Monday, August 18, 2008

By Request: Norwegian Politics and Welfare System

Last week I started taking requests. Socraton suggested I write about Norwegian politics and the welfare system. The gauntlet has been thrown down!

What he didn't count on was that I am Norwegian. Which means... nothing. I still don't know jack about Norwegian politics. My grandparents came over here in something like 1920 and settled in Wisconsin like 90% of all the Norwegians that ever come here do. That's why everybody out there is blonde and named Gundersen and Andersen and Olsen and Hansen and why even people born in that area of the United States all have that same strange accent, which you can hear a perfect facsimile of in the Coen brothers film Fargo if you don't feel like visiting. (That film was set in Minnesota, but the two states border each other, ya know.) I am not blonde and I do not have a last name like that (nor do I have that accent), because the other side of my family was British and somehow I ended up with a name belonging to 6.25% of my heritage and the looks to match. But I digress.

So I had to do some research. What I found made me laugh. For example, I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that Norway is a constitutional monarchy ruled in part by a "clown prince". This little fact was buried a bit down the page, so you might have missed it. Not me, though. And I didn't know any better, so I believed it! I pictured the leader of a group of royal clowns, who would meet each morning to discuss their strategies for alternately amusing and terrifying the country's school-children. I think this demonstrates the dangers of Wikipedia. Today it speaks of Norwegian clown princes, tomorrow a nuclear-armed Iran!

The page has now been changed, but here's the proof that I am not crazy. Although it's interesting that if you visit the Norway page history, the edit itself now seems to have been erased from record. Hmmmm....

This was all well and good, but I'm sure what Socraton was really interested in was the modern Norwegian government, not a vestige of the country's medieval past. Apparently, they've got the full spectrum of political views represented in their multi-party parliamentary system, similar to Germany or any number of European countries. I was curious what the young people of Norway think of their political parties, so I Googled "norway politics youth" and this amusing article was one of the top results.

Armed with the knowledge that the Conservatives were "privatization-loving, tennis-playing finance types" as compared with Labor's "tax-loving hikers that stand up for their rights and drive Volvos", I pretty quickly deduced which side was which in Norway's welfare system debate.

And what an amazing welfare system it is. "Welfare" in the Norwegian context is not a bad word like it is to most Americans. It does not conjure up images of poverty-stricken freeloaders laying around the house getting fat while on the dole. Norwegian welfare is all-encompassing and includes universal health care, fully paid 42 week maternity leave (plus 4 weeks for the father!), child care and more. Almost everybody uses the system, and all citizens are required to enroll in it.

Obviously, this is expensive. Norwegians pay 30-40% of their paychecks in tax that goes into the welfare system. (They don't seem to mind it, either.) And like most such systems in countries around the world, it's under some economic pressure right now. But it is one reason for Norway having one of the highest living standards in the world (if not the highest). And it seems unlikely that Norwegians will ever allow wholesale changes to it, despite the path to privatization - especially given Norway's current left-leaning government.

What most Americans don't see when they look at systems like this are the indirect benefits. For example, in the United States, the birth rate is much higher among the poor than among the wealthy, and women often feel the need to quit their jobs to tackle motherhood. This just leads to more poverty as these children then grow up poor, are poorly educated and poorly-employed and have more poor children of their own. In Norway, the opposite is true - wealthier working mothers have a high birth rate because of the liberal maternity system and universal health care. This leads to more wealth as these children grow up, go to college and enter the work force as skilled and knowledgeable workers.

Norway still has poverty, but not to nearly the same degree we do.

My point? Well... I have no point. My political views are obviously pretty liberal (in the American sense of that word), and I'd hold Norway up as something of a model when it comes to the health and well-being of its citizens. That we can look at countries like this and say such a system "wouldn't work here" or is even "un-American" is both defeatist and frankly a little offensive. But I'm hardly original in saying this, and I don't expect to change any minds here. (Which itself is a little defeatist, but then you know us liberals - always flip-flopping!)

I'm just fulfilling a request, and hopefully doing it well enough :)

Questions? Comments?

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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