"My students says I never listen to them. At least I think that’s what they said." —Prof. Anonymous
Who Heeds the Call?
Are you a bureaucrat? Or do you know one? Our species needs the government, an agency, somebody to release the total for the worth of Earth in America. If not, are you or do you know a renegade economist to extrapolate the figure from existing figures?
Other fans of economic performance issued a similar call before. People dissatisfied with the GDP wanted a different key indicator. They proposed several alternative ways to measure GDP and entirely new indicators. They were successful in winning some press but not change. Perhaps keeping track of the growth in the value of society’s surplus could satisfy both Old Guard GDP watchers and vanguard livability watchers.
Some tacitly call for the measure of the value of land and resources:
- Investors and economists—“geonomists”—who suspect our spending for land drives the business cycle; they’d like that spending tracked.
- Environmentalists already impute a replacement cost for the environment (bizarre, I know, right? see Chapter 23); they’d like to compare that to a concrete figure. And …
- Supporters of government are always on the alert for a new, better, and bigger tax base. They’d like to know how much socially-generated value may be available.
The question of our spending for the never-produced does intrigue some. To a curious economist, the measure is a piece in the puzzle of doing economics properly. To a practical businessman, a harbinger. To a fanciful geek, a key to conjuring solutions to economic problems.
Who could supply an answer? Assessors compile raw data. Government statisticians access the figures. Economists are proficient at number-crunching. For all three professions, determining society’s rent—spending for parcels, fields, and forests plus undersea oil and airwaves—should be a cakewalk.
Who Has Soundproof Earwax?
Those who could but don’t calculate—or don’t release—the size of social surplus is a pretty long list:
- professional society of appraisers, of assessors, and of bankers (since they’re mortgage lenders);
- government agencies who collect the tax on property, both local and state, and apply the legislated exemptions to the property tax;
- agencies commissioned with supplying lawmakers with statistics, both local and state legislatures.
At the federal breadth (not “level”, that’s too hierarchical for any democracy), the …
- National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER),
- Census Bureau,
- departments of Labor, Commerce, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD),
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM),
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC),
- Government Accountability Office (GAO),
- Office of Management and Budget (OMB),
- Federal Reserve (not really part of the government but intimately linked to its corridors of power), and …
- the CIA or NSA. Seriously. The CIA website will tell you how bad the Gini quotient (concentration of ownership) is in the US. What? Spies don’t keep stats like that top secret?
All the above alphabet soup—that’s a lot of bureaucratic firepower. To not be able to come up with the total of society’s spending each year—or every day!—for land and resources is pretty impressive. It must be the single biggest act of bureaucratic neglect since the US lost some weapons-grade nuclear material or lost $6-$20 billion in Iraq and just looked the other way.
Public servants are charged with keeping track of public assets. When public researchers don’t, and instead advance a distorted worldview, don’t you have to draw the line? And when that line is crossed, speak up?
Most economists and statisticians sit this one out. They measure wages, profits, unemployment, inflation, stock prices, bond yields, household budgets, the uncountable “consumer confidence”—a myriad of items awash in numbers. But no total for spending that doesn’t reward anyone’s effort.
Were they to tackle anything further “out there”, they might jeopardize their own mainstream interests. And “out there” is where conventional people place the quest to know Earth’s worth. Potentially it’s our commonwealth.
Who’s Takes This Watch?
Some do estimate housing value. But that combines house, home, and hearth with location, location, location. They rather unscientifically gloss over the fact that land—unlike labor and capital—is no one’s creation while buildings are.
Want to try to pry out an answer? Be sure to put the request—“how much do we spend for natural resources”—to specialized folk in their technical jargon. Even then, communicating the notion of all rents for natural assets, it’s difficult. It reminds one of the old comedy routine of Who’s On First? by Abbot and Costello.
Abbot: “How much is rent!”
Costello: “How much is rent?”
Abbot: “Yes, it sure is.”
If nobody’s measuring the size of rent, we can at least measure the size of the problem of trying to calculate rent.
This article is Part 8 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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