The Providence (R.I.) Journal  [Printer-friendly version]
August 29, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: An editor of the Washington Post visits
Finland and observes the use of foresight and forecaring to improve
social well-being -- trying to do the least harm to the common good.
In this view, even taxes are precautionary.]

by Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor, Washington Post

Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a
successful, competitive society should provide basic social services
to all its citizens at affordable prices or at no cost. This isn't
controversial in Finland; it's taken for granted. For a patriotic
American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we
Americans are so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as
well as the Finns do?

Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded
educational, medical and welfare services. They pay nothing for
education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their
medical care, which contributes to an infant-mortality rate that is
half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively
little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health
care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared
for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another,

On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and
consume a lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense,
although they still have universal male conscription, and it is
popular. Their per-capita national income is about 30 percent lower
than ours. Private consumption of goods and services represents about
52 percent of Finland's economy, and 71 percent of the United States'.
Finns pay considerably higher taxes -- nearly half their income --
while Americans pay about 30 percent on average to federal, state and
local governments.

Should we be learning from Finland?

The question occurred to me repeatedly as I traveled around Finland
this summer. Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-
being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively
removed many of the sources of anxiety that beset our society.

But the United States could not simply turn itself into another
Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish
circumstances. Finland is as big in acreage as two Missouris, but with
just 5.2 million residents. It's ethnically and religiously
homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful
sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to
consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the
welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it
possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political
class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.

One fundamental Finnish value sounds a lot like an American principle
-- "to provide equal opportunities in life for everyone," as Pekka
Himanen, 31, an intellectual wunderkind in Helsinki, put it. Himanen,
a product of Finnish schools who got his Ph.D. in philosophy at 21,
argues that Finland now does this much better than the United States,
where he lived for several years while associated with the University
of California, Berkeley.

Finns are enormously proud of their egalitarian tradition. They are
the only country in Europe that has never had a king or a homegrown
aristocracy. Finland has no private schools or universities, no snooty
clubs, no gated communities or compounds where the rich can cut
themselves off from everyday life. I repeatedly saw signs of a class
structure based on economics and educational attainment, but was also
impressed by the life stories of Finns I met in prominent positions,
or who had made a lot of money.

One of the richest Finns is Risto Siilasmaa, 39, founder and chief
executive of F-Secure, an Internet-security firm that competes
successfully with American giants Symantec and McAfee. Siilasmaa, a
teenage nerd turned self-made tycoon, is worth several hundred million
dollars. His wife, Kaisu, the mother of their three children, has a
decidedly un-tycoonish career: She teaches first and second grade in
an ordinary school. Like every Finn I spoke to about money, Siilasmaa
would not acknowledge any interest in personal wealth. "I'm a
competitive person, I like to win," he said, "but I've had enough
money since I was 15."

This too seems to be part of Finnish egalitarianism; most Finns don't
boast or conspicuously consume (except perhaps when they buy fancy
cars). Finnish authorities know how much everyone earns, and they pro-
rate traffic fines depending on the wealth of the malefactor. Last
year, the 27-year-old heir to a local sausage fortune was fined
170,000 euros, about $204,000 at the time of the fine, for driving at
50 miles an hour in a 25-mph zone in downtown Helsinki.

The Finnish education system is also a manifestation of
egalitarianism. Surprisingly, it is a new system, created over the
last generation by a collective act of will. The individual most
responsible for it was Erkki Aho, director general of the National
Board of Education from 1972 to 1992. Aho, now 68, was "a little bit
of a radical," he told me with a smile -- a Finnish Social Democrat
who believed in trying to make his country more fair.

For reformers, education was the principal arena. The traditional
Finnish system was conservative and divisive: Kids were selected for
an academic track at the end of fourth grade. Those not chosen had no
chance at higher education. Universities were relatively few, and
mostly mediocre.

Aho and his colleagues thought schooling should be "comprehensive,"
keeping all kids together in the same schools for nine years without
tracking them by ability. Only for "upper secondary," or high school,
would academic students be separated from those with vocational

The key to reform, Aho and others believed, was teacher training.
Teaching had always been a high-status profession in Finland, but now
it would become even more prestigious. (Today there are 10 applicants
for every place in the universities that train teachers.) Teachers
would be required to complete master's degrees, six years of
preparation that combined education courses with substantive work in
subject areas. "Of course, I faced much criticism," Aho recalled.
"Upper secondary-school teachers were very skeptical. Many parents
were critical. The cultural elite said this would mean catastrophe for
Finnish schools. The right thought the comprehensive schools smacked
of socialism."

But by the end of the 1980s, the new system was broadly popular. It
was strengthened by a reform of higher education that gave Finland
numerous new, high-quality universities. A grave economic recession in
the early '90s was a key test, Aho said. "It was wonderful to see how
strong the consensus was," even in dire economic straits, he said.

By the '90s, Finland had became a high-tech powerhouse, led by Nokia,
now the world's largest maker of cell phones. Finnish students have
become the best in the world, as measured by an international exam of

In the end, I concluded that Finnish society could not serve as a
blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. Ours is
a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy,
cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of
government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those

Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be
fine with most Finns; conformity is the norm, risk taking is avoided
-- a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by
a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.

Sirpa Jalkanen, a microbiologist and biotech entrepreneur affiliated
with Turku University, in that ancient Finnish port city, told me she
was discouraged by "this new generation we have now who love
entertainment, the easy life." She said she wished that the government
would require every university student to pay a "significant but
affordable" part of the cost of their education, "just so they'd
appreciate it."

But if Finland can't be a blueprint for us, it can be an inspiration.
Education struck me as the area where Americans could most profit by
learning from Finland. Nothing achieved by Aho's reforms would be
beyond the reach of American schools if we really wanted them to
become good.

Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much
of the country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more
educated, more agile and adaptive, greener, fairer and more
competitive in a fast-changing global economy. Manuel Castells, the
renowned Spanish sociologist who teaches at the University of Southern
California and has been writing about Finland for nearly a decade,
argues that Finland's ability to remake itself followed from its
success in creating a welfare state that made Finns feel secure. "If
you provide security and it is felt, then you can make reforms," he
told me.

The complicated Finnish language includes the word talkoot, which
means, roughly, "doing work together." It's a powerful Finnish
tradition, and reflects a national sense that "we're all in the same
boat," as numerous Finns said to me. This idea has always appealed to
Americans, but in this country it has nearly always been an
abstraction. Finns seem to make it real.


TODAY, Finland is regularly cited as among the world's best in a
variety of indexes and comparisons.

For example:

The World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, ranks Finland's the
most competitive economy in the world.

Yale and Columbia universities rank nations in a "sustainability
index," which measures a country's ability to "protect the natural
environment over the next several decades." Finland ranks first.

Statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development show that Finland invests more of its gross domestic
product in research and development than any other country but Sweden.

Finnish 15-year-olds score first in the industrial world on tests of
their academic abilities.

According to a global survey by Transparency International, Finland is
perceived as the least corrupt country. (The United States is tied for

Finns read newspapers and take books out of libraries at rates as high
as or higher than all other countries.

Finland trains more musicians, per capita, than any other country.


* Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, recently
returned from a three-week trip to Finland.

Copyright 2005