In search of a tax/life balance

Image of Tyler Brûlé

You may or may not have noticed, but this columnist has been on holiday for the past 10 days and only just touched down in Copenhagen after a week of running, boxing, pilates and reading at the Chiva Som in Hua Hin and quick stops in Bangkok and Tokyo.

While I was more than a little sceptical about seven days in a reduced-calorie compound, I did check out a few kilos lighter and at least 0.725cm taller. I’ve attempted to behave but it was hard to resist the French fries at the Oak Door in Tokyo on Tuesday and even more difficult to ignore the cocktail menu at Ruby’s in Copenhagen on Wednesday.

Fortunately both Tokyo and Copenhagen offer few excuses not to go for a run, so the Asics were out pounding the perimeter of the Imperial Palace and Copenhagen’s inner harbour. A dash of morning sun always helps a city’s image and I was envious of the locals as I trotted along the water’s edge on Thursday. Handsome gene pool aside, clever planning and clean-up initiatives have made the harbour both architecturally interesting and totally swimmable.

As I passed other joggers and people pedalling to work I noticed towels rolled up in baskets and thought how civilised it must be to walk out of your office, pull on your trunks and go for a bracing dip at lunchtime.

With well-maintained ladders all over the harbour basin, it’s easy to swim pretty much anywhere but the best design work is the series of enclosed pools for swimming lengths, diving and splashing around in. Lean wooden structures have been built at various points around the city’s waterfront over the past few years to offer people places to cool off or practise their strokes without having to worry about harbour traffic.

By the time I returned to the hotel I was dreaming about living in the Danish capital. As I surveyed the low-rise buildings and thought about what Rud Rassmussen furniture I’d commission for my fantasy flat, I also took stock of the names on the modernist office blocks – they were mostly domestic concerns with few multinational logos in the mix. Where was the tutti-frutti alphabet of Google? Or the blocky corporate identity of HSBC?

I glanced back to the wide bike paths that were now teeming with commuters, leathery old-timers donning bathing caps for a morning paddle and parents pushing prams. In a snapshot was everything that was right and all that was wrong with Copenhagen and Denmark. At ground level were all the trappings of a progressive, innovative and liberal democracy – infrastructure that allows tens of thousands to pedal to work rather than drive, big spending on public initiatives and even more money deployed on programmes that allow parents long leave to raise their children.

But on the buildings above the lack of international brand logos on the skyline highlighted a challenge for the mummies and daddies below. At a time when most countries are racing to attract international talent and investment, entrepreneurs should be booking one-way tickets to Copenhagen to ease into a life where the daily grind is a glide, holidays are long and there’s a taut safety net to deal with life’s hiccups. With some of the highest tax rates in the world, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that corporations have trouble convincing an executive based in Singapore that they should be based in Copenhagen, or that a serial start-up wizard would want to give up a house in leafy Melbourne for a similar setup in leafy Hellerup.

It’s for this reason (and a few others) there are so few international (read: non-Danish) companies with operations of scale in Copenhagen and why the wheels are in danger of falling off all those prams weaving around Denmark’s streets – ditto those in Sweden and Norway.

This weekend the July/August issue of Monocle hits newsstands with our annual quality of life rankings for the world’s major cities. As ever, the cities out on top are not surprising as they nail everything from transport and education to public health and sound urban planning with relative ease. Despite Copenhagen’s current challenges, years of heavy investment have allowed it to achieve a high ranking (number three) but the Danish capital, along with many other cities, needs to address whether it’s really offering value for money for taxpayers. Are citizens riding to work, visiting hospitals or going to kick the ball around in the park satisfied that the level of liveability (and opportunity) is matched by what’s paid to the taxman?

In case you were wondering, the city ranking is:

1) Zürich

2) Helsinki

3) Copenhagen

4) Vienna

5) Munich

6) Melbourne

7) Tokyo

8) Sydney

9) Auckland

10) Stockholm

11) Kyoto

12) Fukuoka

13) Hong Kong

14) Paris

15) Singapore

16) Hamburg

17) Honolulu

18) Berlin

19) Vancouver

20) Madrid

21) Barcelona

22) Portland

23) San Francisco

24) Montréal

25) Geneva

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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