Steven Pearlstein's column in the Nov. 23 Business section incorrectly described one of two proposed bridges in Alaska, originally funded by Congress as part of the transportation bill, that have been derided as "bridges to nowhere." Only one bridge would connect to an island; the other would connect Anchorage to a nearly deserted port across an inlet. (Published 11/30/2005)
With General Motors in the midst of a painful downsizing and Ford scheduled to announce its plan next year, it struck me that it's time for the U.S. government to get serious about restructuring.
So, after crunching the numbers and tossing around ideas with world-renowned strategy consultants, I've come up with a dynamite plan -- one that would cut the federal deficit and the debt, heal a major rift within the body politic, and restore some sanity to the annual appropriations process:
Sell Alaska back to the Russians.
The timing couldn't be better. The market value of Alaska's 4.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, plus the gas, timber and copper, are at or near all-time highs, while Russia is flush with $50 billion in petrodollars it doesn't know how to invest. And with the Kremlin still smarting about losing all those unpronounceable republics, Alaska would be just the sort of strategic acquisition to appeal to President Putin's imperial instincts.
The deal could be structured as a leveraged buyout with some seller mezzanine financing, to give us some upside if commodity prices continue to climb. And if you figure a price of $1 trillion, the investment banking fees alone should be enough to add several points to U.S. gross domestic product. And the profit we make off Seward's original $7.2 million investment would put even the Carlyle Group to shame.
With Alaska free from the political grip of environmentalists in Washington and Marin County, Alaskans would be able to drill and fish and clear-cut to their heart's content, unlocking value that could never be realized as long as they are in the United States. And politics here will finally be free of the endless fights over Tongass and ANWR, sea lions and caribou.
In terms of cash flow, there's no question that the deal would, to use Wall Street-speak, be immediately accretive. The Tax Foundation calculates that in 2003, Alaska got $1.89 back in federal contracts, subsidies and income support for every dollar its residents and companies pay to the U.S. Treasury. That's the second-best deal in the union, after New Mexico's $1.99.
That federal largess is testimony to the hard work of a congressional delegation determined to lard any piece of legislation going by with special goodies for Alaska.
You already know about the $435 million for two bridges to two isolated Alaskan islands -- the so-called bridges to nowhere. But what's remarkable about these fiscal abominations is how unremarkable they were to Alaskans, for whom each new increment of federal money is merely the predicate for justifying yet another.
Subsidized highways that require subsidized bridges to bring people and cargo to subsidized airports serving subsidized flights.
Subsidized design studies for the subsidized construction of ferry boats that will offer subsidized service to isolated communities in which housing, education, health care and economic development are all heavily subsidized.
Subsidized marketing campaigns for salmon-fortified baby food made from fish caught by subsidized fleets. (I'm not making this up.)
And don't forget Alaska's Native American corporations, which recently won $2.2 billion in federal contracts, thanks to the legislative handiwork of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, for many years the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Little, if any, of the work under those contracts is done by natives or in Alaska. When it comes to federal contracting, many native corporations are merely fronts for large defense and security firms. These "partnerships" not only qualify for minority set-asides, but they are also exempt from size limits on no-bid contracts, exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and exempt from review by the Government Accountability Office. This is nothing but welfare for Alaskan natives masquerading as entrepreneurial capitalism.
What makes this addiction to federal subsidy so remarkable is that it is found in a state blessed with a private oil industry that throws off billions of dollars a year in salaries, contracts, taxes and royalties. Under those circumstances, you might think Alaskans would have developed an instinct for taking care of themselves. But as it turns out, Alaska ranks dead last in the union in the state and local taxes its imposes on its residents -- no sales tax, no income tax and a per-capita property tax that is lowest among the 50 states. And when rising oil prices created a billion-dollar windfall last year for the state treasury, the legislature quickly spent every last dime.
And that's what I like most about the idea of selling Alaska back to the Russians -- the cultural fit, so important in any acquisition. Let's face it: Although it's been American territory for nearly 140 years, Alaska has more in common with post-Soviet Russia, where government remains at the center of the economy and political power is in the hands of a small, shadowy group of oligarchs, who use it to enrich friends and family. It's a milieu in which Alaska's reigning oligarch, Ted Stevens, should feel very much at home.
Here in Washington, Stevens has worked his magic behind closed doors. But occasionally the public gets a chance to connect the dots -- such as when Stevens slipped in an appropriation for the Air Force to overpay for land owned by a longtime supporter, or when he turned a $50,000 investment into a million-dollar payday by investing in a project with a developer who just happened to have benefited from another Air Force construction contract that had Stevens's fingerprints all over it.
Lately, attention has turned to Stevens's son Ben, who was appointed to an open seat in the Alaskan state Senate in 2001 after a truly stellar career as a fisherman and minor Washington lobbyist cashing in on his father's connections. The next year, Ben was reelected without opposition, paving the way for his election this year as Senate president.
Ben is a busy man. Besides his Senate duties, he's managed to earn a million dollars in corporate consulting fees over the past four years and serve as chairman of federally funded Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, another example of his father's legislative handiwork. Now he is embroiled in a legal battle in which it was revealed that he stands to make more than a million dollars from a special fishing-rights allotment that his father inserted into federal legislation. Dad said he was unaware of his son's business involvement.
Lately, all the attention brought on by his son's activities and the "bridges to nowhere" has generated unflattering coverage for the elder Stevens, prompting outbursts and threats to resign from the Senate. But I'm sure that once Alaska is reunited with the Russian empire and Commissar Stevens has settled into his new office at the Kremlin, those problems will magically disappear.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at email@example.com.