Dan Sullivan

[Reprinted from a Land-Theory online discussion, December 1999]

A frequently recurring theme among Georgists is that we need to be a "movement" of Georgist "activists." While the sentiment is valid in a general sort of way, we have never succeeded in having a Georgist activist organization, and I think we never will, because Georgism is a philosoply, not an agenda.

Furthermore, when an organization definds itself as having a "Georgist agenda," people who are not Georgists, but who are nonetheless essential to achieving the objective, will be reluctant to support the direct agenda for fear of supporting a not-so-hidden agenda with which they might not agree.

Hanno noted that we are often a solution in search of a problem. I think that is correct, but it might be more precise to say that we are a solution to an underlying problem, and that most people are focused on more superficial problems. We naturally want these people to stop dwelling on the superficial problems and to take on the underlying problems, but that is not what *they* want to do, and organizing is primarily about bringing those people who already agree on something into an effective unit, not persuading people to change their minds. The mind-changing might (or might not) be a long-range tactic of the organization once it is up and running, but it is not "organizing" per se.

With that in mind, an activist organization defines itself in terms of a specific agenda. The new organization will either win a substantive victory during its first six months or it will probably wither and die. As a result, its initial agenda should be a highly winnable issue, and not a deep, fundamental issue.

When it accomplishes its initial agenda it either disbands or redefines itself to take on a new agenda. If the organization acquired strength and power in the process of winning its first agenda, it will be able to redifine itself to take on a more ambitious agenda, which is ideally an expansion of the first agenda. That way, the supporters of the first agenda will be more likely to stay on board for the second agenda.

Participants in the organization might bring with them a variety of individual agendas. While these individual agendas must be compatable with the organization's agenda, they do not have to be compatable with each other or with the long-term Georgist agendas.

For example, a hot issue in Pittsburgh is opposition to various corporate-welfare development schemes, which mostly involve subsidies to selected corporations so they will come into the city and develop, on the one hand, or to keep them from leaving on the other. An activist organization with Georgist influences, but having a primary agenda of opposing corporate welfare, would flat-out oppose these subsidies, period. It would offer land value tax as a mechanism that would accomplish the same ends without the evils of corporate welfare, but people would be attracted by their opposition to the subsidies, and not by a fascination with land value tax. They would accept the tax, not as a great good unto itself, but only as an effective alternative to the proposal they already oppose.

At every step, there is an assessing of the political climate. So, even as one chooses corporate welfare as an issue, one does so not just because one is fond of that issue, but because the public is ready to take on that issue, and because we can organize people from across the political spectrum, while the existing left and right organizations are hamstrung by previous alliances. In this case, for example, the right has alliances with the corporations involved, and he left has alliances with construction unions that want jobs building the subsidized projects.

Now, before we go out preaching about the issue, we must ask, who will we be helping and who can best help us? And before that, we must ask, what do we need to win? Our presentations, therefore, will be only part of a sales pitch, and not the most important part. The most important part is to close the sale, and if we do not know what we want from the people we talk to, and what we intend to give them for helping us, there is nothing to close.

To elaborate, our first objective must be to win a substantive issue within six months. A substantive issue is one that is seen to make a meaningful difference in people's lives, and it must be seen that way by the people themselves. If our internal objectives include building an organization for future issues, we must also have an objective of leaving the organization bigger, stronger, richer and more cohesive at the end of the campaign than it was at the beginning.

What we will be asking for, I think, falls into three categories: money, talent, and influence. We need money to keep the organization funded, which is to say, to pay for the talent and the overhead. As for talent, we need not just advocates, but researchers, fundraisers, negotiators, publicists, administrators, and a talented organizer to keep everything in sync. Influence is about people who might do very little work, but who have the ears of other people whose support we need, or, most importantly, of the people who will make the decision that gives us our victories. So, while the support of a Nobel Laureate is valuable to influence academia and the news media, the support of a strong political organization will perhaps have more direct impact on the decision-making politicians.

Because we are ideological, our first instinct is to go to other ideological or semi-ideological organizations, and some of these will indeed be willing and able to help us. For example, in fighting Pittsburgh's stadium tax referendum, we got support from the Libertarian Party, because the proposal was anti-free-market, and from various semi-socialist organizations like Just Harvest, who saw the increase in corporate welfare as related to the drying up of welfare for poor people.

Yet, although both of these camps opposed the stadium tax, their organizational agendas competed with our own, as they also wanted to get credit for working on this very public issue, and they both wanted to protect their own organizational strength. As a result, they were unable to make much of a contribution financially, and after we won the referendum battle, they had to go back to tend their seperate agendas. This left us with little energy to combat the ongoing lobby, and so the stadiums are being built with public money anyhow.

The lesson is valuable as I look a the next hot issue, which is a heavily subsidized renovation of a section of the Golden Triangle, downtown, and with a variety of neighborhood projects of the same ilk. I see that the same ideological groups would be opposed to fighting this battle, but that they are less than eager to do so, having been depleted from winning the stadium battle and then losing the war anyhow.

And so, I am now looking at groups who have not been tapped. In the case of the stadiums, there were no easily identifiable businesses who would be victimized by diversion of consumer dollars to the stadiums, but that is not the case with these other developments. Private city businesses, who have been paying higher business taxes (and higher land taxes) than suburban businesses pay, are furious that tax money is being taken from them and given to giant corporate competitors who willl drive them out of business.

For example, a the city's decision ot subsidize a new Home Depot (and another one in the planning stages) has infuriated owners of lumber yards, hardware stores, nurseries, construction tool suppliers, etc. While they are being overtaxed, the city is giving money to companies that will drive them out of business. Similarly, independent grocers are outraged by subsidizies to Giant Eagle, and independent jewelers and clothiers are not to happy that the city plans to subsidize a new Tiffanys and Nordstroms.

The core of support, then, could come, not from the ideological organizations, but from these merchants who are being doubly wronged by the whole corporate welfare process. We would ask the ideological people to give us their talent and experience, but we would get money and power from these merchants.

So far, I have said nothing about structure, because, in a successful organization, form follows function. While I do not have a precise formula for the campaign I have listed above, clearly the structure here would be radically different from an attempt, for example, to organize Hispanic farm workers in New Mexico. The whole question of membership, dues and structure depends on the nature of the campaign, and this in turn depends on the political landscape.

I stress this because people have tried to create a network of Georgist activist organizations from the top down, setting goals of having so many chapters in various locations across the country, without regard to what campaign a particular chapter would undertake and, therefore, without analysis of what the best structure for such a chapter would be. Rather, it was simply noted that many successful organization have chapters, and that we must therefore have chapters. To me, this is like saying that successful armies have tanks, and that we must also have tanks, without regard to whether we will be attacking across a desert or through a swamp.

In any case, once we decide who we are going to approach for support, we will need a core group, a structure, a strategy, and, last of all, a name. The core group for a task like the one described above should include some expert Georgists, but also some publicly notable figures, some energetic volunteers (probably from the same sources as fought the stadium tax) and one or two leaders from the business community. The structure should be one that keeps a balance, especially between left and right, that has very little overhead, and that is very action-oriented. Strategies should be thought out beforehand (I have some in mind.), but the actual strategy must be acceptable to the major players involved. For example, if merchants are uncomfortable with a go-for-the-throat attack strategy, the group will have to decide whether the support of these merchants dictates a milder strategy that is more acceptable to them, or whether to keep the hard-ball strategy and lose the support of some merchants.

Finally, the name is very important, because it will tell the public who we are and what we are about. In fighting the stadium tax, we picked "Good Sports" to illustrate that we were not anti-sports at all, and to stand behind the charge that the subsidy was not only bad for the economy, but bad for sports. The name was very successful in both regards.

For a general campaign against corporate welfare, with an underlying Georgist alternative, I like the name "Productive Taxpayers." It not only suggests the theme that productivity is overtaxed, but identifies the group as a coaltion of highly productive people, who have always produced wealth with their own resources, as opposed to to people who are less productive, in that they will only produce wealth if subsidized.

The name "Common Ground," which is quite popular with Georgists, and would be acceptable to most of the left, would be a horrific obstacle for reaching merchants and for involving conservatives and libertarians. While it is a fine name for organizing Georgists, we are already organized enough that we don't rely on a mere name to inspire us. To less ideological people we would like to organize, "Common Ground" not only suggests an agenda well beyond the agenda of the actual campaign, but raises all sorts of questions. Time spent answering of these questions would kill our ability to organize support, especially at meetings where our goal is to introduce ourselves, present our campaign, and close with a commitment of support.

Finally, the most difficult stage of an organization is the initial stage, where it must reach critical mass to become effective. It is a lot like getting a kite in the air, becasue the winds are much stronger higher above the ground, and will keep the kite aloft if you just tend it. But, one must expend a great deal of energy runing with the kite to get it up in the first place. What American Georgists did was try to get chapters started in many cities at once, which is like trying to run many kites into the air at the same time.

When we started having successes in Pennsylvania, our failure was to pick one of these cities and build a self-sustaining activist organization there. It is my failure, particularly, as I live in Pittsburgh, which has perhaps been the ideal choice. I have been learning activism (which is much trickier than learning Georgism), and I think I now have a good handle on what it takes. However, I am by temperment still more of an advocate than an organizer, and the solution would probably be to fund a crackerjack organizer who is not necessarily a Georgist to work with me or someone else in a single city.

Pittsburgh would be ideal location for fighting on the issues I have outlined, but Allentown, 250 miles east of here, might also be an excellent choice, since it has beaten a referendum to rescind land value tax and is about to fight another.

In any case, the key is not to "have an activist organization." Rather, it is to pick a battle and win. If the activist organization is viewed as an end rather than a means to a clearly defined end, it will problably be just another tank stuck in the swamp.