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

Knowing Earth’s worth would do more than just satisfy idle curiosity. The knowledge of how much money society spends on the nature it uses could be put to good use in many amazing ways—surf the economy’s waves and shrink inequality for two big ones. The powers of this forbidden figure follow from both logic and empirics.

The Excess that Keeps Exceeding

What if people could feel the difference between (a) their spending that allows them to own or occupy a piece of Earth versus (b) their spending that rewards another for their labor or capital in providing a good or service? What if they understood the implications? What would society do differently?

If you didn’t spend as much money on goods and services as you had been, of course others will crank out fewer goods and services, but if you spend less for land, spend even zero, there will still be just as much farmland and geosynchronous orbits and downtown locations as before. It’s in that sense that economists refer to rent as a surplus. It’s not needed to motivate people to produce.

Mounting natural value reveals the autonomous nature of wealth. Indeed, economies can’t help but spew forth a surfeit of goods and services. All that’s needed, really, is for…

  • labor and capital to operate on the best locations (land),
  • unfettered by excess regulation or counterproductive taxation (or subsidies to competitors), and
  • happen free from extortion of their earnings by nefarious private parties.

Then presto, bounty flows.

Why a Prize—Immaterial Reasons

Surplus proves the perfection of production. GDP would no longer measure economic health, leisure would. And the amount of time one is free from the economy is a number far more closely related to the health of the populace—thereby the two types of health would be nicely linked.

A worldview of abundance demolishes the assumption of scarcity. Then the Protestant Work Ethic becomes an anachronism as the Polynesian Play Ethic becomes relevant. The economic problem becomes the challenge of distribution.

Imagine if everyone saw the worth of Earth as a surplus. What happens to a surplus? Well, surpluses are the sources of dividends, so perhaps rent-shares could be paid.

Imagine if everyone saw the worth of Earth as a surplus. What happens to a surplus? Well, surpluses are the sources of dividends, so perhaps rent-shares could be paid.

Humans could lose their material insecurity. We’d all become like the Indians of the Northwest who had so much wealth (even if primitive) that one did not show it off by hoarding stuff but by giving it away. That is, if we’re getting a share. Yet paid to whom? By whom? And are such questions impolite or impolitic?

If the worth-of-earth figure were available and were huge and if you’re not getting any or much of it, then you’d know it’s concentrated. Not that you’d do anything about that. But the few who now get the lion’s share, they don’t know how obedient and lethargic you are. They might worry that a fat rent figure could light a fire under you, and make bounty a boon for everybody, not for just a lucky few. Social movements need such fires.

Why a Prize—Material Reasons

With this rent number in hand—more precisely, this value changing over time, over years—forecasters of performance can predict far more reliably, and the numerous nonspecialists can take advantage of that. Now that’s a prize, a huge one, given that we all need to safeguard our savings.

Another big plus is that knowing Earth’s worth might make environmentalists into economic realists. It’s not rational of them to let land be such a fat profit-maker and expect a law that “just-says-no” to development to succeed. To defend an ecosystem, your planet needs profit on its side.

Another big plus is that knowing Earth’s worth might make environmentalists into economic realists. It’s not rational of them to let land be such a fat profit-maker and expect a law that “just-says-no” to development to succeed. To defend an ecosystem, your planet needs profit on its side.

If people could get a slice of earth’s worth, then the higher the value of the whole region, the heftier their dividend. Any exploitation of land beyond the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem would lower the region’s value and shrink the dividend. Owners and developers would have less motive to exploit their land. They could profit from building or otherwise using their land, but its rental value would go into the common kitty and back out again as the dividend to everyone.

The Prize in Practice

It might be hard for some to believe how beneficial the sharing of rent could be. Indeed, there are all sorts of objections, some reasonable, some not. For instance, some say it’d discourage economic development, it’d turn government into an overly empowered universal landlord, it’d be confiscatory, etc. However, all these objections can be rebutted. How the worth of Earth could benefit everybody is not pure theory. It is also practice.

Some jurisdictions, for whatever reason, have recovered some socially-generated location value. For example, when a jurisdiction shifted its property tax a bit from buildings to land,

  • Pittsburgh was named America’s Most Livable City two years running.
  • Honolulu developed its Waikiki Beach.
  • New Zealand knew 99% employment for an entire decade.
  • Denmark got inflation down to 1%.
  • Australia experienced an increase of startups… during a recession!

That’s a very impressive resume for any economic policy. Indeed, none has done better. Yet all these examples are from the past. Society took the correct first steps to economic perfection then got derailed. It saddens me to see social progress be aborted. Repeatedly. Why? How?

Public recovery of social surplus sows the seeds of its own destruction. It gets repealed because it works. It greatly improves economic performance. Getting more income, people spend more money on land, pushing up its price. Speculators see that climb in location value and want it for themselves. Given the political power of the real estate lobby, they get the landward tax-shift repealed much more quickly than it ever took proponents to get it adopted.

Why a Dream?

No matter what the good idea, all have a rocky road to political acceptance. Since this is a really, really good idea, one can only wonder how it can be such a well kept secret, how it can take so long for it to advance? Answering that takes as much speculation as does guesstimating the worth of Earth.

They say with knowledge comes power. With the knowledge of how big rent, people could find the will to do something with that social surplus. If the gentry’s fears are real and founded, then next would come a popular determination to win a more equitable arrangement.

Those who want to live in a geonomy can only dream on. Dream about an economy working right for everyone, rather than everyone’s energy being sucked up by the economy. Dream about an economy working in harmony with the embracing ecosystem. Then, minus the usual human strife for gain, everyone could awaken in a more harmonious society.

Those who want to live in a geonomy can only dream on. Dream about an economy working right for everyone, rather than everyone’s energy being sucked up by the economy. Dream about an economy working in harmony with the embracing ecosystem. Then, minus the usual human strife for gain, everyone could awaken in a more harmonious society.

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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