Land Value Taxation will solve many of the 21st century's most serious social, economic and environmental problems, and promote justice, fairness and sustainability. We CAN have a world in which all can prosper.
Progress and Poverty, by Henry George Here are links to online editions of George's landmark book, Progress & Poverty, including audio and a number of abridgments -- the shortest is 30 words! I commend this book to your attention, if you are concerned about economic justice, poverty, sprawl, energy use, pollution, wages, housing affordability. Its observations will change how you approach all these problems. A mind-opening experience!
Henry George: Progress and Poverty: An inquiry into the cause of industrial depressions and of increase of want with increase of wealth ... The Remedy This is perhaps the most important book ever written on the subjects of poverty, political economy, how we might live together in a society dedicated to the ideals Americans claim to believe are self-evident. It will provide you new lenses through which to view many of our most serious problems and how we might go about solving them: poverty, sprawl, long commutes, despoilation of the environment, housing affordability, wealth concentration, income concentration, concentration of power, low wages, etc. Read it online, or in hardcopy.
Bob Drake's abridgement of Henry George's original: Progress and Poverty: Why There Are Recessions and Poverty Amid Plenty -- And What To Do About It! This is a very readable thought-by-thought updating of Henry George's longer book, written in the language of a newsweekly. A fine way to get to know Henry George's ideas. Available online at progressandpoverty.org and http://www.henrygeorge.org/pcontents.htm
Where Else Might You Look?
Wealth and Want The URL comes from the subtitle to Progress & Poverty -- and the goal is widely shared prosperity in the 21st century. How do we get there from here? A roadmap and a reference source.
Reforming the Property Tax for the Common Good I'm a tax reform activist who seeks to promote fairness and reduce poverty. Let's start with the enabling legislation and state requirements for the property tax. There are opportunities for great good!
36. He worked hard. He played by the rules. He bought up land before the interstate highway was announced, and his widow and orphans now have a very valuable land portfolio, for which others will pay a high purchase price or high -- and rising -- lease prices, for generations. Is it right to change our tax code to tax -- heavily -- year in and year out, the economic value of that land?
Does the Single Tax discriminate between earned and unearned income?
It is the scientific way of doing what we have been feebly attempting to do in an unscientific way, that is, to distinguish between what Dr. Scott Nearing called "property income" and "services income," or between that form of wealth which is the result of individual effort in production and that which is purely the result of the collective effort of society; or between the two forms of wealth which Dr. Ellwood, of the University of Missouri, in a seemingly unwilling recognition of an unwelcome truth, calls "earnings" and "findings."
In the case of the great majority of us (whether as individuals or as partners in corporations) our incomes are so inextricably compounded of earnings and findings, of privilege income and service income, that it is hard for some of us to know whether we belong to the privileged or unprivileged classes, to the slave owners or the slaves, to the confiscators or the victims; and perhaps only those absolutely property less men at the bottom of the social scale can be said to have no share in the "findings" that spring from privilege. On the other hand it is equally true that all industry up to its highest strata, has to pay toll to privilege and provide those "findings" which distribute themselves with more or less inequality over almost the whole of society. How to distinguish between and separate these entirely different kinds of wealth is what all sincere sociologists and honest taxation commissioners have wanted to do and have hitherto failed in the doing.
If we take a handful of sand and a handful of iron filings and mix them thoroughly, and then set a man with the sharpest eyesight and the nimblest fingers to separate the particles, it will take him long to accomplish his task and he will never do it with more than an approximation to completeness. But apply a strong magnet to the mixture and the separation will be accomplished in ten minutes. Then see how the analogy applies to the economic problem in society. Let us imagine the return that should naturally flow to land in the form of rent to take the shape of blue coins made of steel. Let us fancy that the natural reward that goes to capital as interest takes the form of red coins made of wood. Finally let us figure the natural return to human service of all grades as being represented by white coins also made of wood. On examination it will be discovered that in the case of almost every member of society above the rank of the day laborer, his income is tri-colored or composed of all three coins. There are countless "captains of industry" among us who complacently assume their large incomes to be the rewards freely given by a free world in return for their invaluable services, who will be surprised to find how large a proportion of blue their income coins contain. There are multitudes of livers upon what they have called "interest" who will expect to find their coins red, who will be equally surprised to discover that they are almost entirely blue. To complete the parable, the taxation of land values will be like the application of the magnet which will draw away the blue steel coins in whatever stratum of society they may be found, and lay them aside for social purposes, being socially created wealth; leaving the red and white coins to be competed for in a world of free opportunity, without deduction or diminution by taxation or in any other way.
Man is a land animal as much as a fish is a water animal. Not only does man live on land but all of his wants are supplied by or from land. The earth is, literally, his mother. He will perish quickly if he has not access to the breast of his earth mother and will suffer and squall and become panicky if he has not free access to earth's breast and cannot obtain sufficient nutriment. His relation to land is fundamental and can be broken or disturbed only at great peril and loss to him and to society.
Production and consumption will always be in equilibrium and commerce and exchange will always flow smoothly, if all men at all times have equal and free access to nature's storehouse of wealth and if there are no dams -- tariff, -- etc. to interfere with the exchange of products. Free land and free trade are therefore, essential to economic justice; to give all an equal opportunity to produce goods and to exchange them without paying toll to anyone. When goods are produced and exchanged freely, it is reasonably certain that production and consumption will run so closely together that there can be no serious panics or long periods of depression. Serious maladjustment can and will occur only when production and exchange are interfered with and to the extent that they are interfered with.
The private ownership of land, that is, the taking of economic or land rent by private land owners, or landlords, most seriously interferes with some men's access to mother earth. Landlords are not only dogs in the manger; they are a class and about the only class, except the tariff beneficiaries, that consume without producing; that do not give a quid pro quo for what they get.
The capitalist supplies capital and is entitled to the interest that he gets. The laborer --wage, salary or fee earner -- produces goods or gives services and is entitled to what he gets in exchange. The landlord produces neither the land nor the land rent and is not, therefore, entitled to the rent that he takes. He is the only one who takes out of the economic pot without putting something into it. He is the only one who can and does live off the labor of others. He is the greatest of all economic leeches.
Professor Thorold Rogers said, in 1870:
"Every permanent improvement of the soil, every railroad and road, every bettering of the general condition of society, every facility given for production, every stimulus supplied to consumption, raises rent. The landowner sleeps, but thrives. He alone, among all the recipients in the distribution of products, owes everything to the labor of others, contributes nothing of his own. He inherits part of the fruits of present industry, and has appropriated the lion's share of accumulated intelligence."
If, as in ordinary times, the landlord takes only a moderate rent, that is, charges only the actual rental value of land to the capitalist and laborer who use land, production and consumption proceed normally, for society has fairly well adjusted itself to this unjust system. In times of great prosperity -- so-called -- when there is great speculation in land values and they rise rapidly, the landlords can and do take even more than the normal rental value of land; that is, more rent than is produced by society. Access to land then becomes so difficult and the prices that producers have to charge for food, clothing and shelter become so high that consumers are unable, after paying excessive rent, to purchase all of the goods produced. Hence, the glut in the market; the decline in the prices of commodities; the collapse of the over-extended credits; business failures; closed mills; idle labor and low wages. The business depression does not end until land values have declined to or below normal for the population. Soon thereafter business begins to revive, mills to open, unemployment to decrease, wages to advance and prosperity to return. Industry will continue on the up-grade until rents again become excessive. Most, if not all, periods of prosperity end with real estate booms. Even our present war prosperity will probably continue until there is a boom in city, farm, forest and mine land values.
I had the pleasure of watching part of a marathon of the second season of Downton Abbey yesterday, knowing that I'd missed a few shows -- and want to watch them all in sequence.
The setting of the show raises some questions one might want to think about.
1. What sort of wages do all the "downstairs" employees receive?
2. What employment alternatives are available to them?
3. How does the owner of Downton Abbey afford to pay for the services of all those workers, in addition to the non-wage costs of maintaining the castle and the surrounding land, which is an overwhelming job -- and passion -- for him?
4. Is there a middle class in that town? On what are their fortunes dependent? How are they different from the staff at Downton Abbey?
5. What are the opportunities for the children of the house staff at Downton Abbey to have a different life from their parents?
6. Can others prosper?
7. What sorts of ideas, particularly on public policy, maintain the status quo?
8. Why is having the property pass intact to one person so important? What would happen if it were divided among several heirs?
9. Do you think there are small holdings in the same area, where individual families can live, work and prosper, or a series of large holdings like DA?
10. Are people unemployed or underemployed? Are their opportunities limited by the system, particularly if they care about staying close to family?
This is off the top of my head. I'm charmed by the series, and at the same time, am puzzled by how much I enjoy watching it. (Good writing, of course.)
Inside the back cover of the 17th edition of Economics by Samuelson & Nordhaus there is a "Family Tree of Economics" that graphically summarizes the major trends in the discipline's modern history. It presents the most famous exponents of the main schools of economic thought: Mercantilism, the Physiocrats, the Classical School and Neoclassical Economics -- leading to the two modern "endpoints" of Modern Mainstream Economics and Socialism. The book's chart depicts the "value-free" science of economics in a rather partisan way: it places Modern Mainstream Economics center stage as the fulfillment of its precursors -- and leaves Socialism on the far left, trailing off into irrelevance.
This quote came across my inbox today, and I thought it worth sharing:
“We operate from the concept of ‘shalom,’” Forrister said when he reported on that meeting to The Huntsville Times. “’Shalom’ means more than the absence of war, it means the well-being of all. Ezekiel said to seek the ‘shalom’ of the city you’re in – and he was writing to people in exile in Babylon. We’re to seek the good of the whole community, of all of society.”
I came very slowly to the point of view that the nature of the ways we fund our common spending is at least as important as the spending side of the budget. That taxation can be destructive or constructive. That it can be used to create vital healthy communities or ones in which wealth and power concentrate into a few hands.
I grew up with the benefit of grandparents who understood this, and I still didn't "get it" until well after they were gone. Certainly my college education didn't provide me any glimpses of it, despite being concentrated in fields in and around it. I hope that others who are seekers after peace -- after Shalom -- will investigate what Henry George's "Remedy" -- land value taxation -- has to offer for their community and their country.
And here's the final paragraph from the email that the first quote came from:
Taking care of each other is simple kindness, not something sinister, said Forrister, who was trained as a Church of Christ minister.
“Thinking about looking out for the common good is not socialism,” Forrister said. “Capitalism has to be tempered by social policy that responds to human needs that capitalism won’t respond to.”
Our current form of capitalism is, among other things, land monopoly capitalism. Were we to remove the land monopoly aspect, through land value taxation, we would have a purer capitalism, one which I think would better serve the ideals we claim to hold dear.
If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn, and if (instead of each picking where and what he liked, taking just as much as it wanted and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got into a heap and reserving nothing for themselves but the chaff and refuse; keeping this heap for one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock; sitting round and looking on all the winter whilst this one was devouring, throwing about and wasting it; and if a pigeon more hardy or hungry than the rest touched a grain of the hoard, all the others instantly flying upon it and tearing it to pieces — if you should see this you would see nothing more than what is every day practiced and established among men.
— ARCHDEACON PALEY (1785), Moral and Political Philosophy, Book III., Part I, Chap. 1.
It is frequently pointed out by Georgists that there are no really good rebuttals to land value taxation.
This excerpt from a 1971 letter to my grandfather from a colleague describes where the opposition comes from:
There may be be no "arguments that actually oppose LVT" as Bill says, but there are plenty of people who not only actually but actively oppose it. These are the people who are making hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the unearned increments land speculation gets as a result of land being so undertaxed that the landowner puts up only a trifling share of the enormous community investment needed to make his land reachable, livable and readily saleable. Of 7 million-odd New Yorkers I would guess that perhaps 70,000 people profit by today's misapplication of the property tax while 7 million lose by it, but the problem is that the 7 million have no idea of what they are losing while the 70,000 jolly well know that they have a good thing going for them and fight to keep it.
I've been trying for a year to get my friend, J___ C___, past president of the Realtors and Chairman of the Realtors Economic Research Committee to stop fighting LVT, but he keeps coming back to how his father bought some land near San Diego for $20 an acre before 1900 and sold it for $4,000 an acre around 1950 and his father could not have held it all that time if he had had to pay more than a nominal tax.
I don't think anyone should take the equity argument seriously. Just because the ownership of underused land has been subsidized for years does not entitle its owners to expect the subsidy to be continued forever, and likewise, for those who bought land in the expectation that the subsidy would be permanent. The equity objection to increasing the tax on land would apply almost equally to any other tax increase.
A week later, another letter includes this:
Just because landowners have had a wonderful subsidy racket going for them in the past should not give them any claim on having that subsidy continue ad infinitum. I do agree with Lowell that the transition to LVT would raise problems, and in any area with a high tax rat on property I can see that the transition would have to be staggered over a period of years, probably not less than five or more than ten, dpending on how big a tax rate was to be shifted off improvement values onto location values.
In the same file, a copy of a 1969 letter from the same person to Lowell (Harriss):
I don't see how tripling the tax on land could fail to force almost all owners of underused land to get busy and put it to better use. Conversely, I don't see how taking the equivalent of a 51% sales tax off improvements could fail to be a tremendous stimulant to improvements. If a 7% Federal tax credit on improvements was so effective, what would wiping out a 50% tax do!
This came by email today, from my friend Mike Curtis, and, with his permission, I'm sharing it here:
Dear friends and acquaintances:
I am daily reminded of the passage: “the only thing that is necessary for evil to prevail is for too many good men to do nothing” I just heard on the radio that science is advancing in the realm medicine, energy, and agricultural. We are now able to multiply productivity in manufacturing due to the use of robotics. Yet in spite of all the gains in material progress poverty is increasing.
“It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.”
“This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization and which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern Progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe. To educate men who must be condemned to poverty, is but to make them restive; to base on a state of most glaring social inequality political institutions under which men are theoretically equal, is to stand a pyramid on its apex.”
Henry George 1879 (Progress and Poverty)
I am not running for political office, but if I can enlighten anyone, I believe my efforts will have been worth it. The following my reaction to the prevailing wisdom from all the presidential candidates, including the one in the White House.
If you think my thoughts are worth consideration, please let me know, and forward them to others. If you think I’m wrong, please let me know where I went wrong.
Taxes kill jobs
"Taxes kill jobs" is the message of political candidates. The American economic system causes unemployment and recessions; that is true, but without revenue and the role of government the U.S. would surely be a third world country.
However, there is one tax system that actually creates jobs. It’s not based on the socialistic principle of “Ability to Pay,” like most of our taxes. It’s based on the value of the “Benefits Received” by the tax payer. It’s doesn’t confiscate a percentage of income, taking more from those who have a greater income, even when the benefits they receive are the same as others. It doesn’t tax wages, which are the earned income of labor; it doesn’t tax buildings, machines, or inventories, which were acquired from the people who made them; It doesn’t tax sales or consumption, which is the only reason anyone produces anything.
It is simply a charge for the value of the opportunities to which the taxpayer has been given exclusive control. It is a tax on the value of land. It can be taxed at 100% without in any way adding to the cost of production. It doesn’t add to the value of land or the value of things produced on the land. It simply collects what would otherwise go to the holders of land as an un-earned income when the land is actually used.
It insures that the government has ample revenue for the legitimate needs of society, while limiting the government to those values which cannot be attributed to the efforts of individuals or corporations, but are socially created by the community as a whole and attach to the land. It cannot be evaded, because the land cannot be hidden.
The reason wages no longer rise as inventions and new technologies increase the results of labor is because people have no independent way to employ themselves.
If you’re among the least skilled workers, no matter how little machines cost or how much those machines increase the results of your labor, you have to bid against other people who want the same job; the result is that wages tend to a bare minimum -- superseded by the legal Minimum Wage.
For workers with superior skills and knowledge, those with whom employers can increase their profits, it is simply a matter of supply and demand. The higher the pay, the greater the incentive to learn the skill and acquire the knowledge. The wages of any qualified worker will be determined by two opposing factors. First, the demand for the goods or services they produce will encourage employers to offer wages that tend to equal the greater value of their contribution to the product or service. But, as the higher pay stimulates others to acquire similar skills and knowledge the increased supply of superior workers competing against each other, brings wages down until the wages that reward the special skill are no longer high enough to stimulate others to acquire the same skill and knowledge required for the job. Remember when computer programers earned twice what they do now? The supply increased and their wages went down. They still make more than the average worker, because it’s not so easy to learn computer programing. The supply has not exceeded the demand.
Although the vast majority of workers have no way to employ themselves, and the general level of wages haven’t increased in 40 years, it is not a natural law that wages will always tend to remain static. The United States has 700,000 square miles of arable land. That is less than 450 people per square mile. France has more than 850. The U.K. has more than 2,500 and Japan has more than 7,500 people per square mile.
All production takes place on land. The reason why more workers are looking for employment than landowners are looking for workers is that an enormous portion of the arable land in America is unused or grossly under used; simply held as an asset.
Suppose that cities were developed to their full potential. The slums with empty houses and abandoned factories were redeveloped to their full potential; the surface parking lots were replaced with multi-story parking garages; the grossly underdeveloped sites in the high-rise business districts were put to their highest and best use. Suppose the suburbs were carefully planed and developed with wooded and open parkland instead of relying on land speculators posing as farmers to provide open space; suppose we eliminated sprawl with its leapfrogging patterns that increase the cost of the infrastructure, waste land, and separate people from work and social relations; suppose we created a disincentive to hold idle, mineral land that increases in value. That is to say: What would happen if the majority of now privately held idle land was put to good use? It would generate an increase in the demand for labor and create job opportunities for everyone who was willing and able to work.
What is required is a shift from confiscatory taxation, which we now have, to a revenue system that is based on the value of land, which measures the value of the benefits received by landholders from society. Land values include the surface rights, mineral rights, and all other natural opportunities like the electromagnetic spectrum used for communications.
Under this proposal, the rental value has to be paid whether the land is used or not. While the payment of rent is a payment for a benefit received, for those who leave their land idle, it becomes a penalty, and that insures an ample supply of land for all who need or want to use it.
It also insures that all workers and the owners of productive capital get to keep everything they produce by taking advantage of the natural opportunities that are equally available to everyone else.
When the structures that our laws and traditions create provide opportunities for someone to capture a windfall, should we blame the fellow who "takes advantage" of those structures, or should we respond by studying and correcting those structures and laws?
Winston Churchill, in his speeches under the baanner "The People's Rights," in 1909, said this:
I hope you will understand that when I speak of the land monopolist I am dealing more with the process than with the individual landowner. I have no wish to hold any class up to public disapprobation. I do not think that the man who makes money by unearned increment in land is morally a worse man than anyone else who gathers his profit where he finds it in this hard world under the law and according to common usage. It is not the individual I attack, it is the system. It is not the man who is bad, it is the law which is bad. It is not the man who is blameworthy for doing what the law allows and what other men do; it is the State which would be blameworthy were it not to endeavour to reform the law and correct the practice. We do not want to punish the landlord. We want to alter the law.
The 99% need to start identifying the laws and structures that must be adjusted. This is not easy work.
What individuals produce, and corporations produce, should not be "there for the taking" -- be it by corporate management in the form of hugely generous compensation packages and golden parachutes, or by simply saying "these resources are OURS, not everyone's" or by establishing monopolies or duopolies or other such structures. We-the-people need to educate ourselves about how things are done now, who benefits from that, and what alternatives exist. It won't be easy. We'll be challenging special interests who somehow think they're entitled to their advantaged positions, and the rest of us exist to keep them comfortable.
Labor should get its share, and capital should get its share, and we-the-people should get land's share. That last could fund a large portion of our common spending, on infrastructure and services, and permit us to reduce or eliminate the dumb taxes which take which individuals and corporations legitimately create. That "keeping what we create" extends, also, to "externalities," to being responsible for the pollution we create, and setting up incentives so that it is minimized, for the good of all of us now here and the good of future generations.
I think it is quite possible, even likely, that a few years after we've made this shift in who gets what, we'll find that we don't need nearly so robust a social safety net, and that we-the-people may get some of "land's share" back in the form of a Citizen's Dividend, just as all permanent residents of Alaska receive an annual dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund.
In any case, letting some corporations and some individuals grab that which we all create together is just plain wrong. Letting it be "there for the taking" is insanity and injustice. And don't we pledge "liberty and justice for all?"
Our ancestors may have granted some privileges to some lucky folks for one reason or another. That doesn't mean that we can't, politely and firmly, revoke those privileges. A couple of centuries is plenty. Experience has shown us that those privileges don't serve the greater good, and it is time to revoke them. Will the privileged give up those privileges graciously? Quite possibly not. But the first step is to identify them, and then to seek to change the system so that those rightly-common assets aren't "there for the taking."
A civilization which tends to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a fortunate few, and to make of others mere human machines, must inevitably evolve anarchy and bring destruction. But a civilization is possible in which the poorest could have all the comforts and conveniences now enjoyed by the rich; in which prisons and almshouses would be needless, and charitable societies unthought of. Such a civilization waits only for the social intelligence that will adapt means to ends. Powers that might give plenty to all are already in our hands. Though there is poverty and want, there is, yet, seeming embarrassment from the very excess of wealth-producing forces. "Give us but a market," say manufacturers, "and we will supply goods without end!" "Give us but work!" cry idle men.
The evils that begin to appear spring from the fact that the application of intelligence to social affairs has not kept pace with the application of intelligence to individual needs and material ends. Natural science strides forward, but political science lags. With all our progress in the arts which produce wealth, we have made no progress in securing its equitable distribution. Knowledge has vastly increased; industry and commerce have been revolutionized; but whether free trade or protection is best for a nation we are not yet agreed. We have brought machinery to a pitch of perfection that, 50 years ago, could not have been imagined; but, in the presence of political corruption, we seem as helpless as idiots. The East River bridge is a crowning triumph of mechanical skill; but to get it built a leading citizen of Brooklyn had to carry to New York $60,000 in a carpet bag to bribe New York aldermen. The human soul that thought out the great bridge is prisoned in a crazed and broken body that lies bedfast, and could watch it grow only by peering through a telescope. Nevertheless, the weight of the immense mass is estimated and adjusted for every inch. But the skill of the engineer could not prevent condemned wire being smuggled into the cable.
The progress of civilization requires that more and more intelligence be devoted to social affairs, and this not the intelligence of the few, but that of the many. We cannot safely leave politics to politicians, or political economy to college professors. The people themselves must think, because the people alone can act.
"A civilization which tends to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a fortunate few, and to make of others mere human machines, must inevitably evolve anarchy and bring destruction."
"a civilization is possible in which the poorest could have all the comforts and conveniences now enjoyed by the rich; in which prisons and almshouses would be needless, and charitable societies unthought of. Such a civilization waits only for the social intelligence that will adapt means to ends. Powers that might give plenty to all are already in our hands."
Think about that one not just with regard to America, but with regard to the entire world.
"Though there is poverty and want, there is, yet, seeming embarrassment from the very excess of wealth-producing forces. 'Give us but a market,' say manufacturers, 'and we will supply goods without end!' 'Give us but work!' cry idle men."
"The evils that begin to appear spring from the fact that the application of intelligence to social affairs has not kept pace with the application of intelligence to individual needs and material ends. Natural science strides forward, but political science lags."
"With all our progress in the arts which produce wealth, we have made no progress in securing its equitable distribution."
"The progress of civilization requires that more and more intelligence be devoted to social affairs, and this not the intelligence of the few, but that of the many."
"We cannot safely leave politics to politicians, or political economy to college professors. The people themselves must think, because the people alone can act."
"Social intelligence." Nearly 130 years have passed since Henry George wrote these words. Nearly every college has a Social Sciences division. Most have a political science department and an economics department. Almost all have history departments. Many have American Studies programs. I'd venture to say that not one in 1000 has a professor who knows these ideas well. Many know the name of Henry George, as they know some other names from his era, but few have had the quality of education that would include exposure in depth to George's ideas.
Some would say that these social questions have no solutions, and move on to discuss some other topic they think more important, or solvable. Some might murmur that any attempt to solve these questions would by definition be somehow socialistic, and therefore is not worth a further thought. (Much depends on what you mean by "socialistic;" the word seems to be a conversation closer in many circles, which is a shame -- though I do not regard George's ideas as remotely socialistic as the term is commonly used.)
Those who have sat with Henry George's ideas know differently. These problems can be solved. Might you join that group? What would it feel like to know these problems do have solutions?
And as we enter a presidential election season, this one bears repeating:
"We cannot safely leave politics to politicians, or political economy to college professors. The people themselves must think, because the people alone can act."
Pointing to the recent declines at the top, Mr. Kaplan argues the Occupy protesters have accused the wrong villain by focusing on inequality, which he called an inevitable byproduct of growth. “If you want to reduce inequality, all you need to do is put the economy in a recession,” he said. “If you want the economy to do well, as all of us do, then you’ll get more inequality.”
Well, maybe at the University of Chicago, that is what is taught, but is it true?
It may be inevitable under our current structures, but if one gets outside that box, and looks deeper, one finds other answers.
I would suggest that Mr. Kaplan, who teaches economics at the Graduate School of Business at the U of C, look beyond the interests of the university's and b-school's founders and big donors and alumni and current students, and consider that we're all in this together, and that when we permit a few to monopolize and privatize things which rightly are our common treasure, inequality is the inevitable byproduct.
Mr. Kaplan might start by exploring the ideas of Henry George. They were in his freshman economics texts, but most likely his instructor didn't lecture on them, or include them in exams (most likely because his own instructors hadn't!)
Read what those textbooks have to say, and then think about whether it is in Mr. Kaplan's personal career interests to speak of an idea that could rock the yachts of alumni and donors and others who like our current structures just fine, thank you! The privileged like their privileges, and would prefer that we not notice that they are privileges, or, if we do notice, think that THEIR privileges are somehow in OUR best interests.
Temple Artisan. 17:119-21. January, 1917. Rent and the Cost of War. Sydney L. Milliard.
The question has been asked, "Where, before war breaks out, is the money which is later spent on the war?"
It has been shown that it is not in the laborers' pockets, because the laborers are better off when the war has broken out, and that they have more and not less during the war. It is not being distributed in legitimate profits because legitimate profits are greater after the war has broken out. It is not being distributed in interest because interest is higher after war has broken out. It must be somewhere, in some location that is hurt by the outbreak of war. Money comes from somewhere for war purposes. Therefore the people who had that money before the war must be poorer. Who are they?
They are owners of rents and of spurious capital. By spurious capital is meant various bonds and stocks that represent merely the power to tax industry and which do not represent real bonafide industrial machinery at all. And principally they are the owners of economic rent.
It has been asked why France made such a quick recovery after 1870. Before 1870 one third of the wealth of France went in rents. The owners of these rents had to be kept by France in idle luxury. The war broke land values into nothing. France had not this money to pay away to useless aristocracies so she was able to pay for the war with it, and later to pay the indemnity, too. And in addition to this the demand for produce so increased that every worker had plenty to do at good wages, and was therefore able to buy the produce of other workers, and this condition caused the war to be not only not a disability to France, but a positive benefit.
In England before the great war one third of the national income went direct to the pockets of the ducal landowners. These men constituted a vastly greater charge upon English production in the long run than any war, big or little, has ever done. This charge of one third of the national income has been going on for ages, and always increasing in volume. It is a total national loss. There is absolutely no come-back from these ducal families. One third of the nation has to work for them, and they do nothing in return. Nothing reaches this condition but the Single Tax and war. The single tax we cannot get — not yet; war we have. What does war do?
The war has sent thousands of the British aristocracy to the front where they fight for their living; it has sent the country estates to the bargain counter at such figures as never were heard of before — they are almost giving them away. Even in the big cities land sales at former figures have abruptly stopped, and in Paris, with the German army in sight, land values ceased to exist. Should the kaiser really set foot in force on British soil the value of London real estate would vanish.
To revert to our original proposition, — "Where, before war breaks out, is the money which is later spent on war?"
It is inherent in the price of land; it inheres in rent; it goes into the pockets of a few owners of economic rent who are just as direct a charge on the community as is war. Wipe these people and their charge out and you can easily pay for your war. Take away this national charge of one-third of the national income to the owners of the soil and you can keep your war going in perpetuity and never miss the money. You are simply spending money that is already lost. You are not spending money on the war that you already had; you are spending money on the war that some one else already had to the infinite detriment; are throwing away bad money, money that could otherwise be put to a worse use than war, namely, luxury and degeneracy.
As it is in Europe, so will it be in America if a real war ever breaks out here. If the combined European fleets were bombarding New York, and you owned New York real estate you would not expect to realize very much on your property. Still less could you realize if the combined European armies were encamped around New York. Since the wars have been going on in Mexico, rents have almost disappeared and much land value has entirely so. But in Mexico the destruction has gone beyond the wiping out of land value and has destroyed actual necessary commodities.
Henry George said that "All taxation ultimately falls on rent." War is taxation. It falls on rent. Then comes an added advantage. It breaks loose the foundations of industry which so-called over-production has bound up. It enables the workers to get to the machinery of production and the idle land and produce goods which they by this time have money enough to buy. The state, which before the war was simply a negative observer of a cancer eating its own vitals, now becomes a positive agent in spreading employment, wealth, and general business. The state demands everything that can be produced, and at good prices. Now everyone is in demand, and at good wages. Before the war the aristocracy could not buy the products of mill and mine and field; the aristocracy couldn't consume these products, therefore the mills shut down. War can consume them, so the mills open up at full speed and wages! "Where, before war breaks out, is the money which is later spent on war?" Answer: In the pockets of the owners of economic rent. War breaks this down and distributes it amongst the workers in payment for value received. How can we produce this condition in time of peace? Answer: By doing away with economic rent through the imposition of the single tax, and then using that wealth to buy up the product of the national toil to be used for the benefit of the whole people.
"ARE WE SOCIALISTS?" Thomas B. Preston, in the Arena, December, 1899
It is socialistic to make the revenues of the government a burden on industry. Revenues there must be, but they should not bear upon industry. In fact, the taxation of any product of labor is simply taking from the laborer part of his earnings. To such an extent we are socialists. Any other form of taxation than that on the value of land is essentially socialistic because any other tax is passed on from the seller to the consumer, and takes part of the latter's earnings without compensation, for use by the community. Any tax on earnings is socialistic, although it may not go so far as to take all a man earns. The substitution for our present system of a single tax amounting to the full rental value of land would sound the death-knell of socialism.
While we sin so deeply in our present bungling, socialistic way by forcing individuals to give up part of the proceeds of their labor, by fining a man who builds a house more than if he were maintaining a public nuisance, by tariffs which hinder trade with foreign countries, and add millions to private fortunes at the expense of the people, and by a thousand indirect taxes which make life harder for men without their being able easily to see the reason, on the other hand we foolishly leave to individuals those great agencies which are the outcome of social growth — the product of the inventive genius of a few men, if you like, but which after a time grow so powerful as to become the very arbiters of life and death. Prominent among such agencies are the railroad and the telegraph. They can crush communities out of existence and enrich the owners at the expense of their fellow men. They have already become the chief source of corruption in government. The ownership of these agencies by the community becomes a necessity for the continuance of social progress. Otherwise these monopolies can go on increasing and concentrating until a few persons are enabled, through them, to appropriate the wealth of a community. In so far as socialism demands the state ownership of agencies of this nature, it is proceeding in the right direction. There are many other agencies besides the railroad and the telegraph, such as the supply of water, gas, light, heat, telephones and means of transit and communication, in which the American idea of free competition is a fallacy. Here we are too individualistic. The right to make war and peace was long ago taken from individuals and vested in the community. So at a later stage was the carriage of letters. National quarantines, boards of health, public schools, are all examples of applied socialism in its legitimate sense. But why should we stop here? The existence of such great monopolies as the railroad and the telegraph is a standing menace to the life of the Republic. Let us munificently reward the inventors or appliances which shall add to the comfort and convenience of the community, but allow these agencies to be owned perpetually by individuals never!
We are socialistic where we should respect the rights of the individual, and we are individualistic when individualism is a crime against the Commonwealth. And so we go blundering on. When our stupid and oppressive system leads men to cry out against it, and riot and murder follow, we hang a few anarchists. When monopolists, grown bold through long years of immunity, attempt to rob a little more openly, by pools and combinations or by direct bribery, we create interstate commissions to watch them, or we send a few to prison, allowing others to escape to Canada; repressing a little here those who complain too loudly, where we should rather rectify their grievances, and lopping off a little there the enormous unearned profits, which we should abolish altogether. Meanwhile our two classes of tramps are increasing — those who travel around the world in flowing palaces, living upon the toil of others, without using their capital in any legitimate enterprise and those who go afoot, pilfering from cornfields and hen roosts — both classes an unjust burden on a hard working, long suffering community. We have arrived at a critical period of our history, where we must meet the demands of social progress, or our civilization will perish as surely as did the fallen empires of former ages. Already the mutterings of revolt are growing louder and louder, while upstart monopoly was never so insolent and imperious as it is today. Let us be warned in time, and, discarding all half measures, face the issue like men, and not go on trusting to luck, foolishly dreaming that somehow, at some time, existing wrongs will right themselves.
Perhaps you saw "60 Minutes" last Sunday (11/13). Just in case you didn't, here are some excerpts from the transcript. I commend the whole thing to your attention. It begins:
The next national election is now less than a year away and congressmen and senators are expending much of their time and their energy raising the millions of dollars in campaign funds they'll need just to hold onto a job that pays $174,000 a year.
Few of them are doing it for the salary and all of them will say they are doing it to serve the public. But there are other benefits: Power, prestige, and the opportunity to become a Washington insider with access to information and connections that no one else has, in an environment of privilege where rules that govern the rest of the country, don't always apply to them. ...
Most former congressmen and senators manage to leave Washington - if they ever leave Washington - with more money in their pockets than they had when they arrived, and as you are about to see, the biggest challenge is often avoiding temptation.
Peter Schweizer: This is a venture opportunity. This is an opportunity to leverage your position in public service and use that position to enrich yourself, your friends, and your family.
Schweizer says he wanted to know why some congressmen and senators managed to accumulate significant wealth beyond their salaries, and proved particularly adept at buying and selling stocks.
Schweizer: There are all sorts of forms of honest grafts that congressmen engage in that allow them to become very, very wealthy. So it's not illegal, but I think it's highly unethical, I think it's highly offensive, and wrong.
Steve Kroft: What do you mean honest graft?
Schweizer: For example insider trading on the stock market. If you are a member of Congress, those laws are deemed not to apply.
Kroft: So congressman get a pass on insider trading?
Schweizer: They do. The fact is, if you sit on a healthcare committee and you know that Medicare, for example, is-- is considering not reimbursing for a certain drug that's market moving information. And if you can trade stock on-- off of that information and do so legally, that's a great profit making opportunity. And that sort of behavior goes on.
Kroft: Why does Congress get a pass on this?
Schweizer: It's really the way the rules have been defined. And the people who make the rules are the political class in Washington. And they've conveniently written them in such a way that they don't apply to themselves.
The buying and selling of stock by corporate insiders who have access to non-public information that could affect the stock price can be a criminal offense, just ask hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam who recently got 11 years in prison for doing it. But, congressional lawmakers have no corporate responsibilities and have long been considered exempt from insider trading laws, even though they have daily access to non-public information and plenty of opportunities to trade on it.
Schweizer: We know that during the health care debate people were trading health care stocks. We know that during the financial crisis of 2008 they were getting out of the market before the rest of America really knew what was going on.
While Congressman Bachus was publicly trying to keep the economy from cratering, he was privately betting that it would, buying option funds that would go up in value if the market went down. He would make a variety of trades and profited at a time when most Americans were losing their shirts.
Peter Schweizer thinks the timing is suspicious, and believes congressional leaders should have their stock funds in blind trusts.
Schweizer: Whether it's uh-- $15,000 or $150,000, the principle in my mind is that it's simply wrong and it shouldn't take place.
But there is a long history of self-dealing in Washington. And it doesn't always involve stock trades.
Congressmen and senators also seem to have a special knack for land and real estate deals. When Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert became speaker of the House in 1999, he was worth a few hundred thousand dollars. He left the job eight years later a multi-millionaire.
Jan Strasma: The road that Hastert wants to build will go through these farm fields right here.
In 2005, Speaker Hastert got a $207 million federal earmark to build the Prairie Parkway through these cornfields near his home. What Jan Strasma and his neighbors didn't know was that Hastert had also bought some land adjacent to where the highway is supposed to go.
Strasma: And five months after this earmark went through he sold that land and made a bundle of money.
Kroft: How much?
Strasma: Two million dollars.
Kroft: What do you think of it?
Strasma: It stinks.
We stopped by the former speaker's farm, to ask him about the land deal, but he was off in Washington where he now works as a lobbyist. His office told us that property values in the area began to appreciate even before the earmark and that the Hastert land was several miles from the nearest exit.
But the same good fortune befell former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who helped steer nearly $70 million dollars in government funds towards redeveloping this defunct Air Force base, which he and his brother both had a commercial interest in. Gregg has said that he violated no congressional rules.
It's but one more example of good things happening to powerful members of Congress. Another is the access to initial public stock offerings, the opportunity to buy a new stock at insider prices just as it goes on the market. They can be incredibly lucrative and hard to get.
Schweizer: If you were a senator, Steve, and I gave you $10,000 cash, one or both of us is probably gonna go to jail. But if I'm a corporate executive and you're a senator, and I give you IPO shares in stock and over the course of one day that stock nets you $100,000, that's completely legal.
And former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband have participated in at least eight IPOs. One of those came in 2008, from Visa, just as a troublesome piece of legislation that would have hurt credit card companies, began making its way through the House. Undisturbed by a potential conflict of interest the Pelosis purchased 5,000 shares of Visa at the initial price of $44 dollars. Two days later it was trading at $64. The credit card legislation never made it to the floor of the House.
Brian Baird is a former congressman from Washington state who served six terms in the house before retiring last year. He spent half of those 12 years trying to get his colleagues to prohibit insider trading in Congress and establish some rules governing conflicts of interest.
Baird: One line in a bill in Congress can be worth millions and millions of dollars. There was one night, we had a late, late night caucus and you could kind of tell how a vote was going to go the next day. I literally walked home and I thought, 'Man, if you-- if you went online and made-- some significant trades, you could make a lot of money on this.' You-- you could just see it. You could see the potential here.
So in 2004, Baird and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter introduced the Stock Act which would make it illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks on non-public information and require them to report their stock trades every 90 days instead of once a year.
Kroft: How far did you get with this?
Baird: We didn't get anywhere. Just flat died. Went nowhere.
Kroft: How many cosponsors did you get?
Baird: I think we got six.
Baird: When you have a bill like this that makes so much sense and you can't get the co-sponsorships, you can't get the leadership to move it, it gets tremendously frustrating. Set aside that it's the right thing to do, it's good politics. People want their Congress to function well. It still baffles me.
But what baffles Baird even more is that the situation has gotten worse. In the past few years a whole new totally unregulated, $100 million dollar industry has grown up in Washington called political intelligence. It employs former congressmen and former staffers to scour the halls of the Capitol gathering valuable non-public information then selling it to hedge funds and traders on Wall Street who can trade on it.
Baird: Now if you're a political intel guy. And you get that information. Long before it's public. Long before somebody wakes up the next morning and reads or watches the television or whatever, you've got it. And you can make real-- real-time trades before anybody else.
Baird says its taken what would be a criminal enterprise anyplace else in the country and turned it into a profitable business model.
Baird: The town is all about people saying-- what do you know that I don't know. This is the currency of Washington, D.C. And it's that kind of informational currency that translates into real currency. Maybe it's over drinks maybe somebody picks up a phone. And says you know just to let you know it's in the bill. Trades happen. Can't trace 'em. If you can trace 'em, it's not illegal. It's a pretty great system. You feel like an idiot to not take advantage of it.
I am including this because I find it timely and timeless; because it provides a good simple mathematical look at the perversity of our current tax system, and because it illustrates my notion that when Leona Helmsley said "WE don't pay taxes; the little people pay taxes," she was not describing tax evasion but actual tax structures.
Henry George, Jr., was a U. S. Congressman. His most famous writing is "The Menace of Privilege."
WHO ARE THE CRIMINALS?
BY HENRY GEORGE , JR. Copyright, 1901, by The Abbey Press, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York
I. Who are the Criminals? 5 II. French Aristocracy of Privilege 6 III. New York Aristocracy of Privilege 10 IV. Robbery of Masses by Classes 12 V. Nature and Extent of Robberies 13 VI. How to Stop the Robberies 18 VII. The Criminals 23
I. WHO ARE THE CRIMINALS?
In considering the problem of how to check or control vice and crime in New York the question at once raised is: Who are the criminals? Who are they who cause these dreadful evils in the community? For unless we know exactly where the disease lies how can we attempt a remedy?
II. FRENCH ARISTOCRACY OF PRIVILEGE.
When the French Revolution broke loose the people followed the lead of men who seemed no better than a pack of devils, for they maimed, they brutally tortured and they slew. Women, whose only offense was that they were members of an arrogant and grinding aristocracy, were stripped naked, treated with every indignity and killed with every mark of ferocity. Old men and young children belonging to the upper classes were butchered, and persons of blameless life and humane intention were trampled under foot when they attempted to stay the carnival of blood.
Who will dare say that these revolutionary leaders, these butchers, were not criminals — criminals whose bloody hands must shine down through history? They were men turned to monsters; brutes with human intelligence, striving for new ways to torture and kill.
But whence came they? Not from without. They sprang up within. They represented the spirit of retaliation — of fiendish retaliation for the centuries of wrong done them and theirs. They were the progeny of poverty made by robbery. Their deeds were the deeds of monstrous criminals, but they themselves were the spawn of hideous injustice — an injustice that gave to the few riotous feasting and gorgeous raiment and to the many rags and black bread filled with maggots.
The aristocrats during centuries of power had appropriated the soil of France, and all other Frenchmen had to purchase the privilege of living in their native country. Not content with this, the upper classes had thrown upon the masses all those heavy taxes which it was the plain intent only the landowners should bear. They shifted upon the common people all the expenses of an extravagant, aristocratic government, and through ground rents sucked away all the people's remaining substance, save just enough to keep them alive and at work. Who were making the masses so poor and wretched was as plain as day. The masses themselves could see, and when they raised the sword against the aristocracy all hell seemed to break loose.
Who were the criminals? Why, of course they were criminals — horrible, revolting criminals — who did this guillotining, who committed these butcheries.
But who made these criminals? Clearly those who bore so heavily upon the people — the aristocrats, who kept the people in fearful poverty and ignorance which bred the spirit of bloodthirsty tigers.
The aristocracy, therefore, were the primary, the real criminals.
III. NEW YORK ARISTOCRACY OF PRIVILEGE.
I wish to proceed with greatest caution, with utmost conservatism. Yet candor compels me to ask: Have we not in our community an aristocracy of privilege — an aristocracy far more rich, far more powerful than was the aristocracy of old France? And have we not a corresponding poor class? Is it not true that half the population of Manhattan Island is living in what Ex-Mayor Hewitt rightly calls "those terrible tenements?"
That Prince of the Church, Bishop Potter, has proposed in the emergency that we have noonday prayer meetings. By all means, we all say. Let us bow ourselves before Almighty God and ask for relief from this social scourge. Yet what if, while we pray, we abate not the power of our aristocracy of privilege; what if we do nothing to mitigate the poverty of the million tenement dwellers?
The distinguished divine has also proposed a military police. If that were good, would not a local standing army be better? It would keep order, at least for a time. But would it cure the general poverty among the masses? Would it not rather act like a lid fastened down on a volcano — work well, until fire and molten stone and destruction belched forth? What then?
IV. ROBBERY OF MASSES BY CLASSES.
Assuming that we are sincerely trying to make civic conditions better, that we are seeking a cure (if there be a cure) for the general vice and crime in the community, should we not ask ourselves some plain questions? Is it not the truth that we have an aristocracy? Is it not the truth that we have a poor class? Is it not certain that the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer and more numerous?
I believe that there can be but one answer — yes.
Yet I can see no reason for this state of things unless it be that the classes are robbing the masses.
V. NATURE AND EXTENT OF ROBBERIES.
LET us consider how the classes may be robbing the masses into poverty.
It is said that when the first Dutchmen came sailing into New York Bay they bought Manhattan Island for $24. That was for the land alone, no houses or other improvements being here. Today the selling value of the bare land of this same Manhattan Island is at least $3,000,000,000. Those who possess the land of this island, now get what is equivalent to a ground rental of $150,000,000 a year, with this sum steadily swelling. The ground rental of Greater New York cannot be less than $225,000,000 yearly.
This vast sum is paid over to the landlord aristocracy — for what? For doing nothing. The people multiplied from a ship's crew to several millions in and about the island and behold! the vast value of land which in the beginning sold for but $24. The increment of value obviously has not been produced by individuals; it is entirely aside from and in addition to the value of improvements, which spring from human labor, which are produced by individuals. This increase in land value is a publicly-made value. It of right belongs to all the people. Do all the people get it? No, the few whom we recognize as the owners of this land claim that value and get it. The people at large in the community get nothing. Do not these landed aristocrats — of which the old French nobility were in many respects prototypes — rob the community? Do they not go far toward robbing a large part of the people into poverty?
Take another instance of robbery of the many by the few. Observe what we are doing about public franchises. A public franchise is a public right of way, a public highway. Modern civilization, with its intense centralization, its condensed population, and its interdependence of individuals, makes these highways of vital importance to the community. They are the arteries of the body-social, the channels of intercommunication and transportation, of heat, and water, and light, and power, and sewage. Were they suddenly destroyed, a large part of the population would die as quickly as a member of the human organism withers up and dies when the flow of blood is cut off from it.
Then if these public franchises, these public rights of way, these public highways, are so vital to the body-social, so necessary to the well-being of the people, what should be our policy toward them? What is our policy toward them? Why, in the case of water and sewage we treat them as public property, operating them publicly through public officials. But what do we do in respect to the other franchises? What do we do regarding street railroads, telephones and telegraphs, electric lighting and heating and gas, and steam supply? All these public franchises are treated as if they were private franchises. Upon all these public highways we allow private individuals to set the claim of ownership; to make charge upon the people; make charge upon the body-social for its blood, as it were. And a conservative estimate of the annual value of these public franchises in Greater New York at this time is $30,000,000.
Here, then, we have two forms of grand, constant, continuous robbery of the people — an aristocracy of privilege appropriating public ground rents and public franchise values, so that a few of the population are enabled to live in palaces while a million crowd into tenements.
VI. HOW TO STOP THE ROBBERIES.
Now the masses of the people of Greater New York lose annually by the appropriations of the landed and franchise aristocracy —
In ground rents
In franchise values
While they are compelled to pay in various taxes for the support of local government
Which makes in all
What shorter way is there to relieve poverty and to do social justice than to abolish the $98,000,000 of general taxes, which fall mainly upon industry or the fruits of industry and terribly hamper the masses of the people; and then what more simple than to appropriate for local governmental expenses that sum out of the $225,000,000 of publicly-made land values? Why not further lighten the load of the masses by taking over into public ownership and management all public municipal franchises, just as are water and sewage now; and then why not cut down their cost of service to the public that $30,000,000 which now represents purely franchise value in the charges of the private corporations that possess and manage them?
For a third step, why not make these municipal utilities free to the public, meeting the expense of their operation by another appropriation of the publicly-made land values?
And for a fourth step, why not appropriate for an old-age pension to every citizen, rich and poor alike, for public parks, for public lectures and concerts, or for any other or for all such purposes — all that still remains of the publicly-made land values?
What would be the result of such a policy? It would be that all the people in Greater New York would be relieved of the burden of $98,000,000 of various taxes; that the great charge of the many branches of the public franchise service on the people would be entirely wiped out and abolished; and that the whole of land values, that is, of ground rents, would be enjoyed by all the people equally, being appropriated for public uses.
Would this make any difference in the community? The welkin is made to ring by the most influential of the tax-payers when, under present conditions, the taxation authorities raise or lower the tax rate even 1%. What, then, would happen if all taxation were lifted from the fruits of toil, if public utilities were made free, and if land values were to benefit, not a class, but the whole people?
Such a tax would be just, because it would fall on this publicly-made value; it would be certain, because land cannot be hidden or lessened in amount; it would force all unused or inadequately used valuable land into its highest use, for no one could afford to hold such land vacant for a speculation, as very many do now.
Land in Greater New York would therefore be cheaper — how much cheaper may be judged by the fact that two-thirds of the land within the city limits, though extremely valuable, is not now used. This unused land would compete with the used land for users, so that land values in the community generally would fall. At the same time all building materials, being relieved of present taxation, would be far cheaper, making two of the chief elements for house building would be greatly less in cost, and consequently, larger, lighter, better dwelling accommodations in every way could and would be supplied to the masses of the people, and especially to the million now living in tenements.
What would help the poorest would be of direct and indirect benefit to all others in the community; and this would be but one of a large harvest of good results that the people would reap from such a policy.
The privileged classes, the aristocrats, would lose their privileges, but they would have no less rights than any and all other citizens of Greater New York.
VII. THE CRIMINALS.
That able and public-spirited citizen, Mr. President Baldwin, of the Long Island Railroad, and Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Anti-Vice Committee of Fifteen, has said that this is not the time for "idealist scheme of reform." But we are trying to put down vice and crime in the community; and the question is: Who are the criminals?
Let us be frank with ourselves: Who are the criminals? Are they the housebreakers, the unfortunate women who walk the streets and the police officials who take blood-money? Or are they those who rob the masses of the people into poverty — deep, biting, degrading poverty?
Are not the aristocrats of privilege, knowingly or unknowingly, the criminals we should first consider in an examination of civic disease in New York?
The tax plan being promoted by one of the presidential candidates, Herman Cain, seeks to impose a federal personal and corporate tax rate of 9% and a national sales tax of 9%. The word for "no" in German is "nein." Since the 9-9-9 plan would be neither equitable nor efficient, we can respond in German, "nein, nein, nein!"
The first "nein" is on the 9% business flat-rate income tax. This would impose a tax on gross income minus purchases from US firms, investment in capital goods, and exports. That would be much better for enterprise than the current top income tax rate of 35%. However, recognizing that any taxes on production has an excess burden, the best tax rate of all would be a flat zero.
The second "nein" is on a personal income tax rate of 9% on gross income minus charitable donations. The plan complicates this with special tax rates in "empowerment zones." Such enterprise zones often just shift business away from other areas, and then the land rent in the zone goes up to soak up the locational advantage, so the ultimate gainers are the landowners, especially those who are politically well connected and are able to buy up land in the zones prior to being established.
The poorest workers pay little or no income tax today, or even get cash under the "earned income tax credit". The flat-rate 9% tax would make the poor pay higher taxes. Again, a 9% tax is better for most taxpayers than the current tax rates that go up to 35%, and a flat tax that eliminates real estate deductions and exemptions is also better, but best of all would be a flat wage and profits tax of 0%.
The worst part of the 9-9-9 plan is the 9% national sales tax. While to some extent the effect of the sales tax would be offset by the reduction of income taxes, still, sales taxes get added to the cost of production to increase the price of goods. For companies that were making little profit, they would have paid little income tax, so the tax could end up raising their prices by more than the current tax system. If they employ low-wage labor, those workers would have been paying little or no income tax, and would now have to pay the higher nine-percent income tax, which would further increase costs to those enterprises. The 9-9-9 plan would dramatically increase income inequality at a time when inequality has already been rising rapidly.
The 9-9-9 plan is supposed to be revenue-neutral, but analysts have found that it would generate less revenue than the current system, so the 9-9-9 numbers would probably be raised to 10-10-10 or higher. Once a national sales tax or value added tax is in place, the tax rates could be raised, as they have been in Europe.
It has been pointed out that the tax plan being promoted by Herman Cain is the same as the tax structure in the 2003 video game "SimCity 4". This video game simulates a city, and the default tax rate is 9-9-9. According to some analysts, in this simulation game, the 9% tax rates were not enough to finance the desired public goods.
The favoring of one tax plan implies the rejection of the other systems. The advocacy of a national sales tax implies the rejection of alternatives such as a national land-value tax. So we can ask why a candidate is rejecting a tax on land value in favor of a tax on produced goods.
Herman Cain is correct in saying that the natural state of the economy is prosperity, and that freedom promotes prosperity. He is right in saying that government must get out of the way of production. He is right in saying that production drives the economy. But he does not go to the logical conclusion of the free-market argument: marginal tax rates of zero. To best promote employment, investment, and growth, place no tax on additional production, trade, or consumption.
A land-value tax would best let the economy rise to its natural rate of prosperity. LVT would be levied on the economic rent of all land. Taxing land value is equivalent to taxing its economic rent, also referred to as ground rent or geo-rent. LVT would be based on the most productive use of a plot of land, regardless of current use, and regardless of current rental payments. Thus if a plot of land were not being used as productively as possible, the tax would push landowners to make the best possible use of their lands, or else pay the same as those who do.
LVT would promote equity and greater equality of income and wealth, because it would equalize the benefits from land, and equalize the gains from economic progress as captured by higher rent.
The prices of goods, including wages and interest rates, provide information about their scarcity relative to the desire for those items. Taxes both on production and on goods twist, distort, and skew these numbers, so that the economy is operating on false signals. LVT does not change the market rent, and rather than acting as a tax, it acts to remove a subsidy. Land value gets subsidized as the public goods provided by government, but not paid for by landowners, pumps up rent and land value. If this rent is not collected for public revenue, then it is a gigantic subsidy to land ownership. Thus taxes on goods and on income from production and not on land value end up subsidizing land value and shifting wealth from the poor to the rich.
Thus if the 9-9-9 plan increases wealth, the gains would go to the rich at further expense to the poor. The worst part of the plan is its continuation of the massive subsidy to land value, and even if the plan generates more growth, the benefit will ultimately go to higher rent and land value, generating an even greater real estate boom to be followed by another big crash.
So let's say in German: Nein! Nein! Nein! Let's also say Zero, Zero, Zero! Zero tax on wages, zero tax on goods, zero subsidy to land value. The tax emperor appears to be dressed to the nines, but like in the story of the naked emperor, the cloth is imaginary. -- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2010 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
I got into a chance conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago about wealth concentration, and he made an assertion that appalled me: that 400 families hold 50% of America's wealth. I told him that I knew wealth concentration was a serious problem, but that I was sure it wasn't that concentrated! He brought out his cell phone and googled these words: 400 families control 50% wealth, and got results. We were at lunch with a group, so I didn't pursue it then.
I returned to the topic and did some research (without recalling exactly what his search criteria had been). What I came up with were the following:
A page from Michael Moore's website, entitled "The Forbes 400 vs. Everybody Else" (March 7, 2011), which begins, "According to the most recent information, the Forbes 400 now have a greater net worth than the bottom 50% of U.S. households combined." He provides sources for his assertions, and they all look quite sound to me, with the possible exception of his note 3, which includes nonprofits.
This is a very different assertion from saying that 400 families hold 50% of America's wealth. That sent me looking for the correct data for my friend.
If you've spent much time on this site, you've probably looked at the series of 3 articles listed at left on Concentration of Wealth. Part 1 provides these data, from the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances (Federal Reserve Board "Ponds and Streams"):
Top 1% 33.8% Next 4% 26.6% [Cumulative: 60.4%] Next 5% 11.1% [Cume: 71.5%] Next 40% 26.0% [Cume: 97.5%] Bottom 50% 2.5%
The 2007 SCF study writeup says that the Forbes 400 are expressly and purposely omitted from the SCF, and suggests that they account for 1% of Net Worth. So add that to the numberator and the denominator.
More recently, I learned about a series of 3 articles Citigroup published in 2005 and 2006 in a newsletter called "Equity Strategy" which dealt with how investors might profit from "plutonomy"; "rich" here pertains not to net worth but to income:
"In a plutonomy there is no such animal as “the U.S. consumer” or “the UK consumer”, or indeed the “Russian consumer”. There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie. ... As Figure 1 shows the top 1% of households in the U.S., (about 1 million households) accounted for about 20% of overall U.S. income in 2000, slightly smaller than the share of income of the bottom 60% of households put together. That’s about 1 million households compared with 60 million households, both with similar slices of the income pie! Clearly, the analysis of the top 1% of U.S. households is paramount. The usual analysis of the “average” U.S. consumer is flawed from the start. To continue with the U.S., the top 1% of households also account for 33% of net worth, greater than the bottom 90% of households put together. It gets better (or worse, depending on your political stripe) - the top 1% of households account for 40% of financial net worth, more than the bottom 95% of households put together. This is data for 2000, from the Survey of Consumer Finances (and adjusted by academic Edward Wolff)." - October16, 2005
One of the other articles in the series also provided a much higher estimate for the net worth of the Forbes 400 than the 1% I'd been carrying in my head: 2.4%
The Factcheck article provided, for September 2010, the Forbes 400 Net Worth of $1.37 trillion and the total US Net worth of $54.9 trillion, which makes the Forbes 400's share 2.5%. If we apply that 2010 percentage to the 2007 SCF data, we get this:
It appears to me that 50% of the net worth is held by about 3.5% to 4% of us.
Henry George wrote of a wedge being driven through society, driving a relative few upwards, and the rest downwards.
Thomas Shearman wrote, in 1889, as follows:
Federal taxation has increased 6-fold since 1860, and the whole of this increase has been taken out of the relatively poorer classes. At the same time, the profit which is secured to the wealthier classes by the adjustment of indirect taxation in their interest has been increased not less than 10-fold. The wealthy classes, collectively, have made a clear profit out of the indirect effects of taxation to an amount far exceeding all that they have paid in taxes, although this profit has been absorbed by a minority of even the rich. But, apart from this, the whole system of taxation is and has been such as to take from the rich only from 3% to 10% of their annual savings, while taking from the poor 75 to 90%. It is true that the same system existed, in form, before the war; but, taxation being light, the amount taken from each individual was far less, and the disproportion between the rich and the poor not so great, while the profit levied from the poor by the rich was much smaller. The amount of the burden has increased, and it has been more and more shifted over upon the poor.
It is childish to imagine that, under such circumstances, the concentration of wealth can go on less rapidly here than in Europe. On the contrary, it has gone on far more rapidly here; and it will continue to do so, at a tremendous pace.
It is intended to confine this paper to a simple investigation of facts, without suggesting remedies; but, to avoid misapprehension, the writer wishes it to be distinctly understood that he is opposed, on principle, to all schemes for arbitrary limitations of individual wealth, whether by a graduated income tax, a heavy succession tax, or otherwise; that he is utterly opposed to communism, socialism, and anarchism; and that he is of opinion that the enormous wealth of the few in this country has been forced upon them by the votes of the very masses who have been impoverished for their benefit. Populous vult decipi. The farmers insist upon throwing away their inheritance; and since they are determined to heap their earnings upon somebody, it is well that the list of their chief beneficiaries should be, upon the whole, so respectable. And, indeed, has it not been clearly explained to us that it makes no sort of difference who owns the wealth of the nation, so long as it is kept at home?
But the facts should be known, without regard to the inferences which may be drawn from them; and we are now prepared to answer the question: "Who own the United States?"
The United States of America are practically owned by less than 250,000 persons, constituting less than 1 in 60 of its adult male population.
Within 30 years, the present methods of taxation being continued, the United States of America will be substantially owned by less than 50,000 persons, constituting less than one in 500 of the adult male population.
The entire article is a few posts below this one, under the title, "The Owners of the U.S."
I recently came across an 1889 article by Thomas G. Shearman, co-founder of the NYC law firm Shearman & Sterling, entitled "The Owners of the United States." It seems rather timely, and might be of particular interest to the Occupy Wall Street movement. It appeared in The Forum, in November, 1889. It refers to an earlier article in the September 1889 issue of the same journal, which appeared under the title, "Henry George's Mistakes." (Based on its content, it seems to me that it would have more accurately been titled "Henry George's 'Mistakes'.")
The Owners of the United States
by Thomas Gaskell Shearman
It has been and still is the boast of the American people, that wealth is more equally distributed here than in any other part of the world. While every one admits that the old days of New England, in which none was very rich and none was very poor, have passed away, yet it is still believed that the land, buildings, and personal property of this country are owned mainly by the majority of its people, and that there is no danger of any such concentration of wealth in a few hands among us as exists in older and more aristocratic nations. Statistics as to the wide distribution of wealth, shown by the deposits in American savings banks, by the large number of American farms, and by the supposed high standard of American wages, have been consistently set forth as conclusive evidence that American wealth is substantially owned by the mass of the American people. The object of the present inquiry is not to determine whether such a condition would be desirable or not, but simply to ascertain whether it actually exists.
Interesting as such an inquiry must be, especially to that laboring class on whose behalf it was supposed that labor commissions were established, little effort has been made by any of them to solve this problem. The very able gentleman at the head of the National Labor Bureau, after taking statistics of industrial depressions, convict labor, and strikes, seems to have felt that he had exhausted all subjects of special interest to the laboring classes; and he therefore directed the energies of all his assistants to an investigation of the subject of divorce -- the one subject, among all grave social questions, with which the masses of laboring men have the least practical concern. One who desires to investigate the great problem of the distribution of wealth in this country must, therefore, feel this way, without much assistance from the official representatives of the very class which has the deepest interest in the question.
In the "effete monarchy" of Great Britain, where the laborer, deprived of all the blessings of a protective tariff, has no representative in the national government, no bureau, no commissioner, and only five members of Parliament among 1200, there is nevertheless no serious difficulty in the way of forming a pretty close estimate of the distribution of wealth. The income-tax returns, combined with those of the probate and succession duties, furnish the means of estimating, at frequent intervals, the proportions in which wealth is distributed among different classes of the nation; while a return of rent rolls, made in 1872, enables us to determine with considerable accuracy the proportions in which the land of the whole country is owned. Mulhall's estimate is as follows:
DISTRIBUTION OF BRITISH WEALTH, 1877
Wealth in Millions
Wealth per Family
From this table it will be seen that one thirtieth part of the English people own two thirds of the national wealth. With what scorn we have long pointed to these figures; and with what pride have we bade foreign nations to look upon our own beloved land, where such things no only did not exist, but were made impossible by our republican form of government!
Can any light be thrown upon the distribution of American wealth by a study of English statistics? Let us see. By adding to the published returns of the personal estates of British decedents a capitalization of the rental value of their estates, at 4% interest, we may form a tolerably accurate estimate of the aggregate wealth, real and personal, of the richest noblemen and bankers of England who have died within the last quarter of a century. We may then compare these figures with the known wealth of a few American citizens, and thus obtain a starting point for further comparisons.
In this way, we find that the richest of the Rothschilds, and the world-renowned banker Baron Overstone, each left about $17,000,000. Earl Dudley, the owners of the richest iron mines, left $20,000,000. The Duke of Buccleuch (and the Duke of Buccleuch carries half of Scotland in his pocket) left about $30,000,000. The Marquis of Bute was worth, in 1872, about $28,000,000 in land; and he may now be worth $40,000,000 in all. The Duke of Norfolk may be worth $40,000,000, and the Duke of Westminster perhaps $50,000,000.
There is no official classification of British wealth or rents. But incomes derived from the profits of business, exclusive of railways, mines, etc., are classified as follows:
British Incomes from Business Profits, 1884
50,000 and over
10,000 to 50,000
5,000 to 10,000
4,000 to 5,000
3,000 to 4,000
2,000 to 3,000
1,000 to 2,000
400 to 1,000
200 to 400
The great law of averages may be relied upon as confidently in America as in Europe. We need only find a starting point; then we may safely proceed to calculations based upon general experience as to the average increase in the number of persons owning wealth, in proportion to the decrease of the amount owned by each individual. To find this starting point, it will be necessary to give a list of Americans whose wealth is approximately known. The writer abstains from mentioning in this list a single name concerning which he has any information which might possibly be confidential; and, to make quite sure of this, he omits the names of all gentlemen with whom he has any confidential relations. The names of person who have died (six of them within one year) will be included, more accurate information being obtainable concerning their affairs than in any other cases. Their estates are nearly all either undivided or in the hands of so small a number of persons as to make no practical difference, while the number of names which have been omitted will far outweigh all possible errors in the list. No name is given which is not believed, for good reasons, to represent an individual wealth of at least $20,000,000. The figures indicate the wealth believed to be possessed on the average by each of the persons whose names follow:
J. J. Astor, Trinity Church
C. Vanderbilt, W. K. Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Leland Stanford, J. D. Rockefeller
Estate of A. Packer
John I. Blair, Estate of Charles Crocker
Wm. Astor, W. W. Astor, Russell Sage, E. A. Stevens, Estates of Moses Taylor, Brown & Ives
P. D. Armour, F. L. Ames, Wm. Rockefeller, H. M. Flagler, Powers & Weightman, Estate of P. Goelet
C. P. Huntington, D. O. Mills, Estates of T. A. Scott, J. W. Garrett
G. B. Roberts, Charles Pratt, Ross Winans, E. B. Coxe, Claus Spreckels, A. Belmont, R. J. Livingston, Fred. Weyerhauser, Mrs. Mark Hopkins, Mrs. Hetty Green, Estates of S. V. Harkness, R. W. Coleman, I. M. Singer
A. J. Drexel, J. S. Morgan, J. P. Morgan, Marshall Field, David Dows, J. G. Fair, E. T. Gerry, Estates of Gov. Fairbanks, A. T. Stewart, A. Schermerhorn
O. H. Payne, Estates of F. A. Drexel, I. V. Williamon, W. F. Weld
F. W. Vanderbilt, Theo. Havermeyer, H. O. Havermeyer, W. G. Warden, W. P. Thompson, Mrs. Schenley, J. B. Haggin, H. A. Hutchins, Estates of W. Sloane, E. S. Higgins, C. Tower, Wm. Thaw, Dr. Hostetter, Wm. Sharon, Peter Donohue
Trinity Church is included in this list because it is practically an individual owner. For the purpose of estimating the distribution of wealth, it is obvious that this corporation, which has no stockholders, must be treated as a unit.
It will be said that these estates could not be readily sold for their estimated value. In a few cases this is true; but it is immaterial, because it is equally true of the property of farmers and other small owners, and so does not change the relative proportion of wealth, which is the only important question. Our estimate of the whole national wealth is based upon the census of 1880, in which the capital and debts of railway, telegraphy, and steamboat companies were included at par. But in the foregoing estimates of individual wealth the current market value is adopted, which is much less than par. For purposes of comparison between different classes the census valuations ought to be adopted all around. But if they were, the wealth of Mr. Gould would be fixed at over $125,000,000, and that of Messrs. Crocker and Huntington at nearly as much; and the proportionate share of the very rich would be greatly increased.
Making the largest allowance for exaggerated reports, there can be no doubt that these 70 names represent an aggregate wealth of $2,700,000,000, or an average of over $37,500,000 each. The writer has not especially sought for information concerning any one worth less than $20,000,000, but has incidentally learned of 50 other persons worth over $10,000,000, of whom 30 are valued in all at $450,000,00, making together 100 persons worth over $3,000,000,000; yet this list includes very few names from New England and none from the South. Evidently it would be easy for any specially well-informed person to make up a list of 100 persons averaging $25,000,000 each, in addition to ten averaging $100,000,000 each. No such list of concentrated wealth could be given in any other country in the world. The richest dukes of England fall below the average wealth of a dozen American citizens; while the greatest bankers, merchants, and railway magnates of England cannot compare in wealth with many Americans.
Lists were lately published of 67 millionaires residing in Pittsburgh, of 63 residents of Cleveland possessing in the aggregate $300,000,000, and of 60 persons residing in three villages near New York whose wealth was said to aggregate $500,000,000. One of the gentlemen included in the last estimate said that if it included one of his neighbors, with whose affairs he is intimately acquainted, it was entirely too low: $750,000,000 would be none too much. The Goelet estate, in New York City, pays taxes on $25,000,000 real estate. The mayor of Chicago says that four gentlemen of that city are worth over $20,000,000 each; but only two are included in the above list. The Boston "Advertiser" lately asserted that there were not 50 millionaires in Boston; but the official tax-list shows that more than 50 families pay taxes on over $1,000,000 each, and 200 persons pay taxes on amounts which clearly show that they are really millionaires.
The facts already stated conclusively demonstrate that the wealthiest class in the United States is vastly richer than the wealthiest class in Great Britain. The average annual income of the richest 100 Englishmen is about $450,000; but the average annual income of the richest 100 Americans cannot be less than $1,200,000, and probably exceeds $1,500,000. It follows, inevitably, that wealth must be far more concentrated in the United States than in Great Britain; because, where enormous amounts of wealth are placed in a few hands, this necessarily implies that the great mass of the people have very small possessions. On the other hand, we know with tolerable certainty what are the average earnings and possible savings of the masses. The earnings of fully fourth-fifths of American families do not average as much as $500 per annum. As the average age of busy men is less than 40 years, their savings cannot spread over more than an average period of 20 years. Farmers being always more economical than mechanics or other laborers of the same income, the savings of farmers, represented by their farms, will afford a maximum standard for the classes to which they correspond. According to the census of 1880, the average value of 25% of farms was $635, of another 25%, $1,750, and of about 35%, $3,500; the remaining 15% being held by wealthy owners. To allow, in marketable property, $750 each to the mass of the community, $2,000 each to the next class and $3,500 each to the small tradesmen, highly-skilled mechanics, and others whose condition corresponds with that of the best class of ordinary farmers, will be quite as much as facts will justify; especially when we take out of this highest class, as we must, a considerable number (say one sixth) who, by saving one third to one half of their income, have accumulated four or five times as much as their fellows.
In 1877 the number of British capitalists possessed of over $25,000 each was about 222,000, while the number of persons deriving profits of over $1,000 per annum each from business was nearly 200,000. The two classes of persons were not at all the same; on the contrary, probably not one third of either class, possibly not even one fifth, was included in the other. Yet, in the absence of any detailed information as to the distribution of wealth, the classification of incomes must be taken, with much reserve, as the only attainable guide. But incomes, in their very nature, are much more equally distributed than wealth. Millions have inomces who have practically no wealth. Therefore, a computation on this basis will greatly underestimate the concentration of wealth in the higher figures, while it will lead to such an overestimate of wealth in the lower figures as to make it gradually quite misleading. Such a computation is indeed of no use whatever outside of the first 250,000 families, and must be greatly modified long before reaching that number.
Bearing these considerations in mind, we proceed to estimate the distribution of American wealth. Judging from the rate of increase in wealth indicated by the last census, it is probably that (estimated by the same method) it now amounts to nearly $1,000 per head, or $65,000,000,000 in all. In 1880, $2,000,000,000 was invested in public buildings, churches, colleges, charitable institutions, etc.; and this item must be about $2,500,000,000 now.
Taking the number of British incomes exceeding 200 pounds as a basis for comparative classification, starting on the basis of known facts about American wealth, and modifying the figures gradually, for the reasons already stated, we arrive at the following conclusions:
DISTRIBUTION OF AMERICAN WEALTH, ON THE BASIS OF BRITISH INCOME RETURNS.
Average Wealth in Thousands
Total in Millions
Public property, churches, etc.
Condensing this table, so as to arrange it in three great classes, we arrive at this result:
DISTRIBUTION OF AMERICAN WEALTH
Wealth in Millions
Average per Family
On this basis, 50,000 families would appear to own one half of the national wealth.
In this table small farmers, skilled mechanics, foremen, conductors, engineers, etc., are included in the "working class," and $968 has been allowed as the average savings of each family in this class -- more than double the highest claim made on behalf of the same class in England, and nearly treble the average deposit in American savings banks. This amount is certainly too large. The number of the very largest millionaires has been kept down to very nearly the limit of the writer's personal information; while in his judgment there must have been at least as many more, of whom he has never heard. If this surmise is correct, it would add at once $2,500,000,000 to the share of wealth belonging to the millionaire class, and would confirm the writer's rough estimate in the FORUM for September, that 25,000 persons own just about one half of all the wealth of the United States.
Objection will doubtless be made to any estimates based upon British statistics. Fortunately, Massachusetts furnishes a purely American basis for estimates of the distribution of American wealth. A list of the largest individual taxpayers in Boston, published this year, including all (exclusive of corporations and executors) who paid more than $1,000 in taxes, and who were therefore assessed at more than $75,000 (the tax being 1.33%) showed the following results:
BOSTON TAX LIST FOR 1888
Amount of Tax
Average Assessed Wealth
$50,000 to 75,000
40,000 to 50,000
30,000 to 40,000
20,000 to 30,000
10,000 to 20,000
5,000 to 10,000
1,000 to 5,000
It may be safely assumed that every one who is assessed at $400,000 is really worth $1,000,000; because large estates are never assessed at their full value, and because these assessments include no shares in corporate stock, nor government, municipal, or mortgage bonds, in which a vast proportion of the wealth of the very rich is invested. For the same reasons, an assessment of $75,000 represents in actual wealth not less than $150,000. The wealth of the very rich is always more under-estimated by assessors than that of men in moderate circumstances. Assessments of $400,000 and over are therefore multiplied, in the next table, by two and one half, while those below that line are only doubled. In both cases the increase is too small. Boston has less than a forty-fifth part of the nation's wealth, and less than a hundred and thirtieth part of its population. Multiplying the Boston figures by only 45, it would follow that there are in the United States more than 56,000 persons worth over $150,000 each, of whom at least 8,500 are worth over $1,000,00. Classifying men of wealth in conformity to the proportion in which assessment returns show that their wealth is divided in Boston, but adding the 70 persons who have been specifically named as averaging $37,500,000, we arrive at the following estimate, which errs only on the side of moderation:
DISTRIBUTION OF AMERICAN WEALTH, ON THE BASIS OF BOSTON TAX RETURNS
Wealth in Thousands
Average Wealth in Thousands
Total Wealth in Millions
Distribution in Classes
Wealth in Millions
Average per Family
On this basis, 40,000 persons own over one half of the wealth of the United States, while one seventieth part of the people own over two thirds of the wealth.
It will be seen that in these tables, which are prepared upon the basis of purely American statistics, the concentration of wealth appears to be much greater than in tables prepared upon the basis of British statistics. By either table, 70% of the national wealth appears to be concentrated in the hands of a very small minority of the people; but dividing this wealth in proportion to the English ratio, it is distributed among 235,000 families, while dividing it according to the Boston ratio, it is possessed by only 182,000 families. The truth probably lies between the two; and it may safely be assumed that 200,000 persons control 70% of the national wealth, while 250,000 persons control from 75 to 80% of the whole.
These conclusions are of course very unpalatable to comfortable optimists. But what other results could possibly be expected, in view of well-known facts? No one can entertain a reasonable doubt that there has been an accumulation of wealth in a few individual hands in the United States, during the last 25 years, vastly in excess of any which has taken place in other parts of the world. In no other country have railroad-managers, manufacturers, oil-refiners, mine-owners, bankers, and land speculators accumulated fortunes so rapidly as they have in this. In no other country, and least of all in England, during the last 30 years, has the burden of taxation been cast so exclusively upon the working class, or the machinery of public taxation been used so unscrupulously for private profit.
In Great Britain, although indirect taxation still constitutes the greatest part of the public revenue, a large share of direct taxation has been maintained, and, as far as possible, all tribute levied by the rich upon the poor, under the pretense of taxation, has been abolished. The natural consequence is that the disproportion between the rich and the poor in Great Britain is less today than it was 40 years ago, that wealth is more widely distributed, that the middle class is much more numerous, and that the masses are rapidly gaining in power and influence.
In America the drift has been in precisely the opposite direction. Federal taxation has increased 6-fold since 1860, and the whole of this increase has been taken out of the relatively poorer classes. At the same time, the profit which is secured to the wealthier classes by the adjustment of indirect taxation in their interest has been increased not less than 10-fold. The wealthy classes, collectively, have made a clear profit out of the indirect effects of taxation to an amount far exceeding all that they have paid in taxes, although this profit has been absorbed by a minority of even the rich. But, apart from this, the whole system of taxation is and has been such as to take from the rich only from 3% to 10% of their annual savings, while taking from the poor 75 to 90%. It is true that the same system existed, in form, before the war; but, taxation being light, the amount taken from each individual was far less, and the disproportion between the rich and the poor not so great, while the profit levied from the poor by the rich was much smaller. The amount of the burden has increased, and it has been more and more shifted over upon the poor.
It is childish to imagine that, under such circumstances, the concentration of wealth can go on less rapidly here than in Europe. On the contrary, it has gone on far more rapidly here; and it will continue to do so, at a tremendous pace.
It is intended to confine this paper to a simple investigation of facts, without suggesting remedies; but, to avoid misapprehension, the writer wishes it to be distinctly understood that he is opposed, on principle, to all schemes for arbitrary limitations of individual wealth, whether by a graduated income tax, a heavy succession tax, or otherwise; that he is utterly opposed to communism, socialism, and anarchism; and that he is of opinion that the enormous wealth of the few in this country has been forced upon them by the votes of the very masses who have been impoverished for their benefit. Populous vult decipi. The farmers insist upon throwing away their inheritance; and since they are determined to heap their earnings upon somebody, it is well that the list of their chief beneficiaries should be, upon the whole, so respectable. And, indeed, has it not been clearly explained to us that it makes no sort of difference who owns the wealth of the nation, so long as it is kept at home?
But the facts should be known, without regard to the inferences which may be drawn from them; and we are now prepared to answer the question: "Who own the United States?"
The United States of America are practically owned by less than 250,000 persons, constituting less than 1 in 60 of its adult male population.
Within 30 years, the present methods of taxation being continued, the United States of America will be substantially owned by less than 50,000 persons, constituting less than one in 500 of the adult male population.
In September, 1889, Thomas Shearman, co-founder of the NYC law firm Shearman & Sterling, published an article in The Forum, entitled "Henry George's Mistakes." This was ten years after the publication of Henry George's "Progress and Poverty," which was, by that time well known to most Americans and many in other parts of the world; by 1900, P&P had sold something like 6 million copies and been serialized in many periodicals. As the first paragraph shows, George's ideas were controversial, particularly with the vested interests who were more than happy with the current structure, and were in a position to spend to influence public opinion.
Shearman is responding to those who thought that George's Remedy (the subtitle to P&P is "An inquiry into the cause of industrial depressions and of increase of want with increase of wealth ... The Remedy") was unrealistic, and in particular, to an 1887 article in The Forum.
Shearman shows why indirect taxes raise prices and the cost of living, particularly for the poor. Recall Leona Helmsley's statement about taxes: "We don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." I don't think she was talking about tax evasion; she was talking about tax structures.
I've taken the formatting liberty of presenting some lists contined in paragraphs as bullet points.
HENRY GEORGE'S MISTAKES.
Since the mistakes of Moses were so triumphantly demolished by Col. Ingersoll, his example has been followed by numerous writers, who, possibly because they concluded that the Mosaic field has been sufficiently occupied, have devoted themselves to an equally triumphant demonstration of the mistakes of Henry George. Space could not be afforded for even an abstract of these brilliant productions. Crushed by the Duke of Argyll, refuted by Mr. Mallock, extinguished by Mayor Hewitt, undermined by Mr. Edward Atkinson, exploded by Prof. Harris, excommunicated by archbishops, consigned to eternal damnation by countless doctors of divinity, put outside the pale of the Constitution by numberless legal pundits, waved out of existence by a million Podsnaps, and finally annihilated by Mr. George Gunton, still Henry George's theories seem to have a miraculous faculty of rising from the dead. For it is certain that his general doctrines are more widely believed in today than ever before; while the one practical measure which he advocates for present and immediate enactment is accepted by a vast number of intelligent men on both sides of the Atlantic. It is, therefore, still worth while to look into this terrible delusion, and to inquire seriously what are these fatal mistakes which, being so often slain, nevertheless live.
Mr. George has devoted a large portion of his famous book, "Progress and Poverty," to the assertion and illustration of his belief that, all over the civilized world, the rich are growing richer and the poor relatively poorer. He undertakes to trace the cause of this assumed evil to the private ownership of land and the steady increase of economic rent. He insists, with admitted eloquence and earnestness, that private ownership of land must be abolished; but he proposes one remedy and only one, the concentration of all taxes upon ground rent alone. He urges that these taxes should be increased to such an amount as will absorb ground rent. This, in view of statements made by all Mr. George's opponents, would seem to be really only a matter of detail, concerning which any one might be at liberty to entertain, as Mr. Disraeli used to say, a "pious opinion." For they all, with one voice, maintain that ground rent would never be sufficient to meet the existing taxes; and so this question, if any of Mr. George's critics are correct, could never arise.
To a practical mind there are only two important questions involved in this controversy.
First, is there any undesirable tendency toward the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few?
Secondly, is the concentration of all taxes upon ground rent alone a real, just, and effective remedy?
Let us inquire whether there is any excessive concentration of wealth going on in the United States of America. Leaving mere clamor and unsupported assertions out of consideration, on either side, let us look into facts. As lately as 1847, there was but one man in this country who was reputed to be worth more than $5,000,000; and though some estimated his wealth at $20,000,000, there is no good reason for believing it to have been so great. The wealth of his lineal descendants is estimated at $250,000,000, or over $50,000,000 each. In 1867, in the New York constitutional convention, one of the most prominent delegates stated that he could name 30 men, residing in that State, whose wealth averaged $15,000,000 each. The St. Louis "Globe" recently published a list of 72 persons who were worth, collectively, the whole amount of our national debt, averaging $18,000,000 each. The wealthiest railroad manager in America, in 1865, was worth $40,000,000, but not more. His heir died recently, leaving an estate of nearly $200,000,000; and there are several gentlemen now living who are worth over $100,000,000 each. Within a short period, a number of quiet, unobtrusive men, of no national fame, have died in Pennsylvania, leaving estates of over $20,000,000 each. Twenty living persons, in the oil business, are reputed to be as rich. Forty persons could be easily named, none of them worth less than $20,000,000, and averaging $40,000,000 each. At the lowest reasonable estimate, there must now be more than 250 persons in this country whose wealth averages over $20,000,000 for each. But let us call the number only 200. Income-tax returns in Great Britain and in the United States show that, in general, the number of incomes, when arranged in large classes, multiplies by from three to five-fold for every reduction in the amount of one-half.* For extreme caution, however, we estimate the increase in the number of incomes at a very much lower rate than this. At this reduced rate, the amount of wealth in the hands of persons worth over $500,000 each in the United States would be about as follows:
200 persons at
* In Brooklyn, N. Y., in 1865, the tax returns showed one income of $600,000, 2 incomes of $200,000, 11 incomes of $100,000, 61 incomes of $50,000, 1,700 incomes averaging $7,000. See also the "Cyclopedia of Political Science," art. "Income Tax."
In Great Britain, in 1872, 3 landlords averaged each $1,100,000 rent, 14 averaged $675,000, and 83 averaged over $250,000. In 1884, the returns of business profits, only, showed 104 incomes averaging $450,000,1,192 of $85,000, 1,871 of $32,000, and 20,534 of $9,000.
This estimate is very far below the actual truth. Yet, even upon this basis, we are confronted with the startling result that 25,000 persons now possess more than half of the whole national wealth, real and personal, according to the highest estimate ($60,000,000,000) which any one has yet ventured to make of the aggregate amount. Nor is this conclusion at all improbable.
Let us test the question in another way. Eastern savings banks show an average deposit of $365. This sum represents the extreme savings of the average thrifty workingman of the East. But even estimating that 20,000,000 workers of 1889, earning an average of less than $400 each, of whom 5,000,000 are women and children, have saved, on the average, $600, still, their aggregate savings would not amount to $12,000,000,000, or $1,100 for each average family. Let us suppose that the 1,000,000 workers of superior class, earning an average of $1,000 each, have saved $3,000 — a monstrous exaggeration. This would make their total possessions $3,000,000,000. The result would be to show that 21,000,000 persons had saved up in the whole course of their lives $15,000,000,000, leaving $45,000,000,000 in the possession of not more than 400,000 persons.
Look again. Excluding churches, public buildings, etc., from the items of wealth enumerated in the census estimate for 1880, it is reduced to $41,000,000,000. Railroads, telegraphs, shipping, mines, quarries, canals, merchandise, and specie count for $13,500,000,000. These certainly do not belong to $400 workingmen. $5,000,000,000 is charged to household furniture, paintings, and jewelry. Two-thirds of this would be an extreme allowance for the 9,700,000 families of the poorer class; but let us allow them more, and estimate the furniture of the 300,000 richer families at only $5,000 each. Farms stand for $10,000,000,000, of which more than one-fourth were owned by landlords and leased to tenants, while one-fifth were so large as to imply wealthy owners; and mortgages were certainly outstanding for more than one-fifth of the rest. Business and residential real estate, water-power, etc., were estimated at about the same value. Of this, at least three-fourths was owned by the wealthy class, either absolutely or by mortgages. On this basis we arrive at the following estimate of the possessions, in 1880, of not more than 300,000 persons:
Railroads, shipping, mines, merchandise, specie, etc.
Farms, 45 per cent
Mortgages on farms, 20 per cent
Other real estate
The total national wealth held as private property being $41,000,000,000, this estimate confirms the previous one, that a small minority of the people own two-thirds of the national wealth. Is Mr. George so very much mistaken, in view of these figures, when he asserts that the rich are growing richer and the poor relatively poorer?
A sufficient cause for the immense and growing chasm between the rich and the poor of this country is to be found in indirect taxation. The population of the United States has increased in 25 years from 35,000,000 to 60,000,000. Let us call the average 45,000,000. The average annual taxes for the same period have been about $175,000,000 on imports, $136,000,000 on domestic productions, $14,000,000 on incomes, $25,000,000 miscellaneous, and $300,000,000 State and local taxes, mostly on houses and improvements and personal property. Duties on imports have entailed an average increase of prices on domestic goods to the amount of fully thrice the duties, say $525,000,000. Excise duties, by promoting monopolies, have largely increased prices, as in the well-known case of matches, where a duty of one cent caused an increase in price of' two cents. Let us, however, call this increase only one-fifth of the excise, or $27,000,000. But upon these taxes there are three profits, made by the importers or manufacturers, the jobbers, and the retailers, amounting to not less than 20% in all, or $172,600,000. Two-thirds of the State and local taxes are paid by middlemen, who of course add a profit; but this may be put as low as 5%, or about $10,000,000. The grand total now comes to $1,384,000,000 per annum, as the average annual burden borne by the people for 25 years past. Of this all was indirect taxation, except something over $100,000,000; leaving the average annual burden imposed by indirect taxation at $1,280,000,000.
This burden was distributed as equally as possible by natural laws, in proportion to the expenditure of each income-receiver in the support of his family. As each worker supported, on the average, three persons, including himself, the people may be divided into 15,000,000 families, or rather groups of three.* On the basis of the careful estimate of Mr. Atkinson, 14,000,000 of these must have been supported upon incomes of less than $400 (in my judgment less than $350), 700,000 on less than $1,000, and the other 300,000 on larger incomes. The average annual earnings of the nation during 25 years cannot have exceeded $7,500,000,000. Allowing 15% as savings, destruction, and cost of replacement, and adding to this the tax burdens, which must be paid out of savings, there would remain, as the sum expended in the support of the people, an average of less than $5,100,000,000 per annum. On this the burden of indirect taxation has averaged 25%. We are now prepared to calculate the effect.
* The actual number of real families was much less. It was under 10,000,000 in 18S0, averaging 5 persons each.
Supposing them exempt from taxes, still it would be unreasonable to expect the mass of the laborers to support their groups of three on less than $300 a year. Their burden of taxation, then, has averaged 25% on this, or $75 a year. Contrast with this the case of men who enjoyed an income of $1,000,000, which a fortune of $15,000,000 would on an average easily have produced in simple interest during this period. Allow them $100,000 each, for a modest living; on which their tax would be $25,000 each. From what fund would these taxes be paid? Obviously, from what would have been saved, but for taxation, not from what was spent. This fund, in the case of the masses, would amount to $100 each; tax, $75. In the case of the great millionaires, $900,000; tax, $25,000. Tax on the property of the very rich, less than 3%. Tax on the property of the masses, more than 75%.
What would be the result, at the end of a year, on these two classes? Assume only 200 such very wealthy men; yet their savings would be, under such taxation, $175,000,000. Assume only 600 more, with incomes of $500,000 each, spending $50,000, and taxed therefore $12,500; their net savings would be $437,500 each, or $262,500,000 in all. Thus 800 rich men would save $437,500,000. The savings of the 14,000,000 laborers could not exceed $25 each, or $350,000,000. But, if taxes could be dispensed with, the savings of the millions of poor men would have reached $1,400,000,000, while those of the 800 rich would not have exceeded $450,000,000.
Here is a mathematical demonstration that the mere fact of indirect taxation is sufficient to strip the poor of three-fourths of their natural savings, and to concentrate a majority of the wealth of the community in the hands of an infinitesimally small part of its number.
What, then, is the remedy proposed by the wild fanatic whose blunders we are considering? It is threefold.
First, the total abolition of indirect taxation.
Secondly, the substitution of a single tax on ground rent, the only sufficient form of strictly direct taxation which has ever been invented.
Thirdly, the gradual increase of this direct tax, if necessary to that end, to an amount sufficient to absorb ground rents. This is all.
The third branch of this proposition is the only one which has brought the penalties of everlasting damnation upon Mr. George's head, from the hand of Dr. Van Dyke. But Prof. Harris and Mr. Atkinson are sure that they have saved his soul, at the expense of his arithmetic, by demonstrating that rent is a very insignificant item, which would not suffice to meet the present necessary taxes. Assuming, for the moment, that Mr. George's arithmetical critics have delivered his soul from Sheol, let us try to rescue his body from the lunatic asylum.
Every form of tax upon personal property or improvements upon land, whether in the form of a tariff, an excise, a license, or a so-called "direct tax" upon their value, is, in the inherent nature of things, an indirect tax. It is and always must be shifted from the original tax-payer to the final consumer. In many individual cases the original tax-payer is unable thus to shift the tax; but in that event he is crippled in business, and, if the difficulty is permanent, he is ruined and driven out of business, to give place to a shrewder man, who makes the customer pay the tax in the end, with a bigger profit than would have contented the weaker man.
There are no direct taxes worth discussing, except the income tax, the succession tax, and the tax on land, valued without reference to its improvements. The income tax opens the door to innumerable frauds, and puts a premium upon perjury and corruption. If adopted in this country as the sole method of taxation, it will open the way to such plunder of the honest rich as will make them sigh for Henry George and his tax on rent. Poor folk and rascals will escape from all taxation whatever. The succession tax will fall exclusively upon the rich. If made high enough to support the cost of all government, it will fail, because it will be evaded. There remains only the tax on land values, or the natural rent of land, irrespective of improvements.
This tax is absolutely direct. It cannot be evaded. It cannot be shifted by the original tax-payer. That is an axiom of economic science. If it were not so, there would not be a particle of the clamor which is raised against it. The thunders of the pulpit would have slept forever, if the land-owner could make poor folk pay his land tax, with a little profit. The adoption of this tax would therefore put an end to all the unnatural impoverishment of the poor and enrichment of the rich, which take place under the present system. It would amount to a total abolition of taxation, as to that vast majority of the poor who own no land. Whereas now they pay both rent and taxes, then they would pay rent alone. This simple fact is a complete answer to the inquiry: "How are the masses to get the benefit of taxing rent?" As to such of the poor as own land, they would be relieved from the taxes which they now pay on personal property and improvements, that is, from more tax than would be added to their land tax. For we need reckon none among the poor who own more than $3,000 worth of land clear, that being more than the average value of improved farms; and those who own less than $6,000 worth of improved real estate are now paying more taxes indirectly than they could ever be required to pay under the single-tax system.
Let us briefly consider "Henry George's Mistake about Land," as set forth by Prof. W. T. Harris, in the Forum for July, 1887. That "mistake" lies in his assumption that ground rent would be sufficient to defray all the expenses of government, national, State, and local. Prof. Harris, finding that the official assessment of real estate in this country, in 1880, was about $13,000,000,000, and estimating that this was two-thirds of the market value, and the value of the land alone about one-half of the whole, or somewhat less than $10,000,000,000, calculates the ground rent at 4% on this sum, or $400,000,000 per annum; which of course is wholly insufficient to meet the taxes of $700,000,000 levied in 1880. He then refers to Great Britain and Ireland, where, he says, land forms only one-fifth of the total wealth, with an annual rental of £65,442,000. As British taxes altogether amount to about £118,500,000, it is clear that, if this estimate is correct, the single tax would not suffice to meet British taxes.
Taking first the case of the United States, the census report of 1880 shows conclusively that assessments are worthless, as a means of estimating real values. They vary from 10% to 70% of the true value of real estate; and no average can be estimated from them. The census of 1880, upon which Prof. Harris relies to show the proportion of land to the aggregate wealth, and which he must not therefore desert for local assessment tables, contains items of real estate, including all privileges over land, aggregating over $28,000,000,000. Adopting the rule of division between land and improvements propounded by him, the lowest estimate of pure land values for 1880 would be between $15,000,000,000 and $16,000,000,000. There is no estimate whatever of wild lands belonging to private individuals, unconnected with farms, the value of which could hardly have been less than $2,000,000,000; but of this we will take no notice. The rental of 4% for 1880, upon which Prof. Harris bases his calculation, is utterly absurd. Strictly first-class mortgages could not be placed at less than 5% in the city of New York in 1880; and such mortgages averaged, the country over, nearer 7% than 6%. It is impossible that the ownership of land, which is no better than a second mortgage, should not, on the average, produce a rate of interest higher than a first mortgage. The lowest rate of interest to be allowed on the value of land would therefore be 6.5%. But to this must be added the amount of taxation which actually fell upon land values in 1880. This could not have been less than 0.5%. Such taxes, being paid by landlords and not by tenants, necessarily depreciate the market value of the land; and this amount should be either added to the rent, or deducted from the amount expected to fall upon lands in consequence of the adoption of the single tax, since this falls upon it already.
It follows that the ground rent of the United States, in 1880, was considerably over $1,000,000,000. The taxes for that year were about $700,000,000. But of this, $100,000,000 was levied only for the purpose of piling up a surplus. The necessary taxation was only $600,000,000; and the land-owners of the United States would have been able to pay all taxes and yet retain a very large surplus. The value of land in the United States is now not less than $20,000,000,000; but the rate of interest is lower, and ground rent has not increased in equal proportion to nominal values.
Turning to Great Britain, the mistakes of Prof. Harris can be readily shown to be vastly greater than any mistakes of Henry George. His fundamental errors are three.
He mistakes the rent of agricultural lands alone for the whole rent of the United Kingdom;
he mistakes the valuation of "houses" for that of structures alone, without the lots beneath them; and
he assumes that railways are not built upon land.
The following are the official figures for 1884, taken from the 28th British Inland Revenue Report; to which we append a very low estimate of the proportion of mixed land values which should be charged to ground rents alone:
British Pure Annual Land Values, 1884.
Lands, returned as such
Manors, tithes, fines, etc.
Fishing and shooting rights
Markets and tolls
British Mixed Annual Land Values, 1884.
Houses and lots
Canals, water-works, mines, gas, iron, etc
One-half of these values as land
Total land values
Now the whole net amount of British taxes is £118,500,000. But of this, over £27,500,000 is already assessed upon pure land values. The adoption of the single tax would therefore increase the burden upon land only by £91,000,000. The net rental value of land being over £158,000,000, it follows that the land-owners of Great Britain and Ireland could pay all national and local taxes, and still retain for their own benefit the comfortable margin of £67,000,000. Prof. Harris will do well to study his statistics carefully before he again undertakes to exhibit "the mistakes of Henry George." *
*Prof. Harris quotes Mulhall, as proof that "land" in the United Kingdom is worth only £1,737,000,000, in a total of £8,720,000,000, or one-fifth of the whole. But Mulhall distinctly shows that this amount includes only agricultural land ("Dictionary of Statistics," 5); and he very properly recognizes houses and railways as real estate, stating (p. 280) that 62%, of British wealth consists of real estate. It is notorious that the mere land occupied by British railways was enormously costly, and is now worth far more than it cost. Land alone, on Mulhall's showing, forms one-third of British values, just as it does in America.
Mr. Gunton, in the Forum for March, 1887, had preceded Prof. Harris in the same field and with about equal accuracy. He calls the entire rental value of real estate in the United Kingdom, including, of course, improvements, £131,468,000. The correct official figure (including £43,000,000 taxes, paid by occupiers) was, in 1884, almost exactly £293,000,000; and the real value is far greater. Instead of being only 11% of the gross produce, as claimed by Mr. Gunton, it is fully 25%. It is not worth while to follow either Mr. Gunton's figures or arguments any further.
I regret that the space allotted for this article will not allow an examination of Mr. Edward Atkinson's calculations on the same general point. His statistics are far more accurate than those of Messrs. Harris and Gunton. Accepting all his statistics as absolutely accurate, I have shown in another place, by his own figures, that two-thirds of the ground rents of Boston would provide for all local, State, and national taxes on Boston.
The single tax, therefore, would be a real, effective, and adequate remedy for the present unjust intervention of the state in favor of the rich and against the poor.
There still remains the question: "Is the remedy just?" Many of Mr. George's critics (notably Mr. Gunton) are debarred from raising this question, since they assert the absolute right of the state to deal with all property as may be deemed expedient. But the majority of them are better represented by Dr. Van Dyke, who thinks the proposition of Mr. George "thoroughly unrighteous." So far as we can make out, this is because the state has in the past allowed private individuals to appropriate land and its rent to their own use, and is therefore estopped from taking away that rent by taxation. But land has always been taxed. In most of our large cities it is now theoretically taxed at least 2% on its value; often 3%. Why should a tax of 2% or 3% be just and righteous, but a tax of 4%, 5%, or 6% incur penalties of everlasting damnation? Is it because land is especially singled out for taxation? Then is there not at least equal wickedness on the part of Congress, which for half a century singled out the business of importation as the only subject of taxation, and still taxes it ten times as heavily as anything else? Does the wickedness consist in taxing land up to its full value? Then is it not equally wicked to tax the poor man's window glass 100% upon its value? Does the wickedness consist in imposing a tax for the purpose of accomplishing some ulterior result? How about our whole tariff legislation, which is avowedly maintained for an ulterior purpose? Is it wicked to tax private property out of existence? How about the tax on bank notes, which was levied for the express purpose of destroying State banks? How about the tax on oleomargarine? Is it wicked to tax property out of existence, without giving compensation? Why do not those who urge this plea petition Congress for compensation for those whose wealth has been destroyed and whose occupation has been taken away by taxes avowedly levied for that purpose? Not one of these critics has ever suggested such a petition; not one of them would sign such a petition; and not one of the many thousands who have suffered from such tax laws ever thought of presenting such a petition.
Judged by any standard which has ever been applied to public affairs, even by clergymen, the proposition of a single tax on land values is perfectly reasonable, moral, and honorable. As to the amount of such a tax, that is a question to be decided by a wise expediency. There is not the slightest moral obligation on the part of the state to make the tax small, or to leave any margin to land-owners, so long as no more is taken than is needed for the honest use of the state.
It is not necessary to follow any further the proposition of Mr. George to increase taxation up to a point which would practically absorb all ground rent. Every one of the critics who has discussed the point at all, has committed himself to the theory that no such artificial increase of taxation would be necessary to absorb rent. Moreover, it is not a practical question at present, and will not be for a very long time to come, if ever. Taxation rises quite fast enough, without artificial efforts to increase it. In 40 years, in Ohio, population increased 100%, assessed wealth 1,000%, and taxation 1,360%. It is sufficient for the present to show that the actual remedy proposed by Henry George for the evils of our present social condition, the only practical measure which he asks to have adopted today, is a real remedy, an adequate remedy, and a just remedy. The criticisms of his adversaries have been directed to mere side issues, to his minor arguments, to his intellectual processes, to his illustrations, to anything except the real pith of the matter in hand. Not one of them has really wrestled with the problem; not one of them (except Mr. Atkinson) has been even approximately correct in his statistics; not one of them has failed to commit mistakes in his reasoning and his calculations far more serious than any which can be fastened upon Henry George.
I've not yet begun to watch the Ken Burns PBS series on Prohibition, other than a few snippets I've caught at odd times. (I look forward to watching the programs in order and in quiet.) But in the first segment, I did hear the name Frances Willard and something that made me google her name along with that of Henry George, on the chance that there was some connection. And I did find some interesting things.
Frances Willard, whose name we associate with the Womans Christian Temperance Union, was apparently also a Single Taxer. She saw the Single Tax as the way to end poverty, which she saw as a key cause of inebriation.
A few quotes:
"We used to say intemperance was the cause of poverty; now we have completed the circle of truth by saying poverty causes intemperance, and that the underpaid, undersheltered, wage-earning teetotaler deserves a thousand times more credit than the teetotaler who is well paid, well fed and well sheltered.
"In the slums they drink to forget; we would make life something they would gladly remember; so would you. Our objects are the same; let us clasp hands in the unity of spirit and the bond of peace."
source: NYT, 1895-06-20
from What Frances E. Willard Said:
May God crown with success the three great movements of our time which are fast passing out of the hands of philanthropists and into those of statesmen, viz., the temperance, the woman, and the labor questions, all of which are equal fractions of that one mighty whole — the human question.
The labor question is our question. Prostrate and crushed under the mountains of injustice that are piled upon the poor, lies the degraded woman to whom financial independence, equal pay for equal work, has often proved the lifting lever to a rehabilitated life.
quoted in "Land and Freedom" (volume 33):
'I SEE in Henry George's proposal an effort to establish a principle which, when established, will do more to lift humanity from the slough of poverty, crime and misery than all else; and in this I recognize it as one of the greatest forces working for temperance and morality.
from Miss Willard's address to the national WCTU convention in Baltimore, 1896:
In her address to the National W. C. T. U. convention held at Baltimore last week, Miss Willard said: -- We can no longer ignore the fact that, as the Scripture saith, 'the destruction of the poor is their poverty.' White ribbon women must be the sworn foes of monopoly, of landlordism, and every other form of class legislation. For one, I believe that the land belongs to the people, and while the farmer's domain should not be interfered with, since he turns it to a beneficent use, a propaganda of education should have devised whereby the single tax and the issue of all money by the Government itself should become two of the central planks in the platform of the party of the future.
Speaking at another meeting Miss Willard: -- Poverty is disease; it is disintegration; it has no right to be; and when men and women wake out of sleep, and see themselves as the criminals they are, nothing in the world will be so sure of actual extermination as the cursed thing called poverty -- the cradle of crime, the father of filth, the mother of misery. In the past we have comforted ourselves with looking upon it as the effect of wrong-doing, but have now aroused ourselves to the study of its cause. We are determined to burn to its last infectious atom the stench of the slums, and the temptation to lead a bad life with which poverty haunts the dream of boyhood, handicaps the purposes of youth, and enthralls the life of manhood.
For myself, twenty-one years of study and observation have convinced me that poverty is a prime cause of intemperance, and that misery is the mother, and hereditary appetite the father, of the drink hallucination.
We once said that intemperance was the cause of poverty; now we have completed the circle of truth by saying poverty causes intemperance, and the underpaid, underfed, undersheltered, wage-earning teetotaler deserves a thousand times more credit than the teetotaler who is well paid, well fed, and well cared for.
Ten years ago I could not have said it honestly; five years ago I could not have said it helpfully; but now I ceaselessly declare that I believe it to be the right and duty of the white-ribbon women to help abolish poverty in the larger sense of that great phrase.
This simple change in taxation would also force land at present held out of use for speculative profit into use, and thus prevent the monopolist from becoming rich at the expense of the public. The value which attaches to the land on which any community lives, is created by that community from year to year, not by any individual, and is thus the legitimate fund from which all public revenue should come."
from an Australian newspaper, 1898, LTE, quoting Frances Willard:
"I believe the present economic condition of the country, the misery of millions of our people, the vast number of the unemployed, call for reforms which, if they could be brought about, would vastly diminish the tendency to drink, and that one of those reforms of far-reaching and unspeakable beneficence is the single tax, as set forth by its great apostle Henry George."
and finally, from the Oxford Observer, a two-parter from July, 1897:
The Oxford Observer. PUBLISHED WEEKLY. SATURDAY JULY 17th. 1897
AN UP-TO-DATE CATECHISM. By Miss Frances E.Willard.
Who made the earth? God.
For whom was it made? For the use and sustenance of all his children, each one of whom has an equal right to its enjoyment.
How do we know that each has this equal right? Without the use of the earth no human being can exist. As each has an equal right to existence, it follows that each has an equal right to the earth.
Some persons claim to 'own' land. Where did they get their titles to it? All such titles in this country were derived from foreign kings or queens who claimed to own "America."
How did these foreign governments get this alleged right? Through open violence or fraud.
Have the people of one generation any right to give away or sell that which was made for all generations? No; the earth belongs to the living; the dead have no right therein.: (Thomas Jefferson.)
If any man claims to "own" land, has he a moral title to it? No; and it makes no difference whether he has purchased or inherited it, his title cannot be better than his from whom he derived. it.
To whom does the land of this country belong? To all the people of this country and to unborn generations.
It is necessary that each should have an equal portion of land in order that the rights, of all may be secured? No; that would be impracticable and unnecessary. The same end may be accomplished by taking the rent of land for public expenses.
To be continued.
Oxford Observer, Volume VIII, 24 July 1897
An Up-to-Date Catechism by Miss Frances E. Willard
As the value of land is produced by the community it should go to the community.
Can this be done without disturbing existing social institutions? Yes; by abolishing other forms of taxation and increasing the tax on land values.
How would this system compare with our present system of taxation? It would decrease the cost and simply the functions of Government. A tax on land values is the ideal system of taxation. -- (New York Times)
You would, then, remove all taxation from buildins and improvements? Yes; the more improvements we have the better for the community. Our present system of taxation checks production; a tax on land values would stimulate production by abolishing the tax on improvements.
How would the placing of all taxation upon land values affect the farmer? It would reduce his taxes very largely. The farmer is the worst taxed workingman in the country; he not only pays largely through indirect taxation on everything he consumes, but he is also heavily taxed on improvements. A tax on land values would be very large in the cities, or where land values are high, and the tax on agricultural land would be very small.
How would it affect the house owner? He would gain greatly, for the greater part of tax which he now pays is based upon the value of his house which is usually much greater than the value of the land. Of this, as well as of all indirect taxation, he would be relieved.
Would the placing of all taxation upon land values improve the condition of these who work? Yes. If land were taxed to its full rental value no one could afford to hold valuable land idle; the holder must either use it himself or allow others to use it. This would create a great demand for labour, and all wages would rise.
How would it affect the temperance question? Through abolition of poverty it would solve the temperance question; poverty and the vice which springs from poverty, are the great causes of intemperance.
This catechism was published along with something of Henry George's by the Darlington Single Tax League in the 1920s. Google Books has a page for it, but does not provide the text.
For some other Single Tax catechisms, check out thesingletax.com, the shorter pieces.
This blog-like page contains an interesting economic indicator: despite a tepid economic environment for most home construction, the pace of teardowns in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut, seems to be steady to rising.
Westport sits on Long Island Sound, and has a reputation for excellent public schools and good express trains to midtown Manhattan. ($308 for a monthly pass -- 44 miles, about 67 minutes; $5 per day for day parking -- 300 spots -- but a 4 to 5 year wait for one of 1800 parking stickers -- $325/year.)
Many of the entries show recent transaction prices, which readers of this site will know are clearly simply for land value.
It would be interesting to know what the bank appraisals on these properties would show, in terms of the value of the houses and the value of the land itself -- assuming that the buyers needed to take out mortgages.
And it would also be interesting to know how Westport's assessor values these properties, and what adjustments take place in neighborhood land values as the evidence of most of the value being in the land accumulates.
And it turns out that Westport's assessments are online. So let's look at the newest teardown, posted 10/1/2011:
This was the aftermath of the demolition this week of 3 Great Marsh Road in the Saugatuck Shores across from the entrance to the Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club, Built in 1934, the 1 1/2-story conventional-style house had 1,701 square feet, was situated on a 1.11-acre property and changed ownership in August 2011 for $1,136,174
The assessor's database shows an "appraised" value of $249,800 for the buildings, and $696,400 for the land, or a total of $946,200. (This is the supposed "market value" of the land at the date the valuation was done, October 1, 2010. By Connecticut law, assessed value is 70% of that market value. Peculiar law; one wonders whose interests it was designed to serve.)
The Assessor’s primary responsibility is to find the “full and fair cash value” of your property so that the taxpayer may pay only his/her fair share of taxes.
The record also shows that the property sold in August 2010 for $1,000,000. The previous transaction was in 1973, which suggests that it might have been an estate situation. But 14% appreciation in 12 months is pretty sweet these days.
So that 1.11 acres sold for $1,136,174 in August, 2011, and then the buyer paid an additional amount for the removal of the 1700 square foot building -- say, $10 psf? That's $17,000, for a total of about $1,150,000. And the assessor says the land is worth $$696,400.
And that $250,000 square foot house? Over valued by quite a bit.
The 2010 tax rate for Westport was $14.85 per $1000 of value. (I couldn't find the 2011 figure, but it was expected to be 15% higher.) That's based on the 70% value, which for this property was $662,400. So the 2010 property tax was $10,300.
$10,300 as a percentage of the transaction price, $1,136,174, is 0.91%.
Clearly the town is well run, and people want to live there. They're willing to pay $1.1 million for a lot. And even in these times, financially difficult for many people, there are people who can afford to pay $1.1 million and more for a bit of land on which to live.
How much of the value of these lots comes from excellent schools and good municipal services, and how much from the existence of Metro North, of I-95 and the Merritt Parkway, the presence of Long Island Sound, and the presence of NYC? And how much comes from the presence of hedge funds and other high-paying employers which are skimming the cream from the productive economy and pocketing that value, because we let them do so?
In my inbox this morning, a blast-from-the-past from Mason Gaffney, one of the most respected Georgists and a wonderful writer. Unlike many of us, he came to these ideas as a young person, having read Henry George while still in high school.
Mase's cover note: It was November 1942. I had just turned 19, and received Greetings from Uncle Sam. Funny how fast one catches on, with the evidence lying outdoors all around you; and funny how southern California today replicates Chicagoland in 1942. Funny, too, how economics profs had their ways of signaling you that looking into land speculation was, well, just not done in elite circles. How little progress we have made since then in understanding and coping with this phenomenon and its derivative ills.
Taking the Professor for a Ride The Freeman, November, 1942
The writer of this article, MASON GAFFNEY, is a young Chicago Georgist who recently matriculated at Harvard. Perusal of the piece suggests that Freshman Gaffney's chances of becoming teacher's pet in the economics class are decidedly slim.
UNRUFFLED, composed, like a patient father straightening out a wayward son, he said, "You see, my boy, this Henry George lived at a time when the country was growing rapidly, when land values were skyrocketing and great fortunes were being made from speculation. Not being a 'trained economist,' George attached disproportionate importance to this . . . er . . . er . . . land question. Land is, of course, of minor importance in 'economics,' and speculation, well, . . . of trifling significance."
I should like to take this man, my "economics" teacher at Harvard, for a ride from the North Shore area near Chicago straight west on Illinois 58. A well-built-up residential district, one-half to a mile deep, runs far north along the lake shore, to end abruptly in a wilderness of sidewalks, street signs, fire plugs and weeds -- but not buildings. Along the roads which gridiron this wasteland speed trucks and pleasure cars, burning gas, tired and time to bridge the miles which, to no purpose, stand between the metropolis and outlying communities.
"Yes," my boss told me as we were riding to work one day, "there was a time when we thought there would be a lot of building out here. Guess I've still got some Land Company bonds in the Wilmette Bank. The company gave the farmer one-third down and agreed to pay the rest when the land was sold. Lots of poor farmers have got the land back now, with stiff taxes to pay on the improvements. Improvements, hell! Those fire plugs don't even have water pipes attached to them."
Ten miles of this and we reach Des Plaines, an oasis called by the natives a "successful development." "Thirty-one minutes to the Loop," boasts the Northwestern R. R. "These Homesites Best Speculation in Chicago Land," exults the land promoter.
Five miles farther west, about fifteen miles from Lake Michigan, the land is at last completely given over to farms. The speculator fires a parting shot at us as we reach the junction with Arlington Heights Road. "The Idle Rich of Today Bought Acres Yesterday," reads his sign.
Yes, I would like to ride with this "economist" out here. He would have trouble then convincing me that speculation is of trifling significance. Probably he would say: "But the men who hold this land are men of great foresight, very valuable men. You can't refuse to reward foresight; it's a virtue. Of course a little planning might alleviate these dreadful conditions, but, tut, tut, my boy, do you want to destroy free enterprise?"
Reward foresight indeed! Foresight in itself deserves no economic reward. Hitler and Baby-face Nelson at times showed great foresight, yet their loot is by no means sanctified on that account. Only one kind of exertion deserves an economic reward, and that is exertion directed toward the gratification of human desires. Foresight, an attribute of labor, exerted in producing wealth, deserves a reward, and in the free market will bring a reward. But foresight no more justifies speculation in land than superior firepower justifies conquest.
Perhaps it is asking too much to expect a Harvard man to understand this, however. His salary, after all, is paid in part from the proceeds of the foresight of certain friends of the institution who bought up much of the land on which the slums and business districts of Cambridge now stand.
THE 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal. When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?
That's the first paragraph of a recent op-ed by economist Robert Reich of UC-Berkeley.
I think this article is important, but that it misses a larger, longer-acting dynamic: the extent to which our most wealthy, with an awesome amount of "patient money" need to find places to "park" that money, and end up buying land and natural resources.
When we need land, particularly well-located land, we end up paying them for access. When we need natural resources, we pay them for that, too.
It isn't that such access shouldn't be paid for -- it should -- rather, why on earth should private individuals or entities be the recipients of that income, rather than it flowing to the commons to finance the goods and services that make our society a good place to live, without taxing work or purchases.
I went to see the wise one our town was such a mess the longest lines to get in were at the DSS
He said, I cannot cure your town But here’s something you can do write a list and flesh it out Of why your town is in a stew
Well, we build roads; we run the bus, We try to control crooks. We build the parks and sidewalks We give our streets good looks
To do these things, we need some wealth And so we tax the things we see We tax the buildings and what you earn We tax merchants and sellers with a fee.
(refrain) I guess I realized, shoulda come as no surprise that Taxes on work don’t create a good environment. What we tax, that we reduce let’s not kill our jobs, Taxes on work do not create a good environment.
We tax the land, that helps ensure that land is not a wager It lowers the cost to those who use it to create more jobs per acre
Collecting land rents means That the things we as community do are benefiting everyone and go to all, not to the few.
And if a person wants to work she reaps the results of her labor The benefits of what she does, Not the out-of-town land speculator
(refrain) I guess I realized, shoulda come as no surprise that Taxes on work don’t create a good environment. What we tax, that we reduce let’s not kill our jobs, Taxes on work do not create a good environment.
So maybe we’ll shift the taxes off The labor you and I do, you see And put it on the land so none can squeeze the blood from you and me.
That way they’ll be more jobs for those who put their backs and brains to work We wouldn’t have to work so long, To put a roof and walls on God’s good dirt.
We wouldn’t need two jobs to feed The mouths that we beget, To house and clothe them and ourselves And where we need to go, we’d get.
(refrain) I guess I realized, shoulda come as no surprise that Taxes on work don’t create a good environment. What we tax, that we reduce let’s not kill our jobs, Taxes on work do not create a good environment.
A compact town means we could walk around to get, to shops, to meet, to work for gain And even walk to parks nearby where quiet, joy, and beauty reign.
We wouldn’t need a big back yard, or front ones with their lawns to mow. We’d have a share in common land, Where our souls, spirits, and bodies grow.
I think we’ve solved the problem of unemployment lines of barely earning what we need. We may not have the harvest yet, But we have sown the seed.
(refrain) I guess I realized, shoulda come as no surprise that Taxes on work don’t create a good environment. What we tax, that we reduce let’s not kill our jobs, Taxes on work do not create a good environment.
As I watch the daily network news, and watch the reports on the gyrations of the stock market, imagining the reactions of the viewing audience, I wonder how realistically the news is reported.
One who watches the commercials recognizes that the viewing audience for the "nightly news" must be largely an audience of older adults; the pharmaceutical ads are pretty thick.
One can well assume that a significant portion of this viewing audience might be stock holders, people who live on a fixed income (probably coming mostly from Social Security, with some having supplementation from private pensions and/or IRA holdings.
But putting aside the older skew of the network news audience, how widespread is stock ownership? I came across a pie chart today, which ultimately traces back to the Survey of Consumer Finances. The graphic that prompted this post is at http://inequality.org/wealth-inequality/.
Here's what it shows:
Distribution of U. S. Stock Market Wealth, 2007
Top 1%: 38.2%
90th to 99th percentiles: 43.0% [together: 81.2%]
80th to 90th percentiles: 9.9% [cumulative: 91.1%]
60th to 80th percentiles: 6.4%
Bottom 60%: 2.5%
The vast majority of Americans -- the bottom 80% of us -- have 8.9% of the value of the stock market.
When the market gyrates, the direct effects on the bottom 80% are relatively small.
The same webpage shows another piechart, from the same source:
As I listen to the accounts of what was on the computers in the compound where Osama bin Ladin was living, including ideas for attacking American commuter railroads, my mind turns to why people in other countries might have such hatred for America.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we are using, month in and month out, such a disproportionate share of the world's finite natural resources, and our corporations (and multinational corporations, too) are profiting hugely from withdrawing those resources from land around the world without adequately compensating the peoples of those countries -- not the current leaders but also the future generations of peoples -- for what is being taken out. In our name.
Then my mind turns to the distribution of those benefits in this country. Ads from the Petroleum Institute remind us that half of us own stock, and suggest that if we own stock, we benefit from letting that industry have its way. Well, sort of. But it is worth noting that stock ownership in publicly held companies is rather concentrated in the top 5% of our population [data source: 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, Federal Reserve Board], who own 66.5% of the value. And just as important, the value of privately held companies is even more concentrated, with 88.1% residing in the top 5%. The latter category is actually larger than the former, in terms of household wealth. [Some might argue that pension funds hold stock for bottom 95%-ers -- but relatively few of us have defined benefit pensions any more, and we ought not to be swayed by that one!]
Why do they hate us, if they do? Because we are consuming 2 to 4 times our per capita share of the world's resources, and there are others who can't get their per capita share as a result. And maybe because some might have reason to suspect that the extremes of weather that many parts of the world seem to be experiencing are a result of our disproportionate pollution of the environment.
So how do we revise our incentives so that we structure things better?
To the best of my knowledge, the answers lie in the ideas commonly associated with Henry George. Explore this blog. Explore wealthandwant.com. Read George's books, "Progress and Poverty" and "Social Problems" (a collection of essays) online. Explore Mason Gaffney's website. See what you think. Is there a better way? Is there a way to better organize things to create a better, more peaceful, more just, more sustainable world, in which all of us can prosper, and none can reap what others sow?
Questions about the sources and rightness of high salaries, particularly in sectors of the economy in monopoly positions or able to skim wealth from the productive economy, are not new. Here's an editorial from the October 14, 1905, issue of "The Public:"
The envious policy holder
It is perhaps quite natural for policy holders in the Mutual Life to be indignant upon learning that their president gets a salary of $150,000 a year; that his son's salary is $30,000; and that his son-in-law's commissions have amounted to $932,823 since 1893 -- about $75,000 a year. But let these policy-holding creatures beware. There is good professorial and priestly authority for saying that indignation like theirs springs from envy, and is the mark of a covetous mind. Is not the laborer worthy of his hire?
Professorial and priestly authority ... hmmm ... Have you seen the documentary film "Inside Job" yet? (It comes out on DVD in a couple of weeks, I have in mind.) Have you read Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison's 1990 book, "The Corruption of Economics"? Does the phrase "rich people's useful idiots" ring a bell?
A check of an inflation calculator shows that the $150,000 salary referenced for 1904 (paid to the president of a mutual life insurance company!) equates to $4.2 million in 2011. This onger article comes from the following issue of The Public, the October 21, 1905, issue. $100,000 then equates to $2.8 million in 2011. The FIRE sector -- Finance, Insurance, Real Estate -- has been skimming the cream for a long, long time.
We have become accustomed of late years to the contemplation of enormous salaries.
The payment of such salaries is sauctioned upon the pretext of the equivalent value of the recipient's services. If a protest against the payment of a hundred thousand dollars a year to the president of a mutual insurance company is offered, the answer is made that the rare qualifications demanded in the manager of such in enormous and complex business not only justify but necessitate the payment of such a salary. "The office demands the highest ability, and a hundred thousand dollars is none too much for that."
Defenders of the high salary sometimes make comparisons between a particular salary in question and certain other salaries of equal value, or salaries somewhat less but attaching to positions of less responsibility, under the impression that such citations establish the equity of their cause. And what is of vastly greater and more portentous significance—the general public, though perhaps doubting, yet not knowing how to answer, suffers the case to go by default.
Yet to the clear thinking man who has a comprehensive knowledge of fundamental economic law, the question presents no difficulties, and the verdict will be promptly and emphatically adverse.
In the common field of wage labor, so called, the arbitrament of competition, though it does not indicate the absolute value of theservice rendered, nevertheless does determine, with some approach to equity, the relative values.
True, competition is not free even here; some wages are artificially advanced. But the discrepancy is insignificant in comparison with the difference between, say, the $8,000 salary of a judge and the $150,000 salary of the president of an insurance company. Some carpenters may receive 30 percent higher wages than some other carpenters of equal capacity; but some salaried men receive 1800 percent more than others of equal capacity!
Yet the claim that such enormous salaries are necessary in order to secure the services required, is equivalent to asserting that the salaries are competitive A very little reflection should expose the absurdity of that claim.
President Alexander, of the Equitable Assurance Society, received a salary of $100,000. With whom was he in competition? Did he ever have a chance to get such a salary in any other connection? Will he ever have another chance?
Mr. Paul Morton has succeeded Mr. Alexander, as being fitter for the place, at a reduction of $20,000 in salary. But if the salary were competitive, Mr. Morton being conceded to be much the better man for the place, would have received an advance, instead of a cut.
Of course, in this particular case, the real reason of Mr. Morton's voluntary acceptance of the reduced salary was that the United States public was in no mood to be trifled with at the moment. Mr. Morton, and everybody else, knew perfectly well that a considerable part of the $100,000 salary was graft, pure and simple, and as the ostensible purpose of his selection for president of the company was the elimination of its scandalous excess of graft, he wisely began where the permanent graft was greatest—in the president's salary.
But the salary still is $80,000. Is it an equitable salary? Or (to get away from this particular case, which I have cited only as a means of illustration), are the notoriously large salaries justified by the services rendered by their recipients?
No. And that they are not is easily demonstrated.
If any individual is entitled to higher pay than another, it is because he renders greater service to society than that other. The interposition of the employer between the workman, for instance, and the public does not alter the case. The most efficient group, including employer and employes, will outstrip the less efficient in the competition—that is, in service to the public—and will, as a group, receive cominensurately a greater reward.
The law holds, either as to the individual or the group of individuals. The question of reward does not depend upon the amount of an individual's product, but on the amount that he imparts. He must get his reward by exchanging his product for the product of others; and therefore in order to get more than his competitors he must impart more.
That would be the case if the principle of competition were universally free to act. And the moment that you exempt an individual from the law of competition you thereby concede his inability to command an increased reward without such exemption. Else why exempt him? By exempting him you help him to an increased income; an increase which he could not get without such help, and which, therefore, he does not earn, but receives by special privilege.
Since, then, naturally—that is, under purely competitive conditions—increased reward comes only from increased service to society, it follows that under such conditions an exceptionally high salary would indicate a general rise in the level of social conditions; and that a large number of very high and frequently advancing salaries would indicate a very much improved and frequently rising general standard of living, reaching down to the lowest level of wage-earners.
I repeat that the rapidly rising standard of living would embrace the common laborer. This is the most important fact of the whole problem. The laborer's wage is the criterion of general service value. All advance in income starts from the wage-level of Common Labor. All advance in service-value, therefore, starts from the service-value of Common Labor. The test of alleged exceptionally high service-value, is, therefore, the condition of the Common Laborer.
It follows that if the exceptionally large incomes now prevailing (whether these incomes are in the form of $100,000 salaries or of $1,000,000 profits), are earned, then the condition of Common Laborers generally has risen by leaps and bounds within the last few years.
But statistics prove that in the United States the cost of living has increased beyond any advance in wages. The conclusion is inevitable, therefore, that large incomes exceed the recipients' earnings.
How much do these incomes exceed earnings? No one can tell. The fact of paramount importance for our consideration in this connection is that the great incomes are indisputably beyond the effective influence of those natural laws which tend toward social equity.
The individual laborer's wages are modified by the wages that his fellow consents to work for. The wages of the mechanic bear a manifest competitive relation to the wages of common labor. The profits of the green-grocer, the draper, the teacher, etc., all are competitively related to the wage rate of common labor. Only through exceptional service to those below, can those above maintain their positions in the competitive field.
But there is no comparison whatever between the common-laborer wage and the hundred-thousand-dollar salary. There is no natural relation between them. The wages of the common laborer are the just compensation for valuable service rendered—minus the laborer's enforced contribution to the incomes outside the influence of competition. The great incomes are, at best, in small part compensation for valuable service rendered—plus the maximum of graft that special privilege is able to extort from the occupants of the competitive field; and. at the worst, they are, in their entirety, graft, pure and simple.
What should be the maximum salary, or the individual income of whatsoever name?
It should be just what a man can get, under conditions of universal freedom of competition, in a world where natural opportunities are free to all men. Abolish all special privilege, and the man of high abilities would earn his greater compensation as the just reward of benefits imparted to the whole body of society.
Under such conditions all society, including the humblest servitor, would rise in affluence in proportion to the increase in productivity. Which is to say that if our productivity should increase as fast in the next 40 years as it has in the last 40, the poorest class would be ten times as affluent as now, plus its hitherto withheld equity in the current product of today.
Today, the difference between the extremes of income measures the difference between the opportunities of individuals. Abolish all forms of special privilege, and the difference between the extremes of income would measure the difference in the social service of the individual recipients, and the maximum income would be the just reward of the largest contributor to the sum of human welfare.
As we watch the people of various countries in the world seeking a new order in their societies, this 110 year old article caught my eye.
"ORDER" MORE PRECIOUS THAN JUSTICE.
Drastic legislation against anarchists will be a feature of the present session. All the big men who are anxious to pose as friends of "order" are rushing to the front with revolutionary suggestions for the suppression of one of the symptoms of social disease. No statesman is heard of who offers a constitutional remedy. Even the president, it is said, will preach the gospel of suppression. It is assumed by all these great men that "order" is more precious and more easily secured than justice. Yet our fathers did not think so. They did not hesitate to plunge the country into disorder for the sake of a principle. They defied the constituted authorities, they assaulted the king's representatives, they threw a cargo of tea into Boston harbor, they unfurled the flag of revolt and they waged a war for seven long years in assertion of their right to disregard order where it involved injustice. This is the point which our anarchistic friends of order ignore. They will not admit that they deny that there is any social injustice which breeds social disease and such manifestations of it as we have lately witnessed. It will be easy to pass laws for the suppression of anarchy. But these laws will not suppress it. They will only serve to intensify the frightful conditions which are breeding it. They will serve only to push the country farther along toward a despotism of pelf. And the inspiration of this legislation is not a love of liberty and a hatred of wrong; it comes from those who are profiting by wrong and who are in deadly fear of the plain people who are their victims. The drag-nets to be thrown out are not to catch the red anarchist alone. He is not the occasion of fear. The people to be caught are those who dissent from things as they are and who protest in orderly ways against robbery and injustice.—Johnstown (Pa.) Democrat of December 3.
from The Public, DECEMBER 28, 1901.
I had to look up "pelf:" Money, esp. when gained in a dishonest or dishonorable way.
I appreciated some of the phrases:
suppression of the symptoms of social disease;
social injustice which breeds social disease
despotism of pelf
the inspiration of this legislation is not a love of liberty and a hatred of wrong; it comes from those who are profiting by wrong and who are in deadly fear of the plain people who are their victims
The people to be caught are those who dissent from things as they are and who protest in orderly ways against robbery and injustice
And then the word "order" caught my imagination, in the way it is used in "Pen's Parade" -- see an entry a bit further down this page. Orderly, indeed.
Open it in another window, let it fill the screen, scrolling if necessary to see it in full -- and then continue reading here.
It comes from a 2006 article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled "The Height of Inequality," which lays out very well the extent of the income inequality we have in America, though it starts with an explanation done in 1971 by Dutch economist Jan Pen, describing the distribution of income in the British economy at that time. (I've put part of it into bullet format.) It begins,
In 1971, Jan Pen, a Dutch economist, published a celebrated treatise with a less-than-gripping title: Income Distribution. The book summoned a memorable image. This is how to think of the pattern of incomes in an economy, Pen said (he was writing about Britain, but bear with me). Suppose that every person in the economy walks by, as if in a parade. Imagine that the parade takes exactly an hour to pass, and that the marchers are arranged in order of income, with the lowest incomes at the front and the highest at the back. Also imagine that the heights of the people in the parade are proportional to what they make: those earning the average income will be of average height, those earning twice the average income will be twice the average height, and so on. We spectators, let us imagine, are also of average height.
Pen then described what the observers would see. Not a series of people of steadily increasing height—that’s far too bland a picture. The observers would see something much stranger. They would see, mostly, a parade of dwarves, and then some unbelievable giants at the very end.
As the parade begins, Pen explained, the marchers cannot be seen at all. They are walking upside down, with their heads underground—owners of loss-making businesses, most likely.
Very soon, upright marchers begin to pass by, but they are tiny. For five minutes or so, the observers are peering down at people just inches high—old people and youngsters, mainly; people without regular work, who make a little from odd jobs.
Ten minutes in, the full-time labor force has arrived: to begin with, mainly unskilled manual and clerical workers, burger flippers, shop assistants, and the like, standing about waist-high to the observers. And at this point things start to get dull, because there are so very many of these very small people. The minutes pass, and pass, and they keep on coming.
By about halfway through the parade, Pen wrote, the observers might expect to be looking people in the eye—people of average height ought to be in the middle. But no, the marchers are still quite small, these experienced tradespeople, skilled industrial workers, trained office staff, and so on—not yet five feet tall, many of them. On and on they come.
It takes about forty-five minutes—the parade is drawing to a close—before the marchers are as tall as the observers. Heights are visibly rising by this point, but even now not very fast.
In the final six minutes, however, when people with earnings in the top 10 percent begin to arrive, things get weird again. Heights begin to surge upward at a madly accelerating rate. Doctors, lawyers, and senior civil servants twenty feet tall speed by. Moments later, successful corporate executives, bankers, stockbrokers—peering down from fifty feet, 100 feet, 500 feet.
In the last few seconds you glimpse pop stars, movie stars, the most successful entrepreneurs. You can see only up to their knees (this is Britain: it’s cloudy). And if you blink, you’ll miss them altogether.
As Garrison Keillor ironically informs his listeners, not every child can be above average. But when it comes to incomes, the great majority can very easily be below average. A comparative handful of exceptionally well-paid people pulls the average up. As a matter of arithmetic, the median income—the income of the worker halfway up the income distribution—is bound to be less than average.
This is true in every economy, but in some more than others. Back when Pen wrote his book, incomes were already more skewed in America than in Britain. Over the past thirty-five years, and especially over the past ten, that top-end skewness has greatly increased. The weirdness of the last half minute of today’s American parade—even more so the weirdness of the last few seconds, and above all the weirdness of the last fraction of a second—is vastly greater than that of the vision, bizarre as it was, described by Pen.
The article goes on to point out that (1) at the time, the US giants were even taller than the British ones; (2) that in the intervening years, a highly disproportionate share of US income has gone to make the giants taller yet in proportion to the rest of us. It quotes a study suggesting that a large share of the top income earners were sports and media celebrities and top corporate executives. 13,000 people in the 99.99th percentile, with total earnings of $83 billion in 2001. (an average of $6.4 million, so some are much higher, many a lot lower.) In 2001, there were probably relatively few Hedge Fund managers pocketing billions each (and their incomes are likely not shown as wages, but rather as "capital" gains, taxed at less than all but our lowest wage earners must pay in federal income taxes, and not subject to Social Security or Medicare taxes.
Most of us, as the article points out, have a big problem with sports or media celebrities receiving large incomes, considering it a "perfecting of the labor market." But how is it that corporate executives get to harvest so much? We know about hand-picked board compensation committees which reward their pickers with high incomes, whether or not performance has been strong. But do we think about just how it is that there is so much for them to work with? Do we know why so little goes to the rest of the parade in wages? We're so used to the situation that we no longer examine it. Even your family's college economics major probably has never been exposed to a serious examination of the question. Air to the bird, water to the fish -- just the environment we live in, not even interesting enough to study, until it no longer supports life.
Professor Stiglitz told a packed UQ Centre that Australia's economic stimulus package was the best designed in the world.
AND he said natural resources - coal, iron ore - should be properly valued at market just like the electromagnetic spectrum.
The government auctions the spectrum to the highest bidders who want to operate mobile phone networks, cable companies, television and radio stations.
Basically, a country - like Australia - will end up poor if doesn't get the best price for its assets - and natural assets are not renewable, once they are gone they are gone. If the proceeds from the sale of these assets are not invested in infrastructure to support and grow other sectors the economy (manufacturing and value-adding, goods creation) then a country and it's people will not prosper - HELLO! HELLO! Drowning not waving.
"It should be subtracted from Gross Domestic Product (GDP)," he said. "You are selling off assets at a very low price if you don't have adequate taxes on mining - you are being cheated," he said to audience applause.
He thinks resources should be auctioned off to the highest bidder - the free market at work. Of course, the mining industry will make all kinds of threats.
To everyone's amusement he joked about how mining companies bamboozled, threatened and bribed governments of developing, fragile nations.
"I assume that's not the case in Australia," he mused.
To prosper, a country needs to set up a stabilization fund (from a mining tax, if not a resources auction) for nation building.
This is what he calls an investment fund for building infrastructure and to grow value-adding industries, maintain education, job creation.
Not only that but the sell-off of natural resources should appear on a country's accounts as a kind of depreciation of assets - otherwise the accounts are not accurate. ...
He made these comments at the end of the oration after he explained the difference between the financial sector and the economy - the economy is not the financial sector.
The financial sector (the banks and regulators) are the culprits behind the global financial crisis which has crippled the global economy. Apparently, moneylenders have been skimming 40 percent of the profits from companies that actually make and produce things. His big point was that this is not really the role of the financial sector. The financial sector's job is to support economic growth, not cripple it.
"Finance is a means to an end," he said. "The lack of balance between the financial sector and the economic sector was actually the real problem in this economic crisis (NOT the real estate bubble)."
So how do we create more competition for the services of workers? How do we create more opportunity for all to employ themselves if they don't like their chances with other employers? To find out, explore this blog, explore the ideas associated with the name of 19th century economist and philosopher Henry George.
Political economy is the science which deals with the natural laws governing the production and distribution of valuable goods and services. I'll also reference Adam Smith's definition:
Political economy considered as a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator proposes two distinct objects, first, to supply a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public service. It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign.
Yet another from Tax Facts, this from March, 1927.
To say that a tax is inequitable, because one kind of property is taxed at a higher rate than another kind of property, is to beg the whole question at issue. Equity demands that the cost of government be laid upon citizens in proportion to advantages derived by citizens from government.
To tax one miller more than another miller having the same investment would be unjust discrimination. But if one miller got power from steam of his own plant, while the other got power from a water fall, the latter's tax should be greater than the former's tax in order to place them on an equality before the law.
To tax a business man with a hundred thousand dollar investment the same as a land speculator with a hundred thousand dollar lot is unjust discrimination because the two investments are dissimiliar in nature and they respond differently to the tax law.
Thus, a factory deteriorates, the machinery wears out and becomes obsolete. The owner must constantly give it care and expend labor on it. The land speculator, on the contrary, gives his land no care, and he employs no labor. Yet the factory grows less in value with time, while the land increases in value. Manifestly it is unjust to tax these two citizens the same. One citizen enjoys no value but what he himself creates, while the other enjoys a value that the community has made.
If the community is to render justice to all its members it must vary its tax burdens to equalize the advantages they derive from the services rendered by the community.
This tidbit from a 1926 Single Tax monthly contains an important truth for our era. Today, it would be necessary to add "wages" to the list of things he ought not to be taxed on, since so many states and cities impose wage taxes on their residents. And in California and NYC, a large share of residents are renters. And equally important, it applies to how we tax businesses, many of which are tenants.
LEST WE FORGET
Nothing should be left undone to prevent waste and promote efficiency in government. Public officials should be closely watched to see that they render full service.
But when all is said and done in the way of securing the wisest outlay of tax money, it should not he forgotten that more harm and injustice can be done to the individual citizens in taking money from the wrong persons than in wasting it.
When a new pavement, water, light, or school is put in, it makes the neighborhood a more desirable place in which to live, and rents go up. It is well to have these public utilities constructed as cheaply as possible. But it is far more important that the tenant who pays for the use of the public service in higher rent shall not also be taxed a second time on his personal property, goods, or household furniture to pay for the same service.
Pursuing some leads on Lizzie Magie (see the related posts, below this one, and in the Landlords Game links at left), I came across a December, 2010, paper by Frances Hutchinson, about the British version of the Landlords Game, called Brer Fox an' Brer Rabbit. She makes some very interesting points, and I learned some things about the games. I commend the entire paper to your attention, and am taking the liberty of posting the last third here:
Brer Fox an’ Brer Rabbit
Georgists argued that a system of land taxation could be introduced gradually, following informed public debate on the issues involved. To that end, during the early decades of the twentieth century they devised a series of hand-made games designed to portray the evils of the selfish system of monopoly land holding, with a view to introducing socially responsible reforms of land holding based upon the Georgist Single Land Tax proposals. The games, which circulated throughout the USA and UK, often under the title The Landlord’s Game, were played in three phases. Phase 1, based upon the existing laws of land ownership, finance and taxation, demonstrates the effects of unchecked greed and self-interest in patterns of monopoly capitalism. In Phases 2 and 3 the rules are altered to eliminate the ability of powerful players to benefit from their greed.
The creators of the game held a profound faith in the human capacity for action based upon reasoned argument. The games were designed to be played co-operatively, providing a focus for discussion which took place at each of the three phases of the game. Monopoly was later developed from Phase 1, where powerful, self-interested individuals reign supreme. The later two phases, which each form games in themselves, demonstrate the potential for communities to regain ecologically and socially viable forms of access to land.
Brer Fox an’ Brer Rabbit is an early version of The Landlord’s Game which circulated in the UK. After some years of research we managed to bring together a copy of the original board with a matching set of rules. Despite the title, this is not a children’s game. However, we have found that a major obstacle to the successful use of this original version of the game as a teaching aid, is the almost universal pernicious influence of the selfish, zero-sum game of Monopoly. Phase 1 does not run as smoothly as the polished version of the commercial version, and it can be difficult to shift to the different mindset envisaged in Phases 2 and 3.
The thoughtful playing of Phases 2 and 3 of the Landlord’s Game raises some veryinteresting questions, such as the relationship between the ‘real’ and the ‘financial’ values of land, traditional patterns of common management of land, and the whole question of landless waged-labour. What emerges most forcefully, however, is the role of the Banker, the mysterious figure whose presence is not explained in the Georgist literature, but who is able to pay out ‘wages’ to the players to enable them to continue to participate in the game. This brings into focus the whole question of the wage/salary-slavery system that is corporate capitalism in the world economy of the twenty-first century.
Playing the Game
Monopoly was developed from Phase 1 of The Landlord’s Game, which demonstrates the effects of a greedy selfish pattern of monopoly land-holding. The object of Monopoly is to buy, rent and sell property with sufficiently focused and ruthless skill to bankrupt the other players and thereby force them out of the game. In real life, the Robber Barons of the American Golden Age dominated steel, oil and other essential resources not by creating wealth, but by dominating the field. Mirroring assumptions of economic orthodoxy, the number of houses and hotels in Monopoly are deliberately kept scarce. The game is so designed that all cannot improve their properties equally, and collaboration is prohibited. “Monopoly models the foundation assumption of economics: the principle of scarcity. Every opportunity you act on is thereby denied to another player.”11
To play a version of The Landlord’s Game it is necessary to step back in time, to forget the rush, bustle and constant worry of the twenty-first century and take time to imagine one is alive in the idyllic years before the First World War. Although the commercially designed Monopoly can be played out in a single playing session, several leisurely sessions need to be set aside for playing The Landlord’s Game. The specific uses of the sites laid out on the board would have been familiar to the players, and would have given rise to discussion of local examples. Thus the game offers a refreshing opportunity to reflect on the purposes of the various ‘money making’ institutions on the board, including the actual money-maker, the bank itself.
Devised over a hundred years ago as a DIY exercise, boards, cards and playing pieces were normally assembled from household materials. Playing tokens were buttons, badges, charms, or anything to hand. Brer Fox an’ Brer Rabbit, produced and patented by the Newbie Games Company of Dumfries, Scotland, in 1913, has been reproduced in the attached format* so that all three phases of the game can be played. The family resemblance to Monopoly is immediately obvious. Bearing in mind the history of Monopoly just described, the leisurely playing of all three phases is an excellent consciousness-raising exercise. The later two phases, which form games in themselves, demonstrate the potential for communities to regain access to land by regaining control over all forms of economic activity, including banking. Personally, I tend to agree with Karl Marx, that “in point of theory, the man [Henry George] is a back number”. The notion that an individual should have the right to buy a piece of land simply by right of landing on it when it is free, is original to the game. Equally, the Georgist game does not raise the question of money creation, the role of finance and banking in the economy or the whole question of wage-slavery upon which the edifice of global corporate capitalism rests. But that does not prevent twenty-first century players from using the sites and situations of Brer Fox an’ Brer Rabbit to review accepted assumptions about the institutions of society which govern access to wealth, property, income and power. The game offers at least as much of interest to present-day campaigners for peace, social justice, monetary reform and political sanity as it did a century ago. We look forward to opening a dialogue with groups who have played the games successfully.
Digging through primary sources can provide some great thrills. I stumbled onto this article about The Landlords' Game in the Autumn, 1902, number of The Single Tax Review (then a 64-page quarterly, later more frequent) . It was the Landlord's' Game which was later revised to create the board game Monopoly. As I've written earlier here, the Landlords' Game (probably in later editions than what is referred to here) came with 2 sets of rules, one which would create widespread prosperity, and the other which would create a winner-take-all situation.
Magie's comments are quite relevant to understanding the game of Monopoly, too:
from The Single Tax Review, Autumn, 1902
THE LANDLORDS' GAME.
AN INTERESTING INVENTION OF A YOUNG LADY IN WASHINGTON BY WHICH CHILDREN AT THEIR PLAY MAY BE TAUGHT THE TRUE LAWS OF ECONOMICS. Miss Lizzie J. Magie, a single taxer of Washington, D. C has invented an ingenious game, played with checkers and dice as is parcheesi, and thus describes it for the Review:
"It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences," says Miss Magie. " It might well have been called the 'Game of Life,' as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem to have, i. e., the accumulation of wealth. Representative money, deeds, mortgages, notes and charters are used in the game; lots are bought and sold; rents are collected; money is borrowed (either from the bank or from individuals), and interest and taxes are paid. The railroad is also represented, and those who make use of it are obliged to pay their fare, unless they are fortunate enough to possess a pass, which, in the game, means throwing a double. There are two franchises: the water and the lighting; and the first player whose throw brings him upon one of these receives a charter giving him the privilege of taxing all others who must use his light and water.
"There are two tracts of land on the board that are held out of use—are neither for rent nor for sale—and on each of these appear the forbidding sign: 'No Trespassing. Go to Jail.' One of these tracts of land (the largest on the board) is owned by Lord Blueblood, of London, England, and represents foreign ownership of American soil. A jail is provided for any one who trespasses upon this land, and there the unfortunate individual must linger until he serves out his time or pays the required fine. 'Serving out his time' means waiting until he throws a double.
"Before the game begins, each player is provided with a certain amount of cash, sufficient to pay all necessary expenses until he is well enough along in life to earn his living. Should any one be so unlucky, or so reckless and extravagant, as to become 'broke,' there is a nice little poor house off in one corner where he may tarry until he makes a lucky throw or until some friend takes pity on him and lends him enough to set him on his feet again. And here is where he generally gets 'soaked,' for the other players, taking advantage of the unfortunate one's necessities, demand an enormous rate of interest which the impecunious individual must pay before he can complete his round and get his wages.
"The rallying and chaffing of the others when one player finds himself an inmate of the jail, and the expressions of mock sympathy and condolence when one is obliged to betake himself to the poor house, make a large part of the fun and merriment of the game.
"Each time around the board represents so much labor performed, for which so much wages are paid. When a player has been the rounds ten times he retires from his labors, although he still remains in the game, which is not finished until the last player has made his tenth round. It takes forty moves to make a round and there is in each round one little black-bordered spot marked 'Legacy,' and whenever a player stops on this he receives a cash legacy. In each round there are three spots marked 'Luxury,' and these the player may indulge in or not, according to his inclinations or finances, but each luxury purchased counts the player so much more at the end of the game.
"General directions for playing the game accompany this description, but it is difficult to make a set of rules that will cover all contingencies since no two games are alike. The combination of circumstances are so many that almost every time the game is played new situations are brought out. Thus it is a game that is always interesting—never monotonous. It was the original intention of the author simply to work out a demonstration of how the landlord gets his money and keeps it, but while doing this there gradually developed a game which has proven one of amusement as well as of instruction and one which has attractions for both old and young.
"Children of nine or ten years and who possess average intelligence can easily understand the game and they get a good deal of hearty enjoyment out of it. They like to handle the make-believe money, deeds, etc., and the little landlords take a general delight in demanding the payment of their rent. They learn that the quickest way to accumulate wealth and gain power is to get all the land they can in the best localities and hold on to it. There are those who argue that it may be a dangerous thing to teach children how they may thus get the advantage of their fellows, but let me tell you there are no fairer-minded beings in the world than our own little American children. Watch them in their play and see how quick they are, should any one of their number attempt to cheat or take undue advantage of another, to cry, 'No fair!' And who has not heard almost every little girl say, 'I won't play if you don't play fair.' Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied."
To read more about The Landlord's Game, explore the two "Monopoly and the Landlord's Game" tags in the cloud (I can't seem to meld them into a single one!) It is quite an interesting story.
The issue of whether and how we ought to tax large fortunes upon the death of the second-to-die of a wealth-holding couple seems to have gone away recently, but this report to the federal government in 1915 ("Final Report of the Commission on Industrial Relations") from a Commission created by a 1912 Act of Congress, provides some interesting and timely reading nearly 100 years later -- and not just for questions related to the estate tax, but for economic justice and stability in general. Those who have seen the film "Inside Job" will also find some interesting items below. (While initially I wanted to share the David Lloyd-George quote, the length of this post grew some: it was difficult to pick starting and ending points. This starts on page 23.)
This sense of tension and impending danger has been expressed by numerous witnesses before the Commission, but by none more forcibly than by Mr. Daniel Guggenheim, a capitalist whose interests in mines and industrial plants extend to every part of the country.
Chairman Walsh. What do you think has been accomplished by the philanthropic activities of the country in reducing suffering and want among the people?
Mr. Guggenheim. There has a great deal been done. If it were not for what has been done and what is being done we would have revolution in this country.
The sources from which this unrest springs are, when stated in full detail, almost numberless. But upon careful analysis of their real character they will be found to group themselves almost without exception under four main sources which include all the others. These four are:
1. Unjust distribution of wealth and income. 2. Unemployment and denial of an opportunity to earn a living. 3. Denial of justice in the creation, in the adjudication, and in the administration of law. 4. Denial of the right and opportunity to form effective organizations.
1. Unjust Distribution of Wealth and Income.
The conviction that the wealth of the country and the income which is produced through the toil of the workers is distributed without regard to any standard of justice, is as widespread as it is deep-seated. It is found among all classes of workers and takes every form from the dumb resentment of the day laborer, who, at the end of a week's back-breaking toil, finds that he has less than enough to feed his family while others who have done nothing live in ease, to the elaborate philosophy of the "soap-box orator," who can quote statistics unendingly to demonstrate his contentions. At bottom, though, there is the one fundamental, controlling idea that income should be received for service and for service only, whereas, in fact, it bears no such relation, and he who serves least, or not at all, may receive most.
This idea has never been expressed more clearly than in the testimony of Mr. John H. Walker, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor:
A working man is not supposed to ask anything more than a fair day's wage for a fair day's work; he is supposed to work until he is pretty fairly tuckered out, say eight hours, and when he does a fair day's work he is not supposed to ask for any more wages than enough to support his family, while with the business man the amount of labor furnishes no criterion for the amount they receive. People accept it as all right if they do not do any work at all, and accept it as all right that they get as much money as they can; in fact, they are given credit for getting the greatest amount of money with the least amount of work; and those things that are being accepted by the other side as the things that govern in everyday life, and as being right, have brought about this condition, this being in my judgment absolutely unfair; that is, on the merits of the proposition in dealing with the workers.
The workers feel this, some unconsciously and some consciously, but all of them feel it, and it makes for unrest, in my judgment, and there can be no peace while that condition obtains.
In the highest paid occupations among wage earners, such as railroad engineers and conductors, glass-blowers, certain steel-mill employees, and a few of the building trades, the incomes will range from $1,500 to $2,000 at best, ignoring a few exceptional men who are paid for personal qualities. Such an income means, under present-day conditions, a fair living for a family of moderate size, education of the children through high school, a small insurance policy, a bit put by for a rainy day — and nothing more. With unusual responsibilities or misfortunes, it is too little, and the pinch of necessity is keenly felt. To attain such wages, moreover, means that the worker must be far above the average, either in skill, physical strength, or reliability. He must also have served an apprenticeship equal in length to a professional course. Finally, and most important, he or his predecessors in the trade must have waged a long, aggressive fight for better wages, for there are other occupations whose demand for skill, strength and reliability are almost as great as those mentioned, where the wages are very much less.
These occupations, however, include but a handful compared to the mass of the workers. "What do the millions get for their toil, for their skill, for the risk of life and limb? That is the question to be faced in an industrial nation, for these millions are the backbone and sinew of the State, in peace or in war.
First, with regard to the adult workmen, the fathers and potential fathers, from whose earnings, according to the "American standard," the support of the family is supposed to be derived.
Between one-fourth and one-third of the male workers 18 years of age and over, in factories and mines, earn less than $10 per week; from two-thirds to three-fourths earn less than $15, and only about one-tenth earn more than $20 a week. This does not take into consideration lost working time for any cause.
Next are the women, the most portentously growing factor in the labor force, whose wages are important, not only for their own support or as the supplement of the meager earnings of their fathers and husbands, but because, through the force of competition in a rapidly extending field, they threaten the whole basis of the wage scale. From two-thirds to three-fourths of the women workers in factories, stores and laundries, and in industrial occupations generally, work at wages of less than $8 a week. Approximately one-fifth earn less than $4 and nearly one-half earn less than $6 a week.
Six dollars a week — what does it mean to many? Three theater tickets, gasoline for the week, or the price of a dinner for two; a pair of shoes, three pairs of gloves, or the cost of an evening at bridge. To the girl it means that every penny mnst be counted, every normal desire stifled, and each basic necessity of life barely satisfied by the sacrifice of some other necessity. If more food must be had than is given with 15 cent dinners, it must be bought with what should go for clothes; if there is need for a new waist to replace the old one at which the forewoman has glanced reproachfully or at which the girls have giggled, there can be no lunches for a week and dinners must cost five cents less each day. Always too the room must be paid for, and back of it lies the certainty that with slack seasons will come lay-offs and discharges. If the breaking point has come and she must have some amusement, where can it come from? Surely not out of $6 a week.
Last of all are the children, for whose petty addition to the stream of production the Nation is paying a heavy toll in ignorance, deformity of body or mind, and permature old age. After all, does it matter much what they are paid? for all experience has shown that in the end the father 's wages are reduced by about the amount that the children earn. This is the so-called "family wage," and examination of the wages in different industries corroborates the theory that in those industries, such as textiles, where women and children can be largely utilized, the wages of men are extremely low.
The competitive effect of the employment of women and children upon the wages of men, can scarcely be overestimated. Surely it is hard enough to be forced to put children to work, without having to see the wages of men held down by their employment.
This is the condition at one end of the social scale. What is at the other?
Massed in millions, at the other end of the social scale, are fortunes of a size never before dreamed of, whose very owners do not know the extent nor, without the aid of an intelligent clerk, even the sources, of their incomes. Incapable of being spent in any legitimate manner, these fortunes are burdens, which can only be squandered, hoarded, put into so-called "benefactions" which for the most part constitute a menace to the State, or put back into the industrial machine to pile up everincreasing mountains of gold. *
In many cases, no doubt, these huge fortunes have come in whole or in part as the rich reward of exceptional service. None would deny or envy him who has performed such service the richest of rewards, although one may question the ideals of a nation which rewards exceptional service only by burdensome fortunes. But such reward can be claimed as a right only by those who have performed service, not by those who through relationship or mere parasitism chance to be designated as heirs. Legal right, of course, they have by virtue of the law of inheritance, which, however, runs counter to the whole theory of American society and which was adopted, with important variations, from the English law, without any conception of its ultimate results and apparently with the idea that it would prevent exactly the condition which has arisen. In effect the American law of inheritance is as efficient for the establishment and maintenance of families as is the English law, which has bulwarked the British aristocracy through the centuries. Every year, indeed, sees this tendency increase, as the creation of "estates in trust" secures the ends which might be more simply reached if there were no prohibition of "entail." According to the income tax returns for ten months of 1914, there are in the United States 1598 fortunes yielding an income of $100,000 or more per year. Practically all of these fortunes are so invested and hedged about with restrictions upon expenditure that they are, to all intents and purposes, perpetuities.
An analysis of 50 of the largest American fortunes shows that nearly one-half have already passed to the control of heirs or to trustees (their vice regents) and that the remainder will pass to the control of heirs within twenty years, upon the deaths of the "founders." Already, indeed, these founders have almost without exception retired from active service, leaving the management ostensibly to their heirs but actually to executive officials upon salary.
We have, according to the income tax returns, forty-four families with incomes of $1,000,000 or more,1 whose members perform little or no useful service, but whose aggregate incomes, totalling at the very least fifty millions per year, are equivalent to the earnings of 100,000 wage earners at the average rate of $500.
1 — The income tax statistics, as a matter of fact, cover only a period of ten months in 1914.
The ownership of wealth in the United States has become concentrated to a degree which is difficult to grasp. The recently published researches of a statistician of conservative views 2 have shown that as nearly as can be estimated the distribution of wealth in the United States is as follows:
2 — Prof. Willard I. King, The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States.
The "Rich," 2 percent of the people, own 60 percent of the wealth.
The "Middle Class," 33 percent of the people, own 35 percent of the wealth.
The "Poor," 65 percent of the people, own 5 percent of the wealth.
This means in brief that a little less than two million people, who would make up a city smaller than Chicago, own 20 percent more of the Nation 's wealth than all the other ninety millions.
The figures also show that with a reasonably equitable division of wealth, the entire population should occupy the position of comfort and security which we characterize as Middle Class.
The actual concentration has, however, been carried very much further than these figures indicate. The largest private fortune in the United States, estimated at one billion dollars, is equivalent to the aggregate wealth of 2,500,000 of those who are classed as "poor," who are shown in the studies cited to own on the average about $400 each.
Between the two extremes of superfluity and poverty is the large middle class — farmers, manufacturers, merchants, professional men, skilled artisans, and salaried officials — whose incomes are more or less adequate for their legitimate needs and desires, and who are rewarded more or less exactly in proportion to service. They have problems to meet in adjusting expenses to income, but the pinch of want and hunger is not felt, nor is there the deadening, devitalizing effect of superfluous, unearned wealth.
From top to bottom of society, however, in all grades of incomes, are an innumerable number of parasites of every conceivable type. They perform no useful service, but drain off from the income of the producers a sum whose total can not be estimated.
This whole situation has never been more accurately described than by Hon. David Lloyd-George in an address on "Social Waste":
I have recently had to pay some attention to the affairs of the Sudan, in connection with some projects that have been mooted for irrigation and development in that wonderful country. I will tell you what the problem is, — you may know it already. Here you have a great, broad, rich river upon which both the Sudan and Egypt depend for their fertility. There is enough water in it to fertilize every part of both countries; but if, for some reason or other, the water is wasted in the upper regions, the whole land suffers sterility and famine. There is a large region in the Upper Sudan, where the water has been absorbed by one tract of country, which, by this process, has been converted into a morass, breeding nothing but pestilence. Properly and fairly husbanded, distributed, and used, there is enough to fertilize the most barren valley and make the whole wilderness blossom like the rose.
That represents the problem of civilization, not merely in this country but in all lands. Some men get their fair share of wealth in a land and no more — sometimes even the streams of wealth overflow to waste over some favored regions, often producing a morass, which poisons the social atmosphere. Many have to depend on a little trickling runlet, which quickly evaporates with every commercial or industrial drought; sometimes you have masses of men and women whom the flood at its height barely reaches, and then you witness parched specimens of humanity, withered, hardened in misery, living in a desert where even the well of tears has long ago run dry.
Besides the economic significance of these great inequalities of wealth and income, there is a social aspect which equally merits the attention of Congress. It has been shown that the great fortunes of those who have profited by the enormous expansion of American industry have already passed, or will pass in a few years, by right of inheritance to the control of heirs or to trustees who act as their "vice regents." They are frequently styled by our newspapers "monarchs of industry," and indeed occupy within our Republic a position almost exactly analogous to that of feudal lords.
These heirs, owners only by virtue of the accident of birth, control the livelihood and have the power to dictate the happiness of more human beings than populated England in the Middle Ages. Their principalities, it is true, are scattered and, through the medium of stock-ownership, shared in part with others; but they are none the less real. In fact, such scattered, invisible industrial principalities are a greater menace to the welfare of the Nation than would be equal power consolidated into numerous petty kingdoms in different parts of the country. They might then be visualized and guarded against; now their influence invisibly permeates and controls every phase of life and industry.
"The king can do no wrong" not only because he is above the law, but because every function is performed or responsibility assumed by his ministers and agents. Similarly our Rockefellers, Morgans, Fricks, Vanderbilts and Astors can do no industrial wrong, because all effective action and direct responsibility is shifted from them to the executive officials who manage American industry. As a basis for this conclusion we have the testimony of many, among which, however, the following statements stand out most clearly:
Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.: 1
1 — Before Congressional Investigating Committee.
..." those of us who are in charge there elect the ablest and most upright and competent men whom we can find, in so far as our interests give us the opportunity to select, to have the responsibility for the conduct of the business in which we are interested as investors. We can not pretend to follow the business ourselves.
Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan.
Chairman Walsh. In your opinion, to what extent are the directors of corporations responsible for the labor conditions existing in the industries in which they are the directing power?
Mr. Morgan. Not at all I should say.
The similitude, indeed, runs even to mental attitude and phrase. Compare these two statements:
Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. My appreciation of the conditions surrounding wage-earners and my sympathy with every endeavor to better these conditions are as strong as those of any man.
Louis XVI. There is none but you and me that has the people 's interest at heart. ("II n'y a que vous et moi qui aimions le peuple.")
The families of these industrial princes are already well established and are knit together not only by commercial alliances but by a network of intermarriages which assures harmonious action whenever their common interest is threatened.
Effective action by Congress is required, therefore, not only to readjust on a basis of compensation approximating the service actually performed, the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income, but to check the growth of an hereditary aristocracy, which is foreign to every conception of American Government and menacing to the welfare of the people and the existence of the Nation as a democracy.
The objects to be attained in making this readjustment are: To reduce the swollen, unearned fortunes of those who have a superfluity; to raise the underpaid masses to a level of decent and comfortable living; and at the same time to accomplish this on a basis which will, in some measure, approximate the just standard of income proportional to service.
The discussion of how this can best be accomplished forms the greater part of the remainder of this report, but at this point it seems proper to indicate one of the most immediate steps which need to be taken.
It is suggested that the Commission recommend to Congress the enactment of an inheritance tax, so graded that, while making generous provision for the support of dependents and the education of minor children, it shall leave no large accumulation of wealth to pass into hands which had no share in its production. 1 The revenue from this tax, which we are informed would be very great, should be reserved by the Federal Government for three principal purposes:
1— It is suggested that the rates be so graded that not more than one million dollars shall pass to the heirs. This can be equitably accomplished by several different gradations of taxation.
1. The extension of education.
2. The development of other important social services which should properly be performed by the Nation, which are discussed in detail elsewhere.
3. The development, in cooperation with States and municipalities, of great constructive works, such as road building, irrigation and reforestation, which would materially increase the efficiency and welfare of the entire Nation.
We are informed by counsel not only that such a tax is clearly within the power of Congress, but that upon two occasions, namely, during the Civil War and in 1898, such graded inheritance taxes were enacted with scarcely any opposition and were sustained by the Supreme Court, which held that the inheritance tax was not a direct tax within the meaning of the Constitution. We are aware that similar taxes are levied in the various States, but the conflict with such State taxes seems to have presented little difficulty during the period in which the tax of 1898 was in effect. Under any circumstances this need cause no great complication, as the matter could be readily adjusted by having the Federal Government collect the entire tax and refund a part to the States on an equitable basis.
There is no legislation which could be passed by Congress the immediate and ultimate efforts of which would be more salutary or would more greatly assist in tempering the existing spirit of unrest.
2. Unemployment and Denial of Opportunity to Earn a Living.
As a prime cause of a burning resentment and a rising feeling of unrest among the workers, unemployment and the denial of an opportunity to earn a living is on a parity with the unjust distribution of wealth. They may on final analysis prove to be simply the two sides of the same shield, but that is a matter which need not be discussed at this point. They differ in this, however, that while unjust distribution of wealth is a matter of degree, unemployment is an absolute actuality, from which there is no relief but soul-killing crime and soul-killing charity.
To be forced to accept employment on conditions which are insufficient to maintain a decent livelihood is indeed a hardship, but to be unable to get work on any terms whatever is a position of black despair.
A careful analysis of all available statistics shows that in our great basic industries the workers are unemployed for an average of at least one-fifth of the year, and that at all times during any normal year there is an army of men, who can be numbered only by hundreds of thousands, who are unable to find work or who have so far degenerated that they can not or will not work. Can any nation boast of industrial efficiency when the workers, the source of her productive wealth, are employed to so small a fraction of their total capacity?
Fundamentally this unemployment seems to rise from two great causes, although many others are contributory.First, the inequality of the distribution of income, which leaves the great masses of the population (the true ultimate consumers) unable to purchase the products of industry which they create, while a few have such a superfluity that it can not be normally consumed but must be invested in new machinery for production or in the further monopolization of land and natural resources. The result is that in mining and other basic industries we have an equipment in plant and developed property far in excess of the demands of any normal year, the excess being, in all probability, at least 25 percent. Each of these mines and industrial plants keeps around it a labor force which, on the average, can get work for only four-fifths of the year, while at the same time the people have never had enough of the products of those very industries — have never been adequately fed, clothed, housed, nor warmed — for the very simple reason that they have never been paid enough to permit their purchase.
The second principal cause lies in the denial of access to land and natural resources even when they are unused and unproductive, except at a price and under conditions which are practically prohibitive. This situation, while bound up with the land and taxation policies of our States and Nation, also rests fundamentally upon the unjust distribution of wealth. Land or mineral resources in the hands of persons of average income must and will be used either by their original owners or by some more enterprising person. By the overwhelming forces of economic pressure, taxation, and competition they can not be permitted to lie idle if they will produce anything which the people need. Only in the hands of large owners — free from economic pressure, able to evade or minimize the effects of taxation and to await the ripening of the fruits of unearned increment — can land be held out of use if its products are needed.
There can be no more complete evidence of the truth of this statement than the condition of the farms of 1000 acres and over, which, valued at two and one-third billion dollars, comprise 19 percent of all the farm land of the country and are held by less than one percent of the farm owners. The United States Census returns show that in these 1000-acre farms only 18.7 percent of the land is cultivated as compared with 60 to 70 percent in farms of from 50 to 499 acres. Furthermore, it is well known that the greater part of these smaller farms which are left uncultivated are held by real estate men, bankers and others who have independent sources of income. More than four-fifths of the area of the large holdings is being held out of active use by their 50,000 owners, while 2,250,000 farmers are struggling for a bare existence on farms of less than 50 acres, and an untold number who would willingly work these lands are swelling the armies of the unemployed in the cities and towns.
A basic theory of our Government, which found expression in the Homestead Acts, was that every man should have opportunity to secure land enough to support a family. If this theory had been carried out and homesteads had either gone to those who would use them productively or remained in the hands of the Government, we should not yet have a problem of such a character. But these acts were evaded; land was stolen outright by wholesale, and fraudulent entries were consolidated into enormous tracts which are now held by wealthy individuals and corporations.
The Public Lands Commission, after an exhaustive inquiry, reported in 1905:
Detailed study of the practical operation of the present land laws shows that their tendency far too often is to bring about land monopoly rather than to multiply small holdings by actual settlers.
. . . Not infrequently their effect is to put a premium on perjury and dishonest methods in the acquisition of land. It is apparent, in consequence, that in very many localities, and perhaps in general, a larger proportion of the public land is passing into the hands of speculators than into those of actual settlers making homes. . . . Nearly everywhere the large landowner has succeeded in monopolizing the best tracts, whether of timber or agricultural land. 1
1 — Senate Doc. 154, 58th Cong., 3d Sess., p. 14.
To one who has not read the preceding statements carefully, there may seem to be a contradiction in proposing to prevent great capitalists from creating an excess of productive machinery and overdeveloping mineral resources, while pointing out the necessity of forcing land and other natural resources into full and effective use by the people. The two propositions are, as a matter of fact, as fundamentally distinct as monopoly and freedom. The capitalist increases his holdings in productive machinery and resources only because through monopolization and maintenance of prices he hopes to reap rewards for himself or increase his power, while the aim in desiring the full development of land and other resources by the people is that they, producing for themselves, may enjoy a sufficiency of good things and exchange them for the products of others, and thus reduce to a minimum the condition of unemployment.
There are, of course, many other causes of unemployment than the inequality of wealth and the monopolization of land which there is no desire to minimize. Chief among these are immigration, the inadequate organization of the labor market, the seasonal character of many industries, and the personal deficiencies of a very large number of the unemployed. It can not be denied that a considerable proportion of the men who fill the city lodging houses in winter are virtually unemployables, as a result of weakness of character, lack of training, the debasing effects of lodging house living and city dissipation, and, last but not least, the conditions under which they are forced to work in the harvest fields and lumber, railroad and construction camps. The seasonal fluctuations of our industries are enormous, employing hundreds of thousands during the busy season and throwing them out on the community during the dull season, and almost nothing has been done to remedy this condition. It would be difficult to imagine anything more chaotic and demoralizing than the existing methods of bringing workmen and jobs together. Certain measures for dealing with these conditions, which are discussed elsewhere in the report, need to be pushed forward with all possible vigor. But it may be confidently predicted that the unemployment situation will not be appreciably relieved until great advances have been made in the removal of the two prime causes — unjust distribution of wealth and monopolization of land and natural resources.
The most direct methods of dealing with the inequality of wealth have already been briefly discussed and will be considered elsewhere in the report. "With respect to the land question, however, the following basic suggestions are submitted:
1. Vigorous and unrelenting prosecution to regain all land, water power and mineral rights secured from the Government by fraud.
2. A general revision of our land laws, so as to apply to all future land grants the doctrine of "superior use," as in the case of water rights in California, and provision for forfeiture in case of actual nonuse. In its simplest form the doctrine of "superior use" implies merely that at the time of making the lease the purpose for which the land will be used must be taken into consideration, and the use which is of greatest social value shall be given preference.
3. The forcing of all unused land into use by making the tax on nonproductive land the same as on productive land of the same kind, and exempting all improvements.
Other measures for dealing with unemployment are discussed under that head on p. 181.
The unemployed have aptly been called "the shifting sands beneath the State." Surely there is no condition which more immediately demands the attention of Congress than that of unemployment, which is annually driving hundreds of thousands of otherwise productive citizens into poverty and bitter despair, sapping the very basis of our national efficiency and germinating the seeds of revolution.
We have no disposition to say anything about Andrew Carnegie's munificent benefactions. On the one hand there is nothing in this philanthropic spree of a modern Dives to call for commendation; and on the other, the expenditure by any man of what society concedes to be his own fortune, is a private matter outside the pale of criticism.
It is only when the question of how a millionaire ought to use his wealth is brought forward in connection with these charitable performances that the subject becomes one of public concern. Then it is of public concern only to the extent of justifying the retort that it is nobody's business but his own how any millionaire uses his wealth, provided he does not use it prejudicially to the rights of others.
The vital question is not how millionaires use their wealth, but how they get it. Not how they did get it, for what has happened has happened, and by-gones should be by-gones; but how they are getting it now.
Have they a hoard of goods formerly accumulated, from which they draw? Then their getting it hurts nobody.
Do they earn it as they go along? Then their getting it benefits everybody.
Or do they merely possess legal authority to levy continually upon the common earnings for their own enrichment? Then their getting it is a present and continuing wrong, which is of incalculable public concern.
-- From "The Public," March 23, 1901
One might be led to ask whether the FIRE sector is levying upon the earnings of the larger community a toll they don't actually rightly earn.
"So long as individuals and private corporations have the power to monopolize natural resources or public utilities they will be the masters of all who do not share in the monopoly. The coal barons, the railway kings, the steel magnates and the whole piratical fraternity of multi-millionaires all subsist, like the regal plunderers of Europe, upon the fruits of privilege. They are an untitled nobility. The sunshine scintillates upon their gilded palaces in every great city of our land; but in the same cities there are dens of squalid misery and want, where sunbeams never penetrate, and where no kindly ray dispels the darkness of despair that lurks within."
In the 21st century, it is the owners of our privately held businesses and of corporate stock who fill this role. See "stock ownership" in the topics at left for more detail. And those who have studied the classical economists will recognize that natural resources fall into the category known as "Land."
The cited paragraph is an excerpt from a longer letter in "The Public" of June 9, 1900. It seems particularly timely given the reading aloud the U.S. Constitution in the House of Representatives, upon opening the new session of Congress today.
THE NEW NOBILITY.
The constitution of the United States provides, in article 1, section 9, that—
no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.
The "Federalist" does not tell us, and there is little said of it in the constitutional debates. Some of the members, indeed, spoke of creating a peerage, but said that such a thing could not be thought of, because of the deep-seated prejudice prevailing against a hereditary nobility. According to Yates's Minutes, Charles Pinckney said:
There is more equality of rank and fortune in America than in any other country under the sun; and this is likely to continue as long as the unappropriated western lands remain unsettled.
This statesman must have believed as Thomas Carlyle did, when in "Past, and Present," book III., chapter 8, that great Englishman wrote:
It is well said, "Land is the right basis of an Aristocracy;" whoever possesses the Land, he, more emphatically than any other, is Governor, Vice-King of the people.
Conversely stated, Mr. Pinckney's proposition is that with the valuable free lands of the west all taken, there would be danger of a constantly increasing tenant class, keeping pace with the growth of land monopoly and resulting finally in a landed aristocracy on the one hand and complete serfdom on the other; for population must increase, while the area of land cannot. But in view of the vast area of unoccupied land in the west at that time, its complete settlement seemed so remote a contingency that it was scarcely dreamed of by the members of the convention, and had no weight in their deliberations.
They thought it advisable, nevertheless, to put in a clause against the granting of titles of nobility. That clause was a part of the Virginia resolutions. By inserting it, the framers of our constitution showed their aversion to privilege, and their determination that whether privilege existed or or not the government should confer upon its possessors no honorary distinction. But by the use of that phrase they no more rendered their country exempt from the evils of a hereditary aristocracy than they would have made inocuous the serpent's venom by enacting that all snakes shall be called humming-birds. A title is but a name— the rank is but the guinea's stamp.
Privilege does not depend for its existence upon honorary distinctions. Mere titles do not create privilege, although privilege does ultimately create titles. Titles of nobility are but the emblems of the power behind them. Thy are dangerous only because of the "nobility" which they imply. It is not the duke who is dangerous, but the dukedom—the social condition of which the duke is but a symptom. The real value of such a title is in the power which it represents.
Such power is always based upon privilege—upon rights accruing solely to the holder of the title, to the exclusion of others not so favored; in short, it is based upon monopoly. From time immemorial the granting of noble titles has, with few exceptions, been either in recognition of power already in possession, or else has been accompanied by a grant of power—usually a grant of lands— commensurate with the supposed dignity of the title.
So long as individuals and private corporations have the power to monopolize natural resources or public utilities they will be the masters of all who do not share in the monopoly. The coal barons, the railway kings, the steel magnates and the whole piratical fraternity of multi-millionaires all subsist, like the regal plunderers of Europe, upon the fruits of privilege. They are an untitled nobility. The sunshine scintillates upon their gilded palaces in every great city of our land; but in the same cities there are dens of squalid misery and want, where sunbeams never penetrate, and where no kindly ray dispels the darkness of despair that lurks within.
According to Charles B. Spahr, Ph. D., author of a treatise on Distribution of Wealth, one percent of our families own more wealth than do the whole of the remaining 99 percent! Now, who are the favored one percent? Men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie; men who own more than any individual could produce in a dozen centuries.
And are they not princes, lords, kings? They have no titles, to be sure. But what could a paltry title add to the man who controls, for instance, the oil-producing lands of the United States? They have no coronets, but they possess that without which the coronet is but a barbaric bauble. The man who bows to the throne really makes his obeisance to the power behind the throne. The king's word, the king's name, is but "as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal;" the king's power is everything. Crowns, scepters, robes of ermine and cloth of gold—all these are nothing; nothing but hated symbols. If the kingly power remain, what boots it though we lack the kingly name? A king by any other name is just as bad. The powerful Earl Warwick, known to history as "the king-maker," was no more a king-maker than one Marcus A. Hanna, of Ohio; and if Hanna really wore the crown which he sometimes wears in the newspaper caricatures he would be no more dangerous than he is today. And what makes him dangerous? The privileges which he and his kind possess.
The real groundwork of an aristocracy is not in the unequal distribution of wealth. It lies farther back than that. We must seek it in the causes which lead to unequal distribution. It is in the inequality of opportunity to produce wealth. Equality of opportunity begets equality of condition. Whether you restrict the opportunities of one class, or grant special privileges to another, it matters not; the result is the same., and that result is seen in the class distinctions which inevitably follow in the wake of privilege.
As there may be serfs without shackles, so may there be nobles without titles. We have both in America today. The thing which our fathers greatly feared has come upon us. We are face to face with as great a crisis as ever threatened any republic since Rome first trembled at the glance of Caesar. The final struggle may not come this year, nor next, but it will come; and when it does, the American people will exclaim, in the words of the immortal Frenchman, "Tyrant, step from thy throne and give place to thy master!"
The ballot is the bloodless guillotine of the new revolution. It is a weapon mightier than the bayonet if used in time. Let us use it while it is still at our disposal. Put a true man in the white house, and the work of reform will be more easily accomplished. Inasmuch as the barons of the United States today, unlike those at Runnymede 800 years ago, are seeking special privileges for themselves instead of magna chartas for the people, it should be our first duty to remove from the presidency of this nation one whose instability of character and inordinate love of powerequaled only by his incapacity to exert it—mark him with peculiar distinctness in these respects as the American ectype of King John.
"There is nothing to fear," says the complacent Robert Collyer, "from the multimillionaire." The reason for Mr. Collyer's confidence is his assumption that "few fortunes survive three generations." This assumption is a pleasant tradition, formerly phrased as "three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves;" but it has long since ceased to express a fact, since John Jacob Astor showed Americans how to establish fortunes they have become as stable in America as in England.
But even if the tradition were as true today as it was in the earlier periods of the settlement of this new country, what satisfaction could a thoughtful man draw from it?
The social evil is not great fortunes. It is great poverty among those who earn so much wealth that they do not get.
To them it can make no difference whether fortunes are stable or not.
The great, obtrusive, undeniable and invariable fact is that no matter who may be rich nor how long his fortune may remain intact, the mass of those who do the work of the world, and without whose work there would be fortunes for nobody, are permanently poor and dependent.
To borrow a suggestive illustration from the gambling table, what matters it to the many who never win if the few who do soon lose their winnings again?
This seems relevant with a new Congress taking their seats.
From The Public, July 14, 1900
A CONVENTION PRAYER.
The prayer offered by Rev. Herbert S. Bigelow, of Cincinnati, at the opening of the silver republican convention, Kansas City, Mo., July 4.
Our Father who art in heaven. May thy spirit of truth preside over this convention. If we have any claim upon thy favor or any right to call thee Father may it be because we have not knowingly trampled upon the rights of any of thy children.
Hallowed be thy name. May the reverent heart find thy presence everywhere and seek to work in harmony with the mighty forces that make for righteousness and peace.
Thy kingdom come. May we speed its coming by making the acts of our legislatures accord with the eternal laws of that moral government which is supreme above the nations.
Thy will be done on earth as in heaven. May we prove the sincerity of our faith by practicing in senate chambers the lofty precepts which we profess in the sanctuary.
Give us this day our daily bread. We do not ask for the bread of others. Give us the bread that is ours by right of useful labor. May the claims of justice be satisfied in the laws of the land that all may have bread, that the starving millions may be fed, not by the hand of charity, but by the labor that wears no chains and owns no master.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Save us from that egotism which magnifies the faults of others while blinded to our own. Grant us, in the name of eternal justice, grant us only that measure of liberty which we accord to the weakest of our neighbors.
Lead us not into temptation. Grant us the moral courage to turn our back upon the alluring visions of the kingdoms of this world and their glory, remembering that righteousness alone exalteth a nation.
Deliver us from evil. Now, when the chains are being forged and the golden padlocks are being fashioned for our lips; now, when men are forgetting the faith of the fathers and putting their trust in the might of armies and the majesty of fleets; now, ere the choice goes by forever, deliver us from the greed that takes refuge in the sanction of law, save us from the thrice accursed murder that kills in the name of the Prince of Peace.
On this day of freedom's birth we consecrate our hearts anew to the liberty which our fathers purchased with so great a price. Before the sacred altar of our fathers' God we pledge renewed devotion to the principles which have made the flag we love an emblem of hope to the oppressed of all the world. On that solemn day which comes to men and nations, when the seeds of our sowing shall have borne fruit in national character and the destiny shall be revealed which our hands are shaping, forbid that we shall then have to point for justification to thrones and altars founded upon the bodies and souls of our fellowmen; standing before the tribunal of history may we be able to point with confidence to the fact that we have followed the golden rule of justice.
May we never covet the gold that drips with the tears of bondmen. May we never feel strong enough to do wrong. May we do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God, and to Him shall be the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.
In a recent column in the NYT, entitled "Description is Prescription", David Brooks made references to Tolstoy, and it sent me looking to see whether a book I remembered was available via Google Books. The book was written in 1905 by Bolton Hall, and it is entitled "What Tolstoy Taught." Its next-to-last chapter, "The Great Iniquity," follows. (Below this post is the final chapter from Hall's book.)
(This history-making article, dated July, 1905, first appeared in the London Times of August 1, 1905. We give the essence of the article verbatim as it appeared in the Times, for which it was translated from the Russian by V. Tchertkoff (editor of the Free Age Press, Christchurch, Hants, England), and I. F. H. It is expressly declared to be free from copyright. — Ed.)
Russia is living through an important time destined to have enormous results. One need only for a time free oneself from the idea which has taken root amongst our intellectuals, that the work now before Russia is the introduction into our country of those same forms of political life which have been introduced into Europe and America, and are supposed to insure the liberty and welfare of all the citizens — and to simply think of what is morally wrong in our life, in order to see quite clearly that the chief evil from which the whole of the Russian people are unceasingly and cruelly suffering cannot be removed by any political reforms, just as it is not up to the present time removed by any of the political reforms of Europe and America. This evil — the fundamental evil from which the Russian people, as well as the peoples of Europe and America, are suffering — is that the majority of the people are deprived of the indisputable natural right of every man to use a portion of the land on which he was born. It is sufficient to understand all the criminality, the sinfulness of the situation in this respect, in order to understand that until this atrocity, continuously committed by the owners of the land, shall cease, no political reforms will give freedom and welfare to the people, but that, on the contrary, only the emancipation of the majority of the people from that land-slavery in which they are now held can render political reforms, not a plaything and a tool for personal aims in the hands of politicians, but the real expression of the will of the people.
The other day I was walking along the highroad to Tula. It was on the Saturday of Holy Week; the people were driving to market in lines of carts, with calves, hens, horses, cows (some of the cows were being conveyed in the carts, so starved were they). A young peasant was leading a sleek, well-fed horse to sell.
"Nice horse," said I.
"Couldn't be better," said he, thinking me a buyer. "Good for plowing and driving."
"Then why do you sell it?"
"I can't use it. I've only two allotments. I can manage them with one horse. I've kept them both over the winter, and I'm sorry enough for it. The cattle have eaten everything up, and we want money to pay the rent."
"From whom do you rent?"
"From Maria Ivanovna; thanks be to her she let us have it. Otherwise it would have been the end of us."
"What are the terms?"
"She fleeces us of fourteen roubles. But where else can we go? So we take it."
A woman passed driving along with a boy wearing a little cap. She knew me, clambered out, and offered me her boy for service. The boy is quite a tiny fellow with quick, intelligent eyes.
"He looks small, but he can do everything," she says.
"But why do you hire out such a little one?"
"Well, sir, at least it'll be one mouth less to feed. I have four besides myself, and only one allotment. God knows, we've nothing to eat. They ask for bread and I've none to give them."
With whomsoever one talks, all complain of their want and all similarly from one side or another come back to the sole reason. There is insufficient bread, and bread is insufficient because there is no land.
"What is man?" says Henry George in one of his speeches. [lvtfan note: The Crime of Poverty, 1885 -- NYC in February, per NYT article; Burlington, Iowa in April]
"In the first place, he is an animal, a land animal who cannot live without land. All that man produces comes from the land; all productive labor, in the final analysis, consists in working up land, or materials drawn from land, into such forms as fit them for the satisfaction of human wants and desires. Why, man's very body is drawn from the land. Children of the soil, we come from the land, and to the land we must return. Take away from man all that belongs to the land, and what have you but a disembodied spirit? Therefore he who holds the land on which and from which another man must live is that man's master; and the man is his slave. The man who holds the land on which I must live can command me to life or to death just as absolutely as though I were his chattel. Talk about abolishing slavery — we have not abolished slavery; we have only abolished one rude form of it, chattel slavery. There is a deeper and more insidious form, a more cursed form yet before us to abolish, in this industrial slavery that makes a man a virtual slave, while taunting him and mocking him in the name of freedom.
"Did you ever think (says Henry George in another part of the same speech) of the utter absurdity and strangeness of the fact that all over the civilized world the working classes are the poor classes? Think for a moment how it would strike a rational being who had never been on the earth before, if such an intelligence could come down, and you were to explain to him how we live on earth, how houses and food and clothing and all the many things we need were all produced by work, would he not think that the working people would be the people who lived in the finest houses and had most of everything that work produces? Yet, whether you took him to London or Paris, or New York, or even to Burlington, he would find that those called the working people were the people who lived in the poorest houses."
The same thing, I would add, takes place in a yet greater degree in the country. Idle people live in luxurious palaces, in spacious and fine abodes. The workers live in dark and dirty hovels.
"All this is strange — just think of it. We naturally despise poverty, and it is reasonable that we should. . . . Nature gives to labor, and to labor alone; there must be human work before any article of wealth can be produced; and in the natural state of things the man who toiled honestly and well would be the rich man, and he who did not work would be poor. We have so reversed the order of nature that we are accustomed to think of the working man as a poor man. . . . The primary cause of this is that we compel those who work to pay others for permission to do so. You may buy a coat, a horse, a house; there you are paying the seller for labor exerted, for something that he has produced, or that he has got from the man who did produce it; but when you pay a man for land, what are you paying him for? You are paying for something that no man has produced; you pay him for something that was here before man was, or for a value that was created, not by him individually, but by the community of which you are a part."
It is for this reason that the one who has seized the land and possesses it is rich, whereas he who cultivates it or works on its products is poor.
"We talk about over-production. How can there be such a thing as over-production while people want? All these things that are said to be over-produced are desired by many people. Why do they not get them ? They do not get them because they have not the means to buy them; not that they do not want them. Why have not they the means to buy them? They earn too little. When the great mass of men have to work for an average of $1.40 a day, it is no wonder that great quantities of goods cannot be sold.
"Now, why is it that men have to work for such low wages? Because if they were to demand higher wages there are plenty of unemployed men ready to step into their places. It is this mass of unemployed men who compel that fierce competition that drives wages down to the point of bare subsistence. Why is it that there are men who cannot get employment? Did you ever think what a strange thing it is that men cannot find employment? Adam had no difficulty in finding employment, neither had Robinson Crusoe; the finding of employment was the last thing that troubled them.
"If men cannot find an employer, why cannot they employ themselves? Simply because they are shut out from the element on which human labor can alone be exerted. Men are compelled to compete with each other for the wages of an employer, because they have been robbed of the natural opportunities of employing themselves; because they cannot find a piece of God's world on which to work without paying some other human creature for the privilege.
"Men pray to the Almighty to relieve poverty. But poverty comes not from God's laws — it is blasphemy of the worst kind to say that; it comes from man's injustice to his fellows. Supposing the Almighty were to hear the prayer, how could He carry out the request so long as His laws are what they are? Consider, the Almighty gives us nothing of the things that constitute wealth; He merely gives us the raw material, which must be utilized by men to produce wealth. Does He not give us enough of that now? How could He relieve poverty even if He were to give us more? Supposing in answer to these prayers He were to increase the power of the sun, or the virtue of the soil? Supposing He were to make plants more prolific, or animals to produce after their kind more abundantly ? Who would get the benefit of it? Take a country where land is completely monopolized, as it is in most of the civilized countries, who would get the benefit of it ? Simply the landowners. And even if God in answer to prayer were to send down out of the heavens those things that men require, who would get the benefit?
"In the Old Testament we are told that when the Israelites journeyed through the desert they were hungered, and that God sent manna down out of the heavens. There was enough for all of them, and they all took it and were relieved. But supposing that the desert had been held as private property, as the soil of Great Britain is held, as the soil even of our new States is being held; suppose that one of the Israelites had a square mile, and another one had 20 square miles, and another one had 100 square miles, and the great majority of the Israelites did not have enough to set the soles of their feet upon which they could call their own — what would become of the manna? What good would it have done to the majority? Not a whit. Though God had sent down manna enough for all, that manna would have been the property of the landholders, they would have employed some of the others perhaps to gather it up into heaps for them, and would have sold it to their hungry brethren. Consider it; this purchase and sale of manna might have gone on until the majority of Israelites had given all they had, even to the clothes off their backs. What then? Then they would not have had anything to buy manna with, and the consequences would have been that while they went hungry the manna would have lain in great heaps, and the landowners would have been complaining of the over-production of manna. There would have been a great harvest of manna and hungry people, just precisely the phenomenon that we see today.
"I do not mean to say that even after you had set right this fundamental injustice there would not be many things to do; but this I do mean to say, that our treatment of land lies at the bottom of all social questions. This I do mean to say, that, do what you please, reform as you may, you never can get rid of widespread poverty so long as the element on which and from which all men must live is made the private property of some men. It is utterly impossible. Reform government; get taxes down to the minimum; build railroads; institute cooperative stores; divide profits, if you choose, between employers and employed — and what will be the result? The result will be that the land will increase in value — that will be the result — that and nothing else. Experience shows this. Do not all improvements simply increase the value of land — the price that some must pay others for the privilege of living?"
The same, I shall add, do we unceasingly see in Russia. All landowners complain of the unprofitableness and expense of their estates, whilst the price of the land is continually rising. It cannot but rise, since the population is increasing and land is a question of life and death for this population.
And therefore, the people surrender everything they can, not only their labor, but even their lives, for the land which is being withheld from them.
There used to be cannibalism and human sacrifices; there used to be religious prostitution and the murder of weak children and of girls; there used to be bloody revenge and the slaughter of whole populations, judicial tortures, quarterings, burnings at the stake, the lash; and there have been, within our memory, "running the gauntlet" and slavery, which have also disappeared. But if we have outlived these dreadful customs and institutions, this does not prove that institutions and customs do not exist amongst us which have become as abhorrent to enlightened reason and conscience as those which have in their time been abolished and have become for us only a dreadful remembrance. The way of human perfecting is endless, and at every moment of historical life there are superstitions, deceits, pernicious and evil institutions already outlived by men and belonging to the past; there are others which appear to us in the far mists of the future; and there are some which we are now living through and whose overliving forms the object of our life. Such in our time is capital punishment and all punishment in general. Such is prostitution, such is flesh eating, such is the work of militarism, war, and such is the nearest and most obvious evil, private property in land.
The evil and injustice of private property in land have been pointed out a thousand years ago by the prophets and sages of old. Later progressive thinkers of Europe have been oftener and oftener pointing it out. With special clearness did the workers of the French Revolution do so. In latter days, owing to the increase of the population and the seizure by the rich of a great quantity of previously free land, also owing to general enlightenment and the spread of humanitarianism, this injustice has become so obvious that not only the progressive, but even the most average people cannot help seeing and feeling it. But men, especially those who profit by the advantages of landed property — the owners themselves, as well as those whose interests are connected with this institution — are so accustomed to this order of things, they have for so long profited by it, have so much depended upon it, that often they themselves do not see its injustice, and they use all possible means to conceal from themselves and others the truth which is disclosing itself more and more clearly, and to crush, extinguish, and distort it, or, if these do not succeed, to hush it up.
But what has happened? Notwithstanding that at the time of their appearance the English writings of Henry George spread very quickly in the Anglo-Saxon world, and did not fail to be appreciated to the full extent of their great merit, it very soon appeared that in England, and even in Ireland, where the crying injustice of private landed property is particularly manifest, the majority of the most influential educated people, notwithstanding the conclusiveness of Henry George's arguments and the practicability of the remedy he proposes, opposed his teaching. Radical agitators like Parnell, who at first sympathized with George's scheme, very soon shrank from it, regarding political reforms as more important. In England almost all the aristocrats were against it, also, amongst others, the famous Toynbee, Gladstone, and Herbert Spencer — that Spencer who in his "Social Statics" at first most categorically asserted the injustice of landed property, and then, renouncing this view of his, bought up the old editions of his writings in order to eliminate from them all that he had said concerning the injustice of landed property.
The chief weapon against the teaching of Henry George was that which is always used against irrefutable and self-evident truths. This method, which is still being applied in relation to George, was that of hushing up. This hushing up was effected so successfully that a member of the English Parliament, Labouchere, could publicly say, without meeting any refutation, that "he was not such a visionary as Henry George. He did not propose to take the land from the landlords and rent it out again. What he was in favor of was putting a tax on land values." That is, whilst attributing to George what he could not possibly have said, Labouchere, by way of correcting these imaginary fantasies, suggested that which Henry George did indeed say.
People do not argue with the teaching of George, they simply do not know it. And it is impossible to do otherwise with his teaching, for he who becomes acquainted with it cannot but agree.
Yet, notwithstanding all, the truth that land cannot be an object of property has become so elucidated by the very life of contemporary mankind that in order to continue to retain a way of life in which private landed property is recognized there is only one means — not to think of it, to ignore the truth, and to occupy oneself with other absorbing business. So, indeed, do the men of our time.
Political workers of Europe and America occupy themselves for the welfare of their nations in various matters: tariffs, colonies, income taxes, military and naval budgets, socialistic assemblies, unions, syndicates, the election of presidents, diplomatic connections — by anything save the one thing without which there cannot be any true improvement in the condition of the people — the reestablishment of the infringed right of all men to use the land. Although in the depth of their souls political workers of the Christian world feel — cannot but feel — that all their activity, the commercial strife with which they are occupied, as well as the military strife in which they put all their energies — can lead to nothing but a general exhaustion of the strength of nations; still they, without looking forward, give themselves up to the demand of the minute, and, as if with the one desire to forget themselves, continue to turn round and round in an enchanted circle out of which there is no issue.
However strange this temporary blindness of the political workers of Europe and America, it can be explained by the fact that in Europe and America people have already gone so far along a wrong road that the majority of their population is already torn from the land (in America it has never lived on the rural land) and lives either in factories or by hired agricultural labor, and desires and demands only one thing — the improvement of its position as hired laborers. It is therefore comprehensible that to the political workers of Europe and America — listening to the demands of the majority — it may seem that the chief means for the improvement of the position of the people consists in tariffs, trusts, and colonies, but to the Russian people in Russia, where the agricultural population composes 80 percent of the whole nation, where all this people request only one thing — that opportunity be given them to remain in this state — it would seem it should be clear that for the improvement of the position of the people something else is necessary.
The people of Europe and America are in the position of a man who has gone so far along a road which at first appeared the right one, but which the further he goes the more it removes him from his object, that he is afraid of confessing his mistake. But the Russians are yet standing before the turning of the path and can, according to the wise saying, "ask their way while yet on the road."
If Russian political workers do speak about land abuse, which they for some reason call the "agrarian" question — probably thinking that this silly word will conceal the substance of the matter — they speak of it, not in the sense that private landed property is an evil which should be abolished, but in the sense that it is necessary in some way or other, by various patchings and palliatives, to plaster up, hush up, and pass over this essential, ancient, and cruel, this obvious and crying injustice, which is awaiting its turn for abolition not only in Russia, but in the whole world.
People have driven a herd of cows, on the milk products of which they are fed, into an enclosure. The cows have eaten up and trampled the forage in the enclosure, they are hungry, they have chewed one another's tails, they low and moan, imploring to be released from the enclosure and set free in the pastures. But the very men who feed themselves on the milk of these cows have set around the enclosure plantations of mint, of plants for dyeing purposes, and of tobacco; they have cultivated flowers, laid out a racecourse, a park, and a lawn tennis ground, and they do not let out the cows lest they spoil these arrangements. But the cows bellow, get thin, and the men begin to be afraid that the cows may cease to yield milk, and they invent various means of improving the condition of these cows. They erect sheds over them, they introduce wet brushes for rubbing the cows, they gild their horns, alter the hour of milking, concern themselves with the housing and treating of invalid and old cows, they invent new and improved methods of milking, they expect that some kind of wonderfully nutritious grass they have sown in the enclosure will grow up, they argue about these and many other varied matters, but they do not, cannot — without disturbing all they have arranged around the enclosure — do the only simple thing necessary for themselves as well as for the cows, take down the fence and grant the cows their natural freedom of using in plenty the pastures surrounding them.
Acting thus, men act reasonably, but there is an explanation of their action; they are sorry for the fate of all they have arranged around the enclosure. But what shall we call those people who have set nothing around the fence, but who, out of imitation of those who do not set free their cows, owing to what they had arranged around the enclosure, also keep their cows inside the fence, and assert that they do so for the welfare of the cows themselves?
Precisely thus act those Russians, both Governmental and anti-Governmental, who arrange for the Russian people, unceasingly suffering from the want of land, every kind of European institution, forgetting and denying the chief thing: that which alone the Russian people requires — the liberation of the land from private property, the establishment of equal rights on the land for all men.
The true bread-supporters of these European parasites are the laborers they do not see in India, Africa, Australia, and partly in Russia. But it is not so for us Russians; we have no colonies where slaves invisible to ourselves feed us for our manufacturing produce. Our bread-winners, suffering, hungry, are always before our eyes, and we cannot transfer the burden of our iniquitous life to distant colonies, that slaves invisible to us should feed us. Our sins are always before us.
And behold, instead of entering into the needs of those who support us, instead of hearing their cries and endeavoring to satisfy them, we, instead of this, under pretext of serving them, also prepare, according to the European sample, socialistic organizations for the future, and in the present occupy ourselves with what amuses and distracts us, and appears to be directed to the welfare of the people out of whom we are squeezing their last strength in order to support us, their parasites.
One need only enter into the unceasing sufferings of millions of the people; the dying out from want of the aged, women, and children, and of the workers from excessive work and insufficient food — one need only enter into the servitude, the humiliations, all the useless expenditures of strength, into the deprivations, into all the horror of the needless calamities of the Russian rural population which all proceed from insufficiency of land — in order that it should become quite clear that all such measures as the abolition of censorship, of arbitrary banishment, etc., which are being striven after by the pseudo-defenders of the people, even were they to be realized, would form only the most insignificant drop in the ocean of that want from which the people are suffering.
There was a time when In the name of God and of true faith in Him men were destroyed, tortured, executed, beaten in scores and hundreds of thousands. We, from the height of our attainments, now look down upon the men who did these things.
But we are wrong. Amongst us there are many such people, the difference lies only here — that those men of old did these things then in the name of God, and of His true service, whilst now those who commit the same evil amongst us do so in the name of "the people," "for the true service of the people." And as amongst the former there were men insanely self-convinced that they knew the truth, and there were others, hypocrites, taking up their position under the pretext of serving God, and there was a crowd without consideration following the more dexterous and bold, so also now those who do evil in the name of serving the people consist of men insanely self-convinced that they alone know the truth — of hypocrites and of the crowd. Much evil have the self-proclaimed servants of God done in their time, thanks to the teaching which they called Theology, but the servants of the people, thanks to the teaching which they call Science, if they have done less evil, it is only because they have not yet had time to do it, but already on their conscience there lie rivers of blood and great divisions and exasperation amongst men.
Of all indispensable alterations of the forms of social life there is in the life of the world one which is most ripe, one without which not a single step forward in improvement in the life of men can be accomplished. The necessity of this alteration is obvious to every man who is free from preconceived theories. This alteration is not the work of Russia alone, but of the whole world. All the calamities of mankind in our time are connected with this condition.
[This is perhaps an example of Tolstoy's general statements; so broad as to seem absurd at first glance. But it is clear that every improvement in the condition of the earth, whether agricultural, mechanical, political, social, ethical, educational or even religious, must go eventually and mainly to the benefit of the owners of the earth. If, then, Tolstoy's idea is correct, that our land system is the root of our economic evils; all the "improvements" which go to make it less hideous, result in the main in strengthening the system.—Ed.]
Without religion one cannot really love men, and without loving men one cannot know what they require, and what is more, and what is less necessary for them. Only those who are not religious, and therefore do not truly love, can invent trifling, unimportant improvements in the condition of the people without seeing that chief evil from which others are suffering, and which they themselves are partly producing. Only such people can preach more or less cleverly-constructed abstract theories supposed to render the people happy in the future, and not see the sufferings the people are bearing in the present and which demand immediate and practical alleviation. As it were, a man who has deprived a hungry man of his food is giving him his counsel (and that of a very doubtful character) as to how he should get food in the future, without deeming it necessary immediately to share with him that part of his own abundance consisting of the food he has actually taken away from the man.
Fortunately, great beneficial movements in humanity are accomplished not by parasites feeding on the life-blood of the people, whatever they may call themselves — Governments, Revolutionists, or Liberals — but by religious people — that is, by people who are serious, simple, laborious, and who live not for their own profit, vanity, or ambition, and not for the attainment of external results, but for the fulfillment before God of their human vocation.
Such men, and only such, by their noiseless but resolute activity, move mankind forward. Such men will not, desiring to distinguish themselves in the eyes of others, invent this or that improvement in the condition of the people (there can be an endless number of such improvements, and they are all insignificant if the chief thing is not done), but will endeavor to live in accordance with the law of God, with conscience, and in endeavoring to live so they will naturally come across the most obvious transgression of this law, and for themselves, and for others will search for the means of freeing themselves from it.
"Great social reforms," says Mazzini, "always ve been and will be the result of great religious movements."
And such is the religious movement which is now pending for the Russian people, for all the Russian people, for the working classes deprived of land as well as, and especially for, the big, medium, and small landowners, and for all those hundreds of thousands of men who, although they do not directly possess land, yet occupy an advantageous position, thanks to the compulsory labor of the people who are deprived of land.
This sin can be undone, not by political reform, nor socialistic schemes for the future, nor by revolutions in the present, and still less by philanthropic assistance or governmental organization for the purchase and distribution of land among the peasants. Such palliative measures only distract attention from the essence of the problem and thus retard its solution.
No artificial sacrifices are necessary, no concern about the people — there is only necessary the consciousness of this sin by all those who commit or participate in it, and the desire of freeing themselves from it.
It is only necessary that the undeniable truth which the best men of the people always knew and know — that the land cannot be the exclusive property of some, and that the non-admission to the land of those who are in need of it is a sin — that this truth should become generally recognized by all men; that people should become ashamed of retaining the land from those who want to feed themselves from it; that it should become a shame in any way to participate in this retention of the land from those who need it, a shame to possess land, a shame to profit by the labor of men compelled to work only because they have been deprived of their legitimate right to the land.
Possessing hundreds, thousands, scores of thousands of acres, trading in land, profiting one way or the other by landed property, and living luxuriously, thanks to the oppression of the people, possible through this cruel and obvious injustice — to argue in various committees and assemblies about the improvement of the conditions of the peasant's life without surrendering one's own exclusively advantageous position growing from this injustice, is not only an unkind but a detestable and evil thing, equally condemnable by common sense, honesty and Christianity. It is necessary, not to invent cunning devices for the improvement of men deprived of their lawful right to the land, but to understand one's own sin in relation to them, and before all else to cease to participate in it, whatever this may cost. Only such moral activity of every man can and will contribute to the solution of the question now standing before humanity.
The land question has at the present time reached such a state of ripeness as fifty years ago was reached by the question of serfdom. Exactly the same is being repeated. As at that time men searched for the means of remedying the general uneasiness and dissatisfaction which were felt in society, and applied all kinds of external governmental means, but nothing helped nor could help whilst there remained the ripening and unsolved question of personal slavery, so also now no external measures will help or can help until the ripe question of landed property be solved. As now measures are proposed for adding slices to the peasants' land, for the purchase of land by the aid of banks, etc., so then also palliative measures were proposed and enacted, material improvements, rules about three days' labor, and so forth. Even as now the owners of land talk, about the injustice of putting a stop to their criminal ownership, so then people talked about the unlawfulness of depriving owners of their serfs. As then the Church justified the serf right, so now that which occupies the place of the Church — Science — justifies landed property. Just as then slave owners, realizing their sin more or less, endeavored in various ways without undoing it to mitigate it, and substituted the payment of a ransom by the serfs for direct compulsory work for their masters and moderated their exactions from the peasants, so also now the more sensitive landowners, feeling their guilt, endeavor to redeem it by renting their land to the peasants on more lenient conditions, by selling it through the peasant banks, by arranging schools for the people, ridiculous houses of recreation, magic-lantern lectures and theaters.
The question will be solved, not by those who will endeavor to mitigate the evil or to invent alleviations for the people or to postpone the task of the future, but by those who will understand that, however one may mitigate a wrong, it remains a wrong, and that it is senseless to invent alleviations for a man we are torturing, and that one cannot postpone when people are suffering, but should immediately take the best way of solving the difficulty and immediately apply it in practice. And the more should it be so that the method of solving the land problem has been elaborated by Henry George to such a degree of perfection that, under the existing State organization and compulsory taxation, it is impossible to invent any other better, more just, practical, and peaceful solution.
"To beat down and cover up the truth that I have tried tonight to make clear to you [said Henry George], selfishness will call on ignorance. But it has in it the germinative force of truth, and the times are ripe for it. . . . The ground is plowed; the seed is set; the good tree will grow. So little now; only the eye of faith can see it."
And I think Henry George is right, that the removal of the sin of landed property is near, that the movement called forth by Henry George was the last birth-throe, and that the birth is on the point of taking place; the liberation of men from the sufferings they have so long borne must now be realized. Besides this, I think (and I would like to contribute to this, in however small a measure) that the removal of this great universal sin — a removal which will form an epoch in the history of mankind — is to be effected precisely by the Russian Slavonian people, who are, by their spiritual and economic character, predestined for this great universal task — that the Russian people should not become proletarians in imitation of the peoples of Europe and America, but, on the contrary, that they should solve the land question at home by the abolition of landed property, and show other nations the way to a rational, free and happy life, outside industrial, factory, or capitalistic coercion and slavery — that in this lies their great historical calling.
In a recent column in the NYT entitled "Description is Prescription", David Brooks made references to Tolstoy, and it sent me looking to see whether a book I remembered was available via Google Books. The book was written in 1905 by Bolton Hall, and it is entitled "What Tolstoy Taught." Its final chapter, "Human Rights," follows:
(Tolstoy proclaimed the law of love as enunciated by Christ; the political rights as enunciated by Thomas Jefferson; the economic rights as announced by Henry George: the two latter as amplifications of the first; all being essential to man's earthly welfare. Tolstoy's philosophy was progressive. At first he saw that the law of love was necessary; then he recognized the necessity of equal political rights; next he recognized that without economic justice these remedies were futile, and he accordingly embraced the philosophy of Henry George, as evidenced by the following article addressed to the Russian people.— Ed.)
A number of suggestions have been made as to how to divide, in the most just manner, all land among the workers, but of all these only the one made by the late Henry George appears to me to be practicable.
The property right, Henry George wrote in his book about the single tax, is founded not on human laws, but on the laws of God. It is undeniable and absolute, and everyone who violates It, be it an individual or a nation, commits a theft.
A man who catches a fish, who plants a tree, builds a house, constructs a machine, sews a dress or paints a picture, thereby becomes the owner of the results of his own efforts — he has the right to give them away, to sell them or to leave them to his heirs. As the land has not been created by us, and only serves as the temporary residence of changing generations of human beings, it is clear that nobody can own the exclusive right to possess land, and that the rights of all men to it are equal and inalienable.
The right to own land is limited by the equal rights of all others, and this imposes upon the temporary possessor of land the duty to remunerate society for the valuable privilege given him to use the land in his possession.
When we impose a tax upon houses, crops, or money in any form, we take from members of society something which by right belongs to them, we violate the property right and commit a theft in the name of the law; while when we impose a tax upon land we take from members of society something which does not belong to them, but to society, and which cannot be given to them except at a detriment to others. We thus violate the laws of justice when we place a tax on labor or the results of labor, and we also violate them if we do not levy a tax on land.
Let us, therefore, decide to stop levying all taxes except the tax on the value of land, regardless of the buildings erected or the improvements made on it, but only on the value which natural or social conditions give to it.
If we place this single tax on land the results will be these:
1. The tax will relieve us of the whole army of officials necessary to collect the present taxes, which will diminish the cost of government, at the same time making it more honest. It will rid us of all the taxes which lead to lying, to perjury, to frauds of all kinds. All land is visible, and cannot be hidden, and its value is fixed easier than that of any other property, and the single tax can be determined at less expense and less danger to public morals.
2. It will to a great extent increase the production of wealth, doing away with the discouraging tax upon labor and thrift, and it will make the land more accessible to those who want to work or improve, as the proprietors, who do not work themselves, but speculate in its increasing value, will find it difficult to keep up such expensive property. The tax on labor, on the other hand, leads to the accumulation of immense fortunes in a few hands, and the increasing poverty of the masses. This unjust division of wealth on one side leads to the creation of one class of people who are idle and corrupt, because they are too rich, and the creation of another class of people who are too poor, and thus doubly delays the production of wealth. This unjust division of wealth creates on one side terrible millionaires, and on the other side vagrants, beggars, thieves, gamblers and social parasites of various kinds, and necessitates an enormous expense for officials to watch these — policemen, judges, prisons and other means which society uses in self-defense.
The single tax is a remedy for all these evils.
I do not mean to say that this tax will transform human nature, for that is not within the power of man, but it will create conditions under which human nature will grow better instead of worse, as under the present conditions. It will make possible an increase of wealth, of which it is hardly possible to form an idea. It will make undeserved poverty impossible. It will do away with the demoralizing struggle for a living. It will make it possible for men to be honest, just, reasonable and noble, if they desire to be so. It will prepare the soil for the coming of the epoch of justice, abundance, peace and happiness, which Christ told His disciples of.
Let us suppose that in a certain place all land belongs to two owners — one very rich, who lives far away, and another, not rich, living and working at home — and to a hundred of small peasants owning a few acres each. Besides these, there live on that place some scores of people who own no land — mechanics, merchants, and officials.
Now let us suppose that the people of that community, having arrived at the conclusion that the land is common property, decide to dispose of the land according to their new conviction.
What would they do? Take all the land away from those who own it, and give everybody the right to take the land he desires? That could not be done, because there would be several people who would want the same ground, and this would lead to endless quarrels. To form one society and work all things in common would be difficult, because some have carts, wagons, horses and cattle, while others have none, and, besides, some people do not know how to till the soil, or are not strong enough.
To divide all the land in equal parts, according to its value, and allow one part to each is very difficult, and this would, besides, be impracticable, because the lazy and poor would lease their property to the rich for money, and these would soon again be in possession of it all.
The inhabitants of the community, therefore, decide to leave the land in the possession of those who own it, and to order each owner to pay into the common treasury money representing the revenue which had been decided on after appraising the value of the land, not according to the work or the improvements made on it, but to its quality and situation, and this money was to be divided equally among all.
But as it was difficult first to take this money from all those who held the land, and then divide it equally among all the members of the community, and as these members, besides, paid money toward the public needs — schools, fire departments, roads, etc.— and as this money was always needed, they decided to use all the money derived from those who had the use of the land, for public needs.
Having made this arrangement, the members of the community levied the tax for the use of land on the two large owners, and also on the small peasants, but no tax at all was imposed on those who held no land.
This caused the one landowner who lived far away, and who derived little income from his property, to realize that it did not pay to hold on to land thus taxed, and he gave it up. The other large owner gave up part of his land, and kept only that part which produced more than the amount of his tax. Those of the peasants who held small properties, and who had plenty of men, and not enough land, as well as some of those who held no land at all, but who desired to make a living by working the land, took up the land surrendered by its former owners.
After that all the members of the community could live on the land and make a living from it, and all land passed into the hands of or remained with those who loved to work it, and who made it produce the most. The public institutions flourished and the wealth of the community increased, for there was more money than before for public needs; and the most important fact was that this change in the ownership of land took place without any discussions, quarrels, or discord, by the voluntary surrender of the land by those who did not derive any profit from it.
This is the project of Henry George, which, if tried here, would make Russia wealthy and happy, and which is practicable all over the world.
I commend the whole article to your attention (it runs 3 pages). But I'll focus on a few paragraphs which particularly intrigue me. DCJ begins,
Will President Obama cave on yet another of his campaign promises, this time by giving in to Republican demands to extend all of the temporary Bush tax cuts? The president signaled this on his Asia trip when he said his principal concern was retaining the middle-income tax rates.
Republican congressional leaders have said they will let all of the Bush tax cuts expire unless the president bows to their demand that the top 3 percent of Americans be included in any tax cut extension.
Obama should call their bluff.
I don’t think the Republicans are so stupid that they would let all the Bush tax cuts expire if they cannot continue tax cuts for billionaires and the affluent on all of their income. But let’s assume that the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are that dumb, or so beholden to the antitax billionaires funding their campaigns, that they would force universal tax increases.
The Republicans cannot pass any legislation the Democrats choose to block. Further, the Republicans have no chance of overriding a veto, which requires a two-thirds vote of those present in both houses. The Republicans control the House, but they have only as much power to enact laws as Obama and Senate Democrats give them.
More important than any political gain, however, is what calling the GOP bluff could do to get our nation back on the path to prosperity and to stop policies that are pushing us into economic disaster, thanks in huge part to the Bush administration’s combination of revenue-losing tax cuts, wars, and wild spending.
By calling the Republicans’ bluff, Obama can get us talking about taxes and the future of America, instead of protecting what the richest among us already have.
The president could speak about Wall Street handing out record bonuses this year — an estimated $144 billion to a relative handful of people, many of whom get richer by destroying wealth, including assets of state and local government pension funds whose losses we have to make up for with more taxes.
Those bonuses, by the way, are about 2.4 times expected Wall Street profits.
How about a presidential lecture on entitlements focused on Lloyd Blankfein, whose firm’s bad bets taxpayers paid off at 100 cents on the dollar? The Goldman Sachs boss whines about making only $9 million last year because of his ‘‘sacrifice’’ and plans an extra-big payday this December to make up for last year.
The president could change the terms of our economic debate by talking about how much the vast majority props up many of those at the very top, starting with Blankfein. He could tell people about the trillion dollars a year of tax favors for corporations and the rich, as documented by the Shelf Project. (For the article, see Tax Notes, July 5, 2010, p. 101, Doc 2010-13081, or 2010 TNT 129-4.) Obama should explain how soak-the-middle-class and sink-the-poor policies damage economic growth.
Obama could also talk about how America has stopped being number one in many other categories because of tax policies that are hollowing out our nation’s economy and destroying the commonwealth on which private wealth building relies.
I am an admirer of DCJ, appreciate his two books, and look forward to his third -- but I don't think he yet sees the half of it! (And need I say that none of our current parties do either?)
Skipping ahead again:
Calling the GOP’s bluff would let the president raise the issue of whether we want to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits so Peterson and his peers can have even more. Is Peterson’s use of a multimillion-dollar helicopter just to avoid the summer traffic between Manhattan and his Hamptons mansion enough? Or should we all pay more so he can buy a new helicopter?
The president could explain that the tax system helps Peterson’s billions float on a sea of tax credits, tax breaks, and tax deferrals. Obama could read to people from 1950s newspaper stories about old ladies eating cat food. The president could stop in at food banks where families who worked hard and played by the rules were crushed by the machinations of Wall Streeters.
He could talk about how a single working person making the median wage of just over $26,000 paid nearly a third larger share of her income in federal taxes than the top 400 taxpayers, who each made almost $1 million a day in 2007.
And Obama could tell taxpayers about all those people with billion-dollar annual incomes who legally pay no current income taxes, while the rest of us get dinged before we get paid. Let me play speechwriter for Obama on this one:
The Republicans took away your tax savings, every penny of it, but first they made sure that hedge fund managers will not have to pay any taxes this year unless they choose to.
Hedge fund managers make billions of dollars each year, but they get to delay paying their taxes for years or even decades — and then pay taxes at less than half the rate that other highly paid people must pay.
Do these hedge fund managers build factories?
Do they create software or new technologies?
Do they create the jobs America needs?
No! They are speculators, speculating with borrowed money.
The Republicans want to cut your Medicare and cut your Social Security.
Now if that’s what you want, then I urge you to support the Republicans. But if you think the highest-paid workers in the history of the world — people who can and often do make a billion dollars in a year — should pay taxes, pay their taxes in full, and pay them now, then you need to show your support for my policies.
If you want your tax cuts back, you need to stand with me. You need to petition, to demonstrate, to call and write to your representative and senators, telling them this kind of favoritism has got to stop and stop right now.
I'm glad to see that DCJ is calling attention to this particular form of speculation -- skimming the cream off the economy without producing anything.
... moneylenders have been skimming 40 percent of the profits from companies that actually make and produce things. His big point was that this is not really the role of the financial sector. The financial sector's job is to support economic growth, not cripple it.
"Finance is a means to an end," he said. "The lack of balance between the financial sector and the economic sector was actually the real problem in this economic crisis (NOT the real estate bubble)."
I've not heard of Stiglitz saying this where the American media might catch on, but appreciate his willingness to state it elsewhere.
How do we encourage the sorts of business activity which create jobs, create housing which is welcoming and affordable for people at all points on the income and wealth spectra? By getting our incentives right, and by straightening out what we tax, what we don't, and the rates at which we tax each.
A 2007 OECD study compared some of the commonly-used tax bases for their effects on economic growth, and concludes that the personal income tax is an inferior tax. What does it endorse? Interestingly, the conventional property tax! Those who read this blog regularly know that the conventional property tax is an unfortunate marriage of two taxes with very different effects -- one quite desirable, and the other largely negative in its effects.
Elsewhere, I came across this table:
Distributional Effects of Allowing All Expiring Tax Provisions to Expire, 2011
Increase in Federal Taxes
Millions of Dollars
Less than $10,000
$10,000 - $20,000
$20,000 - $30,000
$30,000 - $40,000
$40,000 - $50,000
$50,000 - $75,000
$75,000 - $100,000
$100,000 - $200,000
$200,000 - $500,000
$500,000 - $1 million
$1 million and over
Total, all taxpayers
Source: Joint Committee on Taxation (July 30, 2010
If I am reading the table correctly, it says that while the folks in the $1 million plus income category would experience an 11.0% increase in their federal taxes, those in the $10,000 to $20,000 range would see a 19.9% increase, and those in the $20,000 to $30,000 range would have a 20.8% increase in their federal taxes. Admittedly, these are small numbers -- I assume that they exclude social security and medicare payroll taxes, which are much higher than federal income taxes for perhaps 75% of us. But does it make sense to increase income taxes on those whose incomes are sufficiently low that they likely spend virtually 100% of what comes in by twice as much as the income taxes on those who have plenty of discretionary income?
We need better taxes. Search this page for the OECD study, or search for "canons of taxation" on the wealthandwant.com website. Smart taxes are smart. Dumb taxes are dumb.
I stumbled across this document in a little book which runs to 24 pages, from 1887. Those with an interest in Alabama history, particularly as it relates to taxation, might find that it helps explain how the 1903 constitution came about -- whose interests it sought to protect. Consider it, too, in light of our current economic situation -- too few jobs, lots of income and wealth concentration; not enough credit available to afford housing or commercial sites. These problems can be solved, but not in the ways we've already tried.
The Case Plainly Stated By H. F. RING
PREFATORY NOTE -- This address originally was delivered to the United Labor Organization of Houston, Texas, in 1887. It appeared in full the next morning in the Houston Daily Post, and afterwards in The Standard, published at that time in New York by Henry George. Mr. George then issued it in tract form, giving it the name of "The Case Plainly Stated." Many editions of it have since been published from time to time in this country and in Europe and Australia, and it is generally regarded as one of the clearest brief statements extant of the philosophy of land value taxation as taught by Henry George in his famous "Progress and Poverty."
MR. CHAIRMAN:— The land question is simply a question as to how the use of the bounties of nature shall be best regulated and controlled. By bounties of nature I mean the coal beds, the mineral deposits, the land — all those natural elements which were not created by human industry, but which Nature has freely and abundantly provided for the use and enjoyment of all the children of men; and I propose to show how the right of capital and. labor to use these natural elements should be regulated by the government*, so as most to conduce to the happiness and well-being of mankind.
* The word "government" as used in this presentation of the Single Tax refers to the tax levying power as vested, not alone in the federal, but also and even primarily in the state, county, and municipal governments. It is probable that a complete application of the Single Tax will be reached through its gradual adoption at first in cities, counties and states, before it is substituted for tariff and internal revenue taxation.
I am a Single Taxer, and a discussion of the land question by me can be nothing more than a mere attempt to expound the teachings of that great master of the subject, Henry George.
George, at the outset, calls attention to the marvelous improvements in the arts and sciences, the discoveries, inventions, and labor-saving machines which, within the past 100 years, have so immensely increased the productive powers of the human race. Is it not a moderate estimate to assume that on an average the labor of one man today, with all these labor-saving inventions, will produce as much of the comforts and luxuries of life as the labors of four men would a hundred years ago? And does it not follow that the average workman of today creates, by each day's labor, four times as much wealth as the average workman did a hundred years ago? George teaches that if the workman of today, on an average, creates four times as much wealth as the workman of a hundred years ago, then the services of this workman of today are four times as valuable to society; then why should not his wages of right be four times as great? Why should he not be four times as independent? Why should it not be four times as easy for him to make a living and support his family in comfort and decency?
Will any one presume to assert that this is in fact the case? On the contrary, is it not just about as hard for the poor man to make a living today as it ever was? Does he not dread the loss of a position today just as much as he ever did? George asserts that labor-saving machinery really ought to lessen the burdens of labor, to make it easier for the laborer to live, and in fact, to lighten his toil. But alas, from some apparently mysterious cause, — a cause which many comfortably well-to-do people insist is one of the unfathomable mysteries of Divine Providence, — what George claims should rightly result from inventions does not result from them. And still we are all the time making new discoveries, and year by year increasing, by means of new inventions, the productive powers of working men; yet, with the increase of population, the lot of those who produce all this wealth seems to be becoming more precarious, less independent and more and more wretched.
Who denies that under the present social system, wages tend to fall irresistibly to the point at which the wage-workers can barely subsist? This is called the iron law of wages, and all the strikes conceivable can only temporarily, and but fitfully, arrest this steady tendency. For so long as unemployed men compete for employment against the employed, wages cannot permanently advance. The worker may create quadruple the wealth, but he is not permitted to retain any more of it as his share.
WHO GETS THE WEALTH?
Now, where does this wealth go — this wealth which we now produce so much more easily and in such vastly greater quantities than ever before? What becomes of it? Who gets it? Why is it that in this age of wealth-producing and labor-saving machinery, poverty as abject and hideous as ever before seen in the history of the world abounds and increases in our midst? What is the cause of the so-called iron law of wages? Henry George has discovered it. He has pointed it out, and he has shown us the remedy. He has demonstrated beyond a doubt or question that it does not result as a fatal necessity from the nature of things, but that it is a result of violation of natural law, of a refusal on the part of society to recognize the inalienable right of every citizen of access to the bounties of nature within the territory of his country on equal terms with every other citizen of that country.
Let me now give you a short lesson in the elements of this new political economy.
Three factors enter into the creation of every conceivable kind of wealth. By wealth we mean any material thing produced by human industry which gratifies human desires. These factors are land, labor and capital. Wealth in a civilized community is produced only by means of a union or partnership between land, labor and capital. Labor does the work, capital loans the tools, and land furnishes the natural elements on which, and out of which all material things resulting from human industry are created. In speaking of land in the new political economy we never include improvements or anything which is the result of human toil. We simply mean the opportunities which land and the elements within it afford for the employment of capital and labor — we mean the raw elements as they lie on or in the bosom of the eartli, untouched by the hand of man.
Now, as before remarked, the product of land, labor and capital is wealth, and after it is produced, it is divided among these factors entering into its composition. A certain portion of it, called rent, goes to land, either directly in the form of rent or in the form of interest on the selling price of the land or of the coal bed, or whatever it is; another portion of it, called profit or interest, goes to capital for the use of tools which capital has furnished, and the balance left, after land has been paid rent and capital has been paid interest or profits, goes to labor as wages for the work which labor has done, including the labor of superintendence.
MEANING OF RENT.
Now what does rent signify as used here? Rent is the price paid for the privilege of access to the raw material — for the mere privilege of getting hold of something not created by man, on which and out of which labor and capital can produce wealth. This rent may be paid periodically, or may be paid in a lump in the form of purchase money. In either case the result will be the same. Is it not clear that in the division of wealth after it has been produced by this partnership between land, labor and capital, the more land gets for rent the less there will be left for capital and labor? Is it not quite as plain as A B C that the more it costs capital and labor to get hold of these natural elements, the coal beds, the mines, the water fronts, the land — the gifts of nature which a kind providence has provided for the equal use and enjoyment of all — the less there will be for labor and capital to divide between them?
In the new political economy we must never confuse land with capital. One is never the synonym of the other. Land, as before stated, is simply the natural opportunity, exclusive of improvements or anything done to it by man. Capital is something that has been made by man, like a machine for instance, which is useful in the production of wealth. It is wealth used to produce more wealth.
LABOR AND CAPITAL PARTNERS.
But someone asks: Suppose the capitalist who is using the coal bed or using this natural opportunity, whatever it may be, is also owner of it. Where then does your partnership between land, labor and capital come in? We answer just the same as before. A sum equal to the interest on the market value of the coal bed (independent of the machinery, excavation work, etc.) is in such cases a factor of rent. The owner, in addition to profit or interest on his capital, as before defined, must also take from the wealth produced a sum equal, approximately, to interest on the market value of the coal land, otherwise he would sell out and quit. It is evident that the more money the owner is obliged to invest in purchasing the coal bed, for instance, the greater must be the sum which he takes out of the wealth produced to cover interest on that investment, and hence such interest money is simply rent paid for the use of a natural element, for the privilege of access to one of the bounties of nature. Therefore, is it not equally plain in this case that the more paid for this privilege of use, the less will remain out of which labor can get wages?
A few years ago we read in the newspapers of a great boom in the vicinity of Birmingham, Alabama. We were exultingly told that the lands containing coal beds and mineral deposits in northern Alabama had gone up in value from $75,000 to $50,000,000 in the space of six years. What does this signify? It means that when capital and labor shall attempt to utilize these coal beds and mineral deposits, when capital and labor shall unite together, the one to furnish the tools, the other the labor, with which to produce wealth out of this raw material, then will a set of landlords step forward and block the enterprise with a demand for $50,000,000 for the mere right of access to these free gifts of nature, or in lieu of it the payment of $3,000,000 a year as tribute money, that being the interest of $50,000,000 at six per cent.
There lie the coal beds and mineral deposits untouched by man, fresh from the hands of the Creator, intended by Him, if He is the just, benevolent Being whom we have been taught to worship, for the equal use and enjoyment of all His children, and yet our laws say that capital and labor must pay a few forestallers $3,000,000 a year for the privilege of applying the hand of industry to these elements.
And after this blackmail has been paid, how much will there be left for the wages of labor? The answer is, just as little as labor can ordinarily subsist upon. Why? Because this monopolization of the gifts of nature going on, not only in northern Alabama, but everywhere else, enables capital to drive a hard bargain with labor. For this reason, and this alone, they can't deal with each other on equal vantage grounds. Suppose labor objects and says to capital: "I'll not accept the pittance you offer." Capital replies: "All right, go elsewhere." And so labor starts out to get work for himself, and what does he find? Here he is, living in a country capable of raising food for ten times its present population, and he finds four-fifths of the land untilled or but partially cultivated. He finds four-fifths of the coal beds and mineral deposits unused. He finds vacant land and unused lots on every side. He goes to New York City even and he finds there within its corporate limits almost one-third the area of that city vacant, unoccupied, and unused, although there are miles and miles of tenement houses, in which men and women and innocent children are packed and crowded like maggots, as though there wasn't ample room in the city for the comfortable housing of every human being in it. He finds unused natural elements all around him wherever he goes, sufficient to give employment and support in abundance to tens of millions of happy families.
But now suppose labor attempts to make use of any of these unused natural opportunities? Suppose he concludes to go to work for himself upon a piece of vacant land in the suburbs of a city, for instance, where labor could be applied to the greatest advantage. What happens? An individual comes along and waves a title deed, and orders him off the premises. He finds that all these unused natural opportunities are owned by individuals and claimed as private property. He finds himself frustrated at every point. He finds that he can't go to work anywhere without paying blackmail to the owner of some natural element for the mere privilege of working and so he strikes back to northern Alabama and takes off his hat to Capital and bows very low and says: 'Please, sir, give me a bare living and I will be your slave."
And that is about all that he does get, and that is all he ever will get under the present system of land ownership, though you may strike and boycott and potter about graduated land taxes, graduated income taxes, and graduated nonsense until doomsday.
THE GREAT PARASITE.
With advancing population the greater becomes the demand for natural opportunities and the higher the prices which can be extorted for the privilege of using them. As population increases, the town lots, the coal beds, the mineral deposits, the water fronts, the land, go up in value, and so goes up also the amount of tribute money which labor must pay for access to them, for the privilege of employment. The more of the products of industry which go for the payment of this constantly increasing tribute, the less and less will grow the share allowed the laborer and the more dependent and the more wretched will his lot become.
Here in Houston today, suppose Enterprise has $50,000 to invest in the paper mill business, a sum barely sufficient to put up the building, buy the machinery and carry stock. He finds a beautiful site for his mill on the banks of the bayou. It is a vacant lot. The hand of man has never been applied to it, and it stands there now just as it stood when the Indian roamed over the site of this city. The owner of that block, however, thinks he can make Enterprise pay him $20,000 for the privilege of giving employment to labor on this natural opportunity — this piece of ground. That is the price, and if he can't get it today he will get it when the city grows a little larger. But Enterprise says to him: "I have only $50,000 capital, all of which I shall need in my business." The land owner answers it is not his lookout, and so Enterprise turns away checkened and baffled, and the mill is not built.
CAUSE OF DULL TIMES.
And so it is everywhere. Wherever we find a portion of the vacant surface of the earth which could be utilized by capital and labor, and which affords an opportunity for human toil and enterprise, there we find a human vampire with a paper title in his hand warning off labor; and that vampire must always be placated by the payment of blackmail before the wheels of industry can begin to turn.
Need we wonder that these wheels turn slowly, and that they are always getting out of gear; that we are always talking about dull times; that men are always out of employment and always hunting for work, regarding it as a favor even to be allowed to work; that we are all the time growing too much cotton, when millions of human beings have only one shirt to their names; that we are producing too much food, when half the population of the world is insufficiently fed; that carpenters are out of work, when half the people are not comfortably housed; shoemakers wanting work and millions needing shoes? How could it be otherwise, when labor is compelled to beg for work in the midst of limitless unused opportunities for work, on which opportunities, however, sit these human vampires, these dogs in the manger, waving labor back with their paper title deeds?
Now let us go back for a moment to that partnership between land, labor and capital. For illustration, suppose the wealth produced by the partnership to be created by the application of capital and labor to those coal beds and mineral deposits in northern Alabama, valued, as we have seen, at $50,000,000. In the division of wealth produced we have shown how, say six percent of this $50,000,000, or $3,000,000, must go to land as rent. Or, in other words, $3,000,000 a year must be paid to land owners directly as rent or interest on purchase money for the bare privilege of utilizing these gifts of nature. Now, in the division of wealth produced, why is labor entitled to any portion of it? Clearly because labor's industry has contributed to its creation. Why is capital entitled to any part of it? Because capital has furnished labor with tools with which to develop the mineral deposits. The capitalist who owns the tools can trace his title back to the creator of them, to some individual or set of individuals whose industry produced them and from whom he purchased or inherited them. The title, then, of both labor and capital to a portion of the wealth produced from these mineral deposits originates in human industry, and it is a sacred title. Now then, why should the land owner get any portion of this wealth, to produce which capital has supplied the tools and labor has done the work? This owner claims the right of making capital and labor pay him interest on $50,000,000, or $3,000,000 a year, for the mere privilege of access to this raw coal and raw ore. Ought we not to scrutinize most carefully his right to extort this immense tribute? And if he can show no natural and moral right to claim it, does not society countenance the robbery of labor in permitting him to do so? Where does his title originate?
We find that six or seven years ago he paid someone who claimed to own the land in which these mineral deposits are found $750,000 for the raw natural element for which he now demands $50,000,000. Was this additional value of $49,250,000 in six years produced by his industry? Was it produced by the industry of any previous owner of these natural elements? Did it cost $49,250,000 to discover these mineral deposits? We trace back his title a little further, and we find that perhaps a hundred years ago it originated in a grant to John Jones from the government — that is to say, the people who inhabited this country a hundred years ago and who constituted the government said: "We will divide the land and we will give John Jones this particular tract for his private property."
But did these people create that land and the coal and iron in it? Can it be shown that they had any better right to it from the Almighty Creator than the people of this generation have? Was the earth intended by the Heavenly Father for one generation to dispose of forever, or as an abiding place for all generations? Was Thomas Jefferson right or wrong when he wrote: "The earth belongs in usufruct to the living; the dead have no right or power over it?" By what authority could the people living here a hundred years ago, long since dead and gone, confer upon John Jones, also dead and gone, a right which would enable John Smith today, by tracing a paper chain of titles from him, to extort from capital and labor a tribute of $3,000,000 a year for the bare privilege of getting to that coal and iron and making it useful to mankind?
Who dares to blaspheme the name of the Almighty Ruler of the universe by saying that the coal and iron were not intended by Him for the equal use and the enjoyment of all His children — the humblest babe born today in a garret equally with a child of the proudest duke who ever lived?
MAN IS A LAND ANIMAL.
Is not man a land animal? Can he live without land? Can he any more rightfully be deprived of access to land than he can rightfully be deprived of life itself? Can he any more rightfully be compelled to yield up to a forestaller, a mere owner of land, a portion of the fruit of his industry for the privilege of getting hold of the raw material elements than he can rightfully be compelled as a slave to yield up to a master a portion of the fruits of his industry? To compel him to do so is as much a robbery of labor in one case as in the other. Why then is not the humblest babe that God sends into this world naturally and by inalienable right entitled to access to land on equal terms with all his fellow human beings?
ORIGIN OF PROPERTY RIGHT.
Mind, when we say access to land we do not include access to improvements on land, or access to anything produced by human industry, a title to which can be shown originating in human toil; we simply mean access upon equal terms to the free bounties of nature as they lie upon the kind bosom of mother earth, untouched and undisturbed by the hand of man. What I produce by my industry is mine. What I obtain by exchanging the products of my industry for the products of another's industry is mine. What my father or my grandfather produced by his industry was his, and if he has given it to me it is mine.
In all these cases human industry is the origin of property right, and property rights originating in human industry must be held sacred, else there would be no incentive to human effort. Do not the values produced by the individual belong to the individual producing them? Do not the values produced by the community belong to the community producing them? Is there anything wrong, immoral or communistic in this ideal? And yet this is the sum and substance of the Henry George philosophy.
Take the case of the vacant block on the bank of the bayou which Enterprise wanted for a paper mill and could not get. Fifty years ago it was worthless. Now labor must pay a tribute of over $20,000 to the so-called owner for the privilege of using it. Whose industry has put $20,000 of value on that piece of vacant ground? Not the industry of the present owner, nor the industry of any former owner, because no man has ever done a stroke of work upon it. That value of $20,000 has been placed upon the land by the common energy and enterprise of the entire community. Since the community has produced that land value why does it not belong to the community? Why has not the community the same rights to the value it creates as the individual has to the values which he individually creates?
How shall this derangement of the wheels of industry, this blackmail upon enterprise, this robbery of labor, this eager and fatal competition among laborers for employment, this slavish fear of the loss of a situation in the midst of abundant unused opportunities for employment — how shall this curse which our present land system has fastened upon the productive industry of the country, be removed? Simply by doing justice; by being honest; by recognizing in our laws one of the inalienable rights of man; by recognizing in every human being, in every generation, the present as well as the past, an inalienable right of access to the bounties of nature on equal terms with every other human being.
How shall this right of access on equal terms be secured? Simply by making every individual who claims a right to the exclusive possession of a tract of land pay in the form of a tax approximately what the use of that tract of land is worth, exclusive of all improvements on it or anything done to it by the hand of man, and by abolishing every other form of taxation. Take the rent of land for public use instead of taxes.
WILL SIMPLIFY GOVERNMENT.
Some one asks: "Will not this proposed change vastly increase the functions of government and immensely add to the number of government employees?" I reply no. On the contrary, at least two-thirds of the present army of revenue collectors and tax gatherers will be dispensed with, and the remaining one-third will collect this single tax on land values at one-third the expense now incurred in the collection of national, state, county, and municipal taxes.
Another inquirer asks: "Will not the new system offer abundant opportunities for corruption and partiality in fixing the amount of this tax annually to be paid for the exclusive use of a piece of land? And how do you propose the amount of the tax shall be determined?" It will be determined by the same law of demand and supply which now determines the amount of tax under the present system. The single tax will be fixed by the same machinery of an assessor and a board of equalization which fixes it now. For instance, under this system a piece of property on Main street rents for $5,000 a year. Interest at the prevailing rate on the building alone, added to the annual cost of insurance, repairs and caretaking, and a sum sufficient to provide a sinking fund for renewals amounted to, say $3,000 a year. The landlord is then collecting the difference between $3,000 and $5,000, or $3,000 for the use of this naked earth. That is to say, he is collecting $2,000 a year for the use of something never created by man, to which all are by natural right equally entitled, and which owes its rental value of $2,000 a year exclusively to the common enterprise and energy of the entire community.
This is the sum which, under Henry George's system, would be turned over to the government in the form of a tax for the common benefit of the community who collectively have made the use of this land worth $2,000 a year.
Here an interested friend anxiously inquires: "But if the landlord has to pay this tax of $2,000 a year for the use of the land, will he not take it out of the tenant by raising his rent to $7,000?" No, for the landlord's charges now all he can compel the tenant to pay. Suppose he tries to. Suppose he says to his tenant: "You must now pay me $7,000 a year." What happens? Just what happens every day now. If the tenant can do no better he pays the increase. But now, mark you, when the landlord goes to pay his tax what happens then? Why the board of equalization says to him, you have received $7,000 a year rent for the use of improvements worth only $3,000 a year. You are therefore collecting $4,000 a year instead of $2,000 for the use of the naked lot, and you will therefore pay the city or state $4,000 a year for the privilege of the exclusive use of the ground instead of $2,000 a year as heretofore. Now what has the landlord made by jumping up the rent? Nothing. What would be made by thus jumping up the rents under the present system? Everything. Under which system would landlords be more apt to force up rents?
DETERMINING THE TAX.
Another way by which the board of equalization under the George system would determine the amount of tax to be paid for the privilege of the exclusive possession of a tract of land, and which would also compel landlords to collect from their tenants and turn over to the government in the form of a tax the full value of the use of the land, would be from observation of the prices which real estate brought in the market. But note, at this point some smart fellow jumps up — and he is likely enough to be a newspaper editor — and vehemently protests, saying: "Why, sir, the taxation of ground values plan does not propose to allow any exclusive ownership of land. It demands that the government own it all and rent it out or divide it up into 60,000,000 or 70,000,000 little bits, or do something of that kind with it, and here you are talking about lands being bought and sold under the Henry George system. Why, man alive, you don't know what that system is!"
Now, Mr. Editor, or Mr. Who-ever-you-are, let me say to you that in your ignorance, or in your indifference to the sufferings of your fellowmen, or in your desire to pander to the greed of monopoly, or to the timidity of capital, you may say what you please; you may misrepresent as much as you please for the purpose of bringing odium and contempt upon the cause; you may call it what you please — state ownership, state landlordism, ownership in common, communism, nihilism, anarchism or anything else; but the fact, nevertheless, remains that, under the just and righteous land system which we are trying to explain, the land will continue to be bought and sold under the same form of paper deeds, precisely as it is bought and sold today. It will continue in precisely the same way to pass to devisees by will and to heirs by law of descent and distribution. The right of control, of exclusive possession and dominion over a piece of land and of the free and exclusive enjoyment of all improvements on it, will in no way be abridged or disturbed. When you buy a lot on Main street today worth $10,000 with a building on it worth $10,000 more, your deed recites a consideration of $20,000. Now when you buy this same property under the George system, the only difference in the whole transaction will be that your deed for it — assuming that the price accords with the market value prevailing at the time of your purchase — will recite a consideration of only $10,000, and $10,000 is all that you will then pay for the property. You will pay nothing for the land. After you have bought the property you will pay yearly in the form of a tax to the government, approximately the full market value of the (yearly) use of it — which will amount to the annual rental value of the land, and as the man from whom you purchased had to pay the government the same annual rental value, you will consequently pay nothing, or approximately nothing*, to him for the land itself when you purchase the property. You thus save an investment of $10,000 in dirt; instead of such investment you will pay for the common benefit of the community, including yourself, what the privilege of the exclusive use of that spot of earth is worth — nothing more, nothing less — and that is simply what you ought to pay. The $10,000, which, under the present system, you are compelled to bury in a bit of earth, you will have left you with which to increase your business; and if you do increase your business with it, and add another story to your building, no tax gatherer will come around and impose an additional fine upon you for doing something with your money which gives employment to labor.
* There will, no doubt, be instances where the desire of an individual to get and retain possession of a certain piece of property, will cause him tooffer a bonus over and above the market value of the improvements.
NO PROPERTY IN LAND.
Thus, under the single tax system, land would be sold and would change hands as it does now, but it would only bring in the market approximately the value of the improvements on it. If land in any locality should get to selling for considerably more than the value of the improvements on it, this would be a certain indication that the parties using the natural elements in that neighborhood were not paying for the benefit of all the people what the use of the same was worth, and so a board of equalization would put the tax up. As population increases the value of the use of land increases, and with it, under the George system, the revenue from this tax on land values will increase, and thus the entire people who collectively produce this increasing value will get the benefit of the values collectively produced by them. As it is now, the increase in the value of land, which amounts to several billions annually in the United States, four-fifths of which is increase in the value of city and town lots and mineral deposits, goes to a comparatively small number of individuals who do no more to produce these values than any other members of the community.
Another doubter puts this objection: Under the George system you would make the owner of a lot on Main street, with an improvement on it worth $10,000, pay as much tax as the owner of a similar lot adjoining, having a building on it worth $50,000. What justice is there in that?
Let us see. Take away the improvements and these two lots are of the same value — that is to say, the value of the use of both lots for ordinary business purposes is the same. Suppose it is $300 a year. Now, the man with the $50,000 improvement collects from his tenant ten percent on his $50,000, or $5,000. He also collects $300, the value of the use of the lot, making in all $5,300. The man with the $10,000 improvement also collects ten percent upon the valuation of his improvement from his tenant, of $1,000. He, too, collects $300 in addition for the use of the lot, making in all $1,300. Now after both have paid the government $300 apiece for the privilege of the exclusive use of these lots, each will have left ten percent upon the capital invested, and why should one be entitled to any greater percent upon the capital invested than the other?
The fact is, that under this system there will be no such thing as taxes. Taxation, as we now understand it, will be abolished. The revenue derived by the government from requiring all who use a natural opportunity to pay into the common treasury what the use of that opportunity is worth, if it is worth anything at all, will be more than sufficient to enable the government to dispense with every species of taxation. As it is now, when you pay your taxes, you are simply robbed of a portion of the fruits of your industry, for which you do not get, directly, any equivalent. Under the proposed system, when you pay your single tax on land values you will get directly a full equivalent for every dollar paid. You will get the privilege of the exclusive use of a tract of land for what that privilege is worth.
ACCESS TO UNUSED LAND.
If this system were adopted what would become of the vacant lots and lands, the unused coal beds and mineral deposits, the unoccupied water fronts and water privileges over which human vampires now stand guard, retarding enterprise and driving off labor? They would become absolutely free. No one could afford to hold them and pay taxes on them. The vampires would turn them loose. Land speculators and land sharks, instead of trying to grow rich by forestalling labor and capital and thus preying like devouring beasts on their fellowmen, would turn their talents to better account. Wherever labor could find an unused lot or coal bed or mineral deposit or unused tract of land, there labor could go to work and employ itself without being required to invest a dollar in the purchase of a right of access to the natural element, without being compelled to first make terms with a dog in the manger claiming it as private property and holding it for speculative purposes.
If that vacant natural opportunity were situated near a center of population, or were of a character to bestow peculiar money-making advantages upon the persons using it, this advantage would create a demand for it, and this demand would regulate in the manner already pointed out the amount which labor and capital would pay for the use of it, in the form of a tax for the common benefit of all. If that vacant opportunity, for instance, were a tract of land four or five miles from this city, it would have few advantages to make the use of it at present peculiarly valuable. Why? Because there is so much vacant land of the same character near it, the use of which is equally valuable, that no one would give a bonus, as it were, for the use of that particular tract. Labor would, therefore, at first get the use of that land for nothing. It would have no taxable value at all until all the other vacant land similarly situated was put into use. Under this most just and equitable system the taxable values of land would be confined almost exclusively to the cities and towns and the coal and mineral deposits. Where people congregate, there land has value. In New York City alone, capital and labor today pay to a few thousand land owners, in ground rent alone, exclusive of rent paid on improvements, for the bare privilege of living and doing business, tribute money amounting to hundreds of millions annually, a sum almost equal to the expense of carrying on the government of the United States. It is in these great centers of trade and commerce that land has its greatest value; it is here that land values are mostly found and from these centers nine-tenths of the revenue of the government from this tax on land values would be derived.
FARMERS WOULD BE BENEFITED.
If the George plan were suddenly put in force today, not only would all farmers be relieved from direct and indirect taxation, not only would farmers participate in common with all others in the universal and uninterrupted prosperity which would result from removing the obstructions which needlessly hamper and clog enterprise, but probably three-fourths of the working farmers in this country would pay no land tax at all. Why? Because with so much vacant or but partially cultivated land as there is here today three-fourths of the farmers would have no taxable value at all; and all who are counting on the farmers of America being so foolish as not to see how they will be as much benefited by a just and righteous land system as any other class will certainly be disappointed.
EFFECT ON FARMS.
"Yes," says our farmer friend, "but you propose to confiscate the farmer's land." Let's see about that. You are a farmer owning say a hundred-acre farm, situated like a majority of farms, in a neighborhood where for every acre of land in cultivation there are two or more acres unimproved or but partially improved. Your farm is worth under the present system, say $2,000. A hundred acres of this unimproved land adjoining it of the same quality is held by some speculator at $500. Your tax on your hundred-acre farm is $10 a year, the speculator's tax on the hundred acres of land adjoining of equal value, exclusive of improvements, is $2.50 a year — one-fourth as much as yours. You give employment to labor on your land, and thereby add to the prosperity of the community. The speculator excludes labor from employment on his land, and thereby retards the prosperity of the community. Why should you be taxed any more for using your hundred-acre tract, and giving employment to labor on it, than the speculator is taxed for holding in idleness a tract of equal value and preventing labor from using it? Why should not the speculator pay at least as much tax for the privilege of excluding labor from his tract as you have to pay for the privilege of employing labor on yours? Have you hurt anyone by turning up the wild sod and building fences and houses and putting $1,500 worth of improvements on your land? If not, why should you be fined for it by having your taxes increased?
Where our plan is adopted you will have no taxes at all to pay until this vacant land around your farm is put into use. Until then no land value could attach to your farm, and the tax which, with increasing population, you would ultimately be required to pay, would seldom equal and rarely, if ever, exceed that which farmers now pay on the improvement valuation. Assuming that you spend say $600 a year on your family, then under the present system your taxes, direct and indirect, and the toll which the merchants take for collecting indirect taxes, amount to at least $100 a year. You may not know it, because an indirect tax always fools a fellow paying it. You will be relieved from all these taxes, but best of all, men who are now idle and who can't buy what you raise will all be at work, and not only that, but their wages will be high enough to pay good prices for what you raise. It is true that under the new system you could only sell your place for $1,500. Still, with this same $1,500 you could buy just as good a place from some one else. The purchasing power of your farm, when it comes to buying another farm, would not have been reduced. Do not your interests as producer or a laborer vastly exceed your interests as a land owner?
LANDLORDISM AND GOVERNMENT
Now, coming back to the elements of the new political economy, some one says: "What difference does it make to the workmen whether labor and capital pay this ground rent to the individual or to the government, since, according to your theory, it must be paid all the same?" In the first place, if it is paid to the individual none of it ever comes back to labor and capital unless value received is paid for it; so far as labor and capital are concerned, it might about as well be cast into the sea. But when it is paid to the government in the form of a tax on land values it does come back to labor and capital again in the form of relief from every species of taxation, direct and indirect.
Again, the amount that Enterprise would pay the government for the privilege of access to the natural elements would be less under the single tax than is now paid individuals for this privilege. Under the land value tax the prices could not be advanced by monopolization of these elements, as is being done now.
But best of all, and by far the most glorious result that will flow from the establishment of a just and righteous land system, is that it will enable the wealth creator to stand erect, presenting to capital an unterrified front.
Return for a moment to the coal beds of northern Alabama and imagine the Henry George system adopted. Labor now again objects to the terms offered by capital, and again capital tells him to go. And again labor goes forth hunting for work. But how different he finds the aspect of things. He finds the same unused natural elements, the same unused coal beds and mineral deposits, the vacant lots and lands, but he no longer finds a fellowman sitting upon every vacant opportunity for work and waving him off. They have vanished. They have gone to work themselves. He finds every unused opportunity for labor, wherever it may be, absolutely free. Not a dollar of capital need be invested in buying a natural opportunity, in paying for the privilege of work. When labor went forth hunting work before, he not only had to ask capital to pay for the tools, but also to pay, usually a greater sum, to some forestaller, in addition, as blackmail, for the privilege of access to a natural element.
This will all be changed. It won't take near as much capital to start enterprises as it did, or in other words, to give employment to labor. In fact, labor could then take even an axe and hoe and find plenty of vacant opportunities on which he could make a living without having to bury himself in a wilderness to do it. All this makes him feel independent and enables him to bargain with capital for employment on equal vantage grounds.
MONOPOLY IS PROFITABLE.
Some time since a large manufacturing firm in Massachusetts adopted the eight-hour system. After trying it a year they gave it up and went back to the ten-hour system. The general manager said they could only make five percent profit on their investments by requiring only eight hours' work, and that unless they could make a bigger percentage than that, they would not be bothered with the management of the business — they would put their money into town and city lots, because that species of property would certainly enhance in value as much as five percent annually, and that, too, without any trouble to the owner, and so it is everywhere. Now, is it not absurd to expect to reduce the rate of profits with which capital will be content below this steady percent of increase in the value of town and city lots, by any combination of labor, or by any legislation which falls short of restoring these land values to the people who collectively create them?
Suppose you have $10,000 today. The best and safest thing you can do with it is to invest it in town lots in or near some growing town. Ten years from today, unless the George theory becomes generally understood, the lots will be worth $20,000 and you will have drawn to yourself $10,000 worth of wealth for which you have given no equivalent. You will simply have robbed the labor of the country of $10,000. But now suppose ground values to be appropriated to the public use by taxation. What are you to do with your $10,000? You would not buy vacant lots now; there is no speculation in them. The tax which you would have to pay for the privilege of excluding capital and labor from the opportunities for employment which vacant lots afford, would be too heavy for you. In fact, you couldn't even loan on land alone, because land alone will have no selling value in the market. The result is, that unless you let your money lie idle and so lose interest on it, you will be compelled to invest it so as to give employment to labor. You must put it into buildings, into machinery, into manufactory stock, into farm implements, into some channel where it will be active and where it will afford employment to labor.
Not only must you do this with your capital, but every other capitalist must do the same with his capital. Capitalist thus must bid against capitalist, since capital can only increase by calling labor to its aid and giving it employment.
Under the present system the rich can grow richer without calling in the aid of labor, without giving employment to labor. They do so by buying space and monopolizing land.
Under the present system, as wealth accumulates, the wealthy seek to invest in land, to get control of natural elements, and get into a position from which to blackmail labor, thus becoming an obstacle in the way of the production of more wealth.
Under the better system, however, wealth could not thus be made to set up an obstacle to the creation of more wealth, or, in other words, to the employment of labor. It can then only obtain a profit by investing in lines of enterprise which give employment to labor.
Under which system will the demand for labor be greater? Under which will earnings be higher?
I had the pleasure of stumbling across a piece of writing from about 100 years ago. It is in one of quite a large number of books written by enthusiastic admirers of the ideas of Henry George, put online by Google Books. This is from a book by one James Love (written under a pseudonym). I've reformatted it a bit to make it easier to read here. It is a good summary of "Progress and Poverty," still the best book I know on political economy and economic justice -- why we suffer from wealth concentration, income concentration, poverty, sprawl, and a number of our other most serious social and environmental problems. Here's the excerpt; read it slowly and consider its implications!
This man, who I believe to be the completest in thought and language that the world has seen, and his book the most precious ever given by man to men, concludes
that the world (even more necessary to our existence than our own bodies are) is intended for all men of all generations, and not for some men alone.
That every human being born into the world has a natural right in it equal to that of every other human being born into it.
That as man by his nature seeks to gain his ends in the easiest way, some parts of the earth on which he can accomplish much become more desirable than other parts on which he can accomplish less.
That this varying desirability, causing competition for the use of certain lands, shows itself in "rent," which is thus a communal product, and as clearly belongs to communities as the remainder of the produced wealth belongs to the individual producers.
That it is as impolitic and unjust to take from the individual for the use of the community what has been produced by the individual as it is impolitic and unjust not to take for the use of all, or of the community, that which is produced in common by the community.
That, in short, "rent" is the natural, God-intended fund for general public use. And
that in denying this moral law of equal rights to land there is brought about a pitiful inequality of true wealth, and a sordid struggle for existence, destructive of human freedom and eventually bringing progress to a halt.
And that we are at last learning that in setting up "vested rights" — based whether on ancient force or ancient law — developed into modern custom — and denying this equality, we rob men and deny the truly sacred right of every man to the product of his labor; deny the sacred right of property in "wealth."
And that in treating private property in land as sacred (worse than treating property in man as sacred) "there never was a more degrading abasement of the human mind before a fetich."
But that, on the contrary, "by conforming our institutions to this divine law of justice we will bring about conditions in which human nature can develop its best;
will permit such enormous production of wealth as we can now hardly conceive;
will secure an equitable distribution;
will solve the labor problem and dispel the darkening clouds now gathering over the horizon of European civilization.
We will make undeserved poverty an unknown thing;
will check the soul-destroying greed of gain, and
will enable men to be at least as honest, as true, as considerate and highminded as they would like to be.
We will open to all, even the poorest, the comforts and refinements and opportunities of an advanced civilization; and
we will thus, so we reverently believe, clear the way for the coming of that kingdom of right and justice, and consequently of abundance and peace and happiness, for which the Master told his disciples to pray and work."*
* "The strength of ' Progress and Poverty' is not that it restated fundamental truths which others had before stated. It is that it related these truths to all other truths. That it shattered the elaborate structure that under the name of 'Political Economy' had been built up to hide them, and restoring what had, indeed, been a dismal science to its own proper symmetry, made it the science of hope and of faith." —Reply to charge of plagiarism.—Henry George.
Much has been written in various circles about Mike Norton and Dan Ariely's recent paper about American's thoughts about the distribution of wealth in America. This is the paper which showed the actual distribution of wealth, by wealth quintile (Line 1, below), and contrasted it with the estimates (odd-numbered columns) which Americans of various demographics made of the actual distribution of wealth, and then their ideal distribution of wealth (even-numbered columns). Here are the data, read from some unlabeled bar charts:
Underscore represents the highest datum in the column; italics the lowest. Sample size: 5522 respondents. Results read from unlabeled bar graph.
The top 20% of wealth holders have 84% of the wealth (line 1, first column). The demographic making the highest estimate, Kerry voters, estimated their share at 62% (line 6, column 1), and their ideal was 30% (line 6, column 2); the demographic making the lowest estimate, Bush voters, thought the top 20% held 56% (l5, c1), and their ideal was 35% (l5, c2). Those with incomes over $100,000 had the highest average for "ideal share," at 40% (l4, c2) -- less than half the actual 84%!
The second 20% of wealth holders have 11% of the wealth (line 1, second column). Estimates ranged rather narrowly, from 19% to 23% (column 3), and ideals ranged from 21% to 23% (column 4)!
The remaining 60% of us actually have less than 5% of the wealth (line 1, third, fourth and fifth columns). Estimates of the combined wealth of these 3 quintiles ranged from 19% to 22%. And across demographic groups, the ideal for the bottom 60% of us ranged from 38% (among those with $100,000 or more in income) to 50% (among women).
The abstract says it pretty clearly:
Disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality underlie policy debates ranging from taxation to welfare. We attempt to insert the desires of “regular” Americans into these debates, by asking a nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to “build a better America” by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality.
First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality.
Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution.
Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups -– even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy -– desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.
Here's their final paragraph (omitting references and reformatted a bit for legibility):
Given the consensus among disparate groups on the gap between an ideal distribution of wealth and the actual level of wealth inequality, why don’t more Americans -– especially those with low income -– advocate for greater redistribution of wealth?
First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap.
Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth.
Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus.
Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes towards economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences, suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.
It cheers me that professors at Harvard Business School and Duke University took on this subject. Clearly some of the largest donors to their institutions have reason to like the current structure just fine, thank you, and this analysis might not endear them to such donors. I hope the conversation they're suggesting will continue.
Those who want data on wealth distribution can explore the 3-part series in the "Pages" section at left.
And those who want to understand the structures that funnel our wealth into a relative few pockets, at the expense of the rest of us, can explore this blog, and particularly the pages on wealth concentration, income concentration, privilege (see links in the category "cloud" at left).
Them that's got shall get Them that's not shall lose So the Bible said* and it still is news Mama may have, Papa may have But God bless the child who's got his own, who's got his own
Yes, the strong gets more While the weak ones fade Empty pockets don't ever make the grade Mama may have, Papa may have But God bless the child who's got his own, who's got his own
*Likely a reference to Matthew 25:29, which can be translated as "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."
Consider the possibility that the meaning behind Billie Holiday's lyrics and Matthew 25:29 is not prescriptive but descriptive: that those who own land will always receive land rent, while those who do not have it must pay those who do have it for access to it (to have a place to live and a place to work), and thus will always be poor, particularly if, in addition to paying someone for access to land, they must pay taxes on their labor and/or on their purchases, in order to support Caesar (who was not part of the community) or to pay for the provision of public goods (schools, roads, courts) for the community. Landlords in high-rent areas receive lots of rent; landlords in low-rent areas -- including small towns and agricultural land -- receive far less -- but it is still the landless who are paying them, for access to something whose value the landlords didn't create.
And then hear the words of Leona Helmsley: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." She knew whereof she spoke. Property taxes in the places she did business were rather low, but her customers and workers paid significant taxes on their purchases and wages. Deep down, she likely knew that she didn't make the sites of her buildings valuable: we all did.
A simple tweak of our taxation system can change it all: we can collect from landlords and other landholders some significant fraction of the annual rental value of their land, and use it to fund our public spending, instead of taxing sales, and buildings, and wages. Not only would it be just and reduce the concentration of wealth and income, but, as the 2008 OECD study showed, it would promote economic growth.
I find it much easier to accept the idea that the gospel verse is descriptive than to believe that a loving god would intend it to be prescriptive. You might explore wealthandwant.com for "The Crime of Poverty."
The Social Security Administration released some interesting information a few weeks ago (and corrected it after David Cay Johnston called attention to some anomalies in the data, which turned out to have resulted from false W-2's from two individuals; what's reported below is the corrected data) on 2009 wages.
First, here is a summarized table of the 150.9 million individual wage earners in 2009.
75% of wage earners earned $50,000 or under; 25% earned less than $10,000
Nearly 94% of wage earners earned less than $100,000. (Is this how you pictured it?)
The 6.3% of us who earned over $100,000 received over 30% of the wages.
In total, 32% of wage earners deferred any wages; the deferrals equaled just 3.56% of aggregate wages.
Net Compensation Interval
Number of Wage Earners
Percent of Total Wage Earners
Cumulative Percent Wage Earners
Percent of Aggregate Wages
Cumulative Percent Aggregate Wages
$0 to $10,000
$10,000 to $30,000
$30,000 to $50,000
$50,000 to $100,000
$100,000 to $500,000
memo: contributions to deferred compensation plans
These data do not include funds received by hedge fund managers which most of us would consider wages, but which get treated as capital gains, and taxed at a much lower rate than do all but the lowest wages. It would be interesting and useful to see those data arranged next to these.
One might use these data to consider whether there should be a separate bracket for higher incomes. Keep in mind that these are individual wages, net only of 401(k) type deferrals of income, not adjusted gross income at the taxpayer/household level.
The next table examines the amount of wage income which is represented by the portion of wages over $100,000, just below the current level at which one stops paying social security withholding.
Net Compensation Interval
Number of Wage Earners
Percent of Total Wage Earners
Cumulative Percent Wage Earners
Aggregate Wages over $100,000
Percent of Aggregate Wages
Cumulative Percent Aggregate Wages
$100,000 to $500,000
14.10/85.90 = 16.4%
So how does all this relate to this blog's focus on Land Value Taxation?
The focus is on smart, just, efficient taxation -- and on ending the privileges which enrich some people and impoverish the vast majority of us.
Many of the ways that people "earn" large salaries are in large part the result of our permitting privileges: the privatization of the value of natural resources; the privatization of the value of urban land; and structures which permit some sectors of the economy to skim off value created by all of us. (Did anyone yell FIRE?)
We have to hold the feet of our elected representatives to the fire: make it worth their while NOT TO obey the requests of their huge campaign contributors and TO listen to the rest of us and reconfigure the structures which funnel wealth and income into the pockets of the currently-and-traditionally-privileged folks.
Are you ready?
I think there were some signs in this recent midterm election that voters in several states were not bowled over by the well-constructed advertising and heavy media buys of some very rich candidates for office, and I find that encouraging. Connecticut's Foley and McMahon, California's Fiorino and Whitman, and a number of entities enabled by the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court spent large amounts of money, with very uneven results.
Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries
This paper examines the relationship between tax structures and economic growth by entering indicators of the tax structure into a set of panel growth regressions for 21 OECD countries, in which both the accumulation of physical and human capital are taken into account.
The results of the analysis suggest that income taxes are generally associated with lower economic growth than taxes on consumption and property. More precisely, the findings allow the establishment of a ranking of tax instruments with respect to their relationship to economic growth. Property taxes, and particularly recurrent taxes on immovable property, seem to be the most growth-friendly, followed by consumption taxes and then by personal income taxes. Corporate income taxes appear to have the most negative effect on GDP per capita.
These findings suggest that a revenue-neutral growth-oriented tax reform would be to shift part of the revenue base towards recurrent property and consumption taxes and away from income taxes, especially corporate taxes. There is also evidence of a negative relationship between the progressivity of personal income taxes and growth.
All of the results are robust to a number of different specifications, including controlling for other determinants of economic growth and instrumenting tax indicators.
Readers of this blog will know that I favor shifting to a tax on land value, and eliminating the portion of the conventional property tax which falls on buildings and other improvements to land. But I'm fascinated that their analysis shows that even taxing buildings and other improvements to land, along with land value, is superior to taxing consumption or personal income or corporate income, in terms of the effects on economic growth.
So I'll leave you with this question: if we know that income taxes and consumption taxes discourage growth more than the conventional property tax does, in whose interest is it that we not rely heavily on the property tax? Cui bono?
Go to the root of the problem. Recognize who benefits from the status quo. They like the current system just fine, and will fund heavily efforts to conserve it.
And when California (Proposition 13 forces reliance on wage and sales taxes to "protect" property owners) and other states, including soon Indiana, start complaining about a lack of economic growth, and when New York State's new Governor Cuomo starts talking about "property tax relief," understand that this is code for "we'll take care of our friends who own the choice urban sites, the ordinary man be damned!" This is called conservatism. Like Aleve, it works for them. Does "landed gentry" still resonate?
Notice that this study has been around for two years now. How many times have you heard about it? (It was news to me.) Even the "FairTax" (23%+ consumption tax) folks haven't mentioned it, as far as I know.
<p><a title="Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries" href="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries</a>.</p> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html"><strong>Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries </strong></blockquote> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">This paper examines the relationship between tax structures and economic growth by entering indicators of the tax structure into a set of panel growth regressions for 21 OECD countries, in which both the accumulation of physical and human capital are taken into account. </blockquote> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">The results of the analysis suggest that income taxes are generally associated with lower economic growth than taxes on consumption and property. More precisely, the findings allow the establishment of a ranking of tax instruments with respect to their relationship to economic growth. Property taxes, and particularly recurrent taxes on immovable property, seem to be the most growth-friendly, followed by consumption taxes and then by personal income taxes. Corporate income taxes appear to have the most negative effect on GDP per capita. </blockquote> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">These findings suggest that a revenue-neutral growth-oriented tax reform would be to shift part of the revenue base towards recurrent property and consumption taxes and away from income taxes, especially corporate taxes. There is also evidence of a negative relationship between the progressivity of personal income taxes and growth. </blockquote> <p style="padding-left: 30px;">All of the results are robust to a number of different specifications, including controlling for other determinants of economic growth and instrumenting tax indicators.</p> <p>The full study, 28 pages, is at <a href="http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/displaydocumentpdf?cote=eco/wkp%282008%2951&doclanguage=en">http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/displaydocumentpdf?cote=eco/wkp%282008%2951&doclanguage=en</a></p> <p>Readers of this blog will know that I favor shifting to a tax on land value, and eliminating the portion of the conventional property tax which falls on buildings and other improvements to land. But I'm fascinated that their analysis shows that even taxing buildings and other improvements to land, along with land value, is superior to taxing consumption or personal income or corporate income, in terms of the effects on economic growth.<br /> <br />So I'll leave you with this question: <strong>if we know that income taxes and consumption taxes discourage growth more than the conventional property tax does, in whose interest is it that we <em>not rely heavily on the property tax?</em> Cui bono?</strong></p> <p>Go to the root of the problem. Recognize who benefits from the status quo. They like the current system just fine, and will fund heavily efforts to conserve it.</p> <p>And when California (Proposition 13 forces reliance on wage and sales taxes to "protect" property owners) and other states, including soon Indiana, start complaining about a lack of economic growth, and when New York State's new Governor Cuomo starts talking about "property tax relief," understand that this is code for "we'll take care of our friends who own the choice urban sites, the ordinary man be damned!" This is called conservatism. Like Aleve, it works for them. Does "landed gentry" still resonate?</p> <p>Notice that this study has been around for two years now. How many times have <em>you </em>heard about it? (It was news to me.) Even the "FairTax" (23%+ consumption tax) folks haven't mentioned it, as far as I know.</p>
I'd read this a few years ago, but on a recent re-reading, some other things jumped out at me. (The emphasis is mine.) It references a number of the themes of this blog (at left). See also a related essay, The Incredible Shrinking Dollar.
Henry George foreboded that landowners might take a growing wedge of the national “pie”, or product. Labor’s wedge might grow absolutely, as the whole pie grows, but still fall as a fraction. It might even shrivel.
In our times, George’s grimmer scenario is coming true. Since about 1975, labor’s wedge of the pie is shrinking as an absolute. “Real” wage rates have been falling since about 1975. “Family wage” used to mean a breadwinner’s wage high enough to support a family; now it means the combined wages of two adults. Many of these are “DINKS” (Double Income, No Kids) because that is all they can afford without cutting their customary material and educational standards.
What is this “real” wage rate? It is a ratio: the nominal money wage rate on top, divided by an index to the Cost of Living (COL) on the bottom. The higher the COL, the lower the real wage. Landowners cut into labor’s share from both the top and the bottom, because the COL includes many products of land (like building materials and energy) and land itself (like homesites). Shelter costs are by far the largest part of household budgets.
The standard index to the COL is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), calculated and published regularly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This index is, we will see, a political football.
Henry George said little about inflation because it was not a threat in his day. That was a time of “hard money” and the gold standard. Prices were stable or falling; DEflation was the great bugbear. Today, though, to check on George’s forecast, we have to distinguish between nominal money wages, and real wages.
An old Kingston Trio classic offered the following folk wisdom about survival in The Everglades: “If the skeeters don’t gyitcha then the gators will.” If the skeeters of life are nicks taken from money wages, the big gator now is the price of buying and owning a home.
Why deny inflation? Those in power have several reasons to understate rises in the cost of living (COL), measured by the CPI.
1. To mask the fall of real wage rates. This is supposed to placate working voters. It is supposed to support orators declaiming that our standard of living is ever rising, and we should all feel good. Actually, real wage rates have fallen steadily since peaking in about 1975. That is using the official Consumer Price Index (CPI) to measure rises in the COL. If the CPI understates rises in the COL, real wage rates have fallen even faster than the data show.
As a by-product, this denial of inflation supports those who like to dismiss George as a false prophet of doom.
2. To mask the fall of real interest rates, making savers and lenders feel better, and more willing to lend to governments. In this age of massive and growing federal debts, the U.S. Treasury depends on willing lenders more and more, to stay solvent.
3. To cut the real value of social security payments. This point is straightforward. These payments are also indexed to the CPI. If the CPI understates the COL, real social security benefits fall every year. Congress gets to spend the savings on wastes like Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere”, redundant imperialistic ventures, tax cuts for major campaign contributors, and no-bid contracts for the well-connected.
4. To cut rises in labor union and other wage contracts that are indexed to the CPI. The Federal minimum wage, like most state minima, is also indexed to the CPI.
5. To give the Federal Reserve Bank credit for having “tamed inflation”, when in fact inflation of land prices is running wild.
6. A lesser point today, but important before Congress leveled out the rise of tax rates with income, is to slow the rise of income tax brackets. That is because these brackets are indexed to the CPI. That is, when the CPI rises by, say, 5%, the income level at which you pass into a higher tax bracket also rises by 5%. Congress, briefly in a reasonable mood, enacted this sensible provision when enough people became aware that they were victims of “bracket creep”. Bracket creep is when inflation boosts your money income into a higher tax bracket, although your real income has not risen.
However, if the true COL rises by 10%, while the CPI rises by only 5%, this provision no longer protects us against bracket creep. It just gives a talking point to those who claim to protect us. Sneaky! That is why you, dear reader, may have had a hard time following the bean under one of the three shells. Politicians, of course, are good at withdrawing promises. The sneakier the method, the easier it is for them to cover their tracks
That is the “Why” of veiling inflation. Now let us look at the “How”. There have been two major steps in recent decades.
First was removing the costs of buying and owning homes from the CPI. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the agency that calculates the CPI, did this from 1983 onwards. They didn’t remove it altogether, that would have been too transparent. Instead they substituted the “rental equivalent” of housing. This is supposed to be what your house would rent for, or what you would pay to rent a similar house. It is a hypothetical and casual figure - sloppy and unverifiable, that is - based simply on questionnaires to a sample of homeowners. It takes no account of the fact that some people will, and therefore everyone must pay a premium to own, because of expected higher future rents and resale values.
The “rationale” (cover story) for doing this is that a home is both an investment and a residence, and only the residence cost belongs in the cost of living. In fact, the annual economic cost of owning a home is the market value times the interest rate (plus the property tax rate, homeowners’ insurance, depreciation, etc.). When prices are rising we may deduct annual gain from the cost, but when prices are falling we then must add the annual loss to the cost of ownership, and now that losses are becoming current, there is no thought of adjusting the CPI for that. If the BLS were constructing a true measure of the COL they would be on top of this point; but they do not balance their act. They seize on reasons to lower the CPI, not to raise it.
Thus the land boom of 1983-89 was mostly blanked out of the official published CPI of those years. The CPI rose gently as though the land boom never happened. Again, in 2004 housing prices rose by 13%, while these “rental equivalents” rose only by 2%.
The CPI also takes no account of the price of extra land around some houses. It takes inadequate account of recreational lands, which now have displaced farming and forestry over whole counties and regions. And can we believe that the price of access to recreational lands has advanced as slowly as other prices? In 1946 a summer family membership in the Dorset Field Club, Vermont, cost $100, giving access to the links, tennis courts, and clubhouse privileges for three months. Today there is no access for non-members. A membership costs about $30,000, by private negotiation, and annual dues were $3,000 in 2003. Meantime, in the big leagues, Donald Trump is asking $300,000 or so for a membership in Ocean Trails C.C.; and even Rupert Murdoch is complaining about the green fees at Pebble Beach, $450 for one round. I am grateful that I got my fill of golf when I was young and dad could afford it.
The second major step was the Boskin Commission Report of 1995 (Newt Gingrich was dominating Congress), and its acceptance and implementation. Michael Boskin of the Hoover Institution was called upon to legitimize allegations that the CPI overstated inflation. He and his Commission obliged, and supplied the rationale for several rounds of trimming down the CPI even more.
The Boskin Commission’s advanced methodology included a lot of old-fashioned cherry-picking. They accumulated evidence supporting the foregone conclusion, and omitted contrary evidence. Most tellingly, they were silent about the biggest factor by which the CPI understates inflation: that is the use of “rental equivalence” in place of home prices. Now, shelter costs are about 40% of consumer budgets, and hence of the true COL. To accept an extreme understatement of shelter costs, while distracting us with lesser factors and arcane methodology, shows bias.
Most professional economists, sad to say, treat Boskin’s report as holy writ. They come on like preachers, salesmen, or just cheer-leaders, not like scientists exercising independent judgment. I have recently surveyed 20 current texts in Macroeconomics. They all list the same four “biases”, in the same order, that they allege make the CPI overstate inflation. These are:
a. Substitution bias. When the price of something rises, you use less of it, so it should be weighted less in the index.
b. Quality improvement bias. Products of the same name keep getting better, so they say.
c. New product bias. The CPI lags in showing how new gadgets raise our welfare. Microchip products, of course, are the example of choice.
d. “Discount bias”. The CPI scriveners assume that products sold in discount stores are of lower quality, when they really are just as good, according to Boskin et al.
As to point “a”, above, when the price of food rises elderly pensioners turn to cat food, so now the cost of fresh fruits and veggies counts for less in their cost of living, and they have shown a preference for cat food, whose weight in the CPI should rise, and they are as well off as ever. Hmmm – something fishy there.
Let’s take point “b”, above, quality improvement bias. The texts give some examples, but not a single counter-example. Here are a few of the latter.
2x4 dimensional lumber is no longer 2x4, but 15-20% smaller in cross-section, and of lower grade stock
salmon is no longer wild, but farm raised in unsanitary conditions, and dyed pink (ugh)
“wooden” furniture is now mostly particle-board
“wooden” doors are now mostly hollow
new houses have remote locations, far from desired destinations
ice cream is now filled out with seaweed products
the steel in autos is eked out with fiberglass, plastic, and other ersatz that crumbles in minor collisions
airline travel is no longer a delight but a series of insults and abuses
gasoline used to come with free services: pumping the gas, checking tire pressure and supplying free air, checking oil and water, cleaning glass, free maps, rest rooms (often clean), mechanic on duty, friendly attitudes and travel directions. They served you before you paid. Stations were easy to find, to enter and exit. Competing firms wanted your business: now most of them have merged.
cold fresh milk was delivered to your door
clerks in grocery and other stores brought your orders to the counter; now, many clerks, if you can find one, can hardly direct you to the right aisle
suits came with two pairs of pants and a vest, and they fitted the cuffs free. Waists came in half-sizes
socks came in a full range of sizes
shoes came in a full range of widths; the clerk patiently fitted the fussiest of customers
the post office delivered mail and parcels to your door or RFD, often twice a day
public telephones were everywhere, not just in airport lobbies. Information was free; live operators actually conversed with you, and often gave you street addresses
public transit service was frequent, and served many routes now abandoned
live people, living in America, used to answer commercial telephones, with no telephone tree to climb, and tell you what you actually wanted to know
autos used to buy “freedom of the road”; now they buy long commutes at low speeds and rage-inducing delays. One must now travel farther and buck more traffic to reach the same number of destinations. Boskin et al. dwell on higher performance of cars, and the bells and whistles, but rule out taking note of the cost-push of urban sprawl.
classes keep getting larger, with less access to teachers and top professors, and more use of mind-numbing “scantron” testing.
before world war II, an Ivy-league college student lodged in a roomy dorm with maid service and dined in a student union with table service, and a nutritionist planning healthy meals. All that, plus tuition and incidentals, cost under $1,000 a year. Now, to maintain your children’s place and status in the rat race, you’d put out $40,000 a year for a claustrophobic dorm and junk food. On top of that, a B.A. no longer has the former value and cachet. Now you need time in graduate and professional schools to achieve the same status. Many students emerge with huge student loan balances to pay off over life, with compound interest.
warranties on major appliances cost extra, aren’t promptly honored, and expire too soon. Repair services and fix-it shops used to abound to maintain smaller appliances. Now, most of them are throwaway.
replacement parts for autos are hard to find, exploitively overpriced, and are often ersatz or recycled aftermarket parts
musical instruments are mass-produced and tinny instead of hand-crafted and signed
piano keys were ivory; now plastic
many new “wonder drugs”, if you can afford them, have bad side-effects, while old aspirin still gets the highest marks
a rising array of taxes and other payroll deductions stand between one’s nominal income and consumer goods it might buy. Income and social security taxes are not counted as part of the CPI.
Medical doctors once made house calls, in the dim mists of history. Since then, access has become progressively more difficult, until today ... well you know, you’ve been there. In many small towns there is no doctor at all.
In 1998 the BLS dropped auto finance charges from the CPI. I do not find the cost of other consumer credit in the CPI (although I stand subject to correction). Certainly the largest cost of consumer credit, mortgage interest, has been removed by use of the “rental equivalent” substitute, with never a squawk from Boskin.
In 1995 the BLS eliminated an “upward drift” in the “rental equivalent” index, with no explanation. It is probably relevant that Congressman Newt Gingrich was in the saddle.
One could go on, but the point is that Boskin et al. seem not to have considered counterexamples to their foregone conclusions. If they did this where we can observe them, what else did they do under cover of black box models? The BLS, succumbing to the political pressure, keeps modifying the CPI to show less inflation, even while our daily experiences and shrinking savings tell us there is more. A 1999 study of the changes in the 20 years between 1978 and 1998 showed the cumulative effect of many changes had been to lower the CPI substantially (Monthly Labor Review, 6-99, p.29).
George warned that landowners might take most of the fruits of progress, leaving labor barely enough to survive. Critics then and now have urged us, instead, to don rose-colored glasses. The rosiest of these is the CPI as manipulated to screen out bad news, especially news about soaring land prices. Let us be aware of who is manipulating the news, why, and how.
 Your old geometry teacher called this a “sector”.
What happens when a private equity firm buys up a publicly held company?
Among other things, it concentrates the wealth in a smaller portion of our society.
Publicly held stock is held by about half (51.9%) of American households. Business equity, the value of privately held businesses is held by 12.0% of American households. [Source: 2007 SCF, categories EQUITY and BUS.]
EQUITY held by households totaled $13,695 billion in 2007. BUS held by households totaled $14,894 billion.
Assuming that the distribution of Yahoo stock matched that of EQUITY overall, the distribution of Yahoo's stock would be as follows:
Top 1%: 36.0% Next 4%: 30.5% Top 5%: 66.5% Next 5%: 12.4% Top 10%: 78.9% Next 40%: 19.6% Top 50%: 98.5%
BUS -- privately held businesses, including "small business" and private equity -- was distributed as follows:
Top 1%: 62.7% Next 4%: 25.5% Top 5%: 88.2% Next 5%: 5.5% Top 10%: 93.7% Next 40%: 6.0% Top 50%: 99.6%
It would appear that the bulk of the ownership is moving from the top, say, 5% to the top 1%.
The top 1% of the wealth distribution, according to the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, held 33.8% of the Net Worth. That same group had received a mere 16.4% of the income in the preceding year. According to Piketty and Saez, the top 1% of the income spectrum received 23.5% of the income in 2007 (including capital gains; table A3).
The people in the top of the top 1% have a lot of power to get laws written that favor their interests. Privately held companies represent far more of the holdings of the top 1% than does equity in publicly held corporations (by a factor of 1.9, according to the SCF -- $9.4 trillion in BUS vs $4.9 trillion in EQUITY).
These are many of what are known as "small" businesses. Far more like "Wall Street" than "Main Street."