Oklahoma teachers, correction officers, firefighters and state employees beware: Conservatives here are going to push for major changes in your pension plans next legislative session, and it will almost certainly result in reduced benefits.
The specific plans haven’t been developed or, at least released to the public, but the main push will be to change the various state public pensions from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans.
The defined-benefit plan guarantees a certain monthly amount of money for retirees. The defined-contribution plan doesn’t guarantee a certain payment amount, and it pretty much forces people to rely on investment bankers to determine how they will survive in retirement, if retirement will even be a possibility for state workers in coming generations.
Will those workers with long-time employment histories with the state still be able to retire under the defined-benefit plans? I suspect the answer to that would be probably yes, in most cases, but the change will begin reducing the money pool in the defined-benefits plans, thus precipitating an eventual crisis that will lead to even more cuts. This is just the first effort of cuts. If Republicans continue to hold super majorities in the House and Senate and retain the governor’s office, even more pension cuts are in store for state employees.
A group calling itself Keep Oklahoma’s Promises is opposing the major change in the pension plans.
The state’s pension plans currently have a collective $11 billion liability because through the last few decades state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, have failed to fund them appropriately. Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller have used the liability concept to apply their conservative “free-market” ideology to the problem. Meanwhile, the state legislature majority has been obsessed in recent years with trying to pass tax cuts for the state’s wealthy while not doing enough to ensure someone who teaches for 30 or 40 years in this state can have a modest but secure retirement income.
Rest assured that any changes in the state’s pension plans will absolutely lead to reduced benefits for future retirees. Anti-government conservatives will try to obscure this basic fact through rhetorical subterfuge about “reform” and “saving the system for future employees” while also using all the reductionist GOP clichés about limited government in vogue at the time they try to sell benefit cuts.
Let’s also be clear: If you are employed by the state and currently fall under a defined-contribution pension plan, and you vote for a Republican in upcoming state elections, you are most likely voting for less money for yourself and your family. That’s not ideology, or even, really, a partisan claim. It’s just a basic fact.
The assault on state pension plans throughout the country is the result of a conservative ideology that wants to deepen the vast disparity in wealth between the richest Americans and the middle class and poor. Conservatives want to cut taxes for rich people while reducing benefits and salaries for the backbone of this country’s workforce, which includes educators, first-responders, prisons' staff, social workers and those who maintain our public streets and infrastructure.
This anti-humanity ideology was perfectly expressed recently in a brief editorial by The Oklahoman, which, of course, supports reducing retirement benefits for state employees. In response to the argument the average state retirement benefits are modest, about $20,000 a year, the unidentified editorial writer claimed:
Reality check: Many Oklahoma private-sector workers would love such “modest” benefits. Heck, most would take any pension plan, because they don't have one now.
Heck, note this reality check: Essentially, the editorial’s logic concludes that everyone should do without a pension plan. The editorial is certainly NOT advocating for better funded or more pension plans for private-sector workers to match the modest benefits of state workers.
Heck, the editorial is also asking implicitly, what benefits can we take away from all public or private-sector workers once we start the spiral of back and forth cuts between the two groups? Here’s the conservative trick: Now that the public employees are facing cuts the private-sector employees should also face cuts. Or vice versa, and it goes on and on, until there’s nothing left of the middle class.
Right-wingers will accuse me of hyperbole and “alarmism” in the above paragraphs so let’s reduce it to an understandable formula. In the national pension debate, conservatives, such as the editorial writers at The Oklahoman, use the formula that since Worker A doesn’t have as much in benefits as Worker B, then Worker B should have his/her benefits cut, NOT that Worker A should receive an increase in benefits.
What the newspaper doesn’t address in the editorial is that many state employees have large chunks of money taken out of their paychecks to pay for a portion of the pension costs. The editorial also concludes the current system isn’t sustainable, but it really is. The state legislature just needs to appropriate additional money to it.
The ultra-conservative newspaper also favors cuts to Social Security as well, which means its editorial writers probably don’t even believe in retirement as a concept anymore, except for the wealthy, of course.
One of the major job tradeoffs for many state employees is the exchange of a higher salary and higher take-home pay than they might get in the private-sector for, as I mentioned before, a modest but secure retirement. (Many state workers haven’t received an across-the-board raise in several years.) This tradeoff is often openly acknowledged in state workplaces and is a firmly embedded idea among public employees everywhere. Conservatives want to take that tradeoff away so they can reward wealthy people through tax cuts.
You have to wonder why so many state Republicans just want some fellow Oklahomans to go hungry.
The propaganda ministry for the GOP here, the editorial board of The Oklahoman, published a commentary this week that not only terribly distorted what a state agency has done related to cuts in the federal food stamp program but also revived a version of the “welfare queen” story started by the late President Ronald Reagan.
The commentary also failed to mention that Oklahoma’s own U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas recently pushed through a despicable, immoral bill cutting $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, while lauding the “free-market” (i.e., ultra-conservative) concerns of the right-wing extremists at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
The gist of the editorial is that a short news release about upcoming SNAP cuts published by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is “political activism.” The cuts are not related to Lucas’ efforts to starve certain Oklahomans. That bill has not and will not be approved by the Senate or signed into law by President Barack Obama. The cuts are related to the expiration of stimulus funds that began in 2009.
The new release simply stated that beginning Nov. 1 a family of four with no income would see a $36 monthly decrease in their SNAP benefits. What bothered The Oklahoman is that the release said SNAP recipients would be “significantly impacted” and that the cuts “will have an economic impact on the state.” Both statements are entirely true by any reasonable measure, but The Oklahoman finds them to be left-wing politics.
Let’s be clear: Virtually any cut in food assistance will significantly affect those people, mostly children and the elderly, relying on the assistance, and any cut in SNAP benefits will absolutely result in less money for grocery stores.
It’s The Oklahoman that’s distorting the issue, not OKDHS.
The editorial also did a retro-take on Reagan’s infamous 1976 presidential campaign statement about a woman accused of welfare fraud. It’s become widely known as the “welfare queen” narrative in the American lexicon. This what Reagan said:
She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.
This is how The Oklahoman perpetuates the narrative in contemporary, right-wing terms:
Succentto Jackson, a 34-year-old mother of five children in Oklahoma City, is among those who will be affected. Her food stamp benefits previously totaled $659 per month. While the benefit reduction for her family of six may be larger than the cuts facing DHS's hypothetical family of four, it will hardly wipe out benefit payments.
Obviously, the newspaper is not accusing the mother of fraud, but the statement lacks context and dehumanizes six people trying to eat and stay alive. Any SNAP cuts would obviously significantly impact Jackson and her family. Of course, the cuts “would hardly wipe out benefit payments,” but the cuts will literally take food out of the mouths of children. The newspaper is simply using a specific family to generate and localize hatred among its right-wing readers, just like Reagan did in 1976. This is how Republicans get votes.
The editorial also undercuts the newspaper’s relentless anti-abortion stance. According to the logic of The Oklahoman, it’s wrong to have an abortion, but it’s also wrong when you want to feed your babies adequately. There’s no way out of that contradiction.
It’s also absurd the editorial refers to OCPA, which apparently didn’t like the news release, as a “free-market think tank.” OCPA is an ultra-conservative organization that undoubtedly favors major cuts in most government spending, especially cuts in programs that help poor people. I don’t think OCPA staff would deny that so why didn’t the editorial give us the truthful perspective?
Topping off the editorial’s absurdity is that it failed to mention how one of Oklahoma’s own Congressmen, Lucas, just pushed through a House bill that would leave millions of Americans without government food assistance. (I recently wrote about it here.) This information would give readers more perspective on the food-stamp debate here.
The OKDHS news release was informative and also, frankly, innocuous. It’s The Oklahoman and OCPA that are politicizing the issue. They have the agenda, not OKDHS, which is duty-bound to help people.
I want to take a look at how Berry Tramel, the well-known and longtime local sportswriter for The Oklahoman, responded to the recent Sports Illustrated articles outlining problems in the Oklahoma State University football program.
Tramel’s responses are the most thorough, at least in writing, to the articles among local reporters, and Tramel’s undoubtedly the newspaper’s best writer, but his defensive reaction to the articles was representative among the media types here and shows why it takes an out-of-state publication to reveal information that should be of interest to Oklahoma taxpayers. (Note I wrote, should.) His responses were also filled with cringing sweeping generalizations whenever he ventured into matters such as academics and drug use among players.
None of Tramel’s responses really get at this issue: There are present and former coaches here in Oklahoma and elsewhere who have become multi-millionaires at taxpayer-supported institutions only through the athletic talent of young men, most of whom don’t go on and play professional sports and some of whom get terribly exploited. These coaches deserve scrutiny and should be held accountable for their actions, and that includes Mike Gundy and, yes, Bob Stoops.
I’ll use a format similar to what Tramel used to respond to the articles. First, I’ll make a Tramel point, and then I’ll respond. My responses are in bold. (The SI articles can be accessed here.)
I think it’s fair to say one of Tramel’s overall points, and he responded to each article, is that the series of articles by SI were over-hyped and often didn’t live up to their promotion.
The problem with this argument is that big-time college and professional sports are highly dependent on media hype. Tramel’s income from The Oklahoman is dependent on hype. (In fact, he’s hyping the “hype” to make a living in this case.) Take away the hype and the spectacle from big-time sports, the good and the bad, and what do you have? Well, you don’t have as many fans, that’s for sure, and you don’t have as many readers, viewers and listeners.
In his initial article, Tramel outlines SI’s claims about players getting paid money by coaches and boosters, but his responses are sometimes skeptical and even sarcastic. In response to the point that a booster gave money to a high-school recruit, Tramel wrote, “Finally, a recruiting violation. All this other stuff is alleged to take care of guys already on campus. But this is old-fashioned paying players while in high school. Of course, it also doesn’t completely jive.”
Note the tone here in Tramel’s quote. He essentially qualifies paying players, but then supposedly claims paying a recruit is a serious issue. No, it “doesn’t completely jive” either. As I wrote earlier, I think players get exploited as coaches run off with the money, and the system should change, but paying players for making individual plays is a complete violation of any college’s mission. Does an OSU band member get paid $500 when they play their instrument particularly well at a game? Does a member of whatever the OSU Spanish Club is called get $1,000 for speaking in perfect Spanish at a meeting? Does a . . . Why go on? The point is big-time college football programs are not professional teams. If they can’t be part of the university because of the corruption of money, then privatize them by spinning them off into farm teams for the NFL.
Tramel is at his absolute worst when he analyzes SI’s academic allegations, which claim, among other issues, that tutors wrote papers for players. Tramel writes, “There wasn’t nearly as much meat on the bone as there was in the first installment.” He goes on to make this embarrassing statement, “If you ask me, online classes of most any kind are a scandal. I know people learn in different ways, and I know technology is changing society, but I’m skeptical of all online classes.”
SI’s academic arguments, some of which are widely known or suspected on campus (for the record, I taught at OSU in the late 1980s and early 1990s), are extremely important. The allegations alleging direct cheating may not be important to Tramel, but they are to most professors I know, and I’ve been teaching college going on 25 years in this state. Cheating is an issue on all university campuses, of course, but if and when a head football coach, a powerful, multi-millionaire enriched by the university, enables or ignores the cheating, it’s even worse. Also, Tramel’s comment about online courses is a sweeping generalization, which shows he probably doesn’t know much about them. Online courses are here to stay. Online education is the happening thing in higher education today, and quality-controls and academic integrity are a major part of online initiatives. Tramel doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and it shows.
Tramel begins his assessment of SI’s story about drug use among OSU’s players with the tone he maintains throughout his analysis. He writes, “And just like the others [articles], it’s a difficult sell for SI, for this reason. The sources are all a bunch of potheads, by their own admission.” He then argues that OSU made mistakes by recruiting “knuckleheads,” and that’s the main problem.
The issue, as I see it, is not so much that there’s a drug culture surrounding the OSU football team—we all live in a drug culture—but how the university responds to someone who really has a problem. The disparity in the responses, as outlined in the SI article, is the problem. Tramel, with his use of “knuckleheads” and then this, “ . . . we’re not talking about the brightest of the bright when we talk about people who want to toke their way to happiness,” shows he might just be a tad out of touch. I know they don’t “smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” Berry, (of course, they do a lot of meth there these days) but they can still be durn knuckleheads, too. My point is Tramel is over his head on this issue. Here’s an idea: Just don’t drug test players at all except for performance-enhancing drugs unless there’s an issue, such as an arrest or obvious abuse.
Tramel seemed more interested in just discrediting the entire SI’s series overall in his analysis of the story featuring the Orange Pride hostess program. He begins by arguing the article “. . . clearly was hastily edited after the disastrous Thursday that SI experienced with Part III.” Then he goes on to pretty much dismiss the story with snarky rebuttal. In response to the argument that OSU chose attractive women to be hostesses, Tramel writes, “There’s no way I can say this without sounding like a clod, so I’m just going to say it. No kidding. Who wants to be around pretty and outgoing women? It would be wonderful if the world was different and lollipops grew on trees.”
I think it’s a shame that Tramel and others in the media here have chosen to simply dismiss the SI stories. Maybe, they’re protecting their turf, but they sure aren’t producing longer, thoughtful pieces of journalism concerning one of the state’s two major football programs like SI. As far as Tramel’s response to the hostess program, I think he misses the point. Why even have such a program? Why is it only for women? He points out the problem of objectifying women with the everyone-does-it excuse, but that, too, misses it. This is a school activity at a taxpayer-supported institution. The university should broaden the membership of the program if it plans to keep it, and millionaire coaches shouldn’t be allowed to dictate its membership based on a person’s appearance.
Tramel claims that part of the final installment of the series, which showed the sometimes broken lives of former non-star OSU players, was “a little overdramatic. Seems like someone tried to write their way to making this series a success.” He even argues that another part of the article is “total crock.” Again, note the defensiveness and the sarcasm.
OSU does have a responsibility to those young students who get cut from the football program for one reason or another. Most of them were recruited and given scholarships, and some moved from their out-of-state communities to Stillwater. Obviously, determining what that responsibility is can be problematic, but one thing is certain: Cut players should be given every opportunity to continue their education. Again, the immoral disparity between millionaire football coaches and a poor kid who gets cut from a program should be the issue here. It just violates the academic and the overall mission of the university. It’s not right. OSU is a public college, not a farm team for the NFL.
I don’t think I’ve been too harsh on Tramel, and, at least, he took the time for thorough responses. One important issue, which I’ve already brought up in early post, is that local media outlets here are complicit in the “corruption,” or whatever you want to call it, of the state’s two major college football programs. These programs not only make a lot of money but also help create a local media industry, from the sports pages to radio shows to television programs. If you ask me, to use a Tramel-like sweeping generalization, that’s the real scandal. Taxpayers essentially are helping fund millionaire coaches and our local sports media “celebrities” while many young players get discarded, don’t make it to the NFL, or don’t finish their degrees. It’s an ugly system that needs to change, but it won’t as long as the money flows in. I think the SI articles shed some light on one of our state’s major college football programs, and that’s a good thing.