused on life than work. What are the positives and negatives of that attitude?

Positives: Danes spend more time with their families. Negatives: Danes spend more times with their families. Plus, they have run up huge private debt levels, and no one answers the phone on a Friday afternoon.

Danes are also experiencing a rising debt level, and a lower proportion of people working. Are these worrying signs for its economy or the country’s model?

Yes, many economists have specifically warned of the Danes’ private debt levels. Perhaps more seriously, productivity has been somewhat stagnant and there is a dire skills shortage.

One thing that’s often glossed over among outsiders is the extraordinarily high tax level, which is high for the middle class as well as the wealthy. Do Danes think that they get their money’s worth in social services? Do you?

Denmark has the highest direct and indirect taxes in the world, and you don’t need to be a high earner to make it into the top tax bracket of 56% (to which you must add 25% value-added tax, the highest energy taxes in the world, car import duty of 180%, and so on). How the money is spent is kept deliberately opaque by the authorities. Danes do tend to feel that they get value for money, but we should not overlook the fact that the majority of Danes either work for, or receive benefits from, the welfare state.

Greater numbers of immigrants have been leading to rising xenophobia in some Nordic countries, as well as higher income inequality. Do you think these trends say anything about the strength of the Nordic model?

All of Europe is dealing with this issue, but of course smaller populations feel more threatened, and cynical right wing politicians (if you’ll forgive the tautology) take advantage of that fear. Also, there is no "Nordic model" when it comes to immigration and integration: there is the Swedish model (open door) and the Danish model (close the door and put up a "Go Away" sign), which the Norwegians and Finns are copying.

Denmark has won almost every happiness survey since 1973, but you describe them in the book as a “frosty, solemn bunch” who take a lot of anti-depressants. Do they really deserve to be consistently ranked as the world’s happiest country?

No, it’s a nonsense and, in fact, they have dropped from the top spot in recent surveys, mostly because they are not as rich as they once were. The sad take-away from that is, money does, in fact, make you happy. I don’t think they ever were the "happiest" people in the world, but you could argue they have been the most "satisfied." They are good at appreciating the small things in life and making the most of what they have — a legacy, I think, of experiencing the rough hand of geopolitics in the 18th and 19th centuries.

You emphasize, in the end, that there is a lot that we can learn from the Nordic countries. What is one of the best lessons?

At least aim for economic and gender equality. Everyone benefits, so it’s worth a shot, no?

Highlights from Bernie Sanders’s campaign, in pictures

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 14: Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders arrives at the Capital Hilton to meet with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday June 14, 2016. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Note: We've added links to the piece to clarify some of Booth's sources. 

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