The Nordic System

Why would Anu Partanen, a recent immigrant from Finland to the United States, feel threatened by the uncertainties of health care and education and the costs child care?  She was about to get married and these are issues that face every couple, issues that might dictate where they live and what job they might seek. But what if you are a free lancer, or a writer with only sporadic employment? She looks at her situation – one that is faced by most young people in our country, weighing alternatives, and finds none as satisfactory.

We learn that the underlying policy in Finland is equality–not just the theoretical equality we have in the US, but a real equality of substance that underlies the entire Nordic system of domestic policies. The Finns have a health care system that is open to everybody that is 100% provided by the government. The Finnish educational system, paid for by the federal government, is run mostly by municipalities and gives teachers almost complete control over how they teach. The total cost of health care and education are roughly comparable in Finland and the US, but in Finland the benefits are equally shared whereas in the US benefits accrue to those who can afford the best insurance carrier and can afford to live in the school district with the best schools. This division of basic benefits accrue to the elite; everyone else is at risk.  

What the Nordic system does is to remove a great anxiety about these two important questions: where will my child go to school? And what kind of health plan can I get and can I count on it and can I afford it?  These questions hang heavy over all young parents except those who are well off.  As she found out, the cost of living in the US makes it impossible for a modest or middle income parent to live in anything like modest comfort and raise their children themselves in a supportive family environment.  Parents get insufficient time off to raise children who are shunted off to child  care as early as six months and then to nursery schools of uneven quality.

The Nordic system evolved after WWII when the old system of the privileged class having all the wealth and power was overturned by the young new democracies that looked to America for inspiration. Equality means equally good schools without regard to incomes or where you happen to live. In Finland all teachers have masters degrees; all child care professionals have degrees in early childhood and all childcare goes to age six and is not considered an educational function but about growing and being happy children.

The system supports child raising by parents for at least the first year. The system then  provides for professional childcare. The cost to parents is minimal. For several years Finnish students rated first on tests given in the EU. It is designed as the exact opposite as to how our public education systems evolved. Instead of top down it is bottom centric. Teachers and classes are the basic unit.  They pick their books, design their schedules and choose their topics  with but broad guidelines. The goal is a well-educated student.  At grade nine students either go to an academic high school or to a technical school.  High school seniors take a rigorous test to determine whether they go to college and to which college. It’s all provided by the government.

The last chapters are about who pays and here we have comparisons with other Nordic countries and the US on tax rates. Because taxes are so different in each country and

the US system is so complex, comparative analysis is difficult.  Using the broader gage of percentage of GDP, Partanen finds similarities in costs but vastly different outcomes. The US outcomes lag far behind the Nordic in all measures. 

While this book reads like a Finnish white paper for Bernie Saunders and Elizabeth Warren,  what it doesn’t do is look at the political and cultural realities that make this country what it is.  Not only are we hopelessly divided politically and geographically, but beset with a variety of hierarchies that have built in biases for the status quo.  Too many of us like our inequality. 

After living, marrying and working here for a decade, and after becoming a US citizen, she and her husband moved to Finland to live. Life there is simply more humane, simpler, saner and more about well-being than about getting ahead.

What this book does is to put our system in a perspective.  It is helpful to be reminded that education and health care are basic to a functioning society and to a healthy economy.  We have too many people falling behind, too many people in prisons, and our general public is too poorly educated and too many are excluded from basic health care. The Finish example shows that state run systems can deliver excellent results, just as some public schools and many public hospitals America can be very good. But these excellent services are not equally distributed across all of society. Finland’s total population is 5.5 million.  In a small country the Finnish system works.  Partanen suggests that those states that are about the size of Finland might be able to adopt the Finnish system, but those states would have to have access to most if not all that state’s share of federal income tax, and that would not be possible.

What she does tell us is that a state system can be more humane, more forgiving, more people-centric than our present system. It certainly is something to think about.

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