This is madness.
It really is.
By any number of measures, our social and political systems have gone crazy at both the national and state levels. For starters, it is absolutely insane that both the president of the United States and Alaska’s governor continue to deny—or ignore—that climate change is happening, that this change has already reached a crisis stage, and that this global crisis is caused largely by reckless human behavior, much of it right here in this nation.
Overwhelming scientific evidence makes clear that the burning of fossil fuels is at the heart of this crisis and yet both President Donald Trump and Gov. Mike Dunleavy are focused on protecting and expanding the industries that produce these fuels, rather than advocating and seeking alternative clean energy sources.
Here in Alaska—and that’s where I’ll remain for the remainder of this commentary—it is also crazy that our state’s riches, due largely to the oil and gas industry that is contributing so mightily to climate change, have led, in some absurd upside-down way, to the precipice of an unprecedented economic and societal crisis.
Is it not crazy that a state as rich as ours, with a savings account approaching $70 billion, should be facing onerous budget cuts that would be ruinous to many segments of Alaska’s population and its culture? And isn’t it insane that our so-called leaders are doing great harm to ordinary folks while allowing the petroleum industry to get off scot-free, even while it earns obscene profits. Or that reasonable income taxes, which would primarily be paid by those who can easily afford them, aren’t even part of the discussion?
Yes, it’s madness.
In a way, our insane circumstances have resulted from a perfect storm of wealth, greed, and the election of politicians—our current governor chief among them—who are more interested in protecting industry interests, corporate profits, and what’s become our state’s entitlement mentality, than the people they’re supposed to represent.
Maybe it’s not only a form of societal insanity, but karma.
First, our state’s exploitation of Alaska’s immense oil and gas reserves has led not only to great wealth, but widespread worship of the petroleum industry, which in some quarters is viewed as a kind of savior; or at least a golden goose that we dare not chase away, lest we lose its golden eggs. (Which are really not the industry’s, if you think about it.)
Second, Alaska’s oil-based wealth, combined with the wisdom of some visionary Alaskans, led to the creation of the permanent fund, unique among all the states. The fund, in turn, spawned our Permanent Fund Dividend, which at the time—and for many years after—also seemed to be the wise act of far-sighted leaders. What a great idea: not only did it give all Alaskans a stake in the success of the Permanent Fund, it was a way to distribute a portion of Alaska’s oil wealth to every resident.
Alas, the PFD has had some unintended consequences. Along with the elimination of state income taxes (not such a wise decision, it turns out) it has led to a widespread entitlement mentality. More than three decades after that first $1,000 dividend payout, it appears that many Alaskans now consider the PFD something of a God-given right.
Imagine that: many of the Alaskans who proudly declare themselves to be independent, socialist-hating, despise-the-government sorts have no trouble accepting a government handout for simply living here. Now if that isn’t a form of socialism . . .
Of course many of those same Alaskans will respond: “that’s our money, not the government’s.” Not that those residents have done anything to earn it.
Ain’t America great!
The most absurd part is that many of the ‘full PFD’s’ staunchest defenders are also the greatest ‘big government’ haters, but they don’t recognize the inherent contradiction in their position. Those who do are nothing but whining hypocrites.
Point three is a direct consequence of one and two: the election of Mike Dunleavy as Alaska’s governor. Though Dunleavy bills himself as a tough-on-crime, bring-back-trust-to-government kind of guy, what really won him the support of many Alaskan voters, especially government-leery conservatives, was his promise of a “full” dividend, not to mention back payment of dividend monies “owed” to residents. That unrealistic promise is somehow forgotten now, but it sure fooled some people for a while.
Well, it turns out our governor is willing to pay that full dividend (based on what economists agree is an outdated formula) at just about any social cost. And the way he’s figured out to do that—with help from advisors who include a woman with a history of helping to ruin economies in other states—is to take a wrecking-ball approach to our state’s operating budget. I won’t go into those details because they’ve been admirably addressed by Alaska’s media and the numerous citizens, many of them leaders in our state, who’ve written commentaries explaining the dire impacts of Dunleavy’s unconscionable—and, I would argue, immoral—actions.
But I will offer this: Who would have guessed that the blessing of permanent fund dividends would lead to such an awful—and arguably evil—outcome?
I still believe some sort of PFD can be a good thing, especially for those with small incomes, like those living in remote, rural Alaska. But not a supersized PFD that wrecks state services; not one issued at any cost.
Though Dunleavy must shoulder most of the blame for putting our state on the edge of chaos (economic, societal, and climatic), the Alaska Legislature, too, has contributed to the madness, for its inability—or unwillingness—over several years to take reasonable actions that would balance the budget, including cuts (or even elimination) of tax breaks to the oil and gas industry and the re-instatement of a moderate, progressive income tax as once existed in Alaska.
Those legislators unwilling to override or otherwise reinstate the budgeted money lost in Dunleavy’s $444 million in vetoes are equally complicit in this madness, as are the hard-core, full-dividend-at-any-cost Alaskans who so adamantly stand behind the governor and selfishly look out for their own interests, the greater good be damned.
As I write these words, hope remains that some form of temporary sanity will return to our state’s political establishment and the harm will be largely, or at least partly, undone.
Still, a deeper cultural madness will continue to haunt—and harm—our state and its people until Alaskans make essential changes to our collective psyches and priorities, and reconsider what matters most, while embracing a saner and more heartfelt, compassionate way of being in the world, that world not only including humans, but all of life.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.