Henry George was Bernie Sanders 130 years ago

The Feb. 6 “American Experience” episode, “The Gilded Age,” is a lookback at the explosion of industrialism in post-Civil War America and how it exploded America’s cities as well as the bank accounts of a lucky few.

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with these nouveau riche — the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan …

But then, midway through this orgy of production and consumption, the name Henry George pops up. If the Gilded Age robber barons are yesterday’s 1%, the equivalent of today’s hedge-fund and technology zillionaires, then Henry George is Bernie Sanders, demanding economic justice for the other 99% of Americans.

Henry George, sometimes called “the most famous economist nobody has heard of,” was a self-educated democratic socialist activist journalist populist who was not elected mayor of New York only because the Tammany Hall machine stole the election.

Henry George wrote a book at the height of the post-Civil War industrial boom called Progress and Poverty. We think about income inequality today in large part because of that book and Henry George’s single-minded focus over three decades to start an argument over prosperity.

Henry George worked in the rough-and-tumble Western newspaper trade. James McClatchy, the California publisher and Radical Republican, schooled him in progressive politics. But working in Catholic media was what brought George face-to-face with the workers on whose backs the Industrial Revolution was carried.

His genius was to connect economic progress — seen in the booming steel, oil, transport, and related industries of his day — with deepening levels of poverty and the human suffering that comes with it.

“This association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times,” George wrote. “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.”

He wrote that in 1879.

The solution to inequality was simple: “We must make land common property,” George declared. Specifically, land that is held for the purpose of renting to others should be subject to a land-value tax (LVT). You can’t just own a bunch of dirt and collect checks from your renters.

As The Economist, an unlikely supporter of Henry George, noted not long ago, LVTs don’t have the “perverse effects” of other taxes, which drive the rich to seek loopholes or offshore bank accounts. “Unlike profit, you cannot massage land away or move it to Luxembourg. If you do not pay, it can be seized and sold. Though nobody likes extra taxes, new land-value levies could be matched by cuts in other taxes, especially those paid by poor people.”

Beyond its practicability (obviously it’s a hard sell), Henry George’s plan was premised on an idea we are still arguing today — that labor, not capital, is the most important unit in an economic system. George saw no need to protect the people who bought and held land because, as far as he was concerned, they weren’t driving the economy, workers were.

Progress and Poverty became an instant bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and led to George being drafted by labor to run for mayor of New York in 1886.

He pulled tens of thousands of working men away from the main political parties with a platform of “shorter working hours, higher pay, the laborer’s control over the condition of work, government ownership of railroads and telegraph, the end of police interference with ‘peaceful assemblages,’ and eradicating corruption,” as historian Richard White described it.

“Henry George was hardly hostile to capitalism, but he denounced a system in which ‘Most of us — 99% at least — must pay the other 1 per cent by week or month or quarter for the privilege of staying here and working like slaves,’” continued White. And though he came in second, “virtually everyone involved saw his campaign as a victory and a harbinger of workers’ power.”

Again — 1886, not 2016.

“The Gilded Age” airs Tuesday night on PBS and streams forever on PBS Passport (which I’ve been raving about). There are societies that sponsor free talks and courses on Henry George’s teachings in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, England, and elsewhere. Edward O’Donnell wrote a useful biography, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality, in 2015. I found it on Hoopla.

And yes, that’s Henry’s image on a cigar box. Patrick Murfin has the story.

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