One Labor Day was his birthday
America's Most Famous Forgotten Thinker
by Jeffery J. Smith, September 2008Henry George, Keanu Reeves, Selma Hayek, and Jimmy Connors all have something in common. They’ve all been famous, all share the same birthday (September 2), but only one of them enjoyed the kind of popularity that spurred a manufacturer to buy the rights to his name; in some old towns you can still see painted on warehouses ads for his cigar. And that’s the one you may never have heard of.
The first Labor Day nigh coincided with his birthday. The man who launched this September celebration, Secretary of Labor under President Woodrow Wilson, Louis F. Post, was an advocate of this forgotten economist’s tax reform. It’s not improbable that he paid an oblique tribute to his mentor.
In his time, the American people so esteemed this thinker that when he died in 1897 they accorded him the biggest private funeral ever. To pay tribute to his coffin as it passed through the streets of New York, people so packed the city that they brought traffic to a standstill for a day. The only American funeral larger was that accorded slain president Kennedy.
The people of the English speaking world and beyond so appreciated his writing that his most popular work, Progress and Poverty, outsold every other book but the Bible, was translated into over a dozen languages, and was used in college English courses. He was befriended by Mark Twain, corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, and every educated person of his generation and the next commented on his proposals.
Many of his insights anticipated several intellectual landmarks that made others famous:
(a) "Spaceship Earth", reinvented in the 1960s by Brit author Barbara Ward, then Prof. Ken Boulding, and futurist Bucky Fuller;
(b) with the least effort, humans satisfy their desires, restated by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, & Steel;
(c) system-vs-symptom: “When a few things go wrong it is useful to look for proximate causes, but when everything begins to go wrong then it is wise to search out one common cause.”
(d) enforcing law (or not) impacts output, echoed Nobel laureate Ronald Coase;
(e) the effects from the closing of the frontier, AKA the Turner thesis; and
(f) the Lorenz Curve for measuring concentration of wealth and income in his debates with academic Francis Walker.
Overlooking original thinkers is not unusual in history. Most people know Edison, not Tesla (for electrical inventions), know Newton, not Leibnitz (for trigonometry), Selma Hayek, not Willem Dafoe, and just about any economist other than the one whose insights are listed above. Nevertheless, why is our man forgotten more so than his contemporaries?
One reason is his reform would raise wages at the expense of rents. The major corporations of the late 1800s -- railroads and oil – endowed universities lavishly to rewrite economics so that land, including resources and urban locations, was folded into capital and soon lost as a separate factor. Hence economics grew up crippled; unlike a true science, it is hopeless at the scientific method: hypothesis, analysis, testing, and -- the acid test -- prediction.
Still, Marx was a threat yet Marxism survived. Society was changing, from rural to urban, breaking people’s tie to the land. Worker vs. capitalist seems obvious. Yet, actually most very rich don’t own factories but a natural resource like oil. Further, mortgages constitute most private debt, real estate absorbs most investment, and FIRE is by far the biggest sector of the GDP.
Part of the problem is terminology. “Land” connotes farmland or at most home sites but not downtown markets whose value is often hundreds of times greater. “Rent” connotes payment for buildings, not the annual multi-trillion dollar flow for sites, resources, EM spectrum, and ecosystem services.
Hence, part of the solution may be neologisms that resonate with a critical mass. The ones this writer has proposed -- geonomics, tax shift, citizens dividend -- have made some headway in the press, both popular and academic. But they’ve a long way to go before the paradigm is shifted.
For over a century, occasionally some government has adopted to a degree our thinker’s basic tax reform. Every place that has, has benefited. No other ideology can make such a claim.
To enable us all to prosper while sustaining ourselves within the planet’s carrying capacity, we must replace taxes on our efforts, on our labor and capital, and instead recover and share the worth of Mother Earth. While our birthday boy deserves a happier fate than obscurity -- yet who a century from now will recall the names Reeves, Connors, and others? -- Henry George would surely smile down on us if we rediscovered that the value of land is part of the commons and we should treat it accordingly.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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