[Ed note: At the beginning of last year, Donald Trump lamented the lack of immigrants to the US “from places like Norway.” This excerpt from a Nation magazine interview with Ann Jones about her stay in that country explains why.]
The US has a long history of disguising grasping self-interest as the “right to individual freedom.” Norway, on the other hand, created itself as an egalitarian social democracy, and that makes all the difference.
Billionaire capitalists aren’t in the driver’s seat
In Norway, for the most part, self-interest and the public interest coincide. Like the US, it’s a capitalist country. But unlike the US, Norway regulates capitalist ventures and is the major shareholder in some private enterprises of public concern.
Wages and working conditions are not dictated by billionaire owners but negotiated once a year by national confederations of enterprise and labor, for labor retains the power to set the standards of work.
Promoting the general welfare
To ensure equality—without which democracy is not possible—the government also oversees a universal welfare system. It collects high but fair progressive income taxes to support universal health care, almost-free education from preschool through university, full unemployment compensation, affordable housing, public transport, and the like. The result is one of the most equal, democratic, highly educated, innovative, modern, technically advanced, and happy societies on the planet.
Public resources held for public benefit
You may have heard that this remarkable success owes itself to Norway’s “oil wealth” drawn, since the 1970s, from the North Sea. It’s a tale Conservative columnists rerun to dismiss the obvious advantages of a welfare state. In fact, Norway’s oil money is stashed in a sovereign wealth fund, officially the Government Pension Fund, now valued above $1 trillion.
With only 4 percent of a year’s income available to the government in case of emergency—and rarely used—the fund invested largely in oil producers until 2017. After that year, it began a popular transition to investments in solar and wind power.
The real source of economic—and individual—development
And here’s a fact that these Conservative columnists never mention: According to Norway’s Ministry of Finance, the real source of new money expanding the welfare state was not oil but the income taxes paid by women who entered the workforce, on a par with men, just about the time the oil came in [the mid-1960s].
The welfare state, in turn, enabled women by taking on some of their traditional jobs in the home: health care, child care, elder care, and primary education. Norwegians liked these arrangements so much that by 1981 they chose their first woman prime minister, Gro Harlem Bruntland, who later went on to head the World Health Organization.
Pressures from the coronavirus emergency
Over the last few days, the oil fund has become a bone of contention in Norway, with the government tapping into the surplus to meet the coronavirus emergency and economists protesting that the emergency should be met by additional progressive taxation so the fund would be preserved for its original intention: providing old-age pensions to future generations.
Covid19: similar issues, different impacts on people
These days, Norwegian enterprises—including the oil industry—feel the same pain as those in other nations afflicted by Covid-19. Shops close, businesses struggle, the currency loses value. But in Norway, the sick are well cared for by the national health service, workers are still paid by employers or through national insurance, and, in a changing job market, some workers may choose to be retrained at public expense. Few, if any, are homeless. None will go hungry. Covered by the welfare system, Norwegians can focus on family, friends, the future: what matters most to them.
A Conservative government, led by a woman
Incidentally, the current government is not Communist or even Socialist, as Americans may fear, but Conservative and led by women. (When Trump met Prime Minister Erna Solberg in 2018, he marveled that she spoke English, and then announced the first delivery on Norway’s $10 billion purchase of American fighter jets: F-35s and F-52s, though the latter exist only in the video game
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.)
As conditions worsen around the world, Solberg has asked Norwegian students abroad to consider coming home. And on March 14, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology urged the return of its students studying in countries “with poorly developed health services and infrastructure…like the United States.”
Ann Jones, a Distinguished Fellow at the Quincy Institute, was interviewed by James W. Carden in the April 2 Nation magazine. The full interview at https://www.thenation.com goes beyond this description of Norway to critique the economic and social policies that have failed the US. Read it online or, better yet, subscribe to The Nation for their unique coverage.