Welfare State

by Franklin Foer | May 6, 2002

The fight over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (anwr) may be over, but it revealed a curious truth: The most zealous proponents of dotting the Alaskan tundra with oil derricks are ... the Alaskans themselves. A poll last year showed that 75 percent of state residents support anwr drilling. The Anchorage Times and Anchorage Daily News both came out in favor of it. And the state's small but noisy congressional delegation--Senators Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski and Representative Don Young--led the charge on Capitol Hill. "Anyone that comes to this floor and says this is drilling in wilderness is a liar, a liar," barked Stevens last week, demonstrating a fervor rarely found in debates over the technical definition of "wilderness." (Stevens maintains that anwr is instead a "coastal plain.") "$(I$)f it was back in the days, I would challenge them to a duel."

Stevens and his fellow Alaskans like to think of themselves as embodying a kind of rugged, frontier libertarianism. Alaska's senior senator damns his opponents as "radicals." And its lone congressman calls the federal government an "absentee landlord" and decries its regulations as "federal shackles." On the fringe, such sentiment is voiced by the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), which pushes for secession and successfully ran Nixon Interior Secretary Walter Hickel for governor in 1990, winning 39 percent of the vote. "Alaska is a non-self-governing land," argues AIP Chair Mark Chyrson, comparing the state's plight to that of Latvia and Lithuania under Soviet occupation. But the image of Alaska as a land of self-reliant individualism extends across the state's (admittedly narrow) political spectrum, from its Republican congressional delegation to Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, who argues that Alaskans should be permitted to hunt on federal lands and chop down federal forests as they please. "Most Alaskans make a living from the land, and have a special bond with it," he explains. "Throughout the vast remoteness of much of the state, Alaskans depend on subsistence hunting and fishing to put food on their tables."

If only it were all true. In fact, Alaska is arguably the least self-reliant state in the union, dependent on federal largesse to an unmatched degree. Take anwr. At first blush, Alaskans seem like a rare and admirable exception to the nimby rule, offering up their treasured lands for the national good. (Drilling in anwr "can help offset the need for oil from nations hostile to the United States," the Anchorage Daily News selflessly offered.) But Alaska's unique imbyism is a touch more self-interested. Thanks to the federal government's generous 1959 grant of statehood, Alaska has received a fortune in royalties from oil drilled on its North Slope. Since the late 1970s this money has accumulated in an account called the Permanent Fund. It has accumulated so much, in fact, that Alaska not only has no need for income or sales tax, but the state actually pays residents an annual stipend--last year $1,850.28 a head--just for living there. So with every drop of oil pumped, wealth is transferred from Americans generally--the oil is all coming out of federally owned land--to Alaskans almost exclusively. And the more oil is pumped, the larger that transfer. No wonder the state spent $7 million lobbying for anwr--it's a fraction of what it would get if the legislation went through.

Nor is the state's oil subsidy an isolated case. Indeed, Alaska edges out Virginia and Maryland as the leading recipient of federal spending per capita. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, last year Alaska received $710.88 worth of pork per capita--more than 20 times the national average. A few recent examples of your tax dollars at work: $176,000 to the Alaska Reindeer Herders' Association; $150,000 to the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission; and $3 million for new dorms at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai. And all this is in addition to the billions of dollars of military spending the state receives as a strategic outpost--one that, needless to say, is not particularly strategic in the post-cold-war era.

As for the myth of Alaska's rugged individualism, it's largely just that. Historian Stephen Haycox has shown that most pioneers arrived in Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush on organized junkets. They came by trams, not treacherous hikes; and they lived off canned meat, not hunted moose. And if the state's Davy Crockett streak was exaggerated then, it's completely overblown now. Three-quarters of Alaskans reside in urban areas. More than half live in metropolitan Anchorage--an emerging latte town with the requisite array of Borders and Starbucks. According to the census, the largest segments of the labor force toil in white-collar jobs. Governor Knowles's romantic vision notwithstanding, fewer than 4 percent of Alaskans work in fishing, forestry, or farming.

One might expect Alaska's representatives in Washington to show a modicum of gratitude for the federal government's beneficence to their state. Instead, they are avatars of the state's swaggering self-image. Stevens boasts that he's "one mean, miserable SOB." Don Young likewise flatters himself that he's "not one of those smooth namby-pamby politicians." Young, in particular, has an ugly tendency to vilify political opponents. "I'm proud to say that they are my enemy," he said of environmentalists in 1996. "They are not Americans, never have been Americans, never will be Americans." When Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett politely raised some objections to the post-September 11 airline bailout, Young responded, "May you walk and may you die in the desert." In 1995 at a Fairbanks high school, he told students that he hated federally funded art. "Butt fucking. You think that's art?" he announced ever so appropriately. But his piece de resistance came in a 1994 hearing at which he banged an 18-inch-long walrus penis bone into his palm while dressing down the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

During the decades of debate that preceded Bill Clinton's 1996 signing of the welfare reform bill, Republicans argued that cash subsidies created a culture of dependence and entitlement that ultimately led to anti-social behavior. Stevens himself contended that the system "breeds discontent and idleness." It's a lesson, however, that has yet to be applied by Alaska's congressional delegation, who posture angrily as leaders of the GOP's Leave us Alone Coalition even as they represent the nation's largest remaining welfare state. Young, for one, likes to recommend that his opponents "Go to Russia." But he should consider his own advice. If Seward's Folly were returned to its previous owners, he might learn a thing or two about life in a postsocialist economy.

Franklin Foer is Editor of The New Republic.

 
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