Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Blowback

Santa Monica College: Lost opportunity costs [Blowback]

Santa Monica College
The editorial board recently questioned Santa Monica College’s decision to offer two-tier course pricing. Here, Martin Goldstein, associate professor of communications at SMC, defends the school’s decision. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

As a teacher at Santa Monica College, my view of SMC offering  additional classes at a higher fee is necessarily shaped by my on-the-ground, in-the-trenches perspective. And that perspective says we should do it, and that students will want those classes, fill them up quickly, and be thankful for them.

Every semester for the last several years I have turned away as many students as I teach. Every semester I hear the pleas of students who can’t get classes they need to transfer and move on with their lives. Every semester I see the personal cost -- and can foresee the social cost -- because I know some of those people we are turning away are never coming back.

I believe those who oppose our additional classes are doing faulty math. They are comparing the few hundred dollars more in tuition per class -- saying that’s not “fair” -- while ignoring the much larger lost opportunity costs of not getting that class, not being able to transfer, not moving on with your life as you hope and plan. What’s the cost of that? 

Some of those we turn away will lose their way during that semester or year they have to wait, and will find the door of opportunity closing in on them. They have to earn a living, perhaps support a family during that time. Life happens, things get in the way, and the system seems to be playing a game of “bait and switch” with you, anyway, by promising a good public education -- then denying it to you when you want it and need it. Maybe it’s not worth it.

We at the community colleges live at the intersection of minimum wage and something better. We are the choice point, the fork in the road that turns you from high school graduate to someone with a chance of earning a decent living. Maybe an AA degree, maybe a BA, maybe retrained for a new career -- we make the difference that can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased income over the course of their lives. That’s our mission and we do it well -- when we can.

If we are underfunded, we can’t.  That’s the situation now. We’ve lost around 300,000 students out of the potential 2.9 million we should be serving. By turning them away, how much is that cost to society in income lost and taxes lost and quality of life diminished?

We know that it is a tragedy, and given that, why is it wrong to try to make it better?  Why is it wrong to give that opportunity to a few more? We now have the full assurance that nobody will be turned away because of cost with the recent $250,000 scholarship commitment, along with other grants and scholarships available. Yes, it’s different, but so is the world of education these days. But our mission is the same, and turning kids away if we don't have to is opposite to our mission. It's bad social policy and bad ethically.

And when someone waves the bloody flag of “privatization,” as doubtless they will, let me state clearly that these classes will be taught in the same public classrooms I teach in now, by the same publicly employed teachers who are teaching there now -- unionized and professional -- offering the same quality public education we have always offered at SMC.

People know a good deal when they see it, and whatever they cost in dollars, the lost opportunity costs of not getting those classes is incomparably greater. If we offer them, they will come, fill the classes, and be grateful for the chance to move on with their lives.

ALSO:

Cal State's closed-door plan

The college learning debate 

How much is enough for a Cal State president?

-- Martin Goldstein

Photo: Santa Monica College students are shown celebrating Earth Day with the Eco Action Club in 2010. Credit: Los Angeles Times

'Luck': It was a mistake to euthanize HBO's show about horse racing [Blowback]

Luck

Richard Nemec, a Los Angeles writer and $2 bettor, disagrees with a Monday editorial that applauded HBO's decision to cancel "Luck." His rebuttal is below. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

We’re on a losing streak in Southern California, if not statewide, that just got worse with the recent cancellation of the HBO television series, “Luck,” which had none. As a result, more than a new TV series with poor viewer ratings but critical acclaim has been euthanized unnecessarily.

The Times called the cancellation of “Luck” “the right ending,” but it was no ending at all. The previously planned last of the first year’s episodes will air Sunday. That’s the real ending, artistically. Politically, the show was whacked as some of its characters were -- uselessly and violently.  There will be no second season, and that’s too bad.

In today’s Internet-fed, hasty, gotta-be-quick decision-making, the show’s producers and their antagonists from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, overreacted to a fatal barn accident to a filly used in the filming (but not during filming).

As a result, much more than a TV series died; throw in damage to the regional economy and a venerable horse racing venue and the loss of a new melding of art, sport and life that rarely is depicted with so much insight and introspection.

Predictably, the state horse racing board has promised a full investigation. It also has assured anyone who will listen that the animals involved in “Luck” were much more closely scrutinized and protected than horses and other animals used in other motion picture productions.

Trainers and jockeys alike at Santa Anita Park, an internationally recognized thoroughbred racing venue, were saddened to see the series abruptly end. They liked what it did for horse racing and for the local economy. They had friends like Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens who had starring roles in the series.

Veteran Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, 79, who has trained five former national champions, was unabashedly critical of the decision and PETA’s indirect role in it. “Accidents happen in our business just like they do in any sport,” he said. “It is a foregone conclusion that anything can go wrong.”

The Times, other editorial pages and entertainment industry rumor sheets seem to agree the cancellation was the right move and was coming anyway due to low ratings. In addition, insiders in the horse racing game, such as the Canadian-based owner of Santa Anita, reportedly felt “Luck” was painting too negative a picture of thoroughbred racing.

I could not disagree more. As a frequent amateur handicapper and small-time bettor, particularly at Santa Anita, I warmed to the TV series and loved the realistic quality of the races and the stables at venerable Santa Anita.

Santa Anita for me is more than a horse racing or betting venue; it is a slice of my life shared with three close friends. At retirement ages all, we come to the track to bond. We have been buoyed by the larger and younger-looking crowds the track has been attracting since “Luck” began.

Putting PETA aside because it objects to almost any use of animals any time in the movies, I think the people who watched “Luck” but grew increasingly uncomfortable with it, such as Frank Stronach, the track’s owner, were having trouble with its edginess, which in this case was also its strength, portraying nearly everyone as flawed.

While it can be questioned how accurately “Luck” captured the sport of kings, it cannot be denied that the actors, writers and moviemakers captured their characters in nuanced, sensitive ways that we see too infrequently in so many of today’s celebrity-fixated motion pictures. It surely will win awards even though it has failed commercially.

Like in life itself, we are all seeking an edge, a sense of belonging, friends we can trust, and, oh, yes, a little bit of luck.

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Romney's car problem

Sure you can go home again

Photo gallery: Ted Rall cartoons

 --Richard Nemec

Photo: Kerry Condon in a scene from HBO's series "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO

'Kony 2012' backlash: Don't squelch young activists [Blowback]

Kony Merch
Mary Strickler, a high school teacher in Harrisonburg, Va., addresses the media backlash over the viral video “Kony 2012.”
If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or op-ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

A few days ago the 29-minute video “Kony 2012” went viral with more than 80 million views. Since then members of the free press and bloggers have done their best to blacken the name of three filmmakers and I want to brood about the affair.

As a teacher, I thought it was refreshing to view student activism at the grass roots level this week. In history class, teens were brought to tears after viewing the “Kony” documentary. All week long, young people flooded my room to discuss their reaction to the film. They ordered $30 Kony kits, planned to plaster the city with Kony posters on April 20, the designated day slated in the film, and filled up Facebook sites with poignant discussions of child abuse in Third World countries. The power of the film moved kids to put down their cellphones or video controllers and take up collections to help others in need. It was gratifying to see young people excited and motivated to get involved.

Then, along came the naysayers as cited in the March 10 article by James Rainey. Prominent journalists criticized the Kony movement, especially a photograph of the filmmakers holding guns with the LRA and questioned the amount of donations that actually went toward the cause, ultimately dissuading people from contributing.

Now, it’s only human nature to complain about the state of worldly affairs. I get that and if it happens to sell a few extra papers, so much the better. However, to criticize something so important as saving the lives of children is unconscionable. These three men from San Diego have left the safety of their own homes, fought tirelessly for five years living halfway around the world in unsavory places to bring us the truth. How can anyone have the nerve to question their propriety? Really. Moving films that get airtime on all major networks cost real money to make…or haven’t you heard?

TyincuraMy son, Ty Strickler (USC alum ’10), is currently in a remote village called Cura in Kenya shooting a documentary about the needs of children who live in an orphanage because they have lost their parents to AIDS. It took Ty almost a year to raise the money to go. Rather than simply making a charitable donation, Ty took it upon himself to travel halfway around the world to film in a dangerous area because he knows that his documentary might move others to action. I seriously hope you don’t accuse him of misappropriation of funds because he took his first trip abroad on someone else’s dime. Rather than criticizing people who want to make a difference, you should commend those who get off the couch and do something to make the world a little better for people they don’t even know.

If you want a story about corruption, look no further than our own government. The interest alone on Ty’s college loans are more than he makes in a month. The government consolidation agency, which charges 8% interest, informed Ty that after he makes 30 years of regular monthly payments that will not even touch the principle, the IRS will "step in" and he could see real jail time. Now there’s a travesty of justice; write about that but leave the filmmakers alone.

We all agree that a journalist has an obligation to tell the truth; however, a journalist also has an obligation to cover all sides of the story. Travel with the filmmakers to Uganda, read my son’s blog while he’s in Kenya at tystrickler.blogspot.com, see the good works of people who work tirelessly in the trenches at curaorphanage.org before you put pen to paper next time. 

Don’t squelch young activists like my son or my student, Thomas Abebe, who took it upon himself to raise money for famine relief around the Horn of Africa by selling rubber bracelets to his fellow classmates. Did I ask him for an accounting of funds? No, I just thanked God that someone cared enough to get involved. He gets an A+ in my book!

Just remember -- journalists have the power to inspire too. More people need to be inspired like these young filmmakers, who have the crazy notion that they can change the world by using film, social media and most importantly, their talents.

There are two types of people in the world, ones who are the doers and the ones who sit around and criticize them for it. Which one are you?

ALSO:

To catch a Kony, cash won't cut it

PHOTOS: The cruelty of Kony's army

VIDEO:Kony 2012 targets Uganda militia leader

 --Mary Strickler

Top photo: The Invisible Children Movement office in San Diego. Credit: John Mone / AP Photo

Bottom photo: Ty Strickler in Kenya. Credit: Photo provided by Mary Strickler

Save the American West [Blowback]

Coconino County

Matt Kirby takes on Robert H. Nelson's recent Op-Ed, "Free the American West." Kirby works on public lands policy for the Sierra Club and is an avid outdoorsman. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The recent opinion article decrying public lands, "Free the American West," by Robert H. Nelson, is out of touch with the current Western economy. Much has changed since Nelson's days at the Department of Interior in the 1970s.  

In the last 40 years, the fastest growth in the West has occurred in areas that are directly adjacent to protected public lands. Safeguarding and highlighting the quality of life offered by these special pieces of America's natural heritage draw new residents, tourists and businesses. Together the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service see an average of 591 million visitors every year -- visitors who stimulate local economies and support jobs. Visitors aren't coming to see mines, oil and gas wells, and clear-cut forests, the activities for which Nelson says these lands should be "freed up." They're traveling to hunt, to fish, to hike, to camp, and for a hundred other sustainable activities that require protected public lands. Outdoor recreation generates $730 billion for the U.S. economy each year and supports almost 6.5 million jobs.

In November, more than 100 eminent economists sent a letter to President Obama asking that he protect more lands, not less. The letter states: "Today, one of the competitive strengths of the West is the unique combination of wide-open spaces, scenic vistas and recreational opportunities alongside vibrant, growing communities that are connected to larger markets via the Internet, highways and commercial air service." This is further supported by an independent analysis conducted last year by Headwaters Economics regarding the economies of communities in 11 Western states adjacent to recently established national monuments. Of the 17 national monuments they studied, the local economies in every single case grew following the creation of the monument. All of these communities either saw a continued or improved growth in employment, real personal income and per capita income. Even during the economic downturn, our protected lands have continued to provide consistent tourism revenue for local communities. Coconino County, for example, home of the Grand Canyon, set a record in tourism revenue in 2010 even as statewide tourism was down.  

Nelson claims that our federal lands policy was created in a different time with different needs. And with that claim I agree. But the truth is that our protected public lands are more important today than they were in 1910. The modern world has made those lands more easily accessible for all Americans than at any point in history. And Americans are clearly taking advantage of all the opportunities they afford.  

Today Americans of all stripes benefit from more than a century of conservation efforts.  If industry had been "free" to do as it wished in the early 1900s, we would not be able to enjoy the Grand Canyon or Grand Teton National Park as they are today. Early efforts to abolish protections for these special places today seem unthinkable.  

A recent Colorado College poll of Western voters showed nearly unanimous agreement that public lands are "an essential" part of their state economies. Even in tough economic times, Western voters overwhelmingly agreed that we should continue making investments in conservation. 

People realize that the benefits of public lands are far-reaching. Outside of the recreation economy, the services that natural areas provide range from air and water filtration to storm protection. These services create real savings with a $1.6 trillion annual impact. Farmers, ranchers and city dwellers all rely on the clean air and clean water that protected places provide, just as they rely on our protected public lands for opportunities to recreate, retreat and recharge.  

America's ability to thrive and safeguard jobs in the conservation and outdoor economy depends on maintaining strong federal protections for our public lands. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen the lands legacy we leave for future generations, not subdivide it.  

ALSO:

Is that a fracking earthquake?

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

--Matt Kirby

Photo: Cathedral Rock in the Coconino National Forest. It is a landmark of Sedona's skyline and one of the most photographed sights in Arizona. Credit: Charmaine Noronha / Associated Press 

California can't afford to cut transitional kindergarten [Blowback]

Transitional Kindergarten
Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, responds to The Times' Feb. 29 editorial, "California to some kids: No." Atkin's response is on behalf of the Save Kindergarten Coalition of school districts, superintendents, educators, parents, business and civic leaders and groups supporting full access to kindergarten for all children this fall. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The Times' editorial board got it right that many children would benefit from transitional kindergarten, a developmentally-appropriate grade specifically designed to serve younger students who are unprepared for today's more academically advanced kindergarten.

Research shows that transitional kindergarten results in greater academic achievement, higher graduation rates and better jobs, and saves schools money by reducing the number of students entering special education and being held back a grade.

The Times got it wrong, however, about the governor's proposal to eliminate transitional kindergarten resulting in cost savings.

Cutting transitional kindergarten will save little to no money. Having already cut in half their estimates of the alleged cost savings, the governor's own staff doesn't even know how much it may or may not save. Nor do they propose to apply these supposed savings to the state deficit. This is because school districts have a strong financial incentive to provide transitional kindergarten for all students to avoid these additional cuts. That's why more than 100 districts have already come out and said they are enrolling children in transitional kindergarten despite the governor's proposal. 

Under current law, however, transitional kindergarten doesn't cost any new dollars until 2025. It doesn't expand the number of students enrolled in schools. It is simply a wiser way to spend existing funds in a more economical and efficient way to get our youngest students off to a smart start.

Cutting transitional kindergarten would be more costly in both the short and long term because it would result in more students being placed in special education, being held back or dropping out of school.

The Times also got it wrong by claiming that children will be more prepared for kindergarten merely by waiting an extra year.

Research by Deborah Stipek and others clearly shows that simply moving kindergarten entry dates back impaired students' academic performance, especially for low-income students. Being in school for a year, even in a classroom that is not developmentally appropriate, is still better than no school at all. 

What kind of a California are we creating if the Brown administration's proposal to eliminate transitional kindergarten goes forward? The proposal could deny 125,000 children their right to public school, and it is creating chaos and confusion throughout the state.

Already, some school districts are moving forward with implementation, while others are on hold. Next year we could see a child in the Los Angeles Unified School District having access to transitional kindergarten while another child in Inglewood or Compton would not. That's like offering second grade to some students but not to others. This would further widen the achievement gap and erode equal opportunity for success in school.    

Superintendents throughout the state, who are constantly asked to do more with less, are moving forward with transitional kindergarten registration because they recognize it as a wise investment. Parents, educators, business and law enforcement leaders also oppose the Brown administration's proposal.  

Although the future of transitional kindergarten in some school districts is uncertain, what is certain is that cutting transitional kindergarten is a shortsighted mistake that California can't afford.

ALSO:

The battle over 'Bully'

California's flawed 'parent trigger'

Michelle Rhee's advice: Stop overpraising kids

--Catherine Atkin

Photo: Shanette Song tells about her son's experience with learning and improving at transitional kindergarten at George Washington Carver elementary on Feb. 7. In the foreground is a poster showing the percentage of children who will be affected by Governor Brown's cutbacks. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Church-state wall: For America and religion [Blowback]

ThomasjeffersonIrvine resident Fritz Mehrtens responds to The Times' Feb. 29 Op-Ed article, "Reinforcing the church-state wall." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

Yes, the wall of separation between church and state must be strengthened, as historian Jim Burkee points out. It strengthens Christianity by protecting it from the meddling hand of government and allows the freedom of thought necessary for a vibrant religious community.

But there are three other reasons for us to defend church-state separation today. Most important, this wall is part of our basic political culture, promoted by early religious leaders such as Baptist ministers John Leland and Isaac Backus well before Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1801. It is embodied in our Constitution's ban on religious tests for office and the 1st Amendment's establishment clause. Church-state separation was very much in evidence when Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s. He wrote in his 1835 work "Democracy in America":

The American clergy stand aloof from secular affairs. This is the most obvious but not the only example of their self-restraint. In America religion is a distinct sphere, in which the priest is sovereign, but out of which he takes care never to go. 

The principle became clear to me at the age of 10 when my father, a Protestant minister, publicly shouted down an attempt by the Roman Catholic majority in our town to use tax dollars to run their parochial grade school. That was in 1947.

Church-state separation prevents the religious majority from imposing their religious views on all via government edict, as some conservatives advocate today. These activists reinterpret history to proclaim that the Founding Fathers were motivated primarily by their religious convictions, even though no mention of Christianity or any other spiritual belief is found in the Constitution. Based on this historical revisionism, they push to legislate their particular religious beliefs (not shared by all Christians) on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, the teaching of evolution, assisted suicide, living wills and whatever other dogmas underlie the phrases "Judeo-Christian values" or "biblical principles." 

But who knows how the Bible might be interpreted by a religious government? It might not be to their liking.

Practically, walling off government from religion -- that most emotion-driven of human endeavors and that most resistant to reason and tolerance -- simply makes good sense. It allows citizens of divergent beliefs to work together for the common good, confident that both are protected and neither will gain an advantage through religious affiliation. Thus, Baptists and Roman Catholics can work together to repair the economy and make sound public policy in a wide variety of areas without concern for the great theological divide between them. Thanks to our separation of church and state, America has not experienced the significant religious conflicts seen in other cultures; instead, we can all come together in support of the founding principles,  which clearly specify tolerance for all religions and the promotion of none.

The imposition of religious dogma in government is by no means a conservative ideal. It eliminates freedom of conscience in matters such as abortion in favor of government edict, and curtails the individual liberties our founders sought and fought to protect.

All Americans should fully embrace the separation of church and state and the tolerance it embodies. The Constitution, our political and social culture and common sense require it.

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Reinforcing the church-state wall

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-- Fritz Mehrtens

Photo credit: Associated Press

Skid row: Hoarding trash on sidewalks isn't a right [Blowback]

Skidrow
Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents downtown L.A. businesses, responds to The Times' Feb. 22 editorial, "L.A.'s skid row property rights." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

If the real issue facing homeless individuals on skid row was their inability to safely store medicine, identification or personal documents, the Los Angeles Police Department and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich would not be appealing the preliminary injunction granted by U.S. District Judge Phillip S. Gutierrez, which bars seizing unattended property left on sidewalks and other public places.

Personal photos and prescription drugs aren't creating health hazards on our streets; huge piles that resemble debris are.  The real issue is that skid row is again being asked to tolerate something allowed nowhereelse in the city of Los Angeles -- an unlimited number of personal possessions (tents, shopping carts, mattresses and furniture) to be stored in the public right of way, even in front of people's homes and places of business.

Severe mental illness and addiction dramatically alter a person's judgment; not surprisingly, unsanitary hoarding is quite a common problem among skid row's homeless.

And though it isn't pleasant to discuss the condition of those belongings, simply imagine what your possessions would be like if you stored them outside for weeks, months or even years.  Imagine what your clothes would smell like if you lived in them for weeks without bathing while sleeping on contaminated sidewalks that reek from excrement. Imagine what your food might be like sitting on that same sidewalk. Imagine what your mattress might incubate.

The choice is not one of compassion versus cruelty. Life on skid row is more complicated than that.  Unfortunately, it is easier to defend the homeless' right to unlimited and unsanitary possessions on the sidewalks of our community than it is to create affordable housing and fund social services. I would dare those who defend the injunction -- including The Times' editorial board -- to allow the same individuals presently on skid row to place their soiled blankets, tarps, sofas and chairs in a heap in front of their homes or businesses.

(A quick aside: I drive by The Times' building on 1st and Spring streets every day on my way to and from my office on skid row. I see homeless individuals by the bus stops and on the steps of an abandoned park across the street. But those who sit or lie in front of The Times' building are often escorted away by security.)

Gutierrez's decision did not bring justice; in fact, it wronged all involved. We disrespect skid row's housed residents by allowing nightmarish conditions outside their homes; we disrespect the investment of hardworking small businesses and their employees who face deplorable conditions and disgusted customers; and we allow the unsheltered to live in a state of squalor that, in many instances, only serves to hasten their premature deaths on the street.

Those who are critical of this injunction don't dispute the right of the homeless to have personal property; it's about whether it is safe, sane and civilized to allow limitless and hazardous possessions to occupy the sidewalks that belong to everyone.

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L.A.'s skid row property rights

Skid row hotel is renovated in downtown Los Angeles

Plan exceeds goal in getting long-term homeless and vets into housing

-- Estela Lopez

Photo: Downtown Los Angeles business owners cite trash left on sidewalks by skid row's homeless residents as a major concern. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Academy Awards: It's about art, not political correctness [Blowback]

Oscars
William Goldstein, a member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a Grammy- and Emmy-nominated composer who has worked on numerous films and television, responds to The Times' Feb. 19 article, "Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or op-ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

The Times' story implies that diversity among voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is more important than excellence. The Times implies that experience in craft and in life that comes with age is not as valuable as that which comes from a presumably younger and more diverse demographic. The implication that Academy members have an agenda to deprive minorities of membership is insulting and speaks of a press interested only in stirring up controversy.

The Times quotes Frank Pierson, a member of the Academy’s board of governors, as saying: “I don’t see any reason why the Academy should represent the entire American population. That's what the People's Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it." Pierson is right, of course, but readers shouldn’t take his quote as evidence of the article’s even-handedness.

I have been a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and received a Grammy nomination. I have been a member of the TV academy and received numerous Emmy nominations. I’ve been working on a Broadway musical and wrote an editorial that was published in the New York Times in 2005 outlining the problems surrounding the classic American musical and the Tony Awards. In other words, I have experienced the inner workings of most major award shows. The Oscars, in my opinion, is the most serious attempt by an awards show to go beyond the glitz and have peers reward their colleagues for excellence. Academy members take their responsibilities seriously; every one of them I know is genuinely concerned with both preserving and promoting the art of movie-making.

I entered the Academy in 1977 and since that time have served almost continuously on the music branch executive committee. Our committee has a history of being painstaking in its quest to find the most qualified members regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. For many years I have also served on the foreign language executive committee, where I have been very impressed with how dedicated my colleagues are to inspiring and giving opportunities to filmmakers from all over the world (speaking of diversity).

My own story, interestingly enough, started in Hollywood when I was discovered by Berry Gordy (founder of Motown records). Gordy wasn’t concerned with demographics or diversity, just talent. My first two studio pictures were basically black content films.  I understand the desire to cultivate artistic talent across all demographic lines; the California State Summer School for the Arts, where I have served on the board since its founding nearly 30 years ago, goes out of its way to make sure high school students of all backgrounds know about us and apply. I don't, however, support the recent push toward egalitarianism in the arts, which holds that we all have talent and that no art is “better” than another’s. This view has serious implications for our culture and values. Such political correctness has no place in the arts, save for bringing the public’s attention to social injustices. The demographics of the Academy are not a social injustice.

The Times should aim its darts elsewhere, perhaps at filmmakers. After all, the Academy can select its members only from those working on films currently being made. Since it is the filmmakers who hire the people who will become future Academy members, why pick on the Academy?

The cornerstone of the great country in which we live is based on the premise of equal opportunity for us all, that any of us should be able to go as far as our own abilities will take us. The members of the Academy that I have met over the years are all passionate about preserving the great legacy of storytelling in motion pictures, rewarding excellence, and inspiring future generations to pick up the torch. The media today could do well by trying to follow our example.

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Stealing Oscar

Hollywood in black and white

Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male

-- William Goldstein

Photo credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Democrats need to get serious about pension reform [Blowback]

Rizzo
Republican state Sens. Bill Emmerson (Hemet), Tom Berryhill (Modesto), Anthony Cannella (Ceres) and Tom Harman (Huntington Beach) respond to George Skelton's Feb. 12 column, "Commit a crime, collect a pension." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

George Skelton brought to light an important component of any legitimate reform to our public pension system. Prohibiting payment of pension benefits to those convicted of a felony related to their employment is good public policy, and we welcome any attention to this abuse.

In terms of driving the overall discussion of public employee pension reform, Skelton's column fell short. While acknowledging that the Democratic leadership in Sacramento will probably never let Assemblyman Cameron Smyth's (R-Santa Clarita) measure to deny pension benefits to felons see the light of day, Skelton seems to take such partisan gridlock as an acceptable outcome.

To that end, it was noteworthy that Skelton didn't reference our comprehensive pension reform measure, Senate Constitutional Amendment 13, which has been awaiting a hearing since last year. This measure resulted from last year's failed negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown over the reforms we sought and that  California desperately needs -- including pension reform.

Having discussed pension reform with Brown last year, we knew there was much agreement between the governor and ourselves; SCA 13 reflects that agreement. It was clear to us that he supported virtually every tenet of our proposal. Regardless of the lost opportunity for Democrats to negotiate a meaningful budget, Brown assured Californians that he would bring his pension reform ideas forward.

When the governor finally introduced his pension reform language a few weeks ago, none of us were surprised that it virtually mirrored SCA 13. Unfortunately, legislative Democrats have refused to set either measure for a policy hearing, effectively shutting down discussion on real reforms.

As a group, we withstood a tremendous amount of pressure by some within our party simply because we engaged the governor. In fact, it didn't faze us when Brown's spokesman called legislative Republicans "basically moronic" on a radio show last year; rather, we kept our eyes focused on finding solutions to some of California's biggest issues.

To us, Skelton's column promulgates the dysfunction that has become the norm in Sacramento. Quoting Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) as having "no problem with" denying felons pensions is a good sign. But Steinberg's statement strikes us more as public relations than public policy; the saying "actions speak louder than words" comes to mind.

We think it's time to stop the charade. The majority party needs to take up public employee pension reform in a meaningful and responsible way by giving SCA 13 and the governor's pension reform proposal a true hearing.

SCA 13 seeks to address not only the "easy" fixes we all agree on, such as spiking and double dipping, but also addresses the underlying structural issues that contribute to the problems faced by state and local governments. Moreover, SCA 13 ends pension abuses, reduces our unfunded pension liabilities and controls costs to ensure the sustainability of our public employee pensions.

Specifically, SCA 13 offers new public employees a hybrid between the defined-benefit plans most public employees have and the defined-contribution plans most private sector companies offer. New employees would be required to contribute more toward their benefits and would have the additional opportunity to take advantage of a 401(k)-style plan they could manage themselves.

We also propose capping the pay used to determine pension levels, a simple, direct way to end the outrageous payouts some public employees have enjoyed, generating embarrassing headlines and draining precious state and local resources.

With regard to abuse, SCA 13 would end pension spiking practices by requiring that benefits be based on an employee's highest salary averaged over five years. Furthermore, pension benefits could be calculated based only on an employee's salary, not counting overtime, uniform allowances, car allowances and other perks. The proposal would also eliminate double dipping (in which beneficiaries collect both a salary and pension checks) and so-called airtime purchases that inflate payouts.

We think the governor's tougher increase of the retirement age also makes sense. 

Skelton is commonly referred to as the dean of the Capitol press corps, and we respect him a great deal. He does a solid job commenting on the issues of the day, and many in Sacramento and throughout the state look to his insight on the mess that has become state politics.

But accepting partisan gridlock as the status quo does nothing to fix California. We hope Skelton will use his columns to help end the dysfunction in Sacramento by calling on the Democrats to get serious about public employee pension reform.

RELATED:

Gov. Brown's vision

Big California, little fixes

Commit a crime, collect a pension

-- Bill Emmerson, Tom Berryhill, Anthony Cannella and Tom Harman

Photo: Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo's annual pension was slashed from an expected $650,000 to $50,000. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

A private-equity president: Be afraid [Blowback]

Bain
Michael Keating, a former partner at the Boston Consulting Group, discusses recent coverage of Mitt Romney's tenure as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital, including the Jan. 23 article, "Romney tax returns likely to stoke debate over economic fairness." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Part of the novelty of the current Republican primary race and the focus on the candidates' income tax returns is the emergence of the private equity business as a bone of contention, particularly between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. For most Americans, private equity remains somewhat mysterious; we only hear about firms like Bain Capital, the Blackstone Group or Kohlberg Kravis Roberts when a certain company suddenly disappears from the stock market or from the grasp of its founders and is transformed as if swallowed by a whale or, as Newt Gingrich would have it, a giant shark. 

In some cases, the transformation is positive. What is always the case, however, is that the strategy of the newly transformed company is simply to make money, lots of it, and not for the employees or even for managers but for the new owners -- the Bain Capitals or the Blackstones or whomever. In some cases the company will be "lipsticked" for an eventual stock sale on Wall Street. In other cases the company will remain in the stable of the private equity firm churning out profits for the partners. Whether jobs are created or not is not the point. The point is cash -- as much as can be squeezed from the lemon, because the folks at Bain Capital and Blackstone are nothing if not expert lemon squeezers.

In this Gingrich has a point. Private equity consultants are not real business people, if real business people can be defined as entrepreneurs who want to build something of lasting value that can employ members of their community and make profits for their shareholders, whether public or private. A private equity consultant is more like an Excel spreadsheet with legs that looks at the "target" company through the lens of return-on-investment and cutting costs to the bone. If those costs are people, well, that's just capitalism in action. If an opportunity exists to expand a product line and it becomes necessary to hire some engineers and sales people, then welcome aboard. It's all a very finely tuned calculation that has nothing to do with what most people recognize as doing business. It is an abstract exercise, at best,  that most of these ladies and gentleman have learned at places like the Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School or wherever business is taught as warfare rather than as a contributor to the social good. 

This is not to say that private equity, or its kissing cousin management consulting, are not contributing to the general good. Like wolves or sharks, their role in the ecosystem is to identify and cull out the weak and profit from their superior evolutionary skills, which in their case is knowledge of discounted cash flows and internal rates of return. In our current system of capitalism, which has much good and just as much bad, the private equity guys are the smartest guys in the room. They can smell a nonperforming asset a mile away as well as they can identify underperforming companies or management teams that lack a compelling vision.

This is how Romney is already beginning to portray President Obama. Romney sees America as an underperforming asset. He wants to cut the fat out of the government and set a strategic course that will enhance its value and reinvigorate its shareholders, who are presumably the American people. But there's the rub. In private equity, value creation is an inside job; it isn't meant for public consumption. If Romney views America through the lens of Bain Capital, then the profits he hopes to garner from the reengineering of America are bound for a very small group of shareholders. The Occupy Wall Street crowd has been trying to wake us up to exactly who that group is. It is not you and me. 

I hate to agree with Gingrich, who himself has taken millions from private equity guys, but he is correct about Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is not a businessman in the way that most business people conduct business. Most business people should be afraid of guys like Romney. Bain Capital wants to see if you are bleeding, but instead of helping you it will put a bag over your head, stuff you into the trunk and will let you out only if you promise to do everything they say and never get sentimental about things like your community or your employees.

If Romney were to run the country in the spirit of his private equity experience, there is only one thing to say to America: Be afraid, be very afraid.

RELATED

Goldberg: Newtzilla conquers all?

Romney tax returns: $21.7M in income, 13.9% rate in 2010

Romney tax returns likely to stoke debate over economic fairness

-- Michael Keating

Photo: Mitt Romney, seen in 1990, was tapped by Bain & Co. founder William W. Bain Jr., right, to launch private equity group Bain Capital. Credit: Justine Schiavo / The Boston Globe

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