Don't settle for the comforting shorthand of Martin Luther King Jr. He had plenty to say about the economy, too.
Everyone but the most revanchist white supremacist will be celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. This typically involves the “I Have a Dream” speech, cherry-picking other inspiring quotes and celebrating his nonviolent path to social change, as well as the larger Civil Rights Movement.
The progress America has made since the 1960s is undeniable. “Things have gotten better,” as Barack Obama, the first African-American president, reminded us. Blacks and whites eat together in restaurants. Blacks no longer need the Negro Motorist Green Book, which from 1936 to the early 1960s featured the few motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other places that would serve them. The rise of the black middle class is an impressive accomplishment, too. After steady improvements under Obama, black unemployment last month hit a record low in the 45 years it’s been tracked.
But people of color still face significant disparities in the economy and society. For example, December’s jobless rate of 6.8 percent for African-Americans compared with 3.7 percent for whites and 5.1 percent for Hispanics. Minorities are segregated in poorly funded schools, too, an impediment for future achievement.
Which brings us to the uncomfortable MLK, the one you’ll hear little about as we mark the holiday. Although King believed — like Frederick Douglass in the 1860s — that the vote was essential to minority empowerment, he increasingly focused on economics and inequality toward the end of his too-short life. (Cheat sheet for the President: Both King and Douglass are no longer with us).
When he was assassinated, King was planning a Poor People’s March on Washington. He advocated a universal basic income that would raise everyone — poor minority, poor white — to middle-class level. And remember, this was the late 1960s, when the (mostly white) American middle class was at its high point, and the rich were taxed at 70 percent. Yet, he said,
“We have 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 from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.”
Growth alone, King argued, would not eliminate poverty. In addition to a basic income, he advocated that “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.” This is especially timely given the millions of jobs at risk from automation.
Nor was this thinking entirely new for him. In notes while in seminary in the early 1950s, King made a penetrating critique of Marxism. But he also warned that “capitalism has seen its best days in American, and not only in America, but in the entire world.”
Jesus had some uncomfortable things to say about wealth, too, especially the “camel through the eye of the needle” parable. (And please don’t email me about “the poor you will always have with you.” He was speaking specifically that the apostles would not always have him, at that singular moment in history. A huge part of his message is directed toward care for the poor, as is the case in Judaism). And don’t forget in Acts, the apostles lived in arrangements strikingly similar to communism.
I support capitalism, rightly understood. But that means inclusive prosperity and opportunity. The MLK holiday is a time to contemplate this project, which is still incomplete.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Bond market panic?
Treasuries hit mortgages
Yield profits for banks