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The United States Is Not Denmark—Ten Telling Comparisons



"But we are not Denmark!" former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in the Democratic presidential debate on October 13. She was responding to an interjection by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont saying, "I think we should look to countries like Denmark…and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people." 

Senator Sanders, a self-described socialist, was suggesting the Scandinavian model of a more egalitarian social welfare state was worth emulating, and Secretary Clinton was alluding to obvious differences in size, taxation structure, and demographics.

So just how different are the United States and Denmark?

  1. Size. Denmark spans 16,640 square miles, 0.4 percent of the 3.8 million square miles for the United States. Its population is 5.6 million people, smaller than each of the eight  largest US metropolitan areas and about the size of Atlanta's metro area population.
  2. Wealth. Both qualify as wealthy nations, but Denmark does rather better. Gross national income per capita is higher for the Danes at $61,310 in 2014 versus $55,200 for the United States.
  3. Inequality. The United States is the 57th most economically unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank, less unequal than such countries as Seychelles, South Africa, Mexico, or Kenya. Denmark is the 139th most unequal country, ahead of Norway and Sweden but still one of the most egalitarian societies on earth.
  4. Education. Primary school enrollment is 98 percent in the United States and a puzzling 101 percent in Denmark.
  5. Debts. Outstanding gross general government debt in Denmark is below 50 percent of GDP. The United States' total public debt is 101 percent of GDP. Both countries in theory require legislative action to raise their debt ceilings. But Denmark's ceiling is 115 percent of GDP, and the US Congress must continually raise the US debt ceiling to avoid default.
  6. Government (including state and local) spending as a percentage of GDP: United States: 38.7 percent in 2013. Denmark: 57 percent in 2013.
  7. Military spending. United States: 3.5 percent of GDP in 2014 (down from 4.6 percent in 2010). Denmark: steady at around 1.3 percent.
  8. Top marginal tax rates. United States: 39.6 percent. Denmark: 60.2 percent, implying that high-earning Danes pay over half of the last kroner they earn in taxes.
  9. Social safety net. The Danish government spends a lot on social issues (30.1 percent of GDP in 2011, or 11 percentage points more than the United States), but unlike the United States, taxes benefits heavily, levies high value-added tax on all consumption, and offers few tax breaks for social purposes. When factoring in these hidden cost savings, true Danish public social spending is at 23.4 percent of GDP, just 2.6 percentage points of GDP higher than in the United States.
  10.  Female leadership. Denmark elected its first female prime minister in 2011.

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