Unfinished Business
Until somebody measures the worth of Earth, many other issues must remain unresolved.
July 13, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

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

Some natives of colonized countries would like to know how much natural rents total. Showing the size of that spending stream to be staggering, they could argue that there is plenty to go around, easily enough for European settlers to pay the original inhabitants a rent as compensation for displacing the aborigines—something that Australia's first inhabitants have asked for. Since they got here first, and many people feel being first entitles one to the status of rightful owners, directing a hefty portion of that stream into their pockets and tribal treasuries would appear fair.

Activists as Allies?

Similarly, some environmentalists would like to know how much money society spends for the nature it uses. Knowing that “price tag”, they can argue that land and resources are way to valuable to be ruined or wasted. They’d use exchange value in defense of the priceless.

Even some libertarians, with a sense of their own history, see the roots of their intellectual lineage in the writings of Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson who, living in an era of expansion, naturally regarded land as prominent. Today’s pseudo-libertarians, the ones longing to drown government in bathtub, see a role for land’s rent. Their tax base could be limited to rent, however much that is.

Among wannabe reformers of economies, a passionate segment focuses on money. They don’t see how anyone can measure rent or pay it if money is not defined properly. They ponder whether, instead of gold or other precious metals, if the utility of sites could be used as a backing to replace current governmental fiat currency, and so they would like someone to determine the value of all land.

Academics as Allies?

Within the discipline of economics, practitioners sense a crisis. The old guard missed calling the recent recession that pained many people. The new guard miss the glory days of capitalism-bashing—albeit some are open to a non-left, non-right third way. And some academics do want to be able to predict. Both old and new groups have an inkling that they could found their breakthrough efforts on solid data for the worth of Earth.

Not to mention the formal economists at the helplines of statistical agencies—both public and private––who still want us to come up with money for their data—and to return their calls.

To be fair, there are sympathetic academics who are curious to know the size of rent. Understanding it’s a flow—paid by some received by others—they know the quantity of rent can be suggested by the number of people paying it. Further, comparing that number to those receiving it shows how rent, as debt, is a funnel of money from many to few—which is likely why measurements of rent—as a separate category—are neither taken by public agencies or made public by others.

Unmasking Rent Recipients

The sites for which people pay the most rent are in cities. Where people pile themselves upon one another to live and work—downtowns—that’s where they pay the most to own or occupy land. Density up, land value up.

Since urban residents and businesses pay so much, investors and lenders do what they can to capture that healthy stream of payments. Where site value is up, those are places that investors have in their sights. You can bank on it. And of course the banking establishment does.

Further, as land value increases, land ownership decreases—absentee ownership is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to prime terrain. So goes the American Dream.

And the fewer those billionaire owners are Americans—if that actually matters. Investors come from all over the globe, from wherever people are rich. Equally, rich Americans ship their investment dollars into well located real estate abroad.

Cities are where people pay the most money for the least land. Countrysides are where people own the most land for the least money. Some billionaires own spreads in the West the size of small East Coast states. There being so much Western land leaves lots for others, so most people can not sense the fact that three percent of Americans own 95% of the privately held land. That’s a far cry from the ideal of Thomas Jefferson who thought it’d be a good idea for America to be a nation of small farmers.

Can Beneficiaries Persuade?

Determining the worth of Earth almost can’t help but uncover the major owners of Earth. Hence those hoping to identify owners and aristocrats offer their encouragement to geonomists. So do all the other groups who would benefit from the size of rent being made public.

Yet it’s easy to cheer on others from the sidelines and altogether a different matter actually researching the data on society’s spending for land and resources—a lot harder than it may look. If one talks it, should they not walk it?

On the other hand, the optimist likes to remind us that truth will out. Perhaps. Eventually. But how? Raise funds? We researchers must also fundraise to be able to purchase the private data? Fundraising is a whole separate challenge in itself. So it’s not at all clear the encouragement of curious beneficiaries will rub off.

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

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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 A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at