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 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
Here are the opening paragraphs of a recent article about the complexities of Ground Lease contracts. I commend the entire article to your attention. It helps flesh out why and how the entire FIRE sector -- Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (as well as their attorneys) -- is receiving such a large share of the profits produced by the productive sectors of the economy. The owner of land, and the entities which lend on land, and insure the buildings and the revenue flow, all reap significant shares of what the tenants labor to create. Modern sharecropping. And the recipients of the ground rent get to parade as self-made men, people of awesome foresight and wisdom -- and even philanthropists (think Brooke Astor, the Fishers, and others in your own community) when they donate a small share back to a charity! As you read this, think both of Manhattan land and of land in your community's central business district, and along its major roads. (Location, location, location!)
If one wonders why (true) small business struggles, one might consider the complexity and expense of their ground leases, and contrast that with the Georgist alternative: that one's taxes would be simply the current rental value of the land, while the value of the building remains one's private property, not subject to taxation or going pouf! at the end of a ground lease.
The land lord is "supplying" something he didn't create. We ought to ease him out. Land value taxation is the obvious tool for reducing, and -- slowly or not -- eliminating, his "take" on those who do create. Think what it would mean if working people had that spending power, instead of the lords of the land.
All that land rent could be used to fund our community's needs, instead of lining the pockets of a few very "lucky" -- privileged -- duckies. (The analogies to chattel slavery are not a long stretch, once one starts to think about it. We should all own ourselves, and reap the fruits of our own labors.)
A lease is a lease is a lease – or so you may think. Yes, real property leases grant an estate in land to a tenant for a period of time. And yes, the tenant pays for that right of possession. But the action in a lease isn’t in the conveyance provisions; it’s in the contract provisions. Multiply out the rent and other annual monetary obligations by the length of the lease term (in years), and you’ll see that it might be (and often is) a big dollar contract. Even more important, unlike the vast majority of contracts whose obligations are satisfied in days or weeks, a lease contract goes unfulfilled for 50, 75, “99,” and even 500 years. That takes it beyond the life of the parties involved in its creation, and the future brings surprises. Neither Nostradamus nor Jules Verne got everything right.
Why a Ground Lease?
If a tenant has to build its own building (as is often the case), and has all of the burdens of ownership, why would it lease a property knowing that at the end of the lease term it has nothing left to show for its money and efforts? There are a number of common reasons, principal among them is that the owner won’t sell the land and the tenant has no alternative.
Real property often carries a long term unrealized gain, waiting to be taxed upon its sale.
Not every landowner is interested in making further active real property investments. This makes a like kind exchange unappealing.
Ground leasing the same land keeps ownership in the family. At the owner’s death, because of the current estate tax “stepped up basis” arrangement, the built in gain may never be taxed.
The hospitals (of England) are full of the ancient. . . . The
almshouses are filled with old laborers. Many there are who get
their living with bearing burdens, but more are fain to burden the
land with their whole bodies. Neither come these straits upon men
always through intemperance, ill-husbandry, indiscretion, etc.; but
even the most wise, sober and discreet men go often to the wall when
they have done their best. . . The rent-taker lives on the sweet
morsels, but the rent-payer eats a dry crust often with watery eyes.
—Robert Cushman, Plymouth, 1621, in Young's "Chronicles of the
seems a hard thing for many to understand how the single tax, as
applied at Fairhope or elsewhere, can benefit both those who have little
and those who have much. They think that if the tax burden upon the
wealthy man's fine improvement is decreased, it must be at the expense
of his poorer neighbor; or on the other hand, if the poor man's burden
is lightened, it must be because it is shifted to the well-to-do. The
fact is that the wealthy man whose wealth is genuine wealth, houses,
stores, stocks (of goods) and other things which are the product of
labor — not the possessor of monopoly privileges — will be benefited by
the freeing from taxation of these forms of wealth, and the poor man
will be benefited by the exemption of his smaller improvement if he be a
home-owner, and if he be not, by the destruction of land speculation,
making it easy for him to secure land for a home or for cultivation, and
by an increased demand for his labor from others and the increased
ability of others to buy his products if he be a producer.
somebody must be hurt by your policy. You can't benefit everybody, the
beneficiaries of the present system as well as its victims," will say
the skeptic. To which we say: There is plenty of room for the argument
as to whether the enthronement of Justice ever did or can hurt anybody;
but so far as the colony is concerned, there are no beneficiaries of
injustice. No one has ever been given the privilege of collecting
tribute in the form of unearned land values, and the wealthy and the
poor are alike benefited by the taking for public use of that which
belongs and has been held from the beginning to belong to the public,
but elsewhere is made the privilege of a favored few.
the colony the application of the single tax to present conditions
would take somebody's privileges and profits, and it will be those who
are "reaping where they have not sown" in the collection of land values
rightly belonging to the public for the two highest reasons: first,
because their collection for the common benefit is necessary to insure
to each his inherent right to live upon the earth; and second, because
such values are the result of their joint presence and activity, and not
traceable to individual exertions.
-- Fairhope Courier, quoted in The American Cooperator (1903)
"Of course the fact that a chief or land-owner has bought and paid
for a particular privilege or species of taboo, or has inherited
from his fathers, doesn't give him in any moral claim to it. The
question is, Is the claim in itself right and reasonable? for a
wrong is only all the more a wrong for having been long and
— GRANT ALLEN, The British
Barbarians. (Words spoken by Bertram.)
StarWatch investigation: State paid twice what some I-69 land was worth
To secure path for I-69, INDOT offered $7M for property appraised at $3.34M Written by Ryan Sabalow and Tim Evans | 7:47 PM, Nov 10, 2012
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In 2006, Barry Elkins paid $850,000 for about 200
acres in Monroe County owned by former Indiana University basketball
coach Bob Knight.
$4,250 per acre
Elkins told a local newspaper he had no plans to develop the land. He
said he also was quite aware state officials planned to acquire at least
some of the property for the new I-69 freeway project.
Nonetheless, Elkins told a reporter: "It's a heck of a piece of ground."
Turns out, it produced a heck of a profit, too.
In July, state highway officials paid Elkins $2.41 million for an
easement covering 140 of the 200 acres. That's almost four times the
$658,800 that state appraisers said the easement was worth.
$17,214 per acre for the 140 acres.
$658,800 is $4,705 per acre.
The $2.41 million represents a profit of $1.56 million since 2006, still
leaves the owner with 60 acres with no easement and 140 acres with an
easement. The $1.56 million profit in 6 years on an $850,000 investment
is 84%! Quite a return! For what effort?
What did society get in return?
According to I-69 cost estimates INDOT provided this summer, $162.6
million in state and federal funds were spent on right-of-way purchases
along the new stretch of freeway.
He said the property payments also haven't caused the project to go over
budget. He said the I-69 project is 25 percent under budget estimates.
Officials this summer pegged the cost of the Evansville-to-Bloomington
project at $1.5 billion.
The land Elkins bought from Knight wasn't the only Monroe County
property along I-69's path that he sold to the state for far more than
its fair market value. He and two co-owners also got $348,600 for a
27-acre property appraised at $194,625; and $795,956 for 58 acres
appraised at $278,295.
As for the former Knight property, the state purchased the easement to
create an "environmental mitigation site" to make up for damage to
forests, wetlands, wildlife habitat and other natural resources caused
by the new freeway.
After the $2.41 million payday -- which was nearly three times the
amount Elkins paid Knight for the entire 200 acres -- Elkins still owns
the picturesque expanse of undeveloped pasture and woods about eight
miles southwest of Bloomington.
The easement forbids any development on 140 acres of the land but allows
Elkins to use it for "low-impact" recreational activities such as
hiking, photography and hunting.
And he doesn't have to pay property taxes.
One might reasonably ask what valuation Elkins was paying property taxes on before the transactions.
One might reasonably ask how much the labor costs on this project were -- what men and women got paid for their hours of labor put into building the highway, and then compare that to Mr. Elkins' and others' receipts as passive landholders!! Quite amazing that we treat the "rights" of landholders as more sacred than we make the rights of the community or of those who work.
One might reasonably wonder how soon the communities along the route of this new highway will revalue their land, and whether the communities will collect more from those whose land benefited from the presence of this highway (and less from those whose properties were in reality negatively impacted, should that be the case). In general, the aggregate benefits will far exceed the aggregate negative impacts, and would likely be enough to pay all the costs of the construction.
Mr. Elkins' free lunch did not come out of thin air. And likely, his heirs will continue to enjoy the benefit of it.
THIS is how wealth concentrates. This is why we are forced into taxing wages, and sales, and other things we have no business taxing!
Henry George is the most famous American popular economist you've never heard of, a 19th century cross between Michael Lewis, Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Progress and Poverty, George's most important book, sold three million copies and was translated into German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, Hebrew and Mandarin. During his lifetime, George was probably the third best-known American, eclipsed only by Thomas Edison and Mark Twain. He was admired by the foreign luminaries of the age, too -- Leo Tolstoy, Sun-Yat Sen and Albert Einstein, who wrote that "men like Henry George are unfortunately rare. One cannot image a more beautiful combination of intellectual keenness, artistic form and fervent love of justice." George Bernard Shaw described his own thinking about the political economy as a continuation of the ideas of George, whom he had once heard deliver a speech.
Later, she writes,
George found most mysterious about the economic consequences of the
industrial revolution was that its failure to deliver economic
prosperity was not uniform -- instead it had created a winner-take-all
society: "Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others
find it hard to get a living at all. The 'tramp' comes with the
locomotives, and almshouses and prisons are as surely the marks of
'material progress' as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses and
magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled by
uniformed policeman, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow
of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns
and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied."
diagnosis was beguilingly simple -- the fruits of innovation weren't
widely shared because they were going to the landlords. This was a very
American indictment of industrial capitalism: at a time when Marx was
responding to Europe's version of progress and poverty with a wholesale
denunciation of private property, George was an enthusiastic supporter
of industry, free trade and a limited role for government. His culprits
were the rentier rich, the landowners who profited hugely from
industrialization and urbanization, but did not contribute to it.
had such tremendous popular appeal because he addressed the obvious
inequity of 19th century American capitalism without disavowing
capitalism itself. George wasn't trying to build a communist utopia. His
campaign promise was to rescue America from the clutches of the robber
barons and to return it to "the democracy of Thomas Jefferson." That
ideal -- as much Tea Party as Occupy Wall Street -- won support not only
among working class voters and their leaders, like Samuel Gompers, but
also resonated with many small businessmen. Robert Ingersoll, a
Republican orator, attorney and intellectual, was a George supporter. He
urged his fellow Republicans to back his man and thereby "show that
their sympathies are not given to bankers, corporations and
I commend the entire post, adapted from Freeland's new book, Plutocrats. It ends with these paragraphs:
today urgently needs a 21st century Henry George -- a thinker who
embraces the wealth-creating power of capitalism, but squarely faces the
inequity of its current manifestation. That kind of thinking is missing
on the right, which is still relying on Reagan-era trickle-down
economics and hopes complaints about income inequality can be silenced
with accusations of class war. But the left isn't doing much better
either, preferring nostalgia for the high-wage, medium-skill
manufacturing jobs of the post-war era and China-bashing to a serious
and original effort to figure out how to make 21st century capitalism
work for the middle class.
and the technology revolution aren't going away -- and thank goodness
for that. Industrialization didn't go away either. But between 1886,
when George lost the mayoral race, and the presidency of FDR, American
progressives invented, fought for and implemented a broad range of new
social and political institutions to make capitalism serve the whole of
society -- ranging from trust-busting, to the income tax, to the welfare
are living in an era of comparably tumultuous economic change. The
great challenge of our time is to devise the new social and political
institutions we need to make the new economy work for everyone. So far,
that is a historic task neither party is taking on with enough energy,
honesty or originality."
Along the same lines, you might find interesting an earlier post here, an article by Thomas Shearman entitled "Henry George's Mistakes." (He was a co-founder of Shearman & Sterling, and went on to write some excellent articles on plutocracy in The Standard, October, 1887.)
The post below this one, "Mitt Romney's 'Fair Share' " refers to his fair share of the costs of providing public goods.
But perhaps an equally important question is the nature of one's fair share of the output of our economy and the output of the earth. Some of the former output is the result of individual efforts, and one ought to be able to keep that portion. But at the same time we must recognize how much comes from the division of labor, from drawing down on the non-infinite supply of non-renewable natural resources on which all of us today must depend and on which future generations of human beings must rely. Those who draw down more than their legitimate share owe something to the rest of the community. Our wealthiest tend, we suspect, to use many, many times their legitimate share, and the median American likely draws far more than their share, when one considers the planet as a whole.
Perhaps "legitimate" is not the right word here. It refers to what is permissible under current law. (The word gets misused a lot -- see the discussion on "legitimate rape," which seemed to be about the circumstances under which a woman has a right to make a specific very personal, decision, and when it is considered by some to not be left to her and is the province of government, legislators or others.)
What is one's "fair share" of natural resources? America is using a hugely disproportionate share of the world's resources. Are we entitled to it because we're somehow "exceptional"? Because "our" God is somehow better than other nation's Gods? Or do we genuinely believe that all people are created equal, and intend to live our lives accordingly?
Our output of greenhouse gases exceeds our share of the world's population. This is not without consequences for the world, and for peace on earth.
We ought to be re-examining our incentives so that they move us in the direction we ought to be going, which is, to my mind, using less. We can build transportation infrastructure which will permit many more of us to move around with less impact on the environment. We can fund that through collecting the increases in land value that infrastructure creates. We can correct the incentives which cause us to use today's inferior technologies to extract natural resources from the earth in ways which damage the environment, as if ours was the final generation, or the only one worth serious consideration.
Better incentives could reduce, eliminate, even reverse urban sprawl. I refer specifically to land value taxation as a replacement for the existing property tax, particularly in places where assessments are for one reason or another not consistent with current property values -- e.g., California and Florida, parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania which currently use assessments from the 1970s, and many other places where assessments are simply out of whack with current reality!) We should be replacing sales taxes, wage taxes, building taxes with taxes on land value and on natural resources. Most of that value is flowing generously into private or corporate pockets, to our detriment. It concentrates wealth, income, and, of course, political power.
Collecting the rent, instead of leaving the lion's share of it to be pocketed by the rent-seekers, would go a long way to making our society and our economy healthier. Eliminating the privilege of privatizing that which in a wisely designed society would be our common treasure would make our society a better place in which to live, a place in which all could thrive and prosper without victimizing their fellow human beings.
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.
We -- WE! -- built that -- and we ought to be collecting it, month in and month out, and keeping our hands off what the individual or small business or corporation DID build. (Of course, this presumes that each of us is expected to compensate the community for the pollution we create, and the non-renewable resources we take.)
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.
It is certain, however, that a large part of the improvement is due to the increasing value of advantageous sites, an unearned increase of value such as Mr. Mill speaks of, and therefore a kind of profit which the State may restrict with least harm.
— ROBERT GIFFEN, Essays in Finance, 1st Series (1871), Chap. X., p. 244.
The rise in value which the industry of others providentially gives to the land of the wise and good.
— W. D. HOWELLS, A Hazard of New Fortunes, Part IV., Chap. 3.
The unqualified ownership of land thus established (viz., "in a way which in this age would be regarded as monstrous and corrupt"), enables the land-owning class to reap a wholly unearned benefit at the expense of the general community.
— FRANCIS A. WALKER, Political Economy, Part VI., Chap. 7, Sec. 418.
The following list comprises the most commonly asked questions about the concept of making land and resource rentals the source of revenue for government. As you continue this study, you will see the value from giving resources the respect they deserve and the benefits resulting from the freeing of labour, production and exchange from taxation. If you have any questions which are not covered here, or observations you would like to put to our panel, please feel free to do so by sending your question as an e-mail query and we will attempt to respond.
The inclusion of land and resources in the economic equation is central to any solution for revenue raising. A taxation solution which does not consider the nature of taxation itself and allows the continuing private monopolisation of community land and resources fails to recognise the essential role land plays in the economic equation and will not work. Land is the only element in the economic equation which is both fixed and finite. It can be monopolised. It is a unique class of asset which must be treated accordingly. If we were to wrest not the land itself, but its unimproved value from private monopolies and return the value to the community — whose very presence creates it — then we would have reduced many problems in one stroke with great benefit to production, to the environment and to the cause of individual freedom and justice.
On the subject of land and resource rents, Henry George said this:
The tax upon land values is the most just and equal of all taxes. It falls upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive. It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community. It is the application of the common property to common uses. When all rent is taken by taxation for the needs of the community, then will the equality ordained by nature be attained.
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.
Here's a piece from a 90 year old journal. There are acres in Manhattan whose value is far higher today -- and the landlords are still reaping what the working people and visitors to New York are sowing.
APPROPRIATING THE GIFTS OF NATURE By Walter Thomas Mills.
There are portions of New York City in which the land is valued at $40,000,000 an acre. That means $8000 each day from each acre for the landlord, and that entirely unearned by him, before there is a penny for any other purpose. Probably not less than two and one-half million dollars a day, or almost a billion dollars a year, must be earned by the people of New York City and turned over to landlords for permission to use the island, which is a gift of nature, and for the advantages that are protected and maintained by the industry and enterprise of all of the people.
In The Great Adventure, April, 1921
Think what NYC -- and America -- would be like if that "permission to use the island" money was treated as our logical public revenue source, instead of as individuals', corporations' and trusts' private revenue source.
Recall the wisdom of Leona Helmsley: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes."
A tax upon ground-rents would not raise the rent of houses. It would fall altogether upon the owner of the ground-rent, who acts always as a monopolist and exacts the greatest rent which can be got for the use of the ground.
— ADAM SMITH, Wealth of Nations (1776), Book V., Chap. 2, Art. I.
The remarkable thing about this story, to my eye, is that the size of the lot isn't even mentioned! It is worth $1 million land rent per year, and one might infer from the information provided that the lot is about 10,000 square feet, or less than 1/4 acre.
Capitalized at 5% (also known as "20 years' purchase") the lot would sell for about $20 million.
I assume that in addition to the land rent, the tenant pays the property tax on the land. So the entire $1 million annual land rent flows out of NYC, to the property's owner, in Marshall, Virginia.
What, pray tell, has the land owner done to earn that land rent?
Consider how many people's wage taxes and sales taxes could be lifted, and what that additional spending power could do for the local economy. Consider what would happen if there were no taxes to be paid on the apartments or on people's condo structures.
Or NYC can just keep letting the land rent leave the city, and even leave the country, continuing to flow into private pockets, just as if they'd rendered someone some service and earned it!
Land rent is natural public revenue, and we permit landlords to privatize it. Aren't we generous with our patrimony? (Leona told us the truth!)
The developer of a nine-story Karl Fischer rental apartment building planned for a corner site in the East Village signed a 99-year ground lease that requires payments each year of about $1 million.
The development company, YYY Third Avenue, signed the long-term lease for the vacant site at 74-84 Third Avenue, at 12th Street, April 27, 2011, however, a memorandum of the lease was not recorded in public records until last Wednesday, city property documents show.
A source citing city property records said the lease payment, which is not specifically recorded, could be inferred to be about $1 million per year. Prior to the document’s release, the annual lease cost was not known.
The prolific and controversial architect Fischer filed plans to build an 82,000-square-foot, nine-story residential building with 94 units, city Department of Buildings online records show. The permit has not been approved and is pending, DOB data indicate, and is to include nearly 9,511 square feet of retail, as well.
You might also be intrigued by the URL for the story ... I'm not sure what to make of it.
As our time honored political maxims become hackneyed they are very apt to pass into what Grover Cleveland would call innocuous desuetude. We subscribe to the sentiment that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" and yet little is done to counteract those aggressive forces which nullify that freedom which we profess to prize so highly. Even the prayer, "Thy Kingdom Come," is repeated as a mere wish that something good would happen rather than with a determination to bring about those righteous conditions which make for a heaven on earth. Possibly the most neglected of all of our national ideals is our professed adherence to that most democratic of all maxims, "Equal rights for all and special privileges for none." For at the present time our country is honeycombed with special privilege that has become so entirely entrenched as to be regarded on all sides as vested right. Special privilege is condoned by force of its familiarity. Like vice it is endured, then pitied, then embraced.
There lived in a Colorado city years ago a housewife who made convenient use of coal cars on the side track across the street from her dwelling with which to replenish her stock of fuel. This she did without any qualm of conscience but as a special privilege which, by the sanctifying touch of time had grown into a vested right. This woman doubtless was punctilious in the ordinary obligations of life and would have hotly resented any statement to the effect that she was stealing coal. She was guided by that all too common kind of honesty which is based upon expediency rather than principle. Not on any account would she have withheld what was due from her to a neighbor who would have suffered by her delinquency, but the advantage to her of getting this coal was so great and the loss to some impersonal owner of same, mine, railroad, or smelter, was relatively so negligible that the argument was all in favor of her acting in her own interest without question. No personal equation was involved and if at first there had been any hesitation on her part of this practice, that was long ago a thing of the past. But the railroad company put a watchman on guard and her supply of fuel was thereby stopped. She then turned to the local charity organization with request for a continuation of the supply which had thus been rudely taken from her and the very righteous indignation with which she told her story was ample proof of entire absence of comprehension on her part that she had been stealing.
This incident, which is a true story, illustrates very nicely the evolution and the nature of that special privilege which eventually becomes a vested right. And if the searchlight of analysis is turned upon our social system we may be surprised to find the presence of special privilege in unexpected places and of a volume that is, in the aggregate, enormous.
As a basis for this inquiry it may be well to state the fundamental truth that property may be secured in three ways only; first, by labor; second, by gift; and third, by theft. If this test is repeatedly kept in mind, the task will become easier. One of the commonest forms of special privilege is that which is provided under ninety-nine year leases on valuable business property sites. These leases convey to the owner of the land a stipulated income after the tenant has paid all taxes and expenses. In the parlance of political economy this revenue consists of what John Stuart Mill defined as unearned increment, a value which is produced by no individual but which is purely the result of population reflected upon desirable locations. For this revenue to be turned over to individuals as is now the unquestioned custom in all of our large cities and to an amount of billions of dollars annually is a procedure which is precisely in the same class as the stealing of coal from the railroad car by the Colorado housewife.
A much larger source of public revenue which is diverted to individuals is that of the rent of valuable property in excess of a fair interest return upon the intrinsic value of improvements on the property. This applies to practically all property located at the center of our large cities and involves enormous revenues. There is a mixture here of legitimate return on capital invested with the unearned increment which belongs absolutely to society but the case is not less clear on that account.
Another prolific source of public revenue which is diverted to individuals is that which comes from the lucky possession of oil wells. This possession frequently gives incomes of thousands of dollars daily to those who have no more claim on such revenue than is involved in the possession of the land upon which the wells were developed. The wealth that has by this means been given to certain sections of the country and certain groups of people has run into the billions of dollars. The Osage tribe of Indians in Oklahoma are said to have been made the richest people in the world due to this special privilege. Such beneficiaries are no more justly entitled to the revenue which they receive than was the Colorado woman justified in stealing coal from the railroad car. It will be said that the oil industry involves a great deal of capital and that many dry wells are paid for before a single producing well is developed. This is true and therefore makes the proposition somewhat more complicated but does not alter the conclusion.
Another source of revenue which diverts public funds into private hands is speculation in land. Purchase of inside property sure to increase in value is the one investment that has been invariably recommended by shrewd financiers. This speculation is far greater than has been generally realized. More than one-half the area of New York City consists in vacant lots which are held out of use for speculative purposes, and the same is true of all our larger cities. Incidentally, this speculation has the effect of enhancing the selling price of desirable land to artificially high figures. When land which is purchased with a hope of subsequent rise in value, the investor practically lays a trap by which he may secure values that rightfully belong to the community. And this process makes an artificial scarcity of land with consequent artificially high cost to those who must use it. This process of securing a profit, of getting something for nothing, is persistently the same in character as that by which the Colorado housewife secured her supply of coal. Here again objection may be interposed to the effect that land frequently has to be sold for less than it cost. This is an objection that was raised by no less an economist than Francis A. Walker, the foremost critic of Henry George during his lifetime. General Walker exclaimed, "Mr. George has much to say about unearned increment: He says nothing, however, about unrequited decrement." Mr. George's rejoinder to this was an expression on his part of his inability to discuss the problem with one who spoke of unrequited decrement in something which originally had no value. In other words, so far as society is concerned its interest is only in the rental value which is produced from year to year and which rises or fall accordingly as population grows or wanes. The important fact is that this increment, whether large or small, belongs to the community which produced it.
The most spectacular form of special privilege which we have to deal with today is that provided by the protective tariff. This protection enables the America manufacturer to secure an artificially high price for his product. The common argument in support of the protective system is that the American standard of living must be maintained by this artificial means, but this argument falls to the ground, if at the same time, we permit any improvement in labor-saving machinery which naturally has far greater effect upon the labor market than is produced by the competition of merchandise imported from abroad. The enormity of special privilege due to the tariff is perhaps more conspicuous in the State of Pennsylvania than elsewhere, a single family in Pittsburgh, the direct beneficiaries of the tariff on aluminum, being reputed to be worth in excess of $2 billion. There will be found that, with a few rare exceptions, the great fortunes of America are based upon special privilege of one kind or another.
Although there are many minor sources of special privilege which are embedded in our political and social institutions, those above enumerated are the principal ones.
The special privileges provided by legislative action at Washington are in a different class from those which have become a regular part of our system of taxation but are none the less to be condemned. The most flagrant of these in recent times was the appropriation by Congress and approved by President Hoover, of $500,000,000 of tax payers' money for the specific purpose of stabilizing or artificially enhancing the price of wheat, cotton, and other farm products. It was presumed by the makers of this law that it would have the effect of giving artificial advantage to the farming class, which would offset in a measure the special privileges which had been given so generously to Eastern interests by means of the protective tariff. The plea for this farm legislation was repeatedly based upon that consideration. It so happened that even the immense waste of money involved by the farm marketing act was negligible as an influence in the world wide markets and that it did not affect in any considerable degree the law of supply and demand upon the prices of the agricultural products which were supposed to be favored. But the very fact that this legislation was put through with little opposition furnished a very good illustration of the fact that special privilege legislation is regarded as perfectly legitimate. And this has been further illustrated in monstrous degree by the New Deal legislation under President Roosevelt.
There is everywhere consciousness of a mysterious force which is responsible for easily acquired fortunes on one hand together with an increase of unemployment and consequent lower incomes on the other hand. Each succeeding census report makes more appalling this undemocratic and unjust condition in our social fabric.
If prosperity is to be secure, there must be an end to special privilege of every kind, and a system of taxation inaugurated in place thereof which shall be based upon justice to all. Henry George has demonstrated how this should be done.
While I was in the wood alone by myself a gathering of nuts, the forester popped through the bushes upon me, and asking me what I did there, I answered, "Gathering nuts."
"Gathering nuts!" said he; "and dare you say so?"
"Yes," said I. "Why not? Would you question a monkey or a squirrel about such a business?"
. . "I tell you," said he, "this wood is not common; it belongs to the Duke of Portland."
"Oh! My service to the Duke of Portland," said I; "Nature knows no more of him than of me. Therefore, as in Nature's storehouse the rule is, First come, first served, so the Duke of Portland must look sharp if he wants any nuts."
— THOMAS SPENCE, Pig's Meat (1793)
in Land for the Landless (Wm. Reeves, 1896), pp. 7-8.
Does the Single Tax discriminate between earned and unearned income?
It is the scientific way of doing what we have been feebly attempting to do in an unscientific way, that is, to distinguish between what Dr. Scott Nearing called "property income" and "services income," or between that form of wealth which is the result of individual effort in production and that which is purely the result of the collective effort of society; or between the two forms of wealth which Dr. Ellwood, of the University of Missouri, in a seemingly unwilling recognition of an unwelcome truth, calls "earnings" and "findings."
In the case of the great majority of us (whether as individuals or as partners in corporations) our incomes are so inextricably compounded of earnings and findings, of privilege income and service income, that it is hard for some of us to know whether we belong to the privileged or unprivileged classes, to the slave owners or the slaves, to the confiscators or the victims; and perhaps only those absolutely property less men at the bottom of the social scale can be said to have no share in the "findings" that spring from privilege. On the other hand it is equally true that all industry up to its highest strata, has to pay toll to privilege and provide those "findings" which distribute themselves with more or less inequality over almost the whole of society. How to distinguish between and separate these entirely different kinds of wealth is what all sincere sociologists and honest taxation commissioners have wanted to do and have hitherto failed in the doing.
If we take a handful of sand and a handful of iron filings and mix them thoroughly, and then set a man with the sharpest eyesight and the nimblest fingers to separate the particles, it will take him long to accomplish his task and he will never do it with more than an approximation to completeness. But apply a strong magnet to the mixture and the separation will be accomplished in ten minutes. Then see how the analogy applies to the economic problem in society. Let us imagine the return that should naturally flow to land in the form of rent to take the shape of blue coins made of steel. Let us fancy that the natural reward that goes to capital as interest takes the form of red coins made of wood. Finally let us figure the natural return to human service of all grades as being represented by white coins also made of wood. On examination it will be discovered that in the case of almost every member of society above the rank of the day laborer, his income is tri-colored or composed of all three coins. There are countless "captains of industry" among us who complacently assume their large incomes to be the rewards freely given by a free world in return for their invaluable services, who will be surprised to find how large a proportion of blue their income coins contain. There are multitudes of livers upon what they have called "interest" who will expect to find their coins red, who will be equally surprised to discover that they are almost entirely blue. To complete the parable, the taxation of land values will be like the application of the magnet which will draw away the blue steel coins in whatever stratum of society they may be found, and lay them aside for social purposes, being socially created wealth; leaving the red and white coins to be competed for in a world of free opportunity, without deduction or diminution by taxation or in any other way.
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.
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 goody from my grandparents' files. I searched for a version of this online, and, finding none, have transcribed it because I thought it good.
that the problems of poverty, hunger, illness and illiteracy have reached such proportions that they can no longer be neglected, and that they demand immediate, vigorous and adequate solutions;
that the rising levels of joblessness and homelessness can only be reduced through systematic adjustments that foster reversal of the widening economic gap between rich and poor;
that an adequate level of economic and social well-being must become more widespread if the political freedoms essential for a peaceful world are to be achieved and maintained;
that this requires that access to the wealth of the land, the oceans and other natural resources be made available to all on a basis of fairness and equity;
that the essential pre-requisite to solving these problems with justice for all is to relieve labor, industry and consumers of the onerous taxes they now bear;
and that this can best be done by raising revenue for public purposes from those values that are created by the public itself, namely, the economic values of land and other natural resources, which now flow as unearned income to those corporations and individuals who happen to hold title to them.
PURPOSES OF THE MOVEMENT
To fund public services from publicly-created land-value revenues, instead of from privately-created wealth, such as homes and other man-made structures;
To stimulate the general economy by lessening the need for income, sales and other kinds of taxes;
To encourage private construction of low-cost housing, industrial plants and other needed facilities by reducing taxes usually levied against buildings of all kinds;
To encourage proper maintenance of all structures by reducing the tax "penalty" usually incurred whenever major repairs or improvements are made;
To discourage land speculation, which drives up both land prices and rents, resulting in increased levels of tenancy and homelessness;
To reduce urban sprawl and the mounting pressures to convert nearby agricultural land to residential, commercial and industrial uses;
To strengthen political freedom by enabling more people to share in the economic and social benefits of owning one's own home and/or workplace; and
To reduce the risk of global war by promoting a widely-recognized remedy for a primary cause of conflict within and between nations.
This came by email today, from my friend Mike Curtis, and, with his permission, I'm sharing it here:
Dear friends and acquaintances:
I am daily reminded of the passage: “the only thing that is necessary for evil to prevail is for too many good men to do nothing” I just heard on the radio that science is advancing in the realm medicine, energy, and agricultural. We are now able to multiply productivity in manufacturing due to the use of robotics. Yet in spite of all the gains in material progress poverty is increasing.
“It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.”
“This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization and which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern Progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe. To educate men who must be condemned to poverty, is but to make them restive; to base on a state of most glaring social inequality political institutions under which men are theoretically equal, is to stand a pyramid on its apex.”
Henry George 1879 (Progress and Poverty)
I am not running for political office, but if I can enlighten anyone, I believe my efforts will have been worth it. The following my reaction to the prevailing wisdom from all the presidential candidates, including the one in the White House.
If you think my thoughts are worth consideration, please let me know, and forward them to others. If you think I’m wrong, please let me know where I went wrong.
Taxes kill jobs
"Taxes kill jobs" is the message of political candidates. The American economic system causes unemployment and recessions; that is true, but without revenue and the role of government the U.S. would surely be a third world country.
However, there is one tax system that actually creates jobs. It’s not based on the socialistic principle of “Ability to Pay,” like most of our taxes. It’s based on the value of the “Benefits Received” by the tax payer. It’s doesn’t confiscate a percentage of income, taking more from those who have a greater income, even when the benefits they receive are the same as others. It doesn’t tax wages, which are the earned income of labor; it doesn’t tax buildings, machines, or inventories, which were acquired from the people who made them; It doesn’t tax sales or consumption, which is the only reason anyone produces anything.
It is simply a charge for the value of the opportunities to which the taxpayer has been given exclusive control. It is a tax on the value of land. It can be taxed at 100% without in any way adding to the cost of production. It doesn’t add to the value of land or the value of things produced on the land. It simply collects what would otherwise go to the holders of land as an un-earned income when the land is actually used.
It insures that the government has ample revenue for the legitimate needs of society, while limiting the government to those values which cannot be attributed to the efforts of individuals or corporations, but are socially created by the community as a whole and attach to the land. It cannot be evaded, because the land cannot be hidden.
The reason wages no longer rise as inventions and new technologies increase the results of labor is because people have no independent way to employ themselves.
If you’re among the least skilled workers, no matter how little machines cost or how much those machines increase the results of your labor, you have to bid against other people who want the same job; the result is that wages tend to a bare minimum -- superseded by the legal Minimum Wage.
For workers with superior skills and knowledge, those with whom employers can increase their profits, it is simply a matter of supply and demand. The higher the pay, the greater the incentive to learn the skill and acquire the knowledge. The wages of any qualified worker will be determined by two opposing factors. First, the demand for the goods or services they produce will encourage employers to offer wages that tend to equal the greater value of their contribution to the product or service. But, as the higher pay stimulates others to acquire similar skills and knowledge the increased supply of superior workers competing against each other, brings wages down until the wages that reward the special skill are no longer high enough to stimulate others to acquire the same skill and knowledge required for the job. Remember when computer programers earned twice what they do now? The supply increased and their wages went down. They still make more than the average worker, because it’s not so easy to learn computer programing. The supply has not exceeded the demand.
Although the vast majority of workers have no way to employ themselves, and the general level of wages haven’t increased in 40 years, it is not a natural law that wages will always tend to remain static. The United States has 700,000 square miles of arable land. That is less than 450 people per square mile. France has more than 850. The U.K. has more than 2,500 and Japan has more than 7,500 people per square mile.
All production takes place on land. The reason why more workers are looking for employment than landowners are looking for workers is that an enormous portion of the arable land in America is unused or grossly under used; simply held as an asset.
Suppose that cities were developed to their full potential. The slums with empty houses and abandoned factories were redeveloped to their full potential; the surface parking lots were replaced with multi-story parking garages; the grossly underdeveloped sites in the high-rise business districts were put to their highest and best use. Suppose the suburbs were carefully planed and developed with wooded and open parkland instead of relying on land speculators posing as farmers to provide open space; suppose we eliminated sprawl with its leapfrogging patterns that increase the cost of the infrastructure, waste land, and separate people from work and social relations; suppose we created a disincentive to hold idle, mineral land that increases in value. That is to say: What would happen if the majority of now privately held idle land was put to good use? It would generate an increase in the demand for labor and create job opportunities for everyone who was willing and able to work.
What is required is a shift from confiscatory taxation, which we now have, to a revenue system that is based on the value of land, which measures the value of the benefits received by landholders from society. Land values include the surface rights, mineral rights, and all other natural opportunities like the electromagnetic spectrum used for communications.
Under this proposal, the rental value has to be paid whether the land is used or not. While the payment of rent is a payment for a benefit received, for those who leave their land idle, it becomes a penalty, and that insures an ample supply of land for all who need or want to use it.
It also insures that all workers and the owners of productive capital get to keep everything they produce by taking advantage of the natural opportunities that are equally available to everyone else.
When the structures that our laws and traditions create provide opportunities for someone to capture a windfall, should we blame the fellow who "takes advantage" of those structures, or should we respond by studying and correcting those structures and laws?
Winston Churchill, in his speeches under the baanner "The People's Rights," in 1909, said this:
I hope you will understand that when I speak of the land monopolist I am dealing more with the process than with the individual landowner. I have no wish to hold any class up to public disapprobation. I do not think that the man who makes money by unearned increment in land is morally a worse man than anyone else who gathers his profit where he finds it in this hard world under the law and according to common usage. It is not the individual I attack, it is the system. It is not the man who is bad, it is the law which is bad. It is not the man who is blameworthy for doing what the law allows and what other men do; it is the State which would be blameworthy were it not to endeavour to reform the law and correct the practice. We do not want to punish the landlord. We want to alter the law.
The 99% need to start identifying the laws and structures that must be adjusted. This is not easy work.
What individuals produce, and corporations produce, should not be "there for the taking" -- be it by corporate management in the form of hugely generous compensation packages and golden parachutes, or by simply saying "these resources are OURS, not everyone's" or by establishing monopolies or duopolies or other such structures. We-the-people need to educate ourselves about how things are done now, who benefits from that, and what alternatives exist. It won't be easy. We'll be challenging special interests who somehow think they're entitled to their advantaged positions, and the rest of us exist to keep them comfortable.
Labor should get its share, and capital should get its share, and we-the-people should get land's share. That last could fund a large portion of our common spending, on infrastructure and services, and permit us to reduce or eliminate the dumb taxes which take which individuals and corporations legitimately create. That "keeping what we create" extends, also, to "externalities," to being responsible for the pollution we create, and setting up incentives so that it is minimized, for the good of all of us now here and the good of future generations.
I think it is quite possible, even likely, that a few years after we've made this shift in who gets what, we'll find that we don't need nearly so robust a social safety net, and that we-the-people may get some of "land's share" back in the form of a Citizen's Dividend, just as all permanent residents of Alaska receive an annual dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund.
In any case, letting some corporations and some individuals grab that which we all create together is just plain wrong. Letting it be "there for the taking" is insanity and injustice. And don't we pledge "liberty and justice for all?"
Our ancestors may have granted some privileges to some lucky folks for one reason or another. That doesn't mean that we can't, politely and firmly, revoke those privileges. A couple of centuries is plenty. Experience has shown us that those privileges don't serve the greater good, and it is time to revoke them. Will the privileged give up those privileges graciously? Quite possibly not. But the first step is to identify them, and then to seek to change the system so that those rightly-common assets aren't "there for the taking."
.... this time because perhaps his targets are the well-situated, those in a position to contribute the funds which political campaigns need. Keep in mind that NYS's former governor, though previously an attorney general, is also the scion of a real estate fortune.
Urban real estate investors live off the fruit of the land, the fruits of the community's sowing, and we praise them as philanthropists when they toss us a few tulips in the median strips or parks.
And notice that the refusal continued even Harry Markopolis testified before a congressional committee about his repeated and data-filled attempts to bring Bernard Madoff's obvious Ponzi scheme to the attention of the SEC (January, 2009). Talk about tone-deafness on the part of those we pay to monitor things for us. As someone else recently wrote, small government or weak government? And government of, for and by WHICH people??
I hope some upstate legislators will push at this issue. Their constituents ought to expect it of them.
The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
By David Cay Johnston
(Reuters) - Each year New York State lets real estate investors evade at least $200 million of taxes. In peak years the figure likely rises to $700 million, if known tax cheating in another state is any indication. Some of the investors who cheat New York State also cheat New York City out of at least $40 million annually.
Back in the 1990s Jerry Curnutt figured out how to finger such cheats when he was the top partnership specialist at the Internal Revenue Service. Curnutt's computer sifted through tax returns until he learned how to separate thieves from honest taxpayers. The tax-evasion estimates of $200 million and $40 million are his.
Six New York state tax auditors took classes Curnutt taught in June 2000 and gave stellar evaluations. California's top tax auditor praised Curnutt's course as "effective, relevant and most importantly, appreciated and understood by our auditors."
Why has nothing been done for more than 11 years to make the cheats in New York pay what the law requires?
New York state and city are strapped for cash, slashing services for the poor, disabled and elderly. With penalties of up to 50 percent plus interest at penalty rates, the state is easily due more than $5 billion from years still open to collection, I calculate.
Every state has similar issues, but New York matters most as the epicenter of highly leveraged real estate investment pools.
Curnutt found that real estate investment partnerships with depreciated properties often misreport gains when they sell. That such cheating is widespread screams about tax law enforcement looking the other way when those at the top steal. In contrast, New York State has a well-deserved reputation for going after people whose mistakes cost the state as little as three dollars.
GO AWAY, THEY SAY
Yet in letter after letter since 2001, New York state tax officials told Curnutt to go away, smugly insisting there were no untaxed millions.
As head of audits for New York State, Thomas Heinz wrote Curnutt in 2003 that the state was "not interested in pursuing you or any other consultant on the matter" of systematic cheating by real estate partnership investors. Months later Heinz wrote a second letter that made it clear he had not understood what Curnutt was proposing, while reiterating that there were no untaxed millions to be found.
A year ago Curnutt again was told to go away because there was no money going untaxed.
And yet in Pennsylvania, Curnutt's research "resulted in the taxation of over $700 million in unreported income," the Pennsylvania Revenue Department wrote in a letter to tax administrators across the country in reference to a single instance.
"Without his assistance, our staff would have spent numerous hours getting to the crux of the issues, in that especially complex case," Pennsylvania tax authorities said.
Pennsylvania has relied on Curnutt since 2002, calculating that every dollar spent on his research and subsequent audits was worth $10 of tax.
So why are sightless sheriffs ignoring massive cheating by the most affluent among us?
The likely reason became clear nearly a decade ago when one Kentucky tax official told Curnutt that the governor's office did not want his services because it would uncover tax cheating by influential citizens, meaning campaign donors.
It is time for New York's three top state officials, all Democrats with higher ambitions, to do their duty, especially since the thieves are virtually certain to include some of their campaign contributors.
LAWMEN AND THEIR DUTY
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who harbors ambitions to be president, made his name as a state attorney general who appeared to get tough with Wall Street. Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy rose from Rochester street cop to chief and would love to be governor. So would Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, elected in 2010 on a promise to be tough on white-collar crime.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, has a similar duty to go after tax cheats even if these should turn out to include some of his friends.
New York law gives authorities leverage aplenty. The mere threat of public exposure through civil lawsuits would prompt many to write checks. For repeat offenders, the threat of indictment for tax evasion would produce checks even faster. Faced with the prospect of civil or criminal charges, many in positions of public trust would be ruined if their names got out.
The general partners -- those in charge in the partnerships Curnutt investigated -- took calculated steps to cheat and the most serious offenders should face indictment and, upon conviction, years of prison time. But many limited partners may have assumed their K-1 tax statements were reliable. Innocent victims owe taxes and interest, but not penalties. Those with multiple untaxed gains are not innocents.
As lawmen Cuomo, Duffy and Schneiderman all understand leverage. They have enough to lift billions into the state treasury where it belongs just by indicating in letters that failure to pay will result in disclosure of names. Will they?
Until Cuomo, Duffy, Schneiderman and Bloomberg enforce the law, their official inaction lends credence to billionaire Leona Helmsley's remark, quoted by her housekeeper, that "we don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes."
This column will keep you posted on whether these officials act or not. (Editing by Howard Goller)
I'm glad to see DCJ quoting Leona Helmsley -- but I don't think he yet fully "sees the cat" or realizes that Leona Helmsley's reference could just as accurately have been to tax STRUCTURES, not to tax evasion.
Buildings do not appreciate. Even with the best of care and occasional renovations, they depreciate, as technologies advance, efficiencies improve. What rises in value is land -- the location -- and it rises for reasons which have nothing to do with the individual or corporate landholder (resident or absentee), and everything to do with the community and with public investment in infrastructure and services. These owners are evading taxes which support that spending. In multiple ways, they are reaping what they do not -- cannot! -- sow. These companies are in it for the so-called "capital" gains, which aren't "capital" at all, but land gains.
Another example of the FIRE sector gobbling up the profits of the productive portions of our economy. Their "free lunch" is at the expense of the rest of us. And the phrase "rich people's useful idiots" comes to mind.
The goal is a fair field and no favor. But I don't think that's what this crowd is looking for.
THE 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal. When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?
That's the first paragraph of a recent op-ed by economist Robert Reich of UC-Berkeley.
I think this article is important, but that it misses a larger, longer-acting dynamic: the extent to which our most wealthy, with an awesome amount of "patient money" need to find places to "park" that money, and end up buying land and natural resources.
When we need land, particularly well-located land, we end up paying them for access. When we need natural resources, we pay them for that, too.
It isn't that such access shouldn't be paid for -- it should -- rather, why on earth should private individuals or entities be the recipients of that income, rather than it flowing to the commons to finance the goods and services that make our society a good place to live, without taxing work or purchases.
As I listen to the accounts of what was on the computers in the compound where Osama bin Ladin was living, including ideas for attacking American commuter railroads, my mind turns to why people in other countries might have such hatred for America.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we are using, month in and month out, such a disproportionate share of the world's finite natural resources, and our corporations (and multinational corporations, too) are profiting hugely from withdrawing those resources from land around the world without adequately compensating the peoples of those countries -- not the current leaders but also the future generations of peoples -- for what is being taken out. In our name.
Then my mind turns to the distribution of those benefits in this country. Ads from the Petroleum Institute remind us that half of us own stock, and suggest that if we own stock, we benefit from letting that industry have its way. Well, sort of. But it is worth noting that stock ownership in publicly held companies is rather concentrated in the top 5% of our population [data source: 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, Federal Reserve Board], who own 66.5% of the value. And just as important, the value of privately held companies is even more concentrated, with 88.1% residing in the top 5%. The latter category is actually larger than the former, in terms of household wealth. [Some might argue that pension funds hold stock for bottom 95%-ers -- but relatively few of us have defined benefit pensions any more, and we ought not to be swayed by that one!]
Why do they hate us, if they do? Because we are consuming 2 to 4 times our per capita share of the world's resources, and there are others who can't get their per capita share as a result. And maybe because some might have reason to suspect that the extremes of weather that many parts of the world seem to be experiencing are a result of our disproportionate pollution of the environment.
So how do we revise our incentives so that we structure things better?
To the best of my knowledge, the answers lie in the ideas commonly associated with Henry George. Explore this blog. Explore wealthandwant.com. Read George's books, "Progress and Poverty" and "Social Problems" (a collection of essays) online. Explore Mason Gaffney's website. See what you think. Is there a better way? Is there a way to better organize things to create a better, more peaceful, more just, more sustainable world, in which all of us can prosper, and none can reap what others sow?
"There is nothing to fear," says the complacent Robert Collyer, "from the multimillionaire." The reason for Mr. Collyer's confidence is his assumption that "few fortunes survive three generations." This assumption is a pleasant tradition, formerly phrased as "three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves;" but it has long since ceased to express a fact, since John Jacob Astor showed Americans how to establish fortunes they have become as stable in America as in England.
But even if the tradition were as true today as it was in the earlier periods of the settlement of this new country, what satisfaction could a thoughtful man draw from it?
The social evil is not great fortunes. It is great poverty among those who earn so much wealth that they do not get.
To them it can make no difference whether fortunes are stable or not.
The great, obtrusive, undeniable and invariable fact is that no matter who may be rich nor how long his fortune may remain intact, the mass of those who do the work of the world, and without whose work there would be fortunes for nobody, are permanently poor and dependent.
To borrow a suggestive illustration from the gambling table, what matters it to the many who never win if the few who do soon lose their winnings again?
Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries
This paper examines the relationship between tax structures and economic growth by entering indicators of the tax structure into a set of panel growth regressions for 21 OECD countries, in which both the accumulation of physical and human capital are taken into account.
The results of the analysis suggest that income taxes are generally associated with lower economic growth than taxes on consumption and property. More precisely, the findings allow the establishment of a ranking of tax instruments with respect to their relationship to economic growth. Property taxes, and particularly recurrent taxes on immovable property, seem to be the most growth-friendly, followed by consumption taxes and then by personal income taxes. Corporate income taxes appear to have the most negative effect on GDP per capita.
These findings suggest that a revenue-neutral growth-oriented tax reform would be to shift part of the revenue base towards recurrent property and consumption taxes and away from income taxes, especially corporate taxes. There is also evidence of a negative relationship between the progressivity of personal income taxes and growth.
All of the results are robust to a number of different specifications, including controlling for other determinants of economic growth and instrumenting tax indicators.
Readers of this blog will know that I favor shifting to a tax on land value, and eliminating the portion of the conventional property tax which falls on buildings and other improvements to land. But I'm fascinated that their analysis shows that even taxing buildings and other improvements to land, along with land value, is superior to taxing consumption or personal income or corporate income, in terms of the effects on economic growth.
So I'll leave you with this question: if we know that income taxes and consumption taxes discourage growth more than the conventional property tax does, in whose interest is it that we not rely heavily on the property tax? Cui bono?
Go to the root of the problem. Recognize who benefits from the status quo. They like the current system just fine, and will fund heavily efforts to conserve it.
And when California (Proposition 13 forces reliance on wage and sales taxes to "protect" property owners) and other states, including soon Indiana, start complaining about a lack of economic growth, and when New York State's new Governor Cuomo starts talking about "property tax relief," understand that this is code for "we'll take care of our friends who own the choice urban sites, the ordinary man be damned!" This is called conservatism. Like Aleve, it works for them. Does "landed gentry" still resonate?
Notice that this study has been around for two years now. How many times have you heard about it? (It was news to me.) Even the "FairTax" (23%+ consumption tax) folks haven't mentioned it, as far as I know.
<p><a title="Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries" href="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries</a>.</p> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html"><strong>Do tax structures affect aggregate economic growth? Empirical evidence from a panel of OECD countries </strong></blockquote> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">This paper examines the relationship between tax structures and economic growth by entering indicators of the tax structure into a set of panel growth regressions for 21 OECD countries, in which both the accumulation of physical and human capital are taken into account. </blockquote> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">The results of the analysis suggest that income taxes are generally associated with lower economic growth than taxes on consumption and property. More precisely, the findings allow the establishment of a ranking of tax instruments with respect to their relationship to economic growth. Property taxes, and particularly recurrent taxes on immovable property, seem to be the most growth-friendly, followed by consumption taxes and then by personal income taxes. Corporate income taxes appear to have the most negative effect on GDP per capita. </blockquote> <blockquote cite="http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34325_41487020_119684_1_1_37443,00.html">These findings suggest that a revenue-neutral growth-oriented tax reform would be to shift part of the revenue base towards recurrent property and consumption taxes and away from income taxes, especially corporate taxes. There is also evidence of a negative relationship between the progressivity of personal income taxes and growth. </blockquote> <p style="padding-left: 30px;">All of the results are robust to a number of different specifications, including controlling for other determinants of economic growth and instrumenting tax indicators.</p> <p>The full study, 28 pages, is at <a href="http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/displaydocumentpdf?cote=eco/wkp%282008%2951&doclanguage=en">http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/displaydocumentpdf?cote=eco/wkp%282008%2951&doclanguage=en</a></p> <p>Readers of this blog will know that I favor shifting to a tax on land value, and eliminating the portion of the conventional property tax which falls on buildings and other improvements to land. But I'm fascinated that their analysis shows that even taxing buildings and other improvements to land, along with land value, is superior to taxing consumption or personal income or corporate income, in terms of the effects on economic growth.<br /> <br />So I'll leave you with this question: <strong>if we know that income taxes and consumption taxes discourage growth more than the conventional property tax does, in whose interest is it that we <em>not rely heavily on the property tax?</em> Cui bono?</strong></p> <p>Go to the root of the problem. Recognize who benefits from the status quo. They like the current system just fine, and will fund heavily efforts to conserve it.</p> <p>And when California (Proposition 13 forces reliance on wage and sales taxes to "protect" property owners) and other states, including soon Indiana, start complaining about a lack of economic growth, and when New York State's new Governor Cuomo starts talking about "property tax relief," understand that this is code for "we'll take care of our friends who own the choice urban sites, the ordinary man be damned!" This is called conservatism. Like Aleve, it works for them. Does "landed gentry" still resonate?</p> <p>Notice that this study has been around for two years now. How many times have <em>you </em>heard about it? (It was news to me.) Even the "FairTax" (23%+ consumption tax) folks haven't mentioned it, as far as I know.</p>
Every election year, 1/3 of the seats in the U.S. Senate are up for election. This year as you vote, consider the content and goals of the television commercials you've been subjected to, from all sorts of directions (beyond the candidates themselves), and remember that a significant portion of the commercials have been enabled by the recent Citizens United decision issued by a Supreme Court dominated by "conservative" justices. (I commend the article at that link to your attention. In fact, I'll copy the essay, Corporations, Democracy, and the U. S. Supreme Court, by Mason Gaffney, in below the fold.)
Consider that it is the senators we elect who vote on the Supreme Court nominees presented by the president we elect, and think about who it is that YOU want voting on the next nominee. Justices can serve for many decades, far beyond the time the average senator is in office.
The person you elect to the Senate will serve for 6 years -- 2 in Obama's first term, and 4 in the term of whomever the American people elect in 2012, aided in their decision-making by the well-crafted and well-funded advertising made possible by the Citizens United decision -- and will likely be voting to fill at least one Supreme Court seat.
Whose interests should they -- the Senators and the Supreme Court nominees -- have at heart?
Do we want people who will seek to promote the concentration of wealth, income, privilege and power -- more and more, to fewer and fewer -- or to promote the interests and prosperity of ordinary Americans? Be sure you know; your options may not be wonderful, but at least your criteria should be thought out.
I commend this to your attention --
Corporations, Democracy, and the U. S. Supreme Court Mason Gaffney, February 24, 2010
On Jan 21 2010 our High Court shocked Americans by ruling in Citizens United v. FederalElections Commission that a corporation may contribute unlimited funds advertising its views for and against political candidates of its choice – in practice, the choice of its CEO or Directors. The ideas behind this are that a corporation is a “legal person”, with all the rights (if not all the duties) of a human being; that as such it has a right of free speech; and that donating money is a form of speech. Already K&L Gates, a top Washington lobbying firm, is advising its clients how to funnel money through lobbying groups or “trade associations”. This culminates a long series of actions and reactions (decisions, legislative acts, and electoral results) that bit by bit have raised the power of corporations in American economic and public life. Herein I will take the fall of the corporate income tax as a simple metric of the power of corporations. Nothing about corporations is that simple, however, so I must also touch on other aspects of power.
Some critics react apocalyptically, calling Citizens United a death blow to democracy; some cynically, calling this merely making de jure what is already de facto; some legalistically, saying the Court ruled more broadly than justified by the case brought before it. Supporters, naturally, take this contentedly as righting an injustice of long standing. Some economists would applaud this as a step toward sunsetting the corporate income tax, by electing more candidates beholden to corporate money. Many of them – not all – have been seeking this end for years in their learned journals and op-eds. Even the late Wm Vickrey, otherwise an egalitarian, gave high priority to this change.
This writer does not applaud either sunsetting the tax, or this step. I agree with Joseph Stiglitz that the corporate income tax is mainly a tax on economic rent. That means that a high tax rate does not destroy the tax base. Martin Feldstein, an economist who is as conservative as Stiglitz is liberal, also sees the corporate income tax as a tax on economic rent (JPE 85(2); April 1977, p. 357). It is not the ideal form of such a tax, but it beats any tax on work, or sales of the necessities of the poor, or value-added, or gross sales. Both Vickrey and Stiglitz rate high in the profession and garnered Nobels, so we cannot simply appeal to “authorities”. To prepare our minds, let us review some milestones in the history of corporations, especially in America.
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.
"Paying for arenas and stadiums that are now gone or empty is a result of a trend that stretches back decades. Until the 1960s, public works were often defined as bridges, roads, sewers and so on: basic infrastructure that was used by all and was unlikely to be built by the private sector. With few exceptions, like County Stadium in Milwaukee, teams constructed their own stadiums."
Isn't it amazing what some special interests will manage to get defined as "public works"?
The article continues,
Some politicians in New Jersey applaud the Jets and the Giants for building their own stadium. But the old Giants Stadium generated about $20 million a year for the authority. Now, the agency will receive only $6.3 million in lease payments from the teams, and needs additional state subsidies.
The authority has promoted Xanadu, a privately built retail complex that has yet to open next to the Izod Center. But desperate to plug holes, the authority has spent the entire $160 million in rent payments it received from the developers. Some of the money was meant to pay off debt associated with the arena and the stadium, and was supposed to last 15 years.
The whole thing reminds me of a friend's sigfile:
"I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money ... and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money."
-- Senator Boies Penrose (R-Pa.), 1896, citing the relationship between his politics and big business.
back to the NYT article:
"How municipalities acquire so much debt on buildings that have been torn down or are underused illustrates the excesses of publicly financed stadiums and the almost mystical sway professional sports teams have over politicians, voters and fans.
Rather than confront teams, they have often buckled when owners — usually threatening to move — have demanded that the public pay for new suites, parking or arenas and stadiums."
Do professional sports team owners really have a mystical sway over voters? Or is it mostly over politicians?
WASHINGTON – President Obama on Monday is to call for as much as $50 billion in government spending to start up a long-term public works plan emphasizing transportation projects – roads, rail and airport runways – over the next six years.
Okay. Sounds good. This is what some people have called Pork, when the money has been invested in other people's congressional districts.
Good infrastructure projects are very worthwhile, and, properly conceived, well designed and well executed, will serve the public for decades, perhaps many generations. Look at what the CCC accomplished during the Depression. Look at the Interstate Highway system. Look at the service that commuter rail and, in some places, intercity rail offers.
But local government has failed to follow through. Federal investment in infrastructure is the "1" of the "1-2 punch," but if local, county or state governments fail to respond appropriately, much of the benefit is lost.
Every worthwhile infrastructure project creates (or in the case of necessary maintenance, maintains) far more land value than the cost of the project. Consider:
the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson created how much land value in northern New Jersey?
the Golden Gate Bridge created how much land value in Marin County, California?
the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson created how much land value in Rockland and Westchester Counties?
the Northway created how much land value north of Albany, New York?
the Verrazano Narrows Bridge created how much land value on Staten Island?
Who benefited? The landholders! Federal dollars were poured into these projects, and individual landholders reaped the windfall we created. Their communities and counties and states could have taken two simple steps to recycle that value -- and still can!:
Assess the land value every few years. (Assessing land value is not expensive or difficult to do well, if one sets out to do it. Unfortunately, many assessments are focused on buildings, or on the property as a whole, and only later assign a land value, which may bear little relation to market values.)
Collect some significant portion of the value which results from federal, state, county and local investment in infrastructure and services. Don't tax the buildings. Don't tax sales. Don't tax wages. Just the land value.
And if the local, county and state governments don't see fit to collect that value for local, county or state purposes, the federal government ought to be able to step in and collect it. After all, WE created it. It doesn't belong in private pockets. And if we collected it, we could reduce or eliminate the dumb taxes which burden our economy.
Which is the whole point of stimulating the economy, isn't it?
Unless, of course, we're doing it for the benefit of the 10% of us who receive about 48% of the income, or the slightly different 10% of us who own 71.5% of the net worth, in which case this is a very poor idea. Remember what Leona Helmsley told us: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes."
Shall we create more unearned income for them? Or shall we create incentives for localities and states to recycle that value, with the option of collecting it for federal purposes if they choose not to?
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.
America's biggest -- and only major -- jobs program is the U.S. military.
Over 1,400,000 Americans are now on active duty; another 833,000 are in the reserves, many full time. Another 1,600,000 Americans work in companies that supply the military with everything from weapons to utensils. (I'm not even including all the foreign contractors employing non-US citizens.)
If we didn't have this giant military jobs program, the U.S. unemployment rate would be over 11.5 percent today instead of 9.5 percent.
And without our military jobs program personal incomes would be dropping faster. The Commerce Department reported Monday the only major metro areas where both net earnings and personal incomes rose last year were San Antonio, Texas, Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. -- because all three have high concentrations of military and federal jobs.
This isn't an argument for more military spending. Just the opposite. Having a giant undercover military jobs program is an insane way to keep Americans employed. It creates jobs we don't need but we keep anyway because there's no honest alternative. We don't have an overt jobs program based on what's really needed. . . .
The Pentagon's budget -- and its giant undercover jobs program -- keeps expanding. The President has asked Congress to hike total defense spending next year 2.2 percent, to $708 billion. That's 6.1 percent higher than peak defense spending during the Bush administration.
This sum doesn't even include Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, nuclear weapons management, and intelligence. Add these, and next year's national security budget totals about $950 billion.
That's a major chunk of the entire federal budget. But most deficit hawks don't dare cut it. National security is sacrosanct.
Yet what's really sacrosanct is the giant jobs program that's justified by national security. National security is a cover for job security.
This is nuts.
Wouldn't it be better to have a jobs program that created things we really need -- like light-rail trains, better school facilities, public parks, water and sewer systems, and non-carbon energy sources -- than things we don't, like obsolete weapons systems?
Historically some of America's biggest jobs programs that were critical to the nation's future have been justified by national defense, although they've borne almost no relation to it. The National Defense Education Act of the late 1950s trained a generation of math and science teachers. The National Defense Highway Act created millions of construction jobs turning the nation's two-lane highways into four- and six-lane Interstates.
Maybe this is the way to convince Republicans and blue-dog Democrats to spend more federal dollars putting Americans back, and working on things we genuinely need: Call it the National Defense Full Employment Act.
Suppose, just suppose, that we shifted our federal spending to create those things we really need -- nation building, if you will -- like light-rail trains, better school facilities, public parks, water and sewer systems, and non-carbon energy sources -- but instead of letting the land value that such investment creates be privatized by whoever owns the land they serve, we collected the value WE created, and used it to fund next year's investment in public goods and services?
Sounds like a virtuous circle to me.
And one which we could recommend to the voters in resource-rich countries.
And collecting that value would have a lot of other highly desirable effects, including reversing urban and suburban sprawl, reducing the price of housing, increasing wages, reducing the concentrations of wealth and income, stabilizing our economy. Pick one of those that you don't think would be good for America.
And it isn't pork if it creates value which is then recycled for public purposes. It is pork when we permit it to be privatized
There is an interesting story coming out of Rosses Point, County Sligo, Ireland, that a Church of England vicar and his wife are seeking to be paid ground rent on some land that her great, great grandfather, William Middleton, acquired sometime before 1875. He owned the entire community, except for the church. Apparently the people who have resided on that land over the intervening years are supposed to have been paying annual ground rent to his heirs, or "buying out" the ground rent. Either would benefit his heirs with value to which neither he nor they have contributed anything other than what nature provided. (I think we can reasonably assume that any improvements he made to the land -- fences, drainage, stumping, septic systems, etc -- are long gone after 135 years.)
Most of the Middleton family left Ireland, some as long as 90 years ago. Apparently no ground rent has been paid in the past 35 years.
According to one of the articles,
In the 1970s, locals traced Middleton family members across the globe, and reached a deal where many bought their ground rent for sums of around IR£100.
But some did not clinch agreement, leaving uncertainty over the ground on which their homes was built, which is in one of the most valuable locations in the north-west.
This raises all sorts of interesting questions about the logic and justice of our laws. Who has made that land worth anything? Is it the heirs of William Middleton? Is it the taxpayers of the community in which the land is located, who presumably have supplied services to these properties? Is it the people who live in or work in or visit that community?
And then comes the important question. Putting aside what the law says, who is entitled to that land rent? Is it the descendants of the 1875 owner? Is it the current tenants? Is it the community in which those lots are located?
Which of these is a logical and just way to run a society so that all of us can thrive and prosper? How should we fund the public goods and services which make a community a good place to live? Taxing sales within the borders? Taxing the wages of residents or workers within the border? Taxing the buildings within the border? Or collecting some, even all, of the annual rental value of the land for public purposes?
There are properties in midtown Manhattan owned by trusts "granted" by people who have been dead for many decades. Those who want to use that land pay land rent, year in and year out, to the beneficiaries of those trusts, decade after decade. Mostly likely that rent escalates over time, as the residents, taxpayers and tourists who use Manhattan contribute their tax dollars and their presence to providing the services which make Manhattan what it is. So why on earth do we tax wages, sales, hotel rooms, buildings of all kinds, rather than collecting the rent for public purposes?
The Rosses Point heir's husband is quoted as follows:
Mr Chave-Cox said: “You know I am a vicar. Vicars are honest and clear about things. All we want is what’s right and fair and sort things out. Presumably that means people buying up the ground rent.”
I wonder how much they feel they are entitled to receive in 2010.
I seem to remember it being said that "The Earth is the Lord's." Which Lord? And what are the implications for ordinary people?
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.