Now we must develop progress, or rather, a program—and I can't stay on this long—that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. Now, early in the century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. And in the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We've come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.
That was Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967. Fast forward to the next century, and we're right back in the dark ages. Rabid right-wingers are right back attacking poor people for a "want of industrious habits" as an explanation for our sputtering economy. Long-term unemployment insurance has been cut off with glee by Republicans and with smarmy resignation by Democrats. The almighty Market, a k a "The Economy" has risen anew to dislocate society for the common good in myriad places, leaving a twitching wreck in its wake.
The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the, that of a taskmaster or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.
Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor, transformed into purchasers, will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
Purchasing power? That equals political power. And the current powers that be are terrified of any such thing in too many common hands. Moises Velasquez-Manoff spells it all out in an excellent piece in the New York Times. The gist of it is that if you put cash directly into the hands of poor parents, their children will thrive. Struggling families do less well if only piecemeal "services" are provided. So if we can lessen the stress of parents, we automatically lessen the stress on children.You might call it emotional trickle-down. Of course, it was a Democrat named Bill Clinton who ended "welfare as we know it." And a Democrat named Barack Obama continues the deed while ostensibly making income inequality "the defining issue of our time." (Of course, it depends on what his definition of defining is. Maybe what he meant to say was that inequality is the "deafening issue of our time." Because, all the booming, strident, appeasing "we feel your pain" rhetoric offset by their cynical lack of action just makes you want to cover your ears and turn them all off.)
King concurred about the need for direct citizen action over listening to pretty political speeches.
Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.
Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth. [applause]
King delivered that speech in the heady first days of LBJ's War on Poverty. He wasn't about to take the politicians' word for it that they were on the side of regular people, of course. He wasn't about to be herded into any partisan veal pen. And filling the vacuum of his death came Nixon's Southern Strategy, and Ronald Reagan's mythical Cadillac Welfare Queen, and the New "era of big government is over" Democrats, and the War on Terror, and the Surveillance State, and Citizens United, and the assault on the Occupy movement.... and the rest, of course, is reactionary history.
We honor King today, but the King we're supposed to celebrate is the bowdlerized version, whom Barack Obama smarmily thanks for getting him where he is today as he self-righteously declares the Third Monday in January an innocuous "Day of Service" in which comfortable people deign to "give back." Standard photo-op faves for the elites are to pose serving the poor in soup kitchens, or getting down and dirty and painting an inner-city classroom for an hour or two. As of this posting, the White House had not yet announced where the Obamas would be going slumming today. But here they were last year:
Because they don't want you to get any original ideas like this:
One of the first MLK memorials after his 1968 assassination was the Poor People's March on Washington and the building of the Resurrection City shantytown on the National Mall. King's original aim was to shut down Washington entirely while demanding passage of an Economic Bill of Rights. The encampment of his grieving followers lasted for six weeks. Not only was the legislation never passed, but the original Bill of Rights seems to be passing into oblivion as well. MLK Sanitizer-in-Chief Obama did the official deed on the Fourth Amendment just three days ago.
Paul Krugman's column today debunked David Brooks and other champions of the obscene rich who are making it their personal business (via cherry-picked "sociology" and mangled numbers) to defend every last untaxed ill-gotten gain of the 21st Century Robber Barons. My response:
While apologists for the rich like David Brooks strain to find ways to blame the poor for every mess the rich ever made, maybe they should take a look at actual Strain Theory. This school of sociological thought holds that extreme wealth inequality is the result of failure of the political class to rein in the greed of the plutocrats. Perversely, the strain this causes only provokes the elites to inflict even more pain on everybody else. Witness their axing of unemployment insurance, slashing of SNAP, de-funding of regulatory agencies protecting both fiscal and physical public health. Witness the parallel bolstering of the war machine and the surveillance/police state. The rulers and the pundits who serve them are getting more paranoid by the day. They just can't quit their addiction to greed, so they're pre-empting blowback.
The recent toxic chemical spill in West Virginia is only one glaring example of what happens when a country veers off the right wing cliff. We Americans are taught early and often to be consumers instead of engaged, thinking, caring citizens. In America, Good is defined as profit, and Evil is defined as loss. And so the American Dream, predicated as it is on the pursuit of wealth at any cost, has already turned into a nightmare.
The solution is to change the culture. Make ethics and civics courses mandatory from K to college. Elect pols who value work more than they value wealth. And above all, tax wealth the same way we now tax work.