Today's date:
Fall 2005

The US Has Gone Global, But Neglected Its Core

Andrew Young, 73, is a seminal figure of the new South. He was a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., the first black mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, and the US ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter. He spoke with NPQ in early September.

NPQ | To what extent is the catastrophe in New Orleans a symptom—perhaps even a metaphor—of where America as a whole has gone wrong: A vast class gap has re-emerged as the spirit of the Great Society lapsed and policies over the past 25 years favored private wealth over public investment, both in physical infrastructure, like the levees, as well as in human capital.

Warren Buffett, America’s second-richest man after Bill Gates, said recently that the rich have already won the class war; the government is deprived of resources, the middle class is fading and the poor are completely ignored.

Andrew Young | I agree. New Orleans is both a symptom and a metaphor for what has happened to America. The neglect of public investment is the very heart of the matter.

And I agree with Warren Buffett. Americans prospered when Henry Ford shared enough wealth with his workers to own their own cars. Americans prospered during the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt when the old and weak were taken care of. Americans prospered when it extended itself to Europe with the Marshall Plan. Now America has gone global, but it has neglected its core. We’ve neglected our own nation.

New Orleans, in particular, is not just a city. It is the lifeline to America. Napoleon understood that if he could capture New Orleans, he would control all of the United States west of the Mississippi. All the grain and manufactured goods from the Midwest have to come through that part. All the natural gas that fuels the East Coast comes out of that delta. Yet, America’s priorities have led to neglect of both the infrastructure and environment of an area that could hardly be more vital.

In northern Europe, there are state-of-the-art levees that are more like the locks on the Panama Canal; they rise and fall with the water. New Orleans still has the same old earth berms built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery from the Depression!

NPQ | Does this suggest that America needs what many other places in the world from Germany to South Korea already have—a stronger state?

Young | Private wealth is not always wise and rarely takes into account public responsibilities. But a creative, activist state can leverage that wealth.

Perhaps Bush’s tax cut for the wealthy in the US should be directed toward the purchase of reconstruction bonds for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The rich would get their tax break from the purchase of these government bonds, but they would also earn tax-free interest on this investment in what will be one of the strongest growing regions in the coming years.

This kind of policy can pull people together instead of push them apart in the wake of this historic catastrophe.

I learned as mayor of Atlanta that big government need not do everything. For example, the municipal government structured the deal which built the Atlanta airport, but private tax-exempt municipal bonds—purchased by the airlines and the parking lots and the concessions—financed it.

So, stronger government, yes. But creative government, not big government. The state has the public responsibility to see private funds directed toward infrastructure.

In Atlanta, the $5 billion airport never cost the taxpayers a cent, and it has generated 50,000 jobs. I tell my African friends they should take heed: The Atlanta airport generates more wealth for the southeast US than all the oil of Nigeria, Angola or Kuwait each generate for their citizens.

My company, GoodWorks International, has been trying to teach African governments how to redevelop their countries without doing it through the state, but by leveraging private investment.

In a way, the mouth of the Congo River is as strategically important to Africa as the mouth of the Mississippi is to the US. It will be very instructive for them to see how we rebuild the Mississippi River delta after this disaster.

NPQ | I wonder if a creative state will be enough. Reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will take many billions of dollars.

Back when you were with Dr. King, the big conflict was guns vs. butter, whether America could pay for both the Great Society and the Vietnam war. Can we now pay for rebuilding New Orleans and the Iraq war?

Young | We can’t get into that argument. If we get into a guns vs. butter debate, the country will become divided and we will lose everywhere. I don’t think we needed to go to war with Iraq. But now that we are there,we have to see it through. The US had no strategic interest in Vietnam. We do have a strategic interest in the stability of the Middle East.