Tomgram: Ann Jones, Beware the Viking Hordes

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More than three decades ago, my aunt Hilda wrote an account of her father’s voyage to and life in America for my daughter to read “someday.”  She began it this way: “Your great grandfather, Moore Engelhardt, a boy of 16, arrived in New York from Europe in March 1888.  It was during the famous blizzard and after a sea voyage of about 30 days.  He had no money.  He often said that he had a German 50 cent piece in his pocket when he landed. His trip had to be in the cheapest part of the ship — way down below in steerage. Poor boy, I’m sure he was seasick a good deal of the time.  Since he was alone, he sort of attached himself to a family of a lot of children and, for the first few months in America, I imagine he slept behind the stove in somebody’s kitchen.

“I don’t know the whole story of his trip from somewhere near Lemberg in Poland to Hamburg where he boarded the ship, but from the few things he told me about it I gathered that it wasn’t easy. He worked at anything he could find to earn money for the trip, saving every penny he didn’t need for daily living.  I do know that it took him two years.  His last job was as a scribe for a lawyer in Hamburg.  There were no typewriters, but he had beautiful handwriting, almost as perfect as printing.

“The reason for his trip to America at the early age of 16, besides the stories he had heard about gold in the streets of New York, was, as he told it, a strange one…”

In other words, my grandfather was a kind of nineteenth-century equivalent of a DACA kid (though without even parents to bring him here since he ran away from home).  Like so many other immigrants of that era, he made it to the United States from a shithole part of Europe — of, to be exact, the Austro-Hungarian Empire — and he was lucky.  He spent the rest of his life in Brooklyn, New York.  A few decades later, Jews like him, or Slavs, or Italians, or Asians of any variety — the Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nigerians of that era — would essentially be put under the early twentieth-century equivalent of Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” and largely kept by law from entering the country.  In those days, the analog to Trump’s bitter complaints about Muslims and others of color was: Europe was “making the United States a dumping ground for its undesirable nationals.”  (So said Henry Fairfield Osborn, the then-president of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, in 1925.)

So history — specifically, the history of nativism and racism — is only repeating itself in this not-so-new century of ours.  Back then, northern European immigrants were favored by that same law, so no one should have blinked when Donald Trump, who (like me) grew up at a time when those bans of 1924 were still in place, extolled Norwegians as the dream immigrants he wants to come here.

It wasn’t just racist but absurd for him to suggest that anyone from a country that regularly turns up at the top of the list of the “happiest” nations on Earth would have a driving urge to emigrate to our not-so-New World for a not-so-new life in a plutocrat-strong America with its 1% elections and ever widening inequalities of wealth.  Still, for just a little while give reality a pass and let the wondrous Ann Jones, TomDispatch regular and author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, take you to a planet in a galaxy far, far away and allow you to imagine what this country might actually be like if it were overwhelmed by Norwegian immigrants. Tom

The Norwegian Menace
Should We Build a Wall to Keep Them Out?
By Ann Jones

In the past couple of weeks, thanks to the president’s racist comments about Haiti and African countries he can’t even name — remember “Nambia”? — as well as the stamp of approval he awarded future immigrants from Norway, we’ve seen a surprising amount of commentary about that fortunate country. Let me just say: those Norwegians he’s so eager to invite over are my ancestral people and, thanks to years I’ve spent in that country, my friends.  Donald Trump should understand one thing: if he and his Republican backers really knew the truth about life in Norway, they would be clamoring to build a second “big, fat, beautiful” wall, this time right along our Eastern seaboard.

One thing is incontestable: a mass of Norwegian immigrants (however improbable the thought) would pose a genuine threat to Donald Trump’s America.  They would bring to our shores their progressive values, advanced ideas, and illustrious model of social democratic governance — and this country would never be the same!

It’s hard even to begin to imagine what a Norwegian-ization of the United States might mean.  But just for a moment, try to picture how strange our country would be.  After all, based on life in Norway, you would have to assume that our beloved land would lose many of its twenty-first-century landmarks.  Gone would be its precious ghettos and slums, its boarded-up schools, hospitals, and libraries in the heartland, not to speak of its heirloom infrastructure: collapsing bridges, antique trains, clogged roads, and toxic drinking water.

To grasp what’s at stake, consider how such immigrants would have reacted to the Republican tax “reform” bill, praised by the president as “the greatest achievement” of his first year in office (which, by his own account, is the greatest year in American history). That bill, filled with miscellaneous handouts meant to ensure the votes of individual Republican legislators, guarantees that the super rich and their mega-corporations will get richer still in perpetuity.  It is, in its own way, a glorious hymn to future heights of economic inequality (in a country already ranked the most unequal in the developed world), as it cleverly passes on to the children of the un-rich classes a national deficit inflated by an extra $1.5 trillion.

It is, of course, the nature of any tax plan to redistribute the wealth of a nation in some fashion, even though Republicans use the word “redistribution” only to assail Democrats who occasionally suggest a little something to help the poor.  But redistribute those Republicans did in a masterful way, surrendering yet more of our national wealth to the tiny team of people (many of whom also happen to be their donors) who already pocket almost all of it. As the Republicans were writing the tax bill, the top 20% of households were already taking home 90% of the American pie. Now, they will get more.

That’s exactly the kind of “achievement” that no Norwegian parliament would ever approve.  All nine parties now in that country’s parliament, from left to right, would have joined in tearing up that Republican tax bill and replacing it with a much simpler one aimed at redistributing the nation’s wealth equitably to every last one of its citizens.

As a start, they would have tossed in the trash can the single most basic project of Trump and the Republicans: making the rich richer. Norwegians have long worked to do just the reverse, based on a well-established conviction that inequality creates elites that corrupt and destroy democracy.  That’s where politics come in: devising multiple systems to regulate a capitalist economy and safeguard democracy.

For example, two national confederations, of trade unions on the one hand and corporate enterprises on the other, annually negotiate wages and working conditions, while minimizing the difference between high-paying and lower-wage jobs, between CEOs and workers.  As a result, Norway’s income equality is near the top of any international list. America’s, not so.  On average in 2014, for instance, American CEOs grabbed 354 times the salary of their workers. For many corporate chiefs that figure hit well over 1,000 times the salary of a median employee, while in Norway for every dollar the worker earned, the average Norwegian CEO took home 58 bucks.

Equitable paychecks may slow down the creation of Norwegian billionaires, but the country’s overall standard of living is among the world’s highest.  The U.S. ranks much lower on international evaluations, although with its immense and still rapidly growing gap between the plutocrats and the rest of us, it’s hard to calculate a meaningful “standard.”

While those new Norwegian immigrants were at it, they would quickly move to simplify our tax system. That, of course, is exactly what Trump and the Republicans promised — you remember that “postcard” you were going to mail to the IRS — even as they made everything yet more complicated.  In Norway, the government not only simplifies the tax system, but figures out, on a progressive scale, what every taxpayer owes and then sends out the bills.

Those dangerous Norwegians are peculiar enough to be grateful. They gladly pay up because taxes fund the country’s universal public welfare system, which guarantees that strikingly high standard of living to a whole society. (That phrase “whole society,” by the way, is the meaning of the word “social” in the phrase “social democracy.”) Keep in mind that all Norwegians have the right to universal public health care, universal public education through professional schools or university and beyond, care of the elderly and disabled, paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, subsidized early childhood education (from age 1), affordable housing, state of the art public transport, and a raft of other services that take the worry out of daily life.  The catch is — and I can already hear the thundering footsteps of the Republican herd as it heads in panic for its top secret bunker — if Norwegians can’t trust the government, they kick it out and elect another.

We Americans, on the other hand, have been taught not to trust any government, but rather to admire our brilliant super-rich people who own this one, and so to let them pocket our tax money and think none the less of them for their dependence on Republican handouts like that tax bill.  Consider the situation this way: Norwegian governments spoil their citizens, while President Trump and the Republicans despoil us ordinary Americans.  And that just goes to show how much they trust us to take care of ourselves — so much so that they’re now planning to slash Medicaid and Medicare, leaving us “free” to set forth into sickness and death on our own.  And if that isn’t the good old American spirit of free enterprise, what is?

Striking “Oil” With Fair Wages for Women

To explain how Norway pays for all those social programs, almost every American commentator, even when theoretically sympathetic to the Norwegians, points to the income from the country’s North Sea oil fields, discovered and developed in the 1960s. On that, however, they are mistaken.

Norway’s welfare state programs are supported not by oil revenues but by taxing the citizenry. (While some of those citizen taxpayers are paid for working, directly or indirectly, in the oil business, as of 2016 they made up only 7% of the Norwegian workforce.) So to understand how Norway can afford to pay for the genuine well-being of its people in such an impressive way, you need to look at those tax rolls, which very nearly doubled in the 1970s when women walked into the workplace (and politics) in a major way — and at wages close to matching those of men. In 2016, the Ministry of Finance calculated that the labor of women added to the net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” created by that North Sea oil and held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth in 2017 more than one trillion dollars.

It’s pretty scary to think of hordes of immigrants from such a country landing on our shores, considering the radical reality I’ve just described, the startling idea that you could upgrade an economy in a wholesale way just by requiring fair wages for women. Not to mention that with the taxes those women pay, you could fully fund free universal child care, the lack of which drives American women from the workplace back home, where Republicans think they belong. In the U.S., none of our good old boy leaders would dream of enacting programs so… well, unpatriarchal. Or how about another idea I’ve heard from many Norwegians: that gender equality is the key to the good life?

But about that North Sea oil money: it, too, represents a kind of thinking utterly alien to this country. Oil is something we Americans believe we understand. Spill it in Alaska, spill it in the Gulf of Mexico.  Now, drill for it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (thanks to the need to secure Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote for that tax “reform” bill), as well as up and down the coasts of the country (except for Florida, the home of Trump’s favorite golf club). We don’t mind what you do with it as long as you keep down the costs of propelling our outsized vehicles over our outdated highways.

Norway, on the other hand, owns 67% of the shares in Statoil, the Norwegian oil company that controls those North Sea wells, even as it leads the world’s changeover to electric vehicles. It’s a country with a remarkable record of developing and adopting new technologies while phasing out the old, so its workforce is always employed. By law, the government spends no more (and usually less) than 4% of its yearly oil profits on current expenses. The other 96% or more, it pours into that trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund.  That, in turn, has been set aside for the future, for the country’s children and their children, although some Norwegians, famous for their worldwide humanitarian and peacemaking activities, now propose to give much of it away to other lands that may need it far more.  

Here’s a question for future American administrations: Could they apply for some of that Norwegian money to build an East Coast wall against Norwegian immigrants or maybe to help our kids pay off that estimated $1.5 trillion in debt Trump and the Republicans just handed them in the new tax bill?  Could we take advantage of those radical Norwegians without even letting them into our country?  I’ll bet Trump could finagle that. 

Selling F-52s to Norway

It’s likely that Norway came to Trump’s mind in that meeting with Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham (among others) as some idyllic source for future white Republicans only because, the day before, he had met with its substantial and very white prime minister, Erna Solberg. (Surprised observers of the meeting tweeted that Solberg speaks better English than the American president — as most Norwegians do.) “Erna,” as Norwegians — for whom everyone is equal and on a first-name basis — call her, is the leader of the Conservative party. She heads a coalition government in which the top three positions are held by women.  That in itself might have caused Trump to keep his hands in his pockets, but apparently he wasn’t told. It’s likely he mistook “Conservative” for “Republican,” but as a matter of fact, all nine of Norway’s political parties now in parliament are well to the left not just of the Republicans but of the Democrats and, yes, even that independent “democratic socialist” from Vermont.

At the moment, only one Norwegian cabinet member, Silvi Listhaug of the right-wing Progress Party, might be considered sufficiently neoliberal, uber-Christian, and mean to fit into Trump’s regime.  Perhaps that’s because her early training included a 2005 internship in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

In Norwegian terms, Erna often tilts dangerously to the right under the pressure of U.S. and British neoliberal economic theorists. It has to be hard for the leader of a small country — five million people, half the population of Haiti — to resist pressure to conform to the autocratic example of a nation that styles itself the most exceptional on Earth.  Erna herself is a polite, circumspect politician who, on returning from her visit to the White House, assured reporters in Oslo that President Trump was “a normal man” with “a sense of humor.”  Apparently she didn’t mention Trump’s self-proclaimed political acumen, intellectual brilliance, or awesome “America First” foreign policy. Norwegians reading their morning papers could, however, fill in the blanks.

At a joint press conference with Erna, Trump proudly announced that, last November, the U.S. had delivered the first F-52 and F-35 fighter jets to Norway, part of a $10 billion order of American military equipment.  Norwegians are, in fact, stubbornly averse to war and think of their reluctant acquisition of way too many over-priced, overdue, bug-plagued F-35s as a surcharge on NATO membership. But F-52s?

That thoroughly fictional plane, as it turns out, exists only in the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. (Do you suppose Trump spends his executive time playing commander-in-chief?) Norwegians are having a good laugh, while their commentators are saying “thanks, but no thanks” to Trump’s immigration invitation. If they really mean it, then perhaps we can relax and forget about that wall along the Eastern seaboard.

On the other hand, judging by their press, an awful lot of Norwegians are even more appalled and angered than we are by Trump’s racist slurs about “shithole countries.”  What’s more, just days after returning to Norway, Erna Solberg rolled out her new government, a coalition of three parties, all led by women, and a gender-equal cabinet to run ministries focused not only on defense or finance, but also on climate and the environment, eldercare and public health, research and higher education, family and equality.  Erna announced that the platform of this new government would be “greener” and committed to sustaining the welfare state.  And this, in Norway, is a center-right government.

You see what I mean about Norwegian ideas being totally at odds with Trump’s America. Still, Trump might play that to his advantage. If he and his Republican supporters in Congress decide to build that East Coast wall after all, they might be able to get the Norwegians to pay for it — not to keep them out, but to keep us in.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, went to Norway in 2011 as a Fulbright Fellow. She stayed on because it feels good to live in a social democracy where politics matter, gender doesn’t, and peacemaking is the nation’s project.  She is the author most recently of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2018 Ann Jones

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