It’s always good to know your roots, to know what you’re up against, to know what to keep and what to change.
The saying was, land speculators “produce more poverty than potatoes and consume more midnight oil in playing poker than of God’s sunshine in the game of raising wheat and corn.” —Prof. Benjamin Hibbard, the earliest land scholar, 1924 (or even earlier).
Ever wonder where those names for towns and downtown streets come from? The names of US universities? Even the names of some military bases?
“The successful land dealer of one generation became the banker, the local political oracle and office holder, or the county squire of the next. Scarcely a city or country town in the West but had its first family whose fortune had been made by shrewd selection of lands and their subsequent sale or rental to later comers.”— 1942, Historian Paul W. Gates (1901–1999), widely considered to be the foremost authority on US land policy who wrote 10 books and 75 academic articles.
“America has always been a nation of real estate speculators… Real estate speculation was an integral part of the winning of the west, the construction of our cities, and the transformation of American home life, from tenements to mini-mansions.” — 2013, Economist Edward L. Glaeser of Harvard University and NBER
The original US Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, funded the new, federal US Government with a tax on land. About a decade later, some Founding Fathers met again, yet without Congressional authority and in secret, to replace the land tax with tariffs, at the behest of land speculators, which most of them were. Ben Franklin lost a bundle speculating in land— which may be what motivated him later in life to support the physiocrats, the thinkers who advocated a single tax on land value instead of on people’s labor or capital goods, like houses. (Daniel Friedenberg’s Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Land, 1992)
Soon after the colonies protested the taxes that the British levied on them, the farmers of western Pennsylvania protested the tax on their product — whiskey. As a replacement tax, the frontier sodbusters advocated a levy on land. Back then, people clearly saw that a tax on the value of land would collect much more revenue in cities like Philadelphia, where locations were very spendy (still are), than in the countryside like backwoods Pennsy, where land is dirt cheap. To quell the Whiskey Rebellion, president George Washington — the nation’s richest man and biggest landowner — put into the field four times as many soldiers as he ever led against the British (Nathan Miller’s Stealing From America, 1992).
For the first decades of its existence, the young US government supported itself not only with tariffs but also by selling western lands. Most of the sales of prime land were not to settlers but to speculators who eventually sold the fertile land to settlers. If the US had cut out the middle man, it could have directed all those sale proceeds into the public treasury. However, most often the employees of the government’s land office were in cahoots with the speculators; everybody knew what was going on (Everett Dick, The Lure of the Land, 1970). Further, the government did not have to sell the land but could have leased it, just as the modern state of Israel does today. Or, if selling, government could tax or otherwise levy land at its annual rental value (functionally, no different from leasing it).
One of the favorite places to found a city is by the mouth of a river: London on the Thames. New York on the Hudson. New Orleans on the Mississippi. On the Pacific Coast, the major river that drains the western half of North America is the Columbia. Near it’s mouth sits Portland, yet that city is not the region’s premier city. That title belongs to rival Seattle. How did that happen? Recognizing their natural advantage, the founders of Portland kept their prices for land high. The city fathers of Seattle undercut them—and soon outgrew the city to their south, by leaps and bounds. It’d be as if Philadelphia outgrew New York (which did not happen).
The hierarchy of cities was flipped again elsewhere by speculator greed. The natural pass thru the Rocky Mountains is by Cheyenne Wyoming. When railroads started extending westward, speculators figured the iron horse had no choice but to pass through Cheyenne so they kept the price for land high. To their south, the city fathers of Denver undercut them, attracted the railroad, and outgrew their rival to the north. Today, Cheyenne remains a town while Denver is a major American city.
Such is the counterproductive power of land speculation. Conversely, there is a potent, productive stimulant: the public recovery of land value. When Johannesburg South Africa was dying after the nearby mines played out, the city fathers shifted their property tax to fall only on land, not on buildings. So owners developed vacant lots and kept their parcels at highest and best use. Johannesburg grew to become the financial capital of Africa. Its rival city to the south, Cape Town, situated on one of the most strategic ports on the planet, lagged behind. It was as if Albany New York had eclipsed New York City—unfathomable.
“History is bunk,” Henry Ford said. Many Americans have expressed anti-intellectual sentiments. Yet it is good to know one’s roots, what one is up against, and what to keep and what to change. To his credit. Ford also said,“We ought to tax all idle land the way Henry George said—tax it heavily, so that its owners would have to make it productive.”
Will academia tell this tale? One of the major business schools in the US is Wharton’s at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Whartons were one of the early major land speculators. So were the Roosevelts. Later, so was Leland Stanford. And more recently James Irvine (University of California at Irvine). So don’t hold your breath. Instead, for more on the link between speculators and universities, see Dr. Mason Gaffney’s Corruption of Economics. Information such as this won’t be fed to you, You have to look for it.
Speculators Are Us. This is a brief, partial History of the United States from the POV of those who benefited the most from it.
.. Ben Franklin’s Writing Lessons
Having grown up in the Vietnamese refugee community in San Jose, Calif., in the 1970s and 1980s, I can testify that there were plenty of bad refugees among us. Welfare cheating. Insurance scams. Cash under the table. Gang violence, with home invasions being a Vietnamese specialty.
All that has been forgotten. Vietnamese-Americans are now part of the “model minority” who believe they earned their success, relying on little or no government assistance. They are not so different from Mr. Kelly, the descendant of Irish and Italian immigrants who included unskilled laborers speaking little English. Convenient amnesia about one’s origins is an all-American trait, since we believe ourselves to be the country in which everyone gets a new beginning.
.. In 1751, even before the country was founded, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my country, for such kind of partiality is natural to mankind.” He favored “the English” and “white people,” and did not want Pennsylvania to become a “colony of aliens,” who “will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.” He was speaking of the Germans.
.. German-Americans are now “white,” which is partly a color, partly a state of mind and partly a matter of perception. The eventual whiteness of German-Americans saved them from being thrown en masse into internment camps during World War II, unlike Japanese-Americans.
.. only 36 percent of Americans wanted to accept Vietnamese refugees in 1975.
.. Mr. Kelly and some Vietnamese-Americans have chosen to forget their past or to recast it with themselves and their families as heroic, self-reliant Americans who are better than the newest and most threatening immigrant or refugee. By forgetting the past, these Americans repeat what has been there since our country’s beginning — the perpetually renewing fear of someone darker, someone different.
.. many Americans would see her only as an outsider, including the one who put a sign in a shop window near my parents’ grocery store in San Jose: “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.”
.. But I felt myself to be one of those Vietnamese-Americans — and there are many of us — who never wanted to forget that we should stand with immigrants and refugees, with the poor and the unwanted, with people very much like my mother.
My mother needed neither my pity nor my shame. Just my compassion and respect.
But he goes back to 1775, when the American Revolution turned into the Revolutionary War, to locate the origins of racial exclusion in the society that would become the United States of America. It was during these days, Parkinson says, that patriot leaders made a fateful choice. They embarked upon a specific and concerted plan to place blacks and Native Americans—no matter what their condition, whether they believed in the patriots’ ideals or not—firmly outside the boundaries of America’s experiment with democratic republicanism.
.. “Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington,” Parkinson writes, “developed a myth about who was and was not a part of the Revolutionary movement; about who had an interest and who did not.” Other esteemed advocates of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, joined the effort. According to Parkinson, these men chose to prosecute the American war for independence in a way that put race at the heart of the matter. They used—actually helped foment—racial prejudice as the principal means of creating unity across the thirteen colonies in order to prepare Americans to do battle with Great Britain. The base sentiments they promoted for “political expediency” survived the fighting, and the “narrative” that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated “white” and “citizen”—“lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come.”
.. Effective war stories were definitely required because despite the colonists’ complaints about tyranny and being reduced to—of all things—“slavery,” they were “the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest landowning, arguably most prosperous people in the western world.”
.. Eloquent words about abstract rights would not do. History has taught the sad lesson that fear and contempt are the most predictably powerful motivators for galvanizing one group to move against another.
.. They tied blacks and Indians and, for a time, Hessian mercenaries to George III, labeling them as his “proxies.” They were all to be considered “strangers,” even though blacks (enslaved and free) had lived among white Americans for years and, in spite of the many conflicts with Native peoples, whites and Indians did not only meet in battles.
.. British overtures to Indians and blacks were, according to Benjamin Franklin, enough to “dissolve all Allegiance” with the Mother Country.
.. Franklin made up stories about groups being used by the British—proxies—and worked with Lafayette to prepare a book (never published) with illustrations for “children and Posterity” detailing British abuses of Americans. Of the twenty-six proposed illustrations—we have Franklin’s suggested twenty and Lafayette’s six in their own hands—many revolve around proxies. Lafayette suggested an illustration showing “prisoners being ‘Roasted for a great festival where the Canadian Indians are eating American flesh.’” He also proposed a scene depicting “British officers” taking the “opportunity of corrupting Negroes and Engaging them to desert from the house, to Robb, and even to Murder they [sic] Masters.”
.. By “the summer of 1775,” the “majority” of the stories on the inside of colonial newspapers were about “the role African Americans and Indians might play in the burgeoning war.” While historians have focused much attention on George Washington’s going to Cambridge to head the Continental Army, the real story of 1775, Parkinson says, was the “hundreds of smaller messages” that were pushed through colonial newspapers about the threat that blacks and Indians, allegedly under the total control of the British, posed to patriot lives.
.. The offer of Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, to free men enslaved by patriots in return for their military service inflamed white colonists and brought scores of blacks to the British side. And some Native Americans, long accustomed to playing European power politics, sided with the British. Patriot leaders “worked assiduously to make this the foundation of why colonists should support resistance [to the British] and, eventually, independence.” They did so despite the fact that other blacks and Indians fought alongside white patriots, and more would have done so had the patriots been willing to put more of them in uniform.
.. Parkinson shows, however, that the newspapers did not circulate stories about black and Indian patriots:
Unless Americans watched the army march by, they had scarcely any idea that there were hundreds of African Americans and Indian soldiers serving under Washington’s command. Even though the Continental Army would be the most integrated army the United States would field until the Vietnam War, most Americans had little knowledge of their service in fighting for the common cause.
.. After Washington soundly defeated them at the Battle of Trenton, these white men were gradually transformed into sympathetic victims of the British. Eventually they were offered permanent places—land—in the new country they had tried to prevent from coming into being. There would be no redemption for their fellow “proxies.”
.. the patriots’ rhetoric of the common cause exploited fears about the “proxies” of George III, it is likely because of Jefferson’s recitation, at the end of the Declaration of Independence, of the monarch’s “long train of abuses.” These included “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death,” inciting “domestic insurrections amongst us,” and endeavoring “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” Parkinson sees that language, and the other grievances, as central to the patriots’ cause. In his view,
the Declaration was an effort to draw a line between friends and enemies, between “us” and “them”—or…between “we” [the Americans] and “he” [the King].
It is the “first assertion of an ‘American people.’”
Jorge Luis Borges once told of a fabled Chinese encyclopaedia, the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”, which organised animals into categories such as: a) belonging to the emperor, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, f) fabulous, h) included in the present classification, and m) having just broken the water pitcher.
Borges’s joke has a point: categories are difficult. Distinctions that seem practically useful — who owns what, who did what, what might make a tasty supper — are utterly unusable when taken as a whole.
.. Regrettably, many of these emails fit into more than one category and while each grouping itself is perfectly meaningful, they do not fit together.
.. Noguchi doesn’t try to categorise anything. Instead, he places each incoming document in a large envelope. He writes the envelope’s contents neatly on its edge, and lines them up on a bookshelf, their contents visible like the spines of books. Now the moment of genius: each time he uses an envelope, Noguchi places it back on the left of the shelf. Over time, recently used documents will shuffle themselves towards the left, and never-used documents will accumulate on the right. Archiving is easy: every now and again, Noguchi removes the documents on the right. To find any document in this system, he simply asks himself how recently he has seen it. It is a filing system that all but organises itself.
.. Fifty years ago, computer scientist Laszlo Belady proved that one of the fastest and most effective simple algorithms is to wait until the cache is full, then start ejecting the data that haven’t been used recently. This rule is called “Least Recently Used” or LRU — and it works because in computing, as in life, the fact that you’ve recently needed to use something is a good indication that you will need it again soon.
.. Yet when researchers from the office design company Herman Miller looked at high-performing office workers, they found that they tended to be pilers. They let documents accumulate on their desks, used their physical presence as a reminder to do work, and relied on subtle cues — physical alignment, dog-ears, or a stray Post-it note — to orient themselves.
.. One might expect that disciplined filers would have produced small, useful filing systems. But Whittaker and Hirschberg found, instead, that they were sagging under the weight of bloated, useless archives. The problem was a bad case of premature filing. Paperwork would arrive, and then the filer would have to decide what to do with it.
.. But most documents have no long-term value, so in an effort to keep their desks clear, the filers were using filing cabinets as highly structured waste-paper baskets.
.. People would create folder structures that made sense at the time but that would simply be baffling to their own creators months or years later. Organisational categories multiplied. One person told Whittaker and Hirschberg: “I had so much stuff filed. I didn’t know where everything was, and I’d found that I had created second files for something in what seemed like a logical place, but not the only logical place … I ended up having the same thing in two places or I had the same business unit stuff in five different places.”
.. Whittaker points out that the filers struggled because the categories they created turned out not to work well as times changed. This suggests that tidiness can work, but only when documents or emails arrive with an obvious structure. My own desk is messy but my financial records are neat — not because they’re more important but because the record-keeping required for accountancy is predictable.
.. Whittaker and colleagues published a research paper with the title “Am I Wasting My Time Organizing Email?”. The answer is: yes, you are. People who use the search function find their email more quickly than those who click through carefully constructed systems of folders. The folder system feels better organised but, unless the information arrives with a predictable structure, creating folders is laborious and worse than useless.
.. One — analogous to the “filer” approach — is to organise one’s time tightly, scheduling each task in advance and using the calendar as a to-do list. As Benjamin Franklin expressed it: “Let each part of your business have its time.” The alternative avoids the calendar as much as possible, noting only fixed appointments.
.. The problem is that the daily plans get derailed. Life is unpredictable. A missed alarm, a broken washing machine, a dental appointment, a friend calling by for a coffee — or even the simple everyday fact that everything takes longer than you expect — all these obstacles proved crushing for people who had used their calendar as a to-do list.
First. Let a tax be laid of one louis per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.
Second. Let the same salutary operation of police be made use of to prevent our burning candles that inclined us last winter to be more economical in burning wood; that is, let guards be placed in the shops of the wax and tallow chandlers, and no family be permitted to be supplied with more than one pound of candles per week.
Third. Let guards also be posted to stop all the coaches, etc., that would pass the streets after sunset, except those of physicians, surgeons, and midwives.
Fourth. Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient, let cannons be fired in every street to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.