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History of Economics
Bill Batt: How the Railroads Got Us On the Wrong Economic Track
The Corruption of Economics
As I explained, classical economics emerged from a school of thinkers known as the Scottish moralists in the latter part of the 18th century. There ultimately evolved three major schools of economic thought a century later,
Marxism was never a major force in United States; the primary challenge to the classical tradition came from what has since come to be known as neo-classical economics.
Professor Gaffney has for the first time shown how powerful economic interests in American society essentially bought the leading figures of the newly-established American Economics Association with all the blandishments that can be used to influence academicians. Leading scholars were induced to change definitions of terms so that special interests would be advantaged. What were those interests? Primarily the railroad industry, which at the time was probably the most powerful political force in America. By changing definitions and conflating the land factor into capital, it was no longer essential for land rent to be paid in taxes, and the railroads, holders of some of the most valuable land in the nation, were thereby able to escape their full duty. This is an astonishing story, one never fully spelled out until now, and it explains both how the academic community was beholden to powerful interests and how many of the social problems we see today could have been avoided.
The classical tradition of economic thought was ably synthesized and represented by one dominant figure of the age: Henry George. All but forgotten today, perhaps in good part due to the assiduous disparagement of his economic foes, one should note that he was more widely known in his time in America than anyone except Thomas Edison. His 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, sold more copies throughout the world than any book till that time except the Bible. Born in Philadelphia the son of a publisher of religious books, he travelled to California as a young man to make his fortune as a journalist. But what he saw in land speculation and the exploitation of labor soon led him to study the classical economists and to write his ideas down. Upon publication of his book he shortly became known throughout the world, and travelled and lectured widely as a social reformer for the rest of his life. By the time he died he had become so famous that he almost won the mayoralty of the city of New York. He ran twice, losing to Tammany Hall the first time in what was probably a corrupt election (but beating the third-place finisher, Theodore Roosevelt) in 1886, and died four days before a second election he might have won in 1897. As a spellbinding orator and lucid writer, he captivated the world with his vision of societies made more just by a proper understanding of economics. Gaffney shows that it was George, not Marx, that was the primary threat to dominant interests in end-of-century United States. He had to be stopped, and he was.
In classical economics, the definition of capital grew out of labor mixed with earlier capital. Land, by conventional definition, was not capital, nor was it a component of wealth. Rather land was its own category. Conflating land into capital allowed land rent to be hidden and diluted in ways so that the unearned increment arising from social improvements fell to speculators rather thabeing returned to society in rent.
The failure of society to recapture the appropriate level of land rent from titleholders led also to depression of labor wages at the margin, creating poverty and artificial scarcity of labor where otherwise it could be relieved. Hence the title of George's book, Progress and Poverty. George recognized that the value of any land parcel arose out of its social activity, not from anything which a titleholder might have done to it. He recognized that many, perhaps most, titleholders in land were speculators, reaping the benefit of others' investments, and selling out at last when their price was met. Hence it made sense that society had a right to a return on what it had brought about, as well as from the fact that those titles could never be other than leaseholds. That land rent, shortly confused by use of the words "single tax," was, to George, the rightful return to society.
The railroad barons of the 19th century were not just coincidentally the land barons. They also had strong holds on the founding and growth of the major American universities of the period, some of which carry their names. Johns Hopkins, Andrew Dickson White, Daniel Gilman, John D. Rockefeller, George Leland Stanford, Nicholas Murray Butler were all as attached to various universities in the country as they were to powerful railroad interests. They were able, through their control of universities either as actual presidents or as benefactors to influence the dominant figures responsible for establishing the American Economic Association in 1885. The actual intrigue is too complex to be recounted here: who got appointed and promoted, who was funded in research, which were given endowed chairs, who got stock options, and so on. The preoccupation with defeating Henry George, Gaffney shows, was a paramount preoccupation of all of these figures. The central figures were:
These figures are even today the honored founders of an esteemed profession. So great was their victory over rival schools of thought that they are a century later seen as paragons of clear thinking and virtue. The intrigue and the inside deals are long forgotten. The lineage to contemporary scholarship continues in a "chain unbroken from Seelye to Clark to Johnson to Knight to Stigler, Friedman, Harberger and now thousands of Chicago-oriented economists." Indeed, when Henry George ran for mayor of New York in 1897, it was against the wealthy patrician Seth Low, President of Columbia University, who had recently recruited Clark to come to Columbia. To really understand the academic tension of the period, one must look at the published papers, the speeches and debates, the newspaper articles, and the citations at the end of those articles. These, even more than the interlocking directorates of faculty appointments, explain how much George was opposed, perhaps more feared. Was it for the falsity of his views? Clearly not, as few critics then or since then have managed to strike a knock-out blow against his theories. Rather, it was the threat George represented to powerful interests that required him to be defeated, and in doing so they succeeded but only in the short run, as they were within decades victims of their very successes. Today we see that the railroads have failed in this country for lack of traffic. It will soon be evident why.
There were many arguments to be made for the classical tradition the result of which would be to rely upon payment of rent of land according to its value to society. George recognized that land value is largely a function of how society has elected to invest in any general neighborhood; there is no argument for any one titleholder to reap the reward of what others have invested. Gaffney points out that, from the standpoint of economic theory, the framework had the following virtues:
Those economists who today still persistently hold to the view that there is something special about land that make it unwise to treat as a form of capital are known as Georgists. They represent a small minority of the economics profession, but, little known as they are, they are among its most esteemed members.
Two-factor economics, however, had advantages to influential individuals and special interests. Land speculators who were positioned to profit from knowing where locational values would increase, or were in a position to cause those increases, could quickly and easily reap a private gain. Simply by holding title to parcels of real property, without doing anything at all to increase their value, one could quickly turn a profit. This is because the increment of unearned increases resulting from social investments were left for owners to reap rather than recovered by society. In three-factor economics, land rent reverted to society in an automatic and efficient manner. When a railroad magnate like George Leland Stanford extended the Southern Pacific track to the east of Los Angeles on land that he was granted by the government, all he then needed to do was to sit back and wait for the land sales to give him a return on that which was made more valuable by his investment in the line. All across America, land speculators learned that capturing monopoly titles to tracts of land allowed them to quickly and easily turn a "profit" on their investment yet hardly raising a finger. ...
Professor Gaffney has for the
first time shown how powerful
economic interests in American society essentially bought the leading
figures of the newly-established American Economics Association with
all the blandishments that can be used to influence academicians.
Leading scholars were induced to change definitions of terms so that
special interests would be advantaged. What were those interests?
Primarily the railroad industry, which at the time was probably the
most powerful political force in America. By changing definitions and
conflating the land factor into capital, it was no longer essential
for land rent to be paid in taxes, and the railroads, holders of some
of the most valuable land in the nation, were thereby able to escape
their full duty. This is an astonishing story, one never fully
spelled out until now, and it explains both how the academic
community was beholden to powerful interests and how many of the
social problems we see today could have been avoided. ... read
the whole article
Mason Gaffney: Neo-classical Economics as a Stratagem Against Henry George
Neoclassical economics is the idiom of most economic discourse today. It is the paradigm that bends the twigs of young minds and confines the florescence of older ones, like mesh wire around a topiary. It took form a century ago, when Henry George and his reform proposals were a clear and present political danger and challenge to the landed and intellectual establishments of the world. Few people realize to what a degree the founders of Neoclassical economics changed the discipline for the express purpose of deflecting George, discomfiting his followers, and frustrating future students seeking to follow his arguments. The stratagem was semantic: to destroy the very words in which he expressed himself. Simon Patten expounded it succinctly. "Nothing pleases a ... single taxer better than ... to use the well-known economic theories ... [therefore] economic doctrine must be recast" (Patten 1908, p.219; Collier, 1979, p.270).1 ...
Having taken shape in the 1880-1890s, Neo-Classical Economics (henceforth NCE) remained remarkably static. Major texts by Marshall, Seligman, and Richard T. Ely, written in the 1890s, went through many reprintings each over a period of 40 years with few if any changes. "It was for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (1884) that I wrote the first edition of my Outlines, under the title Introduction to Political Economy. In this first edition of the Outlines there is to be found the general philosophy and principles that have shaped all future editions, including that of 1937" (Ely, 1938, p.81).2
Not until 1936 was there another major "revolution," and that was hived off into a separate compartment, macro-economics, and contained there so as not to disturb basic tenets of NCE. Compartmentalization, we will see in several instances, is the common NCE defense against discordant data and reasoning. ... read the whole essay
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper