by Karl Fitzgerald
The Georgist movement is at an interesting point in time. A new generation of reformers have found the story via the many online learning tools available. The potential to develop new avenues of learning awaits. Geo-Spatial analysis is just one of the new windows of opportunity, where Google Earth-type public policy surveying of land use is thriving.
For over a decade I have worked as the Projects Director at Prosper Australia. We have been reasonably successful by simply adopting many of the practices witnessed amongst the booming NGO industry. My experiences in indigenous and anti-globalisation activism saw many small groups of committed people produce powerful campaigns affecting change. These groups incorporated and became NGOs. Soon they were releasing reports. Not long after, they had MPs launching their reports. Memberships grew upon the back of slick websites and emails that encouraged interaction. This was all done without the benefit of million-dollar trust funds.
Prosper needed a report as a foundational element to our activities. Akin to free advertising, we all see the nightly news roll out finance experts to provide economic commentary. An NGO releasing an innovative report also creates news. This builds profile and from it, the e-news database grows. Membership builds. Cycling into Prosper each day, I was struck by the number of vacant properties I passed. Once you clock onto it, spotting idle land becomes a habit: your head automatically snaps towards yet another lost opportunity for the community. This was circa 2004-5 as the Australian land bubble built up steam under a spate of tax loopholes, outright policy fraud, high immigration and foreign investor incentives. However, the mainstream papers were dominated by the ‘record low vacancy’ findings pushed by the property lobby.
These frustrations soon led to the development of the Speculative Vacancies (SV) report. The record low vacancies were based on a voluntary survey of real estate agents. It did nothing to account for the growing role of land speculators who had no interest in placing their properties on the rental market. The vacancy findings quoted in the press were a subset of the wider property market. They did little to account for properties held purely with unearned income in mind. In the boom years, rents were barely one-third of yearly capital gains — why go to the trouble of renting? No-one was discussing this until we started the conversation.
Over nine years, the SV report evolved to utilise water consumption data. Abnormally low water consumption levels over 12 months were a reasonable indicator of vacancy. Economics grad and volunteer Thom Curtis simply called up the water utilities to request consumption figures per number of water titles per postcode.
The report now sees over 50 media references per annum. Journalists call us from around the nation. In 2015 we were offered an exclusive with the Australian Financial Review, our leading financial paper. The media references have lifted our profile, delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars of free branding, whilst lifting the public’s understanding of Georgism.
Four different researchers have written the report, with Catherine Cashmore the most recent. She has quickly elevated through the ranks to become the President of Prosper Australia. Alongside her analytical prowess and professional role as a property buyer, Catherine is an accomplished media performer. She recently made four high-profile TV appearances in five weeks. This snowball effect saw our membership goal reached six months early.
I believe the Georgist movement is ideally positioned to use our unique economic insight to shine a light on the inequities that abound. The use of reports to objectively analyse unique data sets is vital as our calling card to the wider economic reform community.
We also need modern branding and responsive (tablet, mobile friendly) websites. Prosper has recently updated its logo and aims to update the website every 2 – 3 years. Our 112 year old Progress Magazine is continually being updated to reflect the design integrity needed for people with short time-frames and lots of information thrown at them. Complementing our modern outlook is the weekly Renegade Economists radio show that is podcast to listeners around the world. If only we had more time for another documentary film! Sitting behind this is a modern database — civiCRM — that allows us to easily harvest email addresses and memberships whilst saving a yearly $2000+ in email fees.
How to take it further
Whilst Prosper looks good, sounds good and makes interesting headlines, the one area we haven’t yet succeeded in is mobilising public opinion into a groundswell capable of applying serious pressure on our politicians. We were gifted an incredible opportunity with the release of the Rudd government’s “Australia’s Future Tax System” (the Henry Review) which featured significant sections on Land Value Tax, Resource Rents and even taxi licenses. This put economists on notice that our wise old story was even more relevant in a world of mobile capital.
Many young economists growing up under the strain of the Global Financial Crisis and the housing crisis either read the Henry Review or saw our vacancy reports. This led them our way. Our Policy Director David Collyer has been committed to steering debate back to economic rents on Australia’s leading economic website, macrobusiness.com.au. Alongside strong leadership by chief economist Leith van Onselen, this has seen support of economic rents dominate the comments boards to a website with over 100,000 visitors per week.
We also make regular Parliamentary Inquiry submissions. Some 16 Georgist bodies or individuals submitted to the Henry Tax Review. A recent housing affordability inquiry had similar numbers of submissions. Links to these in our fortnightly e-news remind supporters that the Georgist message is relevant to today’s problems. The high quality of our work, always benefitting from the Australia Bureau of Statistics valuation of land and natural resources, has seen our team present at three Parliamentary Inquiries.
Most NGO strategy revolves around campaigns. Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971) shows activists how a campaign can evolve as the public is mobilised. Today there are skills to learn in advocate-based copywriting, multimedia strategy to media-savvy pranks.
Daniel Hunter’s Strategy & Soul shows how an unfunded group sculpted together a media campaign capable of curtailing the might of the gambling industry. All they did was represent the public interest in an innovative manner. We have that in spades. But how to structure a series of events around one small issue in our community with the accompanying media strategy? Hunter demonstrates the importance of developing an A-B component to press release writing, such that if a politician says A we do this, if B we have that ready to go.
That sort of thinking is our challenge. A Prosper member suggested for this year’s Speculative Vacancies report that we mobilise people to stand out front of a vacant home with a handwritten sign #iwanttolivehere and then to post that photo on the Facebook wall of both their local representative and the housing minister. How can we inspire hundreds of those photos and then have the next stage in the campaign ready to roll?
With the prevalence of many one-person one-town Georgists, we need a way to coordinate the incredible energy of our supporters. Many spend considerable time writing letters to the editor or commenting on various blogs. We should explore greater use of Zoom online meetings, where dozens if not hundreds of people can meet online.
From this we can group into likeminded nodes that work on various Georgist aspects such as Land Value Capture, manufactured scarcity or council rating. Reports could be written, and launched at the conferences we run, creating a ‘news’ opportunity for organisers to promote the conference as well as the unique analysis. That was the vision I discussed at the 2014 and 2015 CGO conferences.
We are taking steps in the right direction. The ‘LVT’ Facebook group offers great promise, with some exceptional learnings offered there. As the internet era continues and people engage in learning at their own pace, we are well situated to use our timeless message to make sense of this world gone mad.
Democracy is on notice in the West. Few believe it represents the public interest anymore. For that reason, going local may be our focus point. Community Land Trusts are integral to the future growth of the movement as demonstrable applications of Georgist theory. CLT constitutions could include an inbuilt understanding of Georgist learnings.
A central tenet of campaign evolution is that people prefer to learn by doing, rather than in a classroom. Too often I am inclined to tell the whole story, rather than tease it out so that participants ‘discover’ elements of the theory themselves. As a movement whose biggest strength is its ability to make sense of the economic reality we see around us, the development of economic detective-type thinking amongst our supporters should be easy. Right?
Your statement above that, “[T]he one area we haven’t yet succeeded in is mobilising public opinion into a groundswell capable of applying serious pressure on our politicians” inspires me to share with you an as yet unrealized plan to build solid, substantial constituencies for the passage and well-guarded implementation of LVT.
In the mid-1980s in Boston while serving as Director of the Henry George School of New England I was intensively engaged in lobbying at the Massachusetts State House for the passage of statewide legislation to permit the adoption of LVT in the Commonwealth. In the U.S., State governments set the rules for how property taxes are levied. Many legislators signed on and were enthusiastic. An impassable roadblock emerged at the Bill’s Hearing in Committee. The owner of a downtown vacant lot used for parking spoke against the Bill and I had no countervailing constituency to support it. The legislation languished and died. In terms of time and effort it was a costly yet salutary experience. I learned that, contrary to popular opinion, the primary role of legislators is not to write and pass legislation but to provide services to their constituents. Without an organized constituency our efforts to implement LVT reform of the property tax in Massachusetts would go nowhere except to die in Committee!
A local consultant, who specialized in helping not-for-profits become more effective, stepped into the breach with an action plan to help us develop a statewide constituency for land value taxation. My tenure at the HG School ended before I had a chance to implement the plan. The plan thirty years on is logical, straightforward, and worth a try.
The first step is to come together with a small group of like-minded souls willing to work together in at least a year-long initial endeavor. Then systematically identify and prioritize the groups in a State which would most directly benefit from reductions in taxes on improvements to land and on goods and services – groups such as professional associations of builders, municipal associations, chambers of commerce, labor unions, etc. There are virtually an endless number of professional associations in every State and they tend to have large and influential memberships. Contact the most likely prospects first. Call for an initial meeting to discuss the possibility of making a presentation to the organization, so as to provide information to their members about how what you propose is in their direct bottom line interest. Human resources and/or public relations staff people are probably the best initial contacts. The introductory meeting successful, set up as logistically well prepared a presentation as possible. That would be to a select group of employees, mid-level management and workers perhaps. The availability of food and drink and sufficient time for Q & A and schmoozing is a big plus, almost necessary to sufficiently bond with a group. In the presentation keep your antennae out for someone who really ‘gets it’, a person who seems particularly interested and enthusiastic about what you have to say. Spin such a person off as possible onto a ‘Board of Liaison’ between your group and the organizations to which you make presentations. The development of such an intermediary body is critical to the plan of action’s success. Board members can help set up presentations to other potentially supportive groups and individuals. They are an invaluable source of in-kind support from their parent bodies for printing, advertising, and such. Over the long haul board members are the front line in securing their organization’s sponsorship and legislative support for LVT. In about a year there should be a fairly sizable constituency you will have developed, sufficiently numerous and motivated to pack State House Committee Hearings and browbeat legislators for both the introduction and passage of LVT legislation.