Pricing Follows Power

In San Francisco, most people spend much more on housing than food. Does this mean that housing brings much greater value to people’s lives? No. If I were forced to choose between housing without food and adequate food without housing, I’d rather have enough food and take my chances as an unsheltered homeless person. In reality, I might decide that temporarily lacking food but keeping my housing would be better for my social status and prospects of improving my situation (the stigma of being homeless makes it harder to improve one’s socio-economic standing). But if I believed the situation would last over three months, I would choose food.

Why is housing drastically more expensive than food? Simple – people who control housing have more power to increase prices than people who control food.

Housing is much more than physical shelter. Climate-appropriate tents are cheap and provide sufficient shelter for survival. If physical shelter is all that is needed, that’s the solution. Sometimes, that IS the solution; many people in San Francisco lived in tents after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Another part of ‘housing’ is the social consensus that someone may reside in a particular spot. Away from others, social consensus does not matter; wherever there are others, social consensus is necessary. Otherwise, it’s dangerous to live there. Immediately after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the social consensus was that (some) people may live in tents. Now, there is a general social consensus that someone can pitch a tent on private property with the owner’s permission (but what is private property?) or in the safe sleeping villages (though some neighbors object). Otherwise, someone living in a tent pitched in San Francisco, lacking the protection of social consensus, is at much higher risk of being assaulted, robbed, or being forced to move. Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 6 (Final)

The ferry strike which inspired the beginning of this series ended in early August. You can read about the end of the strike here and here.

I recall reading in a newspaper article in Ketchikan (which is paywalled) that a union member mentioned that the union had learned to take any statements made by the state negotiators with a grain of salt. At the time, I nodded my head and thought ‘yep, the state PR people are saying they are doing a lot to help the stranded passengers, but aside from the captain and officers of the M/V Columbia, all the state is doing is refunding tickets’.

I know that I do not understand all of the finer points of demands / contract provisions, so I will not discuss those.

Throughout my trip in Alaska, I kept on hearing about the major budget cuts to the ferry system, and how there will be less of a ferry system in Alaska next year than this year. ‘It’s a good thing you’re taking the ferry to Dutch Harbor this year’ I would hear people say ‘because who knows if that ferry route will exist next year’.

I know that the looming budget cuts had a bad effect on the morale of the ferry workers – I could feel it on the ships (the workers were professional about it, and some of them deliberately tried to avoid expressing too much, but one could feel the elephant in the room). Heck, how could it not have a bad effect on morale?

I’ve read that, though the contract-related grievances were sufficient to prompt the strike, an additional factor which encouraged the workers to vote for a strike was the fear inspired by the threat of budget cuts to the ferry system. It was their way of protesting the deep cuts. Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 5

Continued from Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 4

Unbelievably, I have managed to get this far in the series without mentioning one of the most politically powerful people in Alaska right now: Donna Arduin. She has been featured in multiple articles in Alaskan newspapers, including this one and this one. I highly recommend at least skimming those articles. In short, she has a history of being hired by a state government, slashing the budget – except for private prisons, she tends to increase spending on private prisons, and contracts tend to be awarded to the private prison companies she has a relationship with – and is gone in a year, so that she does not deal with the political fallout of the budget cuts.

I was in California when she was working for Governor Schwarzenegger, and I had never heard of heard, though I heard of some of the drastic budget cuts proposed. By contrast, she is a household name in Alaska. Almost every Alaskan I met had heard of her. A lot of them blamed Governor Dunleavy’s policies on her, and some even said that she is now the real governor and that Dunleavy is just her tool. Likewise, some of the Alaskans I talked to said that Arduin herself is also a puppet, and the puppetmasters are the Koch brothers (I have not independently confirmed this; it’s just something multiple people have told me; whatever Arduin’s relationship with the Koch family is, the fact that so many Alaskans believe that there is a connection is noteworthy).

I think Alaskans are doing all Americans a service by drawing attention to figures such as Arduin. Considering how much power people like her wield, they deserve public attention.

Now let’s get back to the ferries. Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 4

Continued from Part 3

Content Note: This post contains generalized discussion of sexual violence and rape culture

I’ve heard various Alaskans explain how Dunleavy got elected governor. One explanation was ‘the Democrats ran a candidate’. What they mean is that the 2018 governor election, for a while, was a three-way election between Walker (the incumbent governor, no party affiliation), Dunleavy (Republican), and Begich (Democrat). The logic is that, by running their own candidate instead of endorsing Walker, the Democrat Party split the anti-Dunleavy votes.

This is a contrast with the 2014 gubernatorial election in Alaska, in which Walker and the Democrat Party formed an alliance. Walker agreed to accept the Democrats’ candidate, Byron Mallott, as his lieutenant governor, and in exchange the Democrat Party endorsed Walker even though he is not a Democrat (in fact, as recently as 2013, Walker had been a Republican). Because there was no Democrat running for governor, most Democrats voted for Walker, and because Walker had recently been Republican and still supported some Republican positions (such as being opposed to gun control, an issue Alaskans care about a lot), he also got votes from some Republicans, as well as votes from ‘f*** both parties’ voters.

However, in the 2018 election, Walker eventually decided to withdraw, and endorse Begich, the Democrat candidate. Who lost to Dunleavy.

What I’ve read suggests that the main reason Walker withdrew was that his cut of the PFD was very unpopular and he did not believe he could win re-election. However, some of the Alaskans who spoke to me blamed his lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott.

A few weeks before the election, Byron Mallott resigned because of ‘inappropriate comments’. You can read more about it here and here. The details of the incident which prompted the resignation have been kept private, supposedly out of respect for the victim. If the details have been withheld from the public at the victim’s request, then I am glad that the victim’s wishes are being respected. What I have heard is that this happened at a conference of Native Alaskans, and that the victim was almost certainly a Native Alaskan (Byron Mallott is also a Native Alaskan). At the time that Byron Mallott resigned, it was too late to remove his name from the ballot, and some of the Alaskans who spoke to me believe that this was the push which caused Walker to withdraw and, ultimately, allow Dunleavy to become governor of Alaska.

This is in the context of a state which is grappling with a culture of rape and violence, particularly with regards to Native Alaskans. Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 2

In Part 1 I narrated the story of how I got stranded in Ketchikan, Alaska, due to a labor union strike. In this post, I’m going to try to start tracing the events which led up to the labor union strike.

I’m hesitant to write this part because I have barely looked at the financial information of the State of Alaska. I have not even skimmed the CAFR or the financial statements! However, even though I am sure that looking at the CAFR would give me a much more in-depth understanding of the financial position of the Alaska state government, I think it’s sufficient to understand it at the same level as the average Alaska resident, who also has not looked at the CAFR.

This website gives a good overview of where the Alaska state government gets its funding. Basically, the state government gets funding from three sources: oil, federal funds, and earnings from investment of oil money. How much money the government gets from oil is a function of how much oil is extracted and how much that oil is worth. Oil production is in decline. And in recent years, the price of oil has also gone down. And no, the federal government has not come forth and showered Alaska with new federal funding, nor has investments performed spectacularly better than in previous years. That means the State of Alaska has been bringing in much less revenue in recent years.

To make things a little more complicated, since 1982, the state government has given all Alaska residents a dividend on the earnings of the Permanent Fund (the investment fund), known as the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). There is a specific formula which determines how much dividend is distributed to the residents of Alaska. This is an extremely popular program in Alaska.

But with oil revenues in decline, and without any increase in federal funding or investment earnings, one of the following has to happen:

1) cut in government services (which also often leads to a decrease in federal funding, since much federal funding requires matching funds from the state)
2) reduced dividend payout
3) raising taxes Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 1

When I was ready to leave Alaska, it seems that Alaska was not ready to let me go. I ended up being stuck in Alaska longer than I planned because of Alaska’s political crisis. I’m now back in San Francisco, though I am still working through some of the aftermath.

I boarded a ferry in Sitka, Alaska on July 23. I was supposed to take that ferry all the way to Bellingham, Washington. However, on July 24, at 2pm, when the ferry was docked in Ketchikan, Alaska, one of the three unions which represents the ferry workers went on strike.

The notice says "We are very sorry for any inconvienence but due to an impasse in negotiations between the state of Alaska and the Inland Boatmens Union we are directed by our union to leave the vessel at this time. Chief Purser'. A passenger wrote 'You awful union people!!!' and another passenger wrote 'NO - AWFUL GOVERNOR!'

This notice was left at the purser’s counter on the ship, with comments by passengers.

This blindsided practically all of the passengers on board, including me, since when we first docked in Ketchikan (at around 12:15 pm), all of the announcements indicated that the ferry was going to leave on schedule (at 3 pm). At first, we could hardly believe the strike was real, and then when we could see all of the crew members getting off the boat, we told ourselves that since the officers (including captain) and the engineers were staying on the boat, we would still depart. Maybe there would be no food or cleaning service, but surely we were still going to Bellingham, right? Continue reading

Alaska, My Mother

When I was in Cooper Landing, a woman asked me why I wanted to visit Alaska. I gave some vague answer like ‘why wouldn’t I want to come to Alaska?’ She said that most people don’t think of traveling around Alaska. I pointed out the tons of tourists, and she said that most of them come on cruise ships. I think she is underestimating just how many tourists there are in Alaska (she lives in a small settlement on Kachemak Bay that is only accessible by water taxi or private boat), but her question was still a good one: why was I visiting Alaska?

As I’ve already said on this blog, I want to see and experience things which I cannot see and experience in California. But there are many places I can do that, so why Alaska and not somewhere else? My trip was partially inspired by watching the documentary Alaska’s Marine Highway (and that is a large part of why I am spending so much time on ferries). But even that is not the deepest reason.

There is my mother.

She had already been living in the United States (in the Washington D.C. metro area), but her first employer could not offer her a visa which would allow her to get a ‘green card’ (permanent residency in the United States). My mother wanted to live in the United States indefinitely, so she really wanted a green card. She was looking for a job which could get her one. The first job which she was able to get which promised her a green card just happened to be in Alaska. And that is how she ended up working and living in Alaska.

Eventually, her employer transferred her to San Francisco. When she was having trouble getting a mortgage to buy a house in San Francisco, her employer (who was the same employer she had in Alaska) stepped in and helped her get the mortgage (and they also paid her enough that she was able to afford to buy a house in San Francisco). That is how she became the owner of a house in San Francisco. And renovating the house (it was practically uninhabitable at the time of purchase) started a chain of events which led to her meeting my father. And then I came along, and I grew up (and still live in) the house that she bought. And it can all be traced back to the job she had in Alaska.

I have been to many museums in Alaska, and one of the pieces of Alaska history which sometimes is exhibited is the boom which happened after the discovery of oil on the North Slope. The oil boom created many jobs, including my mother’s job in Alaska (and even after she moved to San Francisco, her employer could afford to offer financial assistance with paying down her mortgage above and beyond her ordinary salary partially because they were making so much money from the Alaska oil boom). Thus, even though I wasn’t there, I consider that oil boom to be part of my personal history.

All my life, I’ve heard my mother make comments about Alaska. No particular comment stands out to me, but it conditioned me to think of Alaska in a certain way. In my thoughts, Alaska is a much more ‘major’ and ‘important’ place than, say, Minnesota, or Pennsylvania, or New Mexico, or Hawaii, not because it is objectively more ‘major’ or ‘important’ but simply because I grew up among people who almost never mentioned those other states.

As I’ve discussed travel with my mother over the years, she has a tendency to say things like ‘if you think [place] was spectacular, you should see Alaska!’

My mother has been more excited about me going to Alaska than any other travel I have undertaken. She enthusiastically tried to plan some of my trip for me, and I asked her to keep her armchair travel itinerary separate from my real travel plan. If she were twenty years younger, I’m sure she would have joined me and we would have traveled around Alaska together.

As I have traveled around Alaska, and learned so much about Alaska, I have also realized how little I know about my mother’s experiences in Alaska. This is especially obvious when Alaskans ask me about what my mother did when she was in Alaska. I hope I will have the opportunity to ask my mother more about what it was like and how she lived when she was in Alaska.

Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The Most Overcast Town in America, Dumpster Chickens, and Other Ports of Call

I’ve written about the vessel, and the people, and now I’m making a post specifically about the ports of call I visited on the M/V Tustumena.

This is a graphic from the Alaska Marine Highway website showing the routes in Southewest Alaska.

I’m skipping Homer and Kodiak to keep this post from getting too long; if someone really wants to know what I have to say about Homer and Kodiak, they may leave comments.



We had clear sunny skies in Chignik. We could see all of the volcanic scenery clearly (including the famous Castle Cape; I shared a photo in this post). According to the crew and the locals, Chignik almost never has clear sunny skies. Some of the crew members, who have been on this route many times, were taking photos because they had never seen such weather in Chignik before. Continue reading

Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: People I Met

I had heard that the M/V Tustumena is a great place for tourists to mix with locals, and it turns out that is actually true. I would say roughly half of the passengers were tourists (international tourists, tourists from the lower 48 states such as myself, and Alaskans who had never been to the southwestern part of the state before) and half were people who live in southwest Alaska. On the boat, there is no internet, there is rarely cell phone service (though people sometimes got cell phone service in bizarre spots), and unless we were docked in port, we were all in the same confined space. Many of the passengers (including me) were on the ferry for multiple days. This encouraged conversation with fellow passengers. For example, I spent quite a bit of time chatting with this group from Anchorage who do a lot of hiking and backpacking, just like me. I also spent a bit of time socializing with some birdwatchers from Juneau.

Some birdwatchers who were on the ferry watched this bird. Perhaps this bird was watching even more birds.

A paraphrased quote from a birdwatcher from Juneau: “When you become a birdwatcher [she had no doubt that I would become a birdwatcher] the very first bird call you learn to recognize by ear will become special to you” (I pointed out that I recognize the calls of some wild birds in San Francisco, and I’ve known them for so long that I don’t remember which one I learned to recognize first).

I met one passenger who was born on Sanak, an island off the coast of the Alaska peninsula which is no longer inhabited by people. She said that she was probably one of the last people ever born on Sanak. The purser’s counter also has an entire book about Unga, another village that lost all of its human population (IIRC, the last people left Unga around 1960). There are many communities on the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands which have been completely depopulated in the 20th century. The U.S. government forced the permanent abandonment of a few villages during the Aleut Evacuation/Incarceration (which I will mention again in this post), and some communities which were the center of military activity during the Cold War were practically abandoned after the fall of the USSR. But for the most part, it seems that these communities lose their people after the local economy collapses (which I guess includes communities whose economies were based on Cold War military activity). Unga’s economy collapsed after both the mine and the fishery stopped being commercially viable. Continue reading

Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The “Trusty Tusty”

The M/V Tustumena docked in King Cove, Alaska

On June 4, I departed Homer, Alaska on the boat M/V Tustumena, known by the nickname “Trusty Tusty”, as it headed towards Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian archipelago, a journey of about 900 miles (approximately 1400 kilometers) in one direction. The journey to Dutch Harbor took three and a half days, and then I got back on the boat as it turned around for the return voyage. I am sitting on the boat right now, typing the first draft of this blog post.

As I worked on the first draft of this post, I took this picture of the forward lounge (yes, that is my laptop in the foreground).

Where do passengers sleep on the boat? There are staterooms with spartan bunk beds, but they are expensive. Some passengers who did not pay for a stateroom sleep in the forward lounge or side lounge on the promenade deck. Others pitched their tent on the solarium deck.

A couple of tents on the solarium deck.

Continue reading