Last Monday, well over 300 Vermonters packed City Hall in downtown Burlington. It was standing room only with every seat on the floor and in the balcony occupied. The occasion was a town hall meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders, a forum he thoroughly enjoys and frequently hosts throughout the state because, as he said later, “it brings the government close to the people.”
Ambassador Pekka Lintu of Finland was the guest speaker. Sanders invited him because he wants his constituents to know about a country that has quality universal healthcare, free childcare, free college education, employment benefits unimaginable to most American workers, virtually no childhood poverty, and one of the most competitive economies in the world. While Sanders anticipated a good turnout, the actual attendance exceeded his expectation. “It shows,” he would later say, “that people are hungry to hear about alternative visions to the way we are doing things in this country.”
Neither Lintu nor Sanders denied the differences between the US and Finland – in population, size, and diversity. “Yet as we acknowledge the difference we should also acknowledge that we are all human beings with very much the same DNA, the same kind of intelligence and the same human needs,” Sanders said. “Is there something that we can learn from [Finland’s] model?”
Lintu is a striking presence – tall and debonair. (One woman in the audience joked that he was “Finland’s best evidence of the quality of its healthcare system.”) But while Sanders has a straightforward, fearless style that his constituents have grown accustomed to, Lintu has a dry sense of humor and is soft-spoken. So much so that as he began his remarks several audience members called out for him to speak louder. Lintu finally joked, “Finns are rather non-talkative people, rather known as shy people. We say that you can know the difference between an introverted Finn and an extroverted Finn. An introverted Finn, when he talks to you, he’s looking at his own shoes. An extroverted Finn, when he’s talking to you, he’s looking at your shoes.”
Lintu spoke openly of some of the challenges now facing his country – an aging population, a need for alternative energy, unemployment just under 6 percent, alcohol that is “still a mythic thing for young people.” There was an economic crisis in the early 90’s when unemployment rose from 4 percent to 17 percent in just two years. Lintu said that Finns by no means enjoy paying taxes – the total taxes per capita were 43.1 percent in 2007 – but they do enjoy what they get for their money. It allows for stability and confidence in planning a family, and for adjusting to the pressures of a global economy.