Saturday, September 18, 2010

American Family Values: missing in action

In the US, the term "family values" is a code for anti-gay, anti-women conservative politics. Europeans, on the other hand, take the term at face value. And what's apparent, talking to them, is that as far as family values go, as a society pretty much We Ain't Got Any.

I spent a few days with an old friend, B., and her family in Oslo, Norway. She and her husband are both technical professionals a few years younger than I am. They live in a pleasant neighborhood of the city, which to me was unusual for the number of children's voices I heard, compared to my similar neighborhood back in the US. Like many working parents in the US, B. and her husband trade off who takes and who collects their two children to and from school, and coordinate with other parents for delivery to after school activities.

What's notable however is the difference in the workplace expectations. They aren't racing frazzled back to work, or panicking that they are late in the morning, despite the relatively short hours of elementary school education. B can take the time to walk or cycle to and from work, rather than have to drive.

B's lab is pretty quiet in the afternoon. In contrast to American PhD students and postdocs, who are majority childless, the Norwegians are able to have families at that age, and aren't expected to work to all hours. So many of them leave early to collect their children. Generous, guaranteed maternity leave of a year, shared between the mother and father, means they aren't trying to find expensive day care for an infant. And of course, a national health care system makes sure that there is good pre-natal, maternity and child health care.

Oh, they are still getting plenty done, but they aren't killing themselves while doing it. Their society actually believes there is some value in raising a child, not just in making a buck--or a kroner, as the case may be.

Notably, there is also a less stressed out, over-scheduled childhood. Parents are attentive, of course, but kids are able to walk to neighborhood schools from a fairly young age. Judging by B's neighborhood, the kids all played outside till around 5 or so, then went in for an early dinner with the family--I'm not seeing this as a fast-food nation. The Norwegians are also fanatically fitness oriented; they look forward to the winter snow and ski season, and you don't see obese Norwegians either adult or child.

Yup, those are some dangerous family values all right! Healthy kids, lots of family time, social policies that encourage child-bearing.... all that and gender-neutral marriage equality as well.

Oh, of course they pay high taxes for this--much higher than the US would tolerate. But at another level, they are putting their money where their mouth is. And they have weathered the recession far better than we have, especially with regards to jobs. Meanwhile, I read that in the US, people are working even longer hours, and are afraid to take even earned vacation time, for fear of job security, or of the amount of work that will await them upon their return given that employers are demanding more and more of their employees. B. was horrified when I told her about maternity leave and child care in the US.

"Family values" advocates in the US rail on abortion and gay marriage, yet seem completely unperturbed by the absence of decent maternity leave or child care, or the numbers of children living in poverty or with hunger, the disaster that is our educational system, and the increasing incompatibility of family time and jobs. But really, they've shown they don't give a damn about children--or families.

Picture from here


Karen said...

I would happily pay higher taxes for what they have. People who have not traveled need to hear that we loose on the quality of life scale.

JCF said...

In the US, a leading Presidential contender * doesn't give a damn about family members who have a pre-existing medical condition! (They're merely a "burned down house" or "totalled car"). Un-freaking-believable.

* GOP, of course. Mike Huckabee.

dr.primrose said...

I love Norway - it's one of the most incredible countries I've ever been to.

That being said, Norway has been greatly blessed with certain things that make replicating Norway elsewhere very difficult. Its offshore oil and gas fields are very large. As a result, Norway is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world and the third largest exporter of natural gas. These exports constitute somewhere between 20-25% of its gross domestic product. Because of its terrain, a substantial part of its domestic energy production is hydro-electric so much of its oil and gas can be exported rather than being used domestically. (That also means its domestic energy production is much cleaner than what it exports.)

This revenue has made Norway fabulously wealthy. It has voted twice not to join the EU, in part from what I understand, so that it would not lose control over this wealth. This has caused some grumblings among other European countries.

Norway has only slightly less than 5 million people, slightly more than the City of Los Angeles and less than half of Los Angeles County. This means that it has a huge amount of money to fund benefits for a relatively small number of people.

While I'm personlly in favor of higher taxes with greater benefits, we're not going to achieve the Norwegian experience based on higher taxes alone. (Though I will say that, in California, a good place to start in following the Norwegian example is to enact an oil severance tax. California is the only oil producing state that doesn't have one, which is idiotic to point of being criminal.)

IT said...

True, Primrose, Norway has some structural advantages. But I am using it here simply as an example. If you discuss with any Scandanavian, or European from most of the EU, the status of child care, maternity, etc in the US, they are HORRIFIED. in their terms, we have no family values, or we would not treat families as we do.

dr.primrose said...

Speaking of the willingness -- or not -- to pay higher taxes, Paul Krugman's column in the N.Y. Times is about The Angry Rich:

Anger is sweeping America. True, this white-hot rage is a minority phenomenon, not something that characterizes most of our fellow citizens. But the angry minority is angry indeed, consisting of people who feel that things to which they are entitled are being taken away. And they’re out for revenge.

No, I’m not talking about the Tea Partiers. I’m talking about the rich.


Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.


Tax-cut advocates used to pretend that they were mainly concerned about helping typical American families. Even tax breaks for the rich were justified in terms of trickle-down economics, the claim that lower taxes at the top would make the economy stronger for everyone.

These days, however, tax-cutters are hardly even trying to make the trickle-down case. Yes, Republicans are pushing the line that raising taxes at the top would hurt small businesses, but their hearts don’t really seem in it. Instead, it has become common to hear vehement denials that people making $400,000 or $500,000 a year are rich. I mean, look at the expenses of people in that income class — the property taxes they have to pay on their expensive houses, the cost of sending their kids to elite private schools, and so on. Why, they can barely make ends meet.


The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.

But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people.

Norwegian said...

dr.primrose, if I may make a couple of points:

Norway oil wealth has very little to do with what social policies it can afford. Norway only spends 4% of its oil income each year. The rest is put into a sovereign wealth fund and saved for when the oil runs out.
The oil has a lot to do with how Norway went from being one of europes poorest countries in the 60s to a rich one, but since the early 90s, the oil revenue has been tucked away quietly.

Second, taxes in Norway are not actually that high, except on paper. According to Statistics Norway, after all the deductions available, real end-of-the-line taxes range between 0 - 32%, with people on the poverty line (U$ 24 000) pay 9 %. The average is 25 %. If we add VAT as a tax, we get about 46% total.

Which, I am told is high in US terms, but if we add up the tax total for high-tax states such as New York, its pretty much the same number.

dr.primrose said...

Norwegian, please forgive me if I sounded critical of Norway. That was not my intent. For most countries with large extractive industries, wealth from these industries as been a curse, leading to massive corruption, oligarchy and political oppression. Virtually the entire Middle East, Nigeria, Venezuela, and even the American state of Louisiana come to mind. Norway is virtually the only country to have avoided all that, mostly by funneling a substantial amount of the revenues to "pension funds" to be largely used when the oil and gas revenues run out.

I think you may be underestimating the effect of petroleum revenues on the Norwegian government revenues. It's my understanding (on which I could be wrong) that the 4% figure is the amount of the "pension fund" income that may be spent on current budgetary needs. ( ) I understand that this amount has been somewhat of a political football in the last several with some folks thinking that it should be something like 7% so that more income is used for current, rather than future, needs.

From what I've read, the contribution from the petroleum industry to the government is something like a third of revenues. For example, the Secretary General of the Norwegian Finance Ministry issued a paper several years ago that contains a paragraph summarizing the effect of the petroleum industry on the Norwegian economy, including the observation that one-third of state revenues come from the petroluem industry ( ):

"In 2005, the petroleum sector accounted for 25 percent of GDP in Norway. Through direct and indirect taxes and direct ownership, the state is ensured a high proportion of the values created from the petroleum activities. In 2005, the state's net cash flow from the petroleum sector amounted to approximately 33 percent of total central government revenues. In 2005, crude oil, natural gas and pipeline services accounted for 52 percent of the value of Norway's exports. Investment in the petroleum sector in 2005 amounted to 24 percent of total real investments in Norway. These figures vary from one year to another, and in 2005 they were relatively high due to the very high oil prices. People employed directly in the petroleum sector amount to only one per cent of total employment in our country."

As he notes, these figures change from year to year but the one-third figure seems to be roughly in the ball park.

(Isn't a discussion of the Norwegian petroleum industry an exciting diversion from the usual dicussions of things like same-sex marriage, the consecration of Mary Glasspool, or the ecclesiastical trials and tribulations of Chuck Bennison?!!)

Ann said...

Norway was this way before oil - they have a high value on the well being of the community. My father was born there - he taught me to value myself as a female long before women began to make any significant progress in the culture. And on that subject and the church:
The average median salary for all clergy was $71,859 based on a survey of 3817 male clergy. For female clergy, based on a survey of 1914 women, the figure was $61,519.