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Success is never ours to define

Posted: May 1, 2013 - 12:02am

Politicians are well known for bragging about their legislative accomplishments. So it was no surprise that Gov. Sean Parnell immediately touted passage of SB 21, the oil tax reform bill, as a prescription for “new jobs, new opportunities, and a bright future for all Alaskans.” But the Governor avoided describing concrete benchmarks that would make it successful. It’s as if while standing on the peak of success that humility warned his political ego against making arrogant predictions of a future he can’t control.

It could be argued that Parnell honestly believes that success should be defined over the long haul. But that doesn’t mesh with the fact that he refused to give Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share tax law more time to prove itself. ACES was only in effect for a few years before he began blaming it for the decline in North Slope oil production and investment. And he ignored the 2010 Department of Revenue findings that investment incentives in ACES appeared “to distribute the increased tax burden in a fashion that continues to encourage reinvestment.”

It’s more likely the Governor remembers the abbreviated lives of past political triumphs regarding the state’s oil tax laws. Frank Murkowski pushed through the Petroleum Profits Tax in 2006 only to see Sarah Palin replace it less than two years later with her now abandoned ACES. And he’s got to be at least a little concerned with how quickly the opposition has begun to mobilize an effort to repeal this latest reform.

If anything is clear about public policy it’s that successes can seem like failures soon after the celebration is over. But that can also be true outside of the realm of politics. There are enough stories of prematurely declared success to make us wonder how long to wait before we can start believing it’s real.

Takes the Iraq war for example. Standing under a “Mission Accomplished” banner less than six weeks after it began, President George W. Bush boldly declared the “end to major combat operations.” Of course, the vast majority of American lives would be lost after Bush’s victory speech. It was one of the most embarrassing presidential proclamations of success ever made.

It’s not hard to find similarly declared scientific successes turned upside down. On July 1, 1940, after 10,000 people attended a dedication ceremony, the Tacoma Narrows Suspension Bridge was opened to vehicle traffic. It was the third longest suspension bridge in the world and had been designed using recent advances in wind engineering theory. However, four months later it collapsed in spectacular fashion from recorded winds of only 40 miles per hour.

Even successes that last for years can turn out to be disasters in waiting. At the same time the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was under construction, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller discovered insecticidal properties of a chemical that had been known for decades as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. DDT contributed to reductions in typhus and malaria. By 1945 it became a widely used agricultural insecticide. Müller’s discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in 1948. But a quarter century later DDT was suspected of causing serious harm to human health and was found to have resulted in the widespread poisoning of wildlife. It’s now banned worldwide.

These are just a few high profile success stories with bad endings. We’re all sure to find some less dramatic reversals of fortune if we examine our own work and personal histories. So when, if ever, can we trust success to be real and long lasting? Of course the answer is there are no guarantees that today’s highs won’t become tomorrow’s tragedy. But the point here isn’t that it’s impossible for us to know the future. Rather it’s that success is meant to serve something greater than the flattering of our ego, be it personal, professional or national pride.

Imagining success is how life forces us to straddle the precipice between arrogance and humility. So perhaps Parnell refrained from making bold predictions about his oil tax reform because he sensed the fragility of his moment on a political peak. If so, it’s a lesson every politician should take on the campaign trail — and one we might all remember whenever we feel our success stories belong to us.

Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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