The 1st Law of Economics: For every economist, there exists an equal and opposite economist. The 2nd Law? They're both wrong.
Do too many people want to know Earth’s worth and secrets must be kept? Or not enough people want to know and paltry demand elicits no response? Whichever, those able to measure natural value in America, but don’t, have made it exceedingly difficult for those who don’t know that value, but want to find it out. Data centers have made it harder than ever for the inquiring public to access what should be public data.
Used to be, you could turn to the county cadastre and learn the value of never-produced land apart from human-produced buildings. But not any more. Economics’ drift toward a landless discipline has culminated in a rent-less database.
How can economists and statisticians not burn with curiosity to know how much their society spends on the nature it uses? Alas …
* Many county assessors no longer separate the values of locations and improvements.
* When they do, they do not bother to be precise.
* Some counties don’t forward their assessments to states. States, in turn, pass on the deficient stats to the Census Bureau. That bureau is the source for the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the uber bank—the US Federal Reserve—et al.
When local assessors quit giving a total for land, so did the Census Bureau. And so did the pseudo public Federal Reserve. And so did the truly private Zillow.
Public agencies aren’t quite as public as they used to be. Just as states contract out penitentiaries, and the US military hires mercenaries, and Congress gave the power to issue new money to a consortium of private banks, the Fed no longer provides totals for locations and resources. Instead, they pay private corporations for the statistics that they used to collect, collate, and package in quasi-intelligible form.
If you ask, the Fed introduces you to the private firm that they use. If you want those values for the surplus the economy generates from natural inputs, you have to pay. For the middle man Fed, it’s pennies. But for your average quester on a shoe-string budget, it’s more than a researcher typically affords.
Another user of public assessor numbers, the private Lincoln Institute, after all these years, still won’t expand their total from residential land to all land in any use.
“The American Bankers Association closed their library along with its research service.”
Turn from public assessors to private appraisers. Bankers accept property as collateral. When they foreclose, they resell the land plus building. Eventually their borrowers resell or refinance. As sound business people, bankers might like to anticipate their prospects—how much profit they can expect in the future from the grand total of all land.
The American Bankers Association has the statistics. Until recently, a researcher could visit or ask the librarian for answers. But no more; the ABA closed their library along with its research service.
This official tuning out the worth of Earth has been a gradual transition. It just got really bad lately. Now it’s complete.
The number-crunchers failure to meet the needs of we total-doters is not to be taken personally. Being mighty, those specialists need not bother with rebutting a curious critic. Indeed, given the influence of rentiers, that public officials would add another tier to their stonewalling was inevitable.
Getting any response assumes you actually reach an official statistician. “Hello, can you tell me the worth of Earth in America?” Usually it’s like calling a big corporation—a runaround. You get transferred so many times that ultimately you end up talking to the same person you started with.
Public servants in charge of public information don’t have to serve the public useful answers.
* They can give unrelated facts and figures.
* They can say the total of land value is not known and is not knowable. And …
* They can just not reply to requests at all.
It’s the bureaucratic version of W.C. Field’s, “Go away kid, you bother me.” Even longer ago, having to dish out such futility at his job is what supposedly drove bureaucrat and absurdist writer Franz Kafka, author of Metamorphosis, mad. If their goal was to derail inquiry into the value of land and resources, officials have come close.
The indifference of established academics dampens any interest of newcomers, who could become potential researchers. Which is sad, because breakthroughs usually come from newcomers. That leaves turning economics into a science up to outsiders.
No problem. We’ll make the most sense possible out of the best numbers available. And conjure a total that perhaps the specialists will critique.
This article is Part 19 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.