What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do for us today?

Brian Corr, the director of the City of Cambridge’s Peace Commission, ran an MLK Day Commemoration and Remembrance at an Episcopal Church here today.

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It was a great opportunity to reflect on how our world might have been different if Dr. King had lived (he would be turning 86 this year).

A number of people got up to quote Dr. King’s statements against militarism and the Vietnam War, against which he officially spoke out starting in 1967. King was, of course, right about this being a tragic mistake for our nation but the war was an important opportunity for many black individuals, e.g., Colin Powell. Might King have gained enough followers by 2002 so that he could have kept up from embarking on the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters?

The single quote reproduced in the program was one that Thomas Piketty would have loved:

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

The speakers augmented this with Dr. King’s statements about a more planned economy, such as

There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum–and livable–income for every American family.

Note that King was basically advocating for a Finland-style school system in which only top students could become teachers. I wonder what he would have made of our current situation, i.e., where we pay higher-than-Finnish salaries to teachers but mostly get teachers who had undistinguished careers as students. Note further than Martin Luther King, Jr. was in agreement with Milton Friedman regarding the idea of a guaranteed minimum income to replace the patchwork of minimum wage and welfare programs.

Another popular King quote was from 1964:

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.

Dr. King was thus implicitly backing Barack Obama’s new program to fund community college costs 100 percent with tax dollars. I wonder if King could have anticipated, however, how comfortable sitting at home on the sofa would become 50 years later. He seems to have imagined that able-bodied Americans would work for their three meals a day. He does not seem to have been envisioning a 60″ flat-screen TV hooked up to Verizon FiOS and an Xbox, funded by SSDI, TANF, free public housing, food stamps, etc., with a trip the hospital following a gaming-induced repetitive strain injury paid for by Medicaid. King talked about how he didn’t want more money spent on the military than on social programs. He got his wish, but not because the military was cut back!

Keith Harvey, the director of the Northeast region of the American Friends Service Committee, gave the keynote speech (he’s in the foreground of the above photo). Think television is useless and rots the brain? He says that it changed the “hearts and minds” of Americans regarding racism. He talked about his parents’ work with Dr. King, especially on the issue of “fair housing.” The idea was that blacks would move into the suburbs and live like whites. “We would show neighbors that blacks worked, had stable families, and mowed the lawn,” Harvey said, “thus fighting stereotypes.” I wonder if Dr. King could have foreseen that his vision of blacks behaving like whites would be flipped around starting in the 1970s with no-fault divorce. The long-term answer turned out to be whites living like the negative stereotype of blacks: a single mother living off welfare and/or child support checks (kidscount.org).

Is King relevant to our times? I think the answer to the question is a guaranteed “yes” for today and for the next few hundred years. One reason is that King advocated for peace and the existence of war is a hard problem to solve, as Andrew Carnegie discovered. Another reason is that King advocated for more economic equality and, like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their 2012 debates, a planned economy. Nobody seems to have solve the problem of how to make a planned economy grow as fast as a market economy, however, and politicians need the tax revenues that only a market economy can yield. (Social Security, Medicare, and public employee pensions, for example could not be funded with a U.S. economy that grew like the Soviet economy.) So Americans will keep turning to Martin Luther King, Jr. for inspiration and ideas.

If only he had lived to adapt and update his philosophy…

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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