Monday, May 16, 2011

Of consensus and state capitalism

Our brief visit to Oslo was very intriguing.  It is the richest country on earth, blessed with a huge supply of oil and gas.  It also has a very industrialized past in shipping and fishing, with an excellent labour force. As one of our speakers noted, “we are about the sea…underneath it, in it, and on it”.
They are a fascinating example of a socially progressive country trying to deal with massive wealth (a sovereign wealth fund valued at 500B).  They are managing this wealth cautiously…NOT using it to lower taxes, or invest in mega infrastructure.  Rather, they are using it as a rainy day fund, investing it much as pension funds are invested…cautiously and for the longer term. 
It is a country that has been remarkably cohesive.  There is a social contract that everyone…government, business and labour…adheres to.  Their systems seem designed to keep things moving forward carefully and sustainably.  I was surprised by the consistency of messaging from the variety of people with whom we met.  Being a small country, they put enormous emphasis on the rule of law, and international frameworks.  They are also adamant about the importance of evidence-based decision-making and the importance of science.  There were concerns that advocates have supplanted hard science (this in respect to oil and gas development).

The degree of consensus was impressive.  At one point, however, I found myself asking whether it was too good to be true? 

The downside was accessibility.  Full marks to our wonderful hotel, the Continental,  however the same could not be said for every place we visited.  One ministry, housed in the former Gestapo headquarters, did not have accessible washrooms…and most of the existing ones were accessed via a flight of stairs!  And many of the shops in the downtown were completely inaccessible.  It appears that older buildings are not required to accommodate wheeled people.  That meant that I spent no money at all on purchases.  And I could not understand how a society so given to social cohesion and so unbelievably wealthy, would not have universal access.  Disappointing.

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