“Behind every radical movement you will find Single Taxers. Woodrow Wilson is surrounded by them.”
– Walter Burley Griffin, Henry George Commemoration Dinner Address, Melbourne, 18 September 1915
An unparalleled amount of social reform was achieved during the US Progressive Era, when both Republican (Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft) and Democrat presidents (Woodrow Wilson) featured. From 1909 to 1921 they addressed the corruption, excesses and wrongs of the day. Of course, they were influenced by longer-standing movements and their leaders from about 1890 to 1930 in addressing these issues which included poverty, corruption, monopoly, fair competition and women’s suffrage measures.
But the world has retrogressed again into corruption and inequality, the surest indicator of which is the well-documented phenomenon of a vastly-widening gap between what the Occupy movement calls the “1%” and the rest of us. Political parties have no real answers and have become a complete shemozzle as they continue to accept funds from self-interested corporate donors at our expense.
Although the Ayn Randian “trickle down” economics supported by the US and UK leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has proven itself to be a fraud perpetrated on all but the super wealthy (real incomes having started to decline in 1972 a little before their time), attempted reform movements such as Occupy Wall Street have been confronted by a citadel-like defence from the status quo.
This is mainly because reform today lacks the economic focus that characterised and underpinned the reforms of the Progressive Era. If you don’t get your economics right, then all other reforms are destined to fail. Yes, the wealthy are certainly getting wealthier at the expense of the poor and middle class, but does Tomas Piketty’s call for higher taxes on capital constitute a valid response, for example? No, definitely not. Piketty’s conclusion is not as compelling as his extensive data.
The Progressive Era was informed by Henry George’s reformative economics [see Mason Gaffney’s evidence] which explained that private incomes from publicly-generated land rents–in the broader sense of rents from all natural resources–are unearned and must be distinguished from the earned incomes of wages and capital. Therefore, Piketty’s solution is a scatter-gun approach that leaves much to be desired and is likely to damage the productive economy. Other major reforms, such as the movement for action on climate change, which tends to disregard our concupiscence to destructive rent-seeking, are also diminished by their lack of focus on fundamental taxation and economic reform.
If we want to experience a new progressive era of reform, it needs to concentrate upon those unearned incomes from land and natural resources which the wealthy have proven to be so proficient at keeping away from the public purse – as witnessed by the Australian mining industry’s successful $22 million scare campaign against the resource super profit tax.
Ironically, it may be our aspiration and proclivity to become like the 1% that holds us back from progressive reform. Australia’s current obsession with residential “investment”, which is worrying the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia at the moment and is likely to end badly, tends to support this proposition.
The outlook is bleak but improving. As property-bubble-weakened world economies continue to wrestle for answers, there has emerged a significant re-awakening to the transformative ideas of Henry George: even Australia’s Henry Tax Review is alert to them.