Activism Goes Easier With Volunteers
Helping shift the paradigm, it happens faster—and feels good.
March 11, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

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

We got a big job before us, tabulating the worth of Earth. One person could do it. But a team could do it so much better.

Get One Key Door-Opener

One team member, a statistician who speaks the language, could sweet talk the proper agency into just handing over the number for how much money we all spend on all the nature we use. Task accomplished.

It’d require that rare geek who could also persuade like a master salesman. Recruit a statistician who’s not busy, or a retired bureaucrat with time on his hands to go back to an agency with an institutional memory. Problem is, nerds tend to be immune to salesmanship.

So, if they don’t hand over the figure for all the rents flowing in the economy last year, well, then, enlist a ninja nerd—a hacker to liberate the statistic. Nah. Besides, which agency would have the total? Just joking. Nobody has probably ever figured out the exact tally anyway, have they? Not at all serious. No matter how tempting. We won’t go there.

Assemble a Team

Given the improbability of that salesman geek scenario, next …

Since bureaucrats are people too, and people count noses and feel popular pressure, we’d swell the number of people asking for the answer. Our teams best sales people would petition economists and academics and students to petition all the many agencies to calculate the figure for the most recent year. We’d get investment societies to join the choir making the call. Even get business reporters to ask for the stats.

While waiting for such a distant groundswell to breach the walls of bureaucracy like a tsunami, DIY. Get volunteers to find out all the agencies who track rents, get all their contact names and numbers and addresses, then start writing and calling them all. And get whoever answers to deliver the sharpest stats they got.

We’ll be swimming in a clatch of stats. Remember, there are numerous aspects of nature, besides land, that people pay good money to own or use—water, airwaves, landing slots at airports, etc. It’s a pretty extensive list.

This is where it gets sticky and truly talented team players could be a big help, interpreting not just the numbers but also the nominal labels and abbreviations that go with them. Like economists, statisticians can not shake themselves free of the cover-thy-butt jargon habit. What makes it tougher still is that they keep redefining their own terminology. So we need a different kind of geek, one who need not be able to persuade, just able to translate.

Ask a Busy Person

However, useful volunteers are not yet pouring out of the woodwork. Too few people have been initiated into the realm of rents. All this team spirit and no team! While waiting for others to wander in, keep the spirits up; watch Boy Scouts help old ladies cross the street. Our turn will come.

But who has a personal network like that, loaded with bureaucrats and statisticians? Is there some cafe where they hang out? A professional organization anyone can join?

Not everybody stands on the sidelines; some people jump into the fray with enthusiasm—activists! Who among the cutting edge should be sympathetic to the cause and would chime in? Let's see... Greens and libertarians. Both could become a source of volunteers.

Appeal to Nature Lovers

What is it about counting bounty that appeals to people self-identifying as a green or libertarian? Time for a quick lesson in economics for the greens, and a briefer one in politics for the libertarians.

What excites greens (besides sunflowers)? Leaving wilderness pristine, farmland in crops, and metro regions dotted by parks and open space. Yet presently, developers and speculators build sprawling cities, leaving behind whole city blocks vacant. When owners under-use good urban land, they over-use good rural land, land that might be better left as a source of food for feeding cities (duh).

You can’t blame them, though; that’s where the profits lie. But what you can do is make developing the center more profitable than developing the fringe. All you have to do is shift the property tax—de-tax buildings while levying locations. To pay these land dues, owners of vacant lots will put them to good use. Downtown will absorb the new buildings, leaving little or none to afflict the countryside. Local greens like that.

Global greens like this. A hefty portion of the money we spend on the nature we use rewards those who waste resources or leave behind waste. So, if they didn’t get those rents, those people would have little financial reason to pollute and deplete. And those payments for land and resources would not go streaming into their pockets if redirected by government into the public treasury. Government could make those who chew up the environment and spew out pollutants pay by either levying a tax, charging a fee, auctioning off permits, fining violators, instituting land dues, whatever. To avoid the expense, producers and investors would switch from foul, inefficient ways of providing a good or service to clean, efficient ways. Making greens and people who find breathing necessary happy.

Once environmentalists publicize the size of natural values, people will see that immense figure as a windfall (like the oil in Alaska), and feel comfortable redirecting it from current recipients to society at large, thereby de-motivating destructive use of the natural world. So the greens are in. Already, many environmental groups have endorsed the notion of public recovery of land values.

Appeal to Liberty Lovers

Some rich libertarians and libertarian groups are on board, too. Those people prefer their governments slender. And the recovery of rents makes it possible to axe taxes on labor and capital, while the sharing of rents, a la Alaska’s oil dividend, makes it possible to abolish a slew of subsidies. Presto. Governments regain their youthful figures.

Did you note the mix of economics and politics? Could it even be possible to separate the two? The above was not advocating a policy; it merely showed what happens under certain policies. Just like the neutral guys at Freakonomics talking about the cigarette tax and smoking. They don’t promote the tax. They just show what happens with it.

This tracking of rents and the behaviors of various recipients (private owners or the public in general) is geonomics. It’s powerful medicine. Every place that has implemented it has benefited, in terms of higher wages, slower inflation, greater investment, gentler business cycle, wider spread prosperity, etc. You’d think not just cutting-edge groups but also the labor movement, the charities concerned about housing, institutional investors, heck the entire mainstream would be on board, too.

Pressure Delivers

Agencies should be swamped with calls from ordinary people demanding a proper accounting of this surplus, the worth of Earth. However, new ideas travel from the fringe to the center slowly. Geonomics just has not arrived yet.

Will any greens and libertarians bite? Once involved, they can pester the officeholders supposed to represent the people. In public office, reps can demand the numbers be sent over to their offices ASAP. Government statisticians would get cracking and deliver the info first thing in morning.

This particular golden fleece would be ours.

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

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Jeffery J. Smith

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 A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at