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What I learned in Norway

Norwegians aren’t a boastful people. When LuAnn and I were there last month, we didn’t hear much about Norway’s excellent national health care system. There was no talk of the country’s cradle-to-grave social benefits. What we did hear about was their policies supporting electric vehicles.

When you buy an electric car in Norway, you don’t have to pay the 25% VAT (value added tax) or the annual road tax. You get a special license plate starting with the letter E, and with that also comes a host of other benefits. For a number of years, cars with that license plate were exempt from charges on toll roads and ferries and got free municipal parking (a big deal in Oslo). The policies have been so successful that in the last few years the government has decided that instead of a complete exemption, it’s enough of an incentive to cap those charges at 50%.

What’s particularly interesting about all this is the fact that Norway is an oil-rich country. North Sea oil has contributed a great deal to the nation’s wealth, but it has not controlled their politics. That stands in striking contrast to, for example, North Dakota.

The big difference is that when oil was discovered in the North Sea, Norwegians made the decision early on that the government would control the oil, and not the other way around. That is to say, their politics have not been corrupted by oil money.

There is hope once again that the United States can enact legislation that would similarly promote a transition to cleaner transportation. The deal negotiated by Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin includes generous incentives for buyers of electric vehicles and billions in subsidies for building or retooling factories for the manufacture of electric cars and their components. Money is also included to help consumers buy electric vehicle chargers, which comes on top of $5 billion already allocated for installing charging stations around the country.

Yet the situation is also indicative of so much that is wrong with American politics right now. To get Manchin’s buy-in, Schumer had to promise support for building the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a pipeline that is bad for the environment but very good for Manchin and his big-money donors. And getting Kyrsten Sinema behind the bill required concessions on tax provisions that will delight her Wall Street backers.

Still, it’s worth remembering that Manchin’s and Sinema’s votes would not be so crucial if not for the unanimous and implacable opposition of every Republican senator. There are conservative politicians in Norway and other European countries, of course, but they don’t exhibit the same kind of knee-jerk rejection of environmental legislation or, more broadly, anything the opposition could take credit for. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Mitch McConnell.

I hope the Inflation Reduction Act passes. We need it and more. And then let’s see what we can do to rein in the influence of money in our politics.

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