Monday, March 24, 2008

We Need an MLK Memorial Stimulus Package

As the 40th anniversary of the assasination of Martin Luther King grows near, it's ironic that our nation's leaders have moved forward with a stimulus package that puts money directly in the hands of everyday Americans.

Forty years ago, MLK was calling for just that--but not a one-time influx of cash to jumpstart an economy on the brink of recession. He championed regular, monthly payments to help the non-wealthy make ends meet and address the savage economic inequality in America.

These days it has fallen out of fashion to suggest taxing the rich and giving to the rest of us. But as the gap between the rich and poor grows dramatically and the middle class continues to shrink, it may be time to give King's idea another look.

In the 60's, the rallying cry of King and others was JOBS OR INCOME NOW!, as the signs read at the March on Washington. In addition to pushing for the creation of good jobs, they called for a guaranteed annual income that would eliminate poverty once and for all.

Today, not only don't we push for guaranteed income, we don't even have a movement for good jobs anymore. Each of the Democratic candidates for president have mentioned the need for "green collar" jobs, but it hasn't been a major plank in anyone's platform, and the amount of money they've earmarked for it is so small that those jobs would be but a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. After 28 years of Republican propaganda, privatization, and budget cuts, it just isn't expected that government should play a role in providing good jobs anymore. So, we're at the mercy of "the market," i.e. the major corporations and small businesses that have it in their self-interest to keep labor costs as low as possible.

Big corporations have made it very clear that they no longer feel responsible for providing economic security to American workers. They have reaped enormous profits by doing everything in their power to lower labor costs: moving factories and jobs to impoverished nations, downsizing, outsourcing, offshoring, mergers, buyouts, automation and robotics. Even once-safe sectors such as Information Technology have been ravaged. They don't need us as American workers, but we're stuck with an economic system where we desperately need them.

Since Dr. King's time we've made major strides toward realizing his Dream of racial equality (though we still have a long way to go), but the sad fact is that the economic equality that he fought for is truly a dream deferred. A one-time influx of cash to stimulate the economy might work for a moment, but it won't fix the underlying problems of our economy. Thus, we are back to Jobs or Income NOW.

A serious jobs program on the federal level is truly needed at a much more serious level than the candidates are proposing. There is much work that needs to be done for the environment, education, transportation, and infrastructure. But creating federal jobs is not the most efficient way to address economic inequality. The huge bureaucracies needed to support this work will cost much more than the amount of money that will make it into workers' paychecks.

And we also need to face the economic realities of the 21st century: our economy is evolving to the point where there will be many more people who need jobs than there will be jobs that support a middle class lifestyle. Technology is advancing rapidly, and we are just a few years into this new century; who knows what kind of job-killing advances are coming.

To steal from SEIU president Andy Stern, "our country and the rest of the world is going through the most profound, transformative leap of significant, economic revolution in the history of the world....There’s only been three economic revolutions in history: agricultural took 3,000 years; industrial took 300 years; this revolution, as we move from a national to an international economy, and in our country from manufacturing or muscle-work to mind-work, is only going to take thirty years....We know that the one-job-in-a-lifetime economy of me and my parents and grandparents is ending, that workers and employers are separating and on their way to getting a divorce."

So, while providing as many good government jobs as we can will help, it's not the whole answer. Which brings us to....INCOME NOW!

A partial version of the guaranteed annual income (or basic income as it is known now) is already in place in Alaska, where residents receive almost $2,000 a year from the state's oil revenues. We could do the same thing nationwide.

We've suffered through decades of Reagan/Bush/Cheney trickle down economics--tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, cuts in programs for the poor, nothing for the middle class. Why not create a Rise Up Economics that provides income to working people by requiring corporations and CEOs to pay their fair share in taxes?

A $10,000 annual tax credit for example would provide a basic, poverty-level income that all working people could count on, independent from their jobs. It would provide a much stronger stimulus to the economy than the weak package Bush and Congress put together. A stimulated economy means more jobs, more customers for businesses, and more opportunities to get ahead. It would eliminate poverty as Dr. King proposed, while also ensuring economic security for all, allowing more Americans to "rise up" to the middle class and keeping many middle class Americans from sliding down.

A big enough basic income would also change the way we think about jobs and work. If we started out with enough money to cover many of our basic needs ($20,000?) then we would just be working for what we wanted on top of that, allowing us to work part-time and still have a decent standard of living. Instead of the all-or-nothing work world we have now that produces so many "overworked Americans," we could work less and spend more time with family and friends and non-work activities.

There are many ways to pay for a basic income: a new millionaire's tax, higher corporate taxes, a carbon tax and other taxes on polluters, taxes on land use and other geonomic ideas, a tax on advertising, eliminating corporate welfare. How are we paying for the Iraq war? How did we pay for the Gulf War and the savings and loan bailout? When there's political will, there's a way to find the money.

A movement for basic income has sprouted up in Europe and around the globe, but we lag far behind here in the US.

Perhaps the best way to honor Martin Luther King on the 40th anniversary of his assasination is by building a movement for a basic income, so that his dream of economic equality for all can become a reality someday.

No comments: