“Look to Norway”

On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States

Four ways to improve life in the USA

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Norwegian society - Economist article

If worldwide universal healthcare is within reach, what else might be?

As seen from Europe, four aspects of life in the USA appall and confuse. The USA is the only developed country without universal health care; the USA leads the world in the number of people in prison; the USA is the only western country still applying the death penalty; and it’s the only country in which school massacres with automatic weapons have become a regular part of the contemporary scene. Covering European opinion on these bothersome blotches on America’s image is beyond the scope of an opinion essay in this newspaper. But as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously remarked in 1942, one might “Look to Norway” for clues on remedies.

Implementing universal health care is within reach, worldwide. It’s an affordable necessity in Norway and is part of the modern welfare state that employs the Nordic model (see “Further reading”). From annual comparisons of U.S. and Norwegian taxes, as made by this correspondent, and other American citizens who live and work in Norway (the USA requires its citizens to file tax returns no matter where they earn and reside in the world), for modest incomes, in percentage of gross income, each year the Norwegian tax rate works out to being about the same as the sum of the federal and state rates in the USA. So universal health care is achievable in the USA with little or no increase in taxes.

Reducing the prison population will require a change of focus. Today, as criminologist Bob Cameron observes, “Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.” The human cost of putting punishment ahead of rehabilitation is considerable. Today, the USA leads the world in incarceration (2,145,100 prisoners, vs. the more than four times as populous state of China, which holds second place with 1,649,804) as well as in incarceration rate (666 per 100,000 population, vs. Turkmenistan in second place with 583) [figures from tables page 81, The Economist Pocket World in Figures, 2018 edition]. Moreover, the USA has a high recidivism rate, with 76.6 percent of prisoners released being re-arrested within five years. The comparable figure for Norway is around 20 percent, which can be seen as evidence that the focus on rehabilitation works (“Further reading”).

Abolishing the death penalty is a matter for lawmakers. Today, the USA is one of 54 countries worldwide and the only western one applying the death penalty. Within the USA, capital punishment is used by 31 states, the federal government, and the military. Since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of capital punishment in 1976, there have been 1,474 executions in the USA (figure updated April 30, 2018, Deathpenaltyinfo.org). Despite dating from colonial times, support for the death penalty is declining, as reported by The Economist in 2015 (see “Further reading”).

Restricting access to guns seems sensible in view of the statistics of gun-related deaths in the USA. According to a survey published by CNN in March 2018 (see “Further reading”), “There are more public mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world. The U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population but holds 31 percent of global mass shooters.” Moreover, “Gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the U.S. than in other high-income countries.” One of the root causes of those high rates is that the USA leads the world in per-capita gun ownership, with 101 guns per 100 residents, compared to 58.21 guns per hundred residents for second-place Serbia, 30.8 for neighboring Canada, and 31.3 for Norway (see “Further reading”).

Strengthening gun laws entails interpretation of the intent of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Those 27 words are the topic of ongoing legal debate as to whether the intent is to permit the states to maintain militias or to permit individuals to bear arms. Attorney Stephen P. Halbrook, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a think tank in Oakland, Calif., that focuses on public policy issues, has argued that the intent is both those aspects of arms use. He has published several books on gun control, among them Target Switzerland (see “Further reading”) that details the case of Switzerland not being invaded in World War II principally because its population was well armed and trained in gun use and hence an unattractive target for conquest by the far-larger German Army. That deterrent was built on a relatively modest gun ownership (26.45 per 100 residents in 2016). In turn, that suggests that the militia intent of the Second Amendment might be fulfilled by a per-capita gun ownership, yet one of about a quarter of today’s ownership.

Further reading:

• “Universal health care, worldwide, is within reach,” The Economist, April 28, 2018: www.economist.com/news/leaders/21741138-case-it-powerful-oneincluding-poor-countries-universal-health-care-worldwide
• “Norway-USA in contrast: Different approaches to healthcare costs,” The Norwegian American, July 1, 2016: www.norwegianamerican.com/neighborhood/norway-usa-in-contrast-different-approaches-to-healthcare-costs
• “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful,” by Christina Sterbenz, Business Insider, Dec. 11, 2014: www.businessinsider.com/why-norways-prison-system-is-so-successful-2014-12?r=US&IR=T&IR=T
• “Who killed the death penalty?” The Economist, North America edition, Dec. 19, 2015: www.economist.com/news/united-states/21684142-many-suspects-are-implicated-capital-punishments-ongoing-demise-one-stands-out-who
• “How US gun culture compares with the world in five charts,” by Kara Fox, CNN, updated March 9, 2018: edition.cnn.com/2017/10/03/americas/us-gun-statistics/index.html
• “Estimated number of guns per capita by country,” Wikipedia entry retrieved May 2, 2018: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estimated_number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country
Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II, by Stephen P. Halbrook, 2003; excerpt published by the American Swiss Foundation: www.americanswiss.org/resources_and_publications/target-switzerland-swiss-armed-neutrality-in-world-war-2

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.