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Note Six: The Just Distribution and Ethical Use of Property-Howard Richards

By Howard Richards  Posted by Peter Barus (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 3 pages) (View How Many People Read This)   No comments

From the New York Times, June 2, 2020:

"The anger is different this time. After years of Americans being killed by the police -- more than 1,000 per year-- for as long as statistics exist something has changed over the past week.

"The gruesome video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck plays a role. So does a pandemic that's disproportionately killing African-Americans. And so do the angry, racialized politics that President Trump encourages.

"Here are some of the voices from the protests, which have included many people who say they've never protested before:

"In every city, there's a George Floyd," said Michael Sampson II , 30, of Jacksonville, Fla.

"It could be my father, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my friend," said Victoria Sloan, 27, of Brooklyn . "It makes me angry."

"I'm speaking for everybody, all my kinfolk, all my brothers and sisters who've gotten beaten up by police," said Cory Thomas , 40, who said the police beat him when he was a teenager in Brooklyn. "I don't condone the violence," or the looting, he said, "but at the end of the day, no 14-year-old should be beat up by police."

The testimonies go on and on. I have quoted just a small sample. A similar -- and indeed even more horrifying -- list of testimonies of injustice could be compiled talking to my neighbours in Chile.i And in almost any country in the world. Historians find that the violent repression of the losers in the economic game -- of whatever race; of whatever religion, gender or sexual orientation: on whatever continent -- has been the norm ever since capitalism began.ii

We all know too that nothing is really going to change police brutality, racism, militarism, hypocritical foreign policies, or any of a host of other evils until there Is a more just distribution of wealth, a more ethical use of property, and an economic system powered by a different dynamic. In general, the "deep structure" has to change. Some keys to defining modernity's "deep structure" are individuals seeking money, because they need money;iii the impossibility of everyone getting it legally; and the consequence that the economy will have illegal sectors, deep-seated racism, and the employment of police and jails to protect commerce. Given such deep structures, although it is not a mathematical certainty that racial stereotyping and violence will mushroom, it is a virtual inevitability. iv Martin Luther King Jr. told the truth when In 1966, he told the staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that "there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children."v In words commonly attributed to Archbishop Amigo of Seville in Spain, "Peace is a table with four legs, and its four legs are justice, justice, justice and justice."

It can be argued that before capitalism and in the previous phases of capitalism, it was to the interest of an upper class, or race, or gender, to keep others down so they could be up; in words recently spoken by a famous person it was in the interest of the privileged "to dominate." Today there is ample evidence -and the worldwide protests against the murder of George Floyd are part of the evidencethat it is to the interest of everybody to work together across sectors for the common good.vi The present unjust distribution of property and the unethical use of it does not benefit one single person, no not one; and it certainly does not benefit even one single person"s grandchildren. It is sinking all of us deeper and deeper into chaos. It is taking down the plants and animals that share the earth with us as it destroys the physical and biological equilibria that make life possible.

I may be wrong about these italicized assertions, but I have an excuse. My excuse is a standing invitation to all the world to criticize my views and to correct my mistakes.

But where do we start? There are so many wrongs to right.

For example, we might could start by enacting legislation taxing away gains from speculation in land, as Henry George proposed in the 19 th century.vii This would correct one form of the injustice of making fortunes keeping other people from using assets for some life-serving purpose, while holding onto them waiting for their price to go up. It would bring money into the public purse that could be used, as MLK Jr. suggested, to employ the unemployed to care for the sick and elderly; it could be used to employ the unemployed to reforest denuded mountains to fight global warming. Bringing down land prices by discouraging speculation would make home ownership more affordable for ordinary people; it would lower rents; it would save many from sleeping on the sidewalk or in their cars.viii

We might could but we can't. Why not? No reader of the preceding five notes will be surprised by the idea as the world is now organized, we can't. Speculation in real estate does little or no good and a great deal of harm. Nevertheless, the diversion of increases in land value (due, for example, to population growth) to employing the unemployed, caring for the sick and old, and reversing global warming, would tank investor confidence . Any government that put into practice the philosophy of Henry George would be classified as "high political risk," "populist," and "radical." To date no democracy has ever dared to try.

The sorry state of the world we live in was aptly described by a student at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. In a term paper she wrote for a class Gavin Andersson and I teach there, we read the following well-chosen words: "The capitalist economic system is entrenched and even threatens the sovereignty of countries. I work for the government and there is no single day one does not hear warning bells of driving away investment when looking out for the 99%. Workers are paid low wages and in some instances paid with alcohol (dop system). Any introduction of legislation to raise the wages of workers (minimum wages) or improvement of labour laws will drive away investment. This is on the back of executives and shareholders earning supernormal profits. Any transformative efforts to get shared ownership of the resources of the land (mining industry, land appropriation) will drive away investment, so individuals must be taxed instead."

Our students' well-chosen words lead to an answer to the question "But where do we start to work to achieve a more just distribution and a more ethical use of property?"

In a truly civilized democracy, the citizens choose the right thing to do, as God gives them the light to see the right. They make rational decisions about what to do as science and a free press help them to distinguish facts from fantasies. But in the sorry state of the world we live in, there is what lawyers and judges call a threshold question. It must be asked and answered before questions about justice and feasibility can even be asked. It is: Will it drive away investment? This is a threshold question because most of our employment and most of the satisfaction of our other needs depends on the confidence of investors that their investments will be safe and profitable (and also as Michael Kalecki points out,ix and as anyone who lived in Chile in 1973 will remember, on investors refraining from deliberately getting together to paralyze production to achieve political aims even when they could, if they wanted to, make money by producing).

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I'm an old Pogo fan. For some unknown reason I persist in outrage at Feudalism, as if human beings can do much better than this. Our old ways of life are obsolete and are killing us. Will the human race wake up in time? Stay tuned...

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