The Rhetorical Lessons of MLK’s Guaranteed Minimum Income for a Biden Administration

Don’t forget, on this MLK day, that Andrew Yang is not the first to propose a UBI-style reform, nor is his proposal for implementation anywhere near as ambitious as what Martin Luther King was proposing over 50 years ago.

Indeed, Richard Nixon of all people actually proposed, and the House actually passed, a Yang-style reform where welfare would be replaced by direct cash payments of up to $1600/year for a family of four (about $8500 in 2021 dollars). This wasn’t just a fringe idea, it was an actual thing that nearly passed in 1970 and again in 1971.

These reforms, often derided today by Serious Thinkers as hopelessly leftist, were actually endorsed by many in the Republican Party. But that shouldn’t be surprising: Nixon also introduced a number of universal healthcare proposals and created the EPA.

So what changed?

Reagan’s takeover of the GOP over 1976 and 1980, followed by his landslide win in 1984, cemented the “distrust of government” platform plank in the GOP for decades. And it worked. Anyone who advocated for any central planning now faces a baseline assumption that it would be wasteful, and they have to justify why it wouldn’t be.

During the 2020 primaries, I wrote about the potential for Bernie Sanders to break this rhetorical hold on US politics, one that is older than I am. That clearly didn’t come to fruition, but if we’re smart about our advocacy in the Biden administration, we can still move the ball within the Democratic Party, which has basically adopted this Reaganesque framing over the last 40 years.

When discussing policy, there is a lot that many on the left, myself included, have often felt required to nod at, such as the idea that the private sector’s “more efficient” exploitation of labor is good. We don’t have to.

MLK introduced the Poor People’s Campaign in part because he thought that the Great Society reforms were not enough. And they were not. Even with them in place, wealth inequality is now back to Gilded Age levels.

But we can solve this. Dr. King’s minimum income proposal was a $30B proposal, which adjusted for inflation is only about $230 billion today. That’s only about 5 percent increase to current federal spending.

But did you see what i did there?

Even that is a framing that asks you to count the government’s pennies. The ingrained assumption is that there is some level of spending that is too much to ensure that the basic needs of our citizens are met. “Oh, we could make sure that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed to everybody, but it’s too expensive.”

The government, the only entity with the power to actually provide for all its citizens’ basic needs, does not and should not need to justify spending in order to provide those basic needs.

There’s no need to pay lip service to an ideology that is built to decentralize, dismantle, and disperse society, rather than to strengthen the strings that hold it together. And that’s not just about white nationalism. At its heart, the small-government rhetoric of Reagan is an equally good example of this.

I don’t think the Democratic Party adopts Reagan’s rhetoric because it feels like that rhetoric is useful to them, necessarily. But I do think there are a lot of people who have internalized it over decades without seriously questioning it. And now is as good as any time for us to make them question it.

The big changes we desperately need won’t happen until we can sell our path forward on our own terms. Happy MLK day, y’all.

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