Martin Luther King’s Economic Priorities

Krugman vs. Kotkin on whether King would push for income equality or economic growth

Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963. (Photo: AP) Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963. (Photo: AP)

If Martin Luther King were alive today, what would he have to say about today’s dominant issue–the weak economy?

While King’s legacy is based primarily on his successful efforts to secure voting rights for blacks and to desegregate schools and public facilities, his campaign to alleviate poverty in the last year of his life ended abruptly with his April 1968 assassination.

While King’s economic policy preferences are therefore poorly understood, thought leaders Paul Krugman and Joel Kotkin marked Martin Luther King Day with columns in the New York Times and Forbes, respectively, speculating on what King’s agenda would be today.

Paul Krugman“If King could see America now, I believe that he would be disappointed,” writes Krugman (left), who won the Nobel Prize in economics. Though we have made racial progress–as evidenced by America’s black president and diverse Cabinet, Krugman asserts that we have become a nation that judges people “by the size of their paychecks.” And the dimensions of that paycheck line up, he argues, “with the size of your father’s paycheck.”

Krugman cites economic research showing that America enjoys less intergenerational economic mobility than other wealthy nations, meaning that “the chances that someone born into a low-income family will end up with high income, or vice versa, are significantly lower here than in Canada or Europe.” Krugman blames this mobility gap on high income inequality, and says that “King… would surely have considered soaring inequality an evil to be opposed.”

Joel Kotkin, whose books and research have focused on urban development and demographic, social and economic trends, like Krugman says that King “would surely be disheartened at the economic situation among African-Americans and other racial minorities.” But Kotkin then suggests policies to ameliorate the lot of unemployed blacks (among whom joblessness has reached 21% despite their 12% share of the population) that are very much at odds with the liberal progressivism for which the Times columnist is known.

Joel KotkinKotkin (left) argues that “the Obama administration could help ameliorate some of the pain minorities are feeling in the jobs sector, but its focus on white-collar information jobs, academia and the green economy has done little to help this already underserved community.” He writes that administration policies have favored “the largely white information economy” and places “like Silicon Valley,” and adds:

“An emphasis on green industries and strong across-the-board regulation often works against traditional industries like heavy manufacturing, warehousing and fossil fuel development that historically have employed many minorities. Opposing development of new petrochemical plants and such things as the XL Pipeline–opposed by many greens and their allies in the Obama administration–could reduce new opportunities for minority workers, many of them unionized, particularly in the heavily African-American, and increasingly Latino, Gulf region.

Kotkin concludes that achieving King’s dream requires “a hard focus on economic growth and opportunity” that is not currently in favor in progressive circles.

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