Jay Hammond, Father of the Alaskan Basic Income, Dies at 83

Jay Hammond, the governor of Alaska from 1975 to 1982, who led the fight to create the Alaska Permanent Fund, was found dead at his Homestead about 185 miles southwest of Anchorage, on Tuesday, August 2, 2005. He led an amazing life. Hammond was a laborer, a fur trapper (by dogsled), a World War II fighter pilot, an Alaskan bush pilot, a husband, a father of three, a wildlife biologist, a back woods guide, a hunter, a fisher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a homesteader. Hammond was one of the last people to take advantage of the Civil-War-ear U.S. law giving away land. Other than a requirement to build a house and farm the land for five years, it was given away free—no strings attached.

Hammond was also hero to everyone who believes that no one should be barred from the resources they need to meet their basic needs—no strings attached.

Hammond got the idea for a resource dividend when he was mayor of a small town of Bristol Bay, Alaska in the 1960s. He realized that salmon were being taken out of the area without necessarily helping the town’s poor. He proposed a three percent tax on all fish caught in the area to be redistributed to all residents of the town. By an enormous stroke of luck, the man who had that idea (and saw it work in Bristol Bay) would be elected governor of Alaska just as the state was beginning construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Oil companies stood to make billions of dollars, and of course, they argued that Alaskans would benefit through new job opportunities, but Hammond knew one way to make sure that every single Alaskan would benefit from the pipeline.

And so the Alaskan Permanent Fund was born. For the last 20 years every Alaskan has received income from state oil revenues. A portion of the state’s taxes on Alaskan oil goes into an investment fund, which pays dividends from the interest on those investments—hence the permanent fund. Dividends vary, but they are usually more than $1,000 per year for every man, woman, and child living in the state.

The system is not perfect. Hammond told Tim Bradner, of the Anchorage Daily News, that his biggest regret was to let the legislature eliminate the state’s income tax. Without the citizens’ responsibility to pay taxes to support state services the fund will be vulnerable, and the legislature has been trying to raid the fund ever since. So far, the enormous popularity of the fund has protected it fairly well. Hammond also regretted that the fund was too small. Only one-eighth of the state’s oil tax revenues goes into the fund. If half of oil tax revenues went into the fund, as Hammond envisioned, every Alaska family of four could expect to receive more than $16,000 this year. Hammond died campaigning to increase the size of the fund.

But the most important thing about the fund is that it exists. It’s simple, it works, and everyone in the state benefits from it every year. How many elected officials can say they did that? According to Sean Butler in Dissent Magazine, Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith, called the Permanent Fund, “a model governments all over the world would be wise to copy.” It is a pilot program for resource taxes and basic income plans all over the world. Economists have recommended the Alaska solution for resource-rich, poverty-ridden countries from Nigeria to Iraq. Just this summer the government of Azerbaijan sent a delegation to Alaska to study the Permanent Fund. You can’t keep a good idea down.

Jay Hammond spoke at the 2004 USBIG Congress in Washington, DC. Here is how Butler describes the event: “The father of the Brazilian basic income, Senator Eduardo Suplicy, also presented at the USBIG conference last year. During his speech, he noticed Jay Hammond sitting in the front row, and, to warm applause from the assembled crowd, descended from the stage to shake his hand. The two basic income pioneers had at last met. Hammond and Suplicy make an odd couple. The Republican Hammond, with his Hemingway-like white beard and grizzly build, wears his far north ethos of self-reliance with pride. Suplicy, a founding member of the left-wing Brazilian Workers Party and a U.S.-trained economist, has the dignified appearance of an intellectual and professional politician. It’s tropical socialism meets arctic capitalism; yet somehow, when the two come together over basic income, they get along.”

I had the good fortune to attend that event and meet Governor Hammond. He was warm and engaging. He wasn’t there to bask in the glory of people who admired his past achievements but to fight to keep improving the APF. He was a genuine hero.

An article on Hammond and basic income by Sean Butler, entitled, “Life, Liberty, and a Little Bit of Cash,’ appeared in Dissent Magazine just a few weeks before he died.

There have been many good tributes to Hammond in the news and on the internet since his death. Here are just a few:

Frank Murkowski, current governor of Alaska, “Hammond’s Legacy Will Stand Out,” Alaska Daily News
Tim Bradner, “Hammond has passed; his ideas must live on,” Alaska Daily News
Douglas Martin, “Governor of Alaska Who Paid Dividends,” New York Times

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist is a Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Theory from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Economics from the City University of New York. He is coauthor of Economics for Social Workers and coeditor of the Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. He has contributed to journals such as Politics, Philosophy, and Economics; Political Studies; and the Eastern Economic Journal.
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