Posted by rflacks on:
The great journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the USSR in the early thirties, and famously declared that he had ‘seen the future and it works’, an assessment that tarnished his reputation for years after. Mickey and I are just back from a touristic trip to Scandinavia and especially Norway. Most of the time was spent in typically touristic ways, but inescapably (and with help from our excellent tour guides) we got a taste of policy and politics in the current Scandinavia way. What we learned makes me want to say that we saw A future that seems to be working. The Scandinavian way stands in stark contradiction to what the dominant US discourse takes for granted as workable. Yet life in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, as shaped by their public policies and programs, puts our situation and our political discourse to shame.
Norway is still responding to the horrifying terrorist massacre of July 22 in which scores of the most politically engaged youth died and several blocks of central Oslo were laid waste by Anders Breivik, who was proudly fulfilling the logic of his far right politico-religious perspective. We outsiders are likely to assume that Breivik was the tip of a large iceberg of extremism in Norwegian society. Maybe so—but Norwegians are likely to say, as did Prime Minister Stoltenberg that night: “You will not destroy our democracy or our commitment to a better world. We are a small but proud nation…but no one will ever frighten us away from being Norway…that the answer to violence is even more democracy. Even more humanity…(but never naiveté)”.
‘Being Norway’ is on one level, nationalistic rhetoric. But Norwegians overwhelmingly mean by this not just pride in their heritage and the magnificent nature they inhabit, but commitment to a particular vision of the good society. It is a vision that is strongly egalitarian and that sees shared wealth and commonwealth as the keys to the future.
Norway today appears to have the highest living standards on the planet (except for tiny enclaves like Luxembourg). There is a minimum wage of $22/hour. Education through college and healthcare are free. Yet this high wage economy has an unemployment rate of 3.6 %. These numbers contradict the assumption that in a global economy high wages for ordinary workers is a major reason for stagnation and unemployment. Norway’s taxes are very high. The price of anything you buy includes about 25% in taxes. Accordingly prices for ordinary purchases are mind boggling. That’s a big problem for affluent American tourists like ourselves—but Norwegian middle class folk have much more purchasing power than their equivalents in this country because wages are so high.
The backbone of Norwegian economic growth has been the North Sea oil development. It is very important to learn that the Norwegian oil industry is a government enterprise, so they are not burdened by a corporate oil industry aiming to shape policy. The profits of oil development go almost entirely into a national wealth trust designed to provide all Norwegians with old age pension security. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is one of the largest investment centers in the world—investing in many countries, and nearly a trillion dollars in size. So 5 million Norwegians own almost a trillion dollars in assets. Only 4% of these assets are spent on domestic Norwegian public needs. The rest is being saved.
Norwegians complain that their infrastructure needs more investment—our guide was constantly pointing out that the roads need improvement. If you know Norway, you know that road building is difficult given its mountainous terrain (mostly granite), huge fjords, and long narrow configuration. But everywhere we went we observed large efforts to tunnel through those mountains.
Norway isn’t counting on oil for future energy needs and has ruled out nuclear power. In Norway,. water power=electricity-- but care is being taken not to spoil the natural vistas. Along with transportation tunnels, we saw projects to put hydro-electric plants inside mountains. The tunnel fetish extends to the city of Oslo, where a new tunnel system has just opened that diverts traffic from city streets, using new techniques to suspend the tunnel beneath the Oslo fjord.
Norway has been developing high speed rail. It is developing new industry to replace declining manufacturing—industry whose products will compete on the basis of quality and will be produced under strong environmental regulation. The high taxes Norwegians pay buy all this infrastructure and along with it the preservation of the natural world Norwegians love. And all of this may explain why its unemployment rate is so low. (.And, throughout Scandinavia, it is taken for granted that unemployment compensation will be high enough and last long enough so that the jobless can maintain a decent living standard in the interim).
Norwegians (as all Scandinavians), assume that health care, and education will be free, and that child care will be routinely available and affordable. They complain about the quality of such services but nobody –including the rightwing—doubts that they should be there.
So here’s a place where austerity is not a topic, where government enterprise and public planning are valued, where taxes are very high—and where poverty and super concentration of wealth don’t exist. Everywhere you turn, there is a living reality that contradicts the assumptions that Americans (not only on the right) make these days about how the world has to work. These assumptions include: jobs are created by private companies not by government, regulation harms innovation, high benefits and wages undermines work incentives, you have to be able to get rich if investment is to happen, government doesn’t know how to invest or plan or operate efficiently, global competition requires lower wages and reduced social welfare benefits, the tax burden destroys economic growth, etc.
Norway has achieved the world’s highest living standards by refusing to accept any of these. It seems plausible that our economic woes can’t be overcome unless we start taking their example seriously.
I’ll be continuing this discussion on the radio Thursday evening, when I’ll be joined by Daraka Larimore Hall. Daraka is the chair of the Santa Barbara county Democratic Party. Before coming back to SB (where he grew up) he spent several years in Norway and Sweden as an organizer for the Labor Youth and has spent many summers at Utoya, the youth camp that was the site of the massacre. We’ll talk about Norway in the aftermath, and what we might learn from Scandinavian social democracy…as well as the political scene in the US and in Santa Barbara. So…tune in Thursday at 6 PM pacific time. It’s 91.9fm the radio and www.kcsb.org streaming on line.