Tangents

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I learned a whole lot about the TV that my parents grew up on in a class I took this past semester, America in the 1970s. Even though we never mad e it to the 80s and the greatest series ever aired (“Cheers”), learning about the decade of “All in the Family” and “Happy Days” finally introduced me to shows that I’d heard of but never seen or taken much interest in. Besides Hawaii Five-O, of course, but only because my dad insisted that I experience some of the original in order to better understand the remake. Our class also briefly discussed news coverage during the decade. I read a bit about ABC’s coverage of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and then decided to check out a Wikipedia article on the subject. As is usually the case, that sent me off on an hour-long curiosity tangent. Wikipedia may not be the greatest source to cite on OU papers, but it sure is informative (and uniquely capable of sucking the reader into a never-ending adventure of clicking through links).

As I learned that day, the 1972 Summer Olympics played host to a tragic terrorist attack that successfully targeted the Israeli Olympic team and resulted in the deaths of 11 members of the squad. I had heard of the Munich Massacre before, but was shocked to read about how poorly the entire affair was managed. Germany received multiple credible warnings of a threat prior to the Olympics, even some that specified that an attack would be carried out by Palestinian terrorists, and yet the government took no precautions against it and then mounted a failed rescue attempt that got every hostage killed. Far too little, far too late. According to the reading, ABC’s coverage of the events helped the network gain significant credibility, which nowadays seems like a no-brainer – reporting on tragedies is easy and sure to generate views and ratings. Shameless plug – Bastille’s most recent album discusses our fascination with violence and tragedy on the 24 hour news cycle; both the music and message are top notch.

I also stumbled across the documentation of Mossad’s response to the Black September attack (Black September was the organization that carried out the attack). Those guys and gals do not mess around. Operation “Wrath of God” wasn’t just a revenge plot; it was a calculated, decades-long campaign to rack up a serious body count in a very public, yet deniable fashion. A few hours prior to each assassination, Mossad would deliver flowers and a note to the family of the target. “A reminder we do not forget or forgive.” Yikes.

And the Mountains Echoed

This semester I had the pleasure of leading an Honor’s College Reading Group with my friend Tram. It was my second reading group, and my first as a moderator, and it was amazing. Tram suggested that we read And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, who is also responsible for the acclaimed novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I read and loved both of the aforementioned novels in high school, but I hadn’t had a chance to check out Hosseini’s third release, so I happily agreed to her selection. As it turned out, this was the perfect book club book (I’ll explain why) and we were joined by an incredible group of students as we delved into Hosseini’s masterpiece. For whatever reason, exclusively freshmen signed up for our group, but we took the opportunity to welcome the new Sooners with open arms and baked goods. Initially, Tram and I only planned to bring a treat on the first day that we met as a group, but they were so complementary that we ended up bringing food to every meeting. It was an expensive semester, but a good one for sure.

And the Mountains Echoed is a tale of love, loss, and redemption that spans generations and continents. The book consists of nine chapters, each of which is narrated by a different character from the story. The main characters, siblings Pari and Abdullah, are born in a remote village in Afghanistan and separated at a young age, perhaps out of necessity, but tragic nonetheless. This event serves as the impetus that keeps the tale moving, and is the glue that binds all of it together, even the seemingly random, tenuously related chapters. I was especially struck by the fact that the reader gets to live out the entire lives of many of the characters, from adolescence to death. That the journey of life could be so succinctly summarized in the 30 to 50 pages is, in my mind, a sobering reality. However, Hosseini manages to make every page leap with vivid color and beautiful prose, not to mention the captivating story that proved the greatest challenge for many members of our reading group – finding the strength to put the book down. I don’t want to give too much away, but And the Mountains Echoed is a must read for all and a perfect choice for any book club, because it is rife with motif and so very open to interpretation. The characters are compelling and at times, beyond frustrating. The settings are so well imagined and spotted across the globe, in such a way that you travel the world from the comfort of your seat. I don’t want to give too much away, but I thoroughly enjoyed this read and the companionship of our book club, and I would encourage everyone to partake in both.

Challenges Facing China’s New Leadership

As part of a series of IAS lectures on China this past semester, OU managed to bring Dr. Yukon Hwang to campus to explain the many challenges facing China’s new leadership. Dr. Hwang is China’s former representative to the World Bank and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He gave a riveting talk that revealed many of my misconceptions about China, particularly when it comes to the country’s seemingly robust economy. In reality, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader who is now regarded in kind with Mao Zedong, has a tough road ahead. He wants to modernize China and solidify its place at the forefront of the global powers, but this is much easier said than done.

China was once one of the world’s most egalitarian countries, but this is no longer the case. Instead, the country’s export trade has created vast inequalities that necessitate long term strategy and a shift towards an economy driven by consumption and services. They also struggle with a worsening debt crisis, growth slowdown, and rampant corruption. Nonetheless, most Americans and Europeans believe that China is the world’s leading economic power, when in fact the US still holds that title. Unfortunately, it is this false perception that drives much of America’s foreign policy with China, because we live in a country of majority rule. As it turns out, and this rocked my world, China is not responsible for our trade deficit and there is no correlation between US and Chinese trade balances. What’s more, the trade deficits of the two countries actually move in the same directions! We resent China and believe that we invest too much money in the People’s Republic, when in reality only 1.5% of our foreign direct investment goes to China. And this makes total sense, because our top exports to China (agriculture, planes, waste, semiconductors, and cars) do not need to be produced in China. Unfortunately for China, the aforementioned misconceptions have left many Americans with an unfounded negative opinion of China. I do not know how he will accomplish it, but I’m sure that Xi Jinping plans to tackle this sour tastes, and to right China’s economy in the process.

A Genuine Conservative Tradition

I do my best to avoid living in an echo chamber. Naturally, I often find myself surrounded by like-minded people, but I believe that it is of critical importance that we intentionally expose ourselves to contradicting points of view. Accordingly, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Professor Rick Tepker, the Floyd & Irma Calvert Chair in Law and Liberty Professor of Law talk about the meaning and death of the genuine conservative tradition. Professor Tepker is the first OU law faculty to argue and win a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, an accomplishment that is inspiring to say the least. He gave a succinct history of what he considers to be the genuine conservative tradition, and discussed how the aforementioned school of thought has been more or less abandoned by many politicians who call themselves conservative.

Tepker summarizes conservatism as respect for the little guy, restraint, and a source of moderation and civic virtue. These buzzwords aren’t all that partisan upon initial inspection, but they have morphed into something entirely different nowadays. Conservatives are less likely now to be characterized by careful, conservative action, and more likely to be associated with anger, a skepticism of demonstrations, and quick execution of decisions. For example, President Trump called his initial executive order on immigration a “military operation,” which implies that we are directing a military operation against visitors to our country and citizens alike. Rather than cherishing public education as a Jeffersonian way to transfer knowledge, Professor Tepker contends that our conservative representatives are more likely to be skeptical of science and conventional wisdom, all the while cutting funding for education and implementing programs like school choice vouchers. Conservatism is no longer an adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried, as Abraham Lincoln once put it. But it is not too late to remind our conservative representatives that they aren’t living up to the adjective and school of thought with which they identify. And if that fails, the beauty of our political system is that anyone can give it the good college try.

An Independent Judiciary

During the series of lectures on democracy at the University of Oklahoma earlier this semester, I listened to Dr. Justin Wert, an Associate Professor of Political Science at OU, discuss the threats to judicial independence in the United States. I have always been fascinated by the American political system, in particular our ingenious system of checks and balances that has thus far reigned in any one branch of the federal government from amassing too much power. The independent judiciary is an integral component of our democratic system, but it has recently come under fire from the administration of Donald Trump.

Federal judgeships function very differently from many other roles in the government. For starters, federal judges are appointed, not elected. In addition, they are often appointed for life, a tenure that was designed to insulate the judiciary from the whims of the day, the influence of other branches, and the popular opinion that would be needed to be catered to if judges had to worry about being reelected. The process of lifetime appointments is hotly contested and not without its faults, but changing this key component of the Judicial Branch would likely require a Constitutional amendment, which is no small task. And as long as the head of the executive branch is calling the character of judges into question and casting doubt upon their decisions, it only makes sense to maintain as independent a judiciary as possible.

President Trump attacked Gonzalo Curiel, a judge in the District Court for the Southern District of California, because Judge Curiel presided over the suit against Trump University. President Trump falsely called the judge Mexican, when he was in fact born in Indiana, and then went on to say that “It is a disgrace. It is a rigged system … This court system, the judges in this court system, federal court. They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace.” Luckily, Donald Trump had not yet been sworn in at the time and as such could take little recourse outside of hurling baseless insults, but the President has already faced challenges in the court since taking office and will undoubtedly continue to do so. For example, his “immigration ban” has been stayed by multiple courts across the country, prompting less than pleasant responses from the Commander in Chief. Fortunately, the courts are designed to lag behind new administrations, so as long as President Trump allows the established system of checks and balances to remain in operation and does not attack the credibility of the judicial branch, our country should be insulated from any brash decisions that go before the courts.

Into the Mainstream

I had the pleasure of attending Rienhard Heinisch’s enlightening lecture about the meteoric rise of various manifestations of populism in Europe. Dr. Heinisch is the head of the political science department at the University of Salzburg and is an esteemed scholar on the broad topic of populism. Populism, loosely defined, can be “a political style, a mobilization strategy, or a thin ideology or frame.” This definition is admittedly a bit of a catch-all, but there is both a responsible party and a decent reason why. The media perpetuated the use of this term, as it allowed for generalized reporting on the rise of this movement, which took root in France in the early 2000s and rapidly spread outwards to the rest of Europe. However, the so called populist candidates across Europe took starkly different approaches to winning over their constituents. As such, there is no such thing as a “European populist party.” Rather, populist candidates brand themselves as unique to their country and take on the established parties, such as the Greens and the Liberals, who they believe have failed in one way or another at serving their citizens. By building grassroots movements, occasionally with outside help, populist candidates have attracted extreme followings and shaken up the political realm through sheer force of will. Such candidates have come very close to winning major elections in Europe, which is all the more amazing when we look at their growth over the past fifteen years.

Populists, or political figures that as a general rule are fond of questioning the principles of liberal democracies and conduct themselves in a rather unorthodox manner (breaking taboos, discriminating against the political minority, or exhibiting nativist or nationalist tendencies, for example), were concentrated in a small amount of European countries in the early 2000s. Since then, the ideology has spread like wildfire to the far reaches of the continent and has taken on very different looks and found varying levels of success and resistance. Despite all of these inconsistencies, Dr. Heinisch attributes the success of the populist movement to widespread doubts about the legitimacy of the political system and, in some voting blocs, a fear of losing control, economic status, or national identity. Populist candidates excel when they can adapt to the ever-changing whims of voters, but as a result there is no solid populist agenda among the more successful variants. I suspect, however, that there are some entities that have firm agendas very high hopes for this movement. Russia, as an example, has been supporting populist parties like UKIP and the Front National monetarily and in the media. Oddly enough, this goes relatively unnoticed in Europe, whereas alleged Russian meddling in the US has come under very close scrutiny. Whether or not Europe’s fledgling ideologies survive the test of time, the gains that populist parties have made in the past decade cannot be overlooked.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

This past semester I joined an Honors College Reading Group led by Jesse Coker, Landon Wright, and Dean Ray. Over a ten week period, we worked our way through Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a formidable 700 page treatise on global wealth inequality by Thomas Piketty. The title pays tribute to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital; accordingly, Piketty draws from Marx’s vein of thought but brings a modern approach to the controversial subject. Like Marx, the French intellectual warns against the dangers of wealth accumulation among a minority, but he does so in such a way that even readers with little to no economics experience can comprehend his arguments, despite the massive data sets utilized and cited. For the many members of our sizeable book club who did not have a background in the subject material, this proved quite beneficial.

Our eclectic collection of mostly undergrad students, dotted with a few graduate students and faculty, attempted to discuss a chapter or two each week, but often ended up on spiraling tangents resulting from the wide breadth of interests present in the room. And in some of the denser portions of the book, going off topic allowed us to skirt the drier statistics in favor of discussions that tied into current events, such as the election or the healthcare debate. After all, Piketty’s central argument is simple enough to be applied to many aspects of our day to day lives. If the average rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, Piketty contends that the divide between the rich, or those who control capital, and poor, those who have only their labor, will grow. We had plenty of time to discuss the nuances of this seemingly straightforward relationship, and quickly realized that the reality is far more complicated than a simple equation.

The topic of wealth inequality is both hotly debated and carefully skirted, but it is an important conversation that should be part of the national narrative. According to the author, there is no natural check on the growth of inequality. This gap is objectively problematic – as the world’s resources are concentrated in ever-increasing quantities in the hands of an elite few, so too is the power. However, there have been events in the past century that checked the growth of inequality for a period of time: namely, the World Wars. But I believe that we can address this issue without devolving into war, if leaders are willing to address the subject head on and make it a priority. And that starts with us.

A Response to the 2016 Oklahoma State Questions

The 2016 general election is just around the corner, in five days to be exact. Who would have thought the presidential election would come down to Hilary Clinton vs Donald Trump? It’s something out of an SNL skit, for sure.

But what is often overlooked in these elections are the smaller ballot decisions which have effects on one’s local life. The presidential election outcome is actually less likely to have an effect on the average person than local elections, obviously. In this upcoming election, there are state questions on the ballot which have the ability to drastically change Oklahoman life.

Allow me to elaborate on my views of them. The quick descriptions of these ballots were brought to you by ballotpedia.org and okpolicy.org.

State Question 776 was designed to assert that all methods of execution would be constitutionally allowed unless prohibited by the United States Constitution and designated statutorily by the legislature.  It gives the Legislature the power to designate any method of execution, prohibits the reduction of death sentence due to an invalid method of execution, and prohibits the death penalty from being ruled “cruel and unusual punishment” or unconstitutional according to the Oklahoma Constitution

My vote? No

The question would essentially make it so that Oklahoma cannot deem the death penalty unconstitutional. It would place the death penalty above the law, bypassing the system of checks and balances that keeps justice.

Furthermore, 776  is likely to be opposed by higher courts as soon as it is passed. Why waste the time and resources?

State Question 777 was designed to establish a constitutional right for farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices. The amendment bans any new law regulating or prohibiting an agricultural practice unless it can be shown to have a “compelling state interest.” That means any new agricultural regulations would have to pass strict scrutiny, the legal standard used for laws that deprive people of fundamental rights like free speech, gun ownership, or religious freedom.

NO. NO NO NO. 

A huge, loud, resounding, echoing NO.

This bill would make it so that “farming” is a constitutional right; any new laws and farming can easily be dismissed as an infringement on “constitutional rights.” If technology currently used by farmers is later found to be environmentally harmful, or inhumane, new regulations would be extremely likely to be turned down on this defense.

State Question 777 would allow an unchecked farming industry to develop in Oklahoma under the guise of giving citizens the “right to farm.” Big farming industries would be drawn to Oklahoma because they could claim protection under this amendment.

Think about this: ANY NEW LAW proposed to regulate farming practices would be held under the same level of scrutiny as new gun laws! I’m sorry, but the freedom to farm is not equal to the rights to freedom of speech, religion, and the right to bare arms. It shouldn’t receive the same protections as these fundamental rights. Farming ought to be regulated by ever changing environmental regulations, and Oklahoma shouldn’t become a safe haven for big corporations to farm without fear of checks on their farming practices.

State Question 779 was designed to increase the state sales tax by 1 percent to generate revenue for education funding. Of the total revenue generated by the new tax, 60 percent would go to providing a salary increase of at least $5,000 for every public school teacher. The remaining funds would be divided between public schools (9.5 percent), higher education (19.25 percent), career and technology education (3.25 percent), and early childhood education (8 percent). The State Board of Equalization would be required to certify that revenues from the new tax are not being used to supplant existing funds.

Yes. While it feels odd to be to vote to increase taxes, I’m confident this measure would be successful in improving education in the state of Oklahoma. It’s estimated that, if passed,  State Question 779 would add $615 million per year in education funding.

According to Oklahoma Watch. Org , in the 2012-2013 school year, the amount spent on individual students, at $7,912 ranked 49th in the nation along side teacher pay, which shared the same ranking. Oklahoma is struggling to keep and recruit teachers, even the ones who are educated at the University of Oklahoma.

While some claim that a penny tax would harm the poor, one also has to understand that teachers in Oklahoma ARE the poor. The students who are receiving one of the worst educations in the United States, they BECOME the poor. Oklahoma desperately needs this tax if it wishes to reverse the state of it’s education.

State Question 780 and 781: 780 was designed to reclassify certain property offenses and simple drug possession as misdemeanor crimes, and 781 was designed to use money saved by reclassifying certain property and drug crimes as misdemeanors, as outlined in State Question 780, to fund rehabilitative programs.

This is a simple yes for me, to both measures.

I don’t believe the state should be spending ludicrous amounts of money to imprison people for small offenses. The money saved by altering the charge severity would be used for rehabilitation programs, in turn reducing the amount of crime and drug abuse in Oklahoma, and in turn saving even more money.

Take these facts from the Vera Institute of Justice:

IN FISCAL YEAR 2010, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) had $441.8 million in prison expenditures. However, the state also had $11.6 million in prison-related costs outside the department’s budget. The total cost of Oklahoma’s prisons—to incarcerate an average daily population of 24,549—was therefore $453.4 million, of which 2.6 percent were costs outside the corrections budget.

Though some would like to say this measure would “legalize marijuana” and “make criminals commit more crimes,” it is simply not true. The measure would aim to rehabilitate and help those caught with small amounts of drugs, rather than sending them to prison, an expensive process which also has been proven to lead to harder drug exposure and abuse. It’s time for Oklahoma to fix it’s overgrown prison problem.

State Question 790 was designed to repeal Section 5 of Article 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits public money from being spent for religious purposes.

Coming from a Christian, I have to say, no. This is for a couple of reasons.

Being that religious institutions are already tax exempt, it doesn’t make sense for them to receive tax-generated money.

The state should not endorse or fund any one religion, nor should it endorse and fund any processes related to all of them.

Scholarships given to students who then decide to attend a private religious school have already been held constitutional.

Even if the bill is passed, the ten commandments will still most likely be removed from the state capitol grounds.

State Question 792 was designed to allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer and wine. Currently these stores are prohibited from selling beer containing above 3.2 percent alcohol by volume, as well as all wine and all liquor. SQ 792 would also allow Oklahoma liquor stores to sell refrigerated beer and alcohol accessories (i.e., sodas, corkscrews). The measure would allow multiple beer and wine stores to be owned by one corporation (ownership would be limited to two stores per person if spirits are sold). Currently individual liquor store owners are not allowed to have more than one store. If SQ 792 passes, these changes would take effect on October 1, 2018

There is ALSO a companion bill which will go into effect if this bill passes, SB 383. It allows direct shipment of wine into Oklahoma, increases the clerk age for selling beer from 16 to 18, and establishes other regulations on the sale of alcohol.

Yes. 

Oklahoma currently has the strictest laws regulating alcohol. It is time for Oklahoma to drop the outdated laws.

Being that this practice is legal in almost every other state, the proposed negative effects on liquor stores are unlikely to be realized. Passage of this bill would make the purchase of alcohol more convenient for consumers and it would open the industry in Oklahoma. Liquor stores would be allowed to sell corkscrews and mixers, increasing the likelihood that customers will use these stores as a “one-stop” place for their alcohol needs.

The bill would also allow liquor stores to sell refrigerated beer, allowing crafted and specialty beer to be sold in these stores. It would open the door for Oklahoma beer makers, at a time when beer crafting is an up and rising hobby. Some crafted beers cannot be stored without refrigeration.

The only negative part of this bill is that it could possibly allow larger corporations to open chains of beer and wine stores in Oklahoma.

The measure would allow multiple beer and wine stores to be owned by one corporation (ownership would be limited to two stores per person if spirits are sold). Currently individual liquor store owners are not allowed to have more than one store.

While these stores wouldn’t be able to sell liquor, it is still something to consider. However, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

 

This coming Tuesday is going to change a lot for both America as well as the state of Oklahoma. If you’re over 18 years old, please vote. Don’t brag about not being registered to vote. Don’t let the mudslinging convince you that political action is arbitrary. Don’t allow yourself to concede to political apathy. If you’re not voting, you DO NOT lose responsibility for things that may go wrong, because you have the opportunity to make a difference.

Not acting on your right to vote is a vote for whatever side you oppose.