I’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Alaska’s Senator Ted “Bridge to Nowhere” Stevens with a general feeling of “And anyone’s surprised about this?” Stevens – and the Alaska he has represented in the Senate since its achieving statehood, is the civic personification of the civic schizopreneia known as Red State America. Red State politicians get elected preaching a gospel of antigovernment, personal responsibility, self-reliance and the joys of the free-market self—made man. Then–without so much a twitch of cognitive contradiction or the slightest blush of self-recognized hypocrisy—these same Red State politicians fight their way to the front of the public trough, year after year, too grab as much public pork to bring back to the self reliant folks back home as their pens can earmark.
Take Ted Steven’s Alaska. With it’s nickname “The Last Frontier”, Alaska proudly presents itself as the emblematic epitome of Red State, rugged individualist values America. A nice image that is totally contradicted by reality. Alaska is one of the biggest state suckers on the national teat, ranking every year in the top three or five states for per capital Federal spending. (California typically falls in the bottom twenty states) So much for self reliance. Alaska has also consistently come in first (for almost two decades) as the piggiest state in terms of the Federal pork it receives. No wonder Alaskans keep sending Stevens back to Washington – he is the Porcine Prince.
My only question is where did all that pork Ted Steven’s brought back to Alaska go? Just who up there in the far north got fat? Because it doesn’t seem to be the average Alaskan. I happened to be in Alaska in June (inland passage cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage) which was my first experience on the “Last Frontier.” What struck both my wife and I was how, in each port city we stopped at, including the capital Juneau, as soon as you walked a few blocks from the tourist areas, just how poor everything looked. Houses, cars, buildings – everything had the aura of poor rural West Virginia (a poor, rural west Virginia with whales and grizzly bears, to be sure…) And that was in the bustling urban metropolises (of course in Alaska anything over a thousand people is bustling…)
Our big question was where was all the fabled wealth of Alaska – its vast natural resources of oil, gas and other precious gifts of the Earth—actually going. You didn’t see it in the properties and persons of the average Alaskans. You certainly didn’t see it in public buildings and spaces. Just where has all that last frontier gold gone? Lost on a bridge to nowhere?
Speaking of which, I actually floated past the place where Ted Stevens wanted to build his $300 million bridge. It’s in Ketchican, Alaska (population 8000) and would link the airport with the main town. To put it in San Diego perspective, the airport sits on an island about as far from the town as Coronado is from downtown San Diego. Currently a ferry services the few dozen people a day who make the commute to and from the airport by vehicle. Steven’s wanted to build a bridge even bigger than the Coronado Bridge (large cruise ships would have to be able to pass under it) to handle a handful of trips per day. (The Coronado Bridge, in comparison, has a traffic volume of over 70,000 vehicles per day, roughly ten times the total population of Ketchikan.)
So why did Stevens want that bridge? Just to make the locals happy? Sure. Big projects can mean big votes. But just who was going to get that $315 million in contracts? Local Ketchikan businesses? Surely not. Alaskan contractors? Some. But big corporate contractors would probably get the lion’s share of the money. The sorts of big corporations that make big, fat campaign contributions to Senators like Stevens. Just like the mega-big oil corporations that have been given access to the oil lying below public lands in Alaska at a cost of pennies on the sales dollar of that oil once they take it to market thanks to people like Ted Stevens. They suck the oil profits out of Alaska leaving a pittance in remittance for Alaskans.
So is it any surprise that one of the oil industry companies that have profited so handsomely for so long under the Stevens’ stewardship should be found to have (illegally) doubled the size of the Senators’ Alaskan abode. Think of it as a friendly little gratuity. To bad Stevens didn’t get his bridge. Some happy contractor might have given him an additional story.
Meanwhile Red State Alaskans continue to send their Red State politicians to Washington to preach the rhetoric that government is evil while stuffing as much pork as possible into their state accounts. And they do it with a straight face. That’s the amazing thing.