Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 08/11/2005
In Finland's Footsteps
As Robert G. Kaiser traveled around Finland this summer, a question occurred to him repeatedly: should the United States be learning something from Finland's welfare state? In The Post's Outlook section on Sunday, Kaiser wrote:
Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.
On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and consume a lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense, though they still have universal male conscription, and it is popular. Their per capita national income is about 30 percent lower than ours. Private consumption of goods and services represents about 52 percent of Finland's economy, and 71 percent of the United States'. Finns pay considerably higher taxes -- nearly half their national income is taken in taxes, while Americans pay about 30 percent on average to federal, state and local governments.
Posted at 2:52 PM ET, 07/26/2005
Innovation Gives Finland A Firm Grasp on Its Future
After Robert G. Kaiser returned to Washington, he wrote that Finland may be a model for the rest of Europe, especially as the continent faces an uncertain political future after France and the Netherlands rejected a proposed constitution for the European Union.
While France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and others are stumbling, Finland prospers, both economically and psychologically. The recent "no" votes in France and the Netherlands that undermined, perhaps fatally, the E.U.'s proposed constitution have produced a pervasive despair in much of Europe that did not turn up in recent interviews with scores of Finns.
"The Finnish model could offer some elements of a way out of the European crisis," said Pekka Himanen, a 31-year-old philosopher and co-author of a much-discussed book about Finland's successes.
Posted at 2:42 PM ET, 07/26/2005
Hoping to Dial Into Cell Phones' Future
Read Robert G. Kaiser's story on how Finland's Nokia how to regain the lead by marketing mobile phones that play music and connect to the Internet.
"This (in case you missed it) is the year of music -- the cell phone as a sort of iPod, capable of downloading, saving and playing thousands of songs. 2006 will be the year of television on your mobile telephone. 2007 will be the year for games on the phone and the capability to play them against other phone users. 2008 will be the year of "my connected life," when the years-old dream of cell phones that are Internet terminals will finally become a widespread reality," Kaiser wrote.
Posted at 10:30 PM ET, 06/11/2005
A Blond Nation, in a Bind on Immigrants
During his travels in Finland earlier this summer, Robert G. Kaiser discussed the delicate issue of diversity with his Finnish hosts.
"Finland is Europe's most homogeneous society, a nation of mostly blond ethnic Finns whose declining birthrate creates the classic 21st-century European dilemma: a fast-growing population of senior citizens whose promised benefits under a generous welfare state will soon be unaffordable."
But as Kaiser found, the face of Finnish society has seen some small changes:
"Altogether, immigrants constitute barely 2 percent of Finland's population of 5.2 million. There were 108,346 foreign-born residents at the end of 2004, according to government statistics. Of those, fewer than 25,000 were born in non-white countries whose residents would look conspicuous on the streets of Helsinki. Russians, Estonians and Swedes together represent more than 46,000 people.
"The 4,700 Somali refugees in the country, by far the largest group of black people, get more attention in the local news media than all the other immigrants combined, according to Finns. The country continues to accept political asylum seekers -- it is now taking in a group of Montagnard hill people who fled Vietnam."
Kaiser examined this issue further in his June 11th article in The Washington Post. Read the full story.
Posted at 4:30 PM ET, 06/10/2005
HELSINKI -- Hard to believe our trip has come to an end. When we plotted it out, three weeks in Finland seemed like a major enterprise. Now that they're over, we can only wonder how it passed so quickly. We did a lot of what we hoped, but not everything. So we have a good excuse to come back.
One of the subjects we short-changed is music. The Finns have some amazing musicians, wonderful music education and impressive facilities for performance. Regular readers of the diary know about all this, but we could have done more on the subject. I was reminded of this on one of my last nights here, when I was invited to attend a concert of the Tapiola Sinfonietta, a Mozart-sized symphony orchestra of some 40 musicians who play magnificently in the Espoo Cultural Center in a suburb of Helsinki. The concert hall there holds about a thousand in a wood-lined hall that sweeps dramatically upward from the stage, so everyone has a good view. The acoustics sounded perfect to my amateur ear. And the concert was special.
Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Russian-born pianist, was conductor and soloist for two of the great piano concertos, Mozart's 20th and Beethoven's 4th. Ashkenazy, 67, is a compact man overflowing with energy. He played those pieces with restrained power and lilting musicality. It was a transfixing performance, and the crowd -- composed primarily of senior citizens and soon-to-be's -- gave the pianist ovation after ovation when he had finished. I felt privileged to have been there.
We felt lucky to have been in Finland for these weeks as well. This has been fascinating for me -- my first visit to Finland in more than 30 years, my first extended exposure to a Scandinavian welfare state, my first experience of such a concerted effort by one small country to remain relevant to a high-tech, globalizing world. I am going to be thinking about what we saw here during a two-week vacation that begins now; and when I return to Washington, I am going to try to write one or two longer articles about today's Finland. But they won't appear until July, probably.
Finns have treated us extremely well, and complimented us repeatedly by taking us and our questions so seriously. We have encountered warm hospitality everywhere we went. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are kind to foreigners who speak no Finnish, and use their own English, which is usually amazingly good. Here's an example of that which reveals another lesson at the same time. It's the text of an e-mail I received the day after we arrived in Helsinki after our tour around the country:
"I believe you visited our shop today and forgot your blue bag here. I took the liberty to look inside to find your contact information. We keep the bag here for you to collect it. The shop is [name and address provided, and the manager's mobile phone number!] I do hope you read your E-mail while you are still in Finland!!
What comment could I make to enrich that wonderful message? I showed up in the shop 10 minutes after the e-mail was sent, to the manager's great relief. The bag contained only a sweater and poncho, but it was the principle that mattered, obviously.
Finns are famous for wondering what other people are thinking of them, and we saw this again and again on our trip. "What surprised you the most?" some Finns asked. "What did you like the most?" "What turned you off the most?" In my experience people rarely think in such superlative terms; I know I don't. And in fact, if you read a few books and talk to a few smart people in advance of a journey like this, the surprises won't be many. What's informative is not things you didn't expect, but the texture of things you heard about but had improperly imagined.
The school-ending celebration was a curious example of that. I had imagined something quite foreign, quite peculiarly Finnish, from the descriptions of it I had read and heard. As it turned out, we saw a close cousin of the American high school graduation. Only the white hats were really distinctive. Even the behavior of parents, siblings and graduates was familiar. Indeed, an American in Finland is repeatedly struck by scenes, faces, body language and behavior that look like something American. Perhaps this is a tribute to the Scandinavian migration to America, which has left a strong imprint on the United States, as Garrison Keillor reminds his listeners weekly.
We have not been able to do justice to the many bloggers who have given us their comments on diary entries earlier than this one, and I'm sure will be commenting here as well. Anyone who reads the comments can see that Finland's younger generation is hip to the Net and was intrigued by this journalistic enterprise. I'm sorry their intramural commentary degenerated sometimes into arguments the rest of us could barely understand, but if you enter the blogosphere, you take the consequences. A lot of them were wonderful, I thought. I'm sorry we didn't have time to make more comments.
We also received nearly 400 e-mails to FinlandDiary@washingtonpost.com. We answered many but not all of them, for which we apologize. Again, seeing so many people, writing something every day, editing and transmitting so many photos ate up all our time.
This is an experimental form of interactive journalism, and we'd like to know your reactions to it, either by e-mail or on the blog right here. We hope to be able to do it again soon.
Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 06/10/2005
Porvoo's Bar Mary
PORVOO -- A band invited to perform at Bar Mary in the beautiful historic town of Porvoo, just 30 miles outside of Helsinki, is in for a real treat. Before going on stage the musicians first take in the sauna that is just down the street from the club. Then they jump into the pristine river for a swim. After that, they are treated to a wholesome, homemade dinner before waltzing into the club around 11 p.m. -- the usual performance starting time for club acts.
Tonight the lucky band is Fat Beat Sound System -- six highly talented young musicians trained in everything from classical music to punk rock. Like many Finnish musicians, these six play in several different bands, and some also with a symphony orchestra or classical quartet. "We're influenced by all music ever done," says Mans Stromberg -- aka "DJ Bunuel" -- who creates special effects and sings vocals for the band.
We talk after the band has enjoyed its sauna and is eating dinner, which includes smoked lamb made in Porvoo. Stromberg is also one of the founders of Bar Mary. I ask him if this is an underground club. He didn't think so. "Underground music is that which doesn't fit into the one percent that the radio plays, so nowadays underground music is something that my mother listens to as well," he says with a laugh.
After dinner, the band makes its way to the club in the light of a setting sun. An enthusiastic crowd watches as the musicians take the stage and begin producing slow melodic rhythms that blend into a sensually paced sound. Vocalist Tommi Lindgren describes the band's philosophy as "no rush to get anywhere." That proved to be a good description of their music.
Soon Lindgren broke into a hip-hop-style rap that revealed how strongly African American music has influenced Fat Beat Sound System. The crowd swayed and danced to the music, igniting an energy that bounced back and forth between the audience and the band.
Click here for photos from the Bar Mary.
Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 06/ 9/2005
Kustom Kars on Helsinki's Streets
HELSINKI -- You won't see many SUVs or four-wheel-drives in Finland even though the driving in the winter can be quite treacherous here. The majority of the cars we've seen are small European ones that are comfortable and easy on the gas. So it came as a real surprise to occasionally be confronted with a bright purple 1965 Cadillac, a '58 black Corvette, a '69 Rambler, a '72 red Camarro--all part of a veritable "Who's Who" of old American cars on the streets of Helsinki.
It turns out that American vintage cars are very popular here. There is even a "Helsinki Cruising Night" on the first Friday of each month during the summer. Luckily our stay here in Helsinki fell on one of those Fridays, so off I went to check out the scene. I saw hundreds of examples of vintage American iron on wheels at this gathering, which fills numerous parking lots along one of Helsinki's seafront avenues, down to the big old market square. The drivers cruised from one open parking lot to the next to show off their cars. One lot, for example, was reserved just for Corvettes.
Among the many people I met was Iiro Mattila with his wife, Noora, and daughter, Miro, 6. They were hanging out with their black '57 Buick in one of the parking lots. They live an hour away from Helsinki and were not about to miss this event. Iiro, dressed in 1950s-style clothes with his black hair slicked back, told me: "These old cars and old '50's-style Rock 'n Roll and Rockabilly--it's not my hobby; it's my way of life. It's a whole family thing."
To see the photos and hear the interviews click here.
Posted at 5:00 PM ET, 06/ 8/2005
The Precocious Young
HELSINKI -- One impression will stick with me for a long time from this trip: Finland has a lot of talented, precocious young people. They pop up in all sorts of places. The leader of the country's third-biggest political party, the conservative or National Coalition Party, is 33-year-old Jyrki Katainen. One of the biggest new names in Finnish classical music is Pekka Kuusisto, a 28-year-old violinist. One of the brightest stars in the academic firmament is Professor Alf Rehn, 33, who has chairs in Turku and at a Swedish university as well. He is two years older than Finland's best-known young thinker, Pekka Himanen, whom I interviewed to begin the Finland diary, and saw several times in Helsinki. The chairman of the governing city board in Turku, the second city of Finland, is Aleksi Randell, who is 29. This could be a very long list.
Himanen, who says he reads a new book every day, told me this was a unique new generation, raised on Finnish rock music and "the first to go to school with some people who are not Finns." Quite right, since immigration was virtually nonexistent before 1990. But at 31, Himanen has already lived for three years in Berkeley, Calif. -- a more important influence, certainly, than who his classmates were in his Finnish school.
Indeed, the brightest and most successful young people are men and women of the world from an early age. One such is Tommy Lindgren, 27, a bandleader and rap artist whose colloquial English hints at the time he has spent in California; or Kuusisto the violinist, who -- with his brother, another prodigy who now conducts as well as playing the fiddle -- studied music for years at the University of Indiana; or Noora Laitio, 25, a graduate of English universities and the City of London, where she worked for Goldman Sachs and the Rothschild merchant bank in London, and now works for a big Finnish corporation; or any one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of others.
We spent an invigorating evening over dinner in a good Italian restaurant here with seven impressive young people who agreed to talk about themselves and their country with us. The conversation might have made quite a good documentary film; alas, there was no way to make thorough notes of what everyone said AND take part in the talking ourselves. So you will have to settle for an impressionistic account:
● The best young people are not afraid of the future, or of how it might undermine the pillars of modern Finland, its welfare state and the free educational system ("free" after Finns pay their high taxes, of course). "We'll have problems," said Jaako Ollila, 28, referring to the rising cost of supporting an aging population, "but we will manage them." Ollila works for Nokia, the biggest firm in Finland, after selling the software firm he and some colleagues created. His father, Jorma Ollila, is the much-admired CEO of Nokia.
● Kai Mykkanen, 25, sitting next to Ollila at the dinner party, is already in elected politics, as a member of the city council in Espoo, a suburb of Helsinki. From that perspective he is more worried than his neighbor about the costs of sustaining the welfare state; in Espoo they are running out of money. Yet a few minutes later Kai was talking about Finnish flexibility and aptitude for adjusting to change.
● Maria Almiala, 26, a newly minted physician still interning as an internist, expressed specific optimism about the health care system. Are her colleagues anxious about the prospects for budget cuts and such? "I don't think they are anxious," she replied, although many complain that "healthy people" fill too many doctors' appointment books, sometimes making it hard for the really sick to see a physician speedily.
● Noora Laitio, 25, the former London investment banker mentioned above, expressed her optimism in a pure London accent. But she demonstrated it even more persuasively by her decision to return to Finland after seven years in Britain studying and working, and leaving behind a fat City of London paycheck to return home. Why? "Quality of life."
The conversation got more complicated. After some talk about Finns' competitiveness in realms like the cell phone, where Nokia has done so well, Tommy Lindgren, 27, the rap singer and leader of the Don Johnson Big Band, wanted to register a dissent. "I don't think the world should be defined solely by competition," he said emphatically.
Markus Kaverna, a graduate student in economics, noted that Finns can be too easily discouraged, not a good trait if they are to become risk-taking entrepreneurs.
And on the talk went. I don't think I can do justice here to the sense of engagement of these young people in the questions I asked about where Finland is going. But I can share the best single moment of the evening, when Kuusisto, the internationally famous but still shy violinist, announced that after two glasses of wine, he was going to have more to say than he had hitherto.
One of the first things he said was, "Very rarely have I sat with a group of people who articulate as well as what I have heard tonight." But he wanted me to understand how rare such a conversation was. "Talking like this in general just doesn't happen" in Finland. The affirming reactions to Kuusisto's remark were persuasive: M*ost young Finns don't talk about themselves, their view of the country and its future, or their reactions to abrupt, sometimes nosy questions from an American reporter.
This reminded me of the response Pekka Himanen had given to a question I put to him by e-mail in our interview that began the Finland Diary. This was our exchange:
Q. When Finns talk among themselves, do they discuss the relative strengths of their society compared to others? How do they explain their successes to each other?
A. Generally we don't talk about such things.
--Robert G. Kaiser
Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 06/ 8/2005
Finland's Classy Design
HELSINKI -- You don't need to go to Finland to appreciate its style and design. Finnish glassware and Arabia pottery, Marimekko fabrics and modern furniture, and its great modern architecture are all famous around the world.
But it is still impressive to experience Finnish esthetics all around you every day -- to see, again and again, the care given to objects -- from the use of glass, metal and wood in the buildings we pass and enter daily to a varied style of dress and unique combinations worn on the street.
To learn more about Finnish design, I visited fashion designer Paola Suhonen, 30, the founder of the Ivana Helsinki label. She is one of the hot young talents in the fashion industry here. But she doesn't fit the flamboyant stereotype often reserved for fashion designers. She is soft-spoken, dressed in earthy colors, and very thoughtful about her business.
Suhonen traces some of the unique Finnish style that was nurtured in the 1950s by a well-known group of local designers to Finland's wars with the Soviet Union. She told me, "After the war with the Russians in the '40s, the Finns wanted to start their own style. The Finns wanted to separate from the Soviet Spirit . . . from their Slavic roots, which was part of the Finnish life [Finland was a province of Russia for more than a century until 1917]. In the '50s people did not want to see any of the Russian influence in design, in the cultural life and in the arts at all. They wanted to do strictly Scandinavian and pure-lines design. That was what pushed the Finns to do their own, very clear and sophisticated style."
But according to Suhonen that is changing. "Now we are quite free to use the inspirations from them [Russia]. Now Finnish design is going back to its Slavic roots. It's more avant-garde and artistic nowadays. It's more wild. It's not so simple with clean lines. It's much more experimental and colorful. For me, it's a mixture from the Slavic and Scandinavian roots."
Suhonen's empathy with the Slavs is not a universal view here. Bob and I have been surprised on our trip around Finland by the continued strength of anti-Russian sentiment among Finns. We've met numerous Finns who say they have never visited Russia (a very short trip) and never intend to. One of the big stories in Finland just now is about Russian overflights of Finnish territory, sharply protested by the Finnish government.
Besides fashion, Suhonen is also experimenting with the business side of her company. She wants to avoid the increasingly popular business model of outsourcing work to a cheaper labor force in other parts of the world. Her materials are produced in Finland, so her employees receive the generous benefits afforded workers here. "I believe my customers want clothes that are handmade and carefully crafted instead of mass produced . . ." she said. "I can carefully follow the whole production process here." She also believes that customers are becoming more aware of the issues concerning the manufacturing of products. "It's not enough anymore to look good, but to know that what you bought was ethically produced."
I asked Suhonen if there were any fashion-related events going on while I was here that might be interesting to photograph. She looked at her watch. "Marimekko is having a fashion show at one of our parks in the next hour." Off I went to find it.
Click here to see the images from the Marimekko Fashion Show.
Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 06/ 7/2005
Down but Not Out
HELSINKI -- Finland is prosperous, and abject poverty is essentially nonexistent here. This does not mean, however, that everyone is happy or well-situated in life. There are people out of work (about 10 percent of the workforce) and people employed in jobs they consider beneath their skills and education. There are, of course, Finns who drink too much, who suffer from mental illnesses, who have family crises and economic disasters.
But an American, we learned on an outing to the eastern regions of Helsinki, should avoid imagining such Finns in circumstances that are familiar to us. Down and out in Helsinki can be pretty miserable, but it isn't like down and out in a big American city, first of all because there is virtually no homelessness here. During our outing into working-class Helsinki on Sunday, we saw numerous people who had drunk too much beer, and a few sad-sacks who had no jobs, but no one in obviously desperate straits. And the residents of a truly scruffy neighborhood in Washington, D.C., wouldn't call what we saw scruffy.
More fundamentally, Finnish society is so tight-knit and so well organized that people here cannot easily fall between the cracks. A Finn can have all of life's problems, but it's still very difficult to fall entirely beyond the reach of the elaborate Finnish safety net.
So, for example, when we set out to find unemployed Finns in the working-class neighborhoods of eastern Helsinki, we discovered that a good way to do so would be through the Association of Unemployed People, a typically Finnish organization set up by private charities with government support to try to give comfort and support to people who are out of work. We went to the branch of the group in Myllypuro, a working-class neighborhood that is a 15-minute subway ride from the center of town.
Today's unemployed Finns were, largely, the victims of an early-1990s recession here so serious that Finns routinely refer to it as "the depression." The collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire suddenly cost Finland its most important export markets. A simultaneous banking crisis pushed numerous companies into bankruptcy. Unemployment rose to more than 20 percent of the workforce. The government had to slash public spending. Finnish companies either adapted quickly, or disappeared.
Those who survived, led by Finland's biggest success story, Nokia, maker of cell phones, thrived, and led Finland into a new golden age. It is now one of the richest and most successful countries in Europe. But many of the victims of the early-'90s collapse never really recovered and never found a full-time job again.
A lot of the people who lost their jobs then "just don't fit in now," explained Markus Larkovirta, the unpaid and unemployed president of the Myllypuro branch of the Association of the Unemployed. "A certain part of the population will never find a job again." The association, he added, "is trying to fight against the tendency to let these people drop out of society completely." So it provides a cozy haven here in a premises that used to be a convenience store, a big space with room for two textile looms and a carpentry shop, and lots of places to socialize.
We had a long conversation with one member of the association, a former printing press operator named Jarno Kunnari, 52. At first blush he looked the part of the unemployed worker. He hadn't shaved, he was wearing a dirty T-shirt, and pulled an old baseball cap down over his forehead. But once the conversation began. Kunnari made those initial impressions seem ridiculous.
He turned out to be a bright, thoughtful and well-informed citizen whose hobbies are riding his bike long distances, playing the horses and reading history. He gave us a detailed analysis of Finland's current situation, noting that despite the country's general economic success of late, "unemployment is still very high. It's a burden for society." He thinks the government should give out less welfare, and instead provide cash to private firms that could use it to grow their businesses and hire unemployed Finns.
Kunnari knows about the welfare, which he received for years. Initially he got 60 percent of the pay he received on his last full-time printing job as an unemployment benefit that lasts for 500 days. After that the benefit shrinks.
How much was the smaller, longer-term benefit? Larkovirta, the local association president, is still getting it, but he couldn't remember the amount. "Just a moment," he said, "let me see if I can find it in my bank-account, on line." He went off for several minutes to use the association's Internet connection and came back with a page from the latest statement of his account. It showed that he receives nearly $500 a month and a rent supplement of $240. He can go on receiving this indefinitely.
Kunnari is off the dole. He discovered a few years back that he could help neighbors in his apartment house with a variety of tasks, from shopping for their food to filling out forms and cleaning their apartments, and charge them modestly for the services. Other neighbors heard what he was doing and asked him to help them as well. Now he calls himself an entrepreneur. He's making about $1,900 a month after taxes, enough to live on reasonably comfortably, he said. The rent on his one-bedroom apartment is $750. He's divorced, and his 19-year-old daughter lives independently. He owns no car.
Before we said goodbye he had a question for us: "What about this Watergate affair? Those were good guys at The Washington Post -- they didn't expose their source!"
The next morning I had an e-mail from Markus Larkovirta, written in his excellent, mostly self-taught English. ("I listen a lot to the VOA.")
"One very important thing I forgot to mention," he wrote. "Twice a week we give away bread to our members. We get it as a courtesy from a local bakery. It is perfectly eatable but just one day off the limits to be delivered to the stores.
"Many of our members very much rely on the chance to get that loaf. On any Tuesday or Thursday you would see a line behind our back door."
-- Robert G. Kaiser
Posted at 5:44 PM ET, 06/ 6/2005
Robert G. Kaiser and Lucian Perkins will be online Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET to chat about their experiences in Finland, a fascinating if little-explored country of 5.2 million people. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, and Perkins, an award-winning photographer, have spent the past two weeks traveling around southern Finland. They have been talking to Finns of all ages and exploring why Finland has one of the world's best education systems, produces such talented musicians and architects, and why Finns appear to be so technologically savvy.
You can submit questions for Kaiser and Perkins here and log on to join the discussion on Tuesday.