I just returned from a month-long tour of Europe, which included stops in London, Paris, Rome, and Copenhagen. The extended weekend in the Danish capital brought back many rich memories.
I first arrived in Denmark in June of 1966 on a Rotary Fellowship for International Understanding. My tasks were to attending the University of Copenhagen, learn Danish, and give speeches in Danish Rotary clubs about world peace.
After three years of graduate school, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to finish my dissertation in Heidelberg, Germany. During that year I visited Denmark often, visiting old friends, one with a captivating sister. We married and spent our first year in Denmark, where I taught for a year at two Danish universities.
In 1972 we returned to the U. S. where I was thrilled to take a job at the University of Idaho. We enjoyed two sabbaticals in Denmark (1978-79;1985-86), and I returned for visits in 2007 and the one last month.
Much of course has changed over 49 years. In 1966, there were 5 million pigs and 4.5 million people. Now there are 12 million swine and 5.7 million Danes.
Danish ham and cheese make almost as much money as the shipping industry, the largest in the world. Tiny Denmark has also become the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines.
In 1966 there was only one experimental windmill generating power for a hippie commune in Jutland. Now giant wind turbines dot the landscape and produced 39 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2014.
On July 10 of this year Danish wind turbines produced 140 percent of the country’s normal demand for electricity. The surplus power is sold to Norway, Sweden, and Germany through a super-efficient grid, and some of it being used to pump water back up into hydroelectric facilities in Norway and Sweden.
Once again I had a chance cross the gorgeous 10-mile-long tunnel-bridge to Sweden. Finished in 2000 at the cost of $5.7 billion, this huge investment has paid off handsomely. The Swedes now have a direct rail link to Europe, and thousands of Swedes (topping out at 18,000 in 2008) eagerly commute to work in Copenhagen. Over 15 years the new economic activity has added over $9 billion to the Danish economy.
Danish politics started moving to the right with the election of the first conservative government in 1984. Denmark’s first female prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt brought the Social Democrats back to power from 2011-2015, but a center-right coalition won the most recent election by a one seat margin. Voter turnout in Denmark is an amazing 80-90 percent.
The most alarming result of the 2015 election was the success of the Danish People’s Party, which is anti-immigration and anti-European Union. Starting with only 13 parliamentary seats in 1998, it now has 37, becoming the second largest party. Only the Social Democrats have more: 47 seats in the 179-seat Folketing. The increase in crime among disaffected immigrant youth has stoked anti-foreigner fears.
Conservative governments have preserved the welfare state with only minor revisions. Parents now have to pay for part of their children’s day care; those who refuse to look for a job no longer get generous unemployment payments; and the average tax burden has leveled off at 50 percent.
High progressive taxation has not, as some believe, destroyed European economies. In 2015-2016 eight of the 12 countries ranked highest for economic competitiveness by the World Economic Forum were European welfare states.
The Swiss business school IMD ranked Denmark as the second best economy in the European Union. The Economist magazine has recently commended Denmark as the least corrupt and most business friendly country in the world.
In 1966 only 8 percent of Danish students went on to university. Inspired by the non-elitist American models, 50 percent of Danes are now enrolled in post-secondary education. There is no tuition and those who keep their grades up receive a $900 monthly stipend.
The European welfare states and others like them around the world represent what some have called the “Third Way.” It is a political philosophy that tries to build a middle way between free market capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other.
The Buddha, Confucius, and Aristotle have taught us that the virtues are found in a mean between extremes, and every socioeconomic indicator demonstrates that this is also the key for building harmonious and prosperous human communities.