Rob Reiner: Ceaseless in California

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, March 3, 2006

Rob Reiner talks at about 165 miles per hour. He tosses out facts, findings and strategies as if at any moment he'll run out of time to make the next, vital point.

This actor, director and producer whose success defines the term "box office" is on a dual crusade: to change the direction of politics and to improve the performance of kids in schools. He bids, someday, to be the Democrats' answer to Ronald Reagan.

He is, like Reagan, the opposite of a dilettante. He's thinking of the long term -- he's decided not to run for anything this year. He wants to end conservative ideology's long run, which the Gipper inaugurated. Reiner hopes to convince his fellow citizens, first in California and then in the nation, that they can get a return on their tax dollars.

His current crusade is Proposition 82, an initiative on California's June ballot that would provide an estimated $2.4 billion a year to guarantee preschool for every 4-year-old in the state. The initiative would pay for this by increasing the state's top tax rate, currently 9.3 percent, to 11 percent for couples earning more than $800,000 a year and individuals earning over $400,000.

I sat down for coffee with Reiner this week, the day after the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page assailed the initiative as "Meathead Economics." It was the second time in a few months that the Journal's editorial writers mentioned that Reiner had played Mike "Meathead" Stivic, the house liberal on "All in the Family." The 1970s television program introduced America to Archie Bunker, who may have been the first Reagan Democrat and with whom Meathead was in constant political battle.

The Journal suggested that heavy taxes on the rich would drive more of them from California. Reiner replied by noting that his initiative would, on average, cost the wealthy about $13,000 after they took advantage of the federal deductibility of state taxes. "I don't imagine people moving to Nevada over that kind of money," he said.

Conservative leaders dislike his initiative, Reiner said, because "they have cemented the notion that raising taxes for any purpose is tantamount to murdering someone." Taxpayers are indeed reluctant to support general tax increases, he said, but "the American public has no problem raising taxes if it's for something good." He thinks that California, which started the tax revolt in the late 1970s, could inaugurate a new era of public investment in things that matter.

And preschool matters. Hardheaded economists have argued that of all the investments government can make to improve educational outcomes and future opportunities, preschool may be the most efficient. James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Pedro Carneiro have noted that when early chances to form human abilities are missed, "remediation is costly, and full remediation is often prohibitively costly."

Or, as Reiner says: "A lot of educators say they'd swap 12th grade for pre-K." He reels off studies showing that the money spent in the earliest years of a child's life can save the public schools substantial sums later on by improving student performance.

Reiner ran into a flap last week because a state commission he heads recently spent $23 million on ads touting the importance of early education. He took a leave as chairman of the First 5 California Children and Families Commission last Friday to try to tamp down the controversy over whether state money had been indirectly used to support a future ballot proposition.

The larger controversy is over how California voters have used the initiative process to mandate programs that tie their state's budget into knots. The Los Angeles Times editorialized last year against "Proposition World, a place where every cause is more important than the last, and they all come with their very own tax increase."

To his credit, Reiner does not dismiss this argument. His side tried to expand preschool programs through the normal legislative process, he says, but earlier voter-approved propositions mandating supermajorities for tax increases meant the initiative process was often the only recourse for social reformers.

Reiner, who turns 59 next week, is not the first actor to try to gain political prominence through an initiative related to kids. A fellow named Arnold Schwarzenegger got a lot of attention in 2002 by sponsoring an initiative mandating new spending on after-school programs. He happens to be governor now.

But preschool is, by most measures, a more cost-effective investment. And if Reiner can provoke a debate on taxing, spending and the value of preschool, he will earn himself a political Oscar. After many years of trying, Meathead might yet persuade Archie Bunker to give liberals a second look.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company