Burlington might be one of the few places in the United States where a crowd would cram an auditorium on a sunny spring Saturday to listen to a lecture on the Danish social welfare system.
The 200-plus audience members gathered in city hall auditorium got what they came for. In a 90-minute session sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Denmark's U.S. ambassador, Peter Taksoe-Jensen (pictured), laid out a lengthy list of benefits his country provides all its citizens.
He said Danes receive free health care; free education from pre-school through university; $40,000 annual pensions after age 65, "with no need to have any attachment to the labor market"; a full year of maternity benefits, including payment of the woman's full salary for the first six months after her baby is born; and guaranteed day care through age 5, with parents paying a maximum of 25 percent of its cost. The list also includes a $17-an-hour minimum wage (compared to the U.S. standard of $7.25) and two years of payments to unemployed Danes of 90 percent of the wages they had been earning.
Taksoe-Jensen also described Denmark's progressive energy policy, which aims to phase out all fossil fuels by 2050. Already, he said, renewable sources cover 40 percent of the country's energy consumption. In the U.S., it's 13 percent.
The ambassador pointed out that Danes rank as the happiest people in the world, according to a United Nations survey. And the Vermonters listening to his litany might in turn have qualified as the most envious people in the world.
Al Salzman of Fairfield prefaced a question to Taksoe-Jensen by quoting a remark by deceased comedian George Carlin: "If you want to live the American Dream, move to Denmark."
Taksoe-Jensen did caution, however, that all those tasty Danish treats "don't come without a price." In addition to being the happiest people on Earth, Danes are also the most heavily taxed. On average, they hand over 40 percent of their earnings to the taxman, with those in the top bracket paying a 63 percent rate, he noted. Danes also get charged a 25 percent sales tax on almost every transaction. And gasoline costs $8 a gallon in Denmark, the envoy said.
"It's very difficult to be filthy rich in Denmark," Taksoe-Jensen said, "and it's impossible to be poor."
But the country is no pacifists' paradise. The ambassador noted that Danish troops have been fighting alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan for the past 11 years. A total of 43 Danish soldiers have lost their lives there. And Denmark is "very proud" of its military assistance in the overthrow of Libya's dictatorship, Taksoe-Jensen added.
Local opponents of the F-35 fighter plane who attended the talk may have been expecting less hawkish comments. One man stood in the rear of Contois auditorium holding a sign in Danish that, translated, read: "We Don't Want the F-35, Either." A few of the questions put to the ambassador focused on the controversial proposal to base up to two dozen of the jets at Burlington International Airport. Loud applause greeted an audience member's comment that the plane should not operate in a residential area in Vermont.
Sanders, who introduced Taksoe-Jensen and offered his own observations throughout the session, sought to limit discussion of the F-35, which he favors bringing to BTV. Sanders told the audience that while he recognized "there are differences of opinion on the F-35," the event was intended to focus on Denmark's welfare state. That prompted one questioner to note, "This is a sensitive issue for Bernie."
Taksoe-Jensen declined to take sides in the debate on stationing the plane in South Burlington. Denmark's government will decide by 2015 whether to move ahead with a planned purchase of four dozen F-35s or choose an alternative for replacing its fleet of F-16s, the ambassador said.
Judging from the questions asked of Taksoe-Jensen, the mostly older audience was strongly supportive of Denmark's social initiatives. Two weeks ago, however, the New York Times ran a front-page report on a debate among Danes as to whether "their beloved welfare state, perhaps Europe’s most generous, had become too rich, undermining the country’s work ethic."
The Times story cited the much-discussed case in Denmark of a 36-year-old single mother, referred to as "Carina" in the Danish media, who receives about $2700 a month in welfare payments — more than the earnings of many of the country's full-time workers. Carina has been on welfare since she was 16.
"Officials have also begun to question the large number of people who are receiving lifetime disability checks," the Times added. About 240,000 people — roughly 9 percent of the potential work force — have lifetime disability status; about 33,500 of them are under 40."
The left-wing coalition that governs the country has begun making cuts in some social programs. Early-retirement plans are being curbed, while the current two-year period for collecting unemployment benefits is half of what it used to be, the story said. Reductions are also being considered in the $990-a-month stipends that undergraduates receive while completing their five-year degree programs, the Times reported.