stephanie jones

Learning from Denmark? Rethinking compulsive consumerism and the “American Dream”

In American Dream, freedom, justice, social class on February 18, 2008 at 12:56 am

Sunday evening’s 60 Minutes (CBS) reported on the “happiest people” on earth. The Danes have, again, been reported as the “happiest.” Reporters wondered why given that a neighbor, Norway, is richer and another neighbor, Sweden, is healthier.

This story  tells of some unthinkable (at least in the U.S.) social services in place in Denmark that may (?) promote persistent happiness:

1. Average work week of 37 hours with 6 weeks vacation a year

2. State-paid paternity leave for 6 months

3. State-paid education through college degree (students take as long as they want/need to complete their college education)

4. “Security” from birth until death (financial, education, social)

What’s the catch?

Perhaps the taxes paid…around 50% earnings.

Would we, in the U.S. be willing to contribute 50% of our earnings to ensure the well-being of all our citizens?

I would.

The story also reported that some of the most unhappy people live in the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S. (Upper Eastside of Manhattan was one example). What might this tell us?

“Stuff” won’t make us happy. Stop the compulsive consumerism and judgments based on possessions.

What advice did the interviewed students give to U.S. folks looking for “happiness”? Don’t depend too much on the American Dream.

Denmark Ministry of Social Welfare 

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  1. I’m sure you saw this op/ed piece. Wonder what it will take to move us in the direction of the Danes? A new president for sure…

    Op-Ed Columnist
    Poverty Is Poison

    By PAUL KRUGMAN
    Published: February 18, 2008

    “Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
    Skip to next paragraph

    Paul Krugman.
    Go to Columnist Page » Blog: The Conscience of a Liberal

    As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

    So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

    L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.

    But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.

    In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery.

    Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.

    America’s failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses.

    Some of these excuses take the form of assertions that America’s poor really aren’t all that poor — a claim that always has me wondering whether those making it watched any TV during Hurricane Katrina, or for that matter have ever looked around them while visiting a major American city.

    Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.

    But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.

    That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.

    I’d bracket those new studies on brain development in early childhood with a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.

    None of this is inevitable.

    Poverty rates are much lower in most European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs that help the poor and unlucky.

    And governments that set their minds to it can reduce poverty. In Britain, the Labor government that came into office in 1997 made reducing poverty a priority — and despite some setbacks, its program of income subsidies and other aid has achieved a great deal. Child poverty, in particular, has been cut in half by the measure that corresponds most closely to the U.S. definition.

    At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.

    I’m not blaming them for that; if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor. And for a variety of reasons, health care, not poverty, should be the first priority of a Democratic administration.

    But ultimately, let’s hope that the nation turns back to the task it abandoned — that of ending the poverty that still poisons so many American lives.

  2. Thanks lbstadler!

    And Motleymusings – thanks to you too.
    I had not seen this article, but it certainly rings true, and so, so sad. We can do so much better, but we’ve decided not to. I do hope a new president can begin to turn us around again – and to reconsider what is important in life rather than focusing on the elusive American Dream that promotes infinite consumption of “stuff” to prove we’re worthwhile rather than focusing on creating a democratic society where we all value and take care of one another…

  3. When I saw the program you are talking about…It made me wish I lived in Denmark. 😦

    But, I do love living in FL…maybe we can just learn to live a little more like the Danes. It is certainly true, that money doesn’t buy happiness.

  4. The only catch I can think of is that there seems to be a rising anti-immigrant sentiment. I had heard this before and this NPR article from a while back discusses some of the issues:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6505809

  5. Another big catch is our bloated governments. A prerequisite to increased social programs should be a reduction of government waste.

    As citizens, we put up with far to much arrogance and manipulation on the part of our government officials.

    If we voted out the “drug war,” wouldn’t we would have more than enough money to provide health care and education for everyone without raising taxes? And that’s only one wasteful program.

    Of course, maybe it’s the government’s secret plan to use the drug war incarcerate the indigent
    in order to give them free health care.

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