By Andrew O’Brien
Sarah Palin is the most famous Alaskan in America. It’s not even close. She is a woman who would have you believe that she, much like her adopted state, built herself out of nothing, without the help of a wealthy benefactor or sinister, generous caretaker. It is the narrative of her political life, one that has seen her rise quickly onto the national scene without much of a clue of what she is talking about.
She is also one of the new breed of conservative-libertarian Tea Partiers, fed up with the spending policies of the federal government which allegedly poses an undue burden on the wallets of each American by taxing them to the bone and spending frivolously on silly ventures like health care and unemployment insurance. The cost is more harmful than productive, they argue. America is losing its way.
Here, they are right. Americans are being unduly taxed without receiving proper benefits. Not those that live in Alaska, however.
Alaskans, meet the federal government, your loathsome sugar daddy. It is the one thing you cannot stand, but also the one you cannot live without.
Alaskan state lawmaker Carl Gatto sees the irony here. He’s a Republican state lawmaker who, though clearly aware of the lopsided financing (for every dollar given to the federal government for highway taxes, Alaska received $5.76), still believes the federal government is holding Alaska back.
“I’ve introduced legislation to roll back the federal government,” he says. “They don’t have solutions; they just have taxes.”
Mr. Gatto, 72 and wiry, smiles and shakes his head: “I’ll give the federal government credit: they sure give us a ton of money. For every $1 we give them in taxes for highways, they give us back $5.76.”
He points to a newly graded and federally financed highway, stretching toward distant spruce trees. “Man, beautiful, right?”
Hell yeah, man – nothing like a stretch of asphalt highway to bring out the beauty of the pristine Alaskan wilderness. Mr. Gatto’s 180-degree turn from political righteousness to practical appreciation is the defining dichotomy of just how this Alaskan resolves his mixed feelings towards receiving government funds and choosing to go without.
Alaskans tend to live with their contradictions in these recessionary times. No place benefits more from federal largess than this state, where the Republican governor decries “intrusive” Obama administration policies, officials sue to overturn the health care legislation and Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, voted against the stimulus bill.
Although its unemployment rate sits at just 7.9 percent, about two percentage points below the national rate, Alaska has received $3,145 per capita in federal stimulus dollars as of May, the most in the nation, according to figures compiled by Pro Publica, an investigative Web site. Nevada, by contrast, has an unemployment rate north of 14 percent and has received $1,034 per capita in recovery aid. Florida’s jobless rate is 11.4 percent, and the state has obtained $914 per capita.
The Alaskan’s argument is clear. For him, it is easy to see a bright, independent future for the state without the paternalism of Washington. That has been the Alaskan’s wish from the beginning.
One must give him points for consistency, if nothing else. Of course, that tidy fantasy conveniently ignores the billions (trillions?) of dollars the federal government has poured into the state since 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state in our massive republic. The state, especially its Republican legislators, have and will continue to fuss and rage about the federal government’s intrusiveness. And maybe it is intrusive – but does Alaska come near the front of the line in comparison to other states, cities and municipalities who have real problems?
Alaska has pension and budget woes, and, more perilously, oil production is slumping. But its problems are not mortal; last year, the ax fell on new police headquarters and replacement Zamboni blades rather than on teachers and libraries. And the state has avoided the unemployment devastation visited on the Lower 48 in part because federal dollars support a third of Alaskan jobs, according to a University of Alaska, Anchorage, study.
If things are bad for Alaska now, imagine how bad it must have been for the Alaskan fourteen years ago:
In 1996, Alaska’s share of federal spending was 38 percent above the national average. Thanks to the pork-barrel politics of the late Republican Senator Ted Stevens, who was chief of the Senate Appropriations Committee for several years, and to the military, which keeps expanding its bases here, Alaska’s share now is 71 percent higher than the national average.
Alaska certainly does have its fair share of valuable resources. For the rugged Alaskan, forever burdened by the shadow of Washington looming from the eastern seaboard northwest across Canada and over the least inhabited but physically largest American state, it is easy to imagine a world where his native state lives easily off its own resources: oil, timber, Levi Johnston and beluga whale penis, a delicacy in Wasilla and San Francisco. The question is, would they have been able to find and properly exploit them for profit without the help of D.C.’s redistributed tax dollars?
Imagine this exchange:
Washington Bureaucrat: Here you go, Alaska. To make reparation for our socialist act of bringing you in as a member of the United States of America (Greatest Nation on Earth), we shall pay your way to prosperity and civilization.
Mr. Alaska: Thank you, my good man. Wait a minute – you bastard! All you are doing is trying to make us forget the injustices, the sheer dastardly schemes you’ve concocted to exploit us, over and over and over again.
Washington Bureaucrat: Yes, it’s true, unfortunately. You Alaskans are a different breed – a better breed, in fact – and we just can’t let you get away with solitary riches without taking control. Let’s settle on a truce: We will make one of your senators the strongest in the country, though he represents a population of people disproportionate to the amount of power he will yield.
Mr. Alaska: Say, that’s mighty fine of you. The only thing I ask is that you keep shoveling yer magnificent pork our way – I don’t think we could live without it.
Washington Bureaucrat: Surely. You can also continue to bitch and moan as much as you want, so long as it’s not too rancorous. Then we might have to actually stop sending you money. Remember, protest is the American way – as is cognitive dissonance.
Mr. Alaska: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Now get out of my state, you elitist Ivy League swine!
In an even worse development for the realization of independent Alaska, it turns out the federal government not only gets in the way of Alaska attempting to do things for itself, but gets in the way of the federal government itself in trying to complete federal projects for Alaska’s benefit.
Lynn Gattis, a state Republican Party official, lives by a lake in Wasilla, surrounded by aspens. She is a sourdough Alaskan, meaning she was born here, and she is a pilot, which means she threads her way around those cloud-hugging peaks. She knows that the federal government paid for the port of Anchorage, the highway that leads to Wasilla and a portion of the sewers that allowed Target and Sports Authority to take root.
But she sees a government that delays oil exploration, as President Obama did recently; that regulates timber and salmon harvests and hydropower; and that, in her view, cares more about polar bears than about Alaskans. (The government lists as endangered the beluga whales of Cook Inlet, a vast gray expanse that stretches out from Anchorage. Some Alaskans argue that this could stall construction of a multimillion-dollar bridge, which as it happens would be paid for by the federal government.)
“It just feels like the federal government intrudes everywhere,” Ms. Gattis said. “Enough Ivy League lawyers — let’s get people who can dig a mine and run a business.”
Those damn lawyers, always doing their jobs and such. Let’s get some people in here who can dig. Mexico seems to have a lot of them, and Alaska does need to increase imports.
Like all young, earnest states, unknowing and unappreciative of the costs its paternal figure has enacted just to raise the feeble thing, Alaska wants to spread its wings and soar. It says “I don’t really want these things” but takes them anyway. It cries “Let me be free!” but struggles only enough to show its displeasure without breaking free. Like the idealist, righteous youth, Alaska has a dream for itself, but fails to see the “hidden” costs behind realizing that dream.
Take, for example, the fact that Alaskans pay no state or income tax. Though the state has not escaped the effects of the recession, its citizens have what you could call an oil welfare system. Because Alaska makes so much money from oil, every man, woman and child receives a dividend check each fall for simply residing in Alaska. This year, the check will be about $1,300.
Even with all the facts on the table, the Alaskan proceeds unburdened. Jay Ramras, a Republican state representative from Fairbanks, is typical in his view of the situation.
“If you want to feed us federal money like it’s a narcotic and make the state into a junkie of the U.S. Treasury, O.K.,” he allows. “But we would like to be an Emersonian Alaska and just get control of our resources.”
Ah, Emersonian Alaska! What a fantastic, noble undertaking. Perhaps, to make it easier, we could hire Alaskans to rip up all the federally-funded structural improvements made to the state making necessary tasks such as transport possible. Then the flow of pork can stop altogether and the state can do as it intended: fend for itself.
The late, former, disgraced Senator Stevens would be rolling in his Grave to Nowhere.