The Paradox of Poverty
(GroundSwell Editor's note: The annual Council of
Georgist Organizations conference was held July 22 evening to July
27 morning in Scranton, PA. The theme was "Two Views of Social
Justice: A Catholic/Georgist Dialogue." It was cosponsored by
the CGO, the University of Scranton, and the Robert Schalkenbach
Foundation. On July 25 and July 26 presentations were made by
Georgists and Catholic counterparts on the following topics: Natural
Law, Human Nature, Nature of Work, Rerum Novarum, Causes of War,
Immigration, Development and Wealth, and Neighborhood
Revitalization. In her comments at the concluding banquet July 26,
RFS Pres. Adele Wicke did such a good job of highlighting the
dialogue that GroundSwell asked her, and she graciously agreed to
let GroundSwell publish her remarks.)
It has been a pleasure to come here not only as a "First
Timer" but also as the "President of RSF," one of the
conference's three sponsors. The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation came
into being in 1925, by eponymous bequest and with injunction to
promote the ideas and policy recommendations of Henry George. Its
founder's working - or laboring - trajectory was from typesetter/"printer's
devil" to president not only of one of New York's largest
printers but also of an association of employing printers. Henry
George was a printer as well. It is altogether fitting and proper,
then, that RSF has always and deeply been involved in publication.
We just don't want to devolve into a "vanity press," and
admire the greater distribution and publicity machinery of more
main-stream publishers. We also seek to move with the times and not
only publish books and pamphlets but also employ the technologies of
CDs, DVDs and Internet.
Hence, our film, tentatively entitled "Access Denied"
and exposing our hearts and eyes to the paradox of poverty amidst
A professor of mine, Nobel laureate George Stigler, once wrote: "The
work of the teacher is to inspire the student with the knightly
quest for knowledge and the integrity of the chase." I submit
to you that we are all teachers, and all students. I was hopeful
even before Scranton that Palm d'Or Director Philippe Diaz will
provide the inspiration for its viewers and listeners to come to RSF
for causes and cures. I am even more optimistic after visiting the
coal mines here and feeling shame over the disposability of workers
and the degradation of their dignity. In reading, I had been able to
keep emotional distance from knowledge; 200 feet below ground, I
George Stigler also once said, to a hapless graduate student not
me but in my hearing, "You're making an assertion about the
world, and I'll tell you who's going to win the argument: the one
who asks the other to look up the facts!" I am also interested
in mounting a massive, quantitative, econometric study of the
magnitude of "rent." Without it, we are engaging in
Colbert's "truthiness" - "truth by assertion" I
call it, where the will that it be so makes it so, and facts are
irrelevant. Facts are not irrelevant. They can be manipulated, but
they should be honestly gathered. And cherished.
Another ambition is to invigorate RSF's ties with the four
institutes of higher learning it has amply funded in the past. These
four are Pace, St. John's, Williams, and Scranton.
And, now, some reflections on what has happened here at Scranton.
In points of communality, major points of communality, all of us
here, whether Catholics or Georgists, Catholic Georgists or
Georgists Catholics, are deeply concerned with poverty, human
dignity and justice. And we dare to speak out about these issues.
Catholics see dignity in work. Indeed, as Father O'Neill says, "Work
is the privileged expression of human dignity." While Georgists
would like to have labor treated with dignity, they view work itself
not as an end but as a means, a means to satisfy desire.
Both support population growth - the former, as Father O'Neill
again puts it (or so I think) because of the "graduated urgency
of rights," "the morality of prioritizing the rights of
the most vulnerable;'" the latter because population growth is
not the cause of poverty but rather, because of enhancing the
division of labor, the cause of prosperity - albeit improperly
Catholics and Georgists also share a belief both in property
rights and in limits to those rights, albeit "relativized"
for different reasons. Again "prioritizing" rights,
Catholics assert the priority of humans and their rights to
ownership of material goods, regardless - or somewhat independent of
- their contributions thereto. To economists, "ownership"
is technically a bundle of three rights: the right to buy and sell,
the right to use, and the right to stream of residual income. In the
case of natural resources, Georgists support maintaining the first
two, and eliminating the third, rent -- through taxes, land-value
taxes, which are payment for the privatization of resources "naturally"
given to all.
All of us unite in a concern, a gripping concern, about poverty, a
determination to help, a refusal to blame the poor, and, rather, a
commitment to changing our institutions. Both Catholics and
Georgists care about JUSTICE. Catholics start with the dignity of
each individual and move promptly, confidently and courageously to
the "Common Good," with justice defined as that which
achieves that Good. Georgists, on the other hand, start with the
concept of right procedures and define justice in terms of adherence
to these procedures regardless of outcome. I owe this entire
paragraph to Cliff Cobb, at times paraphrased, at other times quoted
And now, with credit to Mark Sullivan, I note that both Catholics
and Georgists are interested, profoundly interested, in what a
pamphlet we've distributed deems "Distributism." As Father
O'Neill put it, "The Common Good is considered distributively,
not en masse. As Georgists put it, individuals are entitled to the
products of their labor, but the fruits of natural resources should
be distributed to all, through taxing the privilege of private use.
Surely, we all agree with Father O'Neill that justice requires "institutional,
Georgists are baffled by many Catholics' general - or apparent -
willingness to trust ruling economic theory and not stick their oar
in, even - especially - as they believe natural bounty to belong to
all and yet observe that "Three Factor Economics" has
yield to "Two Factor Economics" as "natural resources"
have been dangerously absorbed and hidden by theory in the economic
term "capital." (The other factor is "labor.")
Catholics are baffled by how so many Georgists can ignore human
frailty, perhaps acknowledging error due to failure in knowledge,
but ignoring, passing over, failing to address other fundamental
causes lodged in human imperfection. Acting as if virtue is not
possible until scarcity is overcome, through full and open access to
the riches of nature, they fail fully to address human nature
itself. Surely, a human being is more than someone who seeks to
satisfy desires with minimal effort? And, in the unlikely event that
he or she is not, surely the social and moral desirability of those
desires should be examined?
Are these lacunae simply a matter of specialization and the
division of labor? And isn't progress, at least in knowledge, often
made by communication across specialties? Well, we've had a session
on War. It reminded me that a general once said to his son-in-law
and my friend, "War is the failure to keep talking." Let's
keep talking. Better yet, let's continue to communicate.
Two quotations, now, from my father. I think both are key to
First, "You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell
him much." With all due respect but no more than due, I think
you can almost always tell a Georgist, but you can't always tell him
or her much. Effective communication requires listening, a skill, I
suggest, that requires keen intent and persistent exercise to
acquire and maintain. To those who say that to listen to a lecture
is to be spoon-fed knowledge, I ask, "Why then, are so many of
us students such dolts and such dullards?"
Listen. Listen actively, so that you can learn. And also so that
you can teach.
My second quotation from my father is my favorite. When my sister
was a little tyke, and I a yet littler tyke, she observed an
unusual-looking animal, which I choose to call an Orangatang (as it
may well have been). "That Orangatang," she said to our
father, "is the ugliest animal I've ever seen!" Raising an
eyebrow but otherwise not missing a beat, Dad replied, "Not to
another Orangatang, dear."
You don't control the way your words are heard or remembered.
(Note my probable mangling in summary of our points of communality
and difference.) But, by being good humored and respectful, at least
you will be heard. As Josh Vincent said, "If you like people
and you like listening to people, half of your work is done."
"90% of life," Woody Allen said, "is just showing
up." We have showed up here for exchange and gain. Let's keep
showing up. The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation exists because Mrs.
Schalkenbach showed up in Central Park to ride horseback. And, in
the stable, she learned of Henry George.
Yogi Berra once said, "We're lost, but we're making good
time." Well, unlike most of the population, we're not lost.
Now, let's make good time!