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June 28, 2007 - Is the Grass Greener

So, is the grass really greener on the other side of the fence? Well, after spending two weeks in Norway in June, it would be easy to come away saying “Yes indeed, the grass is greener in Norway, where the citizens laughingly tell you that the government policy in Norway is to take care of its citizens “from the womb to the tomb.”

Thanks to North Sea oil, Norway currently enjoys the highest standard of living of any nation in the world; it is a very socialistic country and that provides benefits that we might envy. First of all, education is free, from kindergarten through the university. As a matter of fact, if you are a university student, in addition to getting your books and your tuition at no cost, you might even be paid living expenses to continue your post-graduate studies.

Then there is medical care and it is free; you pay nothing for doctor office visits or hospitalization. The same is true of care for senior citizens who are supported by the government in what appears to be comfortable housing. And, farmers in Norway are heavily subsidized by the government, not only to help them stay in farming, but as the Minister of Agriculture told me to “keep Norway green and keep the country looking beautiful” for all of its citizens to enjoy.

Yes, it does seem like an ideal way of life compared to the challenges we face. But the system in Norway is not without complaints from its citizens; the long wait of a year or more for major medical work such as hip or knee replacements, and complaints about the heavy tax burden. The average annual income tax for a Norwegian citizen is a little over 30% with the top rate at 47% with very few tax exemptions. In addition, they pay a 25% sales tax on nearly everything they purchase, and despite the fact that Norway is the second largest oil exporter in the world, they still pay nearly $2.00 a gallon more for gasoline than U.S. motorists.

And then, there is the North Sea oil taxed by the government to provide a “rainy day” fund to help the country if the price of oil drops or when the wells run dry. Currently, the fund stands at $350-billion and citizens are asking why some of that money can’t be used to lower the tax burden now. One Norwegian put it to me this way “ What if a ‘rainy day’ doesn’t happen before I die, I’ll not get any of the money.”

My conclusion is that the grass is green on both sides of the fence. There is no perfect system, but personally, I have a major problem with socialism. I still prefer our system where we have freedom of choice, but I have no problem with Norwegian citizens who like the idea of government care from the “womb to the tomb”. It’s worth noting however, that I talked to many young people in Norway who still see America as “the land of opportunity” and want to come here to live just as hundreds of thousands of their ancestors, including my grandparents, did in the 1800's and 1900's.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.