Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
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Mark Twain   Archimedes

I know of a mechanical force more powerful than anything the vaunting engineer of Syracuse ever dreamed of. It is the force of land monopoly; it is a screw and lever all in one; it will screw the last penny out of a man's pocket, and bend everything on earth to its own despotic will. Give me the private ownership of all the land, and will I move the earth? No; but I will do more. I will undertake to make slaves of all the human beings on the face of it. Not chattel slaves exactly, but slaves nevertheless. What an idiot I would be to make chattel slaves of them. I would have to find them salts and senna when they were sick, and whip them to work when they were lazy.

No, it is not good enough. Under the system I propose the fools would imagine they were all free. I would get a maximum of results, and have no responsibility whatever. They would cultivate the soil; they would dive into the bowels of the earth for its hidden treasures; they would build cities and construct railways and telegraphs; their ships would navigate the ocean; they would work and work, and invent and contrive; their warehouses would be full, their markets glutted, and:

The beauty of the whole concern would be
That everything they made would belong to me.

It would be this way, you see: As I owned all the land, they would of course, have to pay me rent. They could not reasonably expect me to allow them the use of the land for nothing. I am not a hard man, and in fixing the rent I would be very liberal with them. I would allow them, in fact, to fix it themselves. What could be fairer? Here is a piece of land, let us say, it might be a farm, it might be a building site, or it might be something else - if there was only one man who wanted it, of course he would not offer me much, but if the land be really worth anything such a circumstance is not likely to happen. On the contrary, there would be a number who would want it, and they would go on bidding and bidding one against the other, in order to get it. I should accept the highest offer - what could be fairer? Every increase of population, extension of trade, every advance in the arts and sciences would, as we all know, increase the value of land, and the competition that would naturally arise would continue to force rents upward, so much so, that in many cases the tenants would have little or nothing left for themselves.

In this case a number of those who were hard pushed would seek to borrow, and as for those who were not so hard pushed, they would, as a matter of course, get the idea into their heads that if they only had more capital they could extend their operations, and thereby make their business more profitable. Here I am again. The very man they stand in need of; a regular benefactor of my species, and always ready to oblige them. With such an enormous rent-roll I could furnish them with funds up to the full extent of the available security; they would not expect me to do more, and in the matter of interest I would be equally generous.

I would allow them to fix the rate of it themselves in precisely the same manner as they had fixed the rent. I should then have them by the wool, and if they failed in their payments it would be the easiest thing in the world to sell them out. They might bewail their lot, but business is business. They should have worked harder and been more provident. Whatever inconvenience they might suffer, it would be their concern, and not mine. What a glorious time I would have of it! Rent and interest, interest and rent, and no limit to either, excepting the ability of the workers to pay. Rents would go up and up, and they would continue to pledge and mortgage, and as they went bung, bung, one after another, it would be the finest sport ever seen. thus, from the simple leverage of land monopoly, not only the great globe itself, but everything on the face of it would eventually belong to me. I would be king and lord of all, and the rest of mankind would be my most willing slaves.... Read the whole piece

Henry George: The Common Sense of Taxation (1881 article)

To consider what is included in the category of property is to see the absurdity of saying that all property should be equally taxed. For not to speak of minor differences that arise from application and use, there are commonly included under this term things of essentially different nature. Whatever is recognized by municipal law as subject to ownership is property. But between things thus classed together are wide differences. In the first place, there are certain of them which have in themselves no value, but are merely the representatives or doubles of property in itself valuable. Such are stocks, bonds, mortgages, promissory notes of all kinds, whether made by individuals or issued by governments to serve as money, solvent debts, book-accounts, etc. These things may be to the individual valuable property, and are correctly included in any estimate of his wealth. But they are no part of the wealth of the community. Their increase does not make the community a whit the richer; and they may be utterly destroyed without the community becoming a whit the poorer. If I buy a horse, giving my note for the amount, the result of the transaction (supposing me to be solvent) is that the seller gets property to the value of the horse, while I get the horse. But there has been no increase in wealth. To the seller, my note may be quite as good as the horse, and in estimating his wealth it may be as properly included as the horse; but if the note be destroyed, the community is nothing the poorer, while if the horse break his neck, there is a lessening of the general wealth by one horse. And so, the issuance of bonds by a government, or the watering of stock by a corporation, can in no wise increase the general sum of wealth, nor will any diminution either in the amount or in the selling price of such bonds or stock reduce it. If all the governments of the world were to repudiate their debts tomorrow, an immense amount of property, now carefully guarded, would become waste paper, and thousands of people now rich would be made poor, but the wealth of the human race would not be diminished one iota. ... read the whole article


Jeff Smith and Kris Nelson: Giving Life to the Property Tax Shift (PTS)
John Muir is right. "Tug on any one thing and find it connected to everything else in the universe." Tug on the property tax and find it connected to urban slums, farmland loss, political favoritism, and unearned equity with disrupted neighborhood tenure. Echoing Thoreau, the more familiar reforms have failed to address this many-headed hydra at its root. To think that the root could be chopped by a mere shift in the property tax base -- from buildings to land -- must seem like the epitome of unfounded faith. Yet the evidence shows that state and local tax activists do have a powerful, if subtle, tool at their disposal. The "stick" spurring efficient use of land is a higher tax rate upon land, up to even the site's full annual value. The "carrot" rewarding efficient use of land is a lower or zero tax rate upon improvements. ...

Economic Problems to Solve

Taxing built-value penalizes construction and maintenance of buildings. This deadweight loss on the local economy constrains housing supply and raises land values, driving speculation. Fewer people can then own parcels for homes and businesses, and debt levels increase. ...

PTS Improves the Economy

Land that is higher taxed is lower priced. Cheaper land reduces buyers' debt. Less demand for loans lowers the lending rate. Cheaper capital means more investment and more employment. In Australia, in the province around Melbourne, some towns levy the regular property tax, others tax only land. Those with the same rate for sites and structures suffer more bankruptcies; those with one rate for land enjoy more successful business start-ups. ...

Developers might learn to like the PTS, since financial loss does not necessarily follow.
  • First, tho' the land tax would preclude a huge profit from a few sales, it would also, by unplugging effective demand for housing, create many more sales of smaller profit.
  • Second, instead of profiting from locational values, they could make more money -- untaxed -- by adding value, such as total weatherization, heat pumps, light tubes, built-in wiring for the cyber-house, etc.
  • Third, to buy land, developers would not need to go so deeply into debt.
  • Fourth, by building on central sites, they could drastically reduce their systems development charges, which, were they pegged to full costs, would be up to $30,000 in Oregon.
For these four reasons, developers could break even. ...

While the PTS is already gaining attention, there are issues which, were they addressed, would facilitate the spread of the idea.
  • One issue is external to the movement, lying in the broader society. People consider land speculation, reaping megaprofits from fast-developing areas, as something normal. Most people fail to realize that there is a commonwealth of socially-generated economic values apart from values individually-generated. Understanding who creates land value is crucial to the success of the PTS. While this may not be an issue that lends itself easily to a mass educating campaign, some effort to raise public awareness of its own assets must be made. In doing so, advocates would learn how best to present the distinction between what's ours and what's not.
  • The other issue that needs to be tended to early on is internal to the movement. That is, the terms that package the policy often push the wrong buttons, such as "land tax". Because the land tax works and works well, it is tempting to use the phrase. For instance, high-taxed, low-priced land would shrink the debt now weighing down the economy. Growing debts -- both public and private -- continually and worseningly harry workers and taxpayers. Yet many people will never follow the explanation far enough if the policy is presented as a land tax. Coupling collection of land rent with a reduction of taxes on labor and capital, especially homes, might be more persuasive. Calling this policy a "Property Tax Shift" might let proponents get a foot in the mental door.
A big problem needs a big solution which in turn needs a matching shift of our prevailing paradigm. Geonomics -- advocating that we share the social value of sites and natural resources and untax earnings -- does just that. Read the whole article

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper