The Gilded Age: Then and Now

Earthsharing readers will want to tune in to PBS’s American Experience on February 6th for a new documentary on the Gilded Age. This trailer will whet your appetite: it describes the period of the last three decades of the 19th century as “an age of possibilities,” “an age of extreme wealth,” and simultaneously — like today — “an age of extreme poverty.

The term Gilded Age comes from th    e 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain. (The book was cowritten by Charles Dudley Warner; it was the only one of Mark Twain’s books to have a co-author, which probably explains why it was his least-popular book.) It’s revealing that the term is “Gilded” rather than “Golden” – implying a surface prettying-up, a patina applied over a much grittier underlying reality.

Just this week, we heard Donald Trump brag about the strong economy over which he is presiding, the GDP growth, the record-setting stock market. President Rutherford B. Hayes offered a similar message in his 1877 State of the Union speech:

There has been a general reestablishment of order and of the orderly administration of justice. Instances of remaining lawlessness have become of rare occurrence; political turmoil and turbulence have disappeared; useful industries have been resumed; public credit in the Southern States has been greatly strengthened, and the encouraging benefits of a revival of commerce between the sections of the country lately embroiled in civil war are fully enjoyed.

In those days, America was being made great again following the withdrawal of federal troops from the defeated states of the South, ending the reconstruction period, and ushering in that Renaissance of American race relations that came to be known as the Jim Crow era.

The big question in my mind, though, is whether this “Gilded Age” program is just about the past, or about what’s happening now. One of the things, after all, that swept Donald Trump so unexpectedly into office is the growing number of Americans who feel left behind, who are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet every month, and whose wages have not kept pace with the stock market and productivity growth. Over the last few decades many people have been talking about a new “Gilded Age.” Indeed, the immigration issue amounts to another side of the same question: many people fear that their standard of living is threatened by competition from workers in other countries – or willing to come here – who’ll work for less.

Many commentators, pointing to many charts like this one, note that the huge trend starting in the mid-1970s: for wages to diverge from overall rates of productivity. You’ll note that this chart shows both lines rising together before that – wages, in other words, increasing along with productivity, like they ought to. The clear implication here is that wage increases are supposed to track productivity increases, and that “something happened in 1970s” to disrupt that healthy trend.

The real truth of the matter, though, is that the long-term trend much more akin to the right side, post-1970s, part of the chart. Actually, something happened in the late 1940s: a confluence of new deal programs, the G.I. Bill, the rise of labor union membership and post-war prosperity in general. Prior to 1940, the long-term trend looked just like the left-hand side of our chart. In fact, just what the great American political economist Henry George described in his 1879 bestseller Progress and Poverty: “It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.” George also wrote in that book, “The association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times.” Clearly, the tendency for productivity to increase while wages get pressed downward is the long-term historical trend, not simply the result of “something that happened in 1970s.”

The PBS documentary devotes at least ten minutes to Henry George, who was one of the seminal voices of the Gilded Age. Progress and Poverty became an international bestseller largely because George, who had experienced extreme poverty in his own life, wrote with deep feeling and empathy about the abject suffering that seemed inextricably tied to economic progress. This made him an influential voice, and even led the combined labor parties to draft him to run for mayor of New York City in 1886 – and he nearly won, beating Theodore Roosevelt, only losing, some say, because the Tammany Hall candidate, Abram S. Hewitt, got illegal help.

There is even a separate trailer about this segment of the film, which elevates George to the level of fame enjoyed by Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. Unfortunately, though, filmmaker Sarah Colt emphasizes Henry George’s biography — his hardscrabble early years and his dramatic mayoral race — at the expense of his analysis. Viewers of this documentary will see the problem of deepening poverty along with material progress as a matter of society’s inevitable power dynamic between Haves and Have-nots — a state of affairs that Henry George poetically described, but for which he offered no workable remedy.

Henry George would’ve hastened to point out that the income-gap chart above only represents half the story, and not the more interesting half. Over time, the income gap leads inexorably to the wealth gap – which is far, far greater. “Wealth,” in this context, refers to assets can be piled up, stored, bequeathed and collateralized – not just to widgets made by widget-factories and sold in widget stores. Millions and millions of middle-class Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, storing up no “wealth.” Indeed, a big part of their income goes to paying interest on the consumer debt that they’ve piled up as they tried to keep pace with the lifestyle that their declining wages can no longer support.

The biggest point of Progress and Poverty and Henry George’s other books was that there is one asset, one form of “wealth,” whose importance outweighs every other kind. He stressed the point, which many had made before him, that no person can live, work or produce anything at all without access to land: the surface of the earth and all of the natural resources it contains. As technology and productivity improve, the value of land – which nobody is making any more of – can do nothing but increase. As social progress increases, the total of resources that we now call “natural capital” can do nothing but become more important in every way: environmentally, politically and – especially – financially. Yet the “natural capital” is owned by private individuals and corporations. Hence the new “Gilded Age.”

This point, by the way, was not lost on Mark Twain. The Gilded Age, in 1873, was all about land speculation. The quest to get rich from simply owning a piece of well-placed ground is the backbone of the book’s plot. Twain went further, though. He was acquainted with George in San Francisco, where Progress and Poverty was written. Twain was quoted as saying, “The earth belongs to the people. I believe in the gospel of the single tax.” The pointedly Georgist article “Archimedes” appeared in Henry George’s newspaper The Standard under the byline “Twark Main,” and Twain scholars have endorsed it as Mark Twain’s work.

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Getting It Together in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has been in the news lately, mainly because of the Rohingya refugees that have been pouring into it from Myanmar – close to a million of them. We can be pretty sure that the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been very, very bad– if for no other reason than the fact of where they’ve been going — Bangladesh has nothing even close to sumptuous accommodations for them.

I had been wondering about conditions in Bangladesh, because of its geographic status as a place certain to get hit very hard indeed by the many forces of climate change. It is low-lying, full of rivers and deltas which are being massively swelled by accelerating glacier melt from the Himalayas. Additionally, India diverts large amounts of water to irrigation during growing seasons — and then releases it Bangladesh’s way during rainy ones, exacerbating flooding. If you can think of any one nation that would be getting slammed by climate change, Bangladesh would be the one.

And yet, a bit of cursory Googling reveals heartening surprises about how things are going these days in Bangladesh. Despite the many geographic, demographic and geopolitical challenges this nation faces, in a number of key measures, it is doing much better than nations that seem to face far fewer challenges. Bangladesh’s economy grew by 7.1% in 2016, and it grew by at least 6% for each of the previous six years. It’s middle class is expanding much more quickly than comparable developing nations – it is said to be closing in on the “middle range” societies, those that are developing an appreciably influential middle class. Life expectancies and infant-mortality numbers have improved significantly. It cannot be doubted that there’s some good stuff going on in Bangladesh.

A Scientific American article about the horrific effects of climate change in Bangladesh nevertheless offered these facts:

Fazle Karim Chowdhury, a Member of Parliament, who explained, with a measure of pride, “once there was a shortage of food, now we export food.” Bangladesh once led the world in child mortality. No longer. Due to better health care, life expectancy rose by 10 years, from 59 to 69 between 1990 and 2010. Providing free birth control empowered women and reduced the fertility rate from seven children per woman to three, which is substantially lowering population growth rates. Universal primary education is helping to create a more skilled workforce. Perhaps most impressive, the poverty rate declined from 57 percent to 25 percent between 1990 and 2014.

A widely-publicized terror attack 2016 hit the popular Holey Artisan Bakery in the capital city of Dhaka – and some suicide bombings followed. However, these had been the first Islamist terror attacks in Bangladesh since before 2005. On balance, Bangladesh has seen very little terrorist activity. ISIS has declared a desire to open up some form of Islamic state front in Bangladesh, due to its strategic location – but, there seems to be little indication that such efforts are gaining traction.

The big news: the Rohingya

As has been widely reported, the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have been fleeing unspeakably horrible conditions of ethnic cleansing, and the vast majority of them have gone to the closest place they could reach, across the border from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, to the Cox’s Bazaar region in Bangladesh. Nearly 1,000,000 of them have settled in makeshift refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Seven other Muslim countries have absorbed about 750,000 Rohingya refugees. Ill-equipped Bangladesh has borne the greatest burden, by far. A group of NGOs and foundations have announced a goal to raise $434 million to aid the Rohingya; it’s not yet clear how much of that will be delivered.

There are some indications that this massive influx of suffering and needy refugees has engendered some political controversy in Bangladesh. There are some reports of “increased authoritarian tendencies,” but in general, the political upshot of this seems to be rather slight. Indications are that Bangladesh is simply doing its best to make do in a difficult situation, providing what meager sanitation, water and food supplies they can in the gigantic Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps. Though it may seem callous to say so, one gets the impression that Bangladesh’s Rohingya situation is just one more thing on the list of difficult challenges that the country is dealing with. Last fall, a proposal was floated in the parliament to relocate a couple of hundred thousand of the Rohingya to a small, entirely inadequate and indeed sinking island in the Bay of Bengal – but fortunately the proposal seems to have been shelved.

Dhaka: the megacity’s megacity

Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, is by all accounts an astoundingly busy place. Its current population is estimated at 18 million, and it is growing by some 400,000 people every year. It is the world’s fastest-growing city. The incentives for such explosive growth aren’t hard to identify: things like the stresses to the countryside caused by sea-level rise, severe cyclones and those melting Himalayan glaciers. And, as chaotic as the capital city might seem, it promises attractive economic opportunities, compared to the profound stresses faced by subsistence farmers (despite the fact that Bangladesh’s delta-enriched soils have traditionally been some of the most fertile in the entire world). There are old sections of Dhaka that boast architectural treasures, but, of course, huge tracts of the city now amount to little more than shantytowns, informal settlements such as are seen in any number of developing-country megacities. Yet one gets the distinct impression that in Dhaka, all of these processes are intensified – not just those that lead to chaos, but also those that lead to prosperity. Of course, like most of Bangladesh, Dhaka is quite close to sea level. Surrounded by great rivers whose flows have become increasingly unpredictable in recent years, Dhaka is estimated to be the worst-situated urban area in the world. Flooding is endemic. Local transportation is often provided by rickshaw drivers, who can frequently be seen pedaling through streets with two feet of water in them. These guys have to have the strongest quadriceps in all of Asia!

And yet, somehow, most of those hordes of people pouring into Dhaka are managing to make a living. Dhaka is by no means a wealthy city; average family income there is currently about $170 per month – but that is up. A recent World Bank report showed that income for the poorest 40% of Bangladeshis grew by half a percentage point during that period during the last six years of strong growth; in India, that trend was precisely the reverse. Yale economist Ahmed Mushfiq, quoted in Quartz Media, said, “Bangladesh’s recent success can be attributed to two major factors: the flourishing garment manufacturing industry and the country’s robust NGO sector.”

What we mostly recall in the West about the Bangladeshi garment industry is the horrible 2013 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka, in which 1,100 workers were killed. It would be an exaggeration to say that working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry have been transformed; the labor market is still very competitive – but the profits to be gained in the industry have created incentives for far more hospitable working conditions. Today’s factories tend to be clean and efficiently run. In 2015 Bangladesh exported over $26 billion worth of clothing, second only to China.

Demographics have played a fortuitous role as well. Eighty percent of workers in the garment industry are women, and it is clear that economic empowerment of women tends to have an outsized influence over economic development generally. Among Muslim countries, Bangladesh has long enjoyed a reputation for religious tolerance. There has been some unrest and inter-religious violence in recent years — but far less than has been seen in, say, Pakistan. Most encouragingly, economic and health indicators for women in Bangladesh have improved across the board since the early 2000s. The broader demographic picture is favorable as well: unlike many developing countries, some 40% of Bangladesh’s population is now in its most-productive age range: 25-54 years.

In a country starting from as low an economic level as Bangladesh has, what these trends lead to is the rise of a middle class. “Middle-class” can be defined in various ways. Business interests looking for marketing opportunities in Bangladesh seem to be defining it as a household income of $5,000 a year or more, a level of income that tends to allow Bangladeshis to buy “luxury items” such as air-conditioners, refrigerators, or automobiles – all of which are beginning to sell well in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, in Dhaka

It certainly stands to reason that the lion’s share of economic growth and activity in Bangladesh would be taking place in the capital city. That’s where everyone is going; that’s where things are happening. Yet that is where the chaos is greatest! Many commentators have reported that Dhaka’s most defining characteristic is its horrendously snarled, essentially immobile transportation situation. It takes literally hours to get anywhere in this city. A relatively small number of automobiles have recently appeared in the city; they confer prestige and status, but the streets are by no means designed for them, and they take up a lot of room. In fact, people try to get around Dhaka in every imaginable kind of conveyance, from rickshaws and donkey carts, to the small three-wheeled motorized taxicabs that are quite common, to bicycles and feet – all trying to make their way through the same narrow and frequently-flooded streets. Indeed, the rivers of Dhaka are nearly as crowded as the streets; watercraft of all sizes (and degrees of repair) careen dangerously around the city on the rivers. The entire transport picture in Dhaka is one of nearly-incomprehensible randomness and chaos. It’s very hard to imagine how goods get to market, how business people get to appointments or how children get to school.

A great deal could be done to improve the flow of traffic in Dhaka. It would take careful study, of course – and any solution would have to account for all of the local, organic factors of Dhaka’s unique traffic situation. Simply dedicating certain pathways to each of the many different kinds of conveyances that are now poured onto Dhaka’s chaotic streets would be a tremendous improvement. If the tricycle taxis, for example, didn’t have to dodge the rickshaws and the donkey carts, they could vastly decrease their travel times. If I could suggest a policy, I would ask a consortium of well-placed foundations, such as the Gates, the Clinton, the MacArthur, etc., to pull together a fund of $300 million to design and implement a comprehensive traffic flow plan for the city of Dhaka. This plan could not simply come from outside experts. It would have to be designed, from the ground up, with input from the people who actually live in and try to travel in Dhaka. Such a well-funded plan would probably even have some money left over to start creating some of the necessary infrastructure. But the initial plan’s goal would not be to build a lot of superhighways, but rather to come up with a comprehensive plan that would help Dhaka make the most efficient use of its existing roads, streets and waterways. Of course, new transportation infrastructure – including public transportation systems – would be forthcoming. But that calls for more funding. Let’s talk about that in a moment.

It might be reasonable to expect the United States government to contribute some of this exploratory funding. One might think the US would benefit in terms of goodwill as well as business – but that’s not going to happen. Our current administration simply thinks that “those Muslims” want “our jobs.” Our current administration is in fact quite stupid about this. You can get a perfectly-good pair of Bangladesh-made jeans at Walmart for twenty bucks. But have you priced a pair of 100% American-made Levi’s jeans lately? Their most popular pair, model 501, original fit, will run you $168. Other US-made Levi’s jeans can be had for as little as $88. Sometimes shipping is free.

We have a few modest proposals

Here at Earthsharing we pay a lot of attention to the issue of public revenue; we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. But, it’s not merely an obsession; we believe that society’s choices about public revenue reveal the most important aspects of the essential relationship between individuals and the community. The leading source of tax revenue in Bangladesh is the value-added tax, or VAT, at just under 30% of overall revenue. The next-largest sources are import duties and personal and corporate income taxes — which take relatively smaller bites. From a business-competitiveness point of view, the news is somewhat good; Bangladesh’s ratio of tax rate to GDP is considerably lower than India’s. Nevertheless, the VAT is by no means an efficient or advantageous source of public revenue. It is sometimes defended on the grounds of encouraging exports — particularly, if the country exports a lot to the United States, which, luckily, has no VAT. But that is hardly a good reason to have a VAT at home – not if there is a better alternative.

Well, there is. A landmark 2010 study, done by Ahsan H. Mansur and Mohammad Yunus for the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, detailed the many inefficiencies of the VAT in Bangladesh, and recommended replacing it with the system of broad-based capital gains and land value taxes.

The Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque in Old Dhaka

As you might expect, Earthsharing recommends land value taxation – most particularly in crowded, growing cities. It’s certainly likely that a place like Dhaka has many lingering land-tenure and cadastral issues. Yet these problems are unlikely to be intractable. The city certainly has a functioning and indeed lively real estate market. Given the extreme density of population – and therefore the intense level of involvement of Dhaka’s people with literally every square inch of the ground they occupy, it stands to reason that the people have a very clear seat-of-the-pants understanding of what Dhaka real estate is worth. Under such conditions, a highly-accurate land cadastre would require just two things: a sincere desire among its organizers to find and publish accurate data, and real input from normal people. These aren’t sure things politically, of course, but they are at least conceivable.

Various accounts track real estate values in Dhaka as having risen by about 90% over the past ten years. It seems that some cautious optimism would be justified about the positive effects of $300 million being effectively spent on designing and implementing improved traffic-patterns in Dhaka. How could that not bump up land values?

So: here are my modest proposals. I don’t claim to have any particular political sway over the situation, obviously – I’ll just submit that they make enough sense to merit real consideration. First, Bangladesh should scrap the VAT. Just do away with it; it never was any good. The roughly 29% of national revenue it now provides could be made up with land value taxes over a three-or-four-year phase-in period. In fairly short order, buildings, commerce and even personal income could be made exempt from taxation. Would that not accelerate all of the positive economic trends in Bangladesh, and even, possibly provide funding to help abate some of the most dangerous threats posed by climate change?

It does not do to try to minimize or gloss over the exceedingly daunting problems faced by developing megacities such as Dhaka. Yet at the same time, it has been well established that the overall ecological footprint, the economic efficiency and the per-capita sustainability of production improves when poor people move from stressed, impoverished rural areas into cities. With all of Dhaka’s urban stresses, those processes are manifestly going on there, right now. With some sensible city-planning and public revenue policies, this “world’s most chaotic city” could become a great 21st-century success story.

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Sandtown: Too Far Down?

When do we just walk away? How far down does a neighborhood, or a city (or a nation, or a planet) have to go before we accept that the cause is lost, that no reform or movement can save it?

Ursula LeGuin’s “Hainish” series of novels deals with a federation of planets, far in the future. These stories represent our planet in a chillingly matter-of-fact way. Hundreds of years before, Earth had been rendered all but inhabitable by war and pollution. Little mention is made of this in any of the Hainish novels; it is just a sad fact of their history. As such — for LeGuin is a master at creating fully-formed, believable alternate worlds — this brief treatment of Earth’s possible future is deeply disturbing.

There are a number of islands and low-lying regions, around the world, that will likely have to be abandoned as sea levels inexorably rise over the next few decades. The Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, for example, averages 1.3 meters above sea level, and is disappearing rapidly. In Bangladesh, a third of the country’s land area floods every year, and farmers have been forced to develop rafted crops that can float above what used to be their land.

Mural of Malcolm X, Nina Simone and James Baldwin by Baltimore artist and teacher Ernest Shaw

And then there’s Baltimore, Maryland, the once-proud port and industrial city, home of the Orioles, distinctive marble front stoops that rowhouse residents would lovingly polish, and more registered historical monuments per square acre than any other US city. These days, though, it’s the setting of the dystopian TV hit “The Wire,” and the scene of epic conflict between the police and the populace.

Baltimore’s problems are particularly focused in the storied neighborhood of Sandtown (officially it’s called “Sandtown-Winchester”). In years past, Sandtown was the city’s preeminent African-American neighborhood. Prominent natives include Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall. Its nightlife was legendary; in the 50s and 60s all the top black performers made sure to perform in the nightclubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. The long-enduring Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania has been bringing men together for games, music and drinks since 1905. Now it is an outpost in a desert.

The Arch Social Club

Sandtown today is better-known as Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. If you’re just joining us, Freddie Gray was a 25 year old Baltimore man who was arrested for no reason other than fleeing the police (which Baltimoreans routinely do, just usually a bit less suddenly). After Gray was fatally injured in the back of a police van, six officers were initially placed on paid leave — and were then acquitted of homicide in his death. This led to widespread protests, some of which became violent.

Of course, there is more to it. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Baltimore endured riots that were much larger and more destructive than the “Freddie Gray uprising.” Furthermore, though Baltimore started losing manufacturing jobs in the 1960s, it was after the 1968 rioting that its population really started to fall. There are large swaths of abandoned houses in Baltimore that have stood empty since then. The sad truth of the matter is that many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods were abandoned after 1968, and have never recovered.

In 1960, Baltimore City was home to 939,000 people. Its population today is just under 615,000. Along with this decline, the city’s racial and economic composition changed drastically. The processes of “white flight and urban decay” were going on in many US cities during this period, but they seemed to hit Baltimore especially hard. The basic outline is well-known: the tax base dwindled, schools (and all manner of public infrastructure and services) suffered; crime burgeoned.

Nobody would deny that police officers in Baltimore have a hard job. Recently there have been reforms, body cams have been adopted and sensitivity training has been undergone. Yet these problems are deeply established. Addressing them will demand lots of time and patience. Today, 44% of Baltimore’s police force is African-American, and less than 50% is white. Nevertheless, about 65% of Baltimore’s people, and over 95% of Sandtown’s residents, are black. The police seldom live in the areas they patrol. It’s pretty much inevitable that they would come to be seen (and, perhaps, to see themselves) as an occupying force in hostile territory. In black neighborhoods there is no incentive to cooperate with the police, and strong reasons not to. “Snitches” are hated. In 2002 a family of seven died when their house was firebombed after they alerted the police to drug dealing and other crime in their neighborhood.

Jobs are scarce. For young black men, or for those with felony convictions, they are nonexistent. Drugs filled an economic void. There was a strong incentive to recruit kids, young enough to be prosecuted as juveniles, for handling and retailing illegal drugs. All of these factors led to a truly terrifying social spiral. In Sandtown, every socioeconomic indicator bottomed out. For example, unemployment in Sandtown stands at 21%; more than 55% of households have an annual income of less than $25,000. There are twice as many stores that sell alcohol and tobacco as in the average Baltimore neighborhood. One in every four buildings in Sandown is vacant. Not surprisingly, this neighborhood has the highest number of felony convictions per capita in Baltimore.

I have been reading about Sandtown with sincere interest, but I’ve never been there. Were I to go, I doubt that I would feel either welcome or comfortable. I’ve had to tour the neighborhood using Google Street view — which shows people walking around, or sitting on stoops, their faces blurred out. In my virtual strolls, I noticed three pervasive aspects of the neighborhood. First, of course, is all the abandoned buildings; they’re everywhere. Second is the striking number of churches. One can hardly travel more than two blocks without finding another one, and they range from proud century-old edifices to basement congregations with a cross painted on the street-side wall. Third, one sees how few businesses there are in this neighborhood. Baltimore counts a fairly high number of small markets and take-out places in Sandtown. But one soon sees that these “businesses” are very rudimentary. Any fool can see that there is little legal entrepreneurship in Sandtown.

As if to finally prove the hopelessness of the situation, in the 1990s the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood was given a big dose of special financial help. The Enterprise Foundation, an organization specializing in funding and constructing affordable housing, raised $130 million to spend in Sandtown in an attempt to show that a comprehensive effort could succeed in revitalizing a single neighborhood. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little to show for all this investment. A 2015 study examined Sandtown’s rates of various indicators of well-being, including educational levels, employment, lead-contamination, murder rates, etc. — and found that homeownership was the only indicator that improved during this time; it went up by some 30%. Unfortunately, this came at a time when homeownership in such a place is a precarious investment, for all the obvious economic reasons — and then, the great crash of 2008 delivered a body blow, causing home prices all over Baltimore to plummet, and creating a jump in foreclosures throughout the city.

Notwithstanding all of Sandtown’s scary challenges, there are still people who raise children there, send them to school, go to church and to work. There are still people there who have neither fled, succumbed to addiction nor joined street gangs. There are still people in Sandtown, in short, who are doing their best to make a living.

Such folks are aware that Baltimore, which has been struggling for decades to fund adequate schools and basic services, has a conventional tax system. There is a property tax on land and buildings; there is also a small state property tax. There is a personal property tax, falling on various forms of movable and capital property; this imposes a particularly tough penalty on small business. And there is a flat city income tax of 3.12%. Given the many economic challenges that face anyone trying to make a living in a place like Sandtown, it seems likely that these tax burdens put the last nail in the coffin of entrepreneurial opportunity.

By now, Earthsharing readers should be somewhat familiar with the Henry George Theorem. Briefly, this theorem, which is an accepted part of today’s economic canon, states that in any reasonably well-run city, the annual rental value of its land is a sufficient fund for all of its public infrastructure needs. As a city invests in public infrastructure and services, these things enhance its land values. Public services that are paid for by land rent, in fact, finance themselves.

This suggests a modest proposal that could be made for a place like Sandtown. There is precedent for a program that targets a single needy neighborhood. But what’s the use? Society threw $130 million at Sandtown and it didn’t work. Yet it is possible the local entrepreneurial choices, small at first, can be better-targeted and more effective than a clumsily-targeted outside initiative.

Here is a suggestion for a pilot program. Suppose, within the boundaries of Sandtown-Winchester, we eliminate the city taxes on buildings, personal property and income. This would mean that a renovated residential building, or any new small-business investment, would be tax-free. Say someone wants to open a grocery, a bar, an auto-body shop or even (dare one dream!) a bookstore. Suddenly it would be more attractive to establish these businesses in Sandtown than in surrounding neighborhoods that still labor under conventional tax burdens.

If Sandtown eliminated all those taxes, where would it get its revenue? It’s probably worth saying that today’s Sandtown is not a huge revenue source for the city of Baltimore. Its underground economy is likely considerably larger than its taxable economy, in any case. But in our pilot project, anyway, what revenue Sandtown did bring in — which will probably not be far short of, and might even exceed, what it currently brings in — would come from a tax on its land value.

We can’t expect miracles. Sandtown, along with other neighborhoods like it, has been deeply troubled for a long time. Yet one can imagine that the people who live there, who have had so little reason for optimism, might rally around new businesses and renovations — might help to support and protect them. If, indeed, it’s ever time to give up on a neighborhood, that day isn’t here yet. A basket case can still hold the building materials of a healthy community.

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Flooding in Houston: No Real Surprise

Officials kept telling interviewers that nothing on this level had ever happened, that the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey was a millennial event. This seems to have been both true and not true — and really, more the latter. Turns out that this is the third 500-year flooding event Houston has seen in the last three years. Something is definitely going on here. It seems likely that climate change is a factor; many commentators noted that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are alarmingly warm this year. That allowed the storm to quickly build in intensity as it swept toward the Texas coast — and, it allowed it to pick up that much more water when it veered back over the Gulf, and then dump it on Houston.

There is another factor: Houston’s motto is “the city with no limits.” This is seen metaphorically, of course, in the spirit of can-do American enterprise. Yet there’s some irony in the fact that it seems to have been taken literally, too: Houston seems to think it has endless land on which to build (and takes pride on having very few land-use regulations). Population has grown rapidly, and Houston has recklessly sprawled out, paving over absorbent grassland. Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic: “Houston poses both a typical and an unusual situation for stormwater management. The city is enormous, stretching out over 600 square miles. It’s an epitome of the urban sprawl characterized by American exurbanism, where available land made development easy at the edges.”

Sprawl development is often seen as a natural process, just the way things are done these days. For example, back in 2005 the Lincoln Institute issued a report on “American Spatial Development and the New Megalopolis” that implied, with apparent approval, that sprawled-out exurban regions are the new normal, delivering a high quality of life and a good deal of convenience. The report made no mention of the environmental consequences of this mode of development. (It also claimed, dubiously, that urban centers had reached the limits of their infrastructures and would be hard-pressed to accept many more people.) As an example of the exurban model, Houston has been thriving. It is arguably the most diverse city in the US, and unemployment is quite low. Aside from flooding, Houston is nowhere nearly as bad off as many US cities. If you aren’t worried about egregious waste of land and resources, and miles and miles of impermeable pavement shunting water off onto lower-lying (and lower-income) neighborhoods, then Houston is doing pretty well.

Houston has three beltways. The first, I-610, now called the “Inner Loop”, became part of the Interstate Highway system in 1956, encircling the city of Houston proper, as beltways tend to do. A second 88-mile loop, Texas Route 8, or the Sam Houston Parkway, was begun in the late 70s and completed in the early 90s. Now, a third beltway is under construction: Texas Route 99, or the Grand Parkway, will be the longest beltway in the US, encircling an area the size of Rhode Island. Each new loop has, of course, raised land values further out from the city, and led to new waves of sprawl development. These new developments are not always middle-class enclaves, however. Josh Vincent, Director of the Center for the Study of Economics, notes

Keep in mind that Houston with ring roads like the 610 can get people in and out (in good weather) quickly from areas that have little apparent land value. That’s where a lot of low income and subsidized housing is built — I’d say most of it. They have little land value because they are intentionally placed in floodplains. The Feds still provide funding to rebuild after floods because that’s where the city wants low income housing. Climate change may well be playing a role, of course, but the city fathers are clear that they do not care to pay for massive infrastructure to handle flooding. If you look at the views of the flooded city, you’ll note that the bayous and streams are where they built most of the road infrastructure.

Indeed, the low-lying roadways are where a lot of the water has collected, which makes Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to call for an evacuation seem sensible under the circumstances.

Two major reservoirs, called Addicks and Barker, were created in the late 1940s to help control flooding in Houston. They have been in the news lately because they are past full. To guard against this, some water had been allowed to spill out, in a triage maneuver that endangered fewer neighborhoods than it protected. Ultimately, though, both reservoirs began to overflow on their own. While it’s true that Harvey brought a staggering, unprecedented amount of rain to the region, it’s also worth noting that these two dams were initially placed well outside Houston’s built-up region. Today, they are inside the new beltway, surrounded by development.

Cars, after all, are how people get around in Texas. Houston does have some public transportation; in fact its systems have recently been upgraded. Two new light rail lines have been built, at the cost of $1.4 billion. City bus routes have been reorganized, switching from a wheel-spoke pattern to a grid, to improve frequency and decrease travel times without increasing cost. Though these improvements have been moderately successful, ridership on the new train lines has been lower than expected. It’s generally known that people don’t use public transportation in Houston unless they have no other way to get places. On an average weekday about 300,000 rides are taken on Houston’s buses and trains. In New York, whose city-limits population is about 3½ times that of Houston, weekday bus-and-train ridership is about 7.6 million.

I haven’t been to Houston, so I know nothing of its folkways and nuances. I don’t doubt that there are nice things about the place; one of them seems to be the great courage and fortitude with which Houstonians have pitched in to help their neighbors during the Harvey crisis. One architectural feature of downtown Houston, though, strikes me as, well, kinda creepy. There is a six-mile network of pedestrian tunnels beneath the center-city area. They are built out with shops and restaurants, and are accessible from the basements of prominent office buildings and hotels. They are not a municipal project; as an ad-hoc, private assemblage, they seem not to be very well coordinated or mapped. Perhaps knowledgeable folk can write and tell us why they exist. I could be wrong, but I suspect that they serve as a refuge from the street-level welter of cars, huge belching pickup trucks, parking lots, gas stations, multi-lane streets, service roads and U-turn lanes full of cars, cars, cars.

Center-city Houston. Minute Maid Stadium is where the Astros play these days. The building just to the right of the search bar is an 8-story parking garage. Another one would free up seven of those surface lots!

Metropolitan Houston — the area within I-610, the innermost of the three beltways — may have too many automobiles. But it cannot be said to have too many buildings, or to be unable to absorb more residential construction. There is abundant vacant land, lots of small, obsolete buildings and MANY surface parking lots (which, of course, absorb no floodwater). Some blame this on Houston’s lack of zoning, but that can only be a small part of the story, because Houston’s sprawl is mirrored in many cities that impose stringent regulations. It’s more accurate to say that the “city with no limits” merely epitomizes the exurban model of growth, which seemed so satisfactory for a while — but now shows itself to be not just unsustainable but dangerously unlivable. It might not be an exaggeration to say that in this day and age, the anti-sprawl efficiencies of land value taxation are not just a tool for urban revitalization, but a key to urban survival.

As of the end of August, 2017, it has been reported that at least 1,200 people have died in catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

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Gun Culture

Recently I decided it was time to introduce myself to an aspect of American culture with which I had no experience. I began by picking up a copy of a magazine called Tactical Weapons.

I can understand the impulse to arm oneself in self-defense, and hunting is part of our culture and economy. But folks, the weapons in this magazine are next-level. Is it unfair to single out a trade publication dealing with law-enforcement and military hardware? Perhaps, but it seems odd that one would purchase such a specialized publication where I did: in between Hot Rod and Guitar Player at the supermarket. What uses do “normal” people have for the extreme weapons reviewed and lovingly field-tested in its pages? You’re not going after deer with these things. Are we talking about sporting, family fun — with unimaginably powerful and lethal weapons? Well, kind of.

This issue of  was dedicated to Chris Kyle, the murdered war hero, author of 160 confirmed kills on the battlefield. It featured reviews of long-range rifles, including the King Xcaliber, a top-of-the-line sniper rifle, which will pierce armor a mile away, and which you can buy for $13,900. For the less well-heeled, it also rates fifteen AR-15 variants in the $600-$900 range. For the ladies, ads offer cute pistols in designer colors.

I realize it’s a tough world. I understand that the demand for firearms is efficiently supplied by our great American free market (though, come to think of it, the Soviets seem to have been pretty good at it, too). A time may come when I, or my loved ones, would have to depend on the threat of lethal force. But if, recognizing such a need, I were to go out and buy myself a firearm, it would be something I’d do without a shred of glee. In the wake of the latest in a long series of senseless mass shootings, I am having trouble wrapping my head around the excitement, the bang people get out of guns. You know?

This excitement often comes with a strong load of righteousness. In some circles, the enjoyment of guns is evidence of real-world patriotism. It’s a dangerous world. A tyrannical state is bent on taking your freedom. A growing criminal underclass threatens your home and family. How can you be a Responsible Citizen without arming yourself to the teeth?

The opening editorial in Tactical Weapons, by Nino Bosaz, is titled “Guns, Patriots, Valor.” It extols the life and weapons of Chris Kyle, and puts into their carping little places those critics of the American Sniper film who “have little use or respect for the driving forces that kept Chris Kyle going during his valiant four tours of duty in Iraq — God, country and family.” Bosaz adds, “this issue puts the spotlight on the state of Idaho…. Be sure to check out the one-of-a-kind AR rifle put together by several Idaho-based companies. This rifle truly epitomizes the beliefs and steadfastness of our founders and framers — plus, she’s a real shooter!”

Gun-review writers contort their prose to mention legal, civilian uses for these weapons. The Barrett 98B, for instance, “scream[s] sub-MOA precision no matter the game or mission!” It’s a sniper rifle, people; there’s no game. (MOA stands for “minute of angle,” a relevant attribute for comparing the accuracy of long-range weapons.) The gun might be pricey, but it’s deadly enough that “$4,199 seems like a bargain, whether you’re a casual shooter or the purchasing officer for your police department, government agency or private contractor.” Similarly, the review of 15 “Best Bang” AR-15 rifles is lets us know that “These sub-$1,000 ARs can prove their place on the range or during missions without breaking the bank!”

Missions? I doubt that either the Pentagon or the Police are in the market for bargain-priced assault rifles. Or do they mean the mission on which the AR-15 was so effectively used at Sandy Hook elementary school? Or for which a dozen of them were equipped with “bump-stocks” to convert them from semi- to essentially fully automatic, as in Las Vegas?

Sorry. I was being effeminately petulant, there. The writer was referring to missions to defend Our Way of Life against Bad People.

Conveniently, the training one needs to be ready to fight the gummint also makes for good old family fun at the range. What could be groovier than firing 186 founds per second from the six barrels of an M134 GE machine gun (billed on YouTube as “the most fun you can have with your pants on”)? Or, for a serious law-abiding good time, you could get your hands on a Barrett M107 50mm, the most powerful rifle legally available without a special permit. In one video we see a former national pistol champion, with one shot, penetrate a 3/8″ steel plate, vaporize a watermelon (“That melon didn’t like it very much.”) and shatter a four-inch concrete block. In another video a series of guys take turns firing the big Barrett. We don’t see what they’re shooting at (the target isn’t the point). Each guy lowers himself carefully before the Barrett, peers into its precision optics and squeezes the trigger. The gun has a high-tech recoil-suppression mechanism, but it still delivers a wallop to the shoulder. Having shot, each man staggers up, giggling softly, and wanders off camera, possibly to change his underpants.

I get it: guns are awesome machines, as appealing in their way as cars, or computers. If folks want to shoot guns — safely, for their own enjoyment — how can a free society restrict them from doing so? Hammers don’t drive nails; people drive nails.

However: the legal arguments regarding gun control are not the interesting thing about this. Innocent techno-amusement is just one small part of gun enthusiasts’ enthusiasm. Elements of patriotism, righteous duty and America’s Greatness are all stirred up together into a big ol’ Texas chili of faith-based fun.

Gun enthusiasts are thrilled to pick up an AR-15 Bushmaster or an AK-47 Kalashnikoff (there’s a lively sort of Ford vs. Chevy rivalry about them) add a “bump-stock” kit to restore its fully-automatic functions, and spray hot death (safely, responsibly, on ranges). They compare the lethality of various kinds of ammo, becoming poetic about the damage this or that “load” will do to the vitals of a dirtbag dumb enough to invade your domain. Or one might prefer prefer the close-quarters awesomeness of a Tec-9 automatic handgun, with a 32-round magazine.

Folks, these guns are made for combat. Some of them — auto or semi-auto weapons with magazines holding more than 10 rounds — were banned by federal law between 1994 and 2004. They no longer are. I’m not suggesting that their sporting use should be controlled by the Thought Police, or outlawed by the Nanny State. I do think, however, that their sporting use is weird enough to bear some examination.

Seeking insight, I turned to a prolific team of You-Tubers from Georgia, creators of the popular “Gun Gripes” and “Five Guns” series. Thirty-something Eric is the factotum of the outfit, the main narrator of the series. He’s a bit chunky, as if he enjoys his beer and his Mama’s cooking, but he certainly knows his firearms. Barry, who sports a Duck Dynasty beard, is the elder statesman; in more-serious segments he dons a tweed jacket and is introduced as “Professor Barry.” Both Eric and Barry wield the additional authority of being combat veterans. Sometimes, on lighter topics, shoppers’ guides such as “Five Guns for the Zombie Apocalypse” or “Five Guns for Scaring Your Daughter’s Boyfriend,” Barry is replaced by the coming generation: trim, chipper, goateed Chad, who has a daughter on the way. And he will be, going forward: Professor Barry passed away in 2014 — but “his work lives on informing and inspiring the Second Amendment Community.”

Their presentations are lighthearted (and get millions of views), but Professor Barry made sure his viewers understood that this is serious business. In “The Psycology of Gun Ownership” (sic from the opening credits), he berated people who want to buy cheap guns, just to brandish them and scare people. Barry advised us to get a gun that we can handle, and practice until we’ve committed to reflex the skills needed to dispatch a dirtbag. Also, one should always carry two guns, because if an assailant manages to grab your weapon, he won’t expect you to have another one. That’s right, friends: it’s tough out there.

The Zombie Apocalypse is a key metaphor for these folks, “Preppers” who stockpile ammunition, arm themselves to the teeth and train to defend against a mindless, implacable enemy bent on taking their guns, their freedom, their women. (Who but Donald Trump has the courage to publicly warn us about the coming horde of Mexican rapists?) The views put forth in this YouTube channel (one of many) are self-reinforcing: of course they’ll be ridiculed by liberals, zombies, those who can’t handle the truth.

I have to say, though, that the frothy mix of moral fervor, righteous indignation and good ole shootin’ stuff leads to some unsettling images. Eric and Barry’s “Ghetto Marksmanship” segment is pretty creepy. Then there’s a channel called “Demolition Ranch” in which a frat bro from Texas A&M obliterates a pile of garbage with his Tec-9 automatic pistol. But the most nightmarish one I’ve found is an appalling promo for a new kind of ammo, with a serrated leading edge that “acts like a hole saw,” and flies apart into eight little chisels inside soft tissue. The spot is titled “ESAU Gone Rip You Niggas To Shreds RIP.” RIP (“Radically Invasive Projectile”) is the trademarked brand of the ammunition.

(I didn’t get the meaning of “ESAU” until I found this in The Urban Dictionary: “The greatest criminal ever to walk the Earth. Satan incarnate. Better known as the white man. Term comes from the biblical name for caucasians.” Oh. OK.)

Moss Pawn & Gun

The headquarters of Eric, Barry and Chad is Moss Pawn and Gun in Jonesboro, Georgia. The business offers loans on your car, boat, musical instrument, whatever; it buys old jewelry, and it sells a wide variety of fireams and ammunition.

Jonesboro is an old Georgia town that seems to have been engulfed by the sprawl that has crept, kudzu-like, out from Atlanta. Its population in 2010 was 4,724. It has a few notable southern-cultural items; much of the film Smokey and the Bandit was filmed in the town; Lynyrd Skynyrd took an album-cover photo there; the fictional plantation of Tara was five miles away. Jonesboro’s population is 73% African American; 20.2% of its population lives under the poverty line (34% of those under 18).

The Moss Pawn & Gun guys say nothing (in so many words) about racial issues. I feel certain that they would deny having any problem with (and would happily sell guns to) law-abiding citizens of any color. But, they do talk quite a bit about zombies, dirtbags, ghetto marksmanship, and strangers against whom they must protect themselves by wearing two guns. Poverty makes everything more difficult, and weather in Atlanta tends to be hot and humid. I think it is likely that Eric and Chad feel themselves to be, through no fault of their own, surrounded by a tense, hostile population that is struggling for bits of a shrinking economic pie. But they’re on top of it. They’re well-armed.

For Eric and Chad, and folks like them in an affinity group that is large enough to exert some serious grassroots political influence, The Second Amendment is the linchpin of the American way life. Hell, it’s pretty much all they’ve got left — after the 14th Amendment, Social Security, The United Nations, the Voting Rights Act and Obamacare. There’s no way to change that by trying to ban weapons. But, I can’t help thinking that if economic opportunities weren’t so scarce — if “our jobs” didn’t seem to be under such constant threat from “them” — then I suspect things could calm down a bit, and patriotic Americans wouldn’t need quite so much hardware.

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IU Forum, Online, October 2nd, 2017

Please join us for the IU Forum this Monday, October 2nd, 3pm New York time and 8 PM London.

IU President David Triggs will present an in depth analysis concerning  the BREXIT issue from a Georgist perspective.  Participants will be invited to share their views as well.

How to connect with us on Monday: Just click on https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/266111093  You may have to first download the free GoToMeeting software. If this link does not work simply enter the nine digits after going to the GoToMeeting website.  Headphones are recommended but not necessary.

 

Note in your calendar also that the  IU Forum after this one will be Monday, October 9th, with Alanna Hartzok, IU Administrative Director, presenting a Georgist framework on economics of war and peace and its relevance to current US foreign policy.

Recommendations for IU Forum topics are welcome.

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The Obscure Economist Silicon Valley Billionaires Should Dump Ayn Rand For

The Obscure Economist Silicon Valley Billionaires Should Dump Ayn Rand For He lived almost 200 years ago, but Henry George’s theories might have something to offer people who want to put their money to good use today. by Michael Kinsley September 1, 2017 8:00 am from VANITY FAIR So, you’re a Silicon Valley billionaire and … Read more

The Henry George Program Ep. 11 – James K. Galbraith on Inequality

In this May 20, 2017, episode, we speak with James K. Galbraith, whose most recent book “Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know” touches on the Land Value Tax. Galbraith is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas at Austin, where he runs the University of Texas Inequality Project. His distinguished roles include a place on the executive committee of the World Economics Association and the role of chairman of Economists for Peace and Security.

Galbraith is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas at Austin, where he runs the University of Texas Inequality Project. He also serves on the executive committee of the World Economics Association and as chairman of Economists for Peace and Security.

We spoke with Galbraith about the problems with the way in which land is treated in theory and policy, beginning fundamentally with the exclusion of land from traditional factors of production.

“This is a major problem with the way in which economics has been constructed, in a way which the two factors of production that you’re going to encounter in a typical textbook are capital and labor, and resources in general and in particular are not separated.

“I tell my students that as an exercise would they please go back to their workshop and bring something in at the next class that they have constructed purely out of capital and labor; that is to say, out of the machinery that they have at hand and their own labor. They say ‘And nothing else?’ and I say ‘Yes, nothing else’, and they point out to me that it’s really difficult to do that unless you have some resources.

“If you pick up the textbook it appears that everything is made by some miraculous process without the intervention of material products of the land. And that is something which would have astonished the economists of the 18th and even to the end of the 19th century, for whom of course these questions were fundamental.”

Bringing land into the inequality conversation and into tax policy would be challenging, considering the political reach of what Galbraith has called the “predatory class” of the wealthy elite and the ingrained incentives of developers in construction and ownership. Nevertheless, the idea of a Land Value Tax is one he endorses in theory.

“If you take the tax off of labor, it’s going to be much easier for people to have employment. Now, if you take it off of non-rent economic profits, then you’re going to expand the scope for profitable investment. What you want to do is then to place the tax burden, to the extent that you can, on speculative gains, and that has the effect of encouraging people to use land in appropriate ways to take advantage of the high value of land. In order to meet the tax burden on that value you have to put it to a productive use, so you get a double advantage by having a tax system of this kind.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Starting in 2017, EarthSharing.org has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.

Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?

An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The Henry George Program Ep. 10 – Jeff Andrade-Fong and Josh Vincent on Influencing Housing Policy

In this June 13, 2017, episode, we speak with two distinguished policy advisers on land and housing. Jeff Andrade-Fong works with Tech for Housing to bring the implications of housing policy to the attention of tech workers, and what they can do. Josh Vincent advises land policy on a city-by-city basis using open data and more. Changing policy is hard, but we talk about what people can do about it.

Andrade-Fong spoke about the need to get more people involved at a grassroots level, by taking action online and generating accessible content to demonstrate how issues of housing affordability and land use are intertwined.

“There isn’t a single person in tech or out in the Bay Area that’s not thinking about housing prices. Really, the challenge is starting with this general concern that everybody has around the state of housing crisis… and sort of walking them backwards to what are the two to three to four degrees of separation that gets us to the basic root policy issues that need to be addressed. So, everybody’s thinking about housing prices, some people are thinking about how land use is affecting them, and just making that connection for the rest of the folks is our challenge.”

Vincent has been executive director of the Center for the Study of Economics since 1997. He has consulted for more than 75 municipalities, counties, NGOs and national governments. In his works with tax departments and elected officials to promote Land Value Taxation, he has seen the impact of an LVT policy and knows how to get there.

“One thing that creates or takes away land value — or desirability if you want to get out of the economics — is zoning. Zoning trumps all; it’s like a god. Prop. 13, yeah it’s going to be almost impossible to change in the near term, unless you come at it from the flanks.

“For example, going after commercial property, which is subject to Prop. 13 and almost nobody considers that the non-residential property is is going along for the ride too on prop 13 and maintaining that quality of life. But when you change zoning or land use regulations you change value, and by clawing back hyper-restrictive zoning of the Bay Area, you’re therefore going to have more affordable land and more units per parcel.”

Prop. 13 could be partially rescinded in terms of commercial property, or the pursuit of reduced zoning restrictions could continue to happen on a local level, followed by regional and state. Ultimately, less restrictive zoning is only one part of the puzzle. Vincent and Andrade-Fong both suggested that as San Francisco sees the prevalence of owner-occupier homes continue to fall, people will become more receptive to the idea of a Land Value Tax. I think the key is to loosen up restrictions allow the sort of like natural course of events as a player where everything becomes

“I think the key is to loosen up restrictions, allow the natural course of events to play out where everything becomes more urban, and I think in that environment people are more open to what more so feels like taxing their landlords,” Vincent said.

Listen to the full conversation below:

Starting in 2017, EarthSharing.org has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.

Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?

An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.

Featured photo: vision63 Noe Valley – San Francisco – Some other Ladies via photopin (license)

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The Henry George Program Ep. 9 – James Howard Kunstler vs Sprawl

In this June 6, 2017, episode, we talk to James Howard Kunstler, who has long been a voice railing against the ugliness of modern sprawl and the psychic torment things brings on ourselves. How does a land tax offer a possible answer to this tragedy? TED called Kunstler “the world’s most outspoken critic of suburban sprawl”. He believes the end of the fossil fuels era will soon force a return to smaller-scale, agrarian communities, and an overhaul of the most destructive features of postwar society.

Kunstler was introduced to the ideas of Henry George when working on his book Geography of Nowhere, and subsequently discussed Georgism in the sequel Home from Nowhere.

“I began to get in in touch with people who were forming the ‘new urbanist’ movement, which was a reform movement among architects and developers and urban planners and public officials to do something about what has become a kind of mandated suburban sprawl. And when I say mandated I mean where we have been literally compelled to build all of our stuff that way because of the embedded codes and the tax laws in our system.”

Sprawl makes sense in a historical context, considering that the industrial revolution made cities into places that were not very attractive for a good and peaceful life, Kunstler said. The story of American development has been one of running with ideas that seemed good at the time.

“In the 1920s, there was very little thought that we would ever a problem with our oil supply; we thought that it would not only be there perpetually but that it would be incredibly cheap forever, and we never thought we would run out of cheap, exploitable real estate on the fringe of the city. It just seemed impossible, but now in the places like the Bay Area you’re there, so what seemed like a good idea at the time is not a good idea anymore.”

One good idea that is on its way out is the concept of megastructures, according to Kunstler, and any solution to affordable housing in urban cores is unlikely to stack thousands of people on top of each other. Moving into the future, the skyscraper is likely to become obsolete due to the cost and we will discover an optimal building height for an urban footprint. “My guess is that it’s probably not much more than five, six, seven stories — airy, and it may amount to as simple a proposition as the number of stories that you can ask people to walk up comfortably. But it’s simply not true that you know if you can just stack so many people in an urban spot that that’s the greatest solution.”

“We’re moving into a capital-scarce period of history where we just don’t have as much money as we thought we did and as we used to, and we’re going to have trouble with fabricated modular building materials of the type that you need to keep these buildings going. Even things as humble as sheetrock which require long manufacturing and mining chains, these materials may not be there for us.

“So if you ask the architects and the developers about the skyscraper they will never come around to that idea, because for them the prime mission is to maximize the floor-to-area ratio of any given building. So the whole question of what the city ends up being in scale is a major issue. We’re ready for a major debate on that and we’re not prepared to have it, because very few people have their head screwed on about this.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Kunstler is perhaps best known for his nonfiction books, The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic. James has also written The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, World Made By Hand, a fictional depiction of “the post-oil American future”, which became a four-part series with the subsequent publication of The Witch of Hebron, A History of the Future, and The Harrows of Spring.

Kunstler is the author of eight other novels including The Halloween Ball and An Embarrassment of Riches. He is a contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Op-Ed page, where he has written on environmental and economic issues.

Kunstler was born in New York City. He worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. He has lectured at colleges across America and delivered one of the most watched TED talks.

Starting in 2017, EarthSharing.org has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.

Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?

An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.

Featured photo: Charlie Samuels via Kunstler.com

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