May 2013 Archives

What If Obama Were As Small-Minded As Oklahoma's Senators?

    In the aftermath of the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma on Tuesday afternoon, President Obama immediately signed a disaster declaration for that state. The Office of the Press Secretary stated that "The President today declared a major disaster exists in the State of Oklahoma and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area affected by severe storms and tornadoes beginning on May 18, 2013, and continuing" and  that "The President's action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie."

    The President announced that he was instructing his disaster response team to get tornado victims in Oklahoma everything they need "right away." The President described the devastation that destroyed the Oklahoma City suburbs as, "one of the most destructive tornados in history. The president also offered his prayers and emphasized that there was a long road of recovery ahead. But he said the victims wouldn't travel alone and they would have all the resources that they needed.

     The President's concern for the victims of Oklahoma's tornados stands in stark contrast to the appalling lack of concern shown by Oklahoma's two U.S. Senators toward the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both Republicans, claim to be fiscal conservatives who have repeatedly voted against funding disaster aid for other parts of the country. They also have opposed increased funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers federal disaster relief.   

    Inhofe, the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has publicly stated that he does not believe that human activities cause climate change. Inhofe regularly repeats his denial that human activity contributes to climate change and he describes that claim as a hoax. Inhofe insists that the possibility that humans are influencing climate change is impossible because "God's still up there" and that it is "outrageous" and arrogant for people to believe human beings are "able to change what He is doing in the climate."

    In 2011, Inhofe and Coburn opposed legislation that would have granted necessary funding for FEMA when the agency was set to run out of money. Sending the funds to FEMA would have been "unconscionable," Coburn said at the time.

     At the end of last year, Inhofe and Coburn both supported an effort to dramatically reduce the amount of disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. In a December, 2012 press release, Coburn complained that the Sandy Relief bill contained "wasteful spending," and he identified a series of items he objected to, including "$12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation activities and studies."

    In Tuesday's edition of The New York Daily News, reporters Dan Friedman and Joseph Straw ("Oklahoma Senator Who Voted 'No' on Sandy Aid Calls Home-State Tornado 'totally different'") regaled their readers with the supreme irony and unabashed hypocrisy of  the abrupt volte-face by Inhofe and Coburn when it came to disaster relief for Oklahoma. These two senators - who represent a state would be even poorer without the "welfare" that it consistently receives in the form of federal tax transfers through government spending paid for by taxpayers in wealthier blue states such has New York - obstructed federal disaster aide to the  Northeast states for months on the pretense that much of the spending was wasteful, but now unabashedly demand immediate federal aide to their state, irrespective of the cost.

     The Daily News' story quoted Senator Inhofe to the effect that "everybody" was "exploiting" the Sandy tragedy and "that won't happen in Oklahoma." Without a scintilla of shame or a glimmer of embarrassment, Inhofe confirmed that he would support aid for victims of the Oklahoma tornado because the two situations are "totally different" and that the Hurricane Sandy bill was loaded with pork.

     The Daily News did note that the Sandy relief bill initially contained money for projects outside of areas damaged by Sandy (in the hopes of attracting enough votes from resistant GOP legislators to get the bill through Congress), but that the spending represented a small portion of the massive bill, and that most of the proposed spending was eventually dropped from the legislation as a majority of House Republicans voted against the legislation. Friedman and Straw concluded their article with the comment that "The Sandy relief legislation did not contain money to put roofs on homes in Washington, but there were funds to repair museum roofs damaged by the hurricane."

     For his part,  Senator Coburn claims that he wants any federal aid for victims of Monday's tornado to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, his spokesman said Tuesday."He believes we should help disaster victims by directing aid from less vital areas of the budget," John Hart, an aide to the Republican senator, said in an e-mail reported by the Bloomberg News.

     Tuesday evening, Hart said that the senator will seek to ensure that any additional funding for tornado disaster relief in Oklahoma will be offset by cuts to federal spending elsewhere in the budget."That's always been his position," Hart said as he indignantly claimed that Senator Coburn had "never made parochial calculations" about Oklahoma's disproportionate share of disaster funds, "as his voting record and campaign against earmarks demonstrates." Hart piously concluded that Senator Coburn, "makes no apologies for voting against disaster aid bills that are often poorly conceived and used to finance priorities that have little to do with disasters"

    According to Christina Wilkie of The Huffington Post ("Oklahoma Senators, Jim Inhofe, Tom Coburn, Face Difficult Options On Disaster Relief"), Oklahoma currently ranks third in the nation after Texas and California with respect to total federal disaster and fire declarations, which are required to trigger the federal emergency relief funding process and that last month, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state of Oklahoma following severe snowstorms.

    Wilkie also reports that, in January of 2007, Coburn urged federal officials to speed disaster relief aid after the state faced a major ice storm. One year later, in 2008, Senator Inhofe pointed with pride to the fact that emergency relief from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would be given to 24 Oklahoma counties. He stated that "The impact of severe weather has been truly devastating to many Oklahoma communities across the state. I am pleased that the people whose lives have been affected by disastrous weather are getting much-needed federal assistance."

    Today, Oklahoma is a hard-scrabble state. According to the 2010 U.S. Census and the American Community Survey's 5-Year estimates, the state ranks 41st in median income and 43rd in per capita income. Reports compiled by the state's Department of Human Services, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, and the Oklahoma Policy Institute show that Oklahoma's poverty rate as of 2011 was 15.7 percent - which was above the national average of 13.2 percent. The poverty rate for children in the state was 22 percent; about 63 percent its impoverished citizens were identified by the 2009 to census data as white. More than 30 percent of Oklahoma's African-Americans fell below the federal poverty line as of 2009, as did almost 22 percent of its Indian population, and 29 percent of the Hispanics who lived there.

    Oklahoma gained statehood in November 1907. Ironically, Howard Zinn reminds us that,  as late as 1914, the Socialist Party in the newly admitted state of Oklahoma had 12,000 members - more than New York state - and it elected over 100 socialists to office including six members of the Oklahoma state legislature. Many of these socialists were the children of the German emigrees who had settled in the vicinity of the Oklahoma territory after the European "Revolutions" of 1848. Today, by contrast, Oklahoma, is a solidly "red state" where even the most tepid reform Democrats are often excoriated as dangerous radicals.

    Over time, the descendants of these immigrants have eschewed their ancestors' radicalism and Oklahoma has now become profoundly reactionary state. Although the state voted Democratic in all but two presidential elections through 1948, it has not voted for a Democrat since, with the sole exception of Lyndon Johnson's lopsided victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. 

    The lore of its frontier beginnings and the "rugged individualism" that this mythology of the Wild West perpetuates has instilled among Oklahomans the same kind of false consciousness that Thomas Frank describes in What's The Matter With Kansas? Jonathan Schwartz in today's edition of The New York Times ("Why No Safe Room to Run To? Cost and Culture of the Plains"), describes the uniform lack of requirements across the state for below-ground storm shelters in houses, schools and businesses, despite the increasing prevalence of deadly tornados.

     Schwartz quotes Curtis McCarty, a member of the Oklahoma Uniform Building Code Commission who is also a builder. McCarty, speaking to a group of Oklahoma legislators about a year and half ago who were considering a bill to mandate the construction of storm shelters for new home construction, stated that "mandating another three or four thousand dollars on every new home can really add up when you're trying to keep houses affordable."

    Senators Inhofe and Coburn have successfully built their political careers upon their shameless but uncanny ability to recognize that a majority of Oklahomans are focused only on short-term, immediate needs and will, as a result, regularly ignore their long-term best interests, including the need for sensible public regulation. Their voting records show that, while they have ill-served the real needs of their constituents, neither Inhofe nor Coburn have ever met a special interest that they can't support. At the same time, they have enthusiastically pandered to the anti-government hysteria that now enthralls the GOP.      

    Petulance and bad bile are never prescriptions for courageous or successful leaders; rather are they are hallmarks of demagogues who threaten the very foundations of democracy. If President Obama were as petty and small-minded as Senators Inhofe and Coburn, he could have chosen to delay the declaration of a disaster that he promptly issued or,  in giving the state and its elected leadership a dose their own red state rhetoric, he could have declared that Oklahoma was officially "on its own."

    President Obama, because he owes a responsibility to all Americans, acted with dignity, compassion and empathy. For that action, he will be applauded by everyone who understands that America will never fulfill its promise until every elected official recognizes and acknowledges that government is not the enemy and that, in a vibrant democracy, it must serve as the agent to promote the public interest on behalf of all citizens. This duty is especially imperative because the political voices of so many have been muted as a result of the increasing volume of noise generated by special, monied interests with their armies of well-paid lobbyists and their enormous, tax deductible advertising budgets.

       In a recent news story in The New York Times, ("Suicide Rates in Middle Age Soared in U.S.," May 3, 2013), Tara Parker-Hope reported that suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade an that this trend has prompted a concern that a  baby boomers, because they have faced years of economic worry and have easy access to prescription painkillers, may be particularly at risk. The journalist cited a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contained in the May 2, 2012 issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which found that more people now die by suicides than are killed in car accidents. The Center's findings showed that 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.


  The Centers' findings documented that from 1999 to 2010, while the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, the most significant increase were seen among men in their 50s. The suicide rates for men increased by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000 per 100,000 population. Among women, the largest increase was seen in those aged 60 to 64. Their suicide rates increased by nearly 60 percent to 7.0 per 100,000 .

    Ms. Parker-Hope notes that, although the categorization of reported causes of death by local authorities is far from uniform, " C.D.C. and academic researchers said they were confident that the data documented an actual increase in deaths by suicide and not a statistical anomaly."  She quoted Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on suicide rates to the effect, "It's vastly under-reported. We know we're not counting all suicides." Professor Philips further noted, "The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn't panned out that way. All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well."

    Ms. Parker-Hope also interviewed the C.D.C.'s deputy director, Ileana Arias, who observed. "It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide. There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference" and "The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.

    The C.D.C.'s findings and Ms. Parker- Hope's article describe a trend that is extremely worrisome, but not surprising. The empirical evidence, as her article notes, shows a correlation between the economic travail of men and women in that age group and their resulting despair. Anecdotally, as a plaintiff's employment lawyer for more than thirty years, since the onset of this continuing Great Recession, I have received an increasing number of desperate calls from middle-aged men and woman who have been discharged by their employers and who, despite impressive resumes, often extraordinary educational credentials and lots of experience, have descended into the ranks of the permanently unemployable and the underclass.

     Ironically, a day before the C.D.C.'s report was released, Thomas Friedman,in an op ed column in The Times  ("It's a 401(k) World," May 1, 2013), chronicled his schizophrenia about this brave new world that he claims will benefit the  self-motivated and burden those with less aggressive (and perhaps more reflective?) personalities. Friedman waxed positively ecstatic about the prospects for young, well-educated adults in this global, hyper-connected world, "If you 're self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you." 

     As to how precisely will this new economy will address the needs of those men and women between age 40 and 65who are now among the long- term unemployed, however,  Friedman clearly hasn't got a clue: "Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it."      

    Friedman's ringing endorsement of the myth of Horatio Alger is more disturbing because it was published on a day that elsewhere in the world celebrated the importance of unions and the rights of workers. Millions of workers took to the streets to demand better working conditions and wages, and an economic system that promoted the interests of everyone, not just the wealthy elite. The May Day demonstrations in Spain, Italy and Greece were particularly vocal, prompted by the widespread and growing misery that the austerity measures imposed by the E.U., the I.M.F. and their cabal of German bankers have inflicted upon those countries.  

    By way of contrast, Pope Francis in Rome on May Day denounced the  recycled Social Darwinism that Friedman blithely accepts as inevitable "...I think of the difficulties that, in various countries, today afflict the world of work and businesses. I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice. I wish to extend an invitation to solidarity to everyone, and I would like to encourage those in public office to make every effort to give new impetus to employment."

    In the United States, the 401(k) world that Friedman  ruminates about was ushered in with the enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ( ERISA) during Ronald Reagan's administration. Traditional defined benefit plans - pensions - were gutted as employees were increasingly required to investment their future retirements in Wall Street ponzi schemes to their detriment.

    Today, the United States continues to have the most restrictive labor laws in Western world, the effect of which is to make it infinitely more difficult for employees to organize, to join unions and to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and working conditions. In addition, 49 of the 50 states still subscribe to the doctrine of  "employment at will," a legal fiction that no other modern democracy has ever embraced.  

    Lastly, there is little evidence that the notion of "free trade" - as exemplified by the open movement of goods, services and financial instruments across nation-state borders - has benefited ordinary Americans - including highly educated ones - whose jobs have been out-sourced. As entrepreneurs scour the world over for ever cheaper labor costs, the masters of the universe in financial world that now dominates the U.S. economy seek short-term profits from stock trading, but refuse to invest in companies that create jobs in the U.S. or invest in critical infrastructure and research and development, notwithstanding the Federal Reserve's policies that permit these institutions to borrow money from the American tax-payers at zero interest.

    Friedman's question "can you pass the bar?" ignores the importance and relevance of collective action. Ultimately, we are all in this together and it's well past the time to begin a serious national conversation about ways to make this economy work for everyone. An economy that works well for everyone - one which provides hope for the future and a job - is the best antidote to despair and suicide.     


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