Friday, September 19, 2008

Patronage politics and "crony capitalism" in Alaska

Timothy Egan's column, Moo, is the most emailed story in the New York Times right now, about 36 hours after it was posted. In it, Egan re-surfaces a few of Palin's decisions as governor of Alaska; others were covered in this story last week, under the headline: "Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes." That story reported, among other things, that Palin hired at least five schoolmates for high-level government jobs since she became governor, often with few relevant credentials and at salaries that exceeded their private-sector wages.

Egan suggests that Palin's sort of bad governance is associated with the state's cultural status as the "last frontier." He compares Palin's "crony capitalism" to some recent corporate governance debacles, including golden handshakes that failing CEO's have gotten.

Here is an excerpt:

Palin’s Alaska is a cultural cousin to this kind of capitalism. The state may seem like a rugged arena for risky free-marketers. In truth, it’s a strange mix of socialized projects and who-you-know hiring practices.

Egan provides an example of this in a discussion of government-subsidized dairy farms near Anchorage, a project that ultimately failed. He also notes the size of the earmarks that Alaska gets, relative to other states. Per capita, they get about 10 times what residents of Illinois receive. Egan notes the irony of federal monies buying things Alaskans could not otherwise afford--because they pay no state taxes.

Part of the information and context Egan and others have supplied recently in the wake of Palin's rise is not entirely Alaska-specific. Some of it is characteristic of rural places. Counties and states with a great deal of federal land tend to be sparsely populated (though rarely to the same degree as Alaska, of course) and this often makes for local economies that are seriously supplemented by, if not dominated by, federal monies. So, as discussed in an earlier post, governing and balancing the budget in these places is somewhat different than in places which are more populous and economically diversified.

One thing I find interesting in all of this is the extent to which the sort of patronage politics in which Palin engaged in Alaska is also a particularly rural phenomenon. I know it happens in cities, certainly (isn't Chicago famous for it?), but I wonder if there is something about the familiarity among folks in sparsely populated places, along with the relative dearth of economic opportunity there, that fosters this behavior--and accepts it. Corruption by local officials was suggested in this story out of upstate New York last month, for example.

Certainly, I saw patronage politics run amok in my home county when I was growing up. There, getting your "man" elected County Judge (the chief administrative officer of the county) was critical to getting your road graded until the next election. Getting your candidate elected Sheriff was seen as highly influencing any interactions with local law enforcement. Also in that context, where relatively good jobs are so rare, administrative jobs in the offices of elected county officials were highly coveted. Elected officials regularly doled out favors of these sorts to their supporters, often leaving others dis-served. The obvious favoritism sometimes displayed might have drawn great criticism as unfair and abusive, but people seemed to see it as "turn about is fair play." They simply worked harder to get their own cronies in office at the next election.

So, if Palin excuses some of her behavior with, "that's the way we do things here," she may be accurate -- which doesn't, of course, make it right.

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