The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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Sorry, I'll Take the Plane

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If a freight train leaves Brewster at 9:25 traveling east at 70 miles an hour, and another train leaves Stanton at 9:45 traveling west at 50 miles an hour on the same track, how long will it take before a 98-minute movie becomes suspenseful?

Unfortunately for the viewers, about an hour.

Unstoppable, a movie about a driverless runaway train barreling toward another train full of schoolchildren, ought to be fraught with tension. Add to the out-of-control train several freight cars full of toxic, combustible chemicals that could contaminate whole towns along the way, and the adrenaline should start gushing.

Oddly, however, the tension never mounts. This film has its moments, but that's part of the problem: they are only moments. If a train traveling 70 miles an hour in one direction passes a train slipping onto a side rail going the other way, just in the nick of time, how long does the moment last? A few seconds. In this movie, trains always manage to pull onto the side rails just in time, leaving the audience with all the excitement of playing a game of Snakes on a cell phone. And since the filmmakers give us almost no backstory about the people whose lives are in danger, we feel no cathartic worry or relief until the last half hour of the film, when we finally learn a few things about Frank (Denzel Washington), the 28-year veteran driving a rescue train, and Will (Chris Pine), the rookie on his first assignment as a conductor. Ultimately this is a film about a rookie becoming a man, and that's a pretty good theme. But it takes too long to get there.

The filmmakers want us to regard their work as a metaphor for the BP disaster, blaming the crisis on corporate greed, but it doesn't quite work. The film's initial crisis is caused by driver error, not cost-cutting: when a bloated, bumbling engineer (Ethan Suplee) jumps off a slowly moving train to switch the rails, it gathers speed and gets away from him.

The crisis seems to become more corporate-driven when the VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn) rejects the local yardmaster's suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. "We aren't going to destroy an entire trainload of cars," he barks, obviously worried more about the bottom line than about avoiding human injuries.

Adding to the sense of corporate greed and insensitivity, the company's owner (Andy Umberger) is reached on the golf course, where he gives instructions and goes back to his game. Oh, these dirty, greedy capitalists! Selfish to the core! It's clearly a reference to BP President Tony Hayward's decision last summer to attend the annual sailing regatta around the Isle of Wight while millions of gallons of crude were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But isn't it wise and prudent for a company to examine all its options before derailing an expensive asset and possibly releasing toxic elements into the environment, even if that environment is outside the city limits? Doesn't every company have to balance the costs of safety and employee benefits against consumer prices and profits? If costs outweigh profits, the company will simply cease to function. Moreover, one has to wonder why the seasoned VP of Operations would trust the judgment of a young, nubile, strangely glamorous yardmaster Connie (30-year-old Rosario Dawson), whose employee caused the problem in the first place.

The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems — the switching of the rails to change a train's course, the dead man's automatic braking system (unavailable in this case because the same bumbling engineer hasn't taken time to connect the air brakes), the use of external locomotives to slow a runaway train, and even frontage roads that allow access to moving trains. All of this makes the film interesting, if not fascinating.

Denzel Washington worked with director Tony Scott last year on a taut, suspenseful runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), so they should know how to build suspense: Make us care about the characters. That 2009 film is more about the cat-and-mouse interplay between Washington's character and John Travolta's crazed antagonist than it is about the train, and it works. By contrast, this film feels almost like a made-for-TV documentary reenactment, and it doesn't work.

Watch for Unstoppable in your local television listings. It will be there soon. But it isn't worth the price of a theater ticket when so many better fil


Editor's Note: Review of "Unstoppable," directed by Tony Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010, 98 minutes.



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Beyond the Textbooks

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One of the curious things about business ethics texts is that they tend to focus on puzzling moral issues, such as whether monitoring emails on the job is wrong, or when is it morally permissible to blow the whistle on an employer. They usually spend little time on the notion of character and the problem of giving in to temptation.

This is curious to me. Most cases of unethical behavior in business — or in family life, religious life, government, or any other institution built with the crooked timber of humanity — are not cases in which the evil-doer acted wrongly because he couldn’t figure out what was right. Much more often, they are cases in which someone put the morally right aside because the wrong just feels so good.

Does anyone seriously believe that Bernie Ebbers defrauded investors in WorldCom because he didn’t understand that fraud is morally and legally unacceptable? Or that when Ken Lay and the smart guys at Enron defrauded their investors, they were somehow unaware that hiding debt in offshore, off-the-books entities was actually fraud? No, these perps did what they did because it gave them what they wanted (wealth, power and prestige), and they thought they could get away with it.

This phenomenon of succumbing to temptation despite your moral understanding is at the heart of an excellent movie now available on DVD.

Good is based on a 1981 stage play of the same name by C.P. Taylor. It tells the story of John Halder, a modest, mild-mannered literature professor in a German university in the 1930s, when the Nazis were consolidating their power. Halder writes a novel that portrays euthanasia in a romantic, favorable way. The subtheme of euthanasia plays out in a personal way for Halder as he struggles to care for his mother, who suffers from dementia. The novel is seized upon by the Nazis, for whom “compassionate euthanasia” of such people is a step toward finding a “final solution of the Jewish problem.” Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels first flatters and then bribes Halder into letting the Nazis make a film from his book. They enable Halder to move ahead in his career.

As this proceeds, we see how Halder is corrupted step by step. He leaves his wife and children for a beautiful young student. He joins the Party and is even given a token position in the SS (which liked to have a few academics on its roster for the sake of appearances). He is rewarded with the chairmanship of his department.

Halder’s systematic seduction and corruption are pointed out to him by his Jewish friend Maurice Gluckstein, who explains to him what the Nazis are doing to their country and to his own character. But Halder is able to maintain his self-image as a Good Man, even as his corruption evolves. He watches while Gluckstein is harassed and menaced more and more by the Nazi regime.

When Halder finally tries to help Gluckstein leave Germany, Halder’s new wife betrays his friend.  Halder discovers this, and by using his SS rank and his wiles, discovers and manages to get into the concentration camp to which Gluckstein has been condemned, hoping to free his friend. Here he is finally forced to recognize both the moral reality of the regime of which he has been a willingly blind supporter, and the degraded nature of his own character.

The acting in this insightful movie is uniformly good. Especially notable in support are Adrian Schiller as the cynical Josef Goebbels, and Jason Isaacs as the morally clear-eyed Maurice Gluckstein. The exchanges between Halder and Isaacs’ Gluckstein are among the best scenes in the movie. Viggo Mortensen is simply superb as the morally blind John Halder. The handsome Mortensen could have made a career playing nothing but roles such as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, yet he has gone out of his way to take on edgier roles, such as the gangster Nikolai in Eastern Promises and the unnamed father in The Road. Mortensen plays Halder perfectly.

Vicente Amorim’s direction is outstanding as well, getting just the right balance of passion and restraint from the cast. And the cinematography is beautifully done.

This is a thought-provoking film, one well worth renting or purchasing as a holiday gift for your most thoughtful friends.


Editor's Note: Review of "Good," directed by Vicente Amorim. Miromar Entertainment, 2008, 96 minutes.



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Beating the Heat

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Intellectual honesty is a very rare commodity, especially in areas where there is great political pressure to conform to some Received View.

Such is the case with the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The majority of climate scientists think that AGW, as represented in theory, is a well-established phenomenon; but a fairly large minority apparently doesn’t. Enter the activists, who react to the theory of AGW in one of two ways. The True Believers take the theory of AGW as proven beyond all doubt and use it to argue for massively costly and disruptive policies, such as cap-and-trade laws and Green energy schemes. The True Deniers deny AGW altogether, dismissing the ever-increasing amounts of burned fossil fuel as having no effect whatsoever on the planet, and viewing the scientists who believe in AGW as deluded fools, or part of some pseudo-scientific cult.

Rare are moderate voices. Perhaps the best known voice of this kind is Bjorn Lomborg, the author of a number of books, including The Skeptical Environmentalist and Smart Solutions to Climate Change, and the subject of a great little documentary, Cool It, playing now in limited release.

Lomborg is a Danish economist and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a policy thinktank based in Denmark that specializes in formulating economically sound policies for private and governmental aid programs. He grew up as a devout Green and a member of Greenpeace but was awakened from his dogmatic environmentalist slumbers when he read the work of economist Julian Simon. Simon was an iconoclast who argued that the world’s environment is getting better and that human beings are the planet’s greatest resource. Lomborg set out to refute Simon but after doing the research was forced to admit that he was largely correct. It dawned on Lomborg that much of the environmentalist agenda was counterproductive and driven by inaccurate propaganda.

This fanatical, venomous creature stands in stark contrast with the optimistic, sincere, and decent Lomborg.

Cool It, co-written by Lomborg and directed by well-known documentary film maker Ondi Timoner, surveys Lomborg’s works and thoughts, but focuses on refuting Al Gore’s classic of environmentalist propaganda, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Lomborg believes that AGW is real, but that it doesn’t pose the profound and immediate threat to the ecosystem that Gore and his ilk claim it does. Lomborg also holds that the vast amount of money being spent to combat AGW would be better spent on more immediate human needs, while we develop better solutions.

For this, Lomborg is reviled. For example: in one scene of the movie we see Stephen Schneider, long-time proponent of the theory of AGW, waxing furious as he discusses Lomborg’s perspective. This fanatical, venomous creature stands in stark contrast with the optimistic, sincere, and decent Lomborg — as does the ever-pompous Al Gore. In another scene, we listen to Lomborg recount how he was hauled before the Danish Committee on Scientific Discovery, where his political enemies tried to destroy his career for his outrageous view that the world is not headed for an ecological Armageddon. He survived that Kafkaesque Star Chamber, but it took its toll on the poor fellow.

Besides being an introduction to Lomborg and his work, Cool It is meant to be a counter to Al Gore’s undeservedly famous movie. In one powerful sequence, Lomborg interacts with some British schoolchildren who have obviously been indoctrinated, very thoroughly, with the theory of AGW in its most extreme, apocalyptic version.

These pathetic kids are convinced that they are all but doomed, by Evil Man’s Hideous Works, to melt beneath an unrelenting, merciless sun. It turns your stomach to watch this. In my view, the people who manipulate children to further their policy agenda deserve to melt in an unrelenting, merciless Hell.

Cool It specifically refutes four major contentions of Gore’s movie: that the seas are going to rise over 20 feet and inundate vast portions of land, that AGW has increased the amount of malaria (because of increased mosquito populations), that AGW is threatening the polar bear population, and that AGW is causing increasingly severe hurricanes.

These pathetic kids are convinced that they are all but doomed, by Evil Man’s Hideous Works, to melt beneath an unrelenting, merciless sun.

The essence of Lomborg’s thinking is neatly summarized by one of his lines: “If we only listen to worst-case scenarios, that’s unlikely to make good public priorities.” I would add that it is even less likely to make good public priorities if those worst-case scenarios are based on highly politicized, agenda driven science.

To give a flavor of Lomborg’s views, consider his analysis of the EU’s proposed carbon-cutting eco-regimen, projected to cost the citizens of Europe about $250 billion a year, while producing only slight effects in terms of slowing AGW. Lomborg would rather the EU spend $100 billion on R&D on non-fossil-fuel power (including — gasp! — nuclear power, something that Gore abhors), about a billion dollars on geoengineering solutions to AGW (such as putting more white clouds in the sky to reflect the solar rays), and $48 billion on projects to mitigate flooding (such as building decent levees to protect New Orleans) and reduce the “heat-island” effects of cities, and the remaining money (on the order of a $100 billion) to lessen malnourishment, broaden access to healthcare, and ameliorate under-education among the world’s poor.

The scene in which we see him talking to kids in Africa about what they fear — fears quite different from those that afflict the upper-middle class British kids — brings home his honest desire to see those poor kids helped.

I have two areas of disagreement with Lomborg, whom I esteem highly as a paragon of Enlightenment thinking in our postmodern era. Both are areas in which I fear that he is rather too naïve, sincere as he surely is.

The first area has to do with his idea that if we (as we should) eschew harsh measures to stop AGW, we could effectively spend the money saved to alleviate the underdeveloped world’s problems — lack of food, potable water, and education. In reality, international aid money gets channeled through either third-world governments or various NGOs (supposedly neutral aid organizations); the former are notoriously corrupt and incompetent — which is why their citizens languish in poverty to begin with — and the latter are notoriously inefficient and contaminated by political agendas.

A large faction of the environmentalist community wants to see the world’s population decline dramatically, from 7 billion to perhaps 400,000.

Would it not be better economics just to let taxpayers keep the money saved by killing the more outré environmentalist schemes, money that the taxpayers would spend more productively, and push for free trade agreements with all the underdeveloped countries so that they could, well, you know, develop?

Proceeding to the second area of disagreement: Lomborg doesn’t seem to understand that a large faction of the environmentalist community views Homo sapiens as the plague of the planet, and wants to see the world’s population decline dramatically, from the present 7 billion to perhaps 400,000 in the dreams of some of the environmentalists.” The most zealous crusaders, whose thinking drives the movement, despise the very idea of using natural resources to make people better off materially. They want monstrously costly “solutions” to environmental “catastrophes” (both real and imagined) precisely because those “solutions” will impoverish Evil Humankind.

Put in another way: in the environmentalist eschatology, human flourishing is cardinally sinful per se, and deserves the most lethal punishment. Instead of the old Christian idea, “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” these theologians of the environmentalist faith believe that “in Adam’s exaltation, the world suffered degradation.”

But naiveté aside, Bjorn Lomborg is an admirable man, and Cool It is a jewel not to be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cool It," directed by Ondi Timoner. Roadside Attractions, 2010, 89 minutes.



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Freedom to Learn

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Documentaries have often been the unappreciated stepchildren of the movie industry. Usually earnest and hardworking, they nevertheless find little room at the cineplex next to the family of fictional feature films. Waiting for Superman is an exception. It created a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and an even greater sensation when it was picked up by the talking heads at FoxNews. Now it is being screened in large studio theaters side by side with blockbusters and indie films. And some of the viewings are even sold out.

The film's premise is the failure of what one speaker calls "our implicit promise to students: that the idea of public school could work." It suggests that the biggest problem in public schools is the stranglehold of the teachers' unions and a tenure system that makes it virtually impossible to fire mediocre teachers.

Failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.

The film follows the experiences of half a dozen students trying to get a better education than the one offered by their local public school. Most of them are minority kids attending schools in the inner city, in neighborhoods that are in shambles — rough places where education is not a priority for the majority of young people. But the filmmakers also visit Redwood City, California, a well-to-do town near San Francisco. There the percentage of students moving on to college is also dismally low because of "tracking," the practice of labeling people early in their school career as either "college track" or "vocational track."

Once a student starts down a lower track, it is virtually impossible to move up to the college track. This system was designed 50 years ago, when only 20% of students went to college anyway, and the rest got blue-collar jobs in the robust post-WWII economy. Today, by contrast, factory jobs are being mechanized out of existence or sent overseas, and everyone is thought to need a college education. But not everyone is being prepared for it.

The film's title comes from an interview with Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem's Children's Zone, an organization that provides community support, tutoring, and even charter school education to families in a 100-city-block area of Harlem. He describes the despair he felt when his mother told him that Superman was not a real person. It meant, he said, that "no one was coming with enough power to save us." As a young child, he could see the problems that poverty, crime, and unemployment created in his neighborhood. He needed a superhero. As an adult, he realized that super power comes from superior education.

Over 2,000 schools are failing nationwide, causing many of them to be called "Dropout Factories" instead of high schools. Most are in poor urban neighborhoods, where many young adults end up either dead or in prison. But dropout rates are high throughout the country, not just in the South or in the inner cities. The administrator of one school admits in the film that its freshman class normally numbers 1,200 or so, but by sophomore year the number has dropped to 300–400, an astounding loss of 75%. The filmmakers ask a provocative question: do failing neighborhoods produce failing schools, or do failing schools produce failing neighborhoods?

Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher.

The real enemy, according to this film, is not the parents or the neighborhoods but the teachers' unions that control the supply and demand of teachers. Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. In Manhattan, for example, teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings are sent to the infamous "Rubber Room," where they receive full pay for sitting all day, reading the newspaper, playing cards, or taking a nap. Some of them have been sitting there for as many as seven years, waiting for their hearings. Some become so bored that they quit and find a job doing something else, but most stick it out. After all, they get paid whether they work or not, so why work? Manhattan pays these teachers a shocking $100 million a year not to teach.

As Liberty contributor Gary Jason has pointed out in many articles, under union rules, good teachers and bad teachers are paid the same wage. In most states it is illegal to give merit pay for a job well done. So why should anyone try harder? Teachers have been heard saying, "I get paid whether you learn or not" as they play computer solitaire or read newspapers, and their students goof off. Try doing that in any other job or profession, and see how long you would last.

Like the federal government (and governments at every level) schools have also become bloated with administrators and bureaucrats. In Washington DC, school superintendent Michelle Rhee was hired specifically to cut costs and fix the ailing system. She fired several central bureaucrats, eliminated some principals and vice-principals, and even closed a few schools. With those savings she was able to bring back programs that had been cut, including music, art, physical education, libraries, and nursing service on every campus. When she offered teachers the potential of nearly doubling their salaries if they would give up tenure, many seemed interested. But worried by the looming loss of power, the union would not even let her proposal come to a vote. That's how frightened they are of competition.

They are also frightened of losing their control over Congress. Waiting for Superman claims that teachers' unions are the largest contributors to political campaigns, giving around $55 million per year to various politicians. About 90% of that money goes to Democratic candidates. This has successfully kept teachers' unions off the table when politicians discuss education policy. As Rhee comments sadly, "It's all about the adults."

Waiting for Superman suggests that charter schools provide the best hope for improving education. These schools are a kind of hybrid, using public school funding but run independently like private schools. Many charter schools have particular themes, focusing on specific areas of study such as science or performing arts. But many are dedicated simply to teaching students the basics and preparing them for college. Admittedly not all of these schools are effective, but the top charter schools are sending an impressive 90% of their students to college.

Some argue that the success of these charter schools is personality driven — that they rely on the unusual talents of a few charismatic teachers who would be just as successful if they were teaching in public schools. Challengers ask, can their success be replicated?

The answer seems to be yes. To cite an example: the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, highlighted in the documentary, were started by two very successful teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. They have now nearly 100 schools nationwide, all producing successful, college-bound students. KIPP schools push their students to close the so-called "achievement gap." They rely on longer school days, shorter summer vacations, Saturday classes, and even inner city boarding schools. Other charter schools take an opposite approach: for a while my daughter attended a charter school designed for serious figure skaters, where classroom work took up very little of the day. The point is, charter schools give parents and children the opportunity to choose what is best for them.

Teachers have been heard saying, "I get paid whether you learn or not" as they play computer solitaire or read newspapers.

Why should this matter to people who have no children, or to those whose children have already graduated from college? The answer seems obvious. Students are our workforce for the future. As Bill Gates states in the film, "We can't sustain a system of continued growth without an educated work force." If people can't get jobs, they'll be living on welfare. This matters to all of us.

Although teachers unions are portrayed as the villains in Waiting for Superman, teachers themselves are portrayed as heroes. They are the Supermen and Superwomen for whom too many students are waiting. The film ends with this paean: "A great teacher is like a great athlete or a great musician. Teaching is a work of art."

Unfortunately, for too many students great teaching is out of reach. Schools need flexibility, accountability, and competition in order to improve. I'm not sure that this documentary provides all the answers or that it sees all the causes of the problems. Certainly a difficult home environment contributes to the failure of many students. But I like the director's notion that failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.

Moreover, the film's assessment of the stagnating effect of unions and the tenure system is sound. Motivate teachers with the risk of failure, the incentive of merit pay, and the freedom to innovate, and let's see how quickly the best teachers rise to the top. Other teachers will soon follow, as they see that greater effort will garner greater pay. As this documentary makes abundantly clear, it's time to end the stifling system of tenure and unions in public education. Those who teach well have nothing to fear. Those who can't teach effectively should go find another profession.


Editor's Note: Review of "Waiting for Superman," directed by Davis Guggenheim. Paramount/Vantage, 2010, 102 minutes.



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Doing Time

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“Convict.” Verb: to prove or find a person guilty. Noun: a person serving a prison sentence.

“Conviction”: an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence.

The title of the film Conviction is perfectly ambiguous, focusing on both the guilty verdict of the defendant in a murder case and on the unshakable belief of his sister that he is innocent. The movie is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, who spent 18 years earning a GED, a BA, and finally a law degree in order to get her brother released from prison, and who now serves as an attorney for the Innocence Project. Along the way she lost her marriage and fulltime custody of her children; her brother Kenny lost his relationship with his daughter, who was a toddler when he was arrested. As presented in the film, the case involveddirty politics, suborned witnesses, and the rush to remove criminal types from the community, even if they are not actually guilty. And it demonstrated the indefatigable love of a sister and a brother.

The film opens with a walk through the bloody murder scene, reminding the audience that a brutal crime has been committed, and a victim is dead. It's appropriate to remember the victim in any crime story. But convicting the wrong man is also a crime of violence, a crime often overlooked in the rush to convince voters that the district attorney's office is doing its job to keep criminals off the streets.

Police and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out.

After the murder, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is immediately brought in for questioning, because he has a record as a barroom brawler and petty thief. Kenny takes the arrest with the wisecracking aplomb of a man who is constantly hauled downtown every time a crime has been committed. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) arrives at the jail with the same longsuffering resignation of a sister who has done it all before. He is released, and all is forgotten — until two years later, when he is arrested for the murder and eventually convicted, with a sentence of life without parole.

The film uses flashbacks to show the kind of life Kenny and Betty Anne had as children. Their mother has nine children by seven men, and is often absent. As they grow up, they are in and out of foster homes and in and out of trouble, mostly trespassing and vandalism. Kenny in particular is seen as a wisecracking hothead, the kind of guy who has a biting sense of humor and makes everyone laugh, even when they're exasperated. Because of their difficult background, the two siblings are unusually close.

When Kenny is convicted, Betty Anne vows to get him out by earning a law degree. She doesn't even have a high school diploma, and she is often at the bottom of her class. Her husband leaves her, and eventually so do her sons, who choose to move in with their father because their mother is so focused on her brother. In many respects, when Kenny goes to prison, so do Betty Anne, her family, and Kenny's daughter.

During her legal studies, Betty Anne comes across a brand new line of evidence: DNA testing. She contacts Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, and the search is on to gain access to evidence that has been locked away for 18 years and possibly destroyed. As the movie tells it, far from serving the cause of justice, police officers and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out. Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) drily explains, "People don't like to admit when they've made a mistake."

One must recognize that this film is a dramatization, not an analytical report; one must allow for dramatic license in its telling of this particular story and its representation of the characters. Betty Anne Waters has said about the film, "The movie is so true to life. Not every scene happened, but every emotion happened." But the family of Katharina Brow, the woman Kenny Waters was accused of killing, have hired Gloria Allred to represent them in a suit for not presenting Brow in a better light.

A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole.

The film emphasizes a number of problems that actually exist in the criminal justice system, especially as it is applied to poor people. Too often, police and prosecutors justify a swift arrest and conviction with the "unshakable belief" that "if he isn't guilty of this, he's guilty of something." In the film, Kenny can't afford the $25,000 to hire a private attorney, so he uses a public defender, whose case load is too heavy to give any real attention to his clients. The prosecutor takes one look at Kenny's juvenile record and believes it is in the public's best interest to get him behind bars. This is not untypical of the system. In addition, like many small-time criminals accused of hefty violent crimes, the Kenny whom we see in the film is at the mercy of police officers and prosecuting attorneys who have the power to coerce testimonies from petty thugs and frightened acquaintances willing to lie to protect their own freedom. Juliette Lewis gives an astounding performance as the pathetic, broken-toothed former girlfriend who testifies against Kenny after investigators threaten her with losing custody of her child.

A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole. A person who is truly guilty can serve the minimum time, go before the parole board, express contrition and regret for the crime, and get out. A person who is not guilty must either lie and pretend to be sorry for the crime, or maintain his innocence and never get out, because parole boards never grant parole to convicts who do not acknowledge their remorse. Catch-22. If the inmate does decide to lie, that confession can be used against him if he ever earns the chance for a retrial. Consequently, convicts who have been wrongly accused of murder almost never get out.

The emergence of groups such as the Innocence Project, however, is changing the system. Kenny Waters was convicted because he had the same type of blood as the perpetrator, Type O. But O is the most common of blood types. It was easy to convict defendants on the strength of matching blood types, but DNA evidence is much more precise and individualized. Since DNA testing became admissible as evidence, 254 prisoners have been exonerated and released from prison. I personally know three people who spent two decades of their lives or more in prison for crimes they did not commit. If it weren't for the Innocence Project, they would still be behind bars.

But in many ways, they are still imprisoned. They have each lost 20 years of technology, job training, and social experience. Their children have grown up without them. Many such people have earned large financial settlements from the state, but no one can give back the time they lost. People like Betty Anne Waters and Barry Scheck are true heroes who understand the meaning of the word conviction.


Editor's Note: Review of "Conviction," directed by Tony Goldwyn. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 106 minutes.



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