The Welfare State

Recently a few friends of mine were asking me a bit about the welfare state, so I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts here. As with most things, Norway’s comprehensive social welfare system comes with its pros and cons. Here are the ones that struck me the most.

Pros

People worry a lot less. Norwegians live in a society where they really don’t have to worry too much since the welfare system is there to help those who are struggling. No one in Norway really worries over things like current or future medical bills because if the unimaginable were to happen, it would either be taken care of or it would be affordable.

There aren’t very many visible signs of poverty in Norway. While there are beggars, they aren’t many of them (granted living up in Trondheim means that few beggars stick around for the 7 months or so of winter).* In the entire time that I’ve lived in Norway, I have rarely seen places that look run down, and, if I have, in Norway a run down house is one that hasn’t been given a new coat of paint in the last year (a ridiculously high standard). In other words, people are generally taken care of and there is a substantial middle class in Norway.

The possibility of earning a living wage combined with the welfare system contributes to Norwegians having a good work-life balance. Because people don’t need to worry about working three jobs just to survive, they can take time to relax and go on nice Sunday hikes. This system also means that people are able to do what they are genuinely passionate about. Talking to students in Norway has been fascinating since none of them worry about their future or their jobs. They know that regardless of what job they end up in, they’ll be fine. To quote one of my students, “It doesn’t matter if I end up being a garbage collector. If that’s what I really love to do, then it’ll be fine. My parents don’t really care where I end up in so long as I’m really passionate about it.” The freedom to do whatever it is you’re most passionate about is a luxury few people can afford, and it’s incredible to see how common it is in Norway.

Cons

The social welfare system is going to cost you. Having such great peace of mind does come with a price, and it’s a bit sobering to look at how it affects your paycheck.

People don’t appear to be quite as driven as we are in the States. In the US we talk about how the welfare system can stifle innovation, and I would say that it’s true up to a point. People feel comfortable with things in Norway, so they don’t necessarily feel the need to hustle like we do in the States, but a more relaxed environment doesn’t mean that great things don’t come out of Norway. Case in point, this year’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine were a Norwegian couple.

Overall, I think Norway does a great job with social welfare and has a model that really works well for its society. It’s a nation with a small population, great resources, and has a strong belief in equality. I think that whether or not you think the welfare system is good ultimately drives at a different question: who do you cater your society towards? Do you cater towards those who are less well off, those who are average, or those who are star individuals? And once you decide that, how do you try to balance that with the sacrifices each group has to make. In Norway, the answer is clear: you try to make things equal for everyone. While that may affect your star individuals the most, at the end of the day it seems as though Norwegians think it’s worth the cost.

*Interesting side note about beggars. If you ask most Norwegians about the welfare system they will say that everyone is taken care of. If you then ask them about beggars, many of whom are Gypsies, their response tends to be “Oh, well they aren’t taken care of because they aren’t Norwegian.” An interesting response, and one that is actually false. Gypsies technically have the right to Norwegian citizenship and are considered a special minority group.

17th of May

The 17th of May! Also known as Constitution Day, or in norsk syttende mai. The 17th of May is the Norwegian equivalent of America’s 4th of July, and although both holidays definitely have some overlap in the ways they are celebrated, there are also some notable differences.

One of the first things that I noticed right off the bat is that the 17th of May is a formal holiday. In America, our national day is celebrated in things like shorts and bro tanks, while in Norway, many Norwegians get dressed up in their bunads, or traditional Norwegian clothing. In Norway, a bunad is considered the most formal piece of clothing that you own–even more formal than black tie–and they are usually only worn for the 17th of May and for special events, such as weddings. The clothing itself is spectacular. Yards of intricately stitched wool is worn (which my co-teachers have told me is warm but incredibly heavy). I noticed that it was mainly the women and children who wore their bunads, while the men tended to prefer suits. Unfortunately, it was difficult for me to get any really good pictures of the bunads without seeming creepy, but you will still be able to get a sense of what they look like in the pictures. You might also notice that there are different types of bunads. This is because each region in Norway has its own traditional bunad pattern and design, with some being considered more desirable than others. I have to admit that I thought the bunads were marvelous, and I even half entertained getting one, at least I did until I casually asked one of my co-teachers about the cost. I was floored. For an authentic bunad, one that is done by hand and follows a particular set of traditional guidelines, the cost is around 20,000 NOK (2566.54 USD). Because of the exorbitant cost, it’s rare for people to buy the authentic versions. Children are usually given them (since they are smaller and less expensive) and young adults are usually given one at their confirmation (in their late teens). Because it’s not uncommon for adults to grow out of their bunads, it’s not unheard of to get a new one, although most people will then buy a cheaper and less authentic version.

Additionally, I would also say that the Norwegian national day is much more community and family oriented. Many people go to the day’s parades with their family or local groups, and because things are so community oriented, the festivities seem to be much calmer than they are in the United States.

However, one big similarity to the 4th of July is the parades. Parades are clearly the highlight of the day, although there were also a number of memorials, services, and performances going on throughout the day. The parades in Trondheim broke down into three different groups:

  1. Barnetoget – The children’s parade. Barnetoget is when children march with their schools into the city center. Many of the kids are dressed up in their bunads and walk into town singing.
  2. Folketoget – The citizen’s parade. Where different community groups band together and march in a parade. My TEDx Trondheim team was there, but so were a number of other groups, such as marching bands, dance groups, and a number of the university’s student organizations.
  3. Russetoget – The russ parade. When all of the drunk russ students march to the beat of their own loud stereo systems.

Because May 17th fell on a Sunday, a visiting friend, Olivia, and I decided to sleep in, thus missing barnetoget. We did however manage to make it to the city center with plenty of time to spare for folketoget. I even brought a small Norwegian flag with me. This didn’t fool many people though. I think the big indicator that Olivia and I were American was the way we answered the cheer, “hip hip.” The two of us would respond with “hurray,” while the Norwegians would shout “hurrah.” Oh, well.

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Folketoget was definitely an interesting parade to watch. There were so many different community groups that I didn’t even know existed in Trondheim. My favorite marchers were the ones in the photo above who marched on what I can only describe as a set of group cross country skis.

Afterwards, Olivia and I decided to have lunch in town before looking for the russ parade. We didn’t have to walk far before we found them–though I suppose we technically heard them before we saw them. The russ has gathered in a parking lot towards the beginning of the parade route and seemed to be having a blast. It was neat to see how even though all of these kids were collectively celebrating russ, each school was doing so in its own unique way. I was particularly impressed with the bunch that managed to all have Hello Kitty balloons.

Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long before the russ began their parade–and my students were actually the ones leading the charge! Their collective enthusiasm was both infectious and hilarious to watch. The students ran around and had plenty of parade floats, flags, confetti cannons, and of course, russ cards. I had shown Olivia my collection of russ cards, but my collection paled in comparison to the ones the children had. The average collection had to be about three inches thick, and many children simply shoved their collections into large plastic bags because they were simply too big to hold in one hand. Watching the children follow the russ go by was also interesting. It was clear that the kids idolize the russ students and look forward to one day being old enough to participate.

Now that the 17th of May, and thus russ, has come and gone, I even admit that I sometimes miss seeing the russ around with their bright red overalls and hearing advertisements for Russ playlists on Spotify. Still, it’s also nice to have everything settle down and returned back to normal. If you’re interested in hearing a different 17th of May perspective, definitely check out this post done by my friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Lud Baldwin.

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Electric Cars

In case you just couldn’t get enough of alternative energy, I thought I’d talk a bit about electric cars in Norway. Before coming to Norway, I think the most that I’d ever interacted with electric cars had been from spotting the occasional Tesla and being forced to watch the film Who Killed the Electric Car? (my English teacher had clearly failed to lesson plan that day). But this all changed when I moved to Norway. In Norway, I see electric cars everywhere.

Cars are expensive in Norway. They have very steep taxes, registration fees are exorbitant, and toll roads are everywhere. And while I initially thought that gas would be cheaper in Norway due to the oil industry, I was very much mistaken. Like most things in Norway, gas is quite expensive.

But things are quite different if you own an electric car. Most of these expenses disappear largely due to government intervention and the government’s desire to be environmentally friendly. Norway has been supportive of electric cars since the late 1980s. In 1990, the import tax on electric cars was abolished and made permanent in 1996, and a slew of economic benefits have been introduced since then. Electric cars do not have sales tax or the standard 25% value added tax (VAT), and they are exempt from road and ferry tolls and parking fees. Electric cars are free to charge and are subject to cheaper insurance. They are even allowed to use the bus lanes. In 2012, Norwegian government pledged to keep these financial incentives until 2018 or until 50,000 zero emission vehicles are on the road, whichever happens first.

It’s no wonder that the electric car is popular, since overall they are much cheaper than your average car. In fact, I’ve even seen a Tesla taxi around Trondheim (Tesla prices start at 105,500 USD). As things stand right now, there are about 37,000 electric cars registered in Norway, over 5,000 charging stations, and electric cars are responsible for about 6-12% of vehicle sales every month in Norway (Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association). It’s clear that electric cars are growing increasingly popular and increasingly practical.

But like most things, not everyone thinks the electric car is God’s gift to earth. As more and more electric cars join the roads, there are more and more critics. More cars on the road translates to more congestion–particularly in the bus lanes. Electric cars are about 75% of the vehicles in the bus lanes and can often clog up traffic. A fact that bus drivers and commuters are unhappy about. Although the number of charging stations is increasing all the time, the government has not quite been able to keep up with demand. Electric car owners complain that there are not enough charging stations and people who drive regular cars complain about how they still have to pay for gas. And although these are all valid concerns, I think the thing that troubles people most is what will happen when these financial benefits end. Many worry about the collapse of the electric car market, and it’s not an unjust concern. But I suppose there is nothing to do but to wait and see. I doubt that much will happen in my remaining time in Norway other than having a few more charging stations pop up around town. For now, my new goal is to simply catch a ride in the Tesla taxi.

Visit From a Rover

Now it would be utterly remiss of me not to mention that one of the Roving Scholars, Heather, recently came to Trondheim. The Roving Scholars program is probably the coolest thing that the Fulbright Commission offers in Norway. The Rovers travel from school to school and have a series of workshops that they teach throughout Norway for the duration of the school year. If you’re interested in learning more, information can be found here. Anyways, the Roving Scholars are all amazing and well established teachers and I was really excited to see Heather and to see one of her workshops.

Heather dropped by my International English class early on Friday morning and really managed to engage with my students. The topic of her workshop was the makeup of the United States and American universities. Before this workshop, I got the impression that my students tended to view the United States as one united country. They seemed a bit surprised to learn that there are some pretty significant regional differences across the United States and that these differences range from things like accents to personality traits.

One of my favorite parts of the workshop was when Heather showed my students the infographic below. Having already given my students some background information on different areas in the United States, Heather asked them to look at the infographic and tell her what area of the country they would go to if they had a free plane ticket.

US Personality Map YouGov-01

Considering the adjectives, it came as no surprise that no one wanted to go to the East Coast. Sorry New York. A few students wanted to go to the South, more wanted to go to the Midwest, and the majority wanted to go to the West Coast. As a Californian, I am proud to say that even Norwegians know that the West Coast really is the best coast.

I also enjoyed watching my students learn more about American universities. I think the thing that they found most shocking was the cost of higher education. In Norway, higher education is free, so the price tag for an American university seems like pure insanity. We calculated out the price in NOK for attending a four year $40,000/year institution and the students were a bit stunned to learn that a bachelors degree costs some Americans around 1.2 million NOK. We did put in a good word for financial aid, but that didn’t stop my students from being taken aback at the initial price.

Overall, I think that my students learned a lot and had a good time. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Heather again later in the school year, and I hope that I’ll get the chance to see more of the other Rovers in the spring.

Grocery Shopping: Or Things That Make Me Sad

Not only is alcohol expensive in Norway, so are groceries! Again I like to think that my friends have learned by this point that grocery shopping complaints are strictly prohibited.

So, here are a few things to know about grocery shopping in Norway. First things first, there are definitely certain stores that are cheaper than others. At my Fulbright orientation in August we were told:

Cheap Grocery Stores:

  • Kiwi
  • Rema 1000
  • Coop Prix
  • Rimi

More Expensive Stores:

  • ICA
  • Bunnpris
  • Meny
  • Joker

Most Expensive Stores:

  • Statoil
  • Narvesen
  • 7-Eleven
  • Deli de Luca

While the cheaper grocery stores tend to fulfill most of my shopping needs, the more expensive stores, Meny in particular, tend to contain more variety. All of the grocery stores have sales that you can see on the mobile app Mattilbud.

There are also some added costs that come with grocery shopping in Norway. Plastic bags cost 1 NOK so most people bring their own bags when they shop. Another thing to know is that most drinks have an additional charge on top of the listed price. This additional cost covers the price of the bottle the drink comes in (it’s usually anywhere between an extra 1 to 3 NOK and the cost is listed on the bottle). Most grocery stores contain special machines that will process and recycle your bottles and give you the option of either recouping the cost of the bottle or donating the money.

On to prices! Here are some grocery store prices and all include the 15% tax. All of these items were bought at the cheapest grocery stores:

  • 1.75 liters of Milk (24.90 NOK = 3.51 USD = 7.54 USD/gallon)
  • 1100 g of oatmeal  (19.90 NOK = 2.8 USD)
  • Half dozen eggs (22.3 NOK = 3.14 USD)
  • Pasta noodles (5 NOK = .70 USD)
  • Tomato pasta sauce (20.90 NOK = 2.94 USD)
  • 125 g of blueberries (20 NOK = 2.82 USD)
  • 125 g of raspberries (21.96 NOK = 3.09 USD)
  • Onion (2.14 NOK = .30 USD)
  • Set of avocados (29.90 NOK = 4.21 USD)
  • Green beans (23.90 NOK = 3.37 USD)
  • 750 g of carrots (24.96 NOK = 3.51 USD)
  • 400 g of ground beef (51.40 NOK = 7.24 USD)
  • 500 g of scampi (109 NOK = 15. 35 USD)
  • 2 chicken breasts (35.60 NOK = 5.01 USD)

 

Early on in our Fulbright orientation we were told to stop converting prices to USD, but we were also told that if we felt absolutely compelled to apply an exchange rate to our purchases we should use the Big Mac Index. The Big Mac Index compares the price of big macs across the globe in order to give a conversion rate that is based on purchasing power parity (see parents I did take that basic economics class in college). Using the Big Mac Index the conversion rate is 10 NOK/USD. Using this rate instead of the current exchange rate makes the prices of the above items become more reasonable:

  • 1.75 liters of Milk (24.90 NOK = 2.49 USD = 5.39 USD/gallon)
  • 1100 g of oatmeal  (19.90 NOK = 1.99 USD)
  • Half dozen eggs (22.3 NOK = 2.23 USD)
  • Pasta noodles (5 NOK = .50 USD)
  • Tomato pasta sauce (20.90 NOK = 2.09 USD)
  • 125 g of blueberries (20 NOK = 2 USD)
  • 125 g of raspberries (21.96 NOK = 2.20 USD)
  • Onion (2.14 NOK = .21 USD)
  • Set of avocados (29.90 NOK = 2.99 USD)
  • Green beans (23.90 NOK = 2.39 USD)
  • 750 g of carrots (24.96 NOK = 2.50 USD)
  • 400 g of ground beef (51.40 NOK = 5.14 USD)
  • 500 g of scampi (109 NOK = 10. 90 USD)
  • 2 chicken breasts (35.60 NOK = 3.56 USD)

 

There are only two other things that I’ve found a bit atypical when grocery shopping in Norway:

  1. The units. In the US it is required that food vendors clearly state the volume or weight of an item on the front of the package. In Norway however it can be a bit like playing “Where’s Waldo?” to find the actual units on a food item.
  2. Milk. I used to resent not being able to buy a gallon of milk in Norway; however, this changed when someone told me that milk is never sold in great amounts (the maximum being 1.75 liters) because the milk is fresh. While this does make me feel healthier, this also means that milk usually won’t last longer than its expiration date (typically around a week) since it lacks preservatives.