business news in context, analysis with attitude

I step into this minefield with a little bit of trepidation....but apparently not enough to stop me from shooting my mouth off.

(And I even think there is a business lesson here. Just hang in with me for a minute.)

I was in Wisconsin this week for a speech, and it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the news and the conversation there is largely focused on the political standoff between the Governor, who would like to see legislation passed that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees, and those same public employees - especially teachers - who, not surprisingly want to protect what is theirs.

To be completely transparent about this ... I should begin by saying that Mrs. Content Guy is a public school teacher, and a member of the union. One of the reasons that I am able to do MNB and live a reasonably autonomous life is her health benefits package. So I am neither dispassionate, nor completely objective, on this issue.

That said, it seems to me that the bigger problem is the fact that collective bargaining rights have removed any semblance of a meritocracy from the teaching profession, at least in the public schools. Your union negotiates a contract, and you get your raises and benefits regardless of how good you are. It is hard to justify any such system.

(I will not presume to speak for Mrs. Content Guy, but I think it is important to point out that she is not a lifetime educator. She was a stockbroker and banker before leaving the business world for a decade to raise our kids - a move, I would argue, that is the best investment we ever made. So she is, I believe, unusually enlightened on the subject of management-labor relations and its impact on the classroom. But I digress...)

I’m not sure it is on purpose, but I do think that we are in a period right now in which teachers are being demonized - portrayed as having benefits that are too generous, a work schedule that is too easy, and an entitled attitude that - thanks to tenure - does not promote the finest educational interests. While I think it is fair to say that some teachers are guilty of some of the above, not all are. The problem with the system is the inability to distinguish between the two, or do anything about it.

( also occurs to me that the people who are advocating the taking away of certain rights by legislative fiat would be the first group to stand up and scream if rights they they thought were intrinsic to their well-being were in danger of being taken away by legislators who did not share their values. This kind of legislative myopia is not unique, nor new. But it is sort of amusing. But again, I digress...)

Here’s what I keep thinking about.

As the same time as teachers are being criticized, and with some justification, we also live in a world where you often hear sentences like the following: “The problem with our cultural values is that teachers make $50,000 a year, and some guy who can hit a curve ball successfully 30 percent of time can make $10 million a year.”

I don’t know many people who would disagree with that comment.

The other thing you hear a lot about when the conversation turns to education is the need to attract better, smarter people to the profession - to value our teachers to the point where a person, faced with the choice between being an investment banker or a high school teacher, might choose the latter.

Now, I don’t expect teachers to make investment banker money. Not going to happen.

But I do think we have to be careful about how we frame the issue, and how we discuss it.

And not just in the newspapers, online and on the steps of the state capitol. This subject hit home for me this week when I was waiting for a plane in the Milwaukee airport. A family of four was sitting nearby, and the vitriol about teachers that was coming from the parents’ mouths was startling ... and their kids were hanging on every word. Pity the poor teacher who, now having been totally undermined, now has to deal with those children in the classroom.

I know that many state economies are a mess, and that political and governmental leaders are looking for solutions ... or, at the very least, ways in which to prevent the situation from getting any worse.

Still, we need to be keep our eyes on the bigger picture, and understand that we are talking about fundamental cultural values. The dollar we cut today, or the profession we devalue tomorrow, could set in motion societal events from which it could be difficult to recover.

The sustainable strategy we have to reach for is a more responsible use of tax dollars and a educational system that reaches for the highest possible goals, helping our children learn not just the fundamentals, but also how to reason, to think, to keep an open mind.

As in business, the tactics that seem most effective for the moment may not be the ones that best serve the long-term strategic goals. And while I’m wandering into a minefield here, my only real suggestion is that we exercise care in our rhetoric, care in our thinking, and care in how we view both the short-term exigencies and the long-term imperatives.

MyWebGrocer NGA Campaign Okay, let’s get into something a little less controversial...

I heartily recommend the new Jane Leavy book, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America’s Childhood.”

Leavy, who also wrote the fabulous “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” is both candid and compassionate as she examines the life of one of the most magical names in the history of sports, a personality with a dark side that undermined both how he played the game and how he lived his life. While never suggesting that Mantle was anything but responsible for his own behavior, Leavy also makes the argument that in many ways, Mantle was let down by his parents, by the New York Yankees management that exploited him, and by a culture that puts too much of a premium on athletic excellence. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy, and compelling from beginning to end - he was, to be sure, a deeply flawed individual, a philanderer and alcoholic, but he also was plagued by injuries to an almost unimaginable extent. (Leavy does a great job of explaining of precisely how much pain Mantle played in for most of his career.)

“The Last Boy” is an extraordinary read, punctuated by Leavy’s own encounters with Mantle, and leavened by hundreds of recollections by Mantle’s family, friends and teammates. I won’t pretend that I had a rooting interest in the subject matter - I was born in 1954 in Greenwich Village and raised in the New York suburbs, and Mickey Mantle was a magical figure to me, dominating the newspaper headlines and even somehow reaching through the tiny black-and-white television screen to grab my imagination. When we’d play stickball up at Murray Avenue School, I can remember modeling my hitting stance on Mantle’s (not that I could hit much, but it was a rich fantasy life).

Reading “The Last Boy” made me think back to a trade show I attended many years ago (I don’t remember which one it was, nor when it precisely took place), when I actually got to shake Mantle’s hand and get a signed baseball. In decades of covering such shows, it is the only time I have ever waited on line to meet someone. I still have the ball. and the picture ... which you can see above ... that shows a very young me shaking Mantle’s hand.

Had a wonderful white wine this week - the 2009 Paringa Estate Chardonnay, from Australia, which is a wonderfully balanced wine that is not too fruity, not too creamy...but just right. Great stuff, and I think you can probably get it for about $15 a bottle.

The Oscars are Sunday night, and I have two lists...the movies and people I’d vote for, and the movies and people I think will win.

Best Picture (my vote): 127 Hours
Best Picture (will win): The King’s Speech

Best Actor (my vote): James Franco, 127 Hours
Best Actor (will win): Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Best Actress (my vote): Natalie Portman Black Swan
Best Actress (will win): Natalie Portman Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor (my vote): Geoffrey Rush The King’s Speech
Best Supporting Actor (will win): Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best Supporting Actress (my vote): Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Best Supporting Actress (will win): Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Best Director (my vote): Danny Boyle, 127 Hours (not even nominated!)
Best Director (will win): Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

Best Original Screenplay (my vote): David Seidler, The King’s Speech
Best Original Screenplay (will win): David Seidler, The King’s Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay (my vote): Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Best Adapted Screenplay (will win): Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Unknown, the new Liam Neeson Euro-thriller, continues the star’s unlikely transformation into a fiftysomething action hero. The process really began a couple of years ago with Taken, in which Neeson played a distraught father cutting a bloody swath through the seedy side of Paris searching for his kidnapped daughter. It was a surprise hit, and now, in Unknown, Neeson plays a doctor visiting Berlin with his wife, played January Jones; he is in a car accident, wakes up after having been in a coma for a few days, and discovers that someone else (Aidan Quinn) seems to have taken over his life ... and even his wife doesn’t seem to known him.

Probably the best description of Unknown is that it is a solid B-movie thriller ... and I mean that as a compliment. Neeson is great, there are terrific supporting performances by Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, and while the movie’s denouement is not a total surprise, there are enough twists and turns to keep the viewer engaged.

It is what it is. And what it is, is perfect for a February evening at the movies.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.

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