"Being a statistician means never having to say you’re certain."
A few on the cutting edge of economics may soon address basic statistics, on both the demand side and the supply side. New outfits have sprung up capable of ferreting out a figure for the worth of Earth in America. Plus, some new organizations may demand a grand total of the value of land, resources, and privileges. So what if the bigs have not yet come through. These littles could fill the breach.
Not that we should give up on the bigs, even though the official sources of statistics have not made basic research any easier, and the entrepreneurial sources have not made their statistics any cheaper. But at both places their personnel is constantly changing, so their degree of cooperation is constantly in flux. Perhaps some competition from the littles may nudge them in the right direction.
A few big name economists are not alone in criticizing official statistics and demanding better numbers (Ch 17). To meet the need for accuracy and relevancy, already lesser known, specialized organizations churn out stats and make the data available to inquiring minds. Given their self-described willingness to think outside the box, might such entities calculate the economic surplus the presence of society generates?
Here are the Top Ten groups that supply relevant statistics, stats that you can not easily find elsewhere, who may find intriguing the challenge to measure how much we spend on the nature we use:
(1) Geodemographics Knowledge Base (GKB) is a comprehensive directory of hand-selected websites for people interested in the application of geodemographics and geo-spatial analysis. Sounds so close to geonomics, could work.
(2) Statista’s team of trained specialists analyze, audit, and update each of their statistics frequently. They attend to detail and adhere to academic archetypes and guarantee keeping to high standards. They claim to be fully equipped to meet the needs and expectations of their users. Of us, too?
(3) Zero Hedge takes its name from the quip by Keynes who said in the long term, survival drops to zero, so don’t hedge your bets on your lifespan. Their mission:
• widen the scope of financial, economic and political information available to the professional investing public;
• liberate oppressed knowledge;
• provide analysis uninhibited by political constraint; and
• facilitate information's unending quest for freedom.
Pretty impressive, eh? The next, a UK variant, looks promising, too…
(4) New Economics Foundation (NEF) is the UK's leading think tank whose mission is to kick-start the move to a new economy through big ideas and fresh thinking. They do this through:
* high quality, ground-breaking research that shows what is wrong with the current economy and how it can be made better,
* demonstrating the power of fresh ideas by putting them into action, and
* working with other organizations worldwide to build a movement for economic change.
(5) The Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG) is an independent research and media organization. The Centre acts as a think tank on crucial economic and geopolitical issues. Its articles, commentary, background research and analysis focus on social, economic, strategic, and environmental issues.
(6) The Washington Post has its Wonks blog which focuses on the economy among other subjects. Writers there break down issues and make their arguments with statistics. They explore issues in depth; one of them even writes about land topics.
(7) Shadow Government Statistics (“Shadow Stats”) by John Williams offers analysis behind and beyond government economic reporting. Despite Williams coming from the mainstream, there are an awful lot of mainstream articles criticizing him. That actually could signify that he’s telling the harsh truth that the powers-that-be don’t want the public to hear. May he go broad and deep and tackle the worth of Earth.
(8) Washington DC’s first progressive multi-issue think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), has served as a policy and research resource for visionary social justice movements for over four decades. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed (2001), who describes herself as "a myth buster by trade”, once worked there.
(9) G. William Domhoff, who goes by “Bill", is a Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Four of his books are among the top 50 best sellers in sociology for the years 1950 to 1995. Who Rules America? (1967, Ch 12) was loaded with statistics and described the local growth machines of real estate development.
All these outfits (except the next) are open-minded enough to go beyond the official numbers. Nine of them raise the expectations of curious geonomists, and number three especially. Of them all, the best known is the least bold—#10 (coming up). You know all the oddities you find in statistics? (usually negative ones, like plane crashes or suicides bunching together). There’s money to be made citing them.
(10) Freakonomics was launched by Stephen J. Dubber and Steven D. Levitt. They’re academics, like Dr. Domhoff, but despite the great name, the “freakonomists” stick to the mainstream, unlike Bill Domhoff. Their “-omics” began as an article then a book then morphed into a documentary film, a Jon Stewart Show appearance, and an NPR radio show. Freakonomics.com has been called “the most readable economics blog in the universe” (which, the Steves admit, isn’t saying much).
In 2014, Levitt and Dubner published their third book, Think Like a Freak—supposedly a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems. However, they use official statistics with blind faith. Like the rest of academia, they call their numbers “data” (nothing like the accurate and relevant measurements in hard science).
Dubber and Levitt focus on funny things people do—like When to Rob a Bank. These little-picture oddities—not how economies work and don’t—they call that economics. Their legion of followers, who number in the millions, also think fun-with-number is economics. Give the Steves their due for making economics entertaining and enlightening, even if less relevant.
All the probing into the unusual by the Freaks has, so far, kept them clear of rents. By limiting “economics” to the incidental, while eschewing big picture analysis of an economy’s actual workings and its resultant wealth, that does the discipline no favors. Their analyses elevate what’s merely entertainment, distracting the public, and trivializes what the public should know, cementing their indifference to deeper analysis.
(11?) Maybe another source are fact-checkers. Nowadays, some Internet divers (not surfers), organizations, and newspapers pride themselves on testing official numbers for veracity. With the rise of the internet and googling, fact checking has become big business. Perhaps one of them would check Larson’s, Albouy’s, or our total for America’s land value.
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC was established to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania. It addresses public policy issues at the local, state, and federal breadths (not levels, a misnomer).
Once an official estimate of the social surplus that land value represents comes out, then let doubters fact-check that.
May this soloist effort of ours play matchmaker and introduce those whose mission it is to supply insightful data to those who could put a figure for Earth’s worth to good use. There are a few groups already interested in land, in rents, and in statistics.
First, believe or not, some rich want to share the wealth—not all the wealth, but some. They may not go so far as to advocate changing the system that made them wealthy. But they do want to close the income gap at least somewhat.
* Bill Gates’ dad wants to tax very rich people.
In the past, some of the wealthy have even bit the hand that fed them.
Perhaps it’s self-serving—they wish to stabilize the system that put them so high above everybody else, since yawning disparity de-stabilizes the social order. Or maybe it’s merely an embarrassment of riches. Or those elite are being charitable out of the goodness of their hearts; philanthropy is a normal human trait. Whatever the motive, it’s exciting to know that people with the power to make change are advocating change. Some even advocate fixing or replacing GDP to measure an economy’s success; a figure for rent could make a great replacement statistic, updatable daily.
Rather than share just any kind of wealth, maybe these elite would warm up to sharing rent, once they hear how much it is—enough, if shared, to make a real difference.
Further, rent is the kind of wealth that’s less a product of individual effort and more a result of social progress and natural advantages. By tapping rent, we can avoid taxing the successes of useful producers, and thereby not diminish the incentive to produce. Now to other groups who’d like to know rent’s total.
Second, some faithful talk up land issues that cause suffering: concentration of land ownership, homelessness, unaffordable housing, pollution, etc. Many recent Roman Catholic Popes have urged followers to reform land holdings and to quit contaminating the earth. Catholic Worker in the US and Oxfam in the UK might lend their voices to a chorus calling for officials to measure the Bible’s fruit of the earth which belongs to all.
Third, people bothered by the fact dollars are no longer backed by gold propose returning to gold or backing with some other valuable tangible, like land. Whether that’s a practical idea or not, its proponents might first need to know how valuable land is. Certainly they’d join the call.
Fourth, youth is when humans tend to be more open to new ways to see the world. Inexperienced. Ahistorical. Impatient. Idealistic. And lacking an intellectual lineage they’re deeply emotionally attached to. Note it’s grad students who criticize economics. And youthful activists who latch on to cutting-edge causes. With the youth wing of monetarists, religions, and wealthy families leading the way, demanding answers, then suppliers of measurements would come up with a good, useful number.
For academics—always in need of young blood—it must feel odd to regard the coming generation as a potentially disruptive force. Some professors would not want to be out of step with their students. Those young-at-heart profs would sniff around the issue of rent and echo the call for a serviceable number for the value of land and resources.
Once a critical mass of economists request decent measurements of spending on assets never produced, then the bureaucratic part of government would raise their bar. Once enough reformers demand to know the size of social surplus, then the legal system itself would push up the bar. The data-minders would make their statistics as accurate and relevant as possible.
BTW, you may want to ask any of these organizations for a reliable figure for the rental value of all land and resources in the US. Your question could add to earlier ones, putting the interrogated at a tipping point, where they will take on the challenge of digging deeper. Or you may find by then they’ll have come up with an answer.
The past successes of the above interest groups give one grounds for believing that a gadfly can win. Such groups have expanded their horizons before and can do so again. Once cognizant that our spending for the never-produced is a social surplus, probably they’d seek to know not just its size but also the identity of its recipients.
This article is Part 31 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.