Conference on Innovation at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Jeffery J. Smith

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, May-June 2007]

The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis drew over 200 people to their conference on "Innovation" the first week of May from almost all states, a couple other countries, and from 10 of the 12 Reserve branch banks. Co-sponsored by Freddie Mac and others, they hosted this author and Tom Gihring in the Chase Park Plaza, the most luxurious hotel in the city, at the end of a mile long row of enormous mansions, provided all but one bountiful meal (most participants left 10 pounds heavier), and paid for the hospitality with money that may have never existed until being spent. Our hosts were friendly, and most participants in high spirits.

Common Ground-USA and Marion Sapiro covered the other costs of air travel and preparation. Every presenter was asked to submit in advance a CD Powerpoint of their talk. Each meeting room was equipped with computer, projector, and screen. The St Louis branch bank also comped Al Katzenberger, a stalwart Georgist who picked us up and dropped us off at the airport, gave us tours of his town, manned the PREC table along with Don Killoren where they distributed literature from the Henry George Foundation and others, collaborated in our presentation, and generated interest among others throughout the conference.

The theme innovation rests on the assumption that organizations must change with the times. Although such advice is followed by organizations that get results, it does not apply to Georgists, since our movement lacks what was meant by "organization" -- people united by both end and means who pay dues or receive pay as staff, with boards -- smaller than their membership -- who have stature in community, with a physical address, regular and frequent meetings, presence in a geophysical community, with projects and events pulling in public participation, etc. Rather than organizations, we're soloists and perhaps suffer for it.

Some keynoters included:

  • William Poole, president of the St Louis branch, and Sandra Braustein, Board of Governors of the Fed, who welcomed us warmly.
  • Andrew Hargadon of UC Davis noted invention comes not from great men but from a confluence of contributions and that networks need to be exercised and enriched by the one using them.
  • Langdon Morris of Innovation Labs was able to divide our large group into many small ones where we could each pitch our slant on innovative community development then to bring us together again.
  • Keith Sawyer of Washington U. led several entertaining exercises, one being the whole group clapping randomly until in sync.
  • Doris Koo, CEO, Enterprise Community Partners, told how their goal was the eradication of poverty in their lifetime but how their proud achievement was a bit more units of affordable housing.
  • Thomas Dorr, Undersecretary of Agriculture, promised broadband subsidies for rural communities and invited speculators to be ready for the resultant rise in rural land values; after hearing Gene Wunderlich's calculation that less than 3% own more than 95% of the privately held land, he paused, performed his own rough calculation, and concurred.
  • Paul Light, author of "The Four Pillars of Social Change", noted solving social problems takes social entrepreneurship, the work of nonprofits ushering in social change while not losing money.

One session on TIFs was presented by an advocacy group for that tax wrinkle which receives funding from existing TIF districts, enough to qualify as a real organization with budget and staff. One wonders if the existing LVT jurisdictions would fund a similar organization to advocate LVT. Another session showed a PBS documentary on the history of East St Louis which exposed the corruption and exploitation -- if any place needed LVT ...

This author, co-presenter Tom Gihring, and local liason Al Katzenberger took time off to visit the Show Me Institute, with whom this author had been in email contact. Show Me, funded by a retired multi-millionaire banker, had released a study arguing for taxing land in St Louis and Kansas City that garnered good press. Their staff -- Vice President of Operations Jason Hannasch and researchers/writers David Stokes and Tim Lee -- gave us nearly two hours of their time, in which we discussed collaborating on a conference and other ideas.

As many came to our session as most other break-out sessions, and that was at 9 AM of the last day of the conference. About 15 people, including from the Fed, local government, and small towns around the US, engaged in the lively discussion and asked the usual questions. What astounded them the most was that such a sound idea could be so little used. Partly that's due to having to persuade people of the potency of a mere tax shift and partly because most people -- homeowners -- don't want to hear about paying taxes on their land (or property), their only equity since our savings rate is negative. If anyone wants to further reach out, please contact this author for the attendance roster.

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