THE LANDLORD’S GAME: The Grand Dispossession of America

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How can a man be said to have a country when he has not a right to a square inch of it. ___ Henry George

Who the Heck was Henry George?

Henry George is one of the greatest American economists, that practically no one has ever heard of. He inspired the one of the best-selling boardgames of all time, Monopoly, which was stolen from its Georgist creator, who called it the Landlord’s Game. While slightly modified, it still ends with one player owning everything. Except in the real world, the dice are loaded, certain individuals automatically get all the “get out of jail free cards”, and they already own Park Place. Henry George set out to change these facts of political economy. He was the Tom Sawyer of economists, a quintessential American character. Born near Philadelphia in 1839 to a large family, he went to sea as a cabin boy at age 15, and witnessed abject poverty in India and worker discontent in the form a mutiny at sea. After a brief career in the gold fields of British Columbia, he returned to the US, and gradually went from odd jobs to printer, then journalist, and eventually founding editor of the San Francisco Daily Evening Post.

In the era of the California land and railroad “robber barons”, Henry puzzled over how so much growth and wealth could produce so much misery. Henry relates his “Paul on the Road to Damascus” epiphany when on horseback the hills high above the bay he crosses paths with a teamster, and asks how much land was going for out there? The teamster points far off in the distance and said that a fellow out there is getting 1000 dollars an acre (a fortune back then). He realizes it is all about the land, or more precisely the symbiotic relationship between political power, land ownership, and inequality.

When it came to economics, George was totally self-taught, however, he read and corresponded with economics luminaries like John Stewart Mill. His notion regarding the socialization of land as a cornerstone of democracy drew praise from many, including: John Dewey, George Bernard Shaw, FDR. His observations on the origins and dangers monopoly power, won him an advisory position to the California reformist Governor, Henry Haight. While never having been to college himself, he was interviewed for a professorship at the UC Berkeley.

In 1879 he published his opus, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, and it soon became an international best seller. One pundit suggested he was nearly as famous as Mark Twain. He used his new found fame to campaign widely (including Europe and Australia) for the “single land tax”. His political star was on the rise, and he was even was making headway in his second campaign for mayor of New York, running as an independent against the notorious Boss Tweed and Tammy Hall gang. Unfortunately, just prior to the election he suffered a fatal stroke. Huge throngs lined his funeral procession to Brookland. He was a martyr to members of the Progressive Movement, but he and his ideas gradually faded into political obscurity.

For the most part, George’s ideas about the centrally of land only caught-on abroad, however, a few US cities experimented with his ideas. It is noteworthy that focusing taxation on land is actually pretty good economics, as it is the only tax with no “dead-weight loss”. He also produced a number of contributions to a range of policy debates, including: debt free money, free trade, anti-trust enforcement, military defunding, universal pensions, and intellectual property rights, not to mention campaign finance reforms. While a social reformer, he was NOT a socialist. He often remarked, “I do not want to seize their property, I just want to tax away their rent”. Socialists have of coursed claimed him, but then so have libertarians.

George was especially concerned with undeveloped lands, largely owned by absentee landlords, which nonetheless, experienced windfalls based upon the public provision of infrastructure (roads, canals, and railroads). Moreover, he was greatly concerned with the commodification of land, and how speculative frenzies priced it beyond the reach of common citizens. Rent (“unearned wealth”) garnered by the landed gentry and burgeoning industrialists was greatly debated in Classical economics (Smith, Riccardo, Mill). When Adam Smith spoke of “free markets” he meant free from rent extraction. By direct contrast the so-called Neoclassical economists (who came to dominate the profession) decided to pander to rentiers. Thus, they went out of their way to remove land ownership and taxation from their deliberations.

R.I. P. Mason Gaffney

Another unsung hero of economic thought passed away just recently (July 16, 2020). UC Riverside Professor, Mason Gaffney, was one of the best known Georgists, and we can only hope he will not be the last. Starting at Harvard before his service in WWII, he completed and successfully defended his dissertation, Land Speculation as an Obstacle to the Ideal Allocation of Land, over the resistance of some of his professors at UC Berkeley. This experience set him on a career of studying how the research he found so cogent was systematically removed from economics. He documented how wealthy elites had funded economic departments to hire anti-Georgist elements. Early on Neoclassical economists successfully did away altogether with land as an element inquiry. While economists once maintained that the key “factors of production” were “land, labor and capital”, they simple merged land into capital (blurring its productive and unproductive ingredients). More importantly they obliterated its role in maldistribution of wealth. Gaffney described how Neo-classical economics was as much, if not more, influenced by ideology as it was science, as follows:

It took form about a hundred years 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 degree the founders of Neo-classical economics changed the discipline for the express purpose of deflecting George and frustrating future students seeking to follow his arguments.

These ideological proclivities became much more pronounced in recent decades when a small, but well-funded cult, known as Neoliberals (actually neofeudal) merged with the scope and methods of Neoclassicism, and moved from academia to the halls of global power with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, not to mention Bill Clinton and both the Bushes. It is important to note that all of their anti-government rhetoric was merely a smoke screen for evoking the ever-increasing power of the state to line the pockets of the rich.

Following the financial collapse of 2008 (which is far from over), economists began to wonder why they had so utterly failed to see it coming, but Gaffney already knew the answer. In 2009, he published, After the Crash: Designing a Depression-free Economy, where he contends that George still holds the key. Recovery requires land and transaction taxes rather than consumption and income taxes, as well as investments in infrastructure rather than on military misadventures and bank bailouts. In the crash, land speculation was put on steroids by the Neoliberal’s hyper-financialization measures. For example, fiat & digitized money and free global capital flows were exacerbated by the creation of derivatives nominally valued at several times the GDP of the planet. Throw in central banks (i.e. the Federal Reserve) bubble blowing and underwriting increasingly monstrous risks, while prescribing austerity for the masses, and you have a pretty toxic mix. We stand stupefied by this exploitive machinery, but Henry George would have recognized it at once.

In his final collection of essays, The Gaffney Reader, he applies George to heretofore unresolvable contemporary problems, such as sustaining our complex civilization in the wake resource and climate constraints on a finite planet. In this domain know as Ecological economics, where we are most likely to encounter a diehard Georgist. For example, conservation biologist turned “steady state” economist, Brian Czech is one of these endangered species. His book Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, Czech blends in my own personal favorite, Evolutionary economist and chronicler of a previous Gilded Age, Thorsten Veblen (of “conspicuous consumption” fame). He uses their insights into psychological and institutional processes to identify how citizens might be brought to accept the inherent “limits to growth”. Yet another clear implication of George’s land tax mentality is the notion that nature provides a number vital, albeit grossly underpriced, services. This “Natural Capital”, belongs to all, yet is exploited by a mere few, with little or no compensation. What these earnest ecological economists often neglect, however, is the fact that unbridled growth is absolutely essential to our gigantic Ponzi scheme economy. Without it, our outrageous systems of money and banking are merely the enslavement of current generations and armed robbery of future ones.

The Grand Dispossession

My own take on George builds upon his boldness in questioning motives, as well as the first-hand knowledge of the lengths to which elites would go defend their grand schemes of dispossession. Land has been the primary instrumentality of subjugation for 1000s of years. Efforts of late to destroy the primary avenue (home ownership) by which one has a shot at the middle-class status, mirror the epic land-grabs of the past. The type of raping and pillaging usually reserved for faceless foreigners (and racial minorities) was suddenly unleased upon most Americans as oil, the crowning commodity of the past century, passed it peak several years ago. There were also diminishing returns on multiple mid-east military misadventures (a substantial subsidy to the oil industry). Without artificially cheap oil to fuel vast fortunes, elites would have to return to tried and true methods of exploitation and expropriation. Initially off-shoring jobs provided a double whammy, by subduing the power of labor while exploding the ranks of debt serfdom in the service industries. Otherwise profitable firms could be also converted in stinking piles of debt by “Shadow Bankers”, including private (pirate) equity, hedge and venture (vulture) funds, and the resulting bankruptcies allowed for the abrogation of pension obligations, as well as imperiled suppliers. Mergers and acquisitions exploded, and CEOs began clandestinely working with the corporate raiders in the mislabeled era of “Shareholder Primacy”. But even with total abandonment of anti-trust enforcement, it was insufficient for insatiable rentiers, and the landed gentry of old would ride again with the right banking connections. Hyper-financialization began to feed on its own frenzy. Mountainous new piles of fake wealth could be created with only the most tenuous treads to anything real (as in real estate). Plus, bubble blowing central bankers could inflate housing to the skies with exceedingly low interest rates, and besides the value of a home was whatever bankers and their captive appraisers said it was. Did bankers just forget how to do banking when they invented the NINJA (no income, no job, no asset) loans? Not at all, after their judiciously engineered de-regulation (especially the elimination of Glass-Steagall), their business model was dispossession deluxe.

Most Americans still have no idea that the home mortgage crisis began at the top of global investment banks, where quants generated exotic instruments as mere computer simulations, including credit default swaps (bets that these hypothetical packages of loans would NOT be repaid). The so-called mortgage backed securities remained unattached to real loans though the fraudulent reprocessing of theoretical “tranches” in order to get the highest credit ratings (AAA) for packages that were actually riddled with crap. Only then were the armies of loan officers (some of my pimply-faced undergrads) sent out to give mortgages to anyone who could fog a mirror. Moreover, they were incentivized to tell hapless homeowners (many with one foot in the grave) that refinancing would place an ATM in their bedrooms.

It should be clear that the continuing financial crisis, which began in 2007–2008, is hardly a “Black Swam” (an unforeseen event), after all we went through a dress rehearsal with the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s. It has been over a decade since the greatest upward transfer (to the 1%) of wealth in US history started, yet we still fail to appreciate what’s really at work here. One recent book is getting closer to the mark. Peabody Award winner, Aaron Glantz’ Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream, gives us glimpse into the “heart of darkness”. This type of industrial scale displacement has not occurred scene the Indian Wars. And the homewreckers are unlikely to stop until most of us are living in tent cities. Beyond being allowed to falsify title documents for properties never actually transferred to investors before the foreclosure extravaganza, some banks were paid twice for homes they never really owned via HFA and VA insurance. When the fire sale began in earnest, private equity firms like Blackstone, swept into places like Phoenix, bought a billion-dollars-worth of depressed homes, converted them to rentals, and securitized the rental stream for eager investors virtually overnight.

Wait it gets worse, several of most villainous of the homewreckers are major members of Trump’s inner circle. Consider Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, whose dad (a partner) got him on at Goldman Sachs (“the great vampire squid”). After 17 years at Goldman, he set up his own hedge fund. When the housing crisis hit, he basically got the government to pay him to take over the failed mortgage lender IndyMac with the promise to help trouble homeowners. Of course, he did very little, and his renamed, One West Bank, was the subject of several law suits charging bogus foreclosures. Moreover, his ultra-aggressive foreclosure leadership was buttressed by an FDIC “shared loss agreement”. He eventually sold the bank, at a tidy profit, to CIT Bank (Mnuchin made over 3 billion, while the FDIC lost 13 billion).

Meanwhile back at the swamp, Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross (“the bankruptcy king”) came to private equity after a long career in debt restructuring with the Rothschilds. He has made shady investments with Russians oligarchs and Chinese government officials and is constantly under investigation for insider trading and ethics violations. During the dispossession disaster he made a killing through the expeditious (often illegal) removal of people from their homes. His fund had acquired American Home (renamed Homeward Residential) one the largest servicer of the notorious “subprime loans”. It was also at the center of the “chain of title” and “robo-signing” scandals, as it had outsourced its mortgage documents to a fraudulent “clean up” shop called DocX. It also morphed into a company called Ocwen, the most criminogenic firm in the history of the housing crisis. It regularly charged unauthorized fees, recharged for already paid insurance, failed to credit payments, and back-dated rejection of loan modification letters 30 days to avoid the legal requirement for an appeal. It was fined over 2 billion by the Consumer by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Yet, Ross magically managed to step down from Ocwen’s Board, and sell 72 million it its stock, just before it tanked. The list goes on and on, including Thomas Barack, infamous Trump global fund raiser and Manafort fellow traveler, made his money in the tenant eviction frenzy and the REIT (real estate investments trust) revolution.

These and various other kleptocrats are now using the Pandemic as cover, as a whole new era of looting looms. It is extremely important to point out that Corvid Depression will create another and more catastrophic wave of land grabbing. Mortgage and rent forbearance will not be allowed to go on much longer (landlords have already filling suits). 50 million Americans could tent city bound. And as one might expect the shadow wankers are already well ahead of the game. It is noteworthy that the perpetual motion Ponzi machine still has huge amounts of sand in the gears from the last financial meltdown. The Federal Reserve has remained in high emergency mode ever since 2008 (e.g. zero interest rates, QE, bailouts, and purchasing of toxic instruments at 100 cents on the dollar), and trillions were recently added to its balance sheet from pell-mell printing of funny money. Well before the virus reared its ugly head, they were bailing out the REPO (overnight lending) market. More importantly, in anticipation of the Pandemic, they announced the unpreceded steps would be taking well beyond aiding their member banks. Completed unregulated shadow banking activities and zombie (already failing) firms, despite being small, are already being added to the ranks of the “too big to fail”.

Even when Congress steps up to allocate pandemic emergency funds it is Steve Mnuchin and the boys who decide who gets what. Earmarked funds for small businesses have somehow gone more than bit an astray. Small businesses suddenly included: wealthy mega churches, high priced law firms, and the LA Lakers, not to mention any type of business owned by a large Trump donor. Recall how Mnuchin refused to reveal where his hundreds of billion had gone, but we can guess. Furthermore, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the aforementioned Blackstone Group, was called into to advice on the allocation process. In essence, the pirates of dispossession are still steering the ship of state, and another rocky real estate collapse (and real depression time) is their port of call. Remember how wrecking everyone else and grabbing up their gravely discounted properties is the way one wins at Monopoly. Purchase your tents and pick out your freeway underpass while there is still time.

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