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The long, winding road to Denmark

A festive business dinner in Denmark with a technology team from the San Francisco Chronicle and employees of the Danish company CCI International. That’s me in the black shirt, second from the right. The year is 2002.

The curmudgeon H.L. Mencken left us a rich legacy of fine quotes. One of his best is about Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.” Mencken is entirely right. A moral suspicion of happiness and a duty to endure earthly misery “to lay up treasures in heaven” is a theological proposition that is inseparable from all forms of Christianity, whether Catholicism, Protestant Calvinism, or fundamentalism. Evangelicals who pursue “prosperity theology” do make one and only one exception. That exception is for rich people, who get to lay up their treasures on earth as well as in heaven.

I have been thinking about Denmark lately because Paul Krugman has mentioned Denmark in two of his recent columns. One column is about the misconceptions of conservatives. The other column is about “fanatical centrists.”

Krugman on conservatives’ horror of what they call “socialism”:

“What Americans who support ‘socialism’ actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: A market economy, but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela.

“And in case you haven’t been there, the Nordic countries are not, in fact, hellholes. They have somewhat lower G.D.P. per capita than we do, but that’s largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have higher life expectancy, much less poverty and significantly higher overall life satisfaction. Oh, and they have high levels of entrepreneurship — because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know that they won’t lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail.”

Krugman on the perpetual wrongness of fanatical centrists:

“But I’m not talking about the left. Radical leftists are virtually nonexistent in American politics; can you think of any prominent figure who wants us to move to the left of, say, Denmark? No, I’m talking about fanatical centrists.”

It’s a standing joke — with a lot of truth in it — that travel turns people into liberal Democrats. American conservatives can get away with lying about Europe and the Nordic countries because so many conservative voters know so little about the world. You can find many sources on the Internet that compare how Americans vote to whether they have a passport, for example, here. I will not concede that my saying such a thing amounts to economic snobbery. Many of my rural, Trump-loving neighbors drive enormous, gas-guzzling vehicles that cost more than $50,000. Many of my rural, Trump-loving neighbors also have enormous travel trailers that can be pulled only by enormous trucks. The median household income of Trump supporters in the 2016 primaries was about $72,000, well above the national median of $56,000.

Ignorance of the world is a choice.

Before I retired, I did business for some years with a Danish company that builds publishing systems for newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle (where I worked). I have made two business trips to Denmark. It is remarkable what the Nordic countries have accomplished. They always rank near the top of lists that measure happiness, trust, equality, and civic freedoms. Meanwhile, the United States is moving backwards, like other places in the world where the rich call the shots. Increasingly, though Europe has its own troubles, Europe feels like a refuge from American backsliding. It’s no wonder that so many people talk — maybe only half seriously — about leaving the United States. A recent Gallup poll found that a record number of Americans want to get out. The reason: Trump.

My recent trip to Scotland has made me resolve to get to Europe more often, though considerable frugalities and economies are necessary to make travel affordable on my fixed retirement income. Shortly after I arrived in Edinburgh back in August, Ken asked me if I was culture-shocked. Heck no, I said. I feel more at home here than I do at home. I meant it, too.

Still, I am not ready to throw in the towel on the United States. I am reluctant to make predictions, but, so far — especially now that Democrats have retaken the U.S. House of Representatives and the law takes it course — I believe we are approaching peak Trump. Trump is going to be brought down by the law, taking the Republican Party with him. Americans insisted on finding out the hard way (we liberals tried to warn them!) what billionaires and Republicans do when they get power. Rural white voters will continue to glorify a hell largely of their own making. But voters in the American suburbs, in the 2018 election, showed their remorse for falling for Trump in 2016. That won’t happen again. California and New York are leading the way. The suburbs are coming to their senses. Boomers will soon be leaving the world in droves, just as they entered. Young people see the world in a very different way. All roads now lead to Denmark. And we will all be happier for it.

Note: The Mencken quote is sometimes given as, “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.” I don’t know which is more accurate.


  1. Sistine Ilgunas wrote:

    David, I hope you are right and I hope I live long enough to see the changes.

    Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    I hope I live long enough, too, Sistine! Your family is making a difference!

    Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  3. Henry wrote:

    Thank you David. This is a real interesting read. I am borrowing it to pass on to my Republican Evangelical friends who swear by Trump Presidency. “He’s going to make my life better”

    I recognize a few folks in the picture but cannot recall the young man across from Allen? He was always interesting to talk with, when I would venture into your territory.

    Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry… I would be curious to know what your Republican and evangelical friends would say if you asked them to describe how Trump has made their lives better…

    Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  5. frigast wrote:

    Why hasn’t David any meal in front of him ??
    Has he been naughty – asked to go to bed without eating ??
    No. 5 looks intensely bored, wouldn’t you say ??
    Excuse me for saying, but many Danes find the country extremely boring 🙂

    Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Frigast: Funny that you should notice that I don’t have a plate. It was because I had ordered something vegetarian, and the kitchen was punishing me. 🙂

    It was a running joke with me in Denmark, in meal after meal that the company was paying for and at which the other guys ordered foie gras and steak, that I was struggling to get any vegetable matter other than bread and potatoes. At one outrageously expensive meal (paid for by the Danish company rather than the Chronicle) that went on for something like nine courses, I exclaimed on course number 6 that I had finally found something green. It was a tiny sprig of chives. 🙂 I asked a Dane about the diet, and he said that the Danish soil is not friendly to the growing of produce. That seems very sad to me. On one of my trips to Denmark, I had just come from Ireland, where the cool-climate vegetables are absolutely superb.

    When Danes are bored, they can always travel. 🙂

    Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

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