An End to the Age of Entitlement: Part II

August 5, 2013

This is the second post in a three-part series by John Bloom challenging the modern economic approach to land. Here, Bloom proposes a new approach that views land as resource rather than commodity and focuses on stewardship rather than consumption.

In my last post, I proposed a new way of thinking about our relationship to land. I recast the question of land ownership in light of two other critical but less attended to elements: use and community.

Ownership

Historically land ownership was invented as a right, a legalistic structure that was designed to serve power and to wrest control from that which resided in the commons. The language itself—title, deed, lots or allotments, boundaries—is a reflection of the power and value structures inherent in the concept of ownership. I am reminded of a famous line delivered by baseball umpire Bill Klem when a batter complained about a pitch call: “It ain’t nothin’ till I call it.” This is absolutist thinking driven by a kind of self-assigned divine right, the same divine right that drove manifest destiny, colonization, and the destruction of indigenous wisdom along the way—the very wisdom we now need to resurrect and cultivate with new collaborative consciousness if we are to survive on this planet.

The outcome of the present legal structure of land ownership in America is that the land itself is placed into the world of commodities, bounded, parceled, priced, and marketed, with the landowner having virtually absolute control over use. Were we to remove these artificial, self-serving, state-created aspects of ownership, we could see that there are some very positive aspects to ownership. If an individual or private entity owns the land, whether inherited or purchased, then that person’s identity and destiny are connected with that land. In this light, ownership is a cultural or spiritual responsibility. The owner has a free choice to steward the land for future generations or, at the other end of the spectrum, to treat it as a commodity to sell or use without reference to community. Of course, ownership comes with the right to sell, but toward what end, and for what purpose are the significant destiny questions. The options are many, but could be looked at through the lenses of use and community as tools of discernment and guidance.

Use

Use of land is attached to the ownership of it, and the owner bears the right to determine its use, but these two concepts are not the same. The tendency is to conflate them. If I buy a residential house with land, the intent and use are clear. However somewhere in the background, unless it is contested, the use of land is governed primarily by agreements such as zoning laws and tax structures, and most notably by lease agreements if the owner is not the user. Such agreements are framed in something of an exchange in which both parties give up an element of control in order for their needs and the community’s needs to be met. The contracts that arise from these agreements supersede the rights of either party, except the right to cure, renegotiate or abrogate the agreement if the terms are not met. If I were to want convert a residence into a business, I would likely have to seek a zoning variance by way of public hearing. Even property tax is a kind of use agreement in the sense that the right of owning in a community comes with a required financial contribution back to the community to maintain shared services such as road access, fire protection, and law enforcement. One result of this is that potential owners or businesses choose where to locate based upon the expected contribution or, in the case of businesses, tax incentives offered. Thus the use of land, regardless of ownership, is a matter of rights and agreements.

Community

In some ways community is the most complicated of the three elements to articulate, because it is the most diverse in its expressions and our culture barely holds it consciously. I have already touched on community tangentially in the use section addressing the question of taxes. Clearly taxes are set by elected or appointed officials who represent the broad interests of the community, as defined by political boundaries. Such officials serve at the will of the community. Tax levies arise not only as an expression of community agreements, but also in the framework of the economy of the community. As I mentioned, taxes are mandatory gifts and are therefore a critical component of economic life. Without shared roads, businesses would have a difficult time getting supplies, and then distributing manufactured goods. It is through zoning that the community indirectly chooses the best use of land, whether residential, educational, or industrial. But community does not get to determine who owns private land. Instead, ownership is a product of real estate market activity. This situation has resulted, for example, in corporations or real estate speculators purchasing land and, as owners, using or developing that land for private gain without necessarily having accountability for how they have treated the land, or supported its productivity or fertility. While profit may have been extracted from the land, those profits often leave the community to go instead into distant shareholders’ hands. In these circumstances, the “investor” community is de-localized from the land and has no direct or real accountability within the community of place, and, further, often drives the economic process through the free market principle of profit maximization. In this situation, the profits leave the community, but the unaccounted expense of compromised land stays as a burden to the community without recompense. Thus, the place-based economy often becomes unsustainable and non-regenerative.

The consideration of community is an important, and often ignored, element in the context of ownership and use. From the vantage point of the land, community is an economic function. The community is formed on the basis of interdependence. I may own a piece of land and lease it to a farmer. If that farmer then uses toxic chemicals that seep into the ground water and thus pollutes the watershed, the whole community bears both the consequences and the expense. Ecological economics recognizes the systemic interconnections in nature, and sees also the truth of our interdependence as humans dependent for our wellbeing upon the land, the earth and all its natural resources. From an economic standpoint, community is inseparable from land.

Continue to read Part III

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks John. This is really helpful. Hope you have a chance to visit our Thornhill Campus soon!

    Mark

    Comment by Mark McAlister — August 6, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  2. I would add that the “investor” community is much larger than any cluster of corporations in the economy. It includes all of us – from banker to corporation to business to consumer. Profiting from land is a flagrant disregard for accountability which goes far beyond any definition of ecological economics when it comes to the exploitation of human labor and land. In fact, the two are inseparable. The treatment of farm workers and the egregious disrespect for their labor continue to be the most violated and most ignored element, if you will, in the equation of global AND local economics. But it is convenient to ignore human suffering when it is essential for profit – whether it’s the multi-billion dollar agri-industry or an individual family farm. It is not just toxic chemicals that seep into our water systems that we need to worry about, but the toxic inheritance of our inhumanity and those lives lost to slave labor. No drink of water or parcel of land is worth it — if it cost another human being their home, their health, or their life.

    Comment by Pilar — August 6, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  3. John,

    As I am in the final throes of a negotiation to buy land (a community farm, actually), I have been contemplating the spiritual, emotional and cultural issues around land ownership…which has additional implications in Hawaii- where the indigenous culture did not have a western notion of ownership.

    Of course, financing is a huge issue. My local credit union turned down my loan request. I had to go to a “traditional bank.” What other options for financing farm land / community land do we have?

    Aloha, Andrea

    Comment by Andrea — August 8, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

  4. Yes, this “profit maximization,” or mining the resources of the land unsustainably, has been a problem since the beginning of agriculture. Your threefold perspective is interesting, thanks.

    Comment by Mary — August 9, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

  5. Aloha Andrea: traditional banks do not share your farming mission. Operating under threat of repossession is well, barbaric. You may want to check this out:
    http://vimeo.com/50140960

    on Financing Organic Farming.

    good luck,
    Stephen V.

    Comment by Stephen V. — August 11, 2013 @ 7:47 am

  6. Thank you Mr. Bloom.
    I too have wondered how human history will now come full circle: from ancient times when gods & priests regulated land & resource use to our own time where land will again be seen as ‘owned’ by the community and part of the ‘given’ context for the economy.
    There is another way to depict what you describe. Marc Desaule wrote an essay in 1997 entitled ‘Money as Global Bookkeeping’ in which he describes the assymetry in conventional double-entry: Assets (OWNED by me) with the other side of the balance sheet showing what is OWED by me. If, as he proposes, we view assets as OWED TO me — allowing my customers to buy now & pay later, e.g. we find ourselves in a different situation. My business assets are therefore on loan to me from the community. Our balance sheet then tell us that we are right away in a stewardship situation with the legal / ownership aspect off to one side–as you also describe.

    If one has purchased land however, it is probably better to ‘wash’ it off your balance sheet and place the value (inherently speculative !) and the accompanying loan/capital balance on a subsidiary schedule. This tells the community that you are not in the business of land speculation (de-commidifying land?). This also points to a further strategy: possibly finding investors that share your mission who can purchase property for your use at an affordable lease rate…

    Comment by Stephen V. — August 11, 2013 @ 7:57 am

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