Commentary

Capital bubbles

Bubbles-7.jpg

Commentary

The gridlocked Alaska Legislature has a problem, but it’s not what most Alaskans think, although then again in a way it is sort of what most Alaskans think.

The Legislature’s problem is bubbles.

Economic bubbles are today well-known to everyone because of the Great Recession of 2007-2009. But there are lots of other bubbles: social bubbles, racial bubbles, journalistic bubbles, political bubbles.

Many of us, although far from all,  live in some sort of bubble. We tend to surround ourselves with the like-minded at work, at home, in our personal lives.

The Alaska Legislature exists in three distinct bubbles, one geographic and the other two political. All of which tend to feed on each other for the worse in these very, very partisan times. Bubbles distort views at the same time they provide comfort. Even in the cold, dark dead of the Alaska winter, it’s cozy inside a bubble.

Strangely enough Alaska politicians, who don’t much like journalists (one of the former is actually alleged to have slapped one of the later yesterday; God forbid!), have almost the same bubble problem as the journos. And some of the later have been contemplating the bubble issue a fair bit of late because of a number-crunching Politico story that offered a data-driven explanation for why the media so badly missed the political groundswell that carried President Donald Trump to the White House.

(Ignore the New York Times/Washington Post belief that a.) the Russians hacked the election, or b.) FBI director James Comey tilted it.  The reality is that Americans voted Trump into office, and if they got duped by Russian propaganda, or fake news as it is more often called now, or by Comey, it’s their fault, not Russia’s. Not to mention the hypocrisy is heavy here in a country that has a long, sordid history of trying to influence elections in other countries. Can you say Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam where the U.S. went far beyond the simple spread of information, disinformation or misinformation?)

Conventional wisdom on the media’s failure to sense the Trump wave  building in middle America is largely as Nate Silver wrote at the website FiveThirtyEight.com more than a month ago: “Groupthink.” Silver checked off the usual boxes to explain the predictable behavior of American newsrooms, too white, too white-collared, too male, too left-leaning, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Would things be better with more journalists of color, more journalists with dirt under their fingernails, more Edna Buchanans, and some journalists who’ve actually had to work hard at real jobs in previous lives? Probably, though the lack of such might not be the biggest problem.

For some reason, Silver left out cowardice, which should have been first on the list. Reporters have always been reluctant to challenge the narrative being pursued by the pack, but never so much as in these times.

There was a Clinton bandwagon rolling toward last fall’s election and a whole lot of the media jumped aboard for fear of being left behind or ostracized. The media has been doing that sort of thing for a long, long time, though the media is different now.

Decidedly different. All of which goes to the heart of the subject into which Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty drilled down at Politico.

The company you keep

People are subject to the influence of their peers and most journalistic peers, not just in their newsrooms but in their communities, were Clinton disciples.

“…As you might suspect,” the duo wrote, “Clinton dominated where internet publishing jobs abound. Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points. When you add in the shrinking number of newspaper jobs, 72 percent of all internet publishing or newspaper employees work in a county that Clinton won. By this measure, of course, Clinton was the national media’s candidate.

“Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.”

What Okrent was describing was the good, old, echo chamber, that wonderful place where pretty much all you hear is what you want to hear.

Shaker and Doherty blame economics for journalists moving into journalistic echo chambers. As electronic news has steadily taken over and replaced newspapers, they note, journalists have clustered in the country’s major cities. The result, as Okrent observed more than a decade ago, is that they now reflect the thinking of the cities where they cluster.

It’s an interesting theory. Peer pressure is powerful.

At least hundreds, and more likely thousands or tens of thousands, of scientific papers have been published over the years on the subject of how  “peer pressure” can either mess up or save teenagers. Less has been written about adults and peer pressure, but clearly it doesn’t end after the teen years.

Peer pressure reinforces the walls of the bubble in which journalists live, and it is no different for Alaska politicians in Juneau.

 

Black, white, no gray

Alaska’s capital is the ultimate geographic bubble. You fly in, you fly out. There are roads both north and south of the city, but they go nowhere.

There is a sense of isolation that creeps into the bones. Some residents of Juneau love it; some loathe it. The latter usually don’t last long.

Legislators largely ignore it because they are in their own bubble within the bubble. They parachute into a very small fish bowl in which they are very big fish to paraphrase former state Senate President Jalmar Kertulla of Palmer, who never forgot his Matanuska Colony farm boy roots.  

Juneau is an easy place to forget your roots what with all the lobbyists and legislative hangers-on telling you how well you do a great and important job. Kissing up is what people who want to succeed in the business of politics do, and if you can kiss up without too overtly appearing a kiss up, you will indeed succeed.

The reality is all politics is personal. You win by making people like you even if, in these times, it might seem that you’re not. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was once the most popular “conservative” politician in the country, though she wasn’t really a conservative and had arguably alienated more Americans than she’d befriended.

But she’d befriended millions and she worked them constantly to keep them in her bubble. No one can have forgotten the battle over “death panels.”

“The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care,” she wrote, “but…who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Such a system would be downright evil, but it wasn’t what was proposed. What was proposed was a mishmash of mandatory insurance and government insurance subsidies that lawmakers deluded themselves into believing would somehow decrease the cost of health care. It didn’t. Costs kept going up. 

Palin and later Trump attracted a lot of fans by arguing that getting rid of federally mandated insurance, what many call Obamacare, would drive down insurance costs, but there’s no reason to believe that will happen in a system where the basic problem is a lack of competition.

Competition is what drives prices down, but there isn’t much of it between insurance companies or drug companies or hospitals or health-care providers. And there are plenty of lobbyists working for those interests to try to keep it that way.

Welcome to American politics, a game in which special interests wield considerable power both nationally and regionally.

Back to Juneau

In Alaska, the people who work for these special interests befriend the lawmakers who each winter head for the state’s isolated, outpost capital in a remote community of only about 32,000 people. There the pols generally settle into the bubble within the bubble in which they are comfortable.

D-Bubble or R-Bubble, the bubble invariably contains some local friends who like to fish, some fellow travelers, and some lobbyists with the gift of gab and access to the people with enough money to finance the next campaign.

Legislators find security in these bubbles. It’s comfortable there.

Many do sneak out of Juneau to visit Alaska’s urban core to spend time with family or visit constituents on weekends. But it’s just a visit, and it’s always nice to visit. Alaskans are famously courteous to visitors. It’s pretty rare for a legislator home for the weekend to get ambushed by angry constituents.

And if it should happen, not to worry, he or she can soon flee back to the security of the appropriate capital bubble.

It’s nice to have a place to go where others echo what you want to hear. We should all have such a place. The only problem with this is that it doesn’t work well for governing in difficult times.

The Legislator is now gridlocked over fiscal policy because of dueling bubbles. The D’s in the state House are comfortably locked in one bubble; the R’s in the state Senate are secure in another; and Gov. Bill Walker is either at his next political photo-op or off somewhere in Absurdistan trying to sell natural gas from a phantom pipeline while sending home messages about how “I will continue to focus on resolving Alaska’s fiscal crisis this session.”

The D’s want an income tax as a litmus test of Alaska loyalty; ie. we should all give some of our earnings to the government to show government employees how much we appreciate them.

The R’s think taxing income in a recession when the state has a lot of money in the bank is foolish. The general rule of economics is that adding taxes when an economy is in recession just makes things worse. If Alaskans want to restore the income tax, so people here actually pay, which they should, for some of the government services they get the time to do so would be when the economy is healthy, not when it is struggling.

The R’s would tap into the  state’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) to help cover the budget deficit, but that comes with its own set of questions about what removing that freely spent money from the economy could do.

There is a case to be made for state-subsidized spending providing a boost to the economy in the short term that would make it stronger in the long term. The main problem in making that argument comes in identifying just exactly what a future Alaska economy might be outside of oil, which has a limited future be it another 30 years or 300 years, and health care, which is subsidized by work in jobs that actually produce something.

But who wants to worry about the nitty-gritty of these things when it’s a lot more comfortable to just nod your head and agree with the people in your bubble, be it the no-no bubble or the yes-yes bubble nurtured by the lobbyists on either side of Alaska’s fiscal debate.

As for the people of Alaska, well, they’re just those clowns outside the bubble staring in. You can kind of ignore them until the next election comes around.

Glass houses

Which brings us to a question: Have you ever pondered why legislators rolled over so easily when Walker threatened to veto the funds for the fancy, new office on Fourth Avenue in the heart of downtown Anchorage?  Ever wonder why they left the building even after their own analyst concluded it wasn’t such a bad deal?

It has a lot to do with the vulnerability people feel when they move outside of a bubble.

When the Legislature convened for a special session in the Anchorage LIO in 2015, lawmakers discovered that the luxury of being able to peer out of a glass house at the scenic wonders of Cook Inlet, and the Alaska, Aleutian, Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountain ranges was offset by the liability of the world being able to see in.

Even worse, they discovered after they pulled the shades over the windows that they could still hear the protesters on the street outside. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in Juneau, a community less than a tenth the size of the Anchorage Metropolitan Area. 

A lawmaker in Juneau – D, R or other – is more likely to run into a friend or acquaintance who wants to go get a beer than into a protester. The unwashed masses don’t interfere much in Juneau where political factions move comfortably in their own bubbles within the bubble.

At the moment, they’re comfortably disagreeing over fiscal policy. Both sides are in bubble lock-down.  Both sides are pretending to have the perfect solution is a system where perfect solutions don’t exist. Democracies, like marriages, survive on compromise.

Some of the compromises end up being bad. Some of the compromises end up being good. But there is always compromise or, inevitably, divorce with all its complications.

Were lawmakers today working in a glasshouse in Anchorage where the masses might show up to offer their views on what to do, some of the pols might give more consideration to the necessity of compromise. But in the bubbles within the bubble, it’s easy to ignore reality.

Forty-ninth state legislators are sent  far from Alaska’s citizenry to a place where they can be surrounded by people who gain favor by kissing up to those very same legislators. Shifting demographics pushed the state into this position, and after decades of trying to move the capital somewhere closer to the Alaska masses, it remains isolated on the Panhandle.

This would be funny if it was funny. Here is Alaska – a state that is always whining about federal over-reach imposed by out-of-touch lawmakers under the spell of special interests in far off Washington, D.C. – locked into a system of state government that ships the political process to far off Juneau where out-of-touch lawmakers operate under the spell of special interests.

There was a time when legislative exile made a certain amount of sense, a time when citizen politicians went to Juneau to spend a few months hammering out a government plan without much help from special interests. But that time is gone.

All Alaskans get out of the deal now is bubbles, and the problems that come with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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8 replies »

  1. Wish Governor Hammond was still with us so he could explain why the Permanent Fund was created in the first place

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  2. Interesting Craig. Just yesterday I was fantasizing what might happen if we could fly 1,000 to 2,000 randomly selected Alaskans to Juneau for a week to demand our elected people get out of their trenches and make some decisions NOW.

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  3. Good piece, Craig, but I’m not sure about the bubble metaphor. What do we know about bubbles? They always pop. This feels more like groups entrenching themselves. Social identity theory (a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership) provides an interesting framework to think about some of these issues. Most people act in certain ways to fit into the groups they selected or were placed in throughout their lives. Which raises an interesting question: if everything about you and how you act is based on some group membership, are you really an individual? I’d like to think Alaska has a fair share of individuals who believe that many/most group memberships are BS, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

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  4. Great job, Mr. Medred. Thank you for clarifying the obvious. Do you have a constituency I can join to make this happen?

    Like

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