A Chat with Sue Walton

We caught up with Sue, the CGO’s tireless conference planner, for a few words about the state of our movement, and the importance of face-to-face meetings.

GJ: You’ve been been doing the CGO conference all these years. How have the conferences changed?

Sue: First real one I did was 1993. How it’s changed? Well, we use a lot more social media now, and more technology in general. We’ve changed from going to college campuses, to affordable hotels. Unfortunately our numbers have shrunk — but still, we have a good time!

GJ: How else has the group of people who come to the conference changed?

Sue with Jacob Shwartz-Lucas

Sue with Jacob Shwartz-Lucas

Sue: They’re more excited, and generally more knowledgeable about what’s going on. There are more intelligent questions. They aren’t necessarily interested in reading academic papers, but they really do want to make connections that last. They all want a thumb drive, on which they can take home the full set of conference materials and handouts. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make that happen. I’d like to see us use the web and other media to reduce costs and increase our efficiency. People often lose the papers they get handed at a conference. I get calls up to nine months later.

We are getting younger! I was very impressed with the number of young people who have joined us in the last couple of years. Now we “youngsters” who emerged in the early 90s can sort of sit back and let the new ones take over. But I’d also say that most of the boomers in our group are young-thinking.

GJ: What’s your sense of the morale of the Georgist community?

Sue: We go through our ups and downs. We do feel discouraged. But the biggest purpose of the conference is to recharge our batteries. As Charlie Ellinger used to say, it’s “a Georgist revival.” We meet colleagues who live in different places and circumstances, but share the same commitment. We share our frustrations and our successes. Facebook can only do so much. The face-to-face meeting really does it for us — and even more so with this past conference, as we met Georgists from around the world. This year, I really got charged up, for the first time in a long time. I’m usually so busy and tired, but this year I really enjoyed being able to have breakfast with attendees.

GJ: Tell us about the ongoing struggle to make conferences affordable. I’m not sure our readers are aware how much work that takes.

Sue: Oh, yeah. It’s rather tough. We negotiated at length about breakfast for next year — only to find that we just couldn’t afford it. One consequence of this is the increasing importance of our hospitality suite, which has taken on a whole host of functions. All told, I spend a good four months every year on the logistics of just finding the right hotel situation. Even once you’ve settled on a place, putting together the final package is a really intricate process. We need to balance affordability for our younger Georgists, with amenities for attendees who are on vacation, and accessibility for our older Georgists. We also need the possibility of being able to walk out the door and find places to go. This year, our happy hour made people less restless. It was a hang-out place, and we definitely need more of that at conferences. I haven’t quite figured that out for the next couple of years, but it’s a big priority in my ongoing meetings.

GJ: For the first time in many years, we had a joint CGO/IU conference in 2015. Tell me how that experience went for you.

Sue: Pretty well! We’ve tried to do international conferences over the years, and til now it hasn’t worked. What made it work this year, I think, was the presence of IU Executive Members on our planning committee: Dave Wetzel, Alanna Hartzok, Bill Batt and Ed Dodson made big contriubutions. We had the full support of the IU community — for example, getting Gordon Abiama to the event was a team effort. The Schalkenbach Foundation also provided key support. And the attendees held up their end: people delivered their promised papers, on time! In the past, “those bloody Americans” have come in for criticism, but this year it worked out well — and I think you’ll see more of these international events. There’s talk of a mini international component, even for this coming year in Orlando.

GJ: I think everybody really enjoyed meeting colleagues from other countries.

Sue: Oh, absolutely! And many people were willing to pitch in to make the event work — providing rides, accommodations, that sort of thing. And, of course, the amazing culinary contributions of Osamu Uehara! He makes the hospitality suite something extra-special every time. And I wanted to give a shout-out to Mary Rawson, our oldest participant this year. It was great to see her.

GJ: The CGO, as we know, has very little money, and has to rely on funding from the Henry George School and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. How have those relationships been working out?

Sue: We continue to get support; we won’t be getting as much in the coming year from the Schalkenbach Foundation, and we do not know, at this time, what contribution, if any, the Henry George School plans to make. We’re trying to shrink our budget. This is a work in progress. I have to thank Paul Justus for his hard work in getting out the videos [to the Schalkenbach Foundation].

GJ: You also plan conferences for the Ethical Society. How would you compare that relationship to the one you have with the CGO?

Sue: I’m much closer to my Georgist friends. The Georgists have been there when I’ve had some rough times. I still remember their support when my mom died at the beginning of the conference in 2002. People gave me hugs and kind understanding then. Nothing against the Ethicals, but you guys are — despite being almost all male — a more empathetic type of a group. You can give me my space, and yet be there for me. So, yeah, I do like my Georgist buddies.

GJ: You bring up a perennial challenge: how do we get more women interested?

Sue: That’s a tough one, because economics just isn’t most women’s thing. I recently heard a lecture on math and cooking — maybe we need to do political economy and cooking!

GJ: Well, cooking is the metaphor you always use for the process of organizing the conference…

Sue: Oh, yeah. Maybe that should be on my bucket list: to do a presentation on “Cooking at the Margin.” Or in the immortal words of Everett Gross: “Who took my cookie?” But, there actually quite a few women who have taken the course in Chicago; it’s just getting them involved. It’s like the 80/20 principle has almost become the 99/1 percent principle: 99 percent wants to lay back and let one percent be the activists. But, everybody is pedaling as fast as they can — and we celebrate at next year’s conference!roomful

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