A professor's quest to help Alaskans understand the size, and severity, of the fiscal crisis (with video)

An economist in a zipper sweater doesn't normally bring to mind a superhero, but these are not normal times.

With Alaska teetering on the brink of financial disaster like a school bus hanging off a bridge, Gunnar Knapp -- director of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research -- has emerged as the most trusted voice for clearly explaining the complex mess. Four months from retirement, he finds himself speaking every day, in such demand that he has never worked harder.

Alaska Dispatch News captured an abbreviated version of Knapp's presentation on video. Knapp will answer online questions from readers live at noon Tuesday. (You can send in questions ahead of time here or post them in the comments below).

Knapp's superpower of taking tough material and making it clear and easy to understand has helped audiences including church groups, CEOs and legislative committees. By watching the video, you will gain a grasp of the situation facing the Alaska Legislature as it makes decisions shaping our future economy and government.

Knapp is the one source in the debate everyone relies on, trust he earned through his academic reputation and his neutrality. Unlike advocates perceived as holding a stake in one solution or another, he has refused to state a preference. And his remarkable intelligence and analytical skill have allowed him to simplify.

"Behind every slide is a lot of research to understand what that slide really means," Knapp said. "The reality is it's really complicated, and a lot of people who do understand it are really in there advocating for the way they want it to go. So it's difficult for the average citizen to get the basic information."

Knapp's education and career prepared him well for this critical moment in Alaska's history.


He grew up the son of a scientist, Harold Knapp, who at the Pentagon studied the effect of nuclear weapons. Based on what he learned, Harold built a nine-bed fallout shelter at the family house in Maryland, where Gunnar and his friends played as children.

Harold Knapp, who died in 1989, also gained fame as a whistleblowing investigator of Cold War bomb tests and for amateur sleuthing that exonerated three black men and freed them from death row. From Gunnar Knapp's admiring account, his father sounds funny, brilliant and eccentric.

The family has a tradition of brains and distance running. Gunnar Knapp's best time for a marathon is an impressive 2 hours 35 minutes. His grandparents were advanced scholars too, and his children have all attended top private colleges. One of his daughters is getting her doctorate studying quantum physics.

I've known Knapp for a couple of decades. I was aware of his skill on a unicycle, from when he helped put on student circuses at our kids' elementary school -- where his wife, Alice, was librarian -- but I didn't know of Knapp's illustrious family or credentials.

I have seen, however, that his competitiveness and drive for personal excellence are never far submerged. Frustration can flash at errors others would dismiss.

[More columns by Charles Wohlforth]

When Gunnar Knapp was a child, the family kept a chalkboard in the dining room. He remembers his father directing him during a meal to prove the Pythagorean theorem. His father also gave him weekend math assignments. After Harold's death, Gunnar found one of those assignments in his father's papers. Assigned to him at age 10, it was an algebra story problem written in German.

After spectacular success in school, Knapp received his doctorate in economics from Yale and was recruited to UAA in 1981 by ISER economist Scott Goldsmith. He was a hot prospect with great opportunities. The faculty worried rainy Anchorage wouldn't sell him on Alaska. Canceling a day of meetings, they put him on a private plane to see Denali, with a stop at Talkeetna for a lunch of caribou. He was hooked, he says, and he has loved working at ISER.

"I just felt like I had gone through the doors to Narnia," said Knapp, recalling one of this first projects, in Prince William Sound. "Alaska is endlessly fascinating."

For much of his career, Knapp studied fisheries economics, but he took over as director of ISER in 2013, hoping to strengthen the organization for a few years before he retired. The oil price drop and financial crisis in state government have made his role much more important.

Having arrived in Alaska as oil revenue peaked and having worked through the middle of his life on a state paycheck, accumulating a good pension, Knapp feels responsibility to help.

And he's enjoying it too.

"It's very important, but it's actually really, really interesting," he said. "And it's also an incredible intellectual challenge to take a complex issue and find a way to communicate it to regular people who have a limited amount of time and maybe not much knowledge."

He has succeeded. The video clarifies the key issues. It shows how bad Alaska's budget gap is and why we have it. And it shows each of four possible elements to a solution and how big a role each is capable of playing.

The four elements are to cut spending, impose taxes, reduce Alaska Permanent Fund dividends and pare back the amount of earnings from the fund being saved for the future. No single strategy is large enough to solve the problem, but in a mix, they would be.

Knapp won't say what mix he would choose.

"What I feel about my preferences is not relevant," he said. "It's not my job to say what I think."

But he insists that citizens do choose a path. Simply saying no to the options you don't like is not enough. As Knapp notes, no one likes any of the options. No one wants to lose services, pay taxes, reduce dividends or cut savings.


If people only say what they don't like, the result could be stalemate and inaction. With inaction, the bus falls off the bridge.

"Where does leadership come from? How will solutions be found?" Knapp asked. "I am stretching my brain cells."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. Find him on facebook at facebook.com/wohlforthadn.

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

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.