Thirteen Ways of Seeing the Cat

Lindy Davies

[A paper delivered at the annual conference of the Council of Georgist Organizations, held in Albany, New York, 15 July 2010. Reprinted from GroundSwell, July-August 2010]

Part 1: You've Got to Represent

One day, I'm walking down the street in New York, distracted with my own thoughts & plans — and a panhandler asked for some help. Reflexively, my hand plunged into my pocket, where it encountered the only US currency I happened to have on me at that moment: a $20 bill. This was a little bit embarrassing. My hand was in the pocket. So, I did the only thing I could do, short of exploding: I looked at the guy and said, "I'm sorry. All I have is a $20 bill, and I can't afford to give you that."

Well, you know, that guy looked me in the eye, and he smiled, and he thanked me.

This seems to have puzzled me. "You got to understand," he said, " I'm out here so long, and so many people go by like they can't see me — I start to wonder whether I am visible, you know what I'm saying?"

I indicated that I knew what he was saying. He wished me a good day, and I wished him a good day, and we both went about our business as if that had been some sort of normal human encounter at the turn of the 21st century.

But I'm afraid that poor guy is... in a way... sorta quite a bit like the Georgist movement. After being so ignored by so many for so long — we start to wonder whether we even can be seen.

We are just so... Nowhere.

Well, I mean, we're somewhere; many of us are right here at the Best Western. But, in terms of popular culture — We are quite... spectacularly... Nowhere.

It's important to admit this to ourselves, because it's the truth — and that brings freedom. It's the only way to cast off the crushing weight of our invisibility.

But! This thing about us being nowhere — it's not to leave this room! I do NOT suggest admitting it to the general public.

In public, we need to look sharp. We need to dot our I's and cross our T's. We need to practice sleight-of-hand — prestidigitation — tricks with mirrors, to show people we have a thriving movement for them to join.

There are people who claim there is NO Georgist movement — but I disagree. We're here. But we are — understandably — a bit demoralized. Maybe we're suffering from iron-poor tired blood. I mean — as Tom Waits put it — we all came from good families, but over the years, we've just sorta, kinda individually developed some ways about us that just ain't right!

Here's what I think has happened. First, we haven't succeeded. The world has not beaten a path to our door. Communities and nations are still organized unjustly, and unproductively. Dare say we all agree on this point. Using the methods we have used so far, we have not yet ushered in the New Jerusalem.

This is a fact which has brought us (many times) to a dangerous fork in the road.

On the one hand: Well, rats. Our methods have not succeeded. But, we can't really think of any new methods that would work any better, and besides, our not-for-profit charter says these are our methods...

Let me explain why that is such a dangerous place to be in.

Let's say, at one time we took pride in handing out documents that were clear and lucid, nicely designed fully documented. But then, for a while, we eased up and just handed out any old thing, and, you know what? Our level of success was the same as before! If we start to mumble a bit, well, it's not really a big deal — nobody's listening to us anyway.

This sort of thing can creep in, like dry rot.

Yes, yes, one's reach should exceed one's grasp — but ours exceeds it by so far! We'll never reach it, so why try so hard? Why kill yourself? It's OK. We can try a bit less hard.

And then one day we find ourselves hardly able to grasp anything! Wonder when that happened...

The other path at that fork in the road is even more dangerous. OK — so we have not been successful at telling people what we want to tell them. Well, then, we'd better find a way to tell them what they want to hear! We've been down that road again and again. We lavish time and money and enthusiasm on the latest buzzword, or coalition, or trend or technological fix and — well, in less time than it takes to say a few words about the single tax, we're back once more at that fork in the road.

Those are our two major paths of error.

I believe that our movement depends on long-term, incremental progress at a variety of difficult tasks. That is not flashy, sexy or easy — but it's true. People say, "Come on! There's just no way you're going to usher in the New Jerusalem by teaching political economy courses!" Others say, "For crying out loud, what good is setting up one more meeting with one more local official?" Well, OK, y'know — if you feel that way, you don't have to do those things; you can do something else. There are plenty of things worth doing!

One thing I can say for certain, though, is that whatever we choose to do is worth our best effort. Maybe we don't have such a thriving movement, and maybe our annual conferences don't accomplish all that much — but it's important to show the gumption and wherewithal to have a conference every year. I suspect that many of you don't actually read every Georgist Journal cover-to-cover — but that's OK. The most important thing I can do with a Georgist Journal is to hand it to newcomers. That's why it has to be good.

Cuz you gotta represent, you know what I'm sayin?

Part 2: Thirteen Ways of Seeing the Cat

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." I took the liberty of putting a copy of it in your conference packets. To me, it's a poem about being open to experience. A blackbird is just a blackbird — or is it? Stevens tells us that what it might awaken in you could make looking at a blackbird the most important experience in your life.

Something like what was awakened, in each person in this room, by a book called Progress and Poverty. It seems so incredibly important to us, yet — to other people, well, a blackbird is just a blackbird, and this is just an old book about economics.

But somehow it really is that important, isn't it? The people standing around (looking at a drawing) said, "Cat? What cat?" But Judge Maguire told them, "Gentlemen! I tell you, the picture is ALL cat."

The question of land rent: creating it, collecting it, collateralizing it — is part of every economic decision that is made in our society.

I want to mention a few places where I've noticed the cat.

Big government. People are fed up. Fed up! The Tea party people are mad as hell about Big Government and by golly, they have every right to be. Is there anything good about the Internal Revenue System? Does it make the tiniest bit of sense for the federal government to be telling local schools to stop teaching music and gym? Is it a good idea to grow lettuce on federally-subsidized fields and truck it across a continent on federally funded highways?

Folks, we offer a public-revenue scheme in which higher levels of Gummint can get NO revenue without coming, hat in hand, to local jurisdictions and asking voters for in person! Can you think of any better way to bring about accountability in government?

Another issue our tea-party friends are exercised about is immigration. They're illegal immigrants! Bust them! Enforce the law! But, some things — such as helping runaway slaves to escape — can be "illegal" without being wrong. Most of these people are just coming here seeking the opportunity to work for a living.

Back when the United States had plenty of land, this country had abundant employers chasing scarce workers — and it was delighted to accept all the immigrants who wanted to come.

Well, you and I know that we still have plenty of room. You see it everywhere: parking lots, idle houses, taxpayer buildings with vacant upper floors, vast carpets of chemically-fed suburban lawns.

So, when we eliminate land speculation, we'll have a labor market in which abundant employers are chasing scarce workers — just like it was, back in the days when we welcomed immigrants.

And by the way, if the United States were to start doing the responsible thing, collecting land rent for public revenue — don't you think Mexico would, maybe, feel like it was OK to do that, too? People would think it was a movement! Yes, beyond all doubt, immigration is a key Georgist issue.

Local food. Growing food close to where it's going to be eaten makes most kinds of sense: it makes environmental, nutritional, philosophical sense. But it doesn't (yet!) make economic sense — except, maybe, in places like center-city Detroit.

Local food production seems to be catching on in Detroit. Truckloads of topsoil are being dumped onto vacant lots so people can practice "urban agriculture"! One might say that Detroit has become a kind of "urban compost" — its economy is so decayed that it ended up on the other end of the food chain.

This, friends, is how backwards things have become. And I ask you: without the Law of Rent, how can anyone decode this?

I have serious doubts that urban agriculture will do much to revive Detroit's economy. For that, they would need a hefty dose of LVT. That would bring new constructiuon, and new downtown businesses. People would start moving there from Cleveland and Akron. Detroit's land would be in demand for urban uses once again. The urban gardeners would be priced out of business.

Detroit would be back to trucking the produce in from California and Mexico. Which, of course, creates gobs of pollution. Some people actually think it's time to get serious about environmental stewardship.

We can't go on the way we're going! India is building superhighways. The Chinese are trading in their bicycles for cars.

Here's how it works: if everyone gets a car, then everyone needs a driveway. And what good is a driveway without a garage? Then, of course, it's absurd to put up a garage without building a house next to it! People need places to live, don't they?

OK, so here we have a 50-acre field, which once provided food to local markets. We'll take this field and put a whole bunch of driveways on it. We'll talk the local officials into providing infrastructure. Plenty of workers are hanging around; we'll hire some of them for cheap to throw up rows of little boxes made out of ticky-tacky, and Voila! Pretty soon you're talking real Rent!

Environmentalism seems unaffordable — antithetical to the free market — because private ownership of land is at the base of what people call "the free market." Suburban sprawl — the planet's most concentrated waste of energy and resources — is land speculation at work. You'd better believe environmental stewardship is a Georgist issue!

"The picture," said Judge Maguire, "is all cat." Natural opportunities consist of all processes, substances, potentials that are not created by human beings. Consider the natural process of evolution. Millions upon millions of organisms, created by the natural process of evolution, with no help from us. Many of these organisms will be extinct before we even identify them. Many of them have uses and applications that we have yet to discover. For just one example, venom from poisonous spiders and snakes is being explored for treating chronic pain and a variety of cancers — and that's only the beginning. We can barely even guess at the value of the living creatures whose habitats we are bulldozing at frightening rates. Please realize that biological diversity and biotechnology are Georgist issues.

A dysfunctional economy grinds us down, makes us tired, distracts us from real issues, makes us less optimistic and more likely to commit crimes — takes its toll on us in thousands of ways. Certainly it takes a toll on families. Since the 1970s, families have been raising the GDP by paying for things that used to be done at home, like child care, and cooking. People started talking about the "Supermom Syndrome" — all these newly-liberated women wanting both homes and careers. But, the Supermoms' critics conveniently forgot the fact that a single full-time income was no longer enough to raise a family! The "supermoms" were expected to raise their kids and go out and work "full time."

But think about it for a moment: why do we organize our work lives around this "full time" model? The forty-hour work week is convenient for employers, not for employees. Feminism said it would be great for everybody if parents could all share more equally in child-rearing — but how? We know that it is possible to design innovative labor schedules that could achieve the feminist ideal of career/home balance. But! As long as abundant workers are chasing scarce jobs, it's not going to happen. So! Even feminism, and the Supermom Syndrome, are Georgist issues.

Yes: the picture really is all cat. We shouldn't be surprised — or intimidated — by any of this: the economic role of natural opportunities is so pervasive that it's easy to miss. It's like fish trying to get other fish to think about their water!

That's actually an image from an old Zen story. I've saved for last the notion of the land as a spiritual reality.

The land's spiritual meaning comes in "Old Testament" and a "New Testament" versions. Certainly the vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament is not patient with landlordism. The prophet Isaiah's cry rings out across the centuries: "Shall ye alone dwell the earth?"

But there's more to it than that. The land nourishes our souls as well as our bodies. I think of Woody Guthrie's "no trespassing" sign — the other side of that sign didn't say nothing. That side was made for you and me! I watch son Eli explore the woods and catalogue the local wildlife. He knows it's not just resource; it's reality. It's not just the ground; it's the Ground of Being.

I think of Chief Seattle's response to President Franklin Pierce's offer to buy his ancestral land (I'm talking about Chief Seattle's real speech now, not the fake Hollywood version). Seattle's response has to be one of the hardest slap-downs in the history of political discourse. He told Pierce, fine, you can tell yourself you're "buying" our land if you think that will make you feel better. Here's how Seattle put it:

We will consider your offer. When we have decided, we will let you know. Should we accept, I here and now make this condition: we will never be denied to visit, at any time, the graves of our fathers and our friends.

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every clearing and wood, is holy in the memory and experience of my people....

The young men, the mothers, the girls, the little children who once lived and were happy here, still love these lonely places. And at evening the forests are dark with the presence of the dead. When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only a story among the whites, these shores will still swarm with the invisible dead of my people. And when your children's children think they are alone in the fields, the forests, the shops, the highways, or the quiet of the woods, they will not be alone. There is no place in this country where a man can be alone. At night when the streets of your towns and cities are quiet, and you think they are empty, they will throng with the returning spirits that once thronged them, and that still love those places. The white man will never be alone.

So let him be just and deal kindly with my people. The dead have power too.

Yes, this is a curse, but Seattle didn't lay it on us; he only articulated it.

This, I believe, is why our task is so hard. If only it were as easy as implementing "incentive taxation."

It goes much deeper. Our task is to tell modern society that it can fix its economy, it can establish sustainable prosperity, it can end poverty, it can avert unimaginable catastrophic disaster –

IF it atones for the bad, bad sin of trying to buy and sell the natural world. Well. The good news is that many people have started — in many ways — to hear that message. The truth — which, I am afraid, is often going to hurt — is, nevertheless, on our side.

Right now — we are nowhere. OK. I accept that. You should too. A day will come when society will be ready, willing and able to hear what we have to say. Let's make sure that when that day arrives, we still know how to say it.

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