Skip to main Content

Alaska's fiscal bind is about much more than money

  • Author: Michael Carey
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 29, 2016

Alaska faces tough times. The fiscal crisis and pending budget cuts lead the news just about every day. The old Ray Charles hit "Busted" keeps running through my head as music befitting our era, although I am aware those who have developed a refined taste may find Richard Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" more appropriate.

Alaska's financial difficulties are unique to those living in them. They are not unique to history, and it is important to remember that while we may feel isolated, we are part of a larger cultural context.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story on what declining oil prices have done to Kern County, California -- primarily Bakersfield -- where 70 percent of the state's oil drilling occurs and 10 percent of total U.S. production follows. The number of people employed in oil drilling and extraction has declined 18.5 percent in the last 12 months, and in fiscal 2016, the county expects to collect about a third less in oil taxes than it did during the previous year. Sales tax revenue also has declined.

One oil field service company had 85 employees in the field in 2014; now it has 10. Some drilling companies have abandoned searching for oil; they are looking for a more valuable commodity -- water.

The Times reports 104,514 oil-related jobs disappeared nationwide in 2015.

These jobs have been lost -- like lost Alaska oil jobs and in fact, every other recently lost job -- in an era of growing income inequality and economic upheaval. Income inequality has been so well documented -- as has the strain on middle-class households -- that even some of the rich have come to acknowledge it.

There is so much more opportunity for the young lawyer headed to Wall Street than for the young construction worker -- or oil worker -- headed for a temporary job ending in a layoff. The world always has been unjust, but the opportunity to rise has been essential to the American dream. How do you rise when you cannot afford an education? Or have never been taught the value of an education?

The other day The New York Times published a profile of America's 10 most distressed cities, some of which have been troubled for decades. Imagine this. In San Bernardino, 32 percent of the adults are without a high school diploma. In Milwaukee, more than 40 percent of the adults don't have a job. In Newark, the median income is less than half the average for the state of New Jersey.

What happens to distressed communities when the social and economic impediments they face are compounded by the departure of jobs overseas, one of the most powerful economic forces in contemporary America? Writer George Packer of The New Yorker visited Canton, Ohio, where Hoover, the maker of vacuum cleaners, had a factory. The company, acquired by a Hong Kong firm, moved its production facilities to Mexico and China. Packer writes, "Alongside the interstate, the former Hoover plant has become a megachurch with a congregation of thirty-five hundred souls, some of whom once assembled vacuum cleaners on the premises."

Almost 70 years ago, the Irish novelist, short-story writer and social commentator Sean O'Faolain noted that Irish politicians rarely pause to "consider the true meaning of the word culture. Instead of thinking of it as an all-inclusive way of life ... they keep on thinking of it as a bonus stuck like a stamp on the envelope of life. To them culture is a picture on the wall, a book on a shelf, a symphony orchestra ..."

Alaskan politicians are of a similar mind. For them, culture is something only a portion of their constituents participate in -- the museum patrons, library users and so forth. These officials can't think of culture as the way Alaskans live, what they do every day, sometimes artistic, sometimes not.

Reflecting on English life, American-born poet T.S. Eliot included the dog races as part of his adopted country's culture -- and any thinking Alaskan would do the same in a survey of Alaska culture.

Yes, we have diminished cash flow and there are threats to employment. But both are part of a larger cultural crisis. Who will we be and what will be doing after four or five years -- maybe more? -- of serious recession? How will life become diminished in an Alaska where paying the bills and finding a job are repeated daily experience for the many and not a minority?

It is difficult to make predictions. But it is not difficult to see the importance of Sean O'Faolain's broad definition of culture to Alaskans facing a distressing future.

Yes, your bank book is important. But it should not be the only book in your life.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist. He can be reached at

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.