How do you piss off an otherwise happy Dane?


Danes are reputed to be the happiest people on Earth. Maybe that’s why my grandpa came to the USA to work on his uncle’s pig farm in Central Nebraska back in 1910. He was 15 and was just tired of all of the laughing and fun. Denmark was just way too happy for him. Or, maybe back then things weren’t all that happy. Maybe it’s all that free money sloshing around in the Danish welfare system.

According to the NY Times, the way to piss off an otherwise happy Dane is to remind him of “Carina” or “Lazy Robert” or make his head explode and tell him about both of these products of the Danish social safety net.

It began as a stunt intended to prove that hardship and poverty still existed in this small, wealthy country, but it backfired badly. Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal member of Parliament goaded a skeptical political opponent, see for yourself how hard it is.

It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

Carina was not the only welfare recipient to fuel the sense that Denmark’s system has somehow gotten out of kilter. Robert Nielsen, 45, made headlines last September when he was interviewed on television, admitting that he had basically been on welfare since 2001.

Mr. Nielsen said he was able-bodied but had no intention of taking a demeaning job, like working at a fast-food restaurant. He made do quite well on welfare, he said. He even owns his own co-op apartment.

Unlike Carina, who will no longer give interviews, Mr. Nielsen, called “Lazy Robert” by the news media, seems to be enjoying the attention. He says that he is greeted warmly on the street all the time. “Luckily, I am born and live in Denmark, where the government is willing to support my life,” he said.

In past years, Danes might have shrugged off the case, finding Carina more pitiable than anything else. But even before her story was in the headlines 16 months ago, they were deeply engaged in a debate about whether their beloved welfare state, perhaps Europe’s most generous, had become too rich, undermining the country’s work ethic. Carina helped tip the scales.

With little fuss or political protest — or notice abroad — Denmark has been at work overhauling entitlements, trying to prod Danes into working more or longer or both. While much of southern Europe has been racked by strikes and protests as its creditors force austerity measures, Denmark still has a coveted AAA bond rating.

But Denmark’s long-term outlook is troubling. The population is aging, and in many regions of the country people without jobs now outnumber those with them.

“Before the crisis there was a sense that there was always going to be more and more,” Bjarke Moller, the editor in chief of publications for Mandag Morgen, a research group in Copenhagen. “But that is not true anymore. There are a lot of pressures on us right now. We need to be an agile society to survive.”

Some Danes say the existence of people like Carina and Mr. Nielsen comes as no surprise. Lene Malmberg, who lives in Odsherred and works part time as a secretary despite a serious brain injury that has affected her short-term memory, said the Carina story was not news to her. At one point, she said, before her accident when she worked full time, her sister was receiving benefits and getting more money than she was.

“The system is wrong somehow, I agree,” she said. “I wanted to work. But she was a little bit: ‘Why work?’ ”

About Mike
A resident of the “30 square miles surrounded by reality,” I spend most of my time teaching economics and statistics to undergraduate students. I enjoy, naturally, economics and business, but also science (I was once an astronomical observatory assistant), politics, photography, food, travel and sports. Madison has grown quite a bit since 1978 when Governor Lee Dreyfus made that remark. According to Wikipedia, Madison is 67.3 square miles of land and 16 square miles of water. Visit http://thisgotmyattention.wordpress.com/about/ for one of my favorite views of the isthmus. Or, why not come visit us! http://visitmadison.com

2 Responses to How do you piss off an otherwise happy Dane?

  1. It’s easy to be happy in the small Island kingdom of Denmark. The landscape is beautiful, lots of small castles (600!) and no matter on which Danish Island you are, it is never far to the sea.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts. I’ll have to go there some day.

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