It didn’t happen in Washington, D.C., where I live. Median pretax income is $75,000, but the median rise in home values here was only $56,163. But it did happen to me—my house appreciated in value by a dollar amount that exceeded my income. Happily for me, I possess both a job and a house. A lot of people can’t say the same.
Still, I can’t help resenting my house a little. Did its productivity improve? No. It just sat there on its fat ass, occupying, well, quite a bit less than one acre. There are about 36 billion acres on Planet Earth, and I own less than one-thirty-six-billionth of these. But that’s enough for my house to outperform me financially. That’s because I can be replaced. I know you would miss me terribly, dear reader (and thanks ever so much for saying so). But some other human would occupy this space on The New Republic’s website. You can’t say the same about the land where my house sits. Small though it is, it’s a piece of something that’s finite. Planet Earth isn’t going to get more acres. And that turns out to make all the difference.
Houses outearning humans is the sort of thing that would have driven Henry George to distraction. George (1839–1897) was the author of the classic economic work Progress and Poverty. George isn’t taught much in economics classes today, but he was enormously influential in his time, both in the U.S. and abroad. George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, essayist, and co-founder of the London School of Economics, attributed his becoming a socialist to hearing George give a speech in London in 1882. In 1927 John Dewey wrote, “It would require less than the fingers of the two hands to enumerate those who from Plato down rank with him.” George maintained a smaller but still influential following a century after his death. The longtime California House Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is a George devotee. So is the former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley.