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Pursuing Publicity

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U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, one of the world’s best-known skeptics of global warming science, weighed in recently with his typical hyperbole over a report warning that climate change could threaten our country’s national security.

The report, prepared by the CAN Military Advisory Board, a group of retired military officers, argues, “The nature and pace of observed climate changes—and an emerging scientific consensus on their projected consequences—pose severe risks for our national security.” It goes on to point out:

The projected impacts of climate change—heat waves, intense rainfall, floods and droughts, rising sea levels, more acidic oceans, and melting glaciers and arctic sea ice—not only affect local communities but also, in the aggregate, challenge key elements of our National Power. Key elements of National Power include political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information systems.

Inhofe, of course, wasn’t buying any of it. In response to the report, according to The New York Times Inhofe said:

There is no one in more pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer. . . . I look back wistfully at the days of the Cold War. Now you have people who are mentally imbalanced, with the ability to deploy a nuclear weapon. For anyone to say that any type of global warming is anywhere close to the threat that we have with crazy people running around with nuclear weapons, it shows how desperate they are to get the public to buy this.”

Note the ad hominem attack against retired military officers. This is coming from the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Inhofe’s wistful Cold War memories have absolutely nothing to do with global warming or how we should respond to it. He can’t argue with evidence so Inhofe attacks and qualifies. So who is really seeking publicity and who is really “desperate”?

There’s a consensus among the world’s climate scientists that manmade carbon emissions, produced by the burning of fossil fuels, are causing the planet to warm at an alarming rate.

Inhofe, 79, is expected to easily win reelection this November. He represents a state in which the legislature just voted for permanent tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and he has received $318,850 in campaign contributions from that same industry since 2009.

Choice

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Can we ever have an intelligent and deeper discussion about this issue of people who make poor lifestyle choices related to their health here in Oklahoma?

For years, The Oklahoman editorial page has taken the smug monolithic position that, say, anyone who smokes or drinks too much or eats too much or does hard drugs, such as methamphetamine, is simply making a bad decision. No amount of health insurance or medical access, so the reasoning goes, really matters. Bad choices are simply bad choices. People could choose differently. Case closed.

The newspaper has used this reductionist argument, of course, to oppose the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and virtually any government expansion of health care coverage or access. On Sunday, The Oklahoman editorial page whines yet again:

We would add that a long-existing body of evidence suggests that healthy lifestyles increase life expectancy and that no level of insurance coverage can overcome the effects of smoking, obesity and the substance abuse problems that Oklahoma grapples with continuously.

The editorial makes this claim in response to a new study that the mortality rate has dropped in Massachusetts as more and more people have been able to get health insurance there. Parsing the study and omitting basic information about socio-economic issues, education and health in Oklahoma, the editorial takes its rigid position as its own compliance with a conservative ideology that rejects humane, responsible action. It’s as if the poverty and the low college education rate and the high drug addiction rate in the state doesn’t affect anyone but those held captive by their own “bad choices.” That’s an error. It's illogical.

Let’s be clear that all of us, whether we make bad choices or not, whatever our income level, are affected by Oklahoma’s stark socio-economic failures and its government’s stubborn refusal to fund education at anything close to an adequate level. The state’s governing apparatus, and this includes Democrats in the past, creates its own crisis and washes it away with the bad-choice trope.

Tax dollars go to prisons instead of schools. Drug addiction often leads to more extreme criminal behavior. Poverty is all around us, seen in Oklahoma City’s urban plight or the dilapidation of main street in small towns. Our state’s low graduation rate means fewer cultural opportunities for all of us. Perhaps the very rich can escape from the stultifying effects of the wrongly conceived bad-choice argument, but 99 percent of us simply endure the depressing spectacle.

People make bad health decisions for a variety of reasons. They do drugs to escape because they lack real opportunities in their lives in a society that privileges the wealthy. They become overweight because they can only afford foods that lead to obesity. They don’t have the money to afford regular medical checkups so they lack crucial information about their bodies. They develop mental illness because of the personal psychological chaos created by long-term poverty. Some are undereducated because our schools lack appropriate funding and can’t give enough individual attention to at-risk students.

Will universal medical access—and, in particular, the expansion of Medicaid here in Oklahoma—solve all the problems? Of course not, but it’s the crucial starting point in any holistic strategy to improve the quality of life here. It’s much easier to make good choices when you’re healthy and knowledgeable about your body. The bad-choice argument is simply a way to marginalize people and enable conservatives, even many right-wing religious folks, to shrug off their responsibilities in society. Our churches here are filled with people who make pious gestures towards the poor, but in real-life the parishioners are overwhelmingly voting for politicians who simplistically view poverty and illness as choices, not as conditions.

A Test of Ideology

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State Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi has called the Oklahoma Legislature’s bill allowing more flexibility in dealing with third graders who perform low on a high-stakes reading test “an outrageous step backwards.”

In reality, the bill could be the start of a much-needed movement here in Oklahoma to stop the focus on high-stakes testing in general while refocusing curriculum outside the parameters of failed school reform efforts. Let’s hope that’s the case.

In recent testing, nearly 8,000 third grade Oklahoma students scored low enough to fall under a law that could have technically retained them. The legislature then passed a bill relaxing the retention requirement, allowing for parental input, which Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed. The Republican-dominated legislature responded by overriding Fallin’s veto.

Oklahoma has been increasingly held hostage to a dissipating reform movement that starves its schools of needed funding and resources and then punishes them using low test results as a cudgel. One focus of this movement has been to attack teachers and teacher unions instead of dealing holistically with students’ problems and needs. It also promotes charter schools, which can leave poor-performing students behind. It’s not happenstance that the schools with the lowest scores often have the highest number of impoverished and minority students.

Instead of dealing with the very real socio-economic issues of some children, the reformers want to punish and to show failure rather than to develop larger ways to deal with student performance. Both Barresi and Fallin, who supported the draconian retention law, use sanctimonious rhetoric about helping students, but their rigid stance implies that poverty or hunger or health problems don’t matter when it comes to testing.

Well-known public education advocate and author Diane Ravitch said in an interview last year:

Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today.

Teachers and principals working in inner-city schools with high numbers of impoverished students are the people who know what’s really going on in our educational system. Administrators, such as Barresi, and politicians, such as Fallin, try to engineer the educational system from above with ideology, and it doesn’t work.

High-stakes testing is an error. There’s nothing wrong with testing itself or with appropriate assessment and measurement, but to stake the perceived quality of your entire state school system on one test seems like an act of unstated intentions. If students can’t read at grade level, then let’s go all out and help them. Let’s mobilize, act urgently. Most of us can agree on that. But that means more teachers, smaller class sizes, increased individual attention that may cross over into the realm of family life, health, nutrition and psychology.

The fact the GOP-dominated legislature stepped up to defy fellow Republicans Barresi and Fallin on this issue tells us that the high-stakes testing movement could be coming to an end here in Oklahoma. Could it also be an indicator that Barresi might face reelection problems?

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