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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press NYT Uses News Story to Express Dislike of Danish Welfare State

NYT Uses News Story to Express Dislike of Danish Welfare State

Sunday, 21 April 2013 07:50

The NYT appears to be following the pattern of journalism practiced by the Washington Post in openly editorializing in its news section. Today the news section features a diatribe against the Danish welfare state that is headlined, "Danes Rethink a Welfare State Ample to a Fault." There's not much ambiguity in that one. The piece then proceeds to present a state of statistics that are grossly misleading and excluding other data points that are highly relevant.

The first paragraphs describe the generosity of the welfare state, then we get this ominous warning in the 5th paragraph:

"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."

Oooooh, scary! Yeah people are living longer in Denmark, that's something that's been happening for a couple of hundred years or so. Like every other wealthy country, people live longer in Denmark than in the United States. While they are projected to continue to see gains in life expectancy and further aging of the population, the increase is actually going to much slower than in the United States.

From 2012 to 2025 the percentage of the Danish population over age 65 is projected to rise from 17.8% to 21.2%, an increase of 3.4 percentage points. By comparison, in the United States the share of the population over age 65 is projected to rise from 13.6% to 18.1%, an increase of 4.5 percentage points over the same period, from a considerably smaller base. The impact of aging on the economy and the government budget will clearly be much larger in the U.S. than Denmark, especially since the government first starts paying for health care for people after they turn age 65 in the United States. (Like every other wealthy country, Denmark has national health insurance.)

The concern that, "in many regions of the country people without jobs now outnumber those with them," is especially touching. In the United States we have such a region, it's called the "United States." In March, 143.3 million people were employed out of a total population of 323 million for a ratio of workers to population nationwide of roughly 44.4 percent. In many parts of the country it would be much lower.  

The piece then goes on to describe the extent of the Danish welfare state with its 56 percent top marginal income tax rate, telling readers:

"But few experts here believe that Denmark can long afford the current perks. So Denmark is retooling itself, tinkering with corporate tax rates, considering new public sector investments and, for the long term, trying to wean more people — the young and the old — off government benefits."

Hmmm, it would be interesting to know what data the experts are looking at. According to the IMF, Denmark had a ratio of net debt to GDP at the end of 2012 of 7.6 percent. This compared to 87.8 percent in the United States. Its deficit in 2012 was 4.3 percent of GDP, but almost all of this was due to the downturn. The IMF estimated its structural deficit (the deficit the country would face if the economy was at full employment) at just 1.1 percent of GDP. Furthermore, the country had a huge current account surplus of 5.3 percent of GDP in 2012, more than $800 billion in the U.S. economy. This means that Denmark is buying up foreign assets at a rapid rate. By contrast, the United States has a large current account deficit.

If there is something unsustainable in this picture, it is not the sort of data that economists usually look at. Is marijuana legal in Denmark?

Then we find the real problem is that no one in Denmark is working:

"In 2012, a little over 2.6 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 were working in Denmark, 47 percent of the total population and 73 percent of the 15- to 64-year-olds.

"While only about 65 percent of working age adults are employed in the United States, comparisons are misleading, since many Danes work short hours and all enjoy perks like long vacations and lengthy paid maternity leaves, not to speak of a de facto minimum wage approaching $20 an hour. Danes would rank much lower in terms of hours worked per year."

So in spite of the generous Danish welfare state a higher percentage of its working age population works than in the United States. (Actually Denmark ranks near the top of the world in employment to population ratios.) Yet, somehow this doesn't really count because people in Denmark get vacations, work shorter hours, and have a higher effective minimum wage.

This ranks pretty high in the non sequitur category, apparently when you want to bash the welfare state, the rules of logic do not apply. Danes, like most Europeans, have opted to take much of the gains in productivity growth over the last three decades in the form of shorter work years rather than higher income. (One interesting result of this practice is that we have some hope to save the planet from global warming -- greenhouse gas emissions are highly correlated with income.) Of course Danes still work about 8 percent more hours on average than hard-working Germans, according to the OECD. If there is a problem in this picture, the NYT might want to devote a few paragraphs to telling readers what it is.

As far as the $20 an hour effective minimum wage, isn't the problem of a high minimum wage supposed to be that it creates unemployment. But the NYT just told us that Denmark has higher employment rates than the United States. (My brain hurts.)

Okay, we get it. The NYT doesn't like Denmark's welfare state. It doesn't really have any data to make the case that Denmark's welfare state is falling apart and leading to all sorts of bad outcomes, but they can wave their arms really fast and hey, they are the New York Times.

Comments (32)Add Comment
if you wondered why change is so hard here
written by Jennifer, April 21, 2013 9:33
That article is just amazing. I had to read it several times it make sure I wasn't missing something, they can't afford it because . . . I did not see any budget numbers. None. I guess they might not back up the theme? They only quoted politicians and media types-if people paying that high tax bracket are "alarmed" they weren't in that piece. I guess that article is supposed to ward off any thought that you could have a country that distributes income that isn't communist or something.
Danish Darwinism Fails Again
written by Last Mover, April 21, 2013 9:37
Like every other wealthy country people live longer in Denmark than in the United States.

Not to worry. Given the intergenerational war and death panel fetish raging in America that will cull out the non-productive members of society in short order, the remaining survivors will surely outlive the Danes by many years.
corporate media
written by Peter K., April 21, 2013 10:23
Why I don't subscribe.
written by MB, April 21, 2013 10:45
ha---saw the headline and thought, Dean Baker is going to have something to say about that. It was quicker and more efficient to read this post.

It would be good to hear more about this, as in good to hear more about how this can be accomplished and how people can be better off in their lives when they can pay their bills and take vacations:

"So in spite of the generous Danish welfare state a higher percentage of its working age population works than in the United States. (Actually Denmark ranks near the top of the world in employment to population ratios.) Yet, somehow this doesn't really count because people in Denmark get vacations, work shorter hours, and have a higher effective minimum wage."
Cost of living?
written by nassim Sabba, April 21, 2013 11:38
I think the most glaring shortcoming of the "jurnalism" in the piece is comparisons and contexts. What is $2700 cover where typical Crainas live? Are they all single mothers with multiple children who need eduction and personal care?
What is wrong with maid care. What is the alternative, let the disabled and old live in conditions that would damage their health and result in expensive medical intervention down the road? Cleanliness is next to healthiness.
Yes, as another commentator here says, subscription is extremely expensive at NYT, that is, compare to the value received.
Most cab drivers have better commentary and reporting skills.
written by Philip F., April 21, 2013 11:44
Denmark was also smart enough to stay off the euro, and thus has much more economic flexibility to deal with things as they come. I just don't see that there's something rotten in Denmark? (sorry...)
written by PeonInChief, April 21, 2013 12:02
I too was amazed by this article, mostly that so much of it made no sense at all. I should have read it two or three more times to find all the errors, but I decided that Dean Baker's commentary would find them and I could move along to the restaurant reviews.
Things not rotten in Denmark
written by RWR, April 21, 2013 12:02

Thanks for this. Read the NYT article last night and, as with MB, above, wondered what you would have to say about this.

While never having visited, Denmark has always struck me as a wonderful place one that get it right with its Flexicurity economic model (as with the rest of Scandinavia. Thanks for the further confirmation.


PS: RE: 'In the United States we have such a region, it's called the "United States." ' LOL.
written by medgeek, April 21, 2013 1:09
It's been a long time, but my wife and I spent a wonderful 10 day vacation in Denmark about 30 years ago. I love Denmark! From Copenhagen to the little towns we visited, Danes were friendly and helpful with directions, etc., and seemed very happy indeed.

The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr said that an expert is someone who has made every conceivable mistake in a narrow field of inquiry. The New York Times is acquiring expertise every day!
written by Kat, April 21, 2013 1:12
Thanks. This article was disgusting. Sure would be nice if the authors visited a family shelter here in the US and could write "US rethinks its chronic un/underemployment bare minimum safety net state".
Another Denmark weakness missed by NYT
written by JParks, April 21, 2013 1:30
The NYT also totally missed the opportunity to make fun of another "weakness" of the Danes. Averaging a $4 Billion dollar per year Defense Budget they are obviously weak on defense. The Danes even possess the shortsighted view that they can make cuts to that expenditure based on the recent waste they have discovered.
written by Alex Blaze, April 21, 2013 1:35
So what do we do? The Times won't respond to these criticisms, of course, because the Times is propagandizing, not reporting. But lots of people who try to engage in politics, who think they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, read it and have no means of evaluating it.

There's just too much money and power here - even building up an entire media structure around criticizing mainstream publications has done nothing to change them. Unless there's some proof that changing them is unimportant but they can simply be supplanted, it seems like we're stuck with the NY Times we have, not the NY Times we'd hope for.
written by David Gerstein, April 21, 2013 1:53
As a companion piece to the NY Times article on poor Denmark please consider this NY Times story on the might Big Apple.


written by Chris Engel, April 21, 2013 1:57
The only ones pushing for changing the welfare state are the racist Danish People's Party, a right-wing party that has recently lost power by exploiting the weak racists within society and being called out for it. But the party had some power for a while.

Not only that, Danes (unlike Finns and others in Europe) have retained their sovereign currency and don't face the pressures that some of their neighbors to the south have.

A contributor to this NYtimes article was "Anna-Katarina Gravgaard" who has connections to the right-wing in Denmark, namely the Danish People's Party...

Also the statistic cited

"In addition, the work force has far more older people to support. About 18 percent of Denmark’s population is over 65, compared with 13 percent in the United States."

The "baby boomer effect" is MUCH stronger in the US -- in a few years, looking at demographical projections, the ratio will be about equal with the US.

Also, Danish household wealth is _huge_ comparatively (and there's a positive net investment position).

And every society has individuals who have been on welfare and get paid what seems like a lot. You can do the same story on Californians or New Yorkers and stoke the same outrage. It's a common theme of right-wing newspapers (NYTimse is really trying their best to become one) to highlight these "human interest pieces" that are really just right-wing hitjobs against liberal institutions and compassion.
written by JMarco, April 21, 2013 2:30
Thanks, As soon as you read words like "experts say or many experts say". Adding only the views of those who support your thesis that this kind of living standard is doomed. Basing working population on year 2013 after the huge global recession is really poor analytic work. The article sounds like so many others that purport today's depressed world economy is what life will be like for the foreseeable future. All the can'ts: Welfare of a country's citizens has to be cut back to survive instead of focusing on rebuilding that country's economy. Public welfare is a bad idea. It can't work. It seems when times are tough, people (including working reporters)are so frighten about the future that all they see is doom and gloom. They believe that public sector has to tighten its belt. These views leave out the facts that public welfare becomes revenue for other citizens, businesses, governments, etc. Someone's debt is someone's asset. If everyone hides their money in a mattress then that economy will come to a screeching halt. I personally have to be thankful that I was born in 1943 and after WWII the US decided to spend and grow its economy instead of worrying about its huge war debts. It realized that growth using public money would be better than having another 1930's depression.
written by Klaus, April 21, 2013 8:03
The background is that all parties in the Danish parliament, with the exception of the far left Unity List, have just agreed to welfare cutbacks in favour of various tax reductions for businesses on precisely those presumptions displayed in the article: that the economy is going badly. It's a right wing intellectual coup, if you will, but unfortunately the state of affairs in most of Europe.
written by Klaus, April 21, 2013 8:07
This: "The only ones pushing for changing the welfare state are the racist Danish People's Party"

- is completely wrong. Everyone except the far left Unity List wants this.
written by Ziggy, April 21, 2013 9:07
Thanks for taking the time to dismantle this sorry piece of propaganda.

That such a lame takedown of Denmark should appear in the NY Times indicates how threatened the interests guiding the destruction of the American social safety net are by the Northern European democratic socialist systems.

The high quality of life enjoyed by residents of these countries continues to provide a reservoir of facts that undermines the anti-New Deal agenda. While the policies cannot yet be eliminated or restructured a la the Obama budget, they can be attacked to help ensure their dangerous ideas do not spread to these shores. But it would be lovely if they would...
written by Chris Engel, April 22, 2013 5:57

Liberal Alliance and others are accepting changes, but I'm talking about those willing to dismantle the welfare state, not make adjustments.

Nobody in the mainstream is trying to end SU, or kontanthjælp (outside of basic reforms) or the basics of the welfare state.

Changes to dagpenge, for example, have already been rewound.

So what I meant is those who want to overhaul and end the welfare state are on the extreme right, not those who have accepted minor changes but without dismantling the actual welfare state.

Yes there have been agreed cutbacks across most parties, but those who wish to truly dismantle the welfare state by ending or privatizing across the board tend to the DF.
written by Ryan, April 22, 2013 8:10
So what is the Times advocating? Wars on long life spans, child labor bans, the minimum wage, and vacations? Because it seems to me that life itself sounds a lot nicer there than here. Also, I'm waiting for an explanation as to why Danes are not incentivized to stretch out in that nice social safety hammock they've created.
thanks for this
written by maggie, April 22, 2013 8:45
i thought this nyt's article was outrageous propaganda. thanks for clarifying just how outrageous and just how ideological.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Birgit Lauridsen, April 23, 2013 7:58
The article in NYT about Danes and Danish welfare is presented as news but is editorial.
Editorials may be subjective and often emotional. News must be objective, may be selective, but never subjective or emotional. Articles that pretend to be news, but in the whole are editorials, are dangerous: Repeat the lies a few times (easy: other newspapers already quote the article) and soon most people will think the lies are nothing but the truth. This is called good, old-fashioned propaganda. Shame on NYT, shame on journalism.
written by asdf, April 24, 2013 8:23

"The young Danes undaunted by Europe's problems"
written by Jim, April 25, 2013 10:49
Thought the article is lacking in data to support its editorial spin, the fact remains the same that there are people abusing their welfare system the same as they are in the US. no one above seems to have commented on the family in the article who are living on welfare alone and not working because work is too hard. Welfare should be a system to help people get back on their feet after they fall down, not a system that is abused by others who are too lazy. Can't we all agree on that much?
written by Koen, April 27, 2013 7:43
Yes, welfare is there to help people get back on their feet or to support those that have no feet (or are missing other means of participating in the economy). That, however, will always result in a tension between those abusing the system, tracking and punishing systems and the system itself.

I think most European countries move a LOT better inside that tension than the US does. Yes, there is and always will be abuse of a social system. The question is: Will we let the good (those who really need the system) suffer under the bad (the abusers). In the US the answer is "HELL yes!", in most european countries the answer is "DAMN no!".

If we have to pay for 2 lazy people so that we can help 100 who really need it then I say: Let those 2 lazy people rest on their couches.
Complicated medical procedure: covered in Denmark, not by Aetna
written by Indiana Way, April 27, 2013 11:51
I have a rather severe chest deformity, called pectus excavatum (it's a severe depression of the chest that pushes up against the lungs and displaces the heart) (I have a Haller Index of 8.5 - yeah I'm almost see-through at the dent's deepest). I've been doing a lot of research on getting my chest repaired (there are a number of options) and discovered that the two kinds of surgery are automatically covered by the Danish Health Service. In contrast, according to Aetna, my health insurance company, any surgical intervention to correct PE has been deemed "cosmetic" even though there is considerable evidence that pectus excavatum can lead to heart and lung problems (duh! there's no space for either with a sunken sternum). In Copenhagen they understand the difference between correcting congenital deformities and a boob job -- not in the glorious American health care system.

Two of the best surgeons in the world for correcting pectus operate at a hospital in Aarhus, Denmark. In the US we are asked to live with our severe deformities.
NYT is reporting the general idea among danes correctly
written by Jesper Milling, April 29, 2013 12:29
I am Danish and I don't think the Danish social welfare system is being crushed, but it is being reduced, and a general "understanding" is creeping into the brains of the Danish people, that Denmark cannot afford it's welfare anymore. Even the Social Democratic party seems to think personal wealth must be secured to be able to afford welfare. Nobody seems to remember how the welfare was the base, and the wealth was the product. NYT only seems to be reporting what everybody thinks in Denmark anyway.
Sadly the Danes have to hear the truth from an American blogger.
written by Andersen, April 29, 2013 5:01
The Danish government are destroying the welfare system as we speak with the unlogical excuse: We need to ensure we can afford the welfare system in the future.

The cuts they have made so far (disguised as reforms) has hurt the most vulnerable in the welfare system the most - the sick and disabled. This group has been taking a beating in all the reforms the socialdemocratic government has made so far. To ensure the people buy into the need of reforms the politicians has used very harsh and demeaning rhetorics like the name of the government reformprogram: "A part of the community" This reform was the one used to make cut downs on the sick and disabled who can't work under normal conditions or who have a very severe conditon. The signal they are sending by this - if you can't work you are not a part of the community. Other words we have heard the politicians in the resent years are: spoiled, cuckoo chicks (meaning the disabled rakes so much in that they push the rest out). This is not the case. The reason is it's the cities who has the expenses now since a big reform was made of the public sector in 2007. Before that it was the region who had the expenses and slowly they have been moved from regions to cities, which explains the rise in expenses for the cities.

If you can work two hours a week, you can't get an early retirement. And by beeing able to work two hours it means using all treatment options to get that person to work. Including forcing people to use heavy drugs like morphine or ECT to keep them in the workforce.
Crazy catlady
written by Janne Aagaard Petersen, April 30, 2013 6:40
I just want to write a little remark from "inside" the danish welfare system.
For many years I suffered from continual severe depressions, anxiety, PTSD, endometriosis, IBS and a lot of pains in my entire back, neck, shoulders and pelvis. In 2008 (I was in my early 30´s) I was awarded Early retirement pension.
Words cannot express what this has meant to me and my parents, friends and family!! I´m sorry to say that at that point my only other way out was suicide, and of course I´m SO eternally grateful - especially on behalf of my parents but of course also myself, my friends and my cats that this opportunity to live an endurable life (most days anyways:)) has been given to me!
Thank you!
written by C.L. Svendsen, April 30, 2013 12:41
As a Dane I am really awed over the above wonderful statements about Denmark, not to mention this blog entry.
I read the article in NYT and I could not at all recognize my country and the great welfare system we have. Yes, there are some things that could use a brush up, and the way some politicians talk are somewhat disturbing, but the key point is, we are immensely lucky to live the way we do!
Nobody will ever be put out on the streets without any help and we can always go to a doctor or hospital if we need treatment without paying for it. Our school system is free and we even pay our students money while they are studying!
There are very few people like "Lazy Robert" and most Danes don't really listen to the rants from Joachim B Olsen.
As I see it, the "journalist" behind the article forgot to check her source and ask a for second or third opinion.
Thank you all for taking the time for reading this blog and thank you Dean Baker for bringing this to attention...
Prevention is cheaper than a cure
written by Georg Strom, May 01, 2013 1:26
I am from Denmark and work at a second chance school, for teenagers who need special assistance in order to continue with their education or get a job. Compared to a normal school it is a labor intensive and expensive system. However, in the long run it is better to give that assistance, so the students avoid ending up on welfare.

I have seen how some of those who appear unwilling to work, in reality find it to difficult to do. Some have social problems, others have attention deficit or other disorders that are not visible, but make a normal work very difficult. It is little use trying to punish them, they need an intensive and individual assistance in order get a job and be able to keep it.

Howeever, it still makes economic sense for the society to provide that assistance. To transform them from welfare recipents to taxpayers. Even it is not possible to get them back to work, it makes sense to provide assistance. At least that may make it possible for their children to grow up and have a normal productive life.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.