Fighting for 
the welfare state


How the Danes successfully fought to get 6 weeks of yearly vacation..... and why they are glad to pay twice as much in taxes as Americans knowing that it gives them much more money for their frequent round-the-world vacations - while average Americans are so busy paying off (medical and education) bills that they can rarely afford to go abroad during the few days they get off work!
 

Yearly paid vacation time in Denmark

 

May 6, 1998
(written as an email to friends in the USA)



Dear American friends

Last week my son’s 16 year old girlfriend, Anna, - who is sometimes working in New York as a photo model - came back to her high school class in Denmark several days late. The reason: there were no airplanes bound for Denmark!

However, when she told Americans the reason why she couldn’t go home, none of them/you seemed to have the slightest comprehension of what she was talking about. And, indeed, the same lack of understanding seems to affect the American news coverage of our present national self-made "chaos" here in Denmark - not least on CNN - if you have even heard of our efforts at creating "organized chaos" at all!

What is happening in Denmark right now is truly a ground breaking grass roots revolution, but on the surface I will certainly admit that it looks more like total chaos.

For what else would you call a country to which you can’t fly in to, - in which you can’t drive because there is no gas, - in which you can’t buy hardly any food in the stores any more because nobody delivers food and many factories are closed, - in which mail is not picked up for lack of gas, - in which thousands of chicken are dying for lack of food, - in which pigs are eating each other in the farms - either for lack of food or space - since nobody drives them to the slaughterhouses, - in which pharmacies are running out of medicine even for life threatened patients, - in which vegetables and flowers worth millions of dollars are rotting in the greenhouses for lack of gas and transport........?

If this brings up associations a la the worst scenario Communist countries in the past I can’t blame you. Certainly it wouldn’t occur to you that we are actually talking about Europe’s healthiest capitalist economy right now - or indeed - alongside the American and the Norwegian - probably the strongest in the world - since we all know that the Asians are not doing well at present.

One measure of the strength is the fact that Denmark is the biggest foreign aid provider in the world: each Dane now gives 15 times as much as each American in aid to the poorest countries and to rain forest protection.

How can the population support all this foreign aid when they can hardly buy anything in their own stores at home, I know Americans will ask? Since I am one of the few who have the privilege to live on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore am forced to think about our mutual differences I will try to explain what I see happening over here right now:

The huge amount of foreign aid abroad and the "chaos" here at home is very much part of the same thing: namely that we are once again trying to expand the limits of what can be accomplished in the social welfare state - while keeping it healthy and competitive.

I have for many years now been teaching in America about the European concept of the welfare state and the generally ill-informed American students (at least when it comes to conditions outside their own country) usually find it all a great idea when having it described. But when the question comes to "How do you go about making a welfare state?" they always express a tremendous sense of powerlessness when I tell them "You fight for it, you strike for it, you vote for it, of course!" - since this seems obvious to me and most Europeans.

I always come away with a feeling of how different we really are: the Americans with their tremendous feeling of power in terms of what the individual can accomplish on a selfish scale - and the Europeans with their similar sense of power as to what can be accomplished in unison for the benefit of all.

The immense fortunes of Bill Gates are very much an indicator of the "American way of living", while the fact that the Danes have the highest per capita ownership of computers in the world shows the "European way of living." (Note: not that the Danes are richer than Americans, just that the poor over here can also afford computers because they are not kept in poverty!)

The present chaos in our country really shows to what degree people over here are willing to fight for the expansion of the welfare state.

This time our nationwide general shutdown of society is about getting a 6 weeks paid vacation plan.

The employers will only give 5 weeks vacation with full pay (as we and most Europeans have it now), but are willing to give one extra week unpaid. But the Danish employees won't settle.

They don't think 5 weeks is enough for their round-the-world vacations (since one week is usually used for their Christmas vacation and another week for their skiing vacation).

So now they want 4 weeks for their summer vacation alone (since - as they rightly claim - it takes at least one week to get off the jet lag when going around the world to Thailand/Vietnam, Australia or Latin America - so that "lost week" doesn't count as real "quality vacation"!!!)

And if they don't get a full salary during their 6th week, how can they survive out in these bloody expensive Third World countries?

The employees all over Denmark unexpectedly voted no to the proposed agreement which their National Labor Union had negotiated for months with the Danish Employers Association and therefore the strike to every one’s surprise went into effect over night.

So nobody had stocked up any foods and there was a mad rush on all the stores. It looked completely like the famous pictures from the depression in China.

My son Daniel had forgotten to call me in Norway to tell me about the strike. Otherwise I could have filled up my car with foods in Norway.

My wife Vibeke meanwhile got stuck in Senegal and couldn’t get home..... but at least in Africa she could find most essential things in the stores!

Had my son’s girlfriend waited a few days longer she couldn’t even have flown home from New York via Sweden since Swedish airline workers struck SAS in support of the Danish workers.

When I got back to Denmark the shelves were already empty: ecological milk and yeast disappeared first, then ordinary foods and finally utensils, toilet paper and the like.

As a result I had to drive to one store to find two onions left, 4 oranges in another store, 4 pounds of potatoes in a third store - but of course no dairy products. It felt like shopping in the former Communist countries.

The first days many people were not very solidary and started hoarding. There were even cases of theft from other people’s shopping carts and gas tanks. But gradually people are realizing: we are in this struggle together, so let’s show solidarity and sacrifice together.

Stores are still open since their employees are not part of the National Labor Union, but belong to a different union. But what does that help when all transportation workers are striking so that no food is produced or transported, vegetables are rotting in the greenhouses etc.

(Only hospitals are exempted by the workers - I guess because they themselves get sick).

My daughter Lalou was worried that we were all going to starve, but I told her that all we had to do was to go on our bicycles to the countryside to buy milk directly from the farmers who otherwise will have to throw it out. For the gas stations have already long been empty for gas after the first mad days with up to 5 mile long lines - resembling the gas crises in 1973.

Kindergartens have long ago closed "for sanitary reasons" since there is nobody to clean them. Parents take turns to care for each others’ children or bring them to work.

One thing American workers could learn from all this is: if they really united like the Danish (or most other European) workers, they could in the same fashion obtain a full blown cradle-to-grave welfare state with 5 weeks paid vacations and all medical care and education, child care etc. for free. All it takes is a full blown nationwide strike every fifteen years to get the employers to give in.

Once people have lived in and enjoyed the fruits and the security of the welfare state, they will never give it up (just as Americans today will never give up the little welfare state they have: social security and unemployment compensation - although the latter is very short term by European standards).

Over here you get 70-90 % of your ordinary salary for years if you have no job or have just finished education and not yet found a job in your field, not to mention 3 years of pregnancy leaves for either parent with full pay (with the other spouse getting 2 weeks off) and one year long sabbaticals at 80% of regular salary.

The one year sabbaticals became law on a temporary basis in the 1980’s when unemployment was very high in order through job rotation to bring more people into the labor market.

People loved it and took off for year long round the world trips financed by their 80% regular salary. And now when we have almost full employment again people are not about to give up their new rights, so no government now dares to roll back the law about paid one year sabbaticals.

I am myself constantly discovering new aspects of the welfare state - such as a couple of months ago when my son turned 18 and automatically started receiving a monthly check from the government of 230$. Why? Because he is in his second year of high school and anybody going to any form of school is being paid a salary.

To stay competitive a healthy capitalist economy must constantly educate and re-train its workers, so young and old are being encouraged to go to school by being paid a salary. My son asked us if he shouldn’t move away from home since he would then get more than twice that amount of money for going to high school - or the same as university students.

His present 230$, by the way, replaces a similar amount which all parents automatically receive in child benefits for each child under 18 living at home. The idea is, of course, to encourage people to have more children since the biggest threat to the welfare state is a slow population growth with a shrinking tax base and too many old people to care for.

The term "børnefamilierne" (families with children) has the same sacred sound to it in Danish politics as, say, holy cows in India - or the army in America. Everything is done to support such families - not least single parents - through e.g. rent subsidies of up to 100% (according to income) in order to avoid "ghettoization" or the "feminization of poverty" - as you know it all too well in America.

This is one reason Washington Post could publicize a choking report concluding that while 23% of American children grow up in poverty, the similar figure in Europe’s welfare states is only 5%.

Children are deeply handicapped by poverty and end up with tremendous rates of learning disabilities and crime rates. So a country which chooses to loose one fourth of its children on the floor will later have to invest enormous sums in policing and incarcerating their anger - money the people in the welfare states instead can go on vacation for!

However, if anything can make people support the welfare state it is to see what is being done for the old. Trained home care people come around to every old person’s home up to several times a day to help them in and out of bed, to clean, shop, bank and cook for them (or to bring them hot meals).

The idea is to help them stay in their own homes as long as they can. Only when they are too feeble do they go to nursing homes.

Traveling in America for so many years has really opened my eyes to how Americans spend the latter part of their lives worrying about old age and illness. Even the thought of spending money on traveling makes them feel guilty about stealing into funds which should be saved for old age.

And if you have seen the neglect old people suffer in American nursing homes (a neglect which they even have to pay for and are often robbed of their entire savings to pay for) you would turn into an advocate of the welfare state over night seeing the quality care they get in Danish nursing homes. Just like people in prison they can here furnish their apartments or rooms entirely as their former homes with all their own belongings.

Speaking of prisoners: Americans so hung up on punishing their wrong doers (and public executions a la the middle ages in Europe or today’s China) would probably open their eyes wide when learning how some welfare states such as Sweden are making experiments sending young criminals on long vacations to the Caribbean in an effort to rehabilitate them.

Emphasis on rehabilitation is essential in the welfare state penal policies. My black American friend, Harb, was sentenced to life in Danish prison for murder ("life" is over here defined as 16 years - usually with release after 8 years).

But already after 4 years Harb was given a four room modern apartment outside prison to live in with his girlfriend - fully furnished with brand new furniture, TV etc. picked by himself in the local IKEA.

Having grown up in the worst slums of Washington DC this deserter from the US army in Germany - turned gangster, heroin smuggler and the most cold-blooded gangland killer - had never in his life lived in such affluent surroundings before (comparable to the urban American middle class) with everything paid for by the Danish tax-payers. While he still had to telephone the prison daily, he started studying cultural sociology at the University of Copenhagen.

Upon his release - after which he had to leave Denmark - I joked to him that he would never achieve such a high standard of living again. That proved true, for although he became manager of a McDonalds in DC, he ended up living in the local ghetto. But via the break through in self-confidence he had experienced in a welfare state, he never again turned to crime. Yet he missed the security of the welfare state and was therefore after a few years allowed to transfer to McDonalds in France.

His successful rehabilitation proves to me the intelligence of the welfare state - just how much money is actually saved by investing in human beings. For we all know how John - had he lived in America - would most likely have spent the rest of his life in and out of prison - at a tremendous cost for the tax payers.

One dollar spent as early investment in human beings equals 5-6 dollars saved years later.

"Prevention is cheaper than cure" is the logic of the welfare state and supported by countless cost/benefit analyses - and certainly supported by the Danish tax payers .......who can then take the saved money to go on vacation for. (For of course they are just as selfish as American tax payers are......just perhaps a bit less wasteful - or a bit more penny-wise!!!)

And that brings us back to where we started: our present fighting/striking/voting for longer vacations. Polls right now show that 78% of the Danes want longer vacations, only 13% want more in salary.

If a similar poll was taken in America I wouldn’t be surprised if the figures would be just the other way around. For when people in a society do not have basic human rights taken care of - such as equal access to free health care, education, nursing, child care, unemployment security etc. - they will forever feel they need more money to pay for all the bills they run up for similar services. (Just as they waste precious time and mental energy constantly shopping around to get cheaper deals.)

Especially since these bills will usually be much higher than those the Europeans pay via their taxes. Cure generally is more costly than prevention - not to speak of all the unnecessary bureaucrats (such as health insurance agents) you employ in America just to sit around and make decisions on your health - decisions which in every other country in the world would be called "undemocratic". For no Free Universal Health Care system would ever be so cruel as to decide that you can’t get all the health care you need because you are too fat, have smoked too much, have AIDS, is a bartender - and many similar reasons given in America today to deny people access to health care.

American media often counter that this will lead to waiting lists - amazing when you consider the American waiting lists of 35% Americans who go completely without health insurance. We certainly also do have a lot of internal criticism of what it really is - namely not enough welfare state!!! - and all the parties in the last election promised to end them. Unlike the American health care mess caused by profit oriented private ownership and control over this basic human right, our shortages are at least under democratic control. It is all a matter of the popular will to pay more taxes - which means less or cheaper vacations - or taking the money from some other departments. In other words: something we can vote on.

Yes, Europeans pay twice as much in taxes as Americans, but they don’t pay twice as much for the same services provided!!!! This is why they have so much money to spend on their long vacations around the globe. In most of the popular, exotic countries such as Nepal, India, Vietnam, Africa etc. I today meet far more Danes than Americans - even though there are 50 times more Americans on the planet.

What is far worse, I feel, is that the Americans who do travel are mostly the better-off and better-educated. The Europeans who go far away tend very much to be from the working classes. The better-off Europeans can better afford the high cost of traveling in Europe and are often more interested in its cultural and historic values, museums etc. while the working class tend to prefer the beaches, mountain trekking, sex, or cheapness of Thailand, Nepal, Bolivia or Africa. One of my friends, who is unemployed, go to Thailand 3-4 times a year.

The saddest development I have seen in America during recent years is that as fewer and fewer Americans can afford to take long vacations abroad, they loose more and more interest in the world around them.

I see it especially in the students - while on the other hand the student years for Europeans, Israelis, Japanese and Australians are associated with a lot of backpack traveling.

Twenty years ago I saw mostly US travelers in Latin America. Now the region is almost entirely run over by Europeans.

Some wealthy Americans do go on cruise ships, but my wife, who worked on one, saw how the majority of them would never even venture ashore in Africa - while she herself would hitchhike or take taxies into the interior on every occasion she had.

There is no doubt in my mind that the reason Danish taxpayers constantly have voted for an increase in our aid to developing countries - so that we are now giving more than any other country in the world - is a direct result of the fact that we are among the most traveling people in the world to Third World countries. Traveling stimulates interest in and solidarity feelings towards foreign people. And the more you have had a taste for the good life, the more you want of it.

The opposite argument - how utterly arrogant and distasteful it is to insist on your right to waste the world's energy recourses in order to fly all over the globe to trample down sensitive native populations and rain forests - I will not deal with here, but in my articles on racism. The selfishness in it was shown when the German Green party proposed a 12-doubling of taxes on airline fuel in order to allow Germans only one round-the-world vacation every 5 years - and almost were eradicated by the suddenly not-so-green voters.

So that is all why the Danes right now are bringing their own country to its knees for a little while in order to fight for 6 weeks of paid vacation. Are we a special case? Certainly not. Five other countries in Europe have better vacation plans than ours and 9 others have actually more days off when you include national and religious holidays with a yearly total averaging 40 days. In other words: twice as many days off as Americans get (21 days = vacation + Labor Day, Thanksgiving etc.).

It is worthwhile also to bear in mind here that many Americans go out and find other work during their one or two-week vacation - simply to make ends meet. This is something you are not allowed over here - at least you will not get paid your vacation salary if you hold another job.

I guess the idea here is - although it sounds old-fashioned Marxist - that you have earned your vacation in order to become a more productive worker. And only a fully recuperated and re-charged worker is working 100% effective and is thus fully productive for society.

Although this is the implicit philosophy of the welfare state, it is certainly not the thinking of the employers every 15 years when they have to negotiate the new expanded demands of the workers. So far the philosophy has proven right which is shown by the fact that we are just as productive in the welfare states as our competitors in countries where they have less than half our vacation time - such as in America and Asia. But where is the breaking point where too much vacation will result in a decrease in competitiveness? Certainly we can’t all have sabbaticals every year.

The Danish employers claim that 6 weeks of paid vacation is the last straw that breaks the capitalist's back, while their employees rightly remember that those were the reasons they gave for their opposition every time we expanded the concept of the welfare state.

And yet the country grew richer and richer and ended up with a higher economic growth during this entire century than the USA - a country in which the people "work like slaves," as Danes workers usually joke.

The Danish employees are right now fighting extra hard - disappointed by the results of the last nationwide struggle in 1985, which - due to the recession in the 80’s - only resulted in a shortening of the 5 day work week to 37 hours. But the 3 hours, they thus won, only lead to 7 hours more of TV-watching, polls show. Was that really all they fought for? No, so now they want "quality time" off - more time for traveling.

The concept of "quality time" is very much the result of the increasing strength of the women in the labor force. For "quality time" means more time spend with the children - and especially vacation is good for that purpose. While the mostly male bosses of the National Labor Union had finally accepted an agreement with the Employers Ass. last week, it was actually the women and the young people 18-30 years of age who voted it down all over the country - and thus ordered the present nationwide shutdown and chaos. To the surprise of their fat, bald, cigar smoking bosses. This is true "woman power."

It is not hard to understand why. Women and young workers have no doubt gained most from the welfare state. Thus polls show that if only women could vote, we would always have leftist governments (just as you would always have Democratic governments in America).

Also the growing number of women in parliament ensures more progressive legislation - often supported also by the women in the far right and racist parties.

In the last election a month ago we increased the percentage of women in parliament to 39 % - pretty similar to the other Scandinavian countries with Sweden topping at 41%. (The disgraceful American figure is 8% women in Congress!)

I have all my life made a personal commitment of !!!never!!! voting for a man - until we get complete equality of the sexes in parliament as well as in government (where 40 % of the ministers are women). But more important: with the absence of such a conscious commitment from other Danish men the high female representation indicates a historically low level of unconscious sexism in our politics.

Men might be more conservative, but they vote the same amount of women into parliament in the right-wing parties as in the leftist parties - with two of our racist parties being headed by extremely popular women. These two women unfortunately don’t show much compassion for their Muslim immigrant sisters. Their racist arguments for wanting to throw them out: "they only come here to take advantage of our great welfare state."

This is not completely untrue. Tens of thousands of Somalians, Turks, Palestinians, Pakistanis etc. come directly from some of the poorest villages on Earth and are immediately given the same welfare benefits as the Danes. So much money do they make here, that they - mostly unemployed - go on frequent long vacations to their homelands - and out of their Danish welfare benefits feed whole villages in the Third World.

This of course invites some racism and jealousy from Danish workers (8-10% vote for the racist anti-immigrant parties), but luckily the majority see it as a great form of development assistance to poor countries (with the implicit racist logic that without such assistance we would probably get even more of such refugees and immigrants!)

All these generous benefits - not least to that group which Americans with contempt call "welfare mothers" and give only one fourth of what single mothers get in Denmark - are of course the reason why especially Danish women are now on the barricades.

Thousands are participating all over the country in demonstrations and blockades preventing ferry boats from sailing, busses and trucks from delivering, airplanes from flying - all of course to the irritation of every individual who is being hurt - and yet with the support of the great majority of the population.

For - as my American students never could believe - you fight/strike/vote and even die (at least if you are chicken and pigs as I mentioned) for the welfare state - just as Americans used to do it in the 1930’s but since mostly forgot to do - with the sad result that the gap between rich and poor has since grown to the biggest in the entire American history - and is still widening under Clinton!

And as especially the young Danes - who have joined the labor force since our last nationwide shut down in 1985 - daily testify on TV, "fighting for your rights is really great fun!"

So - although society in one respect have resembled the shortages in the worst Communist countries for a couple of weeks - in other respects the country looked like one giant beer drinking party - not least because it all coincided with May 1. - the international labor day. When people in Norway wanted to show support for our struggle the other day, they sent a whole airplane (landing on water since the airports and ferries to Norway are closed) - loaded with thousands of free packages of yeast to "our Danish brothers and sisters to thank you for all the beer you have supplied Norway with over the years" - to a huge receiving crowd of cheering and partying Danes on the beach. For yeast has turned into the most sought for black market item as you can’t find bread in the stores any longer.

Yes, American friends, can you actually imagine how much fun it is to shut down a whole society - to literally bring a country to its knees? And not only our own, for in Sweden and Germany the Volvo, Saab, Mercedes and BMW factories had to close down one by one for lack of parts from Danish subcontractors.

In America we couldn’t even close down Washington and Pentagon for even one day on April 25th 1971 when we attempted to stop the senseless killing of 3 million Vietnamese - a matter of life and death, not just a few days of extra vacation - but I do remember how much fun (and tear gas) we had! (My first entry into George Washington University was not as a guest speaker, but being carried in on a stretcher to be treated for severe tear gas wounds).

I started out writing this email as a substitute for reading my newspaper. I usually spend an hour each morning reading the paper, but in a country without newspapers, nothing to buy and nowhere to go (except on bicycle) I decided instead to write my own little newspaper to you in the spare time I now had at hand.

However, my little substitute newspaper here got longer and longer, and I can today on Wednesday the 6th actually bring you the results of our great nationwide shutdown of Denmark.

The government had insisted that it would not interfere in the conflict, but last night the negotiations totally collapsed: the employers insisted that they couldn’t give an inch more without hurting Danish competitiveness abroad or stockholders interests.

The National Labor Union was ready to settle for what they could get, but dared not - knowing that the rank and file all over the country would vote it down.

So to prevent continuing chaos for months (which costs the country millions each day in lost exports) the government at noon today declared that it would interfere by making into law a compromise actually more advanced than the one first voted down (in order to live up to a pledge to the women made during the last elections for parliament).

The new law: we won’t get a full 6 weeks of paid vacation this time around, but for the children - who were meant to really benefit from such "quality time" - the goal has been accomplished.

Every Dane is from now on assured 5 weeks plus 2 extra days of paid vacation - 3 days short of the 6 week goal.

But most important - "børnefamilierne" - parents with children under 14 years of age - will get an additional 3 days of paid vacation - in other words 6 full weeks.

The center-left government could not go any further since it wanted the full support of all the right-wing parties. Here you can clearly see how important it is to have many women in parliament. For without all the women in the right-wing parties, these would never have supported what could easily have been attacked as a "leftist" law, but what is now seen as a "pro-family" law. And nobody dares to argue against anything "pro-family". (Especially our small Christian right-wing party is a staunch champion of the welfare state). So only parents without children were the losers of this nationwide shutdown - although it would be more correct to describe them as two thirds winners.

It is an absurdity in America that the right has for years monopolized the "pro-family" slogan when it so obviously is welfare state policy and reality!

To demonstrate this even further I could mention one of our most extravagant laws also accomplished through struggling/striking/voting: the parental leave act. It makes any parent entitled to half a year’s leave from work in order to have more "quality time" with their children. In the beginning it was at full pay, but during the recession in the 1980’s it was reduced to 60 % or 80% of normal earnings, as far as I remember.

Only condition: you can’t get free day care at the same time. So - since many children miss the social activities in the day care centers - the music and singing with highly educated "pædagoger" - parents often go traveling with their children.

For the 80% of normal salary, which both parents get, is enough to make you live "like a king" in cheaper countries.

Clara, my daughter, Lalou’s, friend in kindergarten, thus recently returned home from such a half year trekking trip in Vietnam with her sister and parents, Peter and Susan. Peter is an engineer and Susan a school teacher, but both felt a need to spend more "quality time" with their children and took "parental leave" - 6 months in the winter - in addition to their ordinary 5 weeks in summer. Trekking in Vietnamese villages for half a year naturally teaches children more important human values than they could ever learn in school.

With all the hatred and abuse "welfare mothers" in America are subject to, I would like to mention one additional "pro-family" welfare state law here. I don’t know about Denmark, but at least in Norway any single mother is entitled to a government paid baby-sitter one or two nights a week. Usually they use one of their friends or a student who want to earn extra money. The idea is of course that a "welfare mother" should have a chance to live a life like everyone else, to go out and party and that way perhaps have a chance to find a spouse if they look for one.

This obviously will make a better mother than one who feels "trapped" and "ostracized" such as I see it in the constant irritated slappings of their children by many single mothers in America. And what could be more "pro-family" than helping a single mother find a new husband or boyfriend?

But of course, the whole idea of "government sponsored sex for welfare mothers" would probably alienate the American right who would rather do anything in their power to further punish and ostracize single mothers!

With such old-fashioned attitudes in so many ways pre-dominant - even in the more mainstream American thinking (where I constantly hear the naive "What will make people work in a welfare state?") - we from over here see Americans further trapping themselves.

They work longer and longer (without a corresponding relative increase in productivity to show for it) and have less and less freedom to do those things most important for people (such as spending quality time with their families, traveling and exploring together etc.).

Work hours per week in Denmark

Well, those were some of the thoughts I couldn’t help entertain when I saw how great sacrifices the Danes were willing to make to expand and further improve their welfare state (just as the Germans recently did it and just as the Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, French etc. once in while do).

With such an optimistic sense of what can be accomplished together in the welfare interest of the whole as well as of the individual, we of course feel offended when our proud accomplishments again and again in the American media is dismissed with "too high taxes" or "socialism" (when e.g. Denmark is more capitalistic in terms of private ownership than Canada). All we can say is "Poor Americans who can’t even afford to double their taxes - and as a result work like slaves year round to pay their bills!"

But feeling half American myself I can’t help here also to display my personal disappointment: at a time when Americans had a better chance than ever before to make needed changes - with the economy rolling and the presidential ratings high - they blow this unique historic chance literally with "blow jobs."

After the first election of Clinton - when the country was crying out for health care reform - I saw a great chance again to continue the expansion of the limited welfare state attempts Roosevelt had started in the 30’s during New Deal and which Johnson expanded in the 60’s with Medicaid and Medicare.

Either in the European form by quite simply expanding Medicare to cover EVERY American, not just the elderly - or in the more limited Canadian model which also saves money: 9% of GNP vs. the American 15-16 % of GNP. (The Danish model takes 6% of GNP which people now agree is too little. Spending 1% more could end waiting lists!).

Either way would have given you a taste of the welfare state and freed up tons of money for traveling, education etc. For the 6% difference between the Canadian and the American model is equivalent to all the money you spend on the military!!!

As you can see in Denmark right now - and as you saw it in America in the 30’s and 60’s (when AMA resisted tooth and nail - until they realized that doctors could make even more money from Medicaid and Medicare) - all such progress is at first met with fierce conservative opposition.

However, instead of taking to the streets and fighting/striking/voting for your rights, you let the biggest media conspiracy the world has seen since the fall of Communism totally take over and absorb your minds - virtually from the day Clinton was elected.

Nowhere in the world is the media so much in the hands of the "ruling class" as in America and never before have I seen such an orchestrated and long-range media campaign to successfully divert a whole nation’s attention away from essential political issues - to get you to literally for months look into your president’s pants - rather than into your own pockets and long-range self-interests. It really hurt me to see America for months being the laughing stock of the entire world - as you yourself saw it during Clinton’s Africa visit.

Next year the American economy is again supposed to run out of steam and Clinton is pretty much paralyzed (high in ratings, but low in struggling/striking/voting popular support to make any real change), so it now looks like you really blew this historic chance.....

----------------------------------------------------------

So - my son’s girlfriend was in New York and couldn’t get home because her country had "shut down" - and none of you seemed to understand what she was talking about.

Well, I hope my little email newsletter here has helped make a few of my American friends understand it now.

Yes, "there is something rotten in the state of Denmark," but our prime minister has just this minute announced on TV that in four days we will again be able to get newspapers, - the planes, trucks, ferries, cars will run again, kindergartens re-open, pigs and chicken be slaughtered - and food will be in the stores again from on Monday. So was it worth it?

Although some workers are angry and want to continue, most of us believe it was a victory which will result in similar demands in other European countries - for two to five more days of vacation every year is a clear step forward.

"Dare to struggle, dare to win" as we shouted in the streets in America in the 70’s. But we all knew that we can’t win it all at once. The social welfare state grows out of popular demand in small steps at a time.

So here I will finish with my question from the beginning of this email. Even though most of you - my American friends - are fairly open-minded, didn’t this email bring up at least some conservative and defensive feelings in you? You basically know my ideas from "American Pictures", but when I make so direct comparisons between countries as in this email there is always the risk of sounding nationalistic.

I am not trying to romanticize one continent over another. This email is entirely an offshoot of my teaching in America about its ongoing social ills. To get any credibility there I am forced to present some realistic solutions - not some fantasies from an unknown planet such as Marxism - but some down to earth realistic approaches to the inherent problems in our common economic system - capitalism - approaches which I can demonstrate have been tested in real life situations - such as they have under widely different nationalities in Europe. (Some with traditionally high suicide rates such as Denmark, Germany, some with low suicide rates such as Norway and Holland, some with lots of smoking and drinking such as Denmark, others ..... etc. etc. - just to counter some of the more naive American un-reflected responses to the idea of the social welfare state, - responses which nevertheless do carry an element of truth; that more social justice and affluence in no way is a guarantee for more happiness!).

Yet - after years of traveling in American poverty and pain - I certainly can’t hide that I am amazed about how much the welfare state can afford and achieve, but that doesn’t mean that I would rather live in, say, Germany than America! (But, please, don’t tell my German friends that.)

With all my love

Jacob Holdt

Ps. A final note to the animal lovers among you! I should perhaps here mention that soon after the first pictures of the cruelty - which this national labor struggle unfortunately inflicted on the animals - appeared in our media, the government stepped in and ordered the strikes broken for those truck drivers and slaughterhouses concerned. This was probably a strategically wise move since animal welfare is now becoming such an important ingredient of the welfare state - as I mentioned in my long email letter on ecology - that these blood-dripping pictures could have broken the spirit of the strikers. The consumers are pressing for meat from "liberated" or "free range" animals so fast that farmers can’t switch fast enough. Well, the animals are dying anyhow, but that is another issue....(which you can read about in this story on Danish ecology)

American responses to this article

To e-mail an edited  version of this article back to me:  Thanks, Jacob Holdt 

Back to "Racism and oppression - articles and links"

Back to "Other writings by Jacob Holdt"

Back to Jacob Holdt's homepage 

American Pictures 
 

 


 Copyright © 2003 Jacob Holdt
 

Back to Jacob Holdt's articles