Public Discourse about the U.S. Economy on MLK Day

Given Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to economic justice, it seems fitting that on his National Holiday, we reflect on the public discourse on economic issues occurring right now in the U.S. Let’s consider a few public statements from recent conversations.

In a Today Show interview that you can see here, Mitt Romney claims that those who question the distribution of wealth and power in this country are using the politics of envy. Here is a quote from that interview…

I think it is about envy. I think it is about class warfare… It is fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms.

Let’s set aside Romney’s tone deafness to the populist moment. I believe it is undemocratic to even consider limiting discussion of legitimate issues facing the public to the private sphere (i.e. Romney’s quiet rooms). Public claims questioning the justice in capitalist market anarchy (free-markets with no supervision or accountability other than an invisible hand that can hardly keep pace with a highly automated market) deserve a full public airing and its advocates deserve to be taken seriously.

Mitt Romney is not the only one seeking to stifle public discourse. Rick Santorum argued in a recent Republican debate that “There are no classes in America.” His broader point is that identifying people by their class divides Americans. Admittedly, Santorum only suggests that class should not be part of the “Republican lexicon.” But what does that actually mean?

Talking about class does not mean that one is engaging in class warfare. Classes are useful sociological categories to describe the reality of the social situation. Further, one can engage in class warfare without mentioning class. To my mind, efforts to eliminate the social safety network is class warfare. Changing tax policy to adjust wealth upwards in a time when the income gap between rich and poor in this country is expanding to untenable levels is class warfare. This is doing real harm to the poor and middle class. Suggesting that millionaires and billionaires ought to pay Clinton-era taxes when unemployment is high and corporations are making record profits (again!) is not class warfare. Questioning the justice of an economic system that seems to be rigged in favor of corporations, where the existence of “too big to fail” firms allows the very risk-reward principles of free market capitalism to be circumvented, lest the entire financial system get swept away, is not class warfare.

Finally, it seems to me that public discourse is caught between two extremes and I wish moderate, reasonable voices were taken more seriously in the media. Either President Obama is a socialist/communist/marxist or he is a “black mascot” for Wall Street. The truth is obviously somewhere in the middle. Calling the president a socialist is an insult to real socialists everywhere and Wall Street seems to be adamantly opposed to the political agenda of their so-called mascot. I am suspicious of the name calling and extremist rhetoric on both sides because it shuts down public discourse rather than encourages it.

I am committing myself on MLK Day 2012, to nurturing healthy public discourse that seeks answers and solutions and refuses to succumb to name calling and extremist rhetoric, even when I get ticked off by the direction the discourse is going. Hopefully this will work out better than my new year’s resolution.

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