Finland held up as model (Burlington Free Press)

By Sara Buscher
Free Press Staff Writer

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., believes there is a lot the U.S. can learn from Finland, and he brought the Finnish ambassador here Monday to share some of that with Vermonters.

For example, Sanders said, Finland provides better care for children -- from paid family leave to free day care -- and that results in one of the world's lowest childhood poverty rates.

"In my view, one of the results of how we neglect many of our shildren is that we end up with more people behind bars, in jail, than any other country on Earth," Sanders said.

Sanders and Ambassador Pekka Lintu held a town meeting Monday night at Contois Auditorium in City Hall.

Speaking to a standing-room only crowd that overflowed into the balcony, Sanders cited the troubled U.S. economy, with its shrinking middle class, increasing poverty and widening gap between the rich and "everyone else"; a disintegrating health-care system, with 47 million uninsured; and the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, among his reasons for inviting the ambassador.

"We as a state and nation should do our very best to learn as much as possible about the best kind of economic and social models that exist throughout the world and, where these models make sense, we should see how we can adopt them," Sanders said.

"We should be avidly looking for solutions wherever they may be."

Finland has a population of 5.2 million; the U.S., more than 300 million. Finland has a homogenous population; the U.S. is diverse. Finland is the size of Montana; the U.S. is 3,000 miles wide, Sanders said.

Making clear the fact that the U.S. and Finland are two very different countries, Sanders asked, "How does it happen that in Finland they have virtually abolished childhood poverty, have free high quality child care, free college and graduate school, and have, according to international reports, the best primary and secondary educational system in the world?"

"These are models, it seems to me, that we can learn from."

Sanders introduced Lintu, who began by saying Finland has come a long way from its days as a poor, rural country 90 years ago.

Finland has one of the most competitive economies in the world, a function of the country's decision to become an egalitarian society in 1906, he said.

Combined with a system in which all people receive the child care, education and health services they need -- a safety network Lintu says makes Finns more accepting of change -- a vital economy, and excellent schools, by all accounts, the country is thriving.

The country also pays a much higher marginal tax rate than the U.S., as much as 50 percent depending on income.

"The more you earn, the higher the taxes get," Lintu said, "but you get the free day care, health care and school."

The ambassador emphasized the importance of the country's flexibility in responding to change in the past, and acknowledged a challenge approaching as its citizens age.

In 2020, 25 percent of the population of Finland will be over 65. "We are working with that," he said.

Asked whether Finland worries about an influx of immigration, Lintu said no. "We think that may be one of the solutions for our aging population," he said.

In the 1990s, immigrants made up one percent of the country's population; today, it's 2.5 percent. "We try to learn from our neighbors, how not to repeat mistakes made elsewhere," Lintu said of the country's strategy to adapt to the changing population.

Another audience member wondered how to create a culture that accepts the fact that social welfare programs cost money in taxes.

"Finns loathe tax season," Lintu answered lightly, before explaining that they want to be sure they get value for their money.

"The issue is not so much how much you pay, it's what you get for what you pay," Sanders said.

"I think in that kind of situation, people would be delighted to pay more taxes, because at the end of the day they're better off."

"I think it's a wonderful system," said Jessica Bellantone, a counseling teacher at Centerpoint School in South Burlington. "I'm especially intrigued by the educational system, which is of real value for growth; and I think in the egalitarian society, people are given a voice, simply by the nature of their governance."

In an October Reader's Digest study that compared data from the U.N. 2006 Human Development Indicators and the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index in ranking the "greenest, most livable places in the world," Finland took first place. The United States placed 23rd among 141 nations.

Contact Sara Buscher at 651-4811 or sbuscher@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com