"Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital." — Aaron Levenstein
We searched the academic databases for every previous article, report, and study for reliable estimates. We tried the phrase—the “worth of Earth in America.” Then “return to land.” Next, “spending for land.”
It turns out, public gatekeepers keep nothing from visitors—nothing of value is always available. Want to know the value of land? Good luck laying your hands on it. Bureaucrats don’t provide it.
And academics don’t research the rents that society pays for all natural resources, including locations. Professors neither hone in on the land’s rent. Nor do they expand to include all land uses and all non-surface resources.
Karl E. Case, writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research said, “While a great deal of attention has been paid to house prices in the United States, economists have devoted very little time to the study of land prices. In fact, there are virtually no generally available data on land prices in the United States. It’s not clear why this is so…”
Statisticians and economists explain:
- It’s not necessary, the combined values of land and capital work just as well.
- Those two values can not be separated.
- It’d be too small to bother tabulating.
- Other parts of the economy—like the stock market—are far more important.
- Limited research funds would be better spent elsewhere.
- It’s really nobody’s business but the landlord’s and the tenant’s.
- Delving into the issue would only fuel class warfare.
Responses like that (Ch 17) provide stiff opposition to anyone seeking information.
Professionals Wonder Elsewhere
Any other economic topic is fair game, but not society’s spending for the land and resources they use. Lacking a total for rent, it can’t be used in calculations. Without an awareness of rent, it can’t be used in theorizing.
Consider the standard explanation of the Great Depression. The supposed cause was the crash of the Stock Market and the purported cure was the entry into World War II. Unmentioned is the huge role that the rollercoaster ride of land values played. Before the crash, speculators went belly-up in Florida, farmers went bankrupt in Oklahoma. Turn from cause to cure; before war, the economy was already rebounding. Hence the crash-then-war story amounts to a widely accepted urban myth—and land a blindspot.
Switching to formal language academics use, we typed in “value of land” and “land value” and “rental value of US land” and “price of land” and “land price” and “resource value”. That swamped us in an outpouring of entries of older scholarly effort. So we limited our dragnet to the last 14 years in order to capture before and after the most recent recession. The list of titles was long, yet few were current (Ch 13-15).
From so much chaff, here’s some wheat—guesstimates by specialists:
- "What US Land is Really Worth: Land and Property Values in the U.S." Turns out, rent is very much an urban affair.
- "What's All the Land in America Worth?" They say over $14t. However, watch out for them inflating the value of whatever’s on the land.
- "Because We Wouldn't Trade a Patch of Grass for $528,783,552,000" Can one city park truly sell for so much and the whole country only 12x as much? Hmm.
"Developed land, or land where housing, roads, and other structures are located, was valued at an estimated $106,000 per acre, while undeveloped land was estimated at $6,500 per acre, and farmland at only $2,000 per acre.” — In “What US Land is Really Worth, State by State” by Thomas C. Frohlich and Alexander Kent; 24/7 Wall St., MSN Money, 2015 July 3
Professionals—More Cautious Than Curious
To answer Karl Case, researching how much we spend on the nature we use puts a bullseye on “passive income” politely, on “unearned wealth” pointedly. Does that discomfit some? With two-thirds of Americans banking on their houses, we’re all speculators now—or dream of becoming one (Ch 28).
Behind the scenes, is there a pressure to toe a line? Is an inquiry into the value of land the third rail of economics? As is Proposition 13 limiting property taxes in California politics the third rail of politics? Touch it at your peril.
The bias against treating rent scientifically has been internalized, like QWERTY on the keyboard has been institutionalized. Without being told, economists know what’s considered a legitimate area of research and what’s not, as do their students. Then comes the preponderance of courses and seminars and papers on everything but land. Few personality types can buck the trend. Most steer clear of the bigger picture figure. (Chs 6 & 12)
Yet shouldn’t how much the populace spends on its natural heritage be pubic knowledge? Shouldn’t public servants serve not an insider power but the public? They’ll have to eventually. Economists can not stay unscientific forever; someday they’ll need that statistic. Truth will out, won’t it?
That numbered needle in this information haystack will be located. Even now, some take stabs at knowing Earth’s worth. We’ll begin with articles for popular consumption.
This article is Part 10 of a series highlighting the forthcoming book, “Bounty Hunter: a gadfly’s quest to know the worth of Earth,” by Jeffery J. Smith. To date, the experts have not risen to meet the challenge. Indeed, some have even stood in the way. Yet the payoff for knowing this datum is huge.
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