Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Country Where I Quite Want To Be

Life is good in Finland. 

I have to confess that’s one of my main motivations for this blog – a certain satisfaction, maybe dangerously bordering on smugness, that I have in living in a country that has figured out how to do things right. The best place on earth.

Okay, that’s perhaps an exaggeration. An oversimplification. And it’s certainly nothing I can take credit for myself. It was mostly by accident that I was lucky enough to end up in one of the world’s sweet spots.

When I used to imagine myself living abroad (and I did sometimes), the expatriate life I envisioned for myself was, for some reason, in Mexico City. Yet, a series of random circumstances carried me, apparently rudderless, in quite a different direction. Maybe not exactly to my credit, but there it is.

Map credit: Legatum Institute (TM)

The lucky thing is the spot of earth where I did end up seems to about the best place I could hope for. Of course, I could just be telling myself that to compensate for not ending up in Beverly Hills instead, or in Monaco, quaint, unassuming towns that I’ve heard also  have their good points. At least, people seem to think so.

It’s no doubt healthy for everyone to accept, even embrace, our little corner of the planet as the place where we always wanted to live. Maybe that’s the coping mechanism that all of us, no matter where we reside, are forced to employ – unless we actually do live in Beverly Hills or Monaco. Maybe the happy residents of Fargo, North Dakota, open the door every morning, drink in the landscape of flat frozen fields and declare, with gusto, “By golly, this is the best place on earth.”

Like I say, a coping mechanism.

Still, despite some obvious items missing from my personal wish list (real mountains, intelligible local language, sunshine), I really am not deluding myself in thinking that life in Finland is good. There is proof.

By happy coincidence, that proof often comes in a form that appeals to some quirky, even geeky, weaknesses of mine: maps, metrics, and country comparisons.

Every few months, this or that international organization or think tank publishes their rankings of the best, the safest, the freest, the happiest, the whatever, countries to live in. Often this accumulation of massive country-specific data is presented in easy-to-grasp interactive maps or infographics, always a bonus in my book.

It’s good to keep in mind that these surveys may have their flaws in methodology and possible bias, but one thing is consistent and obvious in almost all of them: certain parts of the globe, especially the Nordic countries, always tops the lists. Every time. Finland, unsurprisingly, is usually in the top five or ten.

It’s a nice confirmation that, despite the mosquitoes, icy sidewalks and excruciating lack of sunshine for months on end – did I mention that? – there is no better place to be.

The most recent of these rankings that I’ve run across is the Legatum Prosperity Index™, published since 2009 by a think tank based in the London neighbor of Mayfair (reportedly, also not a bad place to live).

In the Legatum list for 2014, Finland ranks as the eighth most prosperous out of the 142 countries surveyed, unchanged from the 2013 report. In 2012, it was seventh; in 2010, third.

The top three countries are Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand, all places I could so see myself living (real mountains!). Norway has been number one for five years running. Oil obviously helps. The US barely made it into the top ten, rising one spot from 11th place last year (12th in 2012).

And this brings me to my not-so-honorable ulterior motive for fixating on such rankings. The poor showing that the US often merits relative to other developed countries confirms my bias that America is, well, going backwards. I blame Ronald Reagan. I seriously do.

Such rankings are always good for liberals, like myself, who like to point to Europe/Scandinavia as models of harmonious egalitarian societies with strong social welfare systems – the complete opposite of the type of society that politics has been tugging the US towards since 1980. It’s not as much about gloating (I hope), as exposing Americans up to the novel idea that the USA is not necessarily Number One. Reducing that message to hard facts and figures helps.

In most of the eight categories the Legatum Institute assessed for its report, Finland ranks ahead of the US by around six places, and the US outscores Finland only in two (Economy and Health).

Maybe it’s not much of a surprise that the US ranks nine places higher than Finland in “Economy” (17th versus 26th), though the two countries were separated only by two spots in 2013. I am guessing this is due mostly to the US finally pulling ahead of Europe in economic terms five years after the nominal end of the Great Recession.

Obviously, the US economy is humming along relatively better, while things are still pretty stagnant or even going downhill a bit in Finland, which has occupied the 26th place in the Economy category two years in a row. This is after dropping from its high-water mark of 9th place in 2010, when Finland ranked 3rd in the survey overall.

What is shocking to me, however, is that Finland’s ranking in “Health” is 14 places behind the 1st place finish of the US, especially when you consider the bad rap that US health care gets compared with the generally good reputation of Finland’s terveydenhoitojärestelmä (“healthcare system”).

Drilling down into the details of the report’s methodology reveals a possible reason for this disconnect. Legatum’s scoring for “health” seems to be based quite a bit on how much money a country spends on health care, not necessarily how effective or efficient all that spending might be.

It’s a bit like an airline passenger thinking his seat is much better than an entirely identical one because he paid twice as much as for his seat as his fellow traveler did. To make a more exact analogy, it’s like paying 151% more ($8895 in the US versus $3544 in Finland) for a middle seat (life expectancy of 78.7 years) instead of an aisle seat (80.6 years). If it costs more, it must be better! Right?

But the biggest differentiator between the two countries closest to my heart is the category of “Safety and Security”, where Finland ranks 3rd in the world compared to America’s much less comfortable 31st spot.

This category attempts to measure not only ordinary crime, which is low in Finland, but also levels of persecution and civil unrest, which are virtually non-existent here.

While in Finland more people feel safe walking alone at night compared to the US (83.5% versus 76.5%) and fewer report being victims of theft (11.1% vs. 17.%), more Finns have been assaulted than Americans (2.4% vs. 1.5%) according to the report. That last point is surprising and, I have to say, a bit doubtful.

Also, considering the violent reputation of American streets, it’s amazing to think that fewer than two Americans out of a hundred have ever been assaulted, thought when I think of it, I have never been attacked when I lived in the States. It might just go to show that the fear and hype of crime are sometimes greater than the reality.

In terms of persecution, both Finns and Americans have about the same freedom to safely express political opinions, but the US suffers three times more from “group grievances” (4.2 vs. 1.4, on a scale of 1 – 10) and “state sponsored political violence”.

You only have to look at Ferguson, Missouri, to see why this rings true. Such tragic, incendiary, high-profile incidents aside, I too often see reports from the US of police shooting citizens under circumstances that might be justifiable, but are often murky and incites distrust. That's something that doesn’t happen here. It helps that Finland isn't awash in guns, for which I'm thankful.

The Legatum ranking between the US and Finland is much the same when it comes to other indicators of civil unrest. Finland also does better than the US in all of those measurements – except one, “human flight”, which I understand to be an indication of population outflow from a country, apparently due to civil strife.

I’m not surprised by the US’s good score here, considering the fact that people risk their lives, and actually die, trying to get into the country. I can't imagine people trying to escape the US. I am puzzled, though, by Finland’s score, which is much closer to the global average. There are no major waves of people fleeing Finland that I’m aware of.

And why would they, since this is the best (well, 8th best) country on earth? Maybe they’re simply solar migrants, escaping to some elusive land where they’re heard that the sun, the long-forgotten sun, really does shine. 

Monty Python was wrong about the mountains, however. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Berlin Wall

In 1989, after I had returned to Finland following a few years studying in the States, a friend of mine from Georgia came for a visit. 

Jerry was on something of a Grand Tour of Europe, interrailing around the continent, and made a point of visiting us in Helsinki. In addition to doing some sightseeing around the Finnish capital, Jerry took advantage of the very favorable situation Helsinki held back then as a jumping-off spot for tourists who wanted to penetrate the Iron Curtain and see what was on the other side. 

There was a travel agency in those days, FinnSov Tours, which specialized in arranging trips to the not-so-accessible parts of the Soviet Union. I seem to recall it was an actual joint venture between Finnish and Soviet enterprises. In any case, FinnSov had connections that allowed it to offer a wider range of package tours to the further reaches of the USSR than most travel agencies could. (FinnSov is still around, but no longer seems to have such a privileged spot in the Russian tourism business.) 

After studying the destinations FinnSov had available, Jerry shouldered his backpack and flew off on one of the agency's tours of Central Asia, spending a week or more visiting some of the epic stopovers on the legendary Silk Road. He went to Bukhara, Tashkent, and Samarkand, antique place names that evoke images of Marco Polo and camel trains laden with spices and precious stones. And silk, of course.

He returned to Finland from his no-doubt edifying trek to the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic shortly before my wife and I were to travel to Rome with our five-month-old son. Jerry had been thinking that before flying back to the States he would wrap up his European trip with a visit to West Berlin, partly to see the Wall that symbolized the all-too-concrete reality of the East-West divide during the Cold War. 

He changed his plans, however, deciding instead to skip Berlin in order to fit Italy into his itinerary and meet up with us briefly in the Eternal City. I imagined he figured he could see die Berliner Mauer on some future trip to the edge of the Free World. 

The closest I ever got to the DDR
Witzenhausen, W. Germany, 1983.

Five weeks later, the Wall fell. 

Although some sections of the Wall still remain 25 years after Germans on both sides started demolishing its slabs of reinforced concrete, the Wall forever lost the chilling mystic that I’m sure it still held in 1989. If Jerry had only known, he might have stuck to his original plans and put off until another time the chance to gaze on the ruins of the Colosseum. That is one concrete edifice does seem to be truly eternal.

I never saw the Wall when it was still the menacing barrier it was meant to be. My wife and I drove through West Germany a couple of times in the early 80s, but never got closer than a kilometer from the DDR, and certainly never made it to the enclave of West Berlin. With all the East German checkpoints to pass through along the way, that would have been an interesting drive. 

In 1993, four years after the Wall fell and on our way to France, we found ourselves once again passing through what was now a reunited Germany (no “East” or “West”). Driving south from Kiel, we decided to take a left turn in Hannover and detour into the former Ost-Deutschland

As we drove along the autobahn leading to Berlin, we were immediately struck by the nature of the heavy traffic heading east. We shared the road with what seemed like an endless procession of trucks, all loaded with building material. We could also see trucks in the opposite lanes, returning westward, empty. The reconstruction of the east was in full swing.  

At the little town of Helmstedt, very close to the erstwhile DDR according to our outdated road map, we left the autobahn and continued east on a smaller road, keeping a lookout for signs of the former border. Nothing. 

Nothing obvious to mark the line where NATO and Warsaw Pact forces had once faced off. 

Then, as we crossed a low hill and descended into the next village, we noticed something. Unlike Helmstedt, this little town looked plainly rundown. All the buildings were older, shoddier, needing paint. It was obvious that we have already crossed into the former territory of East Germany. 

We turned around, driving back to the top of the hill where we now recognized that the lone narrow three-story building by the roadside must have been a watchtower. I think it now housed a snack bar or such. 

A preserved stretch of the Wall at the Topography of Terror museum.

We also noticed two single-lane roads leading away into the wood on the north side of the highway. The two roads were some meters apart, running parallel to each other. The westernmost was graveled with a thin strip of grass growing in the middle. It looked just like any jeep road that I know so well from my native mountains in north Georgia. In short, it had a very "American" feel to it, but maybe that's how all jeep roads look in Germany. The one on the east was more “industrial”. It consisted of two narrow ribbons of concrete laid on the roadbed, separated by the length of an axle. 

Military roads hugging the border on either side, once patrolled by soldiers under the command of two superpowers hysterically wary of each other. 

After identifying the “border”, we continued onward to the east, but only as far as Magdeburg before heading south again toward Switzerland and France. On that trip, we didn’t have time to go all the way to Berlin. 

I did make it there on a business trip 15 years later, though there wasn’t much spare time for sightseeing. I did manage to make a quick visit to the Brandenburg Gate (no remnants of the Wall that I could see), and got off the U-Bahn once at Potsdamer Platz, where I found only a couple of graffitied sections of the wall standing in a park in Leipziger Platz. Crossing that small grassy park was a line, two-cobblestones-wide, embedded in the ground, tracing where the Wall had once stood. In one direction, it ran straight into the side of a modern office building. What was once “east” and “west” here no longer mattered. 

Checkpoint Charlie, complete with fake soldiers from both East and West.

I finally did Berlin properly on holiday two years ago with my wife and daughter. We had plenty of opportunities to see some of the few remaining intact sections of the Wall, at the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall Memorial), at the Topography of Terror museum (site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters during the Nazi reign) and, of course, at Checkpoint Charlie (now apparently ground zero for kitschy tourism in Berlin). 

Though, obviously not nearly oppressive as it would have been as late as 1989, the Wall was still a somber sight, and obviously an indelible part of Berlin for generations to come. I bet this week, however, there will be some serious celebrating going on over those slabs of gray concrete that have now mostly disappeared.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Middle of the Road?

As the US approaches another big vote, with the Democrats pitted against the Republicans for control of the Senate in the midterm elections, I have begun to think of political parties in terms of freeway driving.

Most freeways (moottoritiet, in Finland) consist of two lanes in each direction, except of course in cities, where the amount of traffic often demands more, in some US cities six lanes or more. In Helsinki, they’re much smaller, with the broadest piece of moottoritiet having maybe only three lanes in each suunta (direction).

But for most stretches of freeway, both here and in the US, you’re limited to only two lanes, one slow and one supposedly fast.

Now, as everyone knows, the flow of traffic is something that hardly any driver is ever satisfied with. You grow impatient with the bozo driving a bit too slow in front of you in the right-hand lane, so you pull into the left-hand lane to pass him, only to be immediately tailgated by some even bigger bozo who wants to go faster than you do – that is unless, you yourself are already the fastest bozo on the road. Perhaps it’s no wonder that road rage erupts from time to time.

Two Lanes on the American Highway.
Photo: Coolcaesar

The problem is that most of us have a speed that we’re most comfortable with, and that’s usually different for everyone else’s preferred speed.

When I used to commute to work along Helsinki’s Kehä I (Ring I) during rush hour, I would sometimes daydream about a road with a lane for every desired speed. Let’s say that every driver wants to travel at one of 30 or so speeds (75 kph, 77 kph, 80 kph, 82 kph, and so on), and a separate lane existed for each of those speeds. How efficient that would be! Driving comfortably at your own speed, with no need to overtake anyone.

It would, indeed, be a great system. Except when the guy going 120 kph in the farthest left-hand lane (reserved for 120-kph drivers) suddenly needs to cross 30 lanes of traffic to make the next exit ramp. That could be viewed as a small flaw in the system. That, and the amount of land a 60-lane freeway would require.

Anyway, I’ve started to think about such a “mega-road” model when looking at politics. When it comes to all kinds of possible political issues, most folks have widely different views, to say the least. In the US, these might be taxes, capital punishment, military spending, social security, abortion, climate change, the deficit, guns – good lord, yes, guns. Most people hold a mixture of views on all these different, and often-divisive, issues.

Even people broadly identifying themselves as liberal or conservative don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue with the fellow travelers on their side of the political spectrum. Some Democrats might support airstrikes against the Islamic State, while others are vehemently opposed. Some Republicans might want a balanced Federal budget, yet not have a problem with gay marriage.

It’s no doubt frustrating having to vote for a candidate from “your” party who doesn’t share your point of view on some issue especially important to you. As they say, no one size fits all.

This is why the two-party system in the US starts to look like two lanes on a freeway. All those voters, with their different combinations of pet peeves and strongly felt convictions, are forced to “drive” in one of two lanes, compelled to go 80 kph, because there’s no lane for the 85 kph they’d prefer.

US voters with less mainstream political views, say Socialists or hard-core white supremacists, might not have much choice other than biting the bullet and voting for the lesser of two evils, even though neither the Republican or Democratic Party establishment support their point of view.

Of course, even in the US, parties are not completely monolithic, and people mostly vote for individual politicians, some of whom might be outliers in their own party. For decades, voting Democratic could mean casting a ballot for either a northern liberal or a southern segregationist, a schizophrenic arrangement if there ever was. Plenty of Republican pols today are happy enough to defy the GOP establishment if it means gaining the support of the Tea Party elements back in their home district.

This is not to say that alternatives to the GOP and Dems don't exist. In the race for senator for Georgia, in addition to Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue, there is a third name on the ballot, Amanda Swafford of the Libertarian Party.

You can look at her campaign as an alternative for folks who feel the GOP doesn’t go far enough in ensuring a radical hands-off approach by government. You can also look at it as a chance to completely waste a vote. The most Swafford’s campaign can do, in reality, is dilute the vote count for Perdue, which is perfectly fine with me. Go Michelle!

This is the way it is with third parties in the American system. They are reduced to merely symbolic protest movements, appealing to only the most marginal of American voters. People often forget that there have even been Communist candidates for US president, not that this meant anything in practice.

The only impact of third parties is to sometimes cause one of the two mainstream parties to lose. Some Democrats still blame George Bush’s capture of the presidency in 2000 on Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who they see as diverting votes from Al Gore.

To skew the election outcomes even further, the American “winner-take-all” principle means that when a party loses, it really loses, even if it’s only by a tiny margin. Currently, the Democratic members of the Republican-controlled House are essentially powerless. Same for the Republicans in the Democratic-control Senatewhich is why I find the likely prospect of the GOP gaining control of both houses very depressing.

It’s a bit different in Finland, as in much of the rest of Europe. While Americans drive on two lanes of the political freeway, voters here can choose from eight.

In fact, they have more lanes than that. There are something like 17 registered political parties in Finland, though only eight of these garnered enough votes in the last election to send a member to parliament.

The three biggest parties have traditionally been dominant: the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus), the Center Party (Keskusta), and the Social Democrats (SDP). Smaller parties, such as the Left Alliance, the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats, also play some role in parliament and have often been included in government. In recent years, a newcomer, the anti-EU, anti-immigration Finns Party, has arisen to offer yet another option to the part of the electorate that feels strongly about those issues.

And being a smaller party doesn’t necessarily mean being shut out of government altogether. Unlike in “winner-take-all” America, the coalition form of government here means even minority parties can still play in the sandbox. The current cabinet is made up of ministers from Kokoomus and SDP (seven each), plus the Swedish People’s Party (two) and the Christian Democrats (one).

Whether all this means Finns are satisfied enough with their government, I can’t say, though they’re clearly less disaffected than Americans are right now (approval of Obama 45%, of Congress 13%).

While the political differences here might not be so hugely great in the final analysis (after all, Finns are known for consensus), so many parties to choose from means voting still comes down to more than simply a matter of “left or right”, “liberal or conservative, vanilla or chocolate, “Coke or Pepsi”.

As a new citizen with a chance to vote for parliament next April, I need to start thinking soon about which of those 17 lanes is more my own speed.