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There Is no American Left

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Message Salvatore Babones
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In September 2012 Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted to break the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) with a bid to privatize Chicago's public schools. The mayor's proposal was based on a plan to subject teachers (and schools) to performance measurement based on students' standardized test scores.

Teachers whose students scored poorly would be fired. Schools whose students scored poorly would be closed. The students would then be farmed out to so-called "charter schools" -- for the most part, for-profit institutions run by corporations like Edison Schools, Rocketship, Victory Schools, and Educational Services of America.

The CTU went out on strike with the goal of maintaining public education in Chicago, America's third largest city. Schools in Philadelphia, America's fifth largest city, have already been largely privatized, and the state of Texas is currently in the process of privatizing its local public-school systems.

Under threat of a court injunction that might force them to return to work without a contract, the CTU ended its strike after just six business days. The negotiated settlement terms included a longer working day (for the same pay), teacher evaluations based 30% on student test scores, and complete mayoral discretion over teacher hiring and firing.

As Reuters reported on September 18, "those were major goals for Emanuel and positive outcomes for any Emanuel financial backers associated with the national education-reform movement." The outcome, however, was widely viewed in the United States as a victory for the teachers, since (amazingly, to most Americans) they retained their pre-strike jobs, salaries, and health-insurance benefits.

Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, is a Democrat.

The Obama administration: Center-Right Democrats

Rahm Emanuel is not just any Democrat. He was Barack Obama's first chief of staff, responsible for hiring many of the Obama administration's key personnel. One of Obama's appointees, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is a former "Chief Executive Officer" of the Chicago public-school system. In Chicago he had promoted the expansion of for-profit charter schools.

In Washington Secretary Duncan developed the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" program to encourage states to privatize their schools. The funding was structured as a competition. All 50 states adopted the Race to the Top program in hopes of receiving scarce federal funding during a severe recession; only 12 actually received any grants. The tournament format was designed to ensure maximum institutional impact for the smallest possible investment.

It's not just in education policy that the Obama administration has pursued a broadly neoliberal, center-right agenda. For example, President Obama has taken no action to improve minimum wages or working conditions. The US federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, with no guaranteed sick days, holidays, or vacation time. The last increase was in 2009, under a law passed by the Bush administration in 2007. President Bush actually supported the increase -- in combination with business tax cuts.

The federal minimum wage for restaurant staff (and others who might be expected to receive customer tips) is just $2.13 an hour, against which the value of meals provided by the employer can be deducted.

But of course President Obama's signature program is health-care reform. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 is proudly or derisively (depending which side you're on) known as Obamacare. America has long been the only rich country without universal health insurance. Obamacare is intended to extend health-insurance coverage to all Americans.

What is Obamacare really? At its heart is a requirement that all Americans will have to buy health insurance, mainly from private, for-profit insurance companies. Insurance premiums will remain largely unregulated, subject to the single requirement that insurance companies will have to accept all applicants and not be allowed to turn away those with pre-existing conditions.

People who refuse to buy health insurance will be forced to pay a $695 penalty. Given that the cost of the most basic private health insurance in the United States is far greater than this, many people are likely to remain uninsured even after Obamacare is fully implemented in 2014.

What's more, starting in 2017 states will essentially be able to opt out of Obamacare if they present an alternative plan that is approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. This requires no further action by Congress. So if the next US president is a Republican, expect every Republican-controlled state to opt out of universal healthcare as soon as that president is inaugurated.

And then there's foreign policy. The Obama administration foreign policy is slightly to the left of ... Dick Cheney. The Obama administration embraces targeted assassination and maintains a kill list -- sorry, "disposition matrix" -- of people it considers fair game for drone attacks. The Obama administration embraces the use of torture on people in US custody (with the sole specific exclusion of waterboarding). The Obama administration embraces the infliction of national collective punishment to induce civilian populations to overthrow their governments.

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Salvatore Babones is a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney in Australia and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, DC.
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