As I've noted in an earlier post, Lowell Harriss died a few weeks ago. I've been reading some things he wrote during his long and productive career.
The first is a piece he wrote in 1978, a few months after Proposition 13, California's taxpayer initiative which lowered property taxes and "protected" property owners from paying for services through property taxes, was passed. It is entitled "Property Taxation After the California Vote."
He starts with this: What approach to property taxation would
be most in our interest and that of our children?
He provides some history of the property tax, in general and then specifically in California.
Keep in mind that, in California more than in most of the country, assessments on homes rather promptly reflect market conditions -- in an environment in which house and land prices have been rising rapidly. Often, however, local officials did not use the increases in tax base to finance offsetting reductions in tax rates. Homeowners faced rising tax bills; cash income, especially for retired persons, did not always go up correspondingly.
California's colleges and universities were, however, among the best in the US, and surely some significant portion of the public spending was to provide the very services which caused California's property values to rise.
Lowell went on to say,
The full results of Proposition 13 will not appear at once. Only time will reveal whether new jobs develop now as property owners use the addition to their disposable income; whether extensive declines will occur in state-local employment; and how much more erosion of local authority will result from expansion of state payments to replace revenues lost by the sweeping changes in real estate taxes.
Present owners of property have voted themselves capital gain "windfalls." The reduction in property taxes will tend to raise real estate prices. Today's owners, in voting essentially permanent reductions in annual property taxes, have enlarged the stream of net benefits (income) to be capitalized in valuing real estate. This one-time capital gain in effect absorbs much of the future benefit from the tax cut. In this respect, the specific results of Proposition 13 are difficult to judge because assessments (but not the tax rate) will rise after a sale. Future buyers will pay a higher price -- higher by enough, in general, to offset the tax benefit. "No election will ever be lost by votes in the future," runs the conventional wisdom. And certainly California voters did not have future property owners (or voters) in mind when they rallied to the support of Proposition 13.
Lowering the tax reduces the cash required to hold on to underdeveloped land. "Speculative underutilization" becomes less expensive. Waiting for population growth and inflation to boost prices will cost less. The current offerings of land will decline -- and thereby prices will be raised -- because owners face lower cash pressure to sell or develop. Income tax considerations, of course, complicate individual decisions and require some caution in generalization, but the net effect on land use will be some -- or much -- distortion away from the direction of free-market forces.
Will the California economy get a boost from Proposition 13? Of course it will. Other things being the same, tax something, and there will be less of it (land being an exception). The 50- to 60-percent cut in taxes on man-made capital will alter favorably the "arithmetic" of construction projects in California. How much so is difficult to say. This cost reduction will interact with many other factors, including the forces tending to raise land prices. The change in prospective net returns at the margin may be more modest than impressive. But one conclusion is clear: More capital will flow where tax reduction improves the prospects for investment.
The once widely accepted criticism that property taxes are regressive does not survive modern economic analysis. In fact, a persuasive argument in favor of property taxation for local services can be made on grounds of equity. Especially important, it seems to me, is the fact that in effect this tax enables localities to capture some of the fruits of forces raising prices of land, including public outlays on streets, schools, sewers, and other facilities.
Finally, and probably of greatest potential, there is a real opportunity in the wake of Proposition 13 for restructuring fundamentally the way we tax property. We can reduce burdens on man-made capital and make up the revenue from higher taxes on site values, a procedure which seems to me eminently desirable on several grounds. This possibility should be part of the broader public discussion of the role of property taxation stimulated by the vote in California.
One change may be politically tempting -- to reduce burdens on residential property while maintaining or even raising burdens on business and public utility property. Such moves would not only add to concealment of costs of government in the form of hidden burdens on consumers and investors. In addition, the productive portions of the economy would suffer. Building better communities will not come from boosting taxes on business.
Americans should be "up in arms" -- or at least doing something -- about restricting and effectively controlling the growth of government. "Revolt" seems to me too strong a term; it also seems misleading, implying as it does that a single, dramatic action will do the job. Patient, informed, continuing efforts are required. Among them will be the reform of property taxation to develop its potential as a high-quality revenue producer.
Another, earlier paper entitled "Equity of Heavier Reliance on Land Taxation (Location Value) and Less on Improvements" (1970), starts with this:
Greater fairness in sharing the costs of local government constitutes a prime -- but not the only -- reason for shifting much of the tax from improvements to land. This country will be around for a long time. So also, I hope, will meaningful local government. Effective freedom requires financial independence, including ability and responsibility for raising revenue.
One of the biggest legacies we leave our children will be the tax system. We want to make it as good as possible. Equity is one (again, not the only) element of "goodness" of a tax system.
He proposes a shift to a structure where the millage rate on land is about 4 times that on buildings. He talks about transition issues, and issues of equity during and after the transition:
Two markedly different sets of equity issues command attention. The one of dominant concern ought to be the situation in which we (and our children) would carry on our affairs after generally full adjustment as contrasted with conditions then if present practices were to continue. The long run in which "we" are not all dead! The other concern involves the transition. The shift itself would produce results distinguishable from those to prevail after the economy had settled down to the new system.
Writing of long-term equity issues -- remember that this was 1970 when you consider the dollar figures --
Community Use of Values Created by Social Development and Local Government Spending
Over the longer run, landowners would get less of the increment in the values of location. The general public would get more in the form of a larger flow of the rising yields of the worth of location (land) to finance local services. On this score, the equity results commend themselves very strongly indeed. Socially created values would go for governmental, rather than for private uses -- and locally. The absorption of the increments for local, rather for state or national, governmental use would channel these funds on a benefit basis geographically.
The localities doing most to make themselves attractive would have most of this revenue source. In major cities $10,000 to $15,000 (now often considerably more) of governmental outlay is frequently needed for each new dwelling unit -- schools, streets, fire and police, sanitation and health, park and prison, facilities. Under present arrangements much benefit from such outlays in developing areas accrues to the owner of locations being "ripened" for more lucrative use; his payment in taxes (and special assessments) toward the cost will generally be only a modest portion of the total.
He describes this as a "burdensomeless" tax:
As for the future, the tax on values of location above their present levels would be almost burdensomeless, except as owners of land and their heirs get less of the "unearned increment" of rising values over the decades. Much of the element of true economic surplus would be used for public purposes. For those parcels of land whose values drop, the annual tax would also decline. Then, because tax rates on land would be higher than today, local government would share more fully in the loss of worth. For landowners the proposal would not be a one-way affair which assumes that land always rises in price.
No other revenue source seems to me to compare so favorably on this score of fairness. Future users of land would be no worse off for the much heavier tax they would pay on the value of location. The purchase price of land would be correspondingly less. Of the total flow of yield of location value, interest (explicit or implicit) would be smaller, taxes higher. Who would be less well off? The landowners and their heirs who would have gotten the (unearned) increments!
More of the rise in land value which results from (1) governmental investment in community facilities and (2) the general rise in demand due to the growth of population and income would go to pay for the costs of local government. Such a tax on a pure economic surplus seems to me about as fair as any imaginable source of funds for financing community services. The National (Douglas) Commission on Urban Problems estimated that in the 10 years to 1966, and despite rising interest and tax rates, land prices rose by over $5,000 per American family -- $250,000 million. Even a modest fraction of this amount if used for local government would have permitted quite a reduction of burden on buildings. The estimated rise in land prices was over four times the total growth of state-local debt and was greater than all of the property tax paid in the 10-year period.
Land as area is fixed in quantity. Tax it heavily, and it will not move to some other place, or decide to take a vacation, or leave the inventory of productive resources by going out of existence. Tax land lightly, and the favorable tax situation will not create more space in the community.
Our ethos apparently ties economic justice -- equity -- to rewards based on "accomplishment." This principle does not lead to justification of large rewards because of the ownership of land. Differences, big ones, in payments for human services or for the use of capital can rest on what the recipients have done. But for the owners of urban locations such justification can rarely be found; when there have been private inputs for community development, to the extent feasible administratively, they belong on the tax rolls as improvements rather than as land.
And just before he concludes, he writes,
What an owner can get in the form of land price increases in and around cities has made rich men out of owners of farmland, vegetable plots, and waste areas. More than one owner of a few acres of potato land on Long Island or farms on the outskirts of many a city in the United States, of a small plot of rice land near Tokyo or Bangkok or Taipei, has reaped handsome gains because of the pressure of population. In America, North and South, in Europe and Australia and Africa, private enrichment has come to the passive owner of land who has done little or nothing to enlarge its worth as part of the city whose growth has brought his good fortune. In fact he may have paid no more than an infinitesimal fraction of the taxes which have financed the streets and other governmental facilities that have helped to elevate the value of his land.
Next, I moved on to a longer piece, from the same time, and containing some of the same material. I ended up feeling that it is perhaps the best piece I've read in a long time on Land Value Taxation. It is titled "Property Tax Reform: More Progress, Less Poverty" and it is a lecture he delivered at DePauw University in 1970. I commend it to your attention.
Finally, I note a book from the TRED -- Committee on Taxation, Resources and Economic Development -- series (#6) entitled Government Spending & Land Values: Public Money & Private Gain edited by C. Lowell Harriss (1973). Each book in this series came out of a 2- or 3-day conference, held at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lowell organized this conference, and wrote the book's introduction. Here's the dust jacket material:
Billions of tax dollars are spent annually on government subsidy programs which are designed to help certain groups, areas, and industries, and contribute to the general welfare. Despite the good intentions of legislators, however, analysts point to evidence that the programs are not only burdensome for the taxpayer but often fail to do their intended jobs. Critics find that major benefits go not to those whom the programs are designed to help, but to others who can "capitalize" on them.
One major feature of the subsidy benefit pattern -- unintended but predictable -- is the capitalization of land values. The value of land will increase when the benefits, chiefly money income, are enhanced by government subsidization. When the land is sold, the benefit of a subsidy which seems likely to continue will be captured by the seller. Thereafter, tax funds that continue to subsidize a program will not fully benefit those for whom they were presumably intended, but the seller will have made a capital gain.
A classic example can be drawn from the experience of federal farm programs. Taxpayers and consumers have been spending billions annual to aid some farmers. In practice, of course, these programs have often -- and intentionally -- reduced farm output and raised consumer prices. The consumer-taxpayer is thus dealt a double blow, in effect subsidizing an increase in his own food prices. Yet the operating farmer, burdened with a higher land price, fails to get the full benefits of the programs established for his welfare.
In farm programs, as in some other subsidy programs, the expected annual benefits are capitalized into higher land prices. Then, after land prices have gone up to reflect these benefits, the annual payments to farm operators in effect support the higher land prices. In effect, the seller of land realizes the benefits of government subsidy into perpetuity. A somewhat similar pattern is to be expected in other public spending programs, including those concerned with urban renewal, where benefits are localized. The pattern shows that farm programs do not raise wages of low-paid farm labor, that urban projects do not rid cities of slums, and that the taxpayer-consumer bears the burden of both.
This volume explores, and at least attempts to define, the extent to which land values tend to capture the benefits of subsidies and other government spending through capitalization. It includes papers by proponents as well as critics. The contributors, who include some of the nation's leading economists, discuss the nature and effects of farm and housing programs, commodity price supports, transportation outlays, land preservation projects, water resource development, and urban renewal programs. Their work will be of more than routine interest to economists, political scientists, lawyers, political officeholders and government officials, planners, and all others who seek to unravel the complex fabric of multi-billion-dollar government spending programs.
Lowell made contributions in many parts of economics; I am probably familiar with only a small portion of his work, but I am grateful for it.