This story first appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Over the past couple of weeks, thanks to the president’s racist comments about Haiti and African countries he can’t even name—remember “Nambia”?—as well as the stamp of approval he awarded future immigrants from Norway, we’ve seen a surprising amount of commentary about that fortunate country. Let me just say that those Norwegians he’s so eager to invite over are my ancestral people and, thanks to years I’ve spent in that country, my friends. Donald Trump should understand one thing: If he and his Republican backers really knew the truth about life in Norway, they would be clamoring to build a second “big, fat, beautiful” wall along our Eastern seaboard.
One thing is incontestable: A mass of Norwegian immigrants (however improbable) would pose a genuine threat to Donald Trump’s America. They would bring to our shores their progressive values, advanced ideas, and illustrious model of social democratic governance—and this country would never be the same!
It’s hard even to begin to imagine what a Norwegian-ization of the United States might mean. You would have to assume that our beloved land would lose many of its 21st-century landmarks. Gone would be our precious ghettos and slums, and the boarded-up schools, hospitals, and libraries in the heartland—not to speak of our heirloom infrastructure: collapsing bridges, antique trains, clogged roads, and toxic drinking water.
The Republican tax bill is exactly the kind of “achievement” no Norwegian legislative body would ever approve.
To grasp what’s at stake, consider how these immigrants would have reacted to the Republican tax bill, praised by the president as “the greatest achievement” of his first year in office—which, by his own account, is the greatest year in American history. That bill, filled with miscellaneous handouts meant to ensure the votes of individual Republican legislators, guarantees that the superrich and their mega-corporations will get richer still in perpetuity. It is, in its own way, a glorious hymn to future heights of economic inequality (in a country already ranked the most unequal in the developed world), as it cleverly passes on to the children of the un-rich classes a deficit inflated by $1.5 trillion.
It is, of course, the nature of any tax plan to redistribute wealth in some fashion, even though Republicans use the word “redistribution” only to assail Democrats who occasionally suggest a little something to help the poor. But redistribute those Republicans did in a masterful way, surrendering yet more of our national wealth to the tiny team of people (including many Republican donors) who already hold almost all of it. As the Republicans were writing the tax bill, the top 20 percent of households were already taking home 90 percent of the American pie. Now, they will get more.
That’s exactly the kind of “achievement” that no Norwegian legislative body would ever approve. All nine parties in that country’s parliament, from left to right, would have joined in tearing up that Republican tax bill and replacing it with a much simpler one aimed at redistributing the nation’s wealth equitably to every last one of its citizens.
As a start, they would have tossed in the trash can the single most basic project of Trump and the Republicans: making the rich richer. Norwegians have long worked to do the reverse, based on a well-established conviction that inequality creates elites that corrupt and destroy democracy. That’s where politics come in: devising multiple systems to regulate a capitalist economy and safeguard democracy.
In 2014, American CEOs were paid 354 times as much as their workers, on average. In Norway, the number is 58.
For example, two national confederations—consisting of trade unions and corporate enterprises—negotiate wages and working conditions annually, while minimizing the difference between high-paying and lower-wage jobs, between CEOs and workers. As a result, Norway’s income equality is near the top of any international list. America’s, not so. On average in 2014, for instance, American CEOs grabbed 354 times the salary of their workers. For many corporate chiefs, the figure exceeded 1,000 times the salary of a median employee. In Norway, for every dollar that worker earned, the average Norwegian CEO took home 58 bucks.
Equitable paychecks may slow down the creation of Norwegian billionaires, but the country’s standard of living is among the world’s highest. The US ranks much lower on international evaluations, although with the immense and still rapidly growing gap between the plutocrats and the rest of us, it’s hard to calculate a meaningful “standard.”
While those new Norwegian immigrants were at it, they would quickly move to simplify our tax system. That, of course, is exactly what Trump and the Republicans promised—remember that “postcard” you were going to mail to the IRS? Instead, they made everything yet more complicated. In Norway, the government not only simplifies the tax system, but figures out, on a progressive scale, what every taxpayer owes and then sends out the bills.
These dangerous Norwegians are peculiar enough to be grateful. They gladly pay up because taxes fund the country’s universal public welfare system, which guarantees that strikingly high standard of living to a whole society. (That phrase “whole society,” by the way, is the meaning of the word “social” in the phrase “social democracy.”) Keep in mind that all Norwegians have the right to universal public health care, universal public education through professional schools or university and beyond, care of the elderly and disabled, paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, subsidized early childhood education (from age 1), affordable housing, state of the art public transport, and a raft of other services that take the worry out of daily life. The catch is—and I can already hear the thundering footsteps of the Republican herd as it heads in panic for its top-secret bunker—if Norwegians lose trust in their government, they kick it out and elect another one.
We Americans, on the other hand, have been taught not to trust any government, but rather to admire our brilliant superrich people who own this one, and so we let them pocket our tax money and think none the less of them for their dependence on Republican handouts like that tax bill. Consider the situation this way: Norwegian governments spoil their citizens while Trump and the Republicans despoil theirs. And that just goes to show how much they trust us to take care of ourselves—so much so that they’re now planning to slash Medicaid and Medicare, leaving us “free” to set forth into sickness and death on our own. And if that isn’t the good old American spirit of free enterprise, what is?
To explain how Norway pays for all its social programs, almost every American commentator, even when theoretically sympathetic to the Norwegians, points to the income from the country’s North Sea oil fields, discovered and developed in the 1970s. On that, however, they are mistaken.
Norway’s welfare state programs are supported not by oil revenues but by taxing the citizenry. (While some citizen taxpayers work directly or indirectly in the oil business, as of 2016 they made up only 7 percent of the workforce.) To understand how Norway can afford to pay for the genuine well-being of its people in such an impressive way, you need to look at those tax rolls—which very nearly doubled in the 1970s when women walked into the workplace (and politics) in a major way, and at wages nearly matching those of men. In 2016, the Ministry of Finance calculated that the labor of women added to the net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” created by that North Sea oil and held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund—more than $1 trillion as of last year.
Imagine that you could upgrade an economy in a wholesale way simply by requiring fair wages for women.
It’s pretty scary to think of hordes of immigrants from such a country landing on our shores, considering the radical reality I’ve just described, the startling idea that you could upgrade an economy in a wholesale way simply by requiring fair wages for women. Not to mention that with the taxes those women pay, you could fully fund free universal child care, the lack of which drives American women from the workplace back home, where many Republicans think they belong. In the United States, none of our good ol’ boy leaders would dream of enacting programs so…well, unpatriarchal. Or how about another idea I’ve heard from many Norwegians: that gender equality is the key to the good life?
But about that North Sea oil money: It, too, represents a kind of thinking utterly alien to this country. Oil is something we Americans believe we understand. Spill it in Alaska, spill it in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, drill for it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—thanks to the need to secure Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote for that tax “reform” bill—as well as up and down the nation’s coasts (except Florida, the home of Trump’s favorite golf club). We don’t mind what you do with it as long as it lowers the cost of propelling our outsized vehicles on outdated highways.
Norway, meanwhile, owns two-thirds of Statoil, the oil company that controls those North Sea wells, even as it leads the world’s changeover to electric vehicles. It is a country with a remarkable record of developing and adopting new technologies while phasing out the old, so its workforce is always employed. By law, the Norwegian government spends no more (and usually less) than 4 percent of its oil profits on current expenses. The other 96 percent goes into that trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund. That, in turn, is set aside for the future, for the country’s children and their children, although some Norwegians, famous for their worldwide humanitarian and peacemaking activities, now propose to give much of it away to lands that may need it far more.
Here’s a question for future American administrations: Could they apply for some of that Norwegian money to build an East Coast wall against Norwegian immigrants—or maybe to help our kids pay off that $1.5 trillion in debt Trump and the Republicans just handed them? Could we take advantage of those radical Norwegians without even letting them into our country? I’ll bet Trump could finagle that.
It’s likely that Norway came to Trump’s mind in that meeting with Sens. Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham (among others) as some idyllic source for future white Republicans only because, the day before, he had met with Norway’s substantial and very white prime minister, Erna Solberg. (Surprised observers of the meeting tweeted that Solberg speaks better English than the American president—most Norwegians do.) “Erna,” as Norwegians—for whom everyone is equal and on a first-name basis—call her, is the leader of the Conservative party. She heads a coalition government in which the top three positions are held by women. That in itself might have caused Trump to keep his hands in his pockets, but apparently he wasn’t told. It’s likely he mistook “Conservative” for “Republican,” but as a matter of fact, all nine political parties in Norway’s parliament are well to the left of our Democrats and, yes, even that independent “democratic socialist” from Vermont.
All nine political parties in Norway’s parliament are well to the left of our Democrats.
At the moment, only one Norwegian cabinet member, Silvi Listhaug of the right-wing Progress Party, might be considered sufficiently neoliberal, uber-Christian, and mean to fit into Trump’s regime. Perhaps that’s because her early training included a 2005 internship in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
In Norwegian terms, Erna often tilts dangerously to the right under the pressure of US and British neoliberal economic theorists. It has to be hard for the leader of a small country—five million people, half the population of Haiti—to resist pressure to conform to the autocratic example of a nation that styles itself the most exceptional on Earth. Erna herself is a polite, circumspect politician who, on returning from her visit to the White House, assured reporters in Oslo that Trump was “a normal man” with “a sense of humor.” Apparently she didn’t mention Trump’s self-proclaimed political acumen, intellectual brilliance, or awesome “America First” foreign policy. Norwegians reading their morning papers could, however, fill in the blanks.
At a joint press conference with Erna, Trump proudly announced that, last November, the US had delivered the first F-52 and F-35 fighter jets to Norway, part of a $10 billion order of American military equipment. Norwegians are, in fact, stubbornly averse to war and think of their reluctant acquisition of way too many overpriced, overdue, bug-plagued F-35s as a surcharge on NATO membership. But F-52s?
That thoroughly fictional plane, it turns out, exists only in the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. So Norwegians are having a good laugh, while their commentators are saying “thanks, but no thanks” to Trump’s immigration invitation. (If they really mean it, then perhaps we can relax and forget about that wall along the Eastern seaboard.)
On the other hand, judging by their press, an awful lot of Norwegians are even more appalled and angered than we are by Trump’s racist slurs about “shithole countries.” What’s more, just days after returning to Norway, Erna Solberg rolled out her new government, a coalition of three parties, all led by women, and a gender-equal cabinet to run ministries focused not only on defense or finance, but also on climate and the environment, eldercare and public health, research and higher education, family and equality. Erna announced that the platform of this new government would be “greener” and committed to sustaining the welfare state. And this, in Norway, is a center-right government.
You see what I mean about Norwegian ideas being totally at odds with Trump’s America. Still, Trump might play that to his advantage. If he and his supporters in Congress decide to build that East Coast wall after all, they might be able to get the Norwegians to pay for it. Not to keep them out, but to keep us in.
Ann Jones is the author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story.