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

“Knowledge is power” is a common enough refrain, but is it true? Professors and universities are in the business of selling knowledge; naturally, they’d boost their product. Yet whether or not knowledge is a path to power, as long as people think it is, then some will try to hide it.

Tricky Tongues

The best way to hide a treasure is to not let anyone know it exists.

The best way to hide a treasure is to not let anyone know it exists. Unaware of it, nobody seeks it. Conversely, if people know there is a treasure hidden somewhere, somebody will keep looking, and the treasure won’t be safe.

One powerful way to hide anything is to not have a word for it. If your lexicon includes “The Big Dipper”, a glance at the night sky will reveal it. If you don’t have that phrase, then a nighttime skyward glance won’t reveal anything special.

A more relevant example is we lack a colloquial term for paying another person for their labor (or capital) vs. paying them for their permission. The latter payment could go by the name “rent”. By lacking the term, we neither see nor feel the difference.

Along with lacking a term, a term could lack some features in its definition. For instance, you can not live without somewhere to live, yet “land’s” definition lacks this feature of essentiality. Conversely, a term could have an extra, distorting feature in its definition. For example, many people’s definition of capitalism includes freedom yet the success of capitalists relies squarely upon government interference in the market on their behalf, as with corporate welfare, failure to enforce environmental rights, etc. Favors are just the opposite of freedom.

No one’s to blame for this linguistic mess. Languages evolve in a haphazard fashion (as does the rest of the universe). That said, some clever people use these techniques to mislead others, influence them subconsciously, and win something from them.

Deception in Debate

Confucius said he who defines the terms wins the argument.

Confucius said he who defines the terms wins the argument. The redefiner can also limit the range of the discussion. When the topic under discussion is crucial—such as the worth of Earth—that deprives society as a whole of the realistic worldview it needs in order to progress.

Another tactic that polemicists use is to define a term one way at the start of the discussion then switch the definition later in order to arrive at a misleading conclusion—like “bait-and-switch”. Offer a natural diamond for sale but supply an artificial one to the buyer. Or, use “rent” to mean payment for land—which is huge—then switch to meaning payment for buildings—which is not so grand.

Both subterfuge and the paucity of vocabulary have combined to make it difficult for analysts to find out the worth of Earth in their nation, an amount that upon reflection should be impressively immense.

Curiosity Chills the Chat

It’s fun to be amazed by the price of a diamond, by the cost of a space shuttle, by the value of Manhattan. It’s natural to be curious about the enormous amounts some people can charge and how much others can afford to pay. It’s this natural curiosity that those who censor are up against.

Those who are curious can turn to official sources to learn how much society spends to reward labor and capital but not to find out how much is spent to own or occupy land (those three—land, labor, and capital—being the classical factors in production). For whatever the reason, officials do not reveal the worth of Earth. What cutting-edge thinkers want to know—an exact total of the flow of rents at one point in time—statisticians fudge.

What’s so hard about keeping track of the money that society spends on the nature it uses? Is it myopia? Incompetence? Or politics? It’s already hard enough to discover something new but when the topic is controversial then politics make it even harder.

Why is that? What’s so hard about keeping track of the money that society spends on the nature it uses? Is it myopia? Incompetence? Or politics? It’s already hard enough to discover something new but when the topic is controversial then politics make it even harder.

Are those few who capture the largest shares of rent determined to keep their gravy train flowing? Could they be worried that a critical mass will put two and two together? It is conceivable that upon learning of the immensity of rent, people would reflect upon the facts that nobody made Earth, everybody needs Earth, and it’s society as a whole who make locations valuable. Hence, to keep society in the dark may explain the data silence; keeping that collective giant sleeping could be just one more favor by the state for the elite.

It is hard to picture current beneficiaries at all worried, and the idly curious, even the seriously curious, as threats to the status quo. However, the powers are working overtime when it comes to burying Earth’s worth. The lack of an exact answer, the dissemination of garbled answers, and the promotion of illogical explanations of phenomenon such as the business cycle all point to politics at work, not science.

Wrongheaded and Just Plain Wrong

The lack of scientific rigor is not just sloppy or accidental; to be brutally frank it can also be considered immoral. To put too fine a point on it, controlling the flow of information is a way to lie by omission. It’s a way to censor and to marginalize those who seek answers.

The lack of scientific rigor is not just sloppy or accidental; to be brutally frank it can also be considered immoral. What if your accountant did not do the best job possible? Or your dentist? Or your tailor? Imagine emerging into the street overtaxed, with the wrong tooth yanked, and wearing ill-fitting clothes.

It’s why other fields have professional standards, something economists lack. Believe it or not, even lawyers have professional codes of conduct (for whatever they’re worth). How about a pledge to insist upon the most precise measurements of the most elementary spending flows?

To put too fine a point on it, controlling the flow of information is a way to lie by omission. It’s a way to censor and to marginalize those who seek answers. It not only defeats the investigators—for a while—it also impoverishes culture, since knowing and understanding how one’s world works is a huge part of any culture.

The officials who collect the data have neglected rent for as long as they have been collecting data. How much longer can they continue their oversight? Is it necessary for a critical mass of the public to grow curious?

Getting close to an accurate answer may earn one the disapproval of some very powerful people. If you’re a professor, your reputation would be at stake. If you’re a reporter, your job would be in jeopardy. That pretty much leaves the quest for controversial knowledge up to the iconoclast. As usual.

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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