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Tax Incidence

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

IT may seem like a truism to assert that the only fund upon which taxation can draw is that made up by the produce of the community, and that to multiply the places at which it is tapped is not to increase its capacity to yield. Yet the manner in which taxation, under our system, is spread over a multitude of subjects, and new subjects are still sought for, suggests the belief of that chief of the eunuchs who thought the weight of an obnoxious poll-tax might be lessened, and his master's revenues at the same time increased, by substituting for the tax on heads a tax upon fingers and toes.

But it is probable that the disposition to tax everything susceptible of taxation does not spring so much from the notion that more may thus be obtained, as from the notion that as a matter of justice everything should be taxed. That all species of property shall be equally taxed, is enjoined by many of our State constitutions, and that it should be so, at least so far as direct taxation is concerned, is regarded by most of our people as a self-evident truth — the idea being that every one should contribute to public expenses in proportion to his means, or, as it is sometimes phrased, that all property, being equally protected by the State, should equally contribute to the expenses of the State.

But under no system that any of our legislatures have yet been able to devise is all property equally taxed; nor can it be equally taxed. And if it were possible to even approximate to the equal taxation of all property, this would not be to secure that equality which justice demands. For, as is evident in the case of mortgages, etc., to equally tax all property would infallibly be to levy a higher rate of taxation upon some than upon others; and even if the same proportion could be taken from the means of every member of the community, that would no more conform to the dictates of equality than would the levy upon each of an equal sum; for, as the demand for a sum which would not be felt by the rich man would fall with crushing weight on the poor man, so to take the same proportion of their means would be a very different thing to him who has barely enough, and to him who has a large surplus. ...

But while no limit can be properly fixed for the amount of taxation, the method of taxation is of supreme importance. A horse may be anchored by fastening to his bridle a weight which he will not feel when carried in a buggy behind him. The best ship may be made utterly unseaworthy by the bad stowage of a cargo which properly placed would make her the stiffer and more weatherly. So enterprise may be palsied, industry crushed, accumulation prevented, and a prosperous country turned into a desert, by taxation which rightly levied would hardly be felt.

Now discarding all idea that there rests upon us any obligation to equally tax all kinds of property, and assuming for our guidance the true rule, that taxation should be levied with a view to the promotion of the general prosperity, the securing of substantial equality, and the recognition of inalienable rights, let us consider upon what species of property it may be best laid. ...

Every consideration of policy and ethics squares with this conclusion. The tax upon land values is the most economically perfect of all taxes. It does not raise prices; it maybe collected at least cost, and with the utmost ease and certainty; it leaves in full strength all the springs of production; and, above all, it consorts with the truest equality and the highest justice. For, to take for the common purposes of the community that value which results from the growth of the community, and to free industry and enterprise and thrift from burden and restraint, is to leave to each that which he fairly earns, and to assert the first and most comprehensive of equal rights — the equal right of all to the land on which, and from which, all must live.

Thus it is that the scheme of taxation which conduces to the greatest production is also that which conduces to the fairest distribution, and that in the proper adjustment of taxation lies not merely the possibility of enormously increasing the general wealth, but the solution of these pressing social and political problems which spring from unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth.

"There is," says M. de Laveleye, in concluding that work in which he shows that the first perceptions of mankind have everywhere recognized a most vital distinction between property in land and property which results from labor, — "there is in human affairs one system which is the best; it is not that system which always exists, otherwise why should we desire to change it; but it is that system which should exist for the greatest good of humanity. God knows it, and wills it; man's duty it is to discover and establish it." read the whole article

Clarence Darrow: How to Abolish Unfair Taxation (1913)

... Beyond a living all surplus goes to the monopolist, and it does go to him. You talk about a city of a million in 1915 — who would be benefited? Not the workingman; he would be far worse off than at present, for the greater the city the greater the poverty.
Taxes on goods are added to the price of goods and passed on to the consumer. There is only one kind of tax that is not a curse, and that is the land tax. If you tax a pair of shoes a dollar, the manufacturer will add that to the price of the shoes, and thus diminish the number of shoes the people can buy. The higher you tax the land the more land is thrown on the market and the easier it is to secure, and it is the only thing that increases by taxation.
The higher the tax on land the more it comes into use, and so "single tax" is a positive blessing. It is the only tax that does not come out of labor, it comes out of the monopolist; it stays right there, and that fact compels them to put the land to some use, and that employs labor. ... read the whole speech

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)



Taxes are either direct or indirect; or, as they have been aptly described, "straight" or "crooked." Indirect taxes are those that may be shifted by the first payer from himself to others; direct taxes are those that cannot be shifted.5

5. "Taxes are either direct or indirect. A direct tax is one which is demanded from the very persons who, it is intended or desired, should pay it. Indirect taxes are those which are demanded from one person in the expectation and intention that he shall indemnify himself at the expense of another." — John Stuart Mill's Prin. of Pol. Ec., book v, ch. iii, sec. I.

"Direct taxes are those which are levied on the very persons who it is intended or desired should pay them, and which they cannot put off upon others by raising the prices of the taxed article.. . . Indirect taxes on the other hand are those which are levied on persons who expect to get back the amount of the tax by raising the price of the taxed article." — Laughlin's Elements, par. 249.

Taxes are direct "when the payment is made by the person who is intended to bear the sacrifice." Indirect taxes are recovered from final purchasers. — Jevons's Primer, sec. 96.

"Indirect taxes are so called because they are not paid into the treasury by the person who really bears the burden. The payer adds the amount of the tax to the price of the commodity taxed, and thus the taxation is concealed under the increased price of some article of luxury or convenience." — Thompson's Pol. Ec., sec. 175.

The shifting of indirect taxes is accomplished by means of their tendency to increase the prices of commodities on which they fall. Their magnitude and incidence 6 are thereby disguised. It was for this reason that a great French economist of the last century denounced them as "a scheme for so plucking geese as to get the most feathers with the least squawking."7

6. Jevons defines the incidence of a tax as "the manner in which it falls upon different classes of the population." — Jevons's Primer, sec. 96.
Sometimes called "repercussion," and refers "to the real as opposed to the nominal payment of taxes." — Ely's Taxation, p. 64.

7. Though his language was blunt, the sentiment does not essentially differ from that of "statesmen" of our day who meet all the moral and economic objections to indirect taxation with the one reply that the people would not consent to pay enough or the support of government if public revenues were collected from them directly. This means nothing but that the people are actually hoodwinked by indirect taxation into sustaining a government that they would not support if they knew it was maintained at their expense; and instead of being a reason for continuing indirect taxation, would, if true, be one of the strongest of reasons for abolishing it. It is consistent neither with the plainest principles of democracy nor the simplest conceptions of morality.

Indirect taxation costs the real tax-payers much more than the government receives, partly because the middlemen through whose hands taxed commodities pass are able to exact compound profits upon the tax,8 and partly on account of extraordinary expenses of original collection;9 it favors corruption in government by concealing from the people the fact that they contribute to the support of government; and it tends, by obstructing production, to crush legitimate industry and establish monopolies.10 The questions it raises are of vastly more concern than is indicated by the sum total of public expenditures.

8. A tax upon shoes, paid in the first instance by shoe manufacturers, enters into manufacturers' prices, and, together with the usual rate of profit upon that amount of investment, is recovered from wholesalers. The tax and the manufacturers' profit upon it then constitute part of the wholesale price and are collected from retailers. The retailers in turn collect the tax with all intermediate profits upon it, together with their :usual rate of profit upon the whole, from final purchasers -- the consumers of shoes. Thus what appears on the surface to be a tax upon shoe manufacturers proves upon examination to be an indirect tax upon shoe consumers, who pay in an accumulation of profits upon the tax considerably more than the government receives.

The effect would be the same if a tax upon their leather output were imposed upon tanners. Tanners would add to the price of leather the amount of the tax, plus their usual rate of profit upon a like investment, and collect the whole, together with the cost of hides, of transportation, of tanning and of selling, from shoe manufacturers, who would collect with their profit from retailers, who would collect with their profit from shoe consumers. The principle applies also when taxes are levied upon the stock or the sales of merchants, or the money or credits of bankers; merchants add the tax with the usual profit to the prices of their goods, and bankers add it to their interest and discounts.

For example; a tax of $100,000 upon the output of manufacturers or importers would, at 10 per cent as the manufacturing profit, cost wholesalers $110,000; at a profit of 10 per cent to wholesalers it would cost retailers $121,000, and at 20 percent profit to retailers it would finally impose a tax burden of $145,200 — being 45 per cent more than the government would get. Upon most commodities the number of profits exceeds three, so that indirect taxes may frequently cost as much as 100 per cent, even when imposed only upon what are commercially known as finished goods; when imposed upon materials also, the cost of collection might well run far above 200 percent in addition to the first cost of maintaining the machinery of taxation.

It must not be supposed, however, that the recovery of indirect taxes from the ultimate consumers of taxed goods is arbitrary. When shoe manufacturers, or tanners, or merchants add taxes to prices, or bankers add them to interest, it is not because they might do otherwise but choose to do this; it is because the exigencies of trade compel them. Manufacturers, merchants, and other tradesmen who carry on competitive businesses must on the average sell their goods at cost plus the ordinary rate of profit, or go out of business. It follows that any increase in cost of production tends to increase the price of products. Now, a tax upon the output of business men, which they must pay as a condition of doing their business, is as truly part of the cost of their output as is the price of the materials they buy or the wages of the men they hire. Therefore, such a tax upon business men tends to increase the price of their products. And this tendency is more or less marked as the tax is more or less great and competition more or less keen.

It is true that a moderate tax upon monopolized products, such as trade-mark goods, proprietary medicines, patented articles and copyright publications is not necessarily shifted to consumers. The monopoly manufacturer whose prices are not checked by cost of production, and are therefore as a rule higher than competitive prices would be, may find it more profitable to bear the burden of a tax that leaves him some profit, by preserving his entire custom, than to drive off part of his custom by adding the tax to his usual prices. This is true also of a moderate import tax to the extent it falls upon goods that are more cheaply transported from the place of production to a foreign market where the import tax is imposed than to a home market where the goods would be free of such a tax — products, for instance, of a farm in Canada near to a New York town, but far away from any Canadian town. If the tax be less than the difference in the cost of transportation the producer will bear the burden of it; otherwise he will not. The ultimate effect would be a reduction in the value of the Canadian land. Examples which may be cited in opposition to the principle that import taxes are indirect, will upon examination prove to be of the character here described. Business cannot be carried on at a loss — not for long.

9. "To collect taxes, to prevent and punish evasions, to check and countercheck revenue drawn from so many distinct sources, now make up probably three-fourths, perhaps seven-eighths, of the business of government outside of the preservation of order, the maintenance of the military arm, and the administration of justice." — Progress and Poverty, book iv, ch: v

10. For a brief and thorough exposition of indirect taxation read George's "Protection or Free Trade," ch. viii, on " Tariffs for Revenue."

Whoever calmly reflects and candidly decides upon the merits of indirect taxation must reject it in all its forms. But to do that is to make a great stride toward accepting the single tax. For the single tax is a form of direct taxation; it cannot be shifted.11

11. This is usually a stumbling block to those who, without much experience in economic thought, consider the single tax for the first time. As soon as they grasp the idea that taxes upon commodities shift to consumers they jump to the conclusion that similarly taxes upon land values would shift to the users. But this is a mistake, and the explanation is simple. Taxes upon what men produce make production more difficult and so tend toward scarcity in the supply, which stimulates prices; but taxes upon land, provided the taxes be levied in proportion to value, tend toward plenty in supply (meaning market supply of course), because they make it more difficult to hold valuable land idle, and so depress prices.

"A tax on rent falls wholly on the landlord. There are no means by which he can shift the burden upon anyone else. . . A tax on rent, therefore, has no effect other than its obvious one. It merely takes so much from the landlord and transfers it to the state." — John Stuart Mill's Prin. of Pol. Ec., book v, ch. iii, sec. 1.

"A tax laid upon rent is borne solely by the owner of land." — Bascom's Tr., p.159.

"Taxes which are levied on land . . . really fall on the owner of the land." — Mrs. Fawcett's Pol. Ec. for Beginners, pp.209, 210.

"A land tax levied in proportion to the rent of land, and varying with every variation of rents, . . . will fall wholly on the landlords." — Walker's Pol. Ec., ed. of 1887, p. 413, quoting Ricardo.

"The power of transferring a tax from the person who actually pays it to some other person varies with the object taxed. A tax on rents cannot be transferred. A tax on commodities is always transferred to the consumer." — Thorold Rogers's Pol. Ec., ch. xxi, 2d ed., p. 285.

"Though the landlord is in all cases the real contributor, the tax is commonly advanced by the tenant, to whom the landlord is obliged to allow it in payment of the rent." — Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, book v, ch. ii, part ii, art. i.

"The way taxes raise prices is by increasing the cost of production and checking supply. But land is not a thing of human production, and taxes upon rent cannot check supply. Therefore, though a tax upon rent compels land-owners to pay more, it gives them no power to obtain more for the use of their land, as it in no way tends to reduce the supply of land. On the contrary, by compelling those who hold land on speculation to sell or let for what they can get, a tax on land values tends to increase the competition between owners, and thus to reduce the price of land." — Progress and Poverty, book viii, ch. iii, subd. i.

Sometimes this point is raised as a question of shifting the tax in higher rent to the tenant, and at others as a question of shifting it to the consumers of goods in higher prices. The principle is the same. Merchants cannot charge higher prices for goods than their competitors do, merely because they pay higher ground rents. A country storekeeper whose business lot is worth but few dollars charges as much for sugar, probably more, than a city grocer whose lot is worth thousands. Quality for quality and quantity for quantity, goods sell for about the same price everywhere. Differences in price are altogether in favor of places where land has a high value. This is due to the fact that the cost of getting goods to places of low land value, distant villages for example, is greater than to centers, which are places of high land value. Sometimes it is true that prices for some things are higher where land values are high. Tiffany's goods, for instance, may be more expensive than goods of the same quality at a store on a less expensive site. But that is not due to the higher land value; it is because the dealer has a reputation for technical knowledge and honesty (or has become a fad among rich people), for which his customers are willing to pay whether his store is on a high priced-lot or a low-priced one.

Though land value has no effect upon the price of good, it is easier to sell goods in some locations than in others. Therefore, though the price and the profit of each sale be the same, or even less, in good locations than in poorer ones, aggregate receipts and aggregate profits are much greater at the good location. And it is out of his aggregate, and not out of each profit, that rent is paid, For example: A cigar store on a thoroughfare supplies a certain quality of cigar for fifteen cents. On a side street the same quality of cigar can be bought no cheaper. Indeed, the cigars there are likely to be poorer, and therefore really dearer. Yet ground rent on the thoroughfare is very high compared with ground rent on the sidestreet. How, then, can the first dealer, he who pays the high ground rent, afford to sell as good or better cigars for fifteen cents than his competitor of the low priced location? Simply because he is able to make so many more sales with a given outlay of labor and capital in a given time that his aggregate profit is greater. This is due to the advantage of his location, and for that advantage he pays a premium in higher ground rent. But that premium is not charged to smokers; the competing dealer of the side street protects them. It represents the greater ease, the lower cost, of doing a given volume of business upon the site for which it is paid; add if the state should take any of it, even the whole of it, in taxation, the loss would be finally borne by the owner of the advantage which attaches to that site — by the landlord. Any attempt to shift it to tenant or buyer would be promptly checked by the competition of neighboring but cheaper land.

"A land-tax, levied in proportion to the rent of land, and varying with every variation of rent, is in effect a tax on rent; and as such a tax will not apply to that land which yields no rent, nor to the produce of that capital which is employed on the land with a view to profit merely, and which never pays rent; it will not in any way affect the price of raw produce, but will fall wholly on the landlords." — McCulloch's Ricardo (3d ed.), p. 207 ...


To perceive that the single tax would justly measure the value of government service we have only to realize that the mass of individuals everywhere and now, in paying for the land they use, actually pay for government service in proportion to what they receive. He who would enjoy the benefits of a government must use land within its jurisdiction. He cannot carry land from where government is poor to where it is good; neither can he carry it from where the benefits of good government are few or enjoyed with difficulty to where they are many and fully enjoyed. He must rent or buy land where the benefits of government are available, or forego them. And unless he buys or rents where they are greatest and most available he must forego them in degree. Consequently, if he would work or live where the benefits of government are available, and does not already own land there, he will be compelled to rent or buy at a valuation which, other things being equal, will depend upon the value of the government service that the site he selects enables him to enjoy. 14 Thus does he pay for the service of government in proportion to its value to him. But he does not pay the public which provides the service; he is required to pay land-owners.

14. Land values are lower in all countries of poor government than in any country of better government, other things being equal. They are lower in cities of poor government, other things being equal, than in cities of better government. Land values are lower, for example, in Juarez, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where government is bad, than in El Paso, the neighboring city on the American side, where government is better. They are lower in the same city under bad government than under improved government. When Seth Low, after a reform campaign, was elected mayor of Brooklyn, N.Y., rents advanced before he took the oath of office, upon the bare expectation that he would eradicate municipal abuses. Let the city authorities anywhere pave a street, put water through it and sewer it, or do any of these things, and lots in the neighborhood rise in value. Everywhere that the "good roads" agitation of wheel men has borne fruit in better highways, the value of adjacent land has increased. Instances of this effect as results of public improvements might be collected in abundance. Every man must be able to recall some within his own experience.

And it is perfectly reasonable that it should be so. Land and not other property must rise in value with desired improvements in government, because, while any tendency on the part of other kinds of property to rise in value is checked by greater production, land can not be reproduced.

Imagine an utterly lawless place, where life and property are constantly threatened by desperadoes. He must be either a very bold man or a very avaricious one who will build a store in such a community and stock it with goods; but suppose such a man should appear. His store costs him more than the same building would cost in a civilized community; mechanics are not plentiful in such a place, and materials are hard to get. The building is finally erected, however, and stocked. And now what about this merchant's prices for goods? Competition is weak, because there are few men who will take the chances he has taken, and he charges all that his customers will pay. A hundred per cent, five hundred per cent, perhaps one or two thousand per cent profit rewards him for his pains and risk. His goods are dear, enormously dear — dear enough to satisfy the most contemptuous enemy of cheapness; and if any one should wish to buy his store that would be dear too, for the difficulties in the way of building continue. But land is cheap! This is the type of community in which may be found that land, so often mentioned and so seldom seen, which "the owners actually can't give away, you know!"

But suppose that government improves. An efficient administration of justice rids the place of desperadoes, and life and property are safe. What about prices then? It would no longer require a bold or desperately avaricious man to engage in selling goods in that community, and competition would set in. High profits would soon come down. Goods would be cheap — as cheap as anywhere in the world, the cost of transportation considered. Builders and building materials could be had without difficulty, and stores would be cheap, too. But land would be dear! Improvement in government increases the value of that, and of that alone.

Now, the economic principle pursuant to which land-owners are thus able to charge their fellow-citizens for the common benefits of their common government points to the true method of taxation. With the exception of such other monopoly property as is analogous to land titles, and which in the purview of the single tax is included with land for purposes of taxation, 15 land is the only kind of property that is increased in value by government; and the increase of value is in proportion, other influences aside, to the public service which its possession secures to the occupant. Therefore, by taxing land in proportion to its value, and exempting all other property, kindred monopolies excepted — that is to say, by adopting the single tax — we should be levying taxes according to benefits.16

15. Railroad franchises, for example, are not usually thought of as land titles, but that is what they are. By an act of sovereign authority they confer rights of control for transportation purposes over narrow strips of land between terminals and along trading points. The value of this right of way is a land value.

16. Each occupant would pay to his landlord the value of the public benefits in the way of highways, schools, courts, police and fire protection, etc., that his site enabled him to enjoy. The landlord would pay a tax proportioned to the pecuniary benefits conferred upon him by the public in raising and maintaining the value of his holding. And if occupant and owner were the same, he would pay directly according to the value of his land for all the public benefits he enjoyed, both intangible and pecuniary.

And in no sense would this be class taxation. Indeed, the cry of class taxation is a rather impudent one for owners of valuable land to raise against the single tax, when it is considered that under existing systems of taxation they are exempt. 17 Even the poorest and the most degraded classes in the community, besides paying land-owners for such public benefits as come their way, are compelled by indirect taxation to contribute to the support of government. But landowners as a class go free. They enjoy the protection of the courts, and of police and fire departments, and they have the use of schools and the benefit of highways and other public improvements, all in common with the most favored, and upon the same specific terms; yet, though they go through the form of paying taxes, and if their holdings are of considerable value pose as "the tax-payers" on all important occasions, they, in effect and considered as a class, pay no taxes, because government, by increasing the value of their land, enables them to recover back in higher rents and higher prices more than their taxes amount to. Enjoying the same tangible benefits of government that others do, many of them as individuals and all of them as a class receive in addition a tangible pecuniary benefit which government confers upon no other property-owners. The value of their property is enhanced in proportion to the benefits of government which its occupants enjoy. To tax them alone, therefore, is not to discriminate against them; it is to charge them for what they get.18

17. While the landholders of the City of Washington were paying something less than two per cent annually in taxes, a Congressional Committee (Report of the Select Committee to Investigate Tax Assessments in the District of Columbia, composed of Messrs. Johnson, of Ohio, Chairman, Wadsworth, of New York, and Washington, of Tennessee. Made to the House of Representatives, May 24, 1892. Report No. 1469), brought out the fact that the value of their land had been increasing at a minimum rate of ten per cent per annum. The Washington land-owners as a class thus appear to have received back in higher land values, actually and potentially, about ten dollars for every two dollars that as land-owners they paid in taxes. If any one supposes that this condition is peculiar to Washington let him make similar estimates for any progressive locality, and see if the land-owners there are not favored in like manner.

But the point is not dependent upon increase in the capitalized value of land. If the land yields or will yield to its owner an income in the nature of actual or potential ground rent, then to the extent that this actual or possible income is dependent upon government the landlord is in effect exempt from taxation. No matter what tax he pays on account of his ownership of land, the public gives it back to him to that extent.

18. Take for illustration two towns, one of excellent government and the other of inefficient government, but in all other respects alike. Suppose you are hunting for a place of residence and find a suitable site in the town of good government. For simplicity of illustration let us suppose that the land there is not sold outright but is let upon ground rent. You meet the owner of the lot you have selected and ask him his terms. He replies:

"Two hundred and fifty dollars a year."

"Two hundred and fifty dollars a year!" you exclaim. "Why, I can get just as good a site in that other town for a hundred dollars a year."

"Certainly you can," he will say. "But if you build a house there and it catches fire it will burn down; they have no fire department. If you go out after dark you will be 'held up' and robbed; they have no police force. If you ride out in the spring, your carriage will stick in the mud up to the hubs, and if you walk you may break your legs and will be lucky if you don t break your neck; they have no street pavements and their sidewalks are dangerously out of repair. When the moon doesn't shine the streets are in darkness, for they have no street lights. The water you need for your house you must get from a well; there is no water supply there. Now in our town it is different. We have a splendid fire department, and the best police force in the world. Our streets are macadamized, and lighted with electricity; our sidewalks are always in first class repair; we have a water system that equals that of New York; and in every way the public benefits in this town are unsurpassed. It is the best governed town in all this region. Isn't it worth a hundred and fifty dollars a year more for a building site here than over in that poorly governed town?"

You recognize the advantages and agree to the terms. But when your house is built and the assessor visits you officially, what would be the conversation if your sense of the fitness of things were not warped by familiarity with false systems of taxation? Would it not be something like what follows?

"How much do you regard this house as worth? " asks the assessor.

"What is that to you?" you inquire.

"I am the town assessor and am about to appraise your property for taxation."

"Am I to be taxed by this town? What for?"

"What for?" echoes the assessor in surprise. "What for? Is not your house protected from fire by our magnificent fire department? Are not you protected from robbery by the best police force in the world? Do not you have the use of macadamized pavements, and good sidewalks, and electric street lights, and a first class water supply? Don't you suppose these things cost something? And don't you think you ought to pay your share?"

"Yes," you answer, with more or less calmness; "I do have the benefit of these things, and I do think that I ought to pay my share toward supporting them. But I have already paid my share for this year. I have paid it to the owner of this lot. He charges me two hundred and fifty dollars a year -- one hundred and fifty dollars more than I should pay or he could get but for those very benefits. He has collected my share of this year's expense of maintaining town improvements; you go and collect from him. If you do not, but insist upon collecting from me, I shall be paying twice for these things, once to him and once to you; and he won't be paying at all, but will be making money out of them, although he derives the same benefits from them in all other respects that I do."

... read the book

Bill Batt: Comment on Parts of the NYS Legislative Tax Study Commission's 1985 study “Who Pays New York Taxes?”

Except in the implicit recognition involved in their analysis of shifting, the distinction between land and improvements was opaque. This is a remarkable oversight, because improvements typically depreciate at the rate of 0.5 to 1.5 percent annually; only land values appreciate.9 And in view of the fact that assessments in New York localities have historically been very infrequent, one can understand how the land values are in reality a far higher proportion of parcel value than assessments would suggest.10 This means that in a period of seven years, for example, a property parcel could easily increase in price by 50 percent, far more if recent real estate market history is to be illustrative. Moreover real estate prices varied greatly in their rates of change during this time span; upstate New York was largely stable, but downstate localities experienced huge booms and busts.

Recognition of this would tend to favor what is known as the “new view” of property tax incidence, an acceptance of the idea that "the burden of the tax on improvements remains with the owners of capital in the form of a lower net return instead of being shifted to users of property in the form of higher rents or prices.”11 Proponents point out that “the tax on improvements is essentially a nationwide tax on capital . . . [and therefore] its incidence will depend on the characteristics of supply and demand for capital nationally rather than on a single market.”12 The effect of this is to make the tax ”highly progressive.”13 Nonetheless, in a small footnote, Messrs. Pomp and Phares elected to go with the “old view” in stating that, “it seems most appropriate to assume that the new view does not apply to the analysis of tax burdens within one specific state (underlining in original). Thus, the old or traditional view was adhered to in the analysis. . ; that is, the excise effect of the tax was considered dominant.”14 The ubiquity of New York's property tax, and that it has over 1,300 local assessment and tax districts, may well have escaped their notice. ... read the whole commentary

Weld Carter: An Introduction to Henry George

Another area in which George applied these inherent differences between land and products was the field of taxation. To determine the incidence of taxation, George had to know what was to be taxed, products or the value of land. In each case he traced out the effect from the essential nature of the thing to be taxed: "...all taxes upon things of unfixed quantity increase prices, and in the course of exchange are shifted from seller to buyer, increasing as they go. ...If we impose a tax upon buildings, the users of buildings must finally pay it, for the erection of buildings will cease until building rents become high enough to pay the regular profit and the tax besides. ...In this way all taxes which add to prices are shifted from hand to hand, increasing as they go, until they ultimately rest upon consumers, who thus pay much more than is received by the government. Now, the way taxes raise prices is by increasing the cost of production, and checking supply. But land is not a thing of human production, and taxes upon...[land value] cannot check supply. Therefore, though a tax on...[land value] compels the land owners to pay more, it gives them no power to obtain more for the use of their land, as it in no way tends to reduce the supply of land. On the contrary, by compelling those who hold land on speculation to sell or let for what they can get, a tax on land values tends to increase the competition between owners, and thus to reduce the price of land." ... 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