The Common Ground New York City Presidency: My First 60 Days

Scott Baker

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, May-June 2010]

I started my education in Georgism in the Fall of 2009, by taking the Fundamentals course at the Henry George School here in New York City. Like a lot of people, I already knew there was something wrong with our economic system that produces unimaginable wealth for a relative handful while leaving billions in equally unimaginable poverty. That wealth was failing to trickle down, after decades of promises to do so, was obvious. Equally obvious was that the Earth was straining at the seams to provide the vast resources required by a handful of rich nations (and even then, not by all the citizens of those nations. By some estimates, America has the highest rate of poverty in the developed world). The Establishment's refrain: "Don't worry about the poor and the dispossessed. We'll get to them...eventually" rang hollow. Increasingly glum, I was leaning toward a Malthusian model, with just enough optimism, or self-delusion, left to get me through my day. With time on my hands, and armed with a brochure I had picked up at my local library branch, I headed off to take my first class.

After an exciting Fall term of challenging my core beliefs, not just in economics, but in the very notion of "inevitable progress" I came to understand that our current economic system was not only unsustainable - if Nature didn't get us, a series of Revolutions would - but systemically unequal - the more you make from labor, the more you must give up in Rent to those who monopolize vital natural resources (Land).

Like many students of Henry George who have discovered the "Remedy" I was chock full of idealism and ideas for how to carry the message out to the general public. I joined the local chapter of Common Ground in mid-2009, expecting to find like-minded souls hotly engaged in Changing the World. Surely, with such a clear-cut path to justice, poverty-abatement, and, on the Entrepreneurial/Capitalist side, opportunity and productivity, it was just a matter of sweeping away a few speculators and monopolists, albeit rich and powerful ones. Besides, we just elected a fresh new progressive President -- though his genuflections toward the finance industry were already troubling, and I had spoken out against them several times by then:

  • "Where the Next 2 Trillion is Going to"
  • "Single Tax, True Remedy to Inequity to Boom/Bust Cycle"
  • "Saving the Economy Without Spending a Dime"
  • "A new form of capitalism is needed: Geonomics"

I even offered Obama unsolicited (and, apparently, unappreciated) advice on how to get progressive reforms implemented:

  • "How to Fight Like a Republican and Win like a Progressive"

Oddly, by fall, 2009, the World had neither changed, nor did Obama seem like much of a Change himself.

Common Ground had an initiative to pass two city council bills and a state bill to assess vacant land at the same rate as built-upon land but these efforts weren't, and aren't, gaining much traction, or even much enthusiasm from CG's own members.

Frankly, somehow, they seemed too small-bore. The Devil may be in the details, but He's an awfully big Devil! Is that all there is? I wondered. What about congestion pricing or tolls on the city bridges? What about taxing Ground Rents all over the city and untaxing productive work? What about pollution taxes? Instead of begging cash-strapped Albany for money to fix our equally cash-strapped transit system, how about charging Ground Rents to Landowners all along the new Second Avenue subway, since they will benefit the most when real estate prices go up? All of these are properly Georgist areas. However, as I would soon discover, it is a long road from ideal to the real.

After our big annual meeting in September 2009, subsequent meetings failed to attract even a quorum of our members - more like 3 to 7. Furthermore, and this needs to be said, honestly and without accusation, the Georgist movement is full of members who are old.

It was not always this way. In 1932, the current Henry George School was founded by Oscar Geiger in New York City -- by overwhelming demand:

Classes in social science and the philosophy of Henry George are now being organized both at the Youth House and on the lower east side of the city near the Henry Street Settlement. The latter is a spontaneous outgrowth of two of Mr. Geiger's lectures at the Young Israel Synagogue, 229 East Broadway. Many of the young folks who heard these lectures (mainly college and high school students, and some older than college and high school age) expressed their interest in the subject and a desire to learn it thoroughly and to be able to teach it to others. The interest and enthusiasm displayed was so great that Mr. Geiger consented to start classes for these students in their own section of the city. (Emphasis added)

So, there is nothing old about George's philosophy. Indeed, it is both Green and Entrepreneurial - both qualities associated with today's youthful post-liberal/conservative politics. Why then, when I go to the school, or to the CG meetings, am I, at 52, among the youngest members in the meetings? Well, part of the answer must surely be found in our tools. While written materials and lectures were fine in George's day, they don't reach today's hyper-connected youtube/twitter/Facebook generation. The youth of today don't get most of their information in stuffy classrooms or even on CDs, they are online, mobile and interested in what's happening now. They want to see and interact more than to read long, detailed passages.

I tried to address this generation gap with an E-Activism presentation to the school last semester. It can be found on our Common Ground Discussion Group (which I created), in the files section: e-Activism with notes.pdf - http://groups.google.com/group/common-ground-nyc/files. The event was well attended and meant as an inspiration for others to use the New Media to promote their own activist - and hopefully, Georgist - agendas. More on these tools later.

In the past year, I also proposed starting a Geonomic party in New York State (now, I think it would be better named a Geoist Party) and in a somewhat shorter form, in GroundSwell's November-December 2009 issue: "Creating a Geonomic Party in New York State&quot." This party would be neither right nor left, but simply correct, based on sound Georgist First Principles of Economics. Since it would be a State party, at least at first, foreign policy positions would only need to be broad and general. Speaking for myself and, I hope, for many Georgists, I tried to present a viable third party alternative, along with ways to siphon voters from the heavy middle of the electorate, where most of the votes are.

Prior to that, and recognizing the near-universal disgust with both major parties, as evidenced by the Tea Parties and other splinter groups gaining prominence, I had laid the "Ground work" in an article on both Op Ed News and in GroundSwell entitled: "Are you a Progressive or Conservative? Are you Sure?" One common rallying cry I used as an example, among many, of both conservatives and progressives, is the recognition that the bank bailouts merely allowed the financial conditions that nearly destroyed the economy to continue, even to strengthen.

If you look at the history of revolutions - and make no mistake, what we are proposing may, or may not, be achieved bloodlessly, but it is revolutionary - they are instigated by the non-establishment youth. Perhaps there are a few greyheads in the lead, with experience and well thought-out ideas, like George himself, but it is the youth who provide the force and urgency for change. As people get older, they get too comfortable, or simply too tired and jaded, to overthrow the established order.

Sometimes they even get too tired to come to Common Ground meetings.

As a way of boosting our membership, I suggested to our then-President, Rita Rowan, that we hold a meeting after the school's weekly film presentation on March 6, 2010. While we did get about ten hold-overs from the film (out of about 50), I made the mistake of leaving the meeting too open-ended, in the hopes that the potential new members would tell me where they would like the group to go. This didn't happen, and our oft-repeated implorations to support the three local Land Value bills didn't resonate. Indeed, I was further surprised to find how lukewarm the support was for George's message itself! I had thought that surely, here in the school, I was preaching to the choir, but it was not so. People are concerned with lowering ALL taxes, often not seeing the difference between Ground Rent and other taxes on productive activity - despite having read Progress and Poverty! The drive to earn money from speculation and obligation is now so pervasive it has trickled down to even the landless masses. If I only had a small plot of land, I could get rich/retire early/quit my job/be The Man... It was an eye-opening, if dismaying, revelation. More on this later too.

I began to talk seriously to Rita Rowan about the lack of members and the direction of the group. I proposed creating a comic book on the benefits of Land Value taxes (and the removal of other taxes on productivity, equally important); something simple, direct, and best of all, something young people would be attracted to. At her suggestion, we ventured to an art show at the local high school, where we were reminded once again, of the vast untapped potential of our youth. Unfortunately, our efforts to recruit one of these talented young artists to our cause was stymied by bureaucracy, fears of political divides, or perhaps something else - it was never quite clear. But we had to look inside the group for talent - a small pool, to be sure, but we got lucky. One of our oldest members, both in terms of age and time with the group, Eric Johnson, proved to be the artist we needed and, together with my scripts and supplemental pages, we have completed 2/3 of a 12 page comic showing the basic benefits of going to a LVT in New York City.

At some point, when we were waiting to start our next meeting at the school, Rita suggested I become president of the local Common Ground. As she explained, she didn't have the aptitude for the New Media, and I obviously did (I was an I.T. Manager for 22 years), and she agreed that these were the tools we needed in the 21rst century to reach a new generation of Georgists (whom I had taken to calling by a new, cooler name, Geoists). By then, I had published some half dozen pieces in GroundSwell and Op Ed News on Geonomics -- where I am a Senior Editor and Writer. Rita would assume the role of Treasurer and Secretary to allow me to focus on my "vision" as she called it. With some trepidation, but also eagerness, I agreed. The official clock on my presidential term began on April 11, so as of this writing, I have been in office 60 days.

One of the first projects I became involved in was an effort to institute a Georgist system on Roosevelt Island. The effort was initiated by a classmate in the school, along with a few other students, some of who dropped out over time, as people tend to do after initial enthusiasm. There are four of us working hard on this study right now, with advice from established Georgist authorities that have both practical and academic backgrounds in implementing Land Value Taxes.

Some background on the island:

Roosevelt Island is a city-owned and leased island of 147 acres, populated by about 15,000 people (this number will be clearer after the 2010 census and the population has been growing rapidly in the last few years, with new construction). It has had four buildings, now three, with Mitchell-Lama or other rent stabilized arrangements to encourage moderate income residents to live on the island, but the growth of greater New York City - which it is connected to by a dedicated Tram, a subway stop, and a bridge (to Queens) - has raised the value of its land, causing tension between the long-time residents, and the newer, richer residents of recent high-rise luxury buildings. As is customary throughout New York, none of the Ground Rent is returned to the community, but is pocketed by the developers instead, encouraging speculation and causing inadequate funding for the island's infrastructure. Indeed, during my tour by a long-time resident, whom I'll call Rosy (not her real name), it became clear that many of the railings, parks and sidewalks needed work. Worse, many of the small stores along Main Street were closed, with no clear plans on how to open them again. The developers, meanwhile, are getting rich off a combination of high-paying condo owners and a small number of upscale retail establishments. The island's two long-time hospitals are threatened with buyouts and/or conversion to residential complexes and even the island's single supermarket is threatened with conversion - which would make residents dependent on smaller stores, or on schlepping to Queens or Manhattan for groceries. The Free Market is freer for some more than others! You can read more about the island here: Roosevelt Island.

In short, the island is gentrifying, to the detriment of both long-term residents and the underfunded island infrastructure, and perhaps its long-term sustainability as a park-filled, family friendly, location.

This seems like an ideal laboratory for a Georgist experiment! The island is midway through a 99-year lease from the city, has relatively uniform land values (with slightly more premium given to areas closer to the subway and Tram), and has a fairly diverse mixture of residents scattered evenly across the island, due to various quality buildings.

But, there is a problem. The majority of the island's residents own, or are in the process of owning through mortgages, their own apartments. If one went to a Land Value Tax on Ground Rent - estimated by different authorities at 20% - 40% of rent, or mortgage - that would effectively end the private accumulation of rent, and return it instead to the community. While the community as a whole would benefit, and the city would find new revenue to pay for the island's needs, individual residents would lose the chance to profit as greatly from the appreciation that comes, as George tells us, from the "natural growth in population."

Viva La Revolution!...just as soon as I get mine.

Rosy feels it is politically risky to tell people, even developers, that they will have to give up "profits from obligation" even if it will mean a more sustainable future for the community. Others, including me, conclude that continuing to, essentially, beg for exemptions for the moderate-income or even poor, residents will only continue to lead to their phasing out, as it has under the current system for hundreds of years. Whatever the allowance for people in the poorer strata, or for funding infrastructure, it is clear that funding for them is always secondary to accommodation to the landowners. This was as true in George's time as our own. Indeed, the whole notion of "funding for them" is a misnomer - it is really, as George reminds us over and over, the simple return to the community of that which is generated by the community. The whole notion of charity needs to be overthrown and replaced with the notion of just deserts. It is, to beat the concept into the Ground (pun intended), to return the value of the land to those living on it, not those Lording over it. Just as importantly, the incentive for engaging in unsustainable development disappears when one pulls out the private accumulation of Ground Rent and forces builders to only focus on actual buildings and other improvements that will add value to the island. For example, adding an elevator to the center of the 59th Street bridge so people can walk and bike easily to Manhattan without using the Tram or subway, or traveling by bus or car to Queens first, might be more desirable than erecting yet another luxury condominium, but right now, there's no significant source of funding for such an option.

So, here we are stuck, between a Rock (the Ground) and a hard place (The building upon it, or perhaps the landowner's heart).

How does one undo a criminal system in which all are complicit, and in which the criminals do not acknowledge they are criminals, or even that a crime has been committed? George was clear: just take the Ground Rent from the landowners and do it immediately. Politically, realistically, this is probably impossible.

I was reminded of the systematic way in which Land ownership has been used in the last 70 years or so to force out both Georgist thoughts and sensible economic reforms in general, in my current class, The History of Capital, when the teacher told us how only 2% of people used to own their homes in the 1920s vs. some 2/3 who - however tenuously - own them now. Of course, 30-year mortgages with little or no money down (20% was the bare minimum back then) were unheard of prior to the Great Depression. But then a slew of government agencies arose under President Roosevelt, for whom the island is named, and later administrations, in order to guarantee the possibility of home ownership; this also guaranteed the locking into depressed, work-deprived neighborhoods, of those same owners. It is no accident we do not have the modern-day equivalent of the Great Migration westward from hordes of landless poor as written of in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. While that March of the Dispossessed was undesirable, it is also undesirable to have Land become an anchor during a real estate collapse amid high unemployment, as we have now. Giving up equity and a job at the same time is a sacrifice most Americans are unwilling to make, so they are effectively prevented from following former president Reagan's advice to "vote with their feet." Meanwhile, some 96% of mortgages are now back-stopped by the government, effectively extinguishing the private home mortgage industry and introducing Socialism in a way Great Depression writers like John Steinbeck never could have imagined.

Coming back to the island...

To say the issue of how, or even, whether, to introduce Georgism to Roosevelt Island, or to use Rosy's less-threatening phrase, sustainability, is contentious, even among members of our group, is to understate things greatly. We are trying to figure out how to proceed. This has been the problem for Georgists since Progress & Poverty first came out, and it has only gotten worse. I welcome suggestions.

One final example of how bad things have become is in the absolute slashing of public funds at the state and city level, for any kind of infrastructure work, no matter how much it would ultimately raise land values for the betterment of all. New York City has come to almost totally rely on private funds for what used to be public works, like new parks. For instance, Common Ground-NYC supports completion of the Manhattan Greenway - an esplanade that nearly encircles Manhattan, but has a critical gap from 38-61 street on the east side. Closing this gap would unite neighborhoods, provide a safe effective alternative route for bikers (9 of whom have been killed on the alternate street based route from 1995-2007) and walkers to the over-congested eastside Avenues, and ultimately enhance the value of the nearby land. A similarly priced - $150 million - park on the west side, the Highline Park, has done exactly these things, and that area, once a forgotten backwater, is now experiencing a building boom.

On the east side, however, we are stopped by a lack of rich and influential supporters to directly fund a similar park near the East River, or to argue the case to the city (aided by generous donations and blocks of voters).

Instead, for years the city has attempted to broker a complicated deal with the United Nations, also in the area, to offset their taking of a nearby park in exchange for paying for the completion of the esplanade. This ultimate public works project - financing a new park - has gone nowhere, and now the city, state, and federal governments have no funds, or so they tell us.

This seems like a perfect case for a Land Value Tax, and I have argued so, in the 2-3 minutes granted in Town Hall meetings and Community Board meetings, thus far to no avail. Most politicians today, local or national, do not seem to know what a LVT is (an important exception is Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President), and there is simply no time to explain it to them in these limited forums. Follow-up letters, even from large organizations like Transportation Alternatives (which produced a letter to the Electeds which some 40+ sympathetic organizations signed, including Common Ground-NYC) are largely ignored. So, here is a project which the community boards officially support, the city, state and federal governments officially support, and which would benefit the community in the ways described -- yet it cannot get funding. Is this not perverse?

You may sign a petition to Close the Gap here:

Close the Gap but it will take more than a petition to change the political economy towards Geoist principals.

Perhaps it will take a comic book! Along with our group's artist, Eric Johnson, I continue to work on the Tax and the City comic, and hope to begin other new media initiatives this year, primarily aimed at young people, including a 10-minute youtube presentation on the basic tenets of Geoism (again, Geoism is cooler, and more accurate, than Georgism). Take a look at "The Story of Stuff," narrated by Annie Leonard. This excellent partly animated video illustrates our unsustainable dependence on cheap goods from all over the world. It is Georgist (Geoist) in so many ways, but never quite "sees the cat." However, I know from corresponding with this group that they are sympathetic to our cause and principles. They don't have time to film such a project now, but perhaps with the right script...

A veteran of Georgist fights recently claimed that Georgism was 100% right economically, but 100% wrong politically. I'm not sure I would go that far, but certainly our system has been so skewed to benefit the land-owner, at the expense of the worker, that not to own land in some way means the virtual impossibility of achieving the American Dream - now actually defined as owning a home, even more than building a better mousetrap or adding to the social wealth in some other productive way. The conflation of Capital for Land is complete...if only Natural Laws could be rewritten. But since they cannot, we will continue to experience booms and busts until we can return to the people the fruits of our Common Ground.