Our Future Imagined: Martin Adams
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Interview Our Future Imagined
We continue our blog series exploring how we can make a positive change in the upcoming year by featuring author and economist Martin Adams, whose book Land forces us to rethink the idea of land ownership and conceive of an economic system that would better benefit more people. Through his book and website, he is generating awareness for steps we can take to build alternative social and economic structures. In this interview, Adams explains how to create a future that recognizes the value of communities so they can hold on to the wealth they produce.
NAB: Your book holds the idea that a community, not a landlord, makes the land valuable. Can you describe how land values are socially generated?
MA: Because communities are valuable, and because land allows you to be a part of a community, communities—not individuals—make land valuable. Let me explain.
There’s this old idea, especially in the U.S., of “homesteading”: that individuals are entirely self-sufficient human beings: that they can grow their own food, provide for their own clothing, and make do with all that they themselves produce. As romantic as this notion may sound, it’s simply not true. Human beings are not islands unto themselves; we are interconnected to one another, not just psychologically, but physically. Even the early so-called homesteaders during the colonization of the American West banded together in tight-knit communities to support one another.
Today, this notion continues to not reflect reality: people are unable to grow all of their own food, make all of their own clothes, or produce their own iPhones—and neither should they. There’s nothing wrong with letting other people do the things they’re good at, and letting yourself do the things that you’re good at, and then trading one skill for another.
But there’s something else that happens whenever people come together to produce and trade valuable goods and services: a community is formed. Communities provide us with goods and services that we could never have accessed on our own—which is what makes communities valuable. And while there are many online communities due to the advent of the internet, the most important ones remain physically-based: our towns and cities. But while land enables people to come together as a community, at the same time land is also scarce: every time a community becomes more desirable to live in, the value of its land naturally increases as a consequence.
NAB: How can this mindset empower a community to keep and share the wealth they create?
MA: Currently, people either have to borrow huge sums of money for a mortgage or pay rent in order to be a part of a local community. This means that the more prosperous a community becomes, the more likely, over time, that money leaves the community, thus eventually impoverishing it. If I have to borrow a lot of money to own property in a community, then a big portion of what I earn leaves the community and instead accumulates in the accounts of a Wall Street bank. And likewise, a person who sells or rents out property in a community can then use that money to retire and spend that money elsewhere.
The only viable solution to this problem, therefore, is for the community to find a way to retain its wealth. It can either do this by taxing the value of its land, or by retaining the ownership of its land altogether and lease out its land instead, thereby retaining the lease revenues.
NAB: One of the current disputes over land is taking place at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where local people want to keep their water supply safe from the construction of an oil pipeline. How do you view this issue from the standpoint of your book?
MA: Economists call oil pipeline leaks “negative externalities,” while ordinary folk might simply call them what they are: unacceptable. An oil pipeline leak extends far beyond an oil corporation’s balance sheet directly into the lives of human beings. Even if deemed necessary through eminent domain, routing an oil pipeline through a community assigns responsibility—moral and, ideally, financial—to the corporation to ensure the health of the affected community on an ongoing basis (for example, the land used for the pipeline should be leased to the oil corporation on an ongoing basis, never sold). But Native Americans know—far too painfully—of the broken promises made by the American people to trust that an oil corporation would look after their well-being. Therefore, while the world still uses oil, unless and until the integrity of such an arrangement could be assured beyond the shadow of a doubt, no oil pipeline should be routed through Native American land or land that would affect Native Americans in the event of a leak. We owe that much to our Native American brothers and sisters—and much, much more.
NAB: Your chapter on local autonomy advocates for local communities to keep the wealth they produce, and function as self-governing entities. What are ways that you recommend people get involved with budgets or policies at the local level?
MA: A lot of ‘affordable housing’ programs are well-meaning, but ultimately ineffective, because every time we make a community more livable—such as through charity, better social services, technological innovation, or business enterprise—a community becomes more desirable to live in; as a result, the value of its land increases, thus making it eventually unaffordable again! What if instead we shifted the conversation away from specific programs and instead first asked ourselves to whom the rent should be paid in the first place? That’s where ultimately the work has to be done.
President John Adams once wrote that “power follows property.” He was correct. Imagine owning an entire island: how much rent could you ask from those who lived on that island? Essentially, you’d own the human beings who lived on that island, and they’d be your slaves except for in name. Those who think that “these people could move elsewhere” forget that land, elsewhere, is also privately owned, and that the island dwellers who would have to move would be subject to the same conditions elsewhere as well.
So there are two solutions: Either you tax the property owner and redistribute the tax revenues back to the community, or you let private individuals or corporations own the buildings while leasing the land. Property owners naturally dislike being taxed on their property because they usually paid for it, so it’s far better—from a long-term political and strategical standpoint—for the community to own land and then lease it out to private individuals or corporations, who are able to buy and sell the buildings themselves, but not the land. Bernie Sanders did that in parts of Burlington, VT, in the 80s, and it’s still going strong.
NAB: How are you working to implement the public use of land? How do you converse or debate with people of conflicting interests from your own?
MA: Generating awareness is priority #1, for nothing happens without a sufficient amount of social awareness. On my end, I’m about to re-launch a news and media website, Progress.org, mid-April of 2017. Several friends and I are also creating a local community land trust in northern California, but that process will take time. And one day I’ll write another book that explores the use of public banks to purchase land on behalf of community land trusts.
There’s nothing wrong with people having different points of view. We each have to remember, first and foremost, that we’re all human beings doing the best we know how, given where we’re at. But it’s also important to remember that there are also those who simply don’t value qualities such as integrity and truthfulness (to their own detriment, I might add)—and those are people with whom one simply cannot and shouldn’t expect to reason.
To learn more about community-owned land and how to make this idea a reality, Land, by Martin Adam is available here:
Tags: Our Future Imagined
What if we lived in a world where everyone had enough? A world where everyone mattered and where people lived in harmony with nature? What if the solution to our economic, social, and ecological problems was right underneath our feet? Land has been sought after throughout human history. Even today, people struggle to get onto the property ladder and view real estate as an important way to build wealth. Land: A New Paradigm for a Thriving World introduces a radically new economic model that ensures a more fair and abundant reality for everyone. It is a book for those who dream of a better world, for themselves and future generations.