Geonomics for Brazil
Eco-City Conference Applauds Geonomics
Below is a first-hand report by Geonomy Society president Jeffery J. Smith, on his recent economic justice voyage to Brazil.
by Jeffery J. Smith
"Success! The problem of wasteful cities has been solved. From rooftop gardens to solarized roofs, from recycling of water and waste to personal rapid transit, green ideas abound. What has been largely overlooked so far is how to pay for them. One way is to let appropriate technology pay for itself. Improving a city raises its land's value. A tax or fee can collect this ground rent that can then be used to pay off the earlier investment in ecology. Usually, the rise in value is much more than the cost of new infrastructure. If this site rent is left in private pockets, land is made an object of speculation, which inflates its cost and the cost of housing. Speculating owners withhold some sites from use, which distorts the settlement pattern of the city. Yet if the land rent is collected and shared by the community, then they can eliminate taxes on sales, income, and homes. Presently, taxes fall on buildings, making improvements to them more costly. Ending taxes while sharing rents keeps all prices low, investment and employment high, and keeps owners using land efficiently. This is the policy of geonomics."
Thus I began my presentation of geonomics. An abbreviated version won me an invitation to address the plenary of the IV EcoCity International Conference in Curitiba, Brazil, April 3 - 6. This periodic conference of EcoCity Builders was hosted this year by Universidad Livre, the City of Curitiba, and the State of Parana. My talk was made possible by a grant from New York's Robert Schalkenbach Foundation (for which we are sincerely grateful).
Brazil titillates the first time visitor. From the plane, tiny turquoise rectangles dot the landscape, swimming-pool proof of a wealthy class larger than one might expect in a developing nation. The countryside is green and wooded, with large stands of trees even close to Sao Paulo (pop. 15 million), an enormously sprawling city.
Riding from the airport into the heart of the city, one passes the infamous "favelas", squatter settlements whose children are preyed upon for their body parts, often by off-duty cops. America has its homeless vagabonds under freeway overpasses. Under elevated highways, Sao Paolo has whole villages of hundreds of huts packed tightly together, assembled from any handy wooden plank or tin sheet. One family's wall was a political banner left over from a demonstration. Amid the mud and trash, kids run barefoot, play delightedly, oblivious to the squalor. The sight might disturb anyone with a conscience. To a geonomist, to one aware of a workable solution, the avoidable suffering is utterly maddening.
Dealing with the logistics of travel forces one to regain composure (soon lost for another reason). The tourist literature explains that in the middle of the 19th century in this southern part of Brazil, over half the population was foreigners. One sees many Central European names and people who look like they should speak better English than I do, or less Portuguese. The European descendants appear wealthier, the African ones poorer. Whether blond or black, merry Brazilians mix better than do the races in America, displaying more cross-race friendships, dancing in the street to music coming from inside a restaurant. Visitors would prepare better by taking a class in the samba than in Portuguese.
In a hierarchical society resigned to fate, bingo parlors abound. Frustrated by their lot in life, so do kidnappers. Huge anti-kidnapping vehicles made over from luxury buses cruise the streets. Like the average person one meets, police too are helpful, willing to take their finger off the trigger long enough to point out directions. Machismo also shows up in the "lonches", diners frequented by males only.
Brazil should never lose a futbol match or a beauty contest. While males dress ordinarily, the females - of all ages and all marital statuses - dress provocatively in smoothly tight garments (national motto: if it's not tight, it doesn't fit), accentuating every curve, revealing more than enough for mere ventilation. One can't avoid getting an eyeful of navel. Two stroll down the street in boots, lace stockings, hotpants, and haltertops. One is the seven year-old granddaughter, the other is the 67 year-old grandmother. These are the conservatives; you can tell because the zippers are all the way up. The more liberated ones probably need a police permit - or would in the rest of the world.
To get my bearings after a day-night flight, I arrived a couple days early. I wasn't in the country even 24 hours before I first made a fool of myself in public. At a popular outdoor market stretching across the city, I came upon a madman pounding a sack with a stick, causing its contents to howl in pain. Having lived in Nicaragua and Mexico, I'm used to some Latin Americans abusing animals, while others sit idly by ignoring the abuse. So it was up to the outsider to put a stop to it. By intervening, speaking in Spanuguese, I did draw a few natives to my side. It turns out, though, that the sack-whacker himself was doing the excruciating meowing, to sell little tablets that when sucked upon alter one's voice to that of a cat. To demonstrate, a hefty, youthful bystander stomped the tattered sack. Again it cried out piteously. No longer trusting my senses, I had to look inside. Nothing but dirty rags. Everyone got a good laugh, me more at myself than at the charade of cat-clobbering. For his performance, I paid the street performer enough local currency to equal about 50 cents then ambled away, shaken but relieved.
Curitiba (pop. 1.5 million) and its former mayor, Jaime Lerner, now governor of the state of Parana, are famous in environmental circles. He founded the Open University that is funded by the city. Situated in a lush abandoned quarry, the college offers to the general public free adult-ed courses on environmental topics taught by invited experts. Six thousand residents enroll for classes each year.
The city enjoys record-high rates of recycling, mass transit use, park acreage, and water quality (the number one issue in the developing world). Main transit stops have clear tubes, elevated to the height of buses (looking like sets for a science fiction movie). People pay to enter these bus-size tubes where they wait just minutes for the next bus. The time needed to drop off and pick up passengers is a fraction of the minutes needed at a conventional stop. The city, which is more European than Latin American in its wealth and cleanliness, also banned cars from the main street that now is thronged with busy and carefree pedestrians. Showing more modesty than some pedestrians, skyscrapers under construction or renovation are draped with long colored veils that reach the ground. But not all is perfect. The sidewalks of uneven cobblestone hinder those who like to walk fast. One occasionally catches a whiff of a diesel bus or a sluggish sewer, to mar the perfume of people and plants.
To this newly storied setting, about 150 academics, activists, officials, and legislators from around the world came for the latest on ecologizing cities. Addressing the gathering were Gov. Jaime Lerner, the leader responsible for the city's high quality of life, and Curitiba's current mayor, Cassio Taniguchi. The event was videotaped and covered by the local media. Both political leaders were whisked in by their dark-suited staffs and whisked out, so I did not have a chance to speak to them directly, but they did receive a copy of my complete paper in the conference packet.
Thanks to the help of one the conference organizers, Glenio Bongiolo, I presented my slides from my laptop while the audience saw them on the big screen (and Brazilians simultaneously heard them translated into Portuguese). It's no longer unusual to have a conference respond positively to geonomics. Afterwards, most questioners said something like, "you've already convinced me that it's right and that it works; now I just need to know how it doesn't hurt low-income landowners and how to implement it." I emphasized that the rebate - a dividend or housing voucher - should more than take care of the progressivity problem. Yet most people assumed that a government would not initially accept the complete geonomic package (collection and disbursement) but try the collection half (tax, fee, or dues) first.
As usual, many people asked to buy a book on geonomics; I told them I was finishing it (while living in Mexico) and would have it out later this year. The mayor of a small German town said that if what he had heard was true, then I should be awarded a Nobel prize (hah! too bad he's not on the nominating committee).
The main organizer of the conference (Cleon Ricardo dos Santos) is the director of the Open (or Free) University. Dos Santos liked geonomics enough to raise the idea of a course in geonomics. His staff made an extra effort to introduce me to officials who work on taxes, who were not swamped (Brazil is currently reforming its tax code), were in town (not at the capitol), and speak English. On such a short notice, they could only find a property tax attorney, Daniel Gaio, who was very informative (Curitiba will raise its property tax to 3.0% next year; not a popular move), but no one else. Yet even their effort to explain my purpose to government officials helped spread the geonomic message.
Glauco Larre Borges , a former councilman and current advisor of a nearby town, Canela, introduced me to his current mayor, Jose Vellinho Pinto, and other councilors and translated for me. (Portuguese and Spanish, which I speak, are similar enough that one can muddle thru, but the process is laborious and frustrating.) While they liked the geonomic logic, they in a sense already use it. Their property tax rate on land is about five times their rate on buildings (2.5 to 0.5). Even though collecting more rent would improve land use efficiency, draw investment, and stimulate employment, given the number of complaints they receive now over assessments (which are current and accurate), and the fact that they have no control over other taxes, they are not eager to increase their land tax rate.
Here is a perfect example of when some sort of rebate - a dividend or voucher - makes a better focus of the geoist proposal than the tax. Senor Borges grasped that fact and promised to send a formal invitation to the Geonomy Society to return and do an in-depth study of a new bottom-line for residents after a tax shift and rent rebate.
Besides Dos Santos of the Open University, other professors and leaders from around Brazil promised to organize future presentations of geonomics. After the initial enthusiasm dies down, follow-thru becomes uncertain in these situations, but one invitation should bear concrete fruit. Ruben Pesci, the editor of the continent's glossy architectural magazine (co-published in Spanish), invited me to write a 1,500 word article for the next issue, which of course I'll do. The Brazilians who work along the southern border with Uruguay and Argentina speak Spanish.
Others in the audience who responded well to my talk include Bryan O'Bryen, an architect in Ireland who also works in the developing world, who now wants to geonomize Dublin. Some American movers-and-shakers may actually try to implement geonomics. Michael Caplan is the city planner for Berkeley. Richard Register, who asked about my screenplay, Geotopia, is the grandfather of the eco-city movement and well-connected to many other prominent people. Jim Converse develops then builds on land trusts in the Cleveland region. Joan Bokaer directs an eco-village on the other side of Ithaca from Cornell. These people, plus a magazine writer doing an article on the symposium, and others engaged me in many conversations during breaks, meals, and nights out (which is why it's important to be able to afford to stay in the same hotel as everyone else). The evenings celebrated the solidarity forged during the day. While we Northerners tried to dance, our hosts moved with the grace of people who've been dancing and singing almost as long as they've been walking and talking. Some of the most popular songs, "Bom Bee Bom", to Northern ears sounded scarcely removed from the cradle. Ironically, I went to Brazil, where the fun doesn't start until midnight, and caught up on my sleep (laptopitis).
The day after my talk, Alan Dawson, the mayor of Midrand, the most ecological town in South Africa, put the icing on the cake. Nonchalantly he reported to the plenary that his town levies a land tax only (no tax on improvements), which concentrates development and falls most heavily on the most expensive downtown sites, so that about 20% of the sites (mostly commercial) pay about 80% of the tax. The glowing results of his real-world practice capped my introductory theory nicely. The South African contingent, who'll host the conference next year, had the hardest time believing that anyone could consider the land tax controversial at all. And they set their rate at 6.8%! Undoubtedly, however, no one would have noticed his reference to the land tax if I had not gone before and made such a big deal about it and the entire geonomic alternative. For the South Africans, who already have the land tax and who confront dire poverty besides environmental abuse, a rent rebate to residents was the most attractive feature of geonomics.
Judging by the total absence of disagreement, the land-tax-cum-citizens-dividend has finally come of age in the environmental movement. It seemed the people from the developing South were more interested in the morality and philosophy while people from the developed North were more interested in results and implementation. Which makes sense. Given our mature democracies, First World citizens actually have a chance to introduce and a campaign for reforms that they like. In Latin America, however, with its more rigid hierarchical societies, the key to change is to win intellectual respectability then hope for the best. This Eco-City Conference gave the reform of Henry George a bit of both. Because Brazil is in the midst of a major tax overhaul, I will do more than just keep in touch via e-mail with my contacts; I will continue to press them to find the right people to dialog with about using rent for revenue.
You can find out more about Jeffery J. Smith and the Geonomy Society by clicking here.
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