Monday, January 21, 2008

Multi-Ethnic California: Make This Dream Real

Today is Martin Luther King Day, and the media is surely running superficial pieces about the civil rights leader and asking the probable question, How long have we come in achieving Martin Luther King's dream? Or perhaps, what does Martin Luther King's dream mean today?

The dream of Martin Luther King is not possible to achieve without socialism. In fact, one of his statements which he expressed on more than one occasion during his later years was that, "What this country needs is a radical redistribution of economic power." How is it possible to achieve redistribution of economic power without progressive taxation that invests in the social and economic needs of society such as healthcare, education, and mass transit?

His dream may have been expressed in terms of black children and white children joining hands as sisters and brothers, but to achieve such a vision, far more is needed than to erase prejudice and teach children the value of diversity. If one child has healthcare and one doesn't; if one has a quality education and the other one's is underfunded at the federal, state, and local level; if one child's family has the privilege of polluting the planet by driving and not experiencing it as an economic challenge, while the other one's family has the necessity of polluting the planet by driving due to horrible mass transit and experiences it as an economic challenge when the price of fuel escalates; it becomes apparent how far we are from achieving the dream. It also becomes apparent that our socio-economic structure is very far from the principles of Martin Luther King. Such a socio-economic structure could never produce the harmony which MLK spoke of, and in fact, it actually creates prejudice, fear, and racism.

Everybody knows that this country has been experiencing a cycle of concentration of wealth for at least since Reagan was President. How can this cycle be reversed? There would need to be made numerous policy changes, but I will use an example inspired from the radically car dependent metropolis of Los Angeles to illustrate the redistribution of economic power which King spoke of and relate it to the concentration of wealth which our country has been experiencing.

In Los Angeles as in most of California, almost everyone drives. Only about 6% of Los Angelenos use mass transit to get to work. Yet, demand for greater service is evident from the crowded buses and the packed subway. A lot of people can't afford to drive, either because they don't own a car or owning a car plus the additional costs of maintaining it are too high. Others who are challenged by high gasoline prices would like to have the option to use mass transit, but it is so inefficient that they prefer to pay whatever the price of gasoline is. If one subscribes to the notion that time is money, using mass transit in Los Angeles is very expensive, particularly if one considers the recent fare hike for a day pass from $3 to $5.

Of the billions of dollars which Californians spend annually on gasoline(we consume 16 billion gallons per year) a small percentage of it goes to the state in the form of taxes, the majority of it goes to oil companies, contributing to their record profits. As we can see, our socio-economic structure contributes to the cycle of concentration of wealth, and to reverse this cycle it will be necessary to make changes to the socio-economic structure.

Whenever the price of gasoline rises above $3.00, people inevitably complain and media outlets do stories discussing people's "pain." People demonize oil companies, yet we have the power to undermine their business by taxing their product and funding the only viable alternative to the massive gasoline consumption we are currently enslaved to, which is mass transit. Such a policy change would result in Californians contributing less of their income to oil companies, and contributing their income to diverse sources within their local communities, or keeping it for themselves in the form of savings.

Regarding other alternatives, such as hydrogen, ethanol, electric cars, and hybrids, we must be realistic. Hydrogen is currently not economically viable and will not be ecologically viable until we can produce vast amounts of green electricity. Ethanol is neither ecologically nor economically viable on a scale large enough to significantly reduce petroleum dependence. Electric cars and hybrids hold promise but are expensive(the upcoming Roadster costs $100,000) and can only have a limited impact in the near and mid-term future.

Most economists believe that gasoline should be taxed at a higher rate. In an article discussing why economists favor increasing the gas tax, one expert stated, "Of all the ways that U.S. consumers can spend their money, buying fuel for their cars contributes the least to the economy." I merely propose a 10 cent increase to fund mass transit with the purpose of reducing gasoline dependence, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing traffic, reducing air pollution, improving the economy, and contributing to a redistribution of economic power; from the oil companies, to the people.

Traditionally, the gasoline tax was one of, if not the most regressive taxes, but this is not the case anymore because like I previously stated, a lot of people can't afford to drive, or would like to drive less for economic reasons. Imposing a tax on ourselves which would bring tangible benefits and redistribute economic power would open our eyes to other forms of progressive taxation to fund the social and economic needs of our society such as socialized medicine and an equitable, high quality education system.

In a speech titled, "Where Do We Go From Here?" King stated, "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." King's words remind us that capitalism and socialism are concepts, ideas and that every society manifests them in their own way. Western Europe is a useful example for our society. Countries such as England, Germany, France, etc are capitalist societies, but they have socialized medicine. They have forms of progressive taxation that provide for the social and economic needs of the society.

When someone such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose political philosophy of being against any and all tax increases is diametrically opposed to King's, is invited to speak at a Martin Luther King event, I get the sense that people must not know anything about Martin Luther King besides that he was a great speaker and that he wanted all of us to get along. As if good feelings solve problems. Life is far more complex, and prejudice and racism are endemic in the Los Angeles metropolis.

We will not reach the paradise of equality, opportunity, and brotherhood unless we change a sado-masochistic socio-economic structure that leaves the society rotting, waiting to explode. We will not create a common culture that values and respects our differences, and instead will have a fragmented society of warring ethnic enclaves, unless we embrace socialism.

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