Andrew Young never formally studied economics. But he learned early in his time as a civil rights leader what a powerful tool for good it could be.
“Young people look back now and think the civil rights movement was about marching, getting beat up and bit by dogs, but the whole civil rights movement was really about the economy,” he said yesterday.
“The economic withdrawal campaign was what really changed the South.”
He went on to explain: the black community in Birmingham, Alabama, went on a consumption strike. They didn’t buy anything but food and medicine for 90 days.
“And after 90 days with nobody buying anything, the business community came to us and asked what they could do to get us all to shop again. We said, you can desegregate. You have signs saying ‘black’ and ‘white’ over the water fountains. You can just take those down.
“You have black women working in every department [of your stores], but they are in maids’ uniforms, even though they know more about things than any of the salesclerks. Let them wear the dresses they are selling. Call them clerks and let them work on commission, too.
“The hardest thing to get the business owners to agree to was desegregating the lunch counter. So we started out with a 30-day test, sending one couple a day to each lunch counter. We invited the owners to come down and observe them, but to also serve them.
“There was never an incident. After that it was open; it was integrated.”
The irony was, he said that segregation was still the law in Birmingham, but when 100 businessmen decided it had to change, it did, regardless of what the statutes said.
Back then, in the 1960s, Mr. Young just assumed America’s was the greatest economy on the face of the Earth, it’s only fault being that black people were not sufficiently a part of it.
Somewhat later in his diverse career, though, Mr. Young began to have a darker view of economics, to see the other side of its power.
The turning point came in 1971, during the Nixon Presidency, when America unilaterally abandoned the Bretton Woods system of international monetary management, which, he said had produced “unprecedented growth and development worldwide.”
Mr. Young entered Congress the following year, and was on the Banking Committee in 1973 when then secretary of the Federal Reserve, Arthur Burns, came in to testify about the advantages of the abandonment of Bretton Woods’ tight currency controls.
He recalled asking Burns whether this would lead to people playing politics with the dollar, causing big fluctuations in currency values.
“Arthur Burns puffed on his pipe and said: ‘Young man, you’ll soon learn the dollar doesn’t need you to defend it.’ ”
The truth is, he said, he did not fully understand what was happening, nor did his fellow Congressmen. They were intimidated by the economists.
And there began his growing disenchantment with the practice of economics. It was a disenchantment which grew over the decades, as deregulation became the vogue. Notably under Reagan, but also under Clinton, and finally disastrously, under the Bush administration.
“From the very beginning in America, there was always a sense of morality and social responsibility,” he said. “But this is an economics that has no sense of social responsibility and no sense of morality.”
Where, he asked, is the moral sense of a banker who would insist on his $100 million bonus, in the current straitened times?
Mr. Young is exercised about the growing disparities not only in this country. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations sees it happening all over the world.
“In China there’s a big gap between the haves and have-nots. In India it’s even bigger. In South Africa there’s the most volatile gap.”
Unless something is done about the problem of massive unearned wealth — accrued either through nonproductive speculation or inheritance, he foresees the possibility of class wars.
“I don’t trust people who have inherited wealth,” he said. “If you have never had to work for a living you don’t appreciate those who do. This guy who took the $100 million bonus has never worked for a living. He just thinks that what he did was work.”
Mr. Young waxed Biblical.
“If there is any judgment — and I think there is — the question Jesus says he’s going to ask is, ‘Did you feed the hungry, did you clothe the naked, did you heal the sick, did you set at liberty those who were oppressed?’
“Well I don’t think you do that through missionary baskets. I think you do that through the global economic system.”
As irony would have it, just at the time that the so-called immoral economic system showed its fundamental weakness, Barack Obama was elected.
And now the problems sowed over 30-plus years become his.
“It’s no longer the Nixon/Reagan Bush economic construct,” said Mr. Young. “It’s Obama’s bailout”.
He is not much comforted by some of the advisors Mr. Obama has gathered around himself. Mr. Young fears several of them are too much of the current system.
“There’s some really bright folk around Obama, but I think he’s the one that has heart, conscience and soul enough to do this,” he said.
Mr. Young suggested Mr. Obama was in “almost the same situation I was in when I became mayor of Atlanta in 1981.
“It was the crime capital of the world, the economy was crashed. The business community fought against me.”
But he got that business community together, a little as he had done nearly 20 years earlier, and pointed out their shared economic interest.
“I told them, if I’m a miserable failure as mayor it won’t hurt me particularly. I’ve written a book, I can write another one and make a little money on outside speeches. If I’m not a good mayor, I’ll survive. But your businesses won’t.
“You have a vested interest in making me a good mayor.
“And they bought that.”
And ultimately, he was sure, people would buy Obama’s economic, health and other reforms. Because they will come to recognize their interest.
Early in Mr. Obama’s candidacy for president, Mr. Young said, he sent a copy of The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter’s chronicle of the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt.
What’s remarkable about it, he said, was the initial resistance to FDR’s reform agenda, all the things for which he was attacked, “we now know were absolutely right and necessary.”
Mr. Young will give a lecture, or as he prefers to put it, “lead a discussion” on the economy today at 6 p.m., at the Annual Taste of the Road Scholar event at Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs.