George Lives! Eccentric Economists Toast the Single-Tax Solution

031207 article acitelli George Lives! Eccentric Economists  Toast the Single Tax SolutionJoshua Vincent remembers the day in 1979 he became a Georgist.

“I was at Oberlin College, and I was a socialist—I loved communism,” Mr. Vincent said on a recent evening. “I could not wait for the day when all the rich would have their money taken and given to the poor.”

The 46-year-old wore a snugly knotted maroon tie and a pair of black-framed, rectangular glasses that perched inches above his neatly trimmed goatee.

“Finally, my history professor said, ‘All the money the rich have, if you give it to the poor, it’ll change nothing. The problem is, people are being kept away from opportunities.’ What my professor said was: Find out if there’s an alternative to socialism.”

What Mr. Vincent found was the work of 19th-century American economic theorist and politician Henry George.

George encapsulated his theory in a book called Progress and Poverty, a dense, idealistic tome published in 1879. In the book, George advocates the abolition of all taxes in favor of a single tax, on land value.

The book became one of the most popular nonfiction works by an American in the 19th century, firing the political passions of such disparate admirers as Leo Tolstoy and Pope Leo XIII.

Like many who have encountered the book, Mr. Vincent became a fervent defender of George’s theory; he now advocates “Georgism” as the executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for the Study of Economics.

He was among fellow travelers that evening at the unofficial kickoff of the Henry George School of Social Science’s 75th-anniversary celebration. In a ground-floor, low-ceiling backroom of the school’s headquarters on East 30th Street, a rather mature and eccentric crowd sipped wine and soda. School president Daniel Kryston had brought small candles for the tables. A three-piece band played gingerly in the corner.

Visitors to the Henry George School are eager to explain to interlopers how the single tax would spur creativity and productivity by freeing millions of people from having to work just to pay taxes on their output, or to pay their rent—no income tax, no sales tax, no schools tax.

GEORGISTS WERE NOT ALWAYS SUCH AN ECCENTRIC LOT. George was probably the first American economist to be taken as seriously as the British greats like Adam Smith. In 1880, he moved from San Francisco to New York—where the growing poverty contrasted with explosive wealth had inspired Progress and Poverty.

He ran for Mayor six years later and came in second, ahead of a young Theodore Roosevelt (a big George fan) but behind the Tammany Hall candidate. He tried again in 1897, but died four days before the election.

More than 500,000 people jammed city streets for his funeral, and he is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Time has rendered George’s adherents into economic John the Baptists, crying his message in an intellectual desert where the majority believes that economics are a done deal, a closed book, and where lightly regulated capitalism has emerged as the end-of-history winner.

The school on 30th Street, through courses like “Human Rights” and “Liberating Economics,” does the crying in New York—always against the odds, but with consistent enough victories to keep Georgism alive in its namesake’s adopted hometown.

“What we’re saying is, what you need to do is start shifting the real-estate tax to the land values and take it off the improvements [of land],” said Mr. Kryston, who on the night of the 75th-anniversary party was re-elected president of the Henry George School. And why tax the value of land (or, to expand the meaning of the term to better fit its meaning in George’s day, natural resources)?

“The land has always been with us—whether it’s the one person on the Earth or the six billionth,” he said.

A 65-year-old Bronx native with wispy white hair and an accent to match his home borough, Mr. Kryston, an attorney and an engineer, started taking classes at the school in the 1950’s, after his father turned him on to Georgism. In 1962, he started teaching there. Mr. Kryston says that many discover the school the same way he did: by word of mouth, or maybe a radio ad or a flier. It’s the sort of gentle nudge that usually feels more familiar when it points New Yorkers to a favored restaurant or coffee source.

Except the Henry George School is free.

Endowed in 1932 by progressive industrialists, its course brochure declares, right at the top, “Economic Education for Everyone!” The main course is “Fundamental Economics: First Principles,” and Progress and Poverty is the textbook. The school attracts about 1,000 students per school year (about 300 a term), and the faculty teems with Georgist experts taught at the school.

Cay Hehner has been the education director for three years. A tall, charming German with a doctorate in philosophy from Berlin University and one foreign-exchange year at a high school near Asbury Park (“If I can help it, I will never go back there”), Mr. Hehner heard about the school in 1992 as he drove his station wagon down the Henry Hudson Parkway from his former Riverdale home. He visited the day after the radio ad, and has been a part of it ever since.

“Looking back” to the time before he understood Georgism, Mr. Hehner says: “Obviously, I’d been confronted with land issues or rent issues or issues of economic injustice. And often, from a gut feeling, instinctively, I have taken the Georgist position—although I had not really had the theoretical background to understand why I was doing that.”

Now it all makes sense.

“Look at all the recent conflicts,” Mr. Hehner said. “They’re all natural-resources conflicts. We are in Iraq not to give them democracy; we are in Iraq to secure the oil! Look at the three major forces that rule us. Who’s ruling the United States of America?”

George W. Bush.

“Oil man, yes. Who has just been elected Governor of the State of New York?”

Eliot Spitzer.

“And how did his daddy make his money?”

Real estate.

“And, last but not least, who is the Mayor of New York City? And how did he make his money? Financial services and information technology—but in monopolizing it. George has two banners under which he sails. One is: Tax land, not labor and capital. The other is: Don’t build monopolies, because we need competition.”

From a room behind the school’s top-floor boardroom, the Empire State Building scratches the crystalline sky a few blocks away.

Would the owners of that iconic skyscraper (literally a paean to imperial capitalism) accept Georgism?

“Oh, of course,” Mr. Hehner said, slightly amazed at the very question. “Everyone likes us. Landlords like us. Renters like us. The only people who do not like us are speculators, because they want to just sit on the land.”

BOB DRAKE, THE PRESIDENT OF THE HENRY School in Chicago and a Georgist since 1999 (“I found a flyer somewhere”), was in town for the New York school’s 75th-anniversary party. Last summer, Mr. Drake had wrapped up a five-year project modernizing Progress and Poverty, shedding George’s opus of its 19th-century density, streamlining its message for a broader appeal.

Mr. Drake, the clean-cut, bespectacled husband of jazz singer Spider Saloff, stood in the small lobby of the school and talked animatedly of Georgism as not just an economic principle, but as a world-changing social force.

“This guy had answered questions I was walking around with for five or 10 years, about poverty and things like that,” Mr. Drake, 56, said. Soon, he took on the modernizing task, attempting to help convince a 21st-century audience of the translucence of George’s laboriously spelled-out ideas. “The beauty of George is, his ideas are all testable by observation.”

But do the ideas work beyond the page, and outside the classrooms on 30th Street?

Stephen Reed became mayor of Harrisburg, Penn., in the early 1980’s. The city was dying, named by the federal government as one of the most distressed in the U.S. Mr. Reed shepherded through a tax change that turned Harrisburg’s fortunes around, boosting the business-tax roll by 450 percent and spurring development in the postindustrial Pennsylvania capital that many had been fleeing. Mr. Vincent, the socialist-turned-Georgist from Oberlin College, advised Mr. Reed on the change.

It was this: Land value would be taxed six times higher than land improvements.

So, build a house, renovate an office building, open a restaurant with polished windows on a street that needs one! You’ll be taxed on the land value, but your efforts at improvement will barely be taxed at all.

“It rewards investment,” Mr. Reed told The Observer, “encourages the development of the best use of land, and it tends to discourage real-estate speculators, because they tend to sit on the land.”

And had the mayor heard of Henry George before?

“I was vaguely familiar,” he said. “But we do not have an ideological bent. We’re looking for things that work. That works.”