Until recently, he earned hourly wages as a production operator in a BP-run facility that separates oil from gas and water. Palin was making between $100,000 and $120,000 a year before he went on leave in December to make more time for his family and avoid potential conflicts of interest. London-based BP is heavily involved in the gas pipeline negotiations with his wife's administration.
That's good money for honest work, and, as I've pointed out in comments on some political blogs, it's another benefit of increasing domestic energy production: more high-paying blue collar jobs for Americans2. To his credit, Mr. Palin has encouraged young Alaskans to consider the same line of work. From the article,
Like other first spouses around the country, Palin has been asked to champion an array of causes or institutions since his wife took office in December.
His favorite is steering young Alaskans toward stable jobs in the oil and gas industry. It's a singular choice among his counterparts, whose pet issues include schools, public health, domestic violence, poverty or the arts.
That's the sort of pragmatic career advice you don't hear much of from many politicians, particularly those on the left, many of whom seem to consider access to a college education to be a panacea for economic advancement. In reality, a lot of Americans don't have the interest or aptitude for college (hence the high dropout rates), or the sorts of jobs a college degree often leads to, and there are plenty of Americans with college degrees sitting in cubicles making a third of what Palin was making for BP, or serving lattes for $8 per hour.
Regarding the politics of the Palin pick, a flurry of comments on the Atlantic blogs argue that this is an attempt by McCain to woo women voters. I doubt that. Most single women vote for Democrats, and most married women vote for Republicans; I don't see this pick changing those trends much. If anything, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin is an appeal to the sort of Reagan Democrats that Barack Obama had difficulty winning over in states like Pennsylvania. While Republican politicians generally feel compelled to be seen hunting or clearing brush or otherwise acting as if they enjoy outdoorsy activities, Sarah Palin seems to be the real deal on that score, having grown up hunting moose with her father. She and her husband ought to be able to connect more easily with rural voters than, say, Mitt Romney. Louisiana's impressive young governor, Bobby Jindal, might have contributed more in policy terms, but Palin probably gives McCain a better shot of winning in November.
1A royalty trust that pays out distributions based on production from BP's Prudhoe Bay field on the north slope is a holding of mine I've mentioned here before, BP Prudhoe Bay Royalty Trust (NYSE: BPT)
2There are other benefits, of course. Every barrel of foreign oil that we can replace with a barrel of domestic oil helps reduce our trade deficit and our fiscal deficit as well (by the increased tax and royalty revenues domestic energy production generates). No, increasing domestic energy production will not make us energy independent -- we will still need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, etc. But the more energy we can produce here, the better off we will be.