Wednesday, October 03, 2007

PFD day

Date: Oct. 2
Mileage: 28
October mileage: 55
Temperature upon departure: 45
Rainfall: .74"

Today marks the first wave of permanent fund dividend checks. This is the day every eligible man, woman and child in the state of Alaska sells their soul to Big Oil for a taste of that sweet, sweet oil money. And thanks to "The Simpsons" movie, now everyone else in America knows what the urban legend of "paid to live in Alaska" is really about. You know that part where Homer drives across the state line and the customs agent tells him that all Alaskans get a stack of bills so they will look the other way while oil companies exploit the environment? Yeah, it's something like that.

Suddenly, we're all flush with $1,600 in free money. Most Alaskans do the rational thing with their PFD - they blow it on some impulse buy, like plane tickets to Hawaii or a down payment on a new snowmachine. This is the first year I'm eligible for the PFD. I did the rational thing with mine, too. I spent it in July, on a new snowmachine. I call him Pugsley.

I did not refuse the PFD. I don't think, when I gaze deep into my greedy heart, I could ever do such an audacious thing like turn down free money while the Alaska economy is squeezing $5 out of me every time I buy a gallon of milk and $12 for a case of Diet Pepsi. But still ... it feels a bit dirty. Call me a pinko greenie, but I am not a big fan of the PFD. It is not my money. I did not earn it. I was a mishmash of molecules when oil first started flowing through the TransAlaska pipeline in 1977. I was in fifth grade when the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude into the Prince William Sound. I remember seeing the televised images of sludge-coated sea otters gasping for air on the shoreline. It was one of the saddest things I had ever seen. I wanted no part of it.

Now I am part of it. I still own a car and take warm showers. I don't deny that oil feeds the very economy that allows me to live comfortably and work in Alaska. And I didn't refuse the PFD. I can think of hundreds of social programs where I would rather see the money spent ... Alaska could have universal health care; the best education system in the country; we could buy our politicians for a lot higher bribes then they're taking from VECO and the like. But instead, we all get $1,600 to spend on snowmachines. But I didn't donate my PFD to a good cause. I spent it. Before I even had it in my hands. So I am part of the system. One could say the worst part.

Man, now I feel guilty. And I haven't even gotten my PFD yet (I didn't file early enough and have to wait two weeks.) I think I will go soothe my shame with a $1 can of Diet Pepsi.


  1. 12 dollars for a case of diet pepsi! And I was just about to move to Alaska too.

  2. Don't feel guilty about taking the money. The Senitor from Alaska keeps getting re-elected to make sure this happens. Just accept the money and say thank you. Like you say, you're paying for it in other ways. Enjoy Pugsley.

  3. I had a friend who used to go sea kayaking at Prince William Sound once a year. He said before the spill, the sound was so clear you could count the pebbles on the ocean floor and watch orcas glide beneath your boat, but afterward, the sound turned to thick, gooey mud, all the way down, for years and years.

    I have not bought any Exxon gas since then. I figure my decade-and-a-half boycott will be bringing them to their knees just about any day now.

    As I recall Exxon's stock went up the day after the EPA slapped them with its largest-ever fine. It was a pittance compared to their overall wealth.

    A lot of good Alaskan citizens worked really hard to save what they could of the sound after the disaster. I don't think any Alaskan should feel any guilt over the cash payment; it's most certainly not an "either/or" thing - no money would flow from the oil companies for any of the causes you mentioned if they weren't making that payment. That's not how those guys operate.

    I say enjoy the Pugsley and use it show off a little more of what's left up there before it's all gone...

  4. the pfd is so incredibly irresponsible and financially greedy but then again so is the state's investment of the oil revenue into the permanent fund in the first place. why is it that so often those with the most (in this case the state of alaska as compared to other states) are the least likely to share what they have with everyone? unless of course, like many alaskans, you think that a once a year payment of the permanent fund dividend is generous. Sure it was nice to get $1654 deposited into my bank account today but not for one second did this make me forget just how little the state does for it's residents the other 364 days of the year. as you said, alaska could lead the country in quality of education, health care, and countless other sectors which lead to an overall higher quality of living, but instead we rank near the very bottom in state spending on so many of these areas. Hey, but at least we get a nice fat check once every october. do i then feel quilty about receiving that check today? hell no. that $1654 is still only a small fraction of what the state could and should be providing for every man, woman, and child throughout the year in the form of a higher quality of living through state funded programs. if anyone should feel guilty today it should be the state of alaska for presuming that this once a year payment is a form of them being generous with their oil revenue money. what a joke.

    gosh, how did I, as econimically to left as I am, end up in a state that's about as economically to the right as you can be without becoming one collective uni-bomber? go figure.

  5. and c'mon jill, $12 for a case of diet pepsi? you gotta stop shopping at the breeze inn. we only pay $10.50 for those 36 packs at costco.

  6. Welcome to the machine- Giv er a listen, lovely Pink Floyd song....

    How much money gets wasted in government?

    At least you get a payout from a bribe instead of just reading about a pres. or senator getting fat off something?

    Enjoy your pugs! and get a green/pinko bumper sticker =P

  7. Remember when W gave us all that $300.00 tax refund in 2000? That was sweet, totally worth the war.

    I appreciate that you are both conflicted about the money, but come on, you accept it, so enjoy it.

    Unless you choose to spend all or part of it in service to others, your high horse is wobbly.

    I would give a bum $20 to buy off my guilt- unless the bum was getting his own guv'ment check, then forget him (or her, apologies to all you girl bums).

  8. Hi Jill,

    I link to your site just about every day at The photos are really wonderful. Even when you don't mention your bike, I usually link to you because of the images. Thanks!

    Jason in Rochester, NY

  9. i nearly spent my PFD on a new bike this year as well, but where i live in anchorage i get to see the alcoholism and homelessness that is epidemic in this city. i'd spend lunch at work drooling over mtn bike webpages, then walk home past people passed-out in the bushes next to the coastal trail. it pisses me off that the state gives me the opportunity to look the other way.

  10. Don't think for a minute that "state funded programs" would necessarily lift the welfare of Alaskans higher. Evidence from elsewhere in the world would predict the opposite. And don't forget that the PFD dividend represents but a fraction of the interest earned on the principal of the fund, the present market value of which is close to 40 billion dollars. Plenty of money there for the State to squander when the oil runs out, and predictably they will.

    Though there are reasonable arguments against the wisdom of the fund and the yearly dividend, it nevertheless is far better that individual citizens spend that largess than to have the government spend it. And to the extent that the money is spent in Alaska, it's a huge boon to the economy up there.

    Even so, if one is still pestered by the shame of it all there are hundreds of good charities in Alaska who would happily make you feel clean again. ;-)

  11. If everyone in the country was given $1500.00 to buy a bike and actually rode it as much as you do, we'd be way ahead of where we are now socially.

    They had a Pugsley at Free Range Cycles- those tires are way bigger than they look in your pictures. Not sure what the use would be around here (Seattle).

  12. There are many a day that I would move to Alaska for $1600.00 bucks.........

  13. rkn, great points and i agree with most all that you say except that state funded programs would not lift the welfare of alaskans. sure, there are numerous examples around the world when this has not worked, but this has almost exclusively fallen under a communist government model. when you look at liberal spending democracies (i.e. most all of western europe) you find people that are on average significantly healthier, happier, more educated, etc... also, you find rates of poverty, crime, alcoholism, unemployement, domestic abuse, etc. that are significantly lower than here in alaska.

  14. I think it unfair to compare the U.S. to the richer European countries - despite how fashionable it is to point out the deficiencies in the American system and glorify those in Europe. The wealthier European countries (generally Scandinavia) are service-based economies and have a different form of representation in their government which is typically more elitist (b/c they are corporatist) which just wouldn't jive with American culture or identity. Also, because of disputes and battles during the 19th century and the 20th century world wars (and general historical cultural boundaries), European countries are geographically small and culturally and ethnically homogeneous - not to mention religiously.

  15. geoff,

    I don't know how the numbers compare for all the categories you listed, but at least for unemployment, Alaska is doing better than many European democracies. Excepting Denmark and Norway, and possibly one or two others, Alaska has a lower unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted ~6.1%). France, for instance, is running at about 9%, and Italy over 8%. And subjective measures like health and happiness are clearly debatable. When it comes to GDP per capita, a common measure of standard of living, with the exception of Japan and possibly Germany nobody is even close to the US (Alaska included).

    Your main beef seems to be that the State isn't spending the principal now for all the social programs you listed. But the fund's charter is to save money for future generations when the oil runs out. Sure, the state could tap into the fund, subject to certain laws I'm sure, but basically the charter prevents them from spending much of that money now. And the fund's trustees are charged with maintaining a certain rate of return.

    You said the State was "greedy" for investing the revenues rather than spending them now for social programs, yet might not future generations of Alaskans reasonably have exactly the opposite complaint?

  16. brittany,
    you are correct that it's unfair to compare the U.S. to wealthier european countries, but i'm not so sure it's unfair to compare alaska individually to these countries as the amount of wealth that alaska has to work with far exeeds anywhere in Europe.

    RKN, again i agree with many of your basic points but i didn't mean that i thought the state was being greedy in investing the revenues for future alaskans, but rather to the extent that they are doing so while providing less than most other states in so many key sectors that i mentioned. I have no problem with saving for the future, but if doing so means you neglect the present to the extent that alaska is, i do have a problem with that. and a yearly dividend payment to each alaskan sure reeks of an attempt to buy the people into ignoring this neglect. the reality is that there is enough money for the state to provide for today at a more adequate level and still save away billions for the future (as well as working to gradually develop a sustainable form of government funding, because no matter how much they save away now the permanent fund is going to run out at some point - although that term "permanent" has done a good job of fooling people into forgetting about that point).

    and yes, you are correct that things like health and happiness are subjective, but I have been to Western Europe and to claim that alaskans on average are as healthy and happy as say the french or spaniards... well, that would be a very tough arguement to win.

  17. Just a quick point or two then I'll move on, don't want to pollute Jill's comments with too much politics.

    I have no problem with saving for the future, but if doing so means you neglect the present to the extent that alaska is, i do have a problem with that.

    Geoff, a quick search of the web revealed that after Maine, New York, and Massachusetts, Alaska presently has the highest per-capita spending for health care, ~$6000 per person. How much more would you say needs to be spent before Alaskans weren't being neglected in this regard?

    My wife was a professional health care provider in Alaska for 10 years in the area of oncology. I can tell you that there are all sorts of ways the uninsured get their health care paid for. Ever been by the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage? A truly spectacular piece of architecture as hospitals go. Any Alaskan native, regardless of where they live, can come to that hospital and have whatever procedures are necessary done, and not pay a dime. I'll leave it you to guess who paid for that hospital and all the health care provided since then.

  18. With apologies to Jill, this was a good discussion, guys. Better than many to be found on the Juneau Empires Vox Blog. The Permanent Fund Dividend is often misunderstood and berated, but like you said, you can always donate it to charity - many do. Not that I condone everything done in Alaska, but name a state or country that hasn't or doesn't exploit it's environment and I'll show you a flying pig (genetically engineered, of course). :)

  19. rkn: beware of any comparison made with alaska on a per-capita basis, do such comparisons include the expense incurred just getting people from remote villages to locations with adequate health care facilities? those costs alone are tremendous. alaska is unique in many ways and comparisons with expenditures in other states are misleading. the situation in villages alone warrents special consideration, and the native hospital in anchorage is such a consideration.

  20. sorry to beat a dead horse here, and this is also my last weigh in on this matter. thanks all for the thought provoking discussion.

    you will also find per capita statistics for education spending which put alaska above every other state. when you look further into this though and account for alaska's unique geographic challenges you find how skewed some of these numbers are. sectors like education (and health care for that matter) where infrastructure is such a large cost alaska will always rank very high per capita simply because their geographical situation requires so many different schools so that remote villagers actually have a school to go to. it's a lot cheaper to build one school that educates 2,000 students than it is to build 20 schools that each educate 100. granted, having up to date schools is a major part of having quality education (as are up to date hospitals a major part of quality health care), but by no means is it the only part. and when you begin to look at other areas of education spending you start to see that alaska is not making the commitment that a state with so much money should be. take teacher pay for example. alaska was number 1 in the country 10 years ago but in the past 10 years teacher pay has dropped in alaska about $10,000 (inflation adjusted)! this now puts alaska at number 11 and if you adjust this amount for the cost of living it's somewhere in the lower third and dropping fast. alaska absolutely is focused on building lots of large, state of the art infrastructure, and yes, on some level if you build it they will come, but more needs to be done to keep them there. do a quick search, it won't take you long at all to see how low alaska's high school graduation rate is. one thing you'll have a hard time finding though are many per capita state spending statistics that are not infrastructure dominated in which alaska ranks high up near the top. and with the money the fund is earning this is inexcusable.

  21. I love it when lower 48ers (or any {young especially} out of staters in general) define and or solve Alaska's problems, especially on the internet. It tickles my heart. But heres the deal on perm funds: It is a whole lot simpler and a whole lot less moralistic than big oil paying Alaskan residents to look the other way. Many Alaskans live where they do to get away from political drama and people poking their nose into other peoples business in general so they can live their lives more independently. And if the big wigs up on the north slope want to give us free money every year we don't look at it as a moral dilemma at all, we honestly don't care much. Of course, we're stoked on the free money, but it is coming from a realm which is beyond our reach, and one we want no part in anyway.

    You can't have been in Alaska long, but if you have the only explanation for your sentiments can be that the majority of your Alaska time has been spent in Juneau. Check out real Alaska before you go dropping lines like "This is the day every eligible man, woman and child in the state of Alaska sells their soul to Big Oil for a taste of that sweet, sweet oil money." Well written, but from a very limited perspective.

    Sorry, I don't usually try to tell people what to think, especially on the internet but your first lines caught my eye on a google search and after reading the article I felt that it was my duty to do what I can to stop the spread of such a miss-educated(ironic?) and Californian opinion.

    3rd try...maybe it will post this time

  22. One thing I forgot: Juneau isn't really considered a "small-town" since it is one of the larger cities in the state. And I hope your journalism refers to more than internet blogging...otherwise this would be just too precious.


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