Martin Luther King had a dream so famous broadcasters show the now grainy film clip of his speech every anniversary of his birth and assassination. I too have a dream but not the eloquence of our nation’s greatest dreamer. He could foresee the day when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I dream of the end of poverty in America. We could both be forgiven for the unlikelihood of our phantasms.
What really would it take to eliminate poverty the way a select few nations have? Costa Rica has no military even though it lies on the war-torn isthmus of Central America. That suggests that if the U.S. could scale back — not eliminate — its gargantuan annual arms budget, which since World War II has surrendered two thirds of its discretionary federal budge to the Pentagon, we could enjoy much lower taxes plus massive support for the poor. Nations like those in Scandinavia do this routinely. They long have enjoyed a standard of living higher than ours.
You might object that these countries do not hold the free world’s nuclear umbrella, that vast global military protection shield for allies and others. With great responsibility comes great indebtedness. They can flourish at our expense, and they do. Yet because this has gone on for so long, through Republican and Democratic administrations, through bull and bear markets, through red and blue congresses, the tax-paying electorate has come to accept the financial absurdity to be as necessary as oxygen, like it or not, whether we are even conscious of it or not. And by now we are not.
With a shift in our national economy, moving money from arms to socially useful targets, we could build massive housing for those living in the street, putting to work for years those in the building trade, employing hundreds of thousands whose paychecks would spread over secondary stores and services. This would take many off government relief and add to the rolls of taxpayers. To accomplish this miracle, Caucasians would have to outgrow their fear of non-Caucasians living on the same street or in the same town, county or state. Talk about miracles. But by appealing to their capitalist instincts, if not to their Christianity, we an allegedly Christian nation could persuade people out of a mindset that has hamstrung otherwise intelligent thinkers to embrace a more profitable way of thinking.
This would have a cascading effect. Taxes would be cut since there would be less need for a kind of government expenditure known to be one of the least economically stimulating kinds. Military hardware like battleships and tanks sits unused (thank God!), but socially useful expenses like hospitals, bridges, teachers and research laboratories add to the money flow so necessary for prosperity. Unemployment would be nearer to zero than we have seen in decades. And the sense of dignity that comes with a job, so praised by popes as they teach the kind of moral leadership from which I am borrowing here, would go a long way to tighten family unity and mutual respect. Without this latter comes social blight: alcohol and other drug addiction from the hopelessness of poverty, marital abuse, petty theft of those trying to get today’s supper on the table, and more.
The cascade would continue as re-appropriated public funds finally would be available for the infrastructure improvements we hear so much about at election campaign time but fail to see. If you have no transportation to a job, you would not hold it very long. This would overhaul the lending business, making loans available for qualified borrowers looking to pay for a new or used car or home. With more money staying home, college tuition loans would not be the horror story they are today for middle class students, let alone those with lesser resources. Job applicants without college and other credentials need not apply.
Skeptics and military suppliers’ stockholders will dismiss this as socialism. They envision public money going to poor people unwilling to work. They are under the impression that with want-ads in the papers, there must be plenty of jobs with too few job seekers. Correctly defined, socialism is government ownership of the means of production. There is none of that in the above. The casual misuse of that epithet has hobbled us too long.
Our wrong thinking has allowed us to deport dreamers, so I’ll keep my suitcase handy.