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.