by Lindy Davies
The Eastern Economic Association is a nonprofit academic organization, based at Iona College, devoted to promoting “educational and scholarly exchange on economic affairs”. Established in 1974, it sponsors an annual conference, at which many professors and graduate students present papers. The tone is that of academic, peer-reviewed scholarship, yet the program is large enough that presenters with different levels of rigor and experience can present papers — and receive feedback from credentialed scholars with relevant specialties. This year’s event was held at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, on March 4-6.
For the last three years, our movement has played an increasing role in this conference, due in large part to the expert schmoozing and persistent follow-up of such eminent Georgists as Jeff Smith and Alanna Hartzok. This year, that momentum continued to build: with the aid of the newly-formed Association for Geoclassical Studies, and the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Georgists were popping out all over the place.
The EEA conference presents many different “tracks”; over a dozen different papers are simultaneously presented in each time slot. One of those tracks this year, amounting to a “conference within a conference”, was “The Fourth Congress of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network: The Right to Economic Security”. The “USBIG” sessions were, for the most part, where our colleagues — for whom the right to economic security is a large concern — played an especially important role in this gathering.
The USBIG Network is an informal web of groups who approach the issue of basic income guarantees from many perspectives. Papers were given on how the grants could be administered — one, for example, on how to transform the IRS’s standard deduction into a BIG — or how they could be targeted, such as vouchers for education or health care. Many such proposals are vague, however, on the revenue side — acknowledging that basic income grants must be paid for, but unclear about how that could feasibly be accomplished in an era of tax-cutting and ballooning deficits. It’s not hard to see how Georgists — advocates of a revenue source which is progressive, non-distortionary and actually increases its own base — could make a contribution here.
One common BIG idea is the “negative income tax” — a redistributive payment that would be written into the tax code to provide guaranteed minimum incomes. A common objection to that proposal is that such an increase in take-home pay for the poorest members of society would quickly be sucked up by increased rents, ultimately benefiting only the landowners. The Georgists were able to chime in on that point with an answer that others were unable, or unwilling, to offer: that in order for the BIG to make economic sense, it must be financed by land rents.
The Alaska Permanent Fund, which redistributes the proceeds from oil royalties as equal payments to each citizen of Alaska, is everyone’s favorite example of a functioning basic-income program. It was observed that the long-standing citizens’ dividend program had done little to raise land value in Alaska, because of the abundance of land and extremely sparse population. Yet even there, land values in higher-demand areas are climbing: the taxable value of homes in Anchorage rose an average of 12.8% in 2005, with increases in some areas of over 20%. It seems clear that if a more populous and urbanized state were to offer such a dividend, it would very quickly make its way into the pockets of landowners. Perhaps Georgists aren’t the only ones who can answer this revenue riddle — but they do seem to be the only ones who aren’t shy about saying so.
Alanna Hartzok, Jeff Smith, Dan Sullivan and Steven Cord all gave presentations bearing on the BIG discussion. In two separate presentations, Alanna Hartzok detailed the Law of Rent and its ever-growing relevance to today’s economy, and surveyed many estimations of the aggregate value of the world’s natural opportunities. While admitting that such estimates are fragmentary and inadequate, Hartzok said they nevertheless show a staggering amount of revenue that currently goes to corporations and financial investors, but could be used for public needs. Professor Cord, sharing a panel on taxation with Hartzok, ranged a bit afield from his stated topic of the sufficiency of land rent as a revenue source, but elucidated the well-documented success record of local “incentive taxation” wherever it has been tried.
Jeff Smith suggested a new philosophical direction to inform our thinking about economic security. He noted that the “Protestant Work Ethic”, so important to Westerners and Americans, is much less so in other societies. Culturally, it is not universal — yet many of the economic concepts that we regard as universal, such as GDP, employment or productivity, really depend on that culture-bound notion of what “production” is. Perhaps, Jeff suggested, a “Polynesian Play Ethic” should be explored as an economic indicator: it may lead to a more humane and sustainable economy.
Dan Sullivan offered a paper on “Implementing Basic Income Grants Locally” (which earned him the title of “Little BIG Man”). Because national politics is currently controlled by right-wing tax-cutters, he argued, now is the time to address pressing problems such as social security, education and health care at the local level, with vouchers and grants financed by local collection of land rents. He called for cumulative vouchers to be issued to every citizen, for use toward health care or education. Unlike conventional voucher programs, these could be saved and used in the future; this would bring aid to services that need it, but in a market-friendly way that maximized individual choice.
Georgist participation in the EEA conference was not limited to the BIG symposium. Lawrence Moss, Editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, organized a well-attended session on “Critics of Henry George” in honor of the recently released two-volume second edition of the book by that title, and the acclaimed editorial work therein by the late Dr. Robert Andelson. Prof. Jerome Heavey offered a paper titled “Henry George, Emile De Lavaleye and the Issue of Peasant Proprietorship” in which he noted the two economists’ sharp disagreement over how best to accomplish land reforms. Michael Hudson discussed “Henry George’s Political Critics”, arguing that the effectiveness of the Single Tax movement was severely hindered by the ill-advised political choices of George himself, allegedly stemming from his refusal to explore common ground with potential supporters, particularly the socialists of his day. (In the question period, Dan Sullivan pointed out another movement with which George was philosophically aligned but politically disconnected: the Greenbackers.)
Polly Cleveland, Director of the newly-formed Association for Geoclassical Studies, contributed, to a panel on New Approaches to Macroeconomics, a paper modeling the correlation between inequity and economic volatility, based on an updated version of Ricardo’s “corn model”. An unabashed Georgist (and technologist), Dr. Cleveland is seeking to increase the sophistication (and visibility) of the Georgist contribution to the literature of the business cycle. The Association for Geoclassical Studies also organized a session on “Distributional Equity and the Commons” (a fancy way of saying “poverty and the land question”). The panel was chaired by Cliff Cobb, President of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, and featured Dr. Josh Farley on “Ecosystem Services, Information, and the Tragedy of the Non-commons.”
Some might wonder what Georgists, known as they are for emphasizing popular education and disdaining academic economics, would be doing at such an event as this. Indeed, it was clear in many ways that while most of the presenters at this conference were practitioners of the conventional wisdom, the Georgists were advocates of an alternative paradigm. As such, they were often received with dollops of condescension — which were sometimes deserved. Yet even if they were assailed for lacking methodological rigor, the Georgist presentations never failed to stimulate eager exchanges of views, and of business cards. Of course, many of the most productive dialogues at an event of this sort take place not in the sessions but around the literature tables, where many connections were made.
Next year’s Eastern Economics Association conference is to be held in Philadelphia. Dr. Mary Lesser, Executive Director, stated her desire to incorporate a tour of the Philadelphia Henry George School, and a presentation on the Georgist origins of the game, Monopoly, on next year’s program.