National Convention of State Legislatures
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
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
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
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.