Alsaka, a state where pioneering is still a daily reality, wants a launch a grand experiment in economic democracy-distributing new wealth to all its citizens, giving each an owner's share in Alaska's bountiful energy development.
If scheme works, every Alsakan-men, women, children-will hold stock shares in huge capital investments such as the Trans-Alaskan oil pipeline or the proposed natural gas pipeline or a future petrochemical complex. Every year, citizens would each receive dividend checks of several hundreds dollars or more and, every year, their share of equity interest would grow.
In addition to spreading cash among the citizens, the idea might produce political benefits for the oil companies. If the people have a persobal stake in the profits, the public may be more sympathetic when private enterprise complains about government regulation and taxation.
IS the capitalist revolution upon us?
The "general stock ownership plan" (GSOP) is the brainchild of Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alsaka), who derived the idea from the economic philosophy of Louis Kelso, a prophet of broadened capital ownership of workers. Last week, without any fanfare, the federal tax-law changes necessary for the venture were enacted by Congress in its omnibus tax bill, now awaiting the president's signature.
"This idea has floated around for years and nobody has taken it seriousily," Gravel said. "But wait until the day when the first dividend checks go out to every citizen of Alaska. When the long green touches their hands, you will see a revolution begin."
Gravel, his enthusiasm getting somewhat ahead of events, predicts the Alaskan venture will alter American politics and economics in profound ways, as other states rush to copy the model. The senator sells it as the alternative to welfare-state liberlism, as the way "to build a constituency for capitalism."
The potential political effects are almost asintriguing as the presumed economic benefits. Gravel's plan would make all citizens into minority partners with major oil companies, a fact that could greatly alter public opinion on issues such as state taxation of energy ventures. If a citizen holds a personal stake in energy profits, albeit a small one, he or she may not like the idea of the state government increasing its taxes on those profits in order to finance public programs.
In the meantime, the state government of Alaska has not yet committed itself to do anything beyond studying the idea.
The legislature has placed Louis Kelso's San Francisco investment firm under a $180,000 contract to draw up the blueprint for this economic creature-a state-chartered corporartion powered to borrow money, perhaps with a credit guarantee from the state and to invest the money in private business ventures. Earnings from the venture would pay off the loan and the leftover profits would be distributed every year as dividends to each of the 405,000 citizen stockholders.
For starters, Gravel thinks the GSOP corporation might buy out Britain Petroleum's 16 percent share in the oil pipe line. Owned jointly by eight oil companies, the pipe is already carrying North Slope crude oil south for distributing.BP has expressed an interest in selling its investment, valued at $1.5 billion, and the senator's staff calculates that, when the pipeline is at full capacity, BP's share of the revenue would run about $406 million a year.
This would be enough for the GSOp corporation, according to Gravel to cover the operating costs plus the annual debt payments and still leave about $158 million a year for distribution in dividends.
That means about $390 per person. Nobody will get rich on $390, But a family of four would have four divdend checks coming every year, or $1,560. This could make a real difference to a poor family, Gravel reasons, offsetting some of the government obligations to provide welfare subsidize services.
Since the value of an oil pipeline depreciates as it ages, the citizen stock would presumably be worth considerably less than $1.5 billion when the debt is finally paid off in 15 or 20 years. After five years, however, a citizen could sell his or her share for the going price.
To avoid concentrated ownership nobody could hold more than 10 shares.
Each share of stock would have a single vote to elect the officers of the GSOP corporation, who in turn would have 16 percent worth of influence over the pipeline company itself.
Among the other things, the Alaska legislature has to decide who qualifies as a "citizen." One idea is to set a cutoff date of Jan. 1 this year, so the state would not be flooded with new immigrants seeking a share of stock.
Down the road a way, Gravel envisions already several layers of citizens investment on a grander scale-another stock to help finance the multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline expected to be built in the 1980s, another share in a vast petrochemical complex envisioned for the Kenai Peninsula. If Gravel's wish list were to become reality over the next decade, Alaskans would be drawing modest second incomes in addition to their wages-a comes a collection of dividend checks.
At this point the reader of normal intelligence is probably rolling his eyes and wondering if Sen. Gravel and the Alsaka legislature have gone bonkers, not to mention the U.S. Congress, which has authorized the experiment. It all sounds too good to be true. Where is the hidden catch? and who pays the bill for this redistribution of wealth?
That is approximately the reaction that Gravel encountered last March when he first proposed the scheme to the state legislature and again, this summer when he tried it out on the Senate Finance Committee. With a little persuasion from Sen. Russel B. Long (D-LA.), the committee chairman and an advocate himself of broadened ownership, the Congress decided to let Gravel try out his mini-revolution.
Long has said privately that, if Gravel's idea works, and it may or may not, it would be come the most significant item in the 1978 tax legislation.
The heart of the scheme is credit, the power to borrow money. As Gravel and Kelso see the world, ordinary people, even poor people, could accumulate wealth in the same way that well-to-do people make their assets grow, if the government will intervene. A person who has sufficent assests or earnings to guarantee his or her credit can borrow money to make investments, pledging to pay back the loan with the new income expected from the investiments.f the venture is a success, the person winds up with new capital that paid for itself, but nobody calls this process a "giveway". It's called "risk-taking" in the free enterprise system.
Gravels notion is that government which in effect aggregate the assets of all citizens, can provide a mechanism for extending a share of credit to everyone-a chance to buy something based on its anticipated future earnings.
That concept is the essential novelty of Gravel's scheme. Beyond that point, the proposition works more or less like ordinary business transactions, with the same tax benefits, the same risks. The citizen-owned corporation would enjoy the same tax treatment as a partnership or a certain corporation with a limited number of stockholders (known as "Subchapter S" Corporation). The GSOp would be exempt from paying corporation incoem tax on its own earnings, but it would have to distribute at least 90 percent of its profits every year to shareholders who would each pay individual income tax on the money. The GSOp could not, however, pass through losses, so its shareholders could not use it as a tax shelter.
The Treasury Department objected to Gravel's original version because he had tucked in additional, more exotic "tax benefits." When the tax experts studied his final proposal, however, they concluded that the U.S. Treasury would lose little or nothing.
Gravel contends the federal government will actually collect more revenue under his plan because the profit now collected by British Petroleum, for instance, are "sheltered" from taxation by various provision of the tax code. If some of that profit goes directly to individuals, it could yield as much as $40 million in income taxes, Gravel claims.
If the GSOP decided to buy BP's share, it would to go a friendly banker somewhere, presumably on Wall Street, and ask to borrow the $1.5 billion needed. The banker would make a calculation on whether it is a good risk or not. If the pipeline looked as if it wouldn't "pay out" as handsomely as the company's projections then the GSOP would either be turned down or be forced to pay high risk interest rates that might kill the whole idea. ut, if the Trans-Alaskan pipeline is such a good deal, how come British Petroleum wants to get out of it? That question leads into arcane subjects where only experts tread with confidence-pipeline economics corporate debt structure and optimum rates of return for oil companies.
British Petroleum, which has expressed no more than an informal interest in selling, has complained about its low earnings from the pipeline so far, which suffered from an explosion and shutdown last year. It is the only major partner that doesn't also own a share of the North Slope oil field. The state of Alaska, like Exxon and Arco and the others, do own production shares in the oil field.
"If you own a share of the oil field," said John Gore, BP's Washingtion representative, "it's economic to own a share of the oil field, it doesn't look so good."
Bp has one of the highest debt-equity rations among petroleum majors and some think the company would like to extract its investment from the Alaskan pipeline so it can spend the money closer to home-drilling more oil wells in Britain's North Sea fields.
In any case, one reason the pipeline looks less attractive to the British company today is that the state government of Alaska has been fighting the oil companies over how much the pipeline can charge to move the crude oil. The state collects a severance tax on all oil dumped in Alaska, but transportation costs are deducted, from the tax-so a higher pipeline fee means less tax revenue for the state government and vice versa.
This is a political hook that could have important implications for the future development of energy projects.
Right now the oil companies are asking federal regulators for a pipeline tariff of $6.35 per barrel, while state tax officials insist that a fee of $4.68 is all that can be justified. For the state treasury, the difference represents about $140 million a year in severance tax revenue. But, if Alaskan citizens owned BP's share, the higher tariff would deliver an additional $106 million to their citizen-owned corporation.
Question: Would Alaskans prefer a lower tariff that sends more tax money to the state capital or a higher tariff that adds more money to their own dividend checks? The political message from the citizens could very well be: Get off the backs of the oil companies.
Sen. Gravel claims this possibility is one of the major benefits of his proposal. "You set in motion a conflict between the citizens and the governments," he said, "and you give the citizen a handle for seeing what the government is doing."
Alaska Revenue Commissioner Sterling Gallagher, originally skeptical about Gravel's proposal because of its tax implications, is now a supporter. He agress this political tension is likely, but he sees that as healty. In any case, Gallagher doesn't think the GSOp would go forward with the pipeline purchase until the tariff issue is settled conclusively by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"It's hard for people to tell what government is doing for them," Gallagher said. "If there is wealth in the state-public wealth-I think we should distribute it to the people and let them decide how to use it."
Citizen ownership, in Gravel's argument, is an alternative to state socialism-a way to distribute the benefits of corporate capitalism without nationalizing private enterprises and turning over their management to politicians and bureaucrats. For several years, Alaska has been contemplating whether the state government should acquire shares of the new energy ventures, so Gravel sees the GSOP approach as an alternative to state ownership.
Construction of the huge natural gas pipeline, for instance, still depends upon raising the capital, and sone industry officials believe it can't be done without government participation of some kind, either direct investment citizens, rather than the public treasury.
In many ways, Alaska is a unique laboratory for this idea. It has a very small population and a promising, undeveloped future. But Gravel and Gallagher, among others, think the GSOP model can be widely copied in legislation-and applied to certain types of ventures seeking new captial, such as natural resource projects or public utilities.
Gravel likes to suggest that Potomac Electric Power Co., which sells electricity to metropolitan Washington, could be forced to obtain its new capital from a corporation owned by ail of Pepco's customers, from the very poor to the very rich. Nobody would make a fortune, but it would take a little of the pain out of rate increases.
Despite Gravel's probusiness rhetoric, some conservatives are still offended by the idea of "giving" equility to people who haven't paid anything for it. In the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) asked how he could explain this sponded rather tartly, considering that Danforth is an heir to the Ralston-Purina fortune.
"Here is how you explain it to the people of Missouri," Gravel replied.
"You say, if you are a citizen of Missouri and you inherited $10 million, you are well off and you got it for nothing and that is okay in our capitalist society. . . so we are going to fix it so that you can do like the wealthy people-go borrow money on your net worth and take that money and put it into something and let that simply pay the cost of the loan and then pay you wealth thereafter. I think the people of Missouri would jump up in the air and say, 'Hosanna! Somebody finally is letting us have a piece of the action,'"