On Saturday, August 27th, the Coalition for a Better San Diego is holding an Economic Summit at Horace Mann Middle School from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM. The goal of this summit is to bring together a wide array of people from labor and the community to share their ideas about what would make San Diego a better place. The themes of this gathering are jobs, prosperity, quality of life, equality, and fairness. Issues set to be discussed will range from job creation, education, and public services to housing, racial equality, and fair taxation—just to name a few.
Beyond the laundry list of topics, I hope that what comes out of this event is a larger vision of what a just San Diego would look like. So, if we are trying to imagine a better San Diego, what are our first principles? Whenever I think about social justice, I am drawn back to my favorite speech by Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” This was Dr. King’s last address as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, given toward to end of his life in 1967. It outlines two core principles of King’s unfulfilled legacy that united the question of racial injustice with the questions of economic inequality and rampant militarism. It was a deep, radical interrogation of the underpinnings of American society and it still resonates today.
When addressing the issue of poverty, King notes that, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” For Dr. King, this meant looking at the entire society and asking questions about “the economic system [and] the broader distribution of wealth.” It meant thinking about “the restructuring of the whole of American society.”
Coming to terms with accusations of communism in the midst of the cold war, he was blunt: “I’m not talking about communism. What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
King then ended his speech with a stirring call to move forward with a “divine dissatisfaction”.
So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
What King is doing here is challenging us to think beyond the stale duality of the cold war—Stalinism versus Capitalism–because the American religion of anti-communism makes it nearly impossible to seriously talk about economic inequality without being red-baited. Ironically, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall, the American right has managed to translate Cold War anti-communism into a radical embrace of the free market that questions the very value of government, period. Even the most benign reformist measures are assailed as the rebirth of the Soviet Empire in some circles.
If we can leave this pervasive stupidity behind for a moment, however, what King’s words challenge us to do today is think beyond the neoliberal economic dogma that asserts that the market can solve all problems. If there is a radicalism afoot today, it is these ideas—that all public institutions are suspect, that taxes are inherently evil, and that business models and yet more privatization can solve everything from how to educate our children to how to treat patients in the hospital. If we are afraid to say this, we may as well pack up and go home. As long as the game is played on neoliberal turf, ordinary folks will lose. Our standard of living will continue to decline, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow, and our politics will become less and less democratic as corporate money floods into the pockets of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The road we are currently on leads to a dead-end. Thinking that we can outwit the Right by repositioning ourselves on their playing field is a fool’s errand.
Thus any economic program that deserves our attention needs to start with an overt critique of free market fundamentalism. In opposition to this Social Darwinist dogma, we must insist that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Indeed, almost all of our current economic, social, environmental, and international problems have to do with the unchecked excesses of the free market system. In the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans clamored for more government to help protect them from the excesses of the marketplace and the unregulated power of big business. We have forgotten this history at our peril.
We must also remember that local, state, national, and international problems are interrelated. If we think we can act locally without keeping our eye on the bigger picture, we will lack an adequate map of power to analyze our problems and will end up perpetually fighting rear guard actions or settling for half measures or worse. Our interdependence as individuals, communities, and nations and as beings on this planet should always be a starting point. This both complicates our situations and offers new possibilities for alliances.
Moving beyond first principles, a few simple big picture things would go a long way toward redeeming the present without mortgaging the future.
- We need to reverse the decades long shifting of the tax burden from the rich and large corporations to everyone else. Over the last thirty years we have seen an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the working and middle classes to the rich (mostly the super-rich). It’s time to return to tax fairness. Doing so will go a long way toward funding education and vital public services as well as parks and libraries and infrastructure. As long as we are afraid to take on this issue, we will lose.
- End the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and drastically cut defense spending and transfer that money to vital domestic needs. This is the right thing to do and now even many conservatives are moving in this direction (of cutting defense spending if not shifting the resources).
- Restore full funding to public education and make college affordable again. If we don’t do this, we are drowning young people in debt and/or excluding them from the system. Neither is acceptable.
- Make it easier for American workers to join unions, particularly in the private sector. The steep decline in unionization is one of the central factors in the growing gap between the rich and the poor. With low paying service sector jobs replacing higher paying manufacturing jobs and the largest arena of employment, only unions will help raise the standard of living for millions of American workers.
- Implement universal public health care. This is the only way to contain costs and if we don’t do so, we will all pay dearly.
- Promote green jobs and protect what little wild space we have left. More than lip service needs to be paid to this both for economic and survival reasons. The dirty power we use now is killing the planet.
- Implement a humane immigration policy that does not just set up a cheap labor pool for American corporations.
- Invest in quality public housing linked to accessible quality public transportation that links the urban core to the rest of city spaces.
- Promote fair trade agreements rather than free trade agreements.
- Link human rights to economic rights—locally, nationally, and internationally. There is a connection between sweatshop labor abroad and low wages at home.
How do all these big issues translate to our situation in San Diego? Perhaps the summit could investigate these questions:
- What impact have budget cuts had on our local schools, public safety, social services, parks, roads, transportation, homeless shelters, etc.? What is the price we pay for low taxes on the wealthy here in San Diego?
- What is the impact of the military industrial complex on the local economy? What could replace it? How do we serve our veterans? What cost have local veterans paid in blood for their service? Have they been fairly treated?
- What are the costs of defunding our educational system, K-12 through graduate school? How will this affect the future of our city? Will there be jobs for recent graduates?
- What is the status of the local labor movement? What is the relationship between the public and private sector? Who is unorganized? How can we help them organize?
- Who is best served by the heath care system in San Diego? Who loses out? What are the implications of spiraling healthcare costs for workers, companies, and public institutions?
- What is the interrelationship between the local economy and the environment? Is there a connection between local social justice movements and local environmentalism?
- What is the role of immigrant labor in San Diego? What value do they bring to our community? How do we imagine the future of San Diego in this regard?
- What does the lack of affordable housing mean for the average San Diegan? How adequate is our transportation system? How does the spatial segregation of San Diego affect our politics and culture? Does it matter that many San Diegans only know “the other side of town” from TV news?
- How have trade agreements affected the local economy? What is our relationship to other workers across the global economy?
- How does what we buy at the local Walmart affect workers in China? How does the status of workers in the developing world affect our local economy? Do we have slave labor in San Diego? Do we buy products made by slaves abroad? What is the connection between how we shop and who we are? Are there moral, ethical, and political questions we should ask with each purchase we make?
Your list of questions might be very different. If so, come to the summit and share your own ideas. You might just be helping to imagine a better future for our city.