|Wealth and Want|
|... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.|
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The question I am assigned is whether the taxable capacity of land without buildings is up to the job of financing cities, counties, and schools. Will the revenue be enough? The answer is "yes."
The universal state and local revenue problem today is whether we must cap tax rates to avoid driving business away. It is exemplified by Governor Pete Wilson of the suffering State of California. He keeps repeating we must make a hard choice: cut taxes and public services, or drive out business and jobs. (When a public figure gives you two choices you know they're both bad, and he wants one of them.)
The unique, remarkable quality of a property tax based on land ex buildings is that you may raise the rate with no fear of driving away business, construction, people, jobs, or capital! You certainly will not drive away the land. However high the tax rate, not one square foot of it will put on a track shoe and hop out of town. The only bad thing to say about this tax's incentive effects is that it stimulates revitalization, and makes jobs. If some people think that is bad, maybe this attitude is the problem. ...
There is the answer to Governor Wilson' dilemma. I hope here in The Empire State you will supply a practical demonstration of the answer, one we may then use to inspire The Golden State. California now, following Proposition 13, has become a morality play, a gruesome object lesson in what happens when the property tax is pushed down toward zero. It forces higher taxes on production and exchange. Non-property taxes, you know, mostly have the character that they "shoot anything that moves," penalizing and discouraging economic activity. New buildings gain by having a lower property tax burden, it is true; but they bear the brunt of these new taxes and impost fees up front, at the time they are built. These offset the benefits of their lower property tax rate.
Most California land, on the other hand, is now taxed at well below the allowable max of 1%. Speculators may sit on it at little tax cost, however many highways and water and sewer lines run to and past it, however many policemen are guarding it from trespass. Little wonder that California enterprise, once so dynamic, flexible, and vital, is giving way to stasis and decay. We used to lead the nation in making jobs; now in losing them. We used to lead in school quality; now in jail population.
Making the property tax more progressive is not just equitable, it raises its revenue capacity. That is because visible damage to the poor and marginal puts a cap on any tax. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip, and if you try you'll look like the Sheriff of Nottingham. A land tax won't drive the poor from their humble huts, because it exempts the huts, and the sites have low tax valuations. It may tax a few off valuable land, if their poor huts are there and they own the land. However, if they own such land, are they really poor?
They may be "land-poor:" a few folks always are. They have non-cash assets, but are illiquid. "Illiquid" may be just a euphemism for "holding out for more" -- there is always a market at a price. Even so their plight, genuine or affected, traditionally evokes sympathy and support. We must address it.
California, although backward in many ways, has addressed it effectively. In our special improvement districts (SIDs), State law allows the SID to contract with the landowner as follows. You don't have to pay your annual charge in cash. If you choose not to, we take an equity in your property, charging a modest rate of interest. Our equity accumulates over time. When you die, we sell the property and take our share; your estate gets the rest. Should our equity reach 100% during your lifetime, you stay there for the duration, tax free.
Objectively, it looks like a
good deal for the taxpayer.
They can't come out behind, even if they die soon; if they live long,
they come out ahead. The instructive
result is that very few people
take this apparently advantageous option. UCLA's Donald Shoup
published several works on the program. One way or another, they
manage to pay on time. Perhaps it attracts the attention of potential
heirs, in a compelling way, but somehow the cash comes forth. While
intending only to relieve distress, the program seems to have called
a great bluff. The lachrymose plea of the cash-poor widow is
unanswerable in debate, without appearing callous, doctrinaire, and
jackbooted. Meantime wealthy interests, thoroughly undistressed, hide
behind the widow's skirt and get their way. Read the
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper