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Say “Ja” to Taxes!

10 November 2011

I’ve written several posts on some of the fundamental differences in ideology between Americans and Norwegians regarding community and individualism. I recently found an article in Inc. magazine that explains the basis for some of these deep cultural differences.  “In Norway, Startups Say Ja to Socialism,” author Mark Chafkin pointedly explains that, contrary to popular rhetoric, socialism is not bad for business and entrepreneurship actually thrive in Norway. Moreover, his evidence suggests that lower taxes do not help businesses or the economy. Although Norway has some of the highest taxes in the world, and was ranked first for the world’s highest per-capita income in 2009 (and third in 2011), it was almost unaffected by the financial crisis that struck the U.S. “From 2006 to 2009,” Chafkin writes, “its economy grew nearly 3 percent. The American economy grew less than one-tenth of a percent during the same period. Meanwhile, countries with some of the lowest taxes in Europe, like Ireland, Iceland, and Estonia, have suffered profoundly.”

While I find this interesting from an economic aspect (and I do mean interesting because topics having anything to do with business and the economy are usually refused entry by my brain), of even greater interest is the attitudes of Norway’s entrepreneurial millionaires.

For example, about millionaire Inger Ellen Nicolaisen (owner of the Nikita salon chain and Norway’s “answer to Donald Trump”), Chafkin writes:

Although Nicolaisen considers herself a conservative, she told me the issue that most animates her is poverty, not taxes. “Yeah, the wealth tax is a problem,” she says. “But you have to make a choice. You can live in the Cayman Islands and pay no tax. But I don’t want to live in the Cayman Islands. To live in Norway, you have to do what you have to. I think it’s worth it.”

Zoltan J. Acs, a professor at George Mason University and the chief economist for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, explains this sentiment to Chafkin as a realization that life is actually very good in Norway, even worth paying for:

The three things we as Americans worry about—education, retirement, and medical expenses—are things that Norwegians don’t worry about.

And perhaps you’ve heard of Moods of Norway? Norway’s hottest, hippest house of “fashion,” Moods was started in 2003 when three college friends got together to start their own business. They now enjoy millions and boutiques worldwide. Are they happy with paying half of their earnings back in taxes? Yep. Co-founder Peder Børresen acknowledged:

We’ve received a lot from Norway and Norwegian society. Giving back is not a problem.

And here, I think, is the core of the matter. The fundamental difference. In Norway people recognize that they did not make themselves wealthy; the society and culture that they live in allows them to be wealthy. So why not give back?

I will end with a quote from Bjørn Holte, CEO of bMenu, who was in New York for awhile to open a new office. When asked by Chafkin about the current debates in the U.S, and in particular health care reform, he responded:

It makes me laugh. Americans don’t understand that you can’t have a functioning economy if people aren’t healthy.

To read the full article by Mark Chafkin in the Jan. 2011 issue of Inc. magazine, click here.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa Owens permalink
    10 November 2011 23:43

    I read this right when it came out as it made NPR All Thing’s Considered in the afternoon, and it just made my heart sing….because I truly plan on moving there. What makes my heart hurt, though, is the inability of the common American to really carry the thought process all the way to the end, and see how you get the country you’re willing to pay for. It is truly mind-boggling that folks here still believe that there is an equality of opportunity and that they too, can be as rich as Bill Gates, by working whatever job they have even with their bachelor’s degree. People ARE starting to wake up (the Occupy movement), but it still astonishes me the level of disdain by others for those that are unwillingly unemployed….calling them lazy, etc. Mind boggling. Many of us here are hanging by a thread. My husband has been a skilled union electrician for 15 years and has now been unemployed for 2 years and has been looking for work…we’re just lucky we have some savings cushion, but how many Americans are out there, employed, but just one paycheck away from being homeless or unemployed and willing to chide others who wish to DO something about it? I do not have a lot of hope for this country because of the deep deep entrenchment of money and corporate welfare in our politics, which was born out of the American tradition of Ragged Dick the Matchboy-style individualism….which works great when there is equal opportunity! ….and I haven’t even mentioned the wage drops….don’t get me started! Okay…off my soapbox….Teresa

    • 16 November 2011 14:01

      Hi Teresa! You wrote: “the inability of the common American to really carry the thought process all the way to the end, and see how you get the country you’re willing to pay for” — I know, I know. I shake my head. It boggles the mind. I listen to Bill Maher’s show via podcast and almost every week he asks how it is that Americans continually vote against their own interests. Who has brainwashed the American people into thinking that giving money and tax breaks to big corporations, letting the rich pay very little in taxes, and getting rid of social services is IN THEIR INTEREST?

  2. 11 November 2011 00:14

    First of all, there is no answer to Donald Trump. Not even an intelligent question, just wtf, an eye roll, and head shake. Many of the wealthy in America seem to think they did it all by themselves. Who built and maintained the infrastructure they do commerce on? Who did the labor? Who paid for the education of their workers? There are plenty more questions like that. I know many who have worked hard all their lives and have barely stayed afloat. I recently had some health care issues. The decisions were made more on economic reality than health requirements, and while everything turned out okay (lucky me!) economics should not have entered the decision (in my world, anyway). I prefer the “we are all in this together” than “every one for themselves” as a socioeconomic model. Teams get a lot more done. Okay, off my soapbox, too.

    • 16 November 2011 14:05

      You are very right, Jon! In reality, she doesn’t come close to Donald Trump. 🙂 It is remarkable that economics play a role in who gets good health care and who doesn’t. If you are sick, the country is not as good as it could be, and therefore my life is not as good as it could be.

  3. Bethany permalink
    11 November 2011 03:12

    Thanks for sparking this discussion, Jena. I spend a lot of time in my work and community life thinking about poverty and inequality. As Americans, we often think the answers to big problems are within ourselves and forget to look outside our borders for other models.

    • 16 November 2011 14:06

      I think of you often, Bethany! Thanks for continuing to read these posts. I’d love to hear more about your community work in West Baltimore when you have the time! Are you running for mayor yet? 🙂

  4. Brelle permalink
    11 November 2011 09:50

    An excellent find, thank you for sharing the article. I’m usually not all that into taxes, but I found myself reading and enjoying the article.

    • Brelle permalink
      11 November 2011 12:26

      I have to say.. I thought the title said, “Say “Ja” to Texas!” first.

    • 16 November 2011 14:07

      About reading economics: My thoughts exactly, Brelle! And about saying “Ja” to Texas? Well, you probably won’t ever hear me saying that! 🙂

  5. 15 November 2011 10:26

    Excellent post that reiterates precisely why WE live in Norway. As start-up entrepreneurs paying 50% of SOMETHING puts more away than a smaller percentage of nothing. However, the negatives certainly arrise. Look at the percentage of Norwegians on sick leave:(

    • 16 November 2011 14:12

      Sick leave. The entire country is on sick leave. And yet I don’t dare throw the first stone as I am now on dagpenger. But here’s what I am beginning to think: if someone goes on sick leave for a year and returns a better worker, and in the meantime someone without a job was able to find a job for awhile, what is lost? (But please also know that the American side of me often growls: come on! Does your back really hurt that much that you can’t show up at work!?) I suppose any system creates abusers of the system, but I still prefer this one!

  6. 15 November 2011 21:46

    Thought provoking post! I was directed here from the Americans in Bergen FB page. We live in Sandviken having moved here a few weeks ago. I spent 2001-03 at NTNU in Trondheim as well so I might presume to have some insight into some of these topics.

    My thought has always been that due to the relative small size of the Norwegian population as compared with the US and, more importantly, the relative homogeneity of that population, it is far easier to state that successful Norwegians are a product of their society than successful Americans.

    Invariably, the successful Norwegian went to the local barnhage, and the local VGS, then perhaps the local hogskole or folkeskole or the like, and perhaps UiO or NTNU or NHH in Bergen, etc., the point being, all public schools. They ate the same foods as their neighbors, and skied the same slopes and took the same summer holidays, etc. It is that sameness that you’ve commented on that allows for the desire to give back. Because you are, esentially, giving back to people just like you, and a society that is generally the same everywhere as the specific location you grew up in.

    Not so the US. there is a world of difference between the wealthy burbs with their high property taxes and nice schools and the perverbial wrong side of the tracks. You do well in the US because perhaps of old money, or your daddy went to Yale, or was a judge or a partner in a big shot law firm, or the family business, or you went to some super high end public school supported by massive local property taxes or even priced out of that by living in a gated community and going to a private school like the type in the woods in Vermont or something. Your folks could afford Middlebury or Bates, you “summer” in Maine, you got a car of your 16th birthday, there is absolutely no similarity between you and the kid who had to mow lawns or deliver papers, or lived in a trailer park and went to a school that couldn’t afford new computers, or had to play all away games because your fields had potholes in them. You could grow up in Compton, Cabrini Green, The Wire’s Baltimore …

    This lack of similarity is striking. And in the US, where individualism is already king, the thought of paying for people who are nothing like you is very objectionable. Frankly, you are from different societies, not the same “Norwegian” society that Norwegians happily chip into.

    But Norway will be challenged. The same way France and Germany are already challenged by immigrants who do not assimilate, and seek better lives, but are percieved by natives as burdens and leeches on the established social systems. Already in east Oslo there are zones where “Norwegians” no longer live. Norway has not the same economic constraints as the rest of the EU, and not the same volume of Turks in Germany, or Algerians in France … but the trend is there. Hence Brevik’s manifesto and agenda.

    Will Norwegians continue to so happily pay 50% taxes as more and more immigrants arrive? What if the oil money runs out, what then, will they still pay? No doubt they will pay for all the other Olav’s and Haakon’s and Ole’s and Erik’s, but the Boris’, the Amhed’s? These are difficult questions. There’s a reason why UDI is such a headache.

    Socialism works only when everyone plays by the rules. Many different cultures necessarily means many different interpretations of rules. No wonder such a system, I believe, would never work in our nation of immigrants. Norway’s fortunate wealth and small and homogeneous make up gives it much more leeway but even it will have to face the same questions in time, but in far longer time than most, admittedly. In the meantime, I have to admit, I too am happy to play by Norwegian rules. I’ll happily give up my hot lunches and pay 50% taxes for the 7.5 hour work days, 5 week vacations, and 1 year maternity leaves. But I guess my point was, it isn’t so simple as team player Norwegians v. selfish Americans. The cultural differences between us and them are enormous, as you’ve stated, individualism is ingrained in the American psyche. We were a nation founded by people who wanted to practice their own religion, elect their own government, i.e., be different. It is the very definition of who we are. Janteloven is so contrary to all that, it could never been in the US. And the same with the taxes.

  7. 16 November 2011 14:27

    Hi BW! Thanks so much for your long and thoughtful post. I have so many things I want to say that I have decided I should write a new post on them and just answer briefly here. I agree with most of what you have said, and it is true that Norway’s oil is the key to the system. But on the whole I don’t want to frame the discussion in terms of Norwegians vs immigrants / heterogeneous societies vs homogeneous societies. I think there is a difference (in the minds of Norwegians and Americans) between people who come to a country as temporary workers to earn money and then to return home, and those who really settle here and get jobs and participate in the community and in culture as a whole. I think Norway is far more tolerant to those types of people. (As is evidenced by the current discussion in the news of foreign workers who only work one month here and then get dagpenger.)

    But my point is this: there is no such thing as a homogeneous society or pure culture. I just read in Aftenposten that some people in Sognefjord don’t consider themselves “Norwegian.” They are “Vestlanders.” And the hundreds of dialects operate as signal of very particular and different backgrounds and traditions. So I would argue that the problem is not that it is easier to have community in Norway because of homogeneity / singular traditions, but rather because people are taught community. Toronto is another good example of this — an extremely diverse city that functions on many socialist principles.

    I think the problem instead is one of ideology. From the very beginning of their lives children are taught that they are part of a community and that we all take care of each other. I have been reading my son’s school textbooks lately and have been amazed over the “taught” socialism. I am certain that we are taught to be individualists from the very beginning in the U.S. as well.

    Will Norwegians be willing to fund non-Norwegians in the future? (I welcome replies from Norwegians!) I would say that depends on 1) if a distinction can be made between participating citizens (of various nations and cultures) and temporary workers and 2) oil, of course.

    (But you know, the US used to be a wealthy nation as well — and certainly has oil of its own — but the money always goes to military defense instead of social care. Again, different ideologies at play.)

    • 16 November 2011 14:28

      …. so much for just answering briefly here! 🙂

      • 23 November 2011 21:31

        One key difference though Jena. UDI makes damned sure if you are here for just a temporary period of time, you go home when your time is up, and you have enough of your own funds to support yourself while you are here, without leeching off the system. People often come to stay in the US. You have citizenship by birth on US soil, something Norway would never allow. Our legacy of welcoming immigrants stays with us, and perhaps in modern times we find it a bit of a drag, although even in the past (a la gangs of new york) you had your nativists against the new immigrants. Basically, Norway works very hard to make sure very few actually stay for good. The US isn’t able to control it that much.

        In addition, the logical extension of “community” to its extreme is the UN, or a single nation in the world. But it is along that slippery slope that community breaks down. somewhere along that line, people stop finding themselves in community with everyone else in the fold, and heterogenity and size (both in population and land mass) have key factors in that process. As diverse as Norway can be from a certain perspective, it is still homogenous when compared with the diversity in other nations, such as the US. Those facts in of themselves make it harder to teach “community.” There is no community in the US anymore because the rich have learned to price out the riff raff, and they simply do not share the same community as the public school kids, the townies, the kids who have to work a register 25 hours a week during school and the like. When you do not partiicpate in the public system, you start seeing no point in funding it anymore.

      • 23 November 2011 22:37

        I couldn’t reply again to yours, so I am replying to mine. I hope that works. I totally agree with you that not participating in the public system, not funding it, everyone creating their own private “community” of private schools, etc = breakdown of the system as a whole. And I also agree with you wholeheartedly that the problem underlying lack of community in the U.S. is one of greed economics and unequal distribution of wealth.

        But you also write: “As diverse as Norway can be from a certain perspective, it is still homogenous when compared with the diversity in other nations, such as the US. Those facts in of themselves make it harder to teach “community.” Why? I ask this seriously as part of a larger study I have just begun. I looked at a U.S. elementary school textbook and compared it to one of my son’s Norwegian books. I was astounded. Jaw-dropping astonishment. While my son’s was pointing out poisonous mushrooms and the fact that all children have a right to free health care, the U.S. textbook had a game in it called “Business is Fun!”, complete with the large, bubbly words “Economics!” “Market!” “Trade!” And this was a first grade social studies book! It stated “Here’s what you need to know to open your very first business!” (which in the game is a lemonade stand). The entire emphasis in the book, from the “Places We Work” section to the “What is a Community” section were heavily grounded in neoliberalism, the self-made-man ethics, and the importance of following the law, while the entire, or overarching theme of my son’s textbook was the general well-being of everyone. This has nothing to do with diversity vs homogeneity. This has everything to do with the point that I agreed with you on above — teaching people that the central value of the nation is one of economics and amassing individual wealth.

        ok and one of my son’s from Norway. I was asatounded — floored!

  8. Bente permalink
    18 November 2011 14:47

    Jeg har lyst å påpeke at det er litt uklart når en omtaler Norge som et sosialistisk land. Norge er et sosialdemokratisk land, og selv om en grunntanke her er fellesskap og solidaritet, er det langt i fra et sosialistisk system. Ellers vil jeg si at denne diskusjonen er veldig interessant å lese i et “ikke-norsk perspektiv”.

    Med tanke på Norge som en homogen enhet, er jeg nok tilbøyelig til å si at ja, det er vi (men langt i fra like homogent som Japan). Samtidig er det riktig slik Jena påpeker at de ulike landsdelene har store motsetninger seg i mellom. Når vi omtaler nordmenn internt er det gjerne i form av “sørlendinger”, “vestlendinger”, “østlendinger”, “nordlendinger” og “trøndere”. Visste du for eksempel at det i utleieannonser på østlandet for 50 år siden ofte skrev “nordlendinger ikke ønsket”? Det er kanskje denne rollen mange utlendinger(/muslimer) har fått i dag, og jeg tror at det i alle samfunn til alle tider vil være en gruppe som “må” fylle denne rollen. Dessverre. Norge er imidlertid ikke ukjent med innvandring selv om det aldri vil kunne sammenlignes med USA. De første innvandrerne fra Pakistan kom allerede på 60-tallet. Det kom dessuten en relativt stor gruppe med vietnamesere på 70-80-tallet. Den rollen somaliere har i dag, som den store “problemgruppen”, hadde vietnameserne for 20 år siden. I dag er vietnamesere ansett som en av de mest vellykkede innvandrergruppene, og har et godt rykte i det norske samfunnet. Forskjellen her er TID. En trenger tid for å la integreringen gå seg til, og det tror jeg også er tilfellet er i dag. Det vil bli tøffe debatter, og det er helt klart mange nordmenn som har negative holdninger til innvandring, men jeg tror vi som nasjon vil falle ned på den “riktige sida”. Så stor tiltro har jeg til det politiske systemet her.

    Jeg personlig har ingen motsetninger mot å dele min skatt og min velferd med hvem det skulle være så lenge vi drar det samme lasset. Jeg bidrar, de bidrar. Med noe. Og blir en syk, og havner på sykehus er jeg glad for at mitt bidrag kan hjelpe denne personen. Neste gang er det kanskje _jeg_ som blir syk. Angående sykefraværet, så setter jeg pris på å bo i et land hvor det er lov å være syk, og lov å vise svakhet uten å skulle bli uglesett. Det handler om verdighet. Selvsagt finnes det individer som utnytter systemet, men jeg synes ikke det er et argument som veier tungt nok. Dessuten er ikke trygdesatsene så høye i Norge at en velger dette OM en har mulighet til å jobbe. Du lever ikke i sus og dus på trygd! Min overbevisning er at alle mennesker har lyst til å bidra, bety noe og bli sett. De som av en eller annen grunn ikke klarer å bidra like mye som andre, skal vi verne om og gi den verdighet de fortjener.

    Det ble visst en lang og rotete kommentar….. 🙂

    • 18 November 2011 15:14

      I love your long comments, Bente! Thank you for joining in this discussion. I am going to translate (or paraphrase) some parts of what you wrote for my non-Norwegian readers and comment.

      You write that you would like to point out that it is a bit unclear to call Norway a socialist country — you are quite right about that. It is a social democracy. I try to make that distinction, but the writer of the article did not, and I must say that from an American perspective it is very easy to generalize Norway as socialist because it is so radically and fundamentally different from the U.S. system and way of thinking.

      In regards to homogeneity — you share my perspective that it is and it isn’t. Compared to the New York City, Norway is exceedingly homogeneous! But I am glad you mentioned the various immigrant groups in Norway — some of which have been here a long time (since the 60s). The seemingly “full” integration (whatever that may mean) of the Vietnamese, I think, shows that 1) these things do take time (as you say), 2) Norwegians are not actually “anti-immigrant” as a nation, and 3) points again to the distinction I was trying to make between people who really live and settle here and people who just want to work here for a year or two, or flee an oppressive govt. for a few years until things calm down back home. (Which is a group of people that does not plan to integrate itself into a Norwegian way of life.)

      You write, “One needs time to allow the integration to happen … There will be tough debates, and it’s clear that many Norwegians have negative attitudes towards immigration, but I think we as a nation will fall on the “right side” ” — and you say this because you have a lot of confidence in the political system here. ME TOO! 🙂

      And finally, you write about sick leave, etc. This is where I find myself – unemployed and grateful. When my husband needed neck surgery and got leave plus free medical care plus time to rest and for physical therapy, we were grateful. I think that is the safety of the system — that you contribute knowing 1) you are making society better by helping others and 2) that you may yourself sometime need the help. It is an insurance system that works for everyone. I like that Norwegian attitude very much. And you are right to say that the taxes do not making living hard for people — we have enough — nor does the welfare system pay so much that is is better to not work! I certainly look forward to a bigger paycheck! 🙂

      I like your closing sentence very because I think it is at the heart of social democracy in Norway, so I will translate it fully: “Those who for one reason or another are unable to contribute as much as others, we will protect and provide the dignity they deserve.”

      Thank you for sharing your perspective!
      Tusen hjertelig takk for ditt perspectiv!

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