Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Bawer: We're Rich, You're Not. End of Story.

Bruce Bawer who lives in Norway (and whose work I've commented on before) is at it again. He thinks Norwegians are among the poorest in Western Europe and far poorer than Americans (when incomes are adjusted for cost of living). He has some good points - here are my initial thoughts (in bullet form, I don't have time to organize them better):
  • His caricature of Norwegians constantly japping on about how the nation is the "richest in the world yet fail to provide social service XXX" is dead on. When you spend time among ordinary Norwegians and read daily (especially tabloid) newspapers you hear this line on a daily basis. It may sound like gloating ("look at us, we're rich") but that is typically not the spirit in which it is delivered. It is simply used to highlight perceived social injustices.

  • I agree with much of what he says about consumption (I too think that living standards are higher in the US when it comes to car standards and going out to eat and drink) but is seems odd that he uses Sweden as a data point when he can't find data for Norway. After all, in 2002 the per capita GDP of Sweden was $26,966 while that of Norway was $42,222. By comparison the US figure was $36,731.

  • Speaking of GDP per capita - these figures are the single most important reason why Norwegians think they are so rich, so it seems strange to me that Mr. Bawer doesn't mention them anywhere in his article.

  • I actually agree with most of the other observations Mr. Bawer makes - yes, Norwegians eat dry pieces of bread for lunch while in America I have hot meals that most Norwegians would consider to be extravagant dinners. Alchohol is ridiculously expensive, and so is dining out. Norwegians hold on to appliances that Americans would throw out. Americans have yard tools and electronic gadgets that would make a Norwegian gardener green with envy. You could go on and on. In fact, for me personally the standard of living in America is far, far higher than in the Norway.

  • But, crucially, Mr. Bawer also ignores a number of areas in life where you could argue that Norwegians are much better off. For instance, most Norwegians take long vacations in foreign lands. A great many of them own second homes (in the mountains or by the sea) or boats. New parents get almost a year of maternity/paternity leave paid for by the state. Homes tend to be of a high standard, and most furniture (aside from IKEA stuff) is of a better quality. Higher education is free. Healthcare is free.

  • And, of course, aside from the drug addicts in central Oslo (who are extremely visible, I agree) Norway has almost zero poverty. Poor people receive preventive medical care. There are far fewer low-standard jobs (one of the things you'll notice is that most parking lots are automated whereas in the US they tend to be staffed by low-wage attendants).
In conclusion I applaud Mr. Bawer's work. No doubt this article will be widely discussed in Norway. And he does challenge some myths that probably deserve to be put to rest. Most countries have myths that are not true - Americans think their healthcare is the best in the world, their democracy is a beacon of light and their women are the most liberated. Norwegians think they're rich when in many ways they're not. But in some ways they are far richer than Americans. Unfortunately Bawer's "angle" is such that the good things are ignored. Norway uses its resources differently than America. It's not that they have fewer resources to begin with. This is a key distinction that gets lost in Mr. Bawer's article.

UPDATE: Here are some more thoughts from Bruce Bawer that partially explain why he continues to live in a country that he dislikes so strongly:
Which is why I owe Santorum and Bush a debt of gratitude. They've snapped me out of my post-9/11 distraction from "social issues." They've reminded me why I'm an exile. They've reminded me how outrageous it is that the nation whose founders articulated the ideals of liberty for all time, and for all humankind, compels citizens to move abroad in order to be free to share their lives with the ones they love. They've helped me to appreciate all over again how fortunate I am to be living in Norway, a country that officially perceives my relationship with my partner not as representing a threat to the family but as constituting a family itself.

UPDATE 2: Some more comments here from mainly American readers.

UPDATE 3: Yet another blogger (a University Chair) who supports the main thrust of Bawer's arguments.

UPDATE 4: Ok, last one. American conservatives are really having a field day with this.

1 comment:

Blue Cross of California said...

I hope healthcare can be improved for all as we are in a major crisis.