Monday, March 23, 2015

Alaska Legislature Runs State Finances Like Poor People Run Theirs

I want this to be a short, to-the-point post, but I have a feeling it's going to wander a bit, because life isn't as simple as we'd like to believe it is.  [Not too long.  Just be patient.]

What Do Poor And Rich Mean?

I'm talking economically rich or poor - not spiritually, emotionally, culturally, or one of the many other ways people can be rich or poor.

Poor, in my head, means that you are in danger of not being able to cover your necessities - food, shelter, health - because you live on the edge.   While homeless folks probably come to mind first, this also includes people working at minimum wage jobs where food gets scarce toward the end of the pay period.  And while we think of this being month to month, for some it's a slightly longer time frame - maybe year to year. 

Rich has more levels.  

Basic:  A family could be self-supporting, without cash -  hunting, gathering, possibly some farming, and self-sufficient enough to build their own homes and make their own clothes.  Alaska Natives lived like this for thousands of years.  They were poor, only in the sense that a bad year could threaten their survival.

Similarly, It could be a working family that has a sustainable source of income - a job with a steady salary and even better, a defined-benefit retirement plan.  There are dangers.  One could get sick and be unable to work, or the company could go out of business, or be bought out by another company that liquidates the pension fund. 

Strong:  A family that has not only a steady income, but a nest egg that can keep them going if the steady income is threatened.

Really Rich:  A family that has so much wealth, that there is almost no conceivable way that their money will ever run out.

You'll notice here that security is a relative term.  No one is totally secure.  Disasters come in many expected and unexpected forms.  Natural and human-made disasters can threaten the richest families. But the really rich can use their money to influence the social, economic, and political systems so that their security is protected, not just by their family, but by the governmental system.

The key is access to the political power of the society. In the past, royal families simply owned the country and the governmental structure including the army.  Today, large multinational corporations are able to do this better than most others.

Why Are Rich People Rich?

They are rich, not because they have a steady income, but because they've invested enough of the excess income, so that it provides a steady stream of money to meet all their reasonable (and in extreme cases, unreasonable) future needs.   They have resources, they store their excess wealth.  They can sell when prices are high and buy when they are low.  The society protects their interests.  In capitalistic societies, they have financial investments that earn and grow.

OK, here's where this is all leading.

The state of Alaska has managed to set up some funds for the future.  That's what the Permanent Fund was all about.  Recognizing that today's Alaskan's shouldn't be the only beneficiaries of the unsustainable oil resource.  The Permanent Fund was supposed to capture that wealth and sustain Alaskans in the future.  But it's become, in too many people's minds, a quick, easy October cash infusion.  And other budget reserve funds were also attempts at protecting the wealth for future generations.

But we're spending and saving like poor folks.

Alaska Headlines Sunday March 22 and Monday March 23
"State sells $4B in stocks:  Cash may be needed as budget reserve is emptied to cover deficit"  [Note:  the online headlines are different from the paper versions] 
Alaska lawmakers look to once-forbidden sources for money
Those forbidden sources are the funds that some in previous legislatures managed to stash away for rainy days.  But rich people, and when Alaska discovered oil it won the lottery and became a rich state, make those funds sustainable.  They don't drain them, because that means they will stop being rich.

Groups of people will always have a hard time managing finances.   Collective management is tough.   Different folks have different ideas of what to spend their money on and how to manage it.  Even families have those kinds of problems.  And there are always the sharks and vultures that sense wealth and coming running to find a way to get their share. 

But let's not let the Republicans in this state pull the wool over people's eyes.  It was legislatures with Democratic majorities and/or with Republicans whom today's Republicans would call Democrats and socialists, who created the Permanent Fund, and many other rainy day funds.

But it's been a totally Republican controlled state government that has had the highest state budgets, ever, and by a large margin.  And it's Republicans who are running the state like poor folks.  People who won the lottery but didn't stop thinking like poor folks and quit their jobs (abolished the income tax) and then spent all the money.  Some was spent on important stuff - like schools and health care, but a lot was spent on boondoggles and luxuries.  Rural Alaska still has honey buckets after all these years, but we've got the Dena'ina Center and the newly refurbished Legislative Office in Anchorage.  And there were Democrats who took part in some of the frivolous spending as well (the train station at the airport), but Republicans have held sway for much longer.

And now, instead of seriously looking for a job (in state terms that means finding revenue sources like taxes) to pay for things, our legislature is raiding the piggy banks.  I say piggy banks because that's where the poor, if they save at all, save their money.  And that's how our legislature is responding to the crisis.  They're going to stop paying basic bills and raid the piggy banks they can find.  OK, some of the stashed away money is left over money on projects that we probably shouldn't spend on, but some are endowments to help sustain important programs. 

I hope readers realize that I do not mean to disparage the poor - at least those who are poor because of structural societal systems that keep them from having a good education and good health care and jobs that pay a decent wage.  Poor people have fewer choices - even if they manage to secure a decent wage, their education hasn't prepared them for all the sharks waiting to take their money - bar owners, gambling establishments, sellers of fancy consumer products at "Amazing deals" and promises of painless credit, "Worried about your credit?  DON'T BE!  Let our credit experts help you now." [From ADN Saturday, p C-8]

A number of our legislators have moved up from being poor.  They still think like the poor.  And they're still dazzled by their corporate sponsors and do as they're told, while thinking they have power and independence. 

And the people of Alaska are watching our wealth drained by their ignorance and greed. 

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