Life in the zeroth world

Screenshot from Finnish TV program

Screenshot from Finnish TV program. Contrary to what some may think, healthcare and education are not so much expenses as investment. If you think it is expensive to have a healthy and well educated population, you should try to have a sickly and ignorant one. Actually, perhaps you have. In that case, you are likely to be stuck in the Third World for some time.

I am old enough to remember that the phrases “first world” and “third world” meant something different from today. Today, they refer to standard of living. Back then, these were geopolitical descriptions: The USA and its allies were the First World, the Soviet Union and its allies were the Second World, and the unaligned nations were the Third World.

America and western Europe are still referred to as first world countries, and Japan is also usually included. For a while, it was thought that Japan would surpass the western economies, but this did not happen. On the other hand, a number of small countries have surpassed the USA in income per capita or at least in standard of living for the average citizen, sometimes both. If the USA is the standard of the first world, maybe we should refer to nations like Norway and Luxembourg as “zeroth world countries”?

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I live in Norway, and I am well aware that I am super privileged to live here. Obviously a lot of countries feel like the best country in the world to those who live there, and surely this is a good thing. But when compiling statistics, Norway tends to float to the top because it is near the top in so many good things, and far from the bottom in the rest. The other Nordic countries have a lower nominal income per person, but their standard of living is still very high. We could perhaps refer to all these too as “zeroth world countries”. Life here is quite good in many ways. But it is probably very different from what you imagine if you live in the “third world”.

For instance, perhaps you imagine that if you lived in a rich country like this, you would have many servants, like rich people have in many third world countries. But “servant” is not actually a meaningful word up here. It is an old-fashioned concept that is mostly found in history book. It is extremely rare for a family, even a rich family by our standards, to have a cook or a full-time gardener, let alone a butler or maid. People may go out to eat and may rent some services if they have jobs that leave them with little free time; but mostly it is seen as a matter of pride to be self-sufficient in your own home. Having something like servants is seen as morally dubious and conceited. On the other hand it is fine to save time by using robotic vacuum cleaners, robotic lawnmowers and all kinds of intelligent electronics in the house.

Perhaps you think that if you lived in a rich country, you could afford to go to the university for many years and get a great title, perhaps become a doctor. Yes, this is very common. But after you finish, you don’t use that title except perhaps briefly in academic journals. Students refer to their professors by first name, the CEO of a large company signs his emails by first name, and even the Prime Minister – arguably the most powerful person in the country – is usually referred to by her first name. If you tried to demand that people refer to you as “doctor”, people would look at you like you were on the wrong drugs, like someone wandering around in sandals and a toga in the middle of winter muttering to themselves.

Perhaps you think that living in a rich country, you would buy a big luxury car or wear lots of gold rings and jewelry. Well, there are some pretty nice cars around, Tesla in particular are fairly popular. But luxury brands are quite rare, and not because of crime, which is fairly low here. Rather, it is seen as vulgar and crude to display your wealth with extreme luxury. Sure, buy high quality and keep up with the neighbors, but don’t go over the top, or others will laugh at you behind your back and say that your head has become a balloon and you are flying in the skies. The same goes for excessive jewelry, especially gold. Traditional folk garb that is now used for festive occasions can be decorated with quite a bit of silver, but gold should always be displayed in moderation, and jewels even more so.

Of course, there are other ways to signal that you are well off. A common use of money is to vacation in faraway places. “Oh, you went to Bali? Yes, I hear there have been quite a lot of people going to Bali lately. Me, I was in Myanmar this year. Fassscinating place! Hardly a tourist to see. I’m thinking of seeing Nepal next year. I hear it is really difficult to get in there.”

In addition to their house in or near the city, most self-respecting families have a cabin (“hytte” in Norwegian). Originally a simple wood structure without electricity and water, usually in a remote location in the mountains or by the sea. In recent years these have become larger and more convenient, and there are whole villages of them.  It is increasingly common to have two, one in the mountains for winter skiing, and one by the sea for bathing and sunbathing in the summer. Normally the cabin is close enough that you can drive there on weekends. The cabin is also used by teenagers who want to have sex without their parents listening, or just to get to know each other better. Even though many people outside the city center have a free-standing house owned only by their family, it is generally frowned upon to have a huge manor, plus it is a lot of work since you don’t have servants. It is better to have a normal-size house and then a cabin or two.

(Me, I am barely even working class, so I have none of this of course. No house, no cabin, no car, no boat, no vacation travel. I rent the house and take the bus if it is too far to walk. People would pity me if they thought of me at all. “What’s wrong with that guy? Does he have a lot of kids he is paying child support for, or is he not right in the head?” Well, the last part is not too far off, I guess, by local standards. But I still work full time, thanks for asking.)

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Speaking of people who are not right in the head, these make up a significant portion of the truly poor here. It is not like everyone is living in luxury. Some people are unable to work because our workplaces are very demanding, especially on the mind. Due to the high salaries, you are not employed at all unless you can add significant value to the workplace. Public sector is a little easier in that regard, but it is still pretty intense these days. So a number of people are on disability pension, and many retire early. Still, pensions are usually enough to assure a comfortable life. Those who experience abject poverty are usually those who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, and who are therefore unable to handle money in a reasonable way.

One result of this is that helping the poor is not something you can or should try to do impulsively. Unless these are old friends or relatives (and sometimes even if they are), you may need to be a trained professional to know for sure whether they can tell you apart from the orcs and aliens that haunt their inner landscape. And if you don’t know what you do, you could bring great harm to yourself, to them, or to random bystanders.

The sane poor generally get help from the government in various ways, and consider this a right rather than some kind of gift, charity or pity money. Many of them would indeed take offense at random gifts or offers of help. That said, there are charitable organizations that make life easier for those of limited means, such as the Salvation Army which sells used clothes and furniture without racking up a profit. (I have a nice living room group that I bought from their outlet. Good enough for many more years.)

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I hope this gave you an interesting glimpse of life in a “rich country”. As you see, it is not so much that everyone is like the rich people in a poor country. It is a completely different culture and way of life.

2 thoughts on “Life in the zeroth world

    • Yes, the USA is special among rich countries in that it maintains a fairly larger population at a third-world level for use as cheap low-skilled labor. This makes the industry less vulnerable to competition from low-cost countries, but as the article points out, this comes at a high price in lost human resources. The USA remains one of the world’s most successful economies, but its share of the global economy is steadily shrinking. This is to be expected in an era when the most valuable resources are no longer in the ground but in people’s heads.

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