Take a close look at the above quote. A simpler diagnosis of the solution to “our problems” might invoke the redistribution not of power, but of income or wealth. In fact, most social policy debates involve precisely that argument. One side argues for expanding, say, wage subsidies for low-wage workers, to be paid for by higher taxes on the rich (to be clear, I’ve made such arguments); the other argues that such redistribution is unfair and unproductive. Both sides quickly grab their studies and their experts and we’re off (typically, on separate cable channels).
King’s diagnosis ran much deeper. Of course, he supported progressive taxation to pay for programs to help poor African Americans. But he viewed that as palliative, not curative. It was power that must be more fairly distributed. And no nibbling around the edges of power would do; the redistribution must be “radical,” by which he meant well beyond what the politics of his, and our, time typically entertained.
How different would America look today if power were much more broadly held? One way to answer this important question is to look at King’s prescriptive policy agenda. Today King is remembered mostly for his impassioned and inspired rhetoric, which, given the power of his words, is as it should be. But he was also a pragmatic policy thinker for whom it was essential to connect the poetry of the goals to the prose of the agenda.
These are some of policy ideas championed by King, particularly later in his too-short life, when he introduced and led the Poor People’s Campaign. It is a testament to both King’s foresight and the work still to be done that these issues remain at the heart of today’s policy debates.
Full employment: The full name of the historic 1963 march organized by King and others was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A sign often seen that day read, “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.” Clearly, King recognized that in very tight labor markets, it was costlier for employers to discriminate against African Americans. At full employment, indulging their prejudices meant leaving profits on the table. In fact, time and again throughout our economic history, including the present, we see this dynamic in play (a recent Wall Street Journal piece was titled “Tight Job Market Opens Doors for Ex-Convicts”). And the reason full employment works is because it increases power — bargaining power.
Full employment doesn’t solve everything, not by a long shot, but its benefits to workers facing discrimination have been well-documented; see, for example, this muscular analysis by Federal Reserve economists.
The Fed is an essential player in this context, as keeping interest rates low sustains labor market tightness. In that regard, here’s an important technical point. For years, our central bank has worked to “anchor inflationary expectations,” meaning to assure everyone that it will wield its policy tools to keep inflation low and stable. This has had the effect of significantly lowering the negative correlation between unemployment and inflation, meaning that the Fed can keep the jobless rate much lower, for much longer, without invoking overheating. It’s a critical connection between King’s goal of full employment, worker power and the evolution of contemporary monetary policy.
Unions: Recall that when he was tragically taken from us, King was in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. The disproportionately black workforce there was striking for safer conditions (not long before the strike, two African American sanitation workers were killed on a city truck) and better pay. The mayor of Memphis declared the strike illegal, but with King’s support, the public-sector union was recognized (less than two weeks after King’s assassination).
The connection between unions and power is long-standing, and the decline in union power is one reason today’s politics are so unrepresentative of working people.
It is thus of great concern that the share of American workers with collective bargaining rights is at an all-time low. Of particular concern, unionization rates for public-sector workers, though still far above those in the private sector, are starting to slip. Reversing this trend must be a top priority for policymakers in pursuit of rebalancing power.
Guaranteed jobs and income: King championed both of these ideas, and both are in the midst of a contemporary renaissance. Even at full employment, there are many people who face steep barriers to work. Sometimes those barriers are steepened by the weakness of labor demand in the left-behind places they live. Sometimes, they are a function of health problems, addiction, criminal records and deep skill deficits. And, of course, racial discrimination is always in play.
With increased recognition of these realities, policymakers and others are proposing a broad range of solutions, from robust guaranteed jobs programs to more narrowly targeted subsidies to help disadvantaged workers. A similar movement has long been brewing around guaranteed incomes, a policy King explicitly supported.
Again, if we look at racial justice through a lens of power — political power, in this case — consider the difference if the goal of our political representatives were to ensure adequate jobs and incomes rather than tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of industry, and hostility to immigrants and minorities.
There are numerous other areas of King’s agenda at the forefront of progressive policy today, including incarceration policy, health care, education, housing and the shifting of military expenditures to social programs.
If he were to walk among us today, King would be disheartened, though probably not surprised, to see our lack of progress. But I like to think he’d be enthused and inspired by the millions of us, including increasing numbers of policy advocates and, especially since the midterm elections, political representatives, working in pursuit of his dream.
Let those of us in that group reflect on the truth he left us with that our work is “the radical redistribution of economic and political power.” If that’s not what you’re up to, today’s a good day to figure out how to make it so.