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.

Health Care

I’ve been asked about the Norwegian health care system a few times, so I thought I’d write about my (thankfully) limited experience with it.

When I first came to Norway, I had to register as a resident and then wait for my personal number, the Norwegian equivalent of a US social security number. Once I had my personal number, I was then in the health care system and able to register for a doctor, or fastlege, either online or by phone (+47 815 70 070).*

Now I ran into a bit of trouble actually figuring out the fastlege website, unsurprising considering that it’s in Norwegian. This led to me calling the health care phone number. Now one important thing to know about Norwegians is that they excel at rule following and conflict avoidance. Conflict avoidance paired with one confused and frustrated person, me, did not lead to a great phone conversation. Our circuitous 30 minute conversation can pretty much be summed up below:

Me: Hi, I’d like to register for my fastlege
Customer Service: Who would you like to register with?
Me: Well I’m having trouble with your website and would just like to have a doctor who is based close to me in Trondheim.
Customer Service: I’m sorry I can’t do that. Normally people just call and tell me which doctor they want. I’m also in Oslo so I don’t know the Trondheim area well.
Me: Well can you assign me any doctor in Trondheim.
Customer Service: Well, no. I’m sorry, but this isn’t usually how things are done. You need to tell me what doctor you want. I can’t help you.

After much convincing, I finally managed to get the person on the phone to assign me a doctor. Though instead of assigning me a doctor in Trondheim, they decided to give me one in another city. So my first experience with the Norwegian health care system was a pretty frustrating one.

After that encounter, I decided to give up on the phone line and eventually managed to piece together parts of how the fastlege website works. Here’s a bit more about what I’ve learned. While the website is far from grand, you can narrow down the list of doctors to a particular city. The problem that I was running into was that it shows you all of the doctors in the city, not just those that are available. To make things more complicated for me and my limited Norwegian, the way you can tell if a doctor is available is by looking at the last column of the website, titled “Ledig.” Google Translate has “ledig” translate to “free,” which to me originally meant that the column should be filled with some equivalent of yes/no or true/false. Instead you’ll see numbers. One of my initial downfalls was thinking that the number stood for the number of patients the doctor currently has (a zero would mean no patients while a high number would mean that the doctor was stretched thin). The numbers actually tell you the complete opposite–how much availability a doctor has (a zero would mean that the doctor cannot take on more patients, while a number will tell you how many patients a doctor can take on). And it is here that my knowledge of the fastlege website comes screeching to a halt.

One other interesting thing to note is the way that a doctor’s prescription works. Because Norway is hip with technology, a lot of your information in Norway is tied to your personal number, and this includes prescriptions. In fact, you can usually just go to the local pharmacy, tell them your personal number, and have your prescription handed back to you. Your doctor just inputs all of your prescription information online, and it’s accessible to every pharmacy in the country. Pretty neat!

Having universal health care has certainly seemed great. I haven’t really had to use the health care system since coming here, but it’s clear that its very presence (rightfully) gives a good deal of comfort to many Norwegians. Many of my students have said that they find the US health care system confusing and expensive, before proceeding to tell me how awesome it is not worry about their health (part of the reason why I suspect they tolerate such icy streets during winter–they don’t have to worry as much about injuries). And while I am a supporter of universal health care, I will be the first to admit that I cringed when I saw more than half of a paycheck go to taxes. The welfare state certainly comes with a price, and while I don’t think it will ever fully reach the United States, it’s been great to see how well it works here in Norway.

*One neat thing about Norway is that once you have a bank account set up, it’s possible to use your BankID as a login for a number of Norwegian websites, including the one for your fastlege.

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.

The Svalbard Museum

My second day in Svalbard was much more low key. This time I was able to see more of the town simply because there was more daylight, and when I say daylight I really mean twilight. After about a 40 minute walk, Sarah and I made it to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and Sarah dropped me off at the adjoining Svalbard Museum.

The museum was great and full of useful information (pretty much everything below is taken from informational slides in the museum). Svalbard was originally seen as international and communal land; however, with the rise of the coal mining industry it became important that there be a governing body that could settle disputes. Things were finally established at the end of World War I with the Svalbard Treaty. In the treaty, Norway was given “absolute and unrestricted sovereignty over Svalbard.” However there are a few restrictions on this sovereignty. Norway is required to give the citizens and companies of the Svalbard Treaty signatories (as of 2005 this includes Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, The Dominican Republic, USA and Venezuela) equal rights regarding:

  • Entrance to and residence on Svalbard
  • Fishing, hunting, and trapping
  • Maritime, industrial, mining and commercial activities
  • Acquisition and utilization of property and mineral rights

Norway is still allowed to regulate the rights above, it just isn’t allowed to discriminate against a particular country. Svalbard itself is under the jurisdiction of the sysselmann, or the governor. The governor is not elected by those living on Svalbard, and is a part of the Norwegian administrative system. Fun fact: even though the sysselmann is part of a bureaucratic hierarchy, apparently the status of the sysselmann is the same as that of the king of Norway.

Because Svalbard is in some senses an international territory, the taxes and fees that are collected on Svalbard can only be used to benefit Svalbard’s residents. There is income tax on Svalbard, but there is not VAT (Value Added Tax) or fiscal taxes. The Norwegian government also helps subsidize the Svalbard budget.

Right now about 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. That’s 36,600 kmof land covered in about 7,000 km3
of ice. Svalbard’s glaciers and mountains add new dangers to living in Svalbard, mainly in the form of crevasses (people will occasionally fall in them when they are covered with winter snow) and avalanches. Yes, the total number of things I could severely hurt myself with or die from on Svalbard was at about four (frostbite/cold, polar bears, crevasses, avalanches). It felt good to be alive on Svalbard.

Svalbard was discovered as Northern European nations looked to find a Northwest passage to the East. They didn’t find such a passage, but they did find whales, seals, and walruses. Whale and seal products slowly became more popular as the European demand for oil increased. In order to meet this demand, whaling was developed and in 1612 organized whaling came to Svalbard.

Until the 17th century, whaling was done near Svalbard’s coasts and inside the fjords. As whaling continued year after year, more permanent settlements were slowly built. In order to actually catch a whale, numerous boats were used. The whales were essentially hit multiple times with harpoons and then sailors waited until the whales tired out from fighting the sailors and from blood loss. The whale was eventually dragged back to shore where it was finished off and then processed for oil. You can get an idea of what these settlements looked like how whaling worked from the pictures below.

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Svalbard was originally located down by the equator, which is what allowed it to develop coal deposits. Once whaling and trapping died down in Svalbard, coal mining gradually began to replace it; however, the mining industry encountered low oil prices in the 1970s. The price of coal was so low that in order to save Store Norske, the big Norwegian mining company on Svalbard, the Norwegian government had to buy nearly all of its shares in 1976.

Because the company was now owned by the State, it became politically necessary for Longyearbyen to transition from being a company town to being a family friendly town. Normal welfare and public services were introduced in Svalbard starting in 1975, and the State introduced or expanded education, hospitals, the postal system, administrative system, and telecommunications. These days the services offered on Longyearbyen exceed those found in some of the more rural areas in mainland Norway. Though with regards to healthcare, there is only one doctor that services the approximately 2,000 people living on Svalbard. What really helped normalize Longyearbyen however was the opening of the airport in 1974, effectively ending Svalbard’s long periods of isolation.

Things have continued to expand since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the coal industry was again hit with a crisis. This prompted the development of more businesses on Svalbard, particularly those related to research, tourism, trade, and services. The university, UNIS, was established in 1993.

Right now, Svalbard is considered more of a research town than a mining town (they actually have super fast fiber optic Internet due to all of the research that goes on). In fact, coal prices hit another low this year, causing the coal company to be in the red. Apparently this prompted the company to make a joke presentation at this year’s holiday party proposing that the government replace the coal industry with the timber industry. How can you tell this is a joke? There are no trees on Svalbard. How’s that for an arctic desert? But even though it’s a silly presentation, it does speak to a wider problem. As coal gets more and more expensive to mine (if I remember correctly there is only one working mine out of the ten that exist near Longyearbyen) the communities on Svalbard will have to start coming up with alternative ways to get fuel.

Once I finished reading through all of this history, I had a fun time looking around at some of the animals on display. The polar bear was huge in reality. On all fours it came up to about my shoulder (around just over four feet/1.2 meters tall). Sarah actually told me that one of the professors she works with was responsible for shooting it. Apparently he was so against shooting the bear he waited until it was 1.5 meters away before shooting.

IMG_8656  IMG_8658  IMG_8662

After that we went back to the barracks and spent the rest of the day lounging around one of the common rooms. I had a good time talking to some of the other students and working on some of my knitting. Guys, I’m getting better! Finished fox scarf featured below. Pattern here with the English version towards the bottom.

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One thing that I found interesting was talking about the upcoming solar eclipse. The eclipse is scheduled to happen on March 20th and Longyearbyen is one of the only places in the world where you can see the complete eclipse. This has sparked a huge wave of tourism to the island. The office of the sysselmann has estimated that approximately 50,000 people are flying into the island to see the eclipse. The population of Longyearbyen is just 2,000 people, so it’s literally 25 times more people coming to the island. This also means that the government is worried about people having places to stay. There is one hotel in Longyearbyen that hasn’t even been finished yet (it doesn’t even have walls or a roof) that is completely booked for the eclipse. One friend told me that when she stayed at an airbnb in Longyearbyen, her hostess told her that her house had been booked for the eclipse five years in advance. People are making a fortune renting out their houses, and apparently most rooms are going for tens of thousands of kroner a night. At this point hotels are charging a minimum of 10,000 NOK a night (1322.36 USD/night). The government is concerned that many people will arrive and not only lack a place to stay, but will also lack the necessary protective gear and clothing to survive the cold. There is currently talk of opening the local gym and using that as a place where people can sleep. All in all it seems a bit ridiculous, even more so since the weather on Svalbard is so finicky. There is a good chance that all of these people will show up and that it won’t be a clear day. But oh well. I guess that’s the risk that people take.

Final Presentations

I’ve been told that my last few posts make it seem like everything is all play and no work, but don’t worry! I’ve still been teaching–I’ve just assumed that you’d rather hear more about the fun parts of my week. So, for this post I decided that I should reassure you that I do in fact have a job here in Norway.

Things at NTNU have slowly been coming to a close. November 21 is the last day of classes at the university and many of my students’ weekly writing samples tend to detail their various panic levels as they approach the end of the semester. In my smaller NTNU class, Academic Writing, Nancy has established a tradition of inviting all of our students over to her house for dinner and presentations. Many of the students in the class are international, in fact we only have one Norwegian student, so the presentations are meant to help us understand their experiences in Norway and learn more about about how Norway compares to their home countries. But, first things first, we dined.

Nancy happens to be a fabulous cook and made a mixture of Norwegian and American dishes for the class. My meager contribution to this part of the evening was setting the table, chopping lettuce, and generally trying to be a good sous chef. Basically my role at family gatherings since the dawn of time (though for any family members reading this rest be assured I am not complaining).

After we feasted and managed to roll ourselves away from the table we started up the projector and after a few technical difficulties began the presentations. I learned a good deal from these presentations, but the thing that actually surprised me the most was how funny my students are. This particular class is notable for how quiet they are so I was surprised to see so many of them crack jokes. So, here are some of the highlights from these presentations:

  • Our first German student decided to present on Turkish street food in Germany, particularly doner kebab. The student gave us some of the history of the industry as well as some stats (just about everyone was prepared to move to Berlin when he said that doner costs about 1 euro). My favorite part of his presentation though was his concluding slide, which had the picture below and the caption:Angie knows…doner makes beautiful
  • We then had three French students do a fairly comprehensive comparison between France and Norway. I think that their biggest complaint centered around the food. Their biggest concern was Norwegian cheese. In Norway, cheese is made by boiling whey and the most highly prized Norwegian cheese is brown cheese. Needless to say, my French students do not think that this qualifies as cheese. All three students practically waxed poetic when talking about the sheer amount of hard cheese available in France (one girl said that the number was over 350 cheeses).
  • I think the thing that made everyone laugh the most was a presentation by our Spanish student. She said that she was shocked by thermometers in Norway since it was the first time she’d seen a thermometer that measured temperatures below 0 Celsius.
  • One of the stranger things I learned about that night was about sports in Finland. Finland apparently hosts world championships in wife carrying, boot throwing, air guitar playing, swamp soccer, and sitting on ant’s nests. I kid you not these are real things. There are even stamps depicting these sports in Finland.

After the presentations, we all dug into dessert and continued to talk. Some interesting moments from this conversation include:

  • Talking about Christmas foods and having our Chinese student explain that Christmas is not celebrated in China. Many of my students struggled to wrap their heads around the idea of no Christmas.
  • Having our German students explain that they pay state taxes to the church, though apparently you can go to court and get yourself banished from the church, thus avoiding those taxes.
  • Germans still pay taxes that support East Germany, a hangover from World War II.
  • Apparently Germans used to build a lot of churches because they could use them as an excuse to celebrate and drink. They would celebrate the day each church was started, the day it was opened, etc. In essence, Germans tried to created a year round party centered around church building; at least until the kaiser put his foot down and declared that there would only be one celebratory day.
  • I also had fun realizing how small some of my student’s hometowns are. One student in particular described his birthplace as containing “approximately two hundred souls. About a hundred human and a hundred cow.”

All in all, it was a fun and educational night and I like to think that everyone walked home with a little bit more knowledge and a full tummy.