Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of some 350 people in City Hall last night, Senator Bernie Sanders thanked Ambassador Pekka Lintu of Finland for visiting Vermont to discuss what Sanders called "one of the best economic and social models in the world." The ambassador met with students and faculty at the University of Vermont, where he focused on education. He lunched with business leaders, and in the evening appeared at the packed town hall meeting.
"We 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 to this state and this country. This is especially true today when the United States faces so many difficult problems," Sanders said.
"It is no secret to anyone in Vermont that the American economy today is in pretty serious trouble: that the middle class is shrinking, poverty is increasing and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. It is also true that despite all the rhetoric about family values, the American worker now works the longest hours of anyone in a major country, and that many of our families are stressed out and exhausted.
"It is no secret that our health care system is disintegrating, that 47 million Americans have no health insurance and, despite that, we spend twice as much per capita on health care as any other nation.
"It is no secret that the way we treat our children is nothing less than shameful; that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world; our childcare system is totally inadequate; that too many of our kids drop out of school and that the cost of college is increasingly unaffordable. And, in my view, one of the results of how we neglect many of our children is that we end up with more people behind bars, in jail, than any other country on earth. There is a correlation between the highest rate of childhood poverty and the highest rate of incarceration."
In talking about the United States and Finland, Sanders noted demographic differences. Finland has a population of 5.2 million people compared to more than 300 million in the United States. Finland has a very homogenous population, while the U.S. is extremely diverse.
"And yet, as we acknowledge the difference we should also acknowledge that we are all human beings with very much the same DNA, the same kind of intelligence and the same human needs," Sanders said. "In that context we should ask how does it happen that in Finland they have virtually abolished childhood poverty, have free high quality child care, free college and graduate school education and have, according to international reports, the best primary and secondary educational system in the world. Is there something that we can learn from that model?
"In Finland, a high quality national health care program exists which provides almost free health care for all - and ends up costing about half as much per capita as our system. In Finland, when students become doctors and nurses they leave school debt free - because there are no costs in going to school. Is there something we can learn from that model?
"In Finland, in the midst of having one of the most competitive economies in the world, 80 percent of workers there belong to unions and the benefits that workers receive there, such as unemployment compensation, dwarf what workers in this country receive. One statistic that I found particularly interesting is that in Finland workers receive 30 days paid vacation, plus ten national holidays."
Finland has had its share of problems, Sanders noted, including severe economic downturns and an economy that is not immune to what happens in the rest of the world.
"Having said that, there is no question that Finland, as well as other Scandinavian countries have much to be proud of. When one thinks about the long march of human history, it is no small thing that countries now exist, like Finland, which operate under egalitarian principles, which have virtually abolished poverty, which provide almost-free quality health care to all their people, and provide free, high quality education from child care to graduate school. These are models, it seems to me, that we can learn from."
To read The Burlington Free Press coverage of the town hall, click here.
To read about the ambassador's trip to Vermont in The Nation, click here.
To read about Finland's education system in The Wall Street Journal, click here.