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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The Henry George Program Ep. 8 – Stephen Barton And The Berkeley Landlord Tax

In this May 30, 2017, episode, we speak with Stephen Barton, co-chairman of the Committee for Safe & Affordable Homes, established to support passage of a windfall profits tax on residential landlords. Last November, Berkeley passed Measure U1, nicknamed the “Landlord Tax.” It increased the tax rate for landlords of five or more rental units. Behind the bill was Barton, who’s been working for affordable housing for decades. On the side, he’s been writing about the Georgist history of Berkeley’s leadership.

Barton explained that Measure U1 in Berkeley was targeted at residential landlords in the San Francisco Bay Area, who “are reaping tremendous windfall profits from rising rents and the result is a massive transfer of wealth from tenants to real estate investors.”

“So the idea was to recapture some of this windfall and put the money to use to create permanently affordable housing for the low-income tenants who are hardest hit by all this, and to help prevent homelessness.”

Value captured by landlords, even those owners of rent-controlled properties, was primarily the creation of the community due to its attractiveness and was thus owed to everyone, Barton said.

“We have businesses that thrive off of that diverse and creative culture and happen to be creating quite an economic boom in the area, so the entire community is making this a really great attractive place to live. And the result is you get increasing demand for moving into the area that’s increasing far faster than the housing supply can possibly increase, and the result then is that landlords — a small sector of the community, those people who own real estate  — are particularly able to take the value that the whole community has created and charge higher rents.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Barton previously served as Berkeley’s Housing Director, and Deputy Director of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Program. His work on affordable housing received a National Planning Award from the American Planning Association and an Affordable Housing Leadership award from the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

Barton also serves on the Board of the Bay Area Community Land Trust, which specializes in the development of limited-equity housing cooperatives and is active in East Bay Housing Organizations and Democratic Socialists of America. He is the author of numerous articles on housing policy and economics, as well as on the history of the Georgist and Socialist movements and has a Ph.D. in City & Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

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: Committee for Safe and Affordable Housing

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Intentional Communities and Alternative Housing

BIL: Oakland 2016 Recession Generation was an Earthsharing.org conference in Oakland, California on July 9th, 2016. The Intentional Communities Panel explored new ways of living communally, and the need to respond to the housing affordability crisis with revised land use policy.

Betsy Morris, a partner with Co-Housing California, presented dozens of cases around California where tiny homes, mobile accommodation, and other kinds of modern living were proliferating and finding success. The need for these new kinds of housing was stark and urgent, she said.

“Let’s just say it: here in the Bay Area, it is crisis mode. We have a 30-year shortage of housing at almost every scale below the top 10 or 20 percent of the market. And today, our Bay Area government acknowledges that 43 percent of all the nine county households are overpaying, which means that they are sacrificing other parts of their budget to take care of housing, and 23 percent are seriously overpaying.”

The debt-driven housing system that still dominated modern economies was driving people to dream up new ways to live close to amenities, keep communities intact, and avoid devoting a majority of disposable income to simply putting a roof over one’s head, Morris said.

“Not a single county in the U.S. provides enough housing for its low-income people, and that affects everybody else up the scale of incomes to an extent,” she said. “It’s like we’ve forgotten that other alternatives exist.”

Shared equity communities were spreading across California and in other parts of the U.S., and with the right municipal leeway they could be a readily accessible solution for thousands of people otherwise unable to be part of a housing community.

“The great thing about Georgist land economics is it provides a logical, theoretical basis for looking at situations and saying ‘how could this work?’ The kinds of communities I’m showing you are living examples of efforts not to talk about some big overarching macro global economy, but actually on the ground, what does it look like to share the earth?”

“We’re starting to see a body of knowledge that allows conversations with the policymakers who primarily rely on traditional economic theories whether it’s of the state, intervention, or free-market rampant.”

The panel was completed by Aaron Castle and Candace Anderson, a Bay Area couple who have lived in their own tiny house for more than two years. The economic necessity of finding an alternative living solution had also given them both new freedoms and a new sense of community that paying thousands of dollars to rent a room simply didn’t offer.

“There’s no way we would have been able to stay in the Bay Area if we didn’t do this,” Anderson said.

Watch the full panel below:

Featured photo: Bill Dickinson via Flickr

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