by Lindy Davies
…sang Ella Fitzgerald,
I love the moonlight
I love the old-fashioned things
the sound of rain upon a windowpane
the starry song that April sings…
It’s a romantic love song — but, there are some who might be tempted to suggest it as a theme song for the poor old Georgists. We live in a newfangled era — have for at least a hundred years. My goodness, people, by this time a century ago the Model T Ford was already seven years old (and Progress and Poverty came out twenty-nine years before the Model T)!
Ella’s old-fashionedness wasn’t a hindrance, though — after all, when was she ever less than 100% hip? (If you don’t believe me, just check out Dizzy’s face, above.) We’re not ready to throw out the old stuff. There are uses for it — though today it might be called “Retro” and come with an edge of irony. Perhaps we’d even burn fewer fossils, spew less gunk, if we chose to refurbish old widgets and gadgets (perhaps even hiring local refurbishers?) instead of ordering up new ones via Amazon (drone-dropped to your door?)
Some old things took a long time to catch on — ridiculously long, for example, in the case of Herman Melville’s enduring works of literary genius. He despaired during his life of ever reaching a sizeable audience — as did Vincent van Gogh. And some things never do catch on, not in a big way, anyway: who hasn’t had the experience of being absolutely frozen in your tracks by some unknown artist whose drawing, in a pile at a junk shop, caught its moment so perfectly you can hardly believe it?
But we were talking about political economy, and for that you need the freshest stuff, don’t you? Well, in fashion you do, and that stuff gets stale pretty fast. New trends get old; old fads get rediscovered; it’s cyclical — like booms & busts! Monetarism! Keynesianism! Rational Expectations! For a while, the NAIRU jacket was all the rage — now, I guess, they’re showing up in markets that don’t clear at any price.
A fashion trend that’s out of vogue is irrelevant. Not so a scientific truth. Euclid’s theorems don’t cover everything, but they handle three-dimensional space quite well, and are used as profitably by today’s architects as those of ancient Egypt. New techniques and principles bring insights about things that are verysmallindeed or mind-bendingly distant and huge — yet air traffic controllers, among many others, still find Newton’s laws useful.
Political economy is about the production and distribution of wealth in society. That means it doesn’t, mainly, deal in the mathematical esoterica of game theory or applied micro. It’s about the big picture: why there is poverty, what’s at the root of the boom/bust cycle. That means that political economy operates in the economic equivalent of Newtonian space, in which an hour is an hour, and a stone weighs the same whoever carries it. The laws of political economy are, in an important way, old-fashioned. They need to be — because the basic nature of labor, land and capital hasn’t changed.
Mr. Andrew Mazzone, the current President of the Henry George School of Social Science, calls himself a neo-Georgist. (1) Mazzone wants to swing way, far out, styling himself as sort of the Ornette Coleman of our movement: land isn’t much of thing anymore; the Mazzonian approach puts down all forms of monopoly; the single tax is for squares.
Two things about that. First, not everyone liked the pioneering style of Ornette Coleman, but there was general agreement that he knew his way around the music; the cat could play — unlike that alto sax dude who used to caterwaul interminably at the Astor Place subway station. And second, well, in this day and age, even Ornette Coleman’s music has become, in its way, old-fashioned.(2) Yet rhythm, harmony and swing are still what they are.
Reasonable people can disagree. (We invite letters!) Nevertheless, in this issue we attempt to point back, in various ways, to some of the enduring truths of the Georgist philosophy.
(1) This phrase was first coined, I believe, by Robert Andelson, ca. 1980. Andelson’s coinage had a different face-value than Mazzone’s.
(2) The Shape of Jazz to Come appeared in 1959. Ornette Coleman passed away this June, at the age of 85.