Friday, January 21, 2011

"The three things we as Americans worry about—education, retirement, and medical expenses—are things that Norwegians don't worry about"

Max Chafkin for Inc.:

...instead of some American version of European socialism, what if we got the genuine article? What if the nightmare scenario were real? What if you woke up tomorrow as a CEO in a socialist country?

To answer this question, I spent two weeks in Norway, seeking out entrepreneurs in all sorts of industries and circumstances.I met fish farmers in the country's northern hinterlands and cosmopolitan techies in Oslo, the capital. I met start-up founders who were years away from having to worry about making money and then paying taxes on it, and I met established entrepreneurs who every year fork over millions of dollars to the authorities. (Norway's currency is the kroner. I have converted all figures in this article to dollars.)

The first thing I learned is that Norwegians don't think about taxes the way we do. Whereas most Americans see taxes as a burden, Norwegian entrepreneurs tend to see them as a purchase, an exchange of cash for services. "I look at it as a lifelong investment," says Davor Sutija, CEO of Thinfilm, a Norwegian start-up that is developing a low-cost version of the electronic tags retailers use to track merchandise.

Sutija has a unique perspective on this matter: He is an American who grew up in Miami and, 20 years ago, married a Norwegian woman and moved to Oslo. In 2009, as an employee of Thinfilm's former parent company, he earned about $500,000, half of which he took home and half of which went to the Kingdom of Norway. (The country's tax system is progressive, and the highest tax rates kick in at $124,000. From there, the income tax rate, including a national insurance tax, is 47.8 percent.) If he had stayed in the U.S., he would have paid at least $50,000 less in taxes, but he has no regrets. (For a detailed comparison, see "How High Is Up?") "There are no private schools in Norway," he says. "All schooling is public and free. By being in Norway and paying these taxes, I'm making an investment in my family."

For a modestly wealthy entrepreneur like Sutija, the value of living in this socialist country outweighs the cost. Every Norwegian worker gets free health insurance in a system that produces longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than our own. At age 67, workers get a government pension of up to 66 percent of their working income, and everyone gets free education, from nursery school through graduate school. (Amazingly, this includes colleges outside the country. Want to send your kid to Harvard? The Norwegian government will pick up most of the tab.) Disability insurance and parental leave are also extremely generous. A new mother can take 46 weeks of maternity leave at full pay—the government, not the company, picks up the tab—or 56 weeks off at 80 percent of her normal wage. A father gets 10 weeks off at full pay.

These are benefits afforded to every Norwegian, regardless of income level. But it should be said that most Norwegians make about the same amount of money. In Norway, the typical starting salary for a worker with no college education is a very generous $45,000, while the starting salary for a Ph.D. is about $70,000 a year. (This makes certain kinds of industries, such as textile manufacturing, impossible; on the other hand, technology businesses are very cheap to run.) Between workers who do the same job at a given company, salaries vary little, if at all. At Wiggo Dalmo's company, everyone doing the same job makes the same salary.

The result is that successful companies find other ways to motivate and retain their employees. Dalmo's staff may consist mostly of mechanics and machinists, but he treats them like Google engineers. Momek employs a chef who prepares lunch for the staff every day. The company throws a blowout annual party—the tab last year was more than $100,000. Dalmo supplements the standard government health plan with a $330-per-employee-per-year private insurance plan that buys employees treatment in private hospitals if a doctor isn't immediately available in a public one. These benefits have kept turnover rates at Momek below 2 percent, compared with 7 percent in the industry.

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