|December 13, 2001||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Land Rant
We are pleased to present the newest of the “Land Rant” series of provocative essays created by the Henry George Institute. Let us know how you like it.
by Thomas Lyons
The temperature had reached 97 by midday in Los Angeles and was threatening to break records. In Torrance, a suburb of LA that brags of its clean streets and low crime rate, sits El Nido Park, eight acres of well-manicured lawns and many varieties of shade trees. It was the perfect setting for aspiring artists — of folks who just wanted to relax.
Beneath a weeping willow sat Simon Reese, a freshman at Cal State. He awaited his friend Sam Berger, a Senior at Cal State, who had promised to give some help with his toughest subject: Economics 101. Simon sat with his back against the tree, using his knees as a stand for his textbook. As he tried to focus on chapter 10, he heard a familiar voice. “Hey Simon! What’s up.”
“Hey, Sam.” Simon lightly tossed his text to the grass and quickly rose to shake hands.
“Listen Simon, I can’t stay long cause I have to pick up my sister from her friends house in 45 minutes. Her car won’t start.” Sam searched for a cool spot, and sat down. “Hot out here! So that’s the book, huh? Yeah, I remember that one.”
Simon picked it up, as if it were the first time he ever saw it. “I’ve been going through it — a few times now — and I just can’t see where it’s going. I mean I understand what they’re saying — but I don’t see where they’re going with it. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I think I know exactly what you mean,” said Sam, eyeing the book from a distance, as though there were something a bit rotten about it. “I remember having the same problem.” He shifted to rest on his back, using his book bag as a pillow. “I’ll tell ya what. Let me ask you a question. What do you want to learn from these courses?”
Simon was caught off guard by the question, and he repeated it: “What do I want to learn from these courses?” Sam did nothing but look him in the eye, so he had to answer. “Well, I don’t know, I guess I want to learn how everything works, and why things are so fouled up, and, you know, what can be done to correct them.”
“Okay. All right.” Sam nodded his head as if he liked that starting point just fine. “Maybe it would be better if I give you an outline of all the things you’ll be learning in these courses — and then Ill get into a lot of things you won’t be learning from these courses. How’s that sound to you?”
“Sure. Sounds good to me,” said Simon, stretching out his legs and crossing them.
“Well essentially,” began Sam, “you’ll learn about Micro and Macro economics, based on all the formulas and laws of our current system, which are in place to determine the health and direction of our economy. In Micro you learn about all the ways that individual businesses make choices to utilize their limited resources in order to maximize their profits: data analysis on production, marketing, advertising, consumption, and so on.
“Now Macro, on the other hand, deals with the larger picture, such as governments, financial institutions, international trade, things like that. You’ll look at the various structures of government programs such as social security, medicare, education and so forth. So that’s pretty much the kind of stuff you’ll be learning about.”
So far, Simon was patient, but he didn’t seem the least bit enlightened.
“Well Simon, do you want to hear about some things that you won’t be learning in these courses? Okay, you won’t be learning why there’s so much corruption in our economy. You won’t learn why land prices and rents keep going up and up and up, or why people aren’t able to keep the fruits of their labor, or how it is possibly that no matter how good the economy, taxes keep increasing — or most important, why, in spite of progress, does poverty still exist?”
Sam paused, but Simon looked him in the eye. “Don’t stop now — this is getting pretty good!”
“Now, if you were to ask an economist those questions, they might tell you it all has to do with exploding populations putting strain on our limited resources. Or maybe it’s all the foreigners, or illegal aliens, willing to work for cheap. Or, it could be we’re in a high tech service economy and most of America’s workforce need to upgrade their skills to get acclimated.”
“So are you saying that these are the causes, or — if not, why would they say they are?” Simon was puzzled.
“Well, you know, Simon, those are all the kinds of explanations that seem true if you believe them in the first place, which a lot of people do. But are the resources really so limited? If so,then why are there vacant lots in the middle of every city? So if there really are resources to go around, then the population explosion theory can’t hold water. Let’s consider a couple of examples. Say someone owns 100 acres of fertile land, but he only uses one acre to grow crops to feed the, say, fifteen townspeople. Now every month two more people move into town until the town has over 100 people. Well, food production hasn’t gone up, and the townspeople have to pay huge prices for food — the overpopulation theory seems logical to them! But what would be the real solution to this problem?”
“Well, of course to use more land for food growing,” said Simon sarcastically.
“Exactly, Simon! Now you can see the real cause of all those social ills. Suppose those first fifteen townspeople were American citizens, and those two newcomers each month were foreigners. They’d most likely be blamed for coming over and straining the limited resources.”
“But –” Simon began.
“You see Simon, when people are allowed to buy up land and forbid others from using it, they are just like that guy with the hundred acres. He doesn’t have to work — he can get the townspeople to work for him, so they can eat! So he becomes the privileged — or “landed” if you prefer — class, collecting the rent, and spreading around just enough wealth to the middle to keep the workers from revolting.”
“Why doesn’t anyone explain this to the public, I mean — doesn’t anyone else see what’s really happening?”
“Well Simon,” Sam smiled broadly, “As a matter of fact, there are people who spend their whole lives teaching people about the real causes of poverty, and they fight hard for justice. I don’t know whether I ever told you this, but I took some correspondence courses that were based on the works of Henry George, who taught people about this, and wrote books explaining everything in perfect detail.”
Simon didn’t remember, but he was eager for more.
“Look, Simon, I gotta get going here — I’m already going to be late picking up Carolyn at her friend’s.” Sam rose to his feet, and, after a couple of torso stretches, reached down to his book bag, unzipped it, and pulled out a book: Progress and Poverty by Henry George. “This is for you.”
Simon stared at the cover intently. “So this is the guy.” He reached out his right hand to Sam and offered an unusually firm shake. “Thanks, Sam.”
“So, why don’t you give me a call on Saturday — we’ll see if we can get together for a few hours.”
Simon was already heading off. “I’ll do that, Sam. See ya later.”
Simon looked after his friend — then back at the book’s cover, and settled back into a good spot against the willow tree.
Thomas Lyons has been a member of the Henry George Institute‘s volunteer correspondence course faculty for over ten years, from his Pennsylvania jail cell.
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