If asking officials for a stat for Earth’s worth is too hard, ask the universe.
It’s not just a gadfly who’s stonewalled when trying to squeeze a response from government; even presidents get stymied. John F. Kennedy expressed amazement upon discovering how little power the President of the United States actually had, how unresponsive bureaucracies were to his executive orders. Perhaps since then, the “highest” office in the land has accrued more power.
Of course, bureaucrats did not stonewall every command issued by their commander-in-chief. Most often, they obeyed in one fashion or another, even to an order pertinent to our request. Throughout history, bureaucracies have complied with their ruler’s mandate to calculate the worth of Earth in their jurisdiction.
A millennium ago, the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons, who were not so fresh from having just defeated the Danes, in order to rule England. To know in detail what they’d won, the victorious administration commissioned statisticians of the day to tabulate the value of the land and the assets on it. The final cadastre they named the Domesday Book (“domes” being the root of “domestic” as is “dome” or “roof” whence we derive “a roof over one’s head”).
How hard can it be? In Denmark, they used to include the value of the location with each number and address in the phone book. Up until recently, Denmark had a history of assessing and taxing land dating back to the Age of Enlightenment (late 1700s) when a nephew overthrew his uncle the king just so he could sit on the throne and tax land for the betterment of the whole kingdom (the idealism of youth).
The first US Government, in operation during the rebellion against Great Britain, operated according to the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. That document directed the federal government to fund itself with land value collected by a tax. To do so, of course, required government to know, and thus assess, the worth of locations.
The Founding Fathers junked their first constitution with its land tax in favor of the current constitution with free trade between states and tariffs at national borders plus land sales funding the federal government. While no longer needing to know the value of locations, that document did nevertheless require Congress to conduct a census every ten years.
Today’s census counts many things—not just the number of people but also their incomes and outgoes and possessions. The US Census Bureau even used to add up the value of land in America but quit doing it. Yet the US Congress could require that bureaucracy to get back to tabulating the worth of Earth in America.
The Census Bureau is not the only federal agency that the Congress could order to calculate the rental value of land and resources. In the past, many agencies have published a report on the total rental value of some or all land, of some or all resources:
Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Land Management, Census Bureau, CIA (believe it), Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, Departments of Agriculture, of Commerce, Federal Communications Commission (for the value of the EM spectrum), Federal Housing Administration, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, General Services Administration, Government Accountability Office, Housing and Urban Development, Labor (Bureau of Labor Statistics), Library of Congress, Office of Management and Budget, Treasury (Bureau of the Fiscal Service), and two quasi governmental agencies, the Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research.
That’s a lot of alphabet soup. If asked to take a stab at it again, let’s hope this time they standardize their goals, definitions, and methods, so that they arrive at a unanimous answer.
People have a right to know how much their society spends on the nature they use. Under the Freedom of Information Act, any citizen could request the figure for the total of rents. That assumes at least one of agency has tabulated it.
That also requires that the petitioner understands the obtuse text on the agency’s websites on how to use the FOIA (there's a website to explain their website). A citizen can only hope that their request is made according to the bureaucracy’s rules. And if any mistake is made, it won’t completely derail the request.
In total, 20+2 bureaucracies got our FOIA request; I held my breath. Within days, the letters from the bureaucracies did begin to pour in. Many were form letters, yet many others were unique and original in order to address my unheard of request. I was grateful for the time that a busy bureaucrat took to reply.
The end results? I should be honored. I was treated like JFK. Not all even bothered to answer. If an agency did not have the answer, it’d be easy for them to say so. But if an agency did have the answer, it could be hard to say so. The powerful insiders who now capture most of the rental stream has mandated government, subtly or not, to never publicize that fatness, nor the existence of rent, in order to keep the public in the dark re this impactful figure. Would that explain why some agencies did not reply at all?
Those that did reply said they did not track “rents”, our society’s spending on land, resources, spectrum, etc. Those that did track real estate values said they did not keep separate the value of human-made buildings from the value of physics-made land. Nor did they offer to separate for me the two drastically difference values, to make clear our two drastically different spendings—one that rewards human effort (production) and one that rewards social advantage (ownership).
If our public bureaucracies don’t have the answer, elected officials can make them determine it. The infrastructure is in place. Representatives in the House, the Senate, and the Presidency all have their own research service. And when it’s a member of Congress asking a bureaucrat for an answer, then the bureaucrat feels enough heat to generate some light, however dim.
Officeholders might issue such an order if they in turn were ordered. Upstream from politicians, a citizen could request their elected representative to require the relevant public agencies to either release a reliable figure for the worth of Earth in America or to calculate it. That is, if the chain of command in a democracy behaves as advertised.
Of course the elite could accomplish that; they can make the law and they can break it (which is the way all societies operate). For an ordinary citizen, persuading elected officials or bureaucrats is much harder. Still, citizens asking their reps to ask their public servants is worth a shot.
In communication with an elected representative, various talking points can grab their attention. A letter could look like this:
re: Official Figure for Land & Resources
Hon. [congress person];
Given your clout with federal bureaucracies, you could be of immense help to the electorate, ferreting out data. The sought after figures tell us what phase the business cycle is in (decades ago Hoyt discovered the 18-yr land-price cycle)—good to know if you want to keep your savings or investments safe. Those same statistics also tell us how much surplus our economy is generating.
The surplus is our spending for land and resources and other assets not created by anyone’s labor or capital. During the Civil War, the US included land values in the tax base. If government could assess location value then, it could do so now, too.
When government does recover “rents” (technically)—i.e., puts them in the tax base—landowners use land more efficiently, which generates jobs. Even if the federal government forgoes these rents, it could encourage states to levy a tax or charge a land use fee or institute land dues to direct this common wealth into the public treasury.
Many voters prefer a more equitable disbursal of our social surplus, rather then let just a tiny fraction of us hog it all. A fair share would finance free time for every citizen. Presently Singapore cuts taxes on efforts, taps into socially generated value of locations, piles up a revenue surplus, and pays citizens a dividend.
At your beck-and-call you have the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Library of Congress, among others. In the past, economists in such public agencies have taken a stab at coming up with the correct answer. They can do so again, hearing from you.
If no other agency wants to do it, the IRS could. Instead of always prying into one’s private wealth, the agency could tabulate society’s public values. Performing that service would make the IRS less repugnant to ordinary citizens.
How much we spend for nature can be derived from many sources including mortgages, property taxes paid, certain insurances, assessments, appraisals, for all uses, not just residential, but also commercial, industrial, agricultural, sylvan, mineral, fossil fuels, the EM spectrum, and not just private land but also nonprofit and public land, including roadways and water. We’re talking trillions here so we need to know this stat.
There is a precedent. In the past, President Thomas Jefferson (a physiocrat) ordered explorers to bring back from the Louisiana Purchase all sorts of knowledge. Your researchers could bring back a total for society’s spending on nature.
Feel free to use any of the language in this letter or to draft your own. If you have any questions, please ask. If a researcher has any questions, I’m happy to answer them, too. If they find themselves unable, we can tabulate the total, once supported by a fair contract.
I look forward to hearing back from you.
Our asking officer holders runs into the same obstacles as our asking bureaucrats. The politicians—or the staff person who handles incoming mail—has a radically different worldview. They don’t see what’s the big deal about knowing the size of all rents. Plus, like everybody else, they’re busy.
Even though elected public officials often are about as helpful as the unelected public officials, politicians are here to serve us. Sometimes they do. Of course, they’re cautious, they’re weather vanes. One thing all politicians do is count noses. They won’t build a bandwagon but will hop on one. The greater number of people who want to know, the happier politicians are to help. They’re human and humans like to be on the winning side. When an election is coming up, incumbent candidates are especially helpful.
Instead of sending a letter that might fetch a form reply, gadflies could make an outing of it. Assemble a crew and pay a visit to their Congressperson. Even recruit an academic expert to join in petitioning Congress. In person, they’d all insist that public agencies measure the socially-generated value of locations and make that knowledge public. Present a sample letter the elected official could use.
Rational officeholders [sic] should bite. Heck, location value could be a tax base, for gosh sakes. Whether to write a letter or set up an appointment, here’s the link to find your federal reps.
Even then, after fielding a request from a Congressperson, bureaucrats might still stall, as they did with JFK. Words-on-paper are one thing; adherence to those words is something else altogether. Whatever factors influence an agency’s decision to comply or not are hidden from public view. Even if the venture is not immediately successful, at least it will plant seeds that will bear fruits in ways one can not expect.
While waiting for the powers-that-be and specialists to perform, we gadflies can DIY and show the specialists the way. Show them all what an accurate answer would look like. And how to find it.
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it!
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
— attributed to Goethe but actually by an American,
John Anster, inspired by the German writer (1835)
This article is Part 36 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.