Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee was the first speaker at the Spring Dialogue for the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. You can see his, and all of the other speakers’, talks here.

Tabbernee discussed the death penalty and its role in separation of church and state.

I should say from the outset I have a fairly lawyerly approach to separation and Establishment Clause questions, so I wasn’t overly inclined to be convinced that we should consider the death penalty an issue relevant to this topic. I don’t see an obvious application of the Lemon Test to the death penalty.

That said, Rev. Tabbernee makes an interesting case. He points out that all of the secular utilitarian justifications for the death penalty just aren’t supported by the data. He outlines three historical justifications: deterrence, closure for families and safety to society.

I don’t consider the second a compelling reason at all. Whether families get more closure from the death of a criminal isn’t a major concern to me, but deterrence and safety are both good justifications for a law…if they are true.

Tabbernee doesn’t go into a lot of detail on deterrence and safety, but it seems obvious to me that the astronomically small number of criminals who get the death penalty compared to the overall number of crimes, makes the deterrence argument pretty weak. Amnesty International points out that if you compare states with the death penalty to those without, you so no significant difference in the data. The overwhelming consensus of criminologists is that death penalty, at least as it exists in the United States, has no real deterrence effect above the threat of incarceration.

As for the safety question, I see no difference between the safety effect provided by life in prison without the possibility of parole and the death penalty. Granted, there is always the astronomically low possibility of escape or pardon, but that can’t possibly be enough to justify the negative effects associated with the costs of the death penalty.

Tabbernee misspoke in his talk when he said that California had spent $4 billion on executing 13 people over the last fifteen years. It is actually since 1978. Nevertheless, it is the case that California spends something like $130 million a year to keep the institution alive. A ballot measure that would have ended the death penalty and put all of the current California death row inmates in prison for life failed by 4% last November.

Since nobody in their right mind is advocating for a streamlining process that would make the death penalty cheaper, it seems that the economic argument against it is quite compelling, at least in California. I haven’t looked at the costs in Oklahoma. That might make for a pretty interesting article.

Tabbernee gets into the separation of church and state element of the discussion when he looks at the only justifications really left for the death penalty, and those are basically religious. Particularly, in the United States the death penalty is justified using the Bible. Basically, the chain of logic is that the King, or in our country the state, derives its authority from God. This actually makes a lot of sense Biblically. In the Old Testament, the king is chosen by God and anointed by the prophet. In the New Testament, there are passages that explicitly admonish Christians to submit to governing authorities, because those authorities wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t God’s will (Romans 13:1-7).

Tabbernee argues that the death penalty is a carryover of this concept and is an example of the state acting as God’s judgement on earth. He points to a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before the Chicago Divinity School to demonstrate as much.

Here is the most relevant passage:

This is not the Old Testament, I emphasize, but St. Paul. One can understand his words as referring only to lawfully constituted authority, or even only to lawfully constituted authority that rules justly. But the core of his message is that government—however you want to limit that concept—derives its moral authority from God. It is the “minister of God” with powers to “revenge,” to “execute wrath,” including even wrath by the sword (which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty). Paul of course did not believe that the individual possessed any such powers. Only a few lines before this passage, he wrote, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” And in this world the Lord repaid—did justice—through His minister, the state.

Scalia, a devout Catholic, later in the speech articulates why he disagrees with the current church doctrine, which is almost always opposed to the death penalty.

Tabbernee rightly points out that the United States was founded upon a rejection of the divine right of kings, and the separation of church and state outlined in the constitution enshrines that reject in our law and history.

Scalia would probably object that it is only when a nation legitimately represents its people that the divine right of kings applies. He explicitly frames Paul’s passage in Romans as meaning as much. How that squares with Paul’s passage being an admonishment to submit to the rule of a pagan Roman government that routinely oppressed and murdered its own subjects, with no recognition of basic human rights, qualifies as the kind of government that fits this description, I couldn’t say. Why Rome would qualify as a legitimate state under which divine authority was justified, but Christian England which by every measure was more civilized than Rome with respect to its treatment of its subjects would not, seems slightly insane. Then again, I’ve never considered Scalia particularly intelligent or cogent.

Tabbernee’s argument is that it isn’t up to the state to enact vengeance. Leave that up to God. Where that leaves nonbelievers or those who don’t believe that there is a god that punishes, I couldn’t say. Scalia actually articulates a possible secular moral justification for opposition to the death penalty in his speech.

Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next? The Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cranmer asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him.” For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!

I don’t find this line of thought particularly compelling. Mind you, it is just as easy for someone who is a nonbeliever to take other stances on the value of human life. The Soviet Union and Mao’s China certainly did. For a less obviously wrong stance, you might look to the work of the atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer, who thinks that some human life is of less value that the lives of some animals. Mind you, Singer is an opponent of the death penalty as it exists.

Tabbernee argues that capital punishment is “unnecessary, morally unjustified…, fallible…, ineffective at its goals… and exorbitantly expensive.”

I asked him to expand on this fallible point in the Q&A, because it is the basis for much of my opposition to the death penalty. Like Singer, I don’t find the death penalty inherently immoral. I’m opposed to it for epistemological reasons. The state is acting on behalf of me. To the extent that the state is likely to make a mistake and execute an innocent person, I’m opposed to it. It is as if I’m executing an innocent person, something I’m willing to take pretty drastic measures to avoid.

There is a lot of reason to think that we’ve executed innocent people. I’m strongly in favor of, for example, legislation that would mandate that any execution must involve DNA evidence. No person should ever be executed based on circumstantial or eye witness evidence. Both are notoriously unreliable.

Even this wouldn’t solve the problem of corrupt testing labs like we had have here in Oklahoma.

Mind you, I’d still oppose capital punishment even if I was convinced that the system got the right person every time. The economic argument is pretty devastating. Oklahoma probably doesn’t pay nearly as much per death row prisoner per year as California, but I’ll bet you a Thunder ticket that it is more than the cost of life without parole.

All of this is to say that, while I agree with Tabbernee in his opposition to capital punishment, I don’t agree with his assessment that it should be framed within the context of separation of church and state. The economic and innocents executed argument is much more compelling to me than the sanctity of life opposition. It isn’t to say I wouldn’t come around to it given enough time, but it seems probable to me that Tabbernee is finding his opposition to the death penalty in his faith as much as proponents find it in theirs.

It is superficially compelling that the only justification left on the table for the death penalty is a religious one, and the courts should remove that justification from the table. I’d agree if I was convinced that most people who support the death penalty are aware enough of the cost and lack of deterrence data. It is probably the case that the public advocates for the death penalty are religious ideologues for the most part, but the average voter probably isn’t tuned in enough on the issue to consider the religious argument the primary reason for favoring legal executions.

This isn’t like creationism, where it is clear to everyone involved that religion is the issue being debated. With creationism, it is the rank and file that appeal to religious justifications, while the ideologues try to frame their arguments in the veneer of science to gain plausibility with the courts. It seems likely to me that it is the other way around with capital punishment. Cranks like Scalia recognize that the only justification left is a religious one, but your average person on the street isn’t likely to cry religious oppression if the death penalty gets ruled unconstitutional.

I’m taking a break from the separation of church and state panel talks to highlight an example of how an Oklahoma public school recently had to admit they were violating the establishment clause.

Hemant Mehta over at the Friendly Atheist Blog had two posts recently on how Muldrow High School has the Ten Commandments in all of its classrooms.

An atheist student complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The FFRF sent the school a letter, warning them that if they didn’t take the plaques down, there would be a lawsuit, and they’d lose.

The local media is portraying this as Christians being persecuted, but that’s a joke. Public schools, like any government institution, shouldn’t be about picking sides on whose faith, or lack-thereof, is right or wrong. You don’t get to hang the Ten Commandments on a classroom wall any more than you get to hang verses from the Koran or excerpt’s from Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not A Christian.

Of course, as soon is it came out publicly who did this, the student and his family began being mistreated. You can see the student, Gage Pulliam, talk about it on Reddit. He also conversed with Hemant.

From his talk with Hemant:

“I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”

Gage get’s it. Separation of church and state is about fairness and impartiality. This is a perfect example of the principle I outlined in my talk to the AU-OK panel. You can see that talk in yesterday’s post. I’ll have a more detailed blog post outlining the main themes of my speech soon.

On Monday night, the school board met and decided to do the right thing, over the objection of almost everyone in attendance. Gage is actually having to worry for his safety now. So far, all he’s had are some angry comments and stares. Let’s hope that remains the situation. Gage is a brave kid that deserves our accolades, not our threats.

The Raindrop Turkish House is located on north Classen a few blocks south of the Expressway. This is in the same neighborhood as Lee’s Sandwiches, which I’ve blogged about before. I couldn’t pass up the chance. Dinner finished, my wife, daughter, and I headed for the dialogue.

The Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s annual Spring Dialogue is explicitly billed as a discussion, not a debate. They do have debates, but this wasn’t one of them. In a way, this added an extra element of pressure for me. I can handle playing an adversarial role in a hostile audience, but finding a way to say something unique and interesting to a crowd that already largely agrees with me on policy positions adds an extra element of anxiety. So, I walked in the door with my adrenaline high and nerves on edge.

It doesn’t help that I’d rewritten the outline for my talk three times in the last five days, and still wasn’t happy with it. I also wasn’t sure what to expect from the crowd. If it skewed heavily toward Turkish immigrants, my talk, which focused on the Enlightenment and American history, might require a little more historical context. I wasn’t sure how to cram all of the information I needed to get out into the seven minutes I had available. My stomach was in knots.

The venue was very nice. There was an elevated stage for the speakers to sit at, and miked podium. The audience was situated at circular tables scattered throughout the room, much like you might find at a wedding reception. At the back, the east and south walls were lined with additional chairs, and the west end featured several tables with Turkish dishes, including some of the best baklava I’ve ever eaten. The stuff you get in restaurants around here doesn’t even come close, not that I was dumb enough to eat any before my talk. I was too nervous once I set foot in the door.

I meandered around with my wife and daughter, introducing them to the OK-AU leadership and meeting the other speakers. To my relief, I was neither under- or over-dressed. I’m not a tie and blazer guy, and I’d never be allowed in the Magic Castle. It isn’t that I’m opposed to them or anything, I just don’t own a tie that is less than ten years old, and I’ve outgrown any of the blazers from my college days. I don’t work in an office setting, and the best I can bring myself to get up to is a buttoned shirt and a pair of black slacks. It worked out okay.

Damion, who blogs over at Background Probability, set up a camera to record the whole thing. When the video goes online, I’ll be sure to post it.

A few minutes after seven, we took our seats on the stage. Our moderator, Chas Stewart, welcomed everyone and introduced Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee.

I’ll have a summary and discussion of his speech on the next post.

As part of her last two State of the State Addresses, Governor Mary Fallin has proposed a cut to the income tax, and currently there are two competing tax cut bills in negotiation in the Oklahoma Legislature. On Tuesday, there was an announcement of a grand bargain that includes cutting taxes in 2015, with more cuts expected over the next few years.

Fallin has justified her proposal by appeals to our competitiveness with Kansas and Texas.

In her 2013 Address she said:

I’m asking again for you to work with me to reduce the tax burden on working Oklahomans. Lower taxes mean stronger economic growth and more job creation.Let’s let individuals and families keep more money in their pockets to spend on the things they need.

I am asking you to lower the top income tax bracket – which kicks in after the first $8,700 of income made by every Oklahoman — from 5.25 percent to 5.0 percent.

This proposal gives us the flexibility we need to ensure that we are reducing taxes responsibly, without starving government. This is not the last tax cut we will see from my administration. I am serious about lowering taxes, and I will work to get us a lower income tax rate that makes us more competitive with our neighbors to the north and to the south – both of which have lower taxes than Oklahoma.

Reasonably and cautiously reducing taxes, fixing barriers to job growth and innovation, and improving our schools will lay the groundwork for sustained prosperity in Oklahoma. Laying the foundation for job growth and a stronger economy is a big part of how I define success for my administration and for this Legislature.

Texas hasn’t had a state income tax for over 100 years, and its overall tax burden is pretty low. Kansas and Nebraska have both recently lowered their income tax rates, and Kansas is already feeling the pinch.

The underlying assumption, or at least public justification, that goes into these policies is that lowering the state’s tax burden will attract business.

There are a number of problems with this. First, it creates perverse race to the bottom incentives. That is already playing out with Fallin effectively arguing that Oklahoma needs to keep up with the Joneses. We can’t afford to be left behind. When there is a limited number of businesses, particularly large manufacturing industries, everyone bends over backwards to get companies to come.

Ironically, This American Life had an episode in 2011 featuring Oklahoma as one of the most recession-proof business-friendly states in the nation, ostensibly because it was ahead of the game on taxes and regulation.

This American Life correspondent and Planet Money host Adam Davidson summed up the dilemma that states face.

This is what drove me crazy about this conference, actually about the whole profession of economic development. They’re not creating jobs. They’re just moving jobs around. Arizona steals a company from California by offering some tax break and lighter regulation. Then Texas cuts taxes a bit more, does away with even more regulation, and gets the company to move there. That doesn’t help anything. We still have the same number of jobs. But now we have this race to the bottom. Who can cut back government services the most? Who can eliminate the most regulation?

None of this implicates Governor Fallin. She’s just doing what every other governor does; trying to make the state as economically viable as possible without completely destroying the ability of the state to function financially.

But Oklahoma doesn’t need to keep up with the Joneses. As the This American Life piece points out, Oklahoma is the Joneses everyone else is trying to be.

There is another, much larger problem with the premise of this line of reasoning. It isn’t at all clear that cutting the state’s income tax will actually lead to significant economic growth.

Back in the early 2000s, President Bush proposed cutting the federal income tax based on the idea that cutting rates would stimulate economic growth and lead to a net plus in revenue. The basis for this line of reasoning is known as the “Laffer Curve,” named after University of Chicago economist Arthur Laffer.

The idea behind the Laffer Curve is that if tax rates get too high, governments will actually get less tax revenue by sufficiently suppressing economic growth. By keeping rates relatively low, and economic output relatively high, actual revenue can be optimized. This, along with government consolidation, is the basis for Mary Fallin’s claim to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce that Oklahoma can afford to cut rates while increasing spending on things like education.

There are all kinds of problems with this line of argument. As Nobel Prize Winning Economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, the United States is not near peaking on the Laffer Curve. He argues that it would take rates as high as 70% on highest earners to get the effects argued for by Arthur Laffer. Krugman’s argument is consistent with the academic research. It is also supported by a 2005 study by the Congressional Budget Office of the predicted impact of a 10% tax cut, which found that it would not even break even over the next decade.

This is all fine and good for federal tax policy, but Arthur Laffer is a conservative economist who isn’t willing to give up when he’s lost an argument. His views may be out of fashion in Washington and in the halls of academia, but that hasn’t stopped him from shopping them around to states with conservative governors and legislatures; like Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.

The Oklahoma Policy of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, is the loudest advocate beating the drum for an income tax cut in Oklahoma. They’ve published multiple articles citing the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a national think tank that has Arthur Laffer on its board.

Since 2007, ALEC has been putting out annual Rich States, Poor States studies where it makes recommendations based on self-styled free market approaches to economics. In these studies, ALEC has advocated that states try to promote economic growth by eliminating income and corporate taxes while implementing anti-union right-to-work laws.

There is zero doubt that Mary Fallin is buying Laffer’s arguments. She wrote the foreword for the most recent edition of Rich States, Poor States. After outlining the fact that Oklahoma has grown economically while most of the rest of the nation was suffering in 2008, she says:

All of these successes are the results of the kind of common sense, conservative policies outlined by Dr. Art Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Jonathan Williams in Rich States, Poor States. I have been committed to these fundamental principles for years, and we are seeing incredible results because our legislators have had the courage to stand with me in support of conservative governance. Oklahoma’s economy is outperforming the national economy, and our success stands in stark contrast to the record of dysfunction, failed policies, and outrageous spending that occurs in Washington, D.C.

Oklahoma could teach Washington a lesson or two about fiscal policy and the proper size and role of government—and so could the tax and fiscal policy reforms espoused by ALEC.

It isn’t at all clear that Oklahoma’s economic successes during the recession had anything to do with Laffer’s ideas. More likely, Oklahoma performed well largely because it’s economy is based on energy, military and agriculture, sectors that were not greatly affected by the recession. Oklahoma never had a housing bubble in the first place, and we have almost no financial sector to speak of.

We were lucky. If the bust had been in the energy sector, aviation, or if the bottom had dropped out of the cattle and wheat markets, Oklahoma would have been devastated.

We are seeing a bit of that play out right now with the military sector. Oklahoma receives more in federal expenditures than residents of our state pay in federal taxes, in large part because of the state’s numerous military bases. The sequester looks to hit the state on the chin. Don’t let anyone tell you that that government spending can’t help an economy.

Laffer’s arguments on state policy don’t stand up under scrutiny any better than they do for federal policy. The empirical claims made in Laffer’s annual policy recommendations are quite problematic.

For example, Laffer has a bad habit of comparing apples with oranges. In his first of five policy proposals, Laffer argues for eliminating all personal state income taxes by comparing states with no personal income tax with the states with the highest marginal rates. That’s a fine comparison, if you are trying to show that no income tax is better or worse than the states with the highest marginal rates. It is entirely useless if you are trying to find the optimal policies for a state like Oklahoma, which has an income tax but relatively low marginal rates. Conveniently, Laffer forgets to compare states like Oklahoma with states like Texas. Possibly because it would undermine his thesis that states with no personal income taxes are optimal.

In November 2012, the think tank Good Jobs First and the Iowa Policy Project published a devastating critique of Laffer and Rich States, Poor States titled Selling Snake Oil to the States. In it, economists Peter Fisher, Greg LeRoy and Philip Mattera argued that on nearly every major economic prediction, Laffer and ALEC were not supported by the evidence. They claim that if you follow ALEC’s policy suggestions, you’d actually have had a worse economic outcomes.

From their press release:

“We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results,” said Dr. Peter Fisher, primary author of the study. “We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.”

That sounds pretty familiar. Oklahoma has not had an increase in wages or personal income over the last few years, though we have had an increase in household income. Public services have been on the chopping block, education funding has not kept up with inflation, and even Mary Fallin is calling for the legislature to pay to fix our crumbling infrastructure.

Fisher, et al., show that, among other things, that the higher a state was ranked by ALEC, the worse those states actually have done in the interim on growth.

From the report:

Most tellingly, since the ALEC-Laffer report is about policies to enhance state prosperity, the 2007 Economic Outlook Ranking is actually a decent predictor of how state per capita income will change from 2007 to 2011—but in the opposite direction from what the report claims.

The more “competitive” a state was according to ALEC, the less its per capita income grew (see Figure 3). The negative correlation of -.27 is statistically significant.

They point out that the only indicator where Laffer’s predictions turn out to be correct are regarding population growth. States that ranked higher on the index had more population growth. Since these same states actually had less economic growth, that might actually be a problem.

Fisher, et al., also have the same apples-to-oranges criticism that I do, and correct for it. This explains, in part, why their conclusions are so different.

All of the above calculations represent a more accurate form of analysis than the methods of Laffer and company in Rich States, Poor States. Instead of focusing only on the top and bottom six or nine or ten states, where the cutoffs are selective and arbitrary, we consider all 50 states and compute a correlation coefficient. Still, while we demonstrate a negative relationship between ALEC’s recommendations and a stronger economy, we do not pretend that such correlations establish causality. But Laffer argues that the relationship is so strong between the policies of Rich States, Poor States and beneficial outcomes that it will show up repeatedly in simple correlations. Clearly the evidence, when examined using a more objective and reliable approach, does not support this conclusion.

The paper then goes on to argue that not only does Laffer’s own data not support his conclusions, but neither does the consensus of academic research. They allege that throughout his papers, Laffer is cherry-picking from either poor studies, or outright misrepresenting what good studies conclude.

Such accusations couldn’t go unchallenged, and early this year ALEC fired back with a 48-page paper titled Tax Myths Debunked, where they argue that the Good Jobs First criticisms are without merit.

ALEC frames their response within the false-dichotomy of free marketers vs. government interventionists, but all that does is show their own ideological hand. It is simply not the case that most economists today are on either ideological extreme. Laffer and the ALEC folks actually are on one ideological extreme, so anyone who is to the left of them is seen as advocating for massive government intervention into markets, whether that is a caricature or not. There are, of course, living economists that take such a stance, but most economists are what you would call neo-classical. This is explicitly the approach taken by Fisher et al. To call them opponents of markets is silly, false and beside the point.

After wasting most of the report making arguments against things that Fisher and their critics didn’t actually say, ALEC finally addresses Fisher’s criticisms directly, claiming Fisher used bad methodology. Fisher explains here why it isn’t.

ALEC then goes on to claim that it is accepted among economists that tax policy is strongly correlated with economy, citing two studies. ALEC completely ignores the dozens of studies already cited by Fisher, et al, showing that there isn’t. It just pretends they were never cited.

Anybody can find a couple of studies arguing for just about anything. I can find two studies in peer reviewed literature showing that there is evidence for the existence of psychic abilities in dogs. That doesn’t mean that it is a mainstream position in psychology, or that there aren’t more and better studies that show there isn’t.

Finally, ALEC didn’t like Fisher’s method for comparing rankings with growth. It was a technical point, and ALEC suggested a solution. In his later response, Fisher actually followed their suggestion, and it makes their rankings look even worse.

Fisher concludes:

In sum, nothing in Tax Myths actually undercuts any of the analyses or conclusions in Selling Snake Oil. In fact the authors’ misinterpretation of our use of economic structure variables and misuse of the state coincident indices serve only to further confirm the shoddiness of the research sponsored by ALEC.

Mary Fallin has hitched her wagon to Laffer and his infamous curve. Several Oklahoma economists, including the chair of the Economics Department at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University Regents Professor Emeritus, and the dean of the business college at the University of Central Oklahoma, all oppose eliminating the state income tax. They, along with think tanks like the Oklahoma Policy Institute, have been doing their best to get the word out about how poorly supported these ideas are. Only time will tell if they will be successful at derailing long-term deep cuts.

Last week, the following image turned up in my Facebook feed.

Advertisement in the Oklahoma Gazette

There was some conversation about it, but nobody seemed to know what incident it was referencing.

Well, Dr. Kurt Hochenauer over at Okie Funk made me aware of the rest of the story.

Apparently, former Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth was assaulted at Grandad’s recently for his sexual orientation.

The Oklahoman had a story on it Saturday.

From the Oklahoman:

A check of police records turned up an assault and battery report from April 6 that listed Roth as the victim.

According to the report, Roth and some friends were at the bar for a birthday dinner when a man started making anti-gay comments.

Roth and one of his friends at first ignored the comments but eventually decided to leave, he said.

They were followed out of the bar by the man who made the comments and two of his friends, who attacked them when they got outside, according to the report.

This is really tragic. It is bad enough that a person can’t go out to a bar without being mistreated, but to follow someone outside and physically assault them is really terrible.

There have been other violent crime incidents in Oklahoma City where GLBTQ persons were targeted for their sexual orientation in the last year. In July 2012, a gay man’s car was painted with the word ‘fag’ and firebombed in north Oklahoma City. He received first and second degree burns in the incident. In August, a lesbian woman was beaten and attacked with a knife while her assailant told her “I’m going to make you straight” and “I’m going to kill you.”

Oklahoma has not made the same strides other states have in the recent years on gay rights. The one bright spot in recent memory was in 2011 when Ed Shadid proposed and got passed a measure for Oklahoma City to add sexual orientation into the city’s employment nondiscrimination policy. Instead of hailing it for the step forward that it was, the Oklahoman ran a headline calling it a “controversial sexual orientation measure.” At the time, the Oklahoman refused to support or oppose the measure. The only editorial comment they had was bitching that Oklahoma County had done the same thing in 2005 without getting public input.

While this particular incident is rather obviously a hate crime, as Okie Funk points out, Oklahoma does not cover sexual orientation in its hate crime laws. I’m not entirely sure how federal hate crime laws factor into an incident like this. Federal hate crime charges were filed in an assault and kidnapping case in 2012 in Kentucky. This incident has many of the same elements.

In fact, a few weeks ago the Oklahoma House passed, HJR1009, a resolution reaffirming its opposition to gay marriage 84-0. Not a single person was willing to stand up in the House and vote against it. There were 17 cowardly abstentions, all but one of which was a Democrat. Even worse, a number of the House democrats voted in favor. You can see a list of who voted and who didn’t here.

Nate Silver, the guy that really pissed off Republican pundits when he once again accurately predicted the outcome of nearly every election in the country in 2012, predicts that Oklahoma will be one of the last states to have a majority support for same sex marriage by 2020, just behind Texas and North Carolina.

Roth didn’t originally go public with this story because he didn’t want the bad publicity for himself and Grandad’s, but thanks to the Oklahoman that ship has sailed. Seeing as how Grandad’s are the good guys in this story, let’s hope that they actually gain some business over their public statement.

One thing, possibly the only thing, I like about the Oklahoman’s editorial board is that it has a long-term vision for the state. I can’t say I like that vision, but I have to respect that they appreciate their position as the oldest continuous newspaper in the state and the biggest soapbox for policy debate.

The Oklahoman sucks in so many ways. It has a reactionary, regressive political stance that holds this state back. It publishes editorials without requiring the authors to sign them (I recognize the pot calling the kettle black of complaining about this on here, but Odd Oklahoma isn’t the largest newspaper in the state). It let Mary Fallin push it around and forced a blog to sue her over emails she is legally obligated to make public.

That’s why I was so surprised to see the Oklahoma publish a three genuinely good, if still anonymous, editorials so far in the month of April.

The first two both came out on April 1. One was about the need for the Oklahoma legislature to tackle the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Mind you, this is the same editorial page that is pushing for the state to cut the income tax rate. Don’t expect them to be consistent or logical. I’m planning on writing something soon looking at the argument that cutting the state’s income tax rate would actually increase revenue. It’s bogus, but why is pretty interesting.

The second April 1 editorial was going after the anti-Common Core Curriculum crowd. The editors rightly referenced “black helicopters” when talking about these people. I’ve written about them on here before. Those get crazy about Common Core are the same type of people that throw around the term RINO and try to blackmail state senators.

From the editorial:

Instead, Common Core standards have been embraced because the idea makes sense. The standards will allow an apples-to-apples comparison of Oklahoma students’ performance with that of other states. That’s a goal policymakers should embrace, particularly if high standards are maintained.

Common Core is not an attempt by the federal government to take over education. It is organized and opted into or out of by the participating states. It allows them to fairly compare the effectiveness of their systems. The biggest opponents of Common Core are the same crowd that home school their children because they can’t have the government indoctrinating them with ideas like evolution and climate change while failing to teach the nation’s true Christian history as articulated by David Barton.

The third editorial that shows the Oklahoman hasn’t entirely lost its mind is from April 14. It is a piece arguing that the Republican super majority in the legislature is actually a problem for the state. I said as much on election night, though my diagnosis was that it would come by way of corruption. The Oklahoman pointed out that when there is no real fear of an elected official losing office, then there is no incentive to do much of anything at all.

Ironically, that legislative inertia may be the result of the GOP’s one-party dominance. Today Republicans don’t fear losing control and Democrats don’t honestly think they can regain it. In a competitive system, both parties strive to generate policy results that boost their electoral appeal. But in a system where wins are automatic based on party affiliation, two things occur: complacency, and the dominant party becomes dominated by people simply seeking power instead of pursuing policy goals.

That’s detrimental to Oklahoma’s future. It also explains why legislative Republicans are now often the impediment to enacting conservative reforms their party once embraced.

The editorial also points out that the House has become radicalized, something else I’ve pointed out here.

Compare the current state of affairs with the achievements of the Republican House majority of 2005-2006. That group approved the largest tax cuts in state history. Funding reforms put in place in 2005 have since pumped an additional $1 billion into transportation infrastructure. High school graduation standards were adopted. Lawmakers even took a serious stab at workers’ comp reform (later thwarted by court rulings, leading to today’s overhaul effort).

Since then, Republicans have enacted important policy changes such as lawsuit reform and education improvements, but given the GOP’s current dominance, shouldn’t Oklahomans expect more? And some Republicans are even backing away from those achievements, bowing to pressure from status-quo forces. Under House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, the House has become a fount of bad legislation, ranging from the unconstitutional to the simply ridiculous, even as they’ve gummed up workers’ comp.

The Oklahoman is optimistic that this will change when Obama gets out of office, which is still a number of years away. I’m not so certain things will be any better. If things keep going like they are in state politics, and the Republicans don’t fix their demographics problem on the national level, President Hillary Clinton will be swearing in to the Oval Office and a whole new wave of Tea Party whackaloons will be swearing in to the Oklahoma House.

We are living in the most peaceful time in history. There is less violence in the world today, on average per person, than at any other period. Not only that, but rates of violence in the United States is lower now than it has ever been. Oklahoma is almost certainly no exception.

Except for the Oklahoma part, this is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues effectively that violence has declined both in the long and short run, and proposes explanations for why this is the case. Wikipedia summarizes Pinker’s position as well as anyone:

Among these social changes cited as bringing about the ascendancy of our “better angels” are: the emergence of a strong government/authority with a monopoly on violence, the interconnectivity of cultures through the need for trade; increased literacy, urbanisation, mobility and access to mass media - all of which have exposed different cultures to each other - and the spread of democracy. Pinker stresses, however, that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue”.

Pinker does a wonderful job in the first half of his book demonstrating that violence genuinely has declined throughout history. The key to understanding Pinker’s case is to keep in mind that he isn’t talking about actual incidents of violence, which very well could have increased, but to look at rates of violence compared against the overall population. Incidents of violence per 100,000 people has plummeted to all-time historical lows.

While some people have tried to argue that Pinker may be mistaken in the long-term, his argument that violence declined in the last half of the twentieth century, particularly in Western democracies, goes undisputed. In the United States, there was a peak in the 1960s, followed by a steady decline in all kinds of violence since. In just the last twenty years, the United States has seen the rate of violence decline so much that the incidence drops have outpaced population growth. Incidences of violence have dropped by over 37 percent at the same time that the population has grown by over 22 percent. If you combine the numbers, the actual rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people in the United States has dropped by nearly half in just twenty years.

I’m not going to try to argue for or against Pinker’s explanations for why this trend has occurred. I’m not qualified to do so. What I’m interested in is how Oklahoma holds up under this trend, and whether Pinker’s explanations might shed light on the areas where Oklahoma differs from the trends in other parts of the United States and broader world.

Oklahoma has not bucked the national trend. It has also become less violent in the last twenty years. In 1993, there were 20,498 violent crimes reported in Oklahoma. That number peaked in 1995 at 21,748. Since then, the number of reported violent crimes dropped to 17,630 in 2011.

At the same time, Oklahoma’s population grew. There is no census data for 1993, but if you go back to 1990, the state population was estimated at 3,145,585. In 2010 it had grown to 3,751,351.  That’s an increase of over 19 percent.

If you combine the violent crime and population numbers, the Oklahoma violent crime rate per 100,000 dropped by more than 25 percent between the early 1990s and 2010. This may seem like a lot, but Oklahoma has not kept up with national trends.

For example, when Oklahoma’s violent crime rate peaked in 1995 at something like 660 per 100,000. That was still below the national average of 684.5. While the Oklahoma and national rates both dropped, Oklahoma’s did not keep pace. In 2010, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate was 478 per 100,000, while the national average was down to 404.5.

Here is a useful visual comparing Oklahoma’s violent crime rates to the national average since 2002.

The sections of the country that are the most violent might be surprising. Wikipedia has a nice graphic showing the most violent states as of 2004.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_Violent_Crime_2004.svg

As you can see, southern states tend to be more violent than northern states. Pinker’s explanation for this is that the people who tended to immigrate to the southern US were herders and just happened to live in a more anarchic situation than the agrarian settlers of the northern half of the nation. Add onto this America’s frontier history in which the cliche of the lawless cow town and dangerous gold rush community depicted in popular culture isn’t too far off the mark. After all, Deadwood is based on a true story.

Pinker sums up the impact of this cultural remnant in an editorial he wrote for the New York Times called “Why Are States So Red and Blue?”:

But then why, once stable government did arrive, did it not lay claim to the monopoly on violence that is the very definition of government? The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.

Oklahoma was one of the last states fully tamed by government, with only Alaska coming relatively later. Another book I’ve been reading through, “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” is a progressive history of Oklahoma. It openly discusses how weak the territorial government was in the decades prior to statehood, and how there was a time in Oklahoma’s pre-state history where a majority of the population was illegal settlers. These settlers would have not had the same level of recourse to government intervention in disputes as nearly everyone else in the country.

One thing that hasn’t dropped as much in Oklahoma over the last few years is the murder rate. The number dropped from a high of 400 in 1995 (the Murrah Building bombing accounts for 168 of that number), down to around 200 a year in 2000, and has hovered around that amount ever since. The murder rate in Oklahoma in 2010 was 5 per 100,000.

There is a very useful chart in the Performance Statistics section of ok.gov that shows that Oklahoma’s murder rate has either met or been above the national rate every year for the last decade.

Comparing Oklahoma’s violent crime rate to some other states might also prove interesting. Remember, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate per 100,000 in 2010 was, by my count, 478. New York’s was 391.3. California’s was 413.3. Even Texas beats us just barely at 450.6. Oklahoma doesn’t compare that well to any of the places we begrudgingly glance toward when trying to decide whether we’ve arrived.

According to the arguments laid out by Steven Pinker, if Oklahoma lawmakers and leaders want to make this as safe a place to live as say, New York, they have to embrace role of government as the only legitimate use of force in settling disputes, encourage urbanization, and accept that government has a legitimate role to play in spreading the Enlightenment ideals through education and rational inquiry. Unfortunately, we have a political climate right now where counter-Enlightenment groups like OCPAC and the Oklahoma Tea Party have a disproportionate role to play in the state’s public discourse.

Edit: There has been some hubbub online today about the fact that the murder incidents in Oklahoma City in 2012 were some of the highest on record. One year does not make a trend. Time will tell if this is an outlier or something to worry about. It is also important to point out that the population of Oklahoma City has grown drastically in the last few years. It would be surprising if the murder numbers didn’t go up. I’ll try to gather the info for a story looking at murder rates in OKC soon.