Transcript: Thom Hartmann & Paul Fontaine: Icelandic politics. January 9, 2012
Thom Hartmann: Welcome back, Thom Hartmann here with you live from Reykjavik, Iceland. And we’ve been having some, I think fascinating and in some cases arcane in the minutia. But on the other hand, I just find it all amazing what’s going on here. And with me, I’m very, very pleased to have with me, Paul Fontaine. He’s a journalist with the Reykjavik Grapevine. And that website is Grapevine.is, ".is" is the domain here in Iceland. And Paul, you, in 2007 and 2008 were a member of parliament and you’re an American and also an Icelandic citizen now.
Paul Fontaine: That’s correct.
Thom Hartmann: And so you have, and you’ve been here for…
Paul Fontaine: 12 years.
Thom Hartmann: 12 years. So you have quite a perspective here. What is life like in Iceland? You know, in the context of your American sensibilities.
Paul Fontaine: Well, the culture is in many ways very Americanized. There was a NATO base here for many years, for example. You’ll see a lot of examples of America mainstream culture, as opposed to other Scandinavian countries where maybe not, it is not so Americanized. But one of the major draws for me to this country was the strength of the social welfare system, in particular with regards to healthcare and childcare and education. It’s an incredibly strong system where even as we just heard, people on the right, the conservatives even, believe that yes there should be some sort of national healthcare system.
Thom Hartmann: Right. I always find it amazing in the Northern European countries, to get the conservatives on and then say oh you’re conservative, well you know in America conservatives think that we should do away with national medicine, national healthcare system, and they go what are you crazy? Then why do you call yourself a conservative, I don’t understand. Edmund Burke would not have wanted a national healthcare system.
Paul Fontaine: No.
Thom Hartmann: So, in fact you were telling Louise and I your experience having a child here.
Paul Fontaine: Yeah, it was amazing. My child was born in 2006. And when we went to the hospital, and my child’s mother went into labor and I asked the nurse there, so how are we going to be billed for this? And she just looked at me like I was nuts, and was like “Billed? You’re not going to be billed." Oh okay, we can work it that way too, that’s fine.
Thom Hartmann: So, the structure of the social safety net, in Iceland, what part, you know first of all just a general overview. We just talked about there’s a national healthcare system.
Paul Fontaine: Correct.
Thom Hartmann: Old age pensions, elderly health, childcare, you know, education, college education, what does it cost to go to college here, things like that. And what parts of that are at risk either because of the bankster collapse, or because of internal political debates?
Paul Fontaine: I would say first and foremost the education system. They’ve already had to make some cuts to the university system, as it is. Some years ago primary schools and play schools were put under the jurisdiction of municipalities as opposed to being a federal thing. Now as they are now city-run, they only do as well as the particular municipality they fall under. So in parts of the country, for example the region of Suðurnes, in the southwest, which has the highest rates of unemployment, somewhere around 12%, their schools are struggling. Whereas in the Northwest or in the North where unemployment is somewhere between 2 to 5 %, the schools are doing much better. But on a national level, the university has had to take some cuts. I think there’s a danger there.
Thom Hartmann: I understand to go to college you have to pay the god awful tuition of about $500 a year, U.S.?
Paul Fontaine: Yeah, that’s absolutely outrageous. $500. And you have to pay for books.
Thom Hartmann: But seriously, I mean that’s the cost. It actually costs, for full tuition, for a year of high quality university education, $500.
Paul Fontaine: This is true. And I don’t mean to minimize the situation. I mean, you have to understand this in an Icelandic context. I mean, granted for those of us living in the U.S. who are paying upwards of tens, hundreds, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend university, paying $500 doesn’t seem like much. But when cuts are made, to the university system in an Icelandic context, this, you know it hurts us. And in particular, I do, so I do think the university system would probably be in the greatest, and there’s also been more talk about bringing in like one or two private hospitals. And you hear that private healthcare and public healthcare could exist side by side. And that’s a debate that has been kind of on the sidelines, but I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the near future.
Thom Hartmann: Well, Switzerland moved in that direction. They still don’t allow for-profit health insurance, and I’m not sure if they have for-profit hospitals or not but they do have basically a, you know, if you have the money you can buy into a more expensive system and be in a better hospital room and have five star meals catered and you know out of country private jets if necessary and, you can, but there is still a minimal and the minimal is fairly high. I mean it’s still good healthy bottom line system. Nobody is talking about taking that away in Iceland, are they?
Paul Fontaine: Not that I am aware of, no. The problem right now in Iceland with regards to health care is brain drain. In particular, a lot of doctors will go overseas to be educated and then just elect to stay abroad as opposed to coming back here. And I think that part of what, part of the reason why the talk about having private healthcare institutions like a private hospital in Iceland would be to keep these doctors in this country. That even if these private hospitals are owned by foreign companies, they could pay the types of salaries that they would be getting if they left the country. So it’s a stop gap solution for a brain drain as it were.
Thom Hartmann: Well and this is this seems to be one of the problems that we’re even seeing in the United States, in some areas, the better doctors choose, or I don’t know if, maybe they’re not better or whatever, in certain specialties, you know, oncology and plastic surgery, you can make an enormous amount of money and so there’s a lot of oncologists and a lot of plastic surgeons but general practice, which is really the most fundamentally needed, you can’t make so much money so there’s not so many general practitioners. It’s really hard to find a basic doctor in the United States, pretty much anywhere.
Paul Fontaine: Yeah.
Thom Hartmann: And so, you could see where if you had a country where doctors are not incredibly, you know they don’t have the potential to become millionaires because of the national healthcare system, then moving to a country where you had that potential if you went into one of those specialties could be attractive to those people who are in it.
Paul Fontaine: Certainly. And that’s part of the reason why this, that’s part of the reason why this debate has even gotten so much traction. I mean I think that if we had our own doctors, rather if we had a lot more doctors staying in Iceland, that the very idea of inviting a private company to build a private hospital here would just be absolutely out of the question.
Thom Hartmann: Is there a medical school here? Does Iceland train its own doctors?
Paul Fontaine: Yes, there is a medical school here.
Thom Hartmann: That’s interesting.
Paul Fontaine: A lot of people will study abroad, however.
Thom Hartmann: Right. The debate between left and right. You’ve heard the last hour and a half of the program. And I’m curious your thoughts on the political system here, and what, as, looking at it as an American, how would you describe it to an American who doesn’t understand the complexity of this kind of multi-party state?
Paul Fontaine: Well essentially, you know, it’s funny that you use the word multi-party, because in many ways we do have a two party system. There’s the government and there’s the opposition. So we have right now, like it doesn’t matter how many parties there are. There’s currently five in parliament right now. But there could be five or there could be three or there could be 20, there’s always going to be a ruling coalition, and when they get together they decide on a joint platform. So they are effectively one party. The ruling coalition. And then there are the parties that are not in the ruling coalition, which would be the opposition. And traditionally the opposition have also voted together on many things, even though they might have separate policies, they typically fight against the policies of the ruling coalition. So there’s still like a bipolar, or rather, yeah I’d say like a dual party system in many ways, despite this. However, there is still however a range of thought, as we heard earlier. In terms like even leftists do not agree with each other. And if they don’t, then they can and will split off and form their own parties. It’s encouraged in many ways. Voting is not done so, there is also a difference in terms of how voting is done. It’s not so much candidate based as it is platform based. You know, when we have our primaries, here for example, which is an incredibly complex system that I could not get into in the time remaining in this show, people are voting primarily for platforms. They’re not voting for individual candidates based on their personalities or whether or not you could have a beer with them or something like that. There is a little bit of that to an extent, but it’s mostly platform based.
Thom Hartmann: Interesting. So the, and I understand that Iceland has historically been ruled by the ruling party, and the inside party has been kind of a left leaning party and now it’s a right leaning party. Do I have that right?
Paul Fontaine: It’s the opposite.
Thom Hartmann: It’s the opposite. I see. Interesting.
Paul Fontaine: Yeah. Iceland has been the only, has been the only Scandinavian country that has had a long standing conservative government and now we have a left-wing government.
Thom Hartmann: And, which is under assault because of the banksters.
Paul Fontaine: Correct.
Thom Hartmann: And in the 30 seconds, what are we going to do about the banksters here in Iceland?
Paul Fontaine: Essentially I think that we really need to get tough in terms of regulation. But Cronyism is going to be very hard to fight because there is still a lot of overlap between private business and politicians, unfortunately. A lot of them went to the same schools or even are in the same families.
Thom Hartmann: Are private corporations here allowed to basically buy politicians like in the Untied States with lobbying and campaign donations?
Paul Fontaine: To an extent, yes. Campaign finance reform is becoming a more dominant issue, I’d say, in the discussions.
Thom Hartmann: Is there public financing of campaigns?
Paul Fontaine: Yes, through voters in any event. The one party, every party, like typically will disclose who has been donating to them except for the independence Party, they have been very reticent about who is donating to them.
Thom Hartmann: That’s the right wing party.
Paul Fontaine: Correct.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. That’s interesting, in the United States the republicans don’t like to talk about their donors either.
Paul Fontaine: No funny isn’t it?
Thom Hartmann: Yes, it’s strange how these things work out. Paul Fontaine, journalist with the Reykjavik Grapevine. Grapevine.is, if you want to read Paul’s writing. Paul Fontaine. And Paul will probably be back with us a little bit later on in the program. Sick around. We'll be right back from Iceland.
Thom Hartmann: Hey, welcome back. Thom Hartmann here with you. And, let's see here, Ron in Winchester Massachusetts. Ron, I'm going to take your call then I want to bring back Paul Fontaine to to just wrap this hour up. What's on your mind, Ron?
Ron: Well, I just wanted to let Paul know that he was talking about how the doctors come over to the United States and they stay because of salary. Maybe they don't stay just because of salary. Maybe they like the United States and they enjoy the United States better because of we may have more exciting things for them.
Thom Hartmann: We have Disneyland! OK, interesting, Ron, let's ask Paul. Paul, welcome back to the studio. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it's a valid point?
Paul Fontaine: I think it's a valid point, sure. I mean, I'm sure that plenty of people who go abroad to study like to stay in other countries because they simply like the country that they're in. But the fact remains that we do have too many doctors who are electing to stay outside of the country and that is the main reason why there's been talk about building a private hospital here. But certainly it's, yes, salary is just one of possibly many reason why people choose to stay outside the country.
Thom Hartmann: It's kind of cold here. Although in the summer...
Paul Fontaine: This is an unusually cold winter.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah.
Paul Fontaine: This winter is not a good example.
Thom Hartmann: Louise and I were first here, the first time we were here was in 1978, probably, maybe before you were born, but a long time ago. In any case...
Paul Fontaine: That's very flattering.
Thom Hartmann: You're welcome. The bankster crash. Can you give us, as an American who has spent, you know, 12 years here in Iceland and has some understanding of the situation, and a journalist, and a former member of the Icelandic parliament, an overview of how did this bank, you know how did this economic crisis in this country happen?
Paul Fontaine: The conservatives. That’s how it happened. The conservative version of the story is that Iceland was the victim of a global recession and there is absolutely nothing we could have done to prevent it, which is nonsense. I remember as a journalist in 2005, 2006 we had Standard and Poor’s giving warnings, saying that the Icelandic economy is overheating, that the banks are too poorly regulated, that the government needs to step in right now and do something. And the conservatives were in power at the time and they dismissed this, saying that these people were just jealous. Actually it was one of the reasons you said, that other countries were simply jealous of how well the Icelandic model was working. We had our president, who is still our president, traveling to other countries, talking about how the reason why we’re so successful is because of the Scandinavian way of doing things, like you know, the word for the businessmen who have traveled abroad and become successful, útrásarvíkingar, literally means out-vasion vikings, you know it’s referential to going out and plundering. So there was this type of arrogance that was sort of the attitude of the day when the conservatives were in power, that’s how this happened.
Thom Hartmann: So why is it that, you know, some of our guests, don’t share your perspective on that, or your point of view on that? Why is it that back an hour and a half ago, one of the very first guests we had on, who was more left leaning, said that half of the country would go right right now if it was the right wing ideology that brought down the country?
Paul Fontaine: Well, a lot of it is hereditary voting. The Independence Party has been around for decades, you know, since 1929, and a lot of people will vote for them simply because, well, my father voted for them and his father before him, there’s a lot of hereditary voting and the Independence Party, before we had this left wing government, had been in power for nearly two decades. So it’s…
Thom Hartmann: This is the right wing party.
Paul Fontaine: Yeah. It’s like the default option is to vote for the right wing party. And so when a lot of people are indecisive and they don’t know who to trust or they just have a general distrust of government in general, they just go with the default option, which happens to be the right wing party.
Thom Hartmann: But you have a, you know, I can understand that in a country like the United States. 300 million people, and people don’t know each other, they don’t know the politicians. You know, in Vermont Bernie Sanders can do retail politics, there’s 600,000 people in that state. He’s probably met every single one of them in the 18 years he has been in congress. On the other hand, in California, where you’ve got 34 million people I think it is, it’s impossible for a single senator to do retail politics. And so, you know, a lot of people, in fact most Americans I’d say, are more easily, more easily can identify sports stars than political politicians and really just pay attention for a few weeks before the election. But this is a country of about a little over 300,000 people. It’s small enough that everybody should know up close and personal what the consequences of political decisions are. How can it be that people would vote based on this is how my father voted or my mother voted rather than hey this is the policy that I’m concerned about? Or is that just the human condition to say, yeah, you know, politics that’s for those strange people who are into politics, not, I’m really into rock and roll.
Paul Fontaine: Yeah I think a lot of it is in the human condition. I mean regardless of whether Iceland was 300,000 people or 300 million people, there are always going to be people who just don’t care that much about politics. And so they just end up, if they don’t know who to vote for, they just don’t trust politics in general, they’ll vote for who their dad voted for, or they’ll vote for who is the biggest party.
Thom Hartmann: Or they’ll vote for the opposition just to be contrarian.
Paul Fontaine: Yeah, that will also be the case.
Thom Hartmann: That’s kind of a variation on none of the above or a pox on all their houses. That’s what we need, a pox on all their houses party, right?
Paul Fontaine: Yeah. And there’s actually, if you combine, the Gallup poll that was done showed that people who said that they were not going to vote, or that would submit a blank ballot, or would vote for a completely different party altogether, comprised about 15% of the electorate.
Thom Hartmann: In Iceland.
Paul Fontaine: Yes. And that shows a tremendous amount of voter dissatisfaction, I believe.
Thom Hartmann: Right. But again, you have a government that when the people said don’t pay back the banks, twice, the government went ahead and did it. So I’d be upset too.
Paul Fontaine: That’s a valid point.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. And, and that’s because that government is in bed with so many corporations? Or there’s so much…?
Paul Fontaine: I think it’s more because we are signatories of the European economic area, and being signatories of it, we are bound by certain laws. Among them that we have to guarantee deposits put in our banks.
Thom Hartmann: Ah okay. So the banksters win because the treaty was there.
Paul Fontaine: I mean it’s the trade off.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. Okay. Paul Fontaine. Again, Grapevine.is, right? Do I have that right?
Paul Fontaine: Correct.
Thom Hartmann: Thank you. We’ll be right back.
Thom Hartmann: And welcome back, Thom Hartmann here with you in Reykjavik, Iceland. And I just, I want to wrap the show up here, come back to Paul Fontaine, our friend who helped us put together this program, and many thanks, Paul for being sort of our on the ground producer here in Iceland. You’ve done a marvelous job of getting these guests and working with us.
Paul Fontaine: Thank you.
Thom Hartmann: And it’s been an honor and a pleasure to get to know you and to work with you but also you’re a reporter and an American perspective and an Icelandic citizen, and a former member of parliament, and so super informed. And it’s, and I understand that Iceland is rewriting their constitution and they’re crowd sourcing it. What is that?
Paul Fontaine: Well essentially, one of the, when the crash happened, we had a group called the Special Investigative Commission, the SIC, come together to examine the causes of the crash. And after examining the causes they came up with some suggestions for how we can prevent something like this from happening again and one of them was to rewrite our constitution. The Icelandic constitution is essentially a copy paste job of the Danish constitution with very few changes such as wherever it said “King" was replaced by “President" essentially. And that was…
Thom Hartmann: The King has virtually no power in Denmark, so the president here has virtually no power?
Paul Fontaine: You would think so. But actually, the president made huge changes to this country.
Thom Hartmann: Oh really.
Paul Fontaine: Well it was, the Icesave deal for example was passed by Parliamentary majority twice but because he refused to sign it, it went to a public referendum.
Thom Hartmann: Oh interesting.
Paul Fontaine: So, in those little ways he can have a tremendous amount of influence. But with regards to the constitution, you know, the essential suggestion was we need to rewrite it. And so the idea of having a constitutional committee was formed. And the constitutional committee was essentially an open election, where anybody who never held public office and never ran for office was welcome. The idea was to have like a citizens' parliament in a way, of 25 people, to come together and create suggestions for how the constitution can be changed. That election however was found by the Supreme Court to break a number of election laws. A lot of them were minor technicalities but some were pretty big and the Prime Minister just appointed the 25 people who were elected, instead. And so that’s a completely separate issue. Now we have a constitutional committee of these 25 citizens, some of them well known, some of them not well-known, who are in the process of pooling together suggestions from the general public, on how the constitution can be rewritten.
Thom Hartmann: And that’s interesting. So the 25 people who are pulling together the constitution, these are not people who have not been in politics any longer, you have some people who are, and so on. Because it seems to me, you know…
Paul Fontaine: They’re all well known people, none of them have ever held public office, none of them have ever run for public office. But some of them are well known people like they’re bloggers or journalists or professors who have been well known to the public, but not as politicians, no.
Thom Hartmann: Right, okay. And you know in a small country where everybody is related to somehow to everybody or knows somebody or you know, this earlier in the program has been described as the kind of source of Crony capitalism, as a problem, as one of the reasons why the banks went nuts. Because hey I don’t have to check out this guy because he’s my brother-in-law or he’s my third cousin or whatever. And how do you prevent that from screwing up the constitution? And one of the reasons that I am opposed to a constitutional convention in the United States, even one with a great goal like doing away with corporate personhood, is that once you open up the constitution to tinker with it, you’ve got people like the billionaire Koch brothers coming, you know, basically, modifying, shall we say the process, or influencing it in ways that might not be in the best interests of the average person. Is there that concern here, that the very wealthy in Iceland are going to tinker with this thing, or is there not that many very wealthy here or, I mean, what’s the potential downside, and how’s it going?
Paul Fontaine: Well, I think that that particular danger of the wealthy having an influence on the constitution has been safe-guarded in the sense that the constitution committee is in a sort of bubble, where the only way in and out, for any sort of influence, is through the website that they’ve set up asking for suggestions for the general public.
Thom Hartmann: Amazing.
Paul Fontaine: And so for somebody to, you know, walk in to the office of a committee member with a suitcase full of money and say hey I’m going to pay you this much if you make this particular suggestion, it’s…
Thom Hartmann: These people can’t be lobbied in other words.
Paul Fontaine: No, they cannot be approached.
Thom Hartmann: That’s incredible. Politicians who can’t be lobbied. I mean it’s like, you know, Bernie Sanders…
Paul Fontaine: But that’s just it, is that they’re not politicians, is the thing, so and they cannot be bought.
Thom Hartmann: yeah. So are they rewriting the constitution?
Paul Fontaine: Well they’re putting together suggestions for this and these suggestions will then be submitted to Parliament for a vote.
Thom Hartmann: And all of this is happening visibly on the Internet? People can read what the suggestions are as they’re posted.
Paul Fontaine: Correct.
Thom Hartmann: So you’re crowd sourcing your new constitution. Any interesting things coming out of this so far?
Paul Fontaine: Well one of the big things has been separation of church and state. We have a national church.
Thom Hartmann: It’s a Lutheran variation, isn’t it?
Paul Fontaine: Yes, it’s a Lutheran church. And one of the more contentious issues has been that the church should be utterly and completely separate from the government, they should not be getting any sort of funding from the government. And for Icelanders, that’s a pretty big deal, but the majority of Icelanders these days support separation of church and state, they don’t believe in having a national church. The majority do not anyway.
Thom Hartmann: Hm, that’s fascinating. And economic reforms, are people in favor of like putting regulation of the banks into the constitution?
Paul Fontaine: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a, I mean, and that is an incredibly complex issue. But there is having safe guards against the banks being able to balloon up to the size they were again. Also a number of inalienable rights for homeowners. So that you know you don’t have people just getting turned out into the street, where you have a right to be able to appeal and, on your mortgage if you’re defaulting and what have you. And there’s a number of suggestions that have been put forward for these people on the Constitution Committee.
Thom Hartmann: That’s remarkable, that’s great. Paul thanks so much for being with us. And it’s much appreciated. At Grapevine.is, you can read Paul Fontaine’s work. And some great reporting over there. And thanks again for your help with this program.
Paul Fontaine: Thank you, it’s been my pleasure.
Thom Hartmann: It has really been great working with you.
We will be back tomorrow. Actually, Karl Frisch will be here tomorrow, the next time you hear from me it will be in a couple of days from Sweden as we continue our 'what's going on in the world' tour. Thanks a lot for being with us. Don;t forget, democracy begins when you get active, tag you're it!
Transcribed by Suzanne Roberts, Portland Psychology Clinic.