Categories
Misc

Declaration of Independence

Remember the joy of being young, the joy of discovery? 

Remember rushing outside and finding everything so utterly fascinating?

The pleasure of moving your body. The smell of the outdoors. Each conversation an adventure. 

I’m beginning to forget. 

I’ve been spending so much time with computers lately. First for class, now for work. I keep in touch with my scattered friends through the computer. I read news through the computer. My most important organs are now my brain for thinking and my hands for typing.

Our bodies deserve to be more than just vehicles to transport our brains from meeting to meeting.

I declare independence from:

  1. Being so social-movement focused.
  2. Obsessing over news.
  3. Viewing the internet as a consumer rather than producer.
  4. Facebook
  5. Google Reader
  6. Smartphone notifications
  7. Digitally-mediated interaction

Sure, I’ll still be online. But no longer will I spend a bulk of my time on google reader and facebook. No longer will I consume much more than I create. 

That means more blogging. More writing. More going outside and walking. Less reading facebook (only check it once a day!), less reading Google Reader (I’m on a week-long hiatus!), less politics. The left is interesting and all, but my dreams should be full of other topics as well. I have other interests! It’s time to activate them.

Time for each day to be an adventure again.

Categories
Left

The Rolling Jubilee and the People’s Bailout

A conservative friend of mine asked about the Rolling Jubilee effort by Strike Debt (A project of Occupy Wall Street). Here’s what I said:

I don’t instinctively get the Rolling Jubilee, Rek. Then again, Occupy Wall Street comes from a different tradition than I come from, and my doubts about them have been proven wrong time and time again, starting from the beginning.

Here’s what I make of it:

  • There’s a prefigurative element to it. You can see that from the name, even. The Jubilee is a biblical reference – and a concept that people have been talking about for a while. Just as the encampments tried to be the society of mutual aid and solidarity of the future, this is supposed to be an enticing sneak preview of a possible world to come.
  • There’s a name-and-shame piece to it. There’s a narrative in American thought that has a really harsh view on debt – failure to pay debts is a moral failing for individuals. Meanwhile, there’s no stigma to corporations failing to pay debts – they just file for bankruptcy as a matter of course and keep going. This has been a theme of various strands of Occupy for a long time – see (my favorite chant) “Banks Got Bailed Out / We Got Sold Out”.
  • There’s a media/promotional aspect to this: The jubilee is a project of Strike Debt, which is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Strike Debt does a lot of other cool stuff, most notably the Debt Resistors Manual. I’ve read the manual – it’s surprisingly and notably practical for everyday use. The Jubilee is a way of calling attention to both the issue of debt, and also Strike Debt’s other work.
  • There’s a policy aspect to this. The fact that people can buy distressed debt this cheaply ties into our larger broken banking system. The banks are never going to get their full money back from these distressed debt holders. Instead of writing it down in their books, however, they’ve kept up the fiction that they’ll get 100% of their returns back. They do this for a few reasons, such as getting a better position in bargaining with the government, desire to seem well-capitalized in the wake of the financial crash, and fear of initiatives such as this. This is holding back the recovery, because we need a massive deleveraging of debt before things can get really moving again. (In other words, we have a demand-side problem because of the recession. This demand-side problem isn’t helped by families paying down debt rather than buying consumer goods).
  • There’s a tie in with housing policy (which Obama has been pretty awful on). Millions and millions of homeowners are “underwater” on their mortgages. That means the amount they owe is more than the house is worth. If they were companies, they would just default on the loan, the house would get seized, and they’d get out ahead. Mortgages are non-recourse loans, so banks can’t seize anything more than the house itself. Thing is, these people can walk away from those homes as well. It’s the economically rational (and legal!) thing to do. The problem: people are sentimentally attached to their homes, and there’s this whole Tea Party movement that arose around the idea that “losers” have a duty to pay back their debt. (Again, I find this whole moralization of debt to be disturbing. Taking out loans is a business transaction, with penalties if you default. Sometimes it just makes more sense to choose to default and pay the penalties).
  • Banks are acting really evil. Refinancing a mortgage is a normal thing that could and should happen if you are underwater. Right now, though, the banks are refusing to let people refinance. In fact, they will sell foreclosed homes, as is their right, in auction. However, they won’t sell those homes at any price to people/organizations who plan on re-selling those homes at the same price back to the family. Let me say that again in different terms. Family A owes $300,000 on a house that is worth $100,000. Bank B won’t let them refinance. Bank B  kicks them out, and sells the house for $95,000 in auction. However, Bank B refuses to sell that house back to the family for $95,000. It demands that anyone buying the house sign a document pledging never to sell that house back to the family. It’s all just so vindictive.
  • This has the potential to be awesome on its own terms. We can use this leverage (buying lots of debt for little money) to do disproportionate good in the world! And if it works, it will put into the place the deleveraging that the banks are desperately cheating and trying not to have happen. Even if the “virality” doesn’t kick in, and it fizzles out, we will have done good for the people who do get their debt forgiven.

I’m from the tradition of “electoral politics and policy are the path to victory”,  so I’m not instinctively inclined to cheer this on. But cheer it on I will! This could be really cool, and if it puts attention on the malfeasance of the banks, or gets people excited about the Debt Resistance Manual, then I’m quite happy.

Hope that all makes sense, would love to hear your thoughts.

Categories
Misc

Election Thoughts

Copied from a mail I sent a friend.

I’m most excited about Elizabeth Warren. She’s one of that special breed of person who rarely get elected to anything, much less Senator. 

1. She’s one of the smartest minds thinking about banking and finance policy. And now she’s a senator. This isn’t someone who can be bamboozled by lobbyists or think tanks. 

2. Since she’s the expert on finance and banking, other senators will follow her lead and aks her advice. 

3. The banks fear her. 

4. She wants to cut all subsidies to fossil fuels. Is a strong voice for our clean energy future. 

5. As an academic, she wrote this article: http://www.democracyjournal.org/5/6528.php?page=all . It was so spot on that it caused a federal agency to be born. Elizabeth Warren knows how to wield non-electoral, non-governmental power. That’s huge. 

She’s the Louis Brandeis of our time and I’m so excited! 

Other cool things: 

* Every Marriage Equality ballot measure was a win for our team. 

* Drug war might start winding down soon 

* Obamacare will happen 

* The Democrats in the Senate just got markedly more liberal. 

* In Jan 2013, taxes go up by a lot, especially on the rich. Great leverage for team blue. 

* Tammy Baldwin! 

* Dems pick up many state legislatures. 

* We won senate North Dakota! And Montana! 

* Alan Grayson crushed and will rejoin the House 

Sad that we lost close senate races in Arizona and Nevada. 

Categories
Left

Chicago Teachers and the clash for the soul for the Democratic Party

(Part 2 of a series. Check out part 1: Why the Chicago Teacher’s Strike is so Important )

The strongest rebuttal, I think, to the interests of teachers in the Chicago Strike goes something like this: “Hey teachers, it would be great if you made the money you deserve. And it’d be great to give all students the same high-quality education, no matter what their class background. However, we simply don’t have the money to pay for it. Sorry, you’re going to have to suck it up in the name of balancing our budget”.

This has a lot of credibility because it’s true, to some extent. Teachers have an almost sacred responsibility in any society – they deserve to have the same status and pay of college professors, and it would be a big disruption to our municipal budgets if that was the case.

We don’t live in the world, however, where anyone is seriously striking for that. The Chicago Teacher’s Union has put out a very well-thought out plan called “The School Chicago Students Deserve”. Read it, please. It’s right here: http://www.ctunet.com/blog/text/SCSD_Report-02-16-2012-1.pdf

This is their overarching vision for what real school reform would look like. It both lays out what to do, but also, crucially, how to fund it.

I’d love to see what, exactly, you might find fault with in their plan – I think it lays out a lovely vision of what a really good school would look like.

So this specific charge of “we can’t afford better schools” has been rebutted. Let’s talk about the larger argument about the soul of the democratic party and the clash of money.

THE SOUL OF DEMOCRATS AND THE CLASH OF MONEY VS PEOPLE:

What we’re seeing in Chicago is indeed a case study for a larger argument going on across America. Having wholly conquered the Republican party, the interests of big money are doing a good job of infiltrating the Democrats as well.

Many Democrats have been / are revealing themselves to be in the pocket of big money, and Chicago is no exception. The Rhee-style school reform movement is heavily funded by explicitly union-busting hedge fund types. They benefit when unions are broken because unions are a countervailing force to their ability to screw workers, and unions are major financial backers of things like Wall Street Reform that also constrain their power.

The City of Chicago spends a lot of money on something called TIF – Tax-Increment Financing, which in some form or another can be found in cities all over America – the city sets aside a bunch of money in tax breaks to be used to lure businesses to “create jobs”. Often, this a great vehicle for straight up corruption, but let’s put that aside for now. TIF and other plans like it (In New York State they’re called Industrial Development Areas and are particularly awful in my home county) don’t work. Companies will often get ludicrous tax breaks in exchange for “creating” a few minimum wage jobs – often much fewer than they promised in the first place.

It’s an example of the power of big business to subvert local government (the branch of government most easily susceptible to it) to enrich itself.

Look at Charter schools. To some extent, the jury is still out on them. To another extent, the social science we do have shows that they have no benefit over normal public schools in terms of educating students (even on those standardized tests that they put so much faith in). They do have one thing in their favor, though – their teachers are often un-unionized, which means it’s easier to squeeze more work out of them in times when budgets are tight.

Every serious education scholar agrees – the highest risk factor/reason for bad educational achievement is poverty. Let me say that again.

The biggest reason for bad education is poverty.

Alleviating poverty is the best, most proven way to help students qua students – we’re not even talking about all the other better effects it has on their lives.

The line is therefore drawn: On one hand unions fighting for more funding for all schools, more money for people in poverty, and more partnership with parents and community.

On the other hand, mayors and hedge fund types fighting to close public schools, slash public services, give education money to for-profit charter schools, and give tax breaks to big corporations.

I agree with Michelle Rhee that the power of big money is indeed overpowering the power of labor unions in the Democratic party. (Unions are having an alarming decline, and have been since at least the 80’s. ).

Unlike her, however, I think that that’s a bad thing.

Categories
Left

Why the Chicago Teacher’s Strike is so important

A friend of mine recently sent me a link via facebook to Michelle Rhee crowing about the decline of unions. Here’s part 1 of my response.

Rek, I read the whole article. Trust is very important to me, as I’m sure it is to you. My responsibility to you is to only send you articles I find particularly persuasive that I think you might enjoy and benefit from, and I trust you to read them. The opposite, I’m sure, is true for you. Therefore I took this seriously and took an hour to respond to your article.

Therefore I’m going to respond in two kinds: one about Rhee’s attacks on teachers, and one about the broader question of the shift in the Democratic party she’s trying to make.

You’ll see that Rhee was heavy on sweeping statements and very light on specifics. This is by design.

Let’s take a look at the specifics. The specific case of Chicago Teachers vs. Rahm featured two sides laying out different visions of what “thinking of the children” meant.

The Rahm/Rhee side:
+ Tying employment/advancement to student performance on standardized test
+ Moving tons of money from public schools to charter schools
+ Larger class sizes
+ Pay teachers less

The Teacher side:
+ More arts/music/gym teaching
+ Making sure students get school supplies/textbooks on day one
+ Enough desks for each student in a classroom
+ The air conditioner thing is real – they often had to cancel classes because kids were fainting in the heat.

(and of course each side wants the opposite of what the other wants. For example, if one side wants larger class sizes, the other want smaller ones. I didn’t bother spelling those obvious stuff out)

All this can be found from this document: http://www.ctunet.com/for-members/strike-central/text/Board-Proposals-Summary-Comparison.pdf

It’s the clearest comparison of the different sides we have, and the Chicago Public Schools haven’t challenged its claims. If you’d like to provide a different, more comprehensive layout of the deal, I’m happy to use that instead.

So which is more credible to you? I’ve experienced a lite version of the standardized testing regime. It was horrible – for students and teachers. I saw gifted teachers struggle to “teach to the test” while still maintaining the personality and style that made them good teachers in the first place. I saw smart kids tune out because of the frustrating monotony of it all.

The Rahm/Rhee side has lots of obvious downsides: larger class sizes is obviously dumb. Of course there should be desks and school supplies for kids. Teachers have Master’s degrees and work so many unpaid hours volunteering to help children with homework after school, or working on classwork into the late hours. Of course they deserve more pay. And underfunding poor public schools to put into charter schools should seem at the very least troubling to us decent people.

The strongest argument the Rahm/Rhee side has – the underpinning of their entire argument – is around accountability and evaluation. “There are bad teachers!” they say. “We need to have an objective way of finding them and firing them”. That is true, as far as it goes. For any profession (journalists, mayors, managers, and policy entrepreneurs included), there are some people that do better than others.

Of the many counter-arguments to that line of thinking, the one that I tend to like the most goes like this: The standardized test/student assessment path to “objective” criteria is awfully bad. It’s arbitrary, and prone to corruption. Study after study exposes that the great examples of improvement that come from the testing regime (such as “The Texas Miracle”) actually happened because principals and teachers, feeling the pressure, cheated on those standardized tests.

That’s a big deal, so I’ll repeat it in a different way. The high-stakes testing regime is so high-stakes that it puts unbearable pressure on whole school systems to cheat, and is brittle enough that the cheating is easy and often undetected.

Luckily for us, there does indeed exist a better, more objective measure of teacher quality – having other teachers visit their classroom, evaluate their teaching style, and take notes. Unfortunately for mayors like Rahm Emanuel, it doesn’t promise to be a cheap and easy solution. There are no “magic beans” where, by overwhelming cleverness, you underfund education and get starkly better results.

The teacher side, on the other hand, is pretty hard to find fault with. The poorest schools don’t have arts/music/gym class. Why should being in a poor neighborhood deprive you of a well-rounded education? Of course kids should get school supplies, and of course they should be able to have desks.

Underlying this whole clash, of course, is the question of money. So let’s talk about that next.

Categories
Misc

The View From Saturday

I just picked up a copy of E.L. Konigburg’s the View From Saturday. I haven’t read it in years. After the first chapter, I just have to put it down in amazement and say, “wow. She can write”.

The View From Saturday was one of my favorite books at a particular stage of my life (sharing that title with The Westing Game). I found both books so compelling because they hinted at an “adult” world outside my comprehension. For example, the repeated references to the “decline of Western Civilization” from the adults in Saturday. It was just fascinating.

Young Adult books have had a huge effect on my life. From Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books to the View from Saturday, from the Pushcart War to the Lost Years of Merlin, I learned about standing up for dignity, I learned about what true goodness means. I saw great examples of how to live, and I hope my imagination was broadened by the contact I had with the amazing imagination of others.

Hats off to you, the literature of my childhood. I have never read anything a wonderful since. I miss you so much.

Categories
Personal

My little sister is cooler than your little sister

She’s creating a video blog on youtube.

Check out this song she wrote.

Categories
Brandeis

Props to the Justice

In response to the cafeteria workers vs Aramark battle, they’re with the workers, and prod the administration and other students to take that side as well.

I love living in a place where being pro-union is simply common-sense.

More @ Innermost Parts.

Categories
Brandeis

Brandeis in Cairo

I’m thinking about Egypt. You gotta give this to them – they know how to pull off revolutions.

Egyptian students are demanding – and receiving – huge concessions from their administrations. Stuff that we always wished we had here at Brandeis.

At this point, you might say “ok, but they’re, like, you know. Egyptian. Foreign. Far off. Different context. Their administrations are clearly corrupt and they are coming from a lower baseline.”

Well, let’s take a look at what’s really going on.

In Egypt there are a few different education-related revolts happening. First off, the teachers are united in demanding a sane education system. They’re dealing with 60+ student classrooms, meager pay, and “In many cases to make ends meet, teachers essentially force undereducated students to pay for private lessons to pass their grade, creating a shadow education system that places a financial burden on parents.”. About 70% of Egyptian teachers went on strike to demand a reform of the education system. Go teachers unions!

Next up, we have the case of most Egyptian Universities. The administrative bureaucracy, deans, Presidents, etc, were all appointed by the Mubarak government. Amazingly, Professors are the ones taking the lead and protesting to basically replace them with democratically-elected administration. Students are backing them. They have been partially successful so far. Imagine this – a University where the faculty (and students) get to pick the Administration that serves them best.

Those two cases, however, have no real analogue to here and now. We don’t have corrupt propagandistic heads of public universities (there will always be exceptions) and our primary education system is bad, but nowhere near as broken as Egypt’s.

I want to talk about the American University of Cairo.

Located on the western desert fringes of Cairo in a newly developed area called the Fifth Settlement, AUC’s gleaming, multimillion-dollar campus is a world away from its historical home in the heart of Tahrir Square, and it boasts a level of corporate sponsorship that would tickle the imagination of most neoliberal economists, complete with a Pepsi gate, CIB fountain, and Mobinil tower. AUC students pay $17,000 a year in tuition — more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian.

Their President, Lisa Anderson, is a former dean of faculty at Columbia University. She’s not some far-off foreigner with strange ways. She would fit right in at Brandeis. Hell, she’s the co-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. They speak English at AUC. It really is an American-style University.

You know what they were demanding?

The students’ demands include the reversal of a 9 percent tuition hike, permanent student representation on the university’s budget committee, and transparency in school finances. But among their chief concerns was an end to what they viewed as the university’s exploitive practices regarding its workers, including security guards, janitors, and groundskeepers.

Less tuition. Representation on the budget committee. Better treatment of labor.

In my time at Brandeis we haven’t achieved any of these goals. Tuition rises a lockstep 1% above inflation every year. Our endowment stays shadowed in mystery. Aramark continues to run roughshod over workers.

Well, these students who are much like us faced their President who is much like every other American University President. And they demanded the sort of things we would like to see here. And they won.

the university administration announced it had reached a compromise on many of the protesters’ demands, including greater budget transparency, the creation of an ad hoc committee with student, alumni, and faculty representatives taking part in tuition and budget decisions, a guaranteed five-day work week for custodial and landscape staff, greater worker protections, and a review of employee salary levels. Anderson also stressed that no university employees would be punished for taking part in the strike.

Look, of course there are differences. Waltham is not Cairo. Fred Lawrence is by all accounts pretty great. Our tuition hikes aren’t as high (in percentage, but maybe not in absolute terms). Brandeis workers are unionized (thanks in part to amazing Brandeis Labor Coalition work in the early 2000’s).

Still. These kids are like us students here in the states. (Or we used to be. I don’t know if I count as a student any more). Their problems are like our problems. They succeeded in pulling off a solution. Let’s cheer them on, and learn from them.

Update:
There’s a good Chronicle of Higher Education article on the AUC strike.

Also, did you know that there’s been a National Student Union in Egypt since August? They pulled off a national student union – can we pull off even a statewide one?

Categories
Misc

Where to find me

I spread myself out over many blog-like services; adding a new one here seems silly. EDIT: Oh wait I guess I’m blogging here too now.

Here are a few ways you can get a version of the Sahar blogging experience:

Twitter: One of the most unguarded places to find me – but also infrequently updated.
Facebook: Where I most frequently document my life as lived.
Tumblr – Sahar’s Adventure Log: The one place where I write whatever I want, without worrying about audience.  Infrequently updated.
Google Plus is so new that I’m not sure how I will use it. Time will tell.
Innermost Parts: The Brandeis activist blog. I wrote there every day for years. I rarely hang out there any more, especially since graduation, but it has the most diversity, thoughtful moments, passionate writing, and sheer volume of any venue.

I also love Instapaper. I don’t know how to post a link to my account on Instapaper, but I’d love to be Instapaper friends with you.

So you can see why I do not intend to spend that much time writing on this, a sixth blog-like hangout. I hope this directory helped!