Saturday, November 30, 2002

The new polarized political landscape in Norway is taking form. Labor, the Socialist Left and the Center Party are talking about cooperation after the 2005 election, and the Progress Party is flirting with the Conservatives. That leaves the Christian People's Party alone with the miniscule Liberal party in the centre, torn between its right faction (which fear the anti-religious attitudes of the Socialists), and its left faction (which didn't at all like the budget agreement with the Progress Party).

The Socialist Left is firmly socialist and has never been in power. Labor is a moderate social democratic power party. The Progress Party has been a political outcast for its entire 30 year existence, and the Conservatives hold the political establishment's usual contempt for right-wing populism. Whatever happens, Norwegian politics will not lack excitement in the coming years.
Add a comment

Norway may become the first country in the world to introduce a total ban on smoking in bars, cafs and restaurants. (It has also been done in some states and cities in the US, Australia and Canada.) Health Minister Dagfinn Høybråten of the Christian People's Party expects a majority for the proposal in Stortinget, helped by Labor and/or the Socialist Left.

The Conservatives are likely not happy with a total smoking ban, but they seem to be either too weak or too unprincipled to stand up against their coalition partner. Only the Progress Party has come out clear against the idea, calling it a serious interference with business and personal freedom.

I don't smoke myself, but I think I would miss the thick stench of smoke in pubs. And I think it's everyone's right to choose their own cancer to die from. Seems to me that almost everything that's good and enjoyable is likely to be proven cancerous one day, (or otherwise life-threatening.) Instead of obsessing our way into puritanism, we should become selective hedonists. Pick a cancerous pleasure and indulge in it, and never mind the health fanatics. (Can you imagine anything more creepy than a nation ruled by doctors? Come to think of it, we were. Former prime minister and current WHO director-general and anti-tobacco campaigner Gro Harlem Brundtland is a doctor.)
BarCodeKing 2002-12-01 Out of curiosity, what percentage of the Norwegian population smokes? I know that it's still a popular vice in most parts of Europe, with rates much higher than in the U.S. My own view is that smo [more>>>]
Bjrn Strk 2002-12-01 30%, according to the BBC article. That's about 10 percentage points less than the EU average. I think the decision should be left to the owners, employees and customers of these places. To the e [more>>>]

Here's a gem for science fiction fans. J.M. Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, left a note on Usenet the other day:

So I was talking to Doug Netter this afternoon, who had in turn spoken with Bruce Boxleitner earlier in the day about the year 2 DVD. In the course of that conversation, Bruce mentioned something that Doug in turn mentioned to me.

To wit:

Bruce had been at the White House about a month ago, in the company of wife Melissa Gilbert, president of the Screen Actors Guild, for a discussion with some of the functionaries there concerning acting roles moving north of the Canadian border.

As they're talking, in a long conference room, in the middle of the meeting the door opens and Karl Rove -- main strategist for the Republican Party and power behind the White House throne -- comes in. He says (paraphrased from memory) to Melissa, "I hope you'll forgive me, but I actually here to see Bruce."

He then tells Bruce, "I just wanted to tell you that I'm a big science fiction fan, and that Babylon 5 is the best science fiction television series *ever*."

Then there's a pause, and he adds....

"And the President thinks so too."

Upon hearing this, I went to lie down for a spell, but I fully expect to be back on my feet by Spring, latest.

The joke, of course, is that the feelings are very much not reciprocal. JMS does not think highly of GWB, and is in fact a bit afraid of him.

Not that it matters. I respect JMS too much to descend to petty fisking of his political views. He ranks with Robert Heinlein as the science fiction writer who has affected me most - (and they continue to, every time I revisit their works.) The fact that fans of JMS are found all over the political spectrum speaks to his credit. And if it's true that G.W. Bush is a fan of B5, that speaks very much to his credit.

I'm on my third viewing of B5 myself, now that the season 1 DVD's are out. I strongly recommend them. The first isn't the most memorable season, but everything else builds on it. The series spans five seasons and is built like a novel, so there are no reset buttons and no catching up for latecomers on who's who and what's what in season 4.

The best way I can describe the overall story arc of B5 is as if the major events of the 20th century has been broken up and reassembled into something vaguely familiar, but distinctly different. It works because Straczynski is a gifted storyteller, and because he had a lot of talented people to help him pull it through. Almost everything - story, visuals, music - was right, from start to finish. It's amazing that it worked at all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Norwegian expat Ole Johnsen reports from Denmark, one of the European countries which scored best on the Economic Freedom Index, and isn't at all pleased with its recent political developments.

As we all know Denmark got a new government after the election of parliament in 2001, a government which is dominated by the Liberal Party, includes the Conservative People's Party, and is supported by the Danish People's Party. The Danish Liberal Party should not be confused with the Norwegian party with the same name. The Norwegian Liberal Party is still a classically liberal party, while the Danish has thrown all that's left of its liberalism overboard, and dedicated itself wholeheartedly to right-populism. .. All qualified watchdogs are in danger. Several houndred [103 -bs] committees and agencies have been proposed disbanded, and even the Center for Human Rights and the Science Center of Gender Equality are on the death list. The Minister of Finance says they are doing this to save money for tax cuts, but the Minister of Religion is more blunt. We will begin listening to the people's voice, not the experts, is the refrain. The people, of course, is those who vote for the right, and there haven't been any proposals the other parties can join. With few exceptions, all cooporation is towards the right, to the Danish People's Party. Important decisions are to be placed in the hands of amateurs, unaided by experts, and consensus democracy is to be replaced by the dictatorship of the many.

Wow! I'm stunned. What a great, bold, progressive idea - disbanding over a houndred committees, just like that. How often do you see a government, a social democracy, decrease its power and influence voluntarily? I will immediately adopt this idea, and make up a list of redundant committees and agencies in Norway as I come across them. I hadn't even thought it possible, and there it is, happening right next door in a country with a social democratic tradition as strong as ours. There is hope!

Johnsens contempt for people-rule is petty, but I'm actually glad to read that too, because the belief that people are helpless without the guidance of government experts is common, but rarely stated as bluntly as here.

Johnsen is gay, and tells the tale of how he was once actually chased away from the Central Station in Copenhagen by an Arab immigrant, because he kissed another man in public. Despite this and similar stories, he belittles the cultural conflict between natives and Muslim immigrants, and compares the beating he almost got to what he claims was the practice of "old ladies in Bergen [in Western Norway] of beating gay couples over the head with umbrellas" in the 80's. As for attempts to do anything about immigrant crime:

The response of the Minister of Integration has been as simple as it is shocking: Earlier, harder punishment for crime, and cuts in social security. There are trustworthy experts who believe that youth crime can be reduced by replacing warnings with punishment, and it no doubt works against integration when new-Danish youth goes on social security instead of working for their food. But we also know how prisons works as crime schools, and alternative methods of punishment are hard to find. And it's not automatically so that those who can't get social security, gets a job instead. Employers don't stand in line to hire young Mohammed and Hassan, even though business organizations are positive, and the young fighters may very well find out that their violent skills are useful for robbing people in the street. There must be other solutions. I understand well why the young new-Danes rejects the norms of a society which to such an extent rejects them. Most people with knowledge of the subject would rather go for positive than negative means, not least of which is to further stimulate education and the work situation to improve their chances of receiving something positive from society, so that they may want to give something positive back.

My emphasis. It's fascinating how, after himself actually being harassed in liberal Denmark for being gay, Johnsen manages to understand why immigrants reject the norms of Danish society, and turn to crime.

As for how to fight crime, I'm still mostly in observer mode on that subject. I'm fairly certain, though, that a vital part of crime-fighting is to give citizens and criminals confidence in the eagerness of the police to investigate and prosecute crime. If not, there are too few cops - or too many laws. (There are some signs of this happening here in Oslo, small crime going largely unpunished, but I'm not sure how large the problem is.) I'm also fairly certain that a legal system that tries too hard to understand the people who violate it has misunderstood its purpose.

Back to the article. We'll soon get to the real reason why Johnsen doesn't like Denmark, but first a very strange example of a Danish multiculturalism debate:

A committee created by the government has recently presented a proposal to adapt military service to as many ethnic and religious groups as possible. The Danish People's Party and many others are furious. Will we see soldiers with turbans and calottes in parades? It would be pure chaos, we are told, if everyone don't wear the same uniform. Simple proposals that will allow soldiers to celebrate religious holidays and food restrictions have made many people angry. Those who place religion above Denmark, can't be loyal soldiers.

What an odd debate. I think Danes should be allowed to eat religiously correct food in the military, if it can be practically done. They are, after all, forced to spend a year in the service. As for religiously correct uniforms - there actually has been a proposal on that - I can't see that it's necessary, or that it'll do any good. In any case, this proposal gives an important insight into the aspect of the Danish People's Party I'm least comfortable with: Their religious and cultural protectionism. Read their press statement on religiously correct uniforms:

One wonders if the Defense Command realizes that Danish defense more than anything else should be a 100% example for Danishness. Of course the armed forces must represent the composition of the people, but this should not lead to falling on ones knees for other religions. .. The military does not only defend Denmark. Within the NATO alliance it should also contribute to a defense of Western interests in general. It is an indisputable fact that these interests build on the Christian religion and the Christian view of life. If immigrants in the military won't unconditionally accept this, one must justly doubt their willingness to defend the country in war.

This line of thinking is alien to me. Christianity is part of Western Civilization, but it's not all of it, or even the center of it. History would have looked much better if fewer people had gone to war for Christianity, and more for democracy. In any case, this is as far as I can tell the most basic difference between Danish and Norwegian right-populism: The Danish People's Party is Christian. The Progress Party is secular.

More evil right-populism: Tax cuts! Privatization! The horror.

The government has decided, as the Left Party and the Conservative People's Party promised before the election, to freeze the tax level this year, and reduce it next year. Why taxes should be reduced, I have never heard them explain. It's correct that the level of taxation in Denmark is high, but so is the level of public services. .. The result of a reduction of taxes can hardly be anything but larger differences between rich and poor. But down it must go, and government institutions have had to get rid of many employees. This might have been sensible if there had been dead meat in the government, but the truth is that public servicemen are decent people who work as efficiently as they can .. Neither have I heard any arguments for why public services, non the least in the health sector, should be provided for by private companies, utlicitering as it is called here. As we all know, we haven't had very good experiences with this in Norway and Sweden.

It's obvious that Johnsen doesn't like tax cuts and privatization, but to not even be able to understand why anyone would want to support it, now that is just ignorant. I have strong opinions about this myself, but I understand why others might disagree with me. How else can I be sure that I'm right? Perhaps Johnsen's Danish isn't very good, or he missed the usual lectures politicians give about growth and efficiency. Perhaps he dropped out of Evil Rightism 101 in university. (Oh wait, they cancelled that.) It certainly makes him unqualified to write about Danish politics, and he may be unqualified for other things as well, which brings us to what I mentioned above is the real grudge Johnsen holds against Denmark: He couldn't find a cushy academic job, and had to do manual labor. Remember not to laugh as you read this harrowing account of a young Norwegian academic's meeting with harsh reality:

Work that fits your education isn't easy to get. When I begun as a mailman in Charlottenlund, I felt very much like those Russian engineers who clean floors in Norway. I have a suspicion that potential employers didn't even bother to read my CV, because it would require some effort to understand what Norwegian academic titles mean, even though they're in Latin, which they must have learned in University. The mail job was in no way appropriate for me. It is physically hard, and poorly accustomed, and I got serious back pains. .. I must also admit it was a psychological burden to be treated with so little respect, by the leadership and customers, placed as I was at the bottom of a hierarchy, which I'd never tried before. This may have more to do with social background than where in the world you end up, but as a foreigner one doesn't always get the job one wants, and one discovers class differences one weren't aware of. It was educational in many ways, but I ended up with an extended sick leave, and instead of adapting my work so I could get back, the post chief decided to let me go. It is much easier to fire people here than in Norway and Sweden, and unions are weak.

When I got better, I got a job with one of those new companies which offer bicycle taxis in Copenhagen, and this was an occupation where at least I could benefit from language skills and education, because most of the passengers were tourists, and some qualified guiding might result in a nice amount of tips. Unfortunately this only lasted a couple of days, because taxi drivers are no better at waiting for green light here than in Norway, and one of them ran into me when I was on my way to the city for a beer with some friends. Two fractures in the knee cap means a long pause from cycling, but while unions aren't very good at making demands of their employers, they have good insurance arrangements, so at some point in the future I will receive some money, and I will probably receive legal help if the taxiowner's insurance company decides to be stubborn. Meanwhile I will have to continue competing with 400 other applicants, whereof a sizable number of laid off bureaucrats, for every academic job that becomes available.

It is bad of me to laugh, but there is something comical about having these experiences as an unlucky immigrant included in a political article called "something rotten in the state of Denmark". [*] Despite having an education that is in very low demand, despite being physically and psychologically unfit to even deliver mail, and despite receiving a serious injury, Johnsen has apparently lived well on welfare benefits. He has by his own words only done a short period of actual work during his stay in Denmark, and yet he has only had a moderately tough time by any immigrant standard. What more could the Danish nation have possibly done for him?

Despite the way the writer confuses personal experience for insight, the article isn't all useless. In fact I found it interesting, because it indicates that more is happening in Denmark than I was aware of. Leaving aside the cultural protectionism and mild xenophobia of the Danish populists, perhaps the path Denmark has taken is one Norway can follow. The bureaucracy downsizing plan indicates that even the mainstream parties there have caught on to some bright ideas.

([*] This is clearly a well-educated man.)

Sunday, November 24, 2002

My favourite investigative reporter has been publicly humiliated. Gerhard Helskog has a deserved reputation for hard-hitting documentaries. He may be politically on the right, or at least he's one of few reporters I know of who are likely to attack bureaucracy and nanny-stateism on a regular basis, but perhaps anti-authoritarian is a better label. He has a gift for perceiving power abuse and political correctness, a pin's taste for balloons. This week he suggested that Norwegian athletes used doping during the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994. Winter-sport is as large as soccer here in Norway, and we take great pride in our clean doping record. If true, this would have been a scandal, and for a day or so it were. It wasn't true. Helskog had failed to make the phone-call that would have debunked the story.

I watched Helskog defend himself on TV on Thursday, the day after the documentary. There was a debate with that person he should have talked to, and I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when Helskog began to suspect that he had made a terrible mistake, that he had based the entire theory on a faulty interpretation of data. He didn't admit it then, but there was a pause, a flash in Helskog's eyes. I recognized it because I've been there myself. The way my mind works when I get caught in an embarassing factual error during a heated argument is that I make up some counterarguments on the fly, (often being only half conscious of it). Then I calm down, think it over, and change my mind afterwards. On Friday, Helskog withdrew his accusations, and apologized to the Norwegian people. I respect that. He deserves a dent in his reputation, but he handled his mistake well. I look forward to more sensational accusations from my favourite investigative reporter.

Scott Ritter has been in Norway to launch his new book, War on Iraq. The local media are suckered in, and allows him to present himself as a tough-minded Republican with the moral authority of the UN, and the rare integrity to stand up against the warmongers in the White House.

Scott Ritter comes off to me like one of those Usenet cranks who don't follow the normal rules of logic. When he's caught in an inconsistency or failure to draw the logical consequences of what he says, he has taught himself to ignore it. Ritter has found a greater cause than truth: peace, and his arguments are only consistent as far as they support the cause. He also seems to be adjusting his message to maximize its effect on the intended audience. I can't find any evidence that Ritter has ever accused the Bush government of being fascist, and using Nazi propaganda methods, in the American media. It wouldn't work there. He seems to think it will work here in Norway, though:

- Most Americans are completely confused and misinformed, says [Ritter] who characterizes the Bush government as fascistic at home, and imperialistic abroad. - Bush now has absolute power with a majority in the Congress. The war on terror has resulted in Bush wanting to defy the UN and go to war on Iraq. At the same time he wants to surveil his own people with a whole department. .. [The Bush government] have engaged themselves both ideologically, intellectually and politically to remove Saddam Hussein. All of them had passed their expiration date, but now they control American politics. And this minority gathers followers through fear and ignorance. The Nazi Party in Germany did the same thing, says Ritter.

I don't think this has the effect he intends. My impression is that most Norwegians who are against this war are so because they believe in diplomacy, in multilateralism and the UN, and because they see Bush as an ignorant cowboy. I know people who believe that the Bush government has fascist tendencies, but they're few. Even fewer would buy the nazi comparison. Ritter's just making a fool of himself. Only Dagbladet reported this comment, though. The other media quotes him as being more in line with Norwegian opinion. (Another exception: To Aftenposten he says there's a 40% propability that nuclear bombs will be used against Iraq by March. As propabilities go, 40% is a neat one. It's as near as you can get 50% without revealing that you're guessing.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Carl I. Hagen will turn Norway into America, warns Stein Aabø in Dagbladet. His fears are grounded partly in political similarities, but apparently also in a belief that Hagen is an evil right-wing politician, and the US is an evil right-wing nation, therefore Hagen will turn us into Americans.

It may look like Carl I. Hagen's great political project is to Americanize Norway. If he is given power in Norwegian politics, the economic, political and cultural distance between Norway and the US will soon be reduced. Carl I. Hagen is helped by the process of globalization, which makes the Atlantic ever narrower. I don't think Carl I. Hagen walks around with a secret dream to be an American. .. But Hagen's politics appeals to the Norwegian-American in us, and will, if he gets his will, make us more American, for better and worse.

A minor point: Isn't it curious how whenever anyone builds their argument like this, "we have become so-and-so", or "so-and-so appeals to us because", the argument wouldn't work if we substituted "us" with "me", and "we" with "I"? "Trash TV appeals to me because I'm a voyeur." "I have become a consumer zombie." That's the unspoken part that gives the argument its power. "I know what I'm talking about because I too sometimes feel this way". But it only works when it is hidden behind a plural, because the writer is actually trying to set himself apart from the people he criticizes. I've done this too, I'm sure of it. Uh, I mean, "plural self-criticism appeals to the elitist in us". Back to the article:

Both Republicans and Democrats would nod with recognition at the Progress Party's declaration of principles, and their alternative national budget proposal. They would also recognize aspects of the Progress Party's previous election campaigns. Carl I. Hagen was the first politician to run an American election campaign in Norway. He was the first real TV politician, who communicated with the masses, and who long did without a well functioning party apparatus.

I haven't followed all that many American elections, but this isn't my impression at all. The Progress Party appeals to the masses and uses TV, but what is so American about a politician who wants to reach voters through a powerful medium? I see similarities, but the mood in an American election strikes me as very different from the mood in a Norwegian election. This has largely to do with differences in political systems, and in size. Look away from that, and we're left with the fact that Hagen is popular because people like what he says on TV. That isn't particularly American. It's just modern - and democratic.

What would happen if Hagen were given power in Norway? Farmers, NGO's and people in the state bureaucracy would be worse off. This is obvious from the Progress Party's alternative national budget, in which the party proposes drastic cuts in agricultural subsidies, in foreign aid, and in money transfers to the local governments.

Hm, I kind of like the sound of that.

The wealthy, able-bodied, urban part of the population, call it the middle-class if you like, will get lower taxes, cheaper wine and tobacco, cheaper imported food, cheaper cars and apartments, and a larger selection of private services, in addition to basic public services.

Is there a "but" here somewhere?

The young would have to work harder for lower salaries. Hagen wants salaries to be settled locally, and wants to reduce the power of the major unions, and thereby also the minimum salary tariff rates. [Correct term?] He will liberalize labor laws and allow more overtime. Immigrants will face a higher fence upon arrival. They will have to earn their welfare rights, and be able to support their family members if they want to be reunited with them. The ill would still get sick pay, but much less than if they were working. Lovers of the theater and opera would pay much more for tickets to high-brow performances, so much more that they might not even be offered one, but would on the other hand pay much less for popular performances. Car drivers would benefit, more roads would be built, while the public transportation system would be reduced. The retired would receive their minimum pension from the government, and anything extra would have to be saved through collective or individual arrangements.

I think he is near the mark here. This is as fair a description of Progress Party politics as can be done from the other side of the spectrum. Readers will have to decide if the description fits the United States, though. I'm not so concerned with that. The "Hagen will turn us into Americans" angle is a distraction, whether you think it's good or bad to be an American. As a pejorative, "American" is used too broadly to be of any use as a political label. It stands for every dark side of capitalism, every crass cultural phenomenon, every dangerous social trend we see coming, but can't prevent.

But "American" is just as useless as a standard of perfection. Anyone who wants to turn Norway into the US is being nostalgic, not for another time, but for another place. If Norway sets about to copy the United States, we will fail, or we will fail by succeeding. All I want to copy are the guiding principles: liberty, pursuit of happiness, that sort of thing. (Think of the zen allegory. The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.) We should be more interested in what particular steps Norway can take to move from here to economic freedom, (from here to prosperity, if you like), than in how we can become more American. That may follow partly from the first, but it's still a distraction. We are not America, and never will be, in the full political and cultural sense. (In the narrower artistic sense we are in very close orbit of American culture, of course.)

Most of us have an ambivalent relationship with the American system. As is well known, we loved America, Kennedy's America, but despised Nixon's. We had a good time there as tourists, fascinated by a different political system, where so much was allowed, but surprisingly much was also forbidden. And we were usually grateful that back home we still had free schools, health and social services. In Norway, thank God, there were no poor people. Now poverty is visible in every Norwegian city. Some things we have imported already.

The "we loved America" bit is a reference to a Norwegian writer, Jens Bjørneboe, who wrote a locally well-known book called We Who Loved America in 1970. I'm not sure if I've written about this before, but there's a curious idea going around in the Norwegian media, possibly inspired by this book, (which I haven't read), that Norway used to have a crush on America - until we grew up, sometime during the Vietnam war. All cultural and political conflicts between Norway and the US can therefore be seen in the context of this. At most this is true for the Vietnam and the post-hippie generations who make up our media establishment.

As for poverty, I don't trust anyone who says there are no poor people where he comes from, (especially if where he comes from is the past), and I would be very surprised to learn that what little poverty we have in some of the larger cities is a recent phenomenon, or that it is caused by "Americanization".

All in all I am intrigued by all the good things Aabø promises me we have in store if we place Hagen in power. Perhaps there were buzzwords in this article that didn't trigger their intended effect of revulsion, because this strikes me as one of the warmest recommendations for Progress Party politics I've ever read in a Norwegian newspaper.
moi 2002-11-25 I feel you're doing Bjrneboe an injustice here. "We who loved America" was written in 1966 (it later gave name to a collection of essays published in 1970). Like Hamsun, Bjrneboe's love/hate relatio [more>>>]

Thursday, November 14, 2002

I'm sorry if my blogging has been light recently. I haven't prioritized it. The world is trotting along in familiar patterns, and I don't like to say anything more than once, (unless I can say it better, of course).

Alan Henderson points me to the 2003 Index of Economic Freedom, and wonders why Sweden is ranked 11, and Norway 27. He believes that this may surprise some American conservatives.

I can't speak for American conservatives, but the first thing I would do is to ignore the rankings. They're meaningless. Economic freedom isn't a contest. If you look at the actual overall score, Sweden has 1.90 and Norway 2.30, with Hong Kong at the top with 1.45 and North Korea at the bottom with 5.0. Following Hong Kong are Singapore (1.50), Luxembourg (1.70), New Zealand (1.70), Ireland (1.75), Denmark / Estonia / USA (1.80), and Australia / UK (1.85).

I'm not sure what an index that places Denmark, Estonia and the US at the same level of economic freedom actually measures. I know what the individual variables mean, but what does the score itself say? From what point of view might these three countries look the same to an investor? Whatever it is the score measures, it's probably meaningful within its parameters, but too limited to give a complete picture of the economic and political situation in the country. That is the weakness of any method of measurement that tries to reduce 160 economies to one dimension, of course.

I'm not surprised that so many European countries, including Scandinavian ones, get reasonably good scores, though. The idea that Western Europe is socialist is nonsense. At worst it's social democratic, and that's not just less of the same thing. A socialist seeks to abolish the market, a social democrat to tame and control it. That is a significant distinction, and I don't find it strange at all that some social democratic countries rank high on this scale in almost every area except taxation. High taxation and a near monopoly on welfare are the defining attributes of social democracy, (intervention in other areas is optional), and on this scale taxation is outweighed by other factors.

If you want to understand Scandinavian economic conditions, you should read the fourth chapter of the report, which looks at Scandinavia's changing political and economic landscape. About Denmark, (a country I haven't written nearly enough about):

The coalition government that was elected in November 2001 is led not by the Social Democrat Party, but by the Liberal Party under Fogh Rasmussen, who had published a forward-thinking book titled From Welfare Society to Minimalist Society, which The Economist has praised as a "free-market manifesto." The Social Democrat Party had implemented the reforms that have carried Denmark to where it is today; far from suffering from "reform fatigue," however, the electorate voted for more reform.

And Norway:

In Norway, a new "co-operation" government elected in October 2001 under Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, a Christian Democrat, is expected to "rethink" the role of the state in the economy and, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, has already demonstrated "an even more open-minded attitude towards privatization and competition" than its predecessor.

That may have been his spoken intentions, but the Christian People's Party (aka the Christian Democrats, depending on who's translating) is a strongly social democratic party. It has the political sense to steer dead centre between its rivals, which is why Bondevik has managed to head both a centre-left and a centre-right coalition in recent years, but it is the ultimate do-everything party, mixing nanny-stateism with religion. The Conservative Party is positive to privatization and a free market, that is true, and that is why I voted for them, but as I've explained before I have been very disappointed with their ability or willingness to point the coalition rightwards, despite being the larger party. I've come to realize that the Conservatives are first and foremost a centre-right establishment party, and that what Norway needs - at least for a time - is the more radical, right-wing populist wildcard, the Progress Party.

Alan wonders what I think the Norwegian political trend is. Are we moving in the right or the wrong direction? I'm actually positive for the political future of Norway. At first I didn't notice what was happening, but now that I do I see signs of it everywhere. There is something happening in Norway. I don't think it is the end of social democracy, but perhaps the emergence of a new kind of thinking, one that doesn't place equality over wealth, one that values individual freedom highly and distrusts government interference. One that is slowly becoming aware that it has been hoodwinked all these many years. As Siv Jensen from the Progress Party put it about alcohol taxes on yesterday's Holmgang, (the sensationalist and popular debate program on TV2): Why do we need this extra protection from ourselves? What makes us so different from everyone else? These are near-revolutionary thoughts, and they are popular. I half expect the politically inexperienced Progress Party to do many stupid things in office, (although this might be remedied by a coalition with the Conservatives - this will in any case not happen until 2005), and I fully expect to still be writing angry rants about stupid politicians from my (private!) retirement home when I'm 80. But who won't? I'm positive for our future - or at least I recognize our potential, and cheer eagerly for its realization.

Back to the article.

Only Sweden continues to lag behind this trend toward new thinking. Its Social Democratic Party, which has held power since the 1930s except from 1976 - 1982, and 1991 - 1994,6, has enacted some reforms; yet it clearly plans to maintain the sizeable welfare state that strains the economy and keeps taxes high.

The difference between Sweden's and Norway's economic freedom scores doesn't tell me much, but I agree with the above description. Sweden will be the last bastion of Scandinavian-style social democracy. I don't know if the absense of Swedish right-wing populism is a symptom or a cause of this, but social democratic orthodoxy seems to hold a much stronger grip on the Swedish public sphere than it does in Norway or Denmark. (But, that said, I don't claim to fully understand either Sweden or Denmark, so I may not be picking up what is happening beneath the media surface. The Scandinavian countries may look the same to outsiders, but there are significant cultural differences.)

About fiscal burdens:

One of the most serious problems these countries face is reducing the excessive tax rates that fund their governments. Iceland's "moderate" level of expenditures this year is the lowest in the region. The other countries have either "high" or "very high" levels of government expenditure. In 2001, government spending in Sweden was over half of GDP (52.5 percent), followed by Denmark (50.8 percent), Finland (44.6 percent), Norway (41.8 percent), and Iceland (39.7 percent).

High marginal tax rates on income discourage productivity. Workers should be rewarded for their efforts, not burdened with high tax rates to fund the welfare programs these countries maintain. Though many of these countries have begun to rein in welfare expenditures, much more could be done. It is still far too easy to collect unemployment and to do so for long periods of time, for example. In Denmark, immigrants can still receive benefits almost immediately after entering the country. And in Finland, people who lose their jobs can still receive the equivalent of up to full salary for over a year. Such generous benefits both strain the economy and leave individuals with little incentive to work.

Yes, and these are the main areas we have to work on, taxation and welfare benefits. We already have the stability, the institutions and the skills. A level of taxation that encourages growth and investment is all we need.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

It's buried at the end of the article, as if it were old news, but it's certainly fresh news to me that Benjamin Netanyahu hopes for Israel to join the EU. It's news to me that anyone had even considered it.

And right there to support the idea is something called the Transnational Radical Party, which is weird enough in itself, (or maybe it's just the bad HTML).

Saturday, November 09, 2002

Here's an update on the Norwegian national budget talks. The center-right government coalition didn't reach an agreement with the Progress Party, and have turned to Labor. I don't see how that could possibly work, and when it fails, they'll either have to go back to the Progress Party and accept their terms, or try to push the current proposal through Stortinget anyway, with what we call a cabinet question, ie. an ultimatum - accept this or we step down. (What is the english term? [*]) That's very risky, and at least the Progress Party have made it clear that they won't accept an ultimatum. But there's also no real alternative to a Conservative/Christian People's Party/Liberal coalition. I suppose Labor would be next in line, and could govern with the help of the Socalist Left, the Centre (ie Agrarian) Party and the Christian People's Party (which is the most left-leaning in the coalition), but I'm not sure Labor would want to. Their support is at a record low, and I think they're more interested in trying to build themselves up for the 2005 election than in taking the risk of being held responsible for the chaos of a very diverse and unstable government.

Btw, it's been interesting to watch Labor lately. I think some of them now realize that they have lost their soul, (or perhaps they have realized it for years but have only recently been told that the people knows about it), and need to invent or pretend to have one again. Labor is a party for power seekers, bureaucrats, and other supporters of status quo. Only now, at less than 20% in polls, are they beginning to affect a spirit of rebellion or opposition, something they haven't had since before the war. They're not very good at it. "We need to be the party that's angry", says newly elected leader of the Labor Youth Party, Gry Larsen, (a superficial but ambitious woman who gets a dangerous gleam in her eyes in the presence of power), and sounds like a CEO reaching for a new market segment. Almost the whole current generation of Labor leadership are the products of a party culture that attracts power hungry youngsters, churns them through Machiavelli camp, and spits out a selected few expert intrigue-makers with egos to match their ambitions. Labor is currently too small for so many large egos, and so they've all turned on each other. There's been all kinds of infighting and backstabbing recently, and much of it in front of the camera. Who cares about the party? Very Important People's careers are at stake!

I almost feel sorry for Torbjrn Jagland, who's stepping down as leader of Labor these days, (one of the leaders, anyway - Jens Stoltenberg is the other). He doesn't have the stomach - or perhaps the cold intelligence - for petty infighting, and is the kind of dreamer who with better political skills could give Labor a soul again. He's also the best representative of everything that's bad about European foreign policy. His farewell speech to this week's Labor convention is worth a fisking of its own. Jagland now threatens to dedicate himself to international matters, so keep a watch out for him in the UN, or as a freelance peace negotiator.

([*] Update: Reader J.M. Heinrichs informs me that what I'm thinking of is called a vote of confidence.)

Well, this is chilling: Interpol warns that al-Qaeda is planning several major simultaneous terrorist attacks in the near future, aimed not only at the US, and American intelligence have warned several ferry companies that, according to an anonymous tip, a bomb will go off today on a European ferry. I only have a Norwegian link for that last story.

The Norwegian ferry companies are quick to point out that the general risk of a terror attack is much greater in the British canal than on their own lines. I don't know why they claim to know that - it's true that Britain is a major ally in the war on terror, but Norwegian ferries go to Britain too - in any case I think it reveals something interesting about how we think of terrorism. Norway just barely avoided casualties on Bali, and I don't think there were many (if any) in the WTC. So far we have not been hit, so the natural reaction to general warnings like these is to assume that it won't happen to us, and we'll feel that way right up to the day it does happen to us, (and it probably will).

Only one in five Norwegians fear a terrorist attack on Norwegian soil, for instance, one in ten men and four in ten women, (and dogmatic-socdem Dagsavisen sees these as surprisingly high numbers).

Thursday, November 07, 2002

I'm pretty much convinced that for Norway to join the EU would be a major mistake, but I've often thought that it might still be a good idea for Eastern Europe. Former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, disagrees, and pinpoints the many traps of the EU:

Ten years ago, the dominant slogan was: deregulate, liberalize, privatise. Now the slogan is different: regulate, adjust to all kinds of standards of the most developed and richest countries (regardless your stage of development), listen to the partial interests of the NGO's and follow them, get rid of your sovereignty and put it into the hands of international institutions and organizations, etc. ..

As I see it, Europe is undergoing irrevocable changes while the uninvolved or uninterested majority of Europeans does not care or does not pay sufficient attention. Intergovernmental cooperation of independent countries aiming at removing barriers for the movement of people, goods, money and ideas has been slowly but surely converted into the formation of a supranational European state aiming at centralization of power in Brussels, at elimination of European nation states and at socializing Europe. With the benign neglect of majority of Europeans, minority of pro-European activists and of EU bureaucracy has a decisive voice.

I think we're speaking the same language here. My largest hope for the future of Norway is that we can manage to stay out of the EU for one more decade - ie for the no side to win one more referendum, because I think there'll be one before the decade is out - and that as time passes, it will become more apparent what the EU really is. If I'm right, that the EU is a decent idea done horribly wrong, then this will become more obvious over time, and if I'm wrong, I'm sure we'll find a way to join, 15 or 30 years from now. There's no rush, and the risk is high.

I'm not sure how much feelings should be trusted on a matter of national sovereignity, but when I project what I see in Norway today into the future, I feel hope. When I project it into a future inside of the EU, I feel apathy and distaste. These people are not my people.
Fredrik 2002-11-08 The trouble, I'm afraid, is that the biggest Norwegian opposition to the EU back in '94 was based on the fact that the slogan of the EU then _was_ "deregulate, liberalize, privatise". That didn't appe [more>>>]
Bjrn Strk 2002-11-08 Fredrik: The EU isn't a socialist superstate, it's a social democratic superstate, and we owe a lot to the _real left_ for keeping us out in '94. For Norway to join the EU would be a relative move to [more>>>]
Alan K. Henderson 2002-11-10 Frankly, I'd like to see a reinvigorated Eastern Bloc, this time based on free markets and political decentralization, to counter the EU. We got rid of one form of collectivism (in that part of the wo [more>>>]

The government is in a minor scandal. One way to be granted asylum in Norway is to claim that you're being persecuted for your religion. This is most commonly done by Iranians - 10% of Iranian asylum seekers who arrived in 2001 claimed to be persecuted Christians, and it worked in 78% of the cases. No doubt many of these are bogus, but that's not the issue here - power abuse is the issue.

Some Pakistanis try this too, and in the case in question a Pakistani man arrived with his family on a tourist visa in 1998, was baptized - again with his family - in a church two weeks later, and applied for asylum on grounds of his religion the very next day. The Directorate of Immigration looked into the matter, found that he had been a practicing Muslim all his life, and that he had lied on several major accounts in his story. Asylum denied, case closed.

Or it would be, if he hadn't had a brother with powerful friends. His brother arrived in Norway in 1977, immediately converted to Christianity, was granted asylum on religious grounds, and has become a minor politician in the Christian People's Party. After the denial he sent a few letters, got several leading members of the party to pull some strings on his brothers behalf, (party leader Bondevik was prime minister at the time), and the decision was overturned - against all recommendations - by the Minister of Justice, Odd Einar Dørum of the Liberal Party in March 2000.

There is no evidence yet of an actual connection between the strings being pulled here and the puppets moving, but it's well documented that the strings were pulled, and that the puppets moved. All the politicians involved at the time are in full damage control mode, and have curiously all of them lost all memory of these documented events. I won't be surprised if Dørum, who is Minister of Justice again, has to go, and this won't improve anyone's (already low) opinion of the government, or faith in our immigration policies.

It belongs to the story that this Pakistani politician over the last 20 years have helped 12 relatives to enter Norway, 10 of them through conversion to Christianity. It worked for himself, so why change a winning strategy?

(Btw, in an unrelated interesting development, asylum lawyer Terje Tune, who was caught on camera by TV2, helping an asylum seeker to manufacture a story about torture and oppression, has now sued the Directorate of Immigration for defamation, after the police dropped the Directorate's charges against him. The police, in turn, is investigating TV2 for provoking the incident for a hidden camera. I watched that clip, and this guy is a real scumbag. Perhaps not a prosecutable kind of scumbag, but a scumbag nevertheless.)

Friday, November 01, 2002

The Guardian worries that the Progress Party, (currently at 33% in polls), will make Norway a "beacon of hope for far-right politicians" all over Europe. It's a decent article about what they call a "disturbing political metamorphosis", and I call a democratic reality check for our governing class. It doesn't say much I haven't said already, though, except from a very different angle.

There was a very fascinating number in Dagbladet the other day. Numbers can be dull, unimportant, or meaningless without interpretation, but once in a while one comes along that says more than a thousand op-ed's or ten thousand lunch conversations: In a recent poll conducted among 1500 Norwegian leaders in politics, bureaucracy, art, religion, business, police, courts, NGO's, military and the media, 1% voted Progress Party in 1997. Much has happened in five years - support of the Progress Party has doubled, for one thing - but this number is the clearest indication I've seen of the division between elite and commoner in Norway, a division I and many have felt, but never actually seen evidence of. Well, there it is, right in that number. Now let's do something about it.

(Update: Vegard Valberg mists the same Guardian article, using some characters I don't remember from MST3K.)

Front page
2001: September | October | November | December
2002: January | February | March | April | May | June | August | September | October | November | December
2003: January