WashPost Editor Sees Finland's Welfare State as an “Inspiration”

An article from today's MRC CyberAlert: The former number two editor of the Washington Post, Robert Kaiser, yearns for the U.S. to follow the cradle-to-grave welfare state system enacted in Finland. In a Sunday Outlook section piece, “In Finland's Footsteps: If We're So Rich and Smart, Why Aren't We More Like Them?,” Kaiser contended that “for a patriotic American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we Americans are so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as well as the Finns do?” The former Post Managing Editor, who is now an Associate Editor, listed the free services Finns get: “They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little.... Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.” Kaiser conceded that Finland has some downsides, such as high taxes, but still maintained the nation “can be an inspiration.”The rest of the CyberAlert item follows, but first links to a couple of other Monday CyberAlert articles:Roberts' Work for Gay Rights Portrayed as Illustrating “Nuance”A Few Times Peter Jennings Acknowledged Media Bias The rest of the CyberAlert article about fawning over Finland: Kaiser and a photographer traveled to Finland for a series of stories run in the paper in June and July. An excerpt from his August 7 piece in the Sunday opinion section, which carried the jump page headline: “The Best Little Country in Europe”:Life in Finland, one of the world's best functioning welfare states and least known success stories, can be complicated. Consider the dilemma confronting parents looking for day care for a 4-year-old daughter in Kuhmo, a town of 10,000 near the middle of the country.Should they put their child into the town nursery school, where she could spend her weekdays from 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. with about 40 other children, cared for by a 47-year-old principal with 20 years' experience, Mirsa Pussinen, as well as four teachers with master's degrees in preschool education, two teacher's aides and one cook? The girl would hear books read aloud every day, play games with numbers and the alphabet, learn some English, dig in the indoor sandbox or run around outside, sing and perform music, dress up for theatrical games, paint pictures, eat a hot lunch, take a nap if she wanted one, learn to play and work with others.Or should that 4-year-old spend her days in home care? Most parents in Kuhmo choose this option, and put their children into the care of women such as Anneli Vaisanen, who has three or four kids in her home for the day. The 49-year-old Vaisanen doesn't have a master's, but she has received extensive training, has provided day care for two decades and has two grown children of her own. The kids in her charge do most of the things those at the center do, but with less order and organization. They also bake bread and make cakes.How to decide? There's no financial difference; both forms of day care cost the parents nothing. There's no difference in the schooling that will follow day care -- all the kids in Kuhmo (and throughout Finland) will have essentially identical opportunities in Finnish schools, Europe's best. There is no "elite" choice, no working-class choice; everyone is treated equally.It's a dilemma that American parents don't have a chance to confront. And it's a vivid example of the difference between what the Finns call a social democracyand our society. Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a successful, competitive society should provide basic social services to all its citizens at affordable prices or at no cost at all. This isn't controversial in Finland; it is taken for granted. For a patriotic American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we Americans are so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as well as the Finns do?Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and consume a lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense, though they still have universal male conscription, and it is popular. Their per capita national income is about 30 percent lower than ours. Private consumption of goods and services represents about 52 percent of Finland's economy, and 71 percent of the United States'. Finns pay considerably higher taxes -- nearly half their national income is taken in taxes, while Americans pay about 30 percent on average to federal, state and local governments.Should we be learning from Finland?The question occurred to me repeatedly as I traveled around Finland this summer. Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively removed many of the tangible sources of anxiety that beset our society.But the United States could not simply turn itself into another Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish circumstances. Finland is as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents -- fewer than metropolitan Washington. It is ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare....One fundamental Finnish value sounds a lot like an American principle -- "to provide equal opportunities in life for everyone," as Pekka Himanen, a 31-year-old intellectual wunderkind in Helsinki, put it. Himanen, a product of Finnish schools who got his PhD in philosophy at 21, argues that Finland now does this much better than the United States, where he lived for several years while associated with the University of California in Berkeley.In Finland, Himanen said, opportunity does not depend on "an accident of birth." All Finns have an equal shot at life, liberty and happiness. Yes, this is supposed to be an American thing, but many well-traveled younger Finns, who all seem to speak English, have a Finnish take on American realities. Miapetra Kumpula, a 32-year-old member of Parliament, volunteered this on the American dream: "Sure, anyone can get rich -- but most won't."...The Finnish educational system is the key to the country's successes and that, too, is a manifestation of egalitarianism. Surprisingly, it is a new system, created over the last generation by a collective act of will. The individual most responsible for it was Erkki Aho, director general of the National Board of Education from 1972 to 1992. Aho, now 68, was "a little bit of a radical," he told me with a smile -- a Finnish Social Democrat who believed in trying to make his country more fair. The early '70s were a radical time in Finland. Change was in the air....I found Finnish society beguiling on many levels, but in the end concluded that it could not serve as a blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. The Finns are special and so are we. Ours is a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those attributes.Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be fine with most Finns; conformity is the norm, risk-taking is avoided -- a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.Sirpa Jalkanen, a distinguished microbiologist and biotech entrepreneur affiliated with Turku University in that ancient Finnish port city, told me she was discouraged by "this new generation we have now who love entertainment, the easy life." She said she wished the government would require every university student to pay a "significant but affordable" part of the cost of their education, "just so they'd appreciate it." Today every Finnish student is assured free tuition and a monthly stipend to live on that they can receive for 55 months, the length of the six-year courses most still take.But if Finland can't be a blueprint for us, it can be an inspiration. Education struck me as the area where Americans could most profit by learning from Finland. Nothing achieved by Aho's reforms would be beyond the reach of American schools if we really wanted them to become good.And I think we could learn from Finns' confidence that they can shape their own fate. Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much of the country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more educated, more agile and adaptive, more green, more fair and more competitive in a fast-changing global economy. Manuel Castells, the renowned Spanish sociologist who teaches at the University of Southern California and has been writing about Finland for nearly a decade, argues that Finland's ability to remake itself followed from its success in creating a welfare state that made Finns feel secure. "If you provide security and it is felt, then you can make reforms," he said in an interview. Of course you have to agree on what reforms are needed.The complicated Finnish language includes the word talkoot, which means, roughly, "doing work together." It's a powerful Finnish tradition, and reflects a national sense that "we're all in the same boat," as numerous Finns said to me. This idea has always appealed to Americans, but in this country it has nearly always been an abstraction. Finns seem to make it real. END of Excerpt For the piece in full: The Post noted: “Robert Kaiser, associate editor of The Post, recently returned from a three-week trip to Finland with Post photographer Lucian Perkins. Their earlier reports and photos can be found online at: http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/finlanddiary.”

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center