This article is part of a series by Jeffery J. Smith on the surplus—also known as “economic rent”—that exists in the economy. Currently, this surplus is hoarded; yet once shared, this surplus could generate undreamed of possibilities for the entire human population. To see the entire series, visit Progress.org/Counting-Surplus

Officials Are Out to Lunch

With his ceaselessly questing mind, Einstein once wondered about matters connected to the worth of Earth, but left the query there, in the hands of others sharing his interest, none of whom were conventional number-crunchers. Yet if anyone could tell you how much is the worth of Earth in your region, would it not be one from this long list of candidates?

  • professional society of appraisers, of assessors, and of bankers;
  • government agencies who collect the tax on property, both local and state, and apply the exemptions to the property tax;
  • agencies commissioned with supplying lawmakers with statistics, both local and state.

At the federal breadth (not “level”, that’s too hierarchical for any democracy), there are:

  • National Bureau of Economic Research,
  • the Census Bureau,
  • the departments of Labor, Commerce, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development;
  • Bureau of Land Management,
  • Federal Communications Commission,
  • Government Accountability Office,
  • Office of Management and Budget, and
  • not really part of the government but intimately linked to its corridors of power: the Federal Reserve.
  • Maybe even the CIA or NSA. Seriously. The CIA website will tell you how bad the Gini quotient (concentration of ownership) is in the US.
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 for land and resources is pretty impressive.

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 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 and just looked the other way.

What do those thousands of desk jockeys do instead? They stay the course of downplaying the role of land and payments for land. Or, if you can stand the pun, they stay the curse; their data gap blinds people, making nature and natural values forever invisible to the normal naked eye.

How to Do the Job Right—Or Not

Occasionally, curiosity does get the best of an economist or statistician and they do take a stab at tabulating the value of land in the country or in a city. Yet without lots of precise hard data from official sources, their number is at best a guess, open to debate. Typically, it is underestimated by researchers who, perhaps cowed, substitute a small, unthreatening figure for a large, logical one—in such cases, less really is less.

If you tried to total up all the “rents” (technical for privilege income) by yourself …

  • You would need the raw data from one or more of the sources above.
  • You’d need it for all land—downtowns, home sites, farms, fields, forests, mines, oil wells, etc—for all water consumed and waterways, and for all airwaves for all telecommunications.
  • If you’re not to leave anything out, you’d add in marina berths and airport landing slots, etc.
  • You’d need the payments of principle, of interest, of taxes on these assets, etc.
  • You’d have to separate the value of never-made land from man-made buildings.

You’d have a lot of work to do, and you’d probably have to pay for the data, and pay an army of bored grad students with time on their hands to pitch in. It’s what our public servants should be doing—or at least one of them—but they don’t. (I’d do it myself but yoyo practice keeps me busy.)

Trying Officials’ Patience

When you call any one of the entities above (and there may be more), whoever answers is unfailingly polite but failingly helpful. It’s impossible to get them to issue an answer. Or, since they don’t have one, to get them to figure one out (unless, perhaps, you were to pretend to be president and imitate the voice of The Donald; the fear factor might get it done.)

One reason you can’t get an answer is that the person being asked can’t see the point. The number might be a fun curiosity, but how on earth could it be the least bit useful? People who should know better don’t see the difference between assets made by humans and those not. They honestly don’t see how one set drives the business cycle and the other follows. And they don’t see how one spending stream rewards privilege and the other does not. Or maybe bureaucrats do see the elite being benefited, and that’s the problem. Curiosity gives way to caution.

If you put any of the statisticians or economists on the spot, eventually they’ll get testy, a little annoyed with the pest (the would-be researcher). At first, they may have been flattered that you’d asked, that you took their field seriously, but keep querying and the mood shifts. Your determination to learn the truth about Earth’s worth begins to seem as a fixation.

You think it’s a worthy pursuit but they know you’re deluded, and let you know it. The tactic is never rudeness; instead, it’s stonewalling. “Nothing to see here, move along. If you want to see something relevant, look at what stats we do trot out as Exhibit A: GDP, inflation, etc”—stats way off the mark.

Thus, economists are not full of much useful advice. Rather, they are full of contradictory advice. What could be more at odds than the beliefs of liberal and conservative economists? While both do well keeping themselves out of poverty, how well have they performed lifting others out of poverty? Nothing to write home about.

If Not Totaled Rent, Then Calculated Discouragement?

The refusal of authorities to take seriously the worth of Earth does more than make an inquiring mind feel rejected. The official silence lends to the quest an air of irreality, dreaminess, wishful thinking. If the “serious” researchers don’t want to know and only the off-the-wall guys do, then the number must be worthless, eh? With no major player defending its validity, the number becomes trivial—and calculating it an irrelevant quest.

Longing to know the worth of Earth, imagining what’d it mean to know, makes one feel wistful and bashful. Rationality tells one to hide that desire from a critical and skeptical world. Imagine. Me, a mere outsider, trying to do science where “real” scientists fear to tread—that’s absurd. The prying one feels they’re overstepping their role, their capability, that one is as vain as their attempt. One feels ridiculous, a gadfly, a Don Quixote. How does one look? Like a flake? A dilettante? A delusional megalomaniac, able to solve grand puzzles the experts can’t.

If that’s the way one feels, then why go on? Well, heck, if the CIA nonchalantly reveals to the public the concentration of ownership in American, then anything can happen. For some reason as yet unknown, a government body could take up the mantel of official calculator of Earth’s worth in America. To mix metaphors, a ringside seat for watching history happen is always worth the ride. Like mainstream scientists finally getting around to testing Einstein’s theory of gravitation—it changed how they understood physics, and how everyone of us sees the world.

This article is part of a series by Jeffery J. Smith on the surplus—also known as “economic rent”—that exists in the economy. Currently, this surplus is hoarded; yet once shared, this surplus could generate undreamed of possibilities for the entire human population. To see the entire series, visit Progress.org/Counting-Surplus

© Text Copyright Jeffery J. Smith rights reserved.
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