Pay attention to the power of ideas

Dr. John Miller

Dr. John Miller

Since people started thinking about it, they have disagreed heartily among themselves over what it is that drives society.

Some find the answer in religion, others in science. Some focus on politics, others on economics.

Freudians seek explanation in the id, the ego, and the superego. Darwinians find it in evolution. Marxists discern the answer in class struggle and social interactionists in, well, social interaction.

This proves that ideas matter.

Ideas are, on the one hand, a tool. On the other, they are a weapon. Our political philosophies, John Maynard Keynes famously said, derive from the ideas of dead economists.

Historians, of all people, recognize that the past is not dead. It is not even past. The past lives within us, even if we don’t know it.

I was reminded of this point in coming across an article recently in the “New York Times” entitled “Earning More, But Struggling to Own a Home.”

While stock prices and the general economy have taken nose-dives recently, housing prices have merrily wound their way upward.

In Phoenix, this means jumping from under $100,000 for the median home in 1990 to close to $150,000 today. In Boston, the figure is $395,000. Don’t even ask about San Jose (hint: over $500,000).

For students of American history, such figures bring to mind an idea popularized by journalist Henry George during the years after the Civil War.

Traveling around the country, George observed an interesting but distressing anomaly–amidst all the economic growth and social progress, massive poverty persisted.

In his book “Progress and Poverty,” he advanced his famous idea of the single tax–a confiscatory tax on all profits made in land transactions.

George figured that by taking the profit out of land speculation he could rid society of exploitation and much of the social inequality that accompanied it.

Not many people remain loyal to George’s idea of the single tax today, but he was onto something in the huge importance that he attached to land values.

Maybe there’s an idea here that we in South Dakota could pursue.

How can we capitalize on the simple fact of our relatively low land values?

If I were a typical Boston family with a median income of $61,000 a year, I might be attracted to a place whose median house price is closer to $100,000 than to $395,000.

Dr. John Miller is a professor of history at SDSU. Write to him at [email protected]