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!
What more generous boost to the pay-day loan industry could Congress offer than a government shutdown, when so many Americans live paycheck to paycheck?
First it will affect the government employees, particularly those in the early years of their careers, who might not have a whole lot in the way of liquid savings, and those who have high fixed costs like mortgages, student debt, or children in college.
And then it will affect all those who depend on their patronage, including a lot of small businesses and their employees.
What a brilliant plan for forcing so many Americans into the hands of the pay-day loan industry!
And most of us are aware how difficult it will be for the latter group to dig themselves out. The government employees may eventually get paid -- they'll still owe the pay-day lenders exhorbitant interest, for the month or two. But it will be the second group that falls into the clutches of the legal loan sharks.
Brilliant. Simply brilliant. I wonder what the campaign contribution picture looks like.
One might be led to ask, how many is enough, and how we might go about encouraging our best and brightest into careers that serve others instead of rent-seeking. Two generations ago, many became doctors, engineers and teachers.
What changes in public policy will reduce the returns now funneled so generously to the rent-seekers, leaving more for the folks who labor in the productive sectors of the economy?
Why do we pay so little attention to rent-seeking?
Why is rent-seeking taught to our MBAs, but the impacts of rent-seeking not taught to our liberal arts, social sciences, political science, public policy students?
D'ya think that the rent-seekers might really really like it this way??
Shiller: Too Many Graduating Seniors Go Into Finance
Too many of the our brightest people may be choosing careers in finance,
undertaking economically and socially useless — and even harmful —
activities, Robert Shiller, a Yale University economics professor,
writes in an article for Project Syndicate.
survey of elite U.S. universities showed that 25 percent of Harvard
graduating seniors, 24 percent of Yale graduating seniors and 46 percent
of Princeton graduating seniors were going into financial services in
2006, notes Shiller, co-creator of the Case-Shiller home price index.
While those proportions have fallen more recently, he explains that might only be a temporary effect of the financial crisis.
more are going into speculative fields like investment banking rather
than traditional finance such as lending, he says, citing a study by
Thomas Philippon of the Stern School of Business, New York University
and Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia.
need some traders and speculators, Shiller concedes, as they provide
some useful service — sorting through information about businesses and
trying to judge their real worth.
"But these people's activities
also impose costs on the rest of us," he explains. Much of their
speculation and deal making is "pure rent-seeking."
other words, it is wasteful activity that achieves nothing more than
enabling the collection of rents on items that might otherwise be free."
working in speculative finance fields are like a feudal lord installing
a chain across a river to charge fees on passing boats, he argues.
Making no improvements to the river, the lord does nothing productive
and helps no one but himself. Few people will use the river if enough
lords put chains across it to collect fees.
working in speculative fields, he says, "skim the best business deals,
creating a 'negative externality' on those who are not party to them."
For example, they can reject bad assets, such as subprime mortgage securities, offloading them to less knowledgeable investors.
repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which blocked commercial banks from
investment banking, allowed bankers to act more and more like those
feudal lords collecting fees.
"In fact, the main advantages of
the original Glass-Steagall Act," he says, "may have been more
sociological than technical, changing the business culture and
environment in subtle ways. By keeping the deal-making business
separate, banks may have focused more on their traditional core
A paper by economists at Columbia University and Princeton published on the Social Science Research Network website
showed that over-the-counter (OTC) traders allowed informed dealers to
extract excessive rents and to undermine organized exchanges by
"cream-skimming" the best deals.
informational rents in OTC markets in turn attract too much talent to
the financial industry, which would be more efficiently deployed as
real-sector entrepreneurs," the paper asserts.
Plus, OTC dealers'
rents tend to increase "as there are more informed dealers, because the
greater cream-skimming by dealers worsens the terms entrepreneurs can
get for their assets on the organized exchange, and therefore their
bargaining power on OTC markets."
This appears in the current issue of the University of Chicago Magazine:
Recently at a coffee shop near my home, a scruffy young barista
looked at the University of Chicago T-shirt I was wearing. His face
soured and he disdainfully said, “I don’t know about the University,
just their economics department.” It’s a reaction the shirt has been
getting more frequently the last few years. He was more or less
implicating me by association with creating the economic crisis many
of us are still slowly clawing our way out of. I felt stung. I’m a
social worker, and not only do my politics not agree with that of
the Chicago school’s libertarian bent, but in the wake of the
crisis, with the state and federal budgets that pay for my work
being slashed, I certainly haven’t reaped any financial rewards from
my association with the University or its economics department.
Now, sure, maybe Surly Barista Guy is a die-hard radical leftist and
feels the Original Sin of Chicago’s having propagated free market
neoliberalism across the globe is so great that all the good done by
other alums in the many fields of study and practice the University
produces is rendered irrelevant. Maybe, like a lot of millennials,
he just feels salty because he’s been stuck doing barista jobs since
the recession hit and can barely cover his student debt, let alone
save for retirement or buy a home. Maybe he’s upset that the Chicago
school he’s read about advanced theories and policies that would
ultimately make a very small number of people extraordinarily rich
through financial business practices of at least questionable ethics
if not legality while everyone else was left struggling to keep
their homes. Perhaps he’s also aware that former Treasury secretary
Hank Paulson was hired by—the University of Chicago. Paulson’s
migration to Chicago remains a direct link in many minds between the
free market economic policies that emanate from the University and
the global financial meltdown that nearly resulted from them.
When I applied to Chicago, the school’s reputation was for its Great
Books curriculum and producing top-notch teachers, not global
finance Masters of the Universe. Over the 16 years since I
graduated, I’ve been able to watch how reactions have shifted when I
tell people where I went to school. Whereas the U of C used to be
considered closer in character to schools like Reed or Saint John’s
Colleges, it’s now more associated with places like the University
of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. People are surprised to find that
I work directly with poor communities and have used my Chicago
education to serve the public good.
The University has never addressed its role in forming and advancing
the economic policies that destroyed trillions of dollars in wealth
during the financial crisis and created epic human misery across
multiple continents. It has heavily publicized and promoted its many
Nobel Prize for Economics winners, driving the public’s perception
of Chicago as a one-dimensional institution. I doubt I’m the only
alum who would appreciate the University making a statement
addressing the economics department’s role in creating the crisis
and articulating a plan for how its policies can benefit the greater
good by expanding opportunity and prosperity for all. I also doubt
that I’m the only alum who would support the University shifting its
focus back to producing graduates who want to live the “life of the
mind” rather than to conquer the global marketplace. We would
appreciate it, frankly, because we’re getting tired of the guilt by
Jeff Deeney, AB’97
In the same issue, in the classifieds, appeared this:
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Quite belatedly, I found an interesting article on Taxi Medallions and Rent-Seeking. I particularly like the juxtaposition of the sidebar and the article's primary content; read the sidebar first.
Why did I include in the "categories" for this post "all benefits go to the landholder"? Because a taxi medallion is a privilege, which, in classical economics, is another form of "land." Read the sidebar!
There is an easy solution: auction off those privileges for limited periods of time. Lather, rinse, repeat!
The sidebar quotes Adam Smith "... the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce," which leads me to think about Henry George's axiom that
"The fundamental principle of human action — the law that is to political economy what the law of gravitation is to physics — is that men seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion." [Progress & Poverty Book III, Chapter 6 — The Laws of Distribution: Wages and the Law of Wages]
One quote from the body of the article:
Studies of economic losses due to rent-seeking and the resulting
monopolies have produced figures ranging from 3 to 12 percentage points
of national output for the US.
All of these are possible reasons why the city of Milwaukee might want
to limit the number of cab permits, but they do not imply that the
existing owners must have a permanent right to them.
The city could simply auction 321 licences every year or two and capture
all of the economic rents for itself. Another argument is that a permit
acts as a pension for drivers that would otherwise not have a business
they could sell on retirement. But that is true only for the first,
lucky generation of owners.
George Monbiot has an excellent article on tax in the Guardian this morning. At its core is an argument for land value taxation, which he explains has long had powerful support. As he puts it:
In 1909 a dangerous subversive explained the issue thus. “Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains -– and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived … the unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.”
Who was this firebrand? Winston Churchill. As Churchill, Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, those who own the land skim wealth from everyone else, without exertion or enterprise. They “levy a toll upon all other forms of wealth and every form of industry”. A land value tax would recoup this toll.
[W]hat’s wrong with the argument the Terry Leahys and the Bob Diamonds make for their extreme wealth? Look, the line runs, we work bloody hard for it; we’re worth it. And it’s true: unlike previous generations of the ultra-wealthy, many of the modern super-rich work for a living, in running major businesses or in finance (although the Davos guestlist still includes plenty of sheikhs and royals). But that doesn’t mean they truly earn the millions they claim.
Take a look at who’s in the Davos set. Last spring, two American academics, Jon Bakija and Brad Helm, and a US Treasury official, Adam Cole, published the most comprehensive analysis yet of the richest 0.1% earners, based on tax returns. Of these top dogs, nearly two in three were top corporate executives and bankers. And the story in both those professions has not been of brilliant returns to shareholders or vast improvements for society, but of wealth extraction and lobbying politicians, Davos-style. In particular, the tale of modern high-finance is of generating transactions, whether in corporate mergers or sub-prime mortgages and then skimming off some of the cash.
That’s extracting rent in exactly the same way that the property owner does. Economically the logic is the same. This is all unearned income, and we should not be granting it favours which increase the divisions and stresses in society; we should be taxing it.
That means we need land value taxation for sure, but we need progressive income taxation, capital gains tax at the same rate as income tax and enforceable corporation tax too if these rents are to be collected. And then there’s the need for reform of inheritance tax.
I really must get round to writing the Joy of Tax. It is next on my list.
"This is where the debate about workers and shirkers, strivers and skivers should have led. The skivers and shirkers sucking the money out of your pockets are not the recipients of social security demonised by the Daily Mail and the Conservative party, the overwhelming majority of whom are honest claimants. We are being parasitised from above, not below, and the tax system should reflect this."
Although this is a UK-focused story, it has international relevance. As we've noted several times before, Land Value Tax is an essential element of any good tax mix. It's progressive, it doesn't damage productivity, and it curbs the abusive practice of economic rent extraction. The article has a particular opinion:
"It's not really a tax. It's a return to the public of the benefits we have donated to the landlords. When land rises in value, the government and the people deliver a great unearned gift to those who happen to own it."
Here are the opening paragraphs of a recent article about the complexities of Ground Lease contracts. I commend the entire article to your attention. It helps flesh out why and how the entire FIRE sector -- Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (as well as their attorneys) -- is receiving such a large share of the profits produced by the productive sectors of the economy. The owner of land, and the entities which lend on land, and insure the buildings and the revenue flow, all reap significant shares of what the tenants labor to create. Modern sharecropping. And the recipients of the ground rent get to parade as self-made men, people of awesome foresight and wisdom -- and even philanthropists (think Brooke Astor, the Fishers, and others in your own community) when they donate a small share back to a charity! As you read this, think both of Manhattan land and of land in your community's central business district, and along its major roads. (Location, location, location!)
If one wonders why (true) small business struggles, one might consider the complexity and expense of their ground leases, and contrast that with the Georgist alternative: that one's taxes would be simply the current rental value of the land, while the value of the building remains one's private property, not subject to taxation or going pouf! at the end of a ground lease.
The land lord is "supplying" something he didn't create. We ought to ease him out. Land value taxation is the obvious tool for reducing, and -- slowly or not -- eliminating, his "take" on those who do create. Think what it would mean if working people had that spending power, instead of the lords of the land.
All that land rent could be used to fund our community's needs, instead of lining the pockets of a few very "lucky" -- privileged -- duckies. (The analogies to chattel slavery are not a long stretch, once one starts to think about it. We should all own ourselves, and reap the fruits of our own labors.)
A lease is a lease is a lease – or so you may think. Yes, real property leases grant an estate in land to a tenant for a period of time. And yes, the tenant pays for that right of possession. But the action in a lease isn’t in the conveyance provisions; it’s in the contract provisions. Multiply out the rent and other annual monetary obligations by the length of the lease term (in years), and you’ll see that it might be (and often is) a big dollar contract. Even more important, unlike the vast majority of contracts whose obligations are satisfied in days or weeks, a lease contract goes unfulfilled for 50, 75, “99,” and even 500 years. That takes it beyond the life of the parties involved in its creation, and the future brings surprises. Neither Nostradamus nor Jules Verne got everything right.
Why a Ground Lease?
If a tenant has to build its own building (as is often the case), and has all of the burdens of ownership, why would it lease a property knowing that at the end of the lease term it has nothing left to show for its money and efforts? There are a number of common reasons, principal among them is that the owner won’t sell the land and the tenant has no alternative.
Real property often carries a long term unrealized gain, waiting to be taxed upon its sale.
Not every landowner is interested in making further active real property investments. This makes a like kind exchange unappealing.
Ground leasing the same land keeps ownership in the family. At the owner’s death, because of the current estate tax “stepped up basis” arrangement, the built in gain may never be taxed.
We worked through spring and winter,
through summer and through fall.
But the mortgage worked the hardest
and steadiest of them all;
It worked on nights and Sundays, it
worked each holiday;
It settled down among us and it never
Whatever we kept from it seemed almost as bad as theft;
It watched us every minute and it
ruled us right and left.
The rust and blight were with us
sometimes, and sometimes not;
scowling mortgage was forever on the spot.
The weevil and the cutworm they went
as well as came;
The mortgage stayed forever, eating
heartily all the same.
It nailed up every window, stood
guard at every door,
And happiness and sunshine, made
their home with us no more;
Till with falling crops and sickness
we got stalled upon the grade.
And there came a dark
day on us when the interest wasn't paid.
And there came a sharp foreclosure,
and I kind o' lost my hold.
And grew weary and discouraged and
the farm was cheaply sold.
The children left and scattered, when
they hardly yet were grown;
My wife she pined and perished, and I found myself alone.
What she died of was a mystery, and
the doctors never knew;
But I knew she died of mortgage — Just
as well as I wanted to.
If to trace a hidden sorrow were
within the doctors art.
They'd ha' found a mortgage lying on
that woman's broken heart.
Worm or beetle, drought
or tempest, on a farmer's land may fall.
But for a first-class
ruination, trust a mortgage 'gainst them all.
How much of a farmer's mortgage is for the value of the land itself, and how much for the present value of the improvements which previous owners have made, such as clearing, draining, fencing, irrigating, building structures, plus, perhaps, equipment purchased with the land and buildings?
For that matter, how much of a homeowner's mortgage is for the value of the land itself --including its access to community-provided services such as city water and sewer, fire hydrants, and the like -- and how much for the purchase price of the landscaping and structures on the property, built by any of the previous owners?
To what degree is the modern buyer including in his formal calculations or his underlying assumptions the notion that the land will increase in value during his tenure? (See Case & Schiller, 2003.)
I have a friend who has held six life-insurance policies of from $1,000
to $3,000 each and has let them all lapse. He is industrious and capable
and has a good trade, yet each one of these policies has been wrested
from him by the hard fate of poverty. He also belonged to a fraternal
society, but forfeited his membership in that, too, by the non-payment
of dues. I should add that this man uses neither tobacco nor
intoxicants, and is extravagant only when a collection basket or
subscription paper for some good cause is passed around. * * He has now been sick for twelve weeks. His wife and four children are
without relatives that can support them and are dependent upon
precarious sources of help for food, clothes, house-rent, and doctor's
bills. Their plight is a desperate one. Both the sick man and his wile
belong to a well-to-do church, however, and I heard yesterday that the
Ladies' Sewing Society had arranged to sew for these children this very
week. This is good, but I wonder how long the good ladies will do this
before they will really despise the dear little children they are
clothing. "There they go, playing in the dirt in the very dresses I made
for them out of my Fedora's last winter's gowns." "You should have
heard that biggest one muling fault with the waist we made her because
it wasn't big enough across the shoidders! The impudence of it!"
"Lookin' a gift horse in the mouth!" "How saucy those children are! They
treat my children just like their equals." "It is so discouraging doing
things for her. She has no management and don't take care of things
after you give them to her." * * So deep, and so sweet is charity! * * If this sewing-society plot is actually carried into effect, the poor
woman's fate is something terrible to contemplate. Socially she will
enter upon a living death. She will get plenty of patronizing bows from
all the best carriages as they drive by while she hangs out clothes, and
every one of them will send a cold steel into her heart and set the
death mark upon her face the harder. Of course the children will be
saucy, and it will be strange if they are not worse than saucy with
every circumstance calculated to destroy their self-respect. Let them
become the wards of the church in every economic sense and they will be
marked for social ostracism.
One of the members of this church is a deacon. He was made a deacon for
the simple reason that he had money and contributed a miserable little
sum each year to the minister's salary. Some of this deacon's money is
invested in the Blank Life of New York. The deacon's stock in this
insurance company has paid him 8% and even 10% dividends. It was in this
company that my friend who is now sick and uninsured held a $3,000
policy. He paid this company altogether $173. The company paid him
nothing. This poor man's money went to pay salaries and dividends.
Different amounts of his money have gone also, without bringing him any
return, into five other companies. The deacon puts his dividends into
his pockets, smiles benignly and thinks it is all right. The man had
protection while he was paying his money—that is, he had chances. He
took the chances and lost them, quoth the good deacon, pinching a seam
in the roll of bills and then clasping both hands warmly about them. The
deacon is a warm opponent of gambling, and talks very strenuously in
prayer meeting about the evil of card-playing and all games ot chance. * * The American people are just now in a gambling frame of mind. Insurance
is only one of a number of legal forms of gambling. The illegal forms
may be worse incidentally but not essentially. For every family which
receives a thousand dollars after paying less than a hundred, as was the
"good luck" of one of my neighbors, there are many poor fellows who
have drawn blanks and have nothing but a few worthless papers to show
for their precious investments. When I heard last Sunday morning that
those four children had stopped going to Sunday school because they
lacked shoes, I could not help thinking hard thoughts and feeling strong
feelings about this legal form of gambling.
* * The relationship existing between my friend the dividends-deacon and my
friend the sick man, members of the same church, is not that of
brotherhood. It is not the relationship that Jesus Christ tried to
establish between men. It is not ecdesia, holy and blessed. There are
secret societies that realize a much larger measure of real brotherhood
than does the average church. I have heard the claim made that the
secret societies did more for both body and soul, but I doubt that. This
much too is true,that when a member is in need of any kind, sick or in
prison, the societies will help him the quicker, and when they do help
him or his family it does not make him feel like a dog nor humiliate or
disgrace the family. The church does not yet know that a man has a right
to eat, to work, and to live. The charity of a sweet and humble soul is
beautiful and good in the giver and a curse to the recipient, but the
charity of a self-righteous, condescending, pious pharisee is an
abomination and a curse from every point of view. The cry of the poor is
not a cry for more charity but a cry for justice. If life had not been
such a lottery with my sick friend there would be some provision for him
and his today. As it is he has put something near $500 into the hands
of those who do not need it in a frantic and vain effort to make
provision against this very hour of utmost need on the part of his
All this means that I am up against the question as to what I am going
to do about it. I can send them coal and potatoes and stand in for the
doctor's bill, but what will that mean? They will feel under obligation
to me, I fear, in a harmful way. The obligations of mutualism are
beautiful and helpful to soul prosperity, but the crude obligations of
misfortune, hunger, of an under class to an upper class, are destructive
and damning. I must manage in some way for them to earn, or in some way
feel that they have a right to every dollar they get. And I myself am
poor and in debt. I wish I could say that no privilege shall be enjoyed
by myself or my children which is not equally extended to this sick man
and to all others. I could say it, but I cannot carry it out. I would do
good but evil is present with us. Frankly, I blame this state of things
to the competitive organization of society.
It is uncomfortable to have to live like a pagan and feel like a hypocrite.
no class of reformers do we find more clear thinking or a sounder
political economy than among the "single-taxers." Following the writings
of the late Henry George there is a considerable and important
literature upon this subject. Land monopoly and speculation should be
stopped. Labor should not be taxed. The resources of nature should be
made to minister equitably to the whole people. Now the weakest pay the
most tax. It should be the strongest and they whom the government most
A Baltimore Instance
single tax man of Baltimore, Mr John Salmon, expresses no little
surprise that Senator Hanna's candidate for governor of Ohio supposes
that the single tax has been a disastrous failure wherever tried. Of Mr
Herrick and his notion Mr Salmon writes: This stamps him as being a
twisted thinker and a loose observer. The single tax is in operation all
over the United States, flowing into the pockets of private
individuals, which is what single taxers object to. Here in Baltimore
more than in any other section of the country, it is strongly apparent.
We have the ground rent system in operation, 90 percent of the real
estate being held on leaseholds. The custom is an old English one
grafted on the Maryland colonies by Lord Baltimore and his English
compeers, and it has grown and flourished like a green bay tree. When
one buys a home here it is in nine cases out of ten subject to a ground
rent. These ground rents are dealt in as a form of investment the same
as a mortgage or any other form of investment; but the point to observe
is that they are a single tax, pure and simple, the price paid for the
use of the ground per se and for ground only.
last assessment separated the value of the land from the value of
improvements, and it is done every day in our community. Baltimore has
more houses per capita than any city in the country, due to the ground
rent system; and a house costing $1,200 to build is very often sold for
$800 or $900 in order to create a ground rent ranging from three dollars
a front foot to $20 and $40 a front foot. To explain more fully: Bonus
buildings are run up on plats of ground split up into lots of 15x90, and
a ground rent say of $6 per front foot is put on the lot, making $90 a
year ground rent, which the buyer agrees to pay, and in his ground rent
is a clause that he will also pay all taxes. This $90 is essentially a
single tax. The agreement to pay it is exactly the same kind of a
contract that is in vogue in Fairhope, Ala. With this extremely
important exception, that whereas we in Baltimore bind ourselves to pay
all the taxes, in Fairhope the company or lessor, agrees to pay all
taxes. Talk of its being a disastrous failure! Not on your life. Ground
rents are as scarce as hen's teeth, and can only be bought on a three
percent basis. They command as good a price as government bonds, and it
is estimated that $14,000,000 at least is raised in Baltimore alone from
this source — nearly twice as much as the city and state taxes amount
to. And what is this tax of $14,000,000 paid for? Why, merely for the
privilege of living in the city of Baltimore. That's all the payers get
for it. And the only kick we've got coming is that the private
individuals get that money instead of the city and state.
-- found in "The American Cooperator" (1903); "The Public" was a weekly newspaper, out of Chicago, edited by Louis F. Post, who went on to serve in Woodrow Wilson's administration.
Pigou, a key bridge figure in the history of his field, was one of the earliest classical economists to notice that markets do not always produce the best possible social outcomes. The pollution generated by a factory imposes costs on those who live downstream or in the path of its airborne emissions. The risks assumed by banks leading up to the recent financial crisis imposed costs on just about everybody. Market transactions often generate what economists call “externalities” — side effects, sometimes positive but often negative, that affect people who do not participate in the transaction.
Pigou, having recognized the problem, was the first to propose a solution. Society should tax the negative externalities and subsidize the positive ones. This simple notion — if you want less of something, tax it — is why his ideas periodically bubble up in the service of combating a recognizable cost to society, like pollution. We think that his approach offers an answer to another great problem of our time: inequality.
Does the extreme degree of inequality in America today really create, as Pigou would put it, negative externalities? Does the fact that hedge-fund manager Mr. Jones rakes in 100 or 1,000 times what office manager Mrs. Smith earns impose costs on everybody else? Plenty of Americans think not. Defenders of our skewed income distribution point out that a free-enterprise system requires some inequality. Unequal rewards give people an incentive to work hard and acquire new skills. They encourage inventors to invent, entrepreneurs to start companies, investors to take risks. It’s fine in this view that some people get astronomically rich. As Mitt Romney likes to say, “I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”
On the other side, many of us have a gut feeling that inequality has gone too far. Our times are reminiscent of the Gilded Age’s worst excesses. Hence the popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”
LVTfan here: Wouldn't it be better to prevent the inequality by such measures as treating the natural creation as our common treasure, instead of permitting its privatization and then taxing back what is taken? Treating the natural creation, and that which the community creates by its presence and its investment in public goods -- schools, roads, libraries, etc. -- as our COMMON treasure would create equal opportunity for all, a much better idea than permitting some to capture it and then taxing some of their booty back after the fact. When we let some reap what others sow, and then take back a share after the fact, we're still permitting them to reap which deprives the sowers of that right. Whether it be nature doing the sowing, or the community as a whole, no good can come of permitting the privatization of that. Henry George, in "Progress and Poverty" and "Social Problems" showed the logical, efficient, just way to do better.
I would love to see a map showing what states the people who take the income tax deduction for home mortgage interest live. I think we'd find it was the so-called Blue states, where the value of land is higher, and wages are higher, and property taxes are higher.
Funny that we're willing to help subsidize the borrowing necessary for some people (buyers) to paying off other people (sellers) for value the sellers didn't create! And then we don't tax those so-called "capital" gains much at all! A few communities collect a few percent of each transaction, which isn't a great idea either, particularly when it is collected from the buyers, who likely borrow it!
As I listen to the rhetoric of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates about equal opportunity for women -- seeking equal opportunities for their daughters and granddaughters as for their sons and grandsons -- it occurs to me that they haven't asked that their sons and daughters have opportunities equal to the sons and grandchildren of Mitt Romney, who apparently share a trust fund currently worth over $100 million.* Even divided among 5 sons and 18 grandchildren, that's about $4 million per descendant, enough to throw off $90,000 per person per year without diminishing (and without them working -- or even having finished grade school). And that's before we start to talk about the $100 million IRA they are likely to inherit, which continues to appreciate free of taxes.
The Earth-for-All Calendar contains a number of items which speak to equality of opportunity for all in our current generation, and for all in future generations. When some of us start life with all the advantages, and others, because of the design of our society's systems, have few or no advantages, how do we continue to maintain the fiction that we believe we are all created equal, that our nation is founded on this proposition and its laws and customs said to conform to and support this proposition?
The advantages of our wealthiest didn't come out of thin air. They aren't "no-cost" to the rest of us, and they don't benefit the rest of us by any form of "trickle down." The trickle flows the other direction. To the extent that our society pretends that this comes out of thin air, we are permitting ourselves to be fooled -- treated as fools, taught by rich people's useful idiots.
And when some of us have the money to devote to promoting points of view that benefit ourselves, at the expense of the common good, to influence elections, where does democracy get us?
Equity, therefore, does not permit property in land. For if
one portion of the earth's surface may justly become the
possession of an individual and may be held by him for his sole use
and benefit as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then
other portions of the earth's surface may be so held; and eventually
the whole of the earth's surface may be so held; and our planet may
thus lapse into private hands.
— HERBERT SPENCER, in 1850, Social
Statics, Chap. IX.
There has been a lot of political rhetoric lately centered around the "Job Creators," and what we can do to encourage them to create jobs (in America). Most of it seems to be centered around (1) creating some sort of "certainty" for them regarding what sorts of taxes they might be expected to pay if the jobs they deign to create are successful in increasing their profits; and (2) lifting the supposedly onerous regulations we put on them regarding product safety, environmental protection, and perhaps royalties on what they withdraw from the earth's supply of non-renewable natural resources and other services they receive from our common ecosystem.
I contend that those who frame it this way are leading us astray.
First, the jobs that the so-called Job Creators actually create occur when (a) they want more personal services -- haircuts, manicures, acupuncture, botox, dry cleaning, catering; (b) they want more goods -- dinners out, boats, cars, swimming pools, airplanes, motorcycles, jewelry, wardrobe, fancy foods, alcohol, tobacco, etc.; (c) when they decide to build or rebuild a home, and furnish it.
The real job creators are those whose demand for products and services create jobs. A few percent of us have sufficient current income -- or sufficient wealth to draw on -- that it is fair to say that virtually all of their needs and many of their wants are being met. But the vast majority of us have unmet needs and certainly more wants. And I think it is fair to say that while it is human nature to want something for nothing, and that all of us want to meet our needs and wants with the least possible effort, it is also true that virtually all of us are willing to work, to serve others with products and services, in return for wages, be they from a single employer or a collection of customers.
So what's the problem? Why can't this supply of labor get together with this demand for labor, to the general benefit of our entire society?
I can point to several problems.
First, much of the nation's capital is in the portfolios of a very small proportion of our society, and that process of concentration shows no signs of slowing down, much less reversing. (Not surprising, since we've done nothing to correct the structural causes which produce it!) Joe Stiglitz has said that the FIRE sector is harvesting something like 40% of the profits of the productive sectors of the economy. This cannot be permitted to continue if we seek to create prosperity for all.
Second, ownership of America's choicest sites -- mostly in the central business districts of our biggest cities, but also in some of the scenic coastal areas and the suburbs surrounding those cities -- is in the portfolios of a very small proportion of our society (as well as in portfolios of foreign landlords). This may not appear to some to be a problem, but I assert that it is -- and a big one. (The good news is that it is readily fixable.) An acre of Manhattan land can be worth $250 million or more, while an acre of good farm land might be worth $5,000 -- a difference of 50,000 times! That is, 50,000 acres of farmland might be worth the same amount as a single acre of Manhattan land!!) A single 25x100 residential building lot in Manhattan -- 0.058 acre -- can be worth $10 million ... that works out to $172 million per acre.
Third, we tax labor income -- wages -- to fund federal and state spending. We tax the first $105,000 or so of wages at 15% or so to fund Social Security and Medicare (that includes both the employee's and the employer's contribution, as economists agree is appropriate). After exempting some amount of income in proportion to family size ($15,200 for a family of 4) and some additional for a standard deduction ($11,900 for married filing jointly) or some combination of itemized deductions (which go mostly to high-end urban/suburban homeowners in northeastern states, with big mortgages and significant property taxes, and California owners, with big mortgages and more modest property taxes), the Federal Income Tax taxes the next dollar of wages at 10%, and the rate rises to 15%, 25% 28%, and, for a tiny but noisy minority of us (adjusted income over $217,450 after exemptions and deductions, for married filing jointly -- which Romney calls the middle class), to 33% and 35% on the marginal dollars (not on all of one's income). But 86% of us pay more in payroll taxes than we do in federal income taxes, when the employer's portion is taken into account. [source: http://www.cbo.gov/publication/43373, table 8.] It is worth noting that 15% [social insurance] plus 10%, the federal tax rate on the first dollar after deductions and exemptions, is 25%, but that for those whose household income is well above the $105,000 cut-cutoff, the 35% bracket is not all that much higher than what comes out of the pockets of the low-income worker.
So 25% to 35% of the portion of our wages beyond that allowance for some basic expenses, are being taken to fund federal spending, and in most states, more for state spending.
The federal spending, and much of the state spending, goes to projects whose effect is to increase local land values in specific places -- infrastructure, public goods of various kinds. Oddly, we fund it via taxes on wages! Wouldn't we be wiser to fund it via taxes which fall on those land values, which are so concentrated into a relative few pockets -- pockets which are currently not asked to contribute much, but receive so much from those who need to occupy those choice urban sites. I do not begrudge the owner of a luxury building the right to keep the portions of the rent he receives which can be attributed to (a) the qualities of the building itself and (b) the services he as landlord provides, but much of that rent is attributable to neither of those factors; rather, it is a function of .... (all together, now) Location, Location, Location, and value which is created by the community, not by that landlord!
Fourth, most of us of working age, and particularly our young people, are paying at least 30% of our income for housing, and many, many people are paying a far larger portion of their income. On top of that, many have student loans, car loans, and perhaps credit card debt, and live paycheck to paycheck. Many young people who bought a home during the 2002 to 2010 period are upside down on their mortgages, owing the lender more than they could sell the property for, and are thus effectively trapped in those homes until prices rise or someone does something to renegotiate their mortgage, or they win big in the Lottery. Thus they cannot move to meet their families' changing needs, or leave the area to accept a job in another part of the country.
So what does this have to do with Job Creation? Well, if those of us who don't live on the really choice bits of urban or coastal land were relieved of some portion of their tax burden, including the 15% that goes for social insurance, we'd have more to spend on satisfying our other needs and wants, and virtually all of that would create jobs. Here, in the U. S.
"The wages problem resolves itself into a very simple question, viz.: Which is the better for a community — to have 10,000,000 men earning $2.50 a day, with hours that enable them to read and rest and pass a fair proportion of their time with their families, and at the same time have no millionaires, or to have those 10,000,000 men working fifteen hours a day at $1.50, and have a few score millionaires?"
The Standardwas devoted to issues like this, and makes excellent reading in this decade and century.
It might be worth noting that in those days when one spoke of a millionaire, the reference was to someone whose assets totalled over $1 million. Today, it is commonly used to refer to someone whose annual income is over $1 million. But you'll notice what workmen's wages were in 1887 -- $1.50 a day is $468 per year*, and likely didn't leave much, if anything, for savings. [6 days a week.]
So which IS better for the community? The families making $1.50 or $2.50 a day are spending nearly every penny of that, just in order to get by. The millionaires can only spend so much on the necessities of daily life, plus some generous amount on luxuries. The rest they will invest, one way or another, and the wise ones, in our current structure, will "invest" in land -- particularly choice urban sites -- and natural resources, since we as a society are so generous about letting the owners of these assets keep most of what those assets earn, despite them having nothing to do with having created those assets, and being in no position to create more in response to demand, which will naturally increase with population!!
THAT is the problem with our current "generosity."
The spending of the 10 million on the necessities of daily life creates jobs for a lot of other people. (The portion that goes to their landlords in payment for the right to occupy bits of urban -- or other -- land, DOESN'T create any jobs; it simply enriches the landlord. I don't begrudge the landlord the portion that relates to the building, or to services he provides, such as, say, a doorman in the city.)
A major theme of the underlying political debate in the United States is the role of the state and the need for collective action. The private sector, while central in a modern economy, cannot ensure its success alone. For example, the financial crisis that began in 2008 demonstrated the need for adequate regulation.
Moreover, beyond effective regulation (including ensuring a level playing field for competition), modern economies are founded on technological innovation, which in turn presupposes basic research funded by government. This is an example of a public good – things from which we all benefit, but that would be undersupplied (or not supplied at all) were we to rely on the private sector.
Conservative politicians in the US underestimate the importance of publicly provided education, technology, and infrastructure. Economies in which government provides these public goods perform far better than those in which it does not.
But public goods must be paid for, and it is imperative that everyone pays their fair share. While there may be disagreement about what that entails, those at the top of the income distribution who pay 15% of their reported income (money accruing in tax shelters in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens may not be reported to US authorities) clearly are not paying their fair share. ...
I have to disagree with the second sentence of this next paragraph. And I think Stiglitz knows better, if he stops to think about it:
Democracies rely on a spirit of trust and cooperation in paying taxes. If every individual devoted as much energy and resources as the rich do to avoiding their fair share of taxes, the tax system either would collapse, or would have to be replaced by a far more intrusive and coercive scheme. Both alternatives are unacceptable.
We don't need intrusive or coercive; we just need to start collecting the lion's share of the rent! Well, I suppose some rent-seekers would find this extremely intrusive -- it intrudes on their habit of self-enrichment by privatizing of what is rightly and logically our PUBLIC treasure, the logical way of financing PUBLIC goods. And Professor Stiglitz is quite aware of the value of natural resources; he may not be quite as conscious of the value of urban and other well-situated land.
Our national recordkeeping doesn't even collect the valuations of land and natural resources on any consistent basis! (One could reasonably argue that this failure-to-measure is a form of corruption!) What we don't measure we can't do anything about. And the powers that be are quite content with how we do things; the benefits accrue to them! And several generations of college-educated people know nothing about the issue, which was well known and widely discussed 100 years ago. (Look into the extensive Single Tax literature and the ideas of Henry George.)
Some more excerpts:
The billionaire investor Warren Buffett argues that he should pay only the taxes that he must, but that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that taxes his income at a lower rate than his secretary is required to pay. He is right. Romney might be forgiven were he to take a similar position. Indeed, it might be a Nixon-in-China moment: a wealthy politician at the pinnacle of power advocating higher taxes for the rich could change the course of history.
But Romney has not chosen to do so. He evidently does not recognize that a system that taxes speculation at a lower rate than hard work distorts the economy. Indeed, much of the money that accrues to those at the top is what economists call rents, which arise not from increasing the size of the economic pie, but from grabbing a larger slice of the existing pie.
Those at the top include a disproportionate number of monopolists who increase their income by restricting production and engaging in anti-competitive practices; CEOs who exploit deficiencies in corporate-governance laws to grab a larger share of corporate revenues for themselves (leaving less for workers); and bankers who have engaged in predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices (often targeting poor and middle-class households). It is perhaps no accident that rent-seeking and inequality have increased as top tax rates have fallen, regulations have been eviscerated, and enforcement of existing rules has been weakened: the opportunity and returns from rent-seeking have increased.
Today, a deficiency of aggregate demand afflicts almost all advanced countries, leading to high unemployment, lower wages, greater inequality, and – coming full, vicious circle – constrained consumption. There is now a growing recognition of the link between inequality and economic instability and weakness.
There is another vicious circle: Economic inequality translates into political inequality, which in turn reinforces the former, including through a tax system that allows people like Romney – who insists that he has been subject to an income-tax rate of “at least 13%” for the last ten years – not to pay their fair share. The resulting economic inequality – a result of politics as much as market forces – contributes to today’s overall economic weakness.
The ordinary progress of a society which increases in wealth is at all times to augment the incomes of landlords — to give them both a greater amount and a greater proportion of the wealth of the community, independently of any trouble or outlay incurred by themselves. They grow richer as it were in their sleep, without working, risking or economizing. What claims have they, on the general principles of social justice, to this accession of riches?
— JOHN STUART MILL, Principles of Political Economy, Book V., Chap. 2, Sec. 5
It will be thought an intolerable thing that men shall derive enormous increments of income from the growth of towns to which they have contributed nothing — that they shall be able to sweep into their coffers what they have not produced — that they shall be able to go on throttling towns, as they are well known to do in some cases. It is impossible to suppose that the system will not be vigorously, powerfully, persistently and successfully attacked.
—JOHN MORLEY, Speech at Forfar, October 4, 1897. The Times, October 5, 1897, p. 5, column 3.
"Our progressive and scheming civilization has developed new forms of speculation and new organizations to give power to capital. Corporations have already become more formidable than the government. Law has clothed them with artificial power without placing proper restriction on its selfish and unjust exercise. There is not adequate security against the frauds they perpetrate. Aggregated capital is managed by boards of directors or trustees whose first business is to advance their own individual interests, and then, so far as consistent with it, the interests of the stockholders."
William Phillips: Labor, Land and Law: A Search for the Missing Wealth of the Working Poor (1886), p. 23
This excerpt makes some important points about a number of topics this blog focuses on:
why wealth and income concentration are not good for the economy;
rent and rent-seeking behavior
the extent to which the financial sector is absorbing the profits made by the productive sectors of our economy
I look forward to reading the book. I'll be curious to see whether Professor Stiglitz gets into what we can do via reforming our tax system to reduce the amount of rent that is available for private and corporate rent-seekers. Treat rent as our COMMON asset... Natural Public Revenue!! Don't leave it there for corporations to privatize.
It is no accident that the periods in which the broadest cross sections of Americans have reported higher net incomes — when inequality has been reduced, partly as a result of progressive taxation — have been the periods in which the U.S. economy has grown the fastest. It is likewise no accident that the current recession, like the Great Depression, was preceded by large increases in inequality. When too much money is concentrated at the top of society, spending by the average American is necessarily reduced — or at least it will be in the absence of some artificial prop. Moving money from the bottom to the top lowers consumption because higher-income individuals consume, as a fraction of their income, less than lower-income individuals do.
In our imaginations, it doesn’t always seem as if this is the case, because spending by the wealthy is so conspicuous. Just look at the color photographs in the back pages of the weekend Wall Street Journal of houses for sale. But the phenomenon makes sense when you do the math. Consider someone like Mitt Romney, whose income in 2010 was $21.7 million. Even if Romney chose to live a much more indulgent lifestyle, he would spend only a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes. But take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people — say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece — and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.
The relationship is straightforward and ironclad: as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into a decline. Unless something else happens by way of intervention, total demand in the economy will be less than what the economy is capable of supplying — and that means that there will be growing unemployment, which will dampen demand even further. In the 1990s that “something else” was the tech bubble. In the first decade of the 21st century, it was the housing bubble. Today, the only recourse, amid deep recession, is government spending — which is exactly what those at the top are now hoping to curb.
The “Rent Seeking” Problem
Here I need to resort to a bit of economic jargon. The word “rent” was originally used, and still is, to describe what someone received for the use of a piece of his land — it’s the return obtained by virtue of ownership, and not because of anything one actually does or produces. This stands in contrast to “wages,” for example, which connotes compensation for the labor that workers provide. The term “rent” was eventually extended to include monopoly profits — the income that one receives simply from the control of a monopoly. In time, the meaning was expanded still further to include the returns on other kinds of ownership claims. If the government gave a company the exclusive right to import a certain amount of a certain good, such as sugar, then the extra return was called a “quota rent.” The acquisition of rights to mine or drill produces a form of rent. So does preferential tax treatment for special interests. In a broad sense, “rent seeking” defines many of the ways by which our current political process helps the rich at the expense of everyone else, including
transfers and subsidies from the government,
laws that make the marketplace less competitive,
laws that allow C.E.O.’s to take a disproportionate share of corporate revenue (though Dodd-Frank has made matters better by requiring a non-binding shareholder vote on compensation at least once every three years), and
laws that permit corporations to make profits as they degrade the environment.
The magnitude of “rent seeking” in our economy, while hard to quantify, is clearly enormous. Individuals and corporations that excel at rent seeking are handsomely rewarded. The financial industry, which now largely functions as a market in speculation rather than a tool for promoting true economic productivity, is the rent-seeking sector par excellence. Rent seeking goes beyond speculation. The financial sector also gets rents out of its domination of the means of payment — the exorbitant credit- and debit-card fees and also the less well-known fees charged to merchants and passed on, eventually, to consumers. The money it siphons from poor and middle-class Americans through predatory lending practices can be thought of as rents. In recent years, the financial sector has accounted for some 40 percent of all corporate profits. This does not mean that its social contribution sneaks into the plus column, or comes even close. The crisis showed how it could wreak havoc on the economy. In a rent-seeking economy such as ours has become, private returns and social returns are badly out of whack.
In their simplest form, rents are nothing more than re-distributions from one part of society to the rent seekers. Much of the inequality in our economy has been the result of rent seeking, because, to a significant degree, rent seeking re-distributes money from those at the bottom to those at the top.
But there is a broader economic consequence: the fight to acquire rents is at best a zero-sum activity. Rent seeking makes nothing grow. Efforts are directed toward getting a larger share of the pie rather than increasing the size of the pie. But it’s worse than that: rent seeking distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker. It is a centripetal force: the rewards of rent seeking become so outsize that more and more energy is directed toward it, at the expense of everything else. Countries rich in natural resources are infamous for rent-seeking activities. It’s far easier to get rich in these places by getting access to resources at favorable terms than by producing goods or services that benefit people and increase productivity. That’s why these economies have done so badly, in spite of their seeming wealth. It’s easy to scoff and say: We’re not Nigeria, we’re not Congo. But the rent-seeking dynamic is the same.
LVTfan here: Think what would happen if we SOCIALIZED rents, and substituted them as our revenue source for all the taxes we pay ... sales taxes, wage taxes, building taxes, excise taxes ...
Recall what Leona Helmsley told us: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." Think what a weight would be lifted off our economy if those taxes were taken off the produces of labor, and put onto Rent, in all its forms!
This is a paragraph from a book written about 100 years ago about Dr. Edward McGlynn, a much-loved Roman Catholic priest in Manhattan (St. Stephen's Church) who, with Henry George, was active in the Anti-Poverty Society in the last 15 years of the 19th century. It comes from a section listing "Thoughts of Dr. McGlynn."
It was told of a recently deceased Judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, a man who sat in the Senate of the United States, one of the most eminent men of his generation, how he, a poor lawyer, in a comparatively poor western town, had been able to accumulate some two or three millions of dollars worth of property. How? By "sagacity" in investing in lands at some distance from villages and towns, with foresight that in the course of a few years the growth of those communities, the industry, thrift, talent, virtue, patience of large communities would all keep adding to the value of his property, and in course of time cities, towns and villages would grow up on these lands, and he would be able to command an enormous price for land that cost him but a song. Now, while the law tolerated or even sanctioned what he was doing, he was guilty of an iniquity, of reaping where he had not sown, of exacting tribute where he had contributed nothing.
Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land owes to the community a ground rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds.
— THOMAS PAINE, Agrarian Justice, Paine's Writings, Vol. III., p. 329 (1795-6).
If all men were so far tenants to the public that the superfluities of gain and expense were applied to the exigencies thereof, it would put an end to taxes, leave never a beggar and make the greatest bank for national trade in Europe.
— WILLIAM PENN, Reflections and Maxims, Sec. 222, Works V., pp. 190-1.
I'm reading a 1910 book by William Harbutt Dawson entitled "The Unearned Increment." I found these paragraphs particularly compelling. I think about the 2003 Schiller and Case article about the expectations of home buyers that their purchases would rise in value. The homebuyers of the last decade didn't understand why land should rise in value -- indeed, most of them weren't conscious of it being land appreciating, not the houses themselves -- but they seemed sure that it would rise forever, and they thought it essential to their own well-being that they get in on that appreciation.
100 years ago, there seemed to be a much better popular understanding of land economics than we have in 2012. It was widely discussed in quite a number of popular journals read by ordinary people. One might speculate on why we in the 21st century aren't better informed than we are on the subject. In whose interests is it that ordinary people not understand the importance and the dynamics land economics?
And here it will be convenient to refer to the plea often advanced that speculation in land is legitimate, and that there is no difference between making profits from the sale of land and making profits from the sale of ordinary commodities. Those who hold this view forget or ignore the fact that land differs from every product of man's hands in that, besides being a necessity of existence — the maintainer of life, it is a monopoly article. God made the earth as big as it is, and man cannot make it any bigger. There is so much land in the world, and no one, not even a Rothschild or a Vanderbilt, can add an inch to it. Hats, boots, and coats — manufactured goods in general — can be multiplied indefinitely. The supply is only regulated by the demand, and almost invariably the cost decreases as the demand is augmented. With the land it is otherwise: the absolute supply cannot be increased, and the cost grows with the growth of the demand. Moreover, in paying for the goods offered by the manufacturer, we pay largely for labour; but no amount of labour can produce land. It existed before man existed, and is not produced. Landed property is the one commodity of exchange in respect of which civilised society refuses to recognise absolute rights.
It may be granted at once, however, that it is impossible to artificially prevent the value of land from increasing. It would be absurd to try to check the operation of social forces which act from necessity. If there were no private ownership of land, but the State were the custodian and grand lessor, the value of that commodity would inevitably tend to increase owing to a multiplicity of causes which act independently of private and collective possession of the soil. Yet while it may not be possible artificially to prevent value-growth, it is possible and expedient to check artificial value-growth. Were the unearned increment secured wholly or even in part to society, there would be less inducement to speculation in land, and the increase in its value would be dependent upon healthier and socially more desirable causes. Men do not speculate commercially for amusement or the mere love of excitement, but for money, and if there were no prospect — or little prospect — of contingent gain, the great inducement to land speculation would be taken away.
At the idea of resistance to speculation the individualist will raise his hands in alarm and remonstrance. But these pages are written on the assumption that the interests of speculators cannot claim any partial consideration in the adjustment of the important problem under discussion — or, indeed, of any problem affecting the well-being of society. Those who hold the views here expressed would not dream of prohibiting speculation in land; all they say is, that society is not called upon to sacrifice its interests to the speculators, or to offer to the latter any facilities for doing it mischief. It cannot surely be considered a social advantage that a small class of men should be able, owing to their possession of a monopoly in land, to force up its value to fictitious and fabulous heights; nor can it be regarded as desirable that the value of land should be increased in order to allow of speculators enriching themselves. The result is to create extortionate rents, which, so far as trade and industry are concerned, make production dearer, and thus injure the consumer, and, so far as concerns dwellings, compel the householder to disburse an excessive proportion of his income in the mere sheltering of himself and his family within stone walls. Apart from the gains which fall to the intermediary speculator who does not buy land to keep, but to sell, the owners of the soil pocket the public tribute paid in the form of increasing rents. For their part, the house occupiers suffer in two ways by the growing value of land: they must pay more for the dwellings they live in, and more for the articles they use and consume. It cannot be to the interest of society that the rents of town dwellings should average, say, £20 instead of £15, and should increase 5% or even 2% every year. If such an increase fell to the whole community, the evil would not be so great, for those who paid it would in one way or another reap the benefit; but, as matters are, it all goes into the landlords' purse.
The remarkable thing about this story, to my eye, is that the size of the lot isn't even mentioned! It is worth $1 million land rent per year, and one might infer from the information provided that the lot is about 10,000 square feet, or less than 1/4 acre.
Capitalized at 5% (also known as "20 years' purchase") the lot would sell for about $20 million.
I assume that in addition to the land rent, the tenant pays the property tax on the land. So the entire $1 million annual land rent flows out of NYC, to the property's owner, in Marshall, Virginia.
What, pray tell, has the land owner done to earn that land rent?
Consider how many people's wage taxes and sales taxes could be lifted, and what that additional spending power could do for the local economy. Consider what would happen if there were no taxes to be paid on the apartments or on people's condo structures.
Or NYC can just keep letting the land rent leave the city, and even leave the country, continuing to flow into private pockets, just as if they'd rendered someone some service and earned it!
Land rent is natural public revenue, and we permit landlords to privatize it. Aren't we generous with our patrimony? (Leona told us the truth!)
The developer of a nine-story Karl Fischer rental apartment building planned for a corner site in the East Village signed a 99-year ground lease that requires payments each year of about $1 million.
The development company, YYY Third Avenue, signed the long-term lease for the vacant site at 74-84 Third Avenue, at 12th Street, April 27, 2011, however, a memorandum of the lease was not recorded in public records until last Wednesday, city property documents show.
A source citing city property records said the lease payment, which is not specifically recorded, could be inferred to be about $1 million per year. Prior to the document’s release, the annual lease cost was not known.
The prolific and controversial architect Fischer filed plans to build an 82,000-square-foot, nine-story residential building with 94 units, city Department of Buildings online records show. The permit has not been approved and is pending, DOB data indicate, and is to include nearly 9,511 square feet of retail, as well.
You might also be intrigued by the URL for the story ... I'm not sure what to make of it.
35. 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 lease prices for generations. Is it right to exact an estate tax of 50% or so on the true market value of that estate?
A. No! Widows and orphans must be protected! We wouldn't want them to have to depend on the social safety net.
B. No! The dollars he spent to buy that land decades ago were already subject to an income tax -- maybe two (federal and state) -- and the heirs are entitled to keep all the increase from the purchase price, even if that is a 20% increase, or a 200% increase, or a 2000% increase, over the purchase price.
C. No! The man had foresight, and we ought to honor, reward and encourage that!
D. No! The interstate highway could have been re-routed, and the man and his widow and children could have been left high and dry. They took a risk, and we ought to reward them for their brilliance!
E. An estate tax is a good way to capture this socially-created windfall once per generation. After all, he can't take it with him. Half for the heirs, half for the community that created the value. Seems fair, and keeps them out of the social safety net.
F. An estate tax is better than nothing, but it is a poor alternative to collecting some significant portion of the rental value of the land, month in and month out, whether that rental value be low (before the interstate highway's route is determined) or high (after it is announced and built, and the community grows up around that highway).
29. The states need money. Should they sell their toll roads to private companies?
A. Sure! That would provide a nice pot of money that would help with this year's budget and next year's, and after that, we can leave the problem to a future group of legislators and a new governor!
B. Sure! The private sector will take better care of them and turn a profit to boot!
C. No. The taxpayers paid for those roads to be built, and have a right to more control over them than would exist after privatization.
D. No. The taxpayers own that land, a unique right of way, and selling it off forever is irresponsible and wrong!
E. No. Our society -- any society -- is highly dependent on our infrastructure, and control over it must remain in the public sector.
F. No. Those highways are built on land that was bought or taken from individual property owners for the public good. To turn them over to the private sector, for profit, would be wrong.
G. No. Those highways will increase in value over the coming decades and centuries, and should not become anyone's private property, at any price. Both their economic value and the control over them belongs in the common sector.
H. No. Even if it looks as if it might make sense for our generation, what of future generations? Should we permit the privatization of a common asset they will likely be dependent on?
I. No. Future taxpayers will build more highways intersecting with these current tollroads, and increase their value; were these to be privatized, it would be the private corporation who would reap the benefit of that future public investment.
28. Private-sector insurance companies are raising their rates for waterfront or near-waterfront property, or refusing to renew policies in hurricane-prone areas. States are stepping in to provide insurance of last resort. How should this be financed?
A. It should be self-financing, with rates designed to cover 100% of the risks. This might drive down the selling prices of the properties, but that is appropriate given the increased risks involved.
B. Taxpayers all over the state should subsidize the insurance rates, from taxes on wages
C. Taxpayers all over the state should subsidize the insurance rates, from taxes on sales
D. Taxpayers all over the state should subsidize the insurance rates, from taxes on their land values
E. Inland taxpayers should be taxed to pay for the subsidies to coastal propertyowners
F. Hotel and rental-car taxes should be used to pay for the subsidies to coastal homeowners and commercial property owners
G. Collect taxes in proportion to pollution which is producing slower-moving storms, which will have the effect of incentivizing reductions in that pollution
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.
I came across this rather good letter to the editor, from 1938. (Trinity Church Corporation, a major landlord in downtown Manhattan, was the subject of a NYT article this past week, as well as the subject of a major series in the NYT in December, 1894):
1938-09-03 Letters to The Times
Collecting Ground Rent Single-Tax System Regarded as No Detriment to Building
TO THE EDITOR OF THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Fabian Franklin, in his letter to THE TIMES discussing the demolition of John D. Rockefeller's Harlem tenements in order to save taxes, writes:
"That objection is simply that virtual abolition of land ownership, which the single-tax plan is designed to effect, would make the building of houses in a city an extra-hazardous business, because, under the single-tax regime, in the great majority of cases the investment would result in a disastrous loss to the owner of the building. I was neither blaming nor praising Mr. Rockefeller for the demolition of Harlem tenements."
What is the so-called single-tax system? It is the collection by the government, through the taxing officials, of the entire economic or ground rent of land and the repeal of all taxes on buildings and other products of labor and capital. That ground rent is estimated to be 9% of the capital value of the land. New York City is now collecting one-third of this ground rent. The market value of the lots is the remaining two-thirds, capitalized. Dr. Franklin's thesis is that if the entire ground rent is collected no one would erect buildings, because "in the great majority of cases the investment would result in a disastrous loss to the owner of the building."
Some of the finest buildings in New York City are erected on leased land and the lessee pays the ground rent 100% besides a tax on the building. There are hundreds of buildings erected by lessees of lots owned by Trinity Church, Astor estate, Rhinelander estate, Sailors Snug Harbor and others. The lessees must pay all the taxes, both on land and building, amounting to 3% of the assessed value of both, and to the landlord 6% of the market value of the land.
Thus the entire ground rent is paid by the lessee, but only one-third to the government representing the people who made that value by their presence and activities, the remaining two-thirds to the landlord. Notwithstanding that they are thus obliged to pay 100% of the economic rent, bankers and business men erect buildings costing millions. Under the Henry George plan they would have to pay less, for the taxes on these costly structures will have been repealed.
Perhaps if Mr. Rockefeller had not been obliged to pay taxes on the buildings he might not have pulled them down; or, if he had, would have erected better buildings in their place in order to get a return on his investment in buildings. The ones who will benefit most from the adoption of the Georgian philosophy are the owners of humble homes. The average small homeowner's house is assessed for at least twice the assessed value of the lot. If the house is relieved from taxation and the lot taxed the entire ground rent, his tax will be less than it is now. The difference will be made up from vacant lots and lots that are worth more than the improvements.
After all, the building of houses is like any other business. The builder takes the risk of lessened demand because of changes in fashion, obsolescence, competition. It is estimated that 95% of new businesses ultimately fail. With the adoption, however, of the philosophy of Henry George, commonly called the single tax, failures in the housing and other businesses will be much fewer. This is because neither houses nor goods nor anything else will be taxed. The collection of the entire ground rent will not lessen the area of the surface of the earth one inch. On the contrary, it will open to occupation and use land that is now held for speculation purposes.
The taxation of any product of labor and capital will add the amount of the tax to the price, lessen demand and thus curtail production. The result is unemployment and misery.
Frederic Cyrus Leubuscher Essex Fells, N. J., Aug. 31, 1938
So those who understand the past ought to be well paid to share their understanding with society.
One of the current presidential candidates claims to understand his claims to a fabulously high income in this light.
His payment came from an entity which thought his intellectual offerings, or something he had to offer, worth the price.
The question is, who is paying the larger price for this? And why should it be this way?
And we need to be thinking about what those who teach history -- and other subjects -- to our children and young scholars ought to be paid. What do we value?
Financial engineering, or physical engineering of various kinds?
Medicine or Corporate Finance?
Understanding history, or the fine points of real estate speculation?
Enriching oneself, or acting in ways that create a more prosperous and stable economy for all of us?
What fields should attract our best and our brightest? And what should the rewards be?
I heard a snippet on the radio this morning -- something about waking up in the morning trying to figure out how to provide for one's family. It wasn't about providing trust funds for one's family, but about providing the basics.
Shouldn't our society's best minds be encouraged to examine our history in search of better ways to structure things so that life is not such a struggle for the ordinary human being?
(And maybe a critical mass would discover that Henry George had some useful and relevant observations and recommendations toward that goal.
Someday the Supreme Court will rule that it is immoral, unethical and seemly to issue a gambling license whereby the licensed can stringently stack the deck against an injudicious general public. Talk about financial engineering! What we need is more mechanical engineers and fewer financial engineers. But I live in Nevada and so shall save that crusade for another day. The fact that I love to bet on football has nothing to do with my not taking a stronger stand.
Thanks to Citizens United the financial services industry in this country now owns our political process and our Congress. Richard Durbin, Senator from Illinois and Fellow of the Royal Society, put it in plain language when describing the financial firms that brought down our economy, “These firms are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place.”
We've turned the car keys over to a juvenile delinquent who is intoxicated on greed, and hell bent to get power and money or crash the car trying.
I leave the last word to Henry George 1839-1897: “So long as the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes 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.
“George, allow me to buy you one.”
— Learn more about McAvoy Layne as the Ghost of Twain at ghostoftwain.org.
Continuing through some old files, I came across this eloquent statement in the minutes of an executive committee meeting for the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation:
"Middle income homebuyers, especially, are having to pay a lot more for their homes because of the inflation in land prices. They are having to pay more for their financing, too, because financing also reflects land prices.
What land speculators can get for their land, they can get because of the enormous expenditures of tax money to make that land usable.
I do not think the American conscience is sufficiently sensitive to be aroused because land speculators get rich at the expense of the government, because the public has come to regard the government as a cow to be milked. It would, therefore, be unwise to place the emphasis on how speculators get rich at the government's expense. Rather ... we should emphasize that the homebuyers are the ones who have to pay, have to dig deep into their savings to pay speculators more for the land, not because the speculators did anything to earn a higher price, but because taxpayers spent millions to make it better."
-- Perry Prentice, 3/5/1965
California, with Prop 13, should take note. Anyone who wants a more stable economy should take note. Anyone who would like to see the cost of living for ordinary people be stabilized and reduced should take note.
I think DCJ is asking the right question here, at least as a top-line, and raising some important points in support of answering it.
Five ancient principles that have survived the test of time and are, therefore, profoundly conservative, should guide us.
The first is the moral principle of progressive taxation -- that the greater the gain you manage to attain, whether through hard work or luck, the greater your duty to pay back the society that made your riches possible so that it will endure. This concept is 2,500 years old, coming to us along with its civil twin, democracy, from ancient Athens.
The second is horizontal equity. Each person, or business, with the same ability to pay should pay the same tax. We must not tolerate a system in which one family or company pays far more than another with the same income, thanks to all the fine print in the tax code.
Simplicity, transparency and ease of payment should be the last three of the five guiding principles, as Adam Smith taught more than two centuries ago.
Adam Smith called these the Canons of Taxation. I urge you to read more about these ideas, including, particularly, Louis Post's expansions of these ideas, in the footnotes associated with this passage:
The best tax by which public revenues can be raised is evidently that which will closest conform to the following conditions:
That it bear as lightly as possible upon production — so as least to check the increase of the general fund from which taxes must be paid and the community maintained. 20
That it be easily and cheaply collected, and fall as directly as may be upon the ultimate payers — so as to take from the people as little as possible in addition to what it yields the government. 21
That it be certain — so as to give the least opportunity for tyranny or corruption on the part of officials, and the least temptation to law-breaking and evasion on the part of the tax-payers. 22
That it bear equally — so as to give no citizen an advantage or put any at a disadvantage, as compared with others. 23
At that same link, you'll see how Henry George expressed it, in a letter to Pope Leo XIII:
It must not take from individuals what rightfully belongs to individuals.
It must not give some an advantage over others, as by increasing the prices of what some have to sell and others must buy.
It must not lead men into temptation, by requiring trivial oaths, by making it profitable to lie, to swear falsely, to bribe or to take bribes.
It must not confuse the distinctions of right and wrong, and weaken the sanctions of religion and the state by creating crimes that are not sins, and punishing men for doing what in itself they have an undoubted right to do.
It must not repress industry. It must not check commerce. It must not punish thrift. It must offer no impediment to the largest production and the fairest division of wealth.
DCJ goes on to raise some other good questions:
Look at the same question in reverse -- is our tax system encouraging unproductive or even counterproductive activities?
What else should we call a system that lets hedge-fund and other financial speculators defer paying taxes for years or decades on their carried interest, while discouraging investment in long-term projects that may not pay off for a decade or more? How else to explain our gross overinvestment in housing?
And what about corporate tax accounting costs?
Under President Barack Obama, business has been able to immediately write off 50 percent of new investment one year and 100 percent in two other years. We need to examine the long-term benefits and costs of full expensing. The White House says full expensing lowers the average cost of capital for business investment by 75 percent. But what other effects are there?
More broadly, we need to debate why corporations must keep two sets of books, one for shareholders and one for the IRS. How much more efficient would taxation, and commerce, be with one set of books?
I hope that DCJ, perhaps the best journalist on this beat, will explore further, to see what other tax bases might be used.
Which ones would be just?
Which ones would avoid taking from individuals and corporations value they've created?
Which ones would take back from individuals and corporations value that the community created or nature provided?
Which ones would push back on individuals and corporations the costs of the pollution they've incurred instead of permitting them to impose those externalities on the rest of us?
Which ones would encourage good behavior?
Which ones would create widely shared prosperity?
Which ones could tax the value of franchises and privileges that our ancestors gave out willy-nilly, or which past administrations or Congresses have given to their BFFs (best friends forever), which rightly belongs to we-the-people?
The writings of Mason Gaffney, from the 1950s to the present, provide a wide variety of logical and just tax bases. They've remained largely hidden, for reasons that relate to how delighted the special interests have been with their privileges. DCJ could help bring these to popular attention.
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.
Paul Krugman's column in the NYT Sunday was entitled "Things to Tax," and I thought it was a bit broad-brush.
"Let me suggest two areas in which it would make a lot of sense to raise taxes in earnest, not just return them to pre-Bush levels: taxes on very high incomes and taxes on financial transactions."
I don't disagree with either of those as a starting point, but neither goes to the root of the problem, which I believe to be the sorts of privileges we have given out, or somebody's ancestors put in place and we've not even thought about questioning. They are so familiar to us that we don't question them any more than we think about breathing. So (switching metaphors) we find ourselves barking loudly up the wrong tree -- while the critters in the other trees are smiling broadly!
The best answers I know to which tree we ought to be barking up come from the writings of Henry George. Several speeches were what I was first inspired by:
Whether or not your own orientation is theological, I think you might appreciate these.
We ought not to be taxing indiscriminately. What we tax matters greatly. Some provide Natural Public Revenue -- and we ought to socialize that revenue -- and other possible objects of taxation ought not to be taxed at all -- privatize them!
Should we tax the ones who have bought or inherited or otherwise acquired our very choicest land -- that in our biggest cities, well-served by taxpayer-provided infrastructure and services?
Should we tax the ones who, in effect, own our most valuable natural resources, or have access to resources we send our military to protect on our behalf?
Should we tax those who benefit from monopolies of various kinds, such as owning our water companies, our electric utilities, our cable-tv companies, or monopolies of their own creation?
Should we tax those who benefit from privileges of various kinds, such as the possession of our airwaves, landing/takeoff rights at busy constrained airports (think LGA at rush hour)?
Should we tax those who benefit by taking some fraction of every financial transaction, even if that transaction doesn't create additional value for the economy as a whole?
Should we tax those who benefit from the activity or inactivity of the FIRE sector, which Joe Stigitz says is creaming 40% of the profits made by the productive sectors of the economy?
Or should we just tax all the high-income people, without going to the root of the privileges which produce undeserved wealth for some at the expense of the rest of us.
The answers to these questions matter.
Go to the root. Understand what is privilege, and what is an actual contribution to the economy. Understand what is someone's free lunch, paid for by the labor of others. Understand who reaps what they haven't sown. Correct these things.
An old idea. Look up Henry George's writings from the late 19th century, which kicked off the Progressive movement and still inspire many of us.
Short term, maybe, changing the income tax brackets is appropriate. But it doesn't get at the root of the problem.
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.
There was a report here that the finance industry (aka "wall street") takes about 40% of the returns on 401K and other retirement investments in fees.
Is it any wonder we have moved from a defined benefit program, with the pension money managed by professionals, to a "new, improved" retirement program with the money managed by amateurs. As amateurs we end up paying huge fees for the privilege of managing our own money. Those fees go into the pockets of the wall street executives who use it, in part, to finance political campaigns.
It all works out well for the smart Ivy Leaguers who invented and control this system. They even get to choose which of their classmates will regulate it, or not regulate it.
I couldn't have said it better! I haven't confirmed the initial assertion, but suspect it could be true. (If you want to avoid that, put your money at Vanguard, or perhaps TIAA-CREF. Index mutual funds are superior to managed funds -- unless you listen to your stockbroker.)
Two other factoids from the original blogpost:
Five percent of the roughly 60 million 401(k) plan participants
contribute the maximum amount, said David Wray, the president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America
(formerly known as the Profit Sharing/401k Council of America). And
roughly another 5 percent would contribute the maximum amount, if their
companies let them, he said.
That sent me looking for some 2010 data which a recent column by David Cay Johnston had sent me to. It is the wage statistics for 2010, from the Social Security website. At the top of the page, a table shows the value of contributions to Deferred Compensation plans (presumably both the employee portion and any employer matches. Total Compensation subject to Federal income taxes totaled $5.8 trillion, and contributions were $212 billion. That's about 3.7%.
A footnote to that table showed that 47.9 million workers made contributions, out of 150.4 million workers.
The primary table on the page shows how many workers fell into each of 59 wage brackets, and their aggregate earnings. Just for kicks, I looked at how far down the wage scale one would go to take the top 47.9 million workers; it turns out that the answer is around $43,000. But that will be the subject of another blogpost here.
.... this time because perhaps his targets are the well-situated, those in a position to contribute the funds which political campaigns need. Keep in mind that NYS's former governor, though previously an attorney general, is also the scion of a real estate fortune.
Urban real estate investors live off the fruit of the land, the fruits of the community's sowing, and we praise them as philanthropists when they toss us a few tulips in the median strips or parks.
And notice that the refusal continued even Harry Markopolis testified before a congressional committee about his repeated and data-filled attempts to bring Bernard Madoff's obvious Ponzi scheme to the attention of the SEC (January, 2009). Talk about tone-deafness on the part of those we pay to monitor things for us. As someone else recently wrote, small government or weak government? And government of, for and by WHICH people??
I hope some upstate legislators will push at this issue. Their constituents ought to expect it of them.
The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
By David Cay Johnston
(Reuters) - Each year New York State lets real estate investors evade at least $200 million of taxes. In peak years the figure likely rises to $700 million, if known tax cheating in another state is any indication. Some of the investors who cheat New York State also cheat New York City out of at least $40 million annually.
Back in the 1990s Jerry Curnutt figured out how to finger such cheats when he was the top partnership specialist at the Internal Revenue Service. Curnutt's computer sifted through tax returns until he learned how to separate thieves from honest taxpayers. The tax-evasion estimates of $200 million and $40 million are his.
Six New York state tax auditors took classes Curnutt taught in June 2000 and gave stellar evaluations. California's top tax auditor praised Curnutt's course as "effective, relevant and most importantly, appreciated and understood by our auditors."
Why has nothing been done for more than 11 years to make the cheats in New York pay what the law requires?
New York state and city are strapped for cash, slashing services for the poor, disabled and elderly. With penalties of up to 50 percent plus interest at penalty rates, the state is easily due more than $5 billion from years still open to collection, I calculate.
Every state has similar issues, but New York matters most as the epicenter of highly leveraged real estate investment pools.
Curnutt found that real estate investment partnerships with depreciated properties often misreport gains when they sell. That such cheating is widespread screams about tax law enforcement looking the other way when those at the top steal. In contrast, New York State has a well-deserved reputation for going after people whose mistakes cost the state as little as three dollars.
GO AWAY, THEY SAY
Yet in letter after letter since 2001, New York state tax officials told Curnutt to go away, smugly insisting there were no untaxed millions.
As head of audits for New York State, Thomas Heinz wrote Curnutt in 2003 that the state was "not interested in pursuing you or any other consultant on the matter" of systematic cheating by real estate partnership investors. Months later Heinz wrote a second letter that made it clear he had not understood what Curnutt was proposing, while reiterating that there were no untaxed millions to be found.
A year ago Curnutt again was told to go away because there was no money going untaxed.
And yet in Pennsylvania, Curnutt's research "resulted in the taxation of over $700 million in unreported income," the Pennsylvania Revenue Department wrote in a letter to tax administrators across the country in reference to a single instance.
"Without his assistance, our staff would have spent numerous hours getting to the crux of the issues, in that especially complex case," Pennsylvania tax authorities said.
Pennsylvania has relied on Curnutt since 2002, calculating that every dollar spent on his research and subsequent audits was worth $10 of tax.
So why are sightless sheriffs ignoring massive cheating by the most affluent among us?
The likely reason became clear nearly a decade ago when one Kentucky tax official told Curnutt that the governor's office did not want his services because it would uncover tax cheating by influential citizens, meaning campaign donors.
It is time for New York's three top state officials, all Democrats with higher ambitions, to do their duty, especially since the thieves are virtually certain to include some of their campaign contributors.
LAWMEN AND THEIR DUTY
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who harbors ambitions to be president, made his name as a state attorney general who appeared to get tough with Wall Street. Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy rose from Rochester street cop to chief and would love to be governor. So would Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, elected in 2010 on a promise to be tough on white-collar crime.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, has a similar duty to go after tax cheats even if these should turn out to include some of his friends.
New York law gives authorities leverage aplenty. The mere threat of public exposure through civil lawsuits would prompt many to write checks. For repeat offenders, the threat of indictment for tax evasion would produce checks even faster. Faced with the prospect of civil or criminal charges, many in positions of public trust would be ruined if their names got out.
The general partners -- those in charge in the partnerships Curnutt investigated -- took calculated steps to cheat and the most serious offenders should face indictment and, upon conviction, years of prison time. But many limited partners may have assumed their K-1 tax statements were reliable. Innocent victims owe taxes and interest, but not penalties. Those with multiple untaxed gains are not innocents.
As lawmen Cuomo, Duffy and Schneiderman all understand leverage. They have enough to lift billions into the state treasury where it belongs just by indicating in letters that failure to pay will result in disclosure of names. Will they?
Until Cuomo, Duffy, Schneiderman and Bloomberg enforce the law, their official inaction lends credence to billionaire Leona Helmsley's remark, quoted by her housekeeper, that "we don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes."
This column will keep you posted on whether these officials act or not. (Editing by Howard Goller)
I'm glad to see DCJ quoting Leona Helmsley -- but I don't think he yet fully "sees the cat" or realizes that Leona Helmsley's reference could just as accurately have been to tax STRUCTURES, not to tax evasion.
Buildings do not appreciate. Even with the best of care and occasional renovations, they depreciate, as technologies advance, efficiencies improve. What rises in value is land -- the location -- and it rises for reasons which have nothing to do with the individual or corporate landholder (resident or absentee), and everything to do with the community and with public investment in infrastructure and services. These owners are evading taxes which support that spending. In multiple ways, they are reaping what they do not -- cannot! -- sow. These companies are in it for the so-called "capital" gains, which aren't "capital" at all, but land gains.
Another example of the FIRE sector gobbling up the profits of the productive portions of our economy. Their "free lunch" is at the expense of the rest of us. And the phrase "rich people's useful idiots" comes to mind.
The goal is a fair field and no favor. But I don't think that's what this crowd is looking for.
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.
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.
I'm re-reading Robert Reich's recent NYT piece, which sits open on my computer:
By 2007, financial companies accounted for over 40% of American corporate profits and almost as great a percentage of pay, up from 10% during the Great Prosperity.
The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class. The spending of the richest 5% alone will not lead to a virtuous cycle of more jobs and higher living standards.
If you've seen the film "Inside Job" -- and even if you haven't -- you are probably at least somewhat aware of the extent to which the FIRE sector is, in the immortal words of someone I worked for years ago, "eating our lunch."
A recent column by David Cay Johnston provided an interesting graphic showing officer compensation as a percentage of corporate profits. In recent years, that percentage has ranged from a low of about 23% in 2005 to a high of about 67% in 2002, with the most recent year, 2008, being about 48%. So for 2008, it is "1 for 'us,' 2 for the shareholders." Now his study extends far beyond the top corporate executives; he's looking at an IRS database that includes nearly 1 million corporate officers, and it may well be that the top, say, 2% of that rarified universe takes a hugely disproportionate share of the total compensation. However, DCJ raises a very important question, which I take to be a challenge that someone in Congress should ask the Congressional Budget Office to look into, to determine whether companies -- particularly nonpublic ones -- are understating officer pay by not filing Schedule E. And he says,
Existing IRS corporate tax reports have for years shown us that fewer than 2,600 megafirms own 81% of all U.S. corporate assets. Another 21,000 firms control most of the rest, leaving just 5.6% of corporate assets that are divvied up among the more than 5.8 million remaining corporations.
The 2008 data show that while almost three million corporate officers show up on company tax returns, only 990,077 Social Security numbers do and of those only 838,551 show up as being paid. That may suggest some owners took no pay in the Great Recession year of 2008, but it also hints at how many officers serve multiple corporations.
The officer pay data show huge variations. Just 70 officers of 1,660 Real Estate Investment Trusts averaged $5.2 million in 2008, while 832 officers of 7,670 property and casualty insurers averaged $3.8 million. At the other end, more than 2.1 million officers of S Corporations averaged just $107,403, though many of them must be officers of multiple corporations.
The FIRE sector. Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. Most Americans, even those who were economics majors in college, don't know the mechanisms by which these parts of the economy get to be such amazing sponges. For the most part, the economics majors learned their economics from instructors whose own education was primarily in neoclassical economics, which only sees two main inputs to production -- Labor and Capital -- and somehow tuck Land in as a minor subset of Capital, rather than recognizing, as the classical economists did, that Land -- locations, natural resources and like things -- is unique and vital. The common wisdom knows "Buy land: they aren't making more of it" but doesn't realize the monstrous and far-reaching corollaries. Who does know? Those whose adult reading experience includes the ideas of Henry George, particularly "Progress and Poverty" and "Social Problems." And "The Science of Political Economy" has a lot to say about vested interests and their effects on economics. (You're likely to find some very quotable material!) All three are online.
Joe Stiglitz, last summer at a talk in Queensland, Australia, made remarks that were reported as follows:
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% 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)."
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:
This was a comment to a recent Paul Krugman blog post, and I thought it worth sharing. (Multiple Google searches did not bring me to any version of it. I'd welcome any further information!)
Here is ancient wisdom about the rich from China...
"When flies attach themselves to the tail of a galloping horse, they move at high speed. But it is difficult for them to efface the shame of being an appendage. When vines entwine themselves around a tall pine, they reach an awesome height. But they cannot erase the disgrace of being a dependent."
The problem seems to be that the rich see themselves as the horse, when in fact they are the flies. The problem seems to be that the rich see themselves as the pine, when in fact they are the vine.
The People of a country are the horse and pine.
Tax the rich... they think their wealth was earned by them... when in fact it was earned by the work of people.
LVTfan here: This doesn't suggest any understanding of the mechanisms by which the rich become rich illegitimately (though legally) through privilege. I invite the curious to explore this blog, and its sibling website wealthandwant.
None of this is to say that bright people who come up with ways to meet human needs and wants should not be able to become wealthy. But to the extent that our rich owe their position to privileges, specialness, we naively grant to some, we need to be examining and eliminating those privileges, or collect from those granted them the value of those privileges, month in and month out. Doing this would level our playing field AND provide a healthy and growing revenue to fund our common spending without depressing our economy.
This article describes how difficult it is for condo owners to sell, since most buyers need mortgages with high loan-to-value (LTV) ratios, and FHA, Fannie and Freddie aren't lending because of rule-making on building approvals. And many buildings prohibit renting one's condo, a particular problem in a city where people rotate from one assignment to another, often in other countries.
It suggests that people with cash offers can get good deals.
Let's consider a different approach to housing. Suppose that, instead of paying taxes on one's wages, sales and building, taxes were shifted over to the value of the land one occupies. Were we to collect the full rental value of the land, in the form of a tax, reducing the selling price of the site to $0 or a token amount, a home, be it a high-rise condo unit or a single-family house, would sell for the depreciated value of the structure. A 2-bedroom, 2 bath condo of 1200 square feet would sell for pretty much the same amount wherever it is, with the buyer taking over the land value tax just as buyers now pick up the responsibility for the conventional property tax.
Buyers would need to borrow a great deal less. A 1200 square foot condo, at a generous $100 per square foot, would sell for $120,000. A 10% down payment on that would be a manageable $12,000. And the $108,000 mortgage could probably be paid off in far less than 30 years, incurring much less interest.
Relieved of taxation on wages and other income, one could afford to pay for the location one chooses, in the form of a monthly or quarterly payment to one's community. One wouldn't expect appreciation of one's housing -- after all, it is a depreciating asset. But assuming one's local government is providing services which others consider worth the price of the rental value of the land, one could expect to sell an attractive house or condo unit fairly quickly, and be able to relocated locally or cross-country in fairly short order.
Housing would no longer be regarded as an investment expected to appreciate. Buyers would enter clear-eyed and realistic, and seek to find the housing that best fits their needs without trying to make an investment.
Perhaps best of all, it would free up capital. We'd no longer be borrowing anything to buy land, so those funds would be available for investment in buildings, equipment and other things that create jobs. And many more of us, I think, would become investors, and would be accumulating resources to see ourselves through our retirement years.
Post Script: It occurs to me that among the first people to benefit from this measure, were it to be enacted in Washington, DC, would be our incoming congressmen, senators and their aides, who could afford housing, whether they were coming from a rich district or a poor one, whether they had tremendous fortune, or barely enough for a down payment. They could afford their own home, without living with roommates on C Street, or sleeping on their congressional couch and showering down the hall, as some impecunious or loudly frugal members of Congress choose to. And they would become conscious of how much of the cost of living in a city is payment for the location itself -- which should benefit all of their constituents, be they in blue counties or red ones. (And it might be interesting to look at how many blue cities there are.)
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.
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.
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.
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.