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

The stat for the worth of Earth is useful because the business cycle follows it. And places like Singapore have prospered greatly by recovering some of that socially-generated value while diminishing the counter-productive taxes. If we can measure it, you can see it, and the surplus called “rents” becomes real.

In our quest to total the value of all land, we move on to seek the value of locations that society uses for purposes other than residing. Often that’s public land. Often these lands often don’t have buildings on them, nor much in the way of improvements, making it unnecessary to separate the value of land and buildings. All the value should be that of land. Life becomes easy.

Top 10 Talliers of Non-Trespassable Land + 1

1, The Bureau of Land Management, in the Department of Interior, has its National Integrated Land System (NILS) GeoCommunicator. A great name but I’ll be dogged if I can find any land values there. However, it also has “Public Land Statistics”. That shows the BLM, from its 1/3 of America, in 2014 got for us only $344 billion. Seems sort of paltry to me.

2, The Treasury has a Bureau of the Fiscal Service which produces a Financial Report of the United States Government - 2015.

Its Balance Sheets (p 60), under Assets, “Property, plant and equipment, net” comes to $0.9 trillion. Probably at least half that would be land, as in #3 above.

Its Note to Financial Statement, under “Property, Plant, and Equipment” (p 88), Land came to $23 billion. That’s way smaller than the nigh trillion in Balance Sheets. Hard to know why.

Its Required Supplementary Information, under “Federal Oil and Gas Resources” (p 215), “Onshore” comes to $63.3 billion. Two charts later (p 217), Coal Royalties came to $10.5 billion.

So federal fossil fuels got priced at $73.8. Joined with that separate, smaller land figure, they all come to about $100 billion. Stats are so messy.

3, The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) produces its "Fiscal Year 2017: Analytical Perspectives” that has a huge section called “Federal Receipts”. A scholar told us that their recent estimate was about $0.5 trillion. However, we could not find that stat on the OMB website.

4, The General Services Administration (GSA) created a database they call The Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP). Judging by its name, it has the answer we’re looking for for some public land (federal). However the table is not openable by the public (at least this member of the public).

5, The General Accountability Office (GAO) is supposed to keep track of how responsibly the rest of the government is behaving. GAO has a total for federal land. But they hide it; its invisible on their website.

Congressional Attempts

Not to be outdone by the executive branch, the US Congress also has its agencies who once upon a time may have stumbled across the value of the land that makes up America.

6, The Congressional Budget Office in the past reported how surface urban land pays owners 7% of income. That’s a great start; add to that rural land and non-solid land like water and airwaves, and a more interesting total figure could be reached. But their website offered nothing on the total value of land in America.

7, The Congressional Research Service has published such reports as “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data”. Despite such an intriguing title, nowhere inside did it give the value or price of all federally owned land.

8, The Library of Congress, of course, has just about every word ever published. You ever try to wade through all that? The proverbial needle in a haystack. But they’ll yield something of value eventually, I hope.

All the above get their info from assessors and appraisers who get their info from sales.

Non-Governmental Efforts

9, The International Association of Assessing Officers has a great tag line: “Valuing the World.” So if anybody should know the worth of earth, it must be them, right? Well, their librarian might tell a member assessing officer but they won’t tell just anybody, at least not yet. Give them time.

Assessors do it for government. Let’s try those who do it for business—appraisers.

10, The American Society of Appraisers has a nonprofit mission and they claim to work from basic economic theory and legal precedent. Plus, they’re the ones everybody else gets their numbers from. So do they have a solid number for the price tag of America’s land if all of it were for sale? Or the rental value if all of it were for lease? Still waiting to hear back.

Leaving real estate—the real state—and government employees for complainers about government …

11, The Heartland Institute’s Richard Ebeling wrote “There is No Social Security Santa Claus” (2015 Dec 22). He noted the Federal Government owns mineral reserves of copper, nickel, gold, zinc, platinum, lead and silver, plus 257 million acres of grazing land and 250 million acres of timberland. He puts the price tag for all those natural federal assets at $5.5 trillion. That’s a hunk of change (and it was easy to find in his article). But he used many official sources that he did not name.

Assessments = Data?

A word about official assessments and paid-for appraisals. They call it “data” but an official figure resembles an actual price about as much as a stick figure resembles a living body. This is not like physics, which calculates to the trillionth, or even chemistry, which measures parts per billion. This is economists trying to nail down prices. Even under the best of conditions, that’s not easy, as prices are always fluctuating. But add the political pressure to look away from land and you get the mess we got.

These figures for the price of land are from sales and leases and from estimates based on sales and leases. However, the sellers and buyers do not always convey the exact number:

  • they sometimes shave it to lower tax repercussions
  • they sometimes pad it to inflame speculators.
  • Even when assessors and appraisers do their best work, you’ll still get different guesses from different professionals.
  • Other days they’re not feeling up to the task, just like anybody else. And
  • they operate under political pressure to over-value buildings (which depreciate and lower the owner’s tax load) and under-value land (perhaps to hide this socially generated value; after a while, is their blindness self-imposed?).
  • Assessor’s offices do not keep their assessments current, sometimes decades out of date.
  • Legislature’s force down the official estimates with caps and limits on property taxes.

It’s a mess. GIGO.

So another way to try to figure out the worth of Earth is to leave behind the lump sums that change hands in a transaction—a sale or a lease—and instead look at flows. Look at family budgets to see how much households spend on the land portion in housing, especially, but also in food, fuels, water, electricity, and just about everything they consume. Look at the flow of dough when owners of land sell and lease. Look at the GDP, especially FIRE, but also farming, mining, etc, and separate out the value of the natural part, for instance, the value of oil in the ground.

Set up the Bar

But none of our public servants who have the resources to do this, do this. When you point out how to derive a number for the worth of Earth in America, you get brushed off—the old "not invented here" syndrome. It is frustrating, but we won’t be deterred.

We’re not setting the bar too high. These domestic statisticians have set the bar way too low (good thing their not measuring out shots or anything of daily import). Some places do much better. British Columbia, whose office was set up by geonomist Mason Gaffney, PhD, is so well-known for precise assessments that professionals come from all over the world to be trained or hone their skills in rainy BC.

At least we have some ballpark figures. We’ve pretty much exhausted the internet for online info re the value of conventional land—that is, just the surface in settled places. To do a totally thorough search, next we’ll try library card catalogs of academic journals. Hard to believe, but not every printed word is in cyberspace; some still hide away in paper books and journals. Who knows what overlooked nuggets they may hold? Wouldn’t it be ironic to find the worth of earth there?

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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