Dealing With 'Envy, Puzzlement And Poverty' In Denmark

Carl Hughes writes:

Thanks for a really interesting podcast on the Danish economy. As an American who's currently living in Copenhagen for 10 months, the show resonated with my experiences and helped answer some of my questions. Living here I'm filled with a mixture of envy (everything is so green, so efficient), puzzlement (how can a country be both a social welfare state and one of the most affluent in the world?), and desperate poverty (I can't afford anything!).

I'm a PhD student writing my dissertation on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, so it's not exactly surprising that I would be poor. But, I mean, the average Dane is so much better off than the average American! And the cost of just about anything here is often three times what it is in the States. A $9 latte doesn't even raise people's eyebrows.

The average Dane seems so much wealthier than the average American. How is such a gap possible? For me, Denmark seems like the poster country for disproving Republican talking points about collectivist welfare policies leading to a poorer economy overall. This is the most collectivist place I've ever been—and it's also by far the wealthiest.

One final note on taxation. The Danes do indeed pay astronomical taxes on just about everything. What amazes me is the way that they use the tax system to socially engineer the populace to help it evolve toward the greater good. For example, the Danes love chewy soft candy—if you go into any grocery store, there's an entire aisle of it, and it's all absurdly expensive—like $5 for a little bag (I assume because of taxes). However, at the checkout lane at just about every grocery store (where the candy would be at a store in the U.S.) there are almost always locally grown organic vegetables (mostly carrots at this time of the year). These "Whole Foods"-type products are just about the only thing in the whole store that is really cheap! A mere two bucks for a large bag of locally grown organic carrots! The Danes seem to have a knack for using the tax system not just to raise revenue, but to shape society for the better as well. The 200% tax on cars is another great example. No wonder everyone rides a bicycle here.

All right, enough of the singing of Denmark's praises. After I while it gets frustrating comparing Denmark to the U.S. because we seem to lose so badly in just about every category. At least Denmark has one very big deficit: good food. Cafes and restaurants aren't just wickedly expensive here; for the most part, they're also amazingly bland. Perhaps the Danish state is just gently encouraging my wife and me to cook for ourselves....

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