06/05/2014 09:12 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

What the News in the U.S. Gets Wrong About Denmark

Yes... that's correct: what the news in the U.S. tells you about Denmark's population being so happy truly is a load of crap, and the answers to fixing the broken U.S. social and financial system cannot be found there.

The confusion we suffer as earth's inhabitants vexes many of us; and in an effort to make sense of our universe, we turn to facts and the pundits who draw conclusions about us based on interpreting those facts. These talking heads explain why we do what we do and why the world is crumbling due to our own brutal touch. Choose a topic and someone has laid it out for you. When we bastardize information to perpetuate myth, we confuse information with knowledge; and in a world of immediate access information, we aggrandize certain people and places for representing what is good/right, and in doing so, we often stereotype and marginalize the world around us.

The polls continue and every year the Scandinavian countries rank super-high on the "everyone is happy here" rankings. In addition to polls, we see people holding up shining examples of equality and justice by citing quotes from Danish teachers and even Danish McDonald's employees that have admirably high salaries, hourly wages, vacation time and maternity leave. That all is of course seemingly wonderful when taken out of context; and the happiness may or may not be true -- I am not about to interview everyone in Denmark to compile my own criteria. I leave data to the pollsters choosing instead to examine my surroundings by talking, listening and finding a range of personal reflections from those around me; and for the past 18 months I've been more often in Denmark than I have in the U.S.

The above-mentioned polls that list the happiest countries use sociological criteria that group standard needs and assess each country's amount of protections and freedoms provided under that government's rules and policies. Although I prefer a more one-on-one human approach, I will also use a few statistics below in describing, backing up and refuting some generalizations and conclusions that can easily pass for facts, but are in truth stereotypes. Many of the opinions expressed here are a combination of what I've read with the aggregated daily conversations with people I engage.

The news-oriented American television show, 60 Minutes, presented a 12-minute inquiry into the curiosity of Denmark's "happy society" back in 2008. This was ominously aired months before the economic downturn caused by bank theft, mortgage fraud and general Wall Street profiteering (all on the taxpayer's dollar), but in speaking with some Danes about this 60 Minutes show, I was informed how foolish they found it to be. Many Danes don't often see polls with the claims mentioned here. Just like us, they read news articles detailing national political infighting, pollution from pesticide runoff, and work-related stress, along with the small victories around the country; and mentioning polls about how happy Danes are elicits a rolling of eyes and comments about the ridiculousness of such claims. I agree with them. Why polls are foolish is that they are reductive; and news shows like the 60 Minutes one attempt to refine an entire society's pursuit of life down to a series of criteria, when in fact it is far more complex than any formula.

I want to point out is that Denmark is one-third the size of the state of New York. (16,621 sq. miles vs. New York State's 49,112 sq. miles.) It is a very small country that tries hard to maintain its policies of protecting its citizens. While I've no doubt that part of Denmark's ability to try to provide for all its citizens resides partly in it being small enough to effectively reach most corners of the country, in times of worldwide financial strife like now, they do well by many of their citizens, but the Danish infrastructure is pushing its people to do more with less, which causes tremendous stress. The memes you can find online extolling the policies that enable Danish teachers and students to take their time and bask in their own security paint an outdated picture and also do not reflect the overall societal security blanket in place.

The Danish school system places 12th worldwide in 2012 according to an assessment by Pearson on their index of cognitive skills and educational attainment, while the Times Higher Education World University Rankings places three universities in Denmark at 117, 132 and 150, which might or might not pique the interest of the world's future higher education scholars. Do these standardized lists correlate protection for student living costs and teacher rights with excellence? The Danish website prominently features it as a declaration of excellence. Of course these and other studies will always be cited by institutions for promotional purposes, but if this system produced such tremendous results, wouldn't that correlate to a powerhouse university or two with the world's scholars clambering to get in? It's not a poor education here, but what is most appreciated here about it -- the accessibility they are most proud of -- is that it is free. My stepson recently explained to me that one of the big political education debates students are aware of here is about policies on the table designed to shorten the education. Finding ways to shave an optional year of study from the plan gets young graduates into the work force younger. Teachers are being asked to do more and are also requiring students to do more. There isn't enough time for high school and gymnasium (a equivalent of a university prep school) students to do all their work and have any time left over.

In speaking with one friend of mine who teaches in higher education at the University of Copenhagen, he informed me of a grading system so heavily weighted in favor of the student that it is very difficult to give out a poor grade, even when the student is sub-par... that the criteria for grading weight attendance above contribution and quality of written analysis, enough so it is possible to graduate in spite of lackluster effort.

Denmark's governmental authority takes care of many -- not all -- health care and education needs; but high taxes mean high prices and those medical and educational costs not covered are exorbitant which sends many who need dental or optical work abroad in search of quality, affordable care. Doesn't that sound familiar enough to Canadian and Mexican health alternatives?

Protection-wise, Denmark has some very powerful unions protecting its workers. For example the union that oversees garbage collection workers has insured high wages and a very safe work environment -- one I wish I'd experienced as part of Binghamton, NY's sanitation force. Being a garbage man in Denmark is a highly coveted, respected job, differing from perceptions of g-men held by a large swathe of the U.S. I've heard many people claim that American garbage men make good money, and further that it comes partly due to mafia affiliations (another misconception I continue to encounter). Having been a garbage man in the U.S., I can assure you most of us are not connected to the mob and most of us do not get paid a particularly high wage, although some garbage companies do pay a living wage.) But as for Denmark's provisions for its people, most of the infrastructure is paid for through very high taxes. And when investments and world economic downturns reveal cracks in that infrastructure's investment portfolio, even more responsibility falls on the public.

As an added stress, the country continues to do its best to minimize immigration, especially that which would be a financial drain on the system here, which here is the result of people from poorer eastern neighboring countries working here legally, only at a lower general wage than others here, much of which they then mail or wire transfer home. "Black money" as it is called here is a sticking point at the heart of many small municipal policy alterations. I don't blame the government for seeing this as an important issue, and instead empathize with their attempts to protect this somewhat fragile system that can only work effectively if everyone pays into it. The downside of cracking down on immigration resulted in examples of families with one parent from the Philippines (true example) who is then refused citizenship after decades raised children in Denmark, and the whole family decides to relocate to Asia after 35 years here. This type of news hits people hard in a small country like Denmark. Danes want to be proud of the ways their system protects them, and these are reminders of how it fails.

Another downside to this system is that everything is very expensive here, although it is taken for granted and has been this way for a long time. Restaurants are so far more expensive than their American counterparts that it is understood by most that eating out is reserved for very special occasions. Most people cook at home almost all the time, except for the wealthy, the tourists and the students, who tend to support the burger and kebab shops. Even pizza joints are prone to cost you a lot. And it's not NY style or even Chicago style... what we have here is smaller (8-10 inch) individual pizzas, the thin crust Italian-style stuff. It's the equivalent of a few slices of a round pie, and with one topping, it'll easily run you a double sawbuck. Groceries are expensive, but affordable. Most people I've met here bake their own bread, if for no other reason than it is healthier and saves money. The restaurants pass their high taxes and the high cost of doing business in Denmark on to the consumer by pricing everything so high. Opinion here is not that anyone wants to charge such high prices, but that they are forced to if they are to turn a profit. In Copenhagen, a beautiful city with many tourists, shops can survive, especially ones on good corners, but small town joints struggle just like anywhere else.

A recent problem here is depression and anxiety. More and more people suffer from these here and if they use the system to take time off work, the money received covers some living costs, but not leaving much left over. Going on assistance here doesn't relieve the stress caused by overworking because it makes the day-to-day expenses tough to cover. The results can be seen in statistics for growing disability claims based on depression in the central Copenhagen commune (the Danish equivalent of a city district). Doesn't this sound familiar to anyone in the US?

Alcoholism is very high here, too, (with Denmark ranking in some polls as number one worldwide) and while some studies reflect health improvements within the past 5 years, a 2011 National Institute of Health paper opened declaring that "Alcohol consumption levels in Denmark are high with the risk of increased morbidity and mortality in the population." (study by Grønkjær, Curtis, De Crespigny, and Delmar). Substantial drunk driving penalties do well to hamper some of the worst repercussions, but do nothing to get at the heart of such diseases.

Denmark boasts one of the highest personal debt accruals on the planet. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development places Denmark's at #1 with 321% creditor debt to disposable personal income. Some statisticians claim it isn't as big a burden here as it could be, due to factors like the financial stability of the majority of households here. Still, this amount of personal borrowing is awe-inspiring, and when coupled with strict national criteria for bankruptcy (far stricter than that which we permit in the states) the results can hold people accountable for what they owe in perpetuity. Being such a small country, everyone is traceable (and taxable) through the citizen number, which ironically is referred to by its anagram, the CPR number. I suppose these are some of the prices for all the purported happiness. You can't hide.

So, what's so nice here, These two islands and one peninsula have their charms and natural beauty, and the summer is full of sunlight until far into the evening. The landscape is pastoral and the coastline expansive -- the continental U.S. coastline is roughly 5743 miles, while tiny Denmark sports its 4,545 miles of public-access oceanfront. (These statistics found here and here) And there is far less crime here than many places in the world. If you're unloading your car in a major city like Copenhagen you do not have to lock/unlock with each armload, and misplaced articles, even on trains, will often be turned in to the authorities, the exception being bicycles, which are "borrowed" (read: stolen) regularly. With lots of paid vacation time, people relax and enjoy relaxing when they can, and there is a lot of outdoorsmanship in the form of bicycling, hiking, boating, swimming and kayaking. And the bicycle being a major mode of transport, the city streets are built as much for bike lanes as for car maneuverability. And the architecture, new and old, is often as eye-catching as the old thatched roof houses.

Metaphorically, you don't fall too far here when you fall, and perhaps America could attempt to implement some of these policies if it were the size of these two islands and one peninsula; but because America is not this size, the delicate balance becomes something less tenable. I submit that any ability to communicate and enforce in the U.S. any policies like the ones in Denmark would be disseminated through a far broader series of links required to ensure any effect; and that, not unlike the loss resistance generated in a long electric cable, the end-users in a much bigger system might also see a smaller share of the results, not only in quantity but in the length of time it takes to see those results. I am in favor of needed changes in the US systems and I long for changes that prioritize basic rights for all, but I also see that it is far more complicated than overlaying some simplified portions of some other country's policy on top of or in place of some US ones.

There is an article written by Alexander Kjerulf, a Danish business analyst who specializes in workplace satisfaction, which states 5 principles in Danish work policy that yield happiness results in the Danish system. This guy has labeled himself (don't laugh) Chief Happiness Officer, and according to his own website is in demand as a speaker about happiness in the workplace. In my experience some of his articles ring true and some workplace observations and changes are almost no-brainers that can and would improve morale, but he fails when he conveniently sugarcoats the policy/happiness correlation. It seems to me self-serving to enumerate his simple observations as if they would yield these results wherever they are put in place. In Denmark, the government takes your taxes, rather than the "no your honor" option used in the USA. Some Americans might gladly pay 50-60 percent tax in exchange for "free" health and education. But would most, and even if so how to enforce the series of shifts required?

[Aside: Channeling one of my heroes, Frank Zappa, I cannot resist posing the question, "WTF is a 'happiness officer' anyway?"]

I know a fellow who is the loudest and most flamboyant advocate for Miami Beach's delights and calls himself Mr. Miami Beach. If you are to speak with him, he might convince you that all your life really lacks is that you don't live in Miami Beach. There are nice things about this place, and most people will not deny it being a nice place to visit, but living full time on a tourist-infested hedonistic small island in the sun has its downsides. Entitled wealthy (sometimes drunk) vacation people take great liberties like parking anywhere, puking on your driveway and throwing empties anywhere they choose; and prostitution in the bushes of the condos near Flamingo Park leaves rubber evidence in need of being picked up with rubber gloves. This Miami Beach advocate and Mr. Kjerulf should sit down and decide which place serves as the ultimate benchmark. At the very least they would have a little happiness pep rally, which in my opinion beats many of the alternatives, (like an all-out brawl about which is better, more becoming of a college football riot, for example.) But is this "we have the great model here" really anything more than braggadocio and one-upsmanship?

The U.S. is highly flawed, yet rich in natural and manmade wonders. So is Denmark. I liken the U.S. looking to a progressive, small country's systems as if its policies could fix broken stuff in a giant one is akin to claiming that the U.S. free-market economy and its personal freedoms should, can and must be inflicted upon other nations on the Earth for their own good. Isn't it like saying, "Our big systems will fix life in Afghanistan and Iraq."? The models are different; the changes must uniquely suit the differences.

Stop aggrandizing some other screwed-up system out there because it appears on its surface to be so much better. The pundits will always loudly proclaim their solutions; and, from this distance, the grass over there will always appear greener.