Meathead Start

Kids and smokers agree: Rob Reiner is a clear and present danger.

"They've done something extraordinary," Rob Reiner told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week. "Considering it's the biggest county in America, there's a lot of folks looking at what L.A. is doing." The filmmaker and activist was referring to a new plan to provide free pre-school for every 3- and 4-year-old in Los Angeles County, courtesy of funds from a statewide tobacco tax.

The revolutionary pre-school concept joins two trends that have caught the imaginations of both policy wonks and the general public. The first is "early child-development" theory, which holds that the human noggin is fully formed within the first three years (or, depending on the availability of good day care, five years) of life - a notion that grows more popular the more its premises are shown to be false.

The second is the decades-long development of excise taxes designed to discourage smoking. California (which had one of the nation's highest excise rates even before the smokes-to-schools Proposition 10 was passed in 1998) now collects 50 cents per pack to keep kids in class and off Teletubbies - certainly the most creative yoking together of source and beneficiary since Iran-Contra.

But more important than either of these civic efforts is what Prop 10 has done for Reiner himself. From merely being another Hollywood player, he has now become a quasi-governmental official - Chairman of the California Children and Families Commission - with a leadership role in disbursing $700 million in annual tobacco tax revenues. This is just the latest feather in the cap of the successful director, producer, actor and intellectual beacon (to Hillary Clinton during her village-taking days). It's common to marvel at how far Reiner has risen above early typecasting as Mike "Meathead" Stivic, the sanctimonious mooch responsible for so many of Archie Bunker's most painful hours on the TV classic All In the Family. (You can track Reiner's rising profile by how his relationship to Prop 10 is described in the press; while early reports called him the "driving force" or "inspiration" behind the measure, the Chronicle now designates him the law's "author.")

On closer inspection, though, it's not always easy to see the difference between the freeloader who lectured Archie on women's lib and overpopulation while helping himself to the Bunker groceries (a practice that no doubt contributed to the Hollywood triple threat's relentless supersizing), and the tiresome busybody who can't stop haranguing us with obscure data points like the fact that smoking is bad for you and that children should be fed and changed on a regular basis.

More alarmingly, the fully grown Reiner has access to a fridge far more capacious than Archie's, and his motivations have grown, if anything, more narrowly personal. In describing his motivations for Prop 10, the Meathead consistently describes how his adherence to the first-three-years cult came out of therapy after the breakup of his first marriage. "It's no great revelation that my early experiences as a child informed my relationship to others," the son of funnyman Carl Reiner confides to Horizon magazine.

It's quite a leap, however, to extrapolate from a tough Hollywood childhood to a wholesale belief in the early-years theory, "enriched" learning environments, a half-decade window of mental "hardwiring," and the efficacy of pumping Mozart into the uterus. The early-years assumption has taken some knocks in recent years, most notably the publication of John T. Bruer's The Myth of the First Three Years, which argues that cognitive development occurs throughout life, and that much of the effort spent on French for tots could more profitably be spent addressing the more basic needs of kids. Rather than addressing the Bruer argument, early-years proponents have typically shifted emphasis, cautioning readers against "taking to heart [the book's] negative messages" and redoubling calls for Early Head Start and other dubious attempts to pump babies up. Since everybody agrees infants and toddlers need attention, why ask what type of attention?

That close-enough-for-rock-n-roll attitude informs Prop 10's other plank - reducing smoking through excise taxes. California, whose per-capita cigarette consumption is the second lowest in the nation, was a poor test case for this method, as well as a poor source of tobacco-based revenue. Prop 10 funds are parceled among California's 58 counties according to birthrate. Los Angeles County's ambitious program is a direct result of its population's fertility; other counties, according to the Chronicle are having a harder time getting such efforts off the ground in the face of declining tobacco revenues.

Nor is it clear that those declining revenues represent the decline in smoking Prop 10's proponents claim. A Tax Foundation study done in 1998, when Golden State smokers were only burdened by the earlier Proposition 99 excise tax, found that 9.3 percent of statewide cigarette consumption was accounted for by smuggled product. In the intervening years, U.S. tobacco sales for the Mexican market have continued their drastic increase (most likely for resale to California); cigarette sales in neighboring Nevada have climbed 32 percent since 1995. Since 2000, California Board of Equalization agents have been finding an increasing number of counterfeit tax stamps on cigarettes being sold in state. None of these phenomena prove Californians have taken to smuggling smokes in a big way, but together they suggest caution before believing Reiner's claim that declining tobacco revenues reflect equal declines in smoking rates.

Also vague is the legal basis for taking cigarette money to pay for early development programs. Proposition 10 withstood a 1999 legal challenge from the California Association of Retail Tobacconists, which argued that tobacco taxes and children's health were unrelated issues. The judge in that case ruled that second-hand smoke effects on children and tobacco use by expectant mothers provided a "credible" link between the two. In practice, however, it's hard to see where under-five programs at Orange County Boys' and Girls' Clubs fit into this equation.

None of which bothers Reiner, who crows about Prop 10's success like the Meathead watching Archie get a kiss from Sammy Davis Jr. In fact, far from being an older version of Mike Stivic, the aging Reiner may actually be worse. At least the Meathead was on the side of the angels when it came to racism, chauvinism, and the war in Vietnam. But who will give the raspberry to this preening Beverly Hills honcho who twists taxation policy for discredited therapeutic ends and squanders funds on feel-good programs whose failure will carry consequences only for the nameless?

Sadly, Reiner is right about one thing. Many people will be watching what L.A. County is doing. Even without that county's windfall, officials in other areas are looking to start similar programs. The Chronicle quotes one San Mateo authority who is already projecting a program that "will need funds from outside the Proposition 10 revenue stream." As tobacco revenues dry up nationwide, more officials will look to this stream for the seed money (or in Reiner's phrase "glue money") for costly programs of dubious value, which will ultimately be funded by people who have never smoked anything more than a Popeye Candy Stick. These are some of the dangers of subjecting public policy to the mid-life crises of bloated Hollywood bigshots.

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