Fifty years ago today, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” …I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Within the United States, much (but not all) of that dream has been realized. But I am struck today by how much we still need a global civil rights movement.
Branko Milanović, a brilliant economist at the World Bank, looked a few years ago at individual data on the earnings of people all over the world and asked: how much of the difference in people’s incomes can be explained by the country in which they live? According to Branko, country of residence explains 59% of the difference of real income between any two people selected at random.
The importance of this was highlighted by my colleague Michael Clemens in a recent Development Drums podcast:
.. this fact means not just that the country you’re living and working in is more important than anything else about you, it means that the country you live and work in is more important than everything else about you put together. … All your efforts, whether your parents are high class, low class; whether you’re beautiful, ugly, smart, dumb, female, male; all of those things put together explain a huge portion of the variance but they don’t come close, combined, to the country you live in. There is a massive inequality of opportunity in the world today and a corollary of that fact is that your labour, my labour, the labour of anybody on earth sells for different prices in different places. (Full transcript pdf here)
I have a dream that we will one day take seriously the idea that we are all created equal, not just within countries but everywhere. It is intolerable that a person’s future should be mainly determined by the place of his or her birth, in the same way as it is intolerable that people’s future should be determined by the colour of his or her skin.
Incidentally, you may wonder why the whole of Martin Luther King’s speech is rarely shown on television. Fifty years after the speech was given, recordings of it still remains under copyright, administered by EMI following a deal with the King family in 2009. On the radio this morning, the BBC said that it was too expensive to get the rights to play more than a few seconds of it. Under current US laws it will remain copyright until 2038, 70 years after the death of Martin Luther King.