We Alaskans are inveterate barterers. It's probably a holdover from the Klondike Gold Rush days. If your next door neighbor didn't have something you could trade, you probably didn't need it. Keeping up with the Joneses isn't high on our priorities either, because the Joneses know that anything you manage to haul up here is just one more thing you have to find spare parts for to make it survive through the winter. The Alaskan landscape is littered with road kill....not the organic kind...but of the vehicular kind.
My next door neighbor, Gary, is sort of a cross between Red Green and Redd Foxx. He's a retired blaster. " I keeps my explosives license up to date just in case I need to blast something." His wife, Betty, is a "terbaccy-chewin'" Athabaskan Indian who keeps him honest. "I can't remember if we ever got married or not," he says. "Been with her for thirty years, so I'd say probably yes."
Gary's a world-class dumpster diver, and he comes back with some great treasures. Last sojourn he came back with TWO brand-new weed whackers that had never even had gas put in their tanks. He gave me one, and kept the other for himself. I helped him fill out a tax form, so I guess that was a pretty fair trade.
A couple of months ago, Gary was out of town visiting some relatives. Betty comes over and asks if I know anything about that newfangled digital TV stuff. "Boy at Sam's Club says I need fancy antenna," she says, pointing up at a snaggletoothed antenna on top of a leaning 30 foot pole that had probably been up since Territorial days. "Can't afford."
"Yeah. Well, that's why the boy is working at Sam's Club," I say. "He couldn't get a job at McDonald's. Your antenna will work just fine, if it's been working so far."
She already has a DTV convertor box, courtesy of the FCC welfare department, which just needs some installing and configuring. I connect everything up, do all the requisite configuration, and lo, the snaggletooth antenna pulls in everything that is worth watching, and a lot that isn't. Betty is elated.
"How much?" she asks.
"Well, you know, I get forty bucks an hour for this normally. Since it took me five minutes, that will be...uh.... three dollars and thirty-three cents."
"I have salmon strip."
"Ah. Well, I suppose I could take that, " I say, feigning reluctant acceptance. (If you've ever had Athabaskan smoked salmon "squaw candy" you know I got the better end of the deal by far). Betty dives into her chest freezer and exhumes a three foot long strip of smoked salmon, and presents it to me. "From For'chookon," she says, with the accent on the "For," which is how every proper Athabaskan pronounces Fort Yukon. Now I'm elated. I feel like I've just bought Manhattan Island for $3.33 worth of beads.
There's a profound lesson in economics here, that every politician would do well to understand.
You see, money has a curious, insidious way of shielding the actual value of any transaction, rather than revealing it. My "day job" is as a government contractor at our friendly local Air Force base. They pay me very well....probably a bit more than I'm worth, MOST of the time...though I definitely earn my keep when we're "in season." (I could explain a little more about what this actually means, but then I'd have to shoot you.) Now, fortunately, my particular field of electronics actually has some "street value." I can get paid in salmon for doing pretty much what I do on the job. (Configuring digital TV converter boxes isn't TOO far removed from Electronic Warfare, technologically). However, I work with a WHOLE LOT of civil service types whose skill sets have ZERO street value outside of our building. Their tangible value to society is essentially zero, without the aegis of the government contract. Or, at the very least, it's impossible to MEASURE their value. In the example I cited at the beginning of this story. I can calculate my value to society at approximately 36 feet of salmon per hour. It's something I can put a handle on. It's a great reality check. How much is a REAL LIVE HUMAN BEING willing to pay me for my services without it being involuntarily extracted from them in the form of tax dollars.
Betty understands this concept, and she has a fourth grade education. And, unless our politicians begin to understand this, it may turn out that Manhattan eventually has no more value than $24 worth of beads.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.