Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"We have come to our Nation's Capitol to cash a check:" How Dr. King's legacy is being destroyed by income inequality and Citizen's United

For someone who spends time thinking and writing about politics and policy, the juxtaposition of the holiday celebrating the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the State of the Union address by the Nation’s first African American President, and the fifth anniversary of the Citizen’s United ruling can’t be ignored.   What makes it all the worse, however, is that the President tonight should – if he wants to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive – make another round of proposals that require starting with rolling back Citizens United.

Unfortunately, This MLK Day finds us in a more divided, more racially, more economically unequal society.  Like it or not, the SCOUTS prediction that their decision in Citizen’s United would decrease campaign corruption – because unlimited funds for “speech” by corporations and other groups would “allow” more people to know who gave what to whom – the reality is that BOTH parties are now both heavily dark money funded, and funded in such significant amounts by super PACs that the political speech of ordinary people is effectively drowned out. In a day and age where it takes $1 Billion or more just to get to the White House, no one can realistically say that any person (except a billionaire or two) has as much political speech as a corporation or Super PAC.  This is critically important, because in the wake of the SCOTUS gutting of the Civil Rights Act, all an individual has left is their speech (since in many cases they have defacto lost their vote).

In turn, that court-created inequality in political speech of necessity creates economic inequality where there was none, and enlarges it where it already exists.  Wages after the Great Recession are stagnant at best, and the reality is that while unemployment keeps dropping, the two biggest forces driving it are people taking lower wage jobs (and often at less than full employment) and people simply exiting the workforce all together.  These things, not coincidentally, have driven corporate profits up to the highest levels in decades.  Sadly, the income inequality that this created is now coming back to haunt those corporations, as lower gas prices give underpaid workers some economic breathing room to clear up debts and begin saving again.  Consumers can also spend again (though it seems they aren’t – waiting further price drops), but many more of them may well lose their jobs in the formerly growing energy sector if prices continue to stay low.  In addition, the financial sector that is now the “bedrock” of our economy is taking stock hits to energy sector stocks, which means that Wall Street will likely start advocating for government interference in the market to boost oil prices. After all, you can’t invest tens of millions of dollars on a Presidential candidate, or tens of thousands on a Senator if they don’t help you stay afloat, can you?

All of this would look and sound eerily familiar to Dr. King, who died in 1968 preparing his Campaign for the Poor as the next chapter of his Civil Rights Movement work.

Then, as now, most of the poor of working age had jobs, but, as King puts it: “they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In 1968, 25 million people — nearly 13 percent of the population — were living below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau. (In 2013, 45.3 million people — 14.5 percent were below the poverty level.)

Dr. King understood, as do a few folks today, that access to the voting booth, or forced desegregation, would do little to ease the plight of racial minorities if their economic condition – along with the economic condition of the poor whites who were often their most violent opposition – didn’t improve.  Then, as now, minorities and poor whites compete for fewer and fewer lower paying jobs, and that competition stokes much of the fear used by politicians to drive a wedge between groups that should be allied.  Yet because he was unable to carry on with his important work, we are left to apologize to our descendants, as we seem unwilling to do anything to support the radical change now necessary to keep the Dream Alive.

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