Henry George is the most famous American popular economist you've never heard of, a 19th century cross between Michael Lewis, Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Progress and Poverty, George's most important book, sold three million copies and was translated into German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, Hebrew and Mandarin. During his lifetime, George was probably the third best-known American, eclipsed only by Thomas Edison and Mark Twain. He was admired by the foreign luminaries of the age, too -- Leo Tolstoy, Sun-Yat Sen and Albert Einstein, who wrote that "men like Henry George are unfortunately rare. One cannot image a more beautiful combination of intellectual keenness, artistic form and fervent love of justice." George Bernard Shaw described his own thinking about the political economy as a continuation of the ideas of George, whom he had once heard deliver a speech.
Later, she writes,
What George found most mysterious about the economic consequences of the industrial revolution was that its failure to deliver economic prosperity was not uniform -- instead it had created a winner-take-all society: "Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at all. The 'tramp' comes with the locomotives, and almshouses and prisons are as surely the marks of 'material progress' as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled by uniformed policeman, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied."
George's diagnosis was beguilingly simple -- the fruits of innovation weren't widely shared because they were going to the landlords. This was a very American indictment of industrial capitalism: at a time when Marx was responding to Europe's version of progress and poverty with a wholesale denunciation of private property, George was an enthusiastic supporter of industry, free trade and a limited role for government. His culprits were the rentier rich, the landowners who profited hugely from industrialization and urbanization, but did not contribute to it.
George had such tremendous popular appeal because he addressed the obvious inequity of 19th century American capitalism without disavowing capitalism itself. George wasn't trying to build a communist utopia. His campaign promise was to rescue America from the clutches of the robber barons and to return it to "the democracy of Thomas Jefferson." That ideal -- as much Tea Party as Occupy Wall Street -- won support not only among working class voters and their leaders, like Samuel Gompers, but also resonated with many small businessmen. Robert Ingersoll, a Republican orator, attorney and intellectual, was a George supporter. He urged his fellow Republicans to back his man and thereby "show that their sympathies are not given to bankers, corporations and millionaires."
I commend the entire post, adapted from Freeland's new book, Plutocrats. It ends with these paragraphs:
"America today urgently needs a 21st century Henry George -- a thinker who embraces the wealth-creating power of capitalism, but squarely faces the inequity of its current manifestation. That kind of thinking is missing on the right, which is still relying on Reagan-era trickle-down economics and hopes complaints about income inequality can be silenced with accusations of class war. But the left isn't doing much better either, preferring nostalgia for the high-wage, medium-skill manufacturing jobs of the post-war era and China-bashing to a serious and original effort to figure out how to make 21st century capitalism work for the middle class.
Globalization and the technology revolution aren't going away -- and thank goodness for that. Industrialization didn't go away either. But between 1886, when George lost the mayoral race, and the presidency of FDR, American progressives invented, fought for and implemented a broad range of new social and political institutions to make capitalism serve the whole of society -- ranging from trust-busting, to the income tax, to the welfare state.
We are living in an era of comparably tumultuous economic change. The great challenge of our time is to devise the new social and political institutions we need to make the new economy work for everyone. So far, that is a historic task neither party is taking on with enough energy, honesty or originality."
Those looking for a starting point might look for Walt Rybeck's book, Re-Solving the Economic Puzzle.