'Shop Talk': NBA Christmas Showdown For Heat, Lakers

The Barbershop guys discuss the economy, the NBA's Christmas Day matchup between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, and what Santa will leave for them. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jimi Izrael, a freelance writer and author; Arsalan Iftikhar, a civil rights attorney and editor; Pablo Torre, a reporter for Sports Illustrated; and Lester Spence, assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our weekly visit to the "Barbershop," where the guys talk about what's in the news, and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for their Christmas Eve shape-up are Jimi Izrael, a freelance writer and author; Arsalan Iftikhar, a civil rights attorney and editor; Pablo Torre, a reporter for Sports Illustrated; and Lester Spence, assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Author and Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Ho, ho, ho, and welcome to the shop.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Feliz Navidad.

Mr. IZRAEL: Making it work, right? What's up, Dr. Spence? Haven't had you in for a minute.

Dr. LESTER SPENCE (Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): I know. It's been a minute. It's good to be here. You know how you would do it.

Mr. IZRAEL: So Michel, guys, it's like this: 2010 is just about spent, and characterizing it - it's not going to be hard, right? The economy was on top of everybody's mind in just about every way this year. Now, while we've seen a bit of a rebound from the Great Recession, too few folks have found relief on the job front, and too many are still straining to make ends meet, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you all this. I mean, for those of you who will be having holiday get-togethers later today and tomorrow or over the weekend, is the economy still something that people are talking about?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Attorney): Yeah. I mean...

Mr. IZRAEL: Dr. Spence? Oh, I'm sorry, A-Train, jump in first. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, no. I mean - it's all right. Well, I think with an unemployment rating hovering around 10 percent, you know, with a population, you know, around 300 million, that's 30 million Americans who are currently without work. And so I think that means that all of us, you know, all Americans, including, you know, everyone here in the Barbershop, at least knows someone who's out of work, looking for work, you know, has been affected by the economy.

And so I absolutely think that it's something that, you know, effects every family in America today.

Ms. IZRAEL: Dr. Spence?

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah. And when you think about it, it's not just - so the unemployment rate is 9.7, but that only includes people who are actively working, can't find jobs. So when you think about people who are either underemployed or people who have stopped working, you're talking about a much higher percentage.

And then when you're talking about black and Latino populations, you're talking about a higher percentage even above that. So, I mean, we're feeling it in a number of different ways. So I'm actually in Detroit now as we speak, and it's a different space. It's a different space because people are just - you know, it affects how people are shopping, whether they're shopping. And there is this tension in the air that you can cut with a knife. It's just really sad to see.

MARTIN: You know, Lester, though, to that point - and inevitably, I think some of the conversation does loop back around to the administration, to the president. And, you know, there is a lot of hater-ation afoot, you know, people who do not want the president to succeed. I think that's really clear. And then there are people who are just disappointed in him, who do very much want him to succeed and are disappointed for a whole array of reasons.

I just have a short clip from President Obama. This was after the midterm elections. He was asked, you know, whether you think the midterms were a referendum on his performance. I'll just play that clip.

President BARACK OBAMA: We've stabilized the economy. We've got job growth in the private sectors. But people all across America aren't feeling that progress. They don't see it. And they understand that I'm the president of the United States, and that my core responsibility is making sure that we've got an economy that's growing, a middle class that feels secure that jobs are being created. And so I think I've got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm. He got that right. Thanks for that, Michel.

So, I got to ask everybody: Are we better off today than we were two years ago? Pablo?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. I mean, you know, for me, in the macro sense, you know, the specter of an international banking crisis appears to have subsided, and economists are identifying some reassuring metrics about 2011 being even better than 2010. But to me, especially with President Obama enacting the largest tax cut in almost a decade, you know, I just can't shake the idea of inequality, you know, I mean, the varying degrees of suffering.

I mean, for me, I live downtown lower Manhattan, pass by Wall Street pretty often, and the percentage of Americans below the poverty line is still 14.3 percent, the highest in almost 20 years. Median household income has fallen about 5 percent since 2000. And all those statistics basically mean the gap between the rich and the poor has only increased over the past decade. And that's, I think, what, you know, we used 2010 as kind of a symbolic turning point. I mean, that's what I look at.

So in the holiday season especially, what's thrown into relief for me is just the inequality and the idea of these folks on Wall Street, and their bonuses and all of that - and still the rest of America, which is so far behind that they're living a sort of different life, a different financial species altogether because of that drastic gulf.

Ms. ISRAEL: Hmm. Lester?

Dr. SPENCE: Twenty-five percent of Americans who own homes owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth - even though Obama created this like, this loan-modification program in order to create conditions where more people could stay in their home. I don't know anyone who's applied for that modification program who actually has gotten their loans modified.

So there's this sense of anxiety that goes from people who are older, with stable jobs, all the way to my students. One of my smartest students - one of my smartest students I've ever taught - 4.0 student, Johns Hopkins - emails me, she still hasn't been able to find a job.

So under these circumstances, it's really, really hard to see - either in the aggregate level or at the micro level, at the small level - how things are better now than they used to be.

Mr. TORRE: And also, just the types of jobs that people are getting, I mean, with temporary jobs becoming so much more popular now - I mean, employers have leverage. I mean, they're treating - it's getting better, yes. But they're still treating a lot of middle- and lower-class, adult employees like, in fact, unpaid college interns, in a certain way. I mean, there's no guarantee for jobs. It's hard to get a job that sticks and really find security when you don't have any leverage, and you're really looking for a bit of faith on the part of these businesses.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know - and in Cleveland, it kind of reminds me of the Reagan era in terms of it's harder than ever to be broke. I mean, during the Carter years - look, now follow me over here. During the Carter years, you could be broke, but you could still eat. You know, but when Ronald Reagan took office, man, you were eating like, the same soup - the same can of soup like, all week, you know. And that's what it feels like right about now. It feels like, you know, not only are you broke, but it's real tough being broke.

I mean, it's like you on that three-for-one Big Mac joint like nothing, because it's like - that's the way we're living. That's the way people are living nowadays. It's real serious.

MARTIN: Yes.

Mr. TORRE: That's the new normal.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: That's - I think a lot of people would agree with that. I mean, there were other people who would argue that at least there's an extensive safety net now, and people aren't going hungry like the way they used to be. Like if this was 50 years ago, people would just - but, so Arsalan, you know, you were an early Obama supporter.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I think this is a question I would like to ask you. I mean, looking at the session that the - the congressional session that just ended, OK? By every measure, this was an incredibly productive session, OK? Just taking the lame-duck session, if you look at the two years of the congressional session, you're talking about passing health care.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: You're talking about passing - stimulus package.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You're talking about the mortgage-overhaul program that Lester talked about, even though a lot of people would say it's not been as effective as they think it should have been. I mean, START treaty - all these things that he - and working with - obviously, congressional leaders were able to get accomplished. But I still want to ask: Do you think that things are on the right track or the wrong track?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think they're on the wrong track. I think that, you know, at the end of the day, you could have these legislative wins but, you know, if that's not resonating with the general public, if the general public is seeing, you know, the Republicans out there with their soundbites, you know, saying all - you know, talking about socialism and being obstructionists and things like that, you know, I think that's what led to the tidal-wave shellacking - quote-unquote - you know, in the midterm elections.

You know, it's been something, you know, looking back two years - you know, in 2008, we were on the verge of a national financial collapse. We had the Lehman Brothers and Bank of America and all these banks. Had we not rescued them, we would be looking like, you know, Greece or Sierra Leone right now, economically.

And, you know, obviously, we've not gotten the unemployment rate to the rates that we want to get them to. So I agree with Pablo - at the macro level, things are better. But at the micro level, you know, for those of us who are, you know, just out there trying to make rent every month, it's not, you know, it's not resonating.

And so I think that there is a disconnect between the administration's legislative successes, and the way that that translates to the successes of everyday Americans.

MARTIN: But you still think that that means the country's on the wrong track?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think so. I mean, like I said before, I think that, you know, when Mitch McConnell and the 42 Senate Republicans basically, you know, are in lock-step, saying we are going to be obstructionist on every single piece of legislation that you put before us unless these Bush-era tax cuts are extended, including, you know, 9-11 first responders' - you know - health benefits, you know, it shows that our government is more hyper-partisan and more divided than ever been.

MARTIN: Yeah. But some people might make the opposite argument. They might say that, you know, politics is the means by which government happens. That's the compromise. It's like making sausage.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: You know, you don't want to watch the sausage being made, but guess what? The sausage is being made.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: But the thing is that, you know...

MARTIN: You just don't buy that.

Mr. IFTIKHAR:...before the, you know, before the lame duck and the midterms, you know, when the Democrats had a 59 - you know - 41 majority in the Senate, they still had trouble getting the 60 votes needed - the one vote extra needed -in order to pass legislation.

I assure you if the Republicans had a 59-seat majority, they would be ramming things through, you know, without even asking the Democrats. We have so many, you know, Blue - we have the Max Baucuses and the Ben Nelsons who essentially are, you know, holding a lot of these major pieces of legislation hostage within their own Democratic caucus.

MARTIN: But people would say that's because they just don't agree, and that is reflective of the fact that there's a broader range of ideology within the Democratic Party than there is within the Republican Party...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think...

MARTIN: ...and it has to be negotiated. That's what - so Lester, I mean, I'm just posing the argument. That's the argument. And so Lester, what do you say to that?

Dr. SPENCE: Well, this is the challenge - and I think you're right. The Republican Party is doing what they do. They've stated what their goals are, and they're working as a really strong oppositional party. And they actually should be applauded, in some ways, for that.

The problem is that the Democratic Party has not actually stepped up with a compelling, overall narrative which would increase people's faith in and support for government intervention in dealing with the issues that we're facing now. Right?

That's the problem. Because you've got this vacuum, where Obama isn't forceful enough in saying, OK, wealth inequality is bad for the country, and it's even bad for the wealthy, and that's why we need government. You don't have anything like that. So in the vacuum steps the Tea Party and all of a sudden, they're able to, basically, control the means by which we're debating.

MARTIN: But could I just ask you this question before we move on, Lester?

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think, reasonably, one could argue if President Obama didn't argue anything else during his election campaign, that is exactly the point that he argued. He argued a robust, governmental approach to key problems. And that is what he campaigned on. And one could argue that that's exactly what he tried to accomplish, particularly with health-care overhaul, OK?

Now, so their argument is it's not that he didn't make the argument. It's that the public doesn't agree with it - at least, the public which is represented by the Tea Party. Do you just not buy that? Or are you saying that he just didn't make the case forcefully enough?

Dr. SPENCE: I'm saying that he had two goals. One was what you just stated, but the other goal was to create this bipartisan consensus. Right? So, for example, with health care, he actually - he's the one who keeps the public option from being brought on the floor, because he negotiates it away in private deals with corporations, right?

When economists suggested that the stimulus should be at least three times larger than what he proposed, he proposed a smaller bill because he wanted to get consensus. That's really the challenge.

So yes, he's accomplished a number of legislative gains, but he should have -given where we are, and given what the Republicans do, he should have been far more forceful in articulating a larger story that makes people believe in government again.

MARTIN: All right. Very briefly, before we move onto the next thing, can I just ask briefly: Right track or wrong track? That's the question that Jimi asked. Arsalan, you said wrong track.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I did.

MARTIN: That's what you say? And Lester what do you say?

Dr. SPENCE: Wrong track.

MARTIN: And Pablo, what do you say?

Mr. TORRE: I'm going to say an extremely cynical right track.

MARTIN: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I don't know what that means, but OK. Jimi, what do you say?

Mr. IZRAEL: It might be the right track, but the wrong train. It's hard to tell from where I'm at.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: In the boxcar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm visiting with the "Barbershop" guys on Christmas Eve - with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Pablo Torre and Lester Spence.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right. So we're talking about the economy for a while, but the real shaking and jumping gets under way tomorrow, when Miami takes on the L.A. Lakers.

Now, it's been one of the most-touted match-ups of the season, ever since LeBron joined the Heat, Michel.

MARTIN: That's true. But I think - are others looking forward to this? I mean, this was kind of a...

Mr. TORRE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...the whole match-up, was it not?

Dr. SPENCE: Come on, Michel,

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, why not?

Mr. IZRAEL: I'll be there.

Mr. TORRE: Listen, talk about a guy - all right. Narrative problems: LeBron James. All right? Now, listen.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, Pablo. All right.

MARTIN: OK, Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: A guy who has not sold himself in the right way. I want to - I mean, first off, let's get this out of the way first. The Heat and the Lakers are both really, really good at basketball. All right? The Heat were written off at first. They're going to be in it, they're going to go deep into the playoffs. The Lakers, I think, are going to come out of the West. That's not really breaking news.

For me, the story with this game is really, the story of the season so far and the summer - in that we've cast Kobe Bryant as, basically, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and LeBron James as the Darth Vader character who's betrayed us all and sold off his potential and hope and promise and all of that, to join the Dark Side.

(Soundbite of Jimi imitating Darth Vader's breathing)

Mr. TORRE: What I would like to say preemptively...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: What I would like to say preemptively, before the narratives crop up for this game, is that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and Michael Jordan - and pretty much every athlete we really love - is incredibly arrogant. They're all arrogant, all right?

LeBron James just did something that a lot of people would. I'm not saying he did it the right way. The difference between a really arrogant guy in Kobe Bryant, and a really arrogant guy in LeBron James - that LeBron James has worse PR people. That's the difference.

Kobe Bryant had an alleged sexual assault. He had numerous problems with his team back in the day. But because LeBron James did it in a - the age of social media, and in a way that was more drastic than anyone else, with that TV special, he's vilified more. And that's understandable. But listen, Kobe Bryant is not exactly the hero we're looking for. He's not Obi-Wan Kenobi. They all have flaws. Let's not confuse moral rectitude with basketball virtue.

MARTIN: Well, what about the game tomorrow, Pablo. What's up?

Mr. TORRE: I mean, well, the Lakers are good. I mean, I pick the Lakers in this.

MARTIN: You pick the Lakers?

Mr. TORRE: I think the Heat are going to roll along, but they're not their yet. They'll be there in playoff time but right now, they're getting the kinks out. They've gone on a great run, but the Lakers are too deep right now.

MARTIN: Jimi, I couldn't tell: Were you snoring, or were you doing a Darth Vader impression?

Mr. IZRAEL: I was doing Darth Vader. I was...

MARTIN: You were doing Darth Vader.

Dr. Spence: He was doing both.

MARTIN: OK. I wasn't sure if there was some sinus issues there. Well, so, Jimi...

Mr. IZRAEL: Officer Pablo, I find your cynicism disturbing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jimi, who do you like, LeBron versus Kobe?

Mr. IZRAEL: I like Miami because I'm a LeBron fan. So I like Miami.

MARTIN: All right. Arsalan, what about you?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, I think the Lakers win this game, but I think the greater story, of course, is my beloved Boston Celtics, who...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...who Sports Illustrated and ESPN both have at the top of the NBA power rankings. Everybody thought the addition of Shaquille O'Neal was going to be a flop. It looks like Boston's the team to beat right now in the NBA. Let's not forget.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. My favorite story of the week was Shaquille conducting...

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. The Boston Pops?

MARTIN: ... at the Boston Pops.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: That was awesome.

MARTIN: That was the funniest thing I've seen in a while. Lester, I'm sorry. I forgot to ask you. So who do you like, Lakers or Heat?

Dr. SPENCE: I'm pulling for Detroit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. You'll be pulling for a long time, homie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And with that, Jimi Izrael is a freelance writer, author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He also blogs. He was with us from Detroit. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, editor and founder of themuslimguy.com. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studio.

So thank you everybody. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas to you all.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. TORRE: Merry Christmas.

Dr. SPENCE: Thanks.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Merry Christmas to everyone who's celebrating. Let's talk more on Monday.

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