Eric Holder is evil and complicit in evil

The New York Times reports that Eric Holder is going to resign:

President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. would leave the administration sets up an election-season scramble for a replacement to carry on Mr. Holder’s civil rights crusade, wage rhetorical combat with Congress and manage the legal complexities of a presidency increasingly drawn into war with terrorists.

The new paragraphs of the article talk about how Republicans don’t like him for various imagined scandals, the political ramifications, and how Obama is weighing options of how to replace Eric Holder.

In fact, it’s not until almost the end of the (longish) article that the Times remembers to mention that Eric Holder made a choice not to prosecute the banksters that flagrantly violated laws, ethics, and contracts and caused the Great Recession. Or that Eric Holder oversaw an absolutely inexcusable reign of terror against whistleblowers. Or that he’s the key legal approval of the vast regime of spying and assassination of American citizens. (And non-citizens!)

The article, which is now titled: “Eric Holder Resigns, Setting Up Fight Over Successor”, used to be called: “Attorney General Eric Holder, Prominent Liberal Voice in Obama Administration, Is Resigning”.

Behold! Your “liberal” media.

Eric Holder is the guy who says: “Yes! It’s completely legal!” regarding:

  • Massive NSA spying
  • Patriot Act
  • Killing(!) American citizens without a trial
  • Everything that happened to Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning, etc
  • Massive, unethical, and illegal gifts to banks within the larger terrible policy of bailouts
  • “Too big to jail”

Eric Holder decided not to prosecute banksters for clear, flagrant, and huge violations of the law. To this day people walk around saying “the funny thing about the financial crisis is that it all happened legally.” This is an awful lie. He is the reason there are no bankers in jail.

Eric Holder is a bad man.

I’m sad to see people on the left defend him. And its things like this — the shoddy thinking by the so-called liberal NYT and the so-called liberal Eric Holder being terrible — that lead to people my age saying “if that’s liberalism, I want nothing to do with it!” Then they go off to become anarchists or socialists.

More power to them.


3 Proposals for Effective Anarchist Organizing

This post was written by friend of blog Mara Chinelli:

After touring the country for several weeks, Rochester Red & Black’s Colin O’Malley returned to Rochester to deliver his talk on what building a revolutionary anarchist organization could mean for social movements in the United States.

(If you’re interested in the audio and full notes, check this out).

If you missed him in any of the 17 cities he swung through, here are some points that I think are worth considering.

“Consensus wasn’t handed down in stone tablets from the gods of anarchy”
While spending time with the Red Libertaria, the Argentinian anarchist organization that led workplace takeovers in the early 2000s, Colin pitched a question that would seem reasonable to most American lefties: how do you come to a consensus with so many members and reconcile differences in perspective and objectives?


Raw Notes from Rochester Red and Black’s Building a Revolutionary Anarchism

(A friend asked me to post this because his site is down)

Yesterday, Rochester Red and Black hosted a lecture titled “Building a Revolutionary Anarchism”. It was quite interesting!

Read on for a quick description of the event and my copious notes.

The lecturer, Rochester local Colin O’Malley, had spent the last seven weeks traveling the country giving this talk, and now ended his tour repeating it to a friendly local audience.

I counted at least 28 people there (not including the speaker). Nine expressed interest in joining Red and Black after the talk – a real coup for the organization!

A written version of this argument is here.Colin’s updates from the road are here. There’ll be a real report on the talk soon. For now, here’s the audio of the presentation and my detailed notes: (For your convenience, I frequently put the approximate time in the notes, so you can fast forward the audio clip to the correct time)

  • “The standard talk on this doesn’t really include a talk on Anarchism.” But this one will
  • What is an Anarchist Communist?
    • Communists aren’t Stalin. The basic idea is: “All wealth belongs to all people”
    • “Unlike social democrats who slice off a bit of wealth of the 1% and give it to people so they don’t freak out”
    • On the political side, we’re anti-State. Not anti-government. “Government is how we collectively decide things.” Current government isn’t great, but we can build something different.
    • The state is the coercive apparatus: military, police, prisons. The “legitimacy of violence” of the government. That’s what we’re against.
    • (3:50)
  • We should be revolutionary, not reformist: (4:30)
    • “I don’t think we evolve into that”.
    • Changing our habits, our votes, etc won’t work.
    • (5:20) To me, revolution is that movement when workers are so organized that they say we don’t need bosses anymore .. ..popular assemblies say we don’t need representatives anymore
    • Revolution isn’t necessarily gun-running.
    • Revolution supposes building organizes. It’s not just spontaneous.
  • Outline of how the talk will go:
    • Narrative of how I [Colin] have changed
    • How Argentinian’s organize [so differently!]
    • Big picture
  • Colin’s story (8:15):
    • Buffalo. (Grew up some in Buffalo some in Salt Lake City)
    • Saw the movie “The Take”
    • “My mother lives in a neighborhood where Bethlehem steel was”
    • Bethlehem Steel, GM, and Ford, was most of the economy of Buffalo.
    • (10:15)
    • ‘Cycle of hopelessness’ in Buffalo
    • People in Buffalo to this day … are always looking for a capitalist silver bullet.
      • “Someone will come reopen Bethlehem”
      • People are waiting for a great capitalist hope.
    • I have a friend who grew up in Cambridge. He gave me a movie called “The Take”
      • It’s about the formation of worker cooperatives in Argentina.
      • He gives me the movie and says this is exciting. Cooperatives are cool!
      • When I see that, I had a different reaction:
        • “What’s wrong with my family, my community that forming a cooperative didn’t even occur to us?”
        • “Why isn’t that happening here?”
      • 12:50
      • I’m thinking “oh they must run their meeting differently. They must have slightly different messaging”. I didn’t get that there were doing something fundamentally different.
    • With 0 plan whatsoever, I get an OK from school to do study abroad in Argentina.
      • 14:50
    • Background to why the economy of Argentina exploded:
      • In the late 90′s, Argentina is the model of perfect capitalism.
      • There’s a group called Picateros that show up in rural Argentina. In the context that people die of starvation.
        • Local people would picket/blockade the main road to oil extraction, and held it hostage until they get some wealth.
      • In 2001, it turns out that Argentina isn’t a huge success but instead has a bunch of credit.
      • Default on their loans.
      • Government gets an IMF loan unless they depeg form the dollar
      • BUT FIRST they tell the Rich (who take their money out of the country)
      • Then freeze the banks for everyone else.
      • Mass Uprising.
      • Motto is “they all must go”.
    • Argentina organizing
      • Neighborhood Assemblies show up.
      • Charity, food, anti-eviction
      • As workplaces were shut down, already-unionized workers took over shuttered factories.
      • (23:00)
    • Back to Colin’s story: get to Hotel
      • He comes in as an anarchist with an anti-organizing mindset.
      • In the hotel, there’s a bunch of organizers shooting the shit.
      • One of the things I immediately noticed was there wasn’t nearly the discomfort we have about ideology in this country. People used ideological terms freely without whispering around like they do in the US.
      • The remaining workers cooperatives hadn’t sold themselves or hired a new boss. They were the radical ones.
      • Asked how they took over the hotel and made it a cooperative: “We broke in one night, we took a few rooms, made them livable, and slowly took over”
      • 28:30
      • Woman says: “I was part of a revolutionary anarchist society. We had an understanding that there was a crisis in capitalism, we saw a way to organize around it, so I worked in a hotel for 7 years waiting for that moment”
      • That blew my mind.
        • My idea was that socialists hijack rallies, anarchists throw bricks, or instead have meetings debating whether they should have meetings and make decisions.
    • 32:00
    • The Thought of Malatesta
      • I was like “omg just organize don’t wank around talking theory. What’s the point?”
      • 150 people there at this discussion group to talk about Malatesa.
        • Nice library
        • Few punks.
        • Grandparents and their grandchildren
        • 40, 50, year olds
        • slick fashionistas
      • Everyone is a member of red libertarian and also a member of another organizing group
      • They weren’t talking about “in a post-revolutionary society, should we have currency or not?”
      • Anarchist isn’t just a vision for a future world, it’s a roadmap for struggle.
      • 35:30
      • When Malatesta was organizing in Buenos Aires, what challenges did they face and how did they deal with it?
        • CASE STUDY
      • And what does that mean for where we’re at now?
    • Specifics of how they run things? 37:15
      • “Of all the people you have, how do you come to consensus about what to read/ where to organize?”
        • “We don’t use consensus, and we’re not sure why your American anarchist organizations do”
        • None of the organizations in Argentina use consensus
        • Consensus comes from Quakers in anarchist circles in the 70′s .
        • 39:00
      • “How do you deal with the debate of ‘do we have meetings’ ‘do w make decisions’ or not?” “How do you deal with conflicts between the communist who wants to take over factories vs the primitivist who wants to burn them down?”
        • We don’t. It’s our 12-page paper on aims and principles and if you disagree don’t join.
        • 40:30
      • “Okay, I walked into your library. You handed me a book. You give away papers. Where do you get all your money?”
        • Dues!
        • Shantytown debate and vote on doubling dues.
        • 44:15
        • Our money works better pooled.
        • People in shantytowns had a vote on what to do with their collective budget.
      • The difference between anarchists here and there is that they make no bones about making an organization.
      • Whereas in the US we call ad-hoc things organizations.
      • 48:00
  • (Break for questions and comments)
    • Q: Are there low-hanging fruit efforts in Rochester that could really use organization?
      • A: I’ll get to that.
      • The notion of business entrepreneurialism is not “what’s the next great project?” instead of “what should I join?”
    • Q: What’s the relation between workers coops and political organizations?
      • That’s my next thing I talk about!
      • You’re totally right! I skipped from workers coops to revolutionary political entities
      • Pretty all the major (true) cooperatives I ran into said “a cooperative isn’t the point. It’s a tool to class struggle”
      • 53:00
    • Q: But I like cooperatives!
      • remember they’re a means to an end and sometimes don’t work
    • Q: What was the educational background of the people in Argentina?
      • All over the map.
      • The way we organize is that we ask people to be very intellectual.
      • I never ran into people saying that the poor/working class couldn’t understand intellectual ideology.
    • Q: Can you talk more about people trusting others with their dues money?
      • Lets talk about this at the end.
    • 60:00
  • Especifismo is the core of the organizing model
    • “The theory of the role of revolutionary organization”
    • Breakdown into 3 pieces:
    1. Anarchists should have their own explicitly anarchist organization built along the unity of theory and practice.
    2. That anarchist organization shouldn’t rest on that theory and practice, but instead should work to develop a relevant theory and practice to that movement today.
      • “I’m a member of an anarchist organization, we had theories and views, we applied them to the economy and figured out where it would be going.”
    3. Social Insertion
      • Revolutionaries in South America have worked on the view that there are 2 different sorts of movements necessary for revolution. And they’re quite different.
        • One: Revolutionary Anarchist organization. Unity of theory and practice. Document of uniting principles. By it’s nature, it’s a small organization because it expects a lot from people. A lot of people won’t join it.
        • Two: Social Movement. Massive broad-based organization that derives it’s power from numbers and the unity along an action. It’s only relevant if it attempts to incorporate everyone in a particular grouping. The social movement must incorporate a lot of ideas that aren’t ours.
        • 68:00
      • The revolutionary anarchist organization should embed itself in social movements. The members of the organization should be actively engaged in social movements.
        • This sounds Leninist! But it’s not!
        • Leninists do this:
          • Try to take over leadership
          • Showing up, try to take over leadership, don’t, then poach all the revolutionaries from it
          • Disrupt the social movement that isn’t a recruiting competitor to us
        • Anarchists do this:
          • We should engage as members of social movements genuinely
            • Capturing leadership doesn’t work because your members won’t follow you.
          • “Engage in productive ways as people who have something to offer”
          • Engage in the battle of ideas. Try to change people’s minds.
            • Don’t leave if you don’t get your way.
            • Maybe you were right, and they’ll see it and trust you more.
            • Maybe you were wrong, and you’ll learn.
    • Why social movements need anarchists
      • Anarchists in the US have over the last 50 years been on the sidelines spitballing
      • There’s a long-term tendency of social movements to succumb to the hegemonic ideas of the society.
        • Typically, mass movements have been started by good organizers with revolutionary ideas, community buy-in, etc.
        • What they do, typically, is (because Saul Alinsky said “don’t talk about ideology”) only message.
        • New members come in because of the message. The new organizing core is ideologically adrift. They hit roadblocks and then do “common sense”.
        • Drift down to centrist (non-revolutionary) strategies.
        • Social movement organizations have a basis in class struggle. Need revolutionaries to remind them.
    • Why anarchists need social movements
      • Anarchists in this country suck at organizing.
        • 83:60
        • (Colin “I’ve seen this all over the country”)
        • “If I meet some mcdonalds workers who need help with a fight, there are very few anarchists who I could point them to”
        • The organizations who anarchists sling shit at, can turn out people much better than we can.
        • Lovely Warren is offering nothing, but has connections and can turn so many more people than we can.
        • We need theories and models that are actually connected to reality.
        • We’re “interesting philosophy club” 86:00
      • What happens at the moment right after say the George Zimmerman trial, when you need a response but don’t have the strength to do anything?
        • Random anarchist: “Let’s stop having babies!”
        • How the hell would that be a meaningful response to Trayvon Martin’s mother?
    • 89:30
    • Especifismo history:
      • An idea out of Uruguay in the 80′s.
      • Why? Anarchists had a ton of power then. (General strikes, armed insurrection, anarchist labor unions). Then they were crushed anyways.
      • Those not fighting the dictatorship thought a lot for 20 years about how to win next time.
      • 92:30
      • Not silly infoshop anarchists, but revolutionary anarchists that almost won, writing about how not to lose to fascism next time.
  • 95:00 end

That was Colin’s full talk. What follows are the notes from the discussion after the talk.

  • Q/A:
    • Q: How do we get over people being afraid of dues?
      • There’s a big problem with individualism here
      • People need to stop sucking and thinking “I need to agree 100% to join”
      • 0:00 starts here
      • There are a lot of scams out there!
    • Churches
      • Let’s not blame Americans for our failures.
      • People want to bear witness. That leads to not thinking about effectiveness.
    • “Fighting against” vs “Let’s have fun!” Give ‘em hope.
      • Jake Allen: Leninist “heighten the contradictions” is dumb. Let’s talk about victory.
      • Colin: Most people engage with us as ‘lightbulb lefties’. Intellectual. Aha moments. How many people join social justice because it materially makes their lives better? That joy thing is a bit individual. We need to engage people in actual material fights that improve their day-to-day life.
        • When we find real material wins for people.
      • Shenzie: When we win, that’s really fun.
      • Sahar: Ceasar Chavez was a legendary organizer that had 19 years without a victory.
      • Zora: “Culture of resistance”. Meetings suck. It’s hard work to organize. Community picnics etc can be strategic and effective.
        • If we’re all assholes, no one will want to go to a meeting with us because we treat them like shit.
      • Patton Mannix: But living in a bubble sucks! Talk to your neighbors.
      • Colin (respond to Zora): One thing that worked in Buenos Aires. They took over a chunk of the street (with a permit), do a play, then have a stew on. Dance.
        •  Then in the end tear down a stage back and show a meeting.
      • Alykhan: Respond to Zora: Gandhi institute is cool. Show up to community organizations that actually have members.
    • Q: Melissa: How do you deal with people who beg off due to time or money constraints?
      • Crickets
    • Q: I took time off from the left because they suck. Are they good now?
      • Colin: Yeah, they still kind of suck.
      • Colin: Implicit: But yeah Red and Black doesn’t suck.
    • Talking about Red and Black. Jake talking about SDS -> Red and Black.
    • Q: Mara : How can we engage with things like Enough is Enough to help them be better? (not sure I understand)
      • Krauss: I’ve been going to EiE for 3 weeks now. It’s A. mostly PoC, B. trying to organize.
        • It’s discouraging to not see class-struggle politics in EiE.
        • AKA I’m on board with Social Insertion.
    • Q: Root: There needs to be safer spaces.
      • Kat: Go to the R&B consent thing
      • Zora: Single-issue organizations aren’t built in a sustainable way. R&B is good because people can say stuff like “can you actually pull this off?” “are we treating ourselves well?” “how do we make decisions?”
    • Shenzie: Things like EiE or TBTL are good, but imagine a city where each neighborhood associations did all of that.
      • Colin: Let’s self-reflect on Rochester. The anti-organizational impulse in rochester has lead people to only do issue-based groupings, decide that they’ll stay ad-hoc, and not let it structuralize.
        • Some of that kind of organizing using affected people as interesting adornments in our struggle but never allow them to feel ownership.
        • It’s not only that we don’t win, we burn people away from wanting to engage in our work.
        • Our work is completely important and it’s dangerous to treat it as a hobby.
  • I’m interested in Red and Black, how do I get involved?
    • Facebook
    • Talk to a member
    • Read the platform
    • Hang out with us
    • Education committee meets at 1pm next Sunday at Starry Nites
    • Normal meetings are at 7pm on the first Thursday of every month.

One Reason Occupy Mattered

Occupy Wall Street forced everyone in the professional left to take a moment and think: “Where do I belong?”

For me, the answer went something like this:

“For a long time, I thought that issue policy / electoral politics / advocacy was the key to making progressive change. But the 2008 election didn’t stop domestic spying, it didn’t make a dent in poverty, and it only enhanced the power of the power elite.  (I guess we’re calling them the 1% now. That’s cool.) Obama said he’d make Net Neutrality happen, then he put incompetents or fools in charge of the FCC. This isn’t working. The 2010 election wiped out 4 years of my emotional, physical, and financial investment in all sorts of candidates.

For a long time I’ve known that of course radicals are right about how awful the world situation is. Ever since I learned that the FBI murdered Fred Hampton (without a warrant! As if a warrant would make that okay). But I thought that their tactics for making change were silly and doomed to failure. But the professional left could simply not have created Occupy Wall Street. Maybe radicals have had some smart things to say about strategy and tactics after all.

I belong in the streets! Shit is fucked up and bullshit. Reforms are nice. Reforms make real improvements in people’s lives. Small reforms aren’t the final goal. The police really are brutal. The state really does break the law to suppress dissent. The game really is rigged, and the French Revolution meant something, goddamn it. I can use the tactics of center-left incrementalism because they work. But let’s not confuse tactics for strategy, or goals. The goal is always human freedom.”

Or something like that. Does that make sense?


The Progressive Blogosphere is dead. This was inevitable.

When it comes to politics, I grew up in the progressive blogosphere. (See high school, college (mirror)).

That’s my background, and a large part of my identification. But the blogosphere is dead. Sure, some of the same outlets are around. They’ve even got paid staff and everything. Many bloggers are still blogging. And don’t get me wrong, I read a couple of them even more frequently than I did in the “good old days”.

But it all feels … I dunno. Stale? The moment has passed. And turns out that it was a moment. Or a movement, but it’s all over now and we can’t tell the difference anyways.

A few vignettes:

  • When Occupy Wall Street really took off, I was at a conference in D.C. The attendees congratulated themselves on Occupy. They assumed that “we” were ones behind it all. Well, not us exactly, since we were at the conference. But surely “our people” were. Of course. We’re the left, after all. If something happens one of us must’ve been behind it.
  • Look at the changing composition of Netroots Nation attendees. First, they were readers, writers, and commenters. Then, bloggers and journalists mostly. Then, bloggers, journalists, and online organizers. Now? It’s a reunion. With “New Media” directors of various center-left organizations hanging out throughout.
  • The “progressive wonkosphere” has turned into “Matthew Yglesias presents the amazing Ezra Klein empire.” Plus the worthy academics at Crooked Timber. All whom I read every day, but they’re not part of a movement anymore.
  • The last breakout star of the blogosphere was Nate Silver in 2008.
  • When or MoveOn or Salsa changes its model, what happens? There’s a lot of talk, but the discussion is on private email lists. Our technology has regressed.
  • Open Left is dead now. Chris has moved to the hot new online tactic du jour – online organizing. Matt’s story can’t be categorized by a sentence. The best of the best of blogging wasn’t good enough for them.
  • The hot new left writing is centered around magazines.
  • Mike Lux still writes smart, great stuff. His writing is aimed at an audience of fellow organizers, not an audience of bored officeworkers appalled by the House Republican bullshit of the day. But it’s published in the chaotic swirl of the Huffington Post.

Here’s why it was doomed from the start:

In the old days, opposing or replacing Bush Republicansism was The Most Important Thing. So corporate lawyers and lefties banded together to do that. They attacked Team Red using whatever ideological weapons were at hand, and papered over their difference in part by defining themselves through their tools and their enemies.

The failure of street protests against the Iraq War taught them that electoral politics was the true path to change. And if the Democrats were pretty awful, too, the failure of Team Blue was cowardice, which after all is much more excusable than malice.

Think about it. The ideas and critiques coming out of that era were contradictory at times: “We have a problem with neoconservatives running the government.” “The American empire has always been awful” “The Pentagon’s budget is too big and wasteful – so much money is being lost to corruption and waste.” “The Pentagon is awful – so much money is being spent on toppling democracies and propping up dictatorships.” “Our political system is dysfunctional and corrupted by corporate power. Our problems are systemic and entrenched. If 5% more of America votes a particular way, those problem will be fixed.”

Everything was awful. But roughly half the political elite were, broadly speaking, good guys. Looking back, the incoherence is kind of staggering.

Speaking for myself – at the time, I had only been politically conscious in the Bush era. Electing a bunch of Democrats – well, that seemed about as difficult and likely as root and branch reform to the institutions of the State. So why not blur the two in my mind?

When the “good guys” started having the power to do bad things: cue the crackup.

Turns out that the bloggers didn’t all agree, after all. For some, actions that got denunciations of dictatorship and demands for impeachment 4 years ago now brought … not indifference. Just a sort of shifty-eyed acknowledgement that “yes, it’s all bad. But our priorities right now are different.”

I’ll never forgive Obama for lying to us about his plans for FISA and the government power to wiretap. Seems like most people have already forgotten.

Now look at Online Organizing, that other great innovation that was going to save us, the other half of the Netroots Coin. A different but related story is happening there. We let our tools define us, so our conferences became more like trade shows and our friendships became business relationships.

To be sure:
I want to be really clear about this. I love the Netroots and I think there are amazing people doing great stuff. I just don’t think those great people are doing great stuff in the context of the Netroots. The Progressive Blogosphere was like college: awesome time, great friendships, but we’re done. Sure, we can hang out with old friends, and they might be working on similar stuff as they were back then. But naked bonfires in the woods just wouldn’t be the same, the former student president is working for Goldman Sachs, and one of your close friends secretly hated labor unions the whole time.

What we have now and why it matters:

When I bring this up with people, often I get a variation of “Yes, we grew up and professionalized. We’re still friends with a shared background and formative experiences, but we’ve figured out how to get shit done better now”. I believe true, but it’s also not the whole story.

The netroots meant blogging, then also email blasts/petitions/”MoveOn-style online organizing”. They worked really well together. One convinced, the other brought opportunities for action. The withering away of one means that the other has to do too much of the work.

Do you know why the MoveOns of the world didn’t do any pushes around housing justice? A large proportion of their membership have conservative views on “those people” “buying houses they can’t afford”. MoveOn is a great organization with a strong ethos of internal democracy. They can’t force their members to do anything. And blast email isn’t the best way to make a nuanced, convincing argument.

I’m very happy that there’s a new media magazine ecosystem to the left of where the old blogosphere was. Some people (myself) moved there. But a lot moved right, to the MSNBC’s and Huffington Posts of the World. Suddenly those institutions aren’t mocked by liberals — they’re counted *as* liberal. It’s sad. But when you had that shotgun marriage of “shit’s fucked up and bullshit” with “and if a few more Americans are convinced, our new rulers will fix everything”, what did you expect?


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.


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:

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.


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.


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:

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.