Who Owns and Controls America?

Many claim ownership of portions. More strive for their piece of the pie. But relatively few question how the first person came to own that land. Few examine the consequences of unchecked greed and who ultimately controls the direction of the country.

The woods, the streams, everything on it belong to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?
– MASSASOIT SACHEM, Wampanoag Indian chief, 1581–1661

The people who own the country ought to govern it.
– JOHN JAY, first U.S. Chief Justice, 1745–1829

Who owns the Mississippi River, or any of our great rivers? The water runs out of a mountain down to the sea. It belongs to no individual….Who owns the beaches in Santa Barbara and elsewhere? Who owns the fish, the ducks, and the pelicans?…One has but a lease on ownership during one’s lifetime. The success or failure of how something is used depends upon how it is left.
– WALTER J. HICKEL, Who Owns America?, 1971

Yosemite, Calif. [Shay photo]

There was a time when New Braunfels was still among the quintessential small American towns with many more acres of open space than residents.

This central Texas pit stop between Austin and San Antonio had a natural attraction that many similar towns lacked: the Guadalupe and Comal rivers. Locals and visitors had experienced the thrills of fast-moving rapids on those waterways through inner tubes, canoes, and other means since the mid-19th century. There were a few family resorts, such as Camp Warnecke that opened shortly after World War I, and tube rental sites. Many people brought their own tubes and shot the rapids for free.

In 1979, Bob and Billye Henry opened a resort motel on the Comal River and erected a 60-foot replica of a tower at the Solms Castle in Germany. They built slides and pumped water from the river, establishing the second waterpark in the country. The Henry’s bought Camp Warnecke in 1991 and turned the more natural resort into the Boogie Bahn surfing wave and Dragon Blaster uphill water coaster. Schlitterbahn grew into one of the most popular waterparks nationwide, attracting more than a million visitors in 2017. That was more than any such park not in Orlando, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

During a 1980 visit, I sensed the Wave of Change that was to occur in New Braunfels. The city had taken control of the main spillway, charging an additional $1.50 to shoot it. I had just read Hickel’s Who Owns America?, in which the former Alaska governor decried the privatization of public lands. As U.S. interior secretary under Nixon, Hickel supported stronger public land conservation laws and environmental regulations on offshore oil rigs than most officials. He also wrote a letter critical of Nixon’s Vietnam War policy following the 1970 shooting of college students at Kent State University by National Guard troops. Nixon fired him, but Hickel’s position appeared even more conscientious when Watergate took down the disgraced president.

So I had to ask the New Braunfels employee collecting the cash how the city could take over this spillway and charge money for people to enjoy it. I was going beyond Hickel to even question the concept of public ownership of natural resources. “Well, it owns the place so it makes the rules,” she replied.

That reason made little sense to me. I asked to see the manager, who was right behind her. “What do you want?” he asked.

“I want to know how the city can come in here and charge people money for something it didn’t create. I mean, how did they get to own this place?” I asked in all seriousness, as if I really expected an answer.

He looked slightly shaken. “Why do you want to know this?”

“Because I don’t think it’s right for someone to come in and exploit nature just to make money,” I replied, again in all seriousness. I was but 21, naive enough to believe that something besides crass commercialism dominated our society.

“Well, I can’t answer that,” he finally replied. “You’d have to talk to the city. Now, either pay up or leave.”

I left. I found a hole in the fence and entered the park my own way. It was one small act of civil disobedience against the Wave of Change, one small finger in the dike before the hurricane hit and flooded that town and many more towns across the land.

Even back then, my action wasn’t really worthwhile. I had to wait in a really long line to ride down the spillway. Trash littered the water. The city continued to operate the chute, charging $5 to ride it more than once and $10 to park in 2018. The city fees were considerably cheaper than paying $55 for adults and $42 for kids to ride the chutes and other features at nearby Schlitterbahn.

A few months after my 1980 visit, I wrote a manifesto for my college newspaper, the North Texas Daily. I noted how American Indians rejected land ownership for the most part, though some tribes recognized general communal land rights. “The first [European] settlers…disregarded the native Indians’ ways and rights,” I charged. They “set down ownership plots, not caring that [they] didn’t make the land….The [European-American’s] downfall is in thinking he owns something he doesn’t and trying to use this for his own selfish benefit.”

I added that I wasn’t necessarily against progress and the “American way,” but it had to be “done with reason.” The European-American of today “can’t turn his back on that eternal question: Who owns America?” I concluded.

Numerous J-school professors bristled at my bold musings. I received veiled threats, whose authors had to take the time to compose by written letters in those days. Rather than back up me and the First Amendment, our paper’s spineless editor proclaimed to the staff, “From now on, stay away from eternal subjects in future columns.” I wanted to launch a Clarence Darrow-like defense about how one purpose of a university should be to make students think of bigger questions than how they will pay for their education and combat the cockroaches in their dorm rooms. But I had to pick my battles; I figured I had done enough damage. And I could always get around that edict by refraining from actually using the word, “eternal,” again. I did learn a larger lesson: if you’re going to make waves and stand up for what you believe in, be prepared to pay a price.

This land is my land, though you’ve lived here first for thousands of years

When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492 and established a settlement in present-day Haiti, about 25 million natives lived in the region that would become North America. Throughout the entire New World, including present-day Central and South America, estimates vary from 54 million to 112 million people, which would be more than the population in Europe back then. They had crossed a land bridge that connected Eurasia with the Americas across what is now the Bering Strait into modern-day Alaska. The bridge existed until about 10,000 B.C. when it was covered by flood water.

Columbus was not even the first European to reach land in the Americas; the Viking Leif Erikson explored Newfoundland and other North American regions around 1000. While Europeans were starting to transition from the concept of nobility and churches owning much of the land to lower-income individuals overseeing plots, Columbus’ settlement sparked the private land ownership wave in the Americas.

When Columbus’ crew landed, the native Arawaks, Tainos, and Lucayans were friendly, even giving them cotton and spears, and helping to repair their ship. So how did Columbus return the favor? By claiming present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic for Spain — despite natives living there for thousands of years — and killing and enslaving them. Columbus was not only the first slave trader in the Americas, but his son became the first African slave trader, according to former Republican speechwriter Eric Kasum.

With the land grab, Columbus claimed resources such as gold for Spain, as well. The Spaniards reportedly killed and beheaded many natives, raped women, and threw infants headfirst against rocks, according to a report by Indian Country Today. They forced natives to work in gold mines and cut off their hands if they did not produce at least a thimble of gold dust every three months — an almost impossible task since Columbus misjudged the extent of gold on the island. They fed babies to dogs, sometimes in front of horrified parents, and set up butcher shops where the remains of native bodies were sold as dog food. By 1494, about 125,000 natives on the island had died.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were also greeted by natives, who lived in a mostly communal style without private property rights. But the tribes did recognize general land rights — the Wampanoag tribe became weakened with disease around this time and agreed to give up rights to more land to the inland rival Narragansett people. The Wampanoag, led by Massasoit Sachem, welcomed the British invaders, helping them to farm and catch fish to survive the early years. In 1621, Massasoit even agreed to give up access to some 12,000 acres that the Pilgrims used for Plymouth Plantation, though he didn’t really understand the differences between communal land use by natives and the European ownership concept.

While the Pilgrims usually at least worked with natives to gain permission for land, the English Puritans who soon followed just grabbed the land. Puritan leader John Winthrop, who became governor of the Massachusetts colony in 1629, declared that the natives did not have a “civil right” to the land, only a “natural right” that did not have legal standing. Natives fought back, but eventually the English settlers prevailed and made many of them slaves. Many died by smallpox introduced into native communities by the Europeans.

“Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States. “It was a morally ambiguous drive; the need for space, for land, was a real human need.”

Zinn further noted:

Indian Removal, as it has been politely called, cleared the land for white occupancy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, cleared it for cotton in the South and grain in the North, for expansion, immigration, canals, railroads, new cities, and the building of a huge continental empire clear across to the Pacific Ocean. The cost in human life cannot be accurately measured, in suffering not even roughly measured. Most of the history books given to children pass quickly over it.

Activists demonstrate for Native Americans’ rights to clean water and other matters in Washington, D.C. [Shay photo]

Some founders, such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, argued with early American leaders to work with natives, or at least abide by signed treaties to stay off their land. But even Jefferson as president supported the removal of Creek and Cherokee natives from Georgia. In North Carolina, land speculators stole thousands of acres of native land from the Chickasaw people, though they were among the few tribes to fight on the American side against the British.

Andrew Jackson, the country’s seventh president, was a notorious proponent of removing natives so whites could claim the land, particularly through the 1830 Indian Removal Act that he pushed through Congress. He believed he was doing natives a favor by protecting them from white settlers and land speculators who soon outnumbered natives.

Some tribes, such as the Seminoles, refused to move and fought the settlers. Others like the Cherokees used legal means to fight back and even won a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1832 that recognized them as an independent entity entitled to federal protection from the actions of state governments that took their land. But the state of Georgia and Jackson ignored that ruling and forced the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears to the West. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died of cold, hunger, and disease on that 800-mile march in 1838 and 1839.

By 1844, the number of natives living east of the Mississippi River declined to about 30,000 from some 120,000 in 1820. Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief, author, and actor, summed up the removal campaign: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it.”

Land grabs help new American elite concentrate wealth

Following the American revolution, many leaders focused on not just pushing natives off Western land, but on concentrating wealth for the New World elite.

Robert Morris, a Declaration of Independence signer who was U.S. Superintendent of Finance from 1781 to 1784, was one of the more egregious, reportedly steering public contracts to his own company and implementing other measures to profit from the Revolutionary War. In New York, the share of assets in the hands of the richest 1 percent rose from 29 percent in 1828 to 40 percent by 1845. The situation was similar in other large cities.

Securing more land became a primary means of amassing New World wealth. In 1812, the feds established the General Land Office to oversee land grabs, particularly in the expansive Western region. This office became the Bureau of Land Management in 1946.

The federal government owned most of the western land that was taken through force and battles against natives, until states such as Kansas and Utah entered the union. Much of the land was ceded to settlers; about 816 million acres of public land was transferred to individuals and railroads between 1781 and 2013, according to a report by Congressional Research Service. Individual homesteads peaked at 18 million acres in 1910, dropping below 200,000 acres annually after 1935.

Landowners, particularly landlord, railroad, lumber, oil, and mining barons, dominated the U.S. Super Richest Club in the 18th and 19th centuries. Initially, Southern states contained most of the wealthiest landowners because of slavery. Some 60 percent of the 7,500 Americans with net worth of more than $111,000 in 1860 lived in the South, and most were plantation owners. After the Civil War, going West proved lucrative. James G. Fair built a $53 billion fortune by 1894 largely through a Nevada silver and gold mine, the largest mining discovery in the country at that time. Lumber magnate Frederick Weyerhauser’s adjusted earnings totaled $91 billion by the time he died in 1914.

While the feds sold much of its land, the government retained some for mineral rights, national parks, and other uses. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. The feds still owned about 640 million acres of land in 2015, mostly through the BLM and Forest Service, valued at about $463 billion. That was 28 percent of the 2.3 billion acres in the country. That is expected to continue to decline as the Trump Administration sells off more public land, including national parks.

About 60 percent of U.S. land was in private hands — either through individuals, corporations, or trusts — and another 12 percent owned by state and local governments. Western states tended to have much more publicly owned land than Eastern ones; some 61 percent of Alaska was publicly owned, while more than 99 percent of Connecticut and Iowa were in private hands.

So of the 60 percent in private hands, who owned the most land in 2017? TV magnates. John Malone, former CEO of cable giant TCI, topped The Land Report’s annual list with 2.2 million acres. He owned ranches in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado, as well as a castle in Ireland. Ted Turner, founder of CNN and TBS, amassed 2 million acres, including ranches in Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

To little surprise, some 75 percent of the private land is owned by just 5 percent of landowners.

Super Rich get super richer

While owning land was once the quickest way to wealth, most of the richest people in the U.S. and other countries in the 21st century got that way through leading large multinational companies, especially high-tech ones that saw their stock prices skyrocket.

In 2018, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos [$112 billion in net worth] overtook Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates [$90 billion] on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people in the world. They were followed by investment services tycoon Warren Buffet [$84 billion], French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault [$72 billion], and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerburg [$71 billion]. Seven of the ten most wealthiest individuals lived in the U.S.

The number of billionaires worldwide rose to a record 2,208 in 2018, with the most in the U.S. at 585. China’s billionaire class is growing faster as that country had 476. The U.S. had by far more millionaires at more than 15,000, with no other nation having more than 2,000.

Displaying more evidence that the Super Rich have gotten super richer, the 400 Super Richest Americans were worth a record $2.7 trillion in 2017, about double the 2010 amount. From 1982, when the richest 400 Americans were “only” worth $127 billion, the Super Richest have improved their holdings by an astounding 2,126 times.

Meanwhile, the median net worth of the average American adult was $55,876 in 2017, according to Credit Suisse. While that may sound fine to some, numerous other countries were better places for the middle class. U.S. median wealth ranked 21st among some 38 countries, with Switzerland, Australia, and Belgium topping the list, each at more than $161,000. Some 68.5 million Americans — 28.5 percent — were at the bottom of the wealth class, with net worth of less than $10,000. That percentage was higher than most industrialized countries — Australia was the lowest with just 5 percent of its citizens at the bottom.

When the wealth inequality is as great as it is in the U.S., that affects not just the earning power of the middle and lower classes but their political and social power, noted University of California at Santa Cruz sociology professor G. William Domhoff. Many Super Rich individuals may strive to be publicly apolitical or contribute to both major parties; that doesn’t mean they don’t employ well-paid lobbyists to grease the wheels to keep the money flowing to them. Some of them, such as the Koch brothers, outright fund pols and movements.

The result is that substantial changes in helping those at the bottom gain more income and own a greater piece of the pie are practically impossible. Barack Obama tried to help lower-income Americans more than most presidents; yet the share of citizens at the bottom of the wealth class actually increased by about one percentage point between 2010 and 2017. Meanwhile, the share of wealth owned by the richest 5 percent of Americans rose from 60% in 2010 to 65% in 2017.

“The United States is a power pyramid,” Domhoff wrote. “It’s tough for the bottom 80 percent — maybe even the bottom 90 percent — to get organized and exercise much power.”

So who does own and control America?

So do the members of the U.S. Super Richest Club own the country and deserve to rule it as they please, as some of its first leaders suggested?

In short, no. But reality is more complex.

In his book, Unstoppable, controversial consumer crusader Ralph Nader points out that a bigger concern than who owns the country is who controls it. Corporations largely control the direction of the U.S., he claims:

Today, the financial, industrial, and commercial stock corporations care far less about ownership than about control. Ironically, the greatest wealth in this country is still owned by the people but controlled by the corporations under the approving aegis of the federal and state governments. These assets are owned under individual claims, in the case of pensions and stocks, and as a commons in the case of the public lands, the public airwaves, and the varieties of government research, development, and other public assets. All are peoples’ assets controlled and taken by corporate power for profit.

Monument Valley, Utah [Shay photo]

Nader tends to see big corporations as inherently evil, while some point to deeper issues such as human greed. He longs for bolder social critics, saying that 1930s writers, such as Troy J. Cauley, an economist and author of Agrarianism: A Program for Farmers, were more willing to go out on a limb. “If there is to be a stable and permanent foundation for a redistribution of income, the foundation must be a general diffusion of property ownership, that is, a general diffusion of the control of the sources of income,” Cauley wrote in that 1935 book.

Like Nader said, the issue of who controls the country gets to the heart of the problem more succinctly than who actually owns it. Green Bay’s NFL franchise is a publicly owned corporation in name where thousands of shareholders “own” the team. That may be technically true, but most decisions are actually made by a few members of the board of directors.

Democracies convey the notion that every citizen has a voice in voting; yet when you cast your vote, do you really think your decision ultimately has much impact on the politicians sitting in Congress or the White House? There may be an impact on certain pols, some more than others. But more seem to be influenced by their mentors and more highly-ranked colleagues who badger them into voting their way, their large campaign contributors who are mostly Super Rich Club members and corporations, and their personal ambitions.

So who does wield the most control of the U.S.? The president? Speaker of the House? Supreme Court chief justice? Federal Reserve Board chairman? CIA? High-ranking military officials? Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? The growing number of Japanese, Chinese, and other foreign investors who own a substantial portion of the nation’s staggering $21.3 trillion public debt? The Trilateral Commission? A secret group of alien invaders being investigated by the X-Files team?

All of the above?

Even if all of the above parties mostly fight it out to control the direction of the U.S., there are times when a single person from a more humble background can have far-reaching impact. Look at the short life of Mattie Stepanek, whose writings inspired the likes of Oprah and Jimmy Carter before he died in 2004 from a rare form of muscular dystrophy just before his 14th birthday. There are many other examples of individuals having a greater impact than expected.

As I reread my 1980 “Who Owns America?” column, much of it seems simplistic and unreasonable. I wasn’t the first to criticize Europeans’ treatment of natives or question the private ownership system. I’m sure not advocating a total government-ownership system; that doesn’t work, either. Perhaps a fairer hybrid is the best we can do, for now. We should try to emulate nations like Australia more. For such a system to work, you need individuals not motivated by private greed running it. Such leaders are difficult to find, much less help get into positions of power, during the renewed Age of Greed under Trump.

I still believe in the premise of the final sentence in that college paper column. We can’t turn our collective backs on this ownership — and ultimately this control — question. To do so is to give up all hope of ever living in a better society, one with true liberty and justice for all, not just for the United States but for the world.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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