Coded gray.

Wednesday 5 July 2000


Pic of the day: "Progress" continues apace, even here in the outskirts of Suburbia. Here a piece of forest is felled and the branches left to wither and decay in the sun, a stark image of sudden destruction against a backdrop of fertile life.

Life, liberty and Oslo

I woke up to the clock radio as usual. And it was certainly suited to wake people up. The government has decided to redirect the loans from the state-owned "Husbanken" (a bank that finances socially desirable building projects). In the future, less of the loans are to go to rural or small town districts, and more to the largest cities, mostly the capital Oslo. The government is worried because so many young people are unable to find a place to live in Oslo. There are ca 6000 dwelling-less ... the expression is used to designate those who live with friends and relatives rather than the homeless sleeping under bridges and such. (Those are quite rare here in Norway, as you may guess from our place on the world map. It can get pretty chilly here in the winter.)

OK, I am going to explain this simply (in the unlikely case that a politician may read it). I am 41 years old, and have worked ca 20 year in the same workplace (though not exactly the same job). I work full time. I don't do drugs, smoke, drinking. (Well, I've tried to drink some wine but I tend to forget it.) Anyway, the point is, I could not live in Oslo if I wanted to. Or rather, I could, in the meaning "survive". But what a life. The fairly moderate apartment that I rent here would cost me nearly my whole monthly income after tax. There would probably be enough left over for bread or pasta and some milk. But once my generous supply of clothes were worn out, I'd have to look for a cheaper place to live (or become a nudist).

Now these kids, straight out of school, with nothing but a big student loan ... they believe that it is a human right to live in Oslo? Sorry, people. You may have the right to pursue happiness, but I can't feel obliged to pay for you to find it. Perhaps you should take your trivial pursuit somewhere else and let the laws of supply and demand do the work they were meant for.

It is not as if Oslo is the only place you can get work in Norway. Sure, there is more work per square mile than anywhere else, I suppose (not sure about Stavanger). But the whole country is crying out for able hands and minds. Kristiansand where I work is a pressure zone too, with people moving in all the time. Still, you can live a short drive outside the city for a fraction of the prices paid in Oslo. Once you get out in the countryside, the differences are staggering.

This is a good time to repeat the sage advice of the respectable magazine The Economist, which among many other good things once told politicians: Don't just do something - sit there!

If politicians would kindly calm down and sit there, the laws of supply and demand would get time to work. The invisible hand would rearrange the market. You see, eventually people will find out that they cannot afford to live in Oslo unless they are paid better. So companies will have to pay more, or relocate. The hope is that they relocate to some place where it is cheaper to live. In the case of Norway, that would mean anywhere. Not necessarily in the middle of the wilderness. There are several smaller towns in the same part of the country, for instance.

Now instead, the government wants to use other folks' money to help young people settle in a place where they cannot afford to live. Is that really a good idea? I think not. This would just reinforce the belief that they have some constitutional right to live in a place with cool bars and hip cafees. And, to attempt a translation of the communist Björn Afzelius: "When the help runs out, the needy grow angry." Don't feed the black hole.

We are not talking about the blind, the lame and the lepers here. It's just that some young people prefer to live in the closest we have to a big city here in Norway. That's cool. Keeep dreeaming. If you can't afford something, don't buy it.


People moving to the big cities is not a sudden and unusual event. All over the world, the cities continue to grow. And the larger they are, the more they grow. Why is this? Well, apart from the entertainment and the anonymity, both desirable for many people, there is the question of jobs.

A few generations ago, it was common for a family to consist of husband, wife and some children. Ideally, mom would stay home with the kids while dad was out working. But even if they both had to go to work, workplaces were pretty similar. The number of different careers was nothing like today. Today people often go through a long education where they specialize more and more. Once out of school, the number of possible workplaces is moderate. And for a whole lot of those careers, the jobs are all in the cities.

While the nuclear family may have exploded, there is still this strong tendency for grown-ups to live together with someone, more or less formally. There are pretty strong reasons for that. But if both of them have a rare education - which is more and more common - where will they find a place to live where there is work for both of them? Only in the very largest cities. So the more specialization, the more the largest cities will grow. And the more both men and women work outside home, the more the largest cities will grow.

In the future, we can suppose that telecommuting will allow more people to live in one place and work in another. This should help alleviate some of the pressure to stow people together. Perhaps our government should lend a little money to this instead, if they have more than they know what to do with. But generally, I think these things should be left to sort themselves out. If companies really need the workers, they will have to pay them what they need to live. Probably the best thing politicians can do in this time, is to just sit there. They should certainly say something profound now and then, so people don't suspect that they are superfluous. But they should not do anything decisive. Because their decisions are not very smart, as I trust you see by now.

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