"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." — Confucius, philosopher, proto-geonomist
What enables thinkers like Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and Alfred Wallace who theorized evolution before Darwin published? (All these standouts, BTW, were proto-geonomists.) As much as their powerful intellect is their lack of inhibition. These scouts and others follow their curiosity, wherever it may lead, into the knowledge hinterlands. Einstein, for example, said he rode a beam of light around the universe to see what would happen—quintessential thinking outside the box.
Such unique difference-makers don’t just expand humanity’s body of knowledge. They also discover new ways for humans to view their world. In our current quest, instead of seeing reality as a place of scarcity and one’s making a living as dog-eat-dog, finding a hefty total for the worth of Earth in America would paint a picture of bounty. Recall, before the arrival of Americans to the Pacific Northwest, Native Indians found hunting and gathering so easy that they celebrated potlatches, giving away their possessions, not hoarding them, in order to gain stature.
They could share because they saw plenty. In general, by expanding our worldview we expand our capabilities. As scientist and reformer Roger Bacon (1214-1292) noted, “Knowledge is power.” Today’s quest for knowledge—how much is the value of all land?—is a quest for power, too. We gain the power to predict and the power to “unearth" the source of fortune.
Perhaps better than most, the already powerful already get it. Since knowledge shapes the prevailing paradigm, the powerful do what they can to shape knowledge. They:
Try thinking outside their box.
One wonders why the wealthy bother. New knowledge is not brain candy for everybody. The old worldview suits most people perfectly satisfactorily, thank you very much. No news is good news. And: good news is too good to be true. What attitude opposes the momentum of seeking a figure for a value? The inertia of seeing a claim to that value—private property including socially-generated “rent”. Yet however much one might prefer to remain thinking inside the box, an eye-popping sum for the value of land, natural resources, EM spectrum, etc enlarges that box.
Long ago in agrarian days, it was not just gadflies who sought fresh knowledge but governments, too. They used to measure and record harvests. Not only ancient Sumer and Egypt but also a thousand years ago England produced its Domesday Book (1086). It counted the crown’s tax base—the output of the land.
No longer do governments tally land alone, leaving that value to FIRE (Finance, Insurance, & Real Estate). Yet some specialists do. Their results show that where economies perform bountifully there land values soar, duh. It only stands to reason but as Bertrand Russel (another proto-geonomist) noted, common sense is often merely popular misunderstanding. This case is the opposite: unpopular understanding.
Since it gets unwieldy to always say, “our spending for some Earth, whether dirt, a natural resource, or an airwave—whatever is natural and has economic value”, there is shortcut term: “rent”. It refers to payments for land, not for buildings. It’s the original usage, from when landlords were not building lords but lords of the land. At the risk of TMI, rent does not always have to be an actual payment but instead can be the imputed value of a location. And bear in mind, land is not limited to the surface of the earth but also includes subsurface minerals, even water, and supra-surface electromagnetic frequencies, even clean air (as it becomes scarce).
While some information is shared on a need to know basis, knowing the size of the stream of “rent” is your right. Society’s spending for natural assets is the kind of information all members of a society need to know. How else can citizens—as did the tribe of Chief Seattle—mull over what’s best to do with socially-generated surplus?
Plus, we could gauge the next phase of the business cycle. Watch … When you spend money to buy cars, computers, and vacations, you reward people for providing you with their labor and capital. But when you buy or lease land or an oil field, you don’t. So as land grows more valuable, and you spend more for locations (misnamed housing), you have less money to spend on clothes, clam chowder, a hair cut, or other things that reward the efforts of your neighbors. Over time, the imbalance becomes great enough that some of your neighbors declare bankruptcy. Then recession follows.
This cycle occurs with depressing regularity (another one; sorry)—albeit a regularity that most professionals miss. But not all, some astute observers, by tracking “rent”, predict the booms and busts with impressive accuracy (Chapter 28). Which is nice to know, especially if you’re managing your own investment portfolio.
Economists who focus on rent, watching it re-size the other two classical returns—wages and “interest” (or “profit”, sort of)—let’s call “geonomists”. Those who can predict could make economics into a science. Scientists do not claim to know something unless they can reliably get the results that their theories predict. So being able to forecast coming economic performance is huge, not just for the wallet but also the noosphere.
Today, knowledge expands faster than ever. It could expand faster still with the right popular mindset. People check the weather every day. Why not the business cycle? Given the fluctuations in site-value daily and what those fluctuations mean, many people would take the pulse of the economy, if someone posted the daily tally for the worth of Earth in their region. Then, of course, everybody will act like they knew about the role of Earth’s worth all along.
This article is Part 3 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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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 Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.