Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Dan Sullivan, Who Called For Bi-Partisanship Last Week, Claims There's A "Biden War On Alaska"

Here's what I started yesterday:

I didn't hear Senator Sullivan's speech to the Alaska legislature.  I only heard Alaska Public Radio's report on it.  I looked for it on line, but couldn't find it, even on Sullivan's own web site.  But there are a couple of quotes that I think can be looked at without hearing the whole speech.    

A little later I wrote:

(Of course, when I get to see the whole speech, maybe I'll find out I'm wrong here.) 

So, I tracked down the speech with help from the Legislative Website.  They have a chat box and someone answered my question immediately and gave me a link to the speech.  I'd ask for a transcript but they said they didn't have one.  

So I typed up my own rough transcript as I listened.  It was pretty rough.  I called Sen. Sullivan's office and someone there said she'd have someone email me a copy.  If I didn't get it within a week, call back.  

Then I got an email from the legislative chat guy with a link to a transcript.

My basic reaction based on the original quotes I'd heard, hadn't changed.  Let's see if I can summarize my thoughts about the speech so that others don't have to take the time to read/listen to it and take the time to think it through.  

But unfortunately, it's difficult to 'simply' critique the speech because it's built on layers and layers of false assumptions and myths.

[I'm putting this up tonight.  But I reserve the right to review it again in the morning and make cosmetic changes.]

I'll start with the original quotes and my responses to them.  Then I'll add a few notes of other issues he's raised.  

There's lots of bluster in these quotes from Alaska Public Media

Here are the quotes I originally got from Alaska Public Media.  They certainly highlighted the bluster.  

PART I:  Biden's War on Alaska

"U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan told Alaska’s legislators on Monday that President Biden’s administration is at war with Alaska over developing resources." 

“This is not surprising,” Sullivan said. “We knew this anti-Alaska agenda was coming if the national Democratic Party took control of the White House, the Senate and the House. Alaska is always the gift that national Democratic administrations give their extreme, radical environmental supporters.”

First,  the issues with his language, style, rhetoric.

1.  Sullivan takes a disagreement on prioritizing values - balancing climate change concerns and economic concerns, in this case development of natural resources, particularly oil - and makes this into a war on Alaska.  

Rather than acknowledging that Biden's administration has legitimate concerns about climate change and debating the facts of climate change and how much oil development and then consumption contributes to climate change - a battle Sullivan can't win - Sullivan accuses the Biden administration of targeting Alaska, declaring war on Alaska.  Good populist rhetoric to rile up Alaskans.  

He also talks about 'extreme, radical environmental supporters.'  Who exactly are these people and what are their extreme radical policies?  He doesn't tell us.  Facts get in the way of his 'war on Alaska' narrative.  When we're at war, there's no debate, no discussion of the issues.  

This is, basically, a red meat speech to rile up Alaskans about how they're being screwed by the Biden administration.  

2.  You can't work out issues if you declare the other side the enemy - which is what you do, in effect, when you say you are at war.  Sullivan has also recently called on the Biden Administration to use bi-partisanship 

"Bipartisan efforts are the key to successful voting rights reform, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week," as hopes for reaching across the aisle in Congress falter and calls for removing the filibuster grow louder." [From ABC News]

But how can you call on your perceived opponent to work cooperatively with you if you say he's declared war on you?  

Second, issues with the facts, which the war metaphor skips over.

1.  Climate change versus oil and gas development.

A.  First, let's be clear.  Dan Sullivan is a Koch brothers product.  He's a spokesman for oil and gas. They, through their various 'think tanks' and institutes, spread climate change denial as widely as they could.  

B.  Oil and gas are significant contributors to climate change - a human caused change to our atmosphere that is warming the planet, including the oceans, and causing widespread extreme weather related disasters - from droughts that kill farming and help set up huge wild fires, to more and stronger hurricane and other storm conditions that flood out farmlands and cities.  The list goes on and on.  Climate change is the biggest threat to civilized human life on earth.  

But it's inconvenient for oil and gas producers who want to squeeze out the last dime of their projects around the world. Oil companies have been subsidized by the US forever and they fought subsidies for companies pursuing alternative energy options. 

C.  Oil has been a bonanza for Alaska.  We saved about $70 billion of that bonanza in the Alaska Permanent Fund. (Though Norway, whose fund began much later than ours, has a fund of over $1 trillion.  Norway didn't abolish its income tax when it set up its fund the way Alaska did.)  Oil money has helped pay Alaska's bills for over 40 years now, as well as a number of boondoggles.   

D.  But oil's day, while not over for a long time, is on the wane.  Currently, we make more money from Permanent Fund earnings than we do from oil.  And the oil tax credit laws Alaska's Republican legislatures have passed have Alaskans paying billions to oil companies, not the other way around. Republican lawmakers continue to block new sources of revenue, especially an income tax.  (Though some see this as inevitable.)   Not only has the Prudhoe Bay production declined, oil's role in climate change is making oil itself a problem.  Electric cars are beginning to replace gas powered vehicles. Major banks have refused to loan money to oil companies for Arctic projects.  Our governor has talked about forcing banks to make those loans, but says mask wearing is voluntary.  The banks aren't 'caving to environmentalists'.  Rather, they see the trends and are making calculated business decisions that these are no longer good investments.  

While it's going to be 20-40 years before most oil is phased out, and Alaska will continue to produce oil and gas during those years, the writing is on the wall.  We need to wean ourselves off oil.  We won the lottery and made a lot of money.  But now we have to learn how to sustain ourselves like most states.  We have to diversify.  But we do have $70 billion saved up which could grow and pay for part of our budget forever.  

Senator Sullivan is still hanging out with the oil guys who haven't accepted that the world is changing.  It's Sullivan who is getting further and further into the extreme, while the 'extreme, radical, environmental supporters' are becoming the mainstream.  

Part II - Socialism, Work and Dignity

Another quote from Sullivan's speech:

“They’re tempting America with cradle-to-grave, European-style socialism,” he said. “They’re cutting the ties between work and income, and in so doing, undermining the notion of earned success and the dignity and importance of work.

In Sullivan's mind, socialism, unlike capitalism, is an evil system.  But capitalism is based on the benefits of greed, everyone for themselves.  Whereas socialism recognizes that people need to look after each other as well as themselves.  But it's not either/or.  We already have a mixture of both.  No one is for abolishing capitalism, just for correcting for the flaws inherent in capitalism that pro-market economists themselves tell us about.  Most notably in this discussion are externalities - the by-products of the industry that society, not the corporations, bear.  All that escaped carbon warming the planet.

But another result of unfettered capitalism is extreme wealth inequality.

"According to the latest Fed data, the top 1% of Americans have a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion (or 30.4% of all household wealth in the U.S.), while the bottom 50% of the population holds just $2.1 trillion combined (or 1.9% of all wealth)." (From Forbes)

Once the distribution of money is so lopsided all kinds of terrible things happen.  All that concentrated money give the rich undue influence on politicians and the public.  Oil companies  spread misinformation about climate change and prevented the US from taking action much earlier.  It also allows for the wealthy to 'buy' politicians - something Senator Sullivan knows about, but never talks about publicly.  

Cradle-to-grave is a Republican slur.  I just read in the ADN today about how states and private contractors that they hire, steal social security benefits from foster kids.  How low can people go?  

Is Senator Sullivan really against supporting orphans?  Against helping babies that are abused or abandoned by their parents?   Is he really against affordable health care?  (We know the answer to that - in theory no, but in practice, yes.)  Is he against Social Security for those injured who cannot work and for those who are elderly?  That's what cradle-to-grave really means.  

But let's also look at the part about 'cutting the ties between work and income.'  Sullivan's grandfather started a business - RPM - that made the family wealthy.  Wealthy enough to help fund his campaign for Senator.  I'm not arguing that Sullivan doesn't work hard - his resume suggests otherwise.  But growing up wealthy makes it much harder to see what growing up poor (in that bottom 50%) is like.    

But beyond that, the connection between work and income has been obliterated by the wealthy who own big businesses.  They've jacked up their own incomes to a point where there is absolutely no relationship between the work they put in and the income they receive.  Why?  Because they can.    They did this, in part by paying their employees minimum wage, cutting out employee pensions, and giving them poor to no health insurance, and by moving to lower wage countries, and automation.  People working minimum wage simply don't earn enough to save any money at all.  

The" dignity of work" and the" tie between work and income" are myths that the rich invented to justify why they were rich and the poor were poor. There was no dignity in work, no tie between work and income for slaves, or for blacks in the South after emancipation.  Or, for that matter, blacks in the North and the West.   The 1950s and 60s were a golden age for white (and even for some blacks) where income distribution was far more equal than today. The ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 21-to-1 in 1965.  It went up to 61-to-1 in 1989, and is up to 320 to 1 in 2019. (from The Economic Policy Institute.  

Issues from the rest of the speech

Sullivan's reverence for the military

Sullivan was in the Marines.  He's still in the reserves if I understand that correctly.  We're all affected by our backgrounds and experience, for better and for worse.  It helps when one recognizes one's biases.  I mention this because Sullivan starts with an anecdote from Korean War (he says he's a Korean War buff.)

"As a U.S. Marine and Korean War history buff, I found some inspiration from the past. One of the most epic battles of the Korean War was the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir where 20,000 United States Marines were surrounded by 120,000 Communist Chinese soldiers. And, oh by the way, it was 30 degrees below zero in the mountains. I have a painting, in my office in Anchorage, of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir reminding me that no matter what kind of day you might be having, it could be a lot worse. The surrounded and heavily outnumbered marines had to retreat back to the sea. When thedismayed marines asked their commanding officer how he would explain the retreat, the first in marine corps history, he remarked, "Retreat? Hell, we're just attacking in another direction." Colonel Chesty Puller, the Corps' most decorated officer, remarked similarly, "The enemy is in front of us and behind us, they are on both of our flanks, those bastards can't get away from us now." Through grit and determination, attacking and counterpunching, and sticking together, the United States Marine Corps won the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir against great odds."

Maybe this helps to explain the "war on Alaska" metaphor mentioned earlier.  He uses this anecdote to say even though Republicans have lost the House, Senate, and Presidency, we need to be like Col. Puller.  

He talks about defeats and wins as though he's still on the battlefield - and I'm sure he'd say politics IS a battlefield.  And that is one metaphor that's often used.  But it's not healthy to say that the President is at war with Alaska.  That's nonsense.  That sort of warlike behavior may have been true during the Trump administration when he withheld benefits from states whose governors didn't kiss his ring, but that simply isn't Biden's style.  Oil production in Alaska may be a casualty of the Biden climate policy, but it's not because Biden hates Alaska and is intentionally attacking the state.

But most egregiously, and the number one issue I've talked to her [the new Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland] about, is through this misguided decision, it will dramatically limit the lands available to those thousands of Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans who were unable to select their land allotment because they were serving their country in a war that many people were avoiding service in. For decades, all Alaskans, Native, non-Native, Democrat and Republican came together to try to right this wrong.

In last year's Congress, or two Congresses ago, I was able with our delegation to shepherd legislation addressing this injustice that we got signed into law and the PLOs, Public Land Orders, were the way in which we were going to implement this law. I called Secretary Haaland immediately when I heard the news of a two-year delay. I told her that as a result of her decision, Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans who served their country admirably, when so many avoided service, and who have waited decades for the land allotments, might not be able to live long enough to get these.

There's a lot to unravel here. First, I'd note that he mentions twice "when so many avoided service."  This is both ironic and also rather biased.  It's ironic because in the last 20 years their have been two Republican presidents who "avoided service".  Bush did it [got elected] in part by smearing a decorated war hero (John Kerry).  Trump has famously called people who go to war 'suckers.'  Yet, the discipline drilled into Marines to obey their superiors seems to have permeated the Senator who has so loyally supported Trump, even though a Senator's job is not to slavishly obey the President, but to be a check to his power. 

Second, I'd note that history has clearly shown that the Vietnam War was a mistake.  It was bad policy.  While many who avoided the draft back then did so because they didn't want to risk anything, others did it because they had figured out it was a bad war, a war we shouldn't have been in.  

I obviously can't point out every little point like this, but I need to offer some to make the point that there are many more.  Now, back to Vietnam-era veteran allotments.

 It's not an issue I know well, but let's look at what this BLM announcement says:

Applications will be accepted between Dec. 28, 2020 and Dec. 29, 2025 for the Alaska Native Vietnam-era Veterans Land Allotment Program of 2019. The program provides the opportunity for eligible Vietnam-era veterans or their heirs to select 2.5 to 160 acres of Federal land in Alaska under the 2019 Dingell Act. The program is open to all eligible Alaska Natives who served between Aug. 5, 1964, and Dec. 31, 1971, and it removes the requirement for personal use or occupancy mandated under previous laws. Those receiving allotments under previous programs are ineligible. 

 Let's see now.  

  • " a two-year delay" - A two year delay gets us to 2023.  There will still be two years to apply.
  • "might not be able to live long enough to get these"  It's true there probably will be vets who die before 2025.  And they won't see their land.  But, this is open to their heirs as well, who will.  

More from the BLM announcement:

"The selection period is active until December 29, 2025, for the estimated 2,200 eligible veterans and heirs. Nearly 30 allotment applications are already being processed, and the BLM is poised to receive more." 

  •  " to those thousands of Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans" - well, if the BLM announcement is correct, there are 2,200 total which is heirs as well as vets.  This is probably a picky point, but I value accuracy.  If just 1000 vets had two kids each, there would be 2000 heirs.  So I'm guessing more than 200 of the 2,200 are heirs and there aren't 'thousands of Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans' waiting to enroll.  
  • I would agree though, that 30 applications since December 28, 2020 doesn't sound like a lot.  

I'd note that despite the fact that Sullivan says Biden is at war with Alaska, Sullivan has acknowledged in this speech that the administration has responded to a number of Alaska issues

  • "I told them to hold off and frantically worked the phones with the brand-new Biden team, saying to them, "It can't really be your intention, in your first month in office, to lay off and give pink slips to hundreds of Alaskan workers on the North Slope. Is that true?" It took some time, but they said "No," and they let the work proceed."  I'd note that 30-40% of oil workers in Alaska are not Alaskans.  The report also says that 77% of fish processors are non-resident. Another industry Sullivan says he's fight hard for is cruise lines.  He also gets more money from the cruise industry than any other US Senator.  And that industry has more non-resident employees than Alaskans.  
  • I must admit I was very pleased when Secretary Raimondo called me just a few weeks after she was confirmed by the Senate to tell me she'd be announcing close to a twenty million dollar investment for the construction of a dock, a pier, and an office facility complex for the Fairweather, and that that ship, with a crew of 51 members, would finally be home-ported in Ketchikan by the end of 2021 after a two- decade absence. That is an important victory for Alaska.
  • Another victory was the recent announcement by the U.S. Air Force for four more KC-135 tankers to be home-based in Alaska with an additional 220 airmen and their families. You combine this increase with the hundred fifth-generation fighters that are coming to our state by the end of next year; that's F-35's and F-22's. No place on the planet has that kind of fire power for the Air Force, and our state is truly becoming one of the most important centers for air combat power anywhere in the world. This is great for America's national security, but also really great for Alaska's economy.
OK.  Just one more note.  At the end of the speech to he talked about how zoom and the pandemic have changed things and that this is a great opportunity for Alaska.
Finally, one of the benefits of my job when you’re talking about other opportunities is to get a sense of what's going on throughout America and what’s going on in America right now is that the pandemic accelerated, with telework and the reality of things like Zoom, a new way of working, and that dysfunctional and mismanaged cities across the nation are hollowing out.
People have had enough and they're leaving. If you look around at what's happening in the United States, more and more of our smart young dynamic people are leaving places to build businesses in other places that are well-managed and where they can have a lifestyle that they crave like in our great state.

This is pretty much the pitch that Forrest Dunbar made in a debate last week with Dave Bronson in the Anchorage mayoral runoff.  Dunbar was explaining why cutting every agency except the police, as Bronson was advocating, was a bad idea.  

Yet Sullivan has supported Bronson for mayor.  Bronson is in the same mold as Trump (no government experience, talks off the top of his head, doesn't believe in COVID as a serious threat) and comes with the same fervor for cutting government as Dunleavy.  

If you call for bi-partisanship one week and then accuse the administration of a War On Alaska, it's hard to see where there's room for compromise.  But this speech was full of bluster for the Alaska audience, and I suspect the Biden administration allows for Senators to vent for the home crowd.

Sorry to go on so long.  Political speeches are meant to persuade with emotion, not with facts.  And critiquing such speeches requires one to get into the details.  


  1. It's ironic because in the last 20 years their have been two Republican presidents who "avoided service".

    I missed when Clinton and Obama did their service and Biden got more deferments than Trump. How did you miss that?


    1. Oliver, sure, neither Clinton nor Biden served in the military. Obama was born November 1961, so he didn't turn 18 until after Vietnam was over and turned 40 just after 9/11. In fact most military aged men did not serve in Vietnam or even in the military. "During the Vietnam War era , between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military drafted 2.2 million American men out of an eligible pool of 27 million." I'd note that 2/3 of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers.
      But that is not really relevant to the point I was making - the irony that the very gung-ho Marine Sullivan is being very loyal to Trump who not only avoided the draft, but has called soldiers 'suckers.' Whether Democratic presidents served in the military is not relevant here, because Sullivan hasn't supported them anyway.


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