Wealth and Want
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Seeing the Cat

"Seeing the cat" is Georgist shorthand for the "aha!" moment when one starts to see how the distortions of our current way of treating the rent on land as mostly private property ripple throughout society, creating a huge range of social and justice problems.  A lot of things that individually make no sense, and which popular academic economics theories fail to explain, fall into place and form a cohesive whole. 

I hope this website will help you have that "aha!" moment for yourself, and then to share it with others.  When enough of us come to understand the underpinnings of our current problems, and that there is a simple and just alternative, we can together set about creating the society that our founding fathers' words spoke of.

Louis Post Seeing the Cat

... There it was, sure enough, just as the crank had said; and the only reason the rest of us couldn't see it was that we hadn't got the right angle of view. but now that I saw the cat, I could see nothing else in the picture. The poor landscape had disappeared and a fine looking cat had taken its place. And do you know, I was never afterwards able, upon looking at that picture, to see anything in it *but* the cat.

(to which Nic Tideman adds, "In my view, 'the cat' is the possibility of a world without privilege.)

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty, Chapter 5: The Basic Cause of Poverty (in the unabridged: Book V: The Problem Solved)

In all our long investigation we have been advancing to this simple truth: That as land is necessary to the exertion of labor in the production of wealth, to command the land which is necessary to labor, is to command all the fruits of labor save enough to enable labor to exist. We have been advancing as through an enemy's country, in which every step must be secured, every position fortified, and every bypath explored; for this simple truth, in its application to social and political problems, is hid from the great masses of men partly by its very simplicity, and in greater part by widespread fallacies and erroneous habits of thought which lead them to look in every direction but the right one for an explanation of the evils which oppress and threaten the civilized world. And back of these elaborate fallacies and misleading theories is an active, energetic power, a power that in every country, be its political forms what they may, writes laws and molds thought — the power of a vast and dominant pecuniary interest.

But so simple and so clear is this truth, that to see it fully once is always to recognize it. There are pictures which, though looked at again and again, present only a confused labyrinth of lines or scroll work — a landscape, trees, or something of the kind — until once the attention is called to the fact that these things make up a face or a figure. This relation, once recognized, is always afterward clear.*

*Hence the expression, current among adherents of Henry George's proposal: "Do you see the cat?"

... For land is the habitation of man, the storehouse upon which he must draw for all his needs, the material to which his labor must be applied for the supply of all his desires; for even the products of the sea cannot be taken, the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces of nature utilized, without the use of land or its products. On the land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again — children of the soil as truly as is the blade of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from man all that belongs to land, and he is but a disembodied spirit. Material progress cannot rid us of our dependence upon land; it can but add to the power of producing wealth from land; and hence, when land is monopolized, it might go on to infinity without increasing wages or improving the condition of those who have but their labor. It can but add to the value of land and the power which its possession gives. Everywhere, in all times, among all peoples, the possession of land is the base of aristocracy, the foundation of great fortunes, the source of power. ... read the whole chapter

Fred Foldvary: See the Cat

A man was walking down a shopping street and came to a store window where there was a big drawing full of lines and squiggles. A sign by the drawing asked, "Can you see the picture?"

All the man could see was a chaos of lines going every which way. He stared at it and tried to make out some kind of design, but it was all a jumble. Then he saw that some of the lines formed ears, and whiskers, and a tail. Suddenly he realized that there was a cat in the picture. Once he saw the cat, it was unmistakable. When he looked away and then looked back at the drawing, the cat was quite evident now.

The man then realized that the economy is like the cat. It seems to be a jumble of workers, consumers, enterprises, taxes, regulations, imports and exports, profits and losses - a chaos of all kinds of activities. Here are fine houses and shops full of goods, but yonder is poverty and slums. It doesn't make any sense unless we understand the basic principles of economics. Once we have this understanding, the economy becomes clear -- we see the cat instead of a jumble. We then know the cause of poverty and its remedy. But since most folks don't see the cat, social policy just treats the symptoms without applying the remedies that would eliminate the problem.

What is this economics cat? It starts with the three factors or resource inputs of production: land, labor, and capital goods. ...

Lindy Davies: The Cat in New York

When I taught at the Henry George School in New York, our Director, George Collins, used to give a stirring graduation speech to students. He told them they would find that the gift of insight they'd been given, in studying Georgist political economy, was also a kind of curse: they would never look upon their city with the same eyes. The land question and its ramifications, the malignant absurdities of today's economic systems and the sheer obviousness of the remedy, would shout at them in every day's news.

I was reminded of that when I recently visited New York. ...

Economists note in this budget crunch, as in others the city has faced, a curious disconnect between the fiscal crisis and the overall economy. Tax receipts are way down and the budget outlook is indeed scary, even while the underlying economy actually lurches toward recovery. If it weren't for the large declines in the (admittedly, very important) financial and tourism sectors, the city's economy would not be performing badly at all. How unfortunate, then, that New York will see no other alternative than to choke off economic recovery by raising income and sales taxes while cutting back on public services. But what can they do? The tax base is declining.

Or is it? It turns out that land values in New York, while modestly down in some areas, have not taken anywhere near the beating that the Stock Market has, or the small business community, or public services. No, the real estate market in New York City remains, all in all, quite bullish. There are few bargains to be had. Residential rents, of course, having been held artificially low by rent stabilization, provide no relief even in a weak market.

So, no — despite the dire warnings, New York City need not endure a fiscal crisis. Its tax base — properly defined — is robustly capable of providing for public needs, while actually bringing business into the city. They have just been taxing the wrong things, all along. Tourists, bulls and bears come and go, but New York City's land values — like its citizens — are quite resilient. ... Read the whole article

Bill Batt: Who Says Cities are Poor? They Just Don't Know How to Tax Their Wealth!

All this makes for a far simpler and more comprehensible system of taxation. Land taxes are totally transparent, impossible to evade, and therefore much more administrable. This further engenders the legitimacy of taxation and of government itself. What it also does is assure stability to the tax system, for the reason that land values are not subject to the variations and vacillations that other tax bases frequently have. Indeed, the removal of economic rent from locational sites discourages speculative bubbles and the related economic cycles that are associated with them. This greater stability and reliability is to the advantage of every sector of the economy — private, public, and non-profit.

A tax that collects economic rent offers a win-win proposition to every sector of the community — except to those who speculate in land. But who wants to favor land speculators? They are not held in high regard anywhere; their destructive behavior is the bane of cities, recognized everywhere for what it is: parasitic and passive. Speculators provide no added value to a community's well-being, and taxing rent is a foolproof means by which to eliminate it. Land speculation is highest where the most rent can be privately captured, but it forces those who choose to develop to look to sub-optimal locations when the primary locations they hoped for are held off the market for opportunistic gain. By collecting rent, primary choice locations become available for use and to facilitate the development of land use configurations ideal for the economic health and efficient allocation. Urban ambience is improved, public sector service costs are reduced, and sprawl development is stemmed.

In the final analysis cities have no reason to complain other than by being hoodwinked by an economics profession that went off track a century ago and has seen its own disciples unable to take off the veil.[23] It was then that economic theory was altered to treat land as simply another form of capital, changed to formulas based on two factors of production rather than three, and disposing of the notion of economic rent altogether. Henry George, the last passionate defender of the classical economic tradition a century ago, lost his fight to preserve three-factor economics. But there are many still who appreciate the value, even the truth, of his insight and analysis. Today we have the computer power to test these ideas and to demonstrate their validity. There is an oft retold story among adherents of the Georgist school referred to as "seeing the cat." ... read the whole article

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


In "Progress and Poverty," after reaching his conclusion that command of the land which is necessary for labor is command of all the fruits of labor save enough to enable labor to exist, Henry George says:

So simple and so clear is this truth that to fully see it once is always to recognize it. There are pictures which, though looked at again and again, present only a confused labyrinth of lines or scroll-work — a landscape, trees, or something of the kind — until once attention is called to the fact that these things make up a face or a figure. This relation once recognized is always afterward clear. 111 It is so in this case. In the light of this truth all social facts group themselves in an orderly relation, and the most diverse phenomena are seen to spring from one great principle.

111. This idea of the concealed picture was graphically illustrated with a story by Congressman James G. Maguire, at that time a Judge of the Superior Court of San Francisco, in a speech at the Academy of Music, New York City, in 1887. In substance he said:

"I was one day walking along Kearney Street in San Francisco, when I noticed a crowd around the show window of a store, looking at something inside. I took a glance myself and saw only a very poor picture of a very uninteresting landscape. But as I was turning away my eye caught the words underneath the picture, 'Do you see the cat?' I looked again and more closely, but saw no cat in the picture. Then I spoke to the crowd.

"'Gentlemen,' I said, 'I see no cat in that picture. Is there a cat there?'

Some one in the crowd replied:

"'Naw, there ain't no cat there. Here's a crank who says he sees the cat, but nobody else can see it.'

Then the crank spoke up:

'I tell you there is a cat there, too. It's all cat. What you fellows take for a landscape is just nothing more than the outlines of a cat. And you needn't call a man a crank either, because he can see more with his eyes than you can.'

"Well," the judge continued, "I looked very closely at the picture, and then I said to the man they called a crank:

"'Really, sir, I cannot make out a cat. I can see nothing but a poor picture of a landscape.'

"'Why, judge,' he exclaimed, 'just look at that bird in the air. That's the cat's ear.'

I looked, but was obliged to say:

'I am sorry to be so stupid, but I can't make a cat's ear of that bird. It is a poor bird, but not a cat's ear.'

"'Well, then,' the crank urged, 'look at that twig twirled around in a circle. That's the cat's eye.'

But I couldn't make an eye of it.

'Oh, then,' said the crank a little impatiently, 'look at those sprouts at the foot of the tree, and the grass. They make the cat's claws.'

"After another deliberate examination, I reported that they did look a little like a claw, but I couldn't connect them with a cat.

"Once more the crank came back at me. 'Don't you see that limb off there? and that other limb under it? and that white space between? Well, that white space is the cat's tail.'

"I looked again and was just on the point of replying that there was no cat there so far as I could see, when suddenly the whole cat burst upon me. There it was, sure enough, just as the crank had said; and the only reason that the rest of us couldn't see it was that we hadn't got the right point of view. But now that I saw it I could see nothing else in the picture. The landscape had disappeared and a cat had taken its place. And, do you know, I was never afterward able, upon looking at that picture, to see anything in it but the cat!"

From this story as told by Judge Maguire, has come the slang of the single tax agitation. To "see the cat " is to understand the single tax.

Many events subsequent to his writing have gone to prove that Henry George was right. Each new phase of the social problem makes it still more clear that the disorderly development of our civilization is explained, not by pressure of population, nor by the superficial relations of employers and employed, nor by scarcity of money, nor by the drinking habits of the poor, nor by individual differences in ability to produce wealth, nor by an incompetent or malevolent Creator, but, as he has said, by "inequality in the ownership of land." And each new phase makes it equally clear that the remedy for poverty is not to be found in famine and disease and war, nor in strikes which are akin to war, nor in the suppression of strikes by force of arms, nor in the coinage of money, nor in prohibition or high license, nor in technical education, nor in anything else short of approximate equality in the ownership of land. This alone secures equal opportunities to produce, and full ownership by each producer of his own product. This is justice, this is order. And unless our civilization have it for a foundation, new forms of slavery will assuredly lead us into new forms of barbarism.112

112. "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." — Progress and Poverty, book x, ch. v. ... read the book


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Wealth and Want
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