Thoughts on Land Privatization and Community Creation

By Evan Pye

I’d like to talk about two things today: private land ownership and how to create “community” in today’s society. The first issue comes from a Crash Course World History video I was watching and taking notes on about Europe in the Middle Ages. The host, John Green, explained that until 1500, most land in Europe was shared by everyone and was known as the “Commons.” When monarchs began to distribute plots of land to the wealthy class, the new landowners removed peasants from their land, which drove the peasants into the city to beg or work menial jobs. These conditions reminded me of what I saw in Uganda during my summer trips there in 2013 and 2014. My classmates and I visited rural villages in the central district of Oyam. The villages were quite remote and consisted of small huts separated by large plots of land. When we asked the villagers if they owned all the land we saw, they told us that most of it was communal grazing land. No one necessarily owned it, but for generations the land was shared for animals to graze. The plots of land that the villagers we met owned were usually about one or two acres near their home. We were all struck at how much land was going un-farmed. Furthermore, the vagueness about who owned the land seemed to mean that no one could use it for growing crops and making a profit. This seemed very inefficient, but the communal land we saw can’t be utilized for agriculture unless it is legally owned and sold by specific families. It seemed that the legal structure is not set up to handle that kind of land distribution policy.

John Green explained in the Crash Course video that land privatization in Europe during the 1500s was harmful to the peasants who were removed from the land, but it led to great advances in agriculture. Green notes that since you no longer had to worry about someone else’s cow stepping all over your crops and eating them, you could focus on carefully planting seeds in rows. Land privatization gave farmers incentives to make more efficient use of their land and “experiment with new methods of food production.”

This history lesson reminded me of another article I read the other week about the purchasing of land in Africa by urban dwellers. Although legal systems have a long way to go, it seems many Africans have been able to buy up large plots of land that was previously known as communal grounds for local communities. They are unhappy with the upswing in “land grabs,” but it reminds me a lot of the land privatization that occurred in Europe. Perhaps the concept of communal land has been inhibiting African economic development, because it promotes an inefficient use of fertile land. If so, there could be a race in the next few years to “grab” fertile African land from communities that have had it for many generations. This may upset the social order but pay off in terms of agricultural output. And if a traditional lifestyle really is at odds with the most financially lucrative use of land, is the new system really worth it to improve economic conditions?

This question leads to the second topic of creating communities in today’s society. I was watching an interview with Louis Cole from his Youtube channel Funforlouis. I’m a big fan of his daily vlogs, so I was interested to hear his answer to the question of what he’s learned from traveling around the world and visiting so many different cultures. Louis told the interviewer that the biggest takeaway from his travels has been the difference between the communal/familial/tribal lifestyle of less developed regions of the world and the individualistic, high tech lifestyle of the developed Western world. Louis and the interviewer conclude that Americans and other Westerners have created a culture in which we don’t really need each other for very much, because nearly everything is available to us at our fingertips. The interviewer makes the case that communities only form when people truly need each other for some reason or another. And in the West (especially in cities), as the need for others diminishes, our connections with others diminishes. But we look around at our lives and realize something is missing. It’s that sense of communities that humans have lived with and valued for our entire collective history.

I think there’s a really important point being made in this interview. I think they’ve identified an issue that leads to so much of the mental illness that is present in our society and in our cities. Technology and advancement has satisfied so many of our needs, that the role of other people in our lives is becoming less important. This is, of course, a terrible consequence of high-tech convenience and social media. I think it’s a problem that has to be addressed and figured out, or else our entire society will suffer greatly at the hands of the technology we’ve created to “improve” our lives.

What I Learned from “Requiem for the American Dream” featuring Noam Chomsky

A few months ago, I watched and took notes on this documentary from Netflix. It features Noam Chomsky discussing his “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power.” These ideas are centered around the relationship between money and power in American politics. Chomsky’s thesis is that greater wealth leads to greater power, because elections are very expensive and American political powers need to appease their funders. In turn, greater power leads to greater wealth, because lawmakers create legislation that concentrates wealth for those who already have it. Legislative tools for this sort of behavior include tax policy, deregulation, and corporate governance rules.

In his “10 Rules” Chomsky refers often to civil participation and recounts the 1960s as the heyday of popular activism. People organized themselves and protested for the rights of women and minorities, and environmental protection. In response, the “masters of mankind,” (ie, the business and legislative sectors) worked to “financialize the economy.” This was accomplished through deregulation of the banks and the offshoring of production. During the 1950s to 1970s, there were no financial crashes, perhaps because regulatory systems placed checks on the financial sector and commercial banks were separated from investment banks. Also during the 1950s, Chomsky points out that the US was “the great manufacturing center of the world.” Indeed, manufacturing made up 28% of our GDP, while finance made up only 11%. In 2010, manufacturing accounted for 11% of our GDP, while finance made up 21%.

The reason that manufacturing accounts for so much less of our economy is free trade. American workers suddenly had to compete with lesser paid factory workers in the developing world. Chomsky paints this as a bad thing, although it seems to me it an inevitable outcome of globalization. It is easy to see, however, how unfair it is that low-paid workers are faced to compete as a result of free trade, while highly paid workers in the financial sectors remain protected from international competition for their jobs. Chomsky also points out that this job insecurity resulting from free trade makes it more difficult for workers to unionize or bargain for better conditions/higher wages. While I don’t think global competition for manufacturing is wrong, I see what Chomsky is saying about how harmful it is for American workers and how convenient it is for the “masters of mankind.”

The documentary has a section on taxes, in which Chomsky explains that taxes on wages and consumption has mostly stayed the same since the 1950s, while taxes on dividends and capital gains (which mostly go to the rich) have steadily decreased. Since the 50s, the marginal tax rate for the highest earners has decreased from about 90% to about 40%. Capital gains taxes alone have decreased from about 35% in 1970 to 18% in 2010.

Principle #6 really highlights the hypocrisy of neoliberalism in America. For the majority, market principles were encouraged to prevail. The government should help as little as possible, because the government is the problem, not the solution. However, in the 1970s, lobbying in Washington increased and deregulation of the banks began. Reagan furthered the policies of deregulation until he was forced to conduct the biggest bank bailout in history. Reagan left office with a major financial crisis that the next government had to bail out again. In 1999, commercial banks were separated from investment banks. The Bush and Obama administrations both had to conduct bailouts of their own, and the next financial crisis is looming, according to Chomsky. The point he is making is that a truly free market wouldn’t let the government bailout the banks when they fail – they would just fail and make room for new actors. The deregulation and subsequent series of bailouts highlights Chomsky’s argument that “there’s one set of rules for the rich, and an opposite set of rules for the poor.”

Principle #7 talks about the problems with our electoral system from a historical lens. The 1976 Supreme Court case of Buckly v Valeo determined that money is a form of speech. About a century before that, corporations were afforded personal rights. So in the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, corporations’ rights to spend as much money as they want on elections was upheld. This is obviously really harmful for elections, and is the subject of Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost, which I am planning to read soon.

Principle #9 has a similar message to Fight Club, which is that consumerism is harmfully distracting us from the important issues in our society. Chomsky notes the power of public relations and advertising firms to distract us with exciting consumer products that are just barely within our financial reach. These products, mixed with entertainment from television and other technologies, make us feel fulfilled and more likely to ignore more significant matters. Even elections are run in this way. We are encouraged to follow a candidate for their character or their ability to inspire us, but we don’t often bother ourselves with the nitty-gritty details of their platform. In fact, the general population’s will has very little to do with what actually happens in our legislating process. We are completely disconnected from the laws that are made. We have no idea which laws are passing on a daily basis, and the majority of Americans would likely disagree with a great deal of them.

In turn, this disconnectedness leads to a distrust of our government. Conservatives take advantage of this distrust by espousing “small government” because “government creates more problems than solution.” The great thing about America, however, is that we are supposed to get together and decide on which rules we want to follow. Taxes and elections are our chance to support those rules. Unfortunately, we have grown to resent taxes, and to some extent even government, because we don’t know what’s happening to our taxes and we know we probably wouldn’t like it if we did know.

The answer isn’t smaller government, it’s just better government. This documentary offers a few solutions, like political activism of the masses the way they used to do it in the 60s. Another solution is reforming our electoral process. Yet another is staying informed about legislation that is being passed and the lawmakers passing it. We might not be taking full advantage of this “experiment in self-government” that Alexander Hamilton and Barack Obama talk about, but we do have the means to improve it. We’ve improved it so many times in so many ways previously, so we only need to become informed enough and organized enough and inspired enough to demand change where it is needed.

Global Affairs from “The Economist”

By Evan Pye

This week I read articles from various online sources and from a few recent issues of The Economist. I have access to an online version of The Economist through my university library account, and I decided to look through some of the articles for the first time in a while this week. I was really surprised at the quality of articles and range of subjects that the magazine covers, so I think I will spend at least the next week reading and taking notes on Economist articles.

I covered a lot of different articles and subjects this week, but they can be grouped into the categories of poverty alleviation, AIDS, and international politics. First, I learned about the current mobile phone market in Africa. Its rapid growth has led to 500 million mobile phone subscriptions, although the rate of growth is slowing. The mobile phone market contributed $153 billion to Africa’s economy in 2015, which accounts for 6.7% of Africa’s GDP. The biggest phone markets are in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, but growth in the next 5 years will be concentrated in Tanzania, Nigeria, and Ethiopia (Source 1). In addition to mobile money, mobile phone chargers are serving as a gateway into solar charger companies such as M-Kopa, which has sold 400,000 solar power kits in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania (Source 2).

Next I looked at poverty through the lenses of hunger and land ownership. The World Food Programme estimates that $265 billion are needed annually to eliminate poverty and hunger worldwide, the majority of which must be spent in rural areas. 800 million people in the world still suffer from hunger today. The WFP highlights social protections and rural/agricultural development as the keys to increasing the incomes of the extremely poor (Source 3). In terms of land ownership, The Economist wrote about how city-dwellers all across Africa are buying up rural land for lucrative farming businesses. Agriculture, if well-organized and done with large quantities of land, can earn more money that urban jobs or public sector jobs in Africa. For this reason, as much as ⅓ of Tanzania’s farmland is currently owned by city-dwellers. This new trend brings benefits as educated and legally-savvy urbanites are demanding more from their governments in terms of legal systems and infrastructure to support agriculture, many communities are pushing back against the large purchases that outsiders are making in their traditional, communal land (Source 4).

My global health news came in the form of an article explaining how much work the world still needs to do to eliminate AIDS worldwide. 16 years after a momentous AIDS conference in Durban, another conference was held in South Africa in July to examine the progress made. The good news is that 17 million people are now on AIDS treatment. The bad news is that 38 million people still have AIDS worldwide and 2 million people are still getting infected with HIV each year, down from about 3 million per year back in 2000. Progress has been good, but not good enough to make the goal of eliminating AIDS realistic any time soon (Source 5).

Finally, I read articles about politics in Zimbabwe and Brazil. In Zimbabwe, 92-year-old President Mugabe is being challenged through protests in the streets and online by a clergyman named Evan Mawarire. The public is joining in the protests, thanks to a terrible economy and a large number of public sector workers (teachers, police, army) whose paychecks are being delayed or even lost. The looming transition that will occur when Mugabe dies could be messy there. And in Brazil, I watched a Vox documentary about favelas, which were formed by slaves and immigrants. They are home to lots of crime and drugs, but also to creative examples of self-governance, as the government has basically abandoned these communities. Speaking of the government, I read that former President Luiz Lula da Silva will face trial soon regarding his bribery scandal with the state-owned oil company Petrobras. The scandal involves many other politicians, including Brazil’s current President Dilma Rousseff, who has been impeached and awaits trial as well. Da Silva was president from 2003-2010, and was popular for reducing poverty and overseeing strong economic growth during that period.