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!
This quote came across my inbox today, and I thought it worth sharing:
“We operate from the concept of ‘shalom,’” Forrister said when he reported on that meeting to The Huntsville Times. “’Shalom’ means more than the absence of war, it means the well-being of all. Ezekiel said to seek the ‘shalom’ of the city you’re in – and he was writing to people in exile in Babylon. We’re to seek the good of the whole community, of all of society.”
I came very slowly to the point of view that the nature of the ways we fund our common spending is at least as important as the spending side of the budget. That taxation can be destructive or constructive. That it can be used to create vital healthy communities or ones in which wealth and power concentrate into a few hands.
I grew up with the benefit of grandparents who understood this, and I still didn't "get it" until well after they were gone. Certainly my college education didn't provide me any glimpses of it, despite being concentrated in fields in and around it. I hope that others who are seekers after peace -- after Shalom -- will investigate what Henry George's "Remedy" -- land value taxation -- has to offer for their community and their country.
And here's the final paragraph from the email that the first quote came from:
Taking care of each other is simple kindness, not something sinister, said Forrister, who was trained as a Church of Christ minister.
“Thinking about looking out for the common good is not socialism,” Forrister said. “Capitalism has to be tempered by social policy that responds to human needs that capitalism won’t respond to.”
Our current form of capitalism is, among other things, land monopoly capitalism. Were we to remove the land monopoly aspect, through land value taxation, we would have a purer capitalism, one which I think would better serve the ideals we claim to hold dear.
The historical fact that land values have been privately appropriated and that this practice has been sanctioned for many generations does not alter its inherent inequity: an ethical wrong is not converted into a right by the benediction of time or of social sufferance.
If the present generation becomes conscious of an old injustice, is it powerless to seek redress? "New time" it has been said, "oft makes ancient good uncouth."
This was in a booklet published in the early 1960s.
The Ethics of Land-Value Taxation
Louis Wasserman, Ph. D., Professor of Philosophy and Government, San Francisco State College
The question, briefly stated, is this: Should the owners of land whose rent and increments would be partially or wholly confiscated by a program of land-value taxation be compensated for their losses?
We are not bound here by what Henry George thought about the matter; nevertheless, there is probably no better position from which to launch our consideration. The answer given by the father of the Single Tax was clear and explicit: No, the landowners should not receive compensation.
Why not? Since George made so much of social justice -- asserting it as the basis of his whole scheme -- upon what grounds could he justify the confiscation of landed wealth? The answer is implicit in the very essence of his social analysis. Let us turn to his argument.
What, George asks, is the moral basis of property -- any kind of property? And he replies that this basis is to be found in the use of a man's powers to produce something of value; once he has done so, the product is henceforth his to use, to dispose of, to exchange into any tangible or intangible form. The right to property, then, is the right to the fruit of one's labor.
But this, he continues, is precisely not the situation with regard to landed property. The raw land is not produced by any man's labor: it was there before the advent of man, it is the bounty of nature to all men in common, and it is literally the foundation upon which they exert their labors. And just as the raw land is created by nature, so the value it acquires as real property is due to society as a whole -- to the growth of the community with its services, its needs, and its uses. As community-created value, then, the rental and increment derived from the natural land ought to be appropriated by the community at large and used for public purposes.
Just as a man, then, has the full right to the products of his own labor -- say a house he has built or has purchased with his earnings -- so no individual has the right to the land itself, which he has had no hand in creating and whose value is due to the aggregate of community efforts rather than to that of any single person within it. The historical fact that land values have been privately appropriated and that this practice has been sanctioned for many generations does not alter its inherent inequity: an ethical wrong is not converted into a right by the benediction of time or of social sufferance.
This, in brief, is the rationale of Henry George's appeal for the socialization of land values. It is couched in terms of natural rights, and its fundamental premise is the labor theory of property, viz., that the only true source of private property, its ethical justification, rests in the labor by which it was produced, whatever direct or indirect form it takes.
That there are practical weaknesses in this view is, of course, apparent. The labor theory of property has been shelved, since the nineteenth century, in favor of more complex and sophisticated analyses of wealth production, and it can no longer be accepted as a self-evident proposition. Moreover, the theory of natural rights upon which it rests -- although stubbornly recurrent in Western thought -- enjoys at present only a limited vogue among moderns; there is too much disagreement on specifics and, no matter what its form, such a concept is regarded as too rigid for social purposes.
Nevertheless, if we are to seek for an ethical justification for private property it is unlikely that we can find anything better than the labor theory. It is no argument against the ethical rightness of that theory that it has been historically superseded by another, or that it is insufficient to account for the complexity of the productive process, or that the division of labor has made unintelligible the product of any individual worker. No matter how greatly production has become socialized or in what manner its rewards have come to be partitioned, the irreducible element remains that of individual labor, the contribution of the hand or brain of each producer to the material and equipment at hand. It is not enough for a theory of property simply to describe its character and distribution; there must be an explanation to account for the phenomenon and some social ethical criterion to justify it. I am aware of no ethical theory, ancient or modern, religious or secular, which would deny explicit or implicit approval to the labor theory of property.
But perhaps it will be argued against any such ethical contention that private property is simply what a society has caused it to be, and that since a society is the sole source of its own ethics, the matter ends there. What then, it may be asked, is used to justify the institution: force, fraud, custom, tradition? Each of these may have its weighty explanation, but what can be said of its ethical sanction? At worst, that it has been imposed, willy-nilly; and, at best, that it represents a social arrangement sanctified by age, legality, and expectation. But the history of property, as idea, usage, and institution, is so heterogeneous among so many cultures of the past and present that the term itself can be taken to mean only that which current convention decrees it to mean. Perhaps, then, property may be best conceived, to use the phrase of Walton Hamilton, as "a conditional equity in the valuables of the community."
If -- setting aside the natural rights theory -- the ethical test of land-ownership and increment is taken to be a matter of social convention or utility, the whole issue is, of course, thrown open for social evaluation by each generation.
The present condition is that most of the usable raw land in the United States is held privately; it has been obtained by purchase, gift, or inheritance; it enriches its owners by way of direct use, rental income, or profitable sale; the community siphons off part of this income in the form of an annual property tax or, when the land is sold at a profit, by a capital gains tax.
Now, the most extreme land-value tax proposal provides that this levy upon the rental value of the raw land be increased gradually until it approximates the full rental income; at the same time, tax levies on personal property, improvements, and as many other taxes as possible would be abolished.
What ethical considerations are involved in this proposal? If we are to reject any "higher law" criteria, such as that of Henry George, we must revert to the test of "social utility" or some restatement thereof. How are the ethics of social utility to be tested in our society? The answer is quite simple: Social approval of any established practice is expressed by sheer inertia or by the rejection of proposed change; the reform of any established practice is engineered by the majority through democratic procedures. To put it starkly, the ethical judgment with respect to any social change is transformed into a political decision.
We are all, of course, familiar with the democratic political process, but it is worth recapitulation to see how a social consensus may be reached on such an issue as land-value taxation. We start with the theoretical foundations of popular sovereignty and government by consent of the governed. The working machinery includes representative bodies, public-interest groups, freedom of expression, and the media of communication employed to shape public opinion. Since every tax proposal is a matter of public policy, it must necessarily be discussed and legislated by the appropriate public body -- i.e., the state legislature, county board of supervisors, city council, or the like. Sober attention must be paid in all such cases to the variety of interests, needs, motives, preferences, and other relevant factors in the affected community in order to shape a policy which attains its purpose and yet does not alienate too seriously any important segment of the population. The final result, as registered in the legislative chamber or at the polls, is what we come to accept as public policy.
It would be too harsh a judgment to infer from the foregoing description of the democratic process that the sheer weight of numbers over-rides all consideration of private preferences. What happens instead is that personal convictions, individual ethics, and material interests are mingled and measured and tested against each other in the give-and-take of public controversy; the result is a kind of rough-hewn, but acceptable, consensus which alone can make a community viable. It is this broad consensus -- the specified or implicit assumption that the policy to be enacted is a contribution to the common welfare -- which defines the realm of social ethics in public policy making.
Nor is this political approach to be regarded cynically or derided as unworthy of decent folk. The social ethic of American society is tightly bound to the prescriptions of our prevailing Judeo-Christian and democratic-humanistic traditions, and we may draw from that source as much in the form of ideal moral principles as we are humanly able to practice. If we cannot agree upon common aims, we are at least the inheritors of a tradition of fair play as to means; and if the nature of justice is a matter of great dispute among us, we are still guided by what Edmond Cahn describes as the "sense of injustice" -- that is, a consciousness of wrongdoing and the commitment to abstain therefrom.
The social ethic of a democratic society is continually being created and revised through public dialogue, political action, and law. It is necessary only to mention such illustrations as our attitudes regarding crime and punishment, treatment of our Negro population, the status of labor unions, sex information and birth control, the training of children, the prerogatives of women, and indeed the ameliorative role of taxation, to have us realize its progressively changing character. Through the use of the democratic process the social ethic emerges as a sort of mean between the extremes of private ideals and private irresponsibility. And it is worthy of mention that not infrequently the law itself nudges us into forms of behavior more ethical than we would exercise if left to our own dispositions.
Now, taxation policy inherently affects the general welfare of a community; and the social ethics of our society have for a long time recognized a distinction (despite certain weaknesses in definition) between earned and unearned incomes. Taxing policies in the form of differential rates and other incentives have been used here and in many other countries deliberately to foster, or to discourage, certain social-economic developments. A strong case can be made, in general, for taxation as a social instrument.
There was a time when the income tax did not exist at all in this country; then it was voted in, first as law, later as a constitutional amendment. At its present steeply progressive rates, the income tax may "confiscate" up to 91 percent of excessively high earnings. But, whatever the rate applicable, it is levied predominantly upon wages, salaries, and other forms of productive enterprise. Would an increased tax upon the socially created value of the natural land be less equitable or less lacking in ethical propriety?
I am, accordingly, unable to find any ethical barrier -- either of higher law principles or of social utility -- raised against the proposal to recapture more fully the rental income and increased increment of the land. There is, indeed, a strong rationale in its favor, especially since it would lead to the reduction of more burdensome taxes. The problem is one of social engineering; it is a decision to be reached solely upon its merits in the political realm.
That there is now, and will be, strenuous opposition to such a program is of course only too clearly evident. Without assuming the mantle of righteousness in prejudging the conduct of others, I would nevertheless venture to say that the main difficulties in enacting land-value taxation will stem principally from the following groups. First, and most importantly, opposition will come from those who derive their incomes wholly or primarily from landholdings and from speculative profits thereon. No argument concerning indirect, long-range benefits to them and others would suffice to soften their antagonism unless they stood to gain equally from a lightening of other taxes. Then there is the large group whose simple inertia would inhibit any such contentious reform in taxation policy. It is difficult to enlighten and energize this inert portion of any community unless the immediate benefits are made clearly, directly, and concretely self-evident to them. For this group there is no sharp sensitivity to the ethics of land-value taxation, pro or con. Finally, there are those in every community who have no vested interest in the change one way or the other but whose notions of propriety, of ethics, of the right to profit-making, or of general antipathy to government and reform would lead them to reject such a proposal on what are essentially ideological grounds.
If the result at the ballot box is to approve a measure to increase the tax rate on land values, it could not be denied that the social ethics had thus been expressed in a democratic manner. Similarly, if the tax increase is defeated (as has been true most often in the past), it would properly imply that the social ethics of the community did not then sanction such a proposal.
But we have so far left untouched the critical issue with which we began this discussion: that is, whether compensation should be paid to landowners whose rental incomes or increments are seriously impaired or expropriated as a consequence of the increased tax. Even if it be granted that land values ought, ab initio, to have been recaptured in full by the community for public revenue, the fact remains that they were not. And upon this practice of private ownership and appropriation there has been reared an institutional complex long approved and sanctioned by law. The present owners of land, it may be assumed, received or purchased their land in good faith and contractual expectations, often with capital acquired through alternative income channels. Are they, then, to be penalized for an ancient wrong -- if wrong it was -- which has been sanctified by the common usage of earlier generations?
But the counterquestion to this is even more cogent: If the present generation becomes conscious of an old injustice, is it powerless to seek redress? "New time" it has been said, "oft makes ancient good uncouth."
The answer, in practical terms, is to be found in the equity which can be extended to those who suffer most from social-political innovations. This is a matter to be determined by a commission of inquiry into the effects of the legislation; it should be in the minds of the legislators who draft the reform proposal; the nature of the equity to be granted will depend upon the provisions of the tax measure; and it will be affected by the give-and-take of the political process in which opposing groups make themselves heard.
Every public policy confers differential advantages and disadvantages upon those who are touched by its provisions. A decent respect for equity in the present matter, then, requires that the proponents of land-value taxation exercise their utmost ingenuity and technical skill -- not to provide direct compensation as such, but rather to devise fiscal and administrative measures to cushion the shock and to ameliorate the condition of those who stand to lose most severely by the action contemplated.
I do not make this suggestion in a spirit of vague and wishful penance for what is not certain, in practice, to be realized. Rather, I would recall to us all the wide range of creative and imaginative variations already proposed or practiced in fiscal policies and their administration, through which provision might be made without penalty to the community, for economic equivalents, direct or indirect, to landowners adversely affected by proposed land-value taxation.
The adoption of such provisions, I believe, would not only satisfy our social conscience but would do much to make land-value taxation politically possible.
How might smarter taxation be able to help Baltimore? Here's a great answer from Bill Peirce:
Steve H. Hanke and Stephen J.K. Walters explain in "How Sunday's NFL Cities Became Champs" (op-ed, Jan. 21) the recent economic success of New York, San Francisco and Boston (relative to Baltimore) by property tax limitation. Their point could have been strengthened by carrying the tax capitalization analysis one step further.
The authors point out that a decrease in the tax levied on a building results in a larger stream of net income from that building, which justifies a higher value for the building. When the existing building is worth more than the cost of building a new one, buildings will be renewed and replaced and the city thrives. That is a good argument for eliminating the tax on buildings, but cities still need revenue and they can tax the value of the land without hindering development because the quantity of land is fixed. The problem with limiting property taxes as a whole is that cities or states have resorted to more damaging taxes, including income and sales taxes. Shifting from a conventional property tax to a land-value tax would allow cities to support themselves without damaging the incentives for growth.
The reader of a book review will rightly want to know the ideology of the reviewer. Very well: being of Georgist persuasion, I divide the "means of production" into two categories: those that can be produced or reproduced by competitors, and those that can't. On the former category, I'm as far Right as you can get, believing that such assets should be privately owned and exempt from tax, to encourage capital formation.
That brings us to the other category of "means of production" -- assets that can't be produced or reproduced by competitors. Georgists contend that the market values of such assets, being publicly created, are the proper source of public revenue. The most important example is land, whose value can be tapped by means of rates, "land tax" and "capital gains" tax.
Hazlitt doesn't have "land" in the index.
In three places in the text (ss. 11.4, 15.2 and 16.2), he lists the factors of production as land, labour and capital, but doesn't distinguish between them for purposes of argument. In s.16.2 he also mentions the "poorest land", "least competent farmers" (labour) and "poorest equipment" (capital), but again doesn't distinguish further.
Similarly in the chapter on credit, he doesn't care whether borrowed funds are spent on farms (land) or tractors (capital).
In s.15.2 he adds that for an economy in "equilibrium", these factors are limited "at any moment", thus glossing over the fact that the supply of capital can build up or decay. Although Hazlitt is usually said to be of the Austrian school, this snapshot view of "equilibrium" is neoclassical, not Austrian; it was pioneered by J.B. Clark for the purpose of making capital look like land, so that land could be called a form of capital. Hazlitt includes Clark in his recommended reading list.
Earlier (s.6.2), Hazlitt cites the "limited" supply of capital as an argument against government-guaranteed home mortgages, claiming that they cause "oversupply of houses as compared with other things" -- not that they pump up land prices.
But he mentions the need for capital accumulation elsewhere, especially in the chapter on saving, where his examples of "capital" include schools, colleges, churches, libraries, hospitals, private homes, and "the most wonderfully equipped factory", all of which include land components. This conflation of capital and land is neoclassical.
In contrast, Austrian economists emphasize that capital, unlike land, must be constantly renewed, that its life cycle may be long or short, and that loose monetary policy causes overinvestment in long-life capital, whose value then collapses, contributing to recessions.
Meanwhile Georgists notice that recessions follow bursting "property bubbles", which are really land bubbles because land prices, unlike prices of buildings (prime examples of "long-life capital"), are not constrained by construction costs.
Hazlitt's failure to make these distinctions may explain why his explanation for depressions (s.23.5) is so vague: "the real causes, most of the time, are maladjustments within the wage-cost-price structure... At some point these maladjustments have removed the incentive to produce, or have made it actually impossible for production to continue... Not until these maladjustments are corrected can full production and employment be resumed." All clear now?
Those who call themselves free-traders too often fail to apply their own standards to trade within their own countries. Witness those misnamed "free trade agreements" in which each country promises to impose the other's monopolies on its own citizens.
Hazlitt falls into this error in chapter 4, where he considers an extra bridge between Easton and Weston and declares that "For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers." Not necessarily, because any such bridge will lower barriers to trade between Easton and Weston, especially the indispensable trade between employers and employees.
The benefit of the additional trade, net of any bridge tolls, will be shown in prices of access to locations served by the bridge -- in other words, land values. If the benefit exceeds the cost, it will be possible to cover the cost by clawing back a sufficient fraction of the uplift in land values, in which case the cost, although clawed back through the tax system, will not be "taken away from the taxpayers" but will be part of the new value created by the bridge.
The rest of that new value will be a net windfall to the property owners.
Hazlitt then turns to the Norris Dam (a New Deal project) and rubbishes the claim that "private capital could not have built it", because it was indeed built by private capital "expropriated in taxes... taken from people all over the country", causing the loss of "the private power plants, the private homes, the typewriters and television sets" that the expropriated funds might otherwise have bought. Thus the people of one district got richer at the expense of the rest of the country.
But it didn't have to be done that way. The earlier Don Pedro dam (completed 1923) was built by two Californian irrigation districts and financed entirely by local land-value taxes. The affected land owners were fiercely in favour of it because they knew the increase in their land values would outweigh the taxes. Even if the land-value taxes had been imposed by a higher level of government, the financing of the dam would still have been local, because only the local land values would have been affected by it. Private capital did not build it, because the uplift in land values that paid for it would not have occurred without it. Private agencies could not have organized it, because they would have had no way of tapping the uplifts in land values.
With an eye to current debates, I should conclude by praising Hazlitt for an insight that his latter-day admirers have ignored.
In explaining why "Taxes Discourage Production" (chapter 5), he says:
"When a corporation loses a hundred cents of every dollar it loses, and is permitted to keep only 52 cents of every dollar it gains, and when it cannot adequately offset its years of losses against its years of gains, its policies are affected." If individual investors "lose the whole dollar when they lose, but can keep only a fraction of it when they win," they are less likely to take risks.
In the files I've been digging through, from the late 50s to the early 80s, I found an early draft of a fine paper by Mason Gaffney about California's Proposition 13, for presentation at an August, 1978 conference. I dug around and found a published copy of that paper, and think it worth sharing here. Original title, "Tax Limitation: Proposition 13 and Its Alternatives"
First, a few of my favorite paragraphs, which I hope will whet your appetite for the whole paper. I won't attempt to provide the context (you can pick that up when you continue to the paper, below).
"There is a deferment option for the elderly, bearing only 7% interest (which is about the annual rate of inflation). In California, as also in Oregon and British Columbia, hardly anyone takes advantage of this deferment option. This fact, it seems to me, rather calls the bluff of those who so freely allege that the woods are full of widows with insoluble cash-flow problems, widows who are losing their houses to the sheriff and whose heirs presumptive, will not help keep the property, which they will eventually inherit."
We hear a lot these days about cutting the fat out of the public sector; but there is fat in the private sector too. I interpret "fat" to mean paying someone for doing nothing, or for doing nothing useful. Most economists agree that payments to people. for holding title to land is nonfunctional income, since the land was created by nature, secured by the nation's armed forces, improved by public spending, and enhanced by the progress of society. "Economic rent" is the economist's term, but in Jarvis-talk we may call it the fat of the land or "land-fat." It has also been called unearned increment, unjust enrichment, and other unflattering names. Howard Jarvis has said that the policeman or fireman who risks his life protecting the property of others has his "nose in the public trough." But it has seemed to generations of economists that the owner whose land rises in value because public spending builds an 8-lane freeway from, let us say, Anaheim to Riverside, and carries water from the Feather River to San Diego, is the first to have his nose in the trough. Nineteenth-century English economists who worked this out were more decorous. They said things like "landlords grow rich in their sleep" (John Stuart Mill), or the value of land is a "public value" (Alfred Marshall) because the public, not the owner, gives it value.
Some 43% of the value of taxable real estate in California is land value. When we lower the property tax we are untaxing not only buildings, but also land-fat.
The ownership of property is highly concentrated, much more so than the receipt of income. Economists in recent years are increasingly saying that the property tax is, after all, progressive because the base is so concentrated, and because so little of it can be shifted. But this message has not yet reached many traditional political action groups who continue to repeat the old refrains. Two remedies are in order.
One is to collect and publish data on the concentration of ownership of real estate. The facts are simply overwhelming and need only to be disseminated.
The second remedy is to note how strikingly little of the Proposition 13 dividend is being passed on to renters. This corroborates the belief of economists that the property tax rests mainly on the property owner where it originally falls, and not on the renter.
A high percentage of real property is owned from out of state and even out of the country. The percentage is much higher than we may think. It is not just Japanese banks and the Arabs in Beverly Hills. It is corporate-held property which comprises almost half the real estate tax base. If we assume that California's share of the stockholders equals California's share of the national population, then 90% of this property is absentee-owned; the percentage may be higher because many of these, after all, are multinational corporations with multinational ownership.
No one seems to have seized on the fact that half the taxable property in California is owned by people not voting in the state. Senator Russell Long has suggested the following principle of taxation: "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that man behind the tree." Property tax advocates have done well in the past and should do well again in the future when they make their slogan: "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that unregistered absentee. Don't tax your voters, they'll retaliate; tax those stiffs from out of state." Chauvinism and localism can be ugly and counterproductive, as we know; but here is one instance where they may be harnessed to help create a more healthy society. The purpose of democracy is to represent the electorate, not the absentee who stands between the resident and the resources of his homeland.
California's legislative analyst, William Hamm, estimates that over 50% of the value of taxable property in California is absentee-owned. This is such a bold, bare, and enormous fact it is hard to believe that Californians will long resist the urge to levy taxes on all this foreign wealth. They may be put off by the argument that they need to attract outside capital, but that carries no weight when considering the large percentage of this property which is land value.
Property income is generally more beneficial to the receiver than is the same income from wages or salaries, because the property owner does not have to work for it.
Property, particularly land, has been bought and sold for years on the understanding that it was encumbered with peculiar social obligations. These are, in effect, part of our social contract. They compensate those who have been left out. Black activists have laid great stress in recent years on the importance of getting a few people into medical and other professional schools. Does it not make more sense that the landless black people should have, through the property tax, the benefit of some equity in the nation's land from which their ancestors were excluded while others were cornering the supply?
A popular theme these last few years is that property owners should pay only for services to property, narrowly construed. Who, then, is to pay for welfare — the cripples? Who is to pay for schooling — the children? Who should sacrifice for the blacks — Allan Bakke? Who should finance our national defense — unpaid conscripts? The concept that one privileged group of takers can exempt itself from the giving obligations of life denies that we are a society at all.
Here is, perhaps, my favorite:
We can ask that a single standard be applied to owners troubled by higher taxes and to tenants troubled by higher rents. When widow A is in tax trouble, it is time to turn to hearts and flowers, forebode darkly, curse oppressive government, and demand tax relief. When widow B has trouble with escalating rents, that touches a different button. You have to be realistic about welfare bums who play on your sympathy so they can tie up valuable property. You have to pay the bank, after all. A man will grit his teeth and do what he must: garnishee her welfare check. If that is too little, give notice. Finally, you can call the sheriff and go to the beach until it's over. That's what we pay taxes for. Welfare is their problem.
Anyway, widow B is not being forced out of her own house, like widow A and so many like her. Jarvis said that taxes are forcing three million Californians from their homes this year. But in truth, while evictions of tenants are frequent, sheriff's sales of homes are rare. Those who do sell ("because of taxes," they say, as well as all their other circumstances) usually cash out handsomely, which is, after all, why their taxes had gone up.
Then there is the fruit tree anomaly. Under Proposition 13, a tree can only be assessed at its value when planted, with a 2% annual increment. The value of a seed thrown in the ground or even a sapling planted from nursery stock is so small compared with the mature tree that this is virtual exemption. This anomaly rather graphically illustrates how Proposition 13 automatically favors any appreciating property over depreciating property. The greatest gain here goes, of course, to appreciating land.
Finally, build no surpluses. Surpluses attract raiders and raiders are often organized landowners. "Property never sleeps," said the jurist Sir William Blackstone. "One eye is always open." Even though the surplus was built up by taxing income, Howard Jarvis made it seem the most righteous thing in the world that it should be distributed to property owners. He was geared up for this because his landlord patrons kept him constantly in the field.
Economists of many generations even before Adam Smith and continuing to the present — have preached on the advantages of land as a tax base. Let me enumerate a few of those.
A tax on land value is the only tax known to man which is both progressive and favorable to incentives. One can wax lyrical only about a tax that combines these two properties, because the conflict between progressivity and incentives has baffled tax practitioners for centuries, and still baffles them today.
A land tax is progressive because the ownership of the base is highly concentrated, much more so than income and even more so than the ownership of machines and improvements.
Also, the tax on land values cannot be shifted to the consumer. The tax stimulates effort and investment because it is a fixed charge based merely on the passage of time.
It does not rise when people work harder or invest money in improvements. Think about this. It is remarkable. With the land tax, there is no conflict but only harmony between progressivity in taxation and incentives to work and invest. In one stroke it solves one of the central divisive conflicts of all time.
The land tax does that because it cuts only the fat, not the muscle. It takes from the taxpayer only "economic rent," only the income he gets for doing nothing. If people could grasp this one overriding idea, then the whole sterile, counterproductive, endless impasse between conservatives who favor incentives and liberals who favor welfare would be resolved in a trice, and we could get on to higher things.
The final paragraphs speak directly to us in 2012. 34 years have passed since this was written.
Summing up, Walter Rybeck, an administrative assistant for Congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin, and head of the League for Urban Land Conservation, has sagely suggested that we distinguish two functions of business: wealth-creating and resource-holding. A good tax system will not make people pay for creating wealth but simply for holding resources. Most taxes wait on a "taxable event" — they shoot anything that moves, while sparing those who just sit still on their resources.
If we really want to revive the work ethic and put the United States back on its feet, we had better take steps to change the effect of taxes on incentives. Legislatures have got in the habit of acting as though persons with energy and talent, and with character for self-denial, should be punished, as if guilty of some crime against humanity. We cannot study the tax laws without inferring that Congress regards giving and receiving employment to be some kind of social evil, like liquor and tobacco, to be taxed and discouraged by all means not inconsistent with the rights of property. Little wonder the natives are getting restless. If we tax people for holding resources rather than creating wealth and serving each others' needs, we will be taking a giant step toward a good and healthy society.
If your appetite is whetted by these excerpts, you can read the entire article below:
It is frequently pointed out by Georgists that there are no really good rebuttals to land value taxation.
This excerpt from a 1971 letter to my grandfather from a colleague describes where the opposition comes from:
There may be be no "arguments that actually oppose LVT" as Bill says, but there are plenty of people who not only actually but actively oppose it. These are the people who are making hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the unearned increments land speculation gets as a result of land being so undertaxed that the landowner puts up only a trifling share of the enormous community investment needed to make his land reachable, livable and readily saleable. Of 7 million-odd New Yorkers I would guess that perhaps 70,000 people profit by today's misapplication of the property tax while 7 million lose by it, but the problem is that the 7 million have no idea of what they are losing while the 70,000 jolly well know that they have a good thing going for them and fight to keep it.
I've been trying for a year to get my friend, J___ C___, past president of the Realtors and Chairman of the Realtors Economic Research Committee to stop fighting LVT, but he keeps coming back to how his father bought some land near San Diego for $20 an acre before 1900 and sold it for $4,000 an acre around 1950 and his father could not have held it all that time if he had had to pay more than a nominal tax.
I don't think anyone should take the equity argument seriously. Just because the ownership of underused land has been subsidized for years does not entitle its owners to expect the subsidy to be continued forever, and likewise, for those who bought land in the expectation that the subsidy would be permanent. The equity objection to increasing the tax on land would apply almost equally to any other tax increase.
A week later, another letter includes this:
Just because landowners have had a wonderful subsidy racket going for them in the past should not give them any claim on having that subsidy continue ad infinitum. I do agree with Lowell that the transition to LVT would raise problems, and in any area with a high tax rat on property I can see that the transition would have to be staggered over a period of years, probably not less than five or more than ten, dpending on how big a tax rate was to be shifted off improvement values onto location values.
In the same file, a copy of a 1969 letter from the same person to Lowell (Harriss):
I don't see how tripling the tax on land could fail to force almost all owners of underused land to get busy and put it to better use. Conversely, I don't see how taking the equivalent of a 51% sales tax off improvements could fail to be a tremendous stimulant to improvements. If a 7% Federal tax credit on improvements was so effective, what would wiping out a 50% tax do!
Our argument for justice and liberty -- the doctrines of Henry George -- depends upon successfully synthesizing the social sciences and philosophy. Our scientific work in this area builds us a rostrum from which we can teach the fundamental principles of ethical democracy. ...
As Georgists we are interested
in establishing site value taxes and taxes on the economic rent of other resources,
in determining the economic and social impacts of all other taxes and constructing an intelligent tax system that abolishes speculation and unearned incomes and encourages productive labor, progressive entrepreneurship and socially progressive investments, while bearing the least heavily on labor and capital;
in promoting the free flow of goods, ideas and people across all boundaries, local and national;
in reducing State intervention in the economy and society to the minimum and developing effective and socially oriented self regulation in all occupations, professions and industries;
in reviving mutual aid and substituting it for State aid in the solution of economic, social and personal problems;
in establishing equality of opportunity in all areas of economic and social life and in ridding the economy and society of all vestiges of monopoly and privilege.
In a word, we seek to make it possible for each individual to become a free person developing his faculties to the highest in an ethical democratic free society.
Another bit from the old files, this a Wellington, New Zealand, newspaper article, from the Evening Post, dated March 14, 1962. The files have an itinerary for V. G. Peterson, starting with 2 days in Honolulu, continuting to 14 days in Wellington, 11 in Melbourne, 14 in Sydney, 2 in Singapore, 3 in Bangkok, 1 in Bombay, 5 in New Delhi, 5 in Caiiro, 6 in Athens, 2 each in Madrid and Barcelona, and 4 in Worcestershire, England. Quite a trip!
American 'Townie' of Walter Nash
One of the highlights of her present visit to Wellington has been, for Mrs. V. G. Peterson, of New York, meeting the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Nash), whose birthplace, Habberly Valley, Kidderminster, was also Mrs. Peterson's home.
"When Mr. Nash visited his birthplace some years ago, he was made a freeman of Kidderminster," recalled Mrs. Peterson. "The town regards him as one of its most illustrious people and is very proud of him."
Another interest that Mrs. Peterson shares with Mr. Nash is finance. Since graduating from Columbia University, New York, where her father immigrated from England, Mrs. Peterson has enjoyed an interestingly responsible career as an administrator, and has been concerned to a high degree both with fund-raising and land taxation as the executive secretary of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.
Mrs. Peterson is interested particularly in the land taxation problem as put forward by Henry George, the Single Taxer, American economist and philosopher, who died in 1897. He wrote several books on the subject which the Schalkenbach Foundation keeps in print and which are of particular interest in academic studies and seminars.
Henry George believed that land, being the basis of all wealth, should be made available for the best and highest use, to any person who wished to use it. He believed that if land values were taxed it would be impracticable for any person to hold more land than he could profitably use and therefore land would be made more easily available for the use of all people.
In Australia and New Zealand taxes are paid on the value of the land and not, as in America, on the improved value.
Mrs. Peterson said that this had the effect of having more and better buildings and the absence of slums. "I have not seen any slums such as the larger American cities know, since I have been in New Zealand," she said.
One purpose of Mrs. Peterson's visit is to arrange for an academic study of how this method of taxation has worked out in the Dominion.
So far, she says, she has not had much success in this objective as inadequate teaching staffs make it difficult for any other programmes outside of the usual university studies. Such a survey, Mrs. Peterson said, would be of great value to the American economy.
"In America today there is an awakening interest in land value taxation," she said, and the question is asked, why, with such vast areas, private enterprise cannot get land it can pay for, for housing purposes. As a result the Government has recommended subsidising housing.
N. Z. independence
"I am greatly impressed with New Zealand. Just how healthy everybody looks and the sense of independence evident among the people has taken me by surprise," Mrs Peterson said. She has also been tremendously impressed with the fact that tipping is not a custom here and with the reply of a porter in another city when unthinkingly offered a tip -- "We earn a living wage here. We do not have to take tips."
Mrs. Peterson will address strong groups of Henry George followers in Melbourne and Sydney after leaving New Zealand on Saturday.
I'm reading through some of my grandparents' files of correspondence; they were great correspondents, and kept carbons of their outgoing letters and originals of what they received. This is an excerpt from a 1957 letter from the executive secretary of a foundation which sponsored my grandfather's work, Vie Peterson (also a wonderful correspondent!) and was written in response to a draft of a document he was assembling as an introduction to Henry George. (A much later version of that paper is available here.)
"Should we elaborate why George insisted on one tax? He felt that the economic rent of land was the true national income. He felt any tax on production was a form of penalty on man's industry and thrift. He felt that every step forward that man makes in raising himself and in improving civilization as a whole would be reflected in land values and provide an increasing source of revenue which he believed would be sufficient for the national needs. As a family lives on a set income, George believed that a nation should do likewise. It would be necessary, it seems to me, to indicate that at the present time with the national debt so high and with other complications a tax on land values alone might not be sufficient, but the purpose of this statement is to show what George had in mind in his day which was not burdened with debt as is our own?
In another, slightly earlier, letter, Vie writes,
"... George believed that easy access to land would overcome unemployent, would eliminate reliance on government aid, and therefore simplify government structure, etc. "
This sermon identifies a/the source of something I posted a few days ago. It also fits in well with the "Earth for All" Calendar.
Man and Mother Earth Albert H. Jenkins [A sermon delivered at the Davies Memorial Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C., 7 October, 1962. Published by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation]
When Khrushchev was here several years ago, he repeatedly said that in the United States "capitalism has replaced feudalism." Our newspapers and most of us accepted that statement as a self-evident fact, but I believe Khrushchev was mistaken.
I believe feudalism persists here in the midst of capitalism, and from this, I believe there flows a moral and economic wrong so enormous and fundamental that it is poisoning our human relations and destroying our civilization as it has destroyed other great civilizations in the past.
Of course, we do not have the outward and visible signs of ancient feudalism -- publicly recognized categories of kings, nobles and serfs. But though feudalism was a social system, it was basically an economic system also. It was the power of some men to command the labor of others through the ownership of land -- the Mother Earth of us all.
Does that power still exist today, right here in our own country as well as in others? If so, to what extent and with what results? Before we attempt to answer these questions, let us be good scientists and get our definitions straight. Let us get our mental feet on the ground and start from there.
For that purpose, we have the simple visual aids you see before you. The first is a global map of the earth. It represents what the economists call LAND.
That term includes not only the earth's surface, which is what most people think of as land, but also all of Mother Earth's other natural resources -- oil, natural gas, ores and minerals, water, and even the air we breathe. Everything on which and from which man lives and without which he cannot live, is LAND.
You will recognize the second visual aid as Rodin's "Thinker." However, I had our cartoonist put a suit of blue overalls on him. That is because he represents man as a worker of hand or of brain, or both. In short, he is what economists call LABOR.
LABOR, working on land - the surface of the earth and its natural resources - produces what is called CAPITAL. This term is represented by the railroad locomotive in the third visual aid.
CAPITAL, in the economic and real sense, is not money, nor stocks, nor bonds. It is factories, machines, railroads, trucks, ships -- anything which, after it has been produced from land, is used for further production, transportation or distribution of either capital goods or consumer goods.
Of this economic triumvirate -- land, labor and capital -- the most fundamental is LAND, because it is the source of everything else. Yet, nowadays, the land factor is almost forgotten in our economic controversies. That is understandable for several reasons.
First, in our complicated civilization, most of us are out of touch with land. It is buried under buildings and pavements in our cities. And everything we buy from outside our cities comes to us so many steps removed from the land that we seldom think of the source -- our Mother Earth.
Second, the most continuous and conspicuous economic controversies today are between labor and what labor thinks of as "capital" --the owners and managers of industry and business. Workers are in direct contact with employers in their daily lives, and winning wage raises and fringe benefits is the "bread and butter" of labor leaders.
Likewise, employers are constantly pressed by "labor problems," which concern them obviously and directly.
So it is natural that workers and employers seldom stop to think that the economic share they are quarreling about is what is left after landowners and land speculators have taken their portion, which comes first because they control the source of all things, and labor and capital can produce only by buying their permission to use the land.
That brings us to our fourth and last visual aid, this sketch. The water pouring into the bucket represents the hard-earned fruits of labor and capital working together in all stages of production. The water going out through the hole in the side of the bucket represents the unearned tribute taken by the modern feudal landlords. They get their share first. What is left in the bottom of the bucket is what labor and capital must divide between them. They quarrel over it, not realizing that both are being robbed by a third party who contributes nothing to production. Obviously, when someone gets something for nothing, someone else gets nothing for something.
Now, as our next step toward answering the question whether feudalism persists in the midst of capitalism, note this well, for it is the first of two key points:
No man created the land -- the earth. It was here millions of years before any man lived. Therefore, no man has a moral or an economic right to say to others: "Pay me for the privilege of living on the earth and using its natural resources."
The second key point is this: No man creates the money value of the land he owns. That value is created by the needs and deeds of all the people in the community and the nation, in both their private and their public capacities.
As more people are born in or move into a community, the price of the land in and around that community goes up because more people need it to live on, to buy for houses, factories, shops and other purposes. The community itself must establish streets, schools, parks, etc.
Federal and local tax money spent to put up a school, a post office, a government defense plant, or to establish or maintain a police or fire department, boosts the value of all nearby land. The man who spends his money to build a house raises the price of the vacant lot next to it. Landowners and speculators reap an unearned and increasing harvest from these activities.
In effect, they command the labor of other men through their ownership of land, and that is the essence of economic feudalism. The same is true of men who charge other men ever-increasing prices for using the oil, gas, minerals and other natural resources which, by moral and economic right, over and above the cost of extraction, should be the free gifts of Mother Earth.
Now let us bring this down to your own experience. Many of you own a house. You remember its price. Suppose it was $15,000. Little more than a decade ago, in 1950, the price of the lot averaged about 10% of the total cost of the new home. Now the lot cost has doubled to 20%, and is still rising.
At the 20% figure, the buyer of a $15,000 house pays $3,000 for the bare land on which it was built. How long does it take you to earn $3,000, or to save it out of your earnings? For that length of time, if you were that home buyer, you were the feudal serf of the man who sold you the land on which your house was built. In return for your $3,000, he gave you nothing but his permission to use land which he did not create, and the money value of which he did not create. He commanded, and if you have not yet paid off the mortgage, is still commanding, your labor for the time it takes your hard-earned savings to add up to $3,000.
And that's not all. That $3,000 was added to your mortgage. If it's a long-term mortgage, the interest you will have to pay will about double the final land cost to you. Therefore, as a result of the persistence of economic feudalism in this country, the former landowner and the mortgage moneylender are commanding your labor for as many months as it takes you to earn and save $6,000, If you live in a house as a renter, you pay the land cost, too.
Here's another example, from my own experience. In 1926 the railroad labor newspaper I work for bought a piece of land on Capitol Hill, right across Independence Avenue from the House end of the Congress building. That was an absolutely unique location having many advantages, but this land cost us only $24,000.
About 30 years later, Congress ousted us in order to put up the third House Office Building. We looked around for a site for our new building, and were offered a piece of land below Capita! Hill, across from the Capitol Plaza, and comparatively distant from the center of things and from the Senate and House office buildings.
That location is not unique in the way that our original one was and is far inferior in all respects. But the price asked was $1.5 million. That was too much for us, but later this same land was bought by the Carpenters' Union and we may suppose that they paid at least what was asked of us.
That huge sum will come out of the dues paid by the union's members. Land costs always come out of someone.
For our new building we finally bought a plot at the corner of First and D Streets, Northwest, still more distant from Congress and still more inferior to our original land, and very little larger. Yet the price was nearly $400,000.
The difference between that price and the $24,000 we paid 30 years before has to be made up by raising the price of our paper to its subscribers.
Now let us look at an example which concerns everyone of us in this room this morning. You know how hard we are trying to pay off the mortgage on the site we are buying for our church. A few years ago we would have faced no such obstacle because the price of suitable land would have been only a few hundred dollars. Ye we had to pay $16,000 for it and were lucky to get it at that.
Why? Because the owners and speculators in land for mile around Washington are holding it for unearned profits and in that way are creating an artificial scarcity of available land. They know that the population of this area is growing and that the need for land for useful purpose is increasing. So, the longer they hold out, the higher will be the prices and profits they hope to get.
What can, and what should be done to end this deadly hang-over of economic feudalism? Most liberals and labor spokesmen, unfortunately, offer no real remedy, only temporary palliatives which make the patient worse in the long run.
What they propose, and often get, are public subsidies and government guarantees to give the economic system a "shot in the arm" when it is being slowed down by rising land costs. Such artificial stimulation boosts land prices still higher, requires ever-increasing doses, and merely postpones the day of reckoning.
The government housing programs, particularly those for slum clearance and urban redevelopment, are good examples of how land profiteers are subsidized with public money supplied by the taxpayers who will take the losses if land speculators and mortgage-moneylenders run wild and cause a crash.
As a matter of fact, more and more urban redevelopment projects are being promoted by smart real estate operators. A public body buys the land at a high price, pays the heavy expense of clearing off the old buildings, then sells the land to a private developer at a fraction of the price the public body paid for it.
There just isn't enough public money to go very far in that kind of program, and slums are spreading faster than they are being cleared. Such a system has not worked and will not work.
Right here in Washington, the Washington Post recently reported that "Nathan Bernstein and his wife became the first individuals to get a piece of the vast southwest redevelopment project." They bought about three-fifths of an acre for $139,000. That's at the rate of more than $230,000 an acre, or $5 a square foot. And, since the report describes Bernstein as a small businessman, it seems obvious he got some of the least costly land in competition with wealthy real estate corporations.
Such huge land costs have two results, among others.
First, even with the public subsidies, apartments built by private redevelopers must, and do, rent for far more than can be paid by the low-income families for whom they are supposedly provided. In Washington's southwest redevelopment area, which is in this category, rents are reported to be as high as $300 a month.
Second, the comparatively low rents in publicly-built and publicly-owned housing require not only public subsidies for buying and clearing high-priced land, but also a continuation of these subsidies to keep the rents within reach of low- or even middle-income families.
Something different -- a real, fundamental remedy -- is needed. What can it be? Let us approach an answer in this way:
Slum property yields its owners profits of between 20 and 25% -- far more than any other kind of stable investment. That is largely because the more the buildings deteriorate, the lower their value is assessed, and the lower the taxes will be. Thus, the owner is rewarded for being a "slumlord" more ruthless than ancient feudal landlords.
But suppose this slumowner spends some of his money to convert his wretched old buildings into decent dwellings, or tears them down and puts up new ones? Either way he has not only increased the supply of good housing but he has also provided employment for workers in the building trades and in industries which fabricate and transport materials for construction. He has benefited manufacturers, merchants, architects, engineers and other professional men, as well as the economy in general.
Instead of being rewarded, however, this owner who redeveloped his slum property is penalized. The assessor comes around and boosts his valuation and from then on he must pay an annual fine in the form of increased taxes. In effect, he is treated as though he had committed a crime.
This tax system is upside down, according to a school of economic and moral thought fostered by the teachings of Henry George, an American, who long ago wrote a book entitled Progress and Poverty. It aroused controversy in its time, but has produced practical results in some parts of the world, and its teachings are now having a revival in our own country.
Those who agree with Henry George maintain that the man who should be encouraged and rewarded is not the one who lets his slum property run down, but the one who does a favor for everyone by improving his old buildings or tearing them down and putting up better ones.
How would this be done? By taxing the land under the buildings at its true economic value, which is usually much higher than the assessed value, and taking taxes entirely off the buildings or other improvements.
At first that may seem to be a startling thought, perhaps even an unjust one. But remember this, there is a fundamental difference morally and economically between land and buildings. No owner created his land, and its money value was created by the whole community. Is it unjust then for the creators of that value -- the people of the community -- to get the annual return on it in the form of taxes?
In contrast, buildings and all other improvements are man-made. They would not exist unless individuals had invested money and labor in them. When the community taxes them, it is taking something the community did not create.
The purpose of the tax system which Henry George advocated goes far beyond clearing slums by reversing the impact of local and state taxes. Its purpose is no less than to end persistent economic feudalism and its attendant evils. It proposes to do that by making it unprofitable to hold land out of use, or to use it inadequately while waiting for increasing population and public need to boost its selling price.
If landowners and speculators had to pay more taxes on their land, they would sell much more cheaply to people who need land for use. Thus taxes on land values tend to reduce land prices and the cost of living. In that respect, land values are unique. All other kinds of taxes in whole or in part operate to raise prices and living costs.
There is an old and true saying that "the power to tax is the power to destroy." Every dollar of tax destroys something for better or for worse. The question is what do you want to destroy -- the productive activities of labor and capital, or the feudalistic obstruction of men who command the labor of others through landownership and speculative profits?
Federal taxes as well as local taxes are full of favors for landowners and land speculators. Here is just one example:
Earned income pays federal tax rates ranging from 20 to 91%. Unearned profits from land pay only the capital gains tax, which ranges up to 25% at the most. What is more, Uncle Sam gives back to the landowner much of the local real estate taxes he has paid, because such taxes are deductible from taxable income. Thus a wealthy land speculator in the 50% tax bracket, in effect, deducts half his real estate tax from his federal income tax.
More and more people are awakening to the problem of economic feudalism and are seeking its remedy. I only wish I could say that the liberals and the laborites of our country were leading the search.
House & Home, a monthly magazine covering all phases of the home-building industry, is a Luce publication, and as such would generally be considered conservative. But on the land and tax question, House & Home is "radical" in the old American sense of that word, meaning that it goes to the root of things, seeks out and tries to remedy causes.
The Reader's Digest, scarcely a liberal magazine, recently published an excellent boil-down of the House & Home material under the title "Land Speculation and How to Stop It."
Feudal lords, big and little, are exacting more and more billions of tribute from the rest of the people. This will get worse as the population explosion puts heavier and heavier pressure on the land and other natural resources.
Warnings of this came long ago from the classical economists. One of them, David Ricardo, put it this way:
Advancing wealth and productivity bring more people, but they do not bring more land. As a result, those who own the land can command an ever greater return for an increasingly scarce resource. Meanwhile, capital and labor conflict with each other for the rest of the product, and get smaller and smaller shares while the landowners get more and more.
Therefore, Ricardo said, "the natural price of labor is that price which is necessary to enable the laborers … to subsist and perpetuate their race." This came to be known as his "iron law of wages."
Ricardo and other classical economists correctly foresaw that in times and places of rapid economic growth and relative scarcity of workers, wages could rise temporarily. But now the population explosion is on full blast and the industrial revolution, instead of creating more jobs, as it formerly did. is resulting in millions of workers who cannot find jobs even at Ricardo's "subsistence wage."
This economic insecurity will continue and grow worse until the land and tax question is answered, and answered right, for it is the inevitable result of the economic feudalism which has cursed mankind throughout the ages and lingers on in our own country.
Things move fast nowadays, and the time is growing short. Dare we delay too long in solving the biggest and most fundamental of our economic and moral problems -- the problem of Man and his Mother Earth?
Going through some old files, I came across a letter to the editor written by my late grandfather which was published in the WS J. It seems to be from late 1978. Think about California's Proposition 13 in light of its observations:
Weld Carter LTE, responds to a December 1 article entitled "Arthur Laffer's Tax Yield Curve."
Alfred Malabre's perceptive portrayal on the back page of your issue of Dec. 1 of Arthur Laffer's Tax Yield Curve and the theory he derives therefrom unfortunately has the same defect as the theory and its admirers and most of its critics. All these generalize, as though taxes were all alike. But that is just not so.
Laffer's curve tells us that at rates of 0% and 100% the yield of taxes will be zero, the maximum yield falling somewhere between these two extremes.
This may hold in the case of the income tax, although the zero point on the top side would probably be well below 100%. It is certainly not the case with excises, where, for instance, in India in the 1870s, the tax on salt almost reached 1,200%.
Nor, at the other extreme, does it hold for the property tax, where a low annual cap on the building will, over time, capture a sum whose discounted present value will be a high percentage of that present value, and where the same low rate, applied to rental property, may amount to an alarming percentage of its before-tax income.
But the most striking failure of all these theorists is their failure to analyze and describe the workings of the other part of the property tax, the part that falls on land values.
All taxes on labor and its products are harmful because they lessen incentive and, by adding to the costs of production, they lessen supply and raise prices. Likewise they are unjust as they infringe on the rightful earnings of labor and capital.
Conversely, taxes on land values are just, for land values are but the capitalization of the annual benefits from the community, net of the tax, enhanced by the expectation of future gains from the artificial scarcity created by speculation on the possibility of that rise in price of a factor, the supply of which cannot be increased by production. Moreover, the tax on land values is the only tax that encourages, that stimulates, that compels production and does that in direct proportion to the magnitude of its rate. As one of the top two economists selected for special honor by the American Economic Association at its annual meeting, held in Chicago this past August, has said: "We will never have an economically efficient economy until we have recovered in taxation at least 85% of the rent of land." (In a 5% money market, this would be achieved by a tax rate of 28.33%; in a 10% market, by a 56.7% rate on the actual market value of the land.)
It is understandable that political animals like Gov. Brown and Sen. Long should seek counsel of Laffer. The mystery is why competent economists waste their time in such distractions, instead of turning their attention to the exciting and construction potentials inherent in the study of the economics of land value taxation, especially in these times of fiscal and monetary crises.
Somehow I am reminded of the old shell game, practiced at country fairs, where the pea was under one of three shells and the facile operator moved the shells about with such dexterity that the wagering onlooker rarely could tell which shell finally held the pea. Alas! In the ongoing controversy of fiscal vs. monetary policy, there is no third shell for land value taxation. It is not even in the game!
This came by email today, from my friend Mike Curtis, and, with his permission, I'm sharing it here:
Dear friends and acquaintances:
I am daily reminded of the passage: “the only thing that is necessary for evil to prevail is for too many good men to do nothing” I just heard on the radio that science is advancing in the realm medicine, energy, and agricultural. We are now able to multiply productivity in manufacturing due to the use of robotics. Yet in spite of all the gains in material progress poverty is increasing.
“It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.”
“This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization and which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern Progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe. To educate men who must be condemned to poverty, is but to make them restive; to base on a state of most glaring social inequality political institutions under which men are theoretically equal, is to stand a pyramid on its apex.”
Henry George 1879 (Progress and Poverty)
I am not running for political office, but if I can enlighten anyone, I believe my efforts will have been worth it. The following my reaction to the prevailing wisdom from all the presidential candidates, including the one in the White House.
If you think my thoughts are worth consideration, please let me know, and forward them to others. If you think I’m wrong, please let me know where I went wrong.
Taxes kill jobs
"Taxes kill jobs" is the message of political candidates. The American economic system causes unemployment and recessions; that is true, but without revenue and the role of government the U.S. would surely be a third world country.
However, there is one tax system that actually creates jobs. It’s not based on the socialistic principle of “Ability to Pay,” like most of our taxes. It’s based on the value of the “Benefits Received” by the tax payer. It’s doesn’t confiscate a percentage of income, taking more from those who have a greater income, even when the benefits they receive are the same as others. It doesn’t tax wages, which are the earned income of labor; it doesn’t tax buildings, machines, or inventories, which were acquired from the people who made them; It doesn’t tax sales or consumption, which is the only reason anyone produces anything.
It is simply a charge for the value of the opportunities to which the taxpayer has been given exclusive control. It is a tax on the value of land. It can be taxed at 100% without in any way adding to the cost of production. It doesn’t add to the value of land or the value of things produced on the land. It simply collects what would otherwise go to the holders of land as an un-earned income when the land is actually used.
It insures that the government has ample revenue for the legitimate needs of society, while limiting the government to those values which cannot be attributed to the efforts of individuals or corporations, but are socially created by the community as a whole and attach to the land. It cannot be evaded, because the land cannot be hidden.
The reason wages no longer rise as inventions and new technologies increase the results of labor is because people have no independent way to employ themselves.
If you’re among the least skilled workers, no matter how little machines cost or how much those machines increase the results of your labor, you have to bid against other people who want the same job; the result is that wages tend to a bare minimum -- superseded by the legal Minimum Wage.
For workers with superior skills and knowledge, those with whom employers can increase their profits, it is simply a matter of supply and demand. The higher the pay, the greater the incentive to learn the skill and acquire the knowledge. The wages of any qualified worker will be determined by two opposing factors. First, the demand for the goods or services they produce will encourage employers to offer wages that tend to equal the greater value of their contribution to the product or service. But, as the higher pay stimulates others to acquire similar skills and knowledge the increased supply of superior workers competing against each other, brings wages down until the wages that reward the special skill are no longer high enough to stimulate others to acquire the same skill and knowledge required for the job. Remember when computer programers earned twice what they do now? The supply increased and their wages went down. They still make more than the average worker, because it’s not so easy to learn computer programing. The supply has not exceeded the demand.
Although the vast majority of workers have no way to employ themselves, and the general level of wages haven’t increased in 40 years, it is not a natural law that wages will always tend to remain static. The United States has 700,000 square miles of arable land. That is less than 450 people per square mile. France has more than 850. The U.K. has more than 2,500 and Japan has more than 7,500 people per square mile.
All production takes place on land. The reason why more workers are looking for employment than landowners are looking for workers is that an enormous portion of the arable land in America is unused or grossly under used; simply held as an asset.
Suppose that cities were developed to their full potential. The slums with empty houses and abandoned factories were redeveloped to their full potential; the surface parking lots were replaced with multi-story parking garages; the grossly underdeveloped sites in the high-rise business districts were put to their highest and best use. Suppose the suburbs were carefully planed and developed with wooded and open parkland instead of relying on land speculators posing as farmers to provide open space; suppose we eliminated sprawl with its leapfrogging patterns that increase the cost of the infrastructure, waste land, and separate people from work and social relations; suppose we created a disincentive to hold idle, mineral land that increases in value. That is to say: What would happen if the majority of now privately held idle land was put to good use? It would generate an increase in the demand for labor and create job opportunities for everyone who was willing and able to work.
What is required is a shift from confiscatory taxation, which we now have, to a revenue system that is based on the value of land, which measures the value of the benefits received by landholders from society. Land values include the surface rights, mineral rights, and all other natural opportunities like the electromagnetic spectrum used for communications.
Under this proposal, the rental value has to be paid whether the land is used or not. While the payment of rent is a payment for a benefit received, for those who leave their land idle, it becomes a penalty, and that insures an ample supply of land for all who need or want to use it.
It also insures that all workers and the owners of productive capital get to keep everything they produce by taking advantage of the natural opportunities that are equally available to everyone else.
If you've just arrived at this page, this is the first (last) of perhaps 10 items I've picked up from reading a year's worth of an 1895-6 weekly called The San Jose Letter. I'm amazed how topical they are 115 years later!
From The San Jose Letter, of November 28, 1896:
THE SUPERFICIAL REFORMER.
A great fault of the human family today, when starting out on reform measures, is to battle with effects and neglect the primary causes of the evil. What man, be he the most uneducated tiller of the soil, would start out to eradicate weeds by cutting them off at the surface of the ground? Would he not dig down and remove the roots? And yet all the great reform parties, temperance people and labor organizations, are fighting effects, all claiming to be right, while the "ignis fatuus" is luring them on to their own destruction.
What, then, is the primary cause of the evil that is today filling our jails and insane asylums, making prostitutes of women and placing a premium upon drunkenness and suicide, while the products of industry are taxed to their utmost to keep up this damnable retrograde movement of our civilization? Are these the results of man's development in freedom, or are they the results of present conditions over which he has, or thinks he has, no control? Cannot this entire brood of evils be laid at the door of poverty and want, the result of bad laws? Anything, therefore, that will better man's condition will certainly lesson crime. Such a state of affairs is what the single tax will bring about. It has already been shown that taxing a thing has a tendency to discourage it, hence we are going to stop taxing industry and production, because these are the mainstays of existence, and to discourage them is to say that we have no right to that which nature decreed should be ours, but our entire revenue for community purposes, we propose to take from land values created by reason of the presence of the community.
—George W. Loehr in National Single Taxer.
If we don't go to the root of the problem, we and our descendants are going to be spending centuries trimming the weeds.
"Radical" has an honorable root: Radix, radicis --the root! Radish, radius, eradicate, radical ...
The current conversation about "tax reform" seems to mostly consist of arguing about federal income tax brackets. It doesn't go to the root of the problem. Most of those carrying on the conversation wouldn't know the root if they stumbled across it.
How does this strike you? If this is the first thing you've read here, it may seem very odd to you. I invite you to explore the ideas involved, through the tags (below this post) and in the cloud, at left. Comments welcome, of course!
Single Tax Platform
The single taxers of Delaware are conducting a red hot campaign. The single tax will be the issue in that state this fall, and Justice, the state single tax organ, published the following as their Single Tax Platform:
We assert as our fundamental principle, that all men are equally entitled to the use of the earth;
Therefore, No one should be permitted to hold land without paying to the community the value of the privilege thus accorded; and from the fund so raised all expenses of government should be paid. We would therefore abolish all taxation, except a tax upon the value of land exclusive of improvements. This tax should be collected by the local government and a certain proportion be paid to the state government.
This system of taxation would dispense with a horde of tax-gatherers, simplify government and greatly reduce its cost.
It would do away with the corruption and gross inequality inseparable from our present methods.
It would relieve the farmer, the workman and the manufacturer of those taxes by which they are unjustly burdened, and take for public uses those values due to the presence of population.
It would make it impossible for speculators to hold land idle, and would open unlimited opportunities for the employment of labor and capital, which is essential to the solution of the labor problem.
The newest issue of Progress, an Australian Georgist publication, is online here. The motto is "Sharing the Earth So All May Prosper."
There is a lot of good material, and I'll share some of the things that caught my eye.
An article about a film entitled "Real Estate 4 Ransom" which I commend to your attention, wherever you live. (I'll keep you posted on the film itself.)
“Economist James Galbraith has noted that only 12 out of 15,000 economists in the US noticed the US$8 trillion dollar housing bubble” (page 6)
We propose a change in the tax mix so that future infrastructure pays for itself by expanding the tax base without increasing the tax burden. (page 9)
Infrastructure adds enormous value to land in prime locations according to proximity and serviceability. Land Value Capture (LVC) is a simple technique to recycle the publicly funded windfall gains that accrue to land owners. Importantly, these windfalls are captured over the life-cycle of the infrastructure, such that one generation is not hit with the total infrastructure costs (ie as per the current preference for Developer charges). (page 10)
Windfall gains from infrastructure add up to several times the cost of the infrastructure to surrounding properties. We propose that a sufficient contribution from this windfall be recycled back to the government so that other infrastructure projects can be funded without substantially burdening one generation over another. At present land speculators baulk at paying barely 10% of the land bounty (windfall gain) back to the community via government’s Land Tax, Council Rates, Stamp Duties and Capital Gains. (Page 11)
“Henry George did more than draw ‘the deadly parallel of riches and misery.’ He recast the science of political economy by working out the natural laws of the distribution of wealth. He destroyed the current academic theory of wages and capital. He amplified and extended Ricardo's law of rent. He dug to the root of the wealth distribution.” (John Dewey, quoted on page 22)
If you could choose the sort of society that you were to be born into, would you choose one in which the distribution of wealth is guaranteed to be equal? (page 28 -- and don't miss the illustration cartoon on "trickle-down economics"!!)
The world faces a series of worsening crises, climate instability, rising energy costs, economic apartheid, and erosion of democratic institutions. What is required is not a set of technical instruments that try to resolve these, one at a time. We need a new social philosophy that addresses all these crises simultaneously. (page 38)
All 17th century authors took it for granted that God had given the earth to all people in common, not just to those who had claimed title to a part of it. Starting with that premise, the difficulty lay in justifying private ownership of nature. They saw that private property in land or ocean or other gifts of nature was an obvious usurpation of the rights of the rest of humanity. Private ownership was deemed a necessary evil to achieve more productive use of nature, but it was clearly an evil, never an institution that was good in itself. (page 39)
The idea of charging a fee for the use of nature and sharing the revenue equally might seem like a proposal that would not be threatening to powerful interests, but it is. The wealthy at present take a disproportionate share of the common stock of resources, both renewable and non-renewable, and they aim to keep it that way. (page 40)
“Ironically, what comes closest to being sacred in modern societies are individual rights, private property, and personal freedom.” (page 41)
“It seems that most people are concerned only with the future of their own children, not with the next generation as a whole.” (page 43)
A lot of good material -- and I've barely mentioned the graphics!
I am including this because I find it timely and timeless; because it provides a good simple mathematical look at the perversity of our current tax system, and because it illustrates my notion that when Leona Helmsley said "WE don't pay taxes; the little people pay taxes," she was not describing tax evasion but actual tax structures.
Henry George, Jr., was a U. S. Congressman. His most famous writing is "The Menace of Privilege."
WHO ARE THE CRIMINALS?
BY HENRY GEORGE , JR. Copyright, 1901, by The Abbey Press, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York
I. Who are the Criminals? 5 II. French Aristocracy of Privilege 6 III. New York Aristocracy of Privilege 10 IV. Robbery of Masses by Classes 12 V. Nature and Extent of Robberies 13 VI. How to Stop the Robberies 18 VII. The Criminals 23
I. WHO ARE THE CRIMINALS?
In considering the problem of how to check or control vice and crime in New York the question at once raised is: Who are the criminals? Who are they who cause these dreadful evils in the community? For unless we know exactly where the disease lies how can we attempt a remedy?
II. FRENCH ARISTOCRACY OF PRIVILEGE.
When the French Revolution broke loose the people followed the lead of men who seemed no better than a pack of devils, for they maimed, they brutally tortured and they slew. Women, whose only offense was that they were members of an arrogant and grinding aristocracy, were stripped naked, treated with every indignity and killed with every mark of ferocity. Old men and young children belonging to the upper classes were butchered, and persons of blameless life and humane intention were trampled under foot when they attempted to stay the carnival of blood.
Who will dare say that these revolutionary leaders, these butchers, were not criminals — criminals whose bloody hands must shine down through history? They were men turned to monsters; brutes with human intelligence, striving for new ways to torture and kill.
But whence came they? Not from without. They sprang up within. They represented the spirit of retaliation — of fiendish retaliation for the centuries of wrong done them and theirs. They were the progeny of poverty made by robbery. Their deeds were the deeds of monstrous criminals, but they themselves were the spawn of hideous injustice — an injustice that gave to the few riotous feasting and gorgeous raiment and to the many rags and black bread filled with maggots.
The aristocrats during centuries of power had appropriated the soil of France, and all other Frenchmen had to purchase the privilege of living in their native country. Not content with this, the upper classes had thrown upon the masses all those heavy taxes which it was the plain intent only the landowners should bear. They shifted upon the common people all the expenses of an extravagant, aristocratic government, and through ground rents sucked away all the people's remaining substance, save just enough to keep them alive and at work. Who were making the masses so poor and wretched was as plain as day. The masses themselves could see, and when they raised the sword against the aristocracy all hell seemed to break loose.
Who were the criminals? Why, of course they were criminals — horrible, revolting criminals — who did this guillotining, who committed these butcheries.
But who made these criminals? Clearly those who bore so heavily upon the people — the aristocrats, who kept the people in fearful poverty and ignorance which bred the spirit of bloodthirsty tigers.
The aristocracy, therefore, were the primary, the real criminals.
III. NEW YORK ARISTOCRACY OF PRIVILEGE.
I wish to proceed with greatest caution, with utmost conservatism. Yet candor compels me to ask: Have we not in our community an aristocracy of privilege — an aristocracy far more rich, far more powerful than was the aristocracy of old France? And have we not a corresponding poor class? Is it not true that half the population of Manhattan Island is living in what Ex-Mayor Hewitt rightly calls "those terrible tenements?"
That Prince of the Church, Bishop Potter, has proposed in the emergency that we have noonday prayer meetings. By all means, we all say. Let us bow ourselves before Almighty God and ask for relief from this social scourge. Yet what if, while we pray, we abate not the power of our aristocracy of privilege; what if we do nothing to mitigate the poverty of the million tenement dwellers?
The distinguished divine has also proposed a military police. If that were good, would not a local standing army be better? It would keep order, at least for a time. But would it cure the general poverty among the masses? Would it not rather act like a lid fastened down on a volcano — work well, until fire and molten stone and destruction belched forth? What then?
IV. ROBBERY OF MASSES BY CLASSES.
Assuming that we are sincerely trying to make civic conditions better, that we are seeking a cure (if there be a cure) for the general vice and crime in the community, should we not ask ourselves some plain questions? Is it not the truth that we have an aristocracy? Is it not the truth that we have a poor class? Is it not certain that the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer and more numerous?
I believe that there can be but one answer — yes.
Yet I can see no reason for this state of things unless it be that the classes are robbing the masses.
V. NATURE AND EXTENT OF ROBBERIES.
LET us consider how the classes may be robbing the masses into poverty.
It is said that when the first Dutchmen came sailing into New York Bay they bought Manhattan Island for $24. That was for the land alone, no houses or other improvements being here. Today the selling value of the bare land of this same Manhattan Island is at least $3,000,000,000. Those who possess the land of this island, now get what is equivalent to a ground rental of $150,000,000 a year, with this sum steadily swelling. The ground rental of Greater New York cannot be less than $225,000,000 yearly.
This vast sum is paid over to the landlord aristocracy — for what? For doing nothing. The people multiplied from a ship's crew to several millions in and about the island and behold! the vast value of land which in the beginning sold for but $24. The increment of value obviously has not been produced by individuals; it is entirely aside from and in addition to the value of improvements, which spring from human labor, which are produced by individuals. This increase in land value is a publicly-made value. It of right belongs to all the people. Do all the people get it? No, the few whom we recognize as the owners of this land claim that value and get it. The people at large in the community get nothing. Do not these landed aristocrats — of which the old French nobility were in many respects prototypes — rob the community? Do they not go far toward robbing a large part of the people into poverty?
Take another instance of robbery of the many by the few. Observe what we are doing about public franchises. A public franchise is a public right of way, a public highway. Modern civilization, with its intense centralization, its condensed population, and its interdependence of individuals, makes these highways of vital importance to the community. They are the arteries of the body-social, the channels of intercommunication and transportation, of heat, and water, and light, and power, and sewage. Were they suddenly destroyed, a large part of the population would die as quickly as a member of the human organism withers up and dies when the flow of blood is cut off from it.
Then if these public franchises, these public rights of way, these public highways, are so vital to the body-social, so necessary to the well-being of the people, what should be our policy toward them? What is our policy toward them? Why, in the case of water and sewage we treat them as public property, operating them publicly through public officials. But what do we do in respect to the other franchises? What do we do regarding street railroads, telephones and telegraphs, electric lighting and heating and gas, and steam supply? All these public franchises are treated as if they were private franchises. Upon all these public highways we allow private individuals to set the claim of ownership; to make charge upon the people; make charge upon the body-social for its blood, as it were. And a conservative estimate of the annual value of these public franchises in Greater New York at this time is $30,000,000.
Here, then, we have two forms of grand, constant, continuous robbery of the people — an aristocracy of privilege appropriating public ground rents and public franchise values, so that a few of the population are enabled to live in palaces while a million crowd into tenements.
VI. HOW TO STOP THE ROBBERIES.
Now the masses of the people of Greater New York lose annually by the appropriations of the landed and franchise aristocracy —
In ground rents
In franchise values
While they are compelled to pay in various taxes for the support of local government
Which makes in all
What shorter way is there to relieve poverty and to do social justice than to abolish the $98,000,000 of general taxes, which fall mainly upon industry or the fruits of industry and terribly hamper the masses of the people; and then what more simple than to appropriate for local governmental expenses that sum out of the $225,000,000 of publicly-made land values? Why not further lighten the load of the masses by taking over into public ownership and management all public municipal franchises, just as are water and sewage now; and then why not cut down their cost of service to the public that $30,000,000 which now represents purely franchise value in the charges of the private corporations that possess and manage them?
For a third step, why not make these municipal utilities free to the public, meeting the expense of their operation by another appropriation of the publicly-made land values?
And for a fourth step, why not appropriate for an old-age pension to every citizen, rich and poor alike, for public parks, for public lectures and concerts, or for any other or for all such purposes — all that still remains of the publicly-made land values?
What would be the result of such a policy? It would be that all the people in Greater New York would be relieved of the burden of $98,000,000 of various taxes; that the great charge of the many branches of the public franchise service on the people would be entirely wiped out and abolished; and that the whole of land values, that is, of ground rents, would be enjoyed by all the people equally, being appropriated for public uses.
Would this make any difference in the community? The welkin is made to ring by the most influential of the tax-payers when, under present conditions, the taxation authorities raise or lower the tax rate even 1%. What, then, would happen if all taxation were lifted from the fruits of toil, if public utilities were made free, and if land values were to benefit, not a class, but the whole people?
Such a tax would be just, because it would fall on this publicly-made value; it would be certain, because land cannot be hidden or lessened in amount; it would force all unused or inadequately used valuable land into its highest use, for no one could afford to hold such land vacant for a speculation, as very many do now.
Land in Greater New York would therefore be cheaper — how much cheaper may be judged by the fact that two-thirds of the land within the city limits, though extremely valuable, is not now used. This unused land would compete with the used land for users, so that land values in the community generally would fall. At the same time all building materials, being relieved of present taxation, would be far cheaper, making two of the chief elements for house building would be greatly less in cost, and consequently, larger, lighter, better dwelling accommodations in every way could and would be supplied to the masses of the people, and especially to the million now living in tenements.
What would help the poorest would be of direct and indirect benefit to all others in the community; and this would be but one of a large harvest of good results that the people would reap from such a policy.
The privileged classes, the aristocrats, would lose their privileges, but they would have no less rights than any and all other citizens of Greater New York.
VII. THE CRIMINALS.
That able and public-spirited citizen, Mr. President Baldwin, of the Long Island Railroad, and Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Anti-Vice Committee of Fifteen, has said that this is not the time for "idealist scheme of reform." But we are trying to put down vice and crime in the community; and the question is: Who are the criminals?
Let us be frank with ourselves: Who are the criminals? Are they the housebreakers, the unfortunate women who walk the streets and the police officials who take blood-money? Or are they those who rob the masses of the people into poverty — deep, biting, degrading poverty?
Are not the aristocrats of privilege, knowingly or unknowingly, the criminals we should first consider in an examination of civic disease in New York?
How hot is former Godfather's Pizza magnate Herman Cain? For the second day in a row, the new front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination dominated the "most commented" category here at The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. More than 100 readers weighed in on Sunday's editorial about Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan, even more than had posted comments about Friday's piece on Cain's views regarding racism.
The Times' editorial board praised Cain for coming up with a plan that would radically simplify the tax code. But it complained that the proposal would shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle and lower classes:
The current system gradually increases the tax rate on individuals and businesses the more they earn. Moving to Cain's formula would effectively dun those least able to pay in order to spare those at the other end of the economic ladder, in the hope that the tax cuts for high earners would translate into more jobs, faster growth and higher wages. We tried a less extreme version of that approach in President George W. Bush's first term, and the rising tide that resulted lifted only the yachts.
Commenters were roughly evenly divided between supporters and critics of Cain's plan. What follows is a sampling, edited only to correct the occasional spelling error.
You can read the sampling at the link at the beginning of this post; here's the comment that caught my eye:
We need another alternative
A better idea for tax reform: The Land Value Tax first proposed by 18th century economist Henry George. No sales or income tax, only a tax on the value of land.
Simple to define and enforce: You can try to hide income, but you can't hide land.
Progressive AND pro-growth: The wealthy own most of the expensive land and would pay most of the taxes, but the marginal tax on both income and consumption would be ZERO - a win-win for liberals and conservatives.
Henry George believed that what you earn from your labor, business or profession is 100% yours, but the value of your land depends on the value of your community and is therefore fair game to be taxed to support that community.
The Land Value Tax sends the message that you make money by creating useful products and services, not by wheeling and dealing in real estate.
The post below this one is my attempt. Here's another, from Sunday's NYT.
By JILL LEPORE | Published: October 15, 2011
Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.”
A cartoon of Henry George when he ran for mayor of New York in 1886.
IN the Republican debate on Tuesday, the restaurant industry executive Herman Cain, deftly countering a quip, said his “9, 9, 9” economic plan, which calls for a 9 percent corporate tax, a 9 percent income tax and a 9 percent national sales tax, “didn’t come off a pizza box.” Asked where it did come from, he said “the American people,” but added that he also has a team of economic advisers.
“One of my experts that helped me to develop this is a gentleman by the name of Rich Lowrie out of Cleveland, Ohio,” Mr. Cain said. “He is an economist.” Mr. Lowrie, a licensed stockbroker, is a wealth management consultant for Wells Fargo.
Henry George, the most popular American economic thinker of the 19th century, was a populist before populism had a name. His economic plan was known as the Single Tax. His plan wasn’t 9-9-9; it was just: 1.
George was born in Philadelphia in 1839. He left school at 14 to sail to India and Australia on board a ship called the Hindoo. At the time, a lot of people were writing about India as a place of jewels and romance; George was struck by its poverty.
Returning to Philadelphia, he became a printer’s apprentice. He went to New York where he saw, for the first time, “the shocking contrast between monstrous wealth and debasing want.” In 1858, he joined the crew of a ship sailing around the Cape Horn because it was the only way he could afford to get to California. In San Francisco, he edited a newspaper; it soon failed. He spent most of his life editing newspapers, and, as with every other industry in the 19th century, many of them failed. In 1865, George was reduced to begging in the streets.
The 19th century was the Age of Progress: the steam engine, the power loom, the railroad. (Awestruck wonder at progress animated that era the way the obsession with innovation animates American politics today.) George believed that the other side of progress was poverty. The railroad crossed the continent in 1869. From the West, George wrote an essay called “What the Railroad Will Bring Us.” His answer: the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. In a Fourth of July oration in 1877, George declared, “no nation can be freer than its most oppressed, richer than its poorest, wiser than its most ignorant.”
In 1879, George finished a draft of his most important book. “Discovery upon discovery, and invention after invention, have neither lessened the toil of those who most need respite, nor brought plenty to the poor,” George wrote. He thought the solution was to abolish all taxes on labor and instead impose a single tax, on land. He sent the manuscript to New York. When no one would publish it, he set the type himself and begged publishers simply to ink his plates. The book, “Progress and Poverty,” sold three million copies.
George was neither a socialist nor a communist; he influenced Tolstoy but he disagreed with Marx. He saw himself as defending “the Republicanism of Jefferson and the Democracy of Jackson.” He had a bit of Melville in him (the sailor) and some of Thoreau (“We do not ride on the railroad,” Thoreau wrote from Walden. “It rides upon us.”) But, really, he was a Tocquevillian. Tocqueville believed that democracy in America was made possible by economic equality: people with equal estates will eventually fight for, and win, equal political rights. George agreed. But he thought that speculative, industrial capitalism was destroying democracy by making economic equality impossible. A land tax would solve all.
In 1886, George decided to run for mayor of New York. Democrats urged him not to, telling him he had no chance and would only raise hell. “You have relieved me of embarrassment,” George answered. “I do not want the responsibility and the work of the office of the Mayor of New York, but I do want to raise hell.” The Democrat, Abram Hewitt, won, but George got more votes than the Republican, Theodore Roosevelt.
In the 1880s, George campaigned for the single tax, free trade and ballot reform. The last succeeded. George is why, on Election Day, your polling place supplies you with a ballot that you mark in secret. This is known as an Australian ballot, and George brought it back from his voyage halfway around the world.
George ran for mayor of New York again in 1897 but died in his bed four days before the election. His body lay in state at Grand Central. More than 100,000 mourners came to pay their respects. The New York Times said, “Not even Lincoln had a more glorious death.” And then: he was left behind.
Even Clarence Darrow, who admired him, recanted. “The error I found in the philosophy of Henry George,” Darrow wrote, “was its cocksureness, its simplicity, and the small value that it placed on the selfish motives of men.”
I have a family member who, when Herman Cain says "9-9-9," plays a sound bite of another voice shouting "nein! nein! nein!"
Georgists have a better proposal for how we ought to fund our common spending.
0% tax on wages
0% tax on sales
0% tax on corporate profits
0% tax on buildings and equipment
100% recovery of our commonwealth
This probably raises several questions in your mind:
what is "recovery of our commonwealth"?
how will it affect me?
Our commonwealth includes the value of land -- not the improvements made by the present or previous owner, but the value of the site itself, which is created by the gifts of nature; by the investment of the local, state and national communities in public goods and services (including most "pork"); by the presence of the community and its economic activity. While good farmland may be worth $5,000 or $10,000 per acre, depending on climate and proximity to markets, suburban residential lots might be $35,000 to $1,000,000 -- or far more! -- per acre, and an acre in midtown Manhattan can be worth $250,000,000 or more. The landholder doesn't create that locational value.
Our commonwealth includes the value of ecosystem services. It includes the value of electromagnetic spectrum (the airwaves which most people would agree rightly belong to the American people, not to corporations). It includes the value of water, particularly fresh water for drinking and water for irrigating crops and for corporate use. It includes the value of government-granted privileges. It includes the value of geosynchronous orbits -- those parking spots in space for satellites whose owners and customers would not want to see crashing into each other. It includes the value of landing rights at busy congested constrained airports, such as LaGuardia or JFK, particularly at their rush hours. It includes the value of scarce on-street parking in congested cities. It includes the value of nonrenewable natural resources extracted from below the earth and the oceans, for 200 miles beyond our land borders. It includes a whole range of other similar things.
As you look at that paragraph, compare it to the 0-0-0-0 list above, and notice that it collects upfront certain values, and leaves the rest to those who produce. It is direct taxation rather than indirect, and one could reasonably argue that it isn't even really taxation; rather it is more in the nature of a user-fee.
It is Natural Public Revenue.
Once one has sat with this idea for a while, it seems quite unnatural to permit the value to continue to accrue to private individuals, or to corporations publicly or privately owned, or to entities other than the community as a whole!
Recall how concentrated wealth is in the US: The 2007 SCF [the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances] reported that aggregate net worth is "distributed" as follows:
Top 1% of us have 33.8%
Next 4% of us 26.6% [cumulative: 60.4%]
Next 5% of us 11.1% [cumulative: 71.5%]
Next 40% of us 26.0% [cumulative 97.5%]
Bottom 50% of us 2.5%
Recall also that the Forbes 400 families are specifically and intentionally omitted from the SCF, and that Forbes estimates that they represent 2.5% of aggregate net worth. So add that 2.5% to the numerator and denominator. And note, as Michael Moore did, that it is very similar to the value of the Net Worth of the bottom 50% of us.
And it seems quite unnatural to tax wages, and sales, and corporate profits, and buildings at all before we've fully collected Natural Public Revenue.
Will Natural Public Revenue be sufficient to meet all the needs of all levels of government?
Quite possibly not, at least today when we are so reliant on a social safety net because current conditions have kept a significant share of our people from providing well for themselves. But I regard it as altogether possible that within a generation or two, it could be quite sufficient, in part because it would have the effect of redistributing some of the wealth which today is pouring into the pockets of a relative few of us.
How much of corporate profits are coming from (quite legal) privatization of the value of natural resources, the value of being able to get away with polluting air, water and soil, and the value of other privileges which corporations -- public and private -- are used to enjoying? One of the interesting findings in the SCF is that the value of privately held businesses [BUS] actually exceeds the value of publicly held ones [EQUITY] in household wealth -- and the value of both is highly concentrated:
Consider, too, how much more of this value the Forbes 400 have! These two categories represent 21.2% and 23.1% of aggregate net worth held by the rest of us -- a total of 44.3%. Most of the 2.5% is likely in these two categories. I'll leave the math to you.
In September, 1889, Thomas Shearman, co-founder of the NYC law firm Shearman & Sterling, published an article in The Forum, entitled "Henry George's Mistakes." This was ten years after the publication of Henry George's "Progress and Poverty," which was, by that time well known to most Americans and many in other parts of the world; by 1900, P&P had sold something like 6 million copies and been serialized in many periodicals. As the first paragraph shows, George's ideas were controversial, particularly with the vested interests who were more than happy with the current structure, and were in a position to spend to influence public opinion.
Shearman is responding to those who thought that George's Remedy (the subtitle to P&P is "An inquiry into the cause of industrial depressions and of increase of want with increase of wealth ... The Remedy") was unrealistic, and in particular, to an 1887 article in The Forum.
Shearman shows why indirect taxes raise prices and the cost of living, particularly for the poor. Recall Leona Helmsley's statement about taxes: "We don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." I don't think she was talking about tax evasion; she was talking about tax structures.
I've taken the formatting liberty of presenting some lists contined in paragraphs as bullet points.
HENRY GEORGE'S MISTAKES.
Since the mistakes of Moses were so triumphantly demolished by Col. Ingersoll, his example has been followed by numerous writers, who, possibly because they concluded that the Mosaic field has been sufficiently occupied, have devoted themselves to an equally triumphant demonstration of the mistakes of Henry George. Space could not be afforded for even an abstract of these brilliant productions. Crushed by the Duke of Argyll, refuted by Mr. Mallock, extinguished by Mayor Hewitt, undermined by Mr. Edward Atkinson, exploded by Prof. Harris, excommunicated by archbishops, consigned to eternal damnation by countless doctors of divinity, put outside the pale of the Constitution by numberless legal pundits, waved out of existence by a million Podsnaps, and finally annihilated by Mr. George Gunton, still Henry George's theories seem to have a miraculous faculty of rising from the dead. For it is certain that his general doctrines are more widely believed in today than ever before; while the one practical measure which he advocates for present and immediate enactment is accepted by a vast number of intelligent men on both sides of the Atlantic. It is, therefore, still worth while to look into this terrible delusion, and to inquire seriously what are these fatal mistakes which, being so often slain, nevertheless live.
Mr. George has devoted a large portion of his famous book, "Progress and Poverty," to the assertion and illustration of his belief that, all over the civilized world, the rich are growing richer and the poor relatively poorer. He undertakes to trace the cause of this assumed evil to the private ownership of land and the steady increase of economic rent. He insists, with admitted eloquence and earnestness, that private ownership of land must be abolished; but he proposes one remedy and only one, the concentration of all taxes upon ground rent alone. He urges that these taxes should be increased to such an amount as will absorb ground rent. This, in view of statements made by all Mr. George's opponents, would seem to be really only a matter of detail, concerning which any one might be at liberty to entertain, as Mr. Disraeli used to say, a "pious opinion." For they all, with one voice, maintain that ground rent would never be sufficient to meet the existing taxes; and so this question, if any of Mr. George's critics are correct, could never arise.
To a practical mind there are only two important questions involved in this controversy.
First, is there any undesirable tendency toward the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few?
Secondly, is the concentration of all taxes upon ground rent alone a real, just, and effective remedy?
Let us inquire whether there is any excessive concentration of wealth going on in the United States of America. Leaving mere clamor and unsupported assertions out of consideration, on either side, let us look into facts. As lately as 1847, there was but one man in this country who was reputed to be worth more than $5,000,000; and though some estimated his wealth at $20,000,000, there is no good reason for believing it to have been so great. The wealth of his lineal descendants is estimated at $250,000,000, or over $50,000,000 each. In 1867, in the New York constitutional convention, one of the most prominent delegates stated that he could name 30 men, residing in that State, whose wealth averaged $15,000,000 each. The St. Louis "Globe" recently published a list of 72 persons who were worth, collectively, the whole amount of our national debt, averaging $18,000,000 each. The wealthiest railroad manager in America, in 1865, was worth $40,000,000, but not more. His heir died recently, leaving an estate of nearly $200,000,000; and there are several gentlemen now living who are worth over $100,000,000 each. Within a short period, a number of quiet, unobtrusive men, of no national fame, have died in Pennsylvania, leaving estates of over $20,000,000 each. Twenty living persons, in the oil business, are reputed to be as rich. Forty persons could be easily named, none of them worth less than $20,000,000, and averaging $40,000,000 each. At the lowest reasonable estimate, there must now be more than 250 persons in this country whose wealth averages over $20,000,000 for each. But let us call the number only 200. Income-tax returns in Great Britain and in the United States show that, in general, the number of incomes, when arranged in large classes, multiplies by from three to five-fold for every reduction in the amount of one-half.* For extreme caution, however, we estimate the increase in the number of incomes at a very much lower rate than this. At this reduced rate, the amount of wealth in the hands of persons worth over $500,000 each in the United States would be about as follows:
200 persons at
* In Brooklyn, N. Y., in 1865, the tax returns showed one income of $600,000, 2 incomes of $200,000, 11 incomes of $100,000, 61 incomes of $50,000, 1,700 incomes averaging $7,000. See also the "Cyclopedia of Political Science," art. "Income Tax."
In Great Britain, in 1872, 3 landlords averaged each $1,100,000 rent, 14 averaged $675,000, and 83 averaged over $250,000. In 1884, the returns of business profits, only, showed 104 incomes averaging $450,000,1,192 of $85,000, 1,871 of $32,000, and 20,534 of $9,000.
This estimate is very far below the actual truth. Yet, even upon this basis, we are confronted with the startling result that 25,000 persons now possess more than half of the whole national wealth, real and personal, according to the highest estimate ($60,000,000,000) which any one has yet ventured to make of the aggregate amount. Nor is this conclusion at all improbable.
Let us test the question in another way. Eastern savings banks show an average deposit of $365. This sum represents the extreme savings of the average thrifty workingman of the East. But even estimating that 20,000,000 workers of 1889, earning an average of less than $400 each, of whom 5,000,000 are women and children, have saved, on the average, $600, still, their aggregate savings would not amount to $12,000,000,000, or $1,100 for each average family. Let us suppose that the 1,000,000 workers of superior class, earning an average of $1,000 each, have saved $3,000 — a monstrous exaggeration. This would make their total possessions $3,000,000,000. The result would be to show that 21,000,000 persons had saved up in the whole course of their lives $15,000,000,000, leaving $45,000,000,000 in the possession of not more than 400,000 persons.
Look again. Excluding churches, public buildings, etc., from the items of wealth enumerated in the census estimate for 1880, it is reduced to $41,000,000,000. Railroads, telegraphs, shipping, mines, quarries, canals, merchandise, and specie count for $13,500,000,000. These certainly do not belong to $400 workingmen. $5,000,000,000 is charged to household furniture, paintings, and jewelry. Two-thirds of this would be an extreme allowance for the 9,700,000 families of the poorer class; but let us allow them more, and estimate the furniture of the 300,000 richer families at only $5,000 each. Farms stand for $10,000,000,000, of which more than one-fourth were owned by landlords and leased to tenants, while one-fifth were so large as to imply wealthy owners; and mortgages were certainly outstanding for more than one-fifth of the rest. Business and residential real estate, water-power, etc., were estimated at about the same value. Of this, at least three-fourths was owned by the wealthy class, either absolutely or by mortgages. On this basis we arrive at the following estimate of the possessions, in 1880, of not more than 300,000 persons:
Railroads, shipping, mines, merchandise, specie, etc.
Farms, 45 per cent
Mortgages on farms, 20 per cent
Other real estate
The total national wealth held as private property being $41,000,000,000, this estimate confirms the previous one, that a small minority of the people own two-thirds of the national wealth. Is Mr. George so very much mistaken, in view of these figures, when he asserts that the rich are growing richer and the poor relatively poorer?
A sufficient cause for the immense and growing chasm between the rich and the poor of this country is to be found in indirect taxation. The population of the United States has increased in 25 years from 35,000,000 to 60,000,000. Let us call the average 45,000,000. The average annual taxes for the same period have been about $175,000,000 on imports, $136,000,000 on domestic productions, $14,000,000 on incomes, $25,000,000 miscellaneous, and $300,000,000 State and local taxes, mostly on houses and improvements and personal property. Duties on imports have entailed an average increase of prices on domestic goods to the amount of fully thrice the duties, say $525,000,000. Excise duties, by promoting monopolies, have largely increased prices, as in the well-known case of matches, where a duty of one cent caused an increase in price of' two cents. Let us, however, call this increase only one-fifth of the excise, or $27,000,000. But upon these taxes there are three profits, made by the importers or manufacturers, the jobbers, and the retailers, amounting to not less than 20% in all, or $172,600,000. Two-thirds of the State and local taxes are paid by middlemen, who of course add a profit; but this may be put as low as 5%, or about $10,000,000. The grand total now comes to $1,384,000,000 per annum, as the average annual burden borne by the people for 25 years past. Of this all was indirect taxation, except something over $100,000,000; leaving the average annual burden imposed by indirect taxation at $1,280,000,000.
This burden was distributed as equally as possible by natural laws, in proportion to the expenditure of each income-receiver in the support of his family. As each worker supported, on the average, three persons, including himself, the people may be divided into 15,000,000 families, or rather groups of three.* On the basis of the careful estimate of Mr. Atkinson, 14,000,000 of these must have been supported upon incomes of less than $400 (in my judgment less than $350), 700,000 on less than $1,000, and the other 300,000 on larger incomes. The average annual earnings of the nation during 25 years cannot have exceeded $7,500,000,000. Allowing 15% as savings, destruction, and cost of replacement, and adding to this the tax burdens, which must be paid out of savings, there would remain, as the sum expended in the support of the people, an average of less than $5,100,000,000 per annum. On this the burden of indirect taxation has averaged 25%. We are now prepared to calculate the effect.
* The actual number of real families was much less. It was under 10,000,000 in 18S0, averaging 5 persons each.
Supposing them exempt from taxes, still it would be unreasonable to expect the mass of the laborers to support their groups of three on less than $300 a year. Their burden of taxation, then, has averaged 25% on this, or $75 a year. Contrast with this the case of men who enjoyed an income of $1,000,000, which a fortune of $15,000,000 would on an average easily have produced in simple interest during this period. Allow them $100,000 each, for a modest living; on which their tax would be $25,000 each. From what fund would these taxes be paid? Obviously, from what would have been saved, but for taxation, not from what was spent. This fund, in the case of the masses, would amount to $100 each; tax, $75. In the case of the great millionaires, $900,000; tax, $25,000. Tax on the property of the very rich, less than 3%. Tax on the property of the masses, more than 75%.
What would be the result, at the end of a year, on these two classes? Assume only 200 such very wealthy men; yet their savings would be, under such taxation, $175,000,000. Assume only 600 more, with incomes of $500,000 each, spending $50,000, and taxed therefore $12,500; their net savings would be $437,500 each, or $262,500,000 in all. Thus 800 rich men would save $437,500,000. The savings of the 14,000,000 laborers could not exceed $25 each, or $350,000,000. But, if taxes could be dispensed with, the savings of the millions of poor men would have reached $1,400,000,000, while those of the 800 rich would not have exceeded $450,000,000.
Here is a mathematical demonstration that the mere fact of indirect taxation is sufficient to strip the poor of three-fourths of their natural savings, and to concentrate a majority of the wealth of the community in the hands of an infinitesimally small part of its number.
What, then, is the remedy proposed by the wild fanatic whose blunders we are considering? It is threefold.
First, the total abolition of indirect taxation.
Secondly, the substitution of a single tax on ground rent, the only sufficient form of strictly direct taxation which has ever been invented.
Thirdly, the gradual increase of this direct tax, if necessary to that end, to an amount sufficient to absorb ground rents. This is all.
The third branch of this proposition is the only one which has brought the penalties of everlasting damnation upon Mr. George's head, from the hand of Dr. Van Dyke. But Prof. Harris and Mr. Atkinson are sure that they have saved his soul, at the expense of his arithmetic, by demonstrating that rent is a very insignificant item, which would not suffice to meet the present necessary taxes. Assuming, for the moment, that Mr. George's arithmetical critics have delivered his soul from Sheol, let us try to rescue his body from the lunatic asylum.
Every form of tax upon personal property or improvements upon land, whether in the form of a tariff, an excise, a license, or a so-called "direct tax" upon their value, is, in the inherent nature of things, an indirect tax. It is and always must be shifted from the original tax-payer to the final consumer. In many individual cases the original tax-payer is unable thus to shift the tax; but in that event he is crippled in business, and, if the difficulty is permanent, he is ruined and driven out of business, to give place to a shrewder man, who makes the customer pay the tax in the end, with a bigger profit than would have contented the weaker man.
There are no direct taxes worth discussing, except the income tax, the succession tax, and the tax on land, valued without reference to its improvements. The income tax opens the door to innumerable frauds, and puts a premium upon perjury and corruption. If adopted in this country as the sole method of taxation, it will open the way to such plunder of the honest rich as will make them sigh for Henry George and his tax on rent. Poor folk and rascals will escape from all taxation whatever. The succession tax will fall exclusively upon the rich. If made high enough to support the cost of all government, it will fail, because it will be evaded. There remains only the tax on land values, or the natural rent of land, irrespective of improvements.
This tax is absolutely direct. It cannot be evaded. It cannot be shifted by the original tax-payer. That is an axiom of economic science. If it were not so, there would not be a particle of the clamor which is raised against it. The thunders of the pulpit would have slept forever, if the land-owner could make poor folk pay his land tax, with a little profit. The adoption of this tax would therefore put an end to all the unnatural impoverishment of the poor and enrichment of the rich, which take place under the present system. It would amount to a total abolition of taxation, as to that vast majority of the poor who own no land. Whereas now they pay both rent and taxes, then they would pay rent alone. This simple fact is a complete answer to the inquiry: "How are the masses to get the benefit of taxing rent?" As to such of the poor as own land, they would be relieved from the taxes which they now pay on personal property and improvements, that is, from more tax than would be added to their land tax. For we need reckon none among the poor who own more than $3,000 worth of land clear, that being more than the average value of improved farms; and those who own less than $6,000 worth of improved real estate are now paying more taxes indirectly than they could ever be required to pay under the single-tax system.
Let us briefly consider "Henry George's Mistake about Land," as set forth by Prof. W. T. Harris, in the Forum for July, 1887. That "mistake" lies in his assumption that ground rent would be sufficient to defray all the expenses of government, national, State, and local. Prof. Harris, finding that the official assessment of real estate in this country, in 1880, was about $13,000,000,000, and estimating that this was two-thirds of the market value, and the value of the land alone about one-half of the whole, or somewhat less than $10,000,000,000, calculates the ground rent at 4% on this sum, or $400,000,000 per annum; which of course is wholly insufficient to meet the taxes of $700,000,000 levied in 1880. He then refers to Great Britain and Ireland, where, he says, land forms only one-fifth of the total wealth, with an annual rental of £65,442,000. As British taxes altogether amount to about £118,500,000, it is clear that, if this estimate is correct, the single tax would not suffice to meet British taxes.
Taking first the case of the United States, the census report of 1880 shows conclusively that assessments are worthless, as a means of estimating real values. They vary from 10% to 70% of the true value of real estate; and no average can be estimated from them. The census of 1880, upon which Prof. Harris relies to show the proportion of land to the aggregate wealth, and which he must not therefore desert for local assessment tables, contains items of real estate, including all privileges over land, aggregating over $28,000,000,000. Adopting the rule of division between land and improvements propounded by him, the lowest estimate of pure land values for 1880 would be between $15,000,000,000 and $16,000,000,000. There is no estimate whatever of wild lands belonging to private individuals, unconnected with farms, the value of which could hardly have been less than $2,000,000,000; but of this we will take no notice. The rental of 4% for 1880, upon which Prof. Harris bases his calculation, is utterly absurd. Strictly first-class mortgages could not be placed at less than 5% in the city of New York in 1880; and such mortgages averaged, the country over, nearer 7% than 6%. It is impossible that the ownership of land, which is no better than a second mortgage, should not, on the average, produce a rate of interest higher than a first mortgage. The lowest rate of interest to be allowed on the value of land would therefore be 6.5%. But to this must be added the amount of taxation which actually fell upon land values in 1880. This could not have been less than 0.5%. Such taxes, being paid by landlords and not by tenants, necessarily depreciate the market value of the land; and this amount should be either added to the rent, or deducted from the amount expected to fall upon lands in consequence of the adoption of the single tax, since this falls upon it already.
It follows that the ground rent of the United States, in 1880, was considerably over $1,000,000,000. The taxes for that year were about $700,000,000. But of this, $100,000,000 was levied only for the purpose of piling up a surplus. The necessary taxation was only $600,000,000; and the land-owners of the United States would have been able to pay all taxes and yet retain a very large surplus. The value of land in the United States is now not less than $20,000,000,000; but the rate of interest is lower, and ground rent has not increased in equal proportion to nominal values.
Turning to Great Britain, the mistakes of Prof. Harris can be readily shown to be vastly greater than any mistakes of Henry George. His fundamental errors are three.
He mistakes the rent of agricultural lands alone for the whole rent of the United Kingdom;
he mistakes the valuation of "houses" for that of structures alone, without the lots beneath them; and
he assumes that railways are not built upon land.
The following are the official figures for 1884, taken from the 28th British Inland Revenue Report; to which we append a very low estimate of the proportion of mixed land values which should be charged to ground rents alone:
British Pure Annual Land Values, 1884.
Lands, returned as such
Manors, tithes, fines, etc.
Fishing and shooting rights
Markets and tolls
British Mixed Annual Land Values, 1884.
Houses and lots
Canals, water-works, mines, gas, iron, etc
One-half of these values as land
Total land values
Now the whole net amount of British taxes is £118,500,000. But of this, over £27,500,000 is already assessed upon pure land values. The adoption of the single tax would therefore increase the burden upon land only by £91,000,000. The net rental value of land being over £158,000,000, it follows that the land-owners of Great Britain and Ireland could pay all national and local taxes, and still retain for their own benefit the comfortable margin of £67,000,000. Prof. Harris will do well to study his statistics carefully before he again undertakes to exhibit "the mistakes of Henry George." *
*Prof. Harris quotes Mulhall, as proof that "land" in the United Kingdom is worth only £1,737,000,000, in a total of £8,720,000,000, or one-fifth of the whole. But Mulhall distinctly shows that this amount includes only agricultural land ("Dictionary of Statistics," 5); and he very properly recognizes houses and railways as real estate, stating (p. 280) that 62%, of British wealth consists of real estate. It is notorious that the mere land occupied by British railways was enormously costly, and is now worth far more than it cost. Land alone, on Mulhall's showing, forms one-third of British values, just as it does in America.
Mr. Gunton, in the Forum for March, 1887, had preceded Prof. Harris in the same field and with about equal accuracy. He calls the entire rental value of real estate in the United Kingdom, including, of course, improvements, £131,468,000. The correct official figure (including £43,000,000 taxes, paid by occupiers) was, in 1884, almost exactly £293,000,000; and the real value is far greater. Instead of being only 11% of the gross produce, as claimed by Mr. Gunton, it is fully 25%. It is not worth while to follow either Mr. Gunton's figures or arguments any further.
I regret that the space allotted for this article will not allow an examination of Mr. Edward Atkinson's calculations on the same general point. His statistics are far more accurate than those of Messrs. Harris and Gunton. Accepting all his statistics as absolutely accurate, I have shown in another place, by his own figures, that two-thirds of the ground rents of Boston would provide for all local, State, and national taxes on Boston.
The single tax, therefore, would be a real, effective, and adequate remedy for the present unjust intervention of the state in favor of the rich and against the poor.
There still remains the question: "Is the remedy just?" Many of Mr. George's critics (notably Mr. Gunton) are debarred from raising this question, since they assert the absolute right of the state to deal with all property as may be deemed expedient. But the majority of them are better represented by Dr. Van Dyke, who thinks the proposition of Mr. George "thoroughly unrighteous." So far as we can make out, this is because the state has in the past allowed private individuals to appropriate land and its rent to their own use, and is therefore estopped from taking away that rent by taxation. But land has always been taxed. In most of our large cities it is now theoretically taxed at least 2% on its value; often 3%. Why should a tax of 2% or 3% be just and righteous, but a tax of 4%, 5%, or 6% incur penalties of everlasting damnation? Is it because land is especially singled out for taxation? Then is there not at least equal wickedness on the part of Congress, which for half a century singled out the business of importation as the only subject of taxation, and still taxes it ten times as heavily as anything else? Does the wickedness consist in taxing land up to its full value? Then is it not equally wicked to tax the poor man's window glass 100% upon its value? Does the wickedness consist in imposing a tax for the purpose of accomplishing some ulterior result? How about our whole tariff legislation, which is avowedly maintained for an ulterior purpose? Is it wicked to tax private property out of existence? How about the tax on bank notes, which was levied for the express purpose of destroying State banks? How about the tax on oleomargarine? Is it wicked to tax property out of existence, without giving compensation? Why do not those who urge this plea petition Congress for compensation for those whose wealth has been destroyed and whose occupation has been taken away by taxes avowedly levied for that purpose? Not one of these critics has ever suggested such a petition; not one of them would sign such a petition; and not one of the many thousands who have suffered from such tax laws ever thought of presenting such a petition.
Judged by any standard which has ever been applied to public affairs, even by clergymen, the proposition of a single tax on land values is perfectly reasonable, moral, and honorable. As to the amount of such a tax, that is a question to be decided by a wise expediency. There is not the slightest moral obligation on the part of the state to make the tax small, or to leave any margin to land-owners, so long as no more is taken than is needed for the honest use of the state.
It is not necessary to follow any further the proposition of Mr. George to increase taxation up to a point which would practically absorb all ground rent. Every one of the critics who has discussed the point at all, has committed himself to the theory that no such artificial increase of taxation would be necessary to absorb rent. Moreover, it is not a practical question at present, and will not be for a very long time to come, if ever. Taxation rises quite fast enough, without artificial efforts to increase it. In 40 years, in Ohio, population increased 100%, assessed wealth 1,000%, and taxation 1,360%. It is sufficient for the present to show that the actual remedy proposed by Henry George for the evils of our present social condition, the only practical measure which he asks to have adopted today, is a real remedy, an adequate remedy, and a just remedy. The criticisms of his adversaries have been directed to mere side issues, to his minor arguments, to his intellectual processes, to his illustrations, to anything except the real pith of the matter in hand. Not one of them has really wrestled with the problem; not one of them (except Mr. Atkinson) has been even approximately correct in his statistics; not one of them has failed to commit mistakes in his reasoning and his calculations far more serious than any which can be fastened upon Henry George.
I've not yet begun to watch the Ken Burns PBS series on Prohibition, other than a few snippets I've caught at odd times. (I look forward to watching the programs in order and in quiet.) But in the first segment, I did hear the name Frances Willard and something that made me google her name along with that of Henry George, on the chance that there was some connection. And I did find some interesting things.
Frances Willard, whose name we associate with the Womans Christian Temperance Union, was apparently also a Single Taxer. She saw the Single Tax as the way to end poverty, which she saw as a key cause of inebriation.
A few quotes:
"We used to say intemperance was the cause of poverty; now we have completed the circle of truth by saying poverty causes intemperance, and that the underpaid, undersheltered, wage-earning teetotaler deserves a thousand times more credit than the teetotaler who is well paid, well fed and well sheltered.
"In the slums they drink to forget; we would make life something they would gladly remember; so would you. Our objects are the same; let us clasp hands in the unity of spirit and the bond of peace."
source: NYT, 1895-06-20
from What Frances E. Willard Said:
May God crown with success the three great movements of our time which are fast passing out of the hands of philanthropists and into those of statesmen, viz., the temperance, the woman, and the labor questions, all of which are equal fractions of that one mighty whole — the human question.
The labor question is our question. Prostrate and crushed under the mountains of injustice that are piled upon the poor, lies the degraded woman to whom financial independence, equal pay for equal work, has often proved the lifting lever to a rehabilitated life.
quoted in "Land and Freedom" (volume 33):
'I SEE in Henry George's proposal an effort to establish a principle which, when established, will do more to lift humanity from the slough of poverty, crime and misery than all else; and in this I recognize it as one of the greatest forces working for temperance and morality.
from Miss Willard's address to the national WCTU convention in Baltimore, 1896:
In her address to the National W. C. T. U. convention held at Baltimore last week, Miss Willard said: -- We can no longer ignore the fact that, as the Scripture saith, 'the destruction of the poor is their poverty.' White ribbon women must be the sworn foes of monopoly, of landlordism, and every other form of class legislation. For one, I believe that the land belongs to the people, and while the farmer's domain should not be interfered with, since he turns it to a beneficent use, a propaganda of education should have devised whereby the single tax and the issue of all money by the Government itself should become two of the central planks in the platform of the party of the future.
Speaking at another meeting Miss Willard: -- Poverty is disease; it is disintegration; it has no right to be; and when men and women wake out of sleep, and see themselves as the criminals they are, nothing in the world will be so sure of actual extermination as the cursed thing called poverty -- the cradle of crime, the father of filth, the mother of misery. In the past we have comforted ourselves with looking upon it as the effect of wrong-doing, but have now aroused ourselves to the study of its cause. We are determined to burn to its last infectious atom the stench of the slums, and the temptation to lead a bad life with which poverty haunts the dream of boyhood, handicaps the purposes of youth, and enthralls the life of manhood.
For myself, twenty-one years of study and observation have convinced me that poverty is a prime cause of intemperance, and that misery is the mother, and hereditary appetite the father, of the drink hallucination.
We once said that intemperance was the cause of poverty; now we have completed the circle of truth by saying poverty causes intemperance, and the underpaid, underfed, undersheltered, wage-earning teetotaler deserves a thousand times more credit than the teetotaler who is well paid, well fed, and well cared for.
Ten years ago I could not have said it honestly; five years ago I could not have said it helpfully; but now I ceaselessly declare that I believe it to be the right and duty of the white-ribbon women to help abolish poverty in the larger sense of that great phrase.
This simple change in taxation would also force land at present held out of use for speculative profit into use, and thus prevent the monopolist from becoming rich at the expense of the public. The value which attaches to the land on which any community lives, is created by that community from year to year, not by any individual, and is thus the legitimate fund from which all public revenue should come."
from an Australian newspaper, 1898, LTE, quoting Frances Willard:
"I believe the present economic condition of the country, the misery of millions of our people, the vast number of the unemployed, call for reforms which, if they could be brought about, would vastly diminish the tendency to drink, and that one of those reforms of far-reaching and unspeakable beneficence is the single tax, as set forth by its great apostle Henry George."
and finally, from the Oxford Observer, a two-parter from July, 1897:
The Oxford Observer. PUBLISHED WEEKLY. SATURDAY JULY 17th. 1897
AN UP-TO-DATE CATECHISM. By Miss Frances E.Willard.
Who made the earth? God.
For whom was it made? For the use and sustenance of all his children, each one of whom has an equal right to its enjoyment.
How do we know that each has this equal right? Without the use of the earth no human being can exist. As each has an equal right to existence, it follows that each has an equal right to the earth.
Some persons claim to 'own' land. Where did they get their titles to it? All such titles in this country were derived from foreign kings or queens who claimed to own "America."
How did these foreign governments get this alleged right? Through open violence or fraud.
Have the people of one generation any right to give away or sell that which was made for all generations? No; the earth belongs to the living; the dead have no right therein.: (Thomas Jefferson.)
If any man claims to "own" land, has he a moral title to it? No; and it makes no difference whether he has purchased or inherited it, his title cannot be better than his from whom he derived. it.
To whom does the land of this country belong? To all the people of this country and to unborn generations.
It is necessary that each should have an equal portion of land in order that the rights, of all may be secured? No; that would be impracticable and unnecessary. The same end may be accomplished by taking the rent of land for public expenses.
To be continued.
Oxford Observer, Volume VIII, 24 July 1897
An Up-to-Date Catechism by Miss Frances E. Willard
As the value of land is produced by the community it should go to the community.
Can this be done without disturbing existing social institutions? Yes; by abolishing other forms of taxation and increasing the tax on land values.
How would this system compare with our present system of taxation? It would decrease the cost and simply the functions of Government. A tax on land values is the ideal system of taxation. -- (New York Times)
You would, then, remove all taxation from buildins and improvements? Yes; the more improvements we have the better for the community. Our present system of taxation checks production; a tax on land values would stimulate production by abolishing the tax on improvements.
How would the placing of all taxation upon land values affect the farmer? It would reduce his taxes very largely. The farmer is the worst taxed workingman in the country; he not only pays largely through indirect taxation on everything he consumes, but he is also heavily taxed on improvements. A tax on land values would be very large in the cities, or where land values are high, and the tax on agricultural land would be very small.
How would it affect the house owner? He would gain greatly, for the greater part of tax which he now pays is based upon the value of his house which is usually much greater than the value of the land. Of this, as well as of all indirect taxation, he would be relieved.
Would the placing of all taxation upon land values improve the condition of these who work? Yes. If land were taxed to its full rental value no one could afford to hold valuable land idle; the holder must either use it himself or allow others to use it. This would create a great demand for labour, and all wages would rise.
How would it affect the temperance question? Through abolition of poverty it would solve the temperance question; poverty and the vice which springs from poverty, are the great causes of intemperance.
This catechism was published along with something of Henry George's by the Darlington Single Tax League in the 1920s. Google Books has a page for it, but does not provide the text.
For some other Single Tax catechisms, check out thesingletax.com, the shorter pieces.
SOMETIMES, attention should be paid to the absence of news. America’s economic miseries continue, with unemployment still high and home sales stagnant or dropping. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and their fellow citizens is wider than it has been since the 1920s.
And yet, except for the demonstrations and energetic recall campaigns that roiled Wisconsin this year, unionists and other stern critics of corporate power and government cutbacks have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.
Instead, the Tea Party rebellion — led by veteran conservative activists and bankrolled by billionaires — has compelled politicians from both parties to slash federal spending and defeat proposals to tax the rich and hold financiers accountable for their misdeeds. Partly as a consequence, Barack Obama’s tenure is starting to look less like the second coming of F.D.R. and more like a re-run of Jimmy Carter — although last week the president did sound a bit Rooseveltian when he proposed that millionaires should “pay their fair share in taxes, or we’re going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare.”
How do we account for the relative silence of the left? Perhaps what really matters about a movement’s strength is the years of building that came before it. In the 1930s, the growth of unions and the popularity of demands to share the wealth and establish “industrial democracy” were not simply responses to the economic debacle. In fact, unions bloomed only in the middle of the decade, when a modest recovery was under way. The liberal triumph of the 1930s was in fact rooted in decades of eloquent oratory and patient organizing by a variety of reformers and radicals against the evils of “monopoly” and “big money.”
THE seeds of the 1930s left were planted back in the Gilded Age by figures like the journalist Henry George. In 1886, George, the author of a best-selling book that condemned land speculation, ran for mayor of New York City as the nominee of the new Union Labor Party. He attracted a huge following with speeches indicting the officeholders of the Tammany Hall machine for engorging themselves on bribes and special privileges while “we have hordes of citizens living in want and in vice born of want, existing under conditions that would appall a heathen.”
George also brought his audiences a message of hope: “We are building a movement for the abolition of industrial slavery, and what we do on this side of the water will send its impulse across the land and over the sea, and give courage to all men to think and act.” Running against candidates from both major parties and the opposition of nearly every local employer and church, George would probably have been elected, if the 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican who finished third, had not split the anti-Tammany vote.
Despite George’s defeat, the pro-labor, anti-corporate movement that coalesced around him and others kept growing. As the turn of the century neared, wage earners mounted huge strikes for union recognition on the nation’s railroads and inside its coal mines and textile mills. In the 1890s, a mostly rural insurgency spawned the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, which quickly won control of several states and elected 22 congressmen. The party soon expired, but not before the Democrats, under William Jennings Bryan, had adopted important parts of its platform — the progressive income tax, a flexible currency and support for labor organizing.
During the early 20th century, a broader progressive coalition, including immigrant workers, middle-class urban reformers, muckraking journalists and Social Gospelers established a new common sense about the need for a government that would rein in corporate power and establish a limited welfare state. The unbridled free market and the ethic of individualism, they argued, had left too many Americans at the mercy of what Theodore Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth.” As Jane Addams put it, “the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
IN the late 1970s, the grass-roots right was personified by a feisty, cigar-chomping businessman-activist named Howard Jarvis. Having toiled for conservative causes since Herbert Hoover’s campaign in 1932, Jarvis had run for office on several occasions in the past, but, like Henry George, he had never been elected. Blocked at the ballot box, he became an anti-tax organizer, working on the belief that the best way to fight big government was “not to give them the money in the first place.”
In 1978 he spearheaded the Proposition 13 campaign in California to roll back property taxes and make it exceedingly hard to raise them again. That fall, Proposition 13 won almost two-thirds of the vote, and conservatives have been vigorously echoing its anti-tax argument ever since. Just as the left was once able to pin the nation’s troubles on heartless big businessmen, the right honed a straightforward critique of a big government that took Americans’ money and gave them little or nothing useful in return.
I don't know whether Dr. Kazin has read Henry George's unnamed best-selling book recently -- I suspect he has read it at some point -- but he clearly didn't see the connection between George's central point and what Howard Jarvis did to the people of California via Proposition 13. Prop 13 is the antithesis of what George told his readers -- some 6 million copies of Progress and Poverty were sold in the 20 or so years following its publication in 1879 -- was necessary if we were to create a society in which we all start off genuinely equal. (My characterization, not George's.) Those who have read P&P know exactly why California leads the nation in foreclosures, and know the necessary-if-not-sufficient route to solving many of that state's economic problems.
George proposed to eliminate all taxes other than a tax on the value of land -- that is, he proposed to collect for common purposes the lion's share of the annual rental value of land, and not to tax imports, sales, wages, buildings, personal property, etc. Jarvis's Prop 13 put a low cap on how much could be collected in property taxes (in 1978, 1% of the 1975 value of the property, plus a maximum of 2% annual increase -- until the property was sold, at which point the assessed value would be reset at the selling price). George's land value tax would have collected the annual rent (quick and dirty: 5% of the selling value of the land in the absence of any property tax; nothing on the value of any improvements to the land).
It is no wonder that California's schools, libraries, universities, etc., are underfunded and not serving their intended purposes; that its economy is suffering under the burden of sales and income taxes. But all anyone writes about Prop 13 is "third rail of California politics" and "'populist' revolt."
But, as my mother would have put it, our educations have been neglected. Few of us have any basis for understanding that some taxes are actually good. (Even Milton Friedman, arguably inspired by Lowell Harriss, recognized land value taxation as the "least bad tax," though he apparently never considered putting his shoulder to the effort to enact it. One might wonder why -- and consider who buttered his bread, and why someone as brilliant as he never seemed to be conscious of it.)
George, incidentally, was neither left nor right, but represented a third way which appealed to a broad spectrum of Americans and others.
It has been suggested that part of why we celebrate Labor Day when we do is that George's birthday was September 2. I don't know if that's so, but it would certainly make sense. He advocated for ordinary people. "I am for men!"
If you'd like to know more -- in my mother's words, to fill in the gaps in your neglected education -- you might take a look at these pages, and the links from them:
I'm not sure the left -- as well intended as they see themselves -- can help us. They're no better educated in Georgist economics than the right is. But each can educate himself, and therein lies hope.
I thought this presentation -- made nearly 100 years ago, in December, 1911, to County Assessors in California -- worth sharing. (Merriam-Webster defines plunderbund as "a league of commercial, political, or financial interests that exploits the public.") That such a paper would be delivered to such a body gives one a hint of how widely understood and appreciated Georgist ideas were 100 years ago. The notes say:
"Mr. Edmund Norton presented a paper entitled "What is Single Tax?" Upon conclusion of the reading, which was interspersed with many extemporaneous remarks by the speaker, a very free discussion of the subject was held, and many interrogatories propounded to the author of the paper."
I'll give you the final paragraphs first, and then the whole talk.
Never, while the world lasts, will mankind become "Masters, lords and rulers" of themselves till these public values are publicly absorbed in taxation. The Single Tax is the most feasible, practical, expedient, simple, natural and just way of making the necessary, rational change without the violence of revolution. It stands "four square to all the winds that blow" — in economics, and politics; in ethics, morals and religion; in principle, science and philosophy; it is the practical application of Christianity to social affairs. "Equal Rights to All and Special Privileges to None," is the translation of the Golden Rule of the Nazarene to an economic and political formula. Therefore, fulfilled democracy is applied Christianity to governmental affairs.
"Do unto others as ye would that they should do to you," "Equal Rights to all and special privileges to none"; the Single Tax: these are synonymous.
Here we have the great Eleventh Commandment of the Master of Nazareth — the sum total of all "the Law and all the prophets" — we have its Jeffersonian formulation into a politico-social maxim of "Equal rights to all," and its scientific practical application in the Single Tax of Henry George. This is applied Christianity; this is democracy; this is Georgean philosophy; this is the Single Tax; different expressions of the one Unity.
and here's the whole thing:
WHAT IS THE SINGLE TAX?
The Georgean Philosophy and the Jeffersonian Formula. By Edmund Norton.
Never in the history of the world have there been so many inquiring minds asking: "What is the Single Tax and the Georgean Philosophy?" In England, Germany, Australia and Canada, as elsewhere, the constructive work of the leading statesmen is all being developed along the lines laid down by Henry George. To my mind, "The Prophet of San Francisco," as he was derisively dubbed by the Duke of Argyle, is, measured by his influence on the world of statesmanship, present and future, and as a sociological thinker, the greatest personality in the Western world between the North Pole and Patagonia since Columbus found the land. Henry George has found more continents than did Columbus by uncovering monopoly-submerged lands in the presence of which we hungered and died.
This paper is meant to merely outline the principles and philosophy of the great school of thought that has grown up in the last thirty years around its teachings that now has a literature of its own that will fill a library.
The Single Tax is the popular name of the great fiscal reform and social philosophy most powerfully promulgated by our great American, Henry George, sometimes called "the Prophet of San Francisco."
WHAT IT PROPOSES TO DO.
Its purpose is to increase wages to the full returns or earnings of labor; to shorten the hours necessary to earn a living; to leave to capital, which is secondary labor, its full returns, which are secondary wages; to abolish monopoly, which is the thief that is robbing both labor and capital, and thereby prove the unity and remove the apparent antagonisms which have no place in a natural order where monopoly does not exist. It will free production, including all trade, barter and exchange, which are but processes of production, and will equalize the distribution of wealth into the possession only of those who can earn it. It will destroy privilege by substituting equal natural rights, remove the dead hand from the control of living men; throw open the limitless natural resources of the planet to willing labor, and, by taking all social creations of value into the social treasury, will conserve all natural resources forever to the people and make private appropriation of public values impossible. This condition will start a boom that will never stop till every human want is satisfied.
It will make internecine and international wars impossible by destroying all trade and monopoly privileges which are the chief causes tempting the crafty, cunning and unscrupulous to create or encourage these sum totals of all vices, crimes and horrors against humanity for personal power and profit.
THE METHOD OF ATTAINMENT.
The Single Tax does not intend to add to or multiply the already almost infinite statutory enactments now confusing and befuddling the social state, but rather means to abolish, one after the other, every law on the statute books granting a special privilege to any one man or body of men that is at the expense of the unprivileged mass of society. This will destroy the petty and grand larceny now preying upon the social body.
Aside from the million of petty privileges granted by municipalities, states and the nation to individuals, the great and glorious pillage shows itself in privileges and monopoly in labor-saving inventions, trade restrictions and the private ownership of natural resources, the major part of which is a matter of taxation; therefore, the Single Tax would abolish all taxes on barter, trade, exchange, personal property and improvements, commensurately raising all taxes from the value of land alone, till there was in existence but one single tax upon the value of bare land exclusive of improvements. This would be a single tax on land value — not on land, for some land would pay no tax while other land would pay much tax.
For instance, one acre of land worth a million dollars would pay as much tax as a million acres worth only one dollar per acre.
SQUARES WITH THE MORAL LAW.
The Single Tax is ethically sound in application for the simple reason that all labor-created wealth is the result of individual effort and leaving that wealth untaxed would be leaving to the individual only that which belonged to him by his right to himself and to that which he himself creates; while taking into the public treasury only those values which society creates in its collective capacity would be leaving to society only that which belongs to it, for no individual on earth, by himself, can create land values.
At present we compound injustice by permitting private individuals to appropriate what society creates and then society turns about and deprives the individual of his private creation to support the governments whose existence makes possible the public values privately appropriated.
This basic injustice results in a fundamental disturbance of the equilibrium of society, showing itself in numberless evils — economic, social, political, physical, mental and moral.
Mistaken symptoms for disease, effects for causes, we have numerous social quacks pressing forward with innumerable nostrums — palliative, alleviative, suppressive or curative of the particular symptoms they have noted — each claiming he has found a remedy and each ready to cure the world with a salve, bandage, pill or liniment.
The diseased social body can be cured only by removing the cause and restoring it to a normal condition. Monopoly and Special Privilege is all that the social body suffers from today, and destruction of Monopoly and Special Privilege will cure it. Equal rights to All and Special Privilege to None is the only magic remedy. Apply this, make man free and equal before the law and the Divine Mind operating through nature will do the rest.
Thomas Jefferson's was probably the greatest democratic mind of his age and the equal of any age. If we examine the Jeffersonian formula we will find it the square, level and compass, without which no nation can ever be permanently founded., The natural rights of man, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," we must take for granted, and the right of revolution — also put forth in the immortal document — "the Right of the People to alter or to abolish and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness" we must also take for granted.
The constitution — itself a reactionary document, taking away from the people perhaps 75% of the liberties gained in the war of 1776 — still leaves us the power to apply the golden rule of democratic thought to our government without violence — for which we may be thankful.
EQUAL RIGHTS; NO SPECIAL PRIVILEGE.
If we view the recent, present and past history of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, Springfield, New York, Albany, Pittsburg, and the nation at large, we will have to confess that now and for fifty years past, at least, municipality, state and nation have been passing through a Saturnalia of public pillage by Special Privileges working through varying forms of oligarchic, partisan and political control. The government has been wrested from the hand of Democracy by Plutocratic privileges.
Applying the rule of Equal Rights to All, we clearly see that while these rights exist, the power to exercise them has been nullified; therefore, all of these reforms such as the Initiative, Referendum, Recall, Commission Government for cities, Direct Primaries and Popular Senatorial elections, are democratic efforts for the restoration of the Mechanics of Government into the hands of Equal Citizens.
I say the Mechanics of Government, for in no sense will the people be at all benefited permanently, even by the perfection of these reforms, which are but tools of government to develop efficiency of popular expression, unless they grasp these economic truths and change or readjust economic conditions. Indeed they might be worse off, for having captured these means completely, they might mistake them for ends, and believing their victory full, might slumber while being worse pillaged, which has been the case in the past.
I wish to inject here one pertinent suggestion — cities, within themselves, should have absolute right to exert self-government in all things within their borders that do not infringe upon the equal freedom of other cities, the state or nation, especially in matters of taxation.
SOME FISCAL FACTS OF LOS ANGELES (1910).
Having eliminated, then, the mechanics of government, suppose we apply our rule to the fiscal and economic conditions existing in our city of Los Angeles, and nearly every other city.
During the last fiscal year we raised about $5,000,000 in taxes imposed on land values, improvements, personal property and license — fines, which amounted to some $650,000. Now, there is no civic, fiscal or economic excuse for license, business and occupation fines other than police regulation or revenue raising.
Police regulations have no reason for existence except to protect the citizens from infringement on his equal rights, and to grant a special privilege under any name whatever for some persons to possess to the exclusion of other persons, is a wrong that breaks our golden rule of Democracy and should be abolished on that ground alone.
For Government to grant these powers of wrong doing on receipt of a stipulated share of the profits of the wrong, is to participate in, sanction and legalize the wrong and thereby corrupt society at its fountain head by official and statutory enactments.
Again, varying the cost of these granted privileges from $1.00 to $200.00 or more per month is absurdly unjust, unequal and discriminative, for or against certain businesses, making another breach of the rule calling for their abolition.
The effect of these fines is to act as trade restrictions, as interference with production, and to centralize business in the hands of a dominant privileged class. They are national protective tariff superstitions localized for the benefit of civic plunder.
Here I wish to call your attention to a vital, absolute, commercial and economic law: ''All taxes on things produced by human exertion enter into the cost of production and are paid for by the ultimate consumer."
If we grasp this fact in its fullness we will see that these fines and taxes effect not so much the middlemen who are compelled by this inexorable law to add them to the price, as it does the ultimate consumer, who is the whole body of society. Thus we do not hit the one we imagine, but simply strike ourselves.
To abolish them would be to free trade, diffuse business, accelerate its activity and lower prices to the ultimate consumer, permitting him to retain a greater amount of his earned wealth.
If we could so emphasize this one law as to make all see it, the ideals of democracy would be here.
I have laid particular stress on this all-important law because it applies not only to license fines but to all personal property and improvement taxes — on everything made by man. Therefore, in all forms of wealth in course of production there are no real taxpayers but the ultimate consumers — the intermediary is only a tax shifter. This is vital.
The Single Tax would abolish all these taxes; so would the Jeffersonian formula. In the two we have a principle and a method for its practical application.
To extend this practical application of the Democratic Principle to all things — including the international tariff — would immediately destroy the nightmare of high prices and flood the world with limitless possibilities of trade. This trade is now stifled and vast amounts of wealth are wrongly diverted to the possession of those who do not create or earn it.
The question arises: Where would you get the money to run the government if the Single Tax theory were put into operation? Of course! Why, there would be no place to get it except from land values. Here is something fastened to the world — possibly by the "Big Nail" of the North Pole — anyway it is where it can be seen; it can't run away, hide in a hole nor be loaned to a convenient friend in an adjoining county when the assessor comes around.
The millions of varieties and values of other forms of property being eliminated, scientific simplicity would be possible in taxation. Taking into the public treasury publicly created values in the form of a tax and leaving in the possession of private individuals their private creations, by tax exemptions, would square with the moral law. Incidentally, "Conservation of natural resources" would become an accomplished fact in city, state and nation; for the taxing power involved in the private possession of the "Unearned Increment," "Land Values," "Economic Kent," or "Ground Rent," is a governmental power now privately possessed, obtained by grant, theft or tax evasion. It is a special privilege held only by land owners — the abolition of which is necessary to the restoration of equal rights to all.
The private possession of a governmental privilege is, moreover, the prime motive — the chief incentive — to all the speculative holdings of idle city lots, agricultural, mining, timber, coal and oil lands, and all other natural resources. It is responsible for 90% of the speculative gambling that is prostituting city councils, state legislatures, the national government and even threatening the judiciary itself.
In fact, this basic injustice is at the bottom of 90% of all the vice, crime and graft — public and private — from which society is now suffering. The removal of the cause by the socialization of land values through the application of the Single Tax, would destroy the incentive, divert the evil tendencies to the best instead of the worst in society, displace an abnormal condition by a normal one, and cut out, eventually, the 90% of evil which we now deplore. The victories opening to us under these possible conditions are only picturable by the poet or the seer.
The Single Tax will remove unjust conditions by a rational, expedient process of readjustment. It will restore to the individual his freedom and to the state its own values.
The right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," "Equality of Opportunity," "Equality of Rights," and destruction of Special Privilege, all demand its enactment as the only natural and perfectly sane method of squaring these demands.
The equal right to life can never be guaranteed until equal right to the natural opportunities upon which that life depends is also guaranteed. A denial of one is the denial of the other.
The opening up of the limitless storehouse of nature on this continent alone, by the destruction of its monopoly, would be equivalent to discovering several new continents.
Labor and capital, unrestricted, would flow to these opportunities as the sparks fly upward. Relieved of the pressure at the bottom and congestion of trade restriction removed from the top, who can tell the wonderful possibilities of America?
Here, toward the last, we come in contact with another vital related problem: that of the functions and ownership of highways — national, state, county and municipal.
These highways are, in organ and function, to the social body, what veins, arteries and nerves are to the human body. They are the channels of communication and transportation for persons, property and intelligence. Interference, restriction, congestion — all tend to varying disorders in the social body. Perfect freedom to normal action is the solvent. Private control of a public function is privileged ownership of a governmental power which should never be tolerated in a state of equal freedom. In fact, equal freedom is impossible where special privileges of government are farmed out to private individuals.
It will be noted that practically all private possessions of land on the continent, except those facing free waterways, are criss-crossed, intersected and separated by these highways. Theoretically we can easily see that, should we grant absolute ownership of highways to one individual — even were every other adjustment on earth perfected — that one individual would be master of the continent, for no possible intercommunication of persons, property, or intelligence could take place on, by, through or across these arteries and nerves without his consent, which condition, if submitted to, would make him sole arbiter of the world.
What is true of the whole is fractionally true of any part. We can never establish Equality of Right till absolute freedom of highway is guaranteed. Private possession of highways is no more necessary to private possession of property than is private possession of the ocean necessary to private ownership of ships.
In fact, the rights of private property are abrogated when governmental power to exact tribute from private property is granted to a privileged few; therefore, "Equal Rights to All and Special Privilege to None,'' demand the application of the Georgean philosophy to highway functions as a democratic and not a socialistic measure.
When we remember that these privileges now controlled (facts of 1900 since accentuated) by the national steam railways alone are capitalized at $8,000,000,000 in excess of the $5,000,000,000 of actual cost, we can see the enormity of one form of special privilege and the corresponding abrogation of natural property rights.
In passing, I will say that there are three practical methods by which these rights may be restored.
(1) Government control, ownership and operation of entire systems;
(2) Government control, ownership and operation of roadbeds only through official control of despatching service — leaving free operation of untaxed capital in all else, or:
(3) Public taxation of all incomes and values in excess of current rate of interest on actual capital — said capital otherwise untaxed.
The practical applications of these principles are mere matters of detail, expediency and policy. The brains that organize and manipulate these gigantic social plunders in all their minutia, can just as well work out the details of public restitution when deprived of activity in private depredations — and would be glad of the job.
Applied, this would mean the destruction of special privilege in national railways, telegraph, telephone, street railways, water, light, heat, power and all other monopolies of highway function.
This, with absolute free trade and the taxation of land-values through all other things being exempt, would mean the complete abolition of "Special Privilege" in all things; the institution of "Equal Rights" the "Conservation of Natural Resources,'' and the restoration of "Equal Opportunity to All." When all this is done — and never until it is done — there will be left nothing but the individual problem for man to solve.
Again let me interject a vital suggestion: Had we absolute free trade — international, state and local — including absolute freedom of highways, which is but an extension of freedom of trade — in truth, had we reached perfection in production — for this all means freedom in production — had we all these things while still leaving the "Unearned Increment, or Economic Rent,'' in the hands of the land-owner — there would be no permanent benefit to society except that incident to the transitional period of readjustment. Eventually all these wonderful benefits would clearly raise nothing but land-values and make the plunderbund richer and mightier than ever. The rise and fall of land values measure all the advances of civilization and their private appropriators are the "Masters, lords and rulers in all lands'' of whom the poet spoke.
Never, while the world lasts, will mankind become "Masters, lords and rulers" of themselves till these public values are publicly absorbed in taxation. The Single Tax is the most feasible, practical, expedient, simple, natural and just way of making the necessary, rational change without the violence of revolution. It stands "four square to all the winds that blow" — in economics, and politics; in ethics, morals and religion; in principle, science and philosophy; it is the practical application of Christianity to social affairs. "Equal Rights to All and Special Privileges to None," is the translation of the Golden Rule of the Nazarene to an economic and political formula. Therefore, fulfilled democracy is applied Christianity to governmental affairs.
"Do unto others as ye would that they should do to you," "Equal Rights to all and special privileges to none"; the Single Tax: these are synonymous.
Here we have the great Eleventh Commandment of the Master of Nazareth — the sum total of all "the Law and all the prophets" — we have its Jeffersonian formulation into a politico-social maxim of "Equal rights to all," and its scientific practical application in the Single Tax of Henry George. This is applied Christianity; this is democracy; this is Georgean philosophy; this is the Single Tax; different expressions of the one Unity.
It comes from a 1914 report of a Washington State taxation symposium, in a section about taxing forests. Here's a section of it, a comment from someone representing the state Grange:
Mr. Kegley of the state grange requested me to express to this conference as the representative of the grange the purport of the resolution that we have been adopting for the past five years, and with the permission of the chairman I will do so. He cautioned me particularly not to "let them put anything over on us," and I will try not to do so. Our particular grievance lies against the speculators. We have adopted resolutions for the past five years at every session of the state grange, county granges, and by a great many subordinates, for the reform of our system of revenue so as to abolish speculation in land. When I was a small boy I purchased a pig. It spent most of its time rubbing itself against the pen, but did not seem to grow. Finally I asked my father what was the trouble. He teased me for awhile and then stated, using big words, that it was "supporting too many parasites." I asked him what a parasite was, and he said, "Your pig is lousy." The speculator is a louse on the body politic. He is absolutely useless, a mere parasite. He takes what does not belong to him. We farmers clear up our land and more than half the values we create goes to speculators. That ought to stop. We ought to collect from the speculator all that he gets that he does not earn. There ought to be taken from the speculator a special economic rent, not a tax, not a burden upon industry, not a burden on anything he is doing except his stealing.
We believe that the speculator ought to be relieved of that which he has unjustly acquired, to which he has no more right than the slave-holder or pirate to his ill-gotten wealth. These are strong terms, but it is the language of the grange. They have adopted resolutions again and again, unanimously and with great enthusiasm, and we submit that the principal thing this conference can do is to so reform our system of taxation, of public revenue, as to prevent the speculator getting a single dollar he has not earned.
Just a word considering what the speculator is doing in the community. If I went over on the other side of the mountains and dug a ditch, and a man should take water from that ditch, say half of it, he would be stealing. Yet every farmer who goes out on the stump land on the West coast, cultivates a farm and opens it up, has most of his value stolen from him by speculators — absolutely stolen. If a man were to come to my farm and drive off half my stock he would not be robbing me of a bit more, directly or morally, of what I had created, than he does when he takes the value I have created by clearing my farm. An Italian went to Bellingham and bought a lot from a speculator in the suburbs for $200. After awhile he thought he wanted to buy another lot, and tried to buy it for $200 — a lot next to the one he had already bought. But the speculator said, "No, you have added $100 to the lot adjoining your house." He did not get that $100. The speculator stole it. It is absolute stealing. Now we go further than that; we say the special curse of our whole system of taxation is the speculator. If we take from the speculator anything like what he is stealing from us we would not need any taxes. We could absolutely abolish all taxes and have a vast fund left over for a dividend to every stockholder.
Our timber is increasing tremendously. Our fisheries are increasing. The value of land on Second Avenue has increased, not because of what has been done by the owner, but because there are something like 80,000 people more in Seattle now than there were 10 years ago. The people that come in create but don't get that value. The speculator gets it all.The speculator is the sole cause of unemployment. Every man who wishes to control any natural resource should be made to pay to the public an annual rent of 4% or 5%, whatever is right, on the population value of the natural resources he is controlling, and we would have in this state more than $100,000,000 a year over and above our expenses, and that is a very conservative estimate. Timber increased in the State of Minnesota in 8 years more than $7 per thousand. You and I have built the Panama Canal by the increase in the price of sugar, $1.50 a sack, a few dollars on a suit of clothes, 50 cents to a dollar on a pair of shoes. The Panama Canal will add to the price of the billions of feet of timber in this state perhaps a dollar or two dollars per thousand, how much nobody knows yet, but something. Who is going to get that? If any man living thinks the timber barons are going to get that he is badly fooled. The state grange, the state federation of labor, and other organizations in this state propose to collect for the people every dollar of population-made value, or a fair rental on the values which our people have added to these natural resources, giving to the timber men merely what they have created, but keeping for the people all the values they have created. We propose to give the individually-made value to the individual who creates it. That is all we claim, all that we want. It is considerable to be sure, but it is all that we want. We want that every individual should have all that he creates, absolutely free of taxes. That is the position of the grange, asserted again and again in resolutions as clear as language can be made, to give to each individual all that he creates; to abolish all penalizing fines upon any industry and not fine a man for doing what he ought to do, what we want him to do. Up in Whatcom County every man who keeps a cow is fined 60 cents a year. If he keeps a good horse he is fined $8 a year. If he paints his house or takes out a stump he is taxed (fined). In the state in which I was born and raised, they paid a man for planting trees; but here we tax a man who blows out a stump. We should fine the man who keeps the stump in, and reward the man who takes it out. We want to tax the stump and exempt the cow. That, we think, is the only system. As representative of the grange I will have to make my report to the grange — they want to know what the attitude of every speaker is and what he thinks concerning the speculators. I think we of the grange do not care a continental about anything else. Are you going to help us to rid ourselves of the parasites (the speculators), or are you not? Are you going to help us to free ourselves from the men who are robbing as of the values we create, or are you going to fool away your time in a sham fight in putting upon property a lying tax which ultimately will fall upon the farmer and the wage-worker?
Amid all the talk of rebalancing the economy, there is little mention of the most powerful lever the government could pull to generate growth, which involves a switch from taxing income to taxing wealth.
It is a subject that tends to get little coverage, mainly because its supporters are considered on the fringes of the political spectrum. Ultra-lefties support wealth taxes for obvious reasons. Ultra-capitalists support them because they understand that allowing the rich to ring-fence much of the nation's assets and protect the mechanisms that allow values to increase without any serious government interference robs their children, and everyone else's, of any incentive to work harder.
What they are all talking about is the adoption of a land value tax. Purists would abolish all current taxes and replace them with an LVT that asked for a payment in line with the value of land under ownership.
Someone earning £40,000 a year would stop paying around £7,000 in income tax, £1,000 to £2,000 in VAT, £1,600 council tax and any of the transaction charges that fill the exchequer's coffers. No more capital gains tax or stamp duty on property sales or the sale of shares. Instead they would pay a fixed annual sum, to be paid monthly, on the value of their land, which could have a wide range, depending on how much the land is worth.
Move out of town and work locally, and your overall tax bill could be a fraction of its current total. Buy an expensive piece of real estate in the city centre and you would probably pay more.
Under the proper working of the council tax, increases in property values, as opposed to land values, lead to higher taxes, which is a disincentive to carry out those improvements in the first place.
Mark Wadsworth is an economist, blogger, sometime Tory Bow Group adviser and campaigner for land value taxes. He recently told Economic Voice website: "I'm an economist not a politician, and I can only repeat what all the great economists have said down the centuries: taxes on land values are the least bad taxes because they do not depress or distort economic activity, ie wealth creation. Land value tax is easy to assess, cheap to collect and impossible to evade.
"Not only that, LVT is an entirely voluntary tax: you decide how much you are willing to pay and you choose a house or a flat within that price range. Only, instead of handing over all the rent or purchase price to the current owner, the location value would go to the government."
What he means by this last sentence is that property prices would necessarily settle at a lower level because a buyer will deduct the location value, knowing they must send it to the exchequer in the form of a tax.
Yes! Think about the ramifications of this: as a buyer, you'd be paying the seller only for the value of the house itself, not the site on which it sits, which he did not create. A, say, 10% downpayment would be affordable to many more people, and, because one would not need to borrow from a mortgage lender to pay off the seller, that credit would be available for other purposes --- entrepreneurs could invest in the goods that would make their business work better.
The article goes on to report that the OECD wants to keep the VAT too, apparently in an attempt to influence consumer behavior -- I assume by discouraging it.
What we tax, we get less of. What do we want less of? Land speculation, or jobs?
Who chooses? Whose interests do they have at heart?
Yet another from Tax Facts, this from March, 1927.
To say that a tax is inequitable, because one kind of property is taxed at a higher rate than another kind of property, is to beg the whole question at issue. Equity demands that the cost of government be laid upon citizens in proportion to advantages derived by citizens from government.
To tax one miller more than another miller having the same investment would be unjust discrimination. But if one miller got power from steam of his own plant, while the other got power from a water fall, the latter's tax should be greater than the former's tax in order to place them on an equality before the law.
To tax a business man with a hundred thousand dollar investment the same as a land speculator with a hundred thousand dollar lot is unjust discrimination because the two investments are dissimiliar in nature and they respond differently to the tax law.
Thus, a factory deteriorates, the machinery wears out and becomes obsolete. The owner must constantly give it care and expend labor on it. The land speculator, on the contrary, gives his land no care, and he employs no labor. Yet the factory grows less in value with time, while the land increases in value. Manifestly it is unjust to tax these two citizens the same. One citizen enjoys no value but what he himself creates, while the other enjoys a value that the community has made.
If the community is to render justice to all its members it must vary its tax burdens to equalize the advantages they derive from the services rendered by the community.
Governor A. Harry Moore, of New Jersey, in his first inaugural address to the 1927 Legislature, after discussing several methods of financing new highway construction, said: "Lastly, I might suggest to you the wisdom of assessing some part of the cost of the road system upon the land specially benefitted thereby, as is the practice in municipal improvements. A striking illustration of what might be regarded as an evil of having the State at large pay for major improvements and the land peculiarly benefitted by the improvements escape, except in so far as it shares its proportion of the State's expense, is in the increase of land values in Bergen county, which came as a result of the projected Hudson River Bridge."
Notice that this was said before the George Washington Bridge had become a reality: the increase in land values began well before construction began.
Governor Christie could learn from Governor Moore's wise observation in 1927, as New Jersey considers the benefits to be derived from building an additional tunnel under the Hudson River.
And those who are upset about pork spending don't seem to notice that much of that federal spending has the effect of increasing land value in the localities where it is done, and that smart states, counties and towns would collect some significant share of that increase in land value, month in and month out, from those benefited by that federal investment.
As you read this one, think about the effect of California's Proposition 13, which caps the annual property tax at 1% of the assessed value (rising by no more than 2% peryear, even when land values are rising much faster), and requires the state and cities and counties to rely on sales and wage taxes.
Think, too, about what the effects of so-called "property tax relief" really are.
This comes from Tax Facts in November, 1926 --- fifty years before Prop 13, and eightly years before the crash it produced..
BUY REAL ESTATE
The real estate editor of the Los Angeles Times does his bit in boosting the city in this way:
Fact and Comment solicits your indulgence and again advises you to buy real estate. Your attention Ib called to the sale of the northeast corner of Wilshire and Hauser boulevards last week. Bought scarcely two years ago for $36,000, it turned last week for $100,000.
"No plans were made public for the improvement of the property," says the report of the deal. "We contemplate no immediate development," the buyers of the corner assert, "we consider the deal a bargain and we thought this time excellent for buying."
To add to its impressiveness, the real estate editor continues:
There is food for a little serious thinking, Mr. Wise Investor. When the professional crepehanger and the wet-blanket artist cry "Business is bad," that is a signal to — buy some real estate.
There you have it, the quick and simple way of building up the community: buy real estate. Never mind about putting it to productive use. Let someone else attend to that. Just buy it and hold it. It will enrich you. And if it enriches you, a citizen, it enriches the community.
Ah, but does it? The second man who sold the corner mentioned by the real estate editor is nearly three times as rich as he was two years ago, it is true; but how about the man who wishes to use that corner?
Two years ago the man who wishes to use that corner would have had to pay $6.00 a day just for the site upon which to set his building. Today he would have to pay $16.00 for the same privilege. The owner of the land might be enriched to the extent of sixteen dollars a day, but what of the public?
When the cobbler makes a pair of shoes, and the tailor a coat, each has bettered himself, and the community has been enriched to the extent of a coat and a pair of shoes. But when the speculator buys a corner for $36,000 and sells it in two years for $100,000, he may have trippled his own wealth, but what of his fellow citizens? The corner is still the same vacant lot.
Holding land idle may or may not enrich the holder. It does not enrich the community. Only the user of the land adds to the wealth of the community. One man invests $36,000 in a lot; another puts $36,000 in a building on the lot; a third stocks the building with a $36,000 consignment of furniture.
In two years the lot is worth $100,000; the building is worth $36,000, less depreciation; and the furniture is the same. Yet the community taxes all this property alike.
The speculator with his $100,000 can now buy another $36,000 lot, erect a $36,000 building, and stock it with a $36,000 consignment of furniture. But will he? Experience has taught him that only land grows in value. A building adds to the value of land, but not to itself. A stock of furniture adds to the value of land, but not to itself or to the building.
"No," the speculator will say, "the community lays the same tax burden upon property that does not increase in value, as upon property that does. I'll buy three $36,000 lots, and in two years I'll have $300,000."
Is it any wonder that the speculators among the California Realtors in their state convention at Del Monte condemned the "tax relief plan'' that would equalize in some degree the burden on industry by shifting some of the taxes on business and homes and farms to the land speculator?
It remains to be seen what the farmers, home owners and business men will say.
Here's another from a 1926 issue of Tax Facts, a California-focused, business-focused, Single Tax monthly. While I find the intended focus of the article spot on, what caused me to share it here was the horse-grist-stone analogy in the final paragraph.
A SURE THING
Buy real estate in Southern California, says the real estate editor of the Los Angeles Times. Use common sense in making the purchase. Hold on to the property. It will make you independent and your children wealthy.
Fifty-nine years ago Alonza E. Horton bought 960 acres for $265, think of it, at the rate of 27 cents an acre. That . property today is the heart of the San Diego business section. It is worth something like $50,000,000.
The editor goes on to say that since Mr. Horton bought his 960 acres of land at 27 cents an acre millions of people have come to Southern California to live, and the same inducements that brought them will bring millions more. "So don't delay," the editor says, "but buy Southern California real estate while you have the opportunity." And he adds; "It is the fellow with the foresight and the decision to back his jugdment that gathers in the shekels."
This is the counsel of the go-getter. Southern California is an attractive place. Many people have come here. There are indications that many more people will come in the next few years. All these people must have land upon which to live, to do business, and to raise crops. They may bring with them all manner of goods and supplies, but they must use the land that is already here.
Hence, buy that land now, says the realtor, and sell it or lease it to those who come after. To the man who comes to Southern California next year, fix the price a little above the price of this year. Next year add again to the price; the year after, increase it again, and so on, always adding all you dare, short of an amount that will drive the builder away. This is the way the "fellow with the foresight and the decision to back his judgment" reaps the wealth of soil and climate that nature supplied in such perfection. When Mr. Horton came to San Diego in 1867 he bought land at 27 cents an acre. But the man who wants to use that same land today must pay fifty thousand dollars an acre.
This is the law and custom. We must have permanent possession, in order to secure the best use of land. But is there any reason why we should tax alike lands that increase in value so fabulously, and buildings and goods that deteriorate with age?
Some governments do not tax all property alike. Pittsburgh, Pa., taxes machinery and goods not at all, and taxes buildings at one half the rate of land. Mr. Moody, the far-seeing assessor of San Diego, taxed buildings at less than half the rate of land, until he was enjoined by the court. His policy was very popular with the people — business men and residents — excepting a grouchy land owner who evoked the aid of the courts.
When the assessor was compelled to follow the letter of the law there was great distress among the builders of San Diego. Men had built larger and finer buildings because the taxes were lighter on improvements than on land. So great was the burden when the court ruled that they be taxed alike that efforts were made to have the legislature legalize the practice of the far-seeing assessor.
It will come. What has been done in Pittsburgh can be done in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It may take time. For years the countryman balanced his grist on the horse's back by putting the meal in one end of the sack and a stone in the other. One day it occurred to him that he could secure the same result by dividing the meal — and save the horse the weight of the stone.
Realtors are merely human when they advise people to buy land on speculation. It is their business. And the man who buys land, and lets it lie idle, while labor and capital build up the community around it, he, too, is human, and is acting within the law.
But what shall be said of the voters who control the laying of taxes? Are they as careful in looking into the tax laws as they are in watching their business affairs?
In the old days when government was simple and taxes were light it did not so much matter, but now it is different. There is hope. The voters will learn to divide the meal, and save the weight of the stone.
invented by Miss Lizzie Magie of Washington, D. C, will be manufactured and ready for the market about June 1st.
The Landlord's Game is played on a board about 18 inches square, divided into 46 spaces representing all the various institutions of modern commercial life. The names of some of these spaces are "Soakum Lighting System," "Slambang Trolley," "Gee Whiz Railroad," "Lord Blueblood's Estate," "Wayback," "Boomtown." "Easy Street." "Broadway," "Timberlands.'' "Oil Fields," "Jail," "Poor House," etc.
The play on the board is started by the throw of dice which indicates the moves of the players and from that time on the transactions between individuals, corporations and the government are entered into with vim and interest. At the start the players are equally equipped but as the moves continue the majority of the players are apt to be forced into poverty, some even arriving at the Poor House, while one player generally becomes the millionaire.
THE SINGLE TAX
This condition prevails until the adoption of the single tax on land values, when the land rents, instead of being appropriated by individual players, are turned into the public treasury and used for public improvements. The game as then continued equalizes opportunities and raises wages, while it is impossible for one player to get any great advantage over the others.
The game brings out with great clearness the exact position in the commercial world of money, transportation and land monopoly. Unlike most games that have sought to teach a problem, this game preserves all the principal features of the popular chance and skill games, at the same time demonstrating the problem with clearness and simplicity. It is easily learned and is played with great enthusiasm by children as well as adults.
Mr. John Z. White says:
The Landlord's Game Is something with which all single taxers should be familiar, as It will not only afford them much amusement, but will enable them to make practical illustrations of disputed points. It gives opportunity in this direction that can be secured in no other way. The "cat" is so clearly revealed that even he who runs may perceive.
Mr. Henry George. Jr., says:
The Landlord's Game illustrates the salient points of the single tax philosophy and is also interesting as a game.
Mrs. Jennie L, Munroe. Vice-Pres. of the National Woman's Single Tax League, says:
A thorough understanding of the principles of the Landlord's Game is equal to a whole course in political economy.
Rev. Alex. Kent, Pastor People's Church, Washington. D. C, says:
The game is instructive and at the same time absorbingly interesting.
The game will be furnished in a neat box with lithographed board in colors, will include a pack of cards representing title deeds, railroad charters, etc., besides checkers, dice, money and all other implements necessary to the playing of the game, and will be sent to any address in the United States on receipt of one dollar. Postage 20 cents extra.
Address MISS LIZZIE J. MAGIE, Secretary, ECONOMIC GAME COMPANY. 58 WEST 68th ST., NEW YORK, N. Y.
LVTfan here: the ad has no graphics. But this game is the inspiration for the board game we know as Monopoly.
In a recent column in the NYT entitled "Description is Prescription", David Brooks made references to Tolstoy, and it sent me looking to see whether a book I remembered was available via Google Books. The book was written in 1905 by Bolton Hall, and it is entitled "What Tolstoy Taught." Its final chapter, "Human Rights," follows:
(Tolstoy proclaimed the law of love as enunciated by Christ; the political rights as enunciated by Thomas Jefferson; the economic rights as announced by Henry George: the two latter as amplifications of the first; all being essential to man's earthly welfare. Tolstoy's philosophy was progressive. At first he saw that the law of love was necessary; then he recognized the necessity of equal political rights; next he recognized that without economic justice these remedies were futile, and he accordingly embraced the philosophy of Henry George, as evidenced by the following article addressed to the Russian people.— Ed.)
A number of suggestions have been made as to how to divide, in the most just manner, all land among the workers, but of all these only the one made by the late Henry George appears to me to be practicable.
The property right, Henry George wrote in his book about the single tax, is founded not on human laws, but on the laws of God. It is undeniable and absolute, and everyone who violates It, be it an individual or a nation, commits a theft.
A man who catches a fish, who plants a tree, builds a house, constructs a machine, sews a dress or paints a picture, thereby becomes the owner of the results of his own efforts — he has the right to give them away, to sell them or to leave them to his heirs. As the land has not been created by us, and only serves as the temporary residence of changing generations of human beings, it is clear that nobody can own the exclusive right to possess land, and that the rights of all men to it are equal and inalienable.
The right to own land is limited by the equal rights of all others, and this imposes upon the temporary possessor of land the duty to remunerate society for the valuable privilege given him to use the land in his possession.
When we impose a tax upon houses, crops, or money in any form, we take from members of society something which by right belongs to them, we violate the property right and commit a theft in the name of the law; while when we impose a tax upon land we take from members of society something which does not belong to them, but to society, and which cannot be given to them except at a detriment to others. We thus violate the laws of justice when we place a tax on labor or the results of labor, and we also violate them if we do not levy a tax on land.
Let us, therefore, decide to stop levying all taxes except the tax on the value of land, regardless of the buildings erected or the improvements made on it, but only on the value which natural or social conditions give to it.
If we place this single tax on land the results will be these:
1. The tax will relieve us of the whole army of officials necessary to collect the present taxes, which will diminish the cost of government, at the same time making it more honest. It will rid us of all the taxes which lead to lying, to perjury, to frauds of all kinds. All land is visible, and cannot be hidden, and its value is fixed easier than that of any other property, and the single tax can be determined at less expense and less danger to public morals.
2. It will to a great extent increase the production of wealth, doing away with the discouraging tax upon labor and thrift, and it will make the land more accessible to those who want to work or improve, as the proprietors, who do not work themselves, but speculate in its increasing value, will find it difficult to keep up such expensive property. The tax on labor, on the other hand, leads to the accumulation of immense fortunes in a few hands, and the increasing poverty of the masses. This unjust division of wealth on one side leads to the creation of one class of people who are idle and corrupt, because they are too rich, and the creation of another class of people who are too poor, and thus doubly delays the production of wealth. This unjust division of wealth creates on one side terrible millionaires, and on the other side vagrants, beggars, thieves, gamblers and social parasites of various kinds, and necessitates an enormous expense for officials to watch these — policemen, judges, prisons and other means which society uses in self-defense.
The single tax is a remedy for all these evils.
I do not mean to say that this tax will transform human nature, for that is not within the power of man, but it will create conditions under which human nature will grow better instead of worse, as under the present conditions. It will make possible an increase of wealth, of which it is hardly possible to form an idea. It will make undeserved poverty impossible. It will do away with the demoralizing struggle for a living. It will make it possible for men to be honest, just, reasonable and noble, if they desire to be so. It will prepare the soil for the coming of the epoch of justice, abundance, peace and happiness, which Christ told His disciples of.
Let us suppose that in a certain place all land belongs to two owners — one very rich, who lives far away, and another, not rich, living and working at home — and to a hundred of small peasants owning a few acres each. Besides these, there live on that place some scores of people who own no land — mechanics, merchants, and officials.
Now let us suppose that the people of that community, having arrived at the conclusion that the land is common property, decide to dispose of the land according to their new conviction.
What would they do? Take all the land away from those who own it, and give everybody the right to take the land he desires? That could not be done, because there would be several people who would want the same ground, and this would lead to endless quarrels. To form one society and work all things in common would be difficult, because some have carts, wagons, horses and cattle, while others have none, and, besides, some people do not know how to till the soil, or are not strong enough.
To divide all the land in equal parts, according to its value, and allow one part to each is very difficult, and this would, besides, be impracticable, because the lazy and poor would lease their property to the rich for money, and these would soon again be in possession of it all.
The inhabitants of the community, therefore, decide to leave the land in the possession of those who own it, and to order each owner to pay into the common treasury money representing the revenue which had been decided on after appraising the value of the land, not according to the work or the improvements made on it, but to its quality and situation, and this money was to be divided equally among all.
But as it was difficult first to take this money from all those who held the land, and then divide it equally among all the members of the community, and as these members, besides, paid money toward the public needs — schools, fire departments, roads, etc.— and as this money was always needed, they decided to use all the money derived from those who had the use of the land, for public needs.
Having made this arrangement, the members of the community levied the tax for the use of land on the two large owners, and also on the small peasants, but no tax at all was imposed on those who held no land.
This caused the one landowner who lived far away, and who derived little income from his property, to realize that it did not pay to hold on to land thus taxed, and he gave it up. The other large owner gave up part of his land, and kept only that part which produced more than the amount of his tax. Those of the peasants who held small properties, and who had plenty of men, and not enough land, as well as some of those who held no land at all, but who desired to make a living by working the land, took up the land surrendered by its former owners.
After that all the members of the community could live on the land and make a living from it, and all land passed into the hands of or remained with those who loved to work it, and who made it produce the most. The public institutions flourished and the wealth of the community increased, for there was more money than before for public needs; and the most important fact was that this change in the ownership of land took place without any discussions, quarrels, or discord, by the voluntary surrender of the land by those who did not derive any profit from it.
This is the project of Henry George, which, if tried here, would make Russia wealthy and happy, and which is practicable all over the world.
I stumbled across this document in a little book which runs to 24 pages, from 1887. Those with an interest in Alabama history, particularly as it relates to taxation, might find that it helps explain how the 1903 constitution came about -- whose interests it sought to protect. Consider it, too, in light of our current economic situation -- too few jobs, lots of income and wealth concentration; not enough credit available to afford housing or commercial sites. These problems can be solved, but not in the ways we've already tried.
The Case Plainly Stated By H. F. RING
PREFATORY NOTE -- This address originally was delivered to the United Labor Organization of Houston, Texas, in 1887. It appeared in full the next morning in the Houston Daily Post, and afterwards in The Standard, published at that time in New York by Henry George. Mr. George then issued it in tract form, giving it the name of "The Case Plainly Stated." Many editions of it have since been published from time to time in this country and in Europe and Australia, and it is generally regarded as one of the clearest brief statements extant of the philosophy of land value taxation as taught by Henry George in his famous "Progress and Poverty."
MR. CHAIRMAN:— The land question is simply a question as to how the use of the bounties of nature shall be best regulated and controlled. By bounties of nature I mean the coal beds, the mineral deposits, the land — all those natural elements which were not created by human industry, but which Nature has freely and abundantly provided for the use and enjoyment of all the children of men; and I propose to show how the right of capital and. labor to use these natural elements should be regulated by the government*, so as most to conduce to the happiness and well-being of mankind.
* The word "government" as used in this presentation of the Single Tax refers to the tax levying power as vested, not alone in the federal, but also and even primarily in the state, county, and municipal governments. It is probable that a complete application of the Single Tax will be reached through its gradual adoption at first in cities, counties and states, before it is substituted for tariff and internal revenue taxation.
I am a Single Taxer, and a discussion of the land question by me can be nothing more than a mere attempt to expound the teachings of that great master of the subject, Henry George.
George, at the outset, calls attention to the marvelous improvements in the arts and sciences, the discoveries, inventions, and labor-saving machines which, within the past 100 years, have so immensely increased the productive powers of the human race. Is it not a moderate estimate to assume that on an average the labor of one man today, with all these labor-saving inventions, will produce as much of the comforts and luxuries of life as the labors of four men would a hundred years ago? And does it not follow that the average workman of today creates, by each day's labor, four times as much wealth as the average workman did a hundred years ago? George teaches that if the workman of today, on an average, creates four times as much wealth as the workman of a hundred years ago, then the services of this workman of today are four times as valuable to society; then why should not his wages of right be four times as great? Why should he not be four times as independent? Why should it not be four times as easy for him to make a living and support his family in comfort and decency?
Will any one presume to assert that this is in fact the case? On the contrary, is it not just about as hard for the poor man to make a living today as it ever was? Does he not dread the loss of a position today just as much as he ever did? George asserts that labor-saving machinery really ought to lessen the burdens of labor, to make it easier for the laborer to live, and in fact, to lighten his toil. But alas, from some apparently mysterious cause, — a cause which many comfortably well-to-do people insist is one of the unfathomable mysteries of Divine Providence, — what George claims should rightly result from inventions does not result from them. And still we are all the time making new discoveries, and year by year increasing, by means of new inventions, the productive powers of working men; yet, with the increase of population, the lot of those who produce all this wealth seems to be becoming more precarious, less independent and more and more wretched.
Who denies that under the present social system, wages tend to fall irresistibly to the point at which the wage-workers can barely subsist? This is called the iron law of wages, and all the strikes conceivable can only temporarily, and but fitfully, arrest this steady tendency. For so long as unemployed men compete for employment against the employed, wages cannot permanently advance. The worker may create quadruple the wealth, but he is not permitted to retain any more of it as his share.
WHO GETS THE WEALTH?
Now, where does this wealth go — this wealth which we now produce so much more easily and in such vastly greater quantities than ever before? What becomes of it? Who gets it? Why is it that in this age of wealth-producing and labor-saving machinery, poverty as abject and hideous as ever before seen in the history of the world abounds and increases in our midst? What is the cause of the so-called iron law of wages? Henry George has discovered it. He has pointed it out, and he has shown us the remedy. He has demonstrated beyond a doubt or question that it does not result as a fatal necessity from the nature of things, but that it is a result of violation of natural law, of a refusal on the part of society to recognize the inalienable right of every citizen of access to the bounties of nature within the territory of his country on equal terms with every other citizen of that country.
Let me now give you a short lesson in the elements of this new political economy.
Three factors enter into the creation of every conceivable kind of wealth. By wealth we mean any material thing produced by human industry which gratifies human desires. These factors are land, labor and capital. Wealth in a civilized community is produced only by means of a union or partnership between land, labor and capital. Labor does the work, capital loans the tools, and land furnishes the natural elements on which, and out of which all material things resulting from human industry are created. In speaking of land in the new political economy we never include improvements or anything which is the result of human toil. We simply mean the opportunities which land and the elements within it afford for the employment of capital and labor — we mean the raw elements as they lie on or in the bosom of the eartli, untouched by the hand of man.
Now, as before remarked, the product of land, labor and capital is wealth, and after it is produced, it is divided among these factors entering into its composition. A certain portion of it, called rent, goes to land, either directly in the form of rent or in the form of interest on the selling price of the land or of the coal bed, or whatever it is; another portion of it, called profit or interest, goes to capital for the use of tools which capital has furnished, and the balance left, after land has been paid rent and capital has been paid interest or profits, goes to labor as wages for the work which labor has done, including the labor of superintendence.
MEANING OF RENT.
Now what does rent signify as used here? Rent is the price paid for the privilege of access to the raw material — for the mere privilege of getting hold of something not created by man, on which and out of which labor and capital can produce wealth. This rent may be paid periodically, or may be paid in a lump in the form of purchase money. In either case the result will be the same. Is it not clear that in the division of wealth after it has been produced by this partnership between land, labor and capital, the more land gets for rent the less there will be left for capital and labor? Is it not quite as plain as A B C that the more it costs capital and labor to get hold of these natural elements, the coal beds, the mines, the water fronts, the land — the gifts of nature which a kind providence has provided for the equal use and enjoyment of all — the less there will be for labor and capital to divide between them?
In the new political economy we must never confuse land with capital. One is never the synonym of the other. Land, as before stated, is simply the natural opportunity, exclusive of improvements or anything done to it by man. Capital is something that has been made by man, like a machine for instance, which is useful in the production of wealth. It is wealth used to produce more wealth.
LABOR AND CAPITAL PARTNERS.
But someone asks: Suppose the capitalist who is using the coal bed or using this natural opportunity, whatever it may be, is also owner of it. Where then does your partnership between land, labor and capital come in? We answer just the same as before. A sum equal to the interest on the market value of the coal bed (independent of the machinery, excavation work, etc.) is in such cases a factor of rent. The owner, in addition to profit or interest on his capital, as before defined, must also take from the wealth produced a sum equal, approximately, to interest on the market value of the coal land, otherwise he would sell out and quit. It is evident that the more money the owner is obliged to invest in purchasing the coal bed, for instance, the greater must be the sum which he takes out of the wealth produced to cover interest on that investment, and hence such interest money is simply rent paid for the use of a natural element, for the privilege of access to one of the bounties of nature. Therefore, is it not equally plain in this case that the more paid for this privilege of use, the less will remain out of which labor can get wages?
A few years ago we read in the newspapers of a great boom in the vicinity of Birmingham, Alabama. We were exultingly told that the lands containing coal beds and mineral deposits in northern Alabama had gone up in value from $75,000 to $50,000,000 in the space of six years. What does this signify? It means that when capital and labor shall attempt to utilize these coal beds and mineral deposits, when capital and labor shall unite together, the one to furnish the tools, the other the labor, with which to produce wealth out of this raw material, then will a set of landlords step forward and block the enterprise with a demand for $50,000,000 for the mere right of access to these free gifts of nature, or in lieu of it the payment of $3,000,000 a year as tribute money, that being the interest of $50,000,000 at six per cent.
There lie the coal beds and mineral deposits untouched by man, fresh from the hands of the Creator, intended by Him, if He is the just, benevolent Being whom we have been taught to worship, for the equal use and enjoyment of all His children, and yet our laws say that capital and labor must pay a few forestallers $3,000,000 a year for the privilege of applying the hand of industry to these elements.
And after this blackmail has been paid, how much will there be left for the wages of labor? The answer is, just as little as labor can ordinarily subsist upon. Why? Because this monopolization of the gifts of nature going on, not only in northern Alabama, but everywhere else, enables capital to drive a hard bargain with labor. For this reason, and this alone, they can't deal with each other on equal vantage grounds. Suppose labor objects and says to capital: "I'll not accept the pittance you offer." Capital replies: "All right, go elsewhere." And so labor starts out to get work for himself, and what does he find? Here he is, living in a country capable of raising food for ten times its present population, and he finds four-fifths of the land untilled or but partially cultivated. He finds four-fifths of the coal beds and mineral deposits unused. He finds vacant land and unused lots on every side. He goes to New York City even and he finds there within its corporate limits almost one-third the area of that city vacant, unoccupied, and unused, although there are miles and miles of tenement houses, in which men and women and innocent children are packed and crowded like maggots, as though there wasn't ample room in the city for the comfortable housing of every human being in it. He finds unused natural elements all around him wherever he goes, sufficient to give employment and support in abundance to tens of millions of happy families.
But now suppose labor attempts to make use of any of these unused natural opportunities? Suppose he concludes to go to work for himself upon a piece of vacant land in the suburbs of a city, for instance, where labor could be applied to the greatest advantage. What happens? An individual comes along and waves a title deed, and orders him off the premises. He finds that all these unused natural opportunities are owned by individuals and claimed as private property. He finds himself frustrated at every point. He finds that he can't go to work anywhere without paying blackmail to the owner of some natural element for the mere privilege of working and so he strikes back to northern Alabama and takes off his hat to Capital and bows very low and says: 'Please, sir, give me a bare living and I will be your slave."
And that is about all that he does get, and that is all he ever will get under the present system of land ownership, though you may strike and boycott and potter about graduated land taxes, graduated income taxes, and graduated nonsense until doomsday.
THE GREAT PARASITE.
With advancing population the greater becomes the demand for natural opportunities and the higher the prices which can be extorted for the privilege of using them. As population increases, the town lots, the coal beds, the mineral deposits, the water fronts, the land, go up in value, and so goes up also the amount of tribute money which labor must pay for access to them, for the privilege of employment. The more of the products of industry which go for the payment of this constantly increasing tribute, the less and less will grow the share allowed the laborer and the more dependent and the more wretched will his lot become.
Here in Houston today, suppose Enterprise has $50,000 to invest in the paper mill business, a sum barely sufficient to put up the building, buy the machinery and carry stock. He finds a beautiful site for his mill on the banks of the bayou. It is a vacant lot. The hand of man has never been applied to it, and it stands there now just as it stood when the Indian roamed over the site of this city. The owner of that block, however, thinks he can make Enterprise pay him $20,000 for the privilege of giving employment to labor on this natural opportunity — this piece of ground. That is the price, and if he can't get it today he will get it when the city grows a little larger. But Enterprise says to him: "I have only $50,000 capital, all of which I shall need in my business." The land owner answers it is not his lookout, and so Enterprise turns away checkened and baffled, and the mill is not built.
CAUSE OF DULL TIMES.
And so it is everywhere. Wherever we find a portion of the vacant surface of the earth which could be utilized by capital and labor, and which affords an opportunity for human toil and enterprise, there we find a human vampire with a paper title in his hand warning off labor; and that vampire must always be placated by the payment of blackmail before the wheels of industry can begin to turn.
Need we wonder that these wheels turn slowly, and that they are always getting out of gear; that we are always talking about dull times; that men are always out of employment and always hunting for work, regarding it as a favor even to be allowed to work; that we are all the time growing too much cotton, when millions of human beings have only one shirt to their names; that we are producing too much food, when half the population of the world is insufficiently fed; that carpenters are out of work, when half the people are not comfortably housed; shoemakers wanting work and millions needing shoes? How could it be otherwise, when labor is compelled to beg for work in the midst of limitless unused opportunities for work, on which opportunities, however, sit these human vampires, these dogs in the manger, waving labor back with their paper title deeds?
Now let us go back for a moment to that partnership between land, labor and capital. For illustration, suppose the wealth produced by the partnership to be created by the application of capital and labor to those coal beds and mineral deposits in northern Alabama, valued, as we have seen, at $50,000,000. In the division of wealth produced we have shown how, say six percent of this $50,000,000, or $3,000,000, must go to land as rent. Or, in other words, $3,000,000 a year must be paid to land owners directly as rent or interest on purchase money for the bare privilege of utilizing these gifts of nature. Now, in the division of wealth produced, why is labor entitled to any portion of it? Clearly because labor's industry has contributed to its creation. Why is capital entitled to any part of it? Because capital has furnished labor with tools with which to develop the mineral deposits. The capitalist who owns the tools can trace his title back to the creator of them, to some individual or set of individuals whose industry produced them and from whom he purchased or inherited them. The title, then, of both labor and capital to a portion of the wealth produced from these mineral deposits originates in human industry, and it is a sacred title. Now then, why should the land owner get any portion of this wealth, to produce which capital has supplied the tools and labor has done the work? This owner claims the right of making capital and labor pay him interest on $50,000,000, or $3,000,000 a year, for the mere privilege of access to this raw coal and raw ore. Ought we not to scrutinize most carefully his right to extort this immense tribute? And if he can show no natural and moral right to claim it, does not society countenance the robbery of labor in permitting him to do so? Where does his title originate?
We find that six or seven years ago he paid someone who claimed to own the land in which these mineral deposits are found $750,000 for the raw natural element for which he now demands $50,000,000. Was this additional value of $49,250,000 in six years produced by his industry? Was it produced by the industry of any previous owner of these natural elements? Did it cost $49,250,000 to discover these mineral deposits? We trace back his title a little further, and we find that perhaps a hundred years ago it originated in a grant to John Jones from the government — that is to say, the people who inhabited this country a hundred years ago and who constituted the government said: "We will divide the land and we will give John Jones this particular tract for his private property."
But did these people create that land and the coal and iron in it? Can it be shown that they had any better right to it from the Almighty Creator than the people of this generation have? Was the earth intended by the Heavenly Father for one generation to dispose of forever, or as an abiding place for all generations? Was Thomas Jefferson right or wrong when he wrote: "The earth belongs in usufruct to the living; the dead have no right or power over it?" By what authority could the people living here a hundred years ago, long since dead and gone, confer upon John Jones, also dead and gone, a right which would enable John Smith today, by tracing a paper chain of titles from him, to extort from capital and labor a tribute of $3,000,000 a year for the bare privilege of getting to that coal and iron and making it useful to mankind?
Who dares to blaspheme the name of the Almighty Ruler of the universe by saying that the coal and iron were not intended by Him for the equal use and the enjoyment of all His children — the humblest babe born today in a garret equally with a child of the proudest duke who ever lived?
MAN IS A LAND ANIMAL.
Is not man a land animal? Can he live without land? Can he any more rightfully be deprived of access to land than he can rightfully be deprived of life itself? Can he any more rightfully be compelled to yield up to a forestaller, a mere owner of land, a portion of the fruit of his industry for the privilege of getting hold of the raw material elements than he can rightfully be compelled as a slave to yield up to a master a portion of the fruits of his industry? To compel him to do so is as much a robbery of labor in one case as in the other. Why then is not the humblest babe that God sends into this world naturally and by inalienable right entitled to access to land on equal terms with all his fellow human beings?
ORIGIN OF PROPERTY RIGHT.
Mind, when we say access to land we do not include access to improvements on land, or access to anything produced by human industry, a title to which can be shown originating in human toil; we simply mean access upon equal terms to the free bounties of nature as they lie upon the kind bosom of mother earth, untouched and undisturbed by the hand of man. What I produce by my industry is mine. What I obtain by exchanging the products of my industry for the products of another's industry is mine. What my father or my grandfather produced by his industry was his, and if he has given it to me it is mine.
In all these cases human industry is the origin of property right, and property rights originating in human industry must be held sacred, else there would be no incentive to human effort. Do not the values produced by the individual belong to the individual producing them? Do not the values produced by the community belong to the community producing them? Is there anything wrong, immoral or communistic in this ideal? And yet this is the sum and substance of the Henry George philosophy.
Take the case of the vacant block on the bank of the bayou which Enterprise wanted for a paper mill and could not get. Fifty years ago it was worthless. Now labor must pay a tribute of over $20,000 to the so-called owner for the privilege of using it. Whose industry has put $20,000 of value on that piece of vacant ground? Not the industry of the present owner, nor the industry of any former owner, because no man has ever done a stroke of work upon it. That value of $20,000 has been placed upon the land by the common energy and enterprise of the entire community. Since the community has produced that land value why does it not belong to the community? Why has not the community the same rights to the value it creates as the individual has to the values which he individually creates?
How shall this derangement of the wheels of industry, this blackmail upon enterprise, this robbery of labor, this eager and fatal competition among laborers for employment, this slavish fear of the loss of a situation in the midst of abundant unused opportunities for employment — how shall this curse which our present land system has fastened upon the productive industry of the country, be removed? Simply by doing justice; by being honest; by recognizing in our laws one of the inalienable rights of man; by recognizing in every human being, in every generation, the present as well as the past, an inalienable right of access to the bounties of nature on equal terms with every other human being.
How shall this right of access on equal terms be secured? Simply by making every individual who claims a right to the exclusive possession of a tract of land pay in the form of a tax approximately what the use of that tract of land is worth, exclusive of all improvements on it or anything done to it by the hand of man, and by abolishing every other form of taxation. Take the rent of land for public use instead of taxes.
WILL SIMPLIFY GOVERNMENT.
Some one asks: "Will not this proposed change vastly increase the functions of government and immensely add to the number of government employees?" I reply no. On the contrary, at least two-thirds of the present army of revenue collectors and tax gatherers will be dispensed with, and the remaining one-third will collect this single tax on land values at one-third the expense now incurred in the collection of national, state, county, and municipal taxes.
Another inquirer asks: "Will not the new system offer abundant opportunities for corruption and partiality in fixing the amount of this tax annually to be paid for the exclusive use of a piece of land? And how do you propose the amount of the tax shall be determined?" It will be determined by the same law of demand and supply which now determines the amount of tax under the present system. The single tax will be fixed by the same machinery of an assessor and a board of equalization which fixes it now. For instance, under this system a piece of property on Main street rents for $5,000 a year. Interest at the prevailing rate on the building alone, added to the annual cost of insurance, repairs and caretaking, and a sum sufficient to provide a sinking fund for renewals amounted to, say $3,000 a year. The landlord is then collecting the difference between $3,000 and $5,000, or $3,000 for the use of this naked earth. That is to say, he is collecting $2,000 a year for the use of something never created by man, to which all are by natural right equally entitled, and which owes its rental value of $2,000 a year exclusively to the common enterprise and energy of the entire community.
This is the sum which, under Henry George's system, would be turned over to the government in the form of a tax for the common benefit of the community who collectively have made the use of this land worth $2,000 a year.
Here an interested friend anxiously inquires: "But if the landlord has to pay this tax of $2,000 a year for the use of the land, will he not take it out of the tenant by raising his rent to $7,000?" No, for the landlord's charges now all he can compel the tenant to pay. Suppose he tries to. Suppose he says to his tenant: "You must now pay me $7,000 a year." What happens? Just what happens every day now. If the tenant can do no better he pays the increase. But now, mark you, when the landlord goes to pay his tax what happens then? Why the board of equalization says to him, you have received $7,000 a year rent for the use of improvements worth only $3,000 a year. You are therefore collecting $4,000 a year instead of $2,000 for the use of the naked lot, and you will therefore pay the city or state $4,000 a year for the privilege of the exclusive use of the ground instead of $2,000 a year as heretofore. Now what has the landlord made by jumping up the rent? Nothing. What would be made by thus jumping up the rents under the present system? Everything. Under which system would landlords be more apt to force up rents?
DETERMINING THE TAX.
Another way by which the board of equalization under the George system would determine the amount of tax to be paid for the privilege of the exclusive possession of a tract of land, and which would also compel landlords to collect from their tenants and turn over to the government in the form of a tax the full value of the use of the land, would be from observation of the prices which real estate brought in the market. But note, at this point some smart fellow jumps up — and he is likely enough to be a newspaper editor — and vehemently protests, saying: "Why, sir, the taxation of ground values plan does not propose to allow any exclusive ownership of land. It demands that the government own it all and rent it out or divide it up into 60,000,000 or 70,000,000 little bits, or do something of that kind with it, and here you are talking about lands being bought and sold under the Henry George system. Why, man alive, you don't know what that system is!"
Now, Mr. Editor, or Mr. Who-ever-you-are, let me say to you that in your ignorance, or in your indifference to the sufferings of your fellowmen, or in your desire to pander to the greed of monopoly, or to the timidity of capital, you may say what you please; you may misrepresent as much as you please for the purpose of bringing odium and contempt upon the cause; you may call it what you please — state ownership, state landlordism, ownership in common, communism, nihilism, anarchism or anything else; but the fact, nevertheless, remains that, under the just and righteous land system which we are trying to explain, the land will continue to be bought and sold under the same form of paper deeds, precisely as it is bought and sold today. It will continue in precisely the same way to pass to devisees by will and to heirs by law of descent and distribution. The right of control, of exclusive possession and dominion over a piece of land and of the free and exclusive enjoyment of all improvements on it, will in no way be abridged or disturbed. When you buy a lot on Main street today worth $10,000 with a building on it worth $10,000 more, your deed recites a consideration of $20,000. Now when you buy this same property under the George system, the only difference in the whole transaction will be that your deed for it — assuming that the price accords with the market value prevailing at the time of your purchase — will recite a consideration of only $10,000, and $10,000 is all that you will then pay for the property. You will pay nothing for the land. After you have bought the property you will pay yearly in the form of a tax to the government, approximately the full market value of the (yearly) use of it — which will amount to the annual rental value of the land, and as the man from whom you purchased had to pay the government the same annual rental value, you will consequently pay nothing, or approximately nothing*, to him for the land itself when you purchase the property. You thus save an investment of $10,000 in dirt; instead of such investment you will pay for the common benefit of the community, including yourself, what the privilege of the exclusive use of that spot of earth is worth — nothing more, nothing less — and that is simply what you ought to pay. The $10,000, which, under the present system, you are compelled to bury in a bit of earth, you will have left you with which to increase your business; and if you do increase your business with it, and add another story to your building, no tax gatherer will come around and impose an additional fine upon you for doing something with your money which gives employment to labor.
* There will, no doubt, be instances where the desire of an individual to get and retain possession of a certain piece of property, will cause him tooffer a bonus over and above the market value of the improvements.
NO PROPERTY IN LAND.
Thus, under the single tax system, land would be sold and would change hands as it does now, but it would only bring in the market approximately the value of the improvements on it. If land in any locality should get to selling for considerably more than the value of the improvements on it, this would be a certain indication that the parties using the natural elements in that neighborhood were not paying for the benefit of all the people what the use of the same was worth, and so a board of equalization would put the tax up. As population increases the value of the use of land increases, and with it, under the George system, the revenue from this tax on land values will increase, and thus the entire people who collectively produce this increasing value will get the benefit of the values collectively produced by them. As it is now, the increase in the value of land, which amounts to several billions annually in the United States, four-fifths of which is increase in the value of city and town lots and mineral deposits, goes to a comparatively small number of individuals who do no more to produce these values than any other members of the community.
Another doubter puts this objection: Under the George system you would make the owner of a lot on Main street, with an improvement on it worth $10,000, pay as much tax as the owner of a similar lot adjoining, having a building on it worth $50,000. What justice is there in that?
Let us see. Take away the improvements and these two lots are of the same value — that is to say, the value of the use of both lots for ordinary business purposes is the same. Suppose it is $300 a year. Now, the man with the $50,000 improvement collects from his tenant ten percent on his $50,000, or $5,000. He also collects $300, the value of the use of the lot, making in all $5,300. The man with the $10,000 improvement also collects ten percent upon the valuation of his improvement from his tenant, of $1,000. He, too, collects $300 in addition for the use of the lot, making in all $1,300. Now after both have paid the government $300 apiece for the privilege of the exclusive use of these lots, each will have left ten percent upon the capital invested, and why should one be entitled to any greater percent upon the capital invested than the other?
The fact is, that under this system there will be no such thing as taxes. Taxation, as we now understand it, will be abolished. The revenue derived by the government from requiring all who use a natural opportunity to pay into the common treasury what the use of that opportunity is worth, if it is worth anything at all, will be more than sufficient to enable the government to dispense with every species of taxation. As it is now, when you pay your taxes, you are simply robbed of a portion of the fruits of your industry, for which you do not get, directly, any equivalent. Under the proposed system, when you pay your single tax on land values you will get directly a full equivalent for every dollar paid. You will get the privilege of the exclusive use of a tract of land for what that privilege is worth.
ACCESS TO UNUSED LAND.
If this system were adopted what would become of the vacant lots and lands, the unused coal beds and mineral deposits, the unoccupied water fronts and water privileges over which human vampires now stand guard, retarding enterprise and driving off labor? They would become absolutely free. No one could afford to hold them and pay taxes on them. The vampires would turn them loose. Land speculators and land sharks, instead of trying to grow rich by forestalling labor and capital and thus preying like devouring beasts on their fellowmen, would turn their talents to better account. Wherever labor could find an unused lot or coal bed or mineral deposit or unused tract of land, there labor could go to work and employ itself without being required to invest a dollar in the purchase of a right of access to the natural element, without being compelled to first make terms with a dog in the manger claiming it as private property and holding it for speculative purposes.
If that vacant natural opportunity were situated near a center of population, or were of a character to bestow peculiar money-making advantages upon the persons using it, this advantage would create a demand for it, and this demand would regulate in the manner already pointed out the amount which labor and capital would pay for the use of it, in the form of a tax for the common benefit of all. If that vacant opportunity, for instance, were a tract of land four or five miles from this city, it would have few advantages to make the use of it at present peculiarly valuable. Why? Because there is so much vacant land of the same character near it, the use of which is equally valuable, that no one would give a bonus, as it were, for the use of that particular tract. Labor would, therefore, at first get the use of that land for nothing. It would have no taxable value at all until all the other vacant land similarly situated was put into use. Under this most just and equitable system the taxable values of land would be confined almost exclusively to the cities and towns and the coal and mineral deposits. Where people congregate, there land has value. In New York City alone, capital and labor today pay to a few thousand land owners, in ground rent alone, exclusive of rent paid on improvements, for the bare privilege of living and doing business, tribute money amounting to hundreds of millions annually, a sum almost equal to the expense of carrying on the government of the United States. It is in these great centers of trade and commerce that land has its greatest value; it is here that land values are mostly found and from these centers nine-tenths of the revenue of the government from this tax on land values would be derived.
FARMERS WOULD BE BENEFITED.
If the George plan were suddenly put in force today, not only would all farmers be relieved from direct and indirect taxation, not only would farmers participate in common with all others in the universal and uninterrupted prosperity which would result from removing the obstructions which needlessly hamper and clog enterprise, but probably three-fourths of the working farmers in this country would pay no land tax at all. Why? Because with so much vacant or but partially cultivated land as there is here today three-fourths of the farmers would have no taxable value at all; and all who are counting on the farmers of America being so foolish as not to see how they will be as much benefited by a just and righteous land system as any other class will certainly be disappointed.
EFFECT ON FARMS.
"Yes," says our farmer friend, "but you propose to confiscate the farmer's land." Let's see about that. You are a farmer owning say a hundred-acre farm, situated like a majority of farms, in a neighborhood where for every acre of land in cultivation there are two or more acres unimproved or but partially improved. Your farm is worth under the present system, say $2,000. A hundred acres of this unimproved land adjoining it of the same quality is held by some speculator at $500. Your tax on your hundred-acre farm is $10 a year, the speculator's tax on the hundred acres of land adjoining of equal value, exclusive of improvements, is $2.50 a year — one-fourth as much as yours. You give employment to labor on your land, and thereby add to the prosperity of the community. The speculator excludes labor from employment on his land, and thereby retards the prosperity of the community. Why should you be taxed any more for using your hundred-acre tract, and giving employment to labor on it, than the speculator is taxed for holding in idleness a tract of equal value and preventing labor from using it? Why should not the speculator pay at least as much tax for the privilege of excluding labor from his tract as you have to pay for the privilege of employing labor on yours? Have you hurt anyone by turning up the wild sod and building fences and houses and putting $1,500 worth of improvements on your land? If not, why should you be fined for it by having your taxes increased?
Where our plan is adopted you will have no taxes at all to pay until this vacant land around your farm is put into use. Until then no land value could attach to your farm, and the tax which, with increasing population, you would ultimately be required to pay, would seldom equal and rarely, if ever, exceed that which farmers now pay on the improvement valuation. Assuming that you spend say $600 a year on your family, then under the present system your taxes, direct and indirect, and the toll which the merchants take for collecting indirect taxes, amount to at least $100 a year. You may not know it, because an indirect tax always fools a fellow paying it. You will be relieved from all these taxes, but best of all, men who are now idle and who can't buy what you raise will all be at work, and not only that, but their wages will be high enough to pay good prices for what you raise. It is true that under the new system you could only sell your place for $1,500. Still, with this same $1,500 you could buy just as good a place from some one else. The purchasing power of your farm, when it comes to buying another farm, would not have been reduced. Do not your interests as producer or a laborer vastly exceed your interests as a land owner?
LANDLORDISM AND GOVERNMENT
Now, coming back to the elements of the new political economy, some one says: "What difference does it make to the workmen whether labor and capital pay this ground rent to the individual or to the government, since, according to your theory, it must be paid all the same?" In the first place, if it is paid to the individual none of it ever comes back to labor and capital unless value received is paid for it; so far as labor and capital are concerned, it might about as well be cast into the sea. But when it is paid to the government in the form of a tax on land values it does come back to labor and capital again in the form of relief from every species of taxation, direct and indirect.
Again, the amount that Enterprise would pay the government for the privilege of access to the natural elements would be less under the single tax than is now paid individuals for this privilege. Under the land value tax the prices could not be advanced by monopolization of these elements, as is being done now.
But best of all, and by far the most glorious result that will flow from the establishment of a just and righteous land system, is that it will enable the wealth creator to stand erect, presenting to capital an unterrified front.
Return for a moment to the coal beds of northern Alabama and imagine the Henry George system adopted. Labor now again objects to the terms offered by capital, and again capital tells him to go. And again labor goes forth hunting for work. But how different he finds the aspect of things. He finds the same unused natural elements, the same unused coal beds and mineral deposits, the vacant lots and lands, but he no longer finds a fellowman sitting upon every vacant opportunity for work and waving him off. They have vanished. They have gone to work themselves. He finds every unused opportunity for labor, wherever it may be, absolutely free. Not a dollar of capital need be invested in buying a natural opportunity, in paying for the privilege of work. When labor went forth hunting work before, he not only had to ask capital to pay for the tools, but also to pay, usually a greater sum, to some forestaller, in addition, as blackmail, for the privilege of access to a natural element.
This will all be changed. It won't take near as much capital to start enterprises as it did, or in other words, to give employment to labor. In fact, labor could then take even an axe and hoe and find plenty of vacant opportunities on which he could make a living without having to bury himself in a wilderness to do it. All this makes him feel independent and enables him to bargain with capital for employment on equal vantage grounds.
MONOPOLY IS PROFITABLE.
Some time since a large manufacturing firm in Massachusetts adopted the eight-hour system. After trying it a year they gave it up and went back to the ten-hour system. The general manager said they could only make five percent profit on their investments by requiring only eight hours' work, and that unless they could make a bigger percentage than that, they would not be bothered with the management of the business — they would put their money into town and city lots, because that species of property would certainly enhance in value as much as five percent annually, and that, too, without any trouble to the owner, and so it is everywhere. Now, is it not absurd to expect to reduce the rate of profits with which capital will be content below this steady percent of increase in the value of town and city lots, by any combination of labor, or by any legislation which falls short of restoring these land values to the people who collectively create them?
Suppose you have $10,000 today. The best and safest thing you can do with it is to invest it in town lots in or near some growing town. Ten years from today, unless the George theory becomes generally understood, the lots will be worth $20,000 and you will have drawn to yourself $10,000 worth of wealth for which you have given no equivalent. You will simply have robbed the labor of the country of $10,000. But now suppose ground values to be appropriated to the public use by taxation. What are you to do with your $10,000? You would not buy vacant lots now; there is no speculation in them. The tax which you would have to pay for the privilege of excluding capital and labor from the opportunities for employment which vacant lots afford, would be too heavy for you. In fact, you couldn't even loan on land alone, because land alone will have no selling value in the market. The result is, that unless you let your money lie idle and so lose interest on it, you will be compelled to invest it so as to give employment to labor. You must put it into buildings, into machinery, into manufactory stock, into farm implements, into some channel where it will be active and where it will afford employment to labor.
Not only must you do this with your capital, but every other capitalist must do the same with his capital. Capitalist thus must bid against capitalist, since capital can only increase by calling labor to its aid and giving it employment.
Under the present system the rich can grow richer without calling in the aid of labor, without giving employment to labor. They do so by buying space and monopolizing land.
Under the present system, as wealth accumulates, the wealthy seek to invest in land, to get control of natural elements, and get into a position from which to blackmail labor, thus becoming an obstacle in the way of the production of more wealth.
Under the better system, however, wealth could not thus be made to set up an obstacle to the creation of more wealth, or, in other words, to the employment of labor. It can then only obtain a profit by investing in lines of enterprise which give employment to labor.
Under which system will the demand for labor be greater? Under which will earnings be higher?
I sang this hymn this morning, and the fourth and fifth verses made me wonder whether it might have been inspired by the ideas of Henry George.
1 "Thy kingdom come!" on bended knee the passing ages pray; and faithful souls have yearned to see on earth that kingdom's day.
2 But the slow watches of the night not less to God belong; and for the everlasting right the silent stars are strong.
3 And lo, already on the hills the flags of dawn appear; gird up your loins, ye prophet souls, proclaim the day is near:
4 The day to whose clear shining light all wrong shall stand revealed, when justice shall be throned in might, and every heart be healed;
5 When knowledge, hand in hand with peace, shall walk the earth abroad; the day of perfect righteousness, the promised day of God.
Words: Frederick Lucian Hosmer, 1891 Music: Irish, St. Flavian
I also found a second related hymn Hosmer wrote in 1905, here:
1 Thy Kingdom come, O Lord, Wide circling as the sun; Fulfill of old Thy Word And make the nations one.
2 One in the bond of peace, The service glad and free Of truth and righteousness, Of love and equity.
3 Speed, speed the longed for time Foretold by raptured seers— The prophecy sublime, The hope of all the years.
4 Till rise at last, to span Its firm foundations broad, The commonwealth of man, The city of our God.
Henry George delivered a sermon entitled "Thy Kingdom Come," in 1889 in Glasgow, Scotland. Most likely he gave that speech many more times in other places. It includes these paragraphs:
Nothing is clearer than that if we are all children of the universal Father, we are all entitled to the use of His bounty. No one dare deny that proposition. But the people who set their faces against its carrying out say, virtually: “Oh, yes! that is true; but it is impracticable to carry it into effect!” Just think of what this means. This is God’s world, and yet such people say that it is a world in which God’s justice, God’s will, cannot be carried into effect. What a monstrous absurdity, what a monstrous blasphemy!
If the loving God does reign, if His laws are the laws not merely of the physical, but of the moral universe, there must be a way of carrying His will into effect, there must be a way of doing equal justice to all of His creatures.
There is. The people who deny that there is any practical way of carrying into effect the perception that all human beings are equally children of the Creator shut their eyes to the plain and obvious way. It is, of course, impossible in a civilization like this of ours to divide land up into equal pieces. Such a system might have done in a primitive state of society. We have progressed in civilization beyond such rude devices, but we have not, nor can we, progress beyond God’s providence.
There is a way of securing the equal rights of all, not by dividing land up into equal pieces, but by taking for the use of all that value which attaches to land, not as the result of individual labor upon it, but as the result of the increase in population, and the improvement of society. In that way everyone would be equally interested in the land of one’s native country. Here is the simple way. It is a way that impresses the person who really sees its beauty with a more vivid idea of the beneficence of the providence of the All-Father than, it seems to me, does anything else.
One cannot look, it seems to me, through nature — whether one looks at the stars through a telescope, or have the microscope reveal to one those worlds that we find in drops of water. Whether one considers the human frame, the adjustments of the animal kingdom, or any department of physical nature, one must see that there has been a contriver and adjuster, that there has been an intent. So strong is that feeling, so natural is it to our minds, that even people who deny the Creative Intelligence are forced, in spite of themselves, to talk of intent; the claws on one animal were intended, we say, to climb with, the fins of another to propel it through the water.
Yet, while in looking through the laws of physical nature, we find intelligence we do not so clearly find beneficence. But in the great social fact that as population increases, and improvements are made, and men progress in civilization, the one thing that rises everywhere in value is land, and in this we may see a proof of the beneficence of the Creator.
Why, consider what it means! It means that the social laws are adapted to progressive humanity! In a rude state of society where there is no need for common expenditure, there is no value attaching to land. The only value which attaches there is to things produced by labor. But as civilization goes on, as a division of labor takes place, as people come into centers, so do the common wants increase, and so does the necessity for public revenue arise. And so in that value which attaches to land, not by reason of anything the individual does, but by reason of the growth of the community, is a provision intended — we may safely say intended — to meet that social want.
Just as society grows, so do the common needs grow, and so grows this value attaching to land — the provided fund from which they can be supplied. Here is a value that may be taken, without impairing the right of property, without taking anything from the producer, without lessening the natural rewards of industry and thrift. Nay, here is a value that must be taken if we would prevent the most monstrous of all monopolies. What does all this mean? It means that in the creative plan, the natural advance in civilization is an advance to a greater and greater equality instead of to a more and more monstrous inequality.
“Thy kingdom come!” It may be that we shall never see it. But to those people who realise that it may come, to those who realize that it is given to them to work for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, there is for them, though they never see that kingdom here, an exceedingly great reward — the reward of feeling that they, little and insignificant though they may be, are doing something to help the coming of that kingdom, doing something on the side of that Good Power that shows all through the universe, doing something to tear this world from the devil’s grasp and make it the kingdom of righteousness.
Aye, and though it should never come, yet those who struggle for it know in the depths of their hearts that it must exist somewhere — they know that, somewhere, sometime, those who strive their best for the coming of the kingdom will be welcomed into the kingdom, and that to them, even to them, sometime, somewhere, the King shall say: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
I wonder if Henry George's words helped inspired Frederick Hosmer's hymn. I commend the entire sermon to your attention; parts of it will make you smile.
The Social Security Administration released some interesting information a few weeks ago (and corrected it after David Cay Johnston called attention to some anomalies in the data, which turned out to have resulted from false W-2's from two individuals; what's reported below is the corrected data) on 2009 wages.
First, here is a summarized table of the 150.9 million individual wage earners in 2009.
75% of wage earners earned $50,000 or under; 25% earned less than $10,000
Nearly 94% of wage earners earned less than $100,000. (Is this how you pictured it?)
The 6.3% of us who earned over $100,000 received over 30% of the wages.
In total, 32% of wage earners deferred any wages; the deferrals equaled just 3.56% of aggregate wages.
Net Compensation Interval
Number of Wage Earners
Percent of Total Wage Earners
Cumulative Percent Wage Earners
Percent of Aggregate Wages
Cumulative Percent Aggregate Wages
$0 to $10,000
$10,000 to $30,000
$30,000 to $50,000
$50,000 to $100,000
$100,000 to $500,000
memo: contributions to deferred compensation plans
These data do not include funds received by hedge fund managers which most of us would consider wages, but which get treated as capital gains, and taxed at a much lower rate than do all but the lowest wages. It would be interesting and useful to see those data arranged next to these.
One might use these data to consider whether there should be a separate bracket for higher incomes. Keep in mind that these are individual wages, net only of 401(k) type deferrals of income, not adjusted gross income at the taxpayer/household level.
The next table examines the amount of wage income which is represented by the portion of wages over $100,000, just below the current level at which one stops paying social security withholding.
Net Compensation Interval
Number of Wage Earners
Percent of Total Wage Earners
Cumulative Percent Wage Earners
Aggregate Wages over $100,000
Percent of Aggregate Wages
Cumulative Percent Aggregate Wages
$100,000 to $500,000
14.10/85.90 = 16.4%
So how does all this relate to this blog's focus on Land Value Taxation?
The focus is on smart, just, efficient taxation -- and on ending the privileges which enrich some people and impoverish the vast majority of us.
Many of the ways that people "earn" large salaries are in large part the result of our permitting privileges: the privatization of the value of natural resources; the privatization of the value of urban land; and structures which permit some sectors of the economy to skim off value created by all of us. (Did anyone yell FIRE?)
We have to hold the feet of our elected representatives to the fire: make it worth their while NOT TO obey the requests of their huge campaign contributors and TO listen to the rest of us and reconfigure the structures which funnel wealth and income into the pockets of the currently-and-traditionally-privileged folks.
Are you ready?
I think there were some signs in this recent midterm election that voters in several states were not bowled over by the well-constructed advertising and heavy media buys of some very rich candidates for office, and I find that encouraging. Connecticut's Foley and McMahon, California's Fiorino and Whitman, and a number of entities enabled by the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court spent large amounts of money, with very uneven results.
Some people think that land rents are not a significant percentage of GNP, or, when they hear "land reform," think only about agriculture, probably in the context of Third World latifundia.
If you believe that land rents don't matter in a modern economy, I have a wonderful get-rich-quick scheme for you! And I won't charge you a cent for my brilliant idea, so listen up!
I was looking at the real estate ads in the Washington Post (October 2, 2010, p. F1), and I observed that for just $271,000, you can buy a four bedroom, three bath contemporary chalet in Basye/Bryce Resort, Virginia, with screened porch and hot tub. It looks pretty nice, it has trees in the yard, and it was built in 2005. I'm not sure just where Bryce Resort is, so it must not be too close to DC, or I'd know more.
Other houses are more expensive. There's a three bedroom townhome (what used to be called a row house) in Alexandria, less than a mile from the Huntingdon Metro, for $579,000, more than twice as much, $308,000 more. Alexandria is on the Potomac, across from Washington DC.
What else can you buy? There's a three bedroom townhouse in Alexandria, for $642,800. There's also a white house, described as a 1920's classic, with the number of bedrooms unspecified, but a yard and landscaping of its own, for $1,250,000, nearly a million dollars more than the chalet in Bryce Resort. It looks attractive, but it's not a huge mansion. When I was a child, say in 1975, I think you could have bought a house like that in my home town for under $50,000, $60,000 at most.
So how do you get rich quickly? You buy houses in Bryce Resort, of course, and sell them in Alexandria at a $300,000 markup! Even after the costs of cutting up houses and moving them on flatbed trucks, you should come out way ahead. Buying and selling one house a year should give you a middleclass income, and if you work faster than that, you'll soon be set to retire rich.
Can anyone consider the obvious flaw in this scheme, and not realize that land prices matter? Land prices in Alexandria must be at least $300,000 for the land under a decent townhouse, more for the land portion of a home with a nice yard. Annual land rents must be about $10,000 or more for modest lots, several times that for bigger ones. This is not a trivial percentage of homeowners' incomes, or of GNP.
As a 19th century Georgist put it, instead of paying rent to a landlord and tax to the state, why not pay rent to the state and no taxes?
Every week when I scan the NYT's "What You Get" column, which showcases three homes currently on the market in various parts of the country, I wonder why the column doesn't provide the answers to the important questions?
How far is each home from a vital job market?
What share of the children in the local school district graduate from high school? attend 4-year colleges? graduate from college?
What sort of public goods and services and cultural amenities does the community offer?
Must those who live there have a car for every working adult?
I think Nicholas Rosen nailed it when he quoted a 19th century Georgist: instead of paying rent to a landlord and tax to the state, why not pay rent to the state and no taxes?
I was happy to read this comment to Peter Orzag's recent column, which ends, "Senate Democrats and Republicans almost never come together anymore. This month, they should fight the dual deficits rather than each other. Let’s continue the tax cuts for two years but end them for good in 2013."
The comment comes from Frederick Singer, of Huntington Beach, CA, September 7th, 2010:
Extend the tax cuts for two more years, then introduce a new tax formula that is simple to define and easy to enforce and is both progressive and pro-growth.
Eighteenth century economist Henry George had an idea he called the Single Tax, also known as the Land Value Tax. Essentially, there would be no income or sales tax, only a tax on the value of land. Not to be confused with a "property" tax, the Single Tax would apply only to the land, not to any buildings or equipment.
Simple to define and enforce: The tax would be "x" percent of assessed land value, no exceptions. You can try to hide income but you can't hide land.
Progressive and pro-growth: Wealthy people are disproportionate owners of high priced real estate and would pay most of the taxes, but the marginal tax on both income and consumption would be ZERO. A win-win for liberals and conservatives.
The philosophy: Henry George believed that money you earn from own efforts, from your skills, profession or business belongs to you 100%. But the part of your wealth that comes from your ownership of land derives from the economic activity of the surrounding community ("location, location, location") and is therefore fair game for taxation to support that community. In other words, your own business may be doing lousy, but the land under your business may still be very valuable due to regional economic conditions - and you could close the business and profitably sell or rent the land to someone else. Money earned or wealth accumulated from land ownership is the true definition of "unearned" income.
Could the Single Tax raise sufficient revenue? If my math is right, taxing all the privately held land in America at an average of just ten cents per square foot (obviously, higher in some places, lower in others) would yield about six trillion dollars - which I believe is in the neighborhood of current total federal, state and local government spending.
Most importantly, the Single Tax would send the message that you make money by creating useful products and services, not wheeling and dealing in real estate.
10 cents per square foot per year would be an average of about $500 for a standard 50x100' lot. But some land is worth considerably less in annual rent, and some is worth significantly more. There are lots that size in major cities which sell for many, many millions of dollars, and farmland is worth considerably less than that average (except, perhaps, in a few wine-grape counties). Quick-and-dirty, the annual value of a $1 million lot is $50,000. The annual value of a $100,000 lot is $5,000.
Most of us own land worth considerably less than $100,000 (the major exceptions being homeowners in certain parts of California and near a few coastal cities), and ownership of those $1,000,000 and $5,000,000 sites is pretty well concentrated in high-income -- and, almost by definition, high net-worth folks. Such land is also owned by corporations and so-called "small businesses." The owners of such land would much prefer that your labor and mine, your buildings and mine -- and theirs, too -- your purchases and mine -- and theirs -- be taxed, rather than collecting the rental value of the land they call their own. They like the way the current set of privileges bring them returns they don't have to work to earn, and which their heirs will enjoy, too.
In British and Irish tradition, the quarter days were the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, and rents were due. They fell on four religious festivals roughly three months apart and close to the two solstices and two equinoxes.
The significance of quarter days is now limited, although leasehold payments and rents for business premises in England are often still due on the old English quarter days.
The quarter days have been observed at least since the Middle Ages:
"These have been the days when accounts had to be settled, days when magistrates paid their visits to outlying parts in order to determine outstanding cases and suits. There is a principle of justice enshrined in this institution: debts and unresolved conflicts must not be allowed to linger on. However complex the case, however difficult to settle the debt, a reckoning has to be made and publicly recorded; for it is one of the oldest legal principles of this country that justice delayed is injustice. Among the provisions that the barons wrested from the extortionate and unjust King John in Magna Carta of 1215, a safeguard for gentry like themselves and hungry peasants alike, was the promise that 'To none will we sell, or deny, or delay right or justice'. Days of assize ensure openness, assurance and timeliness of justice, justice not sold, not denied, not delayed."
The English quarter days (also observed in Wales and the Channel Islands) are: * Lady Day (25 March) * Midsummer Day (24 June) * Michaelmas (29 September) * Christmas (25 December)
Lady Day was also the first day of the year in the British Empire (excluding Scotland) until 1752 (when it was harmonised with the Scottish practice of 1 January being New Year's Day). The British tax year still starts on 'Old' Lady Day (6 April under the Gregorian calendar corresponded to 25 March under the Julian calendar).
The cross-quarter days are four holidays falling in between the quarter days: Candlemas, May Day (1 May), Lammas, and All Hallows (1 November). The Scottish term days, which fulfil a similar role as days on which rents are paid, correspond more nearly to the cross-quarter days than to the English quarter days.
Well, I sometimes think that part of why people dislike the conventional property tax is that it is billed twice a year, and one must write a fairly large lump sum check. Those who escrow their taxes as a condition of their mortgage aren't faced with this. The vast majority of one's income taxes and payroll taxes are withheld biweekly or monthly.
Technology has come a long way, and it would probably make sense for our land value taxes to be paid once a month, just as mortgage payments are. Many people would opt for an automatic withdrawal from their checking account, as mortgages and car payments are often handled.
Sidelight: my understanding is that Candlemas, which is on the same date that the US celebrates Groundhog Day, is the middle of winter, and one should have remaining half the candles one needs to get through the winter.
What a story! The developers of some subdivisions have slipped into their covenants a 1% resale "commission" which anyone who sells a property they developed must pay them ... not just once, but at every transaction for 99 years! How's that for a tax imposed by the private sector? Here are some excerpts from the article.
"But four months later, when a local television reporter was doing a story on housing taxes in their subdivision, the Dupaixs discovered that their sales contract included a “resale fee” that allows the developer to collect 1 percent of the sales price from the seller every time the property changes hands — for the next 99 years. ....
A growing number of developers and builders have been quietly slipping “resale fee” covenants into sales agreements of newly built homes in some subdivisions. In the Dupaix contract, the clause was in a separate 13-page document — called the declaration of covenants, conditions and restrictions — that wasn’t even included in the closing papers and did not require a signature.
The fee, sometimes called a capital recovery fee or private transfer fee, has been gaining popularity among companies that have been frantically searching for new ways to gain access to cash in the depressed housing market. ...
Freehold Capital Partners, a real estate financing firm founded by the Texas developer Joseph B. Alderman III, has been leading the charge. According to William White, Freehold’s chief operating officer, the firm has signed up more than 5,000 developers who are adding the covenant to developments worth hundreds of billions of dollars that will be built out over the next decade in 43 states.
Many developers see the resale fee as a creative way to get new financing. They are hoping to one day use the trickle of cash from these fees as collateral for a loan, or to get cash up front if pools of the fees are packaged into securities to be bought and sold on Wall Street. Freehold has begun shopping the idea of securitizing the resale fees, much as subprime loans were packaged and sold to investors.
Someone selling a home for $500,000, for example, would have to pay the original developer $5,000. If the home sold again two years later for $750,000, the second seller would have to pony up $7,500 to the developer, and so on. Even if a home declines in value, the seller still must pay the 1 percent fee. Freehold gets a cut of the resale fee; if the fees are securitized, it retains a percentage of the cash generated from the securitization.
Freehold’s principals and lawyers have been aggressive in sales pitches to developers, but have declined to give details on their clients, securitization efforts or the company itself. Freehold moved its corporate office from Round Rock, Tex., to New York this year as it stepped up efforts to securitize the resale fees.
Mr. White characterizes the resale fee as a win-win deal for the developer and the home buyer. The fees let developers spread out the cost of building the roads, utilities and other infrastructure across all homeowners in a subdivision, rather than just the initial buyers. As a result, he said, the developer can lower the initial price of a home to the first buyer.
For example, he says, a typical $250,000 home may be able to sell for about $5,000 less. “The fee is a fair and equitable way to spread development costs, and results in lower costs to the average consumer,” Mr. White says. ...
Jeff Moseley, founder of Badger Creek Development in Brunswick, Ga., says he signed up with Freehold after watching his business tank with the economy. “I can’t sleep at night,” he says, adding that he had laid off all 32 of his employees.
He is hoping Freehold’s resale fee program will breathe new life into his business. “I thought it was an intriguing and compelling story,” says Mr. Moseley, who owns two development projects, encompassing about 220 lots.
Under his deal with Freehold, he will get about two-thirds of the revenue from the securitized fees while Freehold and other parties will get one-third. ...
“The idea that someone who has no ownership stake or interest can continue to collect revenue off of a property that they may have built up to 99 years ago exploits an already complex transaction and doesn’t pass the smell test,” says Justin Ailes, director of government affairs at the land title association. The fee could hurt real estate values in the future if buyers are reluctant to purchase properties that have a 1 percent fee attached. ...
The Federal Housing Finance Agency is considering a proposal to prohibit the transfer fees on all mortgages financed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks. And 17 states have either banned or placed conditions on the practice.
Some bankers say Freehold will have a tough time selling the idea to Wall Street. The uncertain economy and housing market have made it next to impossible to predict when and how often a home will sell, or where home prices are headed — information that is needed to estimate cash flows to value the securities.
And some worry that an all-out ban of resale fees by states or the federal government could make the securitized paper worthless.
Dave Ledford, a senior vice president at the National Association of Home Builders, says he’s not sure Freehold can deliver on its big promises. “It’s almost in the category of ‘too good to be true,’ ” Mr. Ledford says.
Mr. White dismisses the criticism as sour grapes. He contends that Realtors oppose the fee because homebuyers might pressure them to lower their commissions to offset it. “Apparently 6 percent to a Realtor is justified, yet 1 percent to pay for roads and utilities isn’t,” Mr. White says. He says he believes title companies are worried that they might face legal claims if they miss the fee during a search.
LVTfan here: 1% to pay in 2050 or 2090 for roads built in 2010? Right .... Tell us another one.
See also http://www.wealthandwant.com/docs/Gross_Rent.html Rent-seeking is alive and well -- and these folks are reaping what they didn't sow -- and won't sow. It doesn't come out of thin air. It will come out of the pockets of future owners and users of the property.
Shouldn't we-the-people -- the public sector -- get that benefit?
This seems a bit like the Baltimore land rent story: private parties getting to collect value today, in return for someone paying a bit less 50 or 100 years ago to buy a house.
And both situations ignore what those who have read Henry George know: that land rent ought to be used by the commons to finance our common spending, not privatized by any individual or corporate entity.
Little people pay the taxes ... and we're paying to the wrong parties. When private entities get to collect what we-the-people create, there's something badly wrong with the structure. It forces us to rely on sales taxes, wage taxes, building taxes, and other taxes which burden the economy and steal from those who produce in order to enrich those who speculate in land value.
Wise states will implement the legislation necessary to wipe out such structures.
The unexpectedly deep plunge in home sales this summer is likely to force the Obama administration to choose between future homeowners and current ones, a predicament officials had been eager to avoid.
Over the last 18 months, the administration has rolled out just about every program it could think of to prop up the ailing housing market, using tax credits, mortgage modification programs, low interest rates, government-backed loans and other assistance intended to keep values up and delinquent borrowers out of foreclosure. The goal was to stabilize the market until a resurgent economy created new households that demanded places to live.
As the economy again sputters and potential buyers flee — July housing sales sank 26 percent from July 2009 — there is a growing sense of exhaustion with government intervention. Some economists and analysts are now urging a dose of shock therapy that would greatly shift the benefits to future homeowners: Let the housing market crash.
It seems as if the suggestion is that we ought to let the housing market crash, and then hope that we will pick up again where we left off, and experience this boom-bust cycle again.
There doesn't seem to be much discussion of the factors that produce the boom-bust cycle, or of the notion that we can actually prevent the next boom-bust cycle through wise policy.
What policy? A tax shift. Shift taxes off wages (starting at the bottom); off sales (starting with essential items); off buildings of all kinds and equipment. What's left to tax?
That which we should have been taxing all along: the value of land. Henry George (b. Philadelphia, 1839; died NYC, 1897) introduced the idea in his 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, which remains 130 years later the best selling book ever on political economy. It sold over 6 million copies by 1900, and George, Thomas Edison and Mark Twain were perhaps the three best-known public figures of their day. George's "remedy" came to be known as the "Single Tax." It was a recipe for small government -- right-sized government, funded by the only legitimate revenue source: value created by nature and by the community. Land, to the classical economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Henry George, etc. -- was distinctly different from capital. (The neoclassical economists -- and those who only know their sort of economics -- can't seem to see the difference, and conflate them, leading to all sorts of stupid -- and unnecessary -- messes!) Land includes not just the value of locations (on earth, in water, in space) but also electromagnetic spectrum, water rights, non-renewable natural resource values, pollution "rights," and lots of other like things. (Mason Gaffney provides some excellent lists.) Those locations include urban land, land made valuable by favorable climate, water supply, access to ports, to transportation systems, to desirable views, to vibrant cities with jobs, cultural amenities, educational opportunities; geosynchronous orbits; congestion charges; parking privileges, etc. Those of us who claim title to a piece of land ought to be required to compensate the community in proportion to the value of that land, for the right to exclude others from it. That compensation should be paid month in and month out, to the community.
Our current system is perverse. We must purchase the rights to the land from the previous holder at whatever price the market will bear, or what the seller's circumstances require him to accept. Rich landholders can hold out for higher asking prices; poorer ones may be forced to accept lower prices. Few of us enter the market with more than a few percent of the asking price in hand; we mortgage our future earnings in order to pay the seller's asking price.
In most coastal cities, that price is predominately for the location, not for the building itself. A May, 2006, Federal Reserve Board study found that land represented, on average, 51% of the value of single family housing in the top 46 metro markets in 2004; in the San Francisco metro, land represented 88.5% of the value, and in no metro in California did it represent less than 62%. Boston metro was around 75%, NYC metro was about 70% (I'm doing this from memory), Oklahoma City about 20%; Buffalo about 28%. Extrapolating from some of their tables, I found that the average value of a single-family structure across the 46 metros was about $112,000, with a range from perhaps $88,000 in the lowest metro to a high of perhaps $130,000 in the highest. The range of average land values across the 46 metros, though, was much wider, from perhaps $25,000 to $750,000!
Suppose we did let the housing market crash, and then shifted over to George's proposal, collecting our tax revenue first from land rent, and only after we'd collected the lion's share of the land rent, tapping other less desirable revenue sources such as wages, sales and buildings. What would happen?
The selling price of housing would drop to approximately the depreciated value of the structure in which one would live. A large new house would be more valuable than an older house of the same size. A large house would cost more than a smaller one. But one would not pay the seller for value that related to the location of the home.
One would pay, month in and month out, the rental value of the land on which the house sits. Fabulous locations would require high monthly payments; less fabulous ones would have lower monthly payments. Small lots would pay less than larger lots nearby. Owners of condos in a 20-story building would share the cost of the land rent for the site, perhaps in proportion to the quality of their location within the building (fabulous views would pay more than ordinary ones; larger footprints and/or more floors occupied would pay in proportion to their share of the total space).
That monthly payment would go to one's community, and would replace one's property tax, sales taxes, wage taxes. A portion of the payment would be forwarded to one's state, and at the state level, a portion would be forwarded to the federal government.
The selling price of housing would drop, requiring one to borrow far less. The difference would be quite pronounced in San Francisco, Boston, NYC, etc. One's monthly mortgage payment would be significantly lower.
Housing would no longer be an investment, in the sense that one expected to sell a property for more than one paid for it.
Housing would be more liquid; one could own a home, but have a reasonable expectation of being able to sell it if one wanted to move elsewhere.
The credit not used to purchase homes would be available for businesses. Businesses, too, would not be "investing" in land, but would have capital available to invest in equipment and to pay better wages to their employees.
Land which under our current system is both well-located and underused would either be redeveloped by its owners, or come onto the market so that someone else could put it to use. There would be no incentive to keep it underused, as there is today. The redevelopment process itself would create jobs in construction-related businesses, and the resulting buildings would either provide housing or commercial venues -- or both: whatever the market was asking for. And that housing would be at a wide range of points on the income spectrum and the ages-and-stages spectrum: young people starting out, families, retirees, singles, couples -- not just the luxury market. And those newly-created homes would be closer in to the jobs which would support them, rather than separated by long commutes and drive-till-you-qualify.
Land made valuable by public investment in infrastructure and services would provide a continuous revenue stream to the community, providing funding for next year's services, instead of funding for self-selected individuals' retirement.
So if one can't hope to get rich from the appreciation of the land under one's home, how is one to have security? How does one participate in the economy? By investing in businesses that serve customer desires. And when one's housing plus taxes are lower, one has more left over for that. When there is enough housing for all, one isn't paying so much of one's income for it. When no one expects to grow wealthy automatically, people can dream up the business which they will enjoy working in. And with so many businesses competing for workers, wages will tend to rise. With so many businesses competing for customers, services will improve, and specialization increase.
Back to the title of the article: "Grim Housing Choice: Help Today's Owners or Future Buyers?" Maybe economics doesn't HAVE to be the dismal science. Maybe our choices are not so grim after all. Maybe we can put ourselves on a firmer footing, without the boom-bust cycles we've been experiencing so regularly. (See Mason Gaffney's recent book, After the Crash: Designing a Depression-free Economy. And while you're on that site, you might read "The Great Crash of 2008" and "How to Thaw Credit Now and Forever.") Maybe we can leave our children a society in which all can prosper.
Not too much to ask for, is it?
Or shall we leave them a society in which 10% of us are receiving 48% of the income, and 10% of us possessing 71.5% of the net worth.
I came across a pamphlet published in 1949 by a foundation on whose board I sit, and while there are some things that I might emphasize differently 70 years later, I thought it worth sharing. It speaks to a category I've just added to the "cloud" at left: Natural Public Revenue.
Today we see some additional privileges which corporations (and individuals) are taking advantage of -- the privilege of polluting the world's finite supply of air and water beyond its carrying capacity and ability to heal itself; the privilege of claiming as their own the supply of various other natural resources: e.g., oil, natural gas, lithium, copper. The privatization by corporations of what ought to be revenue sources for common spending should not go unremarked. And trivializing monopoly, as I think the author does, seems odd in light of what we've seen in the intervening years.
Earned Income: Public and Private by Joseph S. Thompson President, Pacific Electric Manufacturing Corp.
THE FATES of America and Europe are inextricably one. A depression here could ruin us and would ruin Europe. We dread a depression; yet we have done nothing salient or radical to prevent it. The Soviet Politburo eagerly predicts and awaits it.
The basic reason why there are depressions and why prosperity is not normal, general, and constant is that we do not distinguish between TRIBUTE TO PRIVILEGE and RECOMPENSE TO SERVICE, and are indifferent to their diametrically opposite effects.
The fault is not in our political system, the freest and best yet devised. It is not in our industrial system which, based on service, saved the world from German domination and will continue to serve us well unless stifled by "Planned Economy," as planned economy has stifled industry elsewhere.
But when we study our taxation system we find a cancerous growth, developed in the last few years, that threatens to destroy all that makes America great, fostering privilege and hampering industry and service. We take for granted the principles underlying our present taxation system; yet adherence to those principles means national disaster.
The full breadth and importance of Chief Justice Marshall's statement that "The power to tax is the power to destroy" seems never to have been wholly grasped or emphatically enough expressed. Taxation destroys good things as well as bad. The power to tax is the power to control a destructive force and, when used, becomes equivalent to a fine. A fine represses, and a tax represses. Simple reasoning develops the fact that a tax is automatically and undeniably a fine. It is an arbitrary seizure of private earnings or acquirements, based on arbitrary opinion, and the fact that the money is used for public purposes does not justify its imposition.
But since money is required for public purposes, how else is it to be provided? The answer is simple: through earned public income.
We are all familiar with earned private income, earned through labor, service, or investment, but few have inquired as to whether there might be a true, just earned public income -- an income that we all, as the public, create and earn jointly as a common wealth just as the individual creates and earns his income as private wealth -- an income that can be measured by fact and not by opinion, forming the basis for, and fixing the limit of, responsible public budgeting -- A PUBLIC INCOME PUBLICLY EARNED AND TO PUBLICLY COLLECTED.
Those who have inquired have been answered by the Physiocrats, by Thomas Carlyle, by Patrick Dove, by Herbert Spencer, by John Stuart Mill, and, in full and complete analysis, by Henry George in his great book, Progress and Poverty. These men have shown that the public income is closely measured by, and reflected in, and therefore should logically, justly, and intelligently be, the rental value of the land.
The rental value of the land, which is the amount that individuals will pay for its exclusive use, if collected or "taxed" by the public, would provide and define the rightful earned income of the public, to which the budget should conform.
Land costs nothing in human effort or creativeness and gets its value only from the presence of people; so, land rental value might better be called location value; and since location value means land in a desirable place among people, land value and location value are really people value. The landlord's title to the land is a legally created privilege. It represents no contribution on his part but gives him an unearned tribute (and it is unearned even though it was bought with money that was earned). Solely by their presence the people create this value, and it is theirs. The people should collect it and nothing else. Arbitrary assessment might have to be resorted to in time of emergency, but, as it is now understood and imposed, taxation should be reserved as a regulative or repressive curb on acts counter to the public interest.
It sounds like quibbling to speak of abolishing taxes while advocating the public collection of land rent; and, since the assessor would define and impose it, and the tax collector would collect it, it does look like a tax on land. But it is not a tax on land. It is payment for the privilege of an advantageous location among people.
It is easy to "capitalize" such an amount. Figure the capital that would earn interest equal to the rent offered. The value of the land is thus set by the rent. Assess it at that value, tax it at the current interest rate, and the public would then collect the value it creates. Taxes would no longer raise the cost of living.
The public collection of land rental simply means a charge by the public for a choice location in the midst of the public. The parking meter is a perfect example of this principle. If you want to use a desirable part of a public street, you pay the current value into a public fund. The parking meter principle should apply to all land. The simple mechanism to correct our revenue system would use present methods, equipment, and personnel, arriving by the test of the market at the desirability of all parcels and periodically adjusting appraisal and taxation to absorb the rent offered by the occupants. There is nothing of arbitrary opinion in this, nor would the rent be created by enactment. It would be a straight business matter, and little change would be needed in our laws.
Our failure to discern the difference between PRIVILEGE and SERVICE is stupid enough in its direct impact on our revenue policy, but it also creates a by-product, land speculation, which terribly hinders our progress and security. There is nothing spectacular about the land speculator. Quietly and conservatively he comes into possession of the title deed to a location, an area, for the purpose of (1) using it, (2) charging someone else for its use, or (3) selling his title at an increased price. If he uses it, he retains a public revenue. If he charges others for its use, he collects a public revenue. IN NEITHER CASE IS HIS MONEY USEFULLY INVESTED, and in both he hopes that the third purpose will be served. He hopes that more people will need the land, increasing its rental value.
When he buys it for the third purpose, straight speculation, to sell it later at a higher price, he becomes an obstructionist. He serves no good purpose. He does nothing useful. He is a legalized holdup man. He makes building, living, and working more expensive.
He could say to himself and to the community, "Someone will need this location in the near future; the growing population will make it more and more desirable; so, since the people will not collect what they create here, I will. I will get in this someone's way and prevent him from using this place until he pays me to get out of his way. I will not have to perform any service for him; the people will do that. He will not even get 'value received' from me because as soon as he begins to use the place, the people will fine him with 'taxes' for improving it. They fine anyone who builds a home or brings a business or service to their community. But they will not fine me; they are already letting me usurp a part of their wealth. I levy a tribute on progress. I capitalize other men's energies. The more they fine those who produce or render service, the more unearned value I gain." This is the unconscious soliloquy of the land speculator.
You may question this sweeping and positive singling out of land rents. What about Corporations? Monopolies? Bonds and Stocks? Capital?
Corporations are formed to perform service or to exploit through privilege, or frequently, to combine the two. To the extent that they perform service, they should retain their earnings, however great. To the extent that they exploit through privilege, they should not be supported by the law.
Monopolies, other than land, are simply opportunities for someone to get a little more than he deserves for what he gives, until competition or buyer resistance checks him.
Bonds and stocks are simply evidence of ownership in corporations that may be good and useful or evil and leechlike. Remove privilege, and they will adjust with the change.
Capital is a tool, and the man who creates it should retain what he earns from its use. The difference which sharply and cleanly separates land rental from payment for the use of buildings, tools, stocks in trade -- in short, from capital -- is that land costs nothing in human effort. Everything else is humanly produced. Money invested in the privilege of exacting tribute in the form of land rent is not capital. It is not usefully invested. "Capital is wealth used to create more wealth."
Resentment against big corporations is purely habit or label thinking. Most corporations spend fabulous sums in research seeking new products, processes, and economies, and you buy from them, not because you have to, but because you want their product. You can buy something else or do without. But you DO HAVE to have a little space on earth. That is a monopoly you cannot escape.
It would seem to be beyond dispute that the threat of depression would be remotely distant if the imbalance of our stupid taxation and the stifling barrier to our progress, land speculation, were both removed by recognition of this simple fact: THE RENTAL WHICH USERS WILL PAY FOR LAND IS THE TRUE EARNED PUBLIC INCOME. IT IS A VALUE CREATED BY THE PUBLIC. TAXATION OF INDUSTRY AND THE HOME IS UNJUST, ARBITRARY, AND DESTRUCTIVE. IT SEIZES PRIVATE PROPERTY.
When we learn this and adopt it for ourselves, we will be fitted to lead the world to prosperous peace.
This is an excellent article which I encourage you to read. I want to share the response which a friend posted to a global listserv we're both on.
Before I do that, though, I think it is worth considering that the much reported downturn in the market for new housing, as opposed to resale, might relate to a flight to quality. New subdivisions are on the fringes. Often they are beyond the fringe, surrounded by farmland -- sometimes described as checkerboard development. (I've even seen townhouses surrounded by farmland!)
If you have a choice between a new home in a distant subdivision and a resale home in an established location, served by established transportation systems, schools, jobs, shopping, cultural amenities, etc., which will you choose? Maybe the explanation of why new houses are not selling is that buyers now have a wider choice of homes they can afford, and are choosing the better locationsover the newly constructed houses on or beyond the distant edge of the community.
If I'm correct, it bodes well for smaller builders who are doing infill and redevelopment of existing neighborhoods. Wise policy can promote infill, while unwise policies lead to sprawl. I suspect the sprawl-folks have a lot more lobbying money than the infill-oriented ones, so can only appeal to good sense.
Here's Ed's response to the sprawl article, which I found to be well reasoned and well stated:
"A colleague of mine forwarded the link of this article to me for
comment, as my professional work in the United States has been in
community revitalization and the development of quality affordable
What I came to understand midway in my career was that land markets are made dysfunctional
by law that favors the landed over those who develop and utilize
locations. There are many issues causing sprawling development
patterns, but one of the most consistent is the struggle to gain
control over land that allows for profitable development. And, of
course, developers are not concerned with the infrastructure costs of
bringing roadways; water, sewer and other utilities, hospitals,
libraries, schools, and other public goods and services to
newly-created subdivisions. These costs are passed on to property
owners, working people and businesses.
There is only one measure that will redirect development inward,
leaving more distant land available for agriculture, recreation and
habitat for other species. This is for government to fully collect the
annual rental value of every location within its geographical
boundaries, while exempting improvement made thereon from the
tax/revenue base. What this change in policy will do is easy to see.
First, profit from speculating in the hoarding of land will disappear.
Thus, investors will acquire control over land only when profitable
development is possible.
Second, existing owners of land parcels will not be able to continue to
ignore land they hold because the cost of doing so will (particularly
if the and parcels are centrally-located) make this costly. They will
either develop land based on highest, best use or sell the land to
someone who will.
Third, the cost of property assessment will fall dramatically once property improvements are removed from the tax base.
Fourth, removing speculation and hoarding of land will bring down the
price (but not the annual rental value) of land parcels. This will make
it far less costly for public agencies to acquire land for needed
public buildings and (if still required given household incomes) to
construct decent, affordable housing units for the housing-deprived.
In summary, what will curtail sprawl is public policy that encourages
the renovation of existing structures and in-fill construction of new
buildings where infrastructure already exists, while at the same time
requiring land owners to compensate the community for the value that
comes to locations because of public goods and services."
Almost a month ago (7/12), Martin Wolf, the Financial Times' chief economics commentator, posted a piece to his blog under this title. The last time I looked, perhaps 10 days after his initial post, there were about 150 responses. I circled back recently, and found that the comments count had risen to over 350.
This ended up as a heated debate. Nobody will be surprised if I conclude
that the result of the debate (often surprisingly ill-tempered) was
pro-LVT 10, anti-LVT zero. I am surprised by some of what the anti-LVT
proponents have said. I would have thought they would wish to open their
minds a bit. I did and was persuaded of the case, as a result. Is not
the purpose of such exchanges to learn from one another?
Some of the arguments addressed at the case for LVT are quite extraordinary.
The essential point is quite simple: the value of resources is created
by the economic activity of other factors of production. The owners of
these resources can become hugely wealthy and are often untaxed on that
increase in wealth: the Duke of Westminster is the richest Englishman
simply because he owns a large amount of land in a valuable part of
London. So why should he have command over the labour of so many other
That wealth is, in the strictest sense, unearned. If that rise in wealth
were taxed away, other taxes -- those on labour, capital and
entrepreneurship -- could fall. This would be both efficient (because
taxes on rent do not create distortions, as Ricardo showed) and also
just, because the wealth was unearned. Now, surprisingly, the UK allows
foreign landowners to enjoy the increase in value created by the British
economy, entirely tax-free. This is utterly crazy.
Let me add four other points.
First, throughout history, the main source of wealth was land-ownership.
The parasitic landowner became wealthy on the efforts of others --
peasants, tenants and even developers. Sometimes the parasite was also a
farmer or developer, but that does not change the fact that these are
two distinct economic roles. The parasite built fine castles and palaces
and often sponsored music and culture. But he was still a parasite. The
beauty of capitalism is that many of the wealthiest are no longer
parasites. This is good. But many of the wealthy still are parasites.
Moreover, now everybody wants to get rich by being a mini-landowner.
That is a huge diversion of effort.
Second, the financial system's ills are the result of unchecked
credit-creation. Yes. But unchecked credit-creation would be impossible
without collateral. Land is always the principal form of collateral
(buildings are a depreciating asset). That is why financial bubbles that
do not create credit booms (like the dotcom bubble) are economically
benign, while property bubbles are potentially catastrophic. When the
value of collateral collapses, the financial system implodes.
Third, there is really nothing new about this understanding of the role
of resource rents. They were central to the classical system, from which
modern economics, in its various forms, derives. Ricardo's analysis of
rent remains intellectually impeccable.
Finally, as Herman Daly has noted
(http://steadystate.org/modernizing-henry-george/), today economically valuable
resources are much more than just land (and what lies below it). They
include all the services of the biosphere - those that are appropriated,
those that are appropriable and those that are non-appropriable. If we
do not think seriously and intelligently about how to price resources,
we are likely to go seriously adrift, perhaps even into disaster. Here
land is the least of our problems -- it is appropriable and, by and
large, appropriated. So, at least, the price mechanism works, even
though the distribution of the gain is grossly unjust. But, in other
cases, no appropriation is possible, or at least it is not easy. Nobody
can appropriate the atmosphere. It is nigh on impossible to appropriate
the oceans. How do you own species diversity? These are serious
So, I conclude where I started: resources matter. It was a great mistake
to exclude them from the canonical neo-classical model. It is also a
great mistake not to tax their owners to the hilt.
Public wealth is unearned wealth, found wealth, wealth earned by the public rather than by an individual, or wealth held in common or shared by the public. Public wealth includes rent, monetary expansion, often necessary to prevent deflation caused by population growth or economic growth, and interest charged on rent or monetary expansion. Rent includes wealth found through land value and through the extraction and sale of natural resources. Land value destroyed through the extraction and consumption of non-renewable natural resources or waste disposal can also be considered negative rent.
Private wealth is wealth earned by an individual, either through labor, through the production and use of capital, such as tools, organization, technology, or education, or through interest charged through risking and loaning private wealth to another individual.
This struck me as a short and clear delineation between what is rightly our common treasure and what is rightly the private property of individuals and corporations.
It seems clear what we ought to be taxing -- collecting -- to fund education, to fund infrastructure, to fund all the services which are best funded by all of us. Tax public wealth to the extent that policies give individuals and corporations title to it. Stop taxing private wealth, until we have collected all the public wealth sitting in private pockets. End that free lunch, that windfall.
I'm going to take the liberty of quoting someone else's blog post in full. (I don't know the author, though I suspect we might know some of the same people.) This makes some points which overlap with something I posted a few days ago (see the post on Joe Stiglitz's talk in Queensland) about the financial economy.
George Osborne has invited the public’s views on what might be done to help the country out of its current financial crisis. It is to be hoped that he will seriously consider all that is suggested; he needs to be looking out for ideas that are different from those that have hampered genuinely sustainable economic development for decades. He would do well to bend his eye in the direction of the taxation system; not to see if a little tweak here and there might increase revenue without too much pain but to look at the fundamentals.
We do not design road vehicles with unround wheels but we have an economy with comparably unsuitable features. The only circular motion is in those ideas that set off in promising directions, only to return to their starting point.
In 2007 we suffered a financial earthquake. It would be foolish in the extreme to rebuild our economy upon the same foundations whose weakness led to the catastrophe. The banks were blamed and they were certainly very irresponsible. So too were the government(s) who failed to impose sufficiently robust regulations on them, to prevent them from their own stupidity. It is said that the banks could not be allowed to fail because they are vital to the economy. The logical argument following from that is that the banks should be nationalised or at least kept under close regulation, however much they howl about it.
It is openly admitted that there is a financial economy and a real economy. Something is wrong there. Without a real economy there would be no need for banks.
The banks’ blunders, serious though they were, could hardly have happened were it not for the existence of a market in land values, popularly and grossly inaccurately referred to as the property market. In the same way that land itself is fundamental to our very being, so the operation of the land values market is the basis of our economy. Every economic activity involves land (that is, all natural resources) directly or indirectly.
If conventional thinking on economics continues to determine policy, we shall be in the doldrums for years. There is an alternative: Land Value Taxation (LVT). This has the twin merits of requiring all occupiers of land to pay an annual fee (tax, if you like) for their security of tenure, and at the same time, raising revenue for government.
Shifting taxes off enterprise and effort onto LVT would improve Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by a very substantial margin. If we were to opt for LVT now, we could pass through the doldrums rather more quickly. That ought to appeal to our coalition government, which must need all the help it can find to keep the cynical, prowling media off its back. The government needs to show that its coalition works and LVT is the tool to prove it.
Many people in the UK will already be suffering varying degrees of financial ‘discomfort’ through no fault of their own as a result of 2007. Quite clearly some new thinking is called for in the unprecedented situation that has been foisted upon us. Faith in and respect for government has diminished to a frightening extent over the past two or three decades. The standard of political leadership must to be raised, to restore confidence in the institutions that have so much control over our lives. A constructive dialogue between government and people, by whatever channels, could be a good starting point.
We in the US "would do well to bend [our] eye in the direction of the taxation system; not to see if a little tweak here and there might increase revenue without too much pain but to look at the fundamentals."
Inadequate taxes on mining means the people of Australia are being cheated and the economy is getting poorer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist told a crowd of 1400 people at The University of Queensland last night.
Professor Joseph Stiglitz shared his thoughts on the proposed mining tax in response to a question from an audience member during the seventh UQ Centenary oration.
“Natural resources lead to an appreciation of the currency and that leads to an imbalanced economy because it's hard for any other sector to do well, competing with imports or exporting,” Professor Stiglitz said.
“You're selling off your assets and in many cases you're selling them off at a very low price.
“If you are taking resources out of the country and you are not reinvesting those resources in one way or another – a stablisation fund, human capital, infrastructure – then your economy is getting poorer, not richer, and a good accounting framework can show that,” he says.
“When you're taking out natural resources from an economy you ought to have a subtraction from GDP - a firm that held a resource and was selling it off would take off depreciation and that would show up in its books as depreciation.”
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)."
The second account concludes with:
And as for Climate Change and the price of carbon and waiting for the rest of the world before we do anything?
Economies are not restructuring because there is no carbon price. The western world worries about the growing and changing consumption patterns of China and India.
Professor Stiglitz doesn't believe the West should begrudge them at all.
It's not consumption that's evil - it's profligacy. WASTE! Now, I wonder who wastes more the West or countries raising people out of poverty?
India and China will follow the wasteful ways of the West if the world fails to set a carbon price and force everyone to consume less to save the planet - the planet will force us to change in the end (*he says).
"If we had agreed to have a price on carbon at Copenhagen that would have been the answer," he said. "It would have provided an increase in global aggregate demand (global economic spending) as firms all over the world needed to retrofit (their business to meet pollution standards)."
So why is the US not hearing this advice? There is a lot here that speaks to issues which Americans would be wise to attend to. Alaska pays for a large portion of its costs by taxing its natural resources, and also provides an annual income to every permanent resident, of any age, from the proceeds of investing oil revenue into a broadly diversified portfolio, through the Alaska Permanent Fund. We have sacrificed many American lives in Iraq, but not produced a situation in which Iraq's oil revenue gets used either to finance infrastructure and government-provided services OR to provide an income to every citizen.
Re-read these excerpts with Iraq in mind, and then thinking of Afghanistan, and then of America.
This is a good article, by James Surowieki, on the prevalence of financial ignorance in America. I'm going to take the liberty of including the entire article here, but want to preface it with the thought that the problem is deeper and broader than he suggests. Remember that Case and Shiller (2003, if I recall correctly) found that people buying homes expected them to appreciate significantly; this expectation likely caused them to take on amounts of debt that in the absence of such an expectation would have made absolutely no sense.
How many people realize that houses depreciate? Houses depreciate. (A May, 2006, Federal Reserve Board study cited 1.5% as an annual depreciation for single-family housing stock.) What rises in value is land. It rises in value for reasons which have nothing at all to do with the activity or inactivity, presence or absence of any individual landholder. It rises because of increased in population (general and local); because of public investment in infrastructure and services which appeal to buyers and tenants (residential and commercial); because of advances in technology (e.g., elevators, air conditioning, even fiberglass boats!). It is also influenced by interest rates and by loan underwriting rules, and by pent-up demand for a place to live, and a willingness to commit a huge portion of one's savings (if any) and present and future income to paying a seller for value he didn't create, on the basis that this is a better choice than paying a landlord for value he didn't create.
(The alternative, of course, is to reform our taxes, and place more of the burden onto the value of land, not a square foot of which will disappear or be hidden, and less on buildings, wages, purchases and other standardly-used tax bases which behave badly when taxed. But our financial ignorance goes far beyond ignorance of personal finance. Very few of us have a realistic understanding of political economy, the science which deals with the natural laws
governing the production and distribution of wealth and services. Very hard to make sense of the micro if you have an unrealistic or limited understanding of the macro!)
Individuals buying their first homes hoped to supplement their meager wages with significant unearned increases in land value. But they failed to note what Leona Helmsley laid out: it is the little people who pay the taxes, and the little people who support the public spending which enriches those who hold our best-located land (be they individuals or corporations, domestic or otherwise). Details, details.
Halfway through his Presidency,
George W. Bush called on the country to build “an ownership society.”
He trumpeted the soaring rate of U.S. homeownership, and extolled the
virtues of giving individuals more control over their own financial
lives. It was a comforting vision, but, as we now know, behind it was a
bleak reality—bad subprime loans, mountains of credit-card debt, and
shrinking pensions—reflecting a simple fact: when it comes to financial
matters, many Americans have been left without a clue.
of our financial ignorance is startling. In recent years, Annamaria
Lusardi, an economist at Dartmouth and the head of the Financial
Literacy Center, has conducted extensive studies of what Americans know
about finance. It’s depressing work. Almost half of those surveyed
couldn’t answer two questions about inflation and interest rates
correctly, and slightly more sophisticated topics baffle a majority of
people. Many people don’t know the terms of their mortgage or the
interest rate they’re paying. And, at a time when we’re borrowing more
than ever, most Americans can’t explain what compound interest is.
illiteracy isn’t new, but the consequences have become more severe,
because people now have to take so much responsibility for their
financial lives. Pensions have been replaced with 401(k)s; many workers
have to buy their own health insurance; and so on. The financial
marketplace, meanwhile, has become a dizzying emporium of choice and
easy credit. The decisions are more numerous and complex than ever
before. As Lusardi puts it, “It’s like we’ve opened a faucet, and told
people they can draw as much water as they want, and it’s up to them to
decide when they’ve had enough. But we haven’t given people the tools to
decide how much is too much.”
Unsurprisingly, the less people
know, the more they run into trouble. Gary Rivlin’s blistering new
examination of the subprime economy, “Broke, U.S.A.,” is full of stories
of financially ignorant people bamboozled into making bad
decisions — refinancing out of low-interest mortgages, say, or buying
overpriced credit insurance — by a consumer finance industry adept at
creating confusing products. Such stories are backed up by the numbers. A
study by economists at the Atlanta Fed found that thirty per cent of
people in the lowest quartile of financial literacy thought they had a
fixed-rate mortgage when in fact they had an adjustable-rate one. A
study of subprime borrowers in the Northeast found that, of the people
who scored in the bottom quartile on a very basic test of calculation
skills, a full twenty per cent had been foreclosed on, compared with
just five per cent of those in the top quartile.
What can be
done? One solution is regulation: the financial-reform bill now before
Congress will create a consumer financial-protection agency that should
help curb the finance industry’s most predatory excesses. Another
solution is to tinker with “choice architecture” — doing things like
enrolling people in 401(k)s automatically — in order to “nudge” them
toward better decisions. Both of these strategies are necessary, but
they’re not enough on their own, because financially illiterate
consumers are always going to be easy victims. We also urgently need
proper financial education.
This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly
controversial. Some suggest that financial illiteracy is an example of
what economists call “rational ignorance” — inattention that is justified
because the costs of paying attention outweigh the benefits. But few
decisions affect us more directly than the ones we make about our money.
Critics also argue that financial education may make people
overconfident, and therefore more likely to make bad decisions. In fact,
the reverse is true: the less people know, the more overconfident in
their abilities they tend to be. In a German study, eighty per cent of
those surveyed described themselves as confident in their answers on a
questionnaire, yet only forty-two per cent got even half the questions
right. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who don’t know
much tend not to recognize their ignorance, and so fail to seek better
information. No wonder, then, that the least knowledgeable people in the
Atlanta Fed study were also the least likely to do research before
getting a mortgage. By contrast, well-informed people are more likely to
ask others for help. If financial education taught people only how
little they actually know, it would accomplish quite a lot.
government’s new consumer-protection agency has the authority to “review
and streamline” financial literacy programs, but that’s not enough. We
really need something more like a financial equivalent of drivers’ ed.
There’s evidence that just improving basic calculation skills and
inculcating a few key concepts could make a significant difference. One
study of the few states that have mandated financial education in
schools found that it had a surprisingly large impact on savings rates.
And the Center for American Progress has found that, across the country,
education and counselling by nonprofit organizations, like the
Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, have helped low-income
families buy and hold onto homes, even during the housing bubble. The
point isn’t to turn the average American into Warren Buffett but to help
people avoid disasters and day-to-day choices that eat away at their
bank accounts. The difference between knowing a little about your
finances and knowing nothing can amount to hundreds of thousands of
dollars over a lifetime. And, as the past ten years have shown us, the
cost to society can be far greater than that. ♦
On the one side are those who believe in democratic capitalism — ranging from the United States to Denmark to Japan. People in this camp generally believe that businesses are there to create wealth and raise living standards while governments are there to regulate when necessary and enforce a level playing field. Both government officials like President Obama and the private sector workers like the BP executives fall neatly into this camp.
On the other side are those that reject democratic capitalism, believing it leads to chaos, bubbles, exploitations and crashes. Instead, they embrace state capitalism. People in this camp run Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and many other countries.
Many scholars have begun to analyze state capitalism. One of the clearest and most comprehensive treatments is “The End of the Free Market” by Ian Bremmer.
Bremmer points out that under state capitalism, authoritarian governments use markets “to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit.” The ultimate motive, he continues, “is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state’s power and the leadership’s chances of survival).” Under state capitalism, market enterprises exist to earn money to finance the ruling class.
The contrast is clearest in the energy sector. In the democratic capitalist world we have oil companies, like Exxon Mobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, that make money for shareholders.
In the state capitalist world there are government-run enterprises like Gazprom, Petrobras, Saudi Aramco, Petronas, Petróleos de Venezuela, China National Petroleum Corporation and the National Iranian Oil Company. These companies create wealth for the political cliques, and they, in turn, have the power of the state behind them.
It might be worth looking at these assertions in light of how wealth is distributed ... concentrated might be a better description ... in America. The 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, from the Federal Reserve Board, reports the following distribution of "Equity," which includes individual stocks and equity mutual funds, whether held in retirement or non-retirement accounts:
Bottom 50% 1.5% Next 40% 19.6% Next 5% 12.4% Next 4% 30.5% Top 1% 36.0%
The SCF also reports the distribution of holdings of "BUS" -- the value of privately-held businesses:
Bottom 50% 0.4%
Next 40% 6.0%
Next 5% 5.5%
Next 4% 25.5%
Top 1% 62.7%
The two categories are of roughly equal size: Equity $13.7 trillion and BUS $14.9 trillion. So one might reasonably estimate that the top 1% have roughly 50% of the aggregate value of these two categories, and the next 4% have about 28% -- leaving 22% for the bottom 95% of us.
If state capitalism puts, say, 80% of business in the hands of the top 5%, is it that much worse than what we've got? In some ways, yes -- but the question is worth pondering.
Brooks closes with this:
We in the democratic world have no right to be sanguine. State
capitalism taps into deep nationalist passions and offers psychic
security for people who detest the hurly-burly of modern capitalism. So I
hope that as they squabble, Obama and BP keep at least one eye on the
We need healthy private energy companies. We also need to gradually move
away from oil and gas — the products that have financed the rise of
aggressive state capitalism.
More than "needing healthy private energy companies" we need to start collecting for the commons more of the value of the natural resources they draw from our common supply -- not to mention forcing them to privatize the environmental risks associated with drilling. Remember what Henry George said about a well provisioned ship? He who controls the hatches controls his fellow human beings.
And of course, we need to be undertaking the shift of incentives which will redirect sprawl into the underused sites in our cities. Land value taxation -- untaxing buildings, and uptaxing land value -- will produce the urban density which will lead to walkable cities and populations which will support effective public transportation systems. It will provide technologically modern housing affordable to people at all levels of the income spectrum, close to their work -- for those who want that. The reduced pressure on the suburban markets will lower prices there, too, for those who want that. That urban redevelopment will also create more commercial venues in the centrally located places where specialized businesses thrive. And of course all that building activity creates jobs, and those new technologies will produce buildings which use less energy and produce less pollution. And because untaxing buildings removes the penalties associated with things like solar power, all the incentives will be pointing in the same direction.
A friend passed along this excellent piece, from the City Club of New York just over 100 years ago. It is long, but highly instructive, and quite relevant in the 21st century.
Do you want to know the mechanisms by which we concentrate wealth into the portfolios of a narrow slice of our population? Read this. Read Fred Harrison's Wheels of Fortune. Watch Fred's brief video, Ricardo's Law: The Great Tax Clawback Scam:
And consider a town or city you know. Is your experience any different?
Why on earth would we finance infrastructure any other way? Well, California's Proposition 13 is designed to make sure California can't. No wonder the state is in such trouble.
Remember what Leona Helmsley told us: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." She wasn't talking about tax evasion; she was describing tax structure. THIS is how wealth concentrates.
The reference to Spuyten Duyvil is to the point where today the Henry
Hudson Bridge, on the parkway of the same name, crosses from upper
Manhattan into Riverdale, in The Bronx. (It refers to devilish currents
in the rivers, which menace unsuspecting rowers.)
Building of Rapid Transit Lines In New York City By Assessment Upon Property Benefited
A Memorandum Addressed to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment
And The Public Service Commission of New York City.
The City Club of New York
55 West 44th Street
October 2, 1908
The Board of Estimate and Apportionment and the Public Service Commission:
The City Club respectfully submits for your consideration the results of inquiries made through its Transit Bureau with relation to the feasibility of meeting the cost of future subway extensions by means of assessments on the property benefited.
The city urgently needs more rapid transit roads. Private capital seems disinclined, at present at least, to finance the work of building. The city's borrowing power is utterly inadequate to cover the need, and will be until relief may be secured through the slow process of constitutional amendment. If the necessary lines are to be built, it seems self-evident that other methods must be considered.
The Club's investigations show that in the outlying districts reached by the present subway, and to some degree the nearer sections, the value of the property served has increased to an extraordinary degree. This added value would have paid for the cost of the work several times over. While the city as a whole has benefited greatly, the scale of local benefit is naturally much greater. In our judgment, it would not only be helpful as a solution of the problem, but far more equitable to charge a proportion of the cost of constructing a rapid transit line to the property most benefited by such construction.
The argument is elaborated, and the exact results of the Club's investigation given, in the accompanying memorandum. We trust that this may have your examination, and that if the plan commends itself to your judgment, the future policy of the city may be shaped accordingly.
Very respectfully yours,
Homer Folks, Chairman, Transit Committee.
Henry C. Wright, Bureau Director.
BUILDING OF RAPID TRANSIT LINES IN NEW YORK CITY
BY ASSESSMENT UPON PROPERTY BENEFITED
For many years the city has deemed it just to assess upon abutting property the cost of opening streets and building sewers. The theory of such a tax upon property is that it receives almost the exclusive benefit from the construction of a street or sewer adjacent to it. The question naturally arises, does not a transit line, by the benefit that it confers, fall in the same class as new streets and sewers? If a street railroad or rapid transit line be extended into an undeveloped territory, is it not built primarily for the purpose of furnishing transit facilities to future residents in that section? People will buy this property primarily because it has good transit facilities and the value placed upon it is largely based upon its accessibility. This being true and universally admitted, why should not the property thus enhanced in value by the extension to it of a transit line pay for the construction of such line, to the extent that the increased value warrants it, instead of receiving such increased value as a present from the city. This principle, in a modified and unofficial form, is operated in Berlin. The assessment is not collected by the city, but the street car company when extending a line to outlying territory requires the owners of the property benefited to guarantee to the company a certain return upon the cost of such extension.
This article, by David Cay Johnston, is at least a few months old, and I didn't see it when it first came out. I did see a blog post which referred to it, and quoted some passages of it. Here are the ones which caught my eye then:
Without a doubt, the much lower tax rates at the top encouraged people
to realize more income in the tax system. And if the only measure is
that some people made more, then this would be a good.
But let’s ask the question that the
classical economists would have asked back when they were known as
moral philosophers and their leaders spoke of policies that benefited
the majority. Let’s go back to a time before Vilfredo Pareto’s
observations began what is the overwhelmingly dominant orthodoxy today,
neoclassical economics with its focus on gain.
What is the social utility of creating a society whose rules generate a
doubling of output per person but provide those at the top with 37
times the gain of the vast majority? ...
Is a ratio of gain of 37 to 1 from the top to the vast majority
beneficial? Is it optimal? Does it provide the development, support,
and initiative to maximize the nation’s gain? Are we to think that the
gains of the top 398 or 400 taxpayers are proportionate to their
economic contributions? Does anyone really think that heavily
leveraged, offshore hedge fund investments are creating wealth, rather
than just exploiting rules to concentrate wealth, while shifting risks
to everyone else?
Under the overwhelmingly dominant economic theory of today, this is all
good. Pareto argued that if no one was harmed, then all gain was good.
Carried to an extreme, neoclassical economics would say that if the
bottom 99.9999997 percent had the same income in 1961 and 2006, and all
of the gain went to the one other person in America, that would be a
Is our tax system helping us create wealth and build a
stable society? Or is it breeding deep problems by redistributing
benefits to the top while maintaining burdens for the rest of Americans?
Think about that in terms of this stunning fact teased from the
latest Federal Reserve data by Barry Bosworth and Rosanna Smart for the
Brookings Institution: The average net worth of middle-income families
with children whose head is age 50 or younger, is smaller today than it
was in 1983.
But the original has some other important things to say. It begins,
Imagine that all you had to live on was the amount of tax you saved in
your best year because of the many tax rate cuts Congress has put in
place since 1964, when President Johnson signed into law the Kennedy tax
For most Americans, living off income tax savings would mean starvation.
Their income tax savings have been minor, and when looked at over a
long period, say since 1961, increases in payroll taxes have more than
offset their slight income tax reductions.
But for the very few who have gained the most from living in the United
States, the story is quite different. Their tax savings alone from a
single year, invested to earn just 5 percent annually, would be enough
to provide a lifetime income at nearly twice the income threshold for
being in the top tenth of 1 percent.
That's a remarkable decrease for some very privileged folks! Johnston goes on to compare what has happened with incomes at the very top of the scale between 1961 and 2006 with what has transpired for the bottom 90% of us. The bottom 90% saw real income rise from $22,366 to $31,642 (both in 2006 dollars). At the 90th percentile, wages rose from $60,404 to $104,440. DCJ goes on to make some points which Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi made in "The Two Income Trap:"
That tiny increase in pay does not represent a real increase in wages,
only total income. That is because in the middle of that 45-year era, a
profound transformation took place in America.
In 1961 most families lived on one income, maybe supplemented by some
part-time work by the wife for what was quaintly known back then as "pin
money." Now two-income households are the norm.
The overall wealth of America grew and grew during this era. GDP,
adjusted for inflation and increased population, was up 227 percent. But
wages and fringe benefits did not grow with the economy. For most
workers, they fell. Wages peaked way back in 1972-1973, were on a mostly
flat trajectory for more than two decades, rose briefly in the late
1990s, and then fell sharply in the new century. Airline pilots have
seen their 1990s income cut by more than half; some union factory
workers have seen their pay slashed by two-thirds. Millions are out of
work, and the jobs they once held are gone and are not coming back. And
even if the Great Recession is coming to an end, we face years of jobs
growing more slowly than the working-age population, which could
radically transform America's culture, work ethic, and sense of
In 2006 families worked on average about 900 more hours than families
did in the 1960s and early 1970s. That is a roughly 45 percent increase
in hours worked accompanied by a 41 percent increase in total income.
For many, the reality is that two jobs produce the same or a smaller
after-tax income than just one job did three and four decades ago.
Compare that to the top 400 taxpayers:
The average income for the top 400 taxpayers rose over the 45 years from
$13.7 million to $263.3 million. That is 19.3 times more.
The income tax bill went up too, but only 7.8 times as much because tax
rates plunged. Income tax rates at the top fell 60 percent, three times
the percentage rate drop for the vast majority. And at the top, the
savings were not offset by higher payroll taxes, which are insignificant
to top taxpayers.
The average income tax rate for those at the top in 1961 was 42.4
percent. By 2006 it was down to 17.17 percent. Add on payroll taxes, and
the 2006 rate is 17.2 percent, the same as rounding the income tax
Readers of this site will know that I have no use for income taxes. But until we shift to smart and just taxes, a sharply progressive income tax seems to me to be a better-than-nothing way to fund our common spending.
Johnson ends with this:
Is our tax system helping us create wealth and build a stable society?
Or is it breeding deep problems by redistributing benefits to the top
while maintaining burdens for the rest of Americans?
Think about that in terms of this stunning fact teased from the latest
Federal Reserve data by Barry Bosworth and Rosanna Smart for the
Brookings Institution: The average net worth of middle-income families,
with children, whose head is age 50 or younger, is smaller today than it
was in 1983.
In my humble opinion, DCJ isn't looking quite deep enough. Our tax system -- federal, state and local combined -- is permitting those who own our most valuable common assets (land value and nonrenewable natural resources) to privatize their value, year after year, generation after generation -- and grow hugely wealthy and powerful -- and then merely taxing some of the income from them.
The alternative? Tax the annual value of those resources -- which are rightly COMMON property, provided by the Creator and by the presence of all of us and the spending/investment of the entire Community, not by individuals or corporations -- heavily (say, 90% or 95% of the annual value) and reduce or even eliminate -- starting at the bottom -- the wage and interest and sales taxes and taxes on manmade improvements to land. Think about the ramifications of that reform. They're profound, and point in the direction of a healthier, more stable and more just economy. Will the revenue generated be sufficient to fund all of today's public spending? Probably not. But
1. that's no reason not to shift our taxes off bad taxes onto good ones; and
2. we may find that with good taxes, things change enough that we no longer need to spend large amounts on the social safety net, because a vibrant economy with opportunities for all and a somewhat more equal distribution of income and of wealth and power permits the vast majority of us to be self-sufficient and prosperous.
The bottom 70% or so of us CAN'T save. Large shares of our incomes are devoted to housing and transportation, and to all sorts of FIXED costs. We can't increase our spending on other goods, and we can't save. We have to fix that. We have to do things which distribute the value of that which SHOULD be common, and end the privatization of value which ought to be common.