Cheers went up loudly around Silicon Valley today, at least in the C-suites of the large incumbent companies. Why? Because now the President, who has been a heavy fund raiser here in the Valley, is promising to institute reforms of the nation’s intellectual property regime that favor those incumbent companies and potentially harm inventors and entrepreneurs. This follows a recent shift in our patent regime, also heavily tipped in favor of large well established technology companies, that favors those who are the first to file for a patent not the first to invent a new technology.
For years, law firms, academics and lobbyists working for big technology companies like Apple, HP and Intel have been pushing for these kinds of reforms. But the individual entrepreneurs and inventors who have historically been “present at the creation” of these now giant companies are not able to make their voices heard in the same way. They are widely dispersed, often young and without the huge resources of the incumbents.
Many new inventions threaten the existing invested capital of the incumbents and they are in fact worried about the impact they could have on their existing business models. In fact, many new ideas are unable to find investors or are swept up into the giant portfolios that the big companies now assemble and are never heard from again.
That’s why a young Bill Gates in the 1970′s made a passionate defense in favor of the IP rights of writers of software code for startups like his, but years later Gates started attacking the granting of patents to code writers. As Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation discovered:
“Here’s what Bill Gates told Microsoft employees in 1991: ‘If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today…A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.’”
Of course, Microsoft was fast becoming one of those giants and now it uses that power to back groups like Intellectual Ventures which is scooping up thousands of patents and providing expensive mass licenses to firms that want a moat around their business model. Valley VC’s recently established a firm called RPX that does much the same thing.
It is no surprise then that an older successful Bill Gates was once asked what kept him awake at night and he answered – to an audience in Palo Alto – the fear that two guys in a garage somewhere nearby were developing a new way of doing things that would threaten his business model. Ironically, at that very moment, in the late 90s, Sergey Brin and Larry Page had started a little company called Google, first in their dorm rooms at Stanford and then in a nearby garage.
In other words, when the IP system helped a young Gates he tried to enforce it, when it began to threaten him he found ways to change it. Gates is not alone in this, of course, as Apple and Intel and Cisco and HP and ATT and IBM all do the same thing. But do we ever stop to ask, where will the new forms of these companies come from?
One of the targets of the patent reform movement are companies derisively labelled “trolls.” In the pure form these are companies formed solely to buy up orphaned technology that may have value because it is possible there are infringers out there in the world of existing companies. Thus, these companies provide a valuable secondary market for the exploitation of technology that inventors can no longer afford to pursue. Our entire economy is built on similar kinds of secondary markets, for IP and for financial instruments and for entertainment products, heck, even for used cars.
The advantage of these markets is that inventors know there is at least some value they can get out of their invention even if they cannot build an entire company around it. The existence of this market also signals to incumbent players that they have to play by the rules. I spent eight years on the board of directors of a technology company whose original inventions were trampled on by big players, like AMD, Apple and Intel. That destroyed the company and only an aggressive licensing and litigation strategy helped recover some value for our shareholders.
That (eventually successful) strategy was long, complex, expensive and unpredictable. Now the new reforms will make defending the original ideas of our entrepreneurs and inventors even more difficult.
The bottom line is that in many ways we are all “trolls” now because the pace of innovation is so intense that every inventor and firm must have an aggressive IP strategy, both defensive and offensive.
And yet when firms like the one I helped out as a lawyer and a board member try to defend their own technology, they are dismissed as “trolls.” When firms like Acacia Research emerge to provide a secondary market for IP that might otherwise be grabbed without compensation by larger players they are dismissed as trolls.
Meanwhile, it is the large incumbent and increasingly less innovative companies that are using their resources to capture the political process in order to defend their slowing business models.
We will all pay a price in a weaker culture of innovation.
This time courtesy of Bill Ayers himself comes confirmation of the relationship between Obama and Ayers reaching back to the late 1980′s. Long time followers of this blog will recall the effort of Scott Shane of The New York Times to avoid the conclusion that the close work Obama and Ayers undertook in education policy in Chicago in the mid-1990′s suggested that the two figures had a longer term relationship.
If Shane was to be believed Ayers was first introduced to Obama only in the spring of 1995 by two foundation presidents when those presidents recruited the recent Harvard Law School graduate to head up a new $150 million education reform effort called the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). I pointed out to The Times (in five separate interviews with three different reporters) this was simply not possible legally or politically because it was Ayers himself who had the legal power, alone, not the two foundation presidents, to appoint Obama to the CAC board.
Shane ignored my explanation in his key story absolving Obama of any important ties to Ayers that was published on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. I in turn pointed to evidence that not only was Ayers the key figure in recruiting Obama to the CAC board but that when the Ayers/Obama relationship became a topic of concern in the campaign David Axelrod worked with Ayers directly in a failed effort to suppress public access to CAC records held by the University of Illinois. Again the mainstream media ignored this relationship and minimized or attacked any effort to explain it.
Since then two biographers of Obama have provided evidence of the deep and longstanding relationship between the two figures. The New Yorker’s David Remnick explained that Ayers was responsible for appointing Obama to the CAC board while Christopher Andersen explained the key role Ayers played in helping Obama finish his memoir.
And now Ayers himself in a recent interview with The Daily Beast states that his wife Bernardine Dohrn was at the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin “together” with Michelle Obama, then, of course, known by her maiden name Robinson. It is already widely acknowledged that it was at that firm that Michelle first met Barack himself. The use of the word “together” by Ayers suggests that Dohrn and Michelle knew each other not just that they were employed by the same entity.
Dohrn was a law school graduate, from the University of Chicago no less, but could not get admitted to the bar because of her past association with the violent and murderous tactics of some former Weather Underground “comrades.” Sidley hired her anyway – to do what is not clear – as a favor to Tom Ayers, the father of Bill Ayers, the chairman of Commonwealth Edison, an important Sidley client. Sidley senior partner Howard Trienens explained that the firm sometimes did “favors” for its friends.
The striking thing about the latest admission by Ayers of the ties between him and Obama is that there has been almost no one attempting to connect him to Obama through Sidley and Austin (although Andersen to his credit mentions this possibility). And in fact the Daily Beast writer did not ask him about it and quite likely did not know anything about it. Ayers dropped this particular piece of information into a sprawling general answer that confirms several other aspects of his relationship to Obama. Yet, none of those other “confirmations” places the relationship between the two as far back as the late 1980s. The only other concrete evidence that places the relationship in this same time frame is the interview I first conducted with the letter carrier who recalled meeting a young Obama visiting the house of Ayers’ parents in suburban Chicago.
Of course, the picture is far from complete. Ayers himself said in the epilogue to a recent edition of his own memoirs, written it should be said without the editorial assistance of Obama and apparently completed on time for the publisher, that he and the Obamas were “family friends.” Exactly how and why the four became so close is not entirely clear. Obama himself did not work at Sidley until the summer of 1989, but by then Dohrn had moved along her career path, eventually joining the faculty of Northwestern University’s Law School where both Tom Ayers and Howard Trienens were members of the board of trustees.
The overlap between Dohrn and Michelle, then, would have occurred earlier in the First Lady’s work there as an associate or summer associate. Dohrn was at the Sidley firm from 1984 (starting in their NY office) until 1988 (after moving to Chicago). Michelle was there as a summer associate in 1987 and began work there as an associate in the fall of 1988.
Given the important role that Ayers and Dohrn are said to have played in the Obama campaign for president, off the official rolls, of course, and the congruence of world views at work in Obama’s policies as President with those of Ayers and Dohrn (see, for example, support for certain policies in education and even to an extent the “relativist” world view that animates Obama “foreign policy”) a more complete understanding of this relationship is important. It only made sense for Ayers to approve Obama as CAC board chairman if he felt Obama shared his agenda for education reform in Chicago. Indeed, as many posts here have explained, the CAC was deeply engaged in the so-called “Chicago School Wars” of that era and Ayers would have wanted a reliable ally leading the CAC he had worked so hard to initiate and establish in Chicago.
Of course, the appointment of Obama to the highly visible CAC board chairmanship in early 1995 was a vital step in the young and ambitious politician’s career. Obama touted that experience in his first political campaign for the state senate that he began in the fall of 1995, a campaign, Ayers also confirms in the Daily Beast, that began with a fundraiser hosted by Ayers and Dohrn in their stylish Hyde Park town house.
It has always seemed likely, then, that the two first “crossed paths,” to use The Times’ phrase, during an earlier battle in that war, perhaps during the battle of 1987-88 to win the school reform legislation that both individuals say they supported. That reform bill established local school councils (LSC’s) in Chicago as an additional layer of school management and it was, in fact, a central task of the later CAC effort funded by the Annenberg grant to help strengthen those LSC’s in the face of an attack by then Mayor Daley. As one independent analyst of the CAC effort concluded: ”The Challenge sought to build on the momentum of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act which had radically decentralized governance of the Chicago Public Schools.”
The “drip, drip, drip” approach Ayers is now using to acknowledge his relationship with Obama is not likely to be very helpful. One would hope that ambitious journalists like Scott Shane or David Remnick would be motivated to sort all this out but that seems likely to remain only a vain hope.
From the back cover:
The victory of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 opened up a major new battleground in the Cold War between east and west. That larger conflict caused many to ignore or misjudge the domestic battle for democratic rights carried out by ordinary Nicaraguans, first against the Somoza dictatorship, and then against the Frente Sandinista, which led the Revolution. In Rights and Revolution: The Rise and Fall of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Movement, political scientist and legal scholar Stephen F. Diamond examines the conflict inside Nicaragua from a viewpoint that is critical of the FSLN, which was allied closely with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and of the United States, which formed a proxy army to overthrow the FSLN regime. Such an independent viewpoint yields important and original insights into the complex relationship between authoritarianism and democracy in the developing world.
Susan Rice, the troubled potential nominee to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, seems to have a peculiar interest in Canadian energy companies. Earlier this week On Earth, a magazine published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, reported that an unusually large part of her and her husband’s personal wealth is tied up in Canadian energy companies and banks that stand to gain significantly if the U.S. State Department approves the Keystone XL pipeline to bring oil from Canada through the United States for export through ports on the Gulf of Mexico. (The “XL” project is an extension of the overall Keystone project which includes pipelines to bring Canadian oil to U.S. based refineries that became operational in 2010.)
The personal portfolio of Rice and her Canadian-born husband Ian Cameron includes shares in two large Canadian energy companies, Cenovus and EnCana. Until 2009, EnCana was both an oil and natural gas company. It then spun off its oil assets in the newly formed Cenovus entity. It is likely that Rice obtained the shares of Cenovus as a result of an original investment in EnCana.
Both EnCana and Cenovus are large Canadian energy firms with links to Keystone. EnCana entered into a joint venture with ConocoPhillips known as Wood River which owns refineries in the U.S. built to process oil that comes from Canada via one completed part of the Keystone pipeline project. Cenovus now owns that interest in the Wood River project. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported in 2011 that Cenovus was “banking” on overall approval of the pipeline project “underscore[ing] the high stakes” if the project were not approved.
It turns out that Rice and her husband were also willing to wager a substantial part of the assets of their family foundation on the prospects of those very same two energy companies. A filing with the IRS by the Rice-Cameron Family Foundation reveals that the Foundation has most (approximately 80%) of its investments in typical diversified stock and bond funds. These are valued at approximately $750,000. But the remaining 20%, valued at about $180,000, is invested in EnCana and Cenovus. Those companies are the only direct equity investments made by the Foundation. A copy of the filing can be found here.
Also of interest is that the Foundation filing is for the tax year ending November 30, 2011, so unlike the older 2009 disclosure document provided by On Earth, the IRS filing (called a “Form 990″) indicates a continuing interest in Canadian energy prospects lasting until late 2011.
My own view about Ambassador Rice is that her potential nomination as Secretary of State should be opposed because she represents the “relativist” world view that animates Obama’s approach to foreign policy. To date, Obama has not been able to put a significant institutional piece of the national security apparatus outside the White House in the hands of a loyal “relativist.” This would change if Rice, a hard core loyalist of both Obama and Valerie Jarrett, were put in charge of the Department of State.
But it is also quite odd to see this information about her approach to investing. What appears to be a heavy bet on a major energy transaction is a high risk strategy that would not be typical for a family foundation or even for someone with the resources that Rice and Cameron own personally. Diversity is the norm for the assets of foundations and other non-profit entities. Rice and her husband are trustees of the Foundation and owe it a fiduciary duty. Normally that duty mandates diversity of assets. Here, however, they have put nearly 20% of the Foundation’s assets into just two companies, both with links to the controversial Keystone project, although that appears to be no longer the case for EnCana.
Another troubling aspect of the interest of RIce in the international oil industry is the fact that oil companies are notorious for being bad actors in the global economy, an issue I explored in my article The PetroChina Syndrome. In the past, for example, there were large protests about the investment of Talisman, a Canadian oil company, in Sudan. There are also allegations that some of the companies held in the Rice and Cameron personal portfolio do business with Iran. At a minimum one would have expected Rice to divest her holdings in this controversial sector while serving the public as a diplomat.
The fact that UN Ambassador Susan Rice has not been struck from the short list to replace Hillary Clinton despite Rice’s active role in misleading the American people about the nature of the Benghazi debacle is a sign that the chaos that has consumed US foreign policy over the last several years will likely continue.
Rice is considered a self-centered opportunist who has set her course as a hard core Obama loyalist. She has no coherent world view or any independently developed rational basis for understanding how to wield US power. Thus, if appointed, she will likely attempt to continue the “relativist” approach that has stamped the Obama approach to international issues.
That “relativism” is a viewpoint that Obama developed in his long association with the authoritarian and neo-stalinist left. It led to his dangerous call for “engagement” without preconditions with dictatorial regimes such as that of Assad in Syria and of the mullahs in Iran. The result of that approach in the middle east and north Africa is now clear: the U.S. missed an opportunity to support the Green movement in Iran and the nascent uprising in Syria. Had we sided instead with the movements and individuals attempting to establish American-style values such as human rights and democracy we might have helped avoid the violent tragedy now unfolding in Syria and we might also have helped alter the course Iran is taking today.
With Clinton as Secretary of State there was at least some modicum of debate within the Obama regime over the direction of US policy. Despite Obama pressure, for example, to appease the Chinese over human rights issues, Clinton started to push back when she supported the effort of human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng to seek asylum in the United States. My law school will be honoring Guangcheng with an award for his brave advocacy of human rights in China this spring. Clinton was also said to be concerned that Obama snubbed the Dalai Lama – sending his aide Valerie Jarrett to India to persuade His Holiness to delay a long planned visit to the Washington.
But Rice has been a part of the Obama inner circle and was even named to the Cabinet while nominally serving under Clinton. It seems now that she, instead of being forced into retirement for her clear misstatements about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, is set to be rewarded with a promotion.
I received the sad news this evening from the midwest that Jerry Tucker, a lifelong progressive and democratic union activist and UAW leader, passed away.
Jerry and I began to work together five years ago when he joined with other UAW activists to oppose the imposition of another wave of cutbacks in wages and benefits of auto workers at the Big Three.
Like Jerry I began to speak out about the attempt to set up a VEBA that would force the UAW to manage a massively underfunded and badly structured health care plan and relieving the Big Three of that responsibility, a benefit fought and won by auto workers over many decades. Eventually I filed a petition with the SEC on behalf of auto workers arguing that the UAW and GM were ignoring their obligation under federal law to provide full disclosure of the impact of the proposed VEBA on union members.
Just as we argued then, the VEBA has indeed proved a disastrous turn for the UAW as a recent Reuters story noted. If the union and GM had disclosed the actual risks that it implied it may never have been imposed. As he was many times before Jerry was right then, too.
Below is a video of a tribute to Jerry at a Labor Notes conference. In addition, take note that there will be a panel discussion of the State of the UAW at UM-Flint on October 28 with Dr. Tom Adams and Gregg Shotwell. Gregg was one of my clients in the petition to the SEC. It would honor Jerry’s memory and lifelong efforts on behalf of the UAW and workers everywhere to attend that meeting and discuss the future of one of our most important labor unions.
New evidence that the relationship between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers reaches back to the 1980s surfaced today.
In 2008 I was one of the first to blog (Who “sent” Obama?) about the important and longstanding relationship between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers, a founding member of the terrorist organization known as Weather Underground. I pointed out then that Ayers appointed Obama as Chairman of the board of directors of the education reform group known as the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) in 1995. David Remnick of The New Yorker later confirmed this fact in his biography of Obama. This appointment was a critical step in the career of Obama who went on later that year to run for state senator, his first political office, a campaign that he launched at an event held at the Hyde Park home of Bill Ayers and Ayers’ wife and Weather Underground comrade Bernardine Dohrn.
I also noted that given the importance of the Annenberg appointment that Ayers would never have appointed Obama unless he knew Obama was an ally in the ongoing “Chicago School Wars.” Those Wars were taking place between three key groups: the Daley Administration which wanted to centralize control of the Chicago schools in the Mayor’s office, the Chicago Teachers Union which wanted to protect the wages, job security and working conditions of its members, and a loose coalition of reform groups of which Obama, and three members of Ayers’ family, including Bill, his brother John and, earlier in his life, their father Tom, were a part.
Each of these three groups jockeyed for position and for for the nearly $50 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation. (A fuller description of the three way conflict can be found here.) Ayers led the reformers’ successful effort to secure that grant and set up the Annenberg Challenge in late 1994 and early 1995. Ayers (together with Anne Hallett) exchanged letters in 1994 with the Annenberg Foundation’s representative, Vartan Gregorian of Brown University, confirming that Ayers was working to assemble a board of directors for the Challenge. Obama joined the Challenge board in the spring of 1995.
Only if Obama had proven himself to Ayers would Ayers have appointed Obama to the board. The latest evidence confirms that, despite the denials by The Times and the Obama campaign, the relationship between Ayers and Obama reaches back as far as 1987 when education reform burst into a major political issue in Chicago. In the spring of 1987 Barack Obama lobbied the mayor of Chicago at that time, Harold Washington, to set up a “local control” education reform effort that would include Bill Ayers’ brother John on its advisory board. Obama wrote the mayor as Executive Director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP) a position Obama held for three years prior to attending Harvard Law School.
The Daily Caller has obtained copies of two letters written by Obama, one to Washington and one to an aide of the mayor, as well as an attachment to the second letter listing the proposed board members. The list includes the name of John Ayers, as well as that of the black nationalist minister Jeremiah Wright and the controversial and radical white Chicago priest Michael Pfleger. Also on the 1987 list is Anne Hallett, then with the Wieboldt Foundation, who would co-author with Bill Ayers the proposal to form the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in 1994.
John Ayers, now head of the Cowen Institute at Tulane, shares the same passion for education reform as his brother and his late father. He became a participant on behalf of business groups in the push for local control and later for the charter school movement, which was a natural evolution from the local control and small schools approach advocated by Bill Ayers and his former SDS comrade Mike Klonsky.
Despite this background, Obama supporters, including The New York Times, maintained that Ayers had no serious connection, if any, with Obama and that Ayers played no role in the selection of Obama to chair the Annenberg Challenge. Although I was interviewed 5 times by The Times and provided them this background, they ignored this information and published a long page one story by Scott Shane that repeated the Obama campaign position that Ayers had no role in the appointment of Obama to the Annenberg entity.
At the time I also reported that a senior and longtime Democratic Party activist said that the Ayers relationship with Obama went back to the mid-1980s. This same source also said that Ayers and Dohrn played a significant role in the Obama campaign including helping devise lists of individuals for appointments in the new Administration. The appointment of former marxist-leninist Van Jones to the Obama White House would seem to be evidence of this.
This same source also said in 2008 that a senior campaign operative, who is still today a senior member of the Obama campaign, was aware of conversations between David Axelrod and Bill Ayers aimed at blocking access by conservative writer Stanley Kurtz to records of the Annenberg Challenge held at the University of Illinois. More on the CAC records flap here.
I also interviewed and reported on the fact that the mailman who delivered mail to the home of Bill Ayers’ parents had met Obama outside that home in the 1980s. That mailman also spoke to me about a conversation he had during the 2008 campaign with Tim Ayers who vigorously defended his brother Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn.
It made sense to me that the relationship with Ayers would reach back that far because in 1987 the DCP played a very active role in the loose coalition of groups referred to above interested in pressuring the Teachers Union and the Mayor’s office to institute reform of Chicago schools. The primary goal of the DCP and many in this coalition was a variation on the theme of “local control” – an attempt to involve parents and surrounding communities in local schools.
“Local control” is widely viewed as hostile to teachers’ unions because it can become an easily manipulated source of pressure on teachers and principals without any rational basis in education policy. In fact, Bill Ayers and Mike Klonsky were explicit about their interest in influencing schools through this method and the Annenberg Challenge money was used to do this. Some education policy figures, such as Dorothy Shipps, view “local control” as undemocratic because it prevents district wide transparent and accountable reforms.
Local control first emerged as a part of the ideology of black nationalists and elements within the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, in the 1960s. SDS was the left wing antiwar student group that fell apart in the late 60s and gave rise to, among other sects, the terror group Weather Underground. SDS and black nationalists advocated local control and opposed the teachers union in a bitter strike in New York City in 1968. Some SDS members went so far as to scab during the strike.
Bill Ayers and Mike Klonsky were leading members of SDS then. Ayers later helped found the Weather Underground and Klonsky became a hard core Maoist. Klonsky along with Ayers became an active backer of Obama. Klonsky hosted a blog on educational issues on the official Obama campaign website in 2008 that was deleted once the maoist background of Klonsky was discussed during the campaign.
In 1980, Ayers and his wife Dohrn surfaced from hiding during their Weather Underground days and turned themselves into authorities. They avoided jail time for their terrorist activity but Dohrn was refused admission to the bar despite graduating from the University of Chicago law school. She was able to reinvent herself as a “law professor” of sorts and is now a member of the law school faculty at Northwestern University. Bill Ayers entered graduate school in education in New York and then returned to Chicago in 1987 to join the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago, then known as the “Chicago Circle” campus.
In the fall of 1987 a strike of the Chicago Teachers’ Union took place just a few months after Obama asked the mayor to support the DCP’s community based education effort that would include John Ayers. The strike angered many in the city and led to a lobbying effort in the Illinois legislature to institute local control in the Chicago schools through elected “local school councils” (LSCs). Over union opposition and opposition from groups such as Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, which feared (correctly) the LSC’s would undermine teachers many of whom were black, the state legislature backed the LSC idea.
Bill Ayers was active during the strike as well in this reform effort, as was his brother John. Bill rose to chair the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, or ABCs, a key group in the LSC lobbying campaign. although precisely when Ayers became chair is not known. Obama’s DCP was also a member of ABCs, the only black community organization to join. Another member was Chicago United, a business group that had been founded many years earlier by Thomas Ayers, the father of Bill and a powerful Chicago business leader who was active in education reform on behalf of the business community. Chicago United played a key role in organizing ABCs.
John Ayers, Bill Ayers, Tom Ayers, Mike Klonsky and Barack Obama shared a commitment to “local control” ideology from at least the late 1980s through the Chicago School Wars of the 1990s. Obama brought his DCP into the local control movement and thus proved himself a valuable ally of the Ayers family in that battle. Bill Ayers rewarded Obama for that commitment by appointing Obama to chair the Annenberg Challenge in 1995. Obama, in turn, steered millions of dollars from the CAC to multicultural curriculum programs and local control efforts led by Bill Ayers and Mike Klonsky, among others. Ayers, in turn, supported Obama’s effort to enter electoral politics as part of the “long march” tactics favored by Bill Ayers after the failed effort to stoke a “revolution” through violence and terror. There is also evidence that Ayers, and his allies in the education reform movement, continue to influence education policy of the President. It is no surprise that the Obama campaign, including its media team at The New York Times, has done everything it can to bury this story.
The President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is putting a brave face on the “strike” by Chicago teachers. Only a few weeks ago she was lauding the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public School (CPS) system for having resolved their differences as it looked like a strike would be avoided. Now she is gamely telling the PBS News Hour that this a “local” issue that has to be resolved locally, ignoring the fact that she was on national TV explaining this.
Behind the scenes she, and many other pro-Democratic Party labor leaders, are pulling their hair out. There could not have been a worse time to pick a fight like this with the city of Obama just as he emerged from his highly successful Democratic party convention. That convention was a convention in name only, of course, as video of LA mayor Villaraigosa ignoring the clear vote of the delegates on key issues indicated. It was political theater of the highest order, hitting its peak not with the speech of the President, but with the speech of the former President, Bill Clinton, who likely helped many voters ease their growing doubts about the Obama Administration.
Now a strike by the CTU over issues that are murky and confusing to the average citizen threatens to distract the electorate just as the Obama campaign picks up lost momentum.
How could this have happened?
The ironic answer is that President Obama himself deserves some of the blame. At the top of the CTU leadership is a group of political activists for whom the health and well being of students is not the top priority much less the bread and butter concerns of their fellow union teachers. Instead, they are the hard core of a highly ideological milieu that has over the last decade or more burrowed their way into the teachers’ union.
Now they have their hands on the levers of power of a large urban union and are doing what no sane union leader would do, namely striking at a point where they are least likely to gain allies among Democrats and others on the left whom they normally could, and should, count on in a battle of this magnitude.
Only a group with a different agenda than that of the genuine labor movement would take such a huge risk. Actually, from their standpoint – one which advocates “r-r-radical” change – it makes a peculiar kind of sense because it appears to demonstrate their intransigence. While stalwart militancy can be a valuable trait in a labor leader, mindless militancy of the sort on display among the top leaders of the CTU is dangerous. For too long the democratic left inside the AFT and elsewhere has ignored these risks.
What animates this “mindless militancy”? It is the so-called “social justice” ideology propagated by a sectarian element in American schools of education and among their teacher graduates by individuals like Linda Darling-Hammond, Bill Ayers, Mike Klonsky, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Peter MacLaren and others.
Thus, Karen Lewis, the new “fist in the air” fire brand president of the CTU in the words of her ally the Maoist education activist Mike Klonsky. Lewis recently traveled to Seattle not to discuss the tragedy of poor student outcomes in our nation’s schools but to rally the “Shock Doctrine” troops among the social justice crowd to take over the teachers’ union.
Lewis appears in fact to be more likely a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.” She signed off on legislation last year that severely restricted her own union’s collective bargaining rights. The bill was attacked as union-busting by one Illinois legislator. Worse, Lewis apparently did this behind the backs of her own union members who hit the roof when they learned of the move. In other words, any “militancy” being shown now by Lewis may be a dysfunctional form of compensation for her role in weakening her own union.
Keep in mind that I put quotes around “social justice” because this crowd’s “social justice” ideology has nothing to do with the social justice agenda of the genuine labor movement or the civil rights movement. This is, instead, an agenda about gaining political power, not for the students and teachers of our blighted urban schools, but for the advocates of “social justice” and its allied ideas such as multiculturalism and identity politics.
While proposed as something radical it is important to keep in mind how conservative and reactionary this ideology is, in fact. It represents a retreat from the genuinely progressive and radical agenda of the civil rights movement and the labor movement. And it is therefore not a surprise to realize that this new “social justice” agenda emerged in the wake of the defeat of those earlier democratic movements in the late 70s and early 80s.
The ideology actually leads the labor movement backwards into the divisive morass of politically correct identity politics. In the world of education, for example, it actually helped support the pro-corporate school “choice” movement by the formation of politically correct small schools like the “Social Justice” high school in Chicago. Not a surprise that figures like Ayers and Klonsky back the same idea as one supported by the Gates Foundation.
Thus, instead of creating democratic, transparent institutions that can lead us out of the crisis in our schools, this “social justice” crowd functions like a mirror image of the corporate education reform crowd they so loudly denounce. This faux radical milieu has, in fact, given up, sometimes explicitly, on wider social solutions, such as integration, to the problems of city schools. They promote absurd arguments that the schools are the moral equivalent of apartheid and promote a form of reparations for slavery in the name of repaying what they call the “education debt” that allegedly has accumulated over 400 years.
If some of this sounds vaguely familiar to followers of Presidential politics, it should. This is the very same agenda that Barack Obama promoted when he was an active leader in the “Chicago School Wars” of the late 80s and 1990s. Back then he joined forces with education professor Bill Ayers to lead the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). Together Ayers and Obama pumped tens of millions of dollars into the Chicago school system with two goals: one, to promote explicitly the politically correct “social justice” agenda by financing curriculum that imposed their views on teachers and students; and two, the financial support of Local School Councils (LSCs) which were established in 1988 after a very unpopular teachers strike in Chicago.
The LSCs were very unpopular with teachers because they set up a new power base for community activists to monitor and control teachers. Ayers and Obama were well aware of this, of course, and fought within the CAC to make sure millions of dollars went to this institution precisely to help undermine the power of the CTU and its then traditional labor leadership, as well as the central power at CPS and the Chicago mayor’s office. To do this, they had to overcome the opposition of then Mayor Daley who tried to get the Annenberg Challenge to give him the huge grant instead. And they battled with establishment figures like Arnold Weber, former President of Northwestern University and a very skilled and experienced labor economist, who fear precisely what happened: that the LSC’s and the Ayers/Obama “social justice” agenda would become a political weapon.
Of course, with this kind of ambitious political agenda it should not be a surprise to learn that that the CAC money had no impact at all on improving outcomes for students! The CAC’s own research arm completed an exhaustive study to reach this conclusion once all the money was spent.
But the CAC was judged a huge success by Ayers, Obama and allies like Mike Klonsky (the 60s maoist who reinvented himself under Ayers’ tutelage as an “education expert”). A new political front was now opened up by them inside the Chicago schools. This story was largely ignored during the 2008 campaign not least because the mainstream media had another agenda – electing Obama.
Thus, most prominently, the New York Times “debunked” the easy side of the Ayers/Obama relationship (that Obama had no connection to Ayers role in the Weather Underground and violent political tactics) while ignoring their very substantial work together during the Chicago School Wars and beyond, well into the period of Obama’s presidential campaign. See posts here, here, here and here. As I said at the time, the Times won the David Blaine magic award for making that issue disappear. They even ignored a report by their friends at the New Yorker magazine contradicting their reporting.
And the Ayers/Obama/Klonsky “social justice” milieu now had an institutionalized role in the CPS. That eventually led to the emergence of a layer within the CTU itself that challenged its traditional (and progressive and African American) leadership. Despite the many decades of achievement by that leadership, the CTU had proved incapable of dealing with the very severe challenges posed by dramatic socio-economic change in Chicago. This provided an opening for the “r-r-radicals” in the face of pressure from Chicago’s moneyed elite to shut down non-performing schools, lengthen the school day and reform the teacher evaluation process.
It would be one thing, of course, if this new milieu had a genuine agenda for reform of education that was linked to student capabilities. In other words, the test of their agenda is to ask, well, what will be the result for the students in a year, five years and ten years? But this group opposes measurement of the impact of reforms, despite the attempt of their own national leadership in the AFT to take this problem seriously. And it pushes for things like extended recess periods and art classes that likely are of value to students but hardly worth shutting down those same schools in a “strike” and leaving Chicago’s young children wandering the very dangerous streets of that gang-ridden city.
We are witnessing a train wreck in slow motion that cannot end well for Chicago teachers, their students or their union. Those same teachers will have to ask themselves some very important questions about how they ended up in this situation. But if President Obama is wringing his hands about how his own city and his own political allies could have created such a problem for him, then he should look in the mirror.
Paul Krugman thinks the economy faces a demand side problem but that it is unrealistic to expect Obama to lay out the problem in advance of the election.
This gets at the heart of the “Obama paradox“: he is by instinct a radical (tutored by the stalinoid milieu of southside Chicago) but he tries to govern like a liberal. He has barricaded himself inside the White House and thinks he has real power.
There is a demand side vacuum in the political arena too not just in the economy. Liberals and radicals often share the same values but radicals know that entrenched interests like the Congressional Republicans only respond to social pressure.
Obama mobilized millions in 2008 and then abandoned his “Obama for America.” The Occupy movement and the Wisconsin labor mobilization provided new opportunities for Obama to create the political force to demand progressive change. But he failed to take advantage of that opening.
Without that social mobilization it will take a decade for the economy to “self-repair.” And now is not the time for the left to be demanding? Really?