Human Clay

by Jeff Smith

People tell you Georgism is no panacea. Georgists tell their own that there is no magic bullet. But we don’t need magic. All we need is a dose of common sense. Our stalwarts have delivered some victories — yet other movements win many more. Ever hear of the Tobin Tax, Basic Income, Earth Day, etc.? Most of the planet has. But have they heard of Geoism? Only a fraction of a fraction a percent.

Why is that? What can we do about it? I suggest three interwoven paths: reframe, entertain, and bestow college credit. But basic change takes facing facts.

Hear Jack Canfield, America’s #1 Success Coach, co-founder of the billion-dollar “Chicken Soup for the Soul” brand, and a leading authority on Peak Performance.

Successful people do not waste time in denial (or complain or make excuses for that matter). They face situations. The first step is just recognizing the issue, and then having faith that you’ll figure it out with careful attention to it… the three things to do in pursuit of success:

1) Awareness: Successful people fly manually every day and so should you. When feedback signals come in, listen to them. Use them in planning your next step.

2) Commitment: Commit to finding out why things aren’t working and learn what will fix them. Once you start the process it will be much easier to continue. Nothing fruitful stems from inaction.

3) Trust: Trust that making changes to the situation will ultimately bring about the best results. Sure you might go through a bit of discomfort during the change, and some unlikely or unwanted outcomes, but in the end you will triumph!

The proof is in the pudding. If a stockbroker argues convincingly but keeps losing money, you wouldn’t keep losing money with him, would you? So why keep losing in the arena of social change? Einstein, a Georgist sympathizer, defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. The world goes on by without us, and there are fewer of us every year.

People do what’s fun — such as espousing and opining — or, as George noted, what takes the least effort. If changing our ways were fun or easy, Georgists would’ve been doing it long ago. Yet those who’d rescue civilization must forgo fun and do what’s hard.

How can the sense of George’s message be so radiantly clear to a tiny sliver of this species and the sense and logistics of social change be so opaque to that same shriveling sliver? If only Georgism were in business, sports, or theater, we could go broke, lose the game, get booed off the stage. The teachable moment would arrive when our show couldn’t go on. Losing is good, if you learn from it.

I’ve lost enough to learn we need to rewrite our message. It must not trigger knee-jerk negative reactions. It must hit all the right buttons. Shopkeepers are right: the customer is always right. Work with the clay at hand. Here’s the clay that humans are:

a) People love land. They don’t love taxes. If you must say “tax” instead of “recover,” replace the word “land” with “location,” a positive sounding abstraction that connotes community.

b) People like to feel respected. They don’t like to feel like a victim. Replace any suggestion of taxing their property with references to sharing the commonwealth.

c) People love to feel like they belong. They don’t like to feel like they’re deserted or fighting alone. Underscore their right, even their entitlement, to a fair share of the commons, to what they were born into.

d) People like to have the capacity to respond. They don’t like to be told what to do. The Single Tax ties their hands when they may want to, e.g., levy a sin tax on tattoos or something. Replace abolition with simply requiring any tax to not cost more than it collects, and to choose the least costly first.

e) People feel gratitude for tax caps like Prop 13. They don’t feel gratitude for the bailout of Wall Street. Rather than propose to repeal caps and limits, offer to provide real security with money in the pocket. It worked for winning the passage of carbon taxes. Learn from others’ success!

Re-wording, re-labeling, re-framing (see linguist George Lakoff) is something we all can do right now. We need not wait for legislation or funding or a note from our parents. To eschew the cult tag, deserving as George is of recognition, I rarely refer to him. Would Henry George rather be a household name, or have his ideas in place?

One of our biggest obstacles is that our key element, rent, has a name that means something else to most people (what we pay for an apartment). We can neither redefine “rent” nor rechristen rent. Hence I invoke the commons, the next best thing, given that the moral foundation of Georgism is sharing Earth by sharing her worth.

Now with the multi-trillion dollar bailout of Wall Street, it’s easier than ever to talk about spending to benefit everyone vs. just an elite, and not just public services but straight cash, especially with this second jobless recovery in a row. Jobs are doing what they’re supposed to do — disappear, thanks to automation and globalization. We need an extra income apart from our labor. And an extra income from our society’s land fits the bill perfectly.

Here’s one order of talking points that has worked on occasion:

1) Start with policy, and not with a loss, such as a tax, but with a gain, such as the Citizens Dividend. That elicits the usual, “how do you pay for it?”

2) Move on to recovering rents for sites, resources, EM spectrum, etc., via leases, fees, taxes, etc.; play down taxes, play up social surplus.

3) Note that tapping rents means you can forgo taxing labor and capital and doing so fattens up locational rents, your “tax base.”

4) Cite real-world results, how the property tax shift has worked wherever tried.

5) Quote forecasts, how the 18-year land-price-cycle yields far better predictions than any by the mainstream hucksters.

This approach keeps us in the real world of current events, and frees the listener from having to become a true believer.

Say we were to agree on a message that resonates with a critical mass. Then what? To organize ourselves instead of herd cats, we’d be wise to adopt John Berger’s MOST (Mission, Objective, Strategy, Tactics), which insists that you make and keep measurable goals. If you apply for a grant from a typical foundation, benchmarks are what they’ll ask you for.

What an organized movement could do is help disseminate the message. How? How do we interest, then inform, a critical mass of our fellow citizens? By penning books, games, movies, etc., that would hum with a subtle yet inspiring message, then talking up our products. Make them entertaining enough and media moguls will pay us to broadcast the story via every mass medium. A huge bonus is kids’ mainline entertainment. If we’re not to be a cult but a movement, we need the youth.

Besides being catchy, any economic proposal also needs economic respectability. For that, it needs living, breathing economists. But if Kuhn makes sense, ours must come from people whose minds are still open, being formed (or filled) — i.e., students. Once our ideas are popular (again), then some of those intrigued people will seek education, just as Earth Day preceded courses in ecology.

Yet colleges have balked at offering such a course. While our movement does offer courses, intellectual courses have been losing popularity ever since the discovery of electricity. Offering courses to an indifferent public is putting the cart before the horse anyway. Before we can educate, others must seek learning.

Further, most students won’t want to hear the message from a true-believer yet will want to get college credit for passing a course. Hence Georgists should seek accreditation for a course or program or institute or entire university. A few decades back, the New York socialists’ New School went from zero to full accreditation.

It’s hard to change others to our way of thinking. And it’s hard to change ourselves to the world’s way-shifting paradigms. But of the two — changing others vs. changing ourselves — at least we have control over ourselves.

Our goal is to live in a Georgist world ASAP. From that starting point, what follows? Reframing, entertaining, and winning accreditation? That’s worked for others; why not us?

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