Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Letter from California-May 10, 2004


In my book, this is the greatest nickname any television character ever had. You remember Meathead from All in the Family, don’t you? He was Archie Bunker’s son-in-law with the bad mop of hair and the crazy ideas about how maybe people of different races could live in harmony. Archie never cottoned to either of those of course.

Years later and the man who played Meathead, Rob Reiner, has come a long way. He’s actually got about the same amount of hair, but his head (and the rest of him, I’d add) has gotten so much meatier that there’s a great big bald patch on top. More importantly, he’s had a great career as a director of films like Spinal Tap and Stand by Me and When Harry Met Sally. He, like our good buddy Ron Howard, is one of the few to make the jump from 70s television star to something other than reruns or nostalgia shows in Vegas or Branson.

He’s also gotten political. A few years back, he sponsored a statewide ballot initiative that added a $.50 tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in California. All the money collected was set aside for “early childhood development.” In a perfect world, this would mean things like paid day care and preschool for poor children, education for new mothers about how to take care of themselves during pregnancy, and other goodies.

Since only about 15% of Californians smoke, you can probably guess what happened. Figuring “I’m not going to be paying for it anyway, so what the hey,” a big majority of Californians pulled the ‘yes’ lever on the proposition and it became law. Reiner got a new job as Meathead-in-chief on the commission that had to be set up to administer the half a billion dollars a year or so that the program collects.

Before I start sounding a little negative, I want to say a couple of nice things about Rob Reiner. First, he doesn’t need this aggravation. Sure, he went out and created a job for himself, but there’s no way he did all this for a job. He’s got it made: making movies is one of the world’s best occupations and he’s got all the money he could ever need. Being the Commissioner of this group must resemble trying to get a group of preschoolers to do a synchronized swimming routine.

Second, if you ever listen to him talking about this stuff, it’s obvious that he cares a lot. A couple years ago, I was invited to a lunch at which Reiner talked about the First 5 Association (that’s the name of the commission that administers the money), and for about an hour and a half, Reiner rattled off statistics and talked about the details of programs like a geek at Star Trek convention. If early childhood development were a science fiction TV show, Rob Reiner would be the guy who had his ears surgically changed to look like Spock’s. I admire it.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but ask a few questions. The first one was, “I heard the state is having financial trouble. How are you sure that this money is being well spent?” Remember, we’re talking billions. With a B.

This week marks five years since the Commission went into action, and the reviews are mixed. Some things have changed. According to a news story I picked up in the Marin Independent Journal (a Northern California paper), uninsured children in the Bay Area have access to more medical care, $600 million has been set aside to fund preschool in L.A. county, and a number of other government goodies have appeared, like free videotapes about childcare for all new parents.

Here’s my problem. Is it working? Reiner says we should wait “10 or 15 years down the road” to see if juvenile delinquency, low birth weights, or birth defects because of smoking while pregnant actually go down. That seems like a long time to me. Shouldn’t we be able to see something after 5 years?

Here’s my other problem. Do we want people to smoke or not? The reason we’re picking on smokers with this law is that there aren’t enough of them, so what can they do? On the other hand, taxing something makes people do less of it, and in fact, revenues for the program have dropped 6 percent every year. That means that in another 5 years or so, Reiner and company will be working with only about half the annual childcare dough as when they started. Something tells me they’re not going to think that’s enough. What do you suppose they’ll do then?

Anyway, folks say this is a great set-up for ultimate showdown in 2006: The Terminator versus Meathead in an all-Hollywood brawl for the Governor’s mansion.

I say we settle it right now with push-ups.


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