My Thoughts for a Georgist Agenda

H. William Batt

[Prepared for presentation at the annual Council of Georgist Organizations conference, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, July, 2004]

I have counted myself a Georgist only since 1993; I'm a tyro compared to most of the people in this movement. I can actually date the time and place when I very suddenly and strongly "saw the cat." It was at the Los Angeles CGO meeting where Mason Gaffney put on a three-day program that appealed to every part of me - its intellectual challenge, its elementary decency, and its community of adherents. On a hunch, Steve Cord said he'd pay my way out there, just to get me to go. My "conversion experience," if you could call it that, was so profound that I resolved shortly thereafter to devote the rest of my life to the advocacy and implementation of our idea.

I was nonetheless very realistic in my decision to invest in this movement. By nature, and throughout my life, I've been an irrepressible reformer. I was one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers in 1962; that experience sandwiched between my undergraduate and graduate study in political science. But I've always elected to be part of social causes that had a fair chance of success - I was very early on part of the anti-smoking movement; I was for a decade a leader of the Hemlock Society at both the state and national level; and I've joined the Georgist cause with the same confidence that we will be successful.

When I departed from service to the New York State Legislature in 1992, it was after working for a decade in a back-room capacity advising the Assembly Speaker on tax policies. But I differed much from my office colleagues in my belief that fiscal measures were as important an instrument to effectuate other public choices as they are for raising money. The other five seemed focused largely on comparative revenue streams; I was concerned about measures of neutrality, efficiency, equity, administrability, and so on. Perhaps it was comparing various tax designs against what are the venerable textbook principles of sound tax theory that ultimately brought me to the view that there was something very right about taxing land value. I understood inelasticity, but I had not yet grasped the concept of economic rent!

I came to regard the Georgist agenda as reachable, perhaps because I was new to it. Perhaps because I haven't witnessed decades of seeing it ignored, pushed aside, and discarded, I saw it as fresh, appealing, and even demonstrable. I came to Georgism at a very crucial time: data and computer power were just beginning to make possible the empirical demonstration of its claims in a palpable and cogent way. Transportation costs and sprawl development were becoming focuses of concern. For decades Georgist claims were only plausible hypotheses, claims which, even if sound in economic theory, were only that: they were beyond the range of being tested. Now, for the first time, the massive databases of cities, states and even national governments could be used to suggest, if not actually to prove, the validity of these assertions. It was possible now, and increasingly so, to show who would "win" and who would "lose" in a Georgist economic regime. It was possible, even more importantly, to show where taxes on land value would be increased or decreased, thereby portraying in urban environments the sweeping effects of such policies. Graphical mapping, the emerging technology applications called GIS (geographical information systems), now made it possible to show the power of taxation as an instrument of policy. I could show not only where more favorable choices could be induced, but - just as importantly - where distortions had been wrought by fiscal policies that were destructive to community, to health, and to prudential fiscal management. I could even identify potential new sources of revenue that are to this day untapped, tax bases like the spectrum that actually improve economic performance rather than dampen it. It was all these considerations, which I could see very plainly emerging, that led me to want to invest heavily in demonstrating the value, the justice and the wisdom of the Georgist philosophy.

I have tried in the twelve years of my involvement in this movement to play a small role in its promotion. I have, for example, tried to demonstrate empirically that infrastructure investments can be paid for by the recovered economic rent in proximate locations. My study of what transportation people call "value capture," made it into the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, and has since been cited to endorse a later project in London. I took the assessment roll of Tompkins County in upstate New York and portrayed the differential gradients in a land "valuescape," something now being done far more proficiently by Tony Vickers in the UK. I ran one of the first simulations of how a shift from the conventional property tax to a land tax would play out among various titleholders in a community, and have now seen it become a standard exercise done for local governments by Josh Vincent and the Center for the Study of Economics. By collecting aggregate data on thousands of assessment districts throughout the USA, I have been able to demonstrate the relative constancy of the land value proportions from one municipality to another. Showing graphically that the aggregate proportion of land value in a municipality is typically between 40 and 50 percent, I have been able to show that there is indeed a rich tax base from which cities can draw, and that there is no reason at all for urban officials to lament the emptiness of their public coffers. With Michael Hudson, a Georgist with a far greater understanding of economics than I have, I am working on demonstrating that the amount of economic rent available to support of the American public sector is easily adequate for the purpose, a figure that we know will belie the official government figure of only 2 percent of the GDP. All these empirical studies are quite amateurish; I am by no means sophisticated with databases and statistics. But I am trying in my own modest way to show that there is every reason for us to be excited about the prospect of Georgist agendas being implemented within my lifetime.

Philosophers take pains to show that "ought implies can." That is to say, one cannot argue that one should do something unless it is clear first that it can be done. Only now, for the first time, can we Georgists demonstrate that what we argue for is indeed doable: technically, administrably, economically, and politically. This is really exciting. If first we are able to show the technical feasibility of our ideas by sound empirical studies, we are then in a far better position to argue their compelling justice. Until recently, we tended to dwell almost totally on the justice issue, and had only a few books and articles showing the economic desirability they have. But we are on the cusp of being able to demonstrate, massively, the value of the truths we believe. It is an exciting time to be a Georgist.

A last reason why we Georgists should be excited about our future is that we hold the key to a revitalized basis of an intellectually bankrupt Democratic Party in the US and for many other political parties worldwide. At a time when a crude and amoral capitalism is feeding Republican thought, and a tired and overworked socialism hangs on in more progressive circles, we Georgists indeed reflect the "Third Way!" Yet Georgist thought has a place in Republican thought too - the idea of eliminating taxes on labor and capital should resonate well in those circles. Our ideas stand for sound principles of economic justice, just as strongly today as they did in Henry George's time. They offer the answer to questions on how to support public services at a time when a revolt against conventional tax designs is sweeping the country and indeed the world. They provide a deft and subtle means by which to foster environmental goals without the heavy hand of police powers, litigation, and the costly economic burdens that typically go along with such instruments. And lastly they offer a clear, coherent, and sound belief system that political leaders can grasp and purvey in an inspiring and defensible way. With the right set of data, graphics, moral arguments and sound bites, there is no reason why it can't spread like the proverbial wildfire of a grassroots movement. It could happen at any moment. We are poised shortly for a skillful and imaginative political figure to grasp what we have to offer. Our material is increasingly out there; it is our task to make it cogent and known to them, so that it is readily understood. We need to be ready at any time for that event, for it could come momentarily. When it comes, we should be prepared; all our forces should be at the ready to seize the day.