“Allow yourself … to be amazed by the mystery of the mundane.”— Paul Heyne, The Economic Way of Thinking
Even with everyone here being above average, most people still don’t get it. Why this misfit between natural rent and the human brain? The brain’s hardwiring that leaves nearly everyone ill-attuned to the worth of Earth sure makes us questers feel invisible at times.
The experts don’t want to know. Those capturing the raw data don’t offer much help. And the most powerful people on the planet militate against figuring out the value of land. But it gets tougher. Critics, reformers, and the public are also out to lunch.
Nearly everybody assumes land value is like any other value that we seek when buying, or surrender when selling. We don’t realize that it comes not from anything the seller has done but from what society has done—densify population—and what nature has done—like provide a great view. We’re in denial that natural rent is money for nothing.
Hence, the biggest obstacle is not The 1% covering up the role that society and nature play in generating such a huge surplus of value. It’s The 100%. Everyone’s interest aligns to obscure land and its profit.
Anatomy is destiny.—Sigmund Freud. Dissecting economies is destined to sight land. Once sighted, are we left with hidebound economics or have we conjured something altogether new?
Without handcuffing anyone seeking a figure for how much society spends for the nature it uses, rentiers caught a demographic break—land disappeared on its own. In the Industrial Era, most families moved to the city from the country. About 99% of the population quit desiring land in order to farm.
In America, a majority own land and the home upon it (more precisely, owe a mortgage). But most don’t own commercial land, which is where locational values are gargantuan. Most people are familiar with paying rent and mortgages but not with receiving rent or mortgage interest payments. The hoi polloi don’t tend to be landlords—only 2/3 of 1% are. Receiving rent, especially payments for downtown locations, is well outside most everyone’s ken.
While the American Dream began as having a house to live in forever, it no longer means settling down for long. Now homeowners expect to cash in big-time—even though the profit comes from the location, not from the building, which depreciates. From rich to poor, all of us hope to buy low and sell high.
Furthermore, we Yanks were raised on TV, on the cowboy identity and the use of guns in defense of one’s spread. Our understanding of commons gave way long ago, as did our awareness of commonwealth. Now it’s the individual who’s entitled, not community, so move along little dogie, don’t poke your nose into rent around here.
Despite the lack of a rousing reception, some mainstreamers do research our current custom of property. A couple of Harvarders, Edward L. Glaeser and Joshua D. Gottlieb, in their The Wealth of Cities admit that, "Rising housing prices are better seen as a transfer from prospective buyers to perspective sellers than a nationwide increase in wealth.” “Better seen”, yet almost nobody looks.
Land disappeared. Metro land became housing; land in general became environment. That Earthly blindspot meant rent—the biggest stream in the economy—became invisible, too. Our inability to sense rent bedevils society, confounding forecasters and optimists. We can’t tell how good we got it.
A blindspot of another species that leaves me dumbfounded is the one afflicting those lizards who live on the cliffs in Chile overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They fight among themselves for the best locations to build a nest, but don’t fight against seagulls when the birds come to eat the lizards’ eggs. The parents sit there and watch placidly, clueless as to what the devouring of their eggs means.
We humans don’t let predators eat our kids but do watch without understanding as members of our own species slurp up surplus, doubling the mortality of newborns.
Rather than curious about rent, economists are incurious about the difference between spending that rewards another’s effort—paying for goods and services—and spending that never does—payments for land and privilege. And typically economists treat privilege as natural law. Perhaps all these shortcomings are merely signs of normalcy since almost everybody shares these blindspots.
Other fields have professional standards, why not economists? Even lawyers have professional codes of conduct (for whatever they’re worth). How about a pledge to insist upon the most precise measurements of the most elementary spending flows?
While the status quo might relax—and even celebrate—re nearly everyone’s out-of-touch-ness, I’m feeling a tad sad for the economists who’re denied the chance to become experts and scientists.
And the fact that our blindspot is due to our hardwiring makes me a little sad for all us. Including me. It’s a lonely pursuit without much in the way of realtime rewards. It’s the gadfly’s dark night of the soul, when being so relentlessly inquisitive cuts one off from the rest of humanity. Such is the life of scouts on the cutting edge, those who explore the wilderness that nearly no one else is interested in yet.
Most economists declare land to be “irrelevant today” and a theory of rent “simplistic”. Yet Ford Foundation prof Dani Rodrik noted we must simplify the world to understand it. Conceive the simplest possible explanation, argued Albert Einstein, an admirer of Henry George. George, the 19th c. economist, land reformer, and author of the classic best-seller Progress and Poverty, based our getting of goods on axioms of human nature.
F.A. Hayek compared the economy to an organism, Troy Camplin to an ecosystem. Actually, observed Herman Daly, formerly of the World Bank, economies are a subset of the ecosystem. All three are getting close to recognizing economies as The Geonomy.
The number for the worth of Earth might be a fun curiosity, but how on earth could it be the least bit useful? Such doubt comes naturally to academics disinclined to predict. Yet reliable predictions are eminently useful, as savers and investors know.
The discipline of economics can be fixed. Just insert rent. Then economists could take a stab at making accurate predictions and turn their discipline into a true science. They might even become geonomists.
Using the research of Homer Hoyt, at least three geonomists predicted the recent recession:
Years in advance of the recession, they explained why it had to happen, in print, that was peer reviewed, and when it would happen, to the exact year. Foldvary predicted it a decade in advance. Ironically, these geonomists who can predict don’t win much media attention while economists who can’t predict do win the scholarly prizes.
Those geonomists were successful because they watched the clock—the 18-year land-price cycle. As society spends more for land nobody made, it must spend less for goods and services humans did make, until recession results, every nigh generation. Demographers cite the rise and fall in population growth over the same period.
If the economics discipline can’t be fixed, it can be replaced. Wholesale change may be needed, a shift of the paradigm. Like going from astrology to astronomy and from alchemy to chemistry, the next shift could be from economics to geonomics. That’s:
Literally it’s the field of study that finds patterns and natural laws in our producing, distributing, consuming, and protecting of goods and services. Since economists won’t, geonomists do admit who does the work and who gets the wealth. Since economics won’t, geonomics must answer how economies work, why they sometimes don’t, and what we can do about it.
Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolution showed that fundamental new ways of doing things come not from within a discipline but from without. What lies outside mainstream economics that could upset the current apple cart? Geonomists? Perhaps a new generation? Kuhn explained old minds don’t change, only young ones are open to bigger picture explanations.
"An economist is someone who didn’t have enough personality to become an accountant."
Geonomists would observe the wrong triggers of youngsters and avoid them, and figure out their right buttons and push the latter. Open links of communication. Then titillate curiosity, open eyes, and enthuse new agents of change with a new way of seeing the world. Clearly state how the enthused can pitch in. Certainly some of them would lend their help to push leviathan to measure our spending for the land and resources we use.
And maybe just in time, if money for nothing is a major driver behind our widening inequality, despoliation of the environment, politicallly-charged non-solutions, and widespread resignation and fatalism. Whether we’re on a tipping point or not, glimpsing a way out of our economic morass is a glimpse worth having. Eh?
This article is Part 28 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.