The third stop on my current three-week Nordic tour was Norway, and a lot has changed since my last visits — except of course the fabulous scenery.
In 1966 I hiked and climbed in the rugged mountain wilderness of Jotunheimen (home of the Norse gods); in 1971 I took my parents on a tour; in 1987, I was on a winter vacation from a sabbatical in Denmark; and this time, on my way from Bergen to Oslo, I cruised on Aurlandsfjord, world’s deepest.
Since the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s, Norway has now become the world’s fourth largest producer per capita. Of all the oil producing nations, Norway has been the wisest managing its petroleum treasure. All the revenue has been placed in a well-managed sovereign wealth fund, which, for a country of only 5.5 million, is the largest in the world.
Understandably but lamentably, oil companies are not excluded from the fund, and, inexplicably, only 1 percent of earnings is devoted to climate change efforts. One would think that they would contribute much more given their massive reserves; or, better yet, close down the rigs entirely.
One way that the Norwegians will meet this goal is by driving electric vehicles. Over 11 percent of cars and trucks are now fully electric or plug-in hybrids. (The U.S. is at a mere .45 percent.) Norwegians own more Teslas per capita than anyone else in the world.
In contrast to the other Nordic countries, the Norwegian government owns much more of the economy. In addition to the oil industry, it dominates telecommunications, the railways, hydropower, all of which accounts for 40 percent of the stock market. Economic growth has not been as good as Sweden’s, but it is still respectable and proves that a socialist economy is not doomed to failure.
Excessive debt will also slow an economy by making less money available for investment loans. Norway’s public debt of 36 percent of GDP stands in stark contrast to the U.S. at 106 percent. While Trump has brought the annual budget deficit up to 4.7 percent (Obama reduced it to 3.4 percent), Norway has been running budget surpluses for years, currently at 6.5 percent of GDP.
Norway’s blue-collar workers earn three times that of their British peers, and that means that even restaurant waitstaff can afford nice homes. At an average of 37 hours, they also have the shortest work week in Europe in contrast to the U.S. average of 49 hours. Norway joins the other Nordic countries in having the highest social mobility rates and the least income inequality in the world. At 3.4 percent, Norway’s unemployment rate is lower than the U.S. at 3.7 percent.
Over the decades Norway’s social democratic Labor Party has built a comprehensive welfare state with gender equity aspirations. In 2009 the Labor government announced that its cabinet would have ten female and ten male ministers, the first gender equal government in the world. By law corporate boards must be 40 percent women.
Year after year, Norway ranks at the top of the U.N. Human Development Index. In 2018 Norway was followed by Sweden in 7th place; Iceland, 8th; Denmark, 11th, and the U.S. at 13th. The rankings are based on life expectancy at birth, years of education, and gross national income per person.
Save the Children considers Norway the best place to raise children, but they put the U.S. down at 33rd. UNICEF ranks Norway second in the world for child well-being, and, again, the U.S. is much lower at 26th. In 2014 only about 10 percent of children living in the Nordic countries lived in poverty, while 29 percent did in the U.S.
Surveys show that Nordic people, many voting repeatedly to preserve their welfare state, claim that they value personal autonomy the most. One writer for the journal The Economist explains the contradiction: “They have no problem reconciling the two. They regard the state’s main job as promoting individual autonomy and social mobility.”
Nordic people have high levels of trust, among themselves as well as for their governments. (One sign is that voter participation is in the 80 to low 90 percent.) One would have to go back to the 1950s to find Americans trusting each as much as the Swedes do at 60 percent.
Goran Persson, a former Swedish prime minister, answered those puzzled about his country’s great success this way. The Swedish economy is, he said, like a bumblebee: “with its overly heavy body and little wings, it should not be able to fly — but it does.” With so much more in government hands, Norway defies free market ideology even more so.