Tributes to Mason Gaffney
1923 - 2020
David Cay Johnston
Robert Schalkenbach Foundation
Mase and my late grandfather seemed to have a mutual admiration society, dating back to the late 1950s and a warm respect for what the other brought to the Georgist movement. Together, they and a few others formed the Committee on Taxation, Resources and Economic Development, in the early 1960s, under the auspices of Robert Schalkenbach Foundation but also fiercely independent of it. As a young teenager, I was on the outskirts of the 1966 TRED conference in Milwaukee, due to an airline strike that extended my annual summer visit to my grandparents from its normal one week to six. Dozens of Georgists were nearly family to them, but Mase was, well, special. At Weld's memorial gathering in 1989, Mase sweetly credited Weld with his marriage to Tish 16 years earlier via a Socratic question -- something about whether he was going to continue westward (from British Columbia!) in search, or marry this woman who, Weld recognized, had won his heart. Joe and I met Tish on their way west from Virginia to British Columbia shortly after their wedding, and I think I remember Mase belting out a few Helen Reddy songs on that visit, outside Chicago.
I met Mason briefly for the first time at a TRED conference, the 1996 one, I think, which Bill Vickrey died en route to. I did not meet him again until I became his colleague at UCR in 2007. He was my favorite colleague—a true gentleman and scholar—and I learned a lot from him.
My old friend and mentor, Mason Gaffney, died last week at his home in Redlands, California. I thank David Cay Johnston for a warm and insightful obituary in the New York Times. I also thank Wyn Achenbaum and Nic Tideman and the Schalkenbach Foundation for an extraordinary tribute with excerpts from his writing. Especially check out Mason's timely article, The Red and the Blue, on why high median income cities like New York and San Francisco vote blue, while low income regions vote red: Land values are disproportionately high in prosperous big cities, making homeownership "unaffordable" for middle class residents. So they rent—and vote blue. Suburban and small-town homeowners vote red.
I first met Mase in 1970. My husband and I were working on Ralph Nader's "Power and Land in California" project. In researching that boondoggle visible from the moon, the California State Water Project, I had encountered a scholarly article on irrigation canals, canals that crisscrossed each other delivering water to those who least needed it while bypassing those who needed it most. The article was not only devastating, but funny, so funny I laughed out loud. I had to meet the author!
Come Christmas, we looked up Mase in Washington DC, where he was a scholar at Resources for the Future. He invited us to dinner at his apartment. After frying us up hamburgers with soy sauce, he whipped out his guitar and sang a few numbers from Tom Lehrer--I remember one about "sliding down the razor blade of life." And Gilbert and Sullivan songs, to his own words. We talked late. I don't remember about what, but I was enthralled. He sent us off with a packet of reprints and an enjoinder I didn't then get: "Tax capital and you drive it away; tax land and you drive it into use."
Soon enough, I dropped out of grad school in ancient Near Eastern languages and followed his trail to the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Berkeley. Here, with the help of the massive reading lists he sent me, I eventually learned to apply real economics to big questions, starting with what keeps societies unequal and wages low.
Mase loved a good party. Once, we gave a party for him at our apartment on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. He and wife Tish and baby Laura were traveling from British Columbia to UC Riverside. A bagpiper appeared on the street outside. Really loud. Tish worried he'd wake the baby. But Mase invited the man in and sang numbers with him while the guests clapped and cheered.
Mase and I stayed in touch by letters and email over the years. I wish so much I had managed a last visit before Covid struck. I'll always miss him. And I'll always be grateful for everything he taught me, for his courage and honesty in confronting bastardized economics and history, and for his generosity, clarity and humor in this benighted world.
I would never have ventured near the Georgist movement if it had not been for Mason. A friend at work in Washington, DC in the 1970s told me about Mason and wrote me numerous letters about him while I was living in Japan. It was another ten years before I had access to AJES, at which point, I read all of Mason's articles there and was "converted." It was several more years before I read anything by Henry George, which was a slight let-down after absorbing Mason's reworking of his ideas. I have always thought of myself more as a Gaffneyian than as a Georgist.
I got to know Mason in the process of researching my Harvard PhD thesis. We may have first met at the 1979 centenary celebration in San Francisco.
As I dug into the history it became clear to me from the Saratoga Single Tax debate that John Bates Clark took an ethical argument about land being the equivalent of the wages invested in it (which can be seen in John Stuart Mill) and tried to turn it into a scientific argument. I recall talking about it with Mason and he later rightly described neoclassical economics as a stratagem against Henry George.
Mason was quite aware of the religious element in George and did not discount it. We chatted a bit later around 1980 about that and other things when we stayed with him and Tish and the children at his hilltop avocado farm. That was when Debbie and I played with Laura and the others in the pool doing sneak attacks as "landsharks" (taken from the Saturday Live show). I have a feeling Mason would have liked me to stay in the US and become an academic but I had promised the Public Service I would return and I wanted to go home (even if it was not Sydney) so I was returning with a bride, like Ruth, from another land - but one no longer alien to me.
We kept in touch from time to time. I remember calling him to say how shocked we were by the Twin Towers attack and express sympathy. Mason's reaction rather surprised me. He said in a non-malicious, factual way, something like "Oh well, I've been there before. I remember Pearl Harbour. We will go in with massive air power, bomb everything and make a mess of it. We will try to do it by remote control and machines and it won't work."
Sometime later he asked if I would be interested in editing the AJES but I was starting my law practice as a second career so had to decline.
We were very glad to be able to visit him and Tish in Redlands not that long ago on our way back from Chicago. At that time I reminded him of something he had said to me years earlier that "If you live in a corrupt system, it's preferable to be a beneficiary rather than a victim" and said that my superannuation was invested in utility monopolies and real estate trusts. Mason said he had rather changed his view by which I took him to mean that one should not be too good at being a beneficiary lest one abandon the thirst for justice or sympathy for victims.
Mason was a very sane, decent, centred, man and a teacher of economics who was not embarrassed by discussions of ethical or religious values behind economic ideas and tolerant in a way that is much needed now.
We are all the poorer for his passing.
My deepest connection with Mase was always through his writings. I didn't understand economics until I studied Gaffney.
Comments delivered to the Council of Georgist Organizations Annual Economic Justice & Unsung Hero Awards, July 28, 2020, by Stuart Gaffney
When I was little, the man you know as Mase or Mason to me was just my dad, and then as I grew up he was my dad the professor and economist.
Many years passed before I realized he was also my dad the activist, dedicating his life to creating a better, more just, more equitable world. Dad liked to get into what we might call "good trouble."
But thinking back over our lives together, I have many memories of his fights for social and economic justice: I vividly remember when I was younger, and he brought me along to hear him speak before a hostile crowd regarding the peripheral canal proposed to bring more Northern California water to Southern California. As far as I could tell, the entire room was against him, and some were quite hostile. My own mind turned to eyeing the exits and thinking we should have a plan for escape. But Dad grabbed the microphone and calmly answered every question, looked every questioner in the eye, and never wavered. Even though growing up it's natural to think of our parents as heroes, even superheroes, this was the first time I saw him as BRAVE. This was better than leaping tall buildings in a single bound!
This was also the first time I realized the water use and resource allocation -- things Dad talked about all the time until my sister and I cried out in unison, "Dad, you're overexplaining again!" -- were hot topics that excited passionate debate. And my father was in the middle of it all!
There were many other signposts along the way that told me Dad was an activist, ranging from the way he raised us listening to folk music and protest songs, to the sign on the bicycle he rode to work every day in Washington DC that said "Pollution Solution." He railed against motorcycles and introduced me to the term "noise pollution" at a very early age. He introduced us as kids to his friends like Weld Carter and Arthur Becker -- and they always had an air about them like they might be plotting to take over the world -- as a kid I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
And then years later when I had started to find my own way as an activist, when I met all of you for Dad's CGO Award in Albuquerque in 2003, I realized something Dad had never told me -- you are all activists. You are all making good trouble here together. You were all dedicating yourselves to creating a better and more just world -- just like Dad was, just like Dad raised us to do.
Dad did not immediately embrace the news when I came out to him, but over the years he and I talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked -- and occasionally we listened -- and as a result came to a better and closer understanding of each other than ever before. And then the most unexpected thing happened -- when John and I became active in the marriage equality movement, it was the first time that I truly felt he recognized me as a chip off the old block -- so much so that he began to follow our activism with an enthusiasm that was equal parts proud parent and rabid fan. After the reception following a marriage equality film screening in which a short film I made showed before a feature on Gavin Newsom, Dad wrote: "We loved it all! Never before have I seen so much embracing and congratulating and general euphoria following a presentation."
He was so excited for us to speak to all of you all about the lessons learned from the marriage equality movement at the CGO annual meeting in Newport Beach in 2014. He felt that our movements shared common values of social justice and fairness, and that we could learn from each other lessons on what he called "moving from the margins to the mainstream."
Now I've spoken today about how I came to understand Dad, and all of you, as activists. But I want to say now that I now understand something even more fundamental. All of you were like family to Dad. When I look back over years and years of emails from him -- so many emails! -- I also see how much he loved all of you. We are often copied on the same infinite reply-to-all emails chains that he so loved to send out -- and coming from him I see this as the ultimate proof that he saw us all as extended family together. Your life work, is his life work. Mi familia, es tu familia.
I would just want to say briefly that nothing about life during the pandemic is normal -- and nothing about the end of life during the pandemic is normal. I've come to say the pandemic giveth, and the pandemic taketh away. Because in the final months we all endured a painful separation from Dad, the inability to visit him, see him, hold his hand, and so much more. But there also gifts of the pandemic, including daily Zoom calls in the final weeks when we got to see him and be in touch with him in a way that would not have possible otherwise. On those Zoom calls he would often sing to us. While this program is for unsung heroes -- Dad was definitely not unsung, in the sense that he always had a song in his heart, singing was one of his favorite things in the world.
The last song he sang us on Zoom just a few weeks ago was "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. The opening lines of that song are now a beautiful and haunting memory, an ode to a life well lived: "To dream the impossible dream." After that line he started humming the rest, but I hear those lyrics as if he were singing them to us right now:
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
Thank you all for continuing the quest, this is the best tribute to our father's life work. Thank you for being like family to our dear Dad, and now to us.
Another moving tribute by Stuart is posted to the San Francisco Bay Times, "My Father the Lifelong Activist."
What an extraordinary person! Every word I ever read of his was sharp, fresh, full of insight and range.
I first met Mase in 1969. I was the young Assessor in Southfield, Michigan and he invited me to present a paper at The Committee on Taxation, Resources and Economic Development (TRED) conference, held at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, on methods used to value and assess land. He encouraged me to continue my career as an assessor because the land value tax and land rent revenue would be increased by good land assessments without having to pass new state laws. He suggested that in the future I should write a book on how to value land.
In 1973, I was frustrated with my job as Assessor in Hartford, Connecticut. They asked me to give favorable assessments for the well to do and I quit my job. Mase had become the Founder and Director of the British Columbia Institute for Economic Policy Analysis, Victoria, British Columbia at the University of Victoria. I asked him for a job writing the land assessment book. He said no but told me that BC wanted to reform assessment practices and capture a greater proportion of public revenue from land and natural resources. Assessments had been frozen for 30 years.
He arranged a meeting with Bob Williams the Minister of Lands, Forests and Natural Resources, and they arranged a meeting with the new NDP Premier Bill Barret. Mason said he would pick me up at the Victoria airport at noon and take me to the meeting. When I landed, I couldn't find Mason? That was before cellphones, so I phoned his home several times. The meeting was at 2 PM and after waiting for an hour, I searched every inch of the airport and found him hidden in a quite remote corner reading an economic paper. We made the meeting and I was offered a one-year contract to advise BC on assessment reform.
Our world has entered a terrible phase, and the only viable social paradigm that can guide nations out of the looming existential crisis is the Georgist model. Capitalism and socialism are obsolete, in the process of being buried, bequeathing a horrendous philosophical void. That is why the loss of Mason Gaffney is a terrible blow. Mase was the authority on vital nuances within the Georgist paradigm. That authority must be deployed when "the experts" are marshalled to oppose reform. And so, I am grateful to Dr Polly Cleveland, who curated Mase's works. The Gaffney archive is more than a testimony to a brilliant scholar. It now becomes the voice that will echo down the ages to support those who work for justice.
David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston's insightful obituary appeared in the New York Times 7/26/20: "Mason Gaffney, Who Argued for Taxing Only Land, Dies at 96." Johnston also wrote a much longer tribute for Tax Notes, the journal of Tax Analysts, reproduced here with their permission: "Mason Gaffney: Georgist Conservationist".
Mason was a really vital resource for everyone who likes common-sense thinking on economics (as are you, of course!). I regret that I never got a chance to meet him, but his work was very helpful to me in writing The People's Pension.
Mason was a truly wonderful and amazing man.
Barkley Rosser posted a tribute on Econospeak, "Goodbye to the Last True Georgist Economist: Mason Gaffney." Unlike any other tribute authors, Rosser points out that Mase was also a path-breaking capital theorist, resurrecting and extending the old Faustmann model of how often to cut trees in the forest, or replace wine aging in a cellar, or any other cyclical activities. See Concepts of Financial Maturity of Timber and Other Assets, 1957.
Mase was a giant in the fields of land economics and social justice, an encyclopedia in the history of economics generally, a creative author of a huge bookcase of books and articles, a sharp critic of conventional policy makers, all streaked with a delightful sense of humor and a keen sense of the flow of civilization. I join with others who will miss his wisdom and his friendship greatly.
Mason Gaffney wrote about important questions. He wrote with elegance, clarity and wit. I have always enjoyed reading his papers. When I refer to one of them to check on a point, I often find myself re-reading the whole paper, because I find it so engaging. In the days when I kept them in a file (which grew to about six inches thick), I would find it difficult to close the file before I had read a number of them in their entirety. When I read other economists, I find errors in their thinking. That doesn't seem to happen when I read Mase's work.
Polly, thank you for your tender note about the second bookend of Mase's rich and remarkable life. We seem to have lost the lively, frequent contacts of earlier years, in part because I got involved in other stuff. But I never lost, nor never will lose, my admiration and respect for him.
Robert Schalkenbach Foundation
Wyn Achenbaum and Nic Tideman of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation Board have prepared this full-length tribute, with excerpts from Mason Gaffney's work: "Mason Gaffney: A Tribute from RSF"