“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” — Mark Twain, humorist, author, proto-geonomist
Somethings right in front of you, you don’t easily detect.
Because Eskimos have a different word for different kinds of snow, they can instantly recognize each kind. Yet people in temperate climes don’t notice the different types. Even if an Eskimo pointed out the differences, others could not easily detect them.
Sometimes we don’t know because we can’t, or can’t easily know. We have a blindspot, we’re not mentally equipped to be aware of something.
Since we can’t know something about everything, our brains are inherently conservative. Yet as Walter Lippmann, who coined “Cold War” and “stereotype” and won two Pulitzers, said a century ago, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Then we turn to a specialist. However, doing so gives officials the leeway to make claims that don’t hold up and yet become widely accepted. Thus we think of homebuyers who’re deeply in debt to banks as “owners”, not as “owers.” We joke about paying rent to banks and banks being the actual owners, so we know about the relationship. But the variant we automatically, unconsciously use is “owner.”
Meanwhile, the environment—natural and social—constantly throws up challenges to our problem-solving ability. What do we do about unaffordable housing? Any idea? Most of us learn only new facts that fit in old frames. If we have no category for a fact, we dismiss it. Like kinds of snow, or tracks of deer.
Yet closing our minds shuts out solutions. Long ago, blind-spotted Europeans used a plow that caused them much backbreaking labor. However, Chinese farmers curved the blade differently so it would glide much easier—and increased their harvest.
Not knowing a fact differs from not acknowledging one. Doubting a statement is often rational. If you’re unfamiliar with an issue, you can’t easily judge it on its merits. Conversely, doubt can be irrational. Hence lone voices in the wilderness are ignored, as was the engineer who warned everyone that the O-ring would fail, killing the astronauts on the Challenger.
Human brains are hardwired so both knowing and not knowing please them. Somethings we just don’t want to know—like the value of land being created not by owners, who now capture it. Then we choose to be in denial. Via denial and blindspots we cheat ourselves of knowing all parts of reality—consequences be damned.
Rent—the money we spend for the nature we use—is a phenomenon that’s mostly invisible to most of us. As Eskimos have several words for snow, English has many words for financial transactions—buy, sell, lease, rent, hire, pay, etc. But without a unique meaning for “rent”, we don’t see how it’s special.
And special it is. On one hand, paying producers motivates them to produce more goods and services. Conversely, paying owners for never-produced land does no such thing; if anything, it motivates them to invest in lobbying for more favors.
Society’s critics routinely reveal all sorts of facts and fancies about corporations, dynastic families, and government coverups. Yet our watchdogs don’t bark at the oldest “unearned income” (unearned by an individual owner but earned by something)—rent for land. Their blindspot rules.
Most economists go AWOL when it comes to assessing “rent.” They ignore rising rent resulting in collapse. But how? Obviously, when competing buyers bid up what they pay for land, they leave themselves with less wherewithal to purchase the output of producers. Eventually, a tipping point is reached and recession ensues. Spreading the word would save millions of people billions of dollars.
Somehow, academics don’t request rent totals from public bureaucrats. And statisticians don’t feel inspired to tabulate the stats on their own. In the absence of measurements, the non-measured thing disappears—and with it a great indicator. Rather than inform savers and investors, both number-crunchers and academics become guardians of the status quo.
Blocked by politics and blindness, new ideas often don’t fare well with old ways of thinking. Yet obstacles can be surmounted, history shows.
This article is Part 2 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.