Tuesday, February 24, 2009

They're asking entirely the wrong question

Forget about whether the state of Alaska should continue to support the existence of villages. The villages ought to be asking themselves why they should continue to support urban, suburban and wilderburban Alaska.

Truth is, urban Alaska is dependent on the continued existence of Alaska’s villages. Tell me, what exactly does Anchorage produce? Fish? Uh, no. Timber? Nope. Coal? Negatory. Oh, the urban areas could say that it is not the villages, just the land out there (and everything on or under it) that they need, but they'd be wrong.

What Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks do produce is infrastructure and employees of that infrastructure through which money flows to various programs serving village Alaska. A lot of that money is federal money. And a whole lot of money that should be going to services is spent on employing people in Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks and Juneau. A lot of it is spent transporting them to village Alaska.

Our urban areas produce nothing. They are where the paper is shuffled and the point through which money flows. (After a lot of it stays behind.)

Those folks, in turn, can maintain a lifestyle that allows for the growth of communities that support all sorts of ancillary services – restaurants, tanning salons, doggie day care, Nordstroms, strip malls, Range Rover dealerships – all the crap that the folks who move to Alaska but want to turn it into the place they left want and have. They all in turn can buy houses and cars and lots of toys.

And it’s not just bureaucrats and TWPs (pronounced ‘twips’) … those transient white professionals that spend a year or two our in the Bush making bank and then move out. It is high paying work, whether you’re an itinerant health care worker, or one of the army of consultants, a lawyer, or an ‘expert’ on rural issues hired to do research every time there is an EIS or project proposal. There are scores of grants funding jobs at universities, all of which poke and prod and make vague promises about how they will help lower suicide rates or foster culture or promote local agriculture or something out in the villages.

And lest the conservatives sneer at these jobs related to ‘programs’ – a large number of the skilled trades would be screwed if village Alaska disappeared. Think of every construction and maintenance project – be it building homes, improving airports, water and sewer, weatherization, school construction, boiler work, hell even the AVEC guys (that’s Alaska Village Electric Cooperative for you Outsiders or urban residents) who work on the electrical generation plants … all these people fly in and out of village Alaska and collect a big fat paycheck. We’re talking carpenters, electricians, operators, and the like. And if it is a federally funded project, they make Davis-Bacon wages (a name I’ve always found ironic.) These folks, too, spend their money in urban Alaska.

Young teachers go out to village Alaska to get experience and make much better money. Typically they stay a year or two and then leave.

The regional hubs need the villages, too. There are a lot of high paying jobs in the hubs predicated on the existence of village Alaska. That’s true of every regional corporation, be it the non-profit or for profit. What supports all the small regional airlines? It’s not flying people out to the villages. It’s flying bypass mail and freight and all those white collar and blue collar people and their excess baggage out to village Alaska to work. (Although admittedly, the price of fuel is making bypass mail much less of a profitable enterprise. Whatever did happen to the proposed changes to bypass mail last year. Seriously. I lost track of that one.)

What would the snowmachine and ATV dealers do if rural Alaska emptied out? What about the barge lines that deliver goods to communities?

All this talk of whether the State of Alaska should support Alaskan villages misses the point. The fates of urban Alaska and village Alaska are inextricably entwined.

And frankly, this is merely the economic end of the discussion. Issues of history, values, and culture trump all this. But that is for another time.


Philip Munger said...

This says a lot more than my Monday essay on how important villages are. The white towns and cities are far more parasitic than the aeons-old Native communities.


CabinDweller said...

Well, (I say now that I've calmed down a little), is it parasitism or are we looking at a symbiotic relationship?

Though, I confess, in darker moments I am sure it is parasitism.

Coldfoot said...

Point: Teachers and other professionals go to the bush and make bank. True.

They make bank because the state pays the bills, whether it be construction, teaching, or other state job.

Yes, yes, yes. There are federal jobs, too. Yes, yes, yes. You could figure in Prudhoe Bay into your statistics on how much is produced in the bush in order to skew the numbers.

The whole point of the debate is whether the state should continue to pay through the nose for urban professionals to go to the bush so villagers can continue to live that lifestyle.

CabinDweller said...

I disagree with you on this one, Coldfoot. I don't see the issue hingeing on whose 'lifestyle' we're supporting, be it urban or rural. Both sides miss out on that one. The state also subsidizes a suburban lifestyle with what it funds in those communities. And that's what societies do, what communities do. We all end up paying for something that doesn't end up for benefitting us personally.

And even if the state does kick in some money in support of villages, ultimately it benefits the TWPs and others. State spending ultimately ends up lining someones pocket, whether through a wage or some fat proposal build a road.

But also, if we talk about state funding (which as you know, most of our state money comes from developments out there, be it fish or oil royalties or whatever) - we're NOT paying income tax in this state. So urban people can't winge about about their tax dollars supporting villages.

I suppose they could winge about their federal tax dollars doing that - but two things:

1) We get a lot more money back to this state than we send in taxes
2) Trust responsibility between the federal government and tribes. (Which is a whole nother topic. And I'm only mildly fluent in really discussing that one.)

KC said...

I'll have to disagree with you. If every village went away, I'd be depressed in a way you couldn't imagine, but I'd still have my job. There's quiet a bit that the three urban cores supply or perform. Around Fairbanks, mining is a big thing (tm). One of my neighbours works at a mine, and the other wants to. Anchorage is a major energy hub for the state, and while it doesn't refine, it definitely distributes a lot of fuel to sources that'd need fuel, even if you don't count puddle jumpers in the state.

I don't think you could make the argument that Prudhoe bay is bush AK. Not in good faith; not without being really disingenuous. Prudhoe bay would probably have existed sooner, without the villages. It'd also be a bigger mess, because they would have rushed it through, but that's neither here nor there.

You can't overstate the importance of military - I did the sums once, and found that 1/3rd of Fairbanks NS borough is directly tied up in the bases as employees or contracters, and /probably/ 1/2 of the borough gets their economic livelyhood either directly or indirectly from the base (trickle through money, so to speak). Likewise, tourism is a bit thing (tm), as much as we hate them. I don't have numbers on that, but by god, someone's got to maintain all those RVs, and man those interpretative centres.

Closer to my home, my research is funded by federal grants, or more often non-profit organizations interested in conservation science. Native corps don't like biologists much, because biologists tend to tell them things they don't like to hear. UAF would continue to be, absent bush Alaska.

There are plenty of good arguments why bush AK is worth existing. You know me - I couldn't argue otherwise. I just don't see much of urban AK's livelihood being tied up in Rural AK. Yeah, there'd be a hit to the urban centres if the villages vanished, but it wouldn't spell doom by any stretch.

CabinDweller said...

I'm not arguing that urban Alaska would cease to exist or doom. Definitely not. (But I should go reread, maybe that is what I said by the language I picked, though I didn't quite mean that exactly.) I'm merely making the argument that it does need village Alaska - it is an important part of the economy.

And for a Fairbanks example, while TCC doesn't fund you, it employs a whole lot of people in Fairbanks. They spend money in Fairbanks. TCC itself purchases goods and services in Fairbanks.

It's the whole dollars circulating through the system thing. Even though Fairbanks would be impacted less, it would be felt.

Oh,and also - it might appear that I was casting this about being about race ... 'bad' white Anchorage or something. Anchorage has the largest Alaskan Native population in the state. It has a huge immigrant population from Asia, Latin America.

I was reacting to the themes I see emerging in the current dialogue about village Alaska. Erg. Will comment more later, have brain fog after a long day.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



CabinDweller said...


Thank you. We don't update every day, sometimes we both go AWOL for awhile. But positive feedback is nice. Welcome!

Naturelady said...

Great blog, with insightful and fun posts. Sure makes me wish I was still living in Fairbanks -- we liberals are a bit out of place where I live now...
Anyway, just letting you know I nominated you for the Lemonade blog award. Check it out at borealkraut.blogspot.com

CabinDweller said...

Hi Naturelady -

Awards make me twitchy, but I thank you. :)