Will Obama Save Cleveland? Or Could Cleveland Save Obama?

Walter Rybeck


[A banquet presentation at the annual conference of the Council of Georgist Organizations, held in Cleveland, Ohio, 8 August 2009. Reprinted from GroundSwell, July-August 2009]


I am truly humbled to be standing in front of this assemblage. You are my heroes and my hope for the future because you hold the keys to an America that fulfills its promise of opportunity for all.

Those keys have not opened the door very far yet -because we still have slums, blight, poverty, a widening rich-poor gap, and the boom-and-bust cycle that now causes much misery. But don't be discouraged by the slow acceptance of your ideas. Take heart. You are making the same journey as suffragettes who fought to win the vote for women, the same journey as abolitionists who ended slavery after a bloody war, and the same journey as the martyrs who won the rights to assemble and speak freely and to whom we owe much as we meet here to change the course of history and society. You can well imagine the frustrations of those past heroes as, against great odds, they turned "lost causes" into major victories for mankind.

The second half of my topic is, "Could Cleveland save Obama?" The answer is yes, if it will recapture the guidelines of Tom Johnson. Bill Peirce, Chuck Metalitz and those great high school kids with their documentary spelled out the Johnson history lessons more eloquently than I ever could.

Let me tell you why being in Ohio is a kind of homecoming for me.

At Antioch College in southwest Ohio almost everybody's favorite professor was George Geiger. His father was Oscar Geiger, founder of the Henry George School. George himself wrote The Philosophy of Henry George, a terrific book with a laudatory preface by John Dewey. Geiger never mentioned Henry George in his classes. This tells you a lot about our movement in the 1930s and 1940s. He was blackballed by his profession for his earlier advocacy for land value taxation. (A happy footnote: Geiger overcame his uneasiness to discuss Henry George; in fact he would challenge me, "How are we coming with the land tax?")

I believe I speak for all of us when I say we hold a special affection for that person who opens us to the beautiful world of Henry George. For me, that was Kathy Shoaf. I was a reporter on the Columbus Citizen when Kathy phoned, asking me to announce a Henry George course she was teaching at the YMCA. I wrote the announcement -- and I took her class.

A bit later I was interviewing for a position of editorial writer on the Dayton Daily News. Editor Walter Locke asked if I were a reader and what I was reading. I said I was catching up on an old book called Progress and Poverty. Locke threw up his hands and roared, "Oh no, not Henry George!"

He was pulling my leg. He confessed he was an ardent member of a Single Tax club in his university days Then he said "Nobody should be allowed to write about city problems until they've read and digested Progress and Poverty. I got the job. Thanks Kathy Shoaf! Thanks Henry George! Schalkenbach in the 1950s brought foreign land tax stars to tour the US and I met extraordinary people when I arranged their Ohio speaking appearances. One was Viggo Starcke, leader of the Justice Party and a member of the Danish cabinet. Rolland O'Regan had persuaded property owners in a majority of New Zealand to vote in a pure land value tax. His audiences asked how. O'Regan was imbued with the ethics of George, but he took a different tack. He and his group would go to a city and get all the property tax data. Then they sent each property owner a post card showing the present tax owed and how much they would pay under a land tax. Because most owners saw they would pay less, the measure won on a pocketbook issue.

Judge Frank A. W. Lucas of South Africa had been on the nation's high court. He explained how land taxes contributed to the health of cities where they were used. Yet he was most fired up by a new injustice in his country. South Africa had just expelled blacks from so-called white areas and confined them to miserable enclaves. (He pronounced this apartheid policy as apart-HATE (not apart-hide, as we often hear it.) At the time, segregation and Jim Crow practices were still rampant in our own country. Who among us, in our wildest dreams, could anticipate that a Nelson Mandela would come out of prison to become an inter-racial peacemaker? Or that Obama would be in our White House? When Pia DeSilva introduced me, she noted that Coretta Scott was one of my close college friends. I'm saddened that neither she nor her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., lived to see this change for which they had labored so effectively. But the point is, "lost causes" can be won, so don't despair.

Cleveland has produced interesting characters. For a change of pace, I'll briefly describe two, neither of them land taxers.

Most politicians in Washington are ever so polite to critics. Not Steve Young who became a U.S. senator. If writers called him "Pinko" or a "Red "- serious insults implying lack of patriotism during the Cold War -- Young did not calmly defend his liberal views. Instead he fired back, "Where were you, buster, when I was charging the Salerno beachhead in Italy during World War II?" And if his constituents objected to his votes, he would write, "Somebody using your name wrote the most idiotic letter I ever received." Maybe Clevelanders can explain to us how he got re-elected.

Cleveland native Frank Lausche was a son of Slovenian parents. For him to become mayor, then Ohio governor and finally U.S. senator style='font-family: was a pioneering breakthrough for first generation East European immigrants. He inspired others of similar origins to enter politics.

Let me tell you about Paul Douglas. After three terms in the Senate, President Johnson named him chairman of a new National Commission on Urban Problems. Douglas previously taught economics at the University of Chicago, served as an alderman in Chicago, and president of the American Economics Association. His ethical approach to issues and to his own activities made him known as "the conscience of the Senate." After defeating subsidies to oil corporations, achieving truth-in-lending laws and saving the Indiana dunes from industrialization conservation area (among other victories), Douglas was also called "a winner of lost causes." As a Washington correspondent, I was interviewing him about what he hoped to accomplish as head of the two-year urban commission when he asked me to be his assistant. I didn't hesitate to say YES.

When the commission was settling into our offices, Douglas surprised me again. He was hanging pictures of people he most admired - Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow and others. He marched to my desk saying, "I want this one looking over your shoulder." It was his portrait of Henry George. Since we had not specifically mentioned George or the land tax, I said "It must take one to know one!" Indeed, he was one. He wrote a strong endorsement of land value taxation in the commission's final report.

Douglas wanted no ivory tower study of city problems. He insisted we travel the country to rub our noses, so to speak, in urban blight and poverty. We traveled the country, stopping in some 30 cities to hear testimony. At one hearing, James Clarkson of Southfield, Michigan, praised Ted Gwartney's feats as assessor there. At another, Mase Gaffney made the case for property tax reform. One day, on a bus headed to the Cleveland airport and with little time before our flight, Douglas ordered the driver to detour to Tom Johnson's statue. Once there he asked me to tell our group about Cleveland's famous mayor and that book on his lap. Fortunately I had read Johnson's autobiography so I could tell our commissioners and staff about his assessment reforms and other innovations related to issues we were wrestling with. (We made our plane, just in time.)

Another Ohio memory: Tom Johnson introduced Henry George to a Cleveland industrialist, John C. Lincoln, founder of Lincoln Electric. Lincoln was over 90 when I heard him give a memorable talk at Lakeside, west of here. At the time America was trying to enter the Space Age. Unlike today when it seems almost commonplace for space ships to go up and return safely, early attempts to launch satellites met failure after dismal failure. Don't despair, Lincoln said. The technicians meticulously study each crash to learn what went wrong so they can fix it. Lincoln spoke with authority about learning from mistakes because this was the scientific process he had used to become an accomplished inventor.

Lincoln asked why socio-economic and political leaders fail to study what goes wrong until they get things to work. Instead, he observed, they keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.

Half a century later, is the Obama administration learning from past mistakes? Although I live a short ride from the White House, Barack did not invite me into his Oval Office. However, Kevin Neary, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD (the Housing and Urban Development Department), kindly let me spend a morning with him and his staff in HUD's idea shop, the Office of Policy Development and Research. After reminding me that the President has been pre-occupied with wars, health care and other issues during his short term in office, and that the new HUD Secretary, Shaun Donovan, is also very new to his job, here are some of the things we discussed:

Question: How is CDBG going? [HUD's biggest aid program to cities is the Community Development Block Grants.]

Answer: It's hard to tell where the money goes and what it's accomplishing.

Q. Don't cities have to tell HUD in great detail how they plan to use the money?

A. They did when CDBG started [decades ago]. Since President Reagan, that has no longer been required. Cities just give us general categories, like so much for economic development and so much for housing.

Q. Do they follow those general plans?

A. We have no basis for checking if those things actually happen.

Q. What are some of HUD's main priorities?

A. A major priority is promoting Smart Growth to stop sprawl. We are pushing sustainable housing in sustainable communities. The Secretary strongly supports regional planning and interagency cooperation rather than city-by-city or program-by-program efforts. He favors grants to metropolitan planning organizations and joint action with the Transportation Department, as examples.

Q: How are you dealing with the housing crisis?

A We're trying to stabilize neighborhoods by dealing with abandoned and foreclosed properties. We're working with developers and nonprofit groups to acquire usable properties and to demolish buildings that are not viable. That's in addition to many programs to halt foreclosures and help the homeowners.

Q. Do you have any plans for reviving sick cities?

A. HUD is working with other agencies to identify choice neighborhoods - neighborhoods of opportunity - and then to replicate them. This is a kind of revival of the Model Cities program [of the Kennedy-Johnson era].

Q. Do you want to mention any new directions?

A. Contrary to old expectations that cities necessarily should keep growing, we need to accept that some cities need to be shrinking, as in Detroit. Parts of that city can't support a full range of public services. It makes more sense to concentrate on the nodes that can be salvaged and focus building or development there. As we rethink these things, the whole notion of the form of American cities is up for grabs.

Q. Are you optimistic for the near term?

A. We're really worried about the next severe crisis. We're tracking occupancy in multifamily apartments, and vacancies are at the highest level ever. Not only sub-prime mortgages are causing problems; now regular mortgages are in trouble too. Failures in commercial real estate could be next

Q. Can you point to cities that seem to be on the right track?

A. Cleveland is outstanding city. It has really good involvement by nonprofits. Cleveland has been described as "activist," as compared with "passive" St. Louis.

Q. Why the difference?

A. We're not sure. Some think it reflects differences in the media. Others think local laws make the difference.

Q. A week ago the Washington Post announced that the White House formed a new Office of Urban Affairs. Will it compete with HUD?

A. We haven't heard from the Secretary. All we know is what you read. [The article said the Five-member office would be headed by former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr. Carion was quoted as echoing HUD Secretary Donovan's view that public action should emphasize regional issues rather than limiting efforts only to poverty issues of central cities.]

We did not talk at HUD about the big thrust of the Obama administration that we all have heard about, with its emphasis on money, credit and banking. Money and credit are remarkable inventions that greatly facilitate every aspect of the economy. That assumes there is something to facilitate. I wonder whether job creation should be the first order of business, not a "lagging" matter.

Perhaps it is too early to say whether Obama's social scientists are repeating the same old errors, to recall the critique of John Lincoln. But if I were Cleveland, I feel more secure following Mayor Tom Johnson's precepts than waiting for the federal government to come up with strategies for saving it.

That said, I sense - thanks to what many of you in this room are doing - that America is inching closer to a Georgist world. Inching is not good enough, but it is better than when I gave a talk to Georgist conference in the 1950s. Then the tides were all against us and the movement was hanging on by a thread. Now there are more highly qualified activists and more young blood. And the land tax approach is earning more respect.

I am trying to make a modest effort toward progress by completing a book that makes the following point: What we urge is an attempt to restore three conditions that served America well during its earliest years -- cheap land, almost no taxes on earnings, and relatively high taxes on land. That's why I call it Reclaiming America. The secret we all know is that a high land tax will bring land prices down so we can again have cheap land, and the land revenues will let us greatly reduce taxes on wages, creating the conditions for widespread opportunity.

I conclude with lyrics from an old song. It uses MEN to mean men and women. Curiously, just when that usage properly went out of fashion, waiters would come to a table of men and women and ask, "What would you GUYS like to drink. Why did women become guys? Whatever. I hope you agree that the lyrics are apt:

Give me some men who are stouthearted men

Who will fight for the right they adore

Start me with ten who are stouthearted men

And I'll soon give you ten thousand more.

Shoulder to shoulder, and bolder and bolder

We grow as we go to the fore.

Then there's nothing in this world

Can halt or mar our plan,

When stouthearted men

Stick together man to man


On to victory! Thank you guys, and men too.

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