What I told the Guardian about Oklahoma's budget crisis and what the Grauniad published

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Dont_Believe_Liberal_Media.jpgIf you're wondering why people believe the mainstream news media is more interested in pushing a narrative rather than reporting the facts, I've got a story for you. If you want to know why you shouldn't trust a mainstream news outlet to give you multiple reasoned perspectives on a complex public-policy issue, read on.

On Tuesday, August 29, 2017, I was quoted in a story about Oklahoma's recent budget problems which ran on the website of the Guardian, Britain's leading leftist newspaper.

The author, Russell Cobb, a native of Oklahoma and now a professor of modern languages and cultural studies in Canada, had been commissioned to write the piece a few months ago and reached out to me via email in late June for my thoughts on the issue. The article is part of a series funded by The Rockefeller Foundation. Cobb is writing a book with the working title, You Dumb Okie: Race, Class, and Lies in Flyover Country. (Had I known about this, I may not have been inclined to help him out.)

(I do find it amusing that my most recent appearances to talk about politics on the radio and in the press were both for overseas media outlets -- the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Guardian, respectively -- and both of them left-of-center, to boot. It reminds me of Tony Hancock's line in the episode "The Radio Ham": "It's opened up completely new horizons for me. Look at this! Friends from all over the world! None in this country, but all over the world." I was on KVWO 94.7 -- the Voice of Welch, Oklahoma -- to talk about Bob Wills on his 112th birthday back in March.)

When Cobb first contacted me, he wrote that he had "many left-of-center voices in the piece blaming tax cuts and the oil and gas industry" and that he "really need[ed] smart conservative voices" for his article. He asked if I'd be willing to talk to him and if there was anyone else he should contact. Here's my reply:

A couple of other sources worth your time:

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (ocpathink.org) is an excellent source for the other side of the budget story. For years, they have been proposing solutions to reduce educational administrative bloat, cut unneeded programs in other areas of state government, and focus educational spending on the classroom. For the most part, legislative leaders, fearful of still-powerful lobbyists representing school boards, school administrators, and public employee unions, have failed to act on these ideas. Jonathan Small (OCPA president), Brandon Dutcher, and Trent England would all have some informative things to say on the topic and could point you to specific studies they've done.

State Rep. Jason Murphey is one of the smartest people in state government. His background is in information technology, and he's devoted much of his legislative career to consolidating and streamlining state government's computer systems to help state employees better serve the public. He has a blog at hd31.org, where he has analyzed the budget crisis and this most recent legislative session.

Some topics to explore, off the top of my head:

  • Skyrocketing growth in non-classroom personnel
  • Large number of small school districts
  • Duplication in higher education, too many colleges, too many campuses, too many independent administrations (where ex-politicians find a second career as college presidents), too much overlap between the offerings of universities, community colleges, and vocational-technical schools. We need a College Realignment and Closure Commission -- the sort of process used successfully at the Federal level to close unneeded military bases.
  • Tendency of left-wing voices to focus solely on state appropriations and to ignore other significant sources of revenue, such as local property tax, in the complete picture of how Oklahomans fund education. Fixed property tax levies fund operations of K-12 schools, community colleges (e.g. TCC, Rose State), and vocational-technical schools (e.g. Tulsa Technology Center). Additional property tax is levied to repay construction bonds for school facilities.
  • Revenue sources that are earmarked by the State Constitution or by statute, which means certain agencies of government are overfunded, but those excess funds cannot be reallocated to agencies in need.
  • Internal strife in the Republican legislative caucuses and the influence of the state, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa Chambers of Commerce.

Shoot me some questions if any of these facets interest you.

Cobb wrote back: "Thank you so much. I'll be in touch soon with more specific questions. This is very helpful."

A couple of days later, I heard from Cobb again, saying he'd read "quite a bit of the references" I had sent him and indicated it was helping him to understand the arguments over issues like the gross production tax, which, he gathered from what he'd read, would not fix Oklahoma's budget mess. Then he posed a specific question:

"I'm interested in your take on a provocative thesis someone ran by me: Oklahoma, with its rising social inequalities, reliance on incarceration as a way of dealing with mental health issues, its continuing crisis in dealing with Medicaid and disabilities, plus the education crisis, was becoming a failing state in political science terms. What's your reaction to that thesis?"

Here's what I wrote in reply:

"Failing state" is a hysterical and overwrought label to apply to the State of Oklahoma's current funding dilemmas. This is not Somalia or Venezuela. As you drive through our state, you will not be caught in the crossfire between the armies of rival warlords. A barge hauling wheat from the Port of Catoosa to the Gulf of Mexico is not going to be boarded by pirates as it passes Muskogee. State government employees continue to do their jobs as before. New roads are being built, old roads are being repaired. Tulsa Community College has enough tax money to fund full scholarships for local students with at least a mediocre high school academic record. How bad off can we be if Oklahoma can still afford to give a "Quality Jobs" tax credit to billionaire NBA owners?

If you want to find a fiscally failing state, look to Illinois: Two years (and likely a third) without a budget, massive unfunded liabilities, unable to pay its current bills -- the result of decades of the Blue State model of high taxes, high levels of regulation, and purchasing the loyalty of public-employee unions with more jobs and bigger pensions that will never be fully funded. Connecticut and New Jersey face similar crises, and they serve as examples that raising taxes only digs a deeper hole: Government grows to spend the extra revenue; the promised spending cuts never materialize; higher taxes stunt economic growth.

Oklahoma's current dilemma proves that, whether union-label Democrats or crony-capitalist Republicans run the government, public choice theory holds true: In politics, concentrated benefit trumps diffuse cost. Barring a grassroots miracle, a state's governor and legislative leaders will be those politicians most easily swayed by the special interests who come to the State Capitol bearing gifts in exchange for government-given financial advantage, be they public-employee unions looking for a raise, superintendents of tiny school districts hoping to dodge consolidation, or oil barons and wind tycoons looking for targeted tax credits. Pliable legislators get contributions for themselves and their PACs, with which they win the loyalty of their colleagues in the caucus room.

With this sort of leadership, if it can be called leadership, state spending will rise to match rising revenues, because the Ado Annies on Capitol Hill just cain't say no. Concentrated benefit trumps diffuse cost. The profligate spending only makes the cuts all the more painful when revenues fall, as they always do. Oklahoma would be in much deeper trouble were it not for the constitutionally mandated "rainy-day fund" that sequesters some of the financial windfall in good years.

Oklahoma needs a new governor and new legislative leaders willing to eliminate the revenue earmarks that keep taxpayer dollars from flowing where they're most needed, to eliminate duplication in our colleges and career technology centers, to eliminate tax credits that do nothing for economic growth, to eliminate administrative bloat and the regulations that create it. Every one of those necessary steps will threaten some group's concentrated benefit. Persisting with necessary reform in the face of the resulting resistance will require principled courage, a quality scarce amongst the crony-capitalists currently running the state or the big-government tax-hikers who want to replace them.

Happy to answer more questions if you've got them.

Cobb wrote back later that day, thanking me: "This is very compelling." He asked me for a short self-description, which I supplied, thanking him for reaching out.

On Tuesday, Cobb emailed to tell me that the story was up. "Thanks for your time and effort in helping me tell this story. Even if you don't agree with it's conclusions I hope it leads to a productive conversation."

Here's the part of the story that mentions me:

Of course, many would not recognize their state in this description. One of the most respected bloggers in Tulsa, Michael Bates, said the whole idea of Oklahoma as a failing state was "hysterical and overwrought".

After all, downtown Tulsa and Oklahoma City are thriving. The cities have been rated by Kiplinger among the "best cities in America to start a business". Tulsa has rolling hills, parks and delicious barbecue: Tulsa People enumerates the city's private schools. Affordable housing prices are the envy of the nation and suburban school districts boast gleaming new facilities. And yes, some conservatives think the four-day week is good for "traditional" families, allowing for more time with the kids. For affluent families, the extra day can be spent on college prep or sports. But for middle- and working- class parents, it means lost wages or added expenses for childcare.

You'll notice that, while my description of the "failing state" label was included, my reasons for that description (which I thought were vividly and cogently expressed and which Cobb described as "very compelling") were excluded in favor of facile, unattributed comments which have no connection to anything I wrote. The introductory phrase of the second paragraph, "After all," could easily lead a reader to assume that it was a continuation and elaboration of my assessment in the previous paragraph.

Beyond these two paragraphs, the story fails to give any ink to what other conservative critics have written about the state's fiscal problems.


Guardian_Plonkers.jpg

I feel like I was stabbed in the back. I believed that Cobb's request for my perspective was in good faith, and I answered in good faith. Not only was my detailed reply whittled down to one short phrase, the phrase was embedded in a context that does not reflect my thinking and may give readers the impression that I am unreflective and uncaring about Oklahoma's budget problems.

Tuesday afternoon, I emailed Russell Cobb and asked him about the way my quote was framed and about the absence in his story of the "smart conservative voices" he said he needed. I had been waiting for his reply before publishing this, but as it's been over 48 hours and I haven't heard from him, I've decided to go ahead and publish this story. I have to assume that it was his editorial decision and not the Guardian's. I will be filing a request for clarification with the Guardian's ombudsman and will let you know if they respond.

MORE:

A Tumblr account called Grauniad Highlights tracks the odd topics that the newspaper chooses to pursue.

Grauniad_Highlights.png

The Guardian was tagged with the mocking anagram Grauniad by Private Eye, the satirical British news magazine, because of the paper's frequent spelling mistakes and typographical errors. I rather like the name. It sounds like the name of a failed attempt at epic poetry by one of ancient Greece's lesser poetasters.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 31, 2017 5:13 PM.

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