Norway enjoys wealth, security


Comfort: Income from oil exports and high taxes fuel a society with little crime or poverty, and an emphasis on sharing and caring.

November 22, 2001|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

OSLO, Norway - Imagine a world so shielded from modern dangers that children accept candy from strangers.

Think about a place where lifelong financial security is guaranteed, no matter how many layoffs, stock market crashes or catastrophic illnesses come your way.

Consider the psychological well-being of belonging to a country where no one is homeless or hungry, where women and men are equal, where a pristine environment is reverentially protected and where sharing the wealth with the world's less fortunate is a moral obligation.

Norway is not utopia - after all, it does suffer the occasional incursions of the cruel outside world. But most Norwegians admit that in terms of uplifting ideals and earthly comforts, life in this country is as good as it gets.

And this year's United Nations Human Development Report confirms that: It ranks Norway the No. 1 place in the world to live, based on a cocktail of indicators about health, wealth and social outlook.

Of course, the measurements don't take into account the fact that darkness falls by 3 p.m. half the year and tax rates swallow up to 60 percent of your income. Also escaping the statisticians' notice are new social strains created by a sudden influx of immigrants into a long-homogenous nation.

But the glowing report card has filled many Norwegians with newfound pride and a sense of validation that sharing and caring aren't extinct.

`Our moral obligation'

And although there is much muttering over high taxes, many Norwegians contend they should be giving even more of their money to solve the rest of the world's problems.

"Our moral obligation to share the wealth increases with the amount of our wealth," said International Development Minister Anne Kristin Sydnes, noting that the North Sea oil that is the primary source of Norway's prosperity should be viewed as a global resource.

Norway's North Sea tracts have proved to be a bountiful source of the precious commodity, turning this country once dependent on fishing and farming into the No. 2 oil exporter in the world. Even with fluctuating oil prices, this country of about 4.5 million people has skillfully managed the state-owned industry and amassed a public fund of $60 billion.

"We could easily give five times as much as we do in foreign assistance," said Ingebrigt Steen Jensen, a media magnate who insists that most Norwegian entrepreneurs hold global welfare above personal enrichment. "We have this huge cake, but we can't eat it all, so isn't it better to share it with this room full of hungry people than to put it in the freezer for later?"

Like many Scandinavians, Jensen recoils at what he calls the excesses of American life, from the prevalence of handguns and poor people to the death penalty and class distinctions that deprive some urban children of equality in education.

"This probably looks something close to a communist regime," he said of his country's penchant for social leveling. "But here even the police are unarmed."

While crime does exist - there are about 50 murders a year and thousands of petty thefts - Norwegians enjoy a sense of personal security unimaginable to Americans. Most people leave their homes unlocked, and no one hesitates to stop and help a motorist in trouble.

Egalitarian values

From the high-quality public schools that even the royal family attends to the pandemic informality - the king is addressed simply as Harald and the prime minister as Kjell Magne - this is a society firmly grounded in egalitarian values.

Although there are no official quotas, as in neighboring Sweden, women make up half the Cabinet and parliament seats and fill more than 40 percent of judicial and academic posts.

"We place a very high value on both work and having a family and believe a woman should never have to choose one or the other. Most women with children continue to work in Norway, not because they have to but because they want to," says Anne Lise Ryel, deputy justice minister.

Three-year maternity leaves, broad part-time opportunities and creative application of telecommuting help keep women in the work force. So do the generous benefits for both men and women of eight weeks' vacation, liberal sick leave and day care that is reliable and inexpensive.

At the office, there is a continuous supply of coffee and pastries, and workaholics are objects of pity among their peers.

But the very success of Norway's social services is presenting the country with new problems. Good medical care for every citizen has raised life expectancy to among the world's highest levels at 78.4 years, placing new demands on the health-care system as the population ages.

State assistance to single mothers is so generous that there is no need for a father's income. Half the children here are now born out of wedlock.

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