Young shares plans for creating a world that works from the ground up

Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. congressman and mayor of Atlanta, addresses ways he says are actually possible to improve society in Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.
Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

In December 1964, Ambassador Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the White House next to President Lyndon B. Johnson and listened to him talk for an hour about why he could he could not introduce an equal voting rights act.

“You all don’t understand the president doesn’t have as much power as you think he has,” Johnson said as he finished his speech.

As the men left the West Wing through a dark hallway, a discouraged Young questioned King.

“I said to Dr. King, ‘Well, what do you think?’ ” Young said. “And he said very whimsically, ‘I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’

“So I’m used to crazy things happening, and I’m used to the possible just appearing,” Young said at the start of his lecture Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

In Week Seven’s second Interfaith Lecture on the theme “Creating Cultures of Honor and Integrity,” Young discussed his own personal experiences promoting change, and his ideas for ensuring that we build a country and a world that “feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick and sets at liberty those who are oppressed.” Young’s speech was titled “I Dream of a World — That Works!”

Young is the United States’ former ambassador to the United Nations, a former congressman and former mayor of Atlanta. He has written two books, A Way Out of No Way: The Spiritual Memoirs of Andrew Young and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America; he is co-author of Walk in My Shoes: Conversations between a Civil Rights Legend and his Godson on the Journey Ahead. During his lecture, he used his many life stories and experiences to guide his speech.

In 1963, Young was in a hotel in Birmingham, Ala., with King as King’s supporters rallied around the civil rights leader and implored that he call off the marches. There were 400 to 500 people in jail, and King’s supporters felt the movement was a failure and that he should start raising money to release those imprisoned.

King left the room, and when he came back, he said: “You’re probably right. We probably have failed, but I don’t know anything else that I can do but go to jail with the people there.” He went to jail that Friday, Good Friday, and on Easter, the movement held its biggest march. By Monday, King had written his famous letter from Birmingham Jail in the margins of The New York Times and on prison toilet paper.

“I’ve seen crazy things happen, so I feel very comfortable standing up in front of you talking about crazy things I’m thinking about,” Young said.

When Hurricane Katrina trampled New Orleans in 2005, Young, who had already been mayor of Atlanta, began thinking about what he would do if he were in a position to lead the city during such a dire time. He thought of how in Atlanta, his administration had funded the mass transit system, the Underground Atlanta shopping center and 1996 Olympics without any taxpayer money or government funds.

“If I were mayor of New Orleans, I would try to create a fund of tax-exempt municipal bonds,” Young said.

During the same time, Young was working with Chevron in Nigeria, and one of the men there had worked in Texas. The man told Young that Huey Long, a former governor of Louisiana, had allowed oil drilling in every Louisiana parish except New Orleans. There was almost $100 billion worth of gas and oil untapped under New Orleans. Young asked a banker from Goldman Sachs if it would be possible to guarantee bonds with undrilled oil and gas.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I think we could — in fact, it’s probably more secure there,’ ” Young said.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

They devised a plan and scheduled a meeting with President George W. Bush and his advisers, but neither the president nor Karl Rove came, and nothing was accomplished, Young said. The president’s economic advisers read what Young and the banker had compiled, but no one ever followed up.

At that same time, Young realized how Johnson had dealt with a similar matter during his presidency. Johnson had made an executive order creating off the Texas coast a 12-mile drilling limit in the Gulf of Mexico, instead of a 3-mile limit.

Johnson said that for every barrel of oil that came out of the added 9 miles, $1 per barrel had to go to the research universities of Texas. Texas has thrived while other southern states have suffered, because that extra money has kept its economy alive, Young said. The same law would be valuable for the rest of the South.

“It would be an impact on poverty that we could not make otherwise,” Young said.

Though the administration in the White House had changed when Young proposed the new idea, he still found no responsive audience.

Then, there were floods in 33 states, 72,000 families relocated and there was $17 billion of damage in those states. Young asked White House representatives why nothing could be done.

“It would seem to me that there ought to be something you could do about that, after all Franklin Roosevelt did,” Young said.

Roosevelt had polio, and would travel to the Southeast’s warm springs for healing waters, Young said. The Southeast U.S. today does not flood, because during the New Deal, Roosevelt rewarded the area by planting hardwood trees from New York state and building man-made lakes that surrounded Atlanta and kept floodwater runoff at bay. The Midwest was neglected.

“What I was looking for was a New Deal for the Midwest,” Young said.

He thought a project that created jobs and protected 33 states from flooding would be a politically sound move for a president, but Young received no response from the White House.

“The problem, it seems, was that people were not used to doing things,” he said. “One of the things about the legacy of Martin Luther King was we didn’t analyze problems, and Martin always said, ‘Never get trapped by the paralysis of analysis,” Young said.

A month ago, news broke that the global tax haven network has an estimated wealth of $21 trillion. The U.S. economy has $16 trillion. Young began to think about the possibilities of what could be done if even a portion of that $21 trillion were put into action. He does not make judgments about whether it is right or wrong to keep money in tax havens, Young said.

“I’ve never found that it’s helpful to accuse people of doing things that they think are in their self-interest,” he said. “You find a way to help them do something better that’s in their self-interest.”

There is no safer place to invest than along the Mississippi, Young said, referring to the investments in Atlanta that changed the city.

“We created these tax instruments that allowed people to take their money and put it into a safe haven guaranteed by the city of Atlanta,” Young said. “We built an airport that cost maybe $25 billion, but no one cares, because it earns $31.5 billion a year. It creates 60,000 direct jobs and 600,000 indirect jobs. It’s the largest income generator in the Southeast, and it doesn’t cost anybody anything.”

Projects like those ultimately pay for themselves and create new jobs, he said.

In New Orleans, such a plan has already been implemented, Young said. The city built a convention center and shopping district along the canal in the heart of the New Orleans’ convention industry. It also provides a steel barrier that protects the city against the Mississippi’s swells, Young said.

“The mistake we make is we wait for the government to do something, and government, by its very nature, is designed to be paralyzed,” Young said.

In Atlanta, the Olympics happened because one man got sick, found God and began fundraising for his church. When he had successfully completed his first fundraiser, he felt joy about having done something entirely selfless, so he decided he would try to bring the Olympics to Atlanta.

The man rounded up his friends, and they planned to pitch their idea to Young, the mayor. Young’s advisers refused to allow them to meet with the mayor, because they did not want Atlanta to incur the debt that hosting Olympics usually builds. But Young met with the group privately. He said he also met with the former mayor of Los Angeles, who told him the Olympics could be held without using tax money or government funds.

So they started raising money, in small ways, by adding $5 onto ticket prices and having Georgia Power provide bill payers with a way to add a few extra dollars for the Olympics. They got the Olympic bid, and then privately raised $2.5 billion for the games.

“I’m throwing out to you from wherever you come: It is possible for you to construct a project that will serve a basic human need, that will create jobs and opportunity, and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and set at liberty those who are oppressed, and do it in such a way that you can attract some of this private investment,” Young said.

“And can we get the next president of the United States, whoever that may be, to create a global investment fund, a tax haven that doesn’t hide your money, but uses it,” Young said.

Ten trillion dollars in action would solve most U.S. problems, Young said. And it could be used to construct projects that would ultimately make the money back. To ensure that the wealth was spread equitably, it would be important to have built-in regulations requiring that a certain percentage of contracts go to minorities and women, Young said. In the Atlanta Olympics, 40 percent of all contracts went to women and minorities.

The money that is hidden in tax havens is not greedy money; it is scared money, Young said.

When studies are conducted about what kind of society people want in the U.S., people choose a society that is more like Sweden than the U.S., 92 percent of the time. Sweden has more income distribution, Young said. Ninety-three percent of Democrats prefer that model; 91 percent of Republicans prefer it.

“So this country that supposedly is going to hell because we’re divided is not so far divided at all,” Young said. “The only difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party is they don’t have a language that they can use to communicate with each other.”

To develop a future that allows people to use their talents in a free, fair, safe society is very possible, Young said. To build it requires vision, and vision always stems from the bottom.

“The answer is there. You can find it in the stars; you can find it on your knees,” Young said. “Let’s heal the horrors of this planet, and let’s do it in the name of God, and do it for all of God’s children and do it freely,”

When Young first became ambassador to the UN, the chiefs of the Mohawks came to his office to remind him that he was not their representative nor their ambassador. They offered him advice, saying, “We must make decisions for seven generations yet unborn.”

“When we think way out into the future like that, we usually come up with the right thing,” he said.