Bounty: Our Ignorance Is Whose Bliss?
Americans remain unaware of the worth of Earth in America. Who’d ever favor not knowing Earth’s worth?
January 31, 2018
Jeffery J. Smith
A philosopher:  Which is worse: ignorance or apathy?
The gentry:  Whichever. Just don’t change.

Curiosity Chills the Chat

Here’s a merry scenario: Americans remain unaware of the worth of Earth in America. Who’d ever favor not knowing the value of land and resources?

Preferring widespread ignorance happens.

  • ‍Some politicians censor research into stem cells.
  • ‍Elsewhere, the first thing some revolutionary governments do is shut down the universities.
  • ‍Everywhere, academics act out the priesthood syndrome.

When rent is overlooked, also is: who gets it, how they get it, whether they deserve it, what they do with it, and who gets left out—potentially, lots of inconvenient truths for everyone from homeowners to lenders.

Nowadays, the American Dream means cashing in big-time. Yet that cash is something for nothing. "Landlords grow rich in their sleep." —John Stuart Mill. The owners’ houses and other buildings depreciate; it’s land that appreciates, due to the growing presence of society. Never counting society’s spending for locations keeps that stream of socially-generated value out of the spotlight. Out of sight, out of mind.

Beneficiaries of keeping people in the dark caught a demographic break.

  • ‍Since hardly anyone farms now, many think land does not matter.
  • ‍Our homes block the view of half of real estate—the land.
  • ‍Most don’t own the most expensive land—downtowns—where rent really flows.

Still, is demography the whole story behind the statistical blackout?

Keeping abreast of the news does not tell you how much we spend on the nature we use. Bureaucrats from local property tax departments to the federal Census Bureau don’t broadcast a total for natural value. Call the government’s info line. Nada. Why bother, since they receive no requests from academics?

Economists Don’t Have It Easy

What economists examine is inherently political, much more so than other social studies. Economists must explain or ignore:

So most economists don’t pry into the potentially controversial; they play it safe—sort of like medical researchers skirting alternatives to pills and scalpel.

Avoiding hard questions reinforces normalcy bias—how things are is how they should be. After decades of not researching property, absentee ownership, or rents congealing into fortunes, etc, now economists only write about non-prying topics like household debt, trade, derivatives, etc. Such safe phenomena don’t explain how economies work.

By now, land is as invisible to specialists as to nonspecialists. Both can get annoyed by those who see rent as important. Some insensitives to art do just that.

Popular years ago were paintings that were two in one. One was the familiar two-dimensional image, the other was a hidden three-dimensional image that emerged only after looking at the flat one in a certain way. When the 3-D one emerged, viewers squealed. However, not everyone could let their vision adjust to register the 3-D.

“Oh look, there’s a dinosaur!” Another would say, “Where? I don’t see it.” If you declared, “There, see the biplane?” the frustrated doubter could say, “You’re trying to put me on.” If you kept at it: “Wow, can’t you see the angel?” the angry partially blind man might say, “Liar, there’s nothing there!” People hate it when they’re left out of detecting all of reality. Some come really unglued when realities don’t match. Economists, if upset, could damage the reputation of colleagues who poke their nose into indetectable rent.

What We Don’t Know Does Hurt Us

Conversely, when world views do match—when a secret gets outed—some people can come just as unglued. Rentiers could lash back at specialists if they go against prevailing winds and reveal the size of rent to the public. Major donors—rentiers—dominate the conversation by funding only what they want to hear.

By omitting the factor land from their analyses and conclusions, economists tacitly assert that all spending rewards effort. However, while our spending for things that other humans provide grows the pie, our expenditure for land or resources is how some hog the pie. Pardon the harshness, but not differentiating spending is a lie of omission.

By keeping everyone in the dark, economists hide viable solutions to serious problems. Spending for Earth tells us about both the business cycle and the economy’s surplus. However, if we’re to know the size of our social surplus, somebody would have to measure that spending stream, while it only takes self-interest to overlook it. If you’re a specialist, measuring could put your job in jeopardy. That pretty much leaves the quest for controversial knowledge up to an iconoclast. As usual.

This article is Part 6 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