Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How Do We Measure Your Turf?

In which I ponder the various ways in which private money plays in the public sphere, how much we should care about them, and why.


This post is probably going to be long and only sort of related to education. It has an audience of roughly two people-- a guy who periodically kicks at my ass on Twitter, and me. He's unlikely to be moved by anything I have to say, and I'm indulging myself by trying to write through what I've found an increasingly interesting issue, emerging as it has in the election cycle. So this might actually have an audience of zero. But one of the functions

What Money Wants, And When Is It Astroturf

Mike Bloomberg managed to lower the bar by offering $2,500 to anyone who wants to get on social media and plug his candidacy. This is a pretty basic level of astroturf, though it lacks the "movement" aspect that you'd get if all those cheap influencers formed "Trolls for Bloomberg." But does it matter? Does it matter that the Russians are now, apparently, intending to back both Trump and Sanders? Does it matter who gets money from Walton, Gates, Broad, Powell Jobs, CZI, or the NEA? Are there left-tilted dark pits spewing out money just as promiscuously as those on the right?

I'd say there are three important distinctions here,.

First, how does the money connect to the fundees. That connection can happen several different ways, but they boil down to two basic approaches-- either the money goes searching for the cause, or the cause goes searching for money.

Folks often imagine that when money goes looking, it hires people to change their mind ("If I give you this stack of money, will you take the position I want you to?"), but that strikes me as less common. That business is crafting and promoting a policy argument is sort of the business thinky tanks. But it's more efficient and effective to find people who already agree with you. In this approach, funders might look for pre-existing groups to back, or they might build the advocacy organization of their dreams from the ground up. And of course, it's most effective to bankroll a candidate for an office who already agrees with you.

When the cause goes looking for backers, they already know what they want to do-- they just need to find someone to help them fund it.

These two approaches aren't mutually exclusive-- David Coleman decided he wanted to find a backer for his Common Core initiative, and once he convinced Bill Gates, Gates proceeded to muster up all the support that money can buy.

People are distrustful of the first approach because it seems less "sincere," and I'm sure I've been guilty of that prejudice myself. One wonders who is really driving the bus-- the advocates or the money source. And that's a hard issue to parse because the funder doesn't necessarily have to make its requirements explicit-- wave enough money around and the recipients will be inclined to try to make the funder happy without being told exactly what to do.

But it is also true that these larger funders are doing what people do-- using money to support the causes that they care about and believe in. The simplest version of this question when we're talking organizations and not candidates is, "Who founded the group, and did they do it before or after the funding appeared?"

Second, there's the question of how many funders. Does the big pile of money come from a whole bunch of people, or just one guy?

This effects how people view the who-drives-the-bus question. If the source of funding is just one very rich guy, then what he wants matters, and what he wants is pretty well focused. We are watching how this matters in political appearances-- Sanders takes nothing but small donations giving him the appearance of responding to a many-voiced crowd, while Bloomberg answers only to himself.  When a million people contribute to one candidate, that suggests a broad grassroots campaign, which we think of as a Good Thing because that means the candidate is responding to the crowd, the public, a broad base, while the candidate who is funded by just a few people is, we fear, ignoring the crowd and just listening to a few rich guys.

That brings us back to the question of motive. Are these few rich guys trying to sway policy to make another buck? Are they trying to dodge taxes? Are they trying to make themselves look benevolent and good while still preserving their power and privilege (Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas is all about that idea)? And if it's dark money, how do we even know what the heck the funders are up to?

In the education debates, there's another option at play. Where the will of the public (or a portion of the public) is not clear, there will always be a push to shape that public opinion, both by influencing opinion and by controlling the narrative about where public opinion is headed. The argument about who is funded how and by whom becomes part of this argument about the narrative. Does Group X really represent a large chunk of public opinion, or has it been artificially inflated to look bigger than it really is?

Third, the size of the pile of money involved. This is where it gets tricky, I think. Because before we even get to the matter of money, we have to recognize that some folks are privileged with louder voices than others of us, and some folks need a little amplification just to reach the point where their voices are just as big and loud as other folks' are on any regular day. If you are someone whose voice is routinely dismissed and ignored, do you pass up the chance to get some amplification for it? Probably not. If you are the gay mayor of a small town with a shot at getting a rich-guy boost to get on the national stage that other Presidential aspirants have lived on for years, do you take that rich-guy boost? You probably do.

In the imaginary perfect free market of ideas, every idea gets tossed out there by folks who believe it, and those that sound good, resonate with the audience, smell like good sense-- they attract attention and repetition and serial adoption. This is standard procedure in education; ideas like six traits writing, long before someone thinks to monetize them, get passed around and shared and spread because teachers find they like them.

The more money being spent to push an idea out there, the further from an organic free market of ideas you will appear to be. The hugely expensive attempt to buy support for Common Core was just one more sign that there's something wrong with the standards. The fact that Gates, with his mountain of money, had trouble getting traction, while critics of the Core were making widespread headway for free-- that tells us something about the actual grassroots support for the Core.

So if you're one really rich guy who spent a ton of money to start a group whose whole purpose would be to advocate for your favorite policy idea, that's going to be seen as astroturf.

What's so wrong about that?

If five people sit down to talk, and one has a bullhorn, the give-and-take of their conversation is distorted. If Mike Bloomberg hires several thousand people to say nice things about him, we don't know how deep his support really goes. At this point, many of our national discussions are so distorted that it's no longer possible to make out much of what is really going on

In education reform, a ton of money has been used to amplify the voices of privileged amateurs. If David Coleman  had walked in off the street and into a school district office, announcing, "I'm not actually qualified to do this, but I have some educational standards that I think you should use," that would have been the end of it. If Bill Gates were no richer than an average science teachers, we'd have never heard of the Common Core.

And this was happening in the education space, a space where too many voices were already being ignored or silenced.

But both sides--

One of the standard arguments for reformy infusion of big bucks has been, "We have to fight back against the Evil Unions, who are buying and selling school board members and local officials and the entire Democratic party." or "We need our side's billionaires because the liberal Democrats have George Soros and...:" Actually, Soros seems to be the only big scary Democrat billionaire being cited. But the idea that the Resistance is as heavily and darkly funded as modern ed reform is repeatedly thrown up as a means of dismissing pro-public ed folks. You are not a real public ed supporter until you've been accused of being a union shill.

Here's an example of the both sides argument from Chris Stewart, arguing that "big union" money and money bundled by super-groups like Democracy Alliance is just as problematic as money from Walton and Gates and other "philanthropists progressives love to hate," a phrase that made me realize that I'm not aware of which philanthropists progressives actually love. I spent some time looking at a blown-up version of his diagrams, discovering that there are groups out there that I've never heard of, and groups that are being counted on the wrong side (most notably, the Center for American Progress doesn't remotely qualify as a group that opposes education reform in all its various forms).

There are differences here of type and magnitude. Stewart highlights the Progressive Fellows as writers who are pro-public school and funded by billionaires and/or unions. But I am a Progressive Fellow and the name may sound fancy, but a year's worth of my Progressive money would cover a couple of house payments. The Network for Public Education's funding is laid out here by Mercedes Schneider, and it does come from a union source and some lefty organizations, but in the world of education policy, it is peanuts-- under $700k start-up money compared to the $13 million plus used to launch Education Post. As another measure, I'd stack up the number of people who make a living advocating for education reform compared to the number who make a living advocating for public education. On the public ed side you might count union officials; I can't think of anyone else who's making enough money from advocacy to make a living at it.

Stewart doesn't like that a reporter frames a difference as "teachers working through their unions on behalf of their profession isn’t the same things as the outsized role wealthy pro-charter people play in education policy." But I agree with her. There's zero question that union leadership often becomes disconnected from membership (see: support for Common Core and endorsement of Hillary Clinton). But the money the union spends is not spent on the whim or desire of a single rich guy.

The union is not a monolith, nor is it focused strictly on ed reform. But if we look at their political giving, it peaked at $32 million in 2016 and was last year back down to $12 million, which is still a ton of money. But compare that to the $1 billion that the Waltons have pledged to spend on charters over the next five years, and that's not counting the money they're pumping into advocacy groups. And that's just the Waltons-- the Gates Foundation also drops billions of dollars into ed reform projects, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is looking to spend a billion a year, Eli Broad spent $100 million to give his amateur superintendent factory an Ivy League sheen, Powell Jobs has spent modest millions on ed reform, and those are just the marquee names in the ed reform biz, before we even get to the millions being spent just on elections. There simply isn't anybody spending that kind of money on the public ed side of the issues-- not the unions, not Schott (with $5 million spent), not NEPC.

Is there a whole lot of money, including union money, floating around in the left-o-sphere. Sure. As I type this, we're watching the next phase of big democrat dollars trying to get things organized so that they can push Sanders out of the lead spot (having already tried to snuff the Warren campaign by cutting off its media oxygen) and elevate a money-friendly candidate. But to the extent that big-money lefties have shown any interest in education policy at all, it has been to side with reformsters, not with public ed.

So, no. I don't think the both sides do it argument holds water for the education debates. Education reform has been fueled by huge amounts of money. And yes that makes a difference, often in very practical ways. I have joked that there must be some kind of law that says every article about ed policy must include a quote from Mike Petrilli, but it's really very simple-- Petrilli is always available to reporters because that's his whole job, while public school advocates are busy doing other things for a living and are not available when a reporter needs a quote to finish off this piece for deadline in a few hours. Advocates also have the time to build relationships, make contacts. Advocates have the financial slack to write pieces for publication far and wide without worrying about any kind of pay for them. Money gives that kind of power.

But can money be dirty?

I wrote for Ed Week for a while; Nancy Flanagan and Anthony Cody did so for years. Although Ed Week is propped up with some of that filthy Gates money, none of us have stories to tell about being pushed in a particular direction. Chalkbeat is also supposedly rife with such money, but Matt Barnum and others do some good, fair reporting. Even the 74 can feature some decent journalism on its hard news side, even as its advocacy side peddles baloney. I don't believe that taking money from That Side automatically turns you into a compromised instrument of evil.

I'm not nearly as interested in the dirt as I am in the strings. But I was part of a crowd hollering for NEA and AFT leadership to stop taking money from Gates, and I'd do it again. When the money is big enough, the rich don't have to explicitly attach strings; the recipients will do that themselves,

So what is the point on calling out astroturf?

The main point, of course, is to dismiss and discredit the viewpoint being presented. That's lazy and sloppy, and I'm going to be more careful about my own writing in that respect. Stewart quotes Neal McClusky (CATO) making a valuable point-- arguing about the funding trail of a group shouldn't distract us from talking about whatever point or argument is being made.

But if the point being made is "We are a group of individuals who have come together and risen up organically and we represent the views of millions of people," then the funding trail becomes germane, especially if the funding trail reveals that it's really a small group with a big funder. This is often the whole point of an astro-turfed, push-poll informed, tested-message fueled group-- to create the idea that there is a groundswell of a support for a particular view, an opinion that Real Democrats or Real Black Folks or Real parents really have, and therefor smart politicians should get in front of this particular wave, when in fact there is no wave at al.

Beyond that, noting a funding source can be useful in figuring out what the group really supports, or doesn't. If it's Walton funded, I know it's not going to be union-friendly. Many groups and organizations hide their intent behind a lot of smoke and mirrors; following the money to discover who is funding the enterprise is one way to cut through the smoke and get a sense of what's really going on.

And yet, this has to be balanced or one runs the risk of falling off the deep end (and it is fair to ay that both sides have deep ends to fall off into) and start seeing tangled depths conspiracy that aren't really there.

It's worth remembering that media operations need money to function above a certain level. Sure, I operate, as do most of the bloggers on the public ed side, on a budget of $0.00. If I were to travel to do research and interviews, I'd be spending my own money. If I were to start licensing stock photos instead of scrounging, that would cost money. If I wanted to hire another person to report or just proofread and edit my stuff, that would be another expense. I'd have to come up with some source for the money. Legitimate news outlets are struggling, advocacy groups are struggling, everybody who isn't rich is struggling. So when someone goes shopping for funding to help push out their message, I can't pretend I don't get that, even if I think their message is wrong. But it's impossible not to wonder whether they are legit or just a well-financed sock puppet. Time usually tells (remember Jeb Bush's Learn More Go Further four twitter teachers who advocated for Common Core and then abruptly fell silent). Patience is probably more useful than vitriol.

Are you done yet?

Mostly. It's a hard balance. On the one hand, the constant injection of money into debates about education distorts the conversation and gives some points of view weight they don't deserve. If all the money funding all the Common Core advocacy groups had vanished in 2010, the Core wouldn't have survived ten minutes.

But on the other hand, there are all sorts of people who don't have access to a platform and whose voices are routinely ignored and dismissed. Is it wrong for them to grab some support when they get the chance to elevate their voices? It's unfortunate that sincere voices with a platform are at least for a while hard to distinguish from opportunists grabbing a ride on the gravy train. I think Chris Stewart is far better paid than I will ever be, but I also believe that he believes every single word he says.

But on the other hand, if you assume that the only possible explanation for my advocacy is that somebody is paying me to make my point, that tells me more about you than it does about me.

But on the other hand, if you are deploying your own vast wealth to steer the national discussion about education (or anything else) in the direction you would prefer and if you are, in fact, trying to use the noise your money makes to drown out the sound of democracy, then you are one of the big problems facing this country, and you should knock it off.

So for me, I can't ignore where the funding comes from, but I need to remember that the money trail is not the final word. It's just a piece of information that opens up some bigger answers.

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