Ted's Not Afraid to Die, the People All Call Him Alaska


Of the send-offs to Ted Stevens that I've read this week, the most enlightening is probably Charles Homans' obit at Oil & Glory, which highlights Stevens' role in making the modern Alaskan economy. Here's an excerpt:

Ted Stevens' state poses within one of a series of tubes.

In 1968, shortly before Stevens was appointed to replace the recently deceased Senator Bob Bartlett, geologists for the Atlantic Richfield Company found the largest oil reserves in the United States on Alaska's North Slope. Crucially, the oil was on state, not federal land—thanks in part to Stevens's deft Washington maneuvering in the leadup to statehood—meaning the bulk of the royalties would stay in Alaska. It was Stevens who helped draft a claims settlement with Alaskan Natives—who had legal right to much of the state's land—that enabled the construction of the mammoth Trans-Alaska Pipeline that connected the North Slope oil fields to the port of Valdez, completely transforming Alaska's borderline-nonexistent economy.

By dint of its geographical isolation and the contentious relationship with the federal government that Alaskans carried with them from the territorial era into statehood, Alaska gradually became an odd sort of de facto petrostate, within the United States but not really of it. Oil money brought the Alaskan government the resources it needed to build clinics and schools across its vast hinterland, which even today is exotically undeveloped by American standards. (As recently as the '90s, state leaders were waging a public health campaign against the "honey bucket", a container that residents of remote Arctic communities, lacking indoor plumbing, used in lieu of a toilet.) But it also lashed the state to the fortunes of the tumultuous energy market. Alaska rode high at times of geopolitical disorder—the OPEC embargo, the Gulf War—and fell hard when oil prices descended, as they did in the early '80s and late '90s.

As he rose to influence on Capitol Hill, Stevens became gifted at smoothing out these bumps in Alaska's perpetual economic roller coaster ride. A master of legislative small print, he created a massive pipeline of federal subsidies that funneled billions of dollars a year—more per capita than any other state for most of the past 25 years—north to his constituents. In the end, he was too good at what he did: Accustomed to complementary flows of oil money and federal dollars, Alaskans never managed to establish much of an economy beyond the oil and gas industry. (Alaska's next largest export, seafood, produces less revenue for the state than cigarette taxes.) Citizens got in the habit of judging, and electing, politicians based on their ability to keep these two faucets—the North Slope and the U.S. Treasury—open.

In the end it was this intermingling of oil and politics that brought down Stevens, along with a solid cross section of Alaska's Republican political establishment.

Elsewhere in Reason: Jacob Sullum explains why "Stevens' real crime was his record of 'service' to the people of Alaska, which in any other context would be recognized as theft on a grand scale."