Photo of glacier calving by Tim Bartholomaus with support from the National Science Foundation and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Can too much money be a curse?

The same year my grandparents (and surrogate parents) acquired a television, 1955, a show began called The Millionaire. The set-up was spoken into the camera at the beginning of each episode:

My name is Michael Anthony, and until his death just a few years ago, I was the executive secretary to the late John Beresford Tipton, Jr. John Beresford Tipton, a fabulously wealthy and fascinating man, whose many hobbies included his habit of giving away one million dollars, tax free, each week — to persons he had never even met.

Every week, money rained down on unsuspecting victims of every social station. More often than not, the gift became a curse.

This caused me not a little head-scratching. My grandparents lived in a house bought for cash with a settlement that came to my grandfather as a result of a disabling accident when he was working as a driller in the oil fields.

The house was not very substantial when built. There was no foundation and the brick columns that held it off the ground were not set in bedrock. As a result, the cracks between the walls and the floor and around the doors and windows got bigger over the years. The paint and the roof were worn out.

On the plus side, the house had an added bathroom with running water and the carpenter who added the bathroom drilled holes in the connecting wall and brought faucets to the kitchen. He also added electricity, two circuits worth that powered an electric light in the center of each room. The incandescent bulbs of not over 60 watts were set in fixtures with plugs above the bulbs that served every other use of electricity in the house.

Sometime in the fifties, the ice plant quit delivering and my grandparents had to buy an electric refrigerator. The wires in the room where the fridge lived stayed hot to the touch and we bought fuses by the box.

Toward the end of every month, our diet depended on the government commodities distribution unless it was garden season.

Income was my grandfather’s pension from the Spanish-American War, two small Social Security checks, and what my grandmother could earn washing dishes at the cafes along Route 66 and doing housework for the swell folks.

From this situation, I watched weekly episodes of The Millionaire and marveled as the windfall more often than not devastated the lives of the “lucky” recipients. The show’s ratings made it clear that The Millionaire had an audience not at all limited to poor people. While I credit that show with planting a seed of doubt that having money to buy a bunch of stuff would make me happy, I sure wanted to find out.

I had long progressed beyond my fixation on things when I had reason to mull over the whole question again, with more riding on the outcome than a child’s fantasies. In 1987, the Supreme Court decided California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, which applied some long-settled rules of federal Indian law to hold a state that allowed gambling had no authority to regulate gambling on Indian land.

Congress quickly heard the collective whine of the states with Indian reservations and passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act the very next year. IGRA, contrary to popular understanding, did not confer on Indians the right to have casinos — it limited the Indians’ right to have casinos by cutting states in on the decision making and therefore on the proceeds.

After the states exploited IGRA to extort a cut, and the white folks who understood how to run casinos got theirs, there was some money left for tribal governments. Those governments focused for the most part on three goals:

1. Distributing the funds to tribal citizens on a per capita basis, payments commonly known as “per caps.”

2. Investing in tribal enterprises to diversify the reservation economy.

3. Educating tribal citizens.

Indians on reservations in the third category could go all the way through professional schools at no cost.

Results in the second category depended upon the wisdom of tribal governments or their consultants.

Indians in the first category all got a visit from a minion of John Beresford Tipton, with results very like the television show. Some chose wisely and some were done in by their own poor judgment or by the crooks who are always drawn to Indian wealth. However that may be, tribal governments that chose paths two or three often got voted out in favor of candidates who promised per caps.

My own tribe is mostly on option two, because per caps are out of the question when you have circa 730,000 citizens, but even for us, the decision was not without controversy.

Meanwhile, casino revenues shrink from market saturation. Casino wealth is like resource extraction wealth in that it will not last forever. Per caps, the argument goes, amount to eating the seed corn. Economic diversification and education promise income in the future, but they must be traded for income right now.

Dumb Indians, you say? Or is it they can’t manage money because they never had any?

Let me call your attention to the great state of Alaska, whose economic spark plug is oil and gas production. While Alaskan wells are unlikely to dry up anytime soon, they will dry up.

When I first read that a whole state was paying per caps, I thought I had to be mistaken. I was not, but Alaska has taken the prudent step of setting aside some of the oil revenues for future generations — 25 percent or 11 percent, depending on whether your definition of “oil revenues” includes taxes. Still, there has been a political problem.

The oil business has been in a slump for some time now and when oil slumps, Alaska government has revenue shortfalls.

Alaska could have passed an income tax, but it did not.

Alaska could have passed a sales tax, but it did not.

It chose to bite into per cap money to balance the budget. In 2017, the voters expected $2,300 and they got $1,100. In 2018, the voters expected $2,700 and they got $1,600.

Republican budget hawk Mike J. Dunleavy was elected governor on a promise to not just restore the per caps, but to make “catch up payments,” bringing the total to $3,000. This year, Gov. Dunleavy proved himself willing to deploy the line item veto in the service of his campaign promise.

According to The New York Times, the Alaska legislature had already cut $5 million from appropriations for higher education. Dunleavy came along behind with his line item veto power and excised another $130 million.The total slices the budget of the University of Alaska system by 41 percent.

While it pains this adopted Texan to mention that Alaska is the largest state by land area, awareness of that fact is necessary to understanding the impact of shutting down satellite campuses. Distance alone would cause a radical decrease in the number of students served. This is no way for an extraction-based economy to get ready for a knowledge-based economy. Manufacturing was never an option.

On this path, Alaska’s future is commercial fishing to the extent allowed by climate change and tourism (although the spectacle of glaciers calving is doomed along with the glaciers) centered on sport fishing and hunting and sightseeing.

The Alaska legislature can pull back from this decision by overriding the governor’s exercise of the line item veto this week. I was a twice-tenured university professor in my second career, should you want to apply a discount to my opinion of the value of higher education. The Alaska courts were also whacked by the governor’s veto pen, and I was a judge in my first career — -but I do not choose to sound a similar alarm over the slowing down of justice.

If I were an Alaskan, I would be upset about the total elimination of public television and radio. Ending the state Council for the Arts is another value judgment I probably would not share, but I don’t know it like I know public television and radio. Solitude has its own value to creativity, and I expect I could do what I’m doing right now if I were snowed in.

Failure to educate future generations, though, is an act of stupidity in a class by itself. Kids from Alaska cannot just hop over a border and pay out-of-state tuition, even if they could afford it. The bad economic effects cannot be confined to one state. The waste of human potential is a tragedy to Homo sapiens, a species that is going to need all the help it can get to survive the existential crisis that is climate change.

If you think the science of climate change is a matter for belief and you do not believe in it, your mileage may vary from my arguments about why a 41 percent slash from the University of Alaska budget is a tragedy that will not be confined to Alaska’s borders. My point still stands that failure to manage money intelligently is not a racial trait limited to American Indians. I don’t even recall that an Indian ever appeared on The Millionaire.

There are Athabascan Indians in Alaska who are not watching this from the cheap seats. Like the Inuit, they have youngsters needing education. Like me in the circumstances of my birth, they need education to maximize their choices and, incidentally, to pay more taxes over their earning years. The fate of the University of Alaska system is in the hands of and on the conscience of the Alaska legislature. To be weighed are the education of Alaska’s young people against the Alaska governor’s campaign promise. Or, put another way, whether Alaskan democracy can survive the lure of per caps.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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