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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

Children of the Territory

By David Otness


March 30, 2016
Wednesday PM

A number of life-long Alaskan friends and myself have been taken aback by what has happened to our beloved Alaska over the past 40 + years and how little it resembles and feels like the place in which we grew up in the then Territory of Alaska. Of course the demon and denominator - and ultimately the bane - is and was the Resource Curse that befalls any nominally-sophisticated group of people when Big Oil comes to town. And yes, it brought much which is bright and shiny, but it also brought social ills in overabundance to what was once a widely-stretched-out, self-sufficient and resilient community that lived in relative harmony in an era that rightfully should be revered and is still remembered in high esteem and longing by those of us who knew it when. I reckon we’ll be defined as primitive for that notion these days.

The past 15 years, via the national contemporary politics of the extreme, Big Oil’s ultimately preponderant weight and mass provoked a cultural steamrolling of a people who once had a collective identity and commonality, and has even managed to bring us to the point of abject dissolution of the community and commonality we once knew in Territorial days. The larger question of mine, right down to our current financial/economic travails is: was this an aberrant economic spiral downward or rather part of a plan from the highest levels of Wall Street to gut and subdue a sovereign and proud population? Make no mistake: Wall Street owns “our” oil companies, including the largest single voting bloc of BP, a JPMorganChase investment.

Alaska’s sovereign wealth fund, the Permanent Fund, initiated and approved and then amended to our state constitution back in 1976, broke with our original statehood compact voluntarily for the first time. Previous to that, all revenues went to the General Fund by statute that forbade taxing for direct allocation from any dominant revenue in any instance. It was up to the legislature and governor to hash out the details from the larger money pot in the light of Day. The idea that we would put 25% of oil revenues into an investment trust was approved by a 2 to 1 margin back in the blossoming of that Day. And our doing so was meant specifically for the time when oil revenues were no longer sufficient to keep a viable economy - one expected to grow - but previously predicated on federal spending, commercial fishing, mining and logging - even trapping fur-bearers and nominal tourism (guided hunting and fishing mainly) as a means to sustain our population at the time - all of 300,00 or so of us back then. In the Day. We existed and thrived under those old parameters. We were the people planning ahead with the Permanent Fund. And here some of us are yet to remember the wherefores and the whys.

Our transition into a petroleum-producing state shook the sleepiness out of our eyes as the boom began to plant meaningful roots and wild weeds both as the hucksters, the grifters and the pimps too showed up for the action. Most of us, formerly placid and content with the previous economy of barter and handshake loans, (P.A.F. meant pay after fishing) were rather taken by the excitement and money in the air as a novelty to the sleepiness formerly pervading our consciousness in the 1960s. Hell, we were teenagers, or just in our early twenties, on an almost separate planet, we Children of the Territory. All we knew growing up was the Cold War, fishing and construction seasons and how to take care of ourselves and others, especially in the cold winters that once prevailed in these parts. An entire social code was written in ironclad about stopping to help someone stranded in -20 to -60 F temperatures. EVERYONE stopped to help, no matter the cause. There was no trepidation whatsoever in the act. Because people would die otherwise and it could be us in the next 5 minutes when that moose was coming through one’s windshield. There was very little traffic on our two-lane highways and the miles were long, dark and remote between helpful habitations, i.e. the roadhouses originally situated and sited for the travels of dogsleds in their strategic placement. Such were our highways still back in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.

To get back on track here, our Permanent Fund from oil royalties, is now under its third iteration of assault by the corporate powers in this state. That $50 billion money pot is squarely in their aggression-filled, self-aggrandizing focus and to me, almost sociopathic sights. In the meantime, our dividends, extant since 1982 - which have provided us with a real stake in our state and are distributed at the cusp of winter, providing fuel for furnaces and a grocery-buying binge for those of us who utilize them for such, are again under that corporate assault by the usual suspects of big business.

Mortgage payments, car repairs, a new ATV or outboard collectively-bought with PFDs in a roadless and remote village for hunting, or for fishing gear for the people paying up to $10 per gallon for gasoline, is a lifesaver just as the PFD was meant to be, adding up to make life both doable and liveable in otherwise marginal circumstances. Because under the precepts of the Permanent Fund Dividend Constitutional Amendment and our delightfully socialist-leaning Alaska State Constitution, the resources of this state are identified by law as belonging to the People. Not some company based in Timbuktu or the Cayman Islands for tax purposes. Not any one individual.

And these people - the “corporations are people” people - who want to take it away to further sustain and fund their individual business endeavors and personal wealth? They are the same lickers of the honey pot who encouraged our gerrymandered Republican-controlled state government to overspend for the past 10 years to keep feeding them and their corporations the subsidies and contracts from our oil money, money that should have been more wisely invested for the future generations. As previously stated, they have mounted this assault 3 times in similar circumstances, i.e. oil-price downturns.

Like I said, now that we’re here bent over the proverbial barrel, an oil barrel in this instance, my thoughts tend to wander and wonder as to the magnitude of this set-up by ‘conservative” Republicans” over this past decade - as in they want to see our personal stake, our actually realized from resource wealth “skin in the game”, divided, degraded and diminished into a capped teenage-themed mere allowance that will not utilize and share earnings from our $50 billion Permanent Fund’s investments to the People, but instead take them from the actually ever-diminishing returns from the oil and mineral wealth left to us after Wall Street is done with us. In this, the People are being “down-sized” and separated from the original meaning of the Permanent Fund Dividend and what it represents as a perpetual foundational rock into the future. We are told (by other words and messaging dog whistles) we must do this in order to subsidize (imho) an overbuilt and perhaps purposefully engineered shock-doctrine economic crash scenario for further disaster capitalism to onerously and inevitably assert itself. Uber alles. At the little guys’ expense. And that’s us.
Norway: nearly $1 trillion in their Sovereign Wealth Fund in less time and with fewer barrels of oil produced. And they sent a delegation here to see how we were doing it back in the 1980s before starting their own. Had I my druthers while working for the implementation of both the Permanent Fund and the Dividend back in the Day, and even today, I would still wish we had put 50% of the earnings/taxes/royalties directly into the Fund.

Jay Hammond, Hugh Malone, Oral Freeman and Clem Tillion saw this day and year coming.

And some few of us, the remaining Children of the Territory, saw it coming too. And rue it, we do as well - for the attempts being made to disenfranchise the People of this state once again.

Big Oil has been asserting itself in Alaska very successfully as an oligopoly while pursuing and achieving the political power now holding us hostage in this latest “crisis”. The same mercantile power over the centuries that has been redrawing and re-defining borders and regions, indeed even violently remaking nations in these days for well over a century now, sits gloating in the Republican oriented and gerrymandered Alaska State Legislature. It’s not that they saw we Alaskans as ‘special’ or even a significant foe, or as a threatening adversary to their stockholders, indifferent and unaware as too many of us have been.

Rather it was and is those (52%) who did not recognize nor acknowledge the bitter truths of how easily the oil companies could and would infiltrate and inculcate their employees as legislators and even 2 governors; and then fearful-for-their jobs employees as voters for what they as representatives ultimately could do to us with an abomination such as SB 21 as a test venue effort to subsume Alaska silently and suffocatingly into their fold. So far it seems to be working for them. So far...

We can begin to change this in November.

David Otness
Cordova, Alaska

Received March 27, 2016 - Published March 30, 2016

About: David Otness is a lifelong, third generation Alaskan who has worked as a commercial fisherman, merchant mariner, mariculture farmer and heavy construction worker. He describes himself now as a loud and proud practical environmentalist. And a perennial political thorn to those most deserving.



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