Apparently, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly came up to Alaska last week. He liked it so much that he wrote about us, penning an editorial in the Boston Herald that repurposed Alaska as his own, personal, intellectually monosyllabic prop to explain the definition of "Real America" that he made up.
Titling the piece "Alaska home to free thinkers," he then dedicated 500 words to explaining how we all universally think one way, presumably from behind a mustache and quite possibly with a presumptive eagle on our shoulders.
Up here, many folks don't much like President Obama's vision of a big government colossus dictating health care, doling out entitlements and generally meddling in the affairs of the citizenry.
Up here, we also don't much like people using us to strengthen the narrative they made up inside their own head (especially when when it reads like a 5th grade book report).
Mr. O'Reilly didn't appear to look into health care in Alaska. In 2010, the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage noted that health care came with the price tag of $7.5 billion -- "roughly equal to half the wages Alaskans collected" the same year. The study projected this figure could double by 2020. Of the well-over $2.2 billion in funding for federal programs, the largest cost is Medicaid, constituting 18% of all health care spending. Medicare is close behind, followed by Indian Health Services, the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, Denali Kid Care and other Community Health Centers.
"Mention Obamacare," O'Reilly quips, "and you'll likely get icy stares, even in the summer."
A climate pun! We never hear those!
"Obamacare" rarely comes up at all. Whether it's at Providence hospital in Anchorage or a town hall in rural Alaska, you're much more likely to hear concerns about Medicare reimbursement rates. Those are not typically discussions demanding less federal funding.
We feel the high cost of living when it comes to medical care. A day in the hospital costs 50 percent more in Alaska, on average, than the lower forty eight. Costs for common procedures are 35 percent higher. But O'Reilly asserts that Joe Alaska -- his mythical approximation of all 731,449 of us -- shrugs this off with a tug of the bootstraps and a healthy paycheck.
After all, we have jobs!
The Fox News pundit boasts that our median household income is $16,000 higher than the national average, which is a bouquet of worthless numbers that, in no way, takes into account the regional paucity of jobs in all corners of a state large enough to house 62 states of Massachusetts.
The economic realities of the hundreds of small towns and villages populate every corner of Alaska are not easily reduced to "show up get a living wage." There is no Sheraton in Sand Point, and no Arby's in Nondalton (which has an annual median household income $3,400 below the poverty line).
Something tells me O'Reilly didn't stray too far outside city limits, save for secluded lodge stays, a boat ride, or a couple plane tours. Which is too bad. If he wanted to look at the most "tough, self-reliant" characters in Alaska, who elicit the "spirit of rugged individualism" he seems so taken with, those are places and people he should meet.
But that would muck up the all-American (circa nineteen-fifty-never) Joe Alaska caricature that O'Reilly wished to dangle in front of a Bostonian readership.
"This is an old-fashioned place that still embraces the Klon-dike mentality: Take chances, and maybe you'll hit it big. But if you don't, don't whine about it."
(I think he made up a hyphen there.)
"This is America the way it used to be. And the way things are going in the Lower 48, the way it used to be is likely gone forever."
And the kicker: "[W]hile poor people do receive entitlements, and the oil industry kicks in some money for the folks, few Alaskans are asking for handouts."
Our economy is often described as a three-legged stool. The job opportunities that O'Reilly heralded are generated, fairly evenly, by the federal government, the oil industry, and everything else.
The oil and gas industry funds state government (we don't have a state sales or income tax). Every year, Alaskans get a share of those oil revenues in the form of a dividend check from the state. It's a pretty sweet deal.
We're an ownership state. We believe that we collectively own all of our resources, which should be developed for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans.
Somehow, I doubt the looks of the Best Buy parking lot on the day Permanent Fund Dividend checks come out would fit neatly into O'Reilly's character profile of Joe Alaska.
But he likely doesn't vacation here in October and I doubt he gave it that much thought. He certainly didn't afford the rest of the article that courtesy.
"Most everybody has a gun -- there are big bears around -- and the majority of folks are happy not to be dealing with bureaucracies."
Guns? Check. Bears? Around. Happy not dealing with bureaucracies?
Did you even get out of the plane?
Alaska is a young state struggling to build infrastructure from a starting point which Boston hasn't seen since the 18th century. Disagree? Take a drive to our state capital and tell me where you end up. Hint: You'll need a towel.
We're trying to catch up with America, and we're doing it while facing twenty-first century challenges.
You don't kill a bear with your gun and get a new university. You don't hate the government so hard it builds a highway. You do that stuff by working together. You do that through bureaucracies, like Denali Kid Care, Indian Health Services, the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, dozens of state departments, hundreds of community councils, hundreds more tribal councils -- we're barely skimming the surface.
Bill O'Reilly's Joe Alaska is a straw man for a bad argument against republican government. The poorly crafted ideological idol, created to represent a Hobbesian nature-state survivalist with an Ayn Rand guidebook and a cowboy hat, is offensive. When you try to reduce a citizenry as diverse as Alaska down to a hometown editorial-by-numbers (Alaska in 500 words!) you just look bad.
I thank Mr. O'Reilly for coming here. We appreciate the business and hope he'll come back soon. But do it as a tourist, as a student, as a wildlife enthusiast or sportsman. Alaska is here for people to enjoy, not haphazardly decode. Don't hang out for a day or two and then decide you're a state historian and demographer. Resist the urge to play armchair Tocqueville while on vacation at confirmation bias camp. It's dishonest and a bad read. We're not a prop.
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