My first understanding—I’m foreign, you see—of Martin Luther King Day came from Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” off Apocalypse 91. The “news announcement” at the start of the song suggests that “the powers that be in the states of New Hampshire and Arizona have found psychological discomfort in paying tribute to a black man who tried to teach white people the meaning of civilization.” Public Enemy responded as only they could. The video showed automatic rifle wielding PE members assassinating a number of Arizona’s politicians. In the final scene, Chuck D activates a bomb taped to the bottom of a politician’s car. Pre-HD special effects ensue.
I’m spending this MLK day at home outside Philadelphia, where I teach at Villanova University. The idea that anyone, let alone a successful politician, could oppose the existence of MLK Day seems even more ante-bellum than the “Arizona” video seems pre-9/11: banners of King’s face flutter on campus; the university dedicates the entire week to events celebrating King’s life; the president of the nation (although not of the university) is black.
But for all the bunting and feting it can be to understand what King’s message was meant to be, beyond having something to do with peace and racial equality of opportunity. ESPN, for instance, broadcasts short pieces in which black sports stars express their gratitude to King under the title “Content of Character.” The pieces are heartfelt; it must be awesome for Kevin Durant to compare his life now to what his life might have been like before civil rights. The “I have a dream” speech is broadcast by everyone everywhere, often as the soundtrack to heartwarming scenes of black and white children who have, all indications suggest, no clue that racism ever existed. On MLK Day almost all of us can come together to celebrate a great man.
It’s easier to stress the peace theme of King’s life because we celebrate King on or around his birthday, January 15th, 1929, and not the date of his death, April 4th, 1968. King was assassinated. James Earl Ray pled guilty to the murder before recanting his confession three days later (documents relating to King’s death remain classified until 2027. Many believe the U.S. government was involved). Stokely Carmichael suggested that King’s death had taught black Americans the important lesson that they needed guns to defend themselves from white Americans. Rioting ensued (not, it should be stressed, Carmichael’s fault). In Washington D.C. marines armed themselves with machine guns on the steps of the Capitol. Over 6000 people were arrested.
Similarly, we can celebrate our current version of civil rights and legal equality because we focus on the content of King’s character, not his actions. At the time of his death King was working on the Poor People’s Campaign. In the wake of President Johnson’s failed “War on Poverty,” the PPC demanded recognition of the basic human right to the means of subsistence and, among other things, pushed the government to guarantee full employment and a minimum basic income. When you read about how Nineties politicians opposed MLK day on the grounds that King was a socialist, it’s easy to be incredulous—anyone we celebrate so festively can’t possibly…. But the Poor People’s Campaign was nothing short of a socialist call to arms. This will go unmentioned on ESPN. It will be ignored in the omnipresent “Dream” sequences.
But King’s violent, politicized death and his final project both seem particularly relevant this year, thanks to Sandy Hook and the Trillion Dollar Coin. Most readers of essays like this one think gun control is a complete no-brainer. America has high levels of gun violence, higher than any other developed nation. America has lax gun control laws. The connection is made dramatically obvious when young children are killed with automatic weapons. Without automatic weapons, they would still be alive. The story and the theory are gripping and moving because the victims, perpetrator and bystanders at Sandy Hook are all just like the media commentariat. And that kind of thing just doesn’t happen to people like us.
But as we all know, intellectually at least, the children of Sandy Hook are atypical1 of Americans killed by gun-toting men (almost always men). When white people use guns on people, they mostly murder themselves: suicide accounts for 80 percent of white gun violence. The situation is precisely the opposite for African Americans, amongst whom suicide accounted for only 16 percent of gun-caused fatalities. And we all know, intellectually, that this other-directed gun violence is not taking place in Atlanta’s middle-class black neighborhoods. If you’ve been shot to death, you were most likely a young, non-white male living in an impoverished, urban neighborhood.
Thanks to Sandy Hook, the White House has chosen to focus on the reform of gun laws. For much (but not all: Democrats away from the coasts and cities are often opposed to gun reform) of the Democratic base, the gun issue is simply too obvious to ignore. It seems doable. If Health care was a Pyrrhic victory (so… now everyone hasto buy insurance from profiteering insurance firms?), gun control is something we can win, convincingly, before the end of Obama’s second term, second amendment or no.2 On MLK Day 2013, this (or poor/culpable Manti Te’o) is the issue all over the news.
But that’s a shame. The big constitutional law story that gun-control shunted out of the way is much less emotionally compelling, but—absurd as it sounds—much more important: the trillion dollar coin. The idea behind the coin is very simple. In order to raise the debt ceiling, and thus to allow the U.S. to pay off the debts it has already accumulated, Congress must agree to allow the government to take on more debt (taking on debt to pay off debt is how all large economic entities work). Congress didn’t want raise the debt ceiling and, although it would probably be calamitous to default on the nation’s debt payments, it is unconstitutional for the White House to raise the ceiling without Congressional approval. It is not unconstitutional, however, for the White House to mint special commemorative coins. Usually those coins are worthless, hence, “commemorative.” But the White House may also, whenever it chooses, announce that a certain coin has a certain value: say, this blank coin in my pocket—and say, a trillion dollars. Deposit that coin in the treasury and the government could, theoretically, pay off debt for a year or so without having to ask Congress for anything. This idea caused quite a ruckus, because it really does make a mockery of effective government, and because the economic consequence is, according to text-books, disastrous inflation. The mere existence of the trillion dollar coin would reduce the worth of your salary or stipend to roughly nothing.
But the American government’s policy for recovering from the great financial crash is no different from the trillion dollar coin idea in principle. Interest rates are effectively zero, which encourages borrowing; the money borrowed has been created no less fantastically than the trillion dollar coin. And the Federal Reserve’s funkily named adventures into monetary policy (Operation Twist, QE) involve inventing money to buy bad or illiquid debt or stock or bonds from businesses, particularly financial enterprises, and then kind of ignoring that that debt ever existed (with the result that the businesses now have scads more money without having to deal with the consequences of all their bad decisions over the last twenty years, while the government can postpone redeeming treasury bonds). And it seems to be working: the stock market has never been stronger, corporate profits have never been higher, private debt is slowly decreasing.
This is good news for the Democrats, whose odd policies have kept the market and large corporations afloat. I call the policies “odd” because standard Keynesianism3 holds that government debt should be on the side of fiscal policy: using government money to, e.g., build infrastructure, employ people and so on. But the Democrats have overwhelmingly used monetary policy to encourage economic growth, flooding the country with liquidity through low interest rates and fancy accounting at the Fed. With all that money sloshing around, someone’s bound to find a way to spend it. And so they have.
But many economic indicators suggest that this approach isn’t working at all.4 GDP itself seems to have grown massively in the post-war era, but once you subtract debt from output over that period, that growth appears minimal at best. In fact it is possible that all economic growth since the end of the World War II was just debt-driven. And if that is so, then the solution to the financial crisis is just an intensification of all the bad ideas that led to the financial crisis in the first place. And as everyone knows, the vast majority of the gains have gone to a very small number of people. As for the rest of us, employment is stronger than expected in terms of the number of people employed. But, after decades of stagnation, wages are still stuck where they were in the Seventies—and the new jobs are, overwhelmingly, cheaper than the pre-crash jobs, so wages make up a smaller percentage of GDP than ever before. Corporate profits at an all-time high, and wages at an all-time proportional low? There’s no reason to think that the Obama administration’s response to the debt crisis will do anything at all to address inequality or poverty. It’s entirely possible that in order to tackle those problems we may need a genuinely fiscal stimulus.
But it is precisely by addressing economic inequality that we could really cut down on gun violence. Consider these two options: first, borrowing from Obama, imagine a world in which all gun purchases must, in order to be legal, involve a background check, cooling-off period, gun-license and so on and so forth. Now, borrowing from King, imagine a world in which young men are guaranteed employment with a minimum income and a range of government-provided low-income housing to choose from. The Obama option just might reduce the number of children shot in elementary schools, although there’s no guarantee of that. Only in King’s imagined world would incidences of gun violence against other people really decline. The solution to gun violence in America is a radical reduction in poverty—which, as everyone knows, is correlated with race. That’s a dream worth having.
Sandy Hook was, from (and only from) a statistical or historical perspective, an outlier of little meaning. The government’s response to the debt crisis, and the Republican opposition to that response, will affect Americans for generations. If it really is working, and the willy-nilly creation of liquidity is the way our economy now functions best, the trillion dollar coin isn’t only economically feasible, it’s morally compulsory. And there could be few more worthy of having their head on the coin that saves the American population from poverty than Martin Luther King—a black man who tried to teach white America the meaning of civilization, was murdered for his efforts and then, in a final indignity, revived for posterity as the new Booker T. Washington. But if Obama’s response isn’t working, it might be best to spend the next three years on something more significant than the reform of gun laws: a genuine attempt to fulfill the promise of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. I’ll be spending MLK Day 2013 remembering that, not so long ago, the “Greatest American of the Age” was an assassinated socialist.