Sorry…and a bit about JJ and HG

Hey, I know, I should be writing more, but school has taken over so much time that I feel unable to do much for the blog.

I did run across something weird in Jane Jacobs’ work – her only reference to Henry George. Here are my thoughts:

Jacobs was aware of George’s work – in The Economy of Cities (1969), she directly referrers to him (she rarely referenced anyone) when discussing capital for city economic development. Here is the reference:“Henry George, reasoning from the premise that land is basic capital and basic wealth, asserted that all profits made in cities derive from the value of city land.” She continues, but I am not sure if this is still referring to George: “Of course the peculiarly high value of city land does not derive from anything inherent in the land, but from the concentrations of work upon city land.”I very much doubt that George would have agreed with Jacobs’ statement on his reasoning. George was very clear that land should never be confused with capital, basic or otherwise. And further, he emphasized land is not wealth, basic or otherwise. As well, George did not like the word ‘profit’, as its meaning is imprecise, so would not have used it in making assertions. More fundamentally, George definitely did not assert that ‘profits’ derive from land values, if by profits, Jacobs means the accounting profits of businesses. In fact, he asserted the opposite, that city land value derives from the ‘profits’ made in cities. So what to make of this quote? I have not unfairly taken it out of context – Jacobs asks “What is ‘basic’ capital” and then goes on to say that ‘basic’ capital is a platonic (not real world) concept. Jacobs’ conclusion in that section is that economic development does not require outside ‘capital’ investments – that outside financing creates economic dependency. Rather, developing economies must provide (and do provide) their own capital as they go along. In a way, she is arguing against the fallacy in economics that poverty is caused by a lack of capital, which goes back to the old Malthusian fallacy that there is a fixed amount of capital which is divided between labourers. In this view, poor regions can be helped along by providing them with capital.The irony of this is that Henry George was saying exactly the same thing – poverty is not caused by a scarcity of capital. He asserted that each society produces enough capital for its own needs – that it ‘secretes’ the necessary amount.The quote does show that Jacobs was aware of Henry George and his work. But it flat out contradicts what he actually says. That Jacobs continues her argument, after misrepresenting George, to conclude the same thing he did is very odd. It may simply mean that she did not understand his work. My own opinion of Jacobs’ lucidity and intelligence, as well as George’s very clear and understandable writing makes me doubt this. On the other hand, she may have read a second-hand source that did the actual misrepresentation, or she herself had not actually read his work, but merely knew of it through later economic writers. But this would be unseemly for Jacobs – someone with a reputation for extensive reading and fact-checking. Less benevolently, Jacobs may be intentionally misrepresenting George, knowing that few people actually read him anymore, to claim his ideas as hers. It would be like some future economist or urban planner claiming: ‘Jane Jacobs, reasoning from the premise that cities are economically dependent on agricultural regions and large empires, asserted that theoretically, it would be better to spread people out over a nation rather than concentrate them in large cities’. The future economist could then go on to explain that de-urbanising a population is actually a recipe for disaster.That may be being too harsh; it makes Jacobs sound like a charlatan. But if Jacobs was aware of George, she must have been aware of the Single Tax movement. She could have thus been aware of the conspiracy against it (she certainly did not harbour any illusions about academic economists), and so did not want to share that fate. If this is the case, the blatant misrepresentation of George’s theories may have been a mischievous way of acknowledging him (without making it look like she was a follower of his), and perhaps testing her audience to see if someone would call her on it. The feeling I get from reading biographical notes on her, and her own writing, is that she did have a mischievous streak in her. As to what she was trying to accomplish with this bit of mischief is now likely un-knowable. But from it, we can be certain that she was familiar with Henry George’s work, and if my hypothesis is correct, she probably understood quite clearly what he was saying.

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Published in: on February 5, 2007 at 1:32 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great to find another person writing intellegently about urban economics!

    I’ve been a Henry George and Jane Jacobs fan for a long time.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. I’m a geolibertarian, and it’s good to see others who are familiar with George’s work. I don’t know of Jane Jacobs, but I will look into her writings.


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