Going through some old files, I came across a letter to the editor written by my late grandfather which was published in the WS J. It seems to be from late 1978. Think about California's Proposition 13 in light of its observations:
LTE, responds to a December 1 article entitled "Arthur Laffer's Tax Yield Curve."
Alfred Malabre's perceptive portrayal on the back page of your issue of Dec. 1 of Arthur Laffer's Tax Yield Curve and the theory he derives therefrom unfortunately has the same defect as the theory and its admirers and most of its critics. All these generalize, as though taxes were all alike. But that is just not so.
Laffer's curve tells us that at rates of 0% and 100% the yield of taxes will be zero, the maximum yield falling somewhere between these two extremes.
This may hold in the case of the income tax, although the zero point on the top side would probably be well below 100%. It is certainly not the case with excises, where, for instance, in India in the 1870s, the tax on salt almost reached 1,200%.
Nor, at the other extreme, does it hold for the property tax, where a low annual cap on the building will, over time, capture a sum whose discounted present value will be a high percentage of that present value, and where the same low rate, applied to rental property, may amount to an alarming percentage of its before-tax income.
But the most striking failure of all these theorists is their failure to analyze and describe the workings of the other part of the property tax, the part that falls on land values.
All taxes on labor and its products are harmful because they lessen incentive and, by adding to the costs of production, they lessen supply and raise prices. Likewise they are unjust as they infringe on the rightful earnings of labor and capital.
Conversely, taxes on land values are just, for land values are but the capitalization of the annual benefits from the community, net of the tax, enhanced by the expectation of future gains from the artificial scarcity created by speculation on the possibility of that rise in price of a factor, the supply of which cannot be increased by production. Moreover, the tax on land values is the only tax that encourages, that stimulates, that compels production and does that in direct proportion to the magnitude of its rate. As one of the top two economists selected for special honor by the American Economic Association at its annual meeting, held in Chicago this past August, has said: "We will never have an economically efficient economy until we have recovered in taxation at least 85% of the rent of land." (In a 5% money market, this would be achieved by a tax rate of 28.33%; in a 10% market, by a 56.7% rate on the actual market value of the land.)
It is understandable that political animals like Gov. Brown and Sen. Long should seek counsel of Laffer. The mystery is why competent economists waste their time in such distractions, instead of turning their attention to the exciting and construction potentials inherent in the study of the economics of land value taxation, especially in these times of fiscal and monetary crises.
Somehow I am reminded of the old shell game, practiced at country fairs, where the pea was under one of three shells and the facile operator moved the shells about with such dexterity that the wagering onlooker rarely could tell which shell finally held the pea. Alas! In the ongoing controversy of fiscal vs. monetary policy, there is no third shell for land value taxation. It is not even in the game!
Committee on Taxation, Resources and Economic Development