Society
When Less Is Less
When public servants quit serving, to whom do you turn? Somebody out there must be the true answer man, eh?
April 14, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith
Activist

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

Public servants in charge of public information actually don’t have to serve up the public any good answers to deep questions. They can give you unrelated facts and figures, they can say they don’t know, and they can just not reply to requests at all. Last century, having to dish out such futility at his job is what supposedly drove bureaucrat and absurdist writer Franz Kafka, author of Metamorphosis, mad.

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. The message is clear: “Go away kid, you’re bugging me.”

The whole interaction suggests Bertrand Russell’s conjugation: “I am stalwart. You are stubborn. He, she, or it is pigheaded.” You can see where they slide me in (stubborn or pigheaded), and where I place myself (stalwart). Man against the Machine, in agreement with ex President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” So I keep plugging away, politely.

BTW, Teddy Roosevelt endorsed the public recovery of land values. Philosopher Lord Russell, the person who scored the highest ever on the entrance exam to Cambridge without ever previously going to school, eclipsed Teddy by proposing that government pay the citizenry dividends from the recovered rents of sites and resources. Little historical footnote.

The statisticians who do share their mined data tell you theirs should do the trick, take it or leave it. But your mind is reeling, their official numbers don’t tell the whole story! So? Those figures are what the experts use. Anything good enough for them should be good enough for you. Make do with the answers you are given and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But we want to ride that horse, and ride it hard, all the way to the actual answer, right?

As you might imagine, after a while their polite tolerance turns to indifference, or annoyance, even poorly disguised hostility. That reaction you didn’t see coming. The quest is so interesting, and the bureaucrats are supposed to be helpful. But you have rocked their world, and nobody likes to lose the security of believing that what they do has purpose.

So those in the know tell you (either through their words or silences) that what you want to know—how much we spend for the nature we use—is not known and is not knowable. Thus you are very much up that creek without a proverbial paddle. They have pulled rank and cut you adrift. They get to feel haughty, you have to feel humiliated.

You know you must appear as a gadfly to them. But how can anyone not want to know the truth about how much surplus does the economy derive from natural inputs? Especially anyone in their jobs? How can they not burn with curiosity?

They don’t, so what’s next? How does one deal with an official cold shoulder? To what database do you turn? They stonewall you, yield no answers. To what authority do you turn? Who outranks them? Well, who pays their salaries? As they say, follow the money.

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

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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.