Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
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despair, desperate, desperation, de-spero

Desperate — literally, without hope.

On earth as it is in heaven, or hell on earth for a significant portion of our society and our planet-mates? Which will it be? And what are you and I to do about it? (see also: serenity prayer, courage, wisdom to know the difference, radical, young martyrs.)

This theme comes out of a dance performance I saw at a CGO meeting, to the Eagles' song Desperado.  While interpretive dance doesn't normally "speak" to me, I found this quite moving.  And it set me to thinking about the day-to-day realities of what our severely tilted playing field does to individual human beings.  Some of us are buffered from it, some benefit from it, but many more are at its mercy.  Some self-medicate legally with alcohol or nicotine; others self-medicate with so-called "recreational" drugs (the trade in which produces undesirable results); and still others receive prescribed medications (some with the cost shared by all their fellow income-tax payers through tax deductibility).  The costs and effects of some of these forms of self-medication drive people to crime.

Some of us are homeless, some lack food.  But many more are simply not having enough income to be full participants in our society, despite working full time and beyond full time. 

Some will argue that since many of the poor have color TV's, ipods and air conditioners, and some years back only the wealthiest had such things, they must not really be poor. Henry George anticipated this argument as follows (in a footnote quoted further down this page):

It is true that the poorest may now in certain ways enjoy what the richest a century ago could not have commanded, but this does not show improvement of condition so long as the ability to obtain the necessaries of life is not increased. The beggar in a great city may enjoy many things from which the backwoods farmer is debarred, but that does not prove the condition of the city beggar better than that of the independent farmer.

Our tilted playing field is the direct result of specific traditions and policies, and no amount of charity can make up for the injustice those traditions and policies produce.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" (Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862, Walden). While Thoreau was observing the scene a few years before George was, perhaps he was speaking of the same phenomena that George was writing about, without having seen the systemic causes of much of that desperation. Can we agree that if there is something we can do to relieve the underlying causes of that desperation — remedying an unjust system — that to do so is our responsibility as human beings?

Thoreau also said, "There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Let's strike at the root of land monopoly.

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 13 Effect of Remedy Upon Social Ideals (in the unabridged P&P: Part IX: Effects of the Remedy — 4. Of the changes that would be wrought in social organization and social life)

From whence springs this lust for gain, to gratify which men tread everything pure and noble under their feet; to which they sacrifice all the higher possibilities of life; which converts civility into a hollow pretense, patriotism into a sham, and religion into hypocrisy; which makes so much of civilized existence an Ishmaelitish warfare, of which the weapons are cunning and fraud?

Does it not spring from the existence of want? Carlyle somewhere says that poverty is the hell of which the modern Englishman is most afraid. And he is right. Poverty is the openmouthed, relentless hell which yawns beneath civilized society. And it is hell enough. The Vedas declare no truer thing than when the wise crow Bushanda tells the eagle-bearer of Vishnu that the keenest pain is in poverty. For poverty is not merely deprivation; it means shame, degradation; the searing of the most sensitive parts of our moral and mental nature as with hot irons; the denial of the strongest impulses and the sweetest affections; the wrenching of the most vital nerves. You love your wife, you love your children; but would it not be easier to see them die than to see them reduced to the pinch of want in which large classes in every highly civilized community live? The strongest of animal passions is that with which we cling to life, but it is an everyday occurrence in civilized societies for men to put poison to their mouths or pistols to their heads from fear of poverty, and for one who does this there are probably a hundred who have the desire, but are restrained by instinctive shrinking, by religious considerations, or by family ties.

From this hell of poverty, it is but natural that men should make every effort to escape. With the impulse to self-preservation and self-gratification combine nobler feelings, and love as well as fear urges in the struggle. Many a man does a mean thing, a dishonest thing, a greedy and grasping and unjust thing, in the effort to place above want, or the fear of want, mother or wife or children.

And out of this condition of things arises a public opinion which enlists, as an impelling power in the struggle to grasp and to keep, one of the strongest perhaps with many men the very strongest springs of human action. The desire for approbation, the feeling that urges us to win the respect, admiration, or sympathy of our fellows, is instinctive and universal. Distorted sometimes into the most abnormal manifestations, it may yet be everywhere perceived. It is potent with the veriest savage, as with the most highly cultivated member of the most polished society; it shows itself with the first gleam of intelligence, and persists to the last breath. It triumphs over the love of ease, over the sense of pain, over the dread of death. It dictates the most trivial and the most important actions. ... read the whole chapter

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 14 Liberty, and Equality of Opportunity (in the unabridged P&P: Part X: The Law of Human Progress — Chapter 5: The Central Truth)

The truth to which we were led in the politico-economic branch of our inquiry is as clearly apparent in the rise and fall of nations and the growth and decay of civilizations, and it accords with those deep-seated recognitions of relation and sequence that we denominate moral perceptions. Thus are given to our conclusions the greatest certitude and highest sanction.

This truth involves both a menace and a promise. It shows that the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth, which are becoming more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on, are not incidents of progress, but tendencies which must bring progress to a halt; that they will not cure themselves, but, on the contrary, must, unless their cause is removed, grow greater and greater, until they sweep us back into barbarism by the road every previous civilization has trod. But it also shows that these evils are not imposed by natural laws; that they spring solely from social maladjustments which ignore natural laws, and that in removing their cause we shall be giving an enormous impetus to progress.

The poverty which in the midst of abundance pinches and embrutes men, and all the manifold evils which flow from it, spring from a denial of justice. In permitting the monopolization of the opportunities which nature freely offers to all, we have ignored the fundamental law of justice — for, so far as we can see, when we view things upon a large scale, justice seems to be the supreme law of the universe. But by sweeping away this injustice and asserting the rights of all men to natural opportunities, we shall conform ourselves to the law —

  • we shall remove the great cause of unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth and power;
  • we shall abolish poverty;
  • tame the ruthless passions of greed;
  • dry up the springs of vice and misery;
  • light in dark places the lamp of knowledge;
  • give new vigor to invention and a fresh impulse to discovery;
  • substitute political strength for political weakness; and
  • make tyranny and anarchy impossible. ...

Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on. This is the subtile alchemy that in ways they do not realize is extracting from the masses in every civilized country the fruits of their weary toil; that is instituting a harder and more hopeless slavery in place of that which has been destroyed; that is bringing political despotism out of political freedom, and must soon transmute democratic institutions into anarchy.

It is this that turns the blessings of material progress into a curse. It is this that crowds human beings into noisome cellars and squalid tenement houses; that fills prisons and brothels; that goads men with want and consumes them with greed; that robs women of the grace and beauty of perfect womanhood; that takes from little children the joy and innocence of life's morning.

Civilization so based cannot continue. The eternal laws of the universe forbid it. Ruins of dead empires testify, and the witness that is in every soul answers, that it cannot be. It is something grander than Benevolence, something more august than Charity — it is Justice herself that demands of us to right this wrong. Justice that will not be denied; that cannot be put off — Justice that with the scales carries the sword. Shall we ward the stroke with liturgies and prayers? Shall we avert the decrees of immutable law by raising churches when hungry infants moan and weary mothers weep?

Though it may take the language of prayer, it is blasphemy that attributes to the inscrutable decrees of Providence the suffering and brutishness that come of poverty; that turns with folded hands to the All-Father and lays on Him the responsibility for the want and crime of our great cities. We degrade the Everlasting. We slander the Just One. A merciful man would have better ordered the world; a just man would crush with his foot such an ulcerous ant-hill! It is not the Almighty, but we who are responsible for the vice and misery that fester amid our civilization. The Creator showers upon us his gifts — more than enough for all. But like swine scrambling for food, we tread them in the mire — tread them in the mire, while we tear and rend each other!

In the very centers of our civilization today are want and suffering enough to make sick at heart whoever does not close his eyes and steel his nerves. Dare we turn to the Creator and ask Him to relieve it? Supposing the prayer were heard, and at the behest with which the universe sprang into being there should glow in the sun a greater power; new virtue fill the air; fresh vigor the soil; that for every blade of grass that now grows two should spring up, and the seed that now increases fiftyfold should increase a hundredfold! Would poverty be abated or want relieved? Manifestly no! Whatever benefit would accrue would be but temporary. The new powers streaming through the material universe could be utilized only through land.

This is not merely a deduction of political economy; it is a fact of experience. We know it because we have seen it. Within our own times, under our very eyes, that Power which is above all, and in all, and through all; that Power of which the whole universe is but the manifestation; that Power which maketh all things, and without which is not anything made that is made, has increased the bounty which men may enjoy, as truly as though the fertility of nature had been increased. Into the mind of one came the thought that harnessed steam for the service of mankind. To the inner ear of another was whispered the secret that compels the lightning to bear a message round the globe. In every direction have the laws of matter been revealed; in every department of industry have arisen arms of iron and fingers of steel, whose effect upon the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of nature. What has been the result? Simply that landowners get all the gain. ... read the whole chapter

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

Distress and Famine
BUT it will be asked: If the land system which prevails in Ireland is essentially the same as that which prevails elsewhere, how is it that it does not produce the same results elsewhere?

I answer that it does everywhere produce the same kind of results. As there is nothing essentially peculiar in the Irish land system, so is there nothing essentially peculiar in Irish distress. Between the distress in Ireland and the distress in other countries there may be differences in degree and differences in manifestation; but that is all.

The truth is, that as there is nothing peculiar in the Irish land system, so is there nothing peculiar in the distress which that land system causes. We hear a great deal of Irish emigration, of the millions of sons and daughters of Erin who have been compelled to leave their native soil. But have not the Scottish Highlands been all but depopulated? Do not the English emigrate in the same way, and for the same reasons? Do not the Germans and Italians and Scandinavians also emigrate? Is there not a constant emigration from the Eastern States of the Union to the Western – an emigration impelled by the same motives as that which sets across the Atlantic? Nor am I sure that this is not in some respects a more demoralizing emigration than the Irish, for I do not think there is any such monstrous disproportion of the sexes in Ireland as in Massachusetts. If French and Belgian peasants do not emigrate as do the Irish, is it not simply because they do not have such "long families"?

There has recently been deep and wide-spread distress in Ireland, and but for the contributions of charity many would have perished for want of food. But, to say nothing of such countries as India, China, Persia, and Syria, is it not true that within the last few years there have been similar spasms of distress in the most highly civilized countries – not merely in Russia and in Poland, but in Germany and England? Yes, even in the United States.

Have there not been, are there not constantly occurring, in all these countries, times when the poorest classes are reduced to the direct straits, and large numbers are saved from starvation only by charity?

When there is famine among savages it is because food enough is not to be had. But this was not the case in Ireland. In any part of Ireland, during the height of what was called the famine, there was food enough for whoever had means to pay for it. The trouble was not in the scarcity of food. There was, as a matter of fact, no real scarcity of food, and the proof of it is that food did not command scarcity prices. During all the so-called famine, food was constantly exported from Ireland to England, which would not have been the case had there been true famine in one country any more than in the other. During all the so-called famine a practically unlimited supply of American meat and grain could have been poured into Ireland, through the existing mechanism of exchange, so quickly that the relief would have been felt instantaneously. Our sending of supplies in a national war-ship was a piece of vulgar ostentation, fitly paralleled by their ostentatious distribution in British gunboats under the nominal superintendence of a royal prince. Had we been bent on relief, not display, we might have saved our government the expense of fitting up its antiquated warship, the British gunboats their coal, the Lord Mayor his dinner, and the Royal Prince his valuable time. A cable draft, turned in Dublin into postal orders, would have afforded the relief, not merely much more easily and cheaply, but in less time than it took our war-ship to get ready to receive her cargo; for the reason that so many of the Irish people were starving was, not that the food was not to be had, but that they had not the means to buy it. Had the Irish people had money or its equivalent, the bad seasons might have come and gone without stinting any one of a full meal. Their effect would merely have been to determine toward Ireland the flow of more abundant harvests.

I wish clearly to bring to view this point. The Irish famine was not a true famine arising from scarcity of food. It was what an English writer styled the Indian famine – a "financial famine," arising not from scarcity of food but from the poverty of the people. The effect of the short crops in producing distress was not so much in raising the price of food as in cutting off the accustomed incomes of the people. The masses of the Irish people get so little in ordinary times that they are barely able to live, and when anything occurs to interrupt their accustomed incomes they have nothing to fall back on.

Yet is this not true of large classes in all countries? And are not all countries subject to just such famines as this Irish famine? Good seasons and bad seasons are in the order of nature, just as the day of sunshine and the day of rain, the summer's warmth and the winter's snow. But agriculture is, on the whole, as certain as any other pursuit, for even those industries which may be carried en regardless of weather are subject to alternations as marked as those to which agriculture is liable. There are good seasons and bad seasons even in fishing and hunting, while the alternations are very marked in mining and in manufacturing. In fact, the more highly differentiated branches of industry which advancing civilization tends to develop, though less directly dependent upon rain and sunshine, heat and cold, seem increasingly subject to alternations more frequent and intense. Though in a country of more diversified industry the failure of a crop or two could not have such wide-spread effects as in Ireland, yet the countries of more complex industries are liable to a greater variety of disasters. A war on another continent produces famine in Lancashire; Parisian milliners decree a change of fashion, and Coventry operatives are saved from starvation only by public alms; a railroad combination decides to raise the price of coal, and Pennsylvania miners find their earnings diminished by half or totally cut off; a bank breaks in New York, and in all the large American cities soup-houses must be opened!

In this Irish famine which provoked the land agitation, there is nothing that is peculiar. Such famines on a smaller or a larger scale are constantly occurring. Nay, more! the fact is, that famine, just such famine as this Irish famine, constantly exists in the richest and most highly civilized lands. It persists even in "good times" 'when trade is "booming;" it spreads and rages whenever from any cause industrial depression comes. It is kept under, or at least kept from showing its worst phases, by poor-rates and almshouses, by private benevolence and by vast organized charities, but it still exists, gnawing in secret when it does not openly rage. In the very centers of civilization, where the machinery of production and exchange is at the highest point of efficiency, where bankvaults hold millions, and show-windows flash with more than a prince's ransom, where elevators and warehouses are gorged with grain, and markets are piled with all things succulent and toothsome, where the dinners of Lucullus are eaten every day, and, if it be but cool, the very greyhounds wear dainty blankets–in these centers in wealth and power and refinement, there are always hungry men and women and little children. Never the sun goes down but on human beings prowling like wolves far food, or huddling together like vermin for shelter and warmth. "Always with You" is the significant heading under which a New York paper, in these most prosperous times, publishes daily the tales of chronic famine; and in the greatest and richest city in the world – in that very London where the plenty of meat in the butchers' shops seemed to some savages the most wondrous of all its wonderful sights – in that very London, the mortuary reports have a standing column for deaths by starvation.

But no more in its chronic than in its spasmodic forms is famine to be measured by the deaths from starvation. Perfect, indeed, in all its parts must be the human machine if it can run till the last bit of available tissue be drawn to feed its fires. It is under the guise of disease to which physicians can give less shocking names, that famine – especially the chronic famine of civilization – kills. And the statistics of mortality, especially of infant mortality, show that in the richest communities famine is constantly at its work. Insufficient nourishment, inadequate warmth and clothing, and unwholesome surroundings, constantly, in the very centers of plenty, swell the death-rates. What is this but famine – just such famine as the Irish famine? It is not that the needed things are really scarce; but that those whose need is direst have not the means to get them, and, when not relieved by charity, want kills them in its various ways. When, in the hot midsummer, little children die like flies in the New York tenement wards, what is that but famine? And those barges crowded with such children that a noble and tender charity sends down New York Harbor to catch the fresh salt breath of the Antlantic – are they not fighting famine as truly as were our food-laden war-ship and the Royal Prince's gunboats? Alas! to find famine one has not to cross the sea.

There was bitter satire in the cartoon that one of our illustrated papers published when subscriptions to the Irish famine fund were being made – a cartoon that represented James Gordon Bennett sailing away for Ireland in a boat loaded down with provisions, while a sad-eyed, hungry-looking, tattered group gazed wistfully on them from the pier. The bite and the bitterness of it, the humiliating sting and satire of it, were in its truth.

This is "the home of freedom," and "the asylum of the oppressed;" our population is yet sparse, our public domain yet wide; we are the greatest of food producers, yet even here there are beggars, tramps, paupers, men torn by anxiety for the support of their families, women who know not which way to turn, little children growing up in such poverty and squalor that only a miracle can keep them pure. "Always with you," even here. What is the week or the day of the week that our papers do not tell of man or woman who, to escape the tortures of want, has stepped out of life unbidden? What is this but famine?...read the whole article

Henry George: The Crime of Poverty  (1885 speech)
Poverty is the mother of ignorance, the breeder of crime. I walked down one of your streets this morning, and I saw three men going along with their hands chained together. I knew for certain that those men were not rich men; and, although I do not know the offence for which they were carried in chains through your streets, this I think I can safely say, that, if you trace it up you will find it in some way to spring from poverty. Nine tenths of human misery, I think you will find, if you look, to be due to poverty.  ... And it seems to me clear that the great majority of those who suffer from poverty are poor not from their own particular faults, but because of conditions imposed by society at large. Therefore I hold that poverty is a crime – not an individual crime, but a social crime, a crime for which we all, poor as well as rich, are responsible.  ... read the whole speech

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)

Note 14: Land values are lower in all countries of poor government than in any country of better government, other things being equal. They are lower in cities of poor government, other things being equal, than in cities of better government. Land values are lower, for example, in Juarez, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where government is bad, than in El Paso, the neighboring city on the American side, where government is better. They are lower in the same city under bad government than under improved government. When Seth Low, after a reform campaign, was elected mayor of Brooklyn, N.Y., rents advanced before he took the oath of office, upon the bare expectation that he would eradicate municipal abuses. Let the city authorities anywhere pave a street, put water through it and sewer it, or do any of these things, and lots in the neighborhood rise in value. Everywhere that the "good roads" agitation of wheel men has borne fruit in better highways, the value of adjacent land has increased. Instances of this effect as results of public improvements might be collected in abundance. Every man must be able to recall some within his own experience.

And it is perfectly reasonable that it should be so. Land and not other property must rise in value with desired improvements in government, because, while any tendency on the part of other kinds of property to rise in value is checked by greater production, land can not be reproduced.

Imagine an utterly lawless place, where life and property are constantly threatened by desperadoes. He must be either a very bold man or a very avaricious one who will build a store in such a community and stock it with goods; but suppose such a man should appear. His store costs him more than the same building would cost in a civilized community; mechanics are not plentiful in such a place, and materials are hard to get. The building is finally erected, however, and stocked. And now what about this merchant's prices for goods? Competition is weak, because there are few men who will take the chances he has taken, and he charges all that his customers will pay. A hundred per cent, five hundred per cent, perhaps one or two thousand per cent profit rewards him for his pains and risk. His goods are dear, enormously dear — dear enough to satisfy the most contemptuous enemy of cheapness; and if any one should wish to buy his store that would be dear too, for the difficulties in the way of building continue. But land is cheap! This is the type of community in which may be found that land, so often mentioned and so seldom seen, which "the owners actually can't give away, you know!"

But suppose that government improves. An efficient administration of justice rids the place of desperadoes, and life and property are safe. What about prices then? It would no longer require a bold or desperately avaricious man to engage in selling goods in that community, and competition would set in. High profits would soon come down. Goods would be cheap — as cheap as anywhere in the world, the cost of transportation considered. Builders and building materials could be had without difficulty, and stores would be cheap, too. But land would be dear! Improvement in government increases the value of that, and of that alone.

... read the book

John Dewey: Steps to Economic Recovery

I do not claim that George's remedy is a panacea that will cure by itself all our ailments. But I do claim that we cannot get rid of our basic troubles without it. I would make exactly the same concession and same claim that Henry George himself made:

"I do not say that in the recognition of the equal and unalienable right of each human being to the natural elements from which life must be supported and wants satisfied, lies the solution of all social problems. I fully recognize that even after we do this, much will remain to do. We might recognize the equal right to land, and yet tyranny and spoilation be continued. But whatever else we do, as along as we fail to recognize the equal right to the elements of nature, nothing will avail to remedy that unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth which is fraught with so much evil and danger. Reform as we may, until we make this fundamental reform, our material progress can but tend to differentiate our people into the monstrously rich and frightfully poor. Whatever be the increase of wealth, the masses will still be ground toward the point of bare subsistence -- we must still have our great criminal classes, our paupers and our tramps, men and women driven to degradation and desperation from inability to make an honest living." ... read the whole speech

Walter Rybeck: What Affordable Housing Problem?

Like all creatures — goldfinches, squirrels, butterflies, cicadas — we humans are squatters on this planet. We all need a part of earth for shelter, nourishment, a work site and a place to raise the next generation. Otherwise we perish. ...

In the 1980s, Washington, D.C., was concerned about its growing army of homeless. At that time I found there were 8,000 boarded-up dwelling units in our Nation's Capital — more than enough to accommodate some 5,000 street people. I also found there were 11,500 privately owned vacant lots in the District of Columbia, mostly zoned for and suitable for homes or apartments. Decent housing on these sites held in cold storage would have provided an alternative for the many low-income families squatting in places that were overcrowded, overpriced, overrun with vermin and overloaded with safety hazards.

These issues spurred my research described in a 1988 report, "Affordable Housing — A Missing Link." Evidence from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources over a 30-year period revealed the following average cost increases of items that go into the building and maintenance of housing:
  • Wages of general building construction workers rose 14 percent a year.
  • Wages of special trade construction workers rose 11 percent a year.
  • Construction material costs rose 11.5 percent a year.
  • Combined wage-materials-managerial costs for residential building rose 12.5 percent a year.
  • Fuel and utility costs for housing rose 13.8 percent a year. All of these costs closely tracked the Consumer Price Index which, over these same 30 years, rose by 12 percent a year. According to those figures, housing prices and housing rents apparently were held in check
Why do those statistics not seem to jibe with what you have been told, seen with your own eyes, and felt in your own pocketbooks?
  • How to explain that, during the last decade of my research period, U.S. households with serious housing problems increased from 19 to 24 millions?
  • What caused the portion of renters paying more than 35 percent of their income for housing doubled from 21 to 41 percent during the last two decades of the study period?
  • Why were over 2.4 million renters paying 60 percent or more of their income for rent?
The answers would be obvious except that, so far, I have not mentioned what happened to the price of the land that housing sits on. Many of those who talk and write about housing conveniently overlook the fact that housing does not exist in mid air but is attached to the land, and that the price of this land has gone through the stratosphere.

In contrast to those 11- to 14-percent annual increases in housing-related costs, residential land values nationwide rose almost 80 percent a year, or almost 2000 percent over those three decades.  ...

A close friend in Bethesda bought a house and lot there 40 years ago for $20,000. Two months ago he sold the property for a cool half million. That 2400 percent increase was entirely land value. The buyer immediately demolished the house to put up a larger one, so he clearly paid half a million for the location value -- the land value -- alone.

Officials, civic leaders and commentators who bemoan the lack of affordable housing nevertheless applaud each rise in real estate values as a sign of prosperity. Seeing their own assets multiply through no effort of their own apparently makes them forget the teachers, firemen, police and low-income people who are boxed out of a place to squat in their cities and neighborhoods. ...

Many of our Founding Fathers, George Washington included, had amassed huge estates. But the property tax induced them to sell off excess lands they were not using.  ...

One of the many virtues of a tax on land values is that it can be introduced gradually. Cities that take this incremental approach report that homeowners-voters-taxpayers hardly notice the change. What's important in modernizing your taxation is not the speed of change but the direction you choose. If you keep the present tax system with its disincentives for compact and wholesome growth, you will experience the treadmill effect that has been so familiar in so-called urban and housing "solutions." You will have to keep running faster and faster with patchwork remedies to keep from sliding backward.

A caution. Revising taxes as proposed here will not end the need for housing subsidies, at least not in the short run, but it will do three things that should greatly reduce subsidies.
  • One, by deflating land costs it will enable the private market to offer homes and sites at lower costs.
  • Two, this will shrink the number of families needing subsidies.
  • Three, it will stretch subsidy dollars farther because sites for publicly assisted housing can be acquired far more cheaply.
In Conclusion, I have tried to show that America has a housing land problem, not an affordable housing problem. This problem can be substantially alleviated by freeing the market of anti-enterprise taxes and by turning the property tax right side up -- that is, by dropping tax rates on housing and by raising them on publicly-created land values. Read the whole article

Henry George: How to Help the Unemployed

Henry George: Justice the Object -- Taxation the Means (1890)

Now see, take it in its lowest aspect — take it as a mere fiscal change, and see how in accord with every dictate of expediency, with every principle of justice, is the Single Tax. We have invented and invented, improved and improved, yet the great fact is, that today we have not wealth enough. There are in the United States some few men richer than it is wholesome for men to be. But the great masses of our people are not so rich as civilised Americans at the close of the nineteenth century ought to be. The great mass of our people only manage by hard work to live. The great mass of our people don't get the comforts, the refinements, the luxuries that in the present age of the world everyone ought to have. All over this country there is a fierce struggle for existence.   Read the entire article

Henry George: Progress & Poverty: Introductory: The Problem

Now, however, we are coming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world come complaints;

  • of industrial depression;
  • of labor condemned to involuntary idleness;
  • of capital massed and wasting;
  • of pecuniary distress among business men;
  • of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes.

All the dull, deadening pain, all the keen, maddening anguish, that to great masses of men are involved in the words "hard times," afflict the world today. This state of things, common to communities differing so widely in situation, in political institutions, in fiscal and financial systems, in density of population and in social organization can hardly be accounted for by local causes.

  • There is distress where large standing armies are maintained, but there is also distress where the standing armies are nominal;
  • there is distress where protective tariffs stupidly and wastefully hamper trade, but there is also distress where trade is nearly free;
  • there is distress where autocratic government yet prevails, but there is also distress where political power is wholly in the hands of the people;
  • in countries where paper is money, and
  • in countries where gold and silver are the only currency.

Evidently, beneath all such things as these, we must infer a common cause.

That there is a common cause, and that it is either what we call material progress or something closely connected with material progress, becomes more than an inference when it is noted that the phenomena we class together and speak of as industrial depression, are but intensifications of phenomena which always accompany material progress, and which show themselves more clearly and strongly as material progress goes on. Where the conditions to which material progress everywhere tends are most fully realized--that is to say, where population is densest, wealth greatest, and the machinery of production and exchange most highly developed--we find the deepest poverty, the sharpest struggle for existence, and the most enforced idleness.

It is to the newer countries — that is, to the countries where material progress is yet in its earlier stages — that laborers emigrate in search of higher wages, and capital flows in search of higher interest. It is in the older countries — that is to say, the countries where material progress has reached later stages — that widespread destitution is found in the midst of the greatest abundance. Go into one of the new communities where Anglo-Saxon vigor is just beginning the race of progress;

  • where the machinery of production and exchange is yet rude and inefficient;
  • where the increment of wealth is not yet great enough to enable any class to live in ease and luxury;
  • where the best house is but a cabin of logs or a cloth and paper shanty, and the richest man is forced to daily work

and though you will find an absence of wealth and all its concomitants, you will find no beggars. There is no luxury, but there is no destitution. No one makes an easy living, nor a very good living; but every one can make a living, and no one able and willing to work is oppressed by the fear of want.

But just as such a community realizes the conditions which all civilized communities are striving for, and advances in the scale of material progress — just as closer settlement and a more intimate connection with the rest of the world, and greater utilization of labor-saving machinery, make possible greater economies in production and exchange, and wealth in consequence increases, not merely in the aggregate, but in proportion to population— so does poverty take a darker aspect. Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at. The "tramp" comes with the locomotive, and alms houses and prisons areas surely the marks of "material progress" as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses, and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and controlled by uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied.

This fact — the great fact that poverty and all its concomitants show themselves in communities just as they develop into the conditions towards which material progress tends — proves that the social difficulties existing wherever a certain stage of progress has been reached, do not arise from local circumstances, but are, in some way or another, engendered by progress itself.

And, unpleasant as it may be to admit it, it is at last becoming evident that the enormous increase in productive power which has marked the present century and is still going on with accelerating ratio, has no tendency to extirpate poverty or to lighten the burdens of those compelled to toil. It simply widens the gulf between Dives and Lazarus, and makes the struggle for existence more intense. The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But

  • in factories where labor-saving machinery has reached its most wonderful development, little children are at work;
  • wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it;
  • amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation, and puny infant suckle dry breasts;
  • while everywhere the greed of gain, the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want.

The promised land flies before us like the mirage. The fruit of the tree of knowledge turn as we grasp them to apples of Sodom that crumble at the touch.

It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure, and refinement has been raised; but these gains are not general. In them the lowest class do not share.* I do not mean that the condition of the lowest class has nowhere nor in anything been improved; but that there is nowhere any improvement which can be credited to increased productive power. I mean that the tendency of what we call material progress is in no wise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. Nay, more, that it is to still further depress the condition of the lowest class. The new forces, elevating in their nature though they be, do not act upon the social fabric from underneath, as was for a long time hoped and believed, but strike it at a point intermediate between top and bottom. It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.

[* It is true that the poorest may now in certain ways enjoy what the richest a century ago could not have commanded, but this does not show improvement of condition so long as the ability to obtain the necessaries of life is not increased. The beggar in a great city may enjoy many things from which the backwoods farmer is debarred, but that does not prove the condition of the city beggar better than that of the independent farmer.]

This depressing effect is not generally realized, for it is not apparent where there has long existed a class just able to live. Where the lowest class barely lives, as has been the case for a long time in many parts of Europe, it is impossible for it to get any lower, for the next lowest step is out of existence, and no tendency to further depression can readily show itself. But in the progress of new settlements to the conditions of older communities it may clearly be seen that material progress does not merely fail to relieve poverty--it actually produces it. In the United States it is clear that squalor and misery, and the vices and crimes that spring from them, everywhere increase as the village grows to the city, and the march of development brings the advantages of the improved methods of production and exchange. It is in the older and richer sections of the Union that pauperism and distress among the working classes are becoming most painfully apparent. If there is less deep poverty in San Francisco than in New York, is it not because San Francisco is yet behind New York in all that both cities are striving for? When San Francisco reaches the point where New York now is, who can doubt that there will also be ragged and barefooted children on her streets? ... read the entire chapter

Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

That the value attaching to land with social growth is intended for social needs is shown by the final proof. God is indeed a jealous God in the sense that nothing but injury and disaster can attend the effort of men to do things other than in the way he has intended; in the sense that where the blessings he proffers to men are refused or misused they turn to evils that scourge us. And just as for the mother to withhold the provision that fills her breast with the birth of the child is to endanger physical health, so for society to refuse to take for social uses the provision intended for them is to breed social disease.

For refusal to take for public purposes the increasing values that attach to land with social growth is to necessitate the getting of public revenues by taxes that lessen production, distort distribution and corrupt society. It is to leave some to take what justly belongs to all; it is to forego the only means by which it is possible in an advanced civilization to combine the security of possession that is necessary to improvement with the equality of natural opportunity that is the most important of all natural rights. It is thus at the basis of all social life to set up an unjust inequality between man and man, compelling some to pay others for the privilege of living, for the chance of working, for the advantages of civilization, for the gifts of their God. But it is even more than this. The very robbery that the masses of men thus suffer gives rise in advancing communities to a new robbery. For the value that with the increase of population and social advance attaches to land being suffered to go to individuals who have secured ownership of the land, it prompts to a forestalling of and speculation in land wherever there is any prospect of advancing population or of coming improvement, thus producing an artificial scarcity of the natural elements of life and labor, and a strangulation of production that shows itself in recurring spasms of industrial depression as disastrous to the world as destructive wars. It is this that is driving men from the old countries to the new countries, only to bring there the same curses. It is this that causes our material advance not merely to fail to improve the condition of the mere worker, but to make the condition of large classes positively worse. It is this that in our richest Christian countries is giving us a large population whose lives are harder, more hopeless, more degraded than those of the veriest savages. It is this that leads so many men to think that God is a bungler and is constantly bringing more people into his world than he has made provision for; or that there is no God, and that belief in him is a superstition which the facts of life and the advance of science are dispelling.

The darkness in light, the weakness in strength, the poverty amid wealth, the seething discontent foreboding civil strife, that characterize our civilization of today, are the natural, the inevitable results of our rejection of God’s beneficence, of our ignoring of his intent. Were we on the other hand to follow his clear, simple rule of right, leaving scrupulously to the individual all that individual labor produces, and taking for the community the value that attaches to land by the growth of the community itself, not merely could evil modes of raising public revenues be dispensed with, but all men would be placed on an equal level of opportunity with regard to the bounty of their Creator, on an equal level of opportunity to exert their labor and to enjoy its fruits. And then, without drastic or restrictive measures the forestalling of land would cease. For then the possession of land would mean only security for the permanence of its use, and there would be no object for any one to get land or to keep land except for use; nor would his possession of better land than others had confer any unjust advantage on him, or unjust deprivation on them, since the equivalent of the advantage would be taken by the state for the benefit of all. ...

Your use, in so many passages of your Encyclical, of the inclusive term “property” or “private” property, of which in morals nothing can be either affirmed or denied, makes your meaning, if we take isolated sentences, in many places ambiguous. But reading it as a whole, there can be no doubt of your intention that private property in land shall be understood when you speak merely of private property. With this interpretation, I find that the reasons you urge for private property in land are eight. Let us consider them in order of presentation. You urge:

1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (RN, paragraph 5) ...
2. That private property in land proceeds from man’s gift of reason. (RN, paragraphs 6-7.) ...
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (RN, paragraph 8.) ...
4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (RN, paragraphs 9-10.) ...
5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned by Divine Law. (RN, paragraph 11.) ...
6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private property in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (RN, paragraphs 14-17.) ...
7. That the private ownership of land stimulates industry, increases wealth, and attaches men to the soil and to their country. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
8. That the right to possess private property in land is from nature, not from man; that the state has no right to abolish it, and that to take the value of landownership in taxation would be unjust and cruel to the private owner. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...

6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private property in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (14-17.)

With all that your Holiness has to say of the sacredness of the family relation we are in full accord. But how the obligation of the father to the child can justify private property in land we cannot see. You reason that private property in land is necessary to the discharge of the duty of the father, and is therefore requisite and just, because —

It is a most sacred law of nature that a father must provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, nature dictates that a man’s children, who carry on, as it were, and continue his own personality, should be provided by him with all that is needful to enable them honorably to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of profitable property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance. (14.)

Thanks to Him who has bound the generations of men together by a provision that brings the tenderest love to greet our entrance into the world and soothes our exit with filial piety, it is both the duty and the joy of the father to care for the child till its powers mature, and afterwards in the natural order it becomes the duty and privilege of the child to be the stay of the parent. This is the natural reason for that relation of marriage, the groundwork of the sweetest, tenderest and purest of human joys, which the Catholic Church has guarded with such unremitting vigilance.

We do, for a few years, need the providence of our fathers after the flesh. But how small, how transient, how narrow is this need, as compared with our constant need for the providence of Him in whom we live, move and have our being — Our Father who art in Heaven! It is to him, “the giver of every good and perfect gift,” and not to our fathers after the flesh, that Christ taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And how true it is that it is through him that the generations of men exist! Let the mean temperature of the earth rise or fall a few degrees, an amount as nothing compared with differences produced in our laboratories, and mankind would disappear as ice disappears under a tropical sun, would fall as the leaves fall at the touch of frost. Or, let for two or three seasons the earth refuse her increase, and how many of our millions would remain alive?

The duty of fathers to transmit to their children profitable property that will enable them to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life! What is not possible cannot be a duty. And how is it possible for fathers to do that? Your Holiness has not considered how mankind really lives from hand to mouth, getting each day its daily bread; how little one generation does or can leave another. It is doubtful if the wealth of the civilized world all told amounts to anything like as much as one year’s labor, while it is certain that if labor were to stop and men had to rely on existing accumulation, it would be only a few days ere in the richest countries pestilence and famine would stalk.

The profitable property your Holiness refers to, is private property in land. Now profitable land, as all economists will agree, is land superior to the land that the ordinary man can get. It is land that will yield an income to the owner as owner, and therefore that will permit the owner to appropriate the products of labor without doing labor, its profitableness to the individual involving the robbery of other individuals. It is therefore possible only for some fathers to leave their children profitable land. What therefore your Holiness practically declares is, that it is the duty of all fathers to struggle to leave their children what only the few peculiarly strong, lucky or unscrupulous can leave; and that, a something that involves the robbery of others — their deprivation of the material gifts of God.

This anti-Christian doctrine has been long in practice throughout the Christian world. What are its results?

Are they not the very evils set forth in your Encyclical? Are they not, so far from enabling men to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life, to condemn the great masses of men to want and misery that the natural conditions of our mortal life do not entail; to want and misery deeper and more wide-spread than exist among heathen savages? Under the régime of private property in land and in the richest countries not five per cent of fathers are able at their death to leave anything substantial to their children, and probably a large majority do not leave enough to bury them! Some few children are left by their fathers richer than it is good for them to be, but the vast majority not only are left nothing by their fathers, but by the system that makes land private property are deprived of the bounty of their Heavenly Father; are compelled to sue others for permission to live and to work, and to toil all their lives for a pittance that often does not enable them to escape starvation and pauperism.

What your Holiness is actually, though of course inadvertently, urging, is that earthly fathers should assume the functions of the Heavenly Father. It is not the business of one generation to provide the succeeding generation “with all that is needful to enable them honorably to keep themselves from want and misery.” That is God’s business. We no more create our children than we create our fathers. It is God who is the Creator of each succeeding generation as fully as of the one that preceded it. And, to recall your own words (7), “Nature [God], therefore, owes to man a storehouse that shall never fail, the daily supply of his daily wants. And this he finds only in the inexhaustible fertility of the earth.” What you are now assuming is, that it is the duty of men to provide for the wants of their children by appropriating this storehouse and depriving other men’s children of the unfailing supply that God has provided for all.

The duty of the father to the child — the duty possible to all fathers! Is it not so to conduct himself, so to nurture and teach it, that it shall come to manhood with a sound body, well-developed mind, habits of virtue, piety and industry, and in a state of society that shall give it and all others free access to the bounty of God, the providence of the All-Father?

In doing this the father would be doing more to secure his children from want and misery than is possible now to the richest of fathers — as much more as the providence of God surpasses that of man. For the justice of God laughs at the efforts of men to circumvent it, and the subtle law that binds humanity together poisons the rich in the sufferings of the poor. Even the few who are able in the general struggle to leave their children wealth that they fondly think will keep them from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life — do they succeed? Does experience show that it is a benefit to a child to place him above his fellows and enable him to think God’s law of labor is not for him? Is not such wealth oftener a curse than a blessing, and does not its expectation often destroy filial love and bring dissensions and heartburnings into families? And how far and how long are even the richest and strongest able to exempt their children from the common lot? Nothing is more certain than that the blood of the masters of the world flows today in lazzaroni and that the descendants of kings and princes tenant slums and workhouses.

But in the state of society we strive for, where the monopoly and waste of God’s bounty would be done away with and the fruits of labor would go to the laborer, it would be within the ability of all to make more than a comfortable living with reasonable labor. And for those who might be crippled or incapacitated, or deprived of their natural protectors and breadwinners, the most ample provision could be made out of that great and increasing fund with which God in his law of rent has provided society — not as a matter of niggardly and degrading alms, but as a matter of right, as the assurance which in a Christian state society owes to all its members.

Thus it is that the duty of the father, the obligation to the child, instead of giving any support to private property in land, utterly condemns it, urging us by the most powerful considerations to abolish it in the simple and efficacious way of the single tax.

This duty of the father, this obligation to children, is not confined to those who have actually children of their own, but rests on all of us who have come to the powers and responsibilities of manhood.

For did not Christ set a little child in the midst of the disciples, saying to them that the angels of such little ones always behold the face of his Father; saying to them that it were better for a man to hang a millstone about his neck and plunge into the uttermost depths of the sea than to injure such a little one?

And what today is the result of private property in land in the richest of so-called Christian countries? Is it not that young people fear to marry; that married people fear to have children; that children are driven out of life from sheer want of proper nourishment and care, or compelled to toil when they ought to be at school or at play; that great numbers of those who attain maturity enter it with under-nourished bodies, overstrained nerves, undeveloped minds — under conditions that foredoom them, not merely to suffering, but to crime; that fit them in advance for the prison and the brothel?

If your Holiness will consider these things we are confident that instead of defending private property in land you will condemn it with anathema! ...

Your Holiness will remember the great London dock strike of two years ago, which, with that of other influential men, received the moral support of that Prince of the Church whom we of the English speech hold higher and dearer than any prelate has been held by us since the blood of Thomas à Becket stained the Canterbury altar.

In a volume called “The Story of the Dockers’ Strike,” written by Messrs. H. Llewellyn Smith and Vaughan Nash, with an introduction by Sydney Buxton, M.P., which advocates trades-unionism as the solution of the labor question, and of which a large number were sent to Australia as a sort of official recognition of the generous aid received from there by the strikers, I find in the summing up, on pages 164-165, the following:

If the settlement lasts, work at the docks will be more regular, better paid, and carried on under better conditions than ever before. All this will be an unqualified gain to those who get the benefit from it. But another result will undoubtedly be to contract the field of employment and lessen the number of those for whom work can be found. The lower-class casual will, in the end, find his position more precarious than ever before, in proportion to the increased regularity of work which the “fitter” of the laborers will secure. The effect of the organization of dock labor, as of all classes of labor, will be to squeeze out the residuum. The loafer, the cadger, the failure in the industrial race — the members of “Class B” of Mr. Charles Booth’s hierarchy of social classes — will be no gainers by the change, but will rather find another door closed against them, and this in many cases the last door to employment.

I am far from wishing that your Holiness should join in that pharisaical denunciation of trades-unions common among those who, while quick to point out the injustice of trades-unions in denying to others the equal right to work, are themselves supporters of that more primary injustice that denies the equal right to the standing-place and natural material necessary to work. What I wish to point out is that trades-unionism, while it may be a partial palliative, is not a remedy; that it has not that moral character which could alone justify one in the position of your Holiness in urging it as good in itself. Yet, so long as you insist on private property in land what better can you do?


... read the whole letter


Weld Carter: A Clarion Call to Sanity, to Honesty, to Justice  (1982)

George has described this world as a "well-provisioned ship" and when one considers the increasingly huge daily withdrawals of such provisions as coal and petroleum as have occurred say over the past one hundred years, one must but agree with this writer. But this is only a static view. Consider the suggestion of some ten years ago that it would require the conversion of less than 20% the of the current annual growth of wood into alcohol to fuel all the motors then being fueled by the then-conventional means. The dynamic picture of the future is indeed awesome, and there is every indication that that characteristic has the potential of endless expansion. So how is it that on so richly endowed a Garden of Eden as this world of ours we have only been able to make of it a hell on earth for vast numbers of people? ... read the whole essay

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