Some secrets are not legally kept. Some of the facts that government classifies as “secret” actually should not be withheld from the citizenry. In the US, Rep. John Moss (whose mother died and whose father skipped out when he was a kid, yet who succeeded in business) spent scores in office securing the rights of the “little guy”. Since “sunlight” is the best disinfectant for government corruption, Moss spent over a decade doggedly promoting a bill for the Freedom of Information. The Act became law on Independence Day, 1966—two centuries exactly after Sweden passed theirs. It requires government agencies to release files they keep that do not pertain to national security upon receiving a formal request from a US citizen.
There’s one possibly secreted datum that federal agencies either don’t know or are not telling. It’s the most vital statistic relevant to everything from predicting the business cycle to financing free time. It’s the worth of Earth, the value of natural resources and locations in the land called America.
Going by the mandate of certain government agencies, and judging by some of the reports they have issued in the past, it’s reasonable to assume that said public agencies would collect, collate, update, and publicize the size of our spending, en masse, for those useful aspects of nature—an inherited asset never produced by anyone’s labor. And, that said bureaucracies would make available to the public the measure of that fat spending stream. Yet they don’t.
They do something else. These federal bureaucracies release tons of standardized statistics all the time—each week, every month, and once a year—on GDP, employment, inflation, etc, but not this crucial number, the annual rental value of all locations, not only on the surface but also in the electromagnetic spectrum, for example. Even when pestered by a relentless researcher, still they won’t yield this Holy Grail of statistics.
Lord knows, I tried myself. I tried to get activists accustomed to lobbying the government to try. I tried to get reputable academics who rely on official figures to try. No one has been able to pry loose an exact and current total for the value of the in-use nature of America.
So if they won’t release that stat when asked politely by a curious member of the public, perhaps they’ll feel more willing to cooperate when directed to do so by a legal, formal, federal order. We citizens won our Freedom of Information Act. It does ferret out secreted info sometimes. An inquiry could yield results for us, too. We might as well give our FOIA a shot.
Once we do that, then the bureaucrats got to fess up, right?
I’m a little hesitant because so far the agencies have been cordial. I’d hate to appear confrontational and antagonize them. Getting an FOIA request could just make them clam up. But what else can an incurable inquirer do? Revealing the socially-generated value of locations to society is for the good of all, after all.
While how they’ll react is a legitimate concern, a more immediate issue is the obtuse text on websites provided by the US Government on how to use the FOIA (there's a website to explain their website). A citizen can only hope that their request is made according to the bureaucracy’s rules. And if any mistake is made, it won’t completely derail the request.
The list of federal agencies for us to demand an answer from is long. The following have in their mandate explicit instructions to gather the desired data and/or have published a report in the past on the total rental value of some or all land, of some or all resources. They are: the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Land Management, Census Bureau, CIA (believe it), Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, Departments of Agriculture, of Commerce, Federal Communications Commission (for the value of the EM spectrum), Federal Housing Administration, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, General Services Administration, Government Accountability Office, Housing and Urban Development, Labor (Bureau of Labor Statistics), Library of Congress, Office of Management and Budget, Treasury (Bureau of the Fiscal Service), and two quasi governmental agencies, the Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research—totaling 20+2 bureaucracies that got our FOIA request.
We got them now! The FOIA is federal law, passed by Congress, signed by the President of the United States. Those targeted agencies have a mere matter of days to get back to the applicant. Finally, this should shed some sunlight on the most pivotal tally in all economic record-keeping. Right?
It should, if the chain of command behaves as advertised. Be aware, though, that John F. Kennedy reportedly expressed amazement upon discovering how little power the president of the United States actually had, how unresponsive bureaucracies were to his executive orders. Well, words-on-paper is one thing; adherence to those words is something else altogether. I’m hardly the president or the executive of anything, so …
Within days, the letters from the bureaucracies did begin to pour in. Many were form letters, yet many others were unique and original to address my unheard of request. I was grateful for the time that a busy bureaucrat took to reply and held my breath.
The end results? Not all even bothered to answer. Those that did said they did not track “rents”, our society’s spending on land, resources, spectrum, etc. Those that did track real estate values said they did not keep separate the value of human-made buildings from the value of physics-made land. Nor did they offer to separate for me the two drastically difference values, to make clear our two drastically different spendings—one that rewards human effort (production) and one that rewards social advantage (ownership).
Sigh. And I thought I was being so clever and strategic, employing the FOIA. What I was being was naive, especially to expect a response any better than what a president of this great nation got. Still, it’s such a letdown that this pressure tactic did not yield anything new.
You know, if an agency did not have the answer, it’d be easy to say so. But if an agency did have the answer, it could be hard to say so and reveal the impactful answer … that is, if the powerful insiders who now capture most of the rental stream had mandated government, subtly or not, to not publicize the fatness, the very existence of rent, in order to keep the public in the dark. Would that explain why some agencies did not reply at all?
The law is on the elite’s side. They make it, they can break it (which is the way all societies operate). For an ordinary citizen, calling upon the law is just a shot in the dark. Those with power might obey it, they might not. Whatever factors influence an agency’s decision to comply or not are hidden from public view.
So, if our bureaucracies do have the answer, who can get it out of them? Who else can a determined researcher ask to ask the government collectors of data to open the books? Elected representatives seem like the logical candidates, especially since they have their own research service.
However, if no public agency actually has the grand tally, which private ones do? And if they’re similarly reticent, who can be recruited to break through to them? As elected officials supposedly rule government bureaucrats (although the experience of President Kennedy suggests otherwise), who rules the private number-crunchers?
Regardless, an intrepid researcher will think of more tactics to try, and try them all, tout suite.
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JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.