Friday, March 30, 2012

Affordable Care


Yesterday, I got up at 4:30 to take my youngest son to the airport for a trip to Spain. While he was stuffing the last of his gear into his backpack, I switched on the TV and happened to see a bit of CBS Evening News.

Here in Finland, we naturally don’t see a lot of American broadcast news. At our house, our satellite service provides international cable news channels like the UK’s Sky News and BBC, but only CNN from the States and nothing from old-school American TV networks, like NBC or CBS. 

Except, as it turns out, at 4:30 in the morning. Apparently, Sky News rebroadcasts some programming from American news shows, but only in the dead of night. So, by chance I caught the tail end of a CBS News story about health care in America – which has been a huge story this week anyway as the Supreme Court begins deliberations to decide the fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. 

The CBS story told about a health-care provider in Texas, a nurse practitioner named Melissa Herpel, who has set up her own “walk-in” clinic to offer quick medical aid without the need of an appointment. (A nurse practitioner doesn’t have a medical doctor’s degree, but is qualified to do many of the same tasks, including prescribing medicine.) Herpel’s clinic doesn’t charge as much as a doctor would and is more convenient than a visit to a hospital emergency room, making it ideal for the nearly one out of four Texans who don’t have health insurance.

What got my attention, even as I was half-wake and in bad need of coffee, were the figures being quoted in the story. Herpel was shown treating a little girl who had a large wooden splinter in her foot, for which Herpel changed her standard fee of $50 (€38), plus $15 for an injection of antibiotics. This, according to the CBS report, compares to the $900 (€680) that the same treatment might cost in an emergency room. For removing a splinter?

The $15 ($11) that Herpel charged for the shot of antibiotics might seem pricey considering that the medicine itself reportedly cost only two dollars a vial, which must be enough for several doses. (There’s, of course, also the cost of the syringe, etc.) But, that’s a bargain compared to the $100 (€75) that Herpel says the same injection would cost in an emergency room. 

If that’s the case, then having a splinter treated for under a hundred bucks probably seems like a good deal to the girl’s mother, who has to pay for it out of her own pocket because she says she can’t afford the $400 (€300) monthly cost of health insurance.

I find these figures somewhat mind-blowing, which I’m sure shows that I haven’t had any direct experience of American health care for a very long time.

I can’t say how typical $400 a month for insurance might be, though I have seen a figure of $5500 ($4100) a year for a family policy bought on the individual market, so it seems to be in the right ballpark. Nor can I say how these figures compare to Finland, where health care is based on the single-payer model. I’ve never bought health insurance here, and the only charge for visiting a doctor is a nominal office fee. Last November, when I saw a doctor about a bad cough, the office fee was €13.70 ($18). (For people under 18, it’s completely free.)

Of course, the girl in the CBS report could have had her foot treated without her mother having to pay a dime, if she had visited the local emergency room, which is required by law to treat uninsured people. And it can be argued that it's this requirement to occasionally provide free health care for 25% of the population that forces Texas hospitals to recover their costs by charging everyone else $900 for splinter removal. If it sounds like an odd system, it is.

Living here in Finland, it’s easy to forget how American medical care, which is mostly based on private health insurance, works for most people. Those who have insurance get their care from their regular physicians; those without it, go to the emergency room. And, as we all know from TV, emergency rooms aren’t the nicest of place to spend much time.

Like I say, I can’t vouch from personal experience whether the high costs reported by CBS of having a splinter removed is representative of medical care in the States. But, something tells me I’d rather not ever have to find out for myself.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Family Vacation

This is the time of the year when I start thinking seriously about summer vacation.  It’s also the time of the year when I realize it’s almost too late to think about summer vacation.  Back when we used to go to the States almost every year, March was about the last chance to find five decently priced seats on flights across the Atlantic. 

Delicate Arch.  Courtesy: National Park Service.
Maybe that’s still true, though I wouldn't know as we’re no longer often in the market for such trips.  Our summer travels to Georgia – trips to give my kids and parents a chance to spend some time together – are now a thing of the past.  My parents have passed on, and my kids are no longer kids.  The last trip we made to the States together (and maybe the last ever) was eight years ago, which somehow doesn’t seem possible.  It’s a shame it’s already been so long, but at least it was a great vacation. 

On that holiday, we combined, as we often did when the kids were small, a visit to Georgia with a trip to a meeting that my wife was attending.  As a university researcher, she is expected to attend once a year an international scientific meeting in her field, most of which are held in the summer, and often in North America at various locations.  Each summer there were several meetings to choose from, almost all equally relevant and useful for her work, so she has often been able to pick the one with the most promising vacation possibilities.  Over the years, we’ve used this model to weave our holiday plans into my wife’s conferences at such places as Maine, Maryland, Montreal and Oregon. 

Usually, I’d fly over with the kids to spend a week or two in Georgia, before meeting up my wife for the second phase of the holiday.  That’s what we did in 2004.  After, a week in Georgia with the kids, the four of us flew to Denver to meet my wife, who was flying in for a meeting in Utah.  We, however, took our sweet time (and the scenic route) getting to Salt Lake City. 

The boys on a beach in Maine, 1994.
It had long been my dream to take the kids to Yellowstone National Park, one of the true wonders of nature and a place I had not visited myself since a trip there with my parents 25 years earlier. 

It was one of the best road trips ever.  We crossed Wyoming in a day and a half.  We stopped at the grave of Sacagawea (the Lemhi Shoshone woman who as a teenager helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition across the Rockies).  We made a side trip, at my insistence, to South Pass (exactly the kind of natural gateway for wagon traffic across the Continental Divide that Lewis and Clark were hoping to discover, but didn’t). 

In the Grand Tetons, we saw grizzlies and bison, drove through deserted sagebrush on torturously slow roads, and walked a trail freshly littered with bear scat.  (Also, in a grocery store in Jackson, we happened to meet a Finnish man who apparently has lived there for decades – lucky guy.)  In Yellowstone, we saw all the world-famous geysers, hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles and waterfalls.  We took a rafting trip on the Yellowstone River just north of the park and saw more bears and bison, plus some wapiti. 

It was completely satisfying, and hopefully something the kids will remember fondly.  Leaving Yellowstone, we drove south to Utah and the site of my wife’s meeting at Snowbird, a ski resort situated at almost 8000 feet (2400 meters) at the head of a steep canyon in the Wasatch Range east of the city.  

While my wife attended talks and panel discussions, me and the kids hiked along nearby ridges and visited the Timpanogos caves south of Snowbird.  In the evenings, we hung out in the resort’s heated outdoor swimming pool while the air temperature hovered in the 40s.  Jesus, that was a great place! 

The kids in the Wasatch Range, 2004.
On the return trip, we stopped at Moab, Utah, home to Arches National Park, a kind of Mecca for me since it was here that one of my favorite writers, Edward Abbey, worked as a park ranger, a period of his life he immortalized in his classic book of nature writing, Desert Solitaire.  

We also visited nearby Canyonlands National Park, with its immense views of stark canyon landscape surrounding the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.
  At Canyonlands, we navigated our rented Dodge Durango down the scariest stretch of jeep road I have ever been on, down into a world of naked sandstone carved by the course of the Colorado River.  After reaching the bottom of the escarpment, we didn’t see another human being until we finally emerged once again on paved road near Moab four or five hours later. 

Before finally returning to Denver to catch the plane back to Europe, we made a quick trip to the prehistoric cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, a spot my wife and I had visited in the early 80s.  We also saw a bear there. 

It was an epic trip, a trip of a lifetime, really.  I’m hoping to do something similar again.  Maybe a road trip from Los Angeles to Colorado via the Grand Canyon.  It won’t happen this year.  The only meeting my wife is thinking of attending this summer is in Ottawa, which means that perhaps a road trip around the Great Lakes is in order (I’ve never been to Michigan!). 

Even if we do have a chance to make that California trip someday, I have to face the fact that it won’t be with the whole family.  They have already mostly left the nest, flown the coop.  And maybe it wouldn’t be that easy to talk them into it anyway, even if they were all still living at home.  As much as I loved the trip to Yellowstone, I’m sure not all the passengers enjoyed every minute of sitting in the car on a 3000-mile (4800-kilometer) drive, no matter how spectacular or historic the scenery passing by might be.  
Delicate Arch, and the raven who 
kept a close eye on us.


View from Green River Overlook
Canyonlands National Park


Driving on the Shafer Trail jeep road
Canyonlands National Park 


The Goose Neck bend of the Colorado River





















Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chim Chim Cheree

Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring, and as it happens, the day we had our chimney cleaned.  “Equinox” in Finnish is päiväntasaus, which means something like “day equalization”, a phrase that sounds so awkward in English I’m glad we stuck with the Latin. 

As “equal” (tasa) denotes, this day, halfway between the longest and shortest days of the year, is almost equally divided between daytime and night – believe me, a fleeting moment this far north.  And it’s a welcome sign that the end of wintery weather is only a month or so away. 

A German chimney sweep.
Photo:  Konrad Lackerbeck
Another reliable sign of spring at our house is the appearance of the chimney sweep.  By law, every house in Finland with a fireplace must have its chimney cleaned once a year.  In our neighborhood, that happens in spring, though I imagine the men in black who balance along on rooftops (without, as far as I know, a Dick Van Dyke song and dance) must also be employed other times of the year.  There must be a system for deciding when it’s your turn.  As homeowners, we don’t have much say about it.  Or any, in fact.  The city contracts with different chimney sweep firms to cover different neighborhoods, presumably according to some schedule. 

Our ladder cleared
of snow.
Yesterday it was a different outfit from past years.  Typically, a week or so before the sweep shows up we get a notice in the mail to ensure someone will be home.  Even with the prior warning, I found myself, just like last year, clambering up the roof with a shovel to dig a path through the snow covering the access ladder just before the sweep’s arrival. 

Instead of the sweep who has brushed out our soot for at least ten years -- a lanky old fellow with a fierce mustache that somehow seems perfect for a chimney sweep -- it was two young guys who showed up yesterday.  The uniform is the same, however:  black overalls, with a wide black belt, and a Boy Scout style hat a matching shade of, well, black.  

They first checked out our fireplace, then one went up the freshly cleared ladder to lower a large brush down the chimney on a black rope, while his colleague wrote out a receipt smudged with soot.  As we didn’t shake hands, I can’t say for sure whether good luck rubs off along with the soot.  But it does make for a catchy song.  


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Grits


It had to happen eventually.  Grits have now entered the discourse of American politics at the highest level. 

I’m not talking about “grit” as in 1969 Western classic “True Grit”, which won John Wayne his only Oscar (and which was remade by the Coen Brothers in 2010, a version I still haven’t seen).  “Grit”, as personified in both movies by lawman Rooster Cogburn, is the quality of being tough, determined, courageous, persistent.  Hard core, you could say. 

Finns, it would seem, know this quality well, since they have a word for it (sisu) that everyone who moves here encounters soon upon arrival.  You can’t overestimate the importance of sisu for Finns.  In the Finnish national psyche, the word sums up the essential character of Finns that has allowed them to survive, even thrive, in a harsh land.  Being so fundamental to the country, sisu has naturally been evoked often enough in political life here, similar to the way the concept of “exceptionalism” is constantly bandied about in American politics.  

Grits in the morning.  Photo: Sashafatcat
But what I’m talking about now, “grits” (always plural), is a food.  It’s porridge made from ground corn (maize, to the rest of the word) that is symbolic, in a trivial way, of my native Southern US.  Growing up in the South, grits are a part of life. 

When I was living in Athens, Georgia, working as a lab tech, I once met my boss for breakfast at a little downtown café that served a typical fare of eggs, bacon, and – as Southern tradition dictates – grits, whether you asked for them or not.  My boss, a botany professor and native of California, remarked about my sprinkling sugar on the heap of grits on my plate.  I joked that I eat grits “like a Yankee”, meaning that I adulterate them with something other than margarine or red-eye gravy.  I went on to explain that this is the only way I can eat grits.  My boss responded flatly, “I don’t even try.”

Actually, I don’t mind grits at all, and in fact I’m sure they’re healthy food.  It’s not that grits are bad; it’s just that they’re a bit bland by themselves.  Hence, my uncivilized abuse of this Southern delicacy. 

All of sudden, grits were in the news last week.  Republican candidates are currently vying for the hearts and minds of Southern voters, and they are doing this by showing how they are one with local folk using the time-honored tactic of eating what the local folk eat. 

I doubt Finish politicians face the same kind of gastronomic scrutiny and pressure to eat, in front of the cameras, such regional dishes as black sausage in Tampere or kalakukko (“fish rooster”) in Kuopio.  US candidates aren’t so lucky.  They routinely have to eat the most ridiculous food on offer at any number of county fairs across the land, including I’m sure the now-famous “fried butter on a stick”, first cooked up at the State Fair of Texas.  Candidates who are seen turning down such real-people food, risk being labeled elitists. 

Critics once ripped into Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry when – campaigning in the birthplace of the venerated Philly Cheese Steak sandwich – he had the gall to order his with Swiss cheese, instead of the de rigueur Cheese Whiz.  It showed, so claimed the purists, that Kerry didn’t have the common touch. 

To prove his own bona fides, everyman George Bush, Sr., used to make a big deal about his fondness for the Southern treat of pork rinds (crunchy fried pig skin, which actually isn’t that bad). 

With the primaries looming in Alabama and Mississippi today, grits are now on the menu – again whether you want them or not.  And you’d better want them.  Newt Gingrich, who is hoping his Dixie roots will win over voters and make his campaign slightly less embarrassing, summed it up thusly, according to the Wall Street Journal Blogs:  “If you don’t understand grits, there’s a pretty high likelihood you don’t understand the rest of the South either.” 

I think that’s a joke, whether he meant it that way or not.  But über-Yankee Mitt Romney, desperately trying to come across as down-home as possible, is taking no chances. Last week he bravely admitted that he has now tried for the very first time the South’s answer to oatmeal.  With cheese, as it turns out. 

Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich trumpeted his grits credentials by reminding Alabama voters, "I just want you to know that as a Georgian, I understand grits.  I even understand cheese grits.” 

Good to know.  May the biggest grits eater win!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Time for a Miller Run

On Sunday I went downhill skiing, the first time – I’m embarrassed to say – this winter, even though we’re already into March.  It’s been a busier, stranger winter this year, which has prevented me from doing as much as I would like to outside. 

For this short ski trip, I drove to Peuramaa (“Deer Land”), a nice, typically small ski hill about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of my home in Helsinki.  One thing to know about skiing in Finland is that the really good downhill spots are in the north, mostly in Lapland, where Finland’s only actual mountains are located.  I say “mountains”, but sadly the topography in Lapland is nothing like the Alps or the Rockies, or even my native Appalachians. 

View from the top of Peuramaa.
Finland has been ground down too much by ancient ice to boast anything other than tunturit (or “fells”), massive, solitary, rounded mountains that don’t rise much above tree line – which in Lapland isn’t hard to do.  That far north you run out of trees at around 600 meters (2000 feet).  That’s not very high even by Georgia standards (the small part of Georgia that has mountains, that is). 

Still, you don’t have to be towering to be wild and barren.  The word tunturi has the same root in the Sami language that gives us “tundra”, which tells you something about the environment on the flat summits of Lapland's highest peaks in winter. 

That’s Lapland.  The rest of the Finnish landscape rises and falls in a mosaic of hills and ridges, but mostly nothing approaching mountains.  In the part of southern Finland where I live, the highest patch of ground is some place I’ve never heard of that’s only about 160 meters (500 feet) above sea level.  (Well, that’s still higher than half of Georgia, but it ain’t that high.)

Peuramaa, where I went skiing last weekend, is lower than that.  It stands only about 50 m (160 feet) above the flat farmland to the west (if my Suunto altimeter can be believed), but it does rise abruptly, making the lower slopes quite steep.  That seems normal for ski hills in extremely southern Finland.  Most are situated atop kalliot, which are giant humps of rock that sometimes rise vertically from their immediate surroundings. 

Sunset on Sunday.
The weather on Sunday was awesome.  Blue sky, temperatures just below freezing, no wind at all, and a bright sun that didn’t set until just before the place closed at six.  The fact that it’s not already pitch dark by that time is another plus for springtime skiing. 

It was a perfect day, and as I stood on top of the hill watching the setting sun, I was put in mind of the place where I first “learned” to ski long ago.  (I have to confess, I’ve never taken lessons, as my deeply flawed technique shows all too well, but I still manage.) 

As unlikely as it might sound, Georgia used to have a ski resort.  Sky Valley wasn’t big, though it did have a vertical drop bigger than Peuramaa’s.  And it is barely even in Georgia.  To get there, you had to drive over the state line into North Carolina, and then reenter Georgia on a small dead-end road to reach a small basin under Georgia’s second highest peak (Rabun Bald, 4696 ft, 1431 m). 

When it opened in 1969, Sky Valley held the distinction of being America’s southernmost ski hill this side of the Rockies.  That is, until Cloudmont, an even more unlikely ski area, cropped up in Alabama a year later.  Building a ski resort so far south requires a level of optimism I can scarcely imagine, especially the one in Alabama, which isn’t even as high as the hill behind our family home in Georgia – a hill no one would rightly consider ski-resort material.   

Yet, Cloudmont remains in operation, while Sky Valley closed to skiing in 2004, after the resort changed hands.  It now seems to be mostly a secluded golf resort and vacation community.  But, back in the 70s, when I was in college, it was a bustling little resort where I learned with my brother and buddies how to make it down the hill on skis.   

Just under two hours from Athens, Sky Valley was great for a quick day out on the slopes, such as they were.  My roommates and I would sometimes skip classes to enjoy some less-crowded weekday skiing.  One of my best memories from those trips was inspired, as so many other things in college life are, by a beer commercial. 



Miller Beer used to run TV ads with the tagline “It’s Miller Time”.  Maybe they still do.  The storyline went like this:  in the evening, after a day well spent doing something satisfying, and manly, like building barns or racing dirt bikes, blue-collar, outdoorsy dudes would get together and throw back a few, well-deserved cold ones because, well, “It’s Miller Time.” 

When we skied at Sky Valley, we had a habit of trying to get as much skiing in as we could, especially as closing time approached.  We’d try to squeeze a few more runs in before the chair lift shut down, sometimes racing to the bottom of the hill just before they stopped letting people on.  If, on the way back up the hill, we saw that the chairs behind us were empty, we knew that was going to be the last run of the day. 

Once at the top of the hill, we’d wait while the other skiers headed back down.  We’d stand there, savoring the scenery, the camaraderie, all the fun we’d had that day.  Finally, when everyone else had cleared off the hill, we’d head down one last time ourselves, making the most of that one last run, the run we naturally dubbed “The Miller Run”.  

video

On the slopes at Peuramaa.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Super Tuesday


The Republican presidential race took a great leap on Tuesday when my home state of Georgia, along with nine others, all held primaries or caucuses on the same day.  Against my better judgment, I stayed up to around 3:30 to watch the returns come in.  Georgia was declared a win for Newt Gingrich within minutes of the polls closing at 2:00 a.m. Helsinki time.  No surprise there.  Not even Newt could manage to lose in his home state. 

Gingrich got 47% of the vote in Georgia, to Romney’s 26%.  What surprises me is that Santorum, favorite of hard-core evangelical Christians was only able to reach 20%.  Ron Paul got a pitiful 6%, which I guess shows there really isn’t much of a libertarian streak in the Peach State after all.  Republicans in my home county in North Georgia went for the native son in an even bigger way.  They cast 51% of their votes for Gingrich, giving him a whopping 28 points lead over Romney.  And this despite support for Romney from some of the county’s more prominent citizens that was enthusiastic enough to draw attention from national TV, though not exactly in a good way. 

While Gingrich took Georgia by storm, you have to wonder whether the hurricane force of his personality (read, “blow-hard”) is strong enough to carry him much beyond his home state.  It begins to look like he doesn’t have much of a natural base outside his native south, if even there.  In northern and western Super Tuesday states, like Massachusetts and Idaho, Gingrich didn’t make it higher than 8%.  In Ohio, he did better (15%), but still came in third. 

Even in the South, Gingrich wasn’t a shoo-in.  Neighboring Tennessee, just up I-75 from Atlanta, went overwhelmingly for Santorum, leaving Gingrich in distant third place.  With a less-than-stellar showing like that, it’s no wonder there’s lots of talk that Gingrich should do everyone a favor and quit.  Of course, he won’t.  Not yet.  He’s betting that Georgia and South Carolina weren’t just flukes and is putting all his chips on Alabama and Mississippi, two other Deep South states that vote next Tuesday. 

I have a feeling that the baffling allure of Newt Gingrich does not extend much beyond the Georgia state line, and he’ll lose next week, especially when God-fearing voters in Alabama and Mississippi have the option of Rick Santorum. 

If you ask me, Santorum’s allure is just as baffling as Gingrich’s.  He is not only conservative, but also a true believer.  He’s a deeply religious Catholic with an antiquated worldview that has apparently prompted him reopen a debate that many of us thought was settled over 50 years ago. 

Everyone recognizes that abortion is an incredibly emotional and tangled issue, and one that is still controversial for many Americans.  I don’t doubt for a moment that Santorum, like many conservatives, would like to see abortion disappear.  But what is surprising is that he also seems to feel the same way about birth control, decades after the Pill made planned pregnancies easier and a way of life for most Americans. 

Maybe that’s what bothers Santorum.  He is currently riding the wave of controversy over birth control that would have been hard to predict a year ago.  He has talked about “the dangers of contraception” in America, which he sees as not only unleashing sexual freedom outside of marriage, but also igniting too much sexual pleasure within it.  In Santorum’s mind, sex between a husband and wife is sullied by contraception.  Without the possibility of creating a baby each and every time, matrimonial sex is diminished, reduced to just an act of pleasure stripped of its true purpose, procreation. 

I’ll hazard a guess that most married couples in America kind of like it like that.  In ordinary times, I would say that Santorum is way out of step with his fellow citizens.  But these may not be ordinary times.  Just witness the uproar surrounding Sandra Fluke. 

Fluke, a 30-year-old law student, tried to testify before Congress in favor of forcing church-supported universities, such as Fluke’s Georgetown, to pay for birth control as part of their health-care insurance coverage.  (It was a White House proposal along these lines that first awoke the apparently long-simmering animosity of conservative Republicans to birth control.) 

Fluke told an informal panel of Democratic lawmakers that the lack of insurance coverage for birth control pills could cause hardship for low-income students at Georgetown.  She explained how a fellow student with an ovary condition treatable with birth control pills eventually lost an ovary after she was unable to get the medication through Georgetown University’s insurance. 

Now, some conservatives might simply argue against the policy Fluke was advocating.  (By the way, the public health system in Finland pays when women visit a clinic for birth control prescriptions, but not for the medication itself.  Women here have to cover the cost of the pills, unless they need them for a medical condition.)  Or conservative critics might question Fluke’s objectivity or accuse her of exaggerating the severity of the issue.  Fair points.  But that wouldn’t have been vicious enough for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, a gasbag of historic proportions. 

On his nationally broadcast show, Rush launched into a personal attack against Fluke where he called her a “slut” and “prostitute” for expecting taxpayers to pay her to have sex.  Rush’s twisted (in every sense) logic was that Fluke was having so much sex that she could no longer afford to pay for birth control herself.  He continued his on-air attacks for four days in a row, at one point suggesting that if taxpayers had to pay for Fluke to have consequence-free sex, then she should provide video tapes of the encounters so everyone could enjoy. 

Even by Rush Limbaugh standards, this is simply unbelievable.  Not to mention totally inaccurate.  Besides being incredibly insulting and juvenile, his rant bore no relation to what Fluke’s actually said, to the issue at large, or the reality of birth control itself.  For example, it would be private insurance paying for the pills, not taxpayers.  Limbaugh also seems to think a woman needs to take a birth control pill each time she has sex.  Chances are he’s confusing birth control medication with Viagra, something he apparently does know quite a bit about. 

Limbaugh finally issued a lukewarm apology when sponsors started leaving his show, but hasn’t faced much real criticism from the right over his comments, least of all from the GOP presidential candidates, who all seem afraid of him.  I would love to think that something like this would force him off the air for good, but the way things are these days, I wouldn’t get too hopeful. 

Happy International Women’s Day?






Friday, March 2, 2012

High Gas


Some recent news from the States has made me think of a time back at the end of 2007 when my sister came over from Georgia for a visit. 

We were returning from showing her something of Helsinki when I stopped to fill up our smallish family-sized car (seats six), which was down to about a quarter of a tank.  My sister offered to pay for the gas, though we’d only been doing normal driving, nothing really extra on her account.  I appreciated her offer, but refused. 

The reason was that, as an American unfamiliar with Finnish gas prices, she didn’t realize what she was offering.  It didn’t make sense for her to pay so much, just because we had driven her around a bit.  That perfectly routine fill-up, as I recall, cost 80 dollars.  For 10 gallons of gas.  Eight-dollar gas is pretty normal for Finns, but not so much for Americans. 

The average price of gas here has gone up even more in the four years since my sister’s visit and is now almost $9 a gallon.  Even that price is deceptively low, in dollar terms.  If the euro weren’t currently weaker than it was in December 2007, the price would be more like $10.50. 

Prices like that make it easy for us in Finland to find reports of folks in the States becoming almost apoplectic over the prospect of five-dollar gas almost amusing.  To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman in “Wag the Dog”:  “Five dollar gas?  That’s nothing!  That is nothing!” 

That European gas is expensive is well known in the States, and may be one more reason some Americans are chilled to the bone when politicians like Mitt Romney evoke the specter of the US turning into – God forbid – “Europe”. 

And it’s probably also well known that this price gap is largely due to taxes.  Take for example, my home state of Georgia.  The current tax on a gallon of gas in Georgia seems to be 29 cents.  Compare that to an equivalent of $3.30 in tax that Finnish motorists pay per gallon, over 10 times more.  Strip away the tax, and the price of gasoline here is only one and a half times the current US price. 

Like most Europeans, Finns are used to high gas and are, in fact, luckier than many others, such as the Italians or the oil-rich Norwegians, who are now reportedly paying a dollar more per gallon than the Finns.  I was recently in Portugal, where we noticed gas prices were about the same as in Helsinki, despite Portugal’s generally poorer economy and lower incomes. 

It seems to me that Finns are quite tolerant of gas prices that in America would almost spark a revolution because, unlike Americans, most Finns see car ownership or cheap fuel as nice to have, but not essential for life itself. 

It’s no secret that government tax policy here is designed to “shape” the behavior of drivers, and it seems to have some effect.  Most middle-class Finnish families have one or two cars, but not more, unlike in the US where on average every family member with a driver’s license has their own vehicle to go with it. 

Those with cars here are also not as quite as impulsive about using them as Americans are.  They’re not in the habit of hopping in the family SUV to drive three or four blocks to buy a gallon of milk.  In our family, we tend to use our two cars more prudently than I would have back in the States. 

Not that we completely deprive ourselves of gas-powered conveyance.  Between daily commuting, shopping trips, and hobby transportation, we certainly get enough use out of our cars, though we do try to avoid really useless trips and combine errands as much as possible.   If we need to run to the store just to pick up an item or two, we usually go on foot (a five-minute walk to the neighborhood grocery) or by bike, or do without until the next day.  Many people here would do the same as a matter of routine, though eight-dollar gas probably does reinforce this eco-friendly mindset. 

I don’t want to sound too smug about it (or Pollyannaish), but I tend to think the higher gas tax is fine.  Any incentive to use less fossil fuel can’t be all bad.  It might not even be necessary, in the case of Finland, where many people’s driving habits might have more to do with their inclination towards a more natural lifestyle than the gas price itself. 

Also, it helps that in Finland, like elsewhere in Europe, there are alternatives to the car.  I wouldn’t say the public transport here is perfect.  For example, when I worked at Nokia a bus commute required two transfers, and took twice as long as driving.  And Finland, like America, has some pretty remote countryside, where bus service is much more limited. 

Still, in Helsinki the bus is often very convenient, especially for trips into town.  A day or two ago, I offered to drive my daughter to my son’s place downtown for a visit, but she refused, choosing to take the bus instead.  There’s no stigma attached to riding the bus, even for teenagers.  Everybody does it sometimes. 

But in the States, the car is king, public transport poor (and mainly for the poor), and a tax, just tax mind you, of $3.00 a gallon would be seen as draconian, cruel even, and practically socialistic.  It’s no great insight that the economic life and lifestyle of Americans have been based on cheap gas. 

If you ask me, they’ve been spoiled – not that this makes higher gas any less devastating for families trying to recover from the Great Recession.  (GOP candidate Rick Santorum has even been claiming lately that high gas was the real cause of the Great Recession.)

I’ve heard that in Iran super cheap gas helps make up for the shortcomings in the political life of Iranians, and it’s tempting to think something similar of the US.  Like “bread and circuses” in ancient Rome, could cheap gas in America be helping to placate a disaffected citizenry? 

Okay, maybe that’s going too far.  But it sometimes seems that way when you consider the distress over the recent spike in gas prices, which has been cited as a new threat to President Obama’s re-election, despite the gradually improving economy.  Gas is that important to US politics.  When the US energy secretary dared to suggest that, in the face of rising prices, greater fuel efficiency should be the country’s goal, not cheaper gas, Newt Gingrich demanded his resignation. 

I doubt Obama’s critics really think he can personally “control” the price of oil (as Stephen Colbert hilariously implied he could do with a single phone call to “the oil companies”).  Still, that doesn’t stop them for blaming him for not opening up every square mile of American landscape to further oil drilling or doing whatever else they think necessary to preserve the God-given right of Americans to cheap gas.