Denmark is a good microcosm. It holds lessons for us here in the States, good and bad. I felt that way when I first lived there in 1971, when I researched my doctoral dissertation there in 1977, and I feel that way now.
Denmark is a mixed-economy (free market competition with a large public sector), social welfare, multi-party democratic country that, because of its small size and international exposure, is affected more quickly and deeply by social, economic and political forces at work in the Western (and wider) world. It was a founding NATO member (1949) and the first Nordic member of the European Union (which it joined, simultaneously with Britain and Ireland, on New Year’s Day 1973). For such a small, homogenous country, it has amazing social, economic and political diversity (for example, over the past 36 years some 15 different political parties have at one time or another garnered representation in Folketinget, the Danish Parliament).
Denmark has had, and continues to have, an outsized global influence relative to its size, whether in diplomacy, design, architecture, or quality manufacturing. Denmark gets a lot of things right. The standard of living is high, and so is the quality of life. As for the Danes themselves, both the famous and anonymous, they display an unmistakable national character combined with healthy individualism. (The unwritten law of Danish culture commands that one is not to draw attention to oneself, but it’s liberally violated!)
The US is also a mixed-economy, social welfare, multi-party, democratic, diverse nation. There is an undeniable leftist political orientation among elites, media, academia, government and public policy professionals in both countries. What lessons can we learn from recent developments in Denmark? Like the US, Denmark has gone through, and is going through, economic, financial, real estate, employment, debt and deficit problems of unanticipated severity. And like the US, responsible parties have taken their eye off the ball.
My colleague and partner Jorn Thulstrup, owner, CEO and publisher of News ex-press, a daily compilation of Danish news media presented in English for the diplomatic community in Copenhagen (among other clients), recently wrote a sharply critical report on the hangover left in Denmark by the Climate Conference. He states:
The COP15 Climate Conference held in Copenhagen in December, fuelled by political and economic special interests and enthusiastically embraced by naive Danish journalists, preoccupied people in this country far more than the rest of the world. For a lengthy period of time, leading Danish politicians and commentators seemed to be suffering from the illusion that, in terms of climate and energy, Denmark could rule the world. A widespread perception flourished that Denmark, as host of COP15, could create some kind of platform to market Danish technology, especially wind energy and enzymes used in the production of bio-ethanol.
But eventually, as expected, the concluding “Copenhagen Accord” failed to live up to the exaggerated expectations and only confirmed that the skeptics were right at least about the politics: the climate conference was a ritual event without meaning or influence.
Preoccupation with meaningless things is not costless. Hosting the Climate Conference cost Denmark billions of kroner, but the indirect costs were even more serious: it tied up official government business, cabinet ministers and security forces for such a long time, and to such an extent, that many serious political and economic issues – like how to get the economy growing again – were neglected.
Denmark deservedly prides itself on its quality of life, which includes a low crime rate. But while Copenhagen was free of the widespread destruction and vandalism that many had feared during the climate conference, the devotion of overwhelming police resources to COP15 over the past two years has actually been accompanied by an increased crime rate generally.
The failure of COP15 is disappointing, if not unexpected. But the global economic crisis has left its mark throughout this country too. Years of budget surpluses have been transformed into deficits, in the necessary effort to prevent a collapse of the financial sector and limit growing unemployment. The government is now focused on the domestic agenda, with the top priority to restore economic growth, aiming to secure a political platform that will lead to victory at the next general election. Sound familiar?
Small country, big ideas
Another more serious problem is Denmark's inability to compete, writes Thulstrup. Major wage hikes at home and devaluations abroad have made Danish goods and services too expensive. Unfortunately, Danish workers haven't been able to compensate with increased productivity – in fact, quite the opposite. Possibly, as a society, the crisis was not taken seriously enough. Things went well for years and it appeared, after years of balance of payments and budget surpluses, that the country was capable of managing any setback. Also sound familiar?
Every year or so some international poll shows that Danes are the “world’s happiest people.” (It would be more accurate to say “most contented,” or, if I’m feeling mischievous, “resigned to their situation”!) But the problem, writes Thulstrup, is that they are no longer very industrious. Studies, reports and commissions have been warning for years of the lack of qualified manpower.
Denmark has a high workforce participation rate, due to the share of women that work outside the home, but is a laggard in actual hours worked. It’s a case of short working days, long holidays, and a high amount of sick leave. Students take too long to become qualified and too many people retire early – at the state's expense. More and more fail to contribute anything to production and are being supported by fewer and fewer. A third of working-age adults – the potential labor force – is out of work, compared to just one in four eight years ago. And it's going to get worse in the coming years. Thulstrup expects very little change in Denmark in 2010, in terms of economic growth. .
That also sounds depressingly familiar.
What about “flexicurity,” the Danish labor market scheme that seeks to combine employer flexibility (the ability to hire and fire easily) with employee security (publicly-funded job retraining)? Robert Kuttner praises flexicurity in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2008), while conceding that Danish conditions are unique and not applicable elsewhere. Thulstrup says flexicurity keeps the official Danish unemployment rate artificially low by forcing into job training, and then counting as employed, many people whose employment prospects are meager. In this way and others, he says, the system is susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse. Additionally, its costs are exorbitant: an “astonishing” 4.5% of GDP (as per Kuttner).
Big country, perverse ideas
We have taken our eye off the ball here in the States too. Over the past year our liberal elites have been consumed with climate control, health-care reform and public-sector pump-priming, when they should have been focusing on creating the conditions for private sector economic growth. We are now faced with the specter of laws, regulations and taxes that are unwanted and harmful, more expensive energy, and slower economic growth than would otherwise occur. That’s a shame, because economic growth is an all-purpose salve that cures a multitude of ills, and an all-purpose social lubricant that hides a multitude of sins.
The essence of all of this is the matter of incentives.
The lesson we should be learning from Denmark is that preoccupation with ritual, meaningless and nonsensical things is not costless. The cost of not working is greater than imagined over time. Misallocation of resources is not just wasteful and expensive, it does violence to the general welfare, not to mention common sense.
Dr. Roger Selbert is a trend analyst, researcher, writer and speaker. Growth Strategies is his newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends. Roger is economic analyst, North American representative and Principal for the US Consumer Demand Index, a monthly survey of American households’ buying intentions.