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Alaska is burning, but so is everything else

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Due to budget vetoes, my university has been reduced to the size of a parade float

As many LGM readers are likely aware, the University of Alaska system is perched on the edge of oblivion after our governor — an enormous tower of right-wing meat named Mike Dunleavy — vetoed the state’s appropriation by more than 40 percent in a single year, a $130 million dollar reduction that will produce enduringly shitty consequences for the state. Several of my UA colleagues published an op-ed yesterday in the Washington Post describing and condemning the governor’s vetoes, while press coverage more broadly has helped draw attention to what is quickly shaping up to be the most geographically remote and yet alarming attack on American higher education in decades. Unless the vetoes are overridden by a comically-large 3/4 vote of the legislature, tens of thousands of Alaskans will lose access to an affordable college education; well over 1000 of my colleagues and I will lose their jobs; and the state will tip back into a years-long recession from which we were already only barely emerging.

I happen to be living in the midst of this, from a house that rests literally a long egg toss from the mansion where Governor Dunleavy spends as little time as possible. When the governor announced his budget proposal on February 13, activity across the university abruptly slowed or ground to a halt. Faculty morale, already brittle, fractured. Students across the state hesitated to commit more years and financial resources to a university system that appeared suddenly unreliable. At the time, I was enjoying my first sabbatical release in nearly two decades of employment at the University of Alaska Southeast, the smallest of the three universities in the UA constellation. Suddenly, instead of working on my book project about presidents, violence, and popular culture, I began a new, more or less full-time job that involved attending legislative subcommittee hearings, testifying against the budget as often as possible, roaming the capitol building like an agitated bear, meeting with and writing legislators, and rage-tweeting the entire experience to an audience of dozens.

The political economy of Alaska is beyond baffling to most outsiders. (My friend Pat Race, a Juneau artist and business owner, has a great animated explainer here if you’re interested.) For the past forty years, as much as 90 percent of our state’s operating budget has been supplied by oil taxes; in addition to that, we have a vast Permanent Fund, including a savings reserve that was initially designed to act as a hedge against dramatic fluctuations in oil revenue that might keep the state from offering public goods worthy of a sane and decent citizenry. In addition to buffering state spending on education, infrastructure, law enforcement, and other vital services, that fund began paying out dividends to individual Alaskans in 1982. The Permanent Fund Dividend is the easily-mocked, quasi-UBI program that non-Alaskans are widely familiar with, ladled out in varying amounts during the first week of October each year. (According to the statutory formula established in the early 1980s, every Alaskan would receive a staggering $3000 this year; in my seventeen years of residency, payments have varied from roughly $600-2500.) For the better part of four decades, then, Alaskans have enjoyed free government and free money, with nary a dime of state income, sales, or property tax collected from the hundreds of thousands of citizens who — while receiving an annual check from the state — are ideologically inclined to believe they have earned everything by the sweat of their own brows.

To make a long story short, oil prices have plummeted since 2014. Meantime, the state altered its tax structure at roughly the same time to accommodate the interests of fossil fuel producers, who assured a gullible and compliant legislature that generous tax credits would spur production and increase actual revenues flowing into the public coffers. That didn’t happen. And now, with several years of budget deficits having gobbled much of our Permanent Fund reserve (a savings backstop that every other state lacks), the governor and his political supporters have insisted that the problem resides in uncontrolled spending — levels that have actually remained fairly stable when adjusted for inflation and population growth — rather than with revenue priorities. We could, of course, demand more from the oil producers who are helping roast the planet; we could adjust the formula for dividend payments and reserve more for schools and roads and programs that keep people from dying behind dumpsters with needles in their arms; we could re-establish a small, progressive income tax and keep state ferries in service to rural communities; and we could introduce a seasonal sales tax to coincide with the influx in billions in tourism dollars that bathe us each summer. And yet the political will for any of these is almost completely lacking, despite widespread public support for some eclectic hybrid of measures to stabilize our revenue stream.

In 2016, our previous governor (an independent named Bill Walker) vetoed the dividend appropriation in order to partly close the budget deficit; the following year, the legislature reduced funding for the dividend to accomplish the same, albeit still partial, purpose. The two-year clipping of the PFD, however, enraged Alaska’s Snow Machine Socialists, who rallied behind the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Mike Dunleavy, a former teacher, school administrator, state senator with no meaningful accomplishments in years of well-compensated service to the public. Dunleavy won in large part by promising the impossible: a full, statutory PFD (which his enraged supporters claimed had been “stolen” from them) and a budget spared of arterial bloodletting. After winning, Dunleavy promptly hired Donna Arduin, a road agent hailing from a firm she founded with Arthur Laffer and the renowned crackpot misogynist Stephen Moore. Backed by Charles and David Koch, Arduin’s firm trafficked in Ayn Randian fan fiction while Arduin periodically loaned her expertise to states like Kansas, Illinois, and Michigan, where conservative governors relieved the agony of the rich while pressing a rag in a tight seal over the mouth and nose the public sphere. Arduin — a Duke University graduate whose Twitter feed is like the Twitter feed of the Gadsden Flag if the Gadsden Flag was half as clever and had thumbs — believes the federal government’s sole responsibility is national defense and is the sort of soulless goblin who literally scolds the indigent under her breath.

On Saturday, after watching Duke win the second-round game in the NCAA tournament, Arduin heads for the airport to fly back to Tallahassee. Waiting at a red light, she looks through the window at a homeless man sitting on the curb, holding up a cardboard sign that reads “Anything helps–Smile–God Bless.”

It’s an uncomfortable moment. The homeless man sees her, they make eye contact, he smiles, she looks away. Then, she turns back and, too softly for him to hear–but with conviction–says, “Get a job.”

The Dunleavy-Arduin budget laid bare the lies Dunleavy himself had offered on the campaign trail. Although a bipartisan, legislative majority cobbled together a budget that was tolerable by comparison, the governor and his enablers indicated all along that he would veto everything into the sun. Alaskans for Prosperity — the local franchise of the Koch Americans for Prosperity death cult — organized an astroturf campaign in which “concerned citizens” mailed boxes of red markers and form letters to the governor’s office. Arduin herself began showing up at a local bar trivia night with a crew of supplicants who named their team “The Red Pens,” an open “fuck you” to the other patrons that night whose community the governor’s vetoes would eventually threaten. Although hundreds of concerned Alaskans have turned out for public hearings in March to condemn the budget proposals, Gov. Dunleavy has repeatedly insisted — in Trumpian fashion — that he has been hearing nothing but support from hard-working Alaskans who happen not to have the time to show up and offer their testimony on the record. Civic engagement, apparently, is for the lazy.

All of this has led to an almost unfathomable civic absurdity. As of July 4, we are faced with the distinct possibility that within a few months, every Alaskan will receive a bonanza payment of $3000 at the same time that my university is eviscerated; Medicaid funding is slashed by $50 million; social services are gutted in a state in the midst of an affordable housing and homelessness crisis; public broadcasting, radio, and arts funding disappear; and cash payments to low-income seniors abruptly come to an end. The economic consequences of all this will be self-defeating. Stable, high-paying jobs — along with programs that offer the barest means of security to the most vulnerable — will disappear as the legislature infuses cash into an economy that responds, at best, with a few thousand temporary, low-wage service jobs to soak up the vomit.

It’s odd to write about all this when the rest of the planet is catching fire and when the most powerful nation in the world is straining under the weight of an unindicted half-wit who imprisons children, summons tanks to the Lincoln Memorial, and has apparently spent much of his adult life raping people. It’s a Russian nesting doll of horrors out there, and the agonies of a state that elected Sarah Palin and then continued fucking up are, well, pale indeed. I’ve heard lots of people this week warning that Alaska is a coal mine canary of some sort, that what’s happening to my state and my university could happen anywhere; that might be true, or it might not. It seems barely coincidental that a university system known in part for its strong research on climate change would be targeted for suffering by conservative ideologues within and beyond our borders. But we’re also governed by people who are likely confused about how to properly mount a roll of toilet paper, so perhaps Alaska is merely the frontier where the Venn diagram of idiocy and conspiracy form a single overlapping circle.

If you happen to visit us anytime soon, though, be sure to tip your tour bus driver well, because there’s a non-trivial chance I’ll be one of them.

Addendum: Thanks to all the LGM crew for offering me a platform to write about this absurdity.

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