Saturday, January 09, 2010

Finland doesn't work

Helsinki central metro station. Closed for months due to huge cock-up.

Actually Finland works rather well in many respects, but not nearly as well as its boosters would have you believe. I’ve noticed over the years how the BBC tends to portray Finland as techno-social-democratic-nirvana, the Guardianista’s wet dream. This portrayed perfection is often used as a foil to Daily Mail-worthy moans about how bad things are in the UK: “why can’t Britain be more like Finland?” the correspondent opines during his or her 24 hr reporting trip to downtown Helsinki where they are shown about by the press officers from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

A long wait at -15 for a tram that isn't coming

This is a major difference between Britain in Finland – in the UK most people are conditioned to resolutely refuse to believe that anywhere else in the world could be worse than ole’ Blighty, whilst Finns are taught to believe that there is nowhere that could be better. But the Finnish press and government love to bathe in that reflected glow of just how astoundingly good they are seen to be at everything, and then in turn send those smooth vibes back out to the world in their tourist and international trade and investment marketing.

Crashed train at Helsinki Station, via HS International

So when things don’t work the cognitive dissonance is severe. The British media is full of stories questioning why the country can’t operate smoothly in the once-in-30-year-conditions of snow, ice and temperatures into the minus 20s. The obvious answer would seem to be that it happens once every 30 years so it would be ridiculous to invest to deal with something so rare. Build a snowman, have fun on the sledge and wait for the inevitable thaw. But the pundits have to ask “if Helsinki and Moscow can deal with these temperatures, why can’t London?” But another answer is that Helsinki can’t deal that well with these temperatures either. I’ve walked the last mile to work for the last two days because the bloody trams keep derailing or breaking down because of the snow. Trains services have been also badly affected by the weather and these problems have been made even worse by the damage done by a runaway train that on Monday smashed into Helsinki central railway station – after its failsafe systems, well… failed (if you haven't seen it - check this video out).

The central metro station is still closed months after it was flooded by the a burst water main. It never should have flooded because the water mains were inside a separate concrete tunnel to prevent exactly that disaster. The only problem was that someone drilled a series of large holes through the protective wall for what appears to be imbecilic reasons – in fact so imbecilic that as one distraught expert put it, this is the sort of thing that only happens in "other countries". Meanwhile Finnish politicians show themselves to be, on average, as venal and corrupt as politicians in other countries, and no one seems to suggest that the minister of interior who has served in that role for a period of time that has seen three mass shootings should perhaps consider her position. And just to chuck in a few more recent stories; the food is rotten, the kids are anti-social little gits, the doctors aren't real, nurses keep murdering their patients and the weather is getting crappier. So overall, Finland – it’s a bit rubbish. Just like everywhere else really.

But go for a walk on a quiet lake, and you'll feel better.


nikko said...

Nice one, Toby. Thank you.

Perhaps it all comes down from the mental conditioning given to the parents of the people of my age (40ish) who lived their prime in Kekkoslovakia. It all seems to seep through from there.

How many times have I heard the phrase "When you're born in Finland, it's like winning the lottery." Yeah, if you win 42 euros..

This country is definitely no different that any other. There are people that are worthy, and some that are not so worthy. There are criminals, there are solid people. Some people work hard for their living, some do not. The arts and culture is as it is. There is a world champion at an obscure sporting discipline once in a while. The politicians are the same everywhere. Just blame the people for voting for them.

But this mental facade that the powers at be somehow manage to keep up is truly sickening. Not on behalf of the goverment, but of the people who buy it without a second thought.

We are near the top of the highest taxed nations on this planet, but we get it all back through public services. Well, wake up. What part of your local public services has not been cut back in the past couple of year? I would sincerely be interested in knowing.

Wheeh, sorry for the rant.


Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

It was a very good rant Nikko! Thanks. Having been travelling between Finland and the UK and then back again, I have been mulling over these matters. I find the British tendency to moan about how terrible everything is, very tiresome as it erodes the integrity of the body politic and means many don't realise how lucky they are. But in Finland, its the opposite - there can be a certain smugness that politicians use as an excuse to not do anything positive. Of course the answer is balance somewhere between the two!

Instant Kaamos said...

Well your post did make me laugh but not as much as the traffic jam at the end of my road in South London after a fall of something like 3cm of snow.

In fact, it turned out that on top of the fact that the buses couldn't get up the hill, the real problem was "temporary" traffic lights that had been in place for several months. Last week, my street had no running water for several hours and I hear from the pub that during the freeze, many people have lost power.

I'm back to London after a 4 month sojourn in Finland and while I share your scepticism about some rose-tinted perceptions of Finland (The Guardian website (mis-)reported yesterday:"In Finland, the council will bring you snow tires for your car when it freezes over." ( if you don't believe me), my daily experience of life in Helsinki was less stressful, easier and while being born a Finn might not be exactly the same as winning the lottery, it sure beats getting seventh prize in the school raffle.

ramon marin said...

Toby, that's a very sharp piece of commentary. I've been going to Finland for about 7 years now, and I'm accustomed to deal with the cultural differences between countries. I agree that Finns have a certain embedded kudos for their country, but not all finns are the same, as I'm married to one. I personally quite agree about finland not being what is being projected, I think is not that different that many other countries in Europe, and certainly not in the nordic countries.

I personally, as a Spaniard, I found Finland quite claustrophobic, in terms that everything needs to planned for and organized, and no room for "freestylers", it drives me mad. A bit like Japan in a way yes. Certain things work very well, some just average like anywhere else, but it ain't paradise. But anyways, there are many things I don't like from Spain either, which is probably the opposite. As you said, everywhere it's a bit rubbish, it's just the way you handle it. I found Finns to be generally more troubled "upstairs" than other nationalities in Europe.

That's why I love UK, as a happy medium between the two. I have never complained about the food in the UK,( if you eat badly here is because one doesn't know any better), and I think yes it is ridiculous that the country shuts down every time there's 1cm of snow. But I've grown to love the shambolic personality of UK, I think it's full of colorful personalities and a melting pot of the world. And it's always gonna be difficult to manage a country with those qualities.

Bottom line is that we are lucky to see from both sides, different angles.

Tomppa said...

I found Toby's original story funny although a bit gloomy. The grass looks always greener on the other side :) My main response though, goes to nikko. The myth that it would be like winning a lottery to be born in Finland is familiar for me too and the irony of it is obvious. But that Finland would have the highest taxes in the world is likewise a myth that all Finns seem to believe true. It's simply not true. Having moved from Finland to Germany two years back, I was surprised that my net income actually dropped although my gross income increased. The things is that taxes in Finland include lots of insurances, like retirement, health and unemployment insurances, which you have to take here on the private market. So, even if the taxes here are indeed lower, the total deductions from your salary are higher than in Finland.

Another sort of myth about Finns is that Finns would have poor self-esteem. Or, well, perhaps that's kind of true, but at the same time it means that Finns care about what other people think. Finns care about other people, that is, they're empathetic. That's something I really miss about Finland..

cheers, Tom

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

The tax issue is an interesting one. I also feel that Finnish taxes aren't as bad as many make out but maybe that's a reflection on the size of my salary - not huge! At least when the government here puts their hand in your pocket, they do it once and take everything in one blow. In the UK the central government takes their cut out of your wage packet, and then local government sends you a bill (council tax) later - or at least that's how it was when I last lived in the UK and I think it remains the same (comments- any UK tax payers?). But then salary levels are low here - I remember a year or two ago Hesari reported that EU figures showed that professional Finns had the lowest spending power of any professionals in the EU-15 (the 'older' EU states, not including the central and eastern European new-comers). But IIRC this was as much to do with high prices and low salaries as it was to do with tax levels.

On the other hand, I do get a bit annoyed about state services you still have to pay for in Finland though, I guess mainly as a reaction to having got used to not needing to pay for them in the UK. Things like the price of medicine that the doctor prescribes for you (in the UK you just pay the prescription charge) or paying to see the health-centre doctor. The latter is not a huge amount, but have I not already paid in my tax/national insurance? No matter what problems there are with the UK NHS, free at the point of delivery remains fundamental.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other I guess.

instand kaamos said...

You're right about the UK method of tax. Everyone but the self-employed have tax and national insurance deducted at source. Council Tax comes as a big annual bill but I imagine many people pay it in monthly instalments like I do.

I have to say that at £7.20 (approx 8.10 euros) for each medicine, the prescription charge rather puts the lie to healthcare being "free at the point of delivery". It's high enough so that some patients are paying more than the actual cost of the medicines they need. It's no wonder that the charge has been described by some as a tax on the sick and that some patients reportedly tell doctors that they can't afford to collect all the drugs they are prescribed.


Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Thanks John. I understand that UK doctors are now obliged to prescribe generics if they can to avoid cost. I don't know if you went to the doctors in Finland, but here you pay whatever the cost of the drug is. A friend of my wife was complaining about having to pay over 100 euros for medicine to stop her getting stomach ulcers recently. I thought you could claim some of that back from KELA but my wife didn't think so. I have a decent enough job, but also don't like having to get prescription medicine because of the cost. On the other hand my wife couldn't believe it in the UK when she got a 6 month prescription for the pill from our local GP for the cost of the prescription charge.

The Finnish pharmaceutical market is also a protected duopoly sort of situation. A friend from Australia is doing post doc research in socio-pharmacology here and really doesn't think much of how the patient gets treated here as a result of the Finnish pharma companies and regulation of pharmacies. Its a very odd system.

When ever I'm in the UK, being a cheapskate, I always buy loads of packets of ibuprofen because its so much cheaper than in Finland! :-)

Instant Kaamos said...

I believe KELA do reimburse you with something like 40 per cent of the perscription cost. You should ask the pharmacist for a form -- you may even be able to claim for costs of drugs as far back as six months but I'm really not sure.

As for the UK, whether or not GP's prescribe generic versions of drugs, the patient pays the same flat fee so the saving is to the Health Service not the patient.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

I also understood that about how KELA did that, but I think it after a certain cost. For prescriptions costing in 20-30 Euro range I have been told I just have to pay. With the example I mentioned above, the cost was over 100 euros. This is why I suggested to my wife that the friend surely must be able to get some of the money back but she said no. Maybe it is means tested?

I thought that in the UK with cheap generic drugs, the doctor just tells you what to get, rather than writing a real prescription, so that you can pay the lower cost. But considering how much I've had to pay for prescription hayfever drugs in Finland, I would much prefer to have to only pay the UK prescription charge level than the actual cost!

I'll do some digging to see if I can work out how the KELA reimbursement works.

Oddly, coming back from climbing on sunday I was talking about this with my friends - 1 Finn and 1 Brit. All of us have health insurance access through work, and it seems many people expect that so as to avoid having to queue for non-private care. It seems more widespread in Finland than in the UK which is odd considering the Finnish healthcare system is probably better in some respects than the NHS.