Monthly Archives: February 2007

An Introduction to Geonomics

Jeff Smith has for many years been working for social justice, economic equity, and ecological sustainability. His particular focus has been on the “land problem” and the appropriate basis for taxation. The result is an approach he calls Geonomics. For more information, see his Geonomy Society website.

Here’s what it’s all about. — t.h.g.

“Every community creates its own values, without even being able to help it. Indeed, most people aren’t even aware it’s happening. But watch what happens when new people move into a community, when a vacant lot is landscaped into a pocket park, when a school’s students raise their scores, when a parking lot entertains a farmers’ market. What happens is the nearby land values rise. Indeed, they rise enough that the poor grassroots activists who help bring about such a social improvement could work themselves out of their homes.

Nobel laureate William Vickery noted there’s never been a public improvement that could not pay for itself from nearby site values. Problem is, most agents for the public – the government – do not recover those values but let them collect in the pockets of speculators, developers, and lenders – or, in a phrase, their major campaign contributors. When a community leaks its own values out to absentee owners and investors and mortgagors, it makes it tough if not impossible to operate sustainably.

Homeowners, too, expect at some point to sell their homes and extract the equity, typically their only savings. And wearing a different hat, these same homeowners may agitate as environmentalists. But the value of land under homes in a growing community is a powerful lure. People do have a right to those land values – but an equal right, not an exclusive right. That is, your right to the value of the land beneath your home is no greater (or less) than your neighbor’s right to your land’s value; likewise, you have the same right to the value of the land beneath your neighbors’ homes. How can that be? It’s because none of us ever made any land and all of us contribute to land’s value. What are the three most important things in real estate? Not the building, which an owner builds or buys from the builder, but location, location, location, the nearby school, park, transit stop, commercial district.

How can our equal right to land value be effected? A bit like Aspen Colorado does now, much like almost all communities did at the beginning of history (note the words “own” and “owe” were once one). That is, residents would pay in a land tax or land dues and get back a land dividend (technically, a “rent” dividend).

Don’t expect it to happen over night. But a community could start by shifting its property tax off buildings, onto land. Indeed, dozens of jurisdictions have done just that (mainly in Pennsylvania, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Africa, and Denmark). When owners don’t have to pay a tax on improvements, they make more improvements; residents get to live in homes and neighborhoods that are more esthetic and comfortable. When owners do pay a tax or dues on the annual value of their location, then they quit speculating or procrastinating and convert vacant lots, parking lots, abandoned buildings, and other eyesores into useful structures or even parks.

Shifting the property tax is powerful medicine; every place that has done it has benefited. Considering just the bottom line, motivated owners attract more private investment, generating more job opportunity, spinning off higher wages. The new, well-sited development adds to the housing stock, making homes affordable. Considering the whole ecosystem, as long as you leave your metro region shot full of holes, you cannot physically curb sprawl and spare outlying farmland; you can’t shorten trips and cut traffic or get serious about hothouse gases. To sustain civilization as we know it, you need the efficient land use that geonomics delivers.

Unlike other taxes, recovering site values does not diminish the tax base but expands it. Were a community bold enough to set its land dues high enough, it could not only eliminate the counterproductive taxes on labor and capital, on wages and sales, it could also pay residents a dividend. And if people were to receive a dividend, they could afford to get by with less government. Government could lose some of its bureaucratic overhead, saving taxpayers even more money. Society could attain the Jeffersonian ideal of governing least being governing best.

Any community could take the first step of shifting its property tax off buildings, onto land. More precisely, onto the socially-generated value of land. It’s something we all create and all deserve, being the monetary version of the commons.”

Devolution and the Decline of the Nation State

Here is an important article about scale and devolution by Gar Alperovitz. It describes what appears to be stage one.

Stage two will be the further localization to city regions.
Nation states have become a menace, and the bigger they are, the more menacing.

Published on Saturday, February 10, 2007 by the New York Times
California Split
by Gar Alperovitz

Something interesting is happening in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eems to have grasped the essential truth that no nation – not even the nited States – can be managed successfully from the center once it reaches certain scale. Moreover, the bold proposals that Mr. Schwarzenegger is now aking for everything from universal health care to global warming point to the kind of decentralization of power which, once started, could easily shake up America’s fundamental political structure.

Governor Schwarzenegger is quite clear that California is not simply another state. “We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta,” he recently declared. “We have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.” In his inaugural address, Mr. Schwarzenegger proclaimed, “We are a good and global commonwealth.”

Political rhetoric? Maybe. But California’s governor has also put his finger on a little discussed flaw in America’s constitutional formula. The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy. What does “participatory democracy” mean in a continent? Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional, decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.

A recent study by the economists Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts demonstrates that the bigger the nation, the harder it becomes for the government to meet the needs of its dispersed population. Regions that don’t feel well served by the government’s distribution of goods and services then have an incentive to take independent action, the economists note.

Scale also determines who has privileged access to the country’s news media and who can shape its political discourse. In very large nations, television and other forms of political communication are extremely costly. President Bush alone spent $345 million in his 2004 election campaign. This gives added leverage to elites, who have better corporate connections and greater resources than non-elites. The priorities of those elites often differ from state and regional priorities.

James Madison, the architect of the United States Constitution, understood these problems all too well. Madison is usually viewed as favoring constructing the nation on a large scale. What he urged, in fact, was that a nation of reasonable size had advantages over a very small one. But writing to Jefferson at a time when the population of the United States was a mere four million, Madison expressed concern that if the nation grew too big, elites at the center would divide and conquer a widely dispersed population, producing “tyranny.”

Few Americans realize just how huge this nation is. Germany could fit within the borders of Montana. France is smaller than Texas. Leaving aside three nations with large, unpopulated land masses (Russia, Canada and Australia), the United States is geographically larger than all the other advanced industrial countries taken together. Critically, the American population, now roughly 300 million, is projected to reach more than 400 million by the middle of this century. A high Census Bureau estimate suggests it could reach 1.2 billion by 2100.

If the scale of a country renders it unmanageable, there are two possible responses. One is a breakup of the nation; the other is a radical decentralization of power. More than half of the world’s 200 nations formed as breakaways after 1946. These days, many nations – including Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Italy and Spain, just to name a few – are devolving power to regions in various ways.

Decades before President Bush decided to teach Iraq a lesson, George F. Kennan worried that what he called our “monster country” would, through the “hubris of inordinate size,” inevitably become a menace, intervening all too often in other nations’ affairs: “There is a real question as to whether ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.”

Kennan proposed that devolution, “while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government,” might yield a “dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”

Regional devolution would most likely be initiated by a very large state with a distinct sense of itself and aspirations greater than Washington can handle. The obvious candidate is California, a state that has the eighth-largest economy in the world.

If such a state decided to get serious about determining its own fate, other states would have little choice but to act, too. One response might be for an area like New England, which already has many regional interstate arrangements, to follow California’s initiative – as it already has on some environmental measures. And if one or two large regions began to take action, other state groupings in the Northwest, Southwest and elsewhere would be likely to follow.

A new wave of regional devolution could also build on the more than 200 compacts that now allow groups of states to cooperate on environmental, economic, transportation and other problems. Most likely, regional empowerment would be popular: when the Appalachian Regional Commission was established in 1965, senators from across the country rushed to demand commissions to help the economies and constituencies of their regions, too.

Governor Schwarzenegger may not have thought through the implications of continuing to assert forcefully his “nation-state” ambitions. But he appears to have an expansive sense of the possibilities: this is the governor, after all, who brought Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain to the Port of Long Beach last year to sign an accord between California and Britain on global warming. And he may be closer to the mark than he knows with his dream that “California, the nation-state, the harmonious state, the prosperous state, the cutting-edge state, becomes a model, not just for the 21st-century American society, but for the larger world.”

Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is the author of “America Beyond Capitalism.”



Here’s a fine review of Richard Moore’s book, Escaping the Matrix: how we the people can change the world. It appeared in RACHEL’S DEMOCRACY & HEALTH NEWS #893
Thursday, February 8, 2007



By Tim Montague

In the movie, The Matrix, a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is living an ordinary life in what he thinks is 1999. However, when he is contacted by the enigmatic character, Morpheus, Neo learns that he is actually living in the year 2199 where some malevolent computers have created a realistic but totally false version of 20th-century life (“the matrix”) to keep Neo and the rest of the population happily enslaved. It turns out the computers are “farming” the population to fuel a campaign of total domination being carried out in the real world of 2199. To gain freedom and justice, Neo must first make a decision to confront the awful truth, then join forces with Morpheus and others to figure out how to escape from the matrix.

Like Neo, we have a choice — to go on pretending that everything is as it appears, or to search for a deeper truth about the nature of our reality. In our matrix, we live in a democracy where everyone is created equal, with liberty and justice for all. Our school books, television shows and politicians assure us that if we work hard and play by the rules we can all get ahead and have “the good life.” In reality we live in an economy that is wrecking the planet and destroying the future for our children, increasingly benefiting only a handful of elites.

Richard Moore’s slim new book Escaping the Matrix: how we the people can change the world (ISBN 0977098303) is an intriguing indictment of our ‘dominator’ society, how it’s killing the planet and what we might do about it.

Moore’s analysis of the situation — a world on the verge of a nervous breakdown — is that corruption by corporate and political elites is an inevitable aspect of societies like ours, based on domination and exploitation by a warrior class — the “military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961.

Moore begins by framing events and organizations as diverse as World War I, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations as guided by capitalism. “Capitalism is basically the belief that those who have the most spare money — the most capital — should decide how our societies develop. This is a political belief, a belief about who should make the important societal decisions. It is an entirely undemocratic belief; in fact it is a belief in the virtue of plutocracy — rule by the wealthy.”(p. 54)

This has created a modern crisis. “…[C]ivilization is suffering from both a chronic disease and an acute, life-threatening infection. The acute infection is the unsustainability of our modern societies; the chronic disease is rule by elites — a disease we’ve been suffering from ever since the first Mesopotamian kings, some 6,000 years ago.”(p. 58)

This pretty much sums up the first third of the book — which includes a compelling recap of world events from this point of view. Recent events, like the decline of the American manufacturing economy and the war on terror, suddenly make very good sense. Capital is finding its way out of slow-growth markets into faster growth markets. Government’s role is to protect those corporate interests at any cost, including manufacturing excuses to start a nasty oil war.

In the middle third of the book, Moore serves up a brief history of humanity and what led to our violent and oppressive ways. He asks, How did hierarchical society come to be in the first place? Were human cultures always so competitive and war-like? Citing the work of Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, Moore says that there is good evidence that prehistoric European humans lived in ‘partnership societies’ that were egalitarian and based on cooperation not domination.

While the first agrarian societies were evolving in what is today the Middle-East (the fertile crescent), nomadic herding culture emerged on the Russian steppes. The herding cultures were inherently more aggressive than their agrarian counterparts by virtue of their nomadic lifestyle and relative scarcity of resources. “These were male- dominated warrior societies, with strong chiefs. Archeological evidence reveals that human sacrifice was practiced, warrior deities were worshipped, and that chiefs were buried with impressive caches of weapons. Eisler places these societies in the category of dominator societies.”(p. 75)

When dominator (nomadic herder) society mixes with partnership (agrarian) you get a volatile mix: “Thus hierarchical civilization seems to have arisen as a hybrid between these two cultural strains: the partnership strain contributed the civilizing technologies and the slave to till the soil; the dominator strain contributed the ruling hierarchy and the dominator culture.”(p. 77)

“With the production afforded by slave-based agriculture, rulers could afford to pursue conquest and expansion.”(p. 79) Bringing us to where we stand today — the product of 6,000 years of dominator expansion. And as we see, when dominator culture runs into more cooperatively based cultures like indigenous hunter-gatherers, dominator culture tends to absorb or exterminate the others.

“Over the centuries we’ve seen warrior chiefs replaced by kings, and kings replaced by corporate elites, but always there have been a few who made the rules and the many who obeyed them, a few who reaped the rewards and the many who paid the taxes and fought in the wars. We’ve seen slavery replaced by serfdom replaced by employment, but always it has been a few at the top who have owned the product of our labors.”(p. 83)

Moore then explains, “The source of our crisis is the dominator culture itself. Environmental collapse and capitalism are merely the terminal symptoms of a chronic cancer, a cancer that has plagued us for six thousand years. No matter what dominator hierarchy might be established, or which group of leaders might be in charge, things would always evolve toward something similar to what we have now. Such is the path of domination, hierarchy, and rule by elites.”(p. 84)

Then Moore lays out a path back to “…a culture based on mutual understanding and cooperation rather than on war and conquest, a culture based on common sense rather than dysfunctional doctrine, on respect for life rather than the pursuit of profit, and on democracy in place of elite rule.”(p. 85)

This clearly will require nothing short of a radical awakening and transformation of our culture. Moore then reviews two social movements from which we can draw important lessons.

The first is the anti-globalization movement embodied in the World Social Forum gatherings. But Moore is uncertain of this movement saying, “It is a very large choir, but it’s not a quorum of the congregation. In its current form it is unlikely to have even a restraining effect on our descent into oblivion.”(p. 87) However, he acknowledges that the anti-globalization movement will likely be embodied in whatever larger transformative movement does eventually shift us to a partnership society.

Moore believes that the populist movement (which began as the Farmer’s Alliance) — is another example we should study. “The Farmers’ Alliance began in 1877 as a self-help movement in Texas, organizing cooperatives for buying supplies and selling crops. The cooperatives improved the farmers’ economic situation, and the movement began to spread throughout the Midwest and the South. By 1889, there were 400,000 members.”

But the movement was hobbled by two things. First, it failed to build a broad and diverse base; it did not expand beyond rural farming culture. “Although movement activists sympathized with urban industrial workers, and expressed support for their strikes and boycotts, the culture of the Populist leadership did not lead them to bring urban workers into their constituency, to make them part of the Populist family. From an objective strategic perspective, it is clear that this was a fatal error of omission.” (p. 93)

Second, it dove headlong into partisan politics — a logical progression for this kind of social movement but one that created a no-win situation. “In order to promote their economic reform agenda, and encouraged by their electoral successes, they decided to commit their movement wholeheartedly to the political process. They joined forces with the Democratic Party and backed William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896.” Then the backlash: “Corporations and the elite- owned media threw their support to the Republican candidate, William McKinley, in what [Howard] Zinn calls “the first massive use of money in an election campaign.” Bryan was defeated, and the Populist movement fell apart.”(p. 90)

Harmonization — group dialog

Moore believes that to avoid the fatal flaws of partisan politics we should build consensus through a process he calls ‘harmonization.’ Harmonization is a form of group communication where participants work together, usually with a trained facilitator, to solve common questions or problems.

You can learn much more about harmonization at Moore’s website. Harmonization is about coming up with creative solutions to common problems — solutions that take into account everyone’s concerns.

There are a variety of techniques for achieving harmonization. One is the Wisdom Council, a technique developed by Jim Rough that brings people from diverse points of view together for an extended conversation. Through dynamic facilitation the group members achieve mutual understanding, respect, solidarity and community.

Another leader in this movement for creative dialog is Joseph McCormick, founder of Reuniting America which aims “To convene Americans from across the political spectrum in dialogue around areas of mutual concern to build trust and identify opportunities for collaborative action.” As Moore point out, this kind of dialog can be readily facilitated in any group of people, and it is an ancient human tradition, capable of transforming conflict into creative synergy.

Moore goes on to describe how we could scale harmonization up from the community level to the regional or national level. Moore believes that harmonization has the potential to become the basis of a ‘community empowerment movement’ that would transform our current adversarial culture into a cooperative partnership culture.

The core principles of this movement are local sovereignty and harmonization. The local community level is where everyone involved finds a shared common interest and motivation to strengthen and protect the community. Regional or national issues can be taken on by creating delegations from local constituencies. Local wisdom councils would delegate individuals to represent their community’s interests at larger regional gatherings, and so on, up the geographic scale. Moore argues that centralized governments, corporations and institutions that currently make most of the decisions will be unnecessary and counterproductive in this new partnership society.

Making the transition to a culture based on sovereignty and harmonization will require ‘repossessing the commons’ — all the things we share together but none of us owns individually including air, water, wildlife, the human genome, and human knowledge. Moore also includes the financial and monetary systems in the commons. “Each community doesn’t necessarily need to maintain its own currency, but it must have the right to do so at any time it chooses.”(p. 174)

Moore argues that only locally owned and independently operated businesses are good for the community. And that non-local ownership is a pitfall to be avoided entirely. And though it’s a radical departure from our current system, this form of sovereignty would be a huge step in the right direction. In the meantime we can get on with exploring harmonization techniques.

“Any movement, which aims to create a transformed and democratic society, needs to keep this in mind: when the new world is created, everyone will be in it — not just the people we agree with or the people we normally associate with. A movement must aim to be all-inclusive if it seeks to create a democratic society that is all-inclusive. Is there anyone you would leave behind, or relegate to second-class citizenship? If not, then you should be willing to welcome to the movement anyone who shares the goal of creating that new world,” Moore concludes.(p. 93)

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