Entries in denmark (6)


Getting to Copenhagen

Is Denmark the world's perfect country? I spent a week there in March so I'm clearly an expert on the place. And the answer, increasingly, is yes. I mean, check this out: They are building bicycle superhighways -- wide, smoothly paved bikepaths to serve as commuter arteries for cyclists coming into Copenhagen from up to 14 miles outside the city. The first opened in April, with another 26 planned. 

Why are Danes such keen cyclists? One observer says it's purely about the convenience:

In Denmark, thanks to measures like the superhighway, commuters choose bicycles because they are the fastest and most convenient transportation option. “It’s not because the Danes are more environmentally friendly,” said Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, a Canadian organization that works to make cities healthier. “It’s not because they eat something different at breakfast.”

But there has to be more to it than this. There is something in the water in a place like Copenhagen -- a combination of high levels of social trust, powerful network effects, and smart planning. But something like this can't be reduced to cost-benefit analysis:

Superhighway users can also look forward to some variation on the “karma campaign,” now under way in Copenhagen, in which city employees take to the streets with boxes of chocolate to reward cyclists who adhere to the five rules of cycling: be nice, signal, stay to the right, overtake carefully and, rather than let bicycle bells irritate you, do your best to appreciate them.




Growth and Lamborghinis

Of all the ways in which American political and cultural life has become stridently polarized, perhaps the most damaging is the language surrounding the economy. Since he got elected, Obama has been portrayed by Republicans as a socialist, a vulgar form of red-baiting that would be laughable if the president didn't allow himself the occasional foray, rhetorically anyway, into class warfare.

The most recent example of this was Obama's attack on Bain Capital. And so, right on cue, comes a new book entitled Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, by Romney's former Bain Capital partner Edward Conard. 

I haven't read the book, but if a recent review in Business Week is to be believed, Conard's thesis is tricklenomics hitched to Archie comics: Imagine if Veronica Lodge's father was a market theorist, and you might get something like Conard's book. (According to the review, Conard dislikes charity because it isn't investment, and blames liberal arts majors for America's skills shortage). But the most telling passage from the review is this one:

Conard plainly cares about investment. He also cares about yachts. Where some conservatives suggest taxing consumption rather than income, Conard rejoins: “A heavy tax on consumption will discourage increased investment by making it harder to display status.” And since, as he elsewhere argues, “the thirst for … impressive homes, sleek boats, and exotic vacations” is what largely motivates people, such trinkets of affluence must be protected.

Set aside for now the obvious rejoinder that for many investors and capitalists, the accumulation of wealth, succeeding at building something that lasts and that people like, and basically being a river to your people is deeply satisfying; Conard's focus on status is usefully flawed.

He's certainly right, that the desire for status is a huge motivator (that's pretty much the driving thesis of both The Rebel Sell and The Authenticity Hoax). But what this ignores is that all status is relative. The argument behind the tax-consumption-not-income movement, especially the faction led by the economist Robert Frank, is that a steeply progressive consumption tax would serve as a sort of arms-limitation treaty on status consumption. So instead of the hyper-rich being able to buy 200 foot yachts, they'll only have 100-foot yachts. But because status is a positional good, (i.e., relative) it wouldn't matter because those would still be the biggest yachts around.

I actually saw evidence for this during my visit to Denmark. My friend Markus took me on a tour of Hellerup, the ritzy suburb just north of  Copenhagen. Some of the biggest celebrities in Denmark have homes there, including Lars von Trier,  Mads Mikkelsen, and some internet billionaire whose ex-wife took him to the cleaners and now lives next door.  And it was certainly a nice area, with wide streets, big homes, and a great view of the ocean. But the homes were not that nice -- not much nicer than you'd see on a decent stretch of upper Westmount or Forest Hill. 

At any rate, Hellerup represents nothing like the "out-of-sight" wealth that keeps the richest Americans on a separate plane of existence from the rest of the country -- Markus and I drove around, peered over fences and wandered the streets of Hellerup completely unmolested. If von Trier had walked by with his groceries I wouldn't have been remotely surprised. The thing is, taxes are so high in Denmark (the VAT alone is 25 percent), the richest people simply don't have the cash to compete in the manner that the 0.001 percenter Americans do. But in the pond that is Denmark, they're by far the biggest fish. 

How far you can push this argument depends in part on how much the ultra-rich in places like Copenhagen compare themselves to their counterparts in places like London or New York, feel envy at their inability to compete, and look for an exit strategy for their wealth. It also depends on whether the effect of all of this taxation, especially on consumption, leads to a shortage of investment capital. 

I don't have the figures handy, and I'm not a good enough economist anyway, to answer these sorts of questions. But if we start with the end goal, namely, a prosperous high-trust society governed by and through a healthy democratic system, then Denmark is already at the finish line. 


Some links for the long weekend

In blind taste test, Danish people prefer cheap frozen chicken to expensive fresh chicken.

A new ethnography of lap dancing. 

Copenhagen cuisine has entered the realm of extreme authenticity. 

Why the streets of Copenhagen are so different from ours. (Answer: Bikes)

After years of pretending to be sick to avoid military duty, young Danish men are now lying about their health problems in order to serve. 

The Authentic Brands Group manages, inter alia, the Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe brands. 

On Romney: "What the search for authenticity should not attempt to do is serve as a kind of placeholder for character".

Artisan bagel baker sues Dunkin' Donuts for calling its bagels "artisan". 

The failure of Arab liberals:

 For al-Aswany, Eltahawy, and dozens of other liberal intellectuals, the urge to maintain “authenticity” and “credibility” in the new Arab landscape—not to mention feeding the angry Twitter mobs—trumps fidelity to liberal values any day.

Authenticity and the economy of esteem

The myth of cultural irony


Copenhagen Graffiti

Copenhagen is one of the most quietly beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's one of those European capitals that as a North American, you walk around in and spend most of your time wondering "how did we get it so wrong." A lot of its elegance comes from the uniformity of building height across the city, and the similarity of the architecture. (Compare that with a city like Toronto or Ottawa, where a given street will have three-storey Victorians abutting 8 storey offices sandwiched between a fifteen storey highrise and a two-storey grocery store.)

But there is one thing about Copenhagen that I found a bit jarring: It is easily the most aggressively graffiti'd city I've spent any significant time in. Virtually every building, facade, transit station, park bench, or pillar has been tagged, bombed, or stenciled, including the storefronts in the more chi-chi part of town. This isn't necessarily a problem: 'm a big fan of street art, and a some of the bigger pieces help underscore a neighbourhood's identity, like so:

And so it was into this seemingly welcoming environment that Shepard Fairey arrived last August for the opening of an exhibition of his work at a Copenhagen gallery. While in town, he swung by one of the most notorious vacant lots in the city -- Jagtvej 69, the site of a lefty squat at in the wonderfully multicultural Nørrebro district that was demolished by the city in 2007. Since then, the lot has become a sort of martyr of negative architecture, a sign of The Man's ongoing persecution of the counterculture. Here is the building right next door to the old squat:

On the side of a building facing the vacant site from the east (above), Fairey painted a mural that showed a dove in flight above the word "peace" and the number 69. The locals didn't seem to like the mural or its message. After the mural went up it was immediately defaced with "NO PEACE!" and "Go home Yankee hipster". A few days later, Fairey was beaten up outside a nightclub in Copenhagen's rather douchey meatpacking district (very similar look and feel to New York's) by someone who called him "Obama illuminati" and ordered him to "go back to America".

It really is an appalling work -- the street-art equivalent to John Lennon's ode to empty-headed peace-mongering, "Imagine". Fairey tried to make it better by trying to tidy up the work and make it cooler by adding a black helicopter to the bottom, but that only seemed to make the locals angrier. The thing continues to get vandalized, to the point where the bottom twenty feet are a riot of paint-bombed resentment. Here's how it looked when I was there last month:

The saddest part is that there is already plenty of excellent indigenous art on the buildings surrounding the vacant lot:

As a result, it isn't clear how Fairey thought he was helping, or what he thought he was adding. If anything, it looks like he was trying to keep his cred by piggybacking on the authentic anti-establishment politics of the Jagtvej 69 diehards.

But then again, it isn't clear just how authentic those politics ever were. A few doors down from the commune there was a McDonald's that used to get vandalised every night by anti-corporate lefty types. But someone was patronizing the joint, and it is significant that shortly after the building at Jagtvej 69 was knocked down, the McDonald's went out of business. There's a crappy little bakery there now.


"Then kablooie, they changed": How Coke lost its authenticity

Pop quiz: When did Coca-Cola stop being authentic? 

Never, you might answer. After all, as the company's own promotional material puts it,  Authentic Americana -- with all of the "happiness and uplift" that implies -- has been the core of the Coca-Cola brand ever since the first Coke was served at Jacob's pharmacy in Atlanta 126 years ago.

If you're a bit savvier, you might suppose that the day Coke stopped being authentic was the day it announced the introduction of New Coke. As it turns out, that was 17 years ago yestersday, and the CBC has posted the news story Ann Medina did a the time. 

View the CBC story here. 

It's hard to imagine now what a big deal the story was at the time, partly because it is hard to think of a contemporary parallel. Soft drinks, groceries, and other consumer-goods markets tend toward healthy competitive duopolies, while the inevitable network effects in the the tech and software industry tend to lead to successor monopolies. And it is hard to think of a contemporary product that has the myth and mystique of Coke's secret formula. (Any ideas? Send me an email).

Anyway, few new product launches have gone as badly. As this article from Fortune shows, a month after the launch of New Coke, Coca-Cola executives were still confident they had made the right decision. 

Yet Pepsi knew that something fundamental had happened: it gave its employees the day off to celebrate what it saw as Coke's gaffe. As Pepsico's Roger Enrico put it: "These two products, Pepsi and Coke, have been going at it eyeball-to-eyeball. And in my view the other just blinked." Reinforcing success, Pepsi quickly came out with a devastating ad showing a young woman wondering why Coke had abandoned her. The ad was famously written in about thirty seconds and shot in one take, and starred the actress Kim Richards (who would go on to star in Meatballs II). 

When I was in Denmark last month, I spent a day at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense in a workshop on authenticity and marketing. Over the course of the day, Soren Askegaard, a professor of marketing at the school, asked the question I posed at the very top. Most of us answered that Coke lost its authenticity when it brought in New Coke. 

But as Soren pointed out, it wasn't the changing of the formula that undermined the authenticity of Coke's brand. After all, the product's formula, however secretive, had undergone plenty of changes over the years. No, the really bad move from a branding point of view was when they introduced a new product, a variant of the original, called "Coca-Cola Classic," on July 10, 1985.

Why is this signficant? Because that is the moment when Coca-Cola became a copy of itself. It was no longer Coca-Cola, it was "Coca-Cola" or -- just as bad -- "Coke Classic". Just as no true VIP ever goes into the "VIP Room" at a bar, nothing that calls itself  "genuine", "famous" or "classic" is genuine, famous, or classic. 

On July 10 1985, Coke ceased to be a living brand, evolving organically with the changing tastes and attitudes of America. With Coke Classic the brand was put in a museum, where it remains a simulacrum of the powerful brand it once was. 

For those who are interested, here is a video of a conversation I had with Soren Askegaard the morning of our seminar:





Getting to Denmark

(Copenhagen Airport)

Is there any country that punches further above its weight class than Denmark? It is a small country in both size (43000 square km, smaller than Nova Scotia) and population, with just over 5 million people. But from Hamlet to Hans Christian Andersen, from Niels Bohr to Bjorn Lomborg, from Kierkegaard to Lars Von Trier, Danes both real and imagined have had a hugely disproportionate influence on global culture, science, and politics. 

(I reviewed Fukuyama's book for The Progagandist)

It is perhaps no surprise then to discover that Danes are supremely happy. By a recent measure, they are the happiest people in the world, out-happying the rest of Scandinavia and the entire Anglosphere. What is interesting about Danish happiness is that the result is based on the measure pioneered by the Kingdom of Bhutan, with its metric of "Gross National Happiness". Yet while Bhutan has always used GNH as a political tool to show that wealth is an obstacle to happiness, in Denmark wealth is one of its very sources. That is, while the Bhutanese are looking for happiness by turning their backs on the modern world, Denmark's path to happiness is profoundly and enthusiastically modern. 

That shouldn't be too controversial: Look at the list of the top ten happiest countries, and compare with the bottom ten. The most obvious differentiator is wealth. But not just any sort of wealth, but wealth leavened by high level of trust, a strong welfare state, high employment, substantial gender equality, low levels of corruption, and a high degree of social integration.

This is Denmark. 

I recently spent a week or so in this peaceable kingdom, mostly in Copenhagen with a side-trip to Odense. I originally went at the invitation of Professor Per Østergaard of the Institute for Marketing and Management at the University of Southern Denmark. I also met some journalists and various young thinkers, including David Turner and Markus Bernsen. Both are on staff at Weekendavisen, a weekly broadsheet that seems pitched at the the same sort of audience as The Economist.  I also got to hang out with a gang associated with the think tank CEPOS, including the author/anthropologist  Dennis Nørmark, the sociologist Ulla Holm, and a handful of other academics, journalists, and public sector workers, all of whom were extraordinarily generous with their time, ideas, and booze budgets. 

The trip was remarkable in a million ways. A constitutional monarchy, Denmark has a lot in common with Canada -- notwithstanding the enormous differences in geography and demography. In many ways, Denmark is Canada's idealised version of itself. In the face of rising levels of immigration, Denmark is struggling with existential questions of national identity, something that Canadians have become extremely good at. 

The nature of Danish masculinity is also in play. A surprising number of youngish men and women I met freely admitted that Danish men were emasculated and that Danish women were authoritative and independent. But as with so many issues that arose over the course of conversation, the answer was a laughingly self-deprecating "at least we aren't as bad as the Swedes!". And in that, they are probably right. 

The crisis of Danish masculinity (if it indeed exists, and is not just an artifact of the phenomenon known as Traveler's Insight) is reflected in the broader national angst over their participation in the war in Afghanistan. Fighting alongside the Brits in Helmand, the Danes have suffered the highest death rates of any allied country.  It is also providing one of the highest per capita contributions the war -- 750 troops, compared to Canada's 3000. 

Like Canadians, Danes had grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as a nation of peacekeepers, and the shock of finding themselves killing and being killed in a shooting war in Asia was profound. To get a sense of this, watch the movie Armadillo, a Restrepo-style documentary  that shows the soldiers doing the usual things -- goofing off on base, handing out candy to Afghan children, and messing around in LAVs trying to avoid IEDs. But one extended episode, that involved  Danish soldiers pulling Taliban bodies  from a ditch and stripping them of their weapons, caused a huge fuss back home. There was talk of charging the soldiers with war crimes, though they were cleared after an investigation. 

I don't want to make too much of the similarities between Canada and Denmark. They are there for sure, but Denmark is interesting enough in its own right. In the next few posts on this blog, I'll try to do justice to one of the more intellectually and personally rewarding trips I've ever taken.