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Windfall

"Windfall" sounds extremely benign, and even noble: apples that have been blown to the ground, and are available for some industrious soul to pick up for free. It almost has a "Horatio Alger" feel about it.

But many windfalls for the "lucky" (privileged) come at the expense of those who work hard? How much of our extremely tilted playing field, our wildly distorted distributions of income and wealth come from so-called "windfalls" like the privilege of collecting -- and keeping -- the rent on land value? How many windfalls are actually organized, legalized theft? What are the effects on the rest of us?

Charles T. Root — Not a Single Tax! (1925)

But before this time the reader, unless he has given previous attention to the subject, is full of objections to the above doctrine: "How about the law?" he is asking. "Hasn't a man the right to buy a piece of land as cheaply as he can, to do what he pleases with it, and hold on to it till he gets ready to sell?" The answer is that at present he certainly has this statutory right, which has been so long and so universally recognized that most people suppose it to be not only a legal, but a real or equitable right. A shrewd man, foreseeing the direction of growth of population in a city, for example, can buy a well-located block at a moderate figure from some less far-seeing owner, can let it grow up to weeds, fence it off against all comers and give it no further attention except to pay the very small tax usually imposed upon vacant land.

Meantime the increasing community builds up all around it with homes, banks, stores, churches, schools, paving and lighting the streets, giving police and fire protection, etc., and at last comes to need this block so urgently that the owner is fairly begged to sell it, at three or ten or fifty times what it cost him. Quite often the purchaser at this enormous advance is the very community which has through its presence and the expenditure of its taxes created practically the whole value of the land in question!

It was said above that an individual has a statutory right to pursue this very common course. That was an error. The statement should have been that he has a statutory wrong; for no disinterested person can follow the course of land speculation as almost universally practiced, without feeling its rank injustice.

How did so evident a wrong become so firmly established? ...

Being the high financiers of their days and generations, they managed to contrive taxes which could be plausibly and gradually imposed upon the landless, until within a few generations they had succeeded in shifting most of the cost of government on to the plebeians without giving up a foot of land or any considerable part of the income therefrom. The "common people" were deftly loaded with the heavy end of the beam, which they have been carrying ever since; while the arbitrarily created landlords and their successors, down to the present day, have kept their tight hold on the community's natural income.

The landlords, being also the lawmakers, have seen to it that their tenure of this easy money should not be disturbed, but on the contrary have so buttressed it with centuries of legislation, precedents, and judicial decisions, that any proposition to hark back to the terms of the original bargain, whereby the owners of the land agreed to pay the expenses of the government, is now denounced as anarchy and sacrilege.

Lapse of time, however, never can transform wrong into right, nor can a buyer acquire any better title than the seller possessed. The economic rent belongs to the community, which can and will begin to reclaim it as soon as the voters thoroughly awake to the facts and the right and wrong of the matter, which are not hard to grasp when the subject is presented in its simplest form.

An illustration has already been given of the case of a piece of farm land. Let us take an example in a large city. Let us take a corner lot centrally located in New York City, the title to which lot is held by, say, Mr. John William Rhinelastor. This lot was a part of an old Dutch farm, and is an heirloom. It did not cost the present owner anything, nor his father nor his grandfather. There is a little old building on it, which has always been rented at a figure ten times as large as the taxes imposed, so that the owner has been handsomely subsidized each year for storing his title-deeds during a period of the city's growth in which the increase in population and the expenditure of public money in that neighborhood have raised the value of this corner location to, say, two hundred times its early value.

About now, Mr. Rhinelastor decides that he will go abroad to live, and can't be bothered with this piece of property. But knowing that the pressure of population is sure to increase and that the expenditure of public money to the benefit of this land must continue, he will not sell it. So he gives a twenty-one year lease to the corner for, say, $20,000 a year net, with a privilege to the lessee of renewals at advancing figures. The lessee agrees to pay all taxes.

Now what is this net $20,000 a year, which will be regularly remitted to Mr. Rhinelastor, in Europe or wherever he may be, given in payment for? Not for the old building — the first thing the lessee does is to pull it down. Not for the land itself — it is all rock, which has got to be blasted out as part of its improvement.

Clearly it is paid for a location or site value, which the community, and the community only, has built up and paid for. In other words, the present $20,000 rental, and the larger one which that location will command in later years, is strictly a community product, and as such belongs to the community and not to Mr. Rhinelastor.

That the latter has no good right to it is at once evident when we remember that "When one man gets something for nothing somebody else has got to give something for nothing." Here are $20,000 that some men and women have got to work to earn every year to hand over to a man who does not render, and does not feel any obligation to render, one dollar's worth of public or private service in return. Such is the wild travesty of justice which we call law. It is not comical only because it is frankly tragic in its social results. ... read the whole article

Bill Batt: Painless Taxation

Abstract
Real tax reform could do away with those taxes that are resented by the large proportion of our population. We could replace all taxes on wages and on interest by instead taxing economic rent. Rent is windfall income; it is income that arises not from the efforts of any person or corporation; it comes about as a surplus gain from common social enterprise. There is ample moral warrant for society to lay claim to that which it has created, as well as to that which no individual or party has earned. Analysis increasingly makes clear that economic rent in all its forms is far larger than official government figures indicate; in fact it is likely sufficient to supplant all current taxes on labor and capital (wages and interest) which are acknowledged to have so many negative effects. Recovering economic rent in all its manifestations by taxing its various bases actually can foster economic performance and yield other benefits that make it the natural source of revenue for governments. Such a tax is essentially painless.

Introduction

Under current tax regimes, some people get hit with onerous bills while others get windfall gains.[1] If taxes only on windfalls were collected, we could eliminate those burdens that fall unfairly upon people who have rightfully earned their income and wealth, and the total would likely remain revenue neutral. This is my thesis here, one which should compel the attention of those who would redesign our tax system.

1. A windfall, usually defined, is "an unexpected financial gain, or a stroke of luck." But, as one exhaustive study makes clear, it is typically the consequence of some public policy decision. ...

... Any tax on capital has its downside effects, so that taxing savings causes people to save less, taxing consumption causes people to buy less, and taxing buildings causes people to build less. The result is that economists as well as businessmen usually frown upon taxing capital. Another alternative is to tax labor, but it is even more widely understood that taxing labor normally discourages people from working as much as they would in the absence of a tax. From this comes sentiment against taxing labor, even though for want of any alternative, people have today commonly come to accept it as a necessity. But electing to tax labor, just as for taxing capital, forecloses a discussion of the virtues of taxing land — not necessarily land as earth, but rather land as location. Yet land rent is the most attractive tax base of all, as rent is not earned; it is windfall income, entirely the result of being well situated in any market of scarce natural resources and where community demand (rather than one's own efforts) leads to an appreciation of that land's price. To be sure many people have learned to position themselves in situations where a land's market value is likely to rise — indeed these people come to think of themselves as astute investors. But the fact is that that market gain is not of their own doing at all; it is the result of common enterprise creating a surplus that comes to settle on land sites. An investment in land, in any form it might take, is speculation in greater or lesser degree. ...

To be sure, by replacing taxes on labor and capital with taxes on land rent, people will enjoy greater returns for their enterprise and will be able to keep what they have earned. But people will also cease, at least those few who have been so lucky, to be able to rely on windfall unearned gains that they have in many cases come to regard as their entitlements. The greatest forfeiture of such windfall gains will be homeowners who have come to see their title to a home as an investment, and not a place to live. But whereas some residential locations have seen enormous increases in market prices — as much as 20 percent yearly on occasion — others have enjoyed no such fortune. People may come to understand that houses depreciate just like cars, refrigerators and computers. They may also see that it is only land value that increases, and realize that any gain which their land has is due to the general vitality of their community and region. It may help them to realize that they are linked to and dependent upon the society as a whole, and that their fortune is not in this dimension of their own making.

Well over a century ago, John Stuart Mill recognized that

landlords grow richer in their sleep without working, risking or economizing. The increase in the value of land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title.[17] ... read the whole article

Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan: The Political Economy of Land: Putting Henry George in His Place

Indeed, one could say that the term ‘tax’ is a misnomer because what is really involved is value created by the community being retained by the community rather than being appropriated by private landholders. For example, under current arrangements landowners receive ‘windfall’ gains when the market value of their land rises as a result of publicly provided infrastructure being built nearby, or when local government zoning decisions reclassify their land as appropriate for further development. In this way, individual landowners stand to reap huge benefits at the expense of community-generated processes. Such arrangements create an odd incentive: allowing landholders to appropriate the unearned wealth generated by rising land values, thereby rewarding this unproductive activity, while taxing productive endeavour. The Georgist land tax ‘remedy’, by contrast, would eliminate such perverse incentives and thereby more effectively align private and public interests in the use of society’s resources. ...

Georgist analysis strongly emphasises landownership as a principal source of inequality. Because land is a strictly limited resource, its private ownership necessarily excludes large sections of the community from its benefits. A landowning class thereby gains political economic power. In George’s own time the social identity and power of this landowning class was distinctive. Those who could not afford to buy land were forced to pay rent to the wealthier few who could. By taxing the value of land, George posited that publicly created wealth could be recouped from the private landowners and redistributed throughout the community more equitably in order to address social goals.

Are George’s arguments about land ownership and wealth inequality relevant today? Australia provides an interesting example, because land is the single largest item in national wealth. Laurie Aarons outlines the concentration of farming land in particular in the hands of a few very wealthy corporations and individuals – what he refers to as ‘corporate squattocracy’ (Aarons, 1999: 23). The relentless increase in urban land values in recent years has also produced dramatic redistributions of wealth. In the State of New South Wales, for example, land values increased by about $361 billion over the period 1993 – 2003. The existing land-based taxes clawed back only $44 billion in government revenues, comprising only about 12% of the land-related economic surplus. So 88% was retained as ‘unearned income’ by landowners (Stilwell and Jordan, forthcoming). A higher rate of land tax with fewer exemptions could have substantially reduced this private wealth appropriation. This is not necessarily to posit the desirability of recouping 100% through land tax, because that would certainly raise major problems of people’s ability to pay, given that much of the increased wealth resulting from land price inflation has not been realised as current income. But it is indicative of the current imbalance between private and public appropriations of the surplus arising from increases in land-based wealth. ... read the whole article

Bill Batt: The Compatibility of Georgist Economics and Ecological Economics

Rent becomes critically important in Georgist economics, because rent is the increment of market gain that accrues to choice land parcels. This insight arose originally in the context of agricultural societies, where differential qualities of land were recognized by varied payment in rent. An individual’s return on investment was represented by his labor — that was his and his alone to keep. So also were whatever capital goods he acquired through the efforts of his past labor. On the other hand, whenever land offered a higher yield separate from whatever the individual’s labor investment might represent, this constituted a windfall gain above and beyond what might be minimally expected. This is land rent, and it exists even if it isn’t collected. Today, as earlier noted, the greatest land rents derive from their location, grown out of nearby social investment. ...

The Georgist main agenda, as earlier noted, is economic justice. If one searches the term “economic justice” online, the first site that will appear is the Georgist website, progress.org. The starting point is that people are entitled to what they earn, but only to what they earn. The fruits of the commons generated in rent might also be distributed to citizens equally if not used to finance the general services of government. In practice this means the abolition of those taxes that represent an unjust capture of one’s personal property — taxes such as income, sales, and other nuisance taxes. It accepts, to be sure, the need to collect user fees, Pigouvian taxes, and perhaps sumptuary (sin) taxes. It argues aggressively for the collection of economic rent in support of government and, for any remaining surplus, its distribution as a citizens’ dividend.  The justification for the collection of rent has several grounds:

  • the first is to preclude the entitlement of windfall gains to those who have unfairly captured monopoly control of parts of what are rightfully the public commons.
  • A second reason is to enhance the efficiency of economic productivity which the failure to collect rent prevents. It is not just that monopoly control of commons sites drives less attractive and less valuable land into production because the primary choices are unavailable; it is also that the use of alternative taxes leads to a deadweight loss in the economy which reduces the wealth of every citizen except the monopoly titleholder.The proper collection of land rent leads to increases in economic efficiency in a way that wages are not artificially depressed and more opportunities arise in the labor market.
The result of these factors leads to a greater equality in the income of each person. ...

Pricing resources of nature at their marginal rates is a clearly understood economic principle. To do otherwise fosters extravagant and wasteful use of such, or leads to inefficient use of their locations. Hence both a moral reason — the unjust windfall gain that otherwise befalls such monopoly titles — and an economic reason — efficiency — call for such practices. It is the compelling impetus of politics and not economic rationality that frustrates the implementation of such designs. With the advent of greater and more accurate data, as well as the increased power of computer analysis, there is every reason to argue for and anticipate the collection of economic rent from every source where it arises.  ... read the whole article

Bill Batt: Stemming Sprawl: The Fiscal Approach

Stemming Sprawl: Pricing Measures for Transportation

From the foregoing, it is clear that insofar as the causes of sprawl development are economic, the solution needs to be economic as well. The equilibrium of forces can be restored in two ways:

1) by charging the true marginal costs of motor vehicle transportation to users and
2) by recovering the economic rent from urban site owners that is really the socially created value.

It is easy to distinguish five elements of transportation service cost: capital investment, maintenance costs, regulation costs, environmental externalities, and congestion costs. Each of these calls for a different treatment with respect to revenue design. Capital costs are best recovered by recapturing the land rent proximate to the highway corridors. This is socially created value, which is better used to honor debt service of infrastructure investment than allowing it to be retained as windfall gains by titleholders to property close by. User fees, most aptly linked to the purchase of motor fuel and tire wear, serve as a proxy for the use of the roads and can be designed to be commensurate with use. As the wear and tear of roads as well as police patrol, snow and ice control, and signaling all involve operating and maintenance costs, such charges are easily linked with benefits received. In the future, still more accurate systems of service charges are likely to appear: Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand are already reliant on electronic devices that record road use by time, place, and vehicle weight.

Ensuring the safety of drivers and vehicles through licenses, registrations, and inspections is most appropriately financed by fees commensurate with the costs of their administration. This way, if a vehicle is used but seldom, it is charged on the basis of its identification rather than assuming any projected level of use. Environmental externalities such as pollution costs can be linked to the polluting source, such as diesel fuel and gasoline consumption, to the full extent necessary to equilibrate air quality and other environmental ambiences. Congestion costs, the last of the major components of a pricing design for highway use, are partially paid for by the time loss of those caught in traffic. The costs of time lost due to highway congestion are enormous: In 2000, the average driver spent 62 hours sitting in traffic at a nationwide cost of $68 billion in gas and time lost In Los Angeles, the average driver spent 136 hours stalled in traffic at an average cost of $2,510.[33] Commuting times were also 20 percent longer than they were a decade ago, about 22 minutes one way nationally on average but as high as 32 minutes on average in New York.[34] But not all people's time is valued equally, and people themselves value their time differently at different times, and it is unfair to require people to impose their congestion on others. Therefore, congestion pricing, being explored in several urban regions, provides a rationing of limited highway space. In a sense, that payment for space usage, in time or money, is a form of land rent. ... read the whole article

Charles B. Fillebrown: A Catechism of Natural Taxation, from Principles of Natural Taxation (1917)

Q22. What is privilege?
A. Strictly defined, privilege is, according to the Century Dictionary, "a special and exclusive power conferred by law on particular persons or classes of persons and ordinarily in derogation of the common right."

Q23. What is today the popular conception of privilege?
A. That it is the law-given power of one man to profit at another man's expense.

Q24. What are the principal forms of privilege?
A. The appropriation by individuals, or by public service corporations, of the net rent of land created by the growth and activity of the community without payment for the same. Also, the less important privileges connected with patents, tariff, and the currency.

Q25. Where in does privilege differ from capital?
A. Capital is a material thing, a product of labor, stored-up wages; an instrument of production paid for in human labor, and destined to wear out. Capital is the natural ally of labor, and is harmless except as allied to privilege. Privilege is none of these, but is an intangible statutory power, an unpaid-for and perpetual lien upon the future labor of this and succeeding generations. Capital is paid for and ephemeral. Privilege is unpaid for and eternal. A man accumulated in his profession $5,000 capital, which he invested in land in Canada. Ten years later he sold the same land for $200,000. Here is an instance of $5,000 capital allied with $195,000 privilege. This illustrates that privilege and not capital is the real enemy of labor.

Q26. How may franchises be treated?
A. Franchise privileges may be abated, or gradually abolished by lower rates, or by taxation, or by both, in the interest of the community.

Q27. Why should privilege be especially taxed?
A. Because such payment is fairly due from grantee to the grantor of privilege and also because a tax upon privilege can never be a burden upon industry or commerce, nor can it ever operate to reduce the wages of labor or increase prices to the consumer.

Q28. How are landlords privileged?
A. Because, in so far as their land tax is an "old" tax, it is a burdenless tax, and because their buildings' tax is shifted upon their tenants; most landlords who let land and also the tenement houses and business blocks thereon avoid all share in the tax burden.

Q29. How does privilege affect the distribution of wealth?
A. Wealth as produced is now distributed substantially in but two channels, privilege and wages. The abolition of privilege would leave but the one proper channel, viz., wages of capital, hand, and brain.

... read the whole article

Karl Williams:  Land Value Taxation: The Overlooked But Vital Eco-Tax

I. Historical overview
II. The problem of sprawl
III. Affordable and efficient public transport
IV. Agricultural benefits
V. Financial concerns
VI. Conclusion: A greater perspective
Appendix: "Natural Capitalism" -- A Case Study in Blindness to Land Value Taxation

While all landholders will be encouraged to put their land to its optimal use, land speculators will be particularly affected by LVT. The former head of the Town Planning Department of the University of Queensland, Philip Day, characterises the current lure of windfall increases in land value operating as a standing invitation to "develop" land by seeking approval for a change of use, irrespective of its environmental significance and regardless of how such rezoning repeatedly leads to the environmentally destructive process of urban sprawl.

While, at first sight, the prospect of sprawling cities with lots of open space and possible greenery might be appealing from an environmental perspective, a closer examination should lead to a different conclusion. The inducement to collect windfall profits (resulting from the failure of society to apply LVT) encourages some landholders to withhold vacant land from the market and forces new development to "leapfrog" this land and move further out. Hence there is an unnecessary outlay in roads, pipelines, power supplies and other infrastructure which must service a greater area. Commuting journeys, similarly, must now consume greater resources. Financially inducing land to be put to its optimal use is not "flogging" the land, but is rather ensuring land is carefully used and that we only exploit as much as we properly need.  ...

A simple model will serve to illustrate. Presently, rail/metro infrastructure is almost prohibitively expensive because the windfall benefits are effectively handed over to landowners. To partially recoup the outlay, authorities are forced to set fares so high as to act as a disincentive to potential low-impact commuters. ...  read the entire article

Karl Williams: Landlording It Over Us

But the rewards of land go far beyond status, evidenced by how, over the centuries, the land-owning elite has pulled the levers of power in society, politics and the world of commerce. The Earl of Derby’s 1881 candid analysis of the benefits of owning land perhaps says it best,
  • “One, political influence;
  • two, social importance;
  • three, power exercised over tenantry;
  • four, residential enjoyment including what is called sport;
  • five, the money return – the rent.”
Since then, the reform of the House of Lords has dented the political influence that was previously wielded by the landowning class (titles and land were once synonymous). But who needs status? – let’s get crass and just go for the cash. The great windfall profits which are dropped into landowners’ laps (which rightly belongs to the community) occurs with rezoning and the growth in residential/industrial values. In the UK between 1991 and 2001, the total return by this measure (including capital growth and rental income) averaged a healthy 12.6% per year.

The gross injustice of handing over community-created values to landowners is revealed by cold, hard figures. According to Yolande Barnes, head of research at FPD Savills, the average UK building plot – at £709,650 for a greenfield acre – is worth around 403 times the equivalent agricultural land. Nationwide, through this form of rezoning, around £5bn. windfall profit is handed over to UK landowners each year.

Barnes explains further, “In many parts of the South and Southeast, it is certainly true that prices are paid for agricultural land that wouldn’t be justified by its agricultural value.” She said further that it is impossible to know how much of this differential is accounted for by a "hope" factor – a speculative play on future change of use – and how much represents the premium for land’s amenity value when it is in such short supply. But she adds: “There has certainly been a deal of strategic holding and buying on city and town fringes by agricultural owners and farmers. New development land is usually designated in “fill-ins” and close to existing developments.”  She added further that farmers buy around towns because they can’t lose. They’ll farm the land anyway, and if permission is given to build, they’ve won the lottery.

A great way to run a casino, but what sort of way to run an economy and a society?   Read the whole article

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