03 April, 2011
Come On People
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“On this generation of Americans falls the full burden of proving to the world that we really mean it when we say all men are created free and equal before the law.” Robert F. Kennedy [Speech, May 6, 1961].
In an insightful article in the New Pittsburgh Courier, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, discusses Demographic shifts and Black political power. Dr. Malveaux remarks on changes in Washington D C and Detroit MI. Then she states that her concern is political and observes “The world is no longer a narrow White or Black occasion, it is Neapolitan. Will African-Americans play well with those who are neither White nor Black, just here and pursuing the American dream? Will there be those who, insensitive to our nation’s racial history, assert that the playing field now is level, even though it never was?” I share her concerns.
Almost a full fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy identified the enduring moral challenge facing the American people; we live in an age of missed and diminishing opportunities. The Republic is ragged with the rips and tears of divisive discourse and bitter accusations against one group or another. The national government writhes in a perilous struggle to remain operative. Many states are slashing services that millions need to sustain a dwindling faith in any credible version of the American dream. Therefore, questions and concerns about the moral dimensions of political power assume a renewed and urgent pertinence.
When the recently elected Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, assumed office, he attended a mass at the cathedral in Harrisburg. Yet, he immediately began to condone a pattern of no tax payments by 70% of corporations in the commonwealth. He also refuses to tax the natural gas industry though many states find this to be a lucrative source of revenue. Then, based on revenue shortfalls, Mr. Corbett pushed further cuts to public education, public transit, and other programs upon which poorer people genuinely depend. His Education Secretary callously remarks, “Money won’t make better schools.” In fact, the Education Secretary, Ron Tomalis, declared, “Education achievement or achievement of any kind cannot be measured in dollars and sense.” Yet both Mr. Corbett and Mr. Tomalis clearly believe that dollars and cents are vital when it comes to extending tax breaks to their wealthy backers or the corporations they are courting. How do these remarks and these actions align with the Governor’s displayed piety? Did he receive divine guidance directing him to beleaguer the poor and bolster the wealthy? That seems unlikely given the benign tenor of most Christian pronouncements on the topic of the poor and the downtrodden.
Furthermore, Governor Corbett apparently decided to cut a minimum of $1 billion from the education budget. In doing so, he divided the cut between Basic Education and all other programs. Then, he used a devious method for calculating the cut. This method did not cover the real needs of students and school districts. It relied on a peculiarity of the prior year’s education budget that included $655 million from the federal stimulus program. The state funds in last year’s budget had decreased by a like amount. Therefore, the governor started cutting from an improperly determined base. Furthermore, the stimulus funds went mostly to the poorest school districts and this caused the governor’s cuts to be largest in these same poor school districts. Because the poor school districts have far more chocolate in their version of Neapolitan than the affluent school districts, Black families and children suffer most from these drastic cuts.
On a national level, the wealthy who invest in or run corporations are living in a new Gilded Age. The American Dream is thriving as far as they can tell. Rules and even laws are being changed or interpreted to favor them more than they previously did. In 2010, the nation’s largest corporation, General Electric, paid no taxes on $14.2 billion in profits. Billions diverted to Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya in wars by other names, are unquestioned while the social safety net transforms into a scrap flapping in the winds of change. The pillars of the middle class such as college loans and collective bargaining have weakened almost to the point of collapse. For most of the society, the American Dream has become “a ragged blanket too short to cover them, but they still buy into it.”
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision swept away all semblance of a level playing field in political campaigning. With the current attacks, raging on public employees and public employee unions, the wealthy and their corporations will soon be beyond challenge in elections at the state and national level. The politicians who most benefit from this transformation of America from a Republic to a Plutocracy speak unblushingly about shared sacrifice and fiscal responsibility. All the while, they use their positions to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. They refuse to consider reductions in war spending, but they hint at slashing entitlements. In so doing, they ignore that people have paid for what they dismissively smear as entitlements. When did it become acceptable to deprive people of something they have paid for their entire working lives while concurrently, benefiting people through inheritance tax changes who have earned not one cent of the windfall coming their way?
Therefore, I am as concerned as is Dr. Malveaux, about Black political power as well as the political power of unions and the middle class generally. Some may think my argument is alarmist or faulty in some partisan way. If so, consider this from Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, “the size of this upward redistribution to the richest 1 percent over the last three decades is roughly large enough to double the income of all the households in the bottom half of the income distribution” [http://www.truth-out.org/the-deficit-hawks-target-nurses-and-firefighters68817].
It is vital to recognize, understand, and acknowledge that this robbing of the ordinary citizens for the benefit of the extraordinarily affluent is a deliberate effort. The policies and practices pursued since the Reagan Revolution have sustained higher than necessary unemployment to weaken workers’ bargaining power. They have promoted globalization of the economy to free the elite and their corporate vehicles from the burdens of taxation and regulation, the borders of nations, and the bonds of patriotism. They pursued a “high dollar trade policy” so that American workers felt downward wage pressure in manufacturing fields and they encourage the exportation of jobs to places without unions and with comparatively low wages and standards of living. In this context, unions have not left the private sector; the private sector has left them for third world countries.
Something has clearly changed in our country and for most Americans this change has not been beneficial. In April, it is fitting to remember that one of America’s greatest leaders used his last ounce of courage to campaign for jobs and justice. Forty-three years ago, Dr. King declared in Memphis, TN, “Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Dr. King was not concerned only with Black political power. He knew that the quest for economic justice united Americans from middle and lower economic classes regardless of race. Poverty afflicts a diversity of races, regions and backgrounds. Dr. King told his aides that the SCLC would have to raise nonviolence to a new level to pressure Congress into passing an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor. He made this clear as follows: “We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty.” His words were true then and they are true now. We need to recall and act upon them. Dr. King "made clear connections between what he called “our glorious struggle for civil rights” and collective bargaining rights. He called the labor movement “the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress . [and] gave birth to .. new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.” [http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/from-mlk-a-dream-for-the-middle-class-that-cannot-be-allowed-to-die/2011/04/01/AFhz6TXC_story.html] Unfortunately, for the Republic and us all, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. died at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.
After Dr. King’s murder, only one leader remained to carry on the highest patriotism. This leader was Robert F. Kennedy. He had earlier stated his views on poverty and government as follows: “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil. Government belongs wherever evil needs an adversary and there are people in distress who cannot help themselves.” (RFK Speech, Athens, Georgia, May 6, 1961) Unfortunately, this last, best voice of benevolence and economic fairness in American politics fell silent roughly two months after Dr. King due to an assassin’s bullet. He was not quite 43 years old.
These closely spaced murders left a vacuum for a rising star of the corporate campaign to transform politics in America. Ronald Reagan on the way to becoming the “Great Communicator” was able to effectively, though deceptively, persuade millions of ordinary Americans that the corporations were liberators and the government an oppressor of the working class. In so doing, Reagan sold a gullible electorate an inverted vision of American politics and the Republic that has plagued us to this day.
Now we are approaching the end game of this decades’ long contest for the soul of the Republic. In the national and state capitals, the heirs of King and Kennedy battle against those of Reagan. Will we be one nation indivisible with liberty, justice, and prosperity for all? Alternatively, will we become two nations separate and unequal with abundance for the few and subsistence for the many? According to the New York Times, amidst the struggle to avoid a government shutdown, House Republicans prepare a proposal for next year and beyond that is likely to spark an ideological showdown. E. J. Dionne observes, "This week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will announce the House Republicans’ budget plan, which is expected to include cuts in many programs for the neediest Americans. The Ryan budget’s central purpose will not be deficit reduction but the gradual dismantling of key parts of government. Remember that Ryan wants both to preserve the Bush tax cuts and, over the long run, to enact more breaks for the wealthy, including the elimination of the capital gains tax." [http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-end-of-progressive-government/2011/04/01/AFQbjTXC_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions] This will go beyond numbers and make policy prescriptions. According to Mr. Ryan, “We have a moral obligation to the country to do this.” Mr. Ryan is correct about the moral obligation and wrong about virtually everything else.
When the shutdown and the showdown come to pass, history will judge we, the living, by how well we uphold the highest ideals of the Republic as expressed by its most noble leaders. In the next few months and the next several years, let us so conduct ourselves, that these leaders neither lived nor died in vain. Dr. King and Bobby gave American politics a moral dimension it has not had since their assassinations. This is apparent if we reflect on their remarks shortly before they died. Dr. King’s near to last words appeared above and Bobby’s appear below.
“What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis we are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.” [RFK June 5, 1968] Moments later the forces of fear and hatred drove a disturbed individual to shoot him in the head. Finally, as he lay mortally wounded, Bobby whispered to his wife, "Is everyone else all right?"
More than forty years after Martin and you died, we must sadly answer, not everyone else is all right, but Bobby, we promise you both, we are working on it.
Come on people!