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

We’ve Always Done It This Way

Why can’t you tell me the worth of Earth? Why can’t I tell you? Probably, there is no bad guy keeping the answer secret. More likely it’s just another human blindspot, like how humans can not sense gravity in the way that migrating birds can. Gaps happen.

The worth of Earth is not only a blindspot but also a number. Some people don’t like numbers, supposedly—you know, math phobia. And this kind of number—a statistic—is especially suspect. Like Twain said (that Benjamin Disraeli said), “There’s lies, damnable lies, and statistics.” And not only are such numbers suspect but also are the people who crunch them. An economist is Oscar Wilde’s “person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Most economists don’t want to know the worth of Earth. They don’t see the value in knowing the exact size of the largest stream in any GDP. They don’t see how a society’s spending for things not made by labor eventually depresses our spending for things that are made by labor—another blindspot, very odd for economists to have.

Most economists don’t want to know the worth of Earth. They don’t see the value in knowing the exact size of the largest stream in any GDP (compared to the flows rewarding labor and capital). They don’t see how a society’s spending for things not made by labor eventually depresses our spending for things that are made by labor—another blindspot, very odd for economists to have.

What’s Available Is Badly Assembled

So, without any academic demand for the answer, there is not any official supply of the answer. Government number-crunchers give you the sum GDP but not the elementary parts. Such a vague stat is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s review of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (or War and the World in the author’s language): “It was about some Russians.”

So, it’s not that beneficiaries of the current system keep to themselves the magic number of Earth’s worth—they don’t know what it is, either, not exactly. And to find out would take a bit of work, yet there is no demand, so why bother?

It makes sense that the worth of Earth would be a blindspot since Earth itself— land, resources, et al—is also a blindspot. It’s not just statisticians, economists, and beneficiaries who don’t see land as a separate factor—nobody does.

It makes sense that the worth of Earth would be a blindspot since Earth itself— land, resources, et al—is also a blindspot. It’s not just statisticians, economists, and beneficiaries who don’t see land as a separate factor—nobody does. Land can dementedly drive the other two factors (labor and capital) through a boom-bust business cycle all it wants and nobody notices. Well, nearly nobody; there are a few geonomists—rent recognizing economists—who pay attention to what’s going on in the deep economy. Elsewhere, if land is not noted, of course its value—rent—is not noted either.

Blindspot In Our Comfort Zone

Yet it is a curious situation. Both your life and your economic standard of living depend upon land. How can it be so little appreciated? Playing armchair sociologist for a moment, let me try these ideas on you.

Both your life and your economic standard of living depend upon land. How can it be so little appreciated? Since hardly anyone farms now, people think land does not matter.

Since hardly anyone farms now, people think land does not matter. Land is farmland and that’s about it. Where most people live, their houses block the view of the land half of real estate. And only very few own the most expensive land—locations downtown. Further, it’s only classical economists who use “land” to include timber, oil, electromagnetic spectrum, etc. With land out of sight, land is out of mind.

Plus, labor does not matter much any more; look at it struggle for minimum wage. Look at robots elbowing fleshy workers out of the way. So labor is not much needed and not much appreciated. Labor is half the equation in creating wealth. The other half is land. So maybe tarring labor tars land with the same brush. We don’t need one major factor any more; why need the other?

Even people who feel connected to nature do not feel connected to land as a factor of production, or to rent as a return. If anything, they feel just the opposite. They don’t want to see land as a commodity, having a price tag. Yet beware of what you wish for. Knowing what people are willing to pay to own or occupy a parcel of land is information that friends of the earth could use in defending nature.

Even people who feel connected to nature do not feel connected to land as a factor of production, or to rent as a return. If anything, they feel just the opposite. They don’t want to see land as a commodity, having a price tag. Yet beware of what you wish for. Knowing what people are willing to pay to own or occupy a parcel of land is information that friends of the earth could use in defending nature.

“What is mind? It doesn't matter; What is matter? Never mind.”
—Bertrand Russell

Due to those three modern trends, things have gone very smoothly for whoever would want to keep the worth of Earth in the dark, for the forces of ignorance and apathy. To cite Bertrand Russell (who did recognized rent), “What is mind? It doesn't matter; What is matter? Never mind.

The First Fissure

If there are those whose interests lie in keeping the worth of Earth unknown, their only challenge, really, would be the fact that things never stay the same, change is fundamental to reality. Presently, however, little has happened to spark concern. The amount of interest in this question of rent presently amounts to scattered termite droppings, a far cry from a vibrant and growing termite mound.

Barely posing a threat to the blackout about the worth of Earth, way out on the outer fringe of the cutting edge, there a few curious souls who keep taking stabs at knowing just how much society spends on the nature it uses. If ever they are to succeed in ferreting out a realistic figure from official sources, it is probably up to an investigator reporter. Books and movies can do that, can light a fire under the rumps of the lethargic. Like how astronomer Carl Sagan’s book, later movie, Contact got NASA to finally fund SERI. (by the way, signals from outer space are also ignored, so these articles are in good company).

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Right now, those curious about the worth of Earth are being profoundly ignored. On their lofty perch, anyone who would oppose such research must feel unassailably confident, at most a tiny irritation. If there is even an inkling of worry, they reveal to the world nothing more than a stiff upper lip.

Skating On Thick Ice, Yet …

Yet those pressing for an answer won’t go away. What if some day they win a sympathetic ear highly placed?

Yet those pressing for an answer won’t go away. What if some day they win a sympathetic ear highly placed? I’m guessing the worst fear of those who want to keep a lid on the geo-statistic, if they have any fear at all, is that some US president might order an answer. It has happened before—Thomas Jefferson ordered an exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. If a future president were to something similar, finally, there’d be a friendly purpose for the IRS!

At first, such an effort to tabulate all the rents would likely meet the same objections as it always whenever anyone asked official bean-counters to count nature’s beans. To wit:

  • Other parts of the economy—like the stock market—are far more important.
  • It’s not necessary, the combined values of land and capital work just as well.
  • Those two values can not be separated.
  • It’d be so small an amount to not be worth the bother.
  • Limited funds would be better spent elsewhere.
  • It’s really nobody’s business but the landlord’s and the tenant’s.
  • Delving into the issue would only fuel class warfare.

Consider the first objection. Replay in your mind any discussion of the Great Depression. The standard and widely accepted cause was the crash of the Stock Market and the cure was the entry into World War II—which amounts to a wonderful urban myth that those in a position to correct do not go out of their way to do so. More to the point, the rollercoaster ride of land values played a huge role in both events.

Myths, however, exist to be debunked—eventually. The myths that make up conventional economics have had a long and untroubled reign. Nothing that has happened to date has had enough impact to change the way they do things, no student revolt, no lone wolf critic. However, fundamental new ways of doing things come not from within a discipline but from without. What lies outside mainstream economics that could upset the current apple cart? Geonomics?

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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