Kuopio— Finland can be a shock to a visitor from America. The cities are clean, the highways and byways are smoothly paved and pothole-free despite the punishing winter climate faced by a country that straddles the Arctic Circle, schools look shiny and new, and it’s hard to see anyone who looks destitute.
It’s also incredibly hard to spot a police car or a police officer. Indeed, despite my spending two weeks in Finland earlier this month, including driving over 2000 miles from the city of Kuopio to the upper reaches of Lapland and back, I never saw one law enforcement officer, except at the Helsinki airport on my way home, when an elderly tourist from Turkey insisted that an airport cop accompany him to the tax rebate desk so he could file a complaint about the alleged misconduct of a woman behind the counter (the officer gently explained to the man that the law only provided for rebates of the value added tax to tourists for their purchases of goods valued at over 100 Euros, not for services).
It’s not that Finland doesn’t have its share of crimes, including violent crimes, but police are not swarming the streets, they don’t carry semi-automatic rifles on patrol, and they are even polite when they make arrests. When the teenage son of a friend of ours in Finland was caught with friends one evening a year or so ago smoking marijuana in a playground, the police simply called his parents, who came in and were advised to reprimand him and talk with him about the seriousness of taking drugs. There was no arrest or appearance before a judge, no fine, and no handcuffing.
One evening in Rovaniemi, a city in the south of Lapland, I found myself in a kabob joint, watching a Finnish TV reality cop show while I ate. Man, was it boring! Two cops joked in their patrol van. Eventually they happened on what appeared to be a young prostitute being propositioned by a young man. They pulled over and got out, not even putting their flashing lights on. Strolling up to the pair, they were all smiles. They questioned the two, informed them that they were engaging in an activity that was illegal, and told them to move along. Nobody was arrested. Nobody was yelled at. Then, still joking, they went back on patrol. Next they encountered a young man wearing (gasp!) a hoodie. Although he had a dark complexion, indicating he was part of that tiny minority of people in this country where 99.5% of the citizens are white, their approach was again polite. When they questioned him about why he was hanging around a closed shop, he tried to leave. At that point, the two cops each grabbed an arm, but there was no roughing him up, no slamming him face first on the ground with a one cop’s knee in his back, no punching or kicking. They just held him firmly and led him over to the van. In the US, that arrest would have looked totally different, and the suspect would have sustained at a minimum facial injuries and back injuries, plus he would have been cuffed. If a suspect receiving such abuse in the US were to try to resist at all, the consequences could be far worse — perhaps even death at the hands of the officers via choke hold or bullet.
Compare that reality program to the US, where the latest filming of the reality police show, “Cops!,” resulted in the police fatally shooting one of the video crewmembers filming them. They were reportedly firing at a fleeing suspect who had (allegedly) shot at them with a toy air pistol that fires harmless BB-sized plastic balls. Shooting fleeing suspects is illegal in Finland and in the US, unless the suspect is armed and poses a risk to the officers or others, but there is rarely a prosecution of police in the US who do this, even when they kill a kid.
Finns, for their part, are aghast at the reports that they were reading when I was there about the police in Ferguson, Missouri. They could not understand (nor can I), how a police officer could have repeatedly shot at and murdered an unarmed young man whose hands were in the air in surrender and whose only “crime” in the first place was not getting out of the road fast enough when ordered to. Nor could they understand how police could subsequently invade the town looking like an occupying army of Star Wars stormtroopers, complete with an armored car topped by an officer with a mounted sniper rifle.
America looks ugly enough from the inside (and I’ve seen enough of that ugliness on display in both New York City and here in Philadelphia as well as in Los Angeles to last a lifetime), but I am here to report that my country looks even uglier viewed from the outside.
My Finnish friends ask how come the school system in Philadelphia is bankrupt, with teachers being laid off even as class sizes balloon past 40 in the world’s richest economy. I reply easily, explaining that Finland spends 3 percent of its national budget on its military, while in the US military spending accounts for 50% of the national budget. Even if Social Security and Medicare, which are actually funded through separate payroll tax levies, and which are paid out to beneficiaries from those dedicated tax revenues, are added in, military spending still accounts for about 25% of the national budget in the US.
It’s not that Finland is pacifist. Hardly. Sandwiched as it is between Sweden and Russia, two countries that took turns absorbing and dominating Finland over centuries and that in intervening years used it as a battleground (I actually saw a marker in a national park delineating an ancient border, now in the middle of Finland, between the Swedish and Tsarist empires, which left not an inch of ground for Finland), it has a universal male draft and, like Switzerland, a ready-reserve of all working-age men, but these citizen-soldiers get paid little on active duty, and nothing for being in the reserve, and the country doesn’t go around the world sticking its military nose into other countries’ business, overturning elected governments, launching drone attacks, and funding opposition forces.
No wonder our roads look like something you’d expect to see in Mexico or the Philippines. No wonder so many of our schools are decrepit structures dating from the ‘40s and ‘50s — many desperately in need of repair. No wonder our food and medicine go uninspected and corporations pollute our environment without being caught by non-existent regulatory monitors.
But it’s not just the lack of a police presence, or the quality of the infrastructure in Finland, that shocks a visiting American. There are intelligent policies being pursued in Finland, even under the current conservative government there, that make the US simply look ridiculous and self-destructive.
Consider just this one: In Finland, for some time now, there has been a “Job Alternation Program” in effect. This commonsense program allows workers up to age 60 who have worked for at least 16 years in any field, from factory to university, to take up to a year’s leave at 60% of their regular salary, during which absence, the employer is supposed to hire an unemployed entry-level replacement who thus gets an opportunity to gain work experience that will hopefully allow such people to land a regular job in the field. During this paid leave, the regular employee is free to train for another skill, to volunteer, or just to kick back and recharge. This kind of leave can be taken as often as every five years!
This is a program that costs the employer nothing, as the replacement employee is paid from the savings derived from reducing the salary of the employee who is on leave. But everyone benefits: the employee who gets the time off, the young unemployeed worker who gets work experience in a chosen career, the employer, who gets both an eager young recruit to try out or train risk-free, and an existing employee who either gets a rest or new skills and comes back revitalized, or who perhaps leaves, making way for the employer to hire the new recruit at, probably, a lower starting salary than was being paid to the older worker, and the larger society, which has found a creative way to help young workers move into productive jobs. (We actually have a successful version of this at many colleges and universities. It’s called a sabbitical leave, where faculty can leave for a year, generally at reduced pay. During that time the school can replace them with cheap part-time adjuncts or a young one-year faculty appointee. Yet even here, though universities love sabbaticals, which actually save them money, not all offer them, and many that do use them as rewards for favored professors and withhold them from others.)
Another smart idea that simply doesn’t stand a chance in the Dickensian US is paid maternity leave. The US and Papua New Guinea share the distinction of being the only two countries that do not have any paid leave for new mothers. Finland, meanwhile has one of the world’s most generous programs, with mothers getting 105 days of paid maternity leave at 80% of salary when a baby is born, plus another 158 days at 58% of salary. This latter leave can be taken by mother or father or shared by both. Unpaid leave for childcare can continue through age three, with a guaranteed return to the same job. All children also have a right to daycare and afterschool care through age 7, regardless of income. This only makes sense. How else can a parent go out and work? Does all that cost Finnish taxpayers money? Of course. But we all see the results of not having such a policy here in the US, where poor parents — especially single mothers — struggle on minimal welfare (also at taxpayer expense) with a new baby because they cannot afford child care that might allow them to at least go out and earn a living.
I could go on. The list of intelligent Finnish social ideas, and the list of correspondingly stupid ones here in the US, is almost endless, like free college in Finland and a $600 monthly stipend for living expenses for college students, vs. absurdly high tuition even at public institutions and debt peonage for students in the US (I’ve already written about the shameful difference between Finland’s retirement program and our Social Security System). But I’ll leave it at that.
And lest the free market fundamentalists who abound in the US jump up and cry that such generous “nanny state” policies would surely lead to stagnation and economic decline, let me report that Finns have a higher standard of living, including six weeks of paid vacation, than we do here in the US. They live in better houses, drive better cars, get free health care for life, including long-term elder care, and live longer than we do. Their unemployment rate is 8.5% too, which while higher than the official US rate of 6.3% this summer, is actually well below the more accurate US rate of over 13% when workers who are employed only part time but who want full-time work, and discouraged workers who have given up looking for a job after being unable to find one, are included.
In short, Finland is a nice place to visit, but you probably would like to live there too. Fact is, if you’re a teenager, you could do that. This is because, unlike the US where there are a lot of rabid conservative white nativists who decry the provision of scholarships and loans to immigrants, Finland welcomes anyone from anywhere who is accepted to their colleges and universities to attend free of charge. Got that? At Finnish taxpayer expense. Of course, you’d either need to speak Finnish, or to be taking some program like music or art where you could get by without it while learning the language.