A piece in the current issue of the Economist, the venerable British news magazine, resurrects the tax policy positions of Henry George, an author and political economist who built a worldwide following during the last half of the 19th century:
ON A trip to New York in the late 1860s the journalist Henry George was puzzled. He found the rapidly growing city to be a place of unimaginable wealth. Yet it also contained deeper poverty than the less-developed West Coast. How could this be? George had an epiphany. Too much of the wealth of New York was being extracted by landowners, who did nothing to contribute to the development of the city, but could extract its riches via rents. The problem could be solved by a tax on land values.
George’s subsequent masterpiece, “Progress and Poverty”, sold more copies in America in the 1890s than any other book except the Bible. It spawned campaigns for land-value taxation around the world. It also inspired a board game, “The Landlord’s Game”, a precursor to “Monopoly”. The game was designed to show how property markets naturally tend towards monopolies in which one player can extract all the rent.
Examining the current state of tax policy, the Economist concludes that a stronger reliance on land taxation might be a good thing.
I’ve been interested in George’s land tax proposal ever since reading about it in Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers back in college. (Heilbroner has passed, but his book — last revised in 1999 — remains, in my opinion, the most engaging, lucid, and accessible introduction to the history of economic thought.) As the Economist piece suggests, Henry George’s ideas would fade into obscurity. They have been kept alive by a small but determined band of economists and social activists, coalescing around a group of independent Henry George Schools dedicated to providing continuing education and scholarship about Georgist economic principles.
But the purpose of this writeup isn’t to convince you, dear readers, on the merits of Henry George’s taxation theories, even though I believe they are worth considering. Rather, it’s to point out that important ideas about law reform and public policy sometimes take years to percolate, in some cases beyond our lifespans.
With that reality in mind, I have favored an attitude of restless patience in advocating for desired changes in law and public policy. In this context I think of restless as being dissatisfied with the status quo. I think of patience as being smart, persistent, and determined. I have had to give myself this advice on at least three areas of law and policy reform very dear to me:
Workplace bullying and law reform
Some 20 years ago, my first law review article on the legal and public policy implications of workplace bullying was accepted for publication, and it would be published by the Georgetown Law Journal in 2000. Among other things, it surveyed potential legal protections for targets of workplace bullying under American employment law and found them wholly wanting. I proposed the parameters of what would become a model workplace anti-bullying statute, eventually dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB).
For some 15 years, the HWB has been the main template for law reform efforts concerning workplace bullying, but it has not yet been enacted in its full form by any of the 30 states in which it has been introduced. However, in recent years we have had some breakthroughs, with several states and municipalities enacting workplace bullying legislation and ordinances drawing heavily from the language of the HWB. Unions and government entities are also using the HWB language to collectively bargain over workplace bullying concerns and to design internal agency employment policies.
Here in Massachusetts, we continue to work hard to make our state the first one to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation. The HWB once again stalled in the just-completed session of the MA legislature, despite dozens of legislative sponsors and a positive report out of the committee overseeing it.
Advocacy work can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing. But if you believe deeply in something, you keep going. Maybe you change strategies or tactics, but you persevere. And come January, when the 2019-20 session of the legislature begins, we’ll be ready to go.
Like an unwanted holiday fruitcake
In 2002, the Connecticut Law Review published my article on the legal status of interns, in which I looked at the burgeoning intern economy and concluded that many unpaid internships are running afoul of minimum wage laws. I hoped that the piece would quickly stir some interest, but for many years it pretty much sat there, like an unwanted holiday fruitcake.
This changed when a writer named Ross Perlin authored the first comprehensive examination of the explosive growth of unpaid internships, Intern Nation (2011). He referenced my 2002 law review article and called it “the single best source of information for American internships and the law.” (Thank you again, Ross, for pulling my article out of depths of Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis.) One of Ross’s readers, Eric Glatt, chased down my law review article and concluded that his unpaid internship with Fox Searchlight Pictures just might’ve been in violation of minimum wage laws. Eric would become the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for that internship.
To our disappointment, federal courts have not been friendly to these claims brought by unpaid interns, adopting a very pro-employer legal test for exempting interns from the minimum wage. However, the door has not been completely closed on such legal claims, and the considerable publicity generated by these cases has caused many employers to opt to pay their interns. The debate over unpaid internships, once a non-existent one, continues to reverberate in business and legislative settings.
Should law be therapeutic?
In recent years I’ve allied myself with a much broader effort to change our laws and public policies, an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice called therapeutic jurisprudence. “TJ,” as it is commonly referred to, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal systems, and legal institutions. It favors outcomes in legal disputes and transactions that advance human dignity and psychological well-being.
TJ was founded in 1987 by two American law professors, David Wexler and Bruce Winick. Although it has grown into a global network of scholars, lawyers, judges, and other practitioners, it has yet to enjoy a mainstream presence in legal academe or legal practice. To help expand TJ’s influence, we have formed a new non-profit, membership organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. I am serving as the ISTJ’s first board chair.
I hope that someday, sooner than later, TJ will be recognized as a primary framing theory for the design and application of the law. In the meantime, I find myself inspired by that cohort of scholars, educators, and activists who have kept the flame of Henry George’s ideas alive for so many years.
On being restlessly patient
Indeed, I’d like to think that the spirit of Henry George is pleased to see his ideas about land taxation knocking on the door of greater mainstream reception. Of course, in my case I’d rather not wait for some 130 years to see workplace bullying laws widely enacted, interns being paid for their work, and our laws and public policies embracing human dignity and psychological well-being. But at least it’s a reminder that good ideas can’t be suppressed forever.
As I find myself urging upon those who are understandably frustrated with the pace of social progress and justice, we cannot control outcomes, we can only try to influence them. This is an especially important reality for the times in which we live. Buoyed by a spirit of restless patience, our job is to dig in, plant the seeds for positive change, and take part in moving our society toward something better.
You may freely download my law review articles on workplace bullying, intern rights, and therapeutic jurisprudence from my Social Science Research Network page. At the risk of being immodest, I have been told by many folks who are not lawyers or academics that they are very readable and accessible, which I consider to be a supreme compliment.