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Rent Paid to a Landlord is a Tax Mis-paid


Joseph Stiglitz: October, 2002, interview

Q: In Globalization and its Discontents, you write (p. 81): "But land reform represents a fundamental change in the structure of society, one that those in the elite that populates the finance ministries, those with whom the international financial institutions interact, do not necessarily like."

JES: Yes. Let me try to approach the question a little more systematically. Once you take the perspective I just gave, that means the management should be done in such a way that it maximizes the amount of money available to the US government from natural resources because they are within its domain and control. So, looking at the United States, one of the implications of this is that a foundation such as yours [the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, created to promote the ideas of Henry George, as expressed in Progress & Poverty] ought to be very much against the policies of the US government of giving away our natural resources. Here is a case where we not only are not taxing it much, we're actually giving it away.

Q: I assume you're speaking in particular of oil and mineral rights, but would not Broadband Spectrum rights also be included in that category?

JES: Yes, Broadband Spectrum rights as well. Now, giving away rights such as those would be anathema to the spirit of Henry George. And the second part is that when you sell them, you want to do so in such a way as to maximize the revenues. And whether you decide to sell it or whether you decide to rent it, would be the question of what is the way that maximizes the extraction of public revenues.

Q: And those revenues go to the people. Not to private concerns.

JES: Exactly. So you're trying to say, from the perspective of public management, how can we take this inelastic supply of public resources and maximize the rents that we can extract from it, consistent with other public objectives? That is a very deep philosophical approach, and requires a re-thinking of how we manage all aspects of those public resources. However, much of what we do is inconsistent with that. Now, the issue of land reform is a little bit different. There, it's a two-step analysis. My concern that I expressed about land is that in many developing countries, you have most land owned by a few rich people, and the land is relatively little taxed. But the land is worked in a system of sharecropping in which workers have to pay the landlord 50% of their output. In a way, you can look at that 50% as a tax. The sharecroppers are paying a 50% tax to the landlord. But it's worse than a tax. Because it's not a land tax, it's a tax on their labor. And it's a tax that goes to the landlord rather than to society. So the notion is that land reform could take a variety of different forms. For instance, the government could take over the land and rent it to the people. Or give it to the people and have a land tax that would not have the distortionary effect of land reform. So, in a way, these systems of share-cropping are worse even than anything that Henry George was worried about in terms of misuse of land. ... read the entire interview



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