Our state had an important visitor last week. Not a movie mogul, not a billionaire, not a high-tech Amazonian full of hubris. Someone much more important, with a message for building the quality of life for all Washingtonians. Her name is Anu Partanen.
Partanen is an American citizen, an author, a researcher, a spouse, and a new mom. She is also a Finnish citizen, author, researcher, spouse, and new mom. It is from these two perspectives that she has written The Nordic Theory of Everything. It is a conversation about all the things we as Americans worry about and spend a lot of our lives trying to figure out. Think about health-care coverage, out-of-pocket costs, costs to have a baby, paying for college, student debt, saving enough for retirement, rent or down payments, balancing keeping jobs and caring for newborns or older parents … the list goes on and on.
We can see that these services – health care, child care, and retirement – are universally important for our individual and mutual well-being. They are not things to leave to the volatility and inefficiencies of the market economy. They are more like public utilities, such as water, sewer, electricity, garbage, whose prices our government controls so we can all afford it. But the quality of our lives is dependent on far more than electricity.
In America, we have allowed basic services to be delivered as private commodities. We have elevated consumer choice above individual well-being. We have delivered the elements of what should be socially shared services to the private market. And that doesn’t work.
Almost counter-intuitively, America brags about freedom and individual autonomy, but chains each of us to uncertainty and fear, with health care, child care, elderly care, and retirement security all avenues for potential disaster. That impinges on individual freedom and decision-making – like when people decide whether or not to take a wage increase because it would push their income above the threshold for Apple Health. This creates perverse incentives against individual advancement and creates market distortions and infringes on the private market.
Finland takes care of its people and removes this stress. Yet the private market is robust and dynamic in Finland, more so than in the US. Businesses don’t have to worry about health-care costs, child-care costs, cafeteria benefit plans, or retirement savings accounts. They can focus on creating a better product, building their customer base, expanding their market and product line. In Finland, these businesses are free to pursue their capitalist hopes and dreams.
We could do the same thing here. If we agreed to have the government be responsible for health coverage, for affordable child care, for pensions for all retired workers, for paid family and medical leave, we could increase individuals’ freedom and autonomy, and businesses’ ability to focus on productivity, products, and profits.
We just took one of these steps forward. Last year, the Legislature passed into law and the Governor signed the most comprehensive and progressive paid family and medical leave program in the country. And just like Finland, for a worker receiving the average wage, family leave compensation will be 70%. Businesses negotiated this law with the labor community in good faith and lobbied for it. So yes, we can make progress in Washington. We can take Partanen’s conversation with America and translate it into how to actually move forward. That is just what the attached chart shows, one step, one green light at a time!