National Convention of State Legislatures
(New Orleans)

David Giesen

[ GroundSwell, July-August 2008]

If it weren't for the message, the Jehovah's Witnesses, The Mormons, and the college kids on summer break pushing subscriptions to Save the Children door to door would be recruiting Al Katzenberger and myself as recruitment technique leaders. Al and I were the only exhibitors breaking a sweat in the refrigerated big hall at New Orleans' Ernest Morial Conference Center this past July 23-25. We and 6,500 other folk, mostly elected officials, were there for the National Convention of State Legislators.

Of course some exhibitors smiled at passers-by, but nobody but us Georgists was greeting and inviting and questioning the otherwise unsuspecting promenaders. With no slight intended to the various healthcare, education and election-merchandise mongers who featured fancy set-ups, the chief reason to stop by most booths was to get the L.E.D. yo-yos or two-armed (?) pens or wooden whistles they were giving away. All we sported were red and white striped mints. And a Big Idea.

Al would wind up with his fastball, "You Don't have any poverty in Mississippi, do you?" and then paste 'em with a quarter pound of literature; meanwhile, I splashed, "Why are parts of Mobile, Alabama more costly than others?" into the aisle, gesturing at my stacking cube 3-D simulation of a city.

Mr. Katzenberger, to judge from the many extended conversations he secured, had an engaging way about him. Only twice did he transform some hapless state legislator into an erstwhile superhero flying away with Al hanging like a cape hung around his neck getting in one last cram of Georgist argumentation. I allow I sawed the air on occasion, but I never stepped around the display table to dress up (or down) some righteous candidate-for-enlightenment who just needed a little more learning stuffed in his pockets to get him land-smart.

Me? I secured 60 lengthy discussions in 14 hours of booth time. The highlights were the folks who either responded to my, "How do we build the New Orleans" (or other city) economy?" or the God-fearing citizens who earnestly responded with "God&" when I held aloft a squeeze-ball earth and asked, " How did earth come to exist?" And don’t forget the service-learning award winning middle-schoolers.

Of course most legislators, fearful of tax change or wary of thinking, gave us the blithe heave-ho and carried on stuffing their " Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" bags with Chinese made junk gifts, but permit me the space to talk about the highlights with a bit more specificity.

Sometimes it was a Lower-the-taxes advocate, other times a Gulf Coast legislator with a sagging economy on her hands who gave me an ear regarding the economy. With the former I employed a small whiteboard with numerous professions written up in dry-erase ink. I had also previously drawn a house, a factory and a high-rise office building on half the board. My discussant was bidden choose a profession, then asked what might happen to the appeal of that employment if the tax rate took away a huge amount of remuneration. "Well, I might switch jobs," was the typical and correct response, at which point I would erase part of that profession, adding that, "Through taxes I can eliminate types of work." Next I invited the selection of house, factory or office building. Most chose the house, warm and fuzzy, I suppose. Again I inquired after how encouraged to build a house one would be if the value of construction were heavily taxed. Little wonder most folk, when assured I wasn't laying a trick question in their path, reasoned they wouldn't build anything if they didn't get any net value from building it.

Then I held up that squishy earth ball. "How much land would remain if we taxed it something fierce. Tax being a carpenter until you couldn't buy a hammer and you'd leave off being a carpenter. Tax a house till you paid for each plank twice and there'd be no houses built. But tax the rent of land until the land owner didn't keep a single sip of Mississippi oil-drenched River water [a 300,000 gallon oil spill closed the Mississippi during the conference] and how much land would there be?"

Half the time people said "None." Then they get a funny look like I had laid an egg before stammering no amount of taxation could destroy an atom of earth.

"So we advocate taxing land rent rather than labor and capital," I'd follow up.

Well, such a response usually pulls up that thoughtless but persistent objection, "No one would use the earth if they had to pay for it." What can a mule, an ass or a man say in such case, except, "By those lights no renter would ever rent or lease a footprints worth of land. Of course people would go on using the earth if they had to pay for it. The point is, with a tax like this [Georgist] no one would own land if they weren't going to use it the way a renter would. Land speculation would be at an end. Instead, all that money going into mere ownership of land would go into speculation in use of labor and capital. Money into work and things rather than into land ownership. What would that do for New Orleans?"

New Orleans is a treasure. It has charm and grace. It has a sense of place. But twenty minutes walk from Canal street and half the city's unoccupied. Abandoned buildings, abandoned houses. Al and I went for a drive to survey Katrina-devastated neighborhoods and they are still devastated. There is construction and rehabilitation going on, but there's also land speculation going on. Huge dollars going into future expectations from the land without those huge dollars going into the wages of reconstruction. And meanwhile the business taxes and taxes on buildings and state income taxes buffet the builder and buyer.

I don't pretend a single listener grokked George. I don't aver that come Monday a dozen southern legislators are going to e-mail Josh Vincent and ask, " What can our country's land rent do for us?" But I am confident that folks in our conversation glimmered that some taxes erode while others are just plain good for community. Just glimmering that different taxes materialize different results is an achievement.

The next species of highlight proved to be the Creationist. I've had trouble with this sort before. They'll quote God making the planet, but they'll cite Old Testament Hebrews claiming land ownership as evidence of the propriety of private property in land . . . ignoring Leviticus 25:23 and all. But that wasn't the case in New Orleans. I'd be into my spiel with whiteboard and squishy earth, and get to the, "And who created land?" part when a serious look would come down from brow to jaw on man or woman and the resolute rejoinder would sound, "God." Well right there I was in my element. I reckon God, call her what you want, is the animating juice of the universe, and Georgists have the animating juice, don't they? "So," I reply, "You are persuaded that the animating juice of the universe, the what-ever-it-is explanation-for-why-the-world-is created planet earth. Do you think this God made the earth for some to claim as their own? Do you suppose Creation was meant to be divvied up as a source of private income as though individual men or women or persons (corporations being legal persons) should derive income from mere ownership of God's Creation?"

I won't bore you with the rounds and abouts, the kicks and snorts and Amens, but just know that God came out Lord high king of Creation and the little children of Tennessee or Kentucky or elsewhere came out as joint-heirs in His beneficence. Removing taxes on labor seemed awfully dad-blurned good too.

At last we get to the highest of the highlights, which means the lowest of the attendees. Four sets of middle-schoolers wandered the exhibit hall when they were free from their own booths. These fine youths had been awarded attendance at the convention on account of admirable public service projects. Some had worked up obesity awareness fitness programs while others had served in the soup kitchens of their communities.

I abandoned my whiteboards and cubes with these young folk. I went straight for the squishy earth. They knew the earth was the habitat for all beings. Their answer came from their heart and soul. I asked just one more question, "Who should get to enjoy income from this earth? Everyone or those who own it?"

Well, I won;t leave you, reader, in doubt as to the correct answer -- which every youth knew clear and strong -- if I don't append the students' response here, for you too know the answer well. But if you don't, go knock on a middle-schooler's door (or head, whichever comes first) and ask.

One final note. I attended a panel discussion on "Creating a Competitive Tax Climate in Your State," produced by Tax Foundation. I took notes and learned a thing or two. The most notable moment came right at the end, however. A State Senator from Georgia quipped, following an exchange about the insidious effect of earmarks (crowd-pleasing public works projects gobbling fat federal dollars), that Georgia would continue to seek such earmarks from the Federal government in reparation for the damage done the South during the Civil War. It was said in jest, but it was thoughtless. And ludicrously so in the context of the Tax Foundation advocates of lowering tax burdens. The Senator's Civil War reference glossed over the most signal issue of that unhappy, uncivil hour in American history, namely slavery. What more obscene, egregious "tax" is there than slavery, a full tax on all but subsistence? After first leaving the room following the end of the program, I agitatedly returned to share with the panel leader my dismay that the legislator's stupid though not malicious remark had not been challenged aloud. To paraphrase both Henry Georges and Sun Yat-sen, Correct thinking leads to correct action.

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