Life at the Margin
|January 7, 2004||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
Life at the Margin
I keep mentioning Waldo County. Perhaps it’s time to tell you a bit about the place. We live in Central Maine, in a little township called Jackson. It used to have a school, a post office and a mill; it has none of those things now, but the mill pond survives, at any rate, and provides a lovely spot for a flock of Canada geese to return to each year (a roadside sign emerges each spring: SLOW: WILD GEESE). Jackson’s population has been essentially stable since its founding around the turn of the nineteenth century. It just won’t really support any more people, and folks are fine with that — new residences are to be built on plots of no less than two acres. Along a mile-long stretch of Hadley Mill Road there are junkyards, logging operations, trailers, horse farms and nice new homes.
The land here is rolling and rocky. It is exquisite in the fall (as you can see from the logo, above: those sugar maples are right here on our farm). The spring is nice, too, when it finally comes — except that the month of May is given over to blackflies. (Unlike the silly Europeans who must plant gardens, the native Wabanakis didn’t put up with such nonsense. They waited out blackfly season at the seashore, dining on copious blooms of shellfish.) When the growing season finally comes along, there is a headlong rush of green things trying to get their growing in before the freeze returns. The farmable land is being farmed, but it is exceedingly difficult to make a living by farming around here; to do it one must have the best land, plenty of capital and be willing to work in the cold.
For, friends, it does get cold in Maine. I’m not born and raised here, but my kids are, and I’m constantly telling them to at least put on shoes, before going out to run across the frost-crispy grass. I have come to treasure Garrison Keillor’s tales of the plucky fatalism of Minnesotans as they beat their weary way through beastly cold, year after year — it’s like that around here, too. It’s cold. There’s a great deal of snow. The days are very, very short; the nights are long, and we survive it however we can, and feel better, tougher, more in touch, for its being that way.
My wife’s parents bought this farm about twenty years ago. They took what money they had, and kept driving north and west until they found a farm they could afford. They raised sheep on it for most of that time. It was never enough to make a living (property taxes and medical bills were their major stumbling blocks), but their local farmers’ market income supplemented their pensions and made them some good friends. When we started a family, they offered us a piece of land — free land! — to build on. Well, we enjoyed life in New York City — but we could see right away that we weren’t going to enjoy the two full-time jobs we would need, as a family in NYC, to make ends meet. So, when our son was two months old, we packed up and set out for the Margin.
I use that term, because for many years I’ve been a student and teacher of Georgist political economy, and in that, “the margin of production” — the best land that is available for free — is a very important concept. The “Margin” is where — to make a long story short — unskilled workers can go to make a living for themselves. Whatever they can earn there, working for themselves, becomes the lowest wage they will accept to work for anyone else.
However, to most people who study economics today, this “Margin” is only a concept — for where is this free land on which workers can make a living? There’s none, anywhere! Even a rugged place like ours demands a mortgage to acquire it, and annual tax payments to retain it — not to mention the tax burdens imposed on everything we buy, sell or build. (A number of the homes in Jackson have been lived in comfortably for years, without being sided, to avoid the local tax increase when the home becomes “finished”.) Nowadays the notion of “free land” is nothing more than a bygone, romantic notion.
Or is it?
The Georgist “Remedy” — getting public revenue from the rental value of land and natural resources, and abolishing all other taxes — promises to create a healthy incentive to put valuable land to use. It would reverse the process or urban sprawl, leading to “infilling” and efficient resource use. Among other benefits, the resulting drop in overall vehicle-miles would be very good for the environment. And, applied to its full extent, the Georgist remedy (also known as the “Single Tax”) would do one more thing, which may be the most important of all. It would create free land. That might not seem possible where you are — but, from my vantage point in Waldo County, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.
Look at the unused or grossly under-used land in every city today. How many people could live and work on those plots of land? They are already provided, after all, with streets, sewers, police and fire protection, public transit and schools. Look at all the egregious waste of land in every suburban community, look at all the acres upon acres covered by the roads the soccer moms must travel on in their SUVs. Look at the farmland being gobbled up by new suburban sprawl.
Now. Imagine that process being reversed. Cities efficiently used, people moving via clean, green public transportation, the sprawl-plague halted, inner cities no longer places of fear and loathing, farms on the cities’ edges no longer gobbled up by subdividers.
But even in such a society, rugged individualists like my in-laws might want to chuck the rat race and settle on a sheep farm in a stoic place that makes them feel better, tougher, more in touch, for its being that way. Well, here’s the good news, folks: in an efficient, fair Georgist economy, rugged land like ours would have no market value. None. It would be free for the taking.
Can you imagine? But now, you may ask, wait a minute, what about the infrastructure that we pay for now out of our property taxes? Well, you could look at the question in two ways. On the one hand, folks who lived in such places might voluntarily pool their resources to get such jobs done, as people have always done in frontier communities.
On the other hand, though, I don’t think that is how it would go down in today’s world. After all, we’re not talking about a frontier community in the untamed wilderness, lacking all the benefits of human community. Not at all. I mean, as rugged as I claim it to be, we do have power, phone, internet access, shopping malls, washer’n'dryers, public schools, y’know, that kind of stuff. What I’m envisioning here is a frontier community being reclaimed out of the existing overburdened, overtaxed civilization. And that would create so many advantages, in so many ways, for the overall economy, that it would benefit everyone to provide for the meager public needs of us folks out in the sticks.
I mean, look at it this way: right now, we’re already paying for rural infrastructure. But we’re also paying, in all manner of expensive, indirect and clumsy ways, the social costs of poverty. Hey! Suppose poor people could have free land in Jackson, Maine, and a thousand other rugged communities like it, across this huge land of ours! Just chipping in for a few rural schools, highways and snowplows would be a heck of a cost-effective anti-poverty program.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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