By George!

A quick introduction to Henry George and his fans.

SF Weekly

July 1998

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers. In half of one office you’ll also find a cluttered space devoted to the Henry George School of Economics, run by a single man, David Giesen, who sits hunched in the corner like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz — eccentric, excitable, idealistic, odd — curating a legacy that reaches beyond his little room.

The fact that the School currently can’t even afford the rent on a whole office is an irony George himself would have smirked at. His ideas about land ownership made him world-famous in the late 1800s — hero to Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, and American labor; enemy of both robber barons and Karl Marx; and grandfather of the so-called Third Way between Marxism and capitalism that was talked about in 1989 (when the Soviet Union began to collapse), but diluted ridiculously by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

A few new countries are flirting with Georgism. Estonia has raised local revenue the Henry George way since 1991; the Czech Republic and Latvia are preparing tax systems based on his model now. The “Henry George way” means taxing the value of land — not the buildings, just the lots — with the underlying idea that land belongs to the people, so rent charged for its use should naturally go to a public fund.

Pure Georgism would scrap income and sales tax and run a country on so-called “socialized rent,” but no country has ever tried pure Georgism. All three Eastern European countries will go on raising most of their money through sales and income tax.

But Georgists believe their model is the key to a fair and equitable society. The San Francisco School holds Tuesday-night orientation meetings, which include games of “Anti-Monopoly” and one-man shows by Giesen, the director, who also likes to act. For the right audience Giesen will put on a brown vest and tie, glue on a beard, and play George in 1886, holding forth on his upcoming election for mayor of New York and railing against the gulf between rich and poor. “Yippee, Mr. Ivins!” Giesen-as-George hollers, after a politician warns that he won’t win the race. “I don’t desire the work of the office of the mayor of New York city, but I do wish to raise hell. This decides me. I will run!” And Giesen’s eyes go crazy and wide; he gestures like a fanatic.

Behavior like this may be why The Economist recently dismissed both George and his followers as a bunch of cranks. “Mr. George is probably the only tax theorist in history whose beliefs have become an object of cult devotion,” the magazine wrote, in a short article on Eastern Europe. But the article never let on that George was a devoted free-market man who simply used laissez-faire theory against big business. Unearned income from land, he said — through private rent and speculation — mucks up a free market and forms the crux of inequalities under capitalism.

“Rising land prices are seen as a sign of prosperity,” writes Al Date on the Henry George Institute’s web site, in an essay on the real-estate bubble in Japan, “but they gradually sow the seeds of economic reversal. Every recession in the USA has been preceded by a ‘land-boom,’ and accompanied by a ‘land-bust,’ as documented by Prof. Mason Gaffney,” another Georgist.

George himself lived in San Francisco just after the Gold Rush, and saw small patches of claim-staked mining land in Northern California pass into the hands of a few large companies, creating an immediate underclass of rent-paying gold miners who eventually gave up and drifted into the city. Wealth and poverty appeared in San Francisco, both for the first time, and George argued with traditional economists who said the poverty came naturally with the mounting population.

“There are liveried carriages on the streets of San Francisco and pleasure yachts on her bay; the class who can live sumptuously on their incomes has steadily grown,” he wrote in Progress and Poverty. “There are on every hand the most striking and conclusive evidences that the production and consumption of wealth have increased with even greater rapidity than the increase of population, and that if any class obtains it is solely because of the greater inequality of distribution.”

George also noted that California had given huge portions of its land, for free, to railroad companies, and suggested this was one reason for the inequalities. He pointed to the potato famine in Ireland, where most of the land was held by English landlords. “There is plenty of good land, but on it are only fat beasts, and sheep so clean and white that you at first think that they must be washed and combed every morning,” he wrote in Social Problems. “The ‘owners’ of this land, who live in London and Paris, many of them never having seen their estates, find cattle more profitable than men, and so the men have been driven off.” The poorest Irish land was overpopulated with peasants trying to cultivate rocky or sandy soil, and whatever food they did produce was shipped to England or sold to pay the rent. Under Georgism, the landlords would have paid Ireland for the use of its pastures, and the potato famine never would have occurred.

“People call it socializing rent, but what we do now is socialize goods and services,” explains Giesen in his tiny office. “Sales tax and income tax are nothing but socialized produce and labor.”

Giesen points out that California gets less revenue from its land than other states, partly because a law passed by Proposition 13 in 1978 froze many property values at then-current levels for tax assessment. Right now, of course, local real estate is booming, and the recent scandal over Doris Ward, the city’s Assessor-Recorder, plays right into Georgist theory. (Ward has been accused of under-assessing property values, depriving the city of almost $100 million in revenue from the rocketing market prices.) But there’s a deep difference between property tax — which lumps land with the value of a building — and a Georgist land tax, which considers only the value of a site (to keep from penalizing improvements). No one is quite sure what effect such a radical re-jiggering of the tax laws would have; never mind the fact that every level of government — federal, state, and city — has more money right now than it knows what to do with.

But Henry George might have recognized a few local conditions we take for granted. “Sixty-five percent of Oakland is owned by absentee landlords,” claims Giesen. “That is taking away a significant portion of the income of those who are working in Oakland … But just to isolate that part of the problem, without looking at what the private appropriation of land rent does to wages, is also to miss the point. It doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s causing relative poverty in Oakland.”

Hence the Henry George School. There you might learn why privately-appropriated land rent depresses wages; why labor and capital are not natural enemies; how the Depression could have been avoided; and the interesting tidbit that San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was once a member of the School’s Board of Directors. Several California politicians flirted with Georgism in the early ’70s, and Brown even tried, twice, to push a land-value tax bill through the state’s Lower House.

“I was badly defeated with that legislation both times,” he wrote in a 1973 letter to someone associated with the School, “but I am still convinced that land-value taxation should be given a try. The experience of those countries utilizing the land-value taxation indicates that it is in fact a way of reducing slums and fostering better development, and I hope that one day we will see it tried in California, if only on a trial basis.”

Brown has since distanced himself from Georgism, though, and said there was no political will for a land tax in “the body politic. …It doesn’t carry enough weight on merit to persuade a majority of the people who need to be persuaded.”

David Giesen says the Georgists’ biggest PR problem is persuading people to distinguish between capital and land — “stuff created by human beings, as opposed to the earth,” is how he puts it — which are now universally lumped together as “property.” Giesen once asked the journalist William Greider about Georgist reform in the U.S., and Greider’s response on tape is something he cherishes as evidence of how mainstream thinking is marshalled against Georgist theory. Because if Rolling Stone’s economist won’t discuss the difference between capital and land, who will?

“I resist choosing sides in those distinctions,” Greider says on the tape, “because I own a home.”

Michael Scott Moore

Politics

Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused

Culture

I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

Pirates

Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.

Nazis

Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.

Surfing

It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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