Sunday, 12 April 2015


 7. APRIL 12th 2015: LAND – “THE MOTHER OF ALL MONOPOLIES”
- POLLUTED OR FERTILE GROUND FOR A POLITICS FOR THE COMMON GOOD ?

My Churchill Fellowship report “Property, Justice and Reason” is published here, by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. A slightly reordered version for academics is available at Academia.edu
If you want to discuss the contents of the report, you will find my contact details in the report.

 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Even if you've never played Monopoly, you'll know what the game is about: borrowing heavily to buy up as many properties as you can, renting them out for as much money as possible, and then seeing who can win by impoverishing the other players first…putting them on the streets, or permanently in jail. Starting to feel a bit uncomfortable?

What you almost certainly will not know is by whom and when it was invented. Not by Charles Darrow, as he and Parker Brothers (now Hasbro), the producers of Monopoly, like to maintain, in 1932, but Lizzie Magie, a stenographer, living in Washington DC, thirty years earlier.  She was concerned at the growing inequalities of income. She was a fan of Henry George, the economist advocate of Land Value Taxation, and she used the game which she launched in 1903, to introduce progressive ideas into middle class American families, suddenly enthused with the new craze of board games. In a new book. “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game”, Mary Pilon tells the full and torrid story of the game's progress to becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Originally called The Landlord’s Game, Lizzie invented two alternative sets of rules: the monopolist and anti-monopolist version. In the anti-monopoly world, wealth created by one player was shared with everyone else. You can see why it didn’t catch on...to our great loss.


In Churchill's ‘People's Land’ speeches for the  two general elections in 1910, he called land the 'mother of all monopolies' and was happy to explain to the electorate how unconstrained land price had the capacity to damage society and the economy, and undermine basic freedoms. Twice the Liberal Government was elected that year with a mandate to deal with the land question. As with the demise of the anti-monopoly version of the Landlord's Game, the entrenched self-interests of land owners prevailed.

As if to make the point made by Churchill and Lizzie Magie, the Wriglesworth Consultancy this week published a comparative survey of investment returns over 20 years, in which buy-to-let landlords have made a return on (borrowed) capital of just under 1400% since 1996, compared with the next best return on Gilts of 233%. Buy-to-let returns rely on sucking huge volumes of cash out of the productive economy, simply because they can, not because it makes any economic sense. Four decades of ineffective and short-termist policy making on housing and land has created the perfect conditions for the ‘mother of all monopolies” to be the playground of the opportunist profiteer. Imagine any politician saying today, “We wish to make the land less of a pleasure-ground for the rich and more of a treasure-house for the nation:"…let alone a Prime Minister, as Campbell-Bannerman did in 1905.

Even so, as I was sitting on the plane to Boston at the start of my Churchill Fellowship, exactly a year ago today, I still had a generally positive view of what I might discover in the USA, based on my experience of how public policy and the working of land and housing markets normally interacted. I did believe that eventually markets do come back into some kind of balance with the public interest that politicians usually strive to achieve, and which the public feels is reasonably acceptable, if never perfect or permanent. The extreme highs and lows in markets that still exist seven years after the credit crunch and housing market crash of 2006-8, and the deepening social and economic inequalities that have followed, was stretching that expectation, but had not fully exhausted it.

By the time I finally reached my apartment that night, via a public meeting in Jamaica Plain, South Boston, I had seen at first hand the result of taking such a benign view of the behaviour of land and housing markets. (You can read about it on page 61 of my report.) In a ‘hot market’ like Boston, as in many other successful or ‘over-successful’ cities, the ordinary citizen has become merely the necessary medium for local and global financial institutions speculating in prime and soon-to-be prime real estate Whilst an actual person is needed to sign a mortgage contract, or a tenancy agreement, after that we are the essentially inconvenient collateral damage of their rent-seeking interest. As long as they have a contract that ties them to the property, what happens to the occupier is of no consequence to them.

The financialisation of land and housing markets, and the transformation of real estate into a global commodity has been normalised through the entirely legitimate actions of politicians, banks, landowners, professionals, and ordinary citizens who have quietly acquiesced at their own effortless enrichment through commodity speculation; sometimes sleepwalking, or with eyes tight shut and pretending not to see, but often uncomprehending. Until very recently, and still in the eyes of too many politicians, only a rising housing market is a market in good condition that is also good for the economy and the nation.

In every place that I visited in North America, I saw this story being enacted in what the US economist Thorstein Veblen called, over a century ago, “the great American game…an enterprise in (land) ‘futures’ ’’[1], originally applied to the development of country towns, but now being played out on a world-sized pitch. I also saw its obverse, the abandonment of neighbourhoods, when the gamesters decided they had had enough.

It would have been easy to be depressed and overwhelmed by the power of global finance and the unwillingness or inability of the state to wield power in the wider public interest. Instead, I focussed on what I also found; the indomitable determination and perseverance of citizens, often using community land trusts, to take their own actions against these powerful forces, in the face of which politicians seem powerless. These citizens and their new institutions hold the promise of what could be achieved if politicians could only harness the energy, goodwill and integrity of their citizens to roll back the damage being done by the financialisation of our land and housing markets.

Far from criticising governments on the details of their housing policies or the absence of them, therefore, my report talks more about the need for a different kind of politics to achieve ‘the common good’. There is a substantial literature and continuing debate about what the ‘common good’ might be. That is rather the point. The common good is not an absolute good, but it is about the involvement of everyone to talk constantly about what it should and could be: constantly up for negotiation.

Maurice Glasman, the Blue Labour peer, offers a helpful starting point for thinking about the politics of the common good: “John-Paul II described politics, following in a long Aristotelian tradition, ‘as a prudent concern for the common good’. A common good between young and old, capital and labour, immigrants and locals, Christians and Muslims, city and countryside, faithful and secular. This is how solidarity needs to be rethought, and its appropriate vehicle is a politics of the common good that is built upon resisting the domination of capital and the state by local and decentralised democratic politics. The Common Good is discovered between people and returns their agency. Such a politics is a vocation, it has all the characteristics of labour. It is definitive of our humanity and can cause great suffering, frustration and tension. In all its forms, however, it is better than the politics we have now.” 



The printed patent drawing for a
game board invented by Lizzie J. Magie.
Image licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons
Glasman and other members of the ‘Together for the Common Good’ Steering Group, a mix of secular and religious organisations, aim to start a national conversation about the meaning of the common good. We need practical examples of what working for the common good looks and feels like. That is what I hope to illustrate through the nine narratives that make up this report. The need for politicians, professionals and the citizen to find new ways of working together for the common good is as urgent as ever.

When Lizzie Magie invented her game, with squares offering $5 for ‘Absolute Necessities – Bread/Shelter/Clothing’ and respite at the Poor House, she could not have imagined that all these offerings are still needed a century later in the richest economies in the world. Maybe if her anti-monopolist version of the Landlord’s Game had survived, generations of young people and their parents might have learnt that there is another way.
 
[1] Veblen. T (1923) Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times, cited in Hudson. M (2012) Veblen’s Institutionalist Elaboration of Rent Theory, Paper at the Veblen, Capitalism and Possibilities for a Rational Economic Order Conference, in Istanbul June 2012.

The picture that forms the background to this blog was taken in 2012 in a district of Istanbul being socially and economically cleansed of low income households to make way for a new upscale district of shops, offices and high end apartments.