I received a lot of supportive feedback about my last post in which I criticized Gov. Mary Fallin for trying to boost her reelection campaign by generating collective anger towards the refugee children now housed at Fort Sill in Lawton.
Fallin’s campaign has started a petition drive that aims to force President Barack Obama to move the Central American children—most of whom are fleeing violence in countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua—from the federal facility in Oklahoma. The petition drive is superfluous. Its only purpose is to create anger among conservative Oklahoma voters and activate them to support Fallin, who has been sinking in the polls recently.
The children are part of a widely reported exodus of Central American young people seeking asylum and refuge in the U.S. They have been labeled “migrant” or “illegal aliens” by the media and right-wing here, but the reality is they’re political refugees and victims of botched U.S. international and immigration policies.
The Oklahoma governor’s message is clear and simple: We don’t want these children in Oklahoma. As I wrote, this is a craven message and really tests the limits of Oklahoma voters. Do they really have that much hate inside themselves that they would allow children to suffer and even die and revel in it? Fallin’s campaign is banking on it. It’s also banking on the fact that voters won’t look more deeply into the issue and note a policy enacted under former President George Bush has prevented the federal government from acting more quickly to resolve the issue. Blame Bush, not Obama.
Here are some more extended arguments about the issue:
(1) Both the Catholic Church and, more importantly for Oklahoma, some Southern Baptist Church leaders have come out in support of giving aid to the children and treating them humanely, but the local right-wing religious folks have been fairly silent on the issue. Fallin’s campaign ploy really sets a new low in arousing “group hate” against a group of vulnerable children. It sets an unbelievable precedent in hatred and cravenness. The fact that Southern Baptist Church leaders here, in particular, aren’t fully criticizing Fallin’s lack of compassion shows how craven this religious denomination—rooted in racism—has become at the local level.
(2) To extend the argument further, I think about all the sanctimonious Oklahoma people who make mission trips to impoverished countries, preaching their gospel and undoubtedly furthering the anti-abortion cause among people. But now that these brown-skinned people are in their home state in the U.S., the home-grown “missionaries” turn their backs on them and become red in the face with anger and indignation. These people simply lack moral compunction. Their religious beliefs are twisted and sordid.
(3) What about American “exceptionalism,” the right-wing canard? So our country is so exceptional that we’re going to deport children back to countries in which they face death and misery and impoverishment?
(4) The cliché is that Oklahomans are so nice, but what type of craven people would support a politician who agitates essentially for the mistreatment of children? What type of people would get some type of visceral thrill by mistreating children? Let’s be clear: Many, many Oklahomans are not “nice” at all in any traditional sense. They burn inside with hatred and spite. It’s the state’s shame, and the dirty little secret you won’t find on any state tourist brochure.
(5) Let’s also be clear about this: Fallin’s campaign ploy is racist. If these children were white, would there even be a question about helping them? Fallin’s attempt to agitate the hateful mob is rooted in the darker side of the American story, the racist story, the one coated over with euphemisms in our elementary-school textbooks.
Conservative politicians, of course, have a long history of whipping up anger among voters in order to get votes while deflecting attention way from issues that matter, such as income inequality. So there’s nothing really new here, with the exception that these are young children who need our help. Fallin may well reverse her slide in the polls, but let it be noted at the very least that doing so at the expense of vulnerable children is an ugly way to do so.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s attempt to make a group of impoverished refugee children fodder for her reelection will surely test the limits of the Oklahoma electorate’s cravenness and ignorance.
Fallin has been greeted with bad news recently when it comes to her reelection bid. First, SoonerPoll found that her approval rating has plummeted by approximately 20 points over the last year. Second, a Rasmussen poll shows she and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman are locked in a tight election with Fallin leading Dorman by a slim 45 percent to 40 percent edge. Until now, political pundits have considered Fallin, a state Republican who has never lost an election, virtually invincible in her reelection bid.
Fallin’s response to this bad news has appeared to be to distance herself from the draconian, high-stakes testing policies of outgoing and controversial state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and to arouse conservative anger over the housing of some 1,100 Central American children at Fort Sill near Lawton. The children are part of an exodus of younger people trying to escape the violence of their countries, which include Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Fallin campaign has actually launched a petition drive to close the Oklahoma facility housing the children. The petition language appeal is couched in typical flaming rhetoric, such as “illegal alien minors,” and it, of course, blames President Barack Obama for the situation when, if fact, a policy initiated by former President George Bush has exasperated the problem of deporting the children. This is also a political refugee issue, not an immigration issue, created by years of immoral Central American policy based on U.S. pseudo-colonization interests. Both Republicans and Democrats have shaped this policy, which is based on exploitation and greed.
So, in effect, Fallin is asking her supporters and potential supports to do two things: (1) Condemn a group of children who are merely trying to escape certain death, and (2) completely ignore the actual bipartisan facts of why the children are here and why they can’t just be immediately deported back to their countries.
Fallin is appealing to the cravenness of Oklahomans to simply not care about the welfare of children in general and the ignorance of people to just randomly condemn Obama for what can be construed as much as a Republican problem as it is a Democratic problem.
Will it work? These Republican “group hate” appeals have certainly worked here in the past when it has come to immigration issues. The state’s cheerleaders like to make a big deal out of how nice everyone is here, but the reality is the state is filled with people who are terribly prejudiced and have mistrust of “the other,” which, in this case, is a group of poor children with brown skin.
Still, surely a majority of the state has grown past these racist ideas, especially in the last ten years or so. One wants to think this, of course, but racism is not quantifiable here. Fallin’s campaign tact, as racist as it can publicly get, is probably as good as any indicator where the state currently stands when it comes to tolerance. If she starts to move up in the polls, look for more group hate appeals. It’s clear, given this recent political move over the young refugees, Fallin plans to make her campaign as little about state issues as possible.
I’m glad that at least one statewide Republican leader has publicly asked for an actuarial study to determine the specific financial impact of a proposed and radical change to one state pension plan.
Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, writing in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, argues, “Any changes to the pension systems must be verified by an actuarial study to provide the impact those changes will have to the fiscal stability of the plan. It only makes sense to give the pension experts, CPAs and actuaries a chance to fix this problem. Working with these experts, legislators would be able to make the necessary, tough, informed decisions to find an actuarially sound solution.”
Jones’ point makes perfect sense, but some Republican leaders, such as Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and Gov. Mary Fallin, both Republicans, are simply relying on reductionist rhetoric to move some new state employees into 401(k)-styled pensions without defined benefit payments and thereby putting one pension plan at risk.
Senate Bill 2120 and House Bill 2630 would require that new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) go into a new 401(k)-styled plan. One major question that hasn’t been addressed fully by Miller and Fallin, according to some opponents of their plan, is how the old plan would still remain solvent without new participants.
Instead, we only hear dire cries of a pension crisis from them and the editorial board of The Oklahoman and how the new plan will be portable if employees leave their jobs. (Of course, that wonderful portability has nothing to do with how well the 401(k)-styled plan performs.) While it’s true that all of the state’s pensions face an $11 billion liability that liability has been reduced by some $5 billion just in recent years, and it will be reduced even more if state leaders simply provided appropriate funding and made wise financial decisions.
Jones, of course, who writes that the pension problems were created by “irresponsible, reckless and self-serving actions by the Legislature,” isn’t the only one calling for a financial study of the proposed change. David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, has been raising this concern for months. How can you make such a major change within a financial system without calculating the impact in specific dollars? As state treasurer, Miller, in particular, should get behind conducting such a study.
Blatt has also pointed out that the change would harm the pension plan for current employees. He writes:
. . .the proposal to close off the system for new employees and shift these workers to defined contribution plans risks weakening OPERS and increasing the system’s unfunded liabilities. The reason is that pension plans depend heavily on investment earnings to grow their assets so as to be able to meet their obligations. As long as plans remain open to new employees, investment managers can invest for the longer-term because they have a mix of young, mid-career and retired workers.
In other words, if there’s less money to invest, there’s going to be smaller returns. Think of employees, in particular, who have been hired in the last ten years or so and are under the old plan. Think of employees hired under OPERS this year. Will the lack of new participants create a huge liability? Will political leaders, then, declare yet another emergency?
It becomes clear when viewed from a larger perspective that Republicans here and in other states simply want to reduce retirement benefits for government employees. They want to force a crisis. Of course, most Republicans won’t address the issue with that basic language.
Here’s the GOP game plan at the state level here and elsewhere: Cut taxes for rich people, give huge tax breaks to corporations, keep wages stagnant for rank-and-file state workers and cut their benefits, making them financially insecure.
The only thing that will stop the execution of that plan is if people stand up, voice their concerns and vote differently. But the neoliberalism (i.e., “free market” principles) model pits people against one another. If I don’t have guaranteed retirement benefits then why should you have them? The right-wing emphasizes the point. Consequently, no one gets decent retirement benefits. Meanwhile, the wealthiest top 1 percent snicker away from above.
The growing income inequality in this country is the only thing that’s not sustainable, not one pension program in one relatively small state.