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Land of the Midday Night

Midday Night.jpgThe endless dark in northern Norway weighs on a person right from the start of a visit. Look at the sunrise and sunset times on my iPhone screenshot to the right (taken on November 23). That’s not even two and a half-hours of sunlight — on those rare days when the sun is not obscured by clouds — and we still had almost a month to go before the solstice.

Other than Japan and South Korea, the world’s countries with the highest per capita suicide rate are all close to the poles. Correlation is not causality, but spend some time up there and you might not be entirely sure of that proposition.

Needless to say, amid the overbearing bleakness, people turn to drink, and the government has responded by forbidding the sale of alcohol after 8pm, even in supermarkets that stay open after that time. The beer shelving that I saw has a drop-down blind in front of it. And the inflated prices would make you think that Dartmouth Dining Services has the alcohol concession; but no, ferociously high taxes are to blame (not to mention the 25% value added tax on most goods, with only 15% being added to the price of food).

The small town of Sørkjosen lies just below the 70° latitude line, more than 3° above the Arctic Circle (“the northernmost point at which the noon sun is just visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun is just visible on the northern summer solstice” according to Wikipedia). The pretty little port enjoys regular displays of the northern lights, but even shows as spectacular as this time lapse film just don’t compensate for the desolation, at least to this viewer:

The film shows about twenty minutes of heavenly display compressed down to ten seconds. Our boat is in the bottom of the frame.

Addendum: A friend sends in a true story:

A friend who was a documentarist was making a film in remote Alaska one January, when he met a team of Muslim filmmakers. They reported that they were observing the Ramadan fast that month. “What does that mean,” my friend asked? They replied, “We skip lunch.”

Addendum: A senior sends in a data-filled corrective to my gloom-and-doom sense of northern Norway:

Hope you enjoyed Norway. I did, however, have a bit of a bone to pick about your post. Having spent some time in Norway, and also having followed its political scene for awhile, I think the “doom and gloom” message might not have represented the full picture. I think, in short, that I have to respectfully differ, both in my own impression of the country and in my conception of its government.

My own impression of Oslo, where I spent most of my time, was that it was just about the best-run city I’ve ever seen — it seemed a bit like Boston, if Boston were well-run, and if everyone in Boston were richer, happier, and really loved modern architecture. Also, unlike Boston, the street plan makes sense.

Then there’s the matter of statistics. Norway has the third highest nominal GDP in the world (fourth highest in PPP). It has the highest human development index score in the world. It’s also highest in the GINI index. It’s maximum individual tax rate is only 23rd highest, while it’s minimum tax rate is 0 percent. It has a high VAT on food and drink in shops (25 percent or 15 percent), but a lower VAT on other goods (10 percent at most). The World Happiness Report? Norway is first on that, too. Its sovereign wealth fund also tends to help, since it puts its natural resource wealth into the world’s biggest ($1 trillion plus) rainy day fund. Its corporate tax rate is also a pretty respectable 24 percent. Norway also got full marks every year in the Freedom in the World index and was ranked 13th in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, taking the third place for personal freedom. (The U.S. was 23rd in that index, incidentally, ranked just 28th for personal freedom.)

Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote an interesting article last spring in which he argued that Bernie Sanders was the best choice for libertarians in the 2016 election cycle because he was the only candidate who wanted to make the U.S. look more like countries in which citizens were “more free” (always subjective): the Nordic nations. (Wilkinson also observed, likely rightly, that Bernie seems not to understand that the Nordic welfare states are supported by some of the most aggressive free markets in the world, which was an obstacle to his point.) It’s not a bad point; there’s a lot to support the idea that, particularly in Rawlsian conceptions of freedom, Norway is amongst the freest countries in the world.

My point isn’t that there’s nothing distressing about 22-hour darkness or that there’s no reason to protest restrictive alcohol laws (of course, I live in Massachusetts, where legislation around alcohol is rather more extreme), but just that a “high taxes and everyone kills themselves” view of Norway seems like it’s leaving out some important information.

I’m also, I’d note, not an advocate of “just do what the Nordic countries do and everything will be hunky-dory” (though I find the scalability arguments to be eyeroll-inducing and ill-conceived). But certainly we have something to learn from countries that quantitatively are doing much better than ours in many ways.

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