International Union Conference

Edward J. Dodson

[Report on the conference held in London, England.
Reprinted from GroundSwell, May-June 2010]

Some 50 to 60 member of the International Union (the IU), as well as a number of non-member speakers and guests came together the week of the 26th of April at the School of Economic Science (SES) headquarters, at 11 Mandeville Place, London. Thanks to the efforts of David Triggs (President of the Henry George Foundation of Britain) and others associated with the SES, the teaching of courses in political economy based on Henry George's writings have been returned to an important part of the SES offerings. The building has both space and great architectural character. The lower level contains a cafeteria and book store, the ground floor houses the school's library, and the main lecture room is on the next level.

I arrived at London's Heathrow Airport early Sunday morning on the 25th of April, picked up by Fred Harrison (accompanied by our Canadian colleague Frank Peddle, who had arrived a few hours earlier). The three of us then had a quiet breakfast meeting during which we brought each other up to date on our respective activities and discussed the conference plans. Frank and I were booked at the same hotel, as were a few other conference attendees, who helped make our evenings enjoyable with serious and not-so-serious discussions on a wide range of subjects. I was pleased to renew a friendship with Duncan Pickard, whom I first met in the mid-1990s on one of the Georgist missions to Russia arranged by Fred Harrison and Nic Tideman. Peter Meakin, from South Africa, also joined out small group at the hotel.

Day one of the conference began with a brief welcoming by Megan (Campbell) Ashcroft, General Secretary and Treasurer of the IU, who is completing her first year in these roles with the IU. Megan and her husband Ross (who this past year was under contract with the IU to take our message to other organizations in an effort to establish ongoing exchanges and collaborations) were instrumental in organizing the conference, working under direction of the IU's Executive Committee. Highlighted throughout the conference week was the ongoing book publication and video production work initiated by Fred Harrison, much of which was undertaken with support from the IU and in collaboration with the production company Motherlode.

After a greeting by IU President, Fernando Scornik-Gerstein of Spain, the conference program began with a presentation by Ole Lefmann (who is Danish but has resided in London for many years) titled, "Why Danes didn't succeed," in which he explained why the early support for policies that looked to land value for revenue, and brought members of the Justice Party into office, eventually dissipated.

Next, from Ireland, George Campbell spoke on "Policies and Potential of Site Value Taxation in Ireland." He offered reasons for cautious optimism that politicians in Ireland may be more willing than previously to embrace land value taxation. After a period of economic expansion driven by skyrocketing property prices, the Irish economy is in a free fall. Campbell and others are doing all they can to make clear to the Irish public why this happened and what must be done. Fred Harrison has been instrumental to this effort, as well as a small but growing number of analysts and academics.

The next speaker was Dave Wetzel, who formerly held a government post as Vice-Chair at Transport for London, but is now President of the Labour Land Campaign and was campaigning for a seat in the new Parliament. Dave has travelled extensively speaking to government officials and other groups on the virtues of land value taxation and congestion charges to relieve cities of out-of-control automobile traffic problems. In this talk, he advised what he discovered visiting China recently. China's network of highways and automobile usage is skyrocketing, as is urban construction in many cities. Dave's message to Chinese officials is straightforward: to avoid many of the growth problems experienced in the West, look first to ground rents as the base of public revenue.

Ron Banks, who has lectured in economics and had a career in foreign exchange, urged conference attendees to shift the emphasis of reform from the public collection of ground rent to the necessity of freeing labor and capital from the burdens of taxation. His message was clear: people will respond to a call for eliminating taxes; they have never been very receptive to calls for what they believe is just another tax, added on to what they are already paying. Taxation, in Ron's view, has meant "Democracy Betrayed."

In the afternoon, I was assigned the task of moderating a panel discussion on "How do we get Henry George's message to a bigger audience." Joining me on this panel were Rosh Ashcroft, David Triggs and Adrian Rigley. Many of the same issues we frequently discuss were brought up, of course. What is clear, however, is that for the small number of Georgists and the limited financial reserves available, there is no shortage of creative projects and initiatives underway. This panel served as a good first effort on the part of the IU to gather input on what strategies ought to be pursued to achieve real results.

There were no evening conference presentations scheduled during the conference. So, at the end of day one, attendees went on to dinner in groups or on their own. Some of us met informally to continue discussions over dinner (and a few drinks, in some cases).

Tuesday, the second day of the conference, began with a presentation by our Australian colleague, Gavin Putland, who advised this trip was his first out of his home country. Gavin's subject, "Backed Debt as a Revenue Base" offered unique insights into the Australian experience of the diminishing reliance on location rents as an important source of public revenue.

Interestingly, Frank Peddle did not talk about the economic or financial situation in Canada. Instead, he detailed the political situation in New Zealand in reaction to the call by New Zealander Bob Keall that a concerted effort by Georgists could bring about the adoption of a very significant shift to the taxation of rent. Frank asked in his talk, "Can New Zealand be a Crucible for the World?"

From outside the Georgist community, we heard from green economist Molly Scott Cato, on "Land as Commonwealth: fiscal and monetary consequences." Molly has been attempting to calculate (roughly) the amount of ground rent that exists in the United Kingdom but admitted that the data on which her calculations were made is wholly insufficient.

Next, we heard from the head of Law and Economics at SES, Ian Mason, on "Opportunities in the 21st Century." He stressed the importance of the need for real monetary reforms to strengthen the lasting impact of any shifts in tax policy consistent with those embraced by Georgists.

I was honored by the IU Executive Committee by being elected to chair the General Business Meeting, which took the full afternoon on Tuesday. The deaths of U.S. members Richard Noyes, Bruce Oatman and Lowell Harriss were noted, along with Gracy Levy of England. The Treasurer's report was one of great importance to members (and Georgist, generally). As some will recall, the IU for most of its history had as its primary purpose the organization of a periodic international conference. Some years ago, the IU became the beneficiary of a bequest from a past IU President, Joseph Thompson, and utilized these funds to undertake a number of initiatives — most prominently the publication of new book and video projects undertaken by Fred Harrison and the support of work by Alanna Hartzok in conjunction with the United Nations. The Executive Committee did so recognizing that these initiatives could not be sustained indefinitely unless new sources of funds were found. Today, the assets of the IU stand at around $103,000. Difficult decisions will face the IU Executive Committee on how best to apply these remaining funds going forward. The full slate of nominated officers and Executive Committee members was elected. Fernando Scornik-Gerstein was re-elected President for another term. Bill Batt also joins the Executive Committee as a member.

Wednesday morning began with my talk on the meltdown of the U.S. financial markets, "Death by Debt Strangulation." Somewhat different from other speakers, I took questions during my talk (to keep everyone from falling asleep). This worked out well in terms of audience attention, but my hour disappeared before I reached the half way point in my talk. I offered to finish the talk at the end of the day, and this was agreed to, but later I was added to the Friday morning schedule as one of the other presenters had to cancel.

The first of three films written by Fred Harrison and produced in conjunction with Motherlode was shown. This roughly thirty minute documentary is titled "Casino Capitalism" and presents a stinging analysis of financial manipulations engaged in by the world's financial players.

A panel discussion of Fred Harrison's latest book project, "2010 The Inquest" (which I recently reviewed) was scheduled but was replaced by some other programming (that at the moment escapes my recollection).

While the newly-elected IU Executive Committee met in the afternoon to consider important organization matters, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation film, "The End of Poverty?" was shown after a brief introduction by Bill Batt. Time was set aside the following day for discussion of the film.

More new material from Fred Harrison was introduced on Thursday. First, Fred announced publication of "The Predator Culture," and then premiered the second of three new films, "Crucible of Terror." Later that morning, Fred returned with a presentation on the lessons to be learned by the early writings on public finance by Islamic scholars working many centuries before the introduction of privately-issued currencies by European bankers in the late Renaissance period.

For a change of pace in the program, the next speaker, Amar Manzoor, offered his unique perspectives on how he advises businesses to survive the shift in economic power from the West (which includes Japan and Australia) to China. As a consultant, he warns of a different sort of war on the horizon, one that will not involve massive armies crossing borders but well-armed insurgencies willing and able to disrupt normal economic activities. Manzoor believes the global financial system is in a state of rapid collapse, to be replaced by something new, even though he has no sense of what this will look like.

The afternoon sessions began with a presentation by Tarek El Diwany, a partner in the firm Zest Advisory LLP, on "The problem with interest" as seen from the perspective of Moslems. His talk was later followed by a question and answer period during which Fred Harrison, Amar Manzoor and Tarek El Diwany participated.

Friday morning's program began with the third of the films developed by Fred Harrison, "Temple of Doom," which linked the global environmental problems and disasters with unsound public policies.

I was then given a second hour to complete my talk on the financial meltdown in the United States, taking numerous questions and attempting to make some sense out of a problem that many felt was beyond comprehension. Anthony Werner, of Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers (London) later expressed some interest in having my presentation developed into a book for publication.

Duncard Pickard next presented a remarkable paper that, in the first part, criticized the manner in which research was published in so-called peer reviewed journals. He observed that very few reviewers are willing to publicly criticize submissions by their colleagues even when findings are demonstrably wrong. He went on to use as an example the role of dietary scientists in ignoring the data on the comparative health benefits of saturated (i.e., animal) fats versus unsaturated (i.e., vegetable) fats in our foods, as well as the health problems caused by overconsumption of refined carbohydrates.

We then heard from Professor John Loveless on how we can generate all the energy we will ever need — without any pollution — by capturing the energy of ocean tides and moving river water flows. He has designed the system, it has been thoroughly tested, and now only has to be adopted in place of other, far more expensive and less productive alternatives.

In the afternoon, we heard from the director of the Schumacher College and editor of Resurgence magazine, Satish Kumar, on the importance of "Natural Law and the Human Condition." He feels that god is within every material element in our world, and teaches that we must come to respect the earth and all of life, that only by such respect do we live according to the natural law. While embracing the principle that individuals do not and cannot claim ownership of nature, he did not comment on the Georgist principle that rent is that portion of what is produced that belongs to all.

From David Triggs we heard an interesting analysis of how scarce water supplies in many communities might be guaranteed to all rather than to just an influential few. He has years of practical experience as an advisor on water systems to government bodies, but expressed deep frustration that his proposal to distribute a guaranteed minimum quantity of water to all residents has never been adopted. An important point he made is that a constant flow of water through piping is required to prevent pollution from entering the pipes (from sewerage, etc.). His design would do the same for residential users as is common in desert agriculture — a drip system that releases the exact same amount of water coming from every hole in the pipe, allowing the water to flow 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption based on the known rate water can be pumped from aquifers.

The last presenter at the conference was Polly Higgins, a environnmental lawyer concerned with planetary rights. Her talk presented ideas on how the environment should be assigned rights the same way human have.

Was the IU conference a success? The measurements of success for Georgist conferences are difficult to quantify. Clearly, there are many more dedicated, long-time IU members who would have joined the conference in London had they been able to do so. Health issues and financial concerns, as well as other obligations during the time the conference was held, reduce conference attendance. The IU must somehow attract younger people into its ranks. How to accomplish this objective is of utmost importance, and (as with the membership of the Council of Georgist Organizations) new approaches and initiatives must be thoughtfully considered. As the old saying goes, "Doing the same thing, the same way, and expecting a different result is insanity."