Will Obama Save Cleveland? Or Could Cleveland Save Obama?
[A banquet presentation at the annual conference of the Council of
Georgist Organizations, held in Cleveland, Ohio, 8 August 2009.
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
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
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
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
Q. Don't cities have to tell HUD in great detail how they plan to use
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
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
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
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
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.