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

Looking the Other Way

Science is a quest for knowledge. Yet there’s no knowledge of Earth’s worth. And outside of a few ignored exceptions, nobody with conventional training is questing it.

This gap in our knowledge occurs despite the fact that how much societies spend for the nature they use is a useful number to know. “Rent” reveals the state of the business cycle. And it shows the bounty of the economy.

So why are economists AWOL when it comes to acknowledging, measuring, and watching this specific flow of spending in action? Are they not curious? Are they incompetent? To an extent, it’s not their fault. Their hands are tied by a lack of reliable and relevant data. Official statisticians do not yield up the numbers needed.

So why are economists AWOL when it comes to acknowledging, measuring, and watching this specific flow of spending in action? Are they not curious? Are they incompetent? With apologies to “the dismal science”, are incurious, non-questing economists non-scientists? What else can cold, impartial logic lead one to think?

Whatever, they are not people with any appreciation for the difference between valuable assets that people do produce and valuable assets that humans do not produce.

Is that why it’s so hard to get the answer from people who should be in the know?

Lousy Record Keeping

To an extent, it’s not their fault. Their hands are tied by a lack of reliable and relevant data. Official statisticians do not yield up the numbers needed.

Today’s bureaucracies do count many things of economic import. But they miss some things, over count others, and bundle what should be kept apart.

Today’s bureaucracies do count many things of economic import. But they miss some things, over count others, and bundle what should be kept apart. They fail to keep records complete; for example, the value of berths in marinas or harbors or other locations might be left out. They fail to keep records up to date; for example the cadastre of some counties are fifty years behind the times. What is it with our public servants who’re paid to compile the numbers?

Statisticians fudge, whereas scientists need the statistics to be precise. This official trivializing of rents may have dampened interest by potential researchers. Which in turn reinforces the poor record-keeping. In a downward spiral, economists don’t ask for the numbers and bureaucrats don’t collate them.

In the Vacuum, Isms Prevail

Which is a pity. In the absence of measurements, the non-measured thing disappears. Then, in the absence of a crucial component of a system—rents in economies—unchecked opinions crowd out facts. Indeed, modern economics is more like superstition.

Most political people base their politics on their economic beliefs: “The rich are greedy,” “The poor are lazy,” “The market is unfair,” “The government is inefficient.” As they say, people are entitled to their opinions, not their facts.

Most political people base their politics on their economic beliefs: “The rich are greedy,” “The poor are lazy,” “The market is unfair,” “The government is inefficient.” As they say, people are entitled to their opinions, not their facts.

Like everyone else, professional economists, too, have strong political opinions and very little scientific grounding about how economies work, why they fail, and what one can do about. If they did know the simplest mechanics of economies, they’d be able to predict at least as well as weathermen or The Farmer’s Almanac or astrologists, but they can’t. Their political opinions steer them clear of economic understanding.

Property as Controversy

Economists and bureaucrats have one obvious reason to keep themselves and others in the dark regarding rents. What they’d measure is property, and property is inherently controversial.

Economists and bureaucrats have one obvious reason to keep themselves and others in the dark regarding rents. What they’d measure is property, and property is inherently controversial.

This episode of capping data would not be a first. Historically, it has been illegal to teach literacy to slaves, and anti-social to teach women how to read and write, and a capital offense to translate the Bible. Monopolizing knowledge is what elites do.

The first thing some revolutionary governments have done was to educate the masses—except about the size and role of rents, rents being a blindspot to rebels, too.

Even Watchdogs Don’t Bark

The watchdogs and the lone voices in the wilderness reveal all sorts of facts and fancies about corporations, dynastic families, and government coverups. Yet none of those muckrakers take any interest in landlordism, absentee ownership, or the oldest and most powerful “unearned income” (unearned by an individual owner but it must’ve been earned by someone)—rents.

None of the watchdogs take any interest in landlordism, absentee ownership, or the oldest and most powerful “unearned income”—rents. That amazes me. Activists sympathetic to labor are eager to do battle with apologists for capital but are indifferent or unaware of the power of the landed gentry and resource owners. Such a blindspot!

That amazes me. Activists sympathetic to labor are eager to do battle with apologists for capital but are indifferent or unaware of the power of the landed gentry and resource owners. Such a blindspot!

It’s like that species of lizard that builds it nests on the rocky cliffs forming the Pacific coast of Chile. That society of lizards fights bitterly—equivalent to the two human factors, labor and capital—for nesting places, but stand idly by when seagulls—equivalent to the non-human factor, land—come to eat their eggs. How can the lizards—and modern political critics—be so blind to those extracting their resources?

Money Talks … And Silences?

The entities who now capture the flow of “rents”—the technical terms for our payments for land, resources, electromagnetic spectrum, ecosystem services, etc—wield enormous power. They contribute mightily to electoral campaigns and receive legal favors worth beaucoup billions annually.

  • The industry that contributed the most to politicians in 2015-16 was FIRE (Finance, Insurance, & Real Estate), by far, spending nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
  • In second place was Other, in third Miscellaneous. The next biggest sector was in fourth place: Ideology, donating “only” $66 million.
  • Natural Resources were in seventh place, donating about $50 million, as did Spectrum and Patents/Copyrights, occupying eighth place.
  • In tenth was agri-biz, delivering a bit over $26 million.

So four of the top 10 were the big financial beneficiaries of land and other economics aspects of nature. Together they gave about $370 million, almost half of the roughly $800 given.

For their money, the payoff is huge. Politicians favor insiders with the best they have in stock: bailouts, other subsidies, plus tax breaks like deductions, depreciations, deferments, exemptions, etc. Such loopholes often excuse recipients from paying taxes that would redirect rent from them to the public treasury. Some call those tax breaks “tax subsidies”. Over half of them go to FIRE, utilities, broadcast spectrum, and Big Oil.

Plus, the media is not interested. Some lowly reporter might be interested. But no one higher up. Even though modern elites need not demand silence, they still do dominate the conversation. At the top, a small number of corporations dominate the media. A small number of banks dominate mortgages. And a small number of owners in general own most of all valuable assets. To paraphrase Lenny Bruce, “We don’t have to tell you, we’re a monopoly.”

The Urge to Become Scientists

While it’s true nobody’s telling, it’s also true that nearly nobody is asking. In the absence of demand for answers, the absence of supply of answers makes a certain sense. No one who could dares rock the boat. By keeping data secret, whether intending to or not, both number-crunchers and academics become guardians of the status quo.

While it’s true nobody’s telling, it’s also true that nearly nobody is asking. In the absence of demand for answers, the absence of supply of answers makes a certain sense. No one who could dares rock the boat.

By keeping data secret, whether intending to or not, both number-crunchers and academics become guardians of the status quo. Or of a rival ideology that nevertheless reinforces the industrial paradigm. And even without their orders being made explicit.

The officials who collect the data have neglected rent for as long as they have been collecting data—and likely will until economists feel the urge to become scientists.

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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