Bounty: Land — the More Pristine, the Less Pricey
Oil makes some rich, topsoil not so much, but every trillion counts.
April 25, 2018
Jeffery J. Smith
Where distance is measured in hours, dollars per acre stay well below five figures.”

To complete the tallying of the worth of Earth in America, let’s rope in the remaining rents found outside the city. In the countryside, humans utilize land to farm, to graze, to log, to mine, to drill, etc. On the cadastral map for an entire region, you see the labels for all the uses: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, pastural, sylvan, mineral, etc.

Besides water, there are other fluids, like oil, plus the ethereal electromagnetic spectrum. Bigger picture, we must not only count the surface (like home sites) and subsurface (like oil fields). We must also count the supra-surface—the airwaves and soon the geosynchronous orbits.

Furthermore, land is not just acreage owned by individuals or households or families but also by nonprofits and for-profit businesses and corporations, plus governments. Most of the lands not yet counted are owned by the public, via our governments. You’d think we the people might like to know the value of our natural holdings. And that our public servants would be able to tell us.

Top 10 Talliers of Non-Trespassable Land

1 The Bureau of Land Management, in the Department of Interior, has its National Integrated Land System (NILS) GeoCommunicator.

JS: A great name but I’ll be dogged if I can find any land values there.

BLM also has “Public Land Statistics” which shows at Table 3-25 that the BLM, from its 1/3 of America, in 2015 got for us only $74 billion.

JS: Gee, how’d you like to have them as your steward; well, you do.

2 The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service says farmland plus buildings in 2016 reached $2,645,481,000,000. The USDA’s Economic Research Service says in 2017 farmland reached $3,080/acre. Further, the ERS says land in farming reached 911 acres. BTW, owners rent out 40% of farmland; non-owners worked over half of cropland and over a quarter of pastureland (reminiscent of feudalism).

JS: It’s not just farmland whose value is judged by annual output, the harvest. Commercial sites, too, are determined by how much money merchants can make at the location each year. As they do for metro regions, some sources—like NASS above—give a figure for land and buildings, not land alone. For those estimates, researcher Merijn Knibbe suggests "applying a 20% haircut to distract the value of farm buildings” (in real-world economics review, issue no. 69) to calculate the value of farmland alone. So 80% of NASS’s 2016 figure is $2,115,384,800,000 trillion. For 2017 using ERS’s figures, $3k times 911 came to $2.80588 trillion. That’s a pretty big one-year jump but the bigger number is more recent and used smaller aggregates which tend to be more accurate. Adding it to metro land (Albouy, Ch 13) puts the total for both city and country at $33 trillion.

3 The Treasury has a Bureau of the Fiscal Service which produces a Financial Report of the United States Government. On Balance Sheets under Assets it has “Property, plant and equipment, net”. For 2017, they put it at $1,034.5 billion (p 10 or 17). Later they separate out land at $13.4 billon (p 83), the exact same amount they gave to the cost (?) of land. “Property” probably includes “Federal Oil and Gas Resources” and “Coal”, but if not they found only $47 billion for the former (p 197) and $9 billion for the latter (p 199).

JS: Obviously, in their scheme land is a tiny fraction of property. One reason is they impute a huge cost to land. Of course, there is no cost to create land, so it must be what they’re doing to land. Further, their $47 b is well below the BLM’s $74 b. Both are too minuscule to be realistic. Neither would add much to the growing total already in the trillions.

4 In the basement of the White House is the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB produces its “Analytical Perspectives” that has a section called “Federal Receipts”.

JS: While we could not find revenue from land or resources, a scholar told us he could for an earlier year; his estimate then was about $0.5 trillion.

5 The General Services Administration (GSA) created a database they call The Federal Real Property Profile. FRPP presents its “FY 2016 Open Data Set”. In there is “Table 1: US and US Territories”. For FY 2016, they give land, excluding public domain land (which is huge) a cost, but not a value.

JS: How can a “profile” or “data set” be so incomplete?

Not to be outdone by the executive branch, the US Congress also has its agencies who once upon a time may have stumbled across the value of the land that makes up America.

Congressional Attempts—More Data Vacuum

6 The Government Accountability Office (GAO) exists to keep track of how responsibly the rest of the government is behaving. Let’s let them for a change complain about the official record keeping: “About 34 percent of the federal government’s reported total assets as of September 30, 2016, and approximately 18 percent of the federal government’s reported net cost for fiscal year 2016 relate to significant federal entities that, as of the date of GAO’s audit report, were unable to issue audited financial statements…”

JS: An earlier GAO report gave a total for federal land but no key word is turning it up now.

“… significant federal entities … were unable to issue audited financial statements …” — The Government Accountability Office’s website

7 The Congressional Budget Office in the past estimated that urban dwellers spend over 7% of their income on residential land and at least 4% of their income on other land costs.

JS: That’d be about two and quarter trillion dollars. Of course, country folk spend some of their income on home sites, too. And it’s not just housing costs but people pay for land whenever they pay for anything. When they pay for food, part of that payment goes to pay for farmland. When they pay for gasoline, part of that payment goes to pay for oil in the ground. And so on.

8 The Congressional Research Service has published such reports as “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data”.

JS: Despite such an intriguing title, nowhere inside did it give the value or price of all federally owned land.

9 The Library of Congress, of course, has just about every word ever published.

JS: You ever try to wade through all that? The proverbial needle in a haystack. But they’ll yield something of value eventually, one hopes.

The US owns about 1/3 of America and from it raises revenue. Much public land is “unimproved”. Without much in the way of improvements, that makes it unnecessary to separate the value of location and non-existent improvements. In the boonies, almost all the value is from the land and resources. Life becomes easy.

There are more public lands whose location values may not have been included. The list includes: port districts, landing slots at airports, ship berths in harbors, boat slips in marinas, highway, bridge, and tunnel tolls, etc. While it’s a pretty extensive list, in the bigger scheme of things the values are not so huge that if they were overlooked, it’d not undercut the grand total that much.

Besides terra firma, there’s water; every living thing gets thirsty. One hopes the given values of land and resources above include the value of water (where applicable) but they may not. If statisticians left water out, here are some figures for this essential for life.

10 The US Geologic Survey figures Americans in 2010 withdrew about 355,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d) from surface lakes, rivers, etc, and from the underground water table. BTW, the biggest user of water—bigger by far than second place agri-business, bigger than farms, factories, mines, and homes put together—is power plants generating electricity and thereby needing cooling (which may be another good reason to go solar). Yet the USGS did not give a price. The University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center did: one cent per gallon.

JS: Multiplying by 365 days in a year, water prices out at $472,948,750,000. Given that both the population and economy has grown since 2010, and that one penny is rock bottom, it’s easy to see a realistic price for water in 2018 at $0.5 trillion. Yet, that’s for water at the tap or hose while we want its value in the ground. Its in situ value probably exceeds half, but lets use half to avoid over-estimating, or a quarter trillion. Adding this value of water to land—a quarter trillion to the USDA figures (#2 above)—lets us say American nature’s price easily exceeds $33 trillion.

After all this—10 official rural sources, 10 official urban sources, 10 academic articles, 10 popular press articles—what can we conclude?

For some public land, our public bureaucracies offers no totals. They leave it to the curious to add up the subtotals. Worse, the estimates by various agencies differ wildly. Which one of their competing figures is the most official and the most accurate?

Worse still, some of the official figures are suspiciously low. Governments own over a third of America. Unlike one’s private land, our public land can be so unprofitable?

In fact, no. The public agencies only count the rents and royalties they correct. They overlook the royalties they fail to collect. When one adds these unpaid still owed amounts, then the given value of public land rises appreciably.

A couple episodes of corporations cheating the public out of their share are related by the mainstream press. Are those incidents the only ones? Are they the tip of the iceberg? How are we to know? And without knowing, how can we know the real worth of public Earth?

I am shocked. Not only at by the cheating of the very rich. But also the complicity of our public servants with feeble enforcement compounded by their bad bookkeeping. They keep silent about the elite’s breaches of contract, and silence is consent. Then they declare that their total—missing so many inputs—is the true, accurate total of the value of public land. To put it politely, doing so is at least misleading, at worst dishonest.

Non-Governmental Efforts

All the above but the USGS get their info from assessors and appraisers who get their figures from actual sales (which is where the UNC EFC get theirs). Since tabulating land value is their business, perhaps we can find a total at a professional organization.

11 The International Association of Assessing Officers has a great tag line: “Valuing the World.” So if anybody should know the worth of earth, it must be them, right? Well, their librarian might tell a member assessing officer, but they won’t tell just anybody, at least not riffraff who’re not paying any membership dues.

While assessors do their guesswork for government, appraisers do theirs for business. Let’s question those whose pay depends on their performance for their clients.

12 The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers is very newsy and releases farmland aggregate farmland prices, but only to members.

13 The American Society of Appraisers has a nonprofit mission and they claim to work from basic economic theory and legal precedent. Plus, they’re the ones everybody else gets their numbers from. But they’ve not made available a solid number for the price tag of America’s land if all of it were for sale. Or the rental value if all of it were for lease.

While that appraiser/assessor well is dry and despite the shoddy performance of our public agencies, I’m strangely buoyed. While our public servants and public savants bow to pressure and crank out distorted facsimiles of reality, others didn’t. Here are two.

14 Purdue’s Kevin J. Mumford in "Measuring inclusive wealth at the state level in the United States” provides inputs that come to $533,305,319 in year 2000.

JS: His well over a half trillion dollars is much less than farmland in #2 above, likely due to the passage of time—17 years. Over the near last two decades, the acreage of rural land has decreased—due to sprawl, mainly—yet that very sprawl has driven up the value of the remaining rural acreage, especially close to metro regions. So, the value of non-farmland rural land would be significant but still unknown.

15 The Heartland Institute’s Richard Ebeling wrote “There is No Social Security Santa Claus” (2015 Dec 22). He noted the Federal Government owns mineral reserves of copper, nickel, gold, zinc, platinum, lead, and silver, plus 257 million acres of grazing land and 250 million acres of timberland. He puts the price tag for all those natural federal assets at $5.5 trillion. He said he used many official sources which, however, he did not name.

JS: If Ebeling’s $5.5t is accurate—and he did do thorough research—that’s a hunk of change. It’s overwhelmingly immense yet overlooked and set a side by academics, bureaucrats, and journalists. It would push the $33+ t above (Albouy’s plus farms, mainly) to $39 t. The uncounted non-federal, non-agricultural rural land would likely push the total to $40 trillion. The passage of time would likely by now (2018) have pushed it to the the mid 40s, nearly double Larson’s $23 t (Ch 13).

Recall the GAO’s gentle critique of official figures (#6 above). We’re not be the only ones to notice flaws in our public bookkeeping. We’ll see what others have said about that. And add a new word to our list of key words: critique. We, at least, are free to follow the facts to wherever they may lead. No torpedoes for us to damn; full steam ahead to the truth inconvenient for some but liberating for all.

This article is Part 15 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

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