A Charitable Interpretation of Crazy Talk

Obama’s plan to designate more than 12 millions acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, protecting it from drilling, has brought predictable responses from Alaska Republicans. I don’t doubt that many liberals find the responses to be a bit crazy, but I want to dig down into them a little bit, because I think there’s more there than immediately meets the eye.

Promises, Promises
First, Senator Lisa Murkowski argued that

The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to [this administration].

One might ask why those promises should mean anything. Alaska became a state in 1959, a decade before the environmental movement really got rolling. President Carter used the Antiquities Act in in 1978 to designate over 50 million acres of Alaskan land as National Monuments (his response to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s threat to filibuster legislation protecting these lands), and then signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980 after having lost his re-election bid. Simply put, the changed political landscape following the development of environmentalism as an important political value makes our view of Alaska different today than when it became a state, and that view has been at play for the majority of time Alaska’s been a state. So who cares about the promises made then?

But this demonstrates a key truth about government. Government assurances cannot be relied upon because the promises of one administration or session of Congress are in no way binding on future administrations or Congresses. In technical terms, government has a problem with credible commitment. Liberals might sneer at Alaska’s outrage, but the promises a current administration makes to their group could also be as summarily ignored, to their own outrage. A little empathy is in order, because next time it could be them.

Potomac v. Prudhoe: De Facto Colonialism?
Murkowski also critiqued the perspective of D.C. toward Alaska.

It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory.

Alaska’s new junior Senator, Dan Sullivan, went further (and here’s the line that I think liberals will really see as crazy talk).

[W]e will defeat their lawless attempt to designate ANWR as a wilderness, as well as their ultimate goal of making Alaska one big national park.”

I don’t think anyone actually has the goal of making the whole of Alaska a national park. We are, after all, talking about further protection of lands that are already designated for some degree of protection. But let’s focus on the “lawless attempt to designate ANWR as a wilderness” claim. On the face of it, it’s ridiculous–while presidents can unilaterally declare national monuments under the Antiquities Act, designating wilderness areas requires congressional action–and Obama is explicitly seeking congressional action–which by definition is lawful.

But let’s tie that “lawless” claim in with Murkowski’s claim that the administration sees Alaska as just a territory. To one segment of the American public, federal ownership public lands is a fully accepted idea, and has been since the 19th century. It’s such a long-established element of American politics that it seems unquestionable, and of course the federal government has authority over federal lands.

But there’s a great disparity among states in how much of their land is held by the federal government. The image below makes this clear (source).
The disparity means that some states are very much closer to the status of territory than other states. While they have recognition in Congress, they exercise sovereignty over less than half of their own lands. This was the deal struck when these former territories were granted statehood, and it’s not crazy to argue that they weren’t really brought into statehood on truly equal terms with previous states

Hence the “lawlessness” is not so much in the present proposal, or in congressional action, but in the systemic structure that keep some states perpetually in semi-territorial status, untrusted with the lands within their borders, as other states are. In effect, Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Oregon and a few other states are have been colonized by the federal government. And consider how regionally imbalanced the federal control is. This potentially creates–arguably already has created–a large region of disaffected Americans.

Look Beyond the Crazy
A liberal can scoff, but a good number of the people in those states are angry. They see this structure as illegitimate, and that causes them to question the legitimacy of the federal government. And no matter how wacky you think someone’s perspective is, when sizable numbers of people begin questioning the legitimacy of the system that system can become politically unstable.

We’re not talking about demands to deny minority rights, or to establish theocracy, or even for autonomy, much less independence (yet, at least). We’re simply talking about a demand to actually have more influence in managing their own lands, like 38 other states have.

So liberals could easily discount Murkowski and Sullivan’s responses as crazy talk, as typical conservative nutjobbery. But I think they should look more deeply at what these complaints really signify.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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15 Responses to A Charitable Interpretation of Crazy Talk

  1. When you say that the citizens of the Western States are angry and demanding more control of their own lands, just who do you mean?

    As a native of Arizona with more than sixty years there, the only people I ever met who wanted the State to have control of the Federal land there (which, please note, contains some huge reservations for the Navajo, Apache, and military) were land developers. The have an immense influence on the politcal leadership in Arizona, but are hardly representative of the populace as a whole.

  2. James Hanley says:

    I mean a lot of conservatives. The county supremacy folks in Nevada may be nuts, but they’re actual people, and actual citizens with actual responses to actual government policy.

    By the way, good to talk to you again, D.C. I missed your contributions while I was on hiatus from here.

  3. Michael Cain says:

    D.C…. It might have been better if Prof. Hanley had said that the officials elected by the citizens of those states are antry. The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act passed in Congress with zero aye votes from any of the states actually affected. Wyoming would like the feds to bring their land restoration requirements after strip mining up to the state standards. Colorado has now started funding to purchase their own fire-fighting air fleet because it looks like Congress will eventually zero out funding for the federal fleet. Utah’s congressional delegation, governor, and state legislature screamed bloody murder when Clinton created a new national monument with no notice and blocked off any mineral development on a big chunk of state-owned “school land”. Almost all of the state governments live in terror that BLM or the Forest Service will exercise their court-granted authority to appropriate more of the scarce water supply. I can assure you that in every one of those 12 states, every session, the legislature struggles with something that would be straightforward in the other 38, but is hard because so much of the land is owned by one entity that can ignore your state laws.

    An acquaintance once quipped that the motto of the Western Governors Association should be, “Do you know what those d*ckheads at BLM have done now?”

  4. Excellent graphic regarding the states and federal land… So you’ve presented a good opening that shows one slice of a very complex set of issues. Here’s something that piqued our curiosity as residents of Alaska: We’d like to see a similar graphic showing net revenues each state pays to or receives from the federal government. This chart in The Economist shows that Alaska continues to be a net drain on the federal government: http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/08/americas-fiscal-union
    We love our state, but conservatives invariably brush over this fact. The other thing is that in the post colonial period – that is, since Alaska gained statehood – the zeal of some Alaskan’s to recklessly extract resources has created huge problems; and then the very state legislators who oversaw the mismanagement of these resources in the first place think nothing of going to Washington and asking for further financial help.
    The other piece of this issue that deserves closer examination is this: WHO wants these lands to be available for development? It seems to us that at this juncture in American history where average citizens are allowing themselves to be easily divided, conquered, brainwashed and pitted against each other, big corporations and both government parties are having way to easy a time of it getting their minions to side with them.
    And finally, whether we’re talking about a huge mining proposal in Bristol Bay or drilling in ANWR and other areas, conservatives continue to pretend that Eskimos and other indigenous Alaskans don’t exist or shouldn’t have any voice in these matters. On the one hand, there are times when polling data is all over the place. But there are other times when it is clear that the majority Of Alaskans oppose the kind of development big mining, big timber, big oil and the Republican party (and some libertarians) would like to see.

  5. James Hanley says:

    This all rings true to me, and as Alaska’s population continues to grow, probably drawing in more folks self-describing as environmentalists, they’ll continue to be contentious.

    I’ve seen such graphics on net revenues, but not one that’s up-to-date. The one you link to is the most up-to-date one I’ve seen, in fact.

  6. More up-to-date numbers (2013) with WikiPedia (check the sources as always):


  7. James Hanley says:

    Thank you, D.C. Now we just need Michael Cain to turn that into a nice map for us.

  8. trumwill says:

    The relationship between federal holdings and spending/revenues tends to be weak, at least compared to other relationships. The federal government owns a lot of the west, including “donor” and “beneficiary” states. The most pertinent relationships of donor/beneficiary are wealth (for obvious reasons) and rural/urban (which itself has a wealth component, but also it costs more to deliver services to rural areas and less populated areas are often ideal for specific government projects).

    It’s also worth noting that on some of the comparisons, it can be deceptive for mineral-rich western states. The money raised locally through drilling on public land sometimes isn’t counting as having originated from the state (the way that money raised through federal taxes are) while the cut that the money gets back is counted as federal spending. Wyoming tends to be the best example of this. A big chunk of their federal largesse is from money actually raised in Wyoming.

    (That being said, the Wikipedia link that DCS provides has Wyoming as a donor state, so it might account for that.)

  9. trumwill brings up a good point (if indirectly): Entities with high tax rates have an incentive to jigger the books to make the nominal source of income taxable (and thus reportable) in low-tax States. Which might or might not bias the comparison, but does reduce any confidence I have in it.

  10. Lancifer says:

    I don’t think the ratio (money into a state)/(money out of a state) has much to do with whether people in western states should have the right to control the land of their state. Unless you see the federal government entirely as some sort of benevolent overlord.

  11. Lancifer says:

    The livelihoods and lifestyles of many people in the west (ranchers, farmers, mining and oil company management and employees) are dependent on leases of federal land. As a non-westerner I used to have the rather flip attitude of, “So what that land belongs to all US citizens. Why should they have some special right to use it and perhaps damage it for some use I might prefer, like recreation?”

    Well, substitute “native people” instead of westerner and you might get a feel for how these people view this arrangement. I know many “westerners” and they, mostly, resent the fact that some senator or congressman from Rhode Island gets to vote on decisions that affect their lives in very sweeping and concrete ways.

  12. trumwill says:

    To relate to a couple of Lancifer’s comments

    I lived in the rural west when we had the government shut-down. One of the pressing issues was that the county was waiting for government money that wasn’t coming. It would be easy to say “Well, lookee there! Yet another red county begging for federal money!”

    The federal money that they were waiting on, though, were PILTs. Payment in Lieu of Taxes. Basically, since the county cannot charge the feds property taxes, it’s the money that the federal government gives them in lieu of the taxes they cannot collect. And the federal government owns 67% of the county’s land. What looks like a hand-out on paper in that case is actually a portion of taxes they can’t collect due to federal government ownership.

  13. Michael Cain says:

    “Thank you, D.C. Now we just need Michael Cain to turn that into a nice map for us.”

    What did you have in mind? I’ve played with cartograms based on the revenue-spending thing and never been very happy with the results.

    I’ll have to look at the Wikipedia numbers on taxes and revenues. Using the older Tax Foundation figures, the 11-state contiguous West was a net donor of tax dollars to the rest of the country *despite* the large federal land holdings. I do know that trying to do the net-donor thing in western states gets complex for other reasons (Will Truman has pointed out some of them in other places in the past). New Mexico, for example, gets credited with approx $2K per head for the Los Alamos National Lab and the White Sands missile range, facilities no one in their right mind would take today. Washington State gets some large amount of money because of the Hanford nuclear reservation, a facility that they very much wish was located somewhere else. IIRC, Washington is the only western state that consistently votes in Congress in favor of opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository because they think the rules will be bent enough to allow all the military waste from Hanford to go there.

  14. James Hanley says:

    Michael Cain,

    Oh, I was half-joking. I like graphics, and I always like the maps you create. If you felt like making one, I’d post whatever you came up with.

  15. Pingback: Michael Cain Maps States’ Tax-donor Status | The Bawdy House Provisions

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