Monday, July 27, 2015

FOR SALE: 640 Million Acres

Remember that guy Cliven Bundy?  A few years ago he made headlines by protesting grazing fees on federally owned land in Nevada.  He hasn’t paid them for over 20 years.  The Bureau of Land Management, armed with a court order, showed up to evict his cattle.  He stood in front of the gates, armed with his personal firearms, accompanied by armed supporters, and challenged the Feds to a gunfight.  And, he won the day.  The government backed down.
The standoff over federal grazing fees

He was a conservative hero for a few days until his racist remarks had his political advocates distancing themselves from him.

But, here’s the thing.  He shouldn’t have been a conservative hero.  He should have been a liberal hero.

But, I am getting ahead of myself.

My last post (Let’s understand just what socialism means to us) excoriated democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and, by extension, his supporters and those who advocate his beliefs.  One reader called it a rant.  After rereading it, I had to admit he was right and apologized.  Another accused me of contributing to the demise of civil discourse.  Another mea culpa!

Notably, no one refuted the core of my argument – that capitalism is superior to socialism or even democratic socialism. 

Then I got an email from a friend on the left coast.  It included a link to a New York Times op-ed piece titled “Socialism, American Style”.  The article promotes the idea that state government ownership of real property serves the interests of conservative politicians.  How?  Charging fees for its use raises revenue and enables state governments to reduce taxes.  The authors provide examples of socialist enterprises in conservatively governed states including Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Tennessee.

Like most punditry masquerading as analysis, the column gets the facts right but ignores alternatives that don’t fit the author’s bias.  What alternatives, you ask.

When commenting on fiscal matters, conservatives are fond of making analogies to household budgets or running a business. 

How’s this for an analogy?

If a business doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover its expenses – the equivalent to governments running a budget deficit – they often sell assets to raise cash.  The federal government owns over 640 Million acres of land or 28% of the area of the United States. 

So, here’s my challenge to conservatives and to conservative politicians, if any are listening:

            SELL THE LAND!

If you believe that private enterprise is the surest path to American prosperity, sell the land.  Private owners will convert it to its highest and best use.  It will generate more personal income for its investors.  They will reinvest it; they will spend it; and, it will boost economic growth.  If you believe in supply side economics, you should expect to generate more tax revenue without raising tax rates if the property is converted to a more economically productive purpose. 

The Federal land is estimated to be worth about $128Trillion.  The practice is most prevalent in the 11 adjacent states that constitute the American west, where the federal government owns 47% of the land. 

Sure, some of it houses military bases and government buildings.  But, most of it – including 85% of the land in Cliven Bundy’s home state – is wilderness.  We could pay off the federal debt with proceeds from the sale of only 15% of it.

Much of it is grazing land of the type that old Cliven, the conservative hero, was using to feed his cattle.  What would happen to that land if it were sold to a private owner?  No one can be sure.  Maybe the new owners would build condos or a health spa and resort.  Maybe they would grow genetically modified corn and feed the world’s hungry with cheaply grown food.

But, if that were to happen, Cliven would be out of business.  What would he do?  Lead a march on Washington?  After all, his government benefits will have been cut.  Aren’t we concerned about social outcomes?

The Wildlife News made this point succinctly, referring to him as “a freeloading, welfare rancher who has an inflated sense of entitlement.”

Like I said, Cliven should be liberal hero.



  1. Jim Stetson
    I agree - very important. This should be rightly grouped with the uranium and natural gas control Obama and Clinton have 'sold' to Putin for who knows what political price. Just like Obamacare, we'll have to live these initiatives to learn what the price was - but we know it won't be small!

  2. John W. Stevens, Jr.
    I have supported for a long time, and I continue to support, the sale of most unused Federally owned land. Of course exceptions probably need to be carved out for small areas that represent historical sites, national parks, and a small percentage of conservation areas.

    With the vast emptiness of much of the west, I am not sure how much revenue would be generated. Nor am I confident that the sale to private enterprise would generate additional gross domestic product through agriculture, mining, manufacturing, etc.

    But that is not the point. There is no compelling need for the Federal Government to own so much land. I am not even certain how owning so much land is or can be justified under the enumerated powers of the Federal government under the US Constitution. The US Federal Government needs to divest itself of a large part of its unproductive land holdings, regardless of any other factors.

  3. Phillip Parker
    BS. Don't be fooled. The drive to divest the Federal Government of its real estate is just another drive by the plutocrats to lock up the most beautiful parts of what remains for their private enjoyment and by the extractive industries to exploit the natural resources that we all own without paying a fair price for them. Cliven Bundy isn't ANY kind of hero! He was a thief! He was ripping off all of us and the fees he should have paid are well below what he would have paid on private land. I grew up and will return soon to Montana where the Federal Government owns a lot of land and I hope it stays that way.

  4. Curt Lindsay
    Could we really pay off the national debt by selling 15% of federal land? If true, that seems reasonable and will still retain a pretty good sized chunk. Who is going to buy it?

  5. Phillip Parker
    You could probably reduce the deficit quite a bit by hanging on to the land and charging market rates for grazing fees and mineral leases. They're WAY too low!

  6. Jim Stetson
    The idea of reducing the debt with these potential funds would not be bad in concept. The sad truth is these funds would be consumed liberal Washington for all kinds of silly projects for which there is no long term accounting and the debt would still be there. We have given away more than $3 trillion since the Great Society only to see every metric go in the opposite direction. Selling to 'interested parties,' who are also significant contributors to the Washington elite is a proven looser. Keep the land in the public trust - this is an asset that will only become more valuable for future generations.