What Oklahoma/America Needs

By Nathaniel Batchelder, 2/15/06
Address to OK Conference of Churches’ 2006 “Day at the Legislature”

Thank you for this opportunity. I’ll touch briefly on the purpose of government, a few issues in our world, share some inspirational stories and close with a reminder to be people of God from a surprising source.

I trust we all have a shared commitment that government policy should serve the common good and general welfare of all citizens – now and for future generations – even for the world community of nations.

Government is necessary for the protections of individual rights, human & civil rights, labor rights, workplace safety, pure food, pharmaceuticals, quality of roads & bridges, environmental impact, etc., etc.

Naturally, we always appeal to the conscience and higher values of individuals and corporations to do the right thing to make things better. But regulations set the standard. Without traffic regulations the streets would be undriveable.

So, what’s going on that needs some regulation?

I am concerned about trends over the past 30 years whose impact is alarming. I see the wealthy getting more wealthy, poverty expanding, environmental regulations compromised, and the power of government to intrude into citizens’ private affairs growing.

I do not lay these trends at either political party. Actually, the differences between our political parties seems to diminish with time. Rather, I’m concerned about the growing power of money in politics because money pollutes fairness in government, and makes every other consideration less important.

In the US, policies on taxes, trade, finances, and banking, have contributed to enormous growth and concentration of wealth at the top of our economic ladder: In 1983, Forbes magazine reported that there were some 17 billionaires in the world. Today, according to Forbes, there are more than 300 billionaires in the US alone.

Unfortunately, poverty has also expanded in America — many families with 2 or 3 jobs cannot support a household, and luxuries like health insurance, or saving for college and retirement are impossible. Everyone doing missions to the poor reports that their client numbers are growing.

The stock market went up, but the fortunes of America’s working and poor families have gone down.

Tax cuts for the wealthy also shift the tax burden down the economic ladder onto the backs of those with less…. and necessitate cuts to the programs offering ladders of opportunity or a safety net to those at the bottom – public education, college loans, assistance in medical care, housing, access to food — with the resultant expansion of the numbers in poverty.

The so-called global free trade treaties have backfired with regard to the interests of working and poor families. — NAFTA, the GATT, the World Trade Organization, and CAFTA – were all written by the corporations and bankers whom they would benefit most. They made it easier for US corporations to relocate to El Salvador or China, but did nothing for workers left behind, and nothing about worker safety, labor rights, or environmental regulations in the nations where a business might move.

On the environment, let’s agree that it is up to us to pass on a world as clean and healthy as the one we inherited. Few believe we are doing that. Why not? Those with a financial interest in lax regulations successfully influence policy-makers with targeted donations. In his book, “Crimes Against Nature,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. reports on some 400 environmental regulations compromised or reversed just since the year 2000.

And the beat goes on.

Is our government becoming a government “of, for, and by the rich?” What do we do?

Some call us a Christian nation. But if we believe in the teachings of Jesus, who spoke incessantly about the dangers to the spirit of great wealth and our duty to remember the plight of the poor, then what do we do? If the book of Matthew is really to be heeded, which admonishes that “the nations” will be judged by how they treat “the least among us”, what do we do? What does Oklahoma – and the nation – really need, in terms of policy for the common good and general welfare?

Of course we need quality public schools, accessible to all, with well-paid teachers.

We need wise policies in criminal justice, to bring down our huge prison populations. Oklahoma is 3rd in the nation, per capita, in incarcerating men, and first in the nation, per capita, in incarcerating women. This is unjust and wasteful of lives and money. It costs $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison; it would be cheaper to send them to Harvard. We must give back to judges the power to do alternative sentencing; we need special courts for handling drug and alcohol cases, so people can get into treatment, live with their families, support their own children.

We need wise transportation and energy policies, especially with fuel prices on the rise and no ceiling in sight. We must protect our railroads which ship freight at only 5% the energy cost of heavy 18-wheeler trucks, which, in addition to being fuel gluttons, do the most damage to our bridges and highways. Think about this: If Oklahoma City’s General Motors plant had been producing fuel-efficient hybrids instead of SUVs, they would be opening up another shift now, instead of closing the plant entirely. Federal incentives to build and buy fuel-efficient cars could have saved our GM plant.

We need care facilities for the mentally ill who are poor and unable to earn a living. Hats off to Sheriff John Whetsel, who is developing an alternative housing plan for the mentally ill who take up some 400 beds in the Oklahoma County Jail. This could be a model for all our 77 counties.

We need programs to assist families with the rising costs of fuel and energy for utilities. Current leadership in the Oklahoma Conference of Churches has done exactly that, building a fund of some $4 million from private sources, helping thousands of families with utility bills which have almost doubled in the past year.

We need full funding of the Head Start program and other programs offering the pre-school experience they need to start school ready to learn. Such programs not only help the kids and their families, they save money. Studies in this country and around the world demonstrate that for every dollar invested in pre-school programs, society will save between $4 and $7 while the child is in school, because they will not repeat grades, they will more likely graduate from high school, they will become job-holders instead of societal dependents.

We need sensible policy on animal wastes polluting ground water and surface water in our state. It is unconscionable that corporate hog and chicken operations — called CAFOs — should operate without responsible waste handling.

We need sensible environmental policies and special attention to blights like the notorious Tar Creek Super-Fund site in eastern Oklahoma, where thousands live in close proximity to toxic mine tailings — a situation languishing for lack of direction and attention. The Oklahoma Conference of Churches has this under discussion as well, and may harness the influence of Oklahoma’s Christian denominations to focus state and federal resources to address Tar Creek. Stay tuned on this one.

We need to defeat TABOR – the so-called “taxpayer bill of rights” – which is transparently a bill to further reduce the resources government needs to do the things we believe in.

We need a “Living Wage” in Oklahoma, so that working individuals can earn a salary making it possible for them to escape poverty.

Nationally, we need a guarantee of health insurance including preventive care and not just intervention when illness becomes catastrophic. Canadians have a single-payer health-care system which most Canadians think is terrific. The cost of health care in Canada is far less per person than the cost-per-person in the US, where conflicting demands of a thousand insurance plans gobble up 30-cents of every dollar spent for medical care. And, in our system, millions receive virtually no care at all.

We need a rational national defense policy and budget acknowledging that the greatest danger in the world today is not attack from another nation, but attack from desperate organizations or movements –- typically called terrorist — whose members may come from many nations, but who align with organizations like Al Quaeda. Against this threat, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons — even war against nations — are useless, wasteful of our resources, and even counter-productive. Some call these relics of the past “necessary evils” but like most necessary evils, I believe they are more evil than necessary.

We need a creative Foreign Assistance policy to demonstrate America’s commitment to help eliminate the worst aspects of poverty and disease around the world. Technical interventions to prevent disease, save lives, and contribute to economic possibility in poor families are astonishingly cheap and cost-effective. Our Foreign Aid Budget is currently less than 1% of our national budget. Perhaps you have heard of the “ONE Campaign” — to increase US Foreign Assistance up to 1% of our national budget. Think of the impact this would have: Imagine Al Quaeda trying to recruit terrorists in a population whose children were saved by US medical assistance.

Are these not ideas and possibilities that inspire passion for action?

And the record is clear: individuals taking personal action based on their real values always make a difference.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat sparked the Montgomery bus boycott that launched the Civil Rights Movement.

Nelson Mandela, in prison for 27 years for refusing to comply with South Africa’s apartheid laws, became President of that nation, and a world leader.

Who knew that a handful of committed Oklahomans in the 1970s could take action resulting in Oklahoma’s utility rate-payers saving more than $2-billion dollars since then? It was the Sunbelt Alliance that helped to stop construction of the Black Fox Nuclear Power plant until the disaster at Three Mile Island put a stop to nuclear power plants until their safety could be insured. The billions saved by Oklahomans is a largely untold story.

Another handful of Oklahomans, opposed to the death penalty, have successfully ended executions of severely mentally retarded individuals, and individuals whose crime was committed while they were juveniles. The death penalty has no effect in preventing violent crimes; it costs far more than life without parole; no European nation practices the death penalty; it’s time to do away with it.

The efforts of another handful of Oklahomans, many here today, resulted in Oklahoma committing $10 million for drug and alcohol alternative sentencing treatment programs, lifting Oklahoma to first place in the nation in this commitment, per capita.

To me it seems crucial that we heal the terrible break that exists today between American citizens and our government. Most people know the values and policies they support, but too many of us don’t know who to call. Few Americans know who their US Representative and US Senators are … much less who their state Senator and Representative are. By contrast, a person once told me, “A year ago, I didn’t know my US Representative’s name. Now my US Representative knows MY name.” That’s a person transformed into an effective citizen.

We need places and opportunities where citizens can learn about our system; comfortably admit what they do not know; and safely ask questions how to make government work. No wonder a majority do not vote. They hate admitting their ignorance, so they leave it all to others.

Nobody can do this work alone. We all need the support and solidarity of collective actions through a group with experienced organizers. American government is not an ‘us-&-them’ game. WE ARE the government, and together, we can effect change and policies in ways that will surprise even ourselves.

To hold the door open for the possibility of unity among people of different political perspectives, we must all learn that it is politically savvy — and spiritually mature — to respect every person in government, in the hope that they will help us on our issue.

Did you know that Senator Jim Inhofe and Representative Frank Lucas are both committed to Microcredit Lending for Self-Employment, and support it every year? Citizens taught them about Microcredit, and faithfully ask for their support.

I visited Daily Oklahoman editor Patrick McGuigan the first time in 1992, resulting in his writing an editorial supporting foreign aid for Child Survival Programs. Over the years, Pat wrote 20 more editorials supporting poverty-reduction policies supported by RESULTS — not all the policies we supported — but some of them. We honored Pat for his efforts at a RESULTS dinner where many guests were shocked to see him in attendance. He and I disagree on most issues, but Pat is still a friend whom I greet at our exercise club. The new editor, Ed Kelley has written two editorials about global disease issues, and just last week, I had a piece published on the editorial page expressing my opposition to the Iraq War.

We must remain open and ready for such surprises, to be an instrument in bringing them about. Or else we just retreat into the safety of cynicism to justify our resignation and to make doing nothing seem rational.

I think what we all need is a little of that very hopeful Revolutionary Spirit that formed this nation — nonviolent revolution, I mean — grounded in citizen education and improved voting habits … everybody getting involved. That would wake ‘em up over at the Capitol.

Oklahoma may be the perfect place to start. We have 3 million citizens. That seems to be a magic number for revolutionary change.

The American Colonies had about 3 million people at the time of the American Revolution.

Alabama had about 3 million people at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott launching the civil rights movement.

Nicaragua had 3 million citizens at the time of their 1979, almost bloodless revolution ousting the Somoza family’s dictatorship and beginning their experiment in public education, public health, and safe water for all.

As a Vietnam Veteran, I have found a job and life at the Peace House where issues of justice and compassion consume all my working hours. I find it exhilarating — every day — and it brings me in touch with others who inspire me with their dedication to similar values. Look around this room at the people just like yourselves making a difference through individual actions. Maybe this excitement can spread like a virus throughout all our Oklahoma neighbors, and ultimately the whole nation.

And, through it all, we must listen for the call of God to be people of God, actively involved in the betterment of this world, wherever that call may come from. The international rock star Bono of the music group U2 was a speaker at the recent annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC., attended by President Bush and many Congressional leaders. This is an excerpt. Bono said:

“God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poorest make their home. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us, when we are with them. ‘If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday, and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places.’ ”

So, I say, in the name of God, let’s start that revolution!

The full text of Bono’s comments are on the website of Sojourners Magazine, www.sojo.net.