NEW YORK, January 25, 2013 – Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King addressed a nation far away from honoring its founding ideals.
In 2013, few living among us recall the days before television and radio, when great orators were bona fide celebrities. Some, such as Abraham Lincoln, were self-hewn. Called from his adopted home town of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln eventually rose to serve America in our highest office following a pivotal speech here in New York and others filled with weighty, carefully considered thoughts made to audiences across the land.
Though Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech is tough competition, Dr. King’s remarks on August 28, 1963 deserve to top the list of great American speeches, far above the remainder of the pack.
On a relatively pleasant late August day in our capital, oppressive segregation was the law of the land one century after Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation.
As Dr. King waited his turn to address an expectant throng, his face was confident and serene though one imagines his mind was wrestling deep concerns into background.
In 1963, the odious reality that Americans long had cherished freedom for white citizens while trafficking in black human beings was more palpable than it seems now in 2013.
The mentality that accepted slavery as a fact of life, the resentment that some living Americans felt against Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery and humbling the Confederacy, the overt and the subtle racism most find repugnant today were all too common then when Dr. King rose to speak.
Lesser men and women might have used the opportunity crisis that plagued America in 1963 to stoke tensions over the boil, provoke violent revolution, and try to allocate results using a different, centralized government premised in contradiction to American experience.
Dr. King more than rose to the occasion that August afternoon before an historic crowd, beneath Lincoln’s sculpted gaze and above a reflecting pool of abiding hope:
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Most Americans appreciate oratory. Yet few of us succeed in translating stirring thoughts into the constructive action of multitudes, down through the ages. President Lincoln did so. Dr. King did so.
What, then, for President Obama as he starts his final term?
Our 44th President shared the inaugural stage, standing in the shadows of Dr. King at a time in modern history all too reminiscent of the run-up to our Civil War.
Like President Lincoln, President Obama first leapt into national consciousness following a great speech. To succeed in his second term, President Obama must fully appreciate the lessons so ably taught by Dr. King and prove in deeds the potential seen in some of his words.
Of the many voices competing for his attention, which ones should our President heed most closely?
Rejecting Economic “Futilism”
As in 1963, America has reached a crossroads in 2013 when we must finally appreciate why we are failing to reach our true potential as a nation.
We are suffering from self-inflicted wounds and especially so since 1989, when hundreds of millions of sleeping souls outside our borders embraced freedom and free enterprise capitalism.
How much longer must every American wait until we realize that we are actually oppressing ourselves, from an economic standpoint?
We will never succeed against lower cost, fleet competitors by piling debt upon our population to sustain wasteful consumption levels. We cannot expect growth by strangling risk-takers and businesses with unwieldy, ill-conceived regulations and laws. We will never inspire our most productive citizens by punishing them with punitive taxes and punishing all of us with a currency whose value remains in free-fall.
Since 1999, average real household incomes in the United States have declined for the overwhelming majority of us. These declines in real household incomes cut across race and gender hurting most levels of American society, save for the fortunate few who climbed steadily from the bottom quintile towards the top quintile.
Figure 1: Average Real Household Income by Quintile[i], 1999 through 2011
The elites in both parties who “run” America’s governments, corporations, banks, universities, and unions must believe that the majority will meekly accept diminished fortune and constricting opportunity forever. In this belief, elites have been proven correct, especially since 1999 when each economic strand of America has been manifestly punished.
Merchants in Misery
At this moment, America remains the richest country on earth in material terms. Yet, all of us live today like dissolute heirs who fail to appreciate the costly sacrifices that support every fortunate son and daughter who is born to American parents.
One man who resolutely steers America on a road to economic ruin is Professor Paul Krugman or “Potomac Paul” as I like to call him. On January 17, 2013, Potomac Paul continued miss directing his numerous uninformed followers when he wrote in The New York Times:
“The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree solved.”
The President would be more than wise to ignore cheerful suggestions emanating from Professor Krugman and, instead, concentrate on very stubborn, plain facts put out regularly by the Commerce Department Bureau of Economic Analysis in National Income and Product Account Tables.
Americans do not finance their households using financial projections that go out over ten years. We recognize spending to be a gigantic and immediate problem when it exceeds income by 40% NOW. Let us hope that the President understands that winning a Nobel Prize in economics does not mean a gifted writer will convince shrewd investors that economic insanity is actually sound stewardship of the nation’s finances.
Like Mitt Romney, I admire the President and the First Lady for the commitment they have sustained in their marriage, for their mutual devotion to their children and for the closeness they keep with the First Lady’s mother.
Most of us who have children share this portion of Dr. King’s dream fervently:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Figure 2: Children Living with Two Parents Compared to Children in All Living Arrangements, 1968 to 2012
How are we doing justice to our children by letting so many of them grow up in broken families, with decent role models absent and dangerous ones leading young souls in errant directions?
Our President could do much more to encourage fathers and mothers to honor the solemn responsibilities each has particularly to our very own children.
Walking with American Giants
Proving Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, wrong even in a single respect is no mean feat.
Shortly following birth of the American nation, we can excuse Jefferson for this morsel of rational exuberance:
“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government.”
President Lincoln and troops who fell on both sides of our Civil War proved that just government could remove some error even at a terrible human cost.
Dr. King went many steps farther than Lincoln by eschewing violence while prodding the public at large and those who serve us in government to correct manifest error and do right.
In 1964, while accepting a Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King eloquently articulated a rich journey forward:
“After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”
In 2013, anyone tweets anything. Facts are ignored. Most politicians read banal generalities from Teleprompters. Too many pundits speak the truths they see primarily to their own followers. “Scientific” polls shape political agendas.
Monumental issues now stand in plain sight, waiting for a person cut from the cloth that shaped the too short life of Dr. King to summon courage and inspire us all to do right things, not just expedient ones.
We already know the limits of limited government. How much government is enough government?
This week, we honored one man who entered the pantheon of greats some fifty years ago while holping that President Obama will repudiate economic futilism, reject suggestions from modern merchants of misery, and steer a course closer to the direction suggested in 1963 so that all Americans may truly earn the full measure of Dr. King’s devotion.
[i] U.S. Census Bureau Table H-3: Mean Household Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent, All Races, 1967 to 2011.
[ii] U.S. Census Bureau: Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years Old (Current Population Survey).
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