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!
Rent is not a tax. It is payment for the use of a location, determined by the higgling and haggling of the market, and it makes no difference to the land user whether he pays rent to the city fathers or to a private owner.
Rent is not earned by individuals ... but is unearned. This is obvious for two simple reasons:
First, rent cannot be earned by individuals because land is not man-made but nature-made. It is not a product of capital and labor, but is a free gift of the Creator.
Second, rent cannot be earned by individuals because land values can only arise through the growth of population and the progress of society as a whole. No one man can make land values any more than he can make the land itself. Land values spring from the demand for land and to cause this demand a community of people is necessary. If the community is small or unprogressive, land values will be very low; if it is large or progressive, land values will be very high.
-- Emil Jorgensen: False Education in our Colleges and Universities (1925), available at HathiTrust.org
If, then, successive generations of men cannot have their fractional
share of the actual soil (including mines, etc.) how can the
division of the advantages of the natural earth be effected? By the
division of its annual value or rent; that is, by making the rent of
the soil the common property of the nation. That is (as the taxation
is the common property of the State), by taking the whole of the
taxes out of the rents of the soil, and thereby abolishing all other
kinds of taxation whatever. And thus all industry would be
absolutely emancipated from every burden.
— PATRICK EDWARD DOVE, Theory of
Human Progression (1850), Chap. III., Sec. 3.
I stumbled across an excerpt from this in The American Cooperator, and when I couldn't find the material in any of George's other books, I went looking for the source, an 1887 book with chapters by 16 authors.
Enjoy! (It prints out as about 9 pages, if you're so inclined)
THE HISTORY, PURPOSE AND
POSSIBILITIES OF LABOR ORGANIZATIONS
IN EUROPE AND AMERICA; GUILDS, TRADES-
UNIONS, AND KNIGHTS OF LABOR; WAGES AND PROFITS;
HOURS OF LABOR; FUNCTIONS OF CAPITAL; CHINESE LABOR:
COMPETITION; ARBITRATION; PROFIT-SHARING AND
CO-OPERATION; PRINCIPLES OF THE KNIGHTS OF
LABOR; MORAL AND EDUCATIONAL AS-
PECTS OF THE LABOR QUESTION.
EDITED BY GEORGE E. McNEILL,
First Deputy of Mass. Bureau of Statistics of Labor; Sec.-Treas. of D. A. 30, Knights of Labor.
ASSOCIATE AUTHORS: TERENCE V. POWDERLY, G. M. W., K. of L.; DR. EDMUND J. JAMES, University of Pennsylvania; HON. JOHN J. O'NEILL, of Missouri;
HON. J. M. FARQUHAR, of New York; HON. ROBERT HOWARD, of Massachusetts; HENRY GEORGE, of New York;
ADOLPH STRASSER, Pres. Cigar Makers' Union; JOHN JARRETT, of
Pennsylvania; REV. R. HEBER NEWTON, of New York; F K. FOSTER, of
Massachusetts; P. M. ARTHUR, Chief Engineer Locomotive Brotherhood; W.
W. STONE and W. W. MORROW, of California; FRANKLIN H. GIDDINGS,
"Springfield Union"; JOHN McBRIDE, Secretary Coal Miners' Union;
D.J.O'DONOGHUE, of Toronto, Canada; P. J. McGUIRE, Secretary Carpenters'
NEW YORK: THE M. W. HAZEN CO.
Copyright 1886, by
A M. BRIDGMAN & CO.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE LAND QUESTION.
MAGNITUDE OF THE QUESTION — FIRST PRINCIPLES — THE
LAND-OWNER THE ABSOLUTE MASTER OF MEN WHO MUST LIVE ON HIS LAND — THE
ORDER OF NATURE INVERTED — EQUAL RIGHTS TO THE USE OF THE EARTH —
SELFISHNESS, THE EVIL GENIUS OF MAN — THE IRISH PEOPLE FORCED TO BEG
PERMISSION TO TILL THE SOIL — APPROPRIATION OF THE CHURCH-LANDS — LAND
IN ITSELF HAS NO VALUE — THE GREAT CAUSE OF THE UNEQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF
WEALTH — NO HOPE FOR THE LABORER, SO LONG AS PRIVATE PROPERTY IN LAND
EXISTS — NOTHING MYSTERIOUS ABOUT THE LABOR QUESTION — THE DIFFICULTY IN
FINDING EMPLOYMENT — NATURE OFFERS FREELY TO LABOR — NATURAL MEANS OF
EMPLOYMENT MONOPOLIZED — SPECULATION IN THE BOUNTIES OF NATURE.
BENEATH all the great social questions of our time lies one of primary
and universal importance, the question of the rights of men to the use
of the earth.
The magnitude of the pecuniary interests involved, the fact that the
influential classes in all communities where private property in land
exists are interested in its maintenance, lead to a disposition to
ignore or belittle the land question: but it is impossible to give any
satisfactory explanation of the most important social phenomena without
reference to it; and the growing unrest of the masses of all civilized
countries, under conditions which they feel to be galling and unjust,
must at length lead them, as the only way of securing the rights of
labor, to turn to the land question.
To see that the land question does involve the problem of the equitable
distribution of wealth; that it lies at the root of all the vexed social
questions of our time, and is, indeed, but another name for the great
labor question in all its phases, it is only needful to revert to first
principles, and to consider the relations between men and the planet
We find ourselves on the surface of a sphere, circling through
immeasurable space. Beneath our feet, the diameter of the planet extends
for eight thousand miles; above our heads night reveals countless
points of light, which science tells us are suns, that blaze billions of
miles away. In this inconceivably vast universe, we are confined to the
surface of our sphere, as the mariner in mid-ocean is confined to the
deck of his ship. We are limited to that line where the exterior of the
planet meets the atmospheric envelope that surrounds it. We may look
beyond, but cannot pass. We are not denizens of one element, like the
fish; but while our bodies must be upheld by one element, they must be
laved in another. We live on the earth, and in the air. In the search
for minerals men are able to descend for a few thousand feet into the
earth's crust, provided communication with the surface be kept open, and
air thus supplied; and in balloons men have ascended to like distances
above the surface; but on a globe of thirty-five feet diameter, this
range would be represented by the thickness of a sheet of paper. And
though it is thus possible for man to ascend for a few thousand feet
above the surface, or to descend for a few thousand feet below it, it is
only on the surface of the earth that he can habitually live and supply
his wants; nor can he do this on all parts of the surface of the globe,
but only on that smaller part, which we call land, as distinguished
from the water, while considerable parts even of the land are
uninhabitable by him.
By constructing vessels of materials obtained from land, and
provisioning them with the produce of land, it is true that man is able
to traverse the fluid-surface of the globe; yet he is none the less
dependent upon land. If the land of the globe were again to be
submerged, human life could not long be maintained on the best-appointed
Man, in short, is a land-animal. Physically considered, he is as much a
product of land as is the tree. His body, composed of materials drawn
from land, can only be maintained by nutriment furnished by land; and
all the processes by which he secures food, clothing and shelter consist
but in the working up of land or the products of land. Labor is
possible only on condition of access to land, and all human production
is but the union of land and labor, the transportation or transformation
of previously existing matter into places or forms suited to the
satisfaction of man's needs.
Land, being thus indispensable to man, the most important of social
adjustments is that which fixes the relations between men with regard to
that element. Where all are accorded equal rights to the use of the
earth, no one needs ask another to give him employment, and no one can
stand in fear of being deprived of the opportunity to make, a living. In
such a community, there could be no "labor question." There could be
neither degrading poverty nor demoralizing wealth. And the personal
independence arising from such a condition of equality, in respect to
the ability to get a living, must give character to all social and
On the other hand, inequality of privilege in the use of the earth must
beget inequality of wealth and power, must divide men into those who can
command and those who are forced to serve. The rewards which nature
yields to labor no longer go to the laborers in proportion to industry
and skill; but a privileged class are enabled to live without labor by
compelling a disinherited class to give up some part of their earnings
for permission to live and work. Thus the order of nature is inverted,
those who do no work become rich, and "workingman" becomes synonymous,
with "poor man." Material progress tends to monstrous wealth on one
side, and abject poverty on the other; and society is differentiated
into masters and servants, rulers and ruled.
If one man were permitted to claim the land of the world as his
individual property, he would be the absolute master of all humanity.
All the rest of mankind could live only by his permission, and under
such conditions as he chose to prescribe. So, if one man be permitted to
treat as his own the land of any country, he becomes the absolute
sovereign of its people. Or, if the land of a country be made the
property of a class, a ruling aristocracy is created, who soon begin to
regard themselves, and to be regarded, as of nobler blood and superior
rights. That "God will think twice before he damns people of quality,"
is the natural feeling of those who are taught to believe that the land
on which all must live is legitimately their private property.
A major theme of the underlying political debate in the United States is the role of the state and the need for collective action. The private sector, while central in a modern economy, cannot ensure its success alone. For example, the financial crisis that began in 2008 demonstrated the need for adequate regulation.
Moreover, beyond effective regulation (including ensuring a level playing field for competition), modern economies are founded on technological innovation, which in turn presupposes basic research funded by government. This is an example of a public good – things from which we all benefit, but that would be undersupplied (or not supplied at all) were we to rely on the private sector.
Conservative politicians in the US underestimate the importance of publicly provided education, technology, and infrastructure. Economies in which government provides these public goods perform far better than those in which it does not.
But public goods must be paid for, and it is imperative that everyone pays their fair share. While there may be disagreement about what that entails, those at the top of the income distribution who pay 15% of their reported income (money accruing in tax shelters in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens may not be reported to US authorities) clearly are not paying their fair share. ...
I have to disagree with the second sentence of this next paragraph. And I think Stiglitz knows better, if he stops to think about it:
Democracies rely on a spirit of trust and cooperation in paying taxes. If every individual devoted as much energy and resources as the rich do to avoiding their fair share of taxes, the tax system either would collapse, or would have to be replaced by a far more intrusive and coercive scheme. Both alternatives are unacceptable.
We don't need intrusive or coercive; we just need to start collecting the lion's share of the rent! Well, I suppose some rent-seekers would find this extremely intrusive -- it intrudes on their habit of self-enrichment by privatizing of what is rightly and logically our PUBLIC treasure, the logical way of financing PUBLIC goods. And Professor Stiglitz is quite aware of the value of natural resources; he may not be quite as conscious of the value of urban and other well-situated land.
Our national recordkeeping doesn't even collect the valuations of land and natural resources on any consistent basis! (One could reasonably argue that this failure-to-measure is a form of corruption!) What we don't measure we can't do anything about. And the powers that be are quite content with how we do things; the benefits accrue to them! And several generations of college-educated people know nothing about the issue, which was well known and widely discussed 100 years ago. (Look into the extensive Single Tax literature and the ideas of Henry George.)
Some more excerpts:
The billionaire investor Warren Buffett argues that he should pay only the taxes that he must, but that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that taxes his income at a lower rate than his secretary is required to pay. He is right. Romney might be forgiven were he to take a similar position. Indeed, it might be a Nixon-in-China moment: a wealthy politician at the pinnacle of power advocating higher taxes for the rich could change the course of history.
But Romney has not chosen to do so. He evidently does not recognize that a system that taxes speculation at a lower rate than hard work distorts the economy. Indeed, much of the money that accrues to those at the top is what economists call rents, which arise not from increasing the size of the economic pie, but from grabbing a larger slice of the existing pie.
Those at the top include a disproportionate number of monopolists who increase their income by restricting production and engaging in anti-competitive practices; CEOs who exploit deficiencies in corporate-governance laws to grab a larger share of corporate revenues for themselves (leaving less for workers); and bankers who have engaged in predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices (often targeting poor and middle-class households). It is perhaps no accident that rent-seeking and inequality have increased as top tax rates have fallen, regulations have been eviscerated, and enforcement of existing rules has been weakened: the opportunity and returns from rent-seeking have increased.
Today, a deficiency of aggregate demand afflicts almost all advanced countries, leading to high unemployment, lower wages, greater inequality, and – coming full, vicious circle – constrained consumption. There is now a growing recognition of the link between inequality and economic instability and weakness.
There is another vicious circle: Economic inequality translates into political inequality, which in turn reinforces the former, including through a tax system that allows people like Romney – who insists that he has been subject to an income-tax rate of “at least 13%” for the last ten years – not to pay their fair share. The resulting economic inequality – a result of politics as much as market forces – contributes to today’s overall economic weakness.
Let it be observed that when land is taxed, no man is taxed; for the land produces, according to the law of the Creator, more than the value of the labor expended on it, and on this account men are willing to pay a rent for land.
— PATRICK EDWARD DOVE, Theory of Human Progression (1850), Chap. I., Sec. 2, p. 44
The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which when land was in common, cost the laborer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, to have an additional price fixed upon them. He must then pay for the license to gather them, and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labor either collects or produces. This portion, or what comes to the same thing, the price of this portion, constitutes the rent of the land.
— ADAM SMITH, The Wealth of Nations, Book I., Chap. 6.
This quote is attributed to the Irish landlords, in an 1835 piece by Thomas Ainge Devyr entitled "Natural Rights: A Pamphlet for the People."
The statement bears thinking about: when private landlords collect high rents, they force their tenants to work quite hard -- keep in mind that they still have to pay taxes on various things in order to support local spending -- while the landlord has provided them NOTHING that he has made (and nothing he has bought from the fellow who made it, either).
But at the same time, it is worth considering what happens when the community collects reasonably high rents on the land, particularly urban land. When the community collects high rent, there are no vacant lots. There are relatively few underused lots. There is housing for all who want it. All this economic activity creates jobs -- for those who would design, those who would build, those who would maintain, those who would improve, those who would expand, those who would protect. All those workers' needs and spending create more jobs. Wages rise, as jobs chase workers.
So the phrase is not simply an 18th century rural one, but highly relevant in 21st century U.S. cities, towns and rural areas. When the community collects the land rent and recycles it to serve local needs -- schools, parks, well-maintained roads, public transportation systems, police, ambulance, fire protection, courts -- communities become good places to live. When we permit private landlords (be they individual or corporate, universities or trusts) to pocket those funds -- and perhaps "invest" the excess in acquiring more land on which to pocket the rent, those good things, if they happen at all, must be financed by high taxes on productive activity.
One is a virtuous circle; the other a vicious one. Which one is consistent with our ideals? If Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are for ALL of us, then I think we have to opt for the virtuous circle.
This excerpt makes some important points about a number of topics this blog focuses on:
why wealth and income concentration are not good for the economy;
rent and rent-seeking behavior
the extent to which the financial sector is absorbing the profits made by the productive sectors of our economy
I look forward to reading the book. I'll be curious to see whether Professor Stiglitz gets into what we can do via reforming our tax system to reduce the amount of rent that is available for private and corporate rent-seekers. Treat rent as our COMMON asset... Natural Public Revenue!! Don't leave it there for corporations to privatize.
It is no accident that the periods in which the broadest cross sections of Americans have reported higher net incomes — when inequality has been reduced, partly as a result of progressive taxation — have been the periods in which the U.S. economy has grown the fastest. It is likewise no accident that the current recession, like the Great Depression, was preceded by large increases in inequality. When too much money is concentrated at the top of society, spending by the average American is necessarily reduced — or at least it will be in the absence of some artificial prop. Moving money from the bottom to the top lowers consumption because higher-income individuals consume, as a fraction of their income, less than lower-income individuals do.
In our imaginations, it doesn’t always seem as if this is the case, because spending by the wealthy is so conspicuous. Just look at the color photographs in the back pages of the weekend Wall Street Journal of houses for sale. But the phenomenon makes sense when you do the math. Consider someone like Mitt Romney, whose income in 2010 was $21.7 million. Even if Romney chose to live a much more indulgent lifestyle, he would spend only a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes. But take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people — say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece — and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.
The relationship is straightforward and ironclad: as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into a decline. Unless something else happens by way of intervention, total demand in the economy will be less than what the economy is capable of supplying — and that means that there will be growing unemployment, which will dampen demand even further. In the 1990s that “something else” was the tech bubble. In the first decade of the 21st century, it was the housing bubble. Today, the only recourse, amid deep recession, is government spending — which is exactly what those at the top are now hoping to curb.
The “Rent Seeking” Problem
Here I need to resort to a bit of economic jargon. The word “rent” was originally used, and still is, to describe what someone received for the use of a piece of his land — it’s the return obtained by virtue of ownership, and not because of anything one actually does or produces. This stands in contrast to “wages,” for example, which connotes compensation for the labor that workers provide. The term “rent” was eventually extended to include monopoly profits — the income that one receives simply from the control of a monopoly. In time, the meaning was expanded still further to include the returns on other kinds of ownership claims. If the government gave a company the exclusive right to import a certain amount of a certain good, such as sugar, then the extra return was called a “quota rent.” The acquisition of rights to mine or drill produces a form of rent. So does preferential tax treatment for special interests. In a broad sense, “rent seeking” defines many of the ways by which our current political process helps the rich at the expense of everyone else, including
transfers and subsidies from the government,
laws that make the marketplace less competitive,
laws that allow C.E.O.’s to take a disproportionate share of corporate revenue (though Dodd-Frank has made matters better by requiring a non-binding shareholder vote on compensation at least once every three years), and
laws that permit corporations to make profits as they degrade the environment.
The magnitude of “rent seeking” in our economy, while hard to quantify, is clearly enormous. Individuals and corporations that excel at rent seeking are handsomely rewarded. The financial industry, which now largely functions as a market in speculation rather than a tool for promoting true economic productivity, is the rent-seeking sector par excellence. Rent seeking goes beyond speculation. The financial sector also gets rents out of its domination of the means of payment — the exorbitant credit- and debit-card fees and also the less well-known fees charged to merchants and passed on, eventually, to consumers. The money it siphons from poor and middle-class Americans through predatory lending practices can be thought of as rents. In recent years, the financial sector has accounted for some 40 percent of all corporate profits. This does not mean that its social contribution sneaks into the plus column, or comes even close. The crisis showed how it could wreak havoc on the economy. In a rent-seeking economy such as ours has become, private returns and social returns are badly out of whack.
In their simplest form, rents are nothing more than re-distributions from one part of society to the rent seekers. Much of the inequality in our economy has been the result of rent seeking, because, to a significant degree, rent seeking re-distributes money from those at the bottom to those at the top.
But there is a broader economic consequence: the fight to acquire rents is at best a zero-sum activity. Rent seeking makes nothing grow. Efforts are directed toward getting a larger share of the pie rather than increasing the size of the pie. But it’s worse than that: rent seeking distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker. It is a centripetal force: the rewards of rent seeking become so outsize that more and more energy is directed toward it, at the expense of everything else. Countries rich in natural resources are infamous for rent-seeking activities. It’s far easier to get rich in these places by getting access to resources at favorable terms than by producing goods or services that benefit people and increase productivity. That’s why these economies have done so badly, in spite of their seeming wealth. It’s easy to scoff and say: We’re not Nigeria, we’re not Congo. But the rent-seeking dynamic is the same.
LVTfan here: Think what would happen if we SOCIALIZED rents, and substituted them as our revenue source for all the taxes we pay ... sales taxes, wage taxes, building taxes, excise taxes ...
Recall what Leona Helmsley told us: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." Think what a weight would be lifted off our economy if those taxes were taken off the produces of labor, and put onto Rent, in all its forms!
When people remind us, next April, of the so-called "Tax Freedom Day," perhaps it is worth bringing this aspect to their attention. However, few of them will have the economic education to understand what this poem is saying, on a first reading. (Maybe they'll take the time to explore this blog.)
It was Winston Churchill who brought the term "Mother of all Monopolies" to prominence, in a series of speeches he gave in the fall of 1909.
Rent Edmund Vance Cooke Written for the Cleveland Singletax Club in The Single Tax Review, October 2, 1914
You may tinker with the tariff and make some simple gains, You may put on tolls or take 'em off, inducing party pains; You may monkey with the money, but the lack of it remains, For the Mother of monopoly is laughing as she reigns.
Rent! rent! who is it pays the rent? A dozen days in every month the worker's back is bent; Figure it in dollar bills or work it by percent, But with his dozen days he pays just rent, rent, rent.
You may "minimum" the wages, you may let the women vote, You may regulate the railroads with a legal antidote, You may jail some Rockefeller, or may get a Morgan's goat, But the Mother of Monopoly is laughing in her throat.
Rent! rent! who is it pays the rent? A hundred days in every year a business profit's spent; Figure it in "overhead," or state it by percent, But all your hundred days are gone for rent, rent, rent.
You may institute Foundations, you may educate the dubs, You may librarize the Bread Line, and establish Slumy Clubs; You may ostracize the Demon Rum and eugenize the cubs, But the Mother of Monopoly is smiling at your snubs.
Rent! rent! who is it pays the rent? A score of years in life you spent to get one document; From your cradle to your coffin you must bow to its assent, And that's your little, old receipt for rent, rent, rent.
I look across the rented world and idle land I see, Whose owner doesn't work it, for he's working you and me, And on the first of every month all tenants bow the knee, And pay the rent of vacant land, in great or small degree
Rent! rent! who is it pays the rent? The worker's hands are busy and the business back is bent; The idle lands advance in price and every single cent, Of that advance is paid by us in rent, rent, rent.
It is well known that these materials and agencies, as fast as they become available, are in the main appropriated by individuals, through the agency or consent of the government, and are then held as private property. Such is the case with the soil and the minerals beneath it. The owners of this property charge as much for the use of it as if it were their own creation, and not that of nature.
— PROF. SIMON NEWCOMB, The Labor Question, North American Review, July, 1870, p. 151.
This is from Joseph Dana Miller, the editor of the Single Tax Year Book (1917), and it is a concise statement which might help make clear why I think this such an important reform in the 21st century.
Men have a right to land because they cannot live without it and because no man made it. It is a free gift of nature, like air, like sunshine. Men ought not to be compelled to pay other men for its use. It is, if you please, a natural right, because arising out of the nature of man, or if you do not like the term, an equal right, equal in that it should be shared alike. This is no new discovery, for it is lamely and imperfectly recognized by primitive man (in the rude forms of early land communism) and lamely and imperfectly by all civilized communities (in laws of "eminent domain", and similar powers exercised by the State over land). It is recognized by such widely differing minds as Gregory the Great and Thomas Paine (the religious and the rationalistic), Blackstone and Carlyle (the legal and the imaginative). All points of view include more or less dimly this conception of the peculiar nature of land as the inheritance of the human race, and not a proper subject for barter and sale.
This is the philosophy, the principle. The end to be sought is the establishment of the principle -- equal right to land in practice. We cannot divide the land -- that is impossible. We do not need to nationalize it that is, to take it over and rent it out, since this would entail needless difficulty. We could do this, but there is a better method.
The principle, which no man can successfully refute or deny even to himself, having been stated, we come now to the method, the Single Tax, the taking of the annual rent of land -- what it is worth each year for use -- by governmental agency, and the payment out of this fund for those functions which are supported and carried on in common -- maintenance of highways, police and fire protection, public lighting, schools, etc. Now if the value of land were like other values this would not be a good method for the end in view. That is, if a man could take a plot of land as he takes a piece of wood, and fashioning it for use as a commodity give it a value by his labor, there would be no special reason for taxing it at a higher rate than other things, or singling it out from other taxable objects. But land, without the effort of the individual, grows in value with the community's growth, and by what the community does in the way of public improvements. This value of land is a value of community advantage, and the price asked for a piece of land by the owner is the price of community advantage. This advantage may be an excess of production over other and poorer land determined by natural fertility (farm land) or nearness to market or more populous avenues for shopping, or proximity to financial mart, shipping or railroad point (business centers), or because of superior fashionable attractiveness, (residential centers). But all these advantages are social, community-made, not a product of labor, and in the price asked for its sale or use, a manifestation of community-made value. Now in a sense the value of everything may be ascribed to the presence of a community, with an important difference. Land differs in this, that neither in itself nor in its value is it the product of labor, for labor cannot produce more land in answer to demand, but can produce more houses and food and clothing, whence it arises that these things cost less where population is great or increasing, and land is the only thing that costs more.
To tax this land at its true value is to equalize all people-made advantages (which in their manifestation as value attach only to land), and thus secure to every man that equal right to land which has been contended for at the outset of this definition.
From this reform flow many incidental benefits -- greater simplicity of government, greater certainty and economy in taxation, and increased revenues.
But its greatest benefit will be in the abolition of involuntary poverty and the rise of a new civilization. It is not fair to the reader of a definition to urge this larger conclusion, the knowledge of which can come only from a fuller investigation and the dawning upon his apprehension of the light of the new vision. But this conclusion follows as certainly as do the various steps of reasoning which we have endeavored to keep before the reader in this purely elementary definition.
The taxation of all property at a uniform rate is made necessary by the constitutions of about three-fourths of the States of the Union. The taxes on chattels, tools, implements, money, credits, etc., find their condemnation from the Single Taxer's point of view in those ethical considerations which differentiate private from public property. Where there arises a fund known as "land values," growing with the growth of the community and the need of public improvements, it is not only impolitic, it is a violation of the rights of property to tax individual earnings for public expenses.
The value of land is the day-to-day product of the presence and communal activity of the people. It is not a creation of the title-holder and should not be placed in the category of property. If population deserts a town or portions of a town, the value of land will fall; the land may become unsalable. When treated as private property the owner of land receives from day-to-day in ground rent a gift from the community; and justice requires that he should pay taxes to the community proportionate to that gift.
"Land value" or "ground rent" as the older economists termed it, is a tribute which economic law levies upon every occupant of land, however fleeting his stay, as the market price of all the advantages, natural and social, appertaining to that land, including necessarily his just share of the cost of government.
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:
I came across this in the San Jose Letter, from late 1895. Over the course of the year of issues online (about 430 pages), there were just a few articles specifically about the Single Tax. But I continue to be amazed at how much of the popular literature of the 1890-1920 period has as its context the assumption that the reader knew of and was generally comfortable with the ideas of Henry George. They were in the air people breathed, well-known to all! What I find interesting, as a long-ago American Studies major, is that a 21st century reader who isn't familiar with George's ideas, reading that literature, would miss out on most of the conversation -- and perhaps never notice the gap!
The graphic [woodcut, or "cut"] is definitely a keeper. It explains a lot of things. Location, location, location. This political cartoon covers it pretty well. (See also a recent video here.) While it isn't signed, it makes me think of J. W. Bengough's cartoons, which appeared in The Single Tax Review for a number of years in the first decade of the 20th century. Bengough was also the author of the wonderful Up-to-Date Primer: A First Book of Lessons for Little Political Economists.
I'm assuming that Franklin Hichborn, editor of The San Jose Letter, wrote this piece, inspired in part by the woodcut in the SF Star. The comparison of the 4 lots might be compared to Louis F. Post's lecture notes, at http://wealthandwant.com/docs/Post_Lectures.htm, starting at Chart 28.
Through the courtesy of James H. Barry, publisher of the San Francisco Star, we are enabled to publish the cut accompanying this article, which gives, as the Star expresses it, the "Single Tax in a nut shell." In the near future a series of articles on Single Tax will be published in the Letter, which, besides stating clearly what the Single Tax is, will give, which will be more important, what the Single Tax is not. The confusion among the people on this very simple subject, is due in the main, I fancy, to their misunderstanding of the term rent. It is proposed to show what rent is, and, by it, what is meant by the Single Tax.
Any old farmer knows, and common sense will tell the inexperienced, that in a 10 acre field, more grain can be raised by planting a bushel of seed than a quart, more by plowing the land and harrowing, than by omitting the plowing, more by having the field fenced than by allowing cattle to run over it. In a word it pays to expend a certain amount of labor and capital upon our 10 acres. But it will be just as readily recognized that the thing can be over done, that the field can be plowed so much that the last plowing does not pay, that more seed can be sown that will be justified by the returns. There is, than a point in the culivation of our field where a given amount of seed and a given amount of plowing will yield the best returns, a point beyond which it will not pay the farmer to go, where the return will begin to be deminished in proportion to the outlay. In a word, a point of deminishing returns.
Now, suppose a community to be living on an island which has no communications with the outer world. Suppose the food of the community to be, in the final count, wheat, and suppose our island to have four grades of land, one producing at the point of diminishing returns 30 bushels to the acre, one 28, one 26 and one 24. Here is our land:
30 bushels to the acre
28 bushels to the acre
26 bushels to the acre
24 bushels to the acre
So long as the 30-bushel land will supply the wants of the people there will be no rent on our island. If the 30 bushel tract is owned by ten people they will compete with each other for tenants until practically nothing is paid for the use of the land.
But when the population of our island increases to such an extent, (and by the way, it is bound to increase so long as there is free land) that the 30 bushel land will not supply the wants of the inhabitants, the 28 bushel land must be cultivated. The 30 bushel land is then in demand, for those cultivating it will, with the same outlay of labor and capital, get 2 bushels to the acre more than the 28 bushel land, and the ten owners may and will charge all they can get for its use. This will be two bushels of wheat a year or the difference between the yield of the two tracts. These two bushels will be rent.
When the combined 30 and 28-bushel tracts fail, owing to the steadily increasing population, to supply the island with wheat, the 26-bushel land must be cultivated. The owners of the 30-bushel tract will be able to get 4 bushels a year rent, the owners of the 28-bushel tract 2 bushels. When increasing population brings the 24-bushel tract into cultivation, 6, 4, 2 bushels will be charged, plus the amount which the necessities of the people, enable the owners of the 24-bushel land to charge them.
This, then, is the way rent originates. Dr. Walker defines it: The remuneration received by the land-owning class for the use of the native and indestructible powers of the soil, or, as it might be expressed, for the use of natural agents.
Our wheat producing island presents the doctrine of rent in its simplest possible form. "Land and natural agents" includes the arable, pasture and timber lands, mineral deposits, water privileges and building sites. When one piece of land becomes valuably [sic] for any reason, to a community, the person enjoying its advantages can give, and still be able to compete with his neighbor occupying land less favorable situated, the difference between the productiveness of the two tracts — rent. Who should receive this difference? Our present system says individual land-lords. Henry George says the people. He would collect this rent from land holders. This would be sufficient to meet all the requirements of national, state and municipal governments. It would be a single tax.
We have scarcely room to state them here, but briefly a few of the things the single tax is not: It is NOT a tax on acreage. It is a tax on land values. If farmer "A" has a 100-acre farm valued at $10,000, it means that the difference between the productiveness of that farm and an equal amount of no-rent land is, at our present rates of interest about $800. If city land—lord "B" has a 25-foot lot valued at $100,000 it means that lot is worth to the community, from its situation or for other causes, $8,000 a year more than the non-utilized land. The ''single tax" on the 100 acres would be then $800 and on the 25-foot lot $8,000 a year. Farmers do not seem to be able to grasp this. In New Zealand the people are blessed with a land system resembling very much the single tax: and yet, the very term, single tax, frightens the farmer of that progressive island as badly as it does the prune-growers of our own Santa Clara valley.
Rent is NOT interest, insurance, taxes as they are, or water-rates, although they are all paid by the honest plodders of the community under the name, rent. Did it ever occur to you, my honest friend, that the landlord, before whom you doff your greasy cap so humbly, and who boasts that his taxes are so much while yours are nothing, never paid a tax-bill on rented property in his life. You pay it for him. He is your agent. He figures out your rent thus:
"The land is worth so much, interest on that (this is rent) the building so much interest on that (this is interest) insurance, so much, water-rate so much, taxes so much. I can allow tenant to have the place for the sum of these."
Thus you pay the rent, interest, insurance, water rates, taxes, under the generality "rent." The landlord pays nothing in the shape of water rates, insurance or taxes. He collects interest on the money invested in the buildings, which we will not pass upon. He collects the economic rent of the land and appropriates it to his own use, which is robbery.
One word on the difference between real and personal property, and we will leave you, my honest friend, to accumulate your landlord's taxes for next year. I paid five cents for the pen-holder with which I am writing this. The man I got it from gave me title to it, which he had purchased from some one else. This some one else, in his turn had acquired title by purchase, and if we follow the title back far enough, we will find the man who first owned the pen-holder, who did not purchase it,— made it. The original title, then, to this pen-holder, rests in human labor. It is so with every piece of personal property: this paper, ink, desk, house — the title to them all is the same — human labor. And, many reforming unmentionables to the contrary, every man is entitled to the results of his own exertions.
But how about the land upon which this building is situated? A. owns it. Where did "A" get his title? From "B." Tracing this title back, shall we find it resting on human labor? Not at all. No one made this land. Some one took it; gave title to some one else, and that title stands. It rests in force, fraud or nothing.
To sum it up: Notice that the blessing of rent did not come to our wheat-producing island until the increasing population, the people, made the land valuable. The million-dollar blocks in San Francisco would not be worth $1,000,000 if the people who have built up the city had not made them so. Now, since there can be no private title acquired to land that will stand the test of reason, since the very rent is due to the people themselves, and arises from and increases with population, we say that the people are entitled to this rent. Can you give one reason why individual proprietors should take it? Can you give one valid reason why people should pay it to them? If you cannot, you must admit that the economic rent of a nation, the unearned increment of land, belongs to the people. As this rent would more than pay the taxes of the nation, no other tax would be necessary. Thus you believe in the wisdom of the single tax. What are you going to do to secure it?
Cut the accompanying picture out; hang it up where you can conveniently see it, and consult it every time that, after stretching and pinching, and starving yourself and family, you have failed to make both ends meet.