April 18, 2005
One image in particular sticks in my mind. In a Norwegian language class, my teacher illustrated the meaning of the word matpakke – “packed lunch” – by reaching into her backpack and pulling out a hero sandwich wrapped in wax paper. It was her lunch. She held it up for all to see.
Yes, teachers are underpaid everywhere. But in Norway the matpakke is ubiquitous, from classroom to boardroom. In New York, an office worker might pop out at lunchtime to a deli; in Paris, she might enjoy quiche and a glass of wine at a brasserie. In Norway, she will sit at her desk with a sandwich from home.
It is not simply a matter of tradition, or a preference for a basic, nonmaterialistic life. Dining out is just too pricey in a country where teachers, for example, make about $50,000 a year before taxes. Even the humblest of meals – a large pizza delivered from Oslo’s most popular pizza joint – will run from $34 to $48, including delivery fee and a 25 percent value added tax.
We all have differing standards of prosperity, of course. In my mind it’s a matter of three very “layman’s” factors: income, access to goods and services and purchasing power relative to income, and both balanced against a qualitative value that I label “satifaction either because of, or despite, work product.” We Americans tend to replace instead of repair. We upgrade or replace our consumer electronics, furniture, automobiles, even entire homes, almost every year. The cost of repairing an item out of warranty is so prohibitive that buying a new, undamaged, more advanced item would be a more prudent choice.
Conversely, the infantile, anti-capitalist (not necessarily anti-corporate) neo-hippies might think that it’s okay to be without (at the point of the guns of the state) as long as some qualitative factors are met: “family time,” independent artisan-revival enterprise, that kind of thing: the “it’s okay to be poor as long as you have [blank]” mentality. “It’s okay to pay 50 bucks for your pizza because you really don’t have to eat pizza, that’s a luxury and it’s not fair to those who can’t afford it!”
Gosh do I hate the “you can’t own property, man” crowd.
While I am not ready to go in-depth on whether all that income versus the quality of our personal lives is a good thing, I’d like to make a simple broad statement: the spirit can not be verily fulfilled until one’s physical needs and wants (a clear economic concept) are, respectively, fully and generally met.
One more “God Damn!” quote from the article:
The one detail in Timbro’s study that didn’t feel right to me was the placement of Scandinavian countries near the top of the list and Spain near the bottom. My own sense of things is that Spaniards live far better than Scandinavians. In Norwegian pubs, for example, anyone rich or insane enough to order, say, a gin and tonic is charged about $15 for a few teaspoons of gin at the bottom of a glass of tonic; in Spain, the drinks are dirt-cheap and the bartender will pour the gin up to the rim unless you say “stop.”
In late March, another study, this one from KPMG, the international accounting and consulting firm, cast light on this paradox. It indicated that when disposable income was adjusted for cost of living, Scandinavians were the poorest people in Western Europe. Danes had the lowest adjusted income, Norwegians the second lowest, Swedes the third. Spain and Portugal, with two of Europe’s least regulated economies, led the list.
Where monumentally thick governments, like that of China, are finally forced to get out of the way and let people work to improve their own lives â€“ we call this process “making money” — the results are simply dumbfounding, given the amount of poverty that has been foisted on that industrious and hard-working nation for a few millennia of raw tyranny. Ask your solid, upper-middle-class in Egypt, or Vietnam, or Belarus, if theyâ€™d like to get a chance to start a new life as a poor American. Then get the hell out of their way, if you donâ€™t feel like tasting the sidewalk.
One of the few places where longevity is falling drastically is in the ruin of Russia and her poor, literate, long-suffering people. Communism is still killing those poor bastards. Itâ€™s like a disease that stalks you even after itâ€™s been eradicated.
Ask anyone who is poor — one who hasn’t bought into the lie that they’d be better off that way, one not crushed under the weight of Euro socialism and still has a glimmer of enterprise — if they would be well-served by doing something about their lives in the presence of the freedom to do so. I doubt they’d say “nah, I’m content where I am.”