“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Friday, May 13, 2011

Regarding The Movie Atlas Shrugged

I have yet to review the recently-released movie of the quintessential conservative tome, Atlas Shrugged (Part One).

Let me get my thumbs up/down read on the film out of the way. Don't bother to see it.

Personally, I'll be surprised if Part Two is ever produced.

As I said several times to the friend with whom I saw the movie, the failure of the screenwriter to provide better dialogue than Rand's stilted, simplistic lines, doomed the movie.

The acting isn't terrific, either. All of the major roles- Dagney Taggart, her brother and Hank Reardon, are played by unknown actors. A few familiar character actors appear as Wesley Mouche and Wyatt, the oil baron. And Michael O'Keefe makes a 10 second appearance outside the famous diner in the hills of the American west.

If better talent had played some of the roles, the characters may have been a bit more interesting to those who haven't read the book. Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman would have made a better Wesley Mouche. But the lack of a better script would limit any actor.

As I reminded my friend, who hadn't read the book since she was in high school some 30 years ago, Rand's dialogue, especially in what passed for romantic scenes, was dull and stilted. I vividly recall skimming over those parts, concentrating instead on the message in the prose describing the financial actions, as well as the occasional important free market capitalism speech by a character.

My friend was disappointed that the novel, originally set in what appeared to be the 1930s or '40s, was updated to the present, featuring smartphones and laptops. I opined that it was a pity they didn't update the dialogue to something worth listening to.

I was heartened that half of the movie theater was full for the afternoon showing. On the other hand, there were only four theaters within 30 miles of us showing the film. We had to drive about 45 minutes to see it.

My advice is to simply reread the book. That way, you can skip over the bad writing and focus on the more meaty philosophical parts of the book.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Joel Klein's New York Schools Stories

Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City public schools from 2002 through 2010, wrote a provocative editorial recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled Scenes From the New York Education Wars.

His observations in the passages below reinforce how obstructive the teachers' union was to his efforts to improve the city's education system.

Teachers are extremely effective messengers to parents, community groups, faith-based groups and elected officials—and their unions know how to deploy them well. Happy unions can give a politician massive clout, and unhappy unions—well, just ask Eva Moskowitz, a Democrat who headed the New York City Council Education Committee when I became schools chancellor in 2002.

Smart, savvy, ambitious, often a pain in my neck and atypically fearless for a politician, Ms. Moskowitz was widely expected to be elected Manhattan borough president in 2005. Until, that is, she held hearings on the city teachers-union contract, an extraordinary document, running for hundreds of pages, governing who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to hall-monitor or lunchroom duty and who can't, who has to be given time off to do union work during the school day, and so on.

The contract defied parody. So when Ms. Moskowitz exposed its ridiculousness, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), then headed by Randi Weingarten, made sure that Ms. Moskowitz's run for borough president came up short. After that, other elected officials would say to me, "I agree with you, but I ain't gonna get Eva'd."

I found that story to be very chilling. As I noted in my recent post concerning Randi Weingarten, union officials attempt to identify themselves with children's education, but they are really just concerned with their own poewr and money. In Weingarten's case, she savagely retaliated against an elected official who merely wanted voters to understand what the teachers' union contract was doing to education in their schools.

Consider Klein's story about Albert Shanker.

Politicians—especially Democratic politicians—generally do what the unions want. The unions, in turn, are very clear about what that is: They want happy members, so that those who run the unions get re-elected, and they want more members, so their power, money and influence grow. The effect of all this? As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly said, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren."

When I told my NJ public school teacher friend that story, he flatly refused to believe it. His own union officials have so brainwashed him that he simply can't believe that they don't care about his students. Sometimes denial is hard to accept and acknowledge. To me, Shanker's quote is one of the most telling of any I've heard by a public sector union boss.

Consider the common refrain that "We'll never fix education until we fix poverty." This lets school systems off the hook. Of course money, a stable family and strong values typically make it easier to educate a child. But we now know that, keeping those things constant, certain schools can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kids.

I loved that passage. It's so typical of the liberal mindset to blame society while continuing to pocket taxpayer dollars for poor results. And use an external cause to evade responsibility for their own actions.

At individual schools, differences can be breathtaking. One charter in New York City, Harlem Success Academy 1 (founded by Ms. Moskowitz after she left politics), has students who are demographically almost identical to those in nearby schools, yet it gets entirely different results.

Parents celebrate as they hear that their 4-year-old daughter was awarded a coveted slot at the Harlem Success Academy charter school.

Eighty-eight percent of Harlem Success students are proficient in reading and 95% are proficient in math. Six nearby schools have an average of 31% and 39% proficiency in those subjects, respectively. More than 90% of Harlem Success fourth-graders scored at the highest level on New York State's most recent science tests, while only 43% of fourth-graders citywide did so. Harlem Success's black students outperformed white students at more than 700 schools across the state. Overall, the charter now performs at the same level as the gifted-and-talented schools in New York City, all of which have demanding admissions requirements. Harlem Success, by contrast, selects its students, mostly poor and minority, by random lottery.

Critics try to discredit these differences. Writing last year in the New York Review of Books, the historian Diane Ravitch argued that schools like Harlem Success aren't the answer because, as a group, charter schools don't outperform traditional public schools. Yet even Ms. Ravitch had to acknowledge that some charter schools get "amazing results." If that's the case, shouldn't we be asking why they get much better results—and focusing on how to replicate them?

A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won't happen quickly, but that's no reason not to begin introducing more competition. In the lower grades, we should make sure that every student has at least one alternative—and preferably several—to her neighborhood school.

That story and Klein's reasoning about making small steps is a valuable example regarding charter schools. Call them what you will, charter schools are simply affordable private schools. Why wouldn't choice be important? Why wouldn't it make sense to focus on, celebrate and try to replicate even a few charter school successes?

Instead, the union bosses pick on the worst examples of private schools to argue that none should exist. Under that logic, we'd scrap the public school systems and their teachers, too, by focusing on the worst public schools.

As Shanker put it in a surprisingly candid speech in 1993: "We are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product. . . . I think we will get—and deserve—the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don't behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don't like it, but they're not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought us to this point."

I found this, too, to be a chilling quote from Shanker. He must have been quite a capable union boss. He understood reality, but was able to temporarily halt its onset from affecting his union members. Never mind what that did to millions of American children in the process.

My teacher friend expressed at least one reason for the behavior Shanker noted in that passage. My friend notes that he's closer to retirement than he is to commencing his career. So, like the old pilots who favored newer, younger pilots being given a lower starting salary and fewer benefits, he, too, cares little for le deluge after his tenured career is over.

In short, so long as he gets his, he could care less about the fate of his replacements. Trouble is, all of the discussion is in regard to his pension, pay and benefits- not children's education.

Klein's instructive selected quotes from Shanker reveal the simple truth. So long as unions serve their members, unionized teachers won't really care about children's educational success as much as they care about their own economic success.

At least a private school can remedy this flaw by aligning the two for each individual teacher, rather than maximizing average welfare of a group of teachers, regardless of pupil performance

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Michelle Bachman for President?

I admit to not really understanding Michelle Bachman's toying with a run for president.

It's rare, in this age, for a House member to run. Ron Paul and Richard Gephardt come to mind, but that's about it.

You'd have to reach back well into the nineteenth century to find a House member who won election.

Bachman's being a darling of the Tea Party movement is clear. Perhaps she feels that, alone, will be a sufficient base from which to take the GOP nomination. Or, perhaps she's trying to make her case as a viable VP choice.

However, I don't recall Bachman having executive experience. And a quick check of her bio confirms this- she has J.D. and LLM degrees. In short, an attorney who went into state politics, then the US House.

I probably share many of her values, but haven't we just (re)learned why our presidents need some managerial and leadership experience?

It would seem that Bachman is vulnerable to the same legitimate charges of inexperience that rightly bedevil Wonderboy.

Or is Bachman simply playing a much longer game, taking advantage of her national profile as an outspoken Tea Party House member? Making sure, as has Sarah Palin, to get publicity while it's free and available?

Because I just don't see Bachman as having the depth of experience, either managerial or in areas such as foreign policy, to justify being a credible presidential candidate at this time.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is Glenn Beck A Real Howard Beale?

Some time ago, Glenn Beck related a meeting he had with a key aide to George Soros. I don't recall all of the details, but I do remember that, as a parting gift, Soros' guy gave Beck a DVD of Andy Griffith's breakthrough movie, A Face In The Crowd. Soros, Beck noted, was suggesting that Beck was simply a recovering alcoholic who was shallow, manipulative, and destined to be out of the spotlight very soon.

Recently, I believe about a month or so, perhaps a little longer, Beck announced that he'll end his daily 5PM program on Fox News Channel. The article which I read alluded to Beck having lost advertisers due to some of his positions and topics. If so, it's not noticeable. Perhaps Beck is simply tiring of the format, and moving on, on his own schedule, to other ventures.

Never the less, I happened to see an old movie a few weeks ago that brought Beck to mind. It was Network, the 1976 hit movie starring Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duval and William Holden.

I'd never actually seen the entire picture at once. But I was familiar with the iconic trademark phrase uttered by Finch's character, Howard Beale,

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

But, after Beale is reincarnated as a somewhat crazed evening program host of what is no longer a news show, he more routinely proclaims that he's going to tell the truth about various forces in society arrayed against his viewers.

That's the part that made me think of Glenn Beck. I doubt Beck will be shot on air as an end to his program's run. He also doesn't claim to have received a spiritual vision.

But that unvarnished sense of hostility with the predominant media which won't cover or investigate obvious conflicts of interest, cronyism and lies of omission by government, academia and industry does seem to echo Howard Beale's sentiments.

I wonder where that attitude, and Beck's energy and money will next appear?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Thursday's South Carolina GOP Presidential Candidates Debate

I dutifully watched some of last Thursday night's Fox News South Carolina GOP presidential candidates' debate. To be honest, those events tend to be better viewed in retrospect, or through the comments of pundits in attendance.

Most of the time, the candidates you know say pretty much what you expect, so there aren't any surprises. For me, there was some value in quickly getting a measure of some lesser-known candidates, such as Gary Johnson. I know he's a former governor. But hearing some of his views, as he packed them, off-point, into his rushed response to some question, I immediately dismissed him as too lightweight and fringe in his views.

Ron Paul was, well, Ron Paul. What more do you need to say? If you want a modern reincarnation of George Washington, well, you know who to vote for.

Of course, the major story looming over the debates was the missing potential, undeclared candidates- Gingrich, Palin and Trump. And Romney, who is declared, but evidently taking a page, of sorts, from Ronald Reagan's playbook.

Rick Santorum, from what I heard of his remarks, reinforced my pre-existing opinion. He's a nice guy who seems to be running primarily on a right-of-center "family values" agenda. I'm not particularly trusting of either party telling me what social values to espouse, outside of generally keeping government out of legislating any more of them. So while Santorum seems intelligent, earnest and honest, I just don't see what he offers that I would want, and can't find in another, more marketable candidate.

Besides, there's a strong whiff of religiosity in Santorum's remarks that always leaves me suspicious.

The guy who I actually found pretty interesting was Herman Cain. Granted, he, too, has some annoying quirks. Some of his reactions were a little stiff and out of touch. But his good attributes include business accomplishments, a lack of professional political careerism, and being black.

How incredible would it be to see Wonderboy facing a black GOP presidential candidate?

Meanwhile, I'm quickly coming to the view that, no matter who the GOP nominates, I'll vote for her/him, simply because s/he can't be worse than what we've got. Little as I think of Romney for his Massachusetts healthcare plan, I'm not an idiot. He'd at least be a firebreak for current federal spending and fiscal recklessness.

And having the presidential veto and Supreme Court nominations in GOP hands is worth a lot.