The Paradox of Poverty

Adele Wick

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, 2007]

(GroundSwell Editor's note: The annual Council of Georgist Organizations conference was held July 22 evening to July 27 morning in Scranton, PA. The theme was "Two Views of Social Justice: A Catholic/Georgist Dialogue." It was cosponsored by the CGO, the University of Scranton, and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. On July 25 and July 26 presentations were made by Georgists and Catholic counterparts on the following topics: Natural Law, Human Nature, Nature of Work, Rerum Novarum, Causes of War, Immigration, Development and Wealth, and Neighborhood Revitalization. In her comments at the concluding banquet July 26, RFS Pres. Adele Wicke did such a good job of highlighting the dialogue that GroundSwell asked her, and she graciously agreed to let GroundSwell publish her remarks.)

It has been a pleasure to come here not only as a "First Timer" but also as the "President of RSF," one of the conference's three sponsors. The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation came into being in 1925, by eponymous bequest and with injunction to promote the ideas and policy recommendations of Henry George. Its founder's working - or laboring - trajectory was from typesetter/"printer's devil" to president not only of one of New York's largest printers but also of an association of employing printers. Henry George was a printer as well. It is altogether fitting and proper, then, that RSF has always and deeply been involved in publication. We just don't want to devolve into a "vanity press," and admire the greater distribution and publicity machinery of more main-stream publishers. We also seek to move with the times and not only publish books and pamphlets but also employ the technologies of CDs, DVDs and Internet.

Hence, our film, tentatively entitled "Access Denied" and exposing our hearts and eyes to the paradox of poverty amidst plenty.

A professor of mine, Nobel laureate George Stigler, once wrote: "The work of the teacher is to inspire the student with the knightly quest for knowledge and the integrity of the chase." I submit to you that we are all teachers, and all students. I was hopeful even before Scranton that Palm d'Or Director Philippe Diaz will provide the inspiration for its viewers and listeners to come to RSF for causes and cures. I am even more optimistic after visiting the coal mines here and feeling shame over the disposability of workers and the degradation of their dignity. In reading, I had been able to keep emotional distance from knowledge; 200 feet below ground, I could not.

George Stigler also once said, to a hapless graduate student not me but in my hearing, "You're making an assertion about the world, and I'll tell you who's going to win the argument: the one who asks the other to look up the facts!" I am also interested in mounting a massive, quantitative, econometric study of the magnitude of "rent." Without it, we are engaging in Colbert's "truthiness" - "truth by assertion" I call it, where the will that it be so makes it so, and facts are irrelevant. Facts are not irrelevant. They can be manipulated, but they should be honestly gathered. And cherished.

Another ambition is to invigorate RSF's ties with the four institutes of higher learning it has amply funded in the past. These four are Pace, St. John's, Williams, and Scranton.

And, now, some reflections on what has happened here at Scranton.

In points of communality, major points of communality, all of us here, whether Catholics or Georgists, Catholic Georgists or Georgists Catholics, are deeply concerned with poverty, human dignity and justice. And we dare to speak out about these issues.

Catholics see dignity in work. Indeed, as Father O'Neill says, "Work is the privileged expression of human dignity." While Georgists would like to have labor treated with dignity, they view work itself not as an end but as a means, a means to satisfy desire.

Both support population growth - the former, as Father O'Neill again puts it (or so I think) because of the "graduated urgency of rights," "the morality of prioritizing the rights of the most vulnerable;'" the latter because population growth is not the cause of poverty but rather, because of enhancing the division of labor, the cause of prosperity - albeit improperly distributed.

Catholics and Georgists also share a belief both in property rights and in limits to those rights, albeit "relativized" for different reasons. Again "prioritizing" rights, Catholics assert the priority of humans and their rights to ownership of material goods, regardless - or somewhat independent of - their contributions thereto. To economists, "ownership" is technically a bundle of three rights: the right to buy and sell, the right to use, and the right to stream of residual income. In the case of natural resources, Georgists support maintaining the first two, and eliminating the third, rent -- through taxes, land-value taxes, which are payment for the privatization of resources "naturally" given to all.

All of us unite in a concern, a gripping concern, about poverty, a determination to help, a refusal to blame the poor, and, rather, a commitment to changing our institutions. Both Catholics and Georgists care about JUSTICE. Catholics start with the dignity of each individual and move promptly, confidently and courageously to the "Common Good," with justice defined as that which achieves that Good. Georgists, on the other hand, start with the concept of right procedures and define justice in terms of adherence to these procedures regardless of outcome. I owe this entire paragraph to Cliff Cobb, at times paraphrased, at other times quoted directly.

And now, with credit to Mark Sullivan, I note that both Catholics and Georgists are interested, profoundly interested, in what a pamphlet we've distributed deems "Distributism." As Father O'Neill put it, "The Common Good is considered distributively, not en masse. As Georgists put it, individuals are entitled to the products of their labor, but the fruits of natural resources should be distributed to all, through taxing the privilege of private use. Surely, we all agree with Father O'Neill that justice requires "institutional, structural, imagination."

Georgists are baffled by many Catholics' general - or apparent - willingness to trust ruling economic theory and not stick their oar in, even - especially - as they believe natural bounty to belong to all and yet observe that "Three Factor Economics" has yield to "Two Factor Economics" as "natural resources" have been dangerously absorbed and hidden by theory in the economic term "capital." (The other factor is "labor.")

Catholics are baffled by how so many Georgists can ignore human frailty, perhaps acknowledging error due to failure in knowledge, but ignoring, passing over, failing to address other fundamental causes lodged in human imperfection. Acting as if virtue is not possible until scarcity is overcome, through full and open access to the riches of nature, they fail fully to address human nature itself. Surely, a human being is more than someone who seeks to satisfy desires with minimal effort? And, in the unlikely event that he or she is not, surely the social and moral desirability of those desires should be examined?

Are these lacunae simply a matter of specialization and the division of labor? And isn't progress, at least in knowledge, often made by communication across specialties? Well, we've had a session on War. It reminded me that a general once said to his son-in-law and my friend, "War is the failure to keep talking." Let's keep talking. Better yet, let's continue to communicate.

Two quotations, now, from my father. I think both are key to effective communication.

First, "You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much." With all due respect but no more than due, I think you can almost always tell a Georgist, but you can't always tell him or her much. Effective communication requires listening, a skill, I suggest, that requires keen intent and persistent exercise to acquire and maintain. To those who say that to listen to a lecture is to be spoon-fed knowledge, I ask, "Why then, are so many of us students such dolts and such dullards?"

Listen. Listen actively, so that you can learn. And also so that you can teach.

My second quotation from my father is my favorite. When my sister was a little tyke, and I a yet littler tyke, she observed an unusual-looking animal, which I choose to call an Orangatang (as it may well have been). "That Orangatang," she said to our father, "is the ugliest animal I've ever seen!" Raising an eyebrow but otherwise not missing a beat, Dad replied, "Not to another Orangatang, dear."

You don't control the way your words are heard or remembered. (Note my probable mangling in summary of our points of communality and difference.) But, by being good humored and respectful, at least you will be heard. As Josh Vincent said, "If you like people and you like listening to people, half of your work is done."

"90% of life," Woody Allen said, "is just showing up." We have showed up here for exchange and gain. Let's keep showing up. The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation exists because Mrs. Schalkenbach showed up in Central Park to ride horseback. And, in the stable, she learned of Henry George.

Yogi Berra once said, "We're lost, but we're making good time." Well, unlike most of the population, we're not lost. Now, let's make good time!

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