Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Reading

Stuck In the 80’s — David Sirota on the decade that won’t go away.

Charlie Sheen is hogging the spotlight. “Tron” and “Wall Street” have just left theaters. Moammar Gaddafi is the planet’s top bad guy. Millionaires are enjoying budget-busting tax cuts. Conservatives are saber-rattling against Iran. Bon Jovi is on tour. And Ronald Reagan tributes are everywhere.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think we’d all just stepped out of a 1.21 gigawatt-powered DeLorean and right back into the 1980s.

And in some ways, we have. This collective deja vu moment is part coincidence, part commodified nostalgia and part impulse to rehash successful old political and entertainment brands. But the similarities between today and the 1980s also reflect a country now run by those who came of age in that decade – people whose worldviews were molded by an era that began with a Chrysler bailout and ended with foreign students protesting dictatorship in a distant square.

This lasting influence goes far beyond the impact of the Reagan Revolution; the cultural vernacular of the ’80s has proved as enduring as the Gipper’s most famous speeches.

No matter where we look for the roots of today’s political debates, we find the tropes of ’80s popular culture.

The origins of Barack Obama’s supposed post-racial qualities? Some look to Bill Cosby and the “Huxtable Effect,” which taught white America to embrace African Americans – so long as they “transcend” their race.

Official deference to the nation’s generals and ever expanding war spending? Our politicians are trying to “let us win this time,” as Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo demanded in “First Blood.”

The precursor of today’s socially acceptable – and congressionally sanctioned – Islamophobia and prejudice against those of Middle Eastern descent? Try Marty McFly fleeing suburb-stalking Libyan terrorists in “Back to the Future,” or professional wrestler Sgt. Slaughter body-slamming the headdress-wearing Iron Sheik and promising to “clean up America of all this trash.”

No meaningful crackdown on financial-industry abuse? Apparently, the bonfire of the vanities still burns, and Wall Street’s masters of the universe remain largely immune from punishment.

The popular notion that government is either so inept or so corrupt that individuals or nonprofits must take matters into their own hands? It’s inspired not just by Reagan’s sarcastic quip about nine “terrifying” words – “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” – but also by classic ’80s television shows such as “The A-Team,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Knight Rider.” The theme of that genre was self-sufficiency or even vigilante justice in the face of governmental uselessness or venality.

And what of the rare government success story? Turn to “Top Gun,” “Die Hard,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Lethal Weapon” and every other 1980s production that mass-marketed Ollie North-style bravado and affirmed the idea that government succeeds only when self-styled mavericks inside the system break the rules.

Yes, the 1980s are our very own Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game: Everything defining today’s politics seems connected to that decade. And even though many of these political narratives were around before the Reagan era – after all, the Marlboro Men of cowboy pulp were going rogue long before Axel Foley (not to mention Sarah Palin) – they were vastly amplified by the new technologies, corporate reorganizations and federal policy changes of the time.

More below the fold.

Pay Teachers More — Nicholas Kristof says the way to improve education and the economy is to get the best people teaching the next generation.

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

We all understand intuitively the difference a great teacher makes. I think of Juanita Trantina, who left my fifth-grade class intoxicated with excitement for learning and fascinated by the current events she spoke about. You probably have a Miss Trantina in your own past.

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

Blink — Myriam Marquez in the Miami Herald tells the Florida governor to open his eyes.

It’s now official. Our non-blinking governor is encouraging legislators to join him in this wide-eyed adventure to make government run like a business.

If this catches on, expect a spike in sales of Restasis, the tear-creating medication. Because no one in Tallahassee seems to be shedding a tear for the abused child, the sick senior or the poor unemployed stiff who would lose benefits as part of the governor’s “jobs creation” cut taxes program.

“A vast majority of legislators were elected, as I was, on our promise of smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, support for job creation, individual opportunity, individual accountability and more freedom,’’ Gov. Rick Scott said during his State of the State address last week.

“Don’t blink. Don’t let special interests persuade you to turn your back on the people who elected you.… Working together we can do incredible things, if we stand together.”

And here I am among a growing group of restless, independent-minded voters waiting for the governor to blink, remove the ideological blinders and get to work for Florida.

To his credit, Scott delivered for the Port of Miami. He promised $77 million to dredge the port for the big ships that are coming by 2014. Thousands of good-paying jobs are ahead.

But for all his wide-eyed, non-blinking vision, Scott sees no place for high-speed rail to move tourists and residents to and from Tampa, Orlando and Miami and some day link to a national network similar to those in Europe and Japan. Scott turned down — again — $2.4 billion in federal money for a mega-jobs-creating bullet train.

The 30,000 jobs tied to the train project would only be the beginning, as developers would eagerly eye station stops. Imagine a biotech corridor of companies linked to stations in Orlando, Tampa and Miami. Now that would move us into the 21st century at warp speed.

Ah, well, Scott’s not blinking. He stresses that cutting taxes prompts business to invest and grow, creating more jobs. Presto! Great Recession solved.

In theory I agree. You certainly do not raise taxes in a recession, and you try to cut wherever possible. Except that Florida is a low-tax state, with no income tax for residents and a low tax rate for businesses, plus lots of loopholes.

Florida could capture millions of dollars owed the state by simply hiring more auditors and collectors to go after tax money. And start collecting taxes on out-of-state companies’ Internet sales to Florida customers — which would be only fair to in-state companies that play by the rules and collect those taxes.

Or maybe buy stock in Restasis. Something, anything to get Scott to blink.

Doonesbury — munchies.