I delivered the annual Loussac Lecture at the central library in Anchorage on Sept. 15, 1987. Though I felt pessimistic at the time about the direction of the state, then awash in oil revenue, I worked hard to find rays of sunshine to focus on.
Is Alaska Still the Promised Land?
15 September 1987
Thank you for the very kind introduction.
I am reminded of the observation of Oliver Wendell Holmes as he first saw his portrait unveiled at Harvard Law School:
“That is not me,” he said, “But it is a damn fine thing for people to think it is.”
Probably everyone here remembers the advice English teachers give about writing: They tell you to stick to what you know. Well, my subject tonight is one that I cannot claim truly to know, but it is one about which I care very passionately. It is about the character of Alaska's citizens and the future of this place we have been so proud to call home.
It feels appropriate to me to be here tonight -- if not to be at the front of the room lecturing, at least to be here at the Loussac Library. It feels comfortable partly because I am a product, substantially if not exclusively, of the Z.J. Loussac Library.
I well remember and have long been inspired by the inscription on the south wall of the old Loussac: “Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Free.”
I also well remember my dad's repeated assertion that we could settle all arguments at the library. Many an adolescent certainty ended for me amidst the reference stacks at Z.J. Loussac.
The library was to me then, and remains today, a repository of unfathomable depth, a place of truth and authority -- too often untapped, but always available.
I am also a product of a much simpler and more confident Alaska.
Long before oil discoveries turned Alaska dreams into hard-dollar realities, Alaskans believed in the future of their state.
If there was one thing Alaskans took as a matter of faith, it was that this place and these people were headed for great things. As we were America's “last frontier,” we were likewise the last outpost of Manifest Destiny.
Seldom was heard a discouraging word
I have always found an illustration of that in our pride over the first escalator installed in Anchorage. Some of you may remember that it was in what was also the first shopping center built in our town.
I remember as a boy joining with friends to hitchhike into town from Muldoon just to marvel at and ride the escalator. It was a special thrill to see the sign halfway up noting that we had passed from the City of Anchorage to the City of Spenard.
It was, we told one another, “As good as anything in Seattle.”
And that mattered to us.
That confidence and spirit was equally evident in the survival and resurgence of post-earthquake Alaska. It's a corny image, I know, but it is literally true that many Alaskans started rebuilding before the ground had fully settled.
I visited Managua, Nicaragua five years after its big earthquake, and Anchorage had looked better five weeks after ours.
That tone -- “Can do” -- was set much before my arrival, by men like Ernest Gruening and Bob Atwood. These were people who made things happen.
But if it was a simpler and more confident time, it also had its drawbacks. Among those was what my friend Mike Carey has described as “the prospector mentality.”
In the prospector's world, there's always an El Dorado just up the river -- a bonanza just around the bend.
And Alaska lurched from bonanza to bonanza: from fur seals to the gold rush, from canned salmon to cold war, and so on, at length, to the big casino: the bonanza we called Big Oil.
The problem with prospectors is that their optimism often eclipses common sense. With the mother lode just around the corner, why stop here to plant a garden?
As with the prospectors, Alaska's blind optimism has often occluded its vision.
Very often, the dark underbelly of brash optimism is insecurity. The booster proclaims “This is the best of all possible worlds” -- and a nagging voice inside says: “Yes, I'm afraid that's right.”
Alaskans constantly look for reassurance. We ask ourselves over and over: does living here mean we're special, or that we're crazy?
One dark February afternoon, Bill Parker and I speculated about what it was that kept us in a place like this.
“When they ask for people to go live on the moon,” Bill said, “I bet Alaskans volunteer for the dark side.”
Partly because of our cultural insecurity, I always feel a special joy when friends return from Outside. It reaffirms our own choices to hear them complain about traffic jams, and dirty air and rude neighbors.
In much the same way, we all love to hear visitors tell us how much they love it here. Their celebration of our wonderland helps ease our “dark of the moon” doubts.
But the occasional insecurity and the cabin-fever doubts were the exception. The hallmarks of that earlier Alaska society were optimism and self confidence.
Like Alaska itself, I entered our oil age full of that confidence.
As a much younger man in that much different Anchorage, I once wrote:
“Doesn't anyone else remember that Alaska was a land of bright promise before any of us dreamed of oil or pipelines?
“It is as though we Alaskans recently have been infected with a case of monetary myopia that prevents us, when we survey economic horizons, from seeing any farther than the nearest section of 48-inch pipe.
• “Without the pipeline, we have all been told countless times, Alaska will surely wither and die, strangled in the grip of brigands such as Outsiders, Conservationists and Meddlers.
“As a people, Alaskans have bought that pitch -- pump, line and tanker....”
Later, that same column said:
“Suppose -- even if the thought makes you tremble -- that oil had not been discovered at Prudhoe Bay.
“If Alaskans had never heard of Pet Four, Sag River or Deadhorse, would we have abandoned all hope for our state?
“If BP, Exxon and Atlantic Richfield had never drooled about 10 billion barrels of North Slope oil, would our senators have told Congress to run up a white flag signaling the end of Civilization As We Know It?”
And the column ended like this:
“If you never lived in pre-pipeline Alaska, you may not believe our state had a hope of survival without the oil...
What has happened, l fear, is that we all got greedy when the oil companies in 1969 shelled out 900- million dollars to lease some North Slope oil fields. Every day became Christmas Eve for Alaskans, and we began to live in the glow of our expectations rather than the sweat of our current efforts.
“Faced with the prospect of dollars flowing into Alaska as freely as the crude flowed out, we have gotten lazy. Here was wealth, ease and prosperity, ours for the asking because nature, in some prehistoric time, saw fit to deposit vast petroleum reserves beneath our Arctic tundra.
“No longer will we have to work at greatness: By an accident of geology, we can sit back and let the oil companies pump it out of the frozen oil fields for us.
“As tired and worn as the cliche may seem, we have put all our eggs in the billion-dollar basket of Big Oil. Alaskans have willingly donned the blinders, and look to nothing else.
“The discovery of North Slope oil may prove to have been a tragedy of the highest order -- not because a pipeline across Alaska will necessarily mean disasters, but because it may rob us of our initiative.”
When I wrote that, it was 1973. I was 22 years old.
There were 150,000 people in Anchorage, and they taxed themselves at the rate of 20 mills, and they were happy and optimistic.
Thirteen years later, there were almost 250,000 people here, and they paid about l0 mills in tax, and they complained and doubted at every turn.
For reasons of prudence, as well as politeness, I will resist (for the moment) the urge to say “I told you so”.
But there are warning signs aplenty to suggest that early warning was all too prophetic.
With the welling forth of oil riches, Alaska came eyeball to eyeball with its long-proclaimed destiny.
Many Alaskans blinked.
Did we exhibit the hearty self-reliance that is the legacy of our pioneers?
We did not.
Did we behave differently than the Oklahoma Indian or desert Bedouin suddenly confronted with massive wealth?
We did not.
Did we husband this once-in-an-epoch windfall to seed the gardens of our children's future?
We did not.
What did we do instead?
We demanded cheap housing loans, and then property tax relief to further subsidize them.
I went to high school in pre-oil Alaska, and we had bands and football teams and French clubs. We had them because our parents participated in that society -- with their time and energy and checkbooks.
Now, Alaska school districts are willing to sacrifice education to avoid a three-mill tax.
What else did we do instead?
We lavished billions on questionable construction projects.
We wanted an instant culture, without history or sacrifice. As a friend has put it, we tried to “buy ourselves a Houston off the shelf.”
And a huge percentage of that spending went to Seattle suppliers and laborers attracted by our spending spree.
What else did we do instead?
We elected leaders expressly for their inability to tell us no -- and then cursed them when the sugar daddy died.
We established the “Alaska Compromise” in Juneau -- a deal that was not a conciliation, a meeting halfway, but simply an arrangement where both sides get everything they wanted.
Senators openly acknowledged their shameful new credo: “Don't question my projects and I won't question yours.”
That is corrupting, no matter how worthy some of the projects may have been.
When we sacrificed the honorable process of government to meet our short-term appetites, we also sacrificed our innocence.
We have been largely unable to admit that behavior even now. We tend to blame distant Arabs or legislators past.
But it seems more accurate to acknowledge, as a correspondent from Ketchikan wrote to me, that “Alaska, awaking after its long debauch, is ashamed to see old friends.”
And which old friends are those?
Independence. Self-reliance. Confidence. Idealism.
Three and a half years ago, I wrote another essay -- this one inexplicably more optimistic than the one quoted above. On the 25th anniversary of statehood, I wrote, among other thoughts:
“Ten years after statehood, the state leased land for drilling up at Prudhoe Bay. That 900 million dollar payday was to have been the endowment that bought Alaska happiness.
“Ten years later still, billions of dollars from Prudhoe's production flowed through the pipeline and bulged our bank accounts. Then we learned all over again that if money can't buy happiness, neither can MORE money..
But later in that essay, I said:
“The secret of Alaska is that verbs matter more than nouns: It isn't the parade that's important, it's the parading.
“Alaska remains a place where people can create themselves by their actions -- where words like “open” and “opportunity” still mean something every day. Even when Alaskans dwell on history, thoughts of tomorrow turn up more often than those of yesterday.
“For us ... Alaska is in the future, not the past. No matter when you arrive, you can look back 25 years and fantasize. But you must look forward to dream.”
But too many Alaskans have stopped looking forward.
Dr. Glen Olds once told me he had been confused by his lack of understanding about Alaska, until he realized one fact: “I had come to Alaska expecting pioneers,” he told me. “What I found was mostly colonists”
Do you know the difference?
The pioneer looks inward, and forward, to fashion a new life of his inner strength and the landscape he inhabits.
The colonist looks backward for approval -- back to the “motherland,” to old patterns and established structures.
Dr. Olds would not always have found the colonists holding sway here.
In another column, I wrote about those differences:
“Can anybody remember exactly when Alaska filled up with whiners?
“At what point in our fairly recent past did we decide the world owed us a living? When was it that we decided to try and trade independence and self-respect for a guaranteed annual raise?
“People used to call San Francisco “The City That Knows How,” and a lot of us used to think we might call Alaska “The State That Makes Things Happen.” But the current level of public debate suggests we are nothing more than “The State That Sulks and Pouts”....
“This was a small town (once) and there was no oilfield sugar daddy to make things happen. When Alaskans talked about schools, they talked about school bonds. When they needed government to protect the salmon industry from Outside exploitation, they taxed the salmon industry. When they needed more government services to advance the public good, they taxed themselves.
“(Today) people who are whining about budget cutting as the only answer to the crisis are not talking about cutting the budget items that affect them. Are they ready to stand in line two hours longer at the DMV? Are they willing to call the oil industry's bluff and eliminate the Prudhoe Bay tax break? Will they give up the fat contracts to be had at the unnecessary Bradley Lake project? Will they stand for two-day delays in getting their streets plowed?
“Of course not.
“What they want to cut are medical services to the disabled poor. The savings that will spare them from a three-percent income tax will come out of adult education programs that teach grown men to read. They will come out of the testing labs where environmental engineers try to free playgrounds from toxic pollutants....”
What's shameful is not that we spent all those billions of dollars. In spending them, we did much good. We built schools and created safe water and endowed civic improvements like the one we are standing in now.
What is shameful is the greed that came to grip us.
I said of it earlier:
“What hurts us, finally, is the attitude we allowed to take root in the fertile soil of the easy money boom.
“It is the idea -- so foreign to Alaska -- that the country somehow owes us a living.
“The opportunity was so seductive -- and our resistance so very, very weak...
We not only embraced the era of low taxes, but were soon defending it as if subsidy by Prudhoe Bay was our natural right.
It didn't seem to trouble many of us that we were making ever less contribution to our society, or that we were willing sacrifice disabled health care before property tax breaks, or to cut school programs before paying a little more tax.
It is important to remember here that the wealth that fueled our frenzy belonged to us all.
It is equally the birthright of rich and poor, urban and rural, Native and non-Native. The wealth does not accrue to those who “deserve” it -- for none of us deserves a nickel's worth.
That oil bonanza is the result of God and geology. We were all just lucky to be here in the generation that stumbled across it.
Thus we are all responsible for how we spend this windfall.
In Texas, they found oil on private land, and made private fortunes out of it. If J.R. Ewing uses his new fortune to build tacky mansions and live in gauche extravagance, we hold him responsible.
We snicker, and call him “nouveau riche”
But we as a society are jointly responsible for how our fortune gets spent. If we build a tacky society, we must look in the mirror to find the culprit.
Worse yet, if the society we shape is selfish and narrow, we also must live with that mutual reputation.
For an example, let's look at the debate over restoring a state income tax.
Much of the debate, you will recall, was carried by those who said that we ought to give up the permanent fund dividend instead of reinstituting a modest tax.
That is a much meaner, much greedier, much more selfish proposal. It seeks to finance better lifestyles for the well-to-do at the expense of families in need, and to fund that selfish unfair plan with oil money that belongs equally to us all.
Does that sound like too harsh a characterization? Let me show you why it's true:
To illustrate the real debate, let's use these simple assumptions; they are close to the real numbers:
Let's say the proposed tax would be for 3 percent of income for those earning over 20,000. Let's also assume the permanent fund dividend is equal to $700 per person.
If my family of two earns $60,000 with no deductions, we'll pay $1,800 in taxes. But we'll get $1,400 in permanent fund dividends. Our net cost is $400, about 6/10th of one percent of our income.
Now look at a family of 4 earning $25,000.
Their taxes will be $750. But they get $2,800 in dividends, for a net gain of $2,050 -- almost eight percent of their income.
So what is the tax versus permanent fund debate really about? It's about protecting a tiny percentage of rich people's incomes at
the expense of people who really need the dividend money.
That doesn't sound like the kind of Alaska society I hoped we would create with our oil wealth.
Many have predicted that the exodus now underway will prune Alaska back to the root stock -- that those left will be the hearty pioneers and likeminded immigrants.
There is .some reason to suspect at least a trend in that direction. The pipeline boom brought record numbers of the purely
economic immigrants. There have always been boomers, but never in numbers like these.
They came in basically two kinds: those who came independently, looking for a way to make big bucks, and those who were ordered here by an Outside boss.
Both were solely motivated by economics. Perhaps both will be among the first to leave.
But it's too easy to blame our basic problems on newcomers. It is also true that the expectations of all Alaskans changed.
Thinking about that earlier, I wrote:
“Alaska's physical landscape accommodated the trans-Alaska pipeline without catastrophe. Can we say the same for our social landscape?
“I think not.
“While we were arguing 12 or 15 years ago about (pipeline) leak detection systems, whole new patterns were being woven into the social fabric of Alaska. While we learned about permafrost dynamics and vertical supports, an unnoticed revolution was melting the community consensus in
“For better or (too often) worse, tides of population growth and easy money were eroding a social landscape that proved every bit as fragile as the tundra we fought so hard to protect...”
For a while, it seemed that the rude shock of falling oil prices might slap us back to our senses.
I took great encouragement from a bumper sticker that appeared when prices fell from $30 a barrel to $9. Rephrased in polite terms, it said: “Please God, It there be one more oil boom: I promise not to waste it all this time.”
Had that proved true, we could have said the oil price plunge was a good thing.
But although the jury is not yet in, it looks like we're still all too willing to waste....
As that jury considers the verdict for our behavior, one piece of evidence rises compellingly to our defense: The Alaska Permanent Fund.
This is the one thing we did unquestionably right. But not even it came without considerable selfish opposition.
The selfishness came from many of the fund's Johnny-come- lately supporters.
They were against creation of the fund, arguing that “pressing needs” demanded spending the money immediately. But does anybody believe we'd have been better off spending that $9 billion like the other $22 billion?
After the fund was created, these same critics were against the dividend program itself. It just wasn't appropriate for government to give money to the public, they said.
But what they meant was that government shouldn't give money to the general public. Gifts of subsidized business loans and tax relief for property owners were, of course, perfectly all right.
Later still, these people were also against even a prudent investment strategy for the fund.
“Invest it in Alaska” was the rhetoric at one time -- which meant that we should invest it in them. That was a strategy,
you may note, that could well have had our nest egg invested in Zamarello malls.
But the fund has been an idea of sufficient strength to withstand those self-interested attacks. It survives today as the best monument to our old belief that we could do things differently and better in Alaska.
The permanent fund, truly, reflects the Alaska of that confident past: willing to break new ground, to do things better.
This was something we did for generations yet to come.
This was our attempt to create something of genuine permanence with our windfall.
Much else that we did was worthy ... or at least benign.
We devoted vast sums to education ... and our motive was worthy, even if in practice our recent wasteful habits too often took charge.
We brought pure water and decent sanitation to much of rural Alaska ... and our efforts were worthy, even though it also cost us an electric subsidy program that encourages waste.
We opened our hearts and our collective checkbook to Alaska's pioneers ... and our intentions were worthy, although our politicians lacked the discipline to restrict it to those who truly need it.
The dream of opportunity and promise that was so bright in my youth seems badly tarnished to me now.
Where once we promised not to make the same mistakes as the Lower 48, we now have polluted creeks and air quality alerts.
Where once we exalted independence and self-reliance, we now hear tax protestors whining despite the lowest tax burden of any similar American city.
Where once we valued frontier virtues of equality and egalitarian treatment, we now mire in debate about naming a public building for a beloved civil rights leader.
Yet I believe the impulse toward nobility still burns throughout Alaska. Though it can be smothered by selfishness, it is not a fragile sentiment.
Few of us are here by accident. Having actively chosen Alaska, our investment in its success is personal as well as material.
Our renaissance, if it is to come, will begin with the thousands of individuals who want- to do better.
As Stephen Spender has said:
“The only true hope for civilization is the conviction of the
individual that his inner life can influence outward events.”
As those individuals work privately to restore our public virtue, their activities will focus on a subject too long absent from Alaska's public policy debate: They will address themselves to the matter of values.
Henry David Thoreau tells us:
“It is not enough to be busy. The question is, what are we busy about?”
We answer that most important question through our values.
• A Kachemak twilight at midsummer midnight is equally beautiful whether oil sells for 10 dollars a barrel or 30.
• Our opportunity to pioneer new territories of equity and justice is enhanced, not diminished, by the challenges we face.
• The building of a more open, fairer, more inclusive society was threatened by the tsunami of population growth, but now beckons anew, offering us that rarest and most precious of gifts --a second chance.
Is Alaska still the promised land?
For those whose values touch its strengths, more so than ever.
If your primary value is on dollars, this is a good time to leave. But if you value opportunity and challenge, there's never been a better time to stay.
Alaska remains a land of bounteous promise, but its promise is no longer so promiscuous. No more the wide-eyed virgin, whirling between uncertainty and anticipation, today's Alaska presents a more mature promise.
It is a more demanding promise today -- not the something-for- nothing bonanza of the gold beach at Nome, but rather the accomplished satisfaction of a longer, harder-won victory.
Is Alaska still the promised land?
It has disappointed those who sought to remake Anchorage into Tulsa and Valdez into Gulfport, but it's a land of promise renewed for those who embrace its special character and challenge.
If we insist on a role as colonists, looking back at the rigidity and materialism of our broader culture, our hopes are dim.
But if we are willing to pioneer, we can still create a new order, tailored to this place and this society.
Is Alaska still the promised land?
My Alaska is. And its promise is reflected most in this: That the promise of your Alaska is yours to shape, and that your destiny is still in your own hands here in the northcountry.