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"
I see that there continue to be people who see the stupidity of Proposition 13 -- see http://www.dailyrepublic.com/opinion/letters-editor/time-for-a-petition-against-proposition-13/ Perhaps they will find this of use. Georgists recognize Prop 13 as the antithesis of logical and just taxation.
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."
You can read more about the Poor Widow by clicking on the "widow's skirts" link at left, in the tag cloud, and by reading Bill Batt's Property Tax Relief Measures: Answers to the "Poor Widow " Argument (or the pdf version)
- 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: