Thursday, April 28, 2011

Nuclear options

We’ve been having great weather in Helsinki recently, unseasonable warm for so early in the year.  Highs this past week have been in the mid- to upper-teens (mid 60s Fahrenheit), approaching summer-like weather.  In that respect, it's eerily reminiscent of the pleasant weather we had 25 years ago today.  April 28, 1986 was, like today, nicer than usual for late April, thanks to warm winds blowing from the south.  It was so warm, in fact, that my future wife and I opened the windows of our downtown apartment to enjoy some fresh air, something we wouldn’t usually do until a month or so later. 

Normally, I wouldn’t remember anything so mundane as having a window open on a particular day, especially a quarter of a century ago, but there’s a good reason this detail has stuck in my mind.  After all, that was the day the news broke that elevated levels of radiation had been detected in Finland and Sweden, levels apparently high enough to raise some concern.  Everyone was advised to stay indoors and keep their windows closed.  We promptly shut ours, ending our premature fling with mild springtime air. 

Chernobyl's core on fire.
The announcer on the evening news explained that the source of the radiation was a mystery since officials in both Finland and Sweden had confirmed that their nuclear power plants had suffered no accidents or leaks.  The obvious suspicion was that the radioactive fallout was coming from the Soviet Union, spreading into Scandinavia on the prevailing southerly winds.  The Soviets, naturally enough, were denying knowing anything about it.  But even before the news anchor was able to move on to the next story, he was handed a fresh bulletin with the news that Moscow had indeed owned up to a nuclear mishap having taken place on its territory. 

Over the next few days and weeks, the story behind that alarming spread of radiation slowly emerged, as the horrifying catastrophe at an obscure place called Chernobyl came to light.  The worst nuclear accident in history had begun on the previous Saturday, a full two days before the warm air coming from the south had enticed us to open up our windows.  For two days, no one on this side of the Iron Curtain (except perhaps the CIA) knew that, 1045 kilometers (650 miles) to the south from my apartment, the devastated hulk of a nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR was spewing radioactive cesium and iodine into the atmosphere.

Interestingly enough, 650 miles is only slightly further than the distance between Three Mile Island, the site of America’s own worst nuclear accident, and Athens, Georgia, where I was living at the time.  Though both alarming, the difference between that 1979 accident and the one seven years later is that there was only a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and no massive explosion rupturing the plant’s containment structure.  And, oh yes, unlike Chernobyl, TMI actually had a containment structure, which apparently was a small luxury that the Soviet designers, in their wisdom, had decided to forego.  Consequently, the release of radiation from TMI was minuscule by comparison.  

Still, Three Mile Island was scary enough at the time to add a little extra fear factor when I saw the movie China Syndrome soon afterward.  In that movie, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon go up against the corrupt builders of a nuclear power plant to uncover defects in the reactor that threaten to cause a deadly core meltdown.  Lemmon pays for this with his life.  I recall that, with the reality of TMI fresh in our minds, it was a relief to emerge from the theater and find the streets of Athens still calm and apparently radiation free. 

In the all-too-real drama of Chernobyl, the disaster was far more sinister and the immediate safety of those of us in Europe far from certain.  My mother tried to reach me by phone for a day before finally getting through on the jammed lines.  Despite being the first non-Soviet territory to be raked with Chernobyl’s fallout, shifting winds meant that Scandinavia got off relatively lightly compared to more distant countries like France and Germany.  The parts of Ukraine and Belarus closest to the blast suffered misery that wouldn’t be fully known for years. 

The accident, bad as it was, didn’t seriously dampen Finns’ commitment to nuclear energy (though that’s far from unanimous).  This seems even more remarkable considering that half of the nuclear reactors operating in Finland in 1986 were built by the Soviets and were of the same basic design as Chernobyl.  However, the Finns are not fools, and had insisted on extensive modifications to the reactor design, not least of which was a containment structure. 

After years of living here, I’ve become quite sanguine (or you might say complacent) about nuclear energy.  In a cold country with large demands for electricity and few renewable sources of energy, nuclear power begins to look surprising green compared to the other options.  Finland’s four reactors generate at least 25% of the country’s domestic electricity production, roughly equal to that from coal- and gas-fired power plants.  Though the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima probably gives everyone here pause, plans for a fifth reactor are going forward.  While the prospect of another horrendous meltdown is only one stupid mistake, design flaw or natural disaster away, it helps to think (and hope) that they remain relatively rare.  

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter in Finland

The great thing about Easter in Finland is that it’s always a four-day weekend, thanks to the fact that, as the most important holy day in the Christian calendar, it’s also an official public holiday.  And it’s not just one holiday.  Besides Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Finland also celebrates Easter Monday, something unheard of in the Baptist church I was raised in. 

Practically everything shuts down here on those days (the Saturday in between being a normal day), especially all the stores – meaning you need to do some strategic grocery shopping if you want to make it from Thursday to the following Tuesday without resorting to an emergency run to the local gas station for milk or ketchup.  Or mämmi. 

Mämmi served with milk.
Mämmi is a dessert eaten only at Easter and most likely only in Finland and Sweden, and it has a distinctly ugly appearance that makes it the butt of quite a few jokes.  A thick, dark, pudding-like concoction made of malt, rye flour and molasses, mämmi is not the most appealing dessert you’ll ever see, but it is fact quite tasty.  Personally, though, I prefer the other Easter dessert, paskha, a white frothy custard introduced to Finland by the Russian Orthodox Church.  Still, the most popular Easter sweet has to be chocolate.  My favorite is the Mignon chocolate egg, produced only at Easter and as far as I know nowhere else than Finland.  The unique thing about this treat is that it’s a real, intact eggshell – filled with chocolate – that you peel as you would any hard-boiled egg. 

Being such a long holiday, Easter is a popular time for Finns to make a quick trip somewhere with the family.  We’ve occasionally used the four-day weekend for trips to Lapland, where there’s often still plenty of snow for some late-season skiing.  I have friends who are doing that right now, though as late (and warm) as Easter is this year, I have to think the skiing might be a little dodgy right now, even that far north. 

The presence of snow on the ground is just another difference between the holiday here the Easters of my youth in Georgia.  When our children were young, they did their Easter egg hunting inside the house for the simple reason that searching for chocolate eggs in the snow outside just isn’t all that fun, or challenging.  They tend to stand out against all that white snow.  Another difference is the trick-or-treating that takes place on Palm Sunday, when children – mostly girls – dress as witches to go door-to-door exchanging decorated pussy-willow switches for candy.  The connection between this and the crucifixion of Jesus still escapes me.  But, then again, you can say the same about the Easter Bunny and dyed hard-boiled eggs. 

Mignon chocolate egg starting to hatch.
Photo by Tiia Monto.
Even in secular Finland, Easter does also have a religious side.  It might be one of the few times during the year that many people actually step into a church, though based on the televised service I saw on Friday, it’s not anything like at capacity crowds.  The Orthodox church – which, to be honest, tends to exhibit a bit more flair than the Lutherans do – makes the celebration more participatory.  Part of the Orthodox Easter ritual is for the entire congregation to chant and bear lit candles as they follow their priest in a procession circling the church several times.  It can be quite a spectacle, though I have to confess I’ve only seen it on TV occasionally.  In my family, we have concentrated only on the cocoa- and sugar-based rituals of what is a thankfully long holiday. 

Happy Easter, everyone!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Finnish Election Drama

This past weekend, the first this year with weather pleasant enough for some serious yard work, Finland held a parliamentary election.  To someone like me, who doesn’t pay that much attention to Finnish politics, these once-every-four-years polls are usually unremarkable, especially when you compare them to the circus that US politics has become. 

Finnish politics has been dominated in recent decades by three main parties:  the National Coalition Party (center-right), the Center Party (well, the name says it all), and the Social Democrats (center-left).  To be honest, I couldn’t reliably say what the differences are between these three, beyond the basic philosophies indicated by their location on the political spectrum.  For example, the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus, in Finnish) is generally more pro-business than the other two, while the Social Democrats are likewise the most pro-labor of the three. 

Fittingly for the consensus nature of Finnish politics, these three parties mostly agree on the main issues and squabble only over details.  At least that’s how it looks to me.  All three are decidedly in favor of Finland’s social-welfare system.  All three support a foreign policy of neutrality and strong international cooperation, though Kokoomus comes closer than the others to envisioning Finland joining NATO.  And all three are squarely behind Finland’s liberal stance on equal rights. 

Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns.
Photo by Soppakanuuna
This isn’t much different from the way the US political scene appears to folks over here.  While Americans might like to think Republicans and Democrats represent diametrically different approaches to government, Finns wouldn’t necessarily see big differences between two.  I would disagree with that view, especially considering the 180-degree direction the Dems and GOP have taken on health care and other issues recently.

Politics here in Finland is, of course, not limited to two parties, or even just the Big Three. Voters can also choose from a dozen or so other parties of varying sizes and political beliefs.  Among the smaller parties that garner enough support to actually make it into parliament are the Swedish People’s Party (historically advocating for Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority), the Left Alliance (the most-mainstream of the parties that survived the turbulent history of Finnish Communism), the Green League, and the Christian Democrats.  A relative newcomer to these also-ran parties is the so-called True Finns Party, or Perussuomalaiset in Finnish.  I’m not sure why this party’s name is invariably translated as “True Finns”, since it actually means “Basic Finns”.  Maybe that somehow doesn't sound as sexy. 

Sexy or not, Perussuomalaiset has been turning heads since Sunday, and not in a good way.  I’ve always found elections in Finland to be fairly sedate affairs.  Campaign ads on TV are nothing like the overly produced spots you see in the States.  Most candidates rely on newspaper advertisements and election placards that are displayed side by side in large, purpose-built aluminum frames set up on sidewalks so passers-by can check out the candidates from different parties.  Flags fly on Election Day itself, and there’s notably higher foot traffic past our house as more people than normal – even for good weather – stroll by on their way to the little hilltop school that serves as the polling station for our neighborhood. 

Voting itself is simple.  You just write the number assigned to your candidate in the circle printed on an otherwise blank paper ballot and drop it in the box.  Non-Finnish permanent residents, such as myself, can vote in municipal elections, but not in national races.  After the polls close, the election results dominate TV programming, but the vibe is extremely low-key compared to the Las Vegas glitz of US election coverage.  The votes are usually all counted and the winners declared well before midnight, and the results themselves are, from my point of view, always a bit ho-hum. 

Not this Sunday.  To the shock, and I mean that literally, of most people I know, the True Finns won a landslide victory.  They didn’t come in first, or even second.  For this renegade, protest party, a third-place finish was enough to upset the apple cart of Finnish politics.  By winning 19% of the vote nationwide, the True Finns added a whopping 34 parliament seats to the mere five they held previously.  Only five seats shy of the 44 won by first-place Kokoomus, the True Finns came surprisingly close to putting their charismatic and eloquent leader, Timo Soini, in the driver seat of the next government.  This has surely scared the bejesus out many Finns.  

Voters checking out the candidates.
It’s not as if the True Finns came out of nowhere.  The party was founded in 1995, from the ashes – so to speak – of the populist Finnish Rural Party, which had fizzled out after its own charismatic and eloquent leader stepped down.  Until this Sunday, however, the True Finns have had at best a marginal influence on Finnish politics. 

It’s tempting to compare the True Finns to the Tea Party in the States.  There are similarities.  Both are protest movements tapping into grass-root dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.  Both hark back to a more “traditional” past, and both gleefully thumb their noses at the political establishment.  But while the Tea Party is fixated on lowering taxes and shrinking the size of government, the True Finns seems to be fully in favor of the welfare state and progressive taxation, which makes it positively leftist.  What sets the True Finns apart from the mainstream Finnish parties is its more blatant appeal to nativism.  It is skeptical of the EU and favors restricting the flow of new immigrants, at least those who come here on humanitarian grounds.  These views, to say the least, are not shared by most Finns, but are nonetheless signs of a worrying trend in this country.  Whether this trend eventually propels the True Finns to more shocking electoral wins and an even bigger role in government will have to wait until another springtime Sunday, four years from now.  

Friday, April 15, 2011


Last November one of the richest men in Finland visited my daughter’s school to join the country’s foreign minister in a small ceremony kicking off “Mission to Finland!”, a campaign to boost Finland’s international brand image.

The wealthy businessman on the little stage in the school lunchroom was Jorma Ollila, the former CEO of Nokia and the man widely recognized as responsible for transforming that company into the world’s biggest mobile phone maker.  While Ollila has since retired as the head of Nokia, he still has a day job as chairman of the board, not only of Nokia but also the oil giant Shell.  And he’s still being well compensated – by Finnish standards, that is.  This best-known titan of Finnish industry made just under 6.1 million euros ($8.5 million) in 2009, making him Finland’s number one salaried employee for that year. 

I happen to know this because, as for practically everyone else in Finland, Ollila’s taxable income is a matter of public record.  Every autumn, the Finnish tax authorities make available data (income, capital gains, and tax rate) for all taxpayers making over €10,000 ($14,000) in the previous year.  Opening up such information to anyone who cares to ask for it is a kind of transparency (or, as many in the States would see it, lack of privacy) that might well be unique to Finland. 

It also uncovers a rich vein of data that the news media can mine for juicy tidbits on how well the Finnish well-to-do are doing.  Just after the 2009 data became available, the Helsingin Sanomat, the nation’s biggest daily, ran its traditional four-page spread profiling the top earners in different niches of public life.  At the centerpiece of the paper's coverage are two lists, one ranking the 50 individuals with the biggest paycheck and a separate one listing those true capitalists who make most of their money not with a salary but from stocks and other capital gains. 

It’s no real news that ex-CEO Ollila came in at the top of Finland’s wage earners, a position he held in 2008 and, for that matter, probably since the 1990s.  The total tax rate on Ollila’s seven-figure salary, combined with his €222,000 in capital gains, was 45%, allowing him to pocket a net of €3.5 million (less than $5 million).  For comparison’s sake, The New York Times has reported that last year’s median pay for 2000 CEOs of major US firms was $9.6 million. 

In the top-fifty ranking Ollila is in familiar company.  Eight of the earners on the list are Nokia executives, which seems to me to be a bit fewer than in previous years.  One of the fellow Nokians is Ollila’s successor as CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, who earned €4.75 million ($6.6 million) in 2009.  When I used to work at Nokia’s glass-and-steel headquarters in Espoo, you could see these two mobile-phone millionaires almost daily sharing a table in the company canteen at lunchtime with a couple of other top Nokia bosses, often right next door to your own table.  I always loved that kind of “common touch” atmosphere that seems typical at Nokia. 

Even perched as they are at the top of the list of high earners, it would be wrong to think Ollila and Kallasvuo are the richest Finns.  When you add investment income -- for example, from stocks -- nine other individuals made more than Ollila.  Most belong to old-money families, with the owners of the Helsingin Sanomat publishing group most prominent, including the group’s biggest owner who earned €16 million ($22 million) from his investments in 2009. 

In addition to the top-fifty list, Hesari (everything in Finland has a nickname, including newpapers) ran small articles highlighting those who made the most in different fields.  In sports for 2009, it was a golfer who earned €305,000 ($425,000).  If you think that’s a pittance compared to what athletes in the States make, keep in mind that Finland’s wealthiest sports stars, including Formula One drivers and a couple dozen NHL players, mostly live abroad in more taxpayer-friendly countries. 

In the arts, the top spot for 2009 went to the conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who pulled in €603,000 ($841,000) to rank 160th among all Finnish wage earners.  Again, as with the biggest sports stars, Saraste, who has spent most of his career working in Toronto, London and Oslo, pays most of his taxes abroad.  The highest-paid Finnish writer and the biggest-grossing pop musician each earned around half a million.  Sofi Oksanen, the prize-winning author and currently hottest young talent in Finnish literature, ranked 296th with her nearly €480,000 income. 

Hesari also lists the top ten earners among trade union bosses and their counterparts in industry organizations (€286,000 for the chairman of the Finnish teacher’s union, versus €420,000 for the head of the forestry trade group).  The paper especially notes that a lobbyist for the nuclear-power industry made €140,000 in 2009, almost as much as the government minister responsible for overseeing that industry. 

Other details give a similarly revealing look at who's making the most money and how.  For example, number nine in the wage-earner list is a 30-year-old professional poker player who – maybe quite literally – raked in a pot of €1.7 million ($2.4 million) in 2009.  Or, consider the fact that only four women made it into the ranks of the top 100 earners, with the best-compensated female coming in at number 40.  

While broadsheets like Hesari take a more-or-less journalistic approach to the release of tax information, the tabloids here go a step further to satisfy their reader’s inner voyeur by publishing the raw data for thousands of ordinary citizens, in fact, anyone making more than €150,000 ($210,000).  If that’s not exactly “ordinary”, it’s quite a bit closer to it than someone making €16 million. 

The newspapers, of course, are simply packaging info that anyone on their own can request from the tax authorities, even for those of us making less than €150,000.  I’m not sure how you go about doing this, or how often those people who always wondered what their neighbors or co-workers were making actually go to the trouble of finding out. 

Apparently, there is a market for such information, however, especially if you cut out the middleman (or in this case, the taxman).  Showing a certain enterprising spirit, at least one Finnish company was until recently offering a service where mobile phone users could send a text message requesting the income info on anyone in the tax authority’s database and have their curiosity satisfied in a matter of seconds. 

It was no doubt a profitable service, but has now been shut down due to privacy concerns.  Disseminating public information about private persons is one thing, but profiting from it by making it so damn easy perhaps crossed the line. 

P.S.  As tax rates seem to be a never-ending obsession for most Americans, especially today April 15th,  it’s interesting to see that tax rates for Finland’s top-fifty earners in 2009 ranged from 31% to 51%.  Some Americans might find this confiscatory, but here such rates seem generally accepted as important for keeping Finnish society moving forward.  Happy Tax Day, America!  

Friday, April 8, 2011

Golf in April is the cruelest sport

I’m not a golfer, and in fact I have a certain prejudice against the sport.  But even here in Finland I can’t help being keenly aware when the Masters Tournament in my home state of Georgia rolls around every April.  It’s not that I care who wins, because I don’t, not even slightly – though I used to think Tiger Woods was cool. 

Grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club.
Photo by pocketwiley
I wouldn’t even remember that the Masters takes place this time of the year if not for the fact that I sometimes happen to see brief reports about it on CNN.  Despite myself, I can’t ignore those TV reports from Augusta, with their footage of the world’s top golfers in shirtsleeves – shirtsleeves for Christ’s sake – strolling over perfectly manicured green grass, often with flowering dogwoods or azaleas in the background.  And all that sunshine.  It just doesn’t seem fair. 

Springtime in the South is amazing, an unfolding display of flowers and scrubs blossoming everywhere you look, woods turning green almost before your eyes, and nights filled with the pulsating sound of invisible tree frogs.  At least that’s how I remember it.  Spring is what I miss the most about Georgia and is something best not brought to mind when in Finland we still have thick snow on the ground in April and where any semblance of spring – or what passes for spring here – is still a good month away. 

That’s why those springtime images from the Masters being broadcast into my living room every April always remind me of how nice this season really can be when it’s done right.  When I look out the window on a typically gray April day here in Helsinki, such reminders just seem a bit cruel.  

April in Helsinki.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Roots I

I tend to take some exception to the notion of American exceptionalism.  Or at least the way it’s sometimes used to rally folks around a certain jingoistic view of the US.  The belief that America is exceptional – uniquely different from any other country in the world – is an article of faith among the majority of my countrymen.  It’s a staple of many politicians’ talking points and not something to be hidden under a bushel if you aspire to higher office.  For example, because Barack Obama doesn’t talk about the concept as much as some of his conservative critics think he should, they have questioned whether the President believes sufficiently in the exceptionalism of the country he leads. 

Germans immigrants arriving in America, 1874.
Many Americans interpret “exceptionalism” to mean the US is better than any other country in the world.  Whether this is true for every single facet of life in the US is a topic for another day.  (Hint: it ain’t necessarily so.)  But I do feel one part of the American story clearly set the US apart from most other countries, especially those in Europe:  the United States is a nation of immigrants, some fresher off the boat than others, but newcomers all the same.  (Not counting, of course, the some two-and-a-half-million Native Americans who trace their origins back to the continent’s very first human inhabitants, nomads who crossed over from Asia thousands of years ago seeking new lands.) 

The rest of us descended from much more recent nomads who came for much the same purpose – to make a new life in a new home.  It goes without saying that such bouts of restlessness have swept through all peoples around the world at one time or another.  Soon after the Ice Age, the original inhabitants of Finland migrated from an ancestral homeland, much further east in present-day Russia, to relocate in this cold corner of Europe, while their distant ethnic cousins settled in the warm, arid plains of Hungary.  I’ll leave it to the Finns to decide whether they took the right turn in that move. 

Europe has undergone many such migrations in a dizzying game of geopolitical musical chairs, with different tribes and peoples constantly changing places over the centuries as they pushed themselves or were pushed by others or otherwise just drifted onto new real estate.  Compared to the days when the likes of the Huns and the Vikings were stirring things up all over Europe, the continent has been mostly static for some time now – despite all the redrawing of maps kicked off by the fall of the Iron Curtain.  This is why most modern European nations have tended to identify themselves along ethnic lines in a way that America does not.  Except for some spots where a minority group spills across a national border, France is the land of the French, England is the home of the English, and so on. 

Such national identities can make for rigid attitudes towards newcomers.  Until about ten years ago, Germany did not grant citizenship to second- or third-generation Turkish residents who had lived all their lives in the country.  I’ve had British friends tell me that England is not an immigrant country, meaning the growing population of citizens of Pakistani or West Indian descent doesn’t really seem to fit in there. 

America is different – if you will, even exceptional – in that there is no such thing as an “ethnic American” (again, except for Native Americans).  You can’t distinguish an American from a Nigerian or Nepalese just by their physical appearance.  And no wonder.  Unlike almost any other country, the US is made up of people from every corner of the globe who, despite sometimes facing prejudice and hostility, have found a new home in America.  This includes Finns. 

Little Italy, New York City, 1903. Photo by Debivort.
On a dresser in the apartment of my wife’s almost 100-year-old aunt in Turku, in southwestern Finland, sits a gilded mantel clock, a family heirloom that belonged to her late husband.  He was born in New York City in the early 1900s, a child of one of those emigrant families that crowded into the five boroughs in a period immortalized by many a Hollywood film.  This young New Yorker’s parents, however, eventually decided to return to Finland, which shows that not all the huddled masses who came to America necessarily found it to their liking. 

Of course, many transplanted Finns did.  Some years ago in Yellowstone National Park, we were walking among some hot springs and smelly fumaroles when a couple of elderly women overheard my wife and kids speaking Finnish.  Excitedly, the pair approached us to introduce themselves as third-generation Finnish-Americans and to try out the fractured (and quite old-fashioned) Finnish they had, more or less, learned as children. 

Like these two delightful ladies, most Americans are proud of their roots and happy to claim the different nationalities or ethnic groups that make up their heritage.  I know Americans who are Greek-Irish or German-Irish or Dutch-Indonesian or Japanese-Finnish.  Such ethnic mashups aren’t at all unusual, especially in certain parts of the country like the Northeast, where the pots of New York and Boston have been melting for centuries.  By contrast, the southeastern US where I’m from has always seemed a much less diverse place, populated mostly by only two hyphened forms of Americans, Anglo and African. 

That is rapidly changing.  Alabama, South Carolina and other southern states that haven’t traditionally been home to large Hispanic populations have, over the last ten years, seen a doubling of Latino residents.  Georgia now ranks 10th nationally in terms of the number of Hispanics living there. 

These statistics only confirm what anyone has been able to see for themselves in my small hometown in the Georgia mountains over the past 10-15 years.  Every time we have visited in recent years, we’ve noticed more and more short, dark-skinned men, often walking along the highways into town.  These newest arrivals to the county are Central Americans, mainly Guatemalan, who originally came to work in the local chicken-processing plant and apple orchards.  It’s quite different from my childhood, when practically the only Hispanics living there were professionals – including our only surgeon and veterinarian – who had fled Castro’s Cuba. 

Today, the Latino migrants to my hometown are willing to do less-desirable manual labor to make a better life for themselves.  Like my own ancestors, they are reliving that classic – and, let’s be honest, not always easy – story of folks looking for new opportunities and putting down roots in a new land.