Friday, June 10

Finland – The Good, The Bad, and The Stupid

I recently returned from a two plus weeklong vacation to Finland. I wrote a little bit about Finland in my “Before you Move to Canada” piece. As you can imagine, there is much more to Finland, so I thought that I would summarize the Good, the Bad, and the Stupid (the ugly side if Finland.)

The Good

Small Population – In general, I do not like being around people. Too many people are stupid and in general just annoying. The fewer people around, the better. There are less than six million people living in Finland. That is less than the population of New York City. Sure there is no shortage of annoying and stupid people in Finland, it is just easier to avoid them.

Large Country with lots of nature – Finland is much larger than New York City, so the people are spread out. Now they tend to congregate around the city areas, but even in the capital Helsinki, you can still manage to find private space, unless of course you are trying to do something popular, like enjoying a beer on a terrace on a nice sunny day. The countryside creeps past the boarders of the city, so it is possible to take nice walks into the nature right near downtown. True forests are not far away, where you can even go berry and mushroom picking. When driving around the country you might have to watch out for a moose in the road, and in the north encounters with reindeer are entirely possible. There is lots of forest and lakes. In general, the countryside both inland and along the shore, is just great!

Things progress at a slower pace – Nothing seems to move at the pace of business in the US, especially in the Northeast. It is nice to work at a more ‘reasonable’ pace. Another benefit is if you operate at the NY level, you can easily outperform expectations in terms of work output, unless you are a slacker to begin with.

The Chocolate - I love chocolate. My MBA classmates can attest to that. FAZER is Good!

The Language, Finnish – Less than six million people on the planet speak Finnish. It is supposedly a difficult language to learn, compared to others. So why is Finnish in the good column? Well since nobody speaks Finnish, Finns tend to speak English. Most of the popular American shows are on TV. The shows are not dubbed into Finnish, but instead, there is Finnish text on the bottom of the screen. It is slightly more annoying when going to the movies as there is also Swedish text in the movie. (Swedish is the other official language)

The People – Finns are a very nice lot. They are known as not being talkative, and that is fine with me. When they get to know you better, then they open up and there is almost nothing you can do at that point to then try and shut them up! Finns like foreigners and many women do have an interest in foreign European and American men, with interest also in all foreigners, provided that they’re not a refugee.

The Bad
Well there is a lot to complain about concerning Finland, and Finns love to complain. These are some of the things that bother me.

The Euro – Actually I like the Euro. Unfortunately, the switchover to the Euro permitted many to take advantage of the situation and greatly increase the prices of many things.

Salaries – Salaries in Finland for higher-level jobs are generally much lower than in the US. This has been tempered by the appreciation of the Euro, but even that cannot close the gap. There is another nasty aspect of working in Finland, you’ll probably only be paid once a month instead of every other week (or twice a month.) Finns do not complain about this but it bothered the hell out of me. Why in ‘worker-friendly’ Europe do they only pay employees once a month?

Higher income Taxes – So you start with less pay and the government takes a higher percentage of it away from you. It is a graduated scale like in the US. Workers receive a tax card they give to their employer which tells them how much to take out of your pay . It is not the same the whole year through, at first they take little or nothing and then they progressively take more. Don’t think that you can escape taxes if you’re unemployed. You still need to pay taxes on whatever unemployment or welfare payments you receive.

Nine Month Wait to receive your tax refund – Your tax return must be filed by 1 February, but don’t expect your refund until December. Not exactly the most worker-friendly tax system.

Punishment of Working Students – Students pay no college tuition as the government provides for free public education. Students receive monthly support payments while in school, provided they do not work more than a couple hours a month. If they do work too many hours, in addition to paying income tax on their earning, they then need to repay their support payment as well as a penalty. The result of this system is very ‘old’ students with little or no work experience. (Students go to school for 6 years to obtain master’s degrees.)

22% Sales Tax – Now this sucks all the way around. First of all, the government it taking a 22% cut out of your business (we’ll forget for a moment that they’ll still tax any profits you make.) Now if a company came out and said that they intended to make a 22% profit, they would be dragged through public hell for being greedy, but the government has no problem with this. Now for the buyer, this sucks because the government has already reduced your spending ability with high taxes. As we all know, sales taxes are regressive, hurting people more the less they earn.

Unreal Gas Prices – Think $2.50 for a gallon of gas is unreal? Well Finns are paying over $5 a gallon! Add that to the reduced earnings to buy gas with and this really hurts. There used to be signs on the gas pumps that 75% of the price of gas is taxes. Makes you wonder, what do they do with all that tax money?

Smoking – There are chain smokers everywhere in Finland. Since Finland is more public-transport oriented, you are forced to be exposed to these people on the street and while waiting for the busses, trains and trams. They tried to stop the smokers from smoking in the waiting areas, but we all know how considerate smokers can be, so now they only recommend that they refrain from smoking at the stops. Added mobility is not the only advantage of having a car. It also reduces your contact with other people, especially smokers.

Drinking and Drunks – Lets face it, there are lots of alcoholics in Finland. You see people drinking all the time. Six in the morning at the airport, there are lots of vacationers enjoying a morning beers while waiting for their flight. Sitting on terraces mid-day, and even walking the street as the EU outlawed the no open container law. The effect is that public areas are packed with people drinking, especially around weekends and holidays. The drinking age is 18, but there has been talk or reducing the age to 16. Why? Because 16 year-olds are already drinking illegally.

Poor Supervision of Children – “Do you know where your child is?” Many Finnish parents would have to say ‘no’ to that question when asked of their teenager. Another common response would be ‘out drinking with friends.’ Parents let their children move out of the house early and they can do what they want. It is some goofy believe that it is a learning experience. Well let me tell you that there is nothing good a sixteen year old girl can learn at 3am on a weekend drunk, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other and hitting on guys in their late twenties. Need I say more?

The Stupid

Finland and the Landmine Treaty – Finland is the only EU Country that has not signed the landmine ban treaty (I am not sure about the new EU members.) Finland has the mines in storage ready to deploy them on their eastern boarder to protect them from the Russians. What makes this stupid is that the President of Finland called the Iraq War illegal and that countries should only act militarily with UN approval. This coming from a country acting on its own to keep landmines when the European Union has come out clearly for banning landmines. The irony is that they have the landmines to protect themselves from Russia, which also believes strongly against war without UN approval. Both countries spoke out strongly against US actions against Iraq. That is a great neighbor to have. As both countries have spoken strongly against ‘illegal’ war, why the need to maintain a stockpile of such a primitive and irresponsible weapon of war? Could Finland be suggesting that countries sometimes lie? Now the US has not signed the treaty either, but that is due to the real need for landmines in maintaining the boarder between North and South Korea. What is Finland afraid of? If I were Russian I would be offended. I guess all Europeans should be offended.

Greenpeace and Finnish Forests – Greenpeace is in Finland hugging trees. As my wife says, there are a lot of trees in Finland to hug. According to the Finnish Forest Research Institute:

“Finland is Europe's most forested country - 3/4 of its land area is under forest cover. By international comparison, Finland relies more heavily on its forests than any other country in the world.”

So what on earth is Greenpeace doing in Finland? I think they are losing their backbone for intervening in countries that have nature truly at risk. Why not head down to the German Black Forest and hug trees there. Why not travel to Africa and hug some of the world’s last old-growth forest in Western Africa in Liberia? Why not get more active in Russia and other countries where there is true risk to the nature. Sure they might have a point that some of what is being logged in Finland should be preserved (for the reindeer) but on the scale of things, I bet that Greenpeace can make better use of their resources and make a more substantial impact elsewhere. They are only damaging their reputation (more) by hugging trees in a country covered in trees.

Amnesty International – Greenpeace is not the only NGO operating in Europe. During my trip Amnesty International was conducting a recruiting drive. I was stopped only once and took the opportunity to ask this young, naïve Finnish girl some questions about Amnesty’s work in Finland (they are/were suing the government on behalf of conscientious objectors) and abroad. She quickly admitted that she was unaware of what exactly Amnesty was up to. I will give her credit for the admission.

I told her that the problem with Amnesty International is that they waste too much time persecuting the bad things ‘good countries’ do and ignore the bad things the ‘bad countries’ do to their entire population. Where is Amnesty when it comes to North Korea? Zimbabwe? The Sudan? Nowhere. Instead they are wasting their recent TV time claiming that the US is operating a Gulag in Cuba. What a joke.

Also hassling people for money was UNICEF. They did not bother me which is good, because I would have asked them why was UNICEF wasting money on trying to ban handguns in the US instead of spending that money on children.

Finland’s Green Party – The Greens are supposed to be the one’s who care about protecting nature, so why are they so interested in legalizing marijuana? In fairness, it is not only the Finnish Green Party that appears to have this agenda; Green Parties around the world appear to have this as a common goal. Can they please explain to me how smoking (burning) anything is good for the environment. Or is this something to help you cope with the ransacking of the forest? In general I would like to know why Greenpeace and other environmentalists do not think that smoking (anything) contributes to global warming and air pollution? Why? So for any Greens reading this:

“Cigarette smoke contains carbon dioxide and methane. Smoking worldwide releases about 2.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide in the air every year. It also releases about 5.2 billion kilograms of methane every year. Tobacco growing, curing, and smoking all add to the greenhouse effect and global warming.”

So why don’t the Greens tackle smoking? What a great way to put a small dent in global warming and improve the health of the population. While they are at it, I bet those wood fires in all those saunas are contributing to global warming too!

Hatred of the US – Americans used to be told that America was the “Most American Country in Europe.” People do not seem to be claiming that distinction anymore. I think it stopped about the time that President Bush was elected President. This is probably the most controversial item on the stupid list, however this is where is needs to be. Take the case of Anneli Jäättenmäki. During the last parliamentary election she inferred that the then government joined President Bush’s ‘Coalition’ damaging Finland’s longstanding neutrality (I have issues about their ‘neutrality’ too.) Her party had an upset win against the incumbent Social Democrats and this information was seen by many as the tipping point. She was then elected Prime Minister. She had to resign a short a short while later as she was connected to a presidential aide who was convicted of leaking state secrets. After she resigned her position she ran and won a position in the European Parliament. Hmm. At the least there is now a simmering hostility but that is understandable. Finland is one big 'Blue state.'

Correction added on 6/13/05: As the first commentor pointed out, Finland is not one big Blue State. Actually the electoral map of Finland in 2000 mirrored the US results; the cities voted for the Liberal and the countryside was colored red, voting for the conservative candidate.

September 11 Conspiracy – There are a bunch of crazy Finns spreading the word that September 11 was actually a US engineered conspiracy. The site is in Finnish but you can get an idea by looking around. One thing they claim is that it was impossible for the Pentagon to have been hit by an airplane, instead, they claim it was hit by a missile (I do not see in their explanation of what happened to the hijacked airplane if it did not strike the pentagon.)

Now it would be easy to explain away these people as kooks but I was completely floored when a well educated Finn who I am on friendly relations with mentioned exactly this that the Pentagon was struck with a missile. Instead of freaking out I calmly asked him what happened to the plane. He had no valid thought about that, partly because he did not think about it before. He simply wanted to believe that the US Government had somehow engineered this. He did admit at the end of the conversation that he needed to rethink the situation.

As for the plane striking the Pentagon, I agree with the following:

“…if you think about it, common sense tells you their claims are just plain silly. After all, if the passenger jet didn't hit the Pentagon, then where did it go? And since the people behind 9-11 had to get rid of the passenger jet and its contents anyway, there was no reason for them NOT to ram it into the Pentagon. Why risk a swap? Why complicate matters even further?”

http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/ppfinal.html

Speeding Fines based on Income - (added 6/13/05) – This has to be one of the stupidest oddities of Finland. You might think it strange for a policeman to ask you how much you earn, but he needs to know because your speeding fine will be based on how much you earn. Every once in a while these $100,000 plus fines do make the news in the US. Now, every time I bring this up a completely stupid and unfair, I seem to be alone in this view. The explanation is that these evil rich people will speed like crazy unless there is this stiff penalty. This makes it fair. Sure why would they not speed? The whole idea that being pulled over is a complete hassle eludes the common sense of many Finns. I ask how they would feel if they inherited money one year and happen to get a speeding ticket. Of course this injustice would not apply to them because a smaller fine would ‘hurt’ them. They also do not like my analogy of pricing everything according to how much you make, yet this is ok. Finns also seem to have no knowledge of the point system. You get so many points on your license and then you lose it, no matter how rich you are. If the Government truly wanted to stop speeding, why not mandate a mandatory month or even year in jail.

As far as I can tell this is the only part of the justice system that punishes people according to their economic status. This might actually be a good idea. I can see this being applied to punishment for robbery and theft. The poorer you are, the more likely you would be to commit one of these crimes. So the poorer you are, the longer your jail sentence should be as you are more ‘desperate.’ Poor people need a stronger punishment if you were to do the crime to act as a deterrent against committing these types of crimes. Ridiculous? No more than giving one of the officers of Nokia a $300,000 speeding ticket.

The speeding fine based on income does have loopholes. You see, it is based on Finnish earned income of which I have none. On one winter holiday I drove up to Levi with my Finnish wife, who also has no Finnish income, and a Finnish friend who was working in the UK. Of course he also had no Finnish income. We were all aware that our income was ‘blind’ to the police and that we would receive a minimum fine. As a result, we drove like mad through the night.
One tip: If you happen to get pulled over by the police, it is not the time to demonstrate your knowledge of Finnish. Play dumb and stick to English. Chances are you get off without any ticket, unless you were really burning up the road.


Conclusion:
I love living in Finland. I love living in the US, although living in Washington, DC, I can say that there are much better places in the US to live. I have no shortage of complaints about Finland and this is by no means a complete list. I have no shortage of complaints about living in the US too. No place is perfect. Finland is one of the better places, as is the US. There are lots of places that are much worse. That’s why even with all the negative sentiment, people are still risking their lives to get into this country.

It is nice to be able to have the perspective of seeing if the grass truly is greener on the other side of the fence. That is one benefit most Americans have not taken advantage of. Too bad, because perhaps once they see what it is like outside the US, they might be a little more happier back here at home.

My Finland pages

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very interesting posting on Finland. I think ten years of EU membership have affected Finland in a way that we're less of an 'American' country now and feel closer to France, Germany and Britain than we did 10-15 years ago. I don't think the Green Party is promoting pot smoking. They had one very vocal pro-pot candidate (Green youth candidate) in Helsinki, Markus Drake, in the last parliamentary election. His posters claimed "Markus smokes pot". The party leadership disagreed with him and felt that he was hurting their chances. I voted Green in Helsinki in that election (only time I've ever voted Green, the candidate often is more decisive than the party for a voter in Helsinki) and I was praying that guy would not get elected with the help of my vote. I consider myself pro-American and I'd like to see Finland in NATO but I have no hurry with that issue. Even if Finland has Europeanized a lot, I see Finland culturally more like blue America than France. Technically Finland is not a gigantic blue state, the center-right parties have had a parliamentary majority for ages (I think since 1970) but both the centrists and the conservatives prefer to govern in a coalition with the social democrats rather than with each other.

Mikko Sandt said...

You don't have a once-a-month salary system in the US? Didn't know that - since it feels so standard...

Anonymous said...

"Amnesty’s work in Finland (they are/were suing the government on behalf of conscientious objectors) and abroad"

Really? Where did you get that information from? This is the first time I hear about it.

"She quickly admitted that she was unaware of what exactly Amnesty was up to."

Many non-profits hire outsiders to do fundraising / recruit new members. I guess they are not trained too well to do the job.

mucksavage said...

finland is the fifth country iv lived and worked in. monthly pay has become fairly standard around the world. your reasoning for finland gettin rid of its landmines, finland trusted the rest of europe to protect it but when push came to shove france and britain tried to engineer ww2 actually takin place in finland to protect there own so u gotta forgive the fins for wanting to be able to protect itself from the bear next door u might think that was long time ago but now we have russian planes invading finn airspace on a regular basis. and the thing about the kids come on really ask yourself which kids are turnin out better finns or americans i know u say american but any neutral that know both will disagree strongly

mucksavage said...

when u were in finland did u actually leave the train station

Hank W. said...

Heh, all so true.

Though you could have gone to Denmark or Sweden where the VAT is 25% and taxes even higher. (Try buy a car in Denmark, 180% tax +25% VAT , no wonder bicycles are so "popular"...)

You did hit the mark on the "shunning" in getting a job in the moving to Canada part.

Antti Peltola said...

Thanks for the insight. Perception of Finland being a somewhat Anti-American country, isn't far from the truth. Many members of current Finnish political elite are so called "taistolaiset", who advocated Marxist overthrow of the government back in 70's. President Tarja Halonen and minister of foreign affairs Erkki Tuomioja are well known "taistolaiset". This leads to Anti-Americanism and clueless foreign policy of Finland, which you may have witnessed when living in here. You probably also found out about Finnish labour unions. They have huge powers for lobbying organization; many members of current political elite are also previous/present labour union activists, like Eero Heinäluoma, who probably will be the next prime minister :-(. Finland has widespread consensus on government and municipal responsibilities. There is suspicion and sometimes open hatred towards people who advocate and express thoughts about moving bloated public sector functions to private sector, so you shouldn't touch that topic -- unless you want to reduce retarded people around you ;-) (usually people you would like to deal with, are open to opinions and general discussion about society.)

Anonymous said...

Finland has 1200 kilometres long border with Russia. A bit longer than the the border between North and South Korea. So it sounds more than hypocritical to say that US needs land mines. Canada is an unlikely invader. Land mines are typically a weapon of defence. And even if they were in the ground instead of storage nobody gets hurt if nobody tries to invade. Big ado about nothing.

Jukka said...

Nice to read foreigners comments/opinions, but there was few bad (and some lesser, not worth mentioning imo) flaws.

"Punishment of Working Students – Students pay no college tuition as the government provides for free public education. Students receive monthly support payments while in school, provided they do not work more than a couple hours a month. If they do work too many hours, in addition to paying income tax on their earning, they then need to repay their support payment as well as a penalty. The result of this system is very ‘old’ students with little or no work experience. (Students go to school for 6 years to obtain master’s degrees.)"

The support payment for me is 450 euros (about 500 USD) a month, and I work 16 hours a week without losing my support. That means I get 1100 euros a month. Actually, if you report that you are working, you will not get any penalty, just lose your support (if you make something like 1000 euros a month or more just by working). Because in Finland people normally graduate when 25-30 years old, it's quite reasonable that government don't want students to work at the same time, because it makes graduating slower, and is more expensive to the government.

"Unreal Gas Prices – Think $2.50 for a gallon of gas is unreal? Well Finns are paying over $5 a gallon! Add that to the reduced earnings to buy gas with and this really hurts. There used to be signs on the gas pumps that 75% of the price of gas is taxes. Makes you wonder, what do they do with all that tax money?"

Yeah, we pay a lot for gas. Taxes are from the time gas used to cost about 2 finnish marks a litre (which is about $1 per gallon). But actually I wouldn't say it's that bad. I have a Toyota Corolla 1.6 '03 and it consumes less than 6 litres per 100 kilometers. So gas for 100 kilometers cost me less than 7 euros. It would be about $12 per 100 miles.

"Smoking – There are chain smokers everywhere in Finland. Since Finland is more public-transport oriented, you are forced to be exposed to these people on the street and while waiting for the busses, trains and trams. They tried to stop the smokers from smoking in the waiting areas, but we all know how considerate smokers can be, so now they only recommend that they refrain from smoking at the stops. Added mobility is not the only advantage of having a car. It also reduces your contact with other people, especially smokers."

I don't know much about the situation, but smoking is really not a problem in Finland (in European scale). For example in France, people smoke everywhere, inside train stations, houses, cars, busses, trains etc. In Finland that is illegal.

"Poor Supervision of Children – “Do you know where your child is?” Many Finnish parents would have to say ‘no’ to that question when asked of their teenager. Another common response would be ‘out drinking with friends.’ Parents let their children move out of the house early and they can do what they want. It is some goofy believe that it is a learning experience. Well let me tell you that there is nothing good a sixteen year old girl can learn at 3am on a weekend drunk, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other and hitting on guys in their late twenties."

This is again a culture thing, in Finland for example 18 year olds are adults (I don't mean in laws, but how people consider them). In the states when I was visiting, it seemed like 20 year olds was still treated as kids.

"Finland’s Green Party..."

Well, the green party is actually AGAINST legalizing marijuana. It was one candidate who was into legalizing it, and he's not member anymore, because of his disagreement about that matter with others in the party.

"September 11 Conspiracy"

Of course there is conspiracy-believers in every country, but afaik there is more people believing to that in the states.

And about the tax system: I think it's better that EVERYONE not capable working, or temporarily out of work gets support money of about $500 a month, so you could say that there is no poverty in Finland. Of course it's annoying that if you make $15,000 a month then 60% goes to taxes, but what the hell, you have plenty of money anyway!

It's easy to see a cultural difference here. My father (lived 2 years in the States) would never-ever want to live there rather than in Finland. On the other side, you wouldn't want to live in Finland rather than the States.

... And sorry my bad english, I've studied the minimum amount, lazy me. :(

jukka said...

A little correction for my previous post (in the smoking-part):

I don't know much about the situation IN THE STATES...

Anonymous said...

I'm really not sure about Finns being friendly and Finnish girls being foreigner-crazy.

What myself and others have experienced is that any dumb foreigner who speaks English decently (extra points if you have a British accent) can get laid extremely easily, but that's pretty much where it stops. Forget about dating and settling down with any Finnish girl; they are only interested in discreet one-nighters with a foreigner who will soon be gone, leaving no trace of that night in the town when they cheated on their Finnish boyfriend. At best, you might become a trophee boyfriend that they will use to make their girly friends jealous during their stint at the university, then promptly dumped the day the girl graduates and does "the right thing" by marrying a homeboy that will make her pregnant with a good little Finn.

Besides, the day you openly say that this place has grown on you so much that you wanna stay, both the average Finn and the authorities start causing you problems. Learning the language is also a sure way to seal your fate: foreigners who master Finnish and generally have strong multilingual skills are seen as a deadly threat to the local labour; average Finns despise you for "thinking that you are better than them" while the authorities will suddenly invent excuses from outer space to deny you a new residence permit.