The Oklahoman

What's Really Ailing America?

From left, images of Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn

In its quest to lionize Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn as some type of great thinker of our time, The Oklahoman editorial board has offered up for our enlightenment some fancy Coburn witticisms that seem far more crazy than profound.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who at 78 has indicated he plans to run for reelection in 2014, has vowed to stop any efforts in the Senate to pass the minor gun control measures under consideration in the wake of the Newtown, CT shootings that left 20 school children and six adults dead.

Coburn and Inhofe represent an outdated, dying set of political beliefs repudiated by President Barack Obama’s convincing reelection in 2012. They rile up the angry home folks here, for sure, but if this state had just 200,000 more college graduates it would never elect anyone even remotely like them.

Let’s start with Coburn. Last Sunday, The Oklahoman editorial page published a commentary that argues, in its clichéd, hackneyed way, “Congress could use more members like Coburn, who puts country first.” He’s not like “The Great Divider,” i.e. Obama. What’s more, “Coburn is willing to make the difficult decisions.” Insightful, no?

To prove its astounding, nonpartisan thesis, the editorial announces: “Today we present Coburn in his own words, about the most pressing concerns of the day.” Sound the trumpets! Drum roll, puhleease. What follows are an assortment of boring, Coburn quotes that mostly just regurgitate the GOP line. Some of them, however, are just plain whacky or seem like typical Republican truth stretchers. Read them for yourselves. I’ve selected a few, not in any certain order, to parse through in this post.

Coburn: “You've got to give him (Obama) credit. He's an ideologue. He actually believes in socialism. He thinks that's the way to solve the problem. And it's an elitist view that says Washington knows better than what the individual family or statesman (does).”

So does essentially labeling Obama a socialist mean he’s making the “difficult decisions” in Washington? No, it proves Coburn is a partisan, who will stoop to hyperbole and name calling to scare people here into voting for Republicans. It’s also a rejection of intellectualism. Coburn has to know what socialism is, and he has to know that Obama is not a socialist.

Coburn: “Government's 89 percent bigger than it was 10 years ago. Personal income's down 5 percent in this country. And they want to claim that we need more government to be able to solve our problems. And the problem is we're incapable of managing the government we have today.”

I tried to find some verification for Coburn’s statement about government growth but failed. I did find somewhat reputable articles that showed the number of government employees has declined under the Obama administration and overall government spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen by less than 10 percent since 2003. Both articles had conservative bents. Just like the socialist comment, this fancy witticism seems basically untrue.

Coburn: “Start treating health care like every other resource in the country. Create a real market that's transparent, created where payment is connected with the purchase. And American consumers, they're the best buyers in the world at everything else, they will lower the cost of health care.

“Our total care will decline rapidly in this country under the Affordable Care Act, the quality of care — plus we're going to ration Medicare.”

That Coburn wants a commercial health care system that is basically only accountable to “free-market” (free to die) principles is nothing new. But two statements stand out. First, Americans are absolutely NOT the best buyers in the world and they are often manipulated by unscrupulous corporations. Look at the mortgage crisis. Second, and this is more important, there is no movement to “ration Medicare,” certainly not among Democrats. If Medicare would ever be rationed—what does that even mean?—it would be part of a Republican plan to try to end the program altogether. Coburn is trying to scare people.

The editorial also contained some Coburn comments about excessive job programs in Ada that seem exaggerated and, at the very least, needs some verification from the state’s largest newspaper.

In the end, it’s just the same Coburn we’ve always known, taking ideological jabs and distorting facts while hiding under his cover as some bipartisan, fiscal expert. The Oklahoman seems quite content to perpetuate this real hoax among its dwindling readership.

Speaking of hoaxes, that man that once proclaimed that the science underpinning global warming was a type of liberal “hoax” has now turned his attention to gun control. Inhofe, along with other Republican Senators, has vowed to filibuster any gun control measures that come before the Senate. One of the proposals would expand background checks on those who purchase guns.

Obama has made gun control a priority since the Newtown shootings, and a group made up of family members of victims recently visited Washington to meet with Congressional members and push for gun control measures. According to Inhofe, “See, I think it's so unfair of the administration to hurt these families, to make them think this has something to do with them when, in fact, it doesn't.” This is just more Obama bashing, and it lacks basic compassion for those mothers and fathers who lost their children in the shootings.

Inhofe and Coburn continue to base their political platforms on creating as much anti-Obama hysteria in the state as they can and then reaping the benefits of that through constituent support. That’s about the sum total of what they stand for right now. They don’t let truth get in their way, and they are as willing as the next Republican to use the GOP standard talking points.

The Oklahoman commentary that poses Coburn as some type of great thinker of his time is laughable. In fact, the rhetorical love fest does more damage to Coburn than good because it shows just what an ideologue he remains. What’s not laughable is another six-year term for Inhofe, which seems like it’s going to happen.

GOP Inertia Slows Criminal Justice Reform

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

The Oklahoma Legislature can rush a bill through the legislative process to slaughter horses and sell their flesh, but it won’t even literally fix its own house, the state Capitol building, which rains mortar down on the ideological myopia.

The failure to fix the building, both its decaying structure and internal infrastructure like plumbing, remains the most obvious image of Republican recalcitrance in their relatively short history of state-government dominance. The building, roped off in places for public safety, could be easily repaired with a bond issue or money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, but there it sits in its iconic dilapidation.

After all, our legislators have horses to slaughter and federal laws to nullify and so our state remains dotted with the tackiness of ideological laziness and historical poverty. The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, still uncompleted, is yet another highly visible statement of what has been wrought by the ascending, dominant GOP in Oklahoma: Jobs unfinished. Dreams unrealized. Mission unaccomplished.

Yet buildings are finally only inanimate objects despite their obvious historical and cultural significance. The mortar feels no pain as it falls. An uninhabited, unfinished building doesn’t cry in loneliness. Buildings can lift our spirits, but the language they speak is symbolic not syntactic.

So it goes, then, that GOP inertia in 2013 is even more spectacularly apparent when it comes to real-life humans, in particular, incarcerated humans, many of whom fill our overflowing prisons by serving time for non-violent crimes, such as simple drug possession. At 26,000 inmates and growing, Oklahoma’s corrections system leads the nation in per capita female incarceration and ranks fourth in male incarceration.

For years, I written here and elsewhere about the urgent need for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, the need for drug courts, community sentencing, rehabilitation programs, and more judicial discretion in non-violent crime cases. I’ve advocated for decriminalization of marijuana possession, and for more treatment options for addicts of harder drugs.

Meanwhile, in recent years the state became even more conservative, further embracing a short-sighted, extreme law-and-order mentality, which only creates more criminals in the long run and makes Oklahoma seem like a dark place of needless punishment both nationally and internationally. There have been some reform efforts, true, but the record is definitely mixed, and the overall numbers don’t lie.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute leads the way now in the state in advocating for criminal justice reform, and recently laid out the case in a compelling manner. Policy Analyst Gene Perry writes, “We continue to follow counterproductive policies that push Oklahomans who are trying to escape addiction and contribute to society into a downward spiral, and the problem is growing more costly to taxpayers every year.”

OK Policy’s work in this area is well worth considering, and it even received an endorsement in an editorial by The Oklahoman, an ultra-conservative newspaper now owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Sure, we should applaud The Oklahoman in this case, but just the day before the newspaper published another editorial about the intensity of support for the death penalty here in the state. The editorial makes this clear in italics: ”There is no shame in this intensity of support.” So as other states return to their senses on this volatile issue, most Oklahomans support the death penalty wholeheartedly.

There really should be “shame” in the intensity of support for the death penalty here, but, beyond shame spirals, such support shows why criminal justice reform is so difficult to achieve here. The state’s largest newspaper can validate the state’s death penalty proponents on one morning and then call for criminal justice reform the morning after. They cancel each other out.

No major, systemic criminal justice reform can happen here without a seismic shift in how we define crime and what we do with criminals, and that has to include a long overdue discussion about the death penalty, the most punitive punishment. What needs to happens here is a collective epiphany, of sorts, and that’s probably not going to happen with a current Republican government that can’t even take care of its own house and with the contradictions of The Oklahoman.

Local Investigative Report Promotes Corporate Agenda

Satirical image of Walter Conkrite

Isn’t it convenient that a recent investigative report published in The Oklahoman and on about Oklahoma employees who commit workers’ compensation fraud just happens to fit with a right-wing world view?

That world view has been encapsulated for history by the newspaper’s pick for president in the last general election, Republican Mitt Romney, who claimed at one campaign stop that he could “never convince” 47 percent of American voters “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Surely, all those Oklahomans who commit workers’ compensation fraud, according to The Oklahoman, are going to be a collection of deadbeats and part of Romney’s 47 percent.

But the problem is the newspaper report hardly makes a case for massive fraud, and it doesn’t even pretend to address the other side, which is the continuing problem of workplace safety, which leads to a huge number of annual workers’ deaths and injuries on a national and state level.

The report is an unfair, unbalanced ideological treatment of a small problem, and it merely promotes the financial interests of corporations, especially when compared to the number of workers who face the real possibility of severe injury or even death each day they go to work.

The Oklahoman Publishing Company (OPUBCO) is owned by Philip Anschutz, 73, a Colorado right-wing oilman who now dabbles in media ownership. He bought the newspaper in 2011 from the well-known and local Gaylord family, which also had a conservative agenda. The newspaper remains completely out of the mainstream in American journalism.

In general, workers’ compensation is a program in which employees hurt on the job get medical treatment and continued wages in exchange for giving up certain rights to sue an employer. It also provides for benefits to the families of people killed on the job.

The anchor story in the report, written by Robby Trammel and Nolan Clay, outlines some cases in which Oklahomans faked or exaggerated injuries to supposedly game the system and notes that during the “last three years, prosecutors at the Oklahoma attorney general's office have filed more than 50 workers' compensation fraud cases.”

That number, which averages out to approximately 17 cases a year, seems remarkably low when you consider that there were over 49,000 recorded nonfatal cases of occupational injury and illness in the state in 2011 alone.

The other big statistic used in the story is the $2.5 million ordered in restitution because of fraud by Oklahoma workers’ compensation judges over the last 13 years. That breaks down to about $200,000 a year, which hardly seems that big of a deal when you consider that there were 91 fatal Oklahoma workplace incidences in 2010 alone.

The right-wing effort to demonize workers and diminish their rights in order to increase profits for corporations, including insurance companies, is an ongoing campaign, expressed clearly by Romney in his campaign and more subtly by the special report in The Oklahoman. Is there some employee fraud when it comes to the workers’ compensation system in Oklahoma? Yes, and it’s wrong, and it should be investigated and punished, but it pales in comparison to corporate negligence when it comes to workplace safety.

Here’s a statistic: In 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4,606 recorded work deaths in the country. Here’s another one: There were close to 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in that same year.

Of course, the reporters of this non-story failed to tell the other side, and now the state’s ultra-conservative Attorney General Scott Pruitt has vowed to fight employee workers’ compensation fraud. The Oklahoman editorial page has long urged “reform” of the workers’ compensation system here, which means it wants more money for corporations and less protection for workers.

Reporters such as Trammel and Clay, and even college professors, like me, go to work in tremendously safe environments each day, but for other workers in construction or in the oil fields or in factories there’s always the lingering specter of serious injury and death. These people need more of a voice than rich newspaper owners, but they aren’t going to get it from The Oklahoman.

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