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

Keeping a lid on knowledge is not the easiest thing in the world. Not just because people are curious. But also because they like to count. Indeed, counting and literacy arose together in ancient times, when agrarian societies needed to keep track of harvests, etc. The first writings were accounts, in Sumer, Egypt, etc.

Bending Bureaucratic Bias

America is a modern nation, full of bureaucracies keeping all sorts of statistics about all sorts of things. One can find out the political numbers of contributions to campaigns, the value of subsidies, the value of tax breaks, etc. Why can’t one find out the economic numbers that explain the motivation behind contributing so much?

You can find out official GDP. The official unemployment rate. The official rate of inflation. Boring. But try and find out something really interesting, say … How much is all the land, including resources, worth? Who owns the most valuable locations? How humongous is absentee ownership? You can’t call the government’s info line and find out.

You can find out official GDP. The official unemployment rate. The official rate of inflation. Boring. You can ferret out from bureaucrats in the nation’s capital the values of the other two factors in production, labor and capital—respectively, total wages of everyone and total amounts awarded to lenders and investors.

But try and find out something really interesting, say … How much is all the land, including resources, worth? Who owns the most valuable locations? How humongous is absentee ownership? You can’t call the government’s info line and find out.

Regardless of what thinking lies behind the silence of those who could yield answers and those who should ask questions, motives need not be known in order to know the data. Once known, the data would prove useful.

  • The information can be used in science; tracking the ebb and flow of rents allows one to make accurate predictions, which is the sine qua non of science.
  • Economies have axioms that are worth knowing, if your savings matter to you, or your leisure, or your environment, or your rights.
  • And the total allows one to inspire society, to change the prevailing worldview from one of scarcity to one of bounty; who knows what good could come of that?

Fortunately, finding out is feasible.

Assessing the Worth of Earth

What’s so hard about keeping track of the money that society spends on the nature it uses? Actually, not that much. Each year in the US, there are hundreds of thousands of transactions for land, resources, electromagnetic spectrum, etc. There are sales, leases, sublets, auctions, plus taxes on those natural assets.

What’s so hard about keeping track of the money that society spends on the nature it uses? Actually, not that much. Each year in the US, there are hundreds of thousands of transactions for land, resources, electromagnetic spectrum, etc. There are sales, leases, sublets, auctions, plus taxes on those natural assets. And when the item on the block is, say, land combined with a building, it is a simple matter to separate the value of the location from the value of the improvement upon it.

But the government, rather than take the steps necessary to calculate the “rent”—the money spent by society for nature—government does just the opposite. For example, government could include, say, not just the principle in a mortgage based on the land portion of the property but also the equivalent portion of the interest. And with computers, it could easily update all records of all parcels in an area every time one of them sells or leases.

Despite this wealth of data, the federal government does not tap into it to determine the worth of Earth in America. The government does something else: It twists the facts.

Despite this wealth of data, the federal government does not tap into it to determine the worth of Earth in America. There may be a private entity that tabulates the total, but if so they don’t advertise the fact. At least some researchers make some educated guesses. But government does something else. It twists the facts.

Officials’ Rent

If you were to ask an economist for the worth of earth, using technical jargon, you’d use the word “rent” for all the money societies spend on the nature they use. However, the answer you’d get from anyone citing the official figure would be for a different definition of “rent”. Ask how much money gets spent for Earth and you’d be told how much landlords receive from those who reside in their house or apartment.

The latter figure—the profit of landlords—is minuscule compared to the former (the worth of Earth). Officially, “the national estimate of the rental income of persons accounted for 1.68% of total personal income in 2003.” Because one person’s income is another person’s spending, and vice versa, they constitute the same flow, seen from opposite perspectives, and are sufficiently equivalent.

This official trivializing of rent may have dampened interest by potential researchers (economists are not the boldest people in the world; none would be the first to say something like space is flexible). Yet not entirely. While writing this article, I found a few who have tried to find out what many others want to know—the value of the land of America.

While writing this article, I found a few who have tried to find out what many others want to know—the value of the land of America. All the unofficial estimates were magnitudes higher than that from our official number-crunchers, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Their totals were 16 times greater, at least, and most were much more. This discrepancy allows those who have something to hide—apparently—to minimize what’s hidden.

Despite the official lack of interest in finding an exact answer, the number of independent researchers seeking the total may be growing. It’s hard to tell. I found more studies published in 2015 than in any previous year. However, in this era of information overload, and a larger population base, a higher number may not prove the existence of a groundswell to learn this answer.

All the unofficial estimates were magnitudes higher than that from our official number-crunchers, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Their totals were 16 times greater, at least, and most were much more. This discrepancy allows those who have something to hide—apparently—to minimize what’s hidden.

The Physicist’s Way

My frustration and annoyance are tempered by feeling a little sorry for the statisticians. Does it make them feel embarrassed to be dishing out such nonsense?

That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, at least for now. My frustration and annoyance are tempered by feeling a little sorry for the statisticians. Does it make them feel embarrassed to be dishing out such nonsense? To elicit a better answer, would it make sense to appeal to their professionalism? Whatever, I simply grin and bear. Efforts to expand knowledge often runs into opposition, a casual glance at history shows.

Plus, one can still measure the worth of Earth, anyway. There are ways to get around the official data vacuum. Take a page from modern particle physics. Those researchers can’t see quarks and whatever else they want to know. So they extrapolate reasonable conclusions from the measurements they can make of the stuff that they can detect.

Geonomists can extrapolate, too. Official number-crunchers do keep some numbers with some significance. You might have to pay for them. You might have to get somebody credentialed to ask for them. You might have to sue somebody. But once you have the figures, then you can twist and torture them until you can approximate the truth that you’re after.

Knowledge is Power

The spending on nature can be totaled. And that total will confer a certain amount of power. Depending on how society puts to use a richer, deeper understanding of the workings of their economy.

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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