A Fertile Mind

For 70 years, trailblazing economist Mason Gaffney ’48 has championed land over capital.

By Mamie Stevenson ’12 | December 7, 2018

Mason Gaffney ’48 is a cowboy. Known for his weathered Stetson, genteel swagger, and comprehensive understanding of American terrain, he has ridden outside the herd of mainstream economists for the better part of the last century, arguing that the discipline’s traditional emphasis on capital and commerce is a tragic mistake.

The way he sees the story, the land and its resources are the central protagonists, the landowner plays a naive villain, and the sales tax hangs around like a hungry wolf. Armed with this perspective, and a journalist’s way with words, he has written more than 150 articles on subjects from market crashes to the future of cities to the perils of military spending—marked by analysis that is often decades ahead of his contemporaries.

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Mason was born in 1923 and grew up in New York, South Dakota, and Chicago. Always a bright student, he was inspired by reading Henry George’s Progress and Poverty in high school. Considered a seminal text of the Progressive Era, George’s 1879 book argues that instituting a single tax, and one tax only, on the land and its natural resources would create a mode of thinking among citizens that the land is communal, a shared interest, and thus incentivizing the common good. George—the Bernie Sanders of his time—galvanized the American working class to recognize and challenge the wealth disparity created by land monopolies and private interests. The single tax, he argued, would close the wage gap, eradicating patterns of poverty.

As a Christian, Mason saw ethical value in George’s framework; as a product of the Great Depression, he recognized historical significance in George’s movement; as a student, he imagined a future education steeped in Georgist ideology.

Mason began his college career at Harvard, but was disappointed by the economics department there. Few of his professors were familiar with Progress and Poverty and he found little support for his Georgist analyses. Then came WWII, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving as a communications officer in Manila. “I spent a lot of time in the Philippines and New Guinea, and got to observe the social and economic conditions close at hand,” he remembers. “It confirmed my suspicion that land tenure was unequally distributed and made me suspicious about American imperialism.”

Returning stateside, he transferred to Reed and wrote his thesis with Prof. Art Leigh [economics 1945–88] about the causes of unemployment. It was a formative experience. Prof. Leigh fired his intellectual curiosity, encouraging him to refer to the great thinkers of the past while simultaneously breaking the mold and applying Georgist frameworks to contemporary problems. “He was the spirit of Reed,” Mason remarks.

Economists at the time tended to overlook the role of land in the broader scheme of the capitalist system. Mason argued that unemployment was due in part to credit rationing, which is the process of limiting otherwise available credit to borrowers despite demand and willingness to pay interest. With credit given away at the often senseless discretion of lenders, land ownership and monopoly create a hierarchy of access, ultimately resulting in polar wealth disparities and a grave misuse of the land and its resources.

The issue of land misuse continued to gnaw at him long after Reed. He went to UC Berkeley to study agricultural economics and developed his own ideas, which centered around the inherent value of socializing the land within a free enterprise system. “If anyone had ever read the Bible,” he asserts, “they would pick these ideas up.” This was not a popular opinion at Berkeley, however. He was attacked both by students who held his religious views in contempt and by McCarthyites who sought to have him expelled after he penned an article that argued for a more equitable redistribution of the land.

Mason hung on, earned his PhD in 1955, and secured a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census of Irrigation. During this time, his Georgist underpinnings moved from the abstract to the applied. He studied forest management, the timber industry, and water laws, producing trenchant analysis that elevated him “from just another nice boy with good grades to someone serious.” He climbed the ivory tower, first as a professor at various universities, then as a research associate and director of think tanks. Eventually, he settled into a teaching position at UC Riverside, where he served on the economics faculty for 39 years and earned the reputation of being the foremost Georgist of our time.

The extent of his impact on progressive economics is far-reaching. In a system that tends to focus on labor and human production, Mason offers a contrasting view that the land and its resources—often regarded as a static input—are fundamental in their value. Through a Georgist lens, he interprets some of the major economic dilemmas of our time, such as the market crash of 2008, American dependency on foreign oil, and tax reform. His articles demonstrate shrewd historical insight peppered with a cheeky panache, with titles like “Sleeping with the Enemy” and “The Sales Tax: History of a Dumb Idea.”

Now, at 94, Mason continues an incredibly prolific career. He still regularly publishes economic analyses, taking on some of the more urgent consequences of American imperialism. When I spoke to the prominent economist James Galbraith on the phone, he told me he had just finished reading an article by Mason about the perils of corporate involvement in the military, an analysis Galbraith describes as “striking.” He continued, “Every time you read one of Mason’s articles, you come up with something that places in a very crisp and clear light some important issue, and he has thoroughly persuaded me over the years of the centrality of the question of land rent to our understanding of economics.”

Mason has told some of America’s sadder stories, but he always offers something that feels a little bit like faith. As a man who spent his life pointing out the errors of his profession, he reassures us that the solution to our problems has always been there—in the earth beneath our feet.

Find out more about Mason Gaffney at his website. 

Tags: Alumni