Monday, 7 February 2011

Alaska (and more)

I would like to address some issues about Alaska and dispel some misconceptions that are expressed from time to time.

Alaska has unique conditions that don't compare well to the states in the Lower 48. Several factors come into this, such as the size of the state, the climate and also the size, composition and distribution of the population, etc.

I had a good look at the statistics for employment in Alaska and studied the sources of revenue for the state. Here's a chart showing employment percentages, industry by industry, in Alaska and the rest of the country.

(Please click on the image to enlarge)

The largest employer in Alaska is the government, followed by retail and a combination of service industries, healthcare and social assistance, construction, some manufacturing, forestry & fishing, then oil and mining combined (under "mining").

Here's a map showing the concentration and distribution of jobs by sector in Alaska. Unfortunately, the colours for the farming and service industries don't appear on the map. Either they are too spread out to be pinpointed on a map (services), irrelevant (the farming industry is almost non-existent) or somebody missed them out when designing the map.

In 2000 Native Americans accounted for 15.6% of Alaska's population—the highest percentage of any state. Alaska Natives were estimated in 2000 to number about 98,043, up from 86,000 (16%) in 1996.

Although the Alaska Native population is well distributed around the state, the income and poverty maps below show interesting percentages in Western Alaska (where a big crisis hit in January 2009) compared to the rest of the state.

The size of the Alaska Native population excludes great numbers from most employement sectors and affects the size of the workforce overall, which is important, considering that the total population of Alaska is very small for the size of the state.

Employment alone doesn't reflect the health of the state in financial terms. We have to look at the sources of revenue. Many industries that provide employment are not self-sustaining and don't generate revenue (quite the contrary) and don't generate wealth. The sector which generates most of the self-sustaining wealth - manufacturing - is quite inexpressive in Alaska. The sector generating by far the most revenue is the one dedicated to the exploration and exploitation of some natural resources - oil and other minerals. 87% of Alaska's revenue come from this sector. The remaining 13% come from taxation, federal dollars and other bits and bobs.

As big oil companies contribute so much to the state's revenue, they feel entitled to set the political agenda and Alaskan politicians in general seem only too happy to do their bidding. Prominent Alaskan politicians fight to open up federal lands, as in the case of ANWR, they sue the federal government over the listing of some species as endangered, turn a blind eye to the pollution that devastates the environment, not to mention the many corruption scandals that involved a number of them.

Oil has been very good for the Alaskan economy, but it's a resource which is dwindling and other factors make it an unpopular source of energy these days. When oil becomes a thing of the past, what will happen to Alaska? Perhaps the people who have the power to make decisions should start planning for the future and looking into alternatives. The future has the habit of arriving, you can't stop the clock. Without some planning and some diversification, Alaska's future could be very bleak indeed.

What are the main priorities of the average Alaskan? They're exactly the same as anybody else's anywhere in the world: Food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families. Once these three priorities are met, people start desiring other things, such as healthcare, education and leisure. The more people satisfy their priorities, the bigger their desire for material things becomes, as does their desire for power.

In a state like Alaska, where job opportunities appear to be limited or largely concentrated in a couple of sectors, it comes as no surprise that Alaskans are sometimes defensive about criticism of the oil industry or are reluctant to challenge and expose the largest employer in the state, the government.

Alaskans are not the culprits in any political or economical mess in their state any more than the citizens of any state are responsible for theirs. They vote and they hope, just like everybody else. I'm sure they would like to find long term solutions for their problems in the same way as the people in other states and countries would like to find for their own. I believe the way to change things is to talk to people and encourage them to go out and vote when the time comes. Apathy doesn't change anything, anywhere.

What role do Sarah Palin and the other politicians play (or played) in the state of the economy and the quality of life of the people of Alaska?

They make laws, formulate policies and approve budgets. Since Alaska became a state there have been several administrations with their own priorities. In the history of Alaska, before and after statehood, there have been major events that influenced many factors. The gold rush brought many people from out of state, as did the discovery of vast reserves of oil. These events changed the composition of the population, their desires and aspirations and also changed the behaviour and priorities of those in power.

Sarah Palin is no more to blame for any of the ills affecting Alaska than any other politician who came before her short stint in the top job. As a matter of fact, her record is inexpressive and mediocre when compared to others. The only difference is that she drew attention to Alaska and outsiders started asking questions about a state that didn't interest them before Sarah Palin, apart from being an interesting destination for adventurous vacations...

Why does any state (or country) raise revenue? Is it to stuff their coffers and say: "Look! We have a lot of money!" I don't think so. The role of government is very complex, but I like to believe that revenue is raised to provide services to the people living in the state and improve the quality of their lives. Defending the people and the assets of the state are important as well. Sarah Palin believes the role of government is to stay out of everything. OK, she makes concessions regarding defense. Is that it? Her record shows that providing services was not one of her priorities. Education? Healthcare? Preserving the environment and wildlife? The welfare and preservation of Alaska Natives and their way of life? No, none of the above.

Sarah Palin's record as governor and her Facebook notes, op-eds, speeches and interviews since going rogue point to a different priority: To carry the water for the big corporations. Spudnut and sputnik were added to her repertoire so she could pretend to be on the side of the little guys (and bash the Soviet Union). Small businesses make a difference to the economy when considered in the context of the economy as a whole, but it's the behaviour of the big guys that makes the most difference in the US. The marriage of the big corporations and the Supreme Court combined with various powerful lobbies for special interests in Washington, DC paint a pretty picture, eh? Sarah Palin plays a minor role in all this, albeit performed in a very loud and penetrating voice.

From Alaska to the US to the world, I tried to look at people's needs and priorities, the role of government and the priorities of the people in power, be it economical or political. I looked at Sarah Palin's role in Alaska and in the more recent big picture. My analysis and opinions are based on the new buzzword Sarah Palin loves so much: Common sense. Without any first hand knowledge of Alaska or any profound expertise in economics or politics, I looked at some facts, studied the records, put two and two together and now I'd like to encourage you to weigh in with your own insights and opinions.

Here are all the links to the sources used in the research involved in preparing this post, listed and clearly identified for ease of reference. Links to older posts on Palingates, other blogs and Palin's Facebook note are dotted around the text.

Demographic and Economic Profile - Alaska

Revenue Sources Book - Alaska Department of Revenue - Tax Division

State Government Employment Data - Alaska - 2009

Alaska Ethnic Groups

Population, Income, Education, Employment, and Federal Funds

Alaska Oil & Gas Association - State Revenue

ADN article - Oil Industry Employment

The News Tribune article - Alaska Unemployment Rate

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