by Lindy Davies
This year the CGO conference finally went back to Cali: Newport Beach, California, just minutes away from the John Wayne/Orange County International Airport, prodigiously accessible by automobile. Few conference-goers, alas, got to drive the eight miles or so to the beach, because the schedule was unusually full. Some eighty-five people attended, up from previous years. And there were outreach-oriented events, outside the main conference schedule, that livened things up and introduced Georgist ideas to newcomers. One of these featured Alanna Hartzok (see page 4) and the eloquent spiritual leader and Occupy organizer Myra Jackson, who exhorted us to uncover our lights and merge their brilliance with those of like-minded agents of progressive change.
The conference proper, however, featured a great variety of sessions, and nearly all of them addressed, in one way or another, the issue of our movement’s lack of political success. I’d like to focus on three of the sessions that, together, seemed to sum up the spirit of this conference.
Do we need a mass movement?
In the opening session, Dan Sullivan and Josh Vincent sought to debunk the idea that building a mass movement is a path to success. Dan Sullivan suggested that the masses of people are most often influenced by influential people. There have been few examples of significant social change starting at the grassroots and then being adopted by society’s gatekeepers. However, Georgists have often been content to speak to anyone who would listen. The traditional method of Georgist outreach, popular education, has made little progress, according to Sullivan, because it has attracted precisely the sort of people who have the least ability to move our ideas out into the greater public dialogue. We gained converts, but built no momentum, because those converts lacked a platform from which to effectively spread what they had learned.
Sullivan argued that we would do better to address well-known people who, once they became enthused about Georgist ideas, would tell their whole fan base about them — a message that would be amplified, in this day and age, by the power of social media.
Josh Vincent discussed this strategy in the pragmatic context of working to get legislation passed. He pointed out that because land value taxation must be introduced gradually, at the municipal level, it is virtually impossible to build mass support for it at first. Opponents, such as owners of parking lots and big-box stores, tend to be few and well-funded, and quickly mobilize negative publicity. The winning strategy is to pitch the idea to selected local groups, including churches, business organizations, elected officials, unions, newspapers and other local media, including public access TV, and social media (with the caveat that social media is effective for influencing people about issues that are already on their minds). Such advocacy must exhibit impeccable credibility (it is no job for wild-eyed enthusiasts), and must work through the kinds of channels with which public officials are comfortable. We must listen carefully, and identify areas where we can help people to achieve their own goals.For all of these reasons, Vincent noted, it makes sense to separate events designed for LVT advocacy from those designed for the overall Georgist movement.
Exploring the money question
In the wake of the Great Crash of 2008, in which the Western banking system nearly collapsed, throwing the economy into the worst slump since Great Depression of the 1930s, a great deal of attention has been focused on money and banking. This has led many theorists and commentators to argue that the structural privilege granted to banks is a fundamental economic problem. It has also led a number of Georgists to argue that the money question is as fundamentally important as the issue of land ownership. This issue was kicked around, in Newport Beach, by four heavyweights: Deirdre Kent, Ellen Brown, Fred Foldvary and Dan Sullivan.
This is not a brand-new position among Georgists. More than two decades ago, Robert de Fremery wrote in his book Rights vs. Privileges that the power our society grants to private banks, to create money by loaning it into existence, is just as important a monopoly power as fee-simple land ownership, and that justice requires both institutions to be abolished together. A basic tenet of this view, shared by three of the four panelists, is that when money is loaned into existence by banks, the loans must in turn be paid back with money that has, itself, been loaned into existence at interest — so there can never be enough money to pay back the entire debt.
First up was New Zealander Deirdre Kent, who attributed many negative effects to the current banking system, including instability, environmental destruction and wealth concentration. She proposes a “land dollar,” a national currency backed by land. The beneficial incentives of such a monetary system, Kent said, would allow a nation to counteract the global interconnectedness that makes every nation susceptible to financial contagion, and the “growth imperative” with its ruinous environmental consequences.
Kent’s platform has three major planks: a rent-as-revenue system, a citizens’ dividend, and spending money directly into existence by the government. All of these reforms would shock the economy, she cautioned, so they must be implemented gradually. The government, she said, should spend money into existence, and use it to buy land. Landholders would then pay rent rather than taxes. During the transition, two currencies would be accepted for payment of taxes. Monetary boards and local land committees would decide which land to buy, and at what rate, to avoid inflation. Central government, said Kent, “should set the policies that can provide the conditions for strong, vibrant local economies and then get out of the way.”
Next up was attorney and author Ellen Brown, President of the Public Banking Institute. Her advocacy is focused on banking as a public utility; she believes that the profits to be had from the banking business rightfully belong in the public treasury. She agrees that money ought to be issued by the government, as was famously done under Abraham Lincoln, when $400 million worth of “Greenbacks” were issued, with great success. However, in the short term, Brown supports state banks, such as the Bank of North Dakota, which, while owned and operated by the state government, functions as a conventional fractional reserve bank. Ellen Brown has published two books on this issue, The Web of Debt and The Public Banking Solution.
Fred Foldvary, who teaches at San Jose State, accurately predicted and explained the 2008 crash. He titled his talk “Free Banking as Free Trade,” and began by reminding us of Henry George’s conception of true free trade: voluntary exchange, unencumbered by any monopoly or taxation. Banking, Foldvary argued, including fractional-reserve banking, is a natural market phenomenon that has beneficial economic consequences, as long as the risks of loaning money are borne, not by the public, but by those who stand to gain from the loans. Free trade, said Foldvary, is a comprehensive policy whose most important part is the collection of land rents for public revenue.
Dan Sullivan, Director of Saving Communities, took the clean-up spot, reiterating the argument that money-creation has an inherent element of privilege. He sums up his stance on this “core issue” at savingcommunities.org:
Advanced societies cannot function without money. When money is loaned into circulation, its lenders and re-lenders can charge interest on values that they did not create. It is impossible to completely pay off debts with debt-money, because the debt (including interest) exceeds the amount of money issued. As a result, producers are increasingly dependent on money lenders. Even businesses who do not borrow must deal with the fact that their employees, customers, suppliers, etc., are immersed in debt, and that a contraction of credit disables the entire economy….
The four talks were followed by a roundtable session, capably hosted by Ed Dodson.
Lessons from a successful movement
One of the conference’s most thought-provoking sessions was “How the LGBT Community Went from the Margins to Mainstream” by Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, who got married in 2008, having been together for 19 years before that, and having worked long and hard to secure that right.
John and Stuart offered an engaging and well-practiced presentation — it’s clear that their movement-building advice is in demand. They drew early inspiration from Stuart’s parents’ interracial marriage, and the legal struggle of interracial couples for the equal right to marry. In 1948, California became the 20th US state to legalize interracial marriage. Suart and John became leaders in the marriage equality campaign, learning about movement-building and attracting attention in the media.
The marriage equality movment endured a long, bruising struggle in California. Same-sex marriage was legalized by the state Supreme Court in 2008, only to be overturned that same year by referendum (Proposition 8), which was finally reversed by the US Supreme Court in 2013.
Nevertheless, the marriage equality movement has indeed enjoyed surpisingly rapid success in the past decade. In 2003 no US state allowed same-sex marriage. In California, one of the most liberal US states, support for same-sex marriage rose from 28% in 1977 to over 62% in 2013.
Stuart and John did a great deal of coalition-building, event-attending, hand-shaking, hearing the same old lines many, many times — in other words, successful movement-building work. Along the way, they developed an impressive list of “themes to consider.”
Some might quibble about the relevance of John and Stuart’s strategic advice for Georgists. Marriage, after all — legal equality for loving, committed relationships — is a good deal more recognizable and immediate than “the vital role of land in the economy.” Yet, if one listens to their “themes to consider” with an open mind, ideas do begin to light up. After all, we don’t just depend on the earth for “production;” we depend on it for every form of sustenance and support. Perhaps, along with the unassailable logic of natural law, there is a place in our presentations for a more human sort of connection: not just the value of land, but also its meaning.
Lenny Goldberg, an indefatiguable California activist, gave an inspiring session on “Land Economics in Action: Generating a Movement for Change in Proposition 13.” Goldberg is no stranger to Georgist economics, and he is blunt about the damage that the 1978 tax revolt wrought on his home state. His California Tax Reform Association has not won the day yet. But, Lenny Goldberg has used thorough research, tireless outreach and — most important — listening and connection with the concerns of various groups to place himself squarely in the middle of public dialogue on the issue. Prop 13 is still very popular among homeowners, which is what makes it “the 3rd rail of California politics.” However, the absurd variance of commercial assessments strikes a chord with voters, and Goldberg is working to seize that opportunity for reform.
Another superb session was given by Susan McWilliams, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Pomona, on the work of her grandfather, Carey McWilliams, whose 1938 book Factories in the Field offered a Georgist-friendly analysis of the horrible conditions faced by California farm workers. Carey McWilliams was a fascinating and inspiring character, well-known and
respected by the gamut of 20th-century California progressives, from Upton Sinclair to Cesar Chavez. Our audience was delighted by Susan McWilliams’s winning and authoritative telling of his story.
Finally, at the banquet, we were treated to a visit from an aged Mark Twain (wryly portrayed by Dan Sulivan) and a youthful Henry George, (spryly played by David Giesen) who had just jumped ship from the Hindoo, ready to seek his fortune in California.
Thanks to Damon Gross, Richard Biddle, Wyn Achenbaum and Karl Fitzgerald for clutch photo help! — L.D.