The great state of Alaska has a fairly unique way of handling hydrocarbon revenues. According to Article 9, Section 15 of the constitution of Alaska, “at least 25 percent of all mineral lease rentals, royalties, royalty sales proceeds, federal mineral revenue-sharing payments and bonuses received by the state be placed in a permanent fund, the principal of which may only be used for income-producing investments.” In 1980, the legislature set the actual pay-in requirement at 50% of the above revenues.
The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation (APFC) then invests the proceeds. For reference, in 2012 the Fund received $915 million from the state, up $28 million from 2011. (APFC annual reports can be found here.) The APFC is more-or-less free to do what it wants; it is fairly conservative but not as much as some other sovereign wealth funds.
Roughly 53% of the investment income earned by the APFC is then paid out in dividends (calculated here) to citizens of Alaska, i.e., any U.S. citizen resident for at least six months. (Alaskan law previously favored longstanding residents, but the U.S. Supreme Court threw that out in 1982.) Dividends are based on a five-year rolling average, so it is unlikely that a crash (like, say, 2008) would axe dividends although. That said, it is possible. Last year the APFC transferred over $605 million; in 2011 it transferred $801 million. (The link will take you to the web page of the organization that distributes the dividends, called the Permanent Fund Dividend Division; that is different from the APFC.) Historical data on dividends can be found here.
You got it: every man, woman, and child in the State of Alaska gets a check ($1,174 in 2011) cut to them by the state government from the proceeds derived from the state’s titular ownership of all subsoil resources. Which is why, obviously, Alaskans hate socialism.
Could this system work in Venezuela? Pedro Rodríguez, José Morales, and Francisco Monaldi suggest that the answer is yes. Oil has been a net benefit to Venezuela, but the country has clearly wasted most of the income; giving cash to citizens could solve that issue. Still, there are a couple of rubs. They address all of them in their paper, but not in sufficient detail:
- How much is needed to keep the Venezuelan state running? Alaska set up the Permanent Fund fairly close to the beginning of the oil boom. Venezuela, on the other hand, will be doing so after a decade of high oil rents and almost a century of oil dependence. The authors are probably correct to argue that a new government could shut down most of the “misiones” without too much trouble. The authors are certainly correct to argue that the country would be better off getting rid of its idiotic fuel subsidies. It is less clear to me, however, that starving the rest of the bureaucracy would be wise, regardless of how bloated it may be. Venezuela right now suffers from too little governance in some very big fields (police, courts, schools and infrastructure, just for a start) and fixing the mess left over from President Chávez and his feckless Punto Fijo predecessors could easily require more money, not less;
- How do you deal with disincentive effects? The amounts that would be distributed under the Venezuelan plan are a much larger share of income for the median (let alone poor) Venezuelan than for the median Alaskan. Alaska in 2011 had a median income of $67,825 per household, against an average APF check of ($1,174 × 2.65 people per household) $3,111. Call it 5% of per capita income. In Venezuela, though, similar numbers would have in 2008 represented “31% of per capita income for those at the bottom 25% of the income distribution, 15% for the next quartile and 8% and 3% for the top two quartiles respectively” at official exchange rates. Unofficial exchange rates could as much as triple those figures;
- The volatility problem follows. Alaskans just have 5% of their income tied to swings in oil prices plus financial markets. (To be frank, the Alaskans have not solved that problem despite using the mechanisms proposed by the authors to do so.) In Venezuela, it will be much higher;
- How do you get past the unpopularity of the plan? The Venezuelan opposition proposed such a thing in 2006. The authors have evidence that a lot depends on how the proposal is phrased, but those results do not take into account the inevitable opposition campaign;
- If you solve problems (1) and (2) by allocating only a relatively small percentage of the oil money, what exactly is it that you have solved? I am honestly unclear. Is it the management of the hydrocarbon sector? Well, lots of countries have more-or-less solved at problem in various ways: Brazil and Algeria come to mind. Is it to weaken political machines? OK, but populists could still play with payouts, no? Is it to insure that benefits flow to the poorest? I am with them on that one, but it might be hard to sell.
In short, the authors make a compelling case, but I think the devil really is in the details. I would like to see a more detailed proposal.