An Aged Idea Lacks Wise Elders
Wasted hundreds of millions could be funding a shift of the prevailing paradigm regarding sharing social surplus.
October 4, 2021
Jeffery J. Smith

Some reformers can get their ideas before the public without much financial backing. You’ve heard of Basic Income and the Tobin Tax on currency exchange. But an overwhelming majority of humanity has never heard of geoism—public recovery of social surplus—despite the foundations charged with advancing the proposal having over a half billion dollars altogether. Imagine what the American Lung Association could do with that endowment. Smog would be a problem of the past.

Willing foundations could invest in what works. Sociologists have explained how paradigms shift. However, geoist foundations don’t. Somehow this idea of capturing socially-generated values for society’s benefit attracts ideologues (which all humans are) who:
* denigrate activism and bow down to academia,
* act as soloists, indifferent to collaborating in an affinity group, and …
* prize sheltering the billions they control—by law for the public good—over investing in success.
It’s like you have to be a bookish, autistic miser in order to belong. Harsh, but a half billion dollars is going to waste.

Peter Buffett, Warren’s son, argues that all non-profit charitable organizations should be required to spend all their funds within a limited number of years. That way, they’ll either solve the problem they were set up to solve or they’d go out of business and give some other group the opportunity to succeed. But they’d no longer be little more than a self-perpetuating tax shelter.

The intransigence of geoist trustees is especially painful because geoism could do so much good, could even rescue civilization. Outlandish? Consider how much harm not recovering the annual rental value of nature and privilege does.

OOH, profit from land lures corporations—the biggest are controlled by the richest families (see Blackrock)—to deplete resources and pollute the ecosystem. OTOH, it erects then exaggerates class hierarchy (see America’s biggest farmer, Bill Gates). Techno-progress can not resolve either issue since it also inflates locational value (see Silicon Valley’s Bay Area) and widens the gap between rich and poor, which costs too many people their happiness, self-esteem, and willingness to participate in social change (see voter turnouts in poor precincts).

Heyday, Then Downfall

As unknown as this reform is today, that’s how wildly popular it was over a century ago. Its most famous advocate, Henry George, was the third most popular American after Thomas Edison and Mark Twain, and Twain sold tickets at George’s lectures. Every famous personage commented on George’s massive bestseller, Progress and Poverty, including Albert Einstein and many presidents.

Local politicians enacted George’s “Single Tax” on land value (they did not exactly repeal other taxes), and it worked. California broke up huge fiefdoms into family farms, as did Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Taiwan also engendered the fastest rate of development in history. New Zealand had zero unemployment. Some Australian towns prospered during a national recession. Denmark halted inflation. Pittsburgh renewed its downtown without one penny of subsidy. On and on.

After a while, all these success stories came to a sad end. The reform worked, people prospered, and speculators wanted the higher site values for themselves. They got governments to repeal the tax shift as the public had forgotten how their good times had come about. Instead of learning from their losses, trustees let every teachable moment pass them by. They acted like society had not changed over the years, that the same old tactics and arguments would work.

When they didn’t, trustees doubled down, proving Einstein right: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” Outside of fascists, the insane don’t attract followers but lose them. The once popular movement became an obscure cult, albeit one endowed with millions that grew into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Georgists blamed others—the denseness of the masses, the political power of rentiers, ignoring that others get their ideas known. They closed ranks, repeating the litany of excuses to each other. Trustees justify their existence by funding programs you’ve never heard of, staying mired in failure. They turn on anyone with a fresh approach and don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for newcomers. Some trustees live comfortably off funds designated for movement building, or feel some prestige from controlling millions of dollars. Their self-interest outweighs their social-interest.


Full disclosure. I spent decades working with Georgists. I founded more groups than any other advocate. Most never founded one. Mine were real groups, groups that outlived my leadership. One group brought in a hundred new people from the general public which is not many by the standards of real political movements but a rousing success by Georgist standards. The Georgist bar is so low that if anyone gets a letter to the editor printed, or some journalist pens a reference in an article, Georgists swoon.  Swooning is not winning.

Early last century, advocates demonstrated public recovery of ground rent with The Landlord’s Game which showed the how to bring about prosperity. It was so popular that one player sold his version—which glorified speculation—to Parker Brothers. They paid off the original inventor with a paltry sum and renamed her game MONOPOLY. So I crafted a computer game that players win by recovering rent for everyone— WONKS—to motivate more people into action.

Georgists are nice regular folk whom you’d enjoy having dinner with. But none are agents of change. None long to be. None want to use what works to change society. None want to know what those strategies are. Some even deny such tactics exist, despite the success of advocates of, say, gay marriage, or saving endangered species, or anti-smoking, or … you name it. No wonderful idea ever had worse proponents.

Ouch. But you can’t get nothing done with a half billion dollars and claim to be the right people for the job, that not one other human being on earth could do better. It goes against the grain to say the emperor wears no clothes, hence being a whistleblower is controversial. But geoism is such a powerful antidote for what ails humanity, I had to cite these incongruities—fat treasuries, no results.

In sports, a fan can say, “throw the bums out!”, and nobody thinks the worse of him. But in matters of ideology, people ignore the message and assault the messenger. While others may agree with the need for a changing of the guard in private, they won’t have your back in public. Silence is complicity.

Try Science & Focus

If trustees could not just sit on endowments but lost money by not reaching goals—as happens in the world of business—how might they change? They'd seek what works.

Most reformers do not study the science of social change (Kuhn, et al). In all my decades in activism, I never met one other reformer who had. Funny. People who want to change the world don't know—and don't care—how the world changes.

For most wannabe reformers, no prob, since their cause is obvious—clean air, voting rights, shrink bureaucracy, fair wages. Those demands don’t need explaining. But public recovery of socially-generated values is too esoteric. It needs stronger—and different—medicine.

Geoists could search for what would shift society’s prevailing paradigm toward land. Or they could save themselves the trouble and employ the findings of sociologists. They do neither. Georgists know what's right economically, but not what's right psychologically. They need to get as serious about marketing as they have about markets. Georgists don't reach the right brain with stories, only annoy the left brain with unassailable logic.

Trustees don't identify an audience of prospective supporters, nor use their language. Why harp on repugnant taxes when neutral—and more exact—terms like fees, leases, dues, fines, etc, are available? "Tax" immediately shifts focus from rent, from social surplus, to government, to extortion. It looks like a penalty upon the middle class—most of whom own houses which come with land. And their Single Tax means take all the rent in the world and give it to politicians and bureaucrats. Puh-lease.

Trustees could spend the few dollars needed to ask the public how to write their public services announcement of a way to make economies work right for everybody. That is, hire one of those outfits that organizes focus groups to survey a cross section of early adopters or projected supporters. Learn what buttons to push, which ones to avoid.

Gaining insight, Georgists might have to abandon taxes and embrace dividends. Look how long Georgists have languished and how quickly Basic Income became the talk of the town. How Californians passed Prop 13 limiting the property tax while Alaskans passed their oil dividend. How BC passed their carbon tax after attaching a dividend to the revenue raised.

Instead of trying to teach the masses basic economics or economic history, conduct a real political campaign with images, stories, real world examples, celebrities. Create a meme that goes viral. Recruit members into the hundreds of thousands. Spend everything and raise funds in small amounts from large numbers. Finally, get laws passed. Trustees, take note. That’s the only measure of movement success.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at