Monday, January 18, 2010

Dr. King's Unfinished Work

Shortly before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began what was known as the "Poor People's Campaign." The goal was simple, but the reality daunting: Create jobs for every able-bodied person. That was in 1967.

It's still a noble goal for this century. Provided that we can offer affordable, accessible health care to every American, the next step is jobs. The statistics are not encouraging -- more than 10 percent unemployment, more than 20 percent in inner cities.

Why is getting a decent job a human right? Because it's about dignity and productivity. You can't subscribe to the "pursuit of happiness" without gainful employment. I don't think any of the founding fathers would disagree with that. Working people pay taxes, support schools, build a solid social fabric. It's the American Dream.

How did we get sidetracked from the promise of Dr. King's dream? How did we get stuck in two wars and land on the precipice of economic ruin? Was it cultural hubris or a form of social madness? I would argue that we got drunk on the punchbowl of false prosperity, but it was a hallucinating elixir. The rabbit hole was deep, but we're still climbing out.

Did we genuinely believe that bigger cars, houses and perks would make us better people or give us longer lives?

We believed Wall Street when it told us that they had our best interests at heart. We believed charlatans like Phil Gramm and Robert Rubin when they told us that financial de-regulation would actually liberate markets to create more jobs without adding catastrophic risk. We were listening to the wrong people.

While I'm not going to jump on that dais that says that God is punishing us for our affluenza, it's clear that not sharing prosperity with all walks of life has hurt us. If you want to get a laser-focus on how much the financial sector has damaged our economy, read Kevin Phillip's Bad Money or my Cul-de-Sac Syndrome.

Despite all of that wealth creation on Wall Street (up until the crash at least), it only created a handful of jobs and concentrated capital in only one sector of the economy. How much of the money that traders made on complex derivatives and mortgage securities went to building affordable housing, lightweight/long-term vehicle batteries, fixing infrastructure or just creating jobs where they were most needed? Just take a walk through downtown Detroit, Chicago's West Side, or South Central LA and you have your answer.

And where were the great institutions of our republic when the looting of our economy occurred?
The Federal Reserve, which is mandated by the Humphrey-Hawkins Act to create full employment, was enabling Wall Street, which eventually led to high unemployment. Not one, but three crashes ensued due to the Fed's bargain-basement funding of financial manipulators (, housing and credit). No matter what the business headlines say now, the $13 trillion bailout will be hurting us for decades.

Yet here we are, with the poverty rate hovering near 13 percent -- about where it was in 1967. Now, due to the recession, the middle class is backsliding into the economic doldrums. Due to inflation, middle-income families made no progress in the first decade of this century. Their retirement funds and home equity were battered.

Despite the economic gloom, I think we need to return to Dr. King for inspiration and guidance. There are some ways to actively turn around our malaise and make a stab at full employment:

• Social Capitalism Holds the Key. This is not giving a handout to anyone. It has nothing to do with welfare and everything to do with entrepreneurism. President Obama's "Green Deal" (see my "Audacity of Help") is the single-best first step. His Department of Energy is now the biggest venture capital entity in the country. Provide the money to researchers and the private sector and let them create the jobs and build social and intellectual capital!

• Reform the Federal Reserve. You can't have a central bank that is constantly making the wrong decisions, is a pathetic watchdog and is the bailout king for errant bankers. Open up and audit the Fed's books. If they're going to be the source of cheap money, make sure it flows to people creating jobs and not speculators.

• Tax Speculation. President Obama has a proposal to tax banks. I think it's unfair and it reeks of some kind of punishment. Believe me, you can dole out plenty of lashes for what the banks did to this economy and it will never be sufficient. You can tax them all you want and it still won't replace the jobs that were lost. Tax speculation instead. Any transaction that closes in less than a year should be penalized.

• Bring Back New Deal Protections. The trading operations and mainstream banking backed by federal insurance should not be in one company. Split up the banks so that speculative trading and investment banking desks are completely separate entities from the lending/credit arms.

• Make The Green Deal Bigger and Permanent. The mother of all stimulus plans is money flowing from the government into the private sector for decades -- not a year or two. We need a new energy, telecom, transportation and building infrastructure. Let's tax pollution, gambling, drugs (non-medicinal) and alcohol to build what we need to provide jobs everywhere.

• Kill the Filibuster. The archaic Senate rule that kills any legislation not garnering 60 votes has to go. It's the death knell for any progressive reforms and is championed by a scant 10 percent of the US population. The filibuster is not in the constitution. Let's get rid of it and move on.

So let's revisit Dr. King's prophetic and pragmatic words:

"America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us, as a nation and a society, to chose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage. It is impossible to underestimate the crisis we face in America. The stability of civilization, the potential of free government, and the simple honor of men are at stake."

It's time to reinvent ourselves. Instead of the me-centered Jeffersonian concept of individual prosperity, it's time for a collective prosperity. The time has never been more right for Dr. King's admonition and moving ahead.

John F. Wasik is an activist and author of The Audacity of Help: Obama's Economic Plan and the Remaking of America).

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