On Monday night in Burlington, Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders will host a town meeting with Finland’s Ambassador to the US, Pekka Lintu.

Why? Well, how about because Finland has managed to virtually eradicate childhood poverty. Or because of the “academic prowess” of Finland’s students–as recently noted by the Wall Street Journal –who receive a free education through college. Or maybe it’s the free comprehensive health care, quality childcare at almost no cost, or pro-environment, pro-labor policies that support a very competitive economy.

Yes, there are significant differences between the US and Finland, as Senator Sanders noted in a conversation I had with him last week (see below). But at this moment when we face an economic tsunami, roughly 50 million Americans uninsured, nearly 20 percent of American children living in poverty, and a growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else–it’s time to take a look abroad at some alternative ways of doing things. Senator Sanders gets that. His openness to learning and engaging is an example America sorely needs right now, as we attempt to regain some humility and re-engage with the world post-Bush.

TheNation.com’s Greg Kauffman will be at the meeting Monday night–to hear what the Ambassador has to say and to listen to the questions being asked by Vermonters in attendance. Here is the conversation the Senator and I had about the event.

How did the initial connection with the Finnish Ambassador happen?

A number of months ago we brought him into the office in DC–just wanted to chat with him and see what kind of relationship Vermont could develop with Finland. And I’ve met with him once or twice since.

I told him very frankly that I think that in the United States in general people do not have a clue–a clue–about some of the really significant social progress that’s been made in various Scandinavian countries, not just Finland. And I think it’s not an accident. I think that corporate media really wants to keep Americans in the dark about some of the real achievements out there in terms of healthcare, education, childcare, because they don’t want us to look at alternative ways of doing things. You know, my colleagues get on the floor and they say, ‘Oh, the United States is the greatest country in the world…’ Well, you look at social index after social index – look at health care and longevity and infant mortality, education and vacations. One of the things that blows me away about Finland is at a time when our people are working the longest hours of any people in the world, in Finland they get 30 days paid vacation and 14 national holidays. What do you think about that?

Have you talked to your colleagues about this particular effort?

Sure. And, you know, Kennedy raises this issue on the floor now and then. But I will make a concerted effort not only in Vermont but on the floor of the Senate to say, ‘Let us learn.’ Look, Finland is a very different country than America, it’s 5 million people, we’re 300 million. They’re a homogenous people, we are a diverse people. But what they are showing is you can virtually abolish childhood poverty. What does that mean for the society? That means that you don’t end up putting people away in jail if they get off to a good start in life. It means that if you watch your kids, put money and resources in education, you can have a productive workforce. They have what is generally regarded as the best educational system in the world – highest achievers, free college education. All of these things impact the quality of life of society, and it speaks to national priorities, and it’s something that we have got to learn something from. We can’t emulate everything, but we oughtta know what’s going on and what we can learn.

Understanding there are differences, are there any particular things that you zero in on in Finland that you think we can translate to the US?

One of the great disgraces in this country which gets very little discussion is the fact that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any country in the industrialized world. Now not only is that from a moral perspective, a disgrace, it is just totally stupid. Because if kids are dropping out of school, the kids are getting into destructive activities, you end up with the reality that we have the highest number of people behind bars of any country on earth. There’s a direct correlation. Highest childhood poverty rate, more people in jail. We spend $50,000 a year to keep people in jail. Makes more sense to invest in early childhood education–doing things like they do in Scandinavia. If you have a baby in Scandinavia or Finland, you get–I don’t know how many months, 7 or 8 months off at three-quarters pay–then a mother can stay home, a father can stay home, nurture this child, develop the bond. That’s just smart, it’s cost-effective.

Better to put money into early childhood activities than to put people behind bars. That’s a major lesson that I think we can learn.

Second of all, when we talk about family values and we talk about quality of life–again, this is not talked about–our people are getting exhausted. What was it, 100 years ago when the union movement fought for a 40-hour work week. Well you know what? 100 years have come and gone and we’re not there yet, we’re losing ground. You know, the idea that they can have a productive economy, and they have people who are well-rested, they have time for their friends, they have time for recreation–let’s learn something from that. What should we be doing about vacation time in America? Well you’re not gonna go to 30 days paid vacation, for sure. But right now we have no law–you got many workers who are going to work–they’re lucky if they get a week. People are exhausted! What does this say about our quality of life and the impact on the productivity of our economy.

How are you feeling about your effort to shift priorities in Congress–which this is clearly a part of?

I understand what the nature of the opposition is. I know what Big Money is about. I know what the Republican party is about. I know what the corporate media is about. We keep fighting for what we believe in. So I’m not frustrated. I think we stand a chance in the near future for some transformative politics in America. This may be the period when the American people say, ‘Excuse me, we are moving in the wrong direction big time, in every single area.’ Maybe – maybe – we can learn something from other countries around the world and start radically changing our national priorities. So, that’s what I do. We keep doing it, and we keep fighting, and I think we’re gaining support all over the country. Obviously, coming up with a type of economic system like Finland is not gonna happen tomorrow. But I think for a start it’s important to at least let people know… you know, we hear so much from the media and the politicians about how terrible government is–well, they don’t think that way in Finland. And we maybe want to learn something about that.

How do you get the mainstream media to shift so that these new ideas and alternative ideas receive more attention?

That’s a good question. In my view, the corporate media is just so–I mean, they’re playing the role that they’re supposed to be playing, I suppose. They’re owned by large corporations whose goal is to see taxes low for the rich, whose goal is to make money out of the insurance industry, out of the drug companies, and every other area of life. So they don’t want the American people to learn what some of the positive things are that are going on around the rest of the world. So I think we just have to use every forum that we possibly can. And that’s precisely why I’m bringing the Ambassador here. I just want–people may agree, they may disagree–but I want them to know that there is a country on earth which has virtually wiped out childhood poverty, provides healthcare to all, educational opportunity to all, college education, vacation time. And if they can do that in Finland, what can we learn from that? That’s the debate that I want to see happen.