Interview With A Georgist

It’s widely known that many Georgists have other careers, out in the “Real World.” But the connection between Georgist Philosophy and jazz music is one that wouldn’t have occurred to many of us — at least not until speaking with this issue’s interviewee, who is quite a character.

GJ: We’re pleased to have you. Our readers might be wondering why you’ve chosen this moment to speak out.

AG: Well, I might speak out. I don’t know. I might mind my P’s and Q’s. We’ll have to see how it goes. But this moment is every bit as auspicious as any other, as I’m sure you realize. Certainly the world has never needed the Single Tax more. Which could describe, pretty much, every moment of my life, and my grandparents’.

GJ: Don’t you see the current economic climate as a great opportunity for getting the Georgist message across?

AG: I’d like to. I really would. It’s quite tempting to let yourself get drawn in — but I wouldn’t bet on it. Lately a broadcast email has been floating around the Georgist ether, saying, because of the current dire economic straits, now is the time for “us” — you know, those of us who have money — to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times. Now that would be groovy — suitable for framing — but where would it take the action? Who would be in charge of the follow-up? Whose phone number would we put on the thing? You see, Georgists might be able to throw a hail mary pass, but can they actually get somebody downfield to catch it? Let me share a thought with you, which you may not like. See, I’ve been reading this magazine pretty faithfully for the past few years, and I finally realized that you’re doing this kind of sleight-of-hand thing with it. The Georgist Journal positions itself as the movement magazine, going out to three organizations, covering all the conferences — so if someone new comes along, you can hand ’em a Journal and they’ll think, “Wow, there’s a movement I can join— look, it has it’s own magazine!” Even though in fact, it’s mostly done with mirrors. If there were a movement, it would make sense to place a full-page ad in the New York Times — but to do that now would seem like some weird cult thing. Where’s the incentive to take it seriously?

GJ: Fair enough. But despite the movement’s current lack of, shall we say, traction — don’t you think this is an auspicious moment for the Georgist message to resonate with people?

AG: Look, you take your shot. Oscar Geiger took his shot in 1932, in a time much like we’re coming into now, I’m afraid. It took decades for the Henry George School to build up momentum, only to get the crap beaten out of it repeatedly, by its own Board of Directors. Meanwhile we’ve watched other movements start with less, and race right past us: civil rights! environmentalism! women’s liberation! animal rights! So people say, good grief, why don’t we just study what those people did when they succeeded — and do that! Well, I’ll tell you what they did. They told people what they wanted to hear, when they were ready to hear it. So, then, enough people will respond for there to be something happening, you know? Folks’ll call their friends and stuff when the full-page ad comes out. These other movements offered responses to familiar problems, things that people could see and feel. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. When someone comes to take a Georgist course, what’s the title of the first lesson?

GJ: “The Problem.”

AG: Precisely! The first thing we have to do — and unless we do it, we can’t do anything else — our first job is to teach people what problem it is that needs solving! And most people are not trying to hear that! They want solutions to the problems that they think they have. It’s like jazz. I mean, it may be too strong to say that unhip people cannot ever come to grips with what swing is, but there comes a point where taking out a full-page ad about how jazz is America’s greatest contribution to world culture and improvisational high art and all this, a point where if people ain’t with it, a full-page ad ain’t going to get them with it, you know?

GJ: Jazz seems to have a pretty strong following. Even a growing one, I’d guess.

AG: Well, compared to, I don’t know, flat-earthism or something, Georgism has a pretty strong and growing following too. But there are years when Britney Spears sells more records than the entire Verve label, you know?

GJ: So you see an analogy between Georgism and jazz?

AG: Oh, yeah! Definitely. Your man Ed Dodson, who I know has the boogie-woogie stuffed somewhere down in his sock drawer, came up with the name “cooperative individualism” to describe what this movement is all about. I thought that was brilliant. That is exactly what the classic bebop group is. There’s nothing more truly individualistic than a spontaneously creative solo, but it can’t be done without everybody totally listening, making exactly the right contributions, in time. Yeah, cooperative individualism. That’s jazz. But, then again — as a social movement? I don’t know. There’s a groove, that has to be found, you see what I’m saying?

GJ: So the insights of Georgism are destined to be understood only by a self-limiting “in-crowd”? Doesn’t that leave us in a rather hopeless position?

AG: If you say so. But I don’t think I would say so. I think of Nikki Giovanni saying, “What’s real is really real…” That may sound like obviology to you, but to me it means that the truth will out. The relationships that Henry George articulates are every bit as eternal and unavoidable as they are, alas, unfashionable. You could say the same about jazz, I suppose. It’s like — well, to fold in yet another metaphor: people ask, “How do we move the ball down the field?” Well, the defensive lineup is expecting set plays, they’re all about plugging up holes, frustrating progress, right? But we want to move the ball down the field, so our task is to read their plans before they move, find the opportunities, slide through the slots, you know? Just in time, for the long gain. Now, sometimes you get thrown for a loss. Sometimes you just have to grind it out. There are injuries and setbacks. But either we forfeit the game — which is not an option — or we keep doing what we can to move the ball down the field.

GJ: What opportunities do you see for “moving the Georgist ball down the field”?

AG: There are people in certain places, certain walks of life, who are disposed get our message right away. They feel liberated by it; they immediately want to start spreading it. I’ve had the privilege of serving in the Henry George Institute’s volunteer faculty, and I’ve seen just that kind of enthusiasm from students in Africa, and in prison in the United States. It stands to reason — people in both of those places have been pretty well abandoned by the economic programs of both the right and the left. They know what the problem is, because what we call “the problem” has made their lives very difficult. Likewise, I hear that young Paul Martin has been teaching gangs of enthusiastic students in Nicaragua. A lot of progress can be made by letting our outreach resources flow downhill, toward the people who really want to hear what we have to say. Historically there has been only problem with that strategy, though: human mortality.

GJ: Human mortality?

AG: Yes, well — let me back up a moment, and abuse the jazz analogy once more. I guess everybody can hear music in their head from time to time. But jazz musicians tend to hear music in their heads all the time — and it’s not Meet the Beatles, either, it’s music that most other people can’t even relate to. That can become tough to deal with. It has a lot to do with why so many of them feel the urge to — self-anesthetize. Well. As Georgists we know that what we have to say is vital. I mean, it’s absolutely essential, right now and at every moment. We never stop knowing this, we’re always seeing examples and ramifications of it. And we’re constantly reminded how completely and utterly nowhere we are in the public mind. The sweet song of a just society is in our head every hour of the night and day, man, and ain’t nobody digging it but us.

GJ: But what does that have to do with human mortality?

AG: See, if people spend their lives trying to promulgate a beautiful idea that nobody respects, two things tend to happen to them. First, they get older. Being older, they build up life experiences, get distinguished around the temples and all, and get appointed to things like Boards of Directors. That’s well and good. But next — oh, Lord, it starts to dawn on them that they ain’t got much time left, and nobody cares a damn bit more about Georgism than they ever did. So they start to panic. For instance, they abandon a long successful program, kick out effective, experienced staff and start trying to be “acceptable to economists” by laying grant money on so-called experts who turn around and insult them every chance they get. The older they get, the more they do this knucklehead stuff. Hey! We’ll make a hit movie! Not every single one, of course; a few manage to keep their eyes on the prize. But I think it’s an occupational hazard.

GJ: So, you have no faith in the Georgist movement’s institutions today?

AG: That would be putting it melodramatically. I don’t know. You want me to be frank? You’ll be editing this? Well, what institutions are there? If we’re talking about movement-building, I think we have to talk about the ones with resources. Some people say, “money corrupts.” And of course it does, but I’m here to tell you, money buys stuff too, and that can help. All right, so who are they? Lincoln? No. They left the building in 1968. The Schalkenbach Foundation? Well, I’m an optimistic sort of person, so I think they have good intentions, but that movie was — damn. So, moving along — isn’t there somebody in San Diego sitting on some money? I guess they’ll continue doing that. In Britain, what money they find they immediately turn over to Fred Harrison, who puts out a first-rate series of full-page ads. Which brings us to the Henry George School — a fascinating, heartbreaking organization — part Shakespearian and part absurdist, but one hundred per cent tragedy. Have I missed any? So, no, today’s Georgist “institutions” — you used the word — don’t inspire much confidence. But the music is renewed by visionaries, not institutions. You never know what will catch on, or where the new kids will take it.

GJ: What are the brightest lights of the Georgist movement today?

AG: Well, like I said, there isn’t really a Georgist movement yet. I know that’s something you’re not supposed to say in the Georgist Journal. But I would say the brightest lights are people who are seriously engaged in movement building. Alanna Hartzok with her UN course. The Instituto Henry George de Managua. Gordon Abiama’s efforts in Nigeria. People like Dayton Loyd and Justin Paré who get released from prison full of fire to spread the Georgist word. Mike Curtis who tirelessly teaches the basics to anybody who’ll listen. Jeff Smith trolling for linkages across the political spectrum. People who are, as Dan Sullivan said, heroes — because they keep doing what they do, despite meager success and insulting levels of support (but hey, many a jazz pioneer had to pawn his instrument). And also — and this might seem like it doesn’t need to be said, but it does, it’s incredibly important — these are the people who try their damndest to do what they do well. They don’t just mail it in.

GJ: I’m afraid I don’t follow.

AG: Well, don’t feel bad! But the Georgist — shall we say, community — has developed a sort of culture of failure that tends to give up on quality-control. If people can’t see us, it doesn’t matter what we look like, right? If nobody’s listening, who cares if we mumble? But you see — when Sonny Rollins took time out to play his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge, who cared what he had to say? He did. You see? You can’t just blow air into the damn thing and expect music to come out. There are dues to pay. Now, in the Georgist world, I would say that the dues have a lot to do with understanding the theory. The world is going to throw a whole load of questions at you from all kind of crazy angles, and if you haven’t gotten with the dynamics of distribution, the effects of taxation on aggregate rent, the basic factors of land assessment, things like that — you can’t really be effective. Remedial education! Listen to Charlie Parker solos until you actually can hear what he’s up to, then move on.

GJ: You seem to be asking a lot.

AG: You think so? Maybe more than ordinary mortals can handle? I don’t know. Maybe. But the alternative is another Dark Age, isn’t it? Nevertheless, I believe that if we get to work, we can get things done. — L.D.

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