Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country?

by Tom Engelhardt, billmoyers.com, March 25, 2015 This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

Excerpt

Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name. And here’s what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it’s as if we can’t bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so….it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray.

1. One Percent Elections

2. The Privatization of the State (or the US as a Prospective Third-World Nation)

3. The De-legitimization of Congress and the Presidency

4. The Rise of the National Security State as the Fourth Branch of Government

5. The Demobilization of the American People

6. The Birth of a New System

…this period doesn’t represent a version, no matter how perverse or extreme, of politics as usual; nor is the 2016 campaign an election as usual; nor are we experiencing Washington as usual.  Put together our one percent elections, the privatization of our government, the de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency, as well as the empowerment of the national security state and the US military and add in the demobilization of the American public (in the name of protecting us from terrorism) and you have something like a new ballgame…Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

http://billmoyers.com/2015/03/25/new-american-order/

Full text

Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name.

And here’s what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it’s as if we can’t bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so.

Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of “we the people.”

Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray.

1. One Percent Elections

Check out the news about the 2016 presidential election and you’ll quickly feel a sense of been-there, done-that. As a start, the two names most associated with it, Bush and Clinton, couldn’t be more familiar, highlighting as they do the curiously dynastic quality of recent presidential contests. (If a Bush or Clinton should win in 2016 and again in 2020, a member of one of those families will have controlled the presidency for 28 of the last 36 years.)

The 2012 presidential campaign was the first $2 billion election; campaign 2016 is expected to hit the $5 billion mark without breaking a sweat.

Take, for instance, “Why 2016 Is Likely to Become a Close Race,” a recent piece Nate Cohn wrote for my hometown paper. A noted election statistician, Cohn points out that, despite Hillary Clinton’s historically staggering lead in Democratic primary polls (and lack of serious challengers), she could lose the general election. He bases this on what we know about her polling popularity from the Monica Lewinsky moment of the 1990s to the present. Cohn assures readers that Hillary will not “be a Democratic Eisenhower, a popular, senior statesperson who cruises to an easy victory.” It’s the sort of comparison that offers a certain implicit reassurance about the near future. (No, Virginia, we haven’t left the world of politics in which former General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower can still be a touchstone.)

Cohn may be right when it comes to Hillary’s electability, but this is not Dwight D. Eisenhower’s or even Al Gore’s America. If you want a measure of that, consider this year’s primaries. I mean, of course, the 2015 ones. Once upon a time, the campaign season started with candidates flocking to Iowa and New Hampshire early in the election year to establish their bona fides among party voters. These days, however, those are already late primaries.

The early primaries, the ones that count, take place among a small group of millionaires and billionaires, a new caste flush with cash who will personally, or through complex networks of funders, pour multi-millions of dollars into the campaigns of candidates of their choice. So the early primaries — this year mainly a Republican affair — are taking place in resort spots like Las Vegas, Rancho Mirage, California, and Sea Island, Georgia, as has been widely reported. These “contests” involve groveling politicians appearing at the beck and call of the rich and powerful and so reflect our new one percent electoral system. (The main pro-Hillary super PAC, for instance, is aiming for a kitty of $500 million heading into 2016, while the Koch brothers network has already promised to drop almost $1 billion into the coming campaign season, doubling their efforts in the last presidential election year.)

Ever since the Supreme Court opened up the ultimate floodgates with its 2010 Citizens United decision, each subsequent election has seen record-breaking amounts of money donated and spent. The 2012 presidential campaign was the first $2 billion election; campaign 2016 is expected to hit the $5 billion mark without breaking a sweat. By comparison, according to Burton Abrams and Russell Settle in their study, “The Effect of Broadcasting on Political Campaign Spending,” Republicans and Democrats spent just under $13 million combined in 1956 when Eisenhower won his second term.

In the meantime, it’s still true that the 2016 primaries will involve actual voters, as will the election that follows. The previous election season, the midterms of 2014, cost almost $4 billion, a record despite the number of small donors continuing to drop. It also represented the lowest midterm voter turnout since World War II. (See: demobilization of the public, below — and add in the demobilization of the Democrats as a real party, the breaking of organized labor, the fragmenting of the Republican Party, and the return of voter suppression laws visibly meant to limit the franchise.) It hardly matters just what the flood of new money does in such elections, when you can feel the weight of inequality bearing down on the whole process in a way that is pushing us somewhere new.

2. The Privatization of the State (or the US as a Prospective Third-World Nation)

In the recent coverage of the Hillary Clinton email flap, you can find endless references to the Clintons of yore in wink-wink, you-know-how-they-are-style reporting; and yes, she did delete a lot of emails; and yes, it’s an election year coming and, as everyone points out, the Republicans are going to do their best to keep the email issue alive until hell freezes over, etc., etc. Again, the coverage, while eyeball gluing, is in a you’ve-seen-it-all-before, you’ll-see-it-all-again-mode.

However, you haven’t seen it all before. The most striking aspect of this little brouhaha lies in what’s most obvious but least highlighted. An American secretary of state chose to set up her own private, safeguarded email system for doing government work; that is, she chose to privatize her communications. If this were Cairo, it might not warrant a second thought. But it didn’t happen in some third-world state. It was the act of a key official of the planet’s reigning (or thrashing) superpower, which — even if it wasn’t the first time such a thing had ever occurred — should be taken as a tiny symptom of something that couldn’t be larger or, in the long stretch of history, newer: the ongoing privatization of the American state, or at least the national security part of it.

Though the marriage of the state and the corporation has a pre-history, the full-scale arrival of the warrior corporation only occurred after 9/11. Someday, that will undoubtedly be seen as a seminal moment in the formation of whatever may be coming in this country. Only 13 years later, there is no part of the war state that has not experienced major forms of privatization. The US military could no longer go to war without its crony corporations doing KP and guard duty, delivering the mail, building the bases and being involved in just about all of its activities, including training the militaries of foreign allies and even fighting. Such warrior corporations are now involved in every aspect of the national security state, including torture, drone strikes and — to the tune of hundreds of thousands of contract employees like Edward Snowden — intelligence gathering and spying. You name it and, in these years, it’s been at least partly privatized.

All you have to do is read reporter James Risen’s recent book, Pay Any Price, on how the global war on terror was fought in Washington, and you know that privatization has brought something else with it: corruption, scams and the gaming of the system for profits of a sort that might normally be associated with a typical third-world kleptocracy. And all of this, a new world being born, was reflected in a tiny way in Hillary Clinton’s very personal decision about her emails.

Though it’s a subject I know so much less about, this kind of privatization (and the corruption that goes with it) is undoubtedly underway in the non-war-making, non-security-projecting part of the American state as well.

3. The De-legitimization of Congress and the Presidency

On a third front, American “confidence” in the three classic check-and-balance branches of government, as measured by polling outfits, continues to fall. In 2014, Americans expressing a “great deal of confidence” in the Supreme Court hit a new low of 23 percent; in the presidency, it was 11 percent and in Congress a bottom-scraping five percent. (The military, on the other hand, registers at 50 percent.) The figures for “hardly any confidence at all” are respectively 20 percent, 44 percent and more than 50 percent. All are in or near record-breaking territory for the last four decades.

It seems fair to say that in recent years Congress has been engaged in a process of delegitimizing itself. Where that body once had the genuine power to declare war, for example, it is now “debating” in a desultory fashion an “authorization” for a war against the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and possibly elsewhere that has already been underway for eight months and whose course, it seems, will be essentially unaltered, whether Congress authorizes it or not.

A president who came into office rejecting torture and promoting sunshine and transparency in government has, in the course of six-plus years, come to identify himself almost totally with the US military, the CIA, the NSA and the like.

What would President Harry Truman, who once famously ran a presidential campaign against a “do-nothing” Congress, have to say about a body that truly can do just about nothing? Or rather, to give the Republican war hawks in that new Congress their due, not quite nothing. They are proving capable of acting effectively to delegitimize the presidency as well. House Majority Leader John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undercut the president’s Iranian nuclear negotiations and the letter signed by 47 Republican senators and directed to the Iranian ayatollahs are striking examples of this. They are visibly meant to tear down an “imperial presidency” that Republicans gloried in not so long ago.

The radical nature of that letter, not as an act of state but of its de-legitimization, was noted even in Iran, where fundamentalist Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proclaimed it “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.” Here, however, the letter is either being covered as a singularly extreme one-off act (“treason!”) or, as Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show, as part of a repetitive tit-for-tat between Democrats and Republicans over who controls foreign policy. It is, in fact, neither. It represents part of a growing pattern in which Congress becomes an ever less effective body, except in its willingness to take on and potentially take out the presidency.

In the 21st century, all that “small government” Republicans and “big government” Democrats can agree on is offering essentially unconditional support to the military and the national security state. The Republican Party — its various factions increasingly at each other’s throats almost as often as at those of the Democrats — seems reasonably united solely on issues of war-making and security. As for the Democrats, an unpopular administration, facing constant attack by those who loath President Obama, has kept its footing in part by allying with and fusing with the national security state. A president who came into office rejecting torture and promoting sunshine and transparency in government has, in the course of six-plus years, come to identify himself almost totally with the US military, the CIA, the NSA and the like. While it has launched an unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers and leakers (as well as sunshine and transparency), the Obama White House has proved a powerful enabler of, but also remarkably dependent upon, that state-within-a-state, a strange fate for “the imperial presidency.”

4. The Rise of the National Security State as the Fourth Branch of Government

One “branch” of government is, however, visibly on the rise and rapidly gaining independence from just about any kind of oversight. Its ability to enact its wishes with almost no opposition in Washington is a striking feature of our moment. But while the symptoms of this process are regularly reported, the overall phenomenon — the creation of a de facto fourth branch of government — gets remarkably little attention. In the war on terror era, the national security state has come into its own. Its growth has been phenomenal. Though it’s seldom pointed out, it should be considered remarkable that in this period we gained a second full-scale “defense department,” the Department of Homeland Security and that it and the Pentagon have become even more entrenched, each surrounded by its own growing “complex” of private corporations, lobbyists and allied politicians. The militarization of the country has, in these years, proceeded apace.

Meanwhile, the duplication to be found in the US Intelligence Community with its 17 major agencies and outfits is staggering. Its growing ability to surveil and spy on a global scale, including on its own citizens, puts the totalitarian states of the 20th century to shame. That the various parts of the national security state can act in just about any fashion without fear of accountability in a court of law is by now too obvious to belabor. As wealth has traveled upwards in American society in ways not seen since the first Gilded Age, so taxpayer dollars have migrated into the national security state in an almost plutocratic fashion.

New reports regularly surface about the further activities of parts of that state. In recent weeks, for instance, we learned from Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley of the Intercept that the CIA has spent years trying to break the encryption on Apple iPhones and iPads; it has, that is, been aggressively seeking to attack an all-American corporation (even if significant parts of its production process are actually in China). Meanwhile, Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA, an agency barred from domestic spying operations of any sort, has been helping the US Marshals Service (part of the Justice Department) create an airborne digital dragnet on American cell phones. Planes flying out of five US cities carry a form of technology that “mimics a cellphone tower.” This technology, developed and tested in distant American war zones and now brought to “the homeland,” is just part of the ongoing militarization of the country from its borders to its police forces. And there’s hardly been a week since Edward Snowden first released crucial NSA documents in June 2013 when such “advances” haven’t been in the news.

News also regularly bubbles up about the further expansion, reorganization and upgrading of parts of the intelligence world, the sorts of reports that have become the barely noticed background hum of our lives. Recently, for instance, Director John Brennan announced a major reorganization of the CIA meant to break down the classic separation between spies and analysts at the Agency, while creating a new Directorate of Digital Innovation responsible for, among other things, cyberwarfare and cyberespionage. At about the same time, according to the New York Times, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an obscure State Department agency, was given a new and expansive role in coordinating “all the existing attempts at countermessaging [against online propaganda by terror outfits like the Islamic State] by much larger federal departments, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies.”

This sort of thing is par for the course in an era in which the national security state has only grown stronger, endlessly elaborating, duplicating and overlapping the various parts of its increasingly labyrinthine structure. And keep in mind that, in a structure that has fought hard to keep what it’s doing cloaked in secrecy, there is so much more that we don’t know. Still, we should know enough to realize that this ongoing process reflects something new in our American world (even if no one cares to notice).

5. The Demobilization of the American People

The New Robber Barons

In The Age of Acquiescence, a new book about America’s two Gilded Ages, Steve Fraser asks why it was that, in the 19th century, another period of plutocratic excesses, concentration of wealth and inequality, buying of politicians and attempts to demobilize the public, Americans took to the streets with such determination and in remarkable numbers over long periods of time to protest their treatment and stayed there even when the brute power of the state was called out against them. In our own moment, Fraser wonders, why has the silence of the public in the face of similar developments been so striking?

After all, a grim new American system is arising before our eyes. Everything we once learned in the civics textbooks of our childhoods about how our government works now seems askew, while the growth of poverty, the flatlining of wages, the rise of the .01 percent, the collapse of labor and the militarization of society are all evident.

The process of demobilizing the public certainly began with the military. It was initially a response to the disruptive and rebellious draftees of the Vietnam-era. In 1973, at the stroke of a presidential pen, the citizen’s army was declared no more, the raising of new recruits was turned over to advertising agencies (a preview of the privatization of the state to come) and the public was sent home, never again to meddle in military affairs. Since 2001, that form of demobilization has been etched in stone and transformed into a way of life in the name of the “safety” and “security” of the public.

Since then, “we the people” have made ourselves felt in only three disparate ways: from the left in the Occupy movement, which, with its slogans about the one percent and the 99 percent, put the issue of growing economic inequality on the map of American consciousness; from the right, in the tea party movement, a complex expression of discontent backed and at least partially funded by right-wing operatives and billionaires and aimed at the de-legitimization of the “nanny state;” and the recent round of post-Ferguson protests spurred at least in part by the militarization of the police in black and brown communities around the country.

6. The Birth of a New System

Otherwise, a moment of increasing extremity has also been a moment of — to use Fraser’s word — “acquiescence.” Someday, we’ll assumedly understand far better how this all came to be. In the meantime, let me be as clear as I can be about something that seems murky indeed: this period doesn’t represent a version, no matter how perverse or extreme, of politics as usual; nor is the 2016 campaign an election as usual; nor are we experiencing Washington as usual.  Put together our one percent elections, the privatization of our government, the de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency, as well as the empowerment of the national security state and the US military and add in the demobilization of the American public (in the name of protecting us from terrorism) and you have something like a new ballgame.

While significant planning has been involved in all of this, there may be no ruling pattern or design. Much of it may be happening in a purely seat-of-the-pants fashion. In response, there has been no urge to officially declare that something new is afoot, let alone convene a new constitutional convention. Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon and the officials of the national security state.

Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

http://billmoyers.com/2015/03/25/new-american-order/

Move Over, Koch Brothers: A Bigger, Darker Rightwing Funder Is Out to Destroy Public Education

by Ruth Conniff, May 3, 2013 by The Progressive

It’s “the most powerful organization in America that no one seems to know about.”

That’s how Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive think tank One Wisconsin Institute, describes the Bradley Foundation.

The Bradley Foundation, headed by Governor Scott Walker’s campaign co-chair Michael Grebe, has underwritten a massive, pro-privatization propaganda campaign, including “a systematic and relentless campaign to turn public opinion against the public school system.”

Unlike David Koch of the Koch Brothers, whose cover was blown when a gonzo blogger named Ian Murphy (editor of the Buffalo Beast and a frequent contributor to The Progressive), impersonated him in a prank call to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

The Milwaukee based Bradley Foundation operates off the mainstream media radar. Yet the group has made more than $530 million in grants and awards since 1985, making it a much, much bigger giver to rightwing causes than the Koch brothers. With more than $290 million in assets, Bradley is one of the biggest foundations in the United States.

A new report by Ross’s group One Wisconsin Now reveals the Bradley Foundation’s particular focus on privatizing the public schools.

Among the report’s findings:

–The Bradley Foundation, headed by Governor Scott Walker’s campaign co-chair Michael Grebe, has underwritten a massive, pro-privatization propaganda campaign, including “a systematic and relentless campaign to turn public opinion against the public school system.”

–Bradley has spent more than $31 million since 2001 supporting organizations promoting education privatization, academics providing favorable pro-privatization pseudo-science, media personalities promoting the privatization agenda, and lobbying organizations advocating for privatization legislation.

–The Bradley-financed campaign has manufactured an education “crisis,” proposed a “solution,” attacked and undermined the ability of potential opponents to block their agenda, and funded aggressive pro-privatization media and lobbying efforts.

–The Bradley-financed Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has manipulated research and pressured a University of Wisconsin professor to downplay results that show school vouchers in a negative light, while highlighting scientifically dubious favorable results.

Way back in 1990, Bradley backed the first private-school voucher program in the nation, right in Milwaukee.

This year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plans to expand the voucher program to nine new counties, despite test results that show voucher students underperform compared with their public school peers.

The free-market mission of the Bradley Foundation fits in nicely with a national rightwing pro-privatization agenda.

Across the country, Bradley has given money to groups like Americans for Prosperity to tout school vouchers and other privatization efforts as an answer to “failing” public schools.

“Their financing is the cornerstone for the privatization of public schools not just in Wisconsin, but across America,” Ross explains.

Ross calls the interlocking efforts of Bradley and other groups “a tax-deductible SuperPAC.” The groups that have received funds from Bradley include the MacIver Institute, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the Manhattan Institute, and rightwing pundits including George Will, a member of the Bradley Foundation board of directors and recipient of a $250,000 Bradley “outstanding achievement” cash prize.

The free-market mission of the Bradley Foundation fits in nicely with a national rightwing pro-privatization agenda.

“We’ve seen this influx of out-of-state corporate money into Wisconsin,” says Ross, who was active in the effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. “Here we have this homegrown foundation pouring more money into the rightwing foundation network than probably any other entity in America.”

Those close ties between the Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation and the national rightwing network have had a helped turn Wisconsin, despite its progressive history, into an incubator for rightwing politics nationally.

Bradley CEO Michael Grebe was not only Scott Walker’s campaign co-chair, Ross points out, “he’s the person Paul Ryan calls his ‘political godfather,‘ and the guy who sent the letter to the Republican Party saying Reince Priebus should be the next RNC chair.”

Can a Scott Walker Presidential campaign be far behind?

Many bad rightwing ideas can be traced back to Bradley.

In a previous report, One Wisconsin Now found that Bradley financed voter suppression efforts back in 2010, including billboards in Wisconsin warning people of criminal penalties for voters who turned out to be ineligible to cast ballots.

School privatization is, arguably, the biggest, baddest rightwing idea sweeping the nation at the moment.

In Wisconsin, which has historically boasted excellent public schools, Walker’s current budget calls for a huge funding increase to expand the private school voucher program and independent charter schools free from school-board oversight.

“To understand the scope of the raid on public education,” the One Wisconsin Now report points out, “consider that the total funding for private school vouchers, charter and virtual schools will have increased over $150 million” between the introduction of Walker’s first budget two years ago and the current one.

“Meanwhile, over the same two budgets, total state and local revenue available to fund public K-12 schools will have been reduced by well over $1 billion.”

All across the country, similar legislative efforts to transfer tax money from public to private schools threaten the very idea of public education.

The more the public understands this coordinated, ideologically driven attack, the better armed they are to defend their local public schools.

© 2013 The Progressive

Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs. Conniff was a regular on CNN’s Sunday Capital Gang and is now a regular on PBS’s To the Contrary. She also has appeared frequently on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal and on NPR and Pacifica.

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/05/03-7

The Right’s ‘School Choice’ Scheme

By Rachel Tabachnick [1], Political Research Associates, November 2, 2012|

This article originally appeared at Public Eye [2], the Web site of Political Research Associates.

In June 1995, the economist Milton Friedman wrote an article for the Washington Post promoting the use of public education funds for private schools as a way to transfer the nation’s public school systems to the private sector. “Vouchers,” he wrote, “are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.” The article was republished by “free market” think tanks [3], including the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution, with the title “Public Schools: Make Them Private.”

While Friedman has promoted vouchers for decades, most famously in his masterwork Free to Choose, the story of how public funds are actually being transferred to private, often religious, schools is a study in the ability of a few wealthy families, along with a network of right-wing think tanks, to create one of the most successful “astroturf” campaigns money could buy. Rather than openly championing dismantling the public school system, they promote bringing market incentives and competition into education as a way to fix failing schools, particularly in low-income Black and Latino communities.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling deregulated campaign finance and unleashed millions in political donations, concentrated wealth has played a role in politics. Now in the limelight for its attacks on unions and the exposure of 800 model bills and documents, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has produced model bills [4] favorable to its corporate and right-wing funders behind closed doors for decades– including school vouchers and tax credit bills.

This concentrated wealth is reaching into America’s classrooms state by state, promoting the transfer of public funds to private education through vouchers that allow parents to pay for tuition at private schools with public money. Promoting “school choice” through privately run charter schools doesn’t go far enough for these billionaires. Today, “private school choice” programs, as vouchers are called in the annual report of the Alliancefor School Choice, are in place [5] in 13 states and theDistrict of   Columbia. In 2011, a year when states across the nation slashed their education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation.

When enacted, the scale can be enormous. InLouisiana, a recently passed school voucher program allocating private school slots for 5,000 students for the coming school year is expected to swell exponentially, encompassing as many as 380,000 students by the 2013-2014 academic year out of a total public school population of just over 700,000 students.

These programs drain tax dollars from public into private schools, including into religious schools with fundamentalist curricula (see below). This effort is cloaked in the language of school “reform” and marketed with the claim that these programs will improve the quality of education for minority students in underserved urban schools. Despite an effort to promote private school choice as a nonpartisan, grassroots effort, the engine behind the national effort and its local offshoots has been, and continues to be, a surprisingly small group of wealthy conservatives.

Betsy DeVos: Four Star General of the Privatization Juggernaut

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of the school privatization movement shortly after DeVos announced the formation of the “new” American Federation for Children (AFC) in March 2010. AsBostonnoted, the American Federation for Children was not new, but a rebranding of an organization called Advocates for School Choice.

The American Federation for Children is now the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes theAlliancefor School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council. Both entities received extensive funding from the late John Walton, one of the Wal-Mart heirs. The boards of the two related entities included movement leaders Betsy DeVos–scion of a Christian Right family who married into the Amway home goods fortune–William Oberndorf, Clint Bolick, John Kirtley, Steve Friess (son of Foster Friess), James Leininger, John Walton, and Cory Booker.

These two nonprofits–Alliance for School Choice, a 501(c)(3) and Advocates for School Choice a.k.a. American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4)– provided over $17 million in grants [6] to 35 other national and state-level pro-privatization nonprofits from 2006 to 2010. These grants represented a significant portion of the total budgets for many of the state organizations. Today Betsy DeVos and John Kirtley are the chair and vice chair of both boards.

Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick also initiated a nonprofit (527) in 2003 with the name All Children Matter, dedicated to electing pro-voucher state legislators. [See box on DeVos and All Children Matter.] Today the American Federation for Children is the standard bearer for the movement and includes a network of state political action committees that have provided millions of dollars of campaign funds to legislators in states around the nation, in addition to the grants to pro-voucher nonprofits.

21st Century Strategies

When given a clear choice, voters across the United   Stateshave consistently opposed school vouchers. Between 1966 and 2000, state ballot initiatives to allow public funding for private schools were rejected [7] 24 out of 25 times. This dismal record led the pro-voucher strategists to rebrand the movement as “school choice” and as beneficial to public schools. In 2002, Dick DeVos suggested to a Heritage Foundation audience that the school choice movement should conceal its conservative roots. He advised that “properly communicated, properly constructed, [school choice] can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”

He continued [8]:

We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities. Many of the activities and the political work that needs to go on will go on at the grass roots. It will go on quietly and it will go on in the form that often politics is done – one person at a time, speaking to another person in privacy.

Dick and Betsy DeVos followed through. By 2009, the media packet of the DeVos-founded All Children Matter promoted the following successes:

  • · Spent $7.6 million in 2003-2004 directly impacting statewide and state legislative elections in ten targeted states.
  • · In races with significant ACM involvement, we have a won/loss record of 121 to 60, phenomenally successful for a political organization.
  • · In an era where incumbents are rarely challenged or defeated, ACM had a role in defeating 17 incumbents that opposed school choice for low-income families.
  • · ACM has supported the campaigns of four school choice Governors – Bobby Jindal inLouisiana, Matt Blunt inMissouri, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and Jon Huntsman, Jr., inUtah.

How It Works: The Case of Pennsylvania in 2010

The wealthy benefactors use a system of “rewards and consequences” across the states. It includes funding the campaigns of pro-voucher candidates and funding attack ads against anti-voucher candidates. Legislators who oppose funding private schools with public funds are accused of selling out [9] to teachers’ unions–the primary “villains” behind underperforming schools in the pro-voucher narrative. The 2010 election in Pennsylvania is an instructive example of the ability of American Federation for Children and its core of wealthy donors to conduct a large-scale astroturf campaign [10] under the public radar.

First, a PAC named Students First, which would be used as the conduit for millions of dollars of political contributions, was registered by Joe Watkins in March 2010. This organization was named in such a way to be easily confused with the national school reform organization, StudentsFirst, led by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee. Watkins, an African-American pastor, had advised the George W. Bush campaign and appeared in Citizens United advertisements against presidential candidate Obama in 2008, but his GOP credentials were omitted from the Students First PAC website.

Pennsylvaniahas no limits on individual contributions in state campaigns. During the 2010 gubernatorial election, the Students First PAC outspent the combined state teachers’ unions by a factor of more than ten to one. Most of this funding came from three investment firm partners. An additional $1.1 million of Student First’s funding came from the AFC’s PAC in Indiana. The Indiana PAC was registered in January 2010 under the address of Bopp, Coleson, and Bostrom, a prominent law firm representing political Right causes, including Citizens United.12 In 2010, the Indiana PAC received over $5.8 million [11] from only 14 donors, including Betsy DeVos and Alice Walton, another heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, and three megadonors from Pennsylvania. The following May, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a sweeping voucher bill.

The three Pennsylvaniamegadonors were described in state press as simply “pro-voucher supporters” with no mention of their association with right-wing think tanks. Joel Greenberg is on the board [12] of American Federation for Children; Jeffrey Yass is on the board [13] of the Cato Institute; and Arthur Dantchik is on the board [14] of the Institute for Justice, which is working to circumvent or change the wording in state constitutions that disallows public funding of religious schools. There was also noPennsylvania press coverage in 2010 of the Betsy DeVos-led AFC.

Students First poured more than $6.5 million into the 2010 election, most of it in the gubernatorial primary in support of Anthony H. Williams, an African-American pro-voucher candidate and Democratic state senator. Their candidate had little chance of winning, but the ploy apparently lured the eventual Democratic nominee, Dan Onorato, into embracing some of Williams’ voucher plan. Onorato failed to secure the millions in funding for himself that the pro-voucher movement had given Williams, but he did anger labor unions across the state. Republican candidate Tom Corbett won and Williams sponsored a voucher bill in early 2011–Senate Bill 1 (SB1). Corbett was the keynote speaker at the AFC national conference in 2011.

Students First worked with prominent Republican media firm Brabender Cox to generate support for the legislation, blanketing the airwaves with ads promoting SB1 as the salvation of poor urban children and attacking the bill’s opponents as being under the influence of “powerful teachers’ unions.” Joining the push for SB1 was the Scaife- and DeVos-funded FreedomWorks, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, theScaife-fundedCommonwealthFoundation, and the state pro-voucher organization REACHAlliance. REACH, by the way, secured $460,000 from AFC/Advocates for School Choice andAlliancefor School Choice from 2006 to 2010.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum opposed the school voucher scheme and the bill failed to pass.

Still, the pro-voucher effort continues. Students First has already received $1.4 million in 2012 to continue the battle–$1.25 million from AFC and $50,000 each from Greenberg, Yass, and Dantchik.

Using Corporate Tax Credits to Promote “Choice”

AlthoughPennsylvaniadoes not have a voucher program, the state has one of the largest school choice programs in the country, second only toFlorida. This is made possible through a corporate tax credit program named the Education Improvement Tax Credit, initiated in 2001.

State Senator Sam Rohrer (R-128th District), an opponent of teaching evolution in schools, claims credit for writing the state’s education tax bill. Under the law, companies can divert their tax liability to private school scholarships, with 75 percent credited toward their state taxes 90 percent on a commitment of two consecutive years. According to Pennsylvania accounting firms, as well as the private schools promoting the tax credit and REACH Alliance, these donations cost the corporation little or nothing, and also count as a charitable contribution on the corporation’s federal taxes.15 (Individuals contributing to nonprofit charities still pay the bulk of their donations from their own pockets.) The tax credit has been expertly (and falsely) marketed inPennsylvaniaas costing the taxpayers nothing.

In Pennsylvania, some of these funds are going to schools using texts from A Beka Book, Bob Jones University Press, and other fundamentalist curricula. [See sidebar]. Some of the private schools now receiving students through this funding have testified to the legislature in support of vouchers and bussed students to the state capitol for rallies in support of SB-1. One of the pro-voucher schools was featured on the Glenn Beck Show [15] in 2011, with a parent representative celebrating the school’s promotion of “biblical principles” and the “flight of public school students to private schools” to escape secularism and socialism. This same academy takes its students on field trips to the Creation Science Museum south ofCincinnati, where exhibits show dinosaurs and people living on earth together.

Pennsylvaniais one of 37 states that have strict constitutional prohibitions against using public money for religious schools, and specifically disallows [16] appropriations to educational institutions “not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth.” The corporations’ education tax credit, however, is not the obvious violation of state law that a school voucher program would be.Florida’s constitution also disallows using public funds for religious schools, but in November, Floridians will be voting on an initiative that could eliminate the prohibition.

Promoting Vouchers to Latino and African American Leaders

By the time of Dick DeVos’ 2002 Heritage Foundation speech, strategists had already begun trying to rebrand vouchers, which have a racist history. Following federal efforts to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, Southern states devised a “private school plan” to defend segregation by leaving public schools and taking the money with them. Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge advanced a constitutional amendment that could have allowed the privatization of the state’s entire public school system [17]. “In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would receive grants to attend private, segregated schools.”

More recently, voucher supporters recognized the need to reinvent the movement by obscuring its White, conservative support base and cultivating the support of Latino and African-American leaders as the face of the movement. These leaders have valid complaints about inequality in public education and the failure of public schools to provide quality education to low income Black and Latino children. Having their parents support vouchers–and charters–in the name of improving education is a potent political force.

The most prominent among these leaders is Howard Fuller, the former Black Nationalist who brought vouchers to the Milwaukeeschool system when he led it in the early 1990s. In August 2000, he launched the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). Its major funders included John Walton and the Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, which also funded Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at MarquetteUniversity, founded in 1995. These funders, as People for the American Waycommented in an extensive report on the group [18], are “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”

The conservatives had found their standard bearer. BAEO immediately launched a massive media campaign in support of vouchers in Washington, D.C.The Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that the BAEO spent over $4.3 million on print and television ads. By 2002, BAEO had 33 chapters [19]. And today, about one quarter ofMilwaukee’s students use vouchers to attend private, often religious schools.

According to school choice supporter Hubert Morken’s extensive histories of the programs, outreach to key African American Democrats in various parts of the country was the product of carefully cultivated relationships with free-market think tanks and organizations like the Pennsylvania Family Institute and REACH Alliance. Particularly important for recruiting supporters in these ranks is the former Congressman, Rev. Floyd Flake, a BAEO leader. Flake is the longtime senior pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, one of the largest churches inNew York. In 1999, Flake introduced George W. Bush to an audience at the Manhattan Institute and described the future president as his “compatriot in the politics to change public education in theUnited States.” In 2000, Flake became head of the charter schools division of Edison Schools, at that time the largest for-profit school management company in the country.

Morken quotes Flake,

“I was on the phone Thursday withTomRidge, who is the governor ofPennsylvania, who worked with me in Congress, where they are taking over the schools and may be taking over thePhiladelphiaschools. So I’ll be meeting with [Philadelphia]Mayor Streeton Wednesday morning. I’ve already had telephone conversations with the secretary of state ofNew Jerseywhere they are taking over the schools inCamdenandJersey City. I’m all over the country right now.”

Shortly thereafter, Edison took over management of 20Philadelphiaschools.

Morken describes Flake as “targeting core groups of swing voters” in “Black and Latino caucuses” and often promoting charter schools from “the pulpits of their churches.” Morken states that Flake was “at the center of a major funding coalition in New Yorkstate” that included rightwing funder John Walton. Flake and his wife had founded a 750-student private school affiliated with their church in 1982; it closed in June 2012 in the face of a $1.7 million budget shortfall [20]. Edison Schools failed to produce the promised improvements and their contracts for Philadelphia schools were ended in 2008 and 2011 [21].

The AFC claims that 91 percent of Latinos polled in five states support vouchers or corporate tax credit programs [22], and that this will be an issue in the 2012 election. AFC and its related entities provided almost a half million dollars in funding for the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options between 2006 and 2010.

Private school choice is not only a way to privatize education but viewed by some as a wedge issue to bring Latinos and African Americans into the Republican Party.

Grading the Privatization Report Card

The pro-corporate ideology behind school choice asserts that business style competition will be invariably good for education, and that putting school management and teaching into private (and nonunion) hands will make education less expensive, more efficient and more effective.

The statistics do not bear out their claims. By the time of the 2010 election and 2011 campaign for Pennsylvania’s SB1, test results for the two oldest school voucher programs in the nation – Milwaukee and Cleveland [23] – had reported disappointing results. Participating students scored no better or worse [23] than their peers who had remained in the public schools. Voucher proponents responded by asserting that voucher students attending private schools graduate at a higher rate. They fail to mention the lack of standards or accountability for some of the institutions bestowing those diplomas.

Much of the positive reporting on private school choice quotes the Foundation for Educational Excellence, founded by Milton Friedman; the Department of Education Reform atUniversityofArkansas, recipient of a $300 million donation from the Walton Foundation; and other entities funded by pro-privatization supporters.

Louisiana’s new voucher program, signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in spring 2012, has a list of approved schools that includes church schools using home schooling DVDs for instruction and schools that lack the facilities to house the students they are offering to enroll for the 2012-2013 school year. Louisianalegislators threatened to withdraw support if an Islamic school was included in the approved list, of which over 90 percent are Christian schools [24]. The program promises to be such a debacle that the Cato Institute is already recommending a corporate tax credit program instead of vouchers [25].

But the private school choice juggernaut will roll on and the claims of privatization as the magic bullet will continue, no matter how baseless these claims may be. The multi-billion dollar budget for the nation’s schools is a rich prize for those who would profit from the privatization of public schools, and they are joined by equally determined anti-public education ideologues. In May 2011, a headline in the Wall Street Journal trumpeted, “The Evidence is In: School Vouchers Work [26].”

Tax Dollars Supporting Creationism

The private “school choice” movement has found a way to circumvent the federal courts, the National Council for Science Education (NCSE) and the ACLU by thinking outside of the box. The Education Improvement Tax Credit program in Pennsylvania has provided a way to use public funds to teach creationism and global warning denial to students enrolled in religious schools. This circumvents the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a 2005 federal case resulting in a decision that Intelligent Design is not science, and should not be taught in public school science classes.

Many Pennsylvania schools receiving education tax credit funding are using A Beka Book and other fundamentalist curricula [27]. These textbooks are hostile to Roman Catholicism and other Christian and non-Christian religions [28], and teach a radical form of market fundamentalism, young earth creationism, and distorted American history where, in the words of researcher Frances Paterson, “Democrats are deluded, liberals are villains, and conservatives are heroes.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The National Center for Science Education, (whose logo is “Defending the Teaching of Evolution and Climate Science”) led the fight against Intelligent Design. Nevertheless, when contacted, both institutions described the Education Improvement Tax Credit issue as being outside the boundaries of their mission, since the teaching of creationism is taking place in private schools.

The DeVoses–Dollars at the Intersection

Dick and Betsy DeVos represent the merger of two wealthy and politically influential families. Dick DeVos is the son of Richard DeVos, one of the founders of the Amway pyramidal home products business and owner of the Orlando Magic basketball team. Listed as the 60th wealthiest person in the United States and the 205th richest in the world, his net worth has been estimated at $5 billion. He has played a central role in bringing together the “doers and the donors” as he once described the New Right merger of the Religious Right with major funders of the political Right.

Dick’s wife, Betsy, is the daughter of Elsa and the late Erik Prince, major contributors to conservative causes including Focus on Family and the Family Research Council. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince founded the infamous military contractor Blackwater USA (rebranded “Xe”), which sought to privatize another type of activity that previously had been presumed to be under the control of government agencies. Betsy DeVos heads the American Federation for Children, the national umbrella organization at the center of the private school choice movement.

In 2003, Dick and Betsy DeVos founded All Children Matter, a 527 organization, and established Political Action Committees (PACs) in Virginia, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio. PACs can make contributions directly to political campaigns. All Children Matter’s media kit advertised expenditures of $7.6 million in 2003-2004, “directly impacting statewide and state legislative elections in 10 targeted states.”

In 2008, All Children Matter was fined $5.2 million in Ohio for breaking campaign finance law, a decision that was appealed and confirmed in 2010. All Children Matter was moving money from the Virginia PAC to PACs in states around the nation. Some states allow unlimited contributions, but Ohio fined All Children Matter for contributions over the maximum limit allowed. In 2011, it was reported that the fine was still unpaid. Wisconsin also fined the organization $500 for supporting candidates without registering a PAC.

Between 2009 and 2011, the All Children Matter state PACs were disbanded. During the same time period, PACs affiliated with the Betsy DeVos-led American Federation for Children were registered in several of the same states.

See more stories tagged with:

education [29],

k-12 [30],

Advocates for School Choice [31],

Alliance for School Choice [32],

school vouchers [33],

American Civil Liberties Union [34],

american legislative exchange council [35],

Betsy DeVos [36],

bobby jindal [37],

cato institute [38],

charter schools [39],

family research council [40],

Education Reform Council [41],

heritage foundation [42],

hoover institute [43],

michelle rhee [44],

milton friedman [45],

religious right [46],

Richard DeVos [47],

studentsfirst [48],

Walton Family Foundation [49]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/rights-school-choice-scheme

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org/authors/rachel-tabachnick
[2] http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v27n3/School_Choice.html
[3] http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/0817928723_339.pdf
[4] http://www.publiceye.org/defendingjustice/pdfs/chapters/cons_infra.pdf
[5] http://www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/yearbook
[6] http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v27n3/PE_Summer%202012/Private_School_Choice.jpg
[7] http://www.arlinc.org/articles/article_voterssayno.html
[8] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/3/12515/58655
[9] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/26/112152/230
[10] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/20/232844/831
[11] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/24/22559/1547
[12] http://www.federationforchildren.org/leadership
[13] http://www.cato.org/people/directors.html
[14] http://www.ij.org/about/board
[15] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ve0_nDYBZHc&feature=youtu.be
[16] http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Constitution.html
[17] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8043.html
[18] http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/community-voice-or-captive-right-closer-look-black-alliance-educational-op
[19] http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/community-voice/expanding-the-pr-machine
[20] http://www.newsday.com/news/new-york/allen-christian-school-in-queens-to-close-1.3533617
[21] http://www.educationnews.org/articles/edison-schools-perform-poorly-nationwide.html
[22] http://www.federationforchildren.org/articles/689
[23] http://www.educationvoterspa.org/index.php/site/issues/debunking-the-myths-about-vouchers/
[24] http://www.louisianaschools.net/404Error.html?aspxerrorpath=/resources/community/scholarships_map.aspx
[25] http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/state-rep-balks-at-voucher-funding-for-muslim-school/
[26] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703396404576283381160558552.html
[27] http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v26n1/schoolhouse_to_statehouse.html
[28] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/25/84149/9275
[29] http://www.alternet.org/tags/education-0
[30] http://www.alternet.org/tags/k-12
[31] http://www.alternet.org/tags/advocates-school-choice
[32] http://www.alternet.org/tags/alliance-school-choice
[33] http://www.alternet.org/tags/school-vouchers
[34] http://www.alternet.org/tags/american-civil-liberties-union
[35] http://www.alternet.org/tags/american-legislative-exchange-council
[36] http://www.alternet.org/tags/betsy-devos
[37] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bobby-jindal-0
[38] http://www.alternet.org/tags/cato-institute
[39] http://www.alternet.org/tags/charter-schools
[40] http://www.alternet.org/tags/family-research-council-0
[41] http://www.alternet.org/tags/education-reform-council
[42] http://www.alternet.org/tags/heritage-foundation
[43] http://www.alternet.org/tags/hoover-institute
[44] http://www.alternet.org/tags/michelle-rhee
[45] http://www.alternet.org/tags/milton-friedman
[46] http://www.alternet.org/tags/religious-right
[47] http://www.alternet.org/tags/richard-devos
[48] http://www.alternet.org/tags/studentsfirst
[49] http://www.alternet.org/tags/walton-family-foundation
[50] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Five Ways Privatization Degrades America by by Paul Buchheit

Common Dreams, August 13, 2012

A grand delusion has been planted in the minds of Americans, that privately run systems are more efficient and less costly than those in the public sector. Most of the evidence points the other way. Private initiatives generally produce mediocre or substandard results while experiencing the usual travails of unregulated capitalism — higher prices, limited services, and lower wages for all but a few ‘entrepreneurs.’

With perverse irony, the corruption and incompetence of private industry has actually furthered the cause of privatization, as the collapse of the financial markets has deprived state and local governments of necessary public funding, leading to an even greater call for private development.

As aptly expressed by a finance company chairman in 2008, “Desperate government is our best customer.”

The following are a few consequences of this pro-privatization desperation:

1. We spend lifetimes developing community assets, then give them away to a corporation for lifetimes to come.

The infrastructure in our cities has been built up over many years with the sweat and planning of farsighted citizens. Yet the dropoff in tax revenues has prompted careless decisions to balance budgets with big giveaways of public assets that should belong to our children and grandchildren.

In Chicago, the Skyway tollroad was leased to a private company for 99 years, and, in a deal growing in infamy, the management of parking meters was sold to a Morgan Stanley group for 75 years. The proceeds have largely been spent.

The parking meter selloff led to a massive rate increase, while hurting small businesses whose potential customers are unwilling to pay the parking fees. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that the business partnership will make a profit of 80 cents per dollar of revenue, a profit margin larger than that of any of the top 100 companies in the nation.

Indiana has also succumbed to the shiny lure of money up front, selling control of a toll road for 75 years. Tolls have doubled over the first five years of the contract. Indianapolis sold off its parking meters for 50 years, for the bargain up-front price of $32 million.

Atlanta’s 20-year contract with United Water Resources Inc. was canceled because of tainted water and poor service.

2. Insanity is repeating the same mistake over and over and expecting different results.

Numerous examples of failed or ineffective privatization schemes show us that hasty, unregulated initiatives simply don’t work.

A Stanford University study “reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.” A Department of Education study found that “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.”

Our private health care system has failed us. We have by far the most expensive system in the developed world. The cost of common surgeries is anywhere from three to ten times higher in the U.S. than in Great Britain, Canada, France, or Germany.

Studies show that private prisons perform poorly in numerous ways: prevention of intra-prison violence, jail conditions, rehabilitation efforts. The U.S. Department of Justice offered this appraisal: “There is no evidence showing that private prisons will have a dramatic impact on how prisons operate. The promises of 20-percent savings in operational costs have simply not materialized.”

A 2009 analysis of water and sewer utilities by Food and Water Watch found that private companies charge up to 80 percent more for water and 100 percent more for sewer services. Various privatization abuses or failures occurred in California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

California’s experiments with roadway privatization resulted in cost overruns, public outrage, and a bankruptcy; equally disastrous was the state’s foray into electric power privatization.

Across industries and occupations, according to the Project on Government Oversight, the federal government paid billions more on private contractors than the amounts needed to pay public employees for the same services.

3. Facts about privatization are hidden from the public.

Experience shows that under certain conditions, with sufficient monitoring and competition and regulation, privatization can be effective. But too often vital information is kept from the public. The Illinois Public Interest Research Group noted that Chicago’s parking meter debacle might have been avoided if the city had followed common-sense principles rather than rushing a no-bid contract through the city council.

Studies by both the Congressional Research Service and the Pepperdine Law Review came to the same conclusion: any attempt at privatization must ensure a means of public accountability. Too often this need is ignored.

The Arizona prison system is a prime example. For over 20 years the Department of Corrections avoided cost and quality reviews for its private prisons, then got around the problem by proposing a bill to eliminate the requirement for cost and quality reviews.

In Florida, abuses by the South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy went on for years without regulation or oversight, with hundreds of learning-disabled schoolchildren crammed into strip mall spaces where 20-something ‘teachers’ showed movies to pass the time.

In Philadelphia, an announcement of a $38 million charter school plan in May turned into a $139 million plan by July.

In Michigan, the low-income community of Muskegon Heights became the first American city to surrender its entire school district to a charter school company. Details of the contract with Mosaica were not available to the public for some time after the deal was made. But data from the Michigan Department of Education revealed that Mosaica performed better than only 13% of the schools in the state of Michigan.

Also in Michigan, an investigation of administrative salaries elicited this response from charter contractor National Heritage Academies: “As a private company, NHA does not provide information on salaries for its employees.”

Education writer Danny Weil summarizes the charter school secrecy: “The fact is that most discussions of charters and vouchers are not done through legally mandated public hearings under law, but in back rooms or over expensive dinners, where business elites and Wall Street interests are the shot-callers in a secret parliament of moneyed interests.”

Beyond prisons and schools, how many Americans know about the proposal for the privatization of Amtrak, which would, according to West Virginia Representative Nick Rahall, “cripple Main Street by auctioning off Amtrak’s assets to Wall Street.” Or the proposal to sell off the nation’s air traffic control system? Or the sale of federal land in the west? Or the sale of the nation’s gold reserves, an idea that an Obama administration official referred to as “one level of crazy away from selling Mount Rushmore”?

4. Privatizers have suggested that teachers and union members are communists.

Part of the grand delusion inflicted on American citizens is that public employees and union workers are greedy good-for-nothings, enjoying benefits that average private sector workers are denied. The implication, of course, is that low-wage jobs with meager benefits should be the standard for all wage-earners.

The myth is propagated through right-wing organizations with roots in the John Birch Society, one of whose founding members was Fred Koch, also the founder of Koch Industries. To them, public schools are socialist or communist. Explained Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast with regard to private school vouchers in 1997, “we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.”

But the facts show, first of all, that government and union workers are not overpaid. According to the Census Bureau, state and local government employees make up 14.5% of the U.S. workforce and receive 14.3% of the total compensation. Union members make up about 12% of the workforce, but their total pay amounts to just 9.5% of adjusted gross income as reported to the IRS.

The facts also strongly suggest that wage stability is fostered by the lower turnover rate and higher incidence of union membership in government. The supportive environment that right-wingers call ‘socialism’ helps to sustain living wages for millions of families. The private sector, on the other hand, is characterized by severe wage inequality. Whereas the average private sector salary is similar to that of a state or local government worker, the MEDIAN U.S. worker salary is almost $14,000 less, at $26,363. While corporate executives and financial workers (about one-half of 1% of the workforce) make multi-million dollar salaries, millions of private company workers toil as food servers, clerks, medical workers, and domestic help at below-average pay.

5. Privatization often creates an “incentive to fail.”

Privatized services are structured for profit rather than for the general good. A by-product of the profit motive is that some people will lose out along the way, and parts of the societal structure will fail in order to benefit investors.

This is evident in the privatized prison system, which relies on a decreasing adherence to the law to ensure its own success. Corrections Corporation of America has offered to run the prison system in any state willing to guarantee that jails stay 90% full. “This is where it gets creepy,” says Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal, “because as an investor you’re pulling for scenarios where more people are put in jail.”

The incentive to fail was also apparent in road privatization deals in California and Virginia, where ‘non-compete’ clauses prevented local municipalities from repairing any roads that might compete with a privatized tollroad. In Virginia, the tollway manager even demanded reimbursement from the state for excessive carpooling, which would cut into its profits.

The list goes on. The Chicago parking meter deal requires compensation if the city wishes to close a street for a parade. The Indiana tollroad deal demanded reimbursement when the state waived tolls for safety reasons during a flood.

Plans to privatize the Post Office have created a massive incentive to fail through the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which requires the USPS to pre-pay the health care benefits of all employees for the next 75 years, even those who aren’t born yet. This outlandish requirement is causing a well-run public service to default on its loans for the first time.

Also set up to fail are students enrolled in for-profit colleges, which get up to 90 percent of their revenue from U.S. taxpayers. Less incentive remains for the schools after tuition is received, as evidenced by the fact that more than half of the students enrolled in these colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma.

And then we have our littler students, set up to fail by private school advocates in Wisconsin who argue that a requirement for playgrounds in new elementary schools “significantly limit[s] parent’s educational choice in Milwaukee.”

In too many cases, privatization means success for a few and failure for the community being served. Unless success can be defined as a corporate logo carved into the side ofMount Rushmore. 

Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, an active member of US Uncut Chicago, founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org, RappingHistory.org), and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/08/13-1