Thursday, May 29, 2014

Progress and Poverty: The Life and Warning of Forgotten Crusader, Henry George

by Nomad

Outside of the academic world perhaps, few people have heard of the name of Henry George. That's a real pity since his observations about economic inequality are as timely as they are essential to our own day. 

A Pyramid On Its Apex 
So long as all the increased wealth, which modern progress brings, goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe. To educate men who must be condemned to poverty, is but to make them restive; to base on a state of most glaring social inequality, political institutions under which men are theoretically equal, is to stand a pyramid on its apex.
The life of Henry George reads like a novel from another age. George was born into a large, lower-middle class and devout Episcopalian family in Philadelphia in 1839 . His father was a publisher of religious texts and insisted on a religious education for his son.
By 14, George had left the religious academy and was seized with a wanderlust. In April 1855, young George at 15 went to sea as a foremast on the Hindoo, bound for Melbourne and Calcutta. 

After 14 months at sea, he returned to Philadelphia and began working as a printer. Ever restless, George traveled to California where he married and started a family. Despite marital and familial happiness, times were not easy and according to his own admission, there were times his family was close to starvation. 

He tried unsuccessfully to become a gold miner in British Columbia before finding work as a newspaper printer, journalist and eventually editor and newspaper owner. 

Politically, George initially leaned toward the Republican party of Lincoln but later, after viewing how corporations and industrialists were corrupting the party, switched to the Democratic party. He was a staunch opponent of the railroads which as he saw it were benefited only those fortunate enough to have a financial interest. Everybody else, he said, was being thrown into poverty. Such a stand proved to be his undoing when he attempted to run for politics in the California State Assembly. Executives from the powerful Central Pacific Railroad apparently went to some lengths to ensure George's electoral defeat. 

Incidentally it was from a minor- seemingly unimportant railroad case in California from around that time - along with a few precedents built upon that original case- which provided the Supreme Court a basis for its outlandish Citizen United decision. The Court somehow decided that corporations possess rights equality to citizens, that is, as the Republican candidate in the last election famously said, corporations are people.

Yet George's election defeat was by no means the end of his story. it was in fact a challenge that he more than matched. All of his experiences- even his extreme poverty and travel, had shaped a man and his opinions. Now he was about to tell the world what he had discovered.

While on a visit to New York, George, in a epiphany of sorts, realized that the lives of the impoverished in that city was in many ways far more miserable than the poor of the less developed California. But, he reasoned, if progress is a process, moving forward, then why should this be? If it were true, then New York City should be centuries ahead and yet, the conditions for the poor there were some of the worst in the country. 

"Progress and Poverty"
All of his notes and observations came together in his 1879 book, Progress and Poverty. The book came at a time when people- especially the educated middle-class were beginning to question the extremes of economic inequality. It asked and tried to answer important questions such as why poverty should exists despite the widespread advances in technology. If the wealth trickles down to the lower classes then why is there a such an extreme concentration of wealth at all?

George's book sold 3 million copies and ensured his career as a popular writer and speaker of his day. It became one of the most widely-read treatises upon economics ever published. (That's pretty amazing since it is not an easy read.)

Many of his economic ideas were controversial. One proposed solution to inequality was a tax on land held as private property, in order to prevent "private interests from profiting upon its mere possession." He advocated that such a tax would encourage investors to make improvements on the land and thereby increasing its value.
Until his death in 1897, George devoted all his life to the call for economic justice.

Today his name has been largely forgotten.
*   *   *
At the time of his first book, the modern world, as we know it, was taking shape. There was no doubt about it. However, according to George, institutionalized economic inequality could wipe away all of the advances of progress. He wrote this word of warning:
...the differences in civilization are not due to differences in individuals, but rather to differences in social organization; that progress, always kindled by association, always passes into retrogression as inequality is developed; and that even now, in modern civilization, the causes which have destroyed all previous civilizations are beginning to manifest themselves, and that mere political democracy is running its course toward anarchy and despotism.
Fortunately It was a message that our many great-grandparents wisely heeded. 
Through the efforts of unions to increase wages and better working conditions, the breaking up of monopolies and trusts, and the far-reaching social reforms of the Progressive Era, that "retrogression" was, if not turned around, then delayed.

The question is, of course, whether this generation has the same amount of empathy and intelligence and long term diligence to confront the same inequalities that destroyed past civilizations and nearly destroyed our own.

And most importantly, where are the Henry Georges of our age?