This essay was originally published in the USBIG NewsFlash in November 2008.
Most people will be surprised to learn that the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee and the Democratic Presidential nominee have both endorsed the basic income guarantee (BIG). In one form or another both support policies to guarantee a small government-provided income for everyone. As reported in the USBIG Newsletter earlier this year, Obama has voiced support for reducing carbon emissions with the cap-and-dividend strategy, which includes a small BIG.
Sarah Palin, like most Alaskan politicians, supports the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF). Existing rules caused the APF dividend to reach a new high of $2,069 this year. That much had nothing to do with Palin. But, whatever else you might think of her, she deserves credit for adding $1200 more to this year’s dividend (see the story above and another in issue 49). She proposed it to the legislature and pushed it through, resisting counter proposals to reduce the supplement to $1000 or $250.
Most people who learned about Palin at the Republican National Convention in August would probably be surprised to learn that such a hard-line conservative supports handing out $16,345 checks to even the poorest families. Actually, families the size of Palin’s will receive $19,416—no conditions imposed besides residency, no judgments made.
The support of politicians like Palin’s provides evidence against the belief that BIG is some kind of leftist utopian fantasy with no political viability. In the one place BIG exists it is one of the most popular government programs and it is endorsed by people across the political spectrum.
The APF has not become an issue in the campaign, and I doubt she has Palin plans to introduce a similar plan at the national level, but when the issue has come up, Palin has taken credit for it as a conservative policy. In an interview on the Fox News Network, Sean Hannity confirmed that Palin increased the Alaska dividend by $1200 this year. Hannity comment, “I have to move to Alaska. New York taxes are killing me.”
Sounding like some kind of progressive-era land reformer, Palin replied, “What we’re doing up there is returning a share of resource development dollars back to the people who own the resources. And our constitution up there mandates that as you develop resources it’s to be for the maximum benefit of the people, not the corporations, not the government, but the people of Alaska.”
Tim Graham, writing for the conservative website Newsbuster.com criticized NPR’s Terry Gross for asking questioning that implied opposition to the APF in an interview with Alaska public broadcasting host, Michael Carey. Graham writes, “Gross walked Carey through the idea that it’s not hard for Palin to be popular in Alaska when she’s handing every family a $1200 check from all the oil business. She then elbowed Carey about how that money could have been better ‘invested’ (as Obama would say) in government programs.’ Suddenly conservatives are ridiculing people they assume do not support unconditional grants.
Palin justified a tax increase on the oil companies to support higher BIG on the PBS Now program before she was nominated for vice-president. “This is a big darn deal for Alaska. That non-renewable resource, of course, is so valuable …. And of course [the oil companies] they’re fighting us every step of the way when we say, ‘Well we wanna make sure, especially as it’s being sold for a premium, that we’re receiving appropriate value.’ … The oil companies don’t own the resources. They have leases and the right to develop our resources for us. And we share a value, we’re partners there, because they do the producing for us. But we own the resources.”
It is tempting to dismiss all of this conservative praise for BIG as election year insincerity. No doubt if a democratic candidate had handed out an unconditional grant of $3,269 to every citizen of their state, many conservatives would jump on it as socialist class war. Indeed some of Obama’s tax credit proposals, which are not nearly as far reaching as the APF have received just this treatment.
Speaking at a recent rally in Virginia, McCain took issue with Obama’s refundable tax credits saying, his tax plan “is not a tax cut; it’s just another government giveaway …. I won’t let that happen to you. You’re paying enough taxes. … Obama raises taxes on seniors, hardworking families to give ‘welfare’ to those who pay none.” McCain often invokes Joe the Plumber to label such policies as “socialism.” Ruth Marcus noted that only minutes later John McCain touted his own “refundable tax credit” and that McCain vilifies Obama for wanting to reverse the Bush tax cuts McCain voted against. I have little doubt that McCain would give the APF the same treatment if his opponent rather than his running mate had expanded it.
Politicians who call themselves strait-talkers and don’t talk straight are nothing new, and they exist in all parties. But this doesn’t meant that we can dismiss all conservative support for the APF as insincere. There are limits to what people will accept even from leader of their own party. Many conservatives would not accept, for example, a leader who had proposed public funding to help rape victims obtain abortions, but they will support a leader who endorses $16,345 in no-questions-asked grants to every family of five.
The lesson here is that the APF is a model ready for export. Readers of this newsletter will know that governments in places as diverse as Alberta, Brazil, Iraq, Libya, and Mongolia have recently thought seriously about imitating the Alaska model.
Some might be tempted to think that the APF isn’t a true BIG and it isn’t motivated to help the poor. Not so: Jay Hammond, the Republican governor of Alaska who created the APF, came all the way to Washington, DC to speak at the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network conference in 2004. He told me that his intention was to create a BIG to help everyone—most especially the disadvantaged. If he had his way the APF fund would now be producing dividends 4 to 8 times the current individual level of $2,069.
Others might dismiss the Alaska model saying that it is a unique case because Alaska has so much oil wealth. Again, not so: Alaska ranks only sixth in U.S. states in terms of per capita GDP, with an average income just over $43,000 in 2006, more than $15,000 per year less than number-one Delaware, and only $6,000 per year ahead of the national average. Any other state or the federal government can afford to do what Alaska has done.
Alaska has oil wealth; other states have mining, fishing, hydroelectric, or real estate wealth. Governments give away resources to corporations all the time. The U.S. government recently gave away a large chunk of the broadcast spectrum to HDTV broadcasters at no charge. Offshore oil drilling will soon be expanded on three coasts. Everyone who emits green house gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere takes something we all value and—so far—pays nothing.
What was different about the Alaskan situation was that Jay Hammond was there to take advantage of the opportunity. With the Alaska model in place, it will be just a little easier for next person at the next opportunity.
-Karl Widerquist, Reading, UK, October 23, 2008
For the Newsbusters article go to:
For the Hannity Interview go to:
For the Now program report go to:
[The quoted exchange occurs about 18 to 20 minutes into a 25-minute report titled “Alaska: The Senator and the Oil Man.”] (Thanks to Paul A. Martin)
For U.S. GDP figures by state go to:
Ruth Marcus’s editorial on McCain is online at: