The U.S. Congress is getting back to “work” soon, trying to figure out how to squeeze enough tax revenue from Xbox-oriented Americans to fund all of the government programs that we dream of enjoying plus the $10 trillion in coronapanic spending that we indulged in.
Let me recommend “Does Georgism Work? Part 1: Is Land Really A Big Deal?” (12/8/2021) and “Lars Doucet On Taxing The True Value Of Land” (12/15/2021), which is on one of my favorite topics, a Land value tax. The basic observations are (1) an income tax discourages people from working and earning money, which is what most of us want our fellow citizens to do (exception: those of us with jobs in the welfare-industrial complex, homeless-industrial complex, and migrant-industrial complex), (2) a property tax on the value of buildings discourages people from creating nice buildings, which is what most of us want our fellow citizens to do (exception: me, because I am sick with envy when someone else has a nicer house than our 2BR apartment). From these observations, it then becomes obvious that taxing the value of underlying land is a good idea because no matter how high the tax is, the land won’t go away (since it is neither produced nor destroyed by human effort).
Unlike most folks who are enthusiastic about this form of taxation, Doucet has put some thought into what a transition would look like. Some excerpts from the 12/15 piece:
To start things off: a friend of mine bought an apartment near a future station on the not-yet-built extension of the New York subway, thinking the value of the apartment would rise once the station opened. Obviously she didn’t build the subway, and didn’t pay for it any more than any other New York taxpayer. Can you talk about that example from a Georgist perspective? Under Georgism, what would happen to taxes in a neighbourhood when something like a new train station gets built?
Lars: So when you buy land in a major city, or next to planned areas of development, hoping that the value will go up, what you’re really hoping for is to profit off of the hard work and investment of your neighbors and government spending. Imagine two locations for a hot dog stand: the middle of the desert, and an empty lot next to the Empire State Building. Obviously I’ll sell more hot dogs in the second location, but clearly it’s the people and city of New York that have made that second location more valuable.
The example you bring up is particularly salient because we have this trap where we expect the government to provide us with services, but then those services cost money, so we tax people’s income (labor) and investments (capital) to fund them, or just put the government in debt to do it (which ultimately manifests as indirect taxes on labor and capital in the form of interest payments and inflation). And then, land values for properties closest to those services rise. Who captures that added value? Whoever was smart enough to buy up land real cheap before We The People started doing some public spending. So essentially our current scheme creates this bizarre cycle where we tax both the labor and the savings of Americans in order to provide public works, which have the side effect of subsidizing people who speculate on land, who not only aren’t doing anything for the economy, but are actively making the housing crisis worse by bidding up the price of land.
Land value tax is already better than neutral. The point isn’t just that it “doesn’t distort” the economy, it un-disorts the economy, because the “private tax” levied by the gatekeepers of land, location, natural resources, and other monopolies is already imposing a productivity drain on our economy.
Just to drive the point home, we’re not wanting to tax land just because it’s more “efficient,” or whatever. We’re doing it because land is scarce and rival. To own land means to exclude others from it. Given there’s only so much of it, and we can’t all use the same land, and we all absolutely fundamentally need land, it’s a simple matter of justice to say that if you want to exclude the rest of society from a piece of land, you should compensate society, since you did nothing to make that land exist in the first place.
There are three things that come together when humans produce things — land, labor, and capital. We call these inputs the “factors of production.” We can increase labor, and we can increase capital, but there’s not a dang thing we can do to increase land — “it’s the one thing they’re not making any more of.”
But what does it mean when the owner of the land “provides” land? It’s not like they created it, and it’s not like if we don’t pay them for access to it the factor will somehow go away, which is what happens when you stop paying labor and capital. Gatekeeping access to land isn’t productive, but in our society it entitles you to a share of the produce that labor and capital produced. And as I’m prepared to show, it entitles you to a really huge outsized share at that, essentially a private tax on the entire economy.
Lars: Right, so the problem is if you try to knock down the housing ladder all by itself, you’re going to make a bunch of people really mad because they only did what was rational under the old system, broken as it was. That feels like a rug pull and it’s certainly a political headwind you have to take seriously, and it’s also a matter of fairness.
Gordon Tullock calls this the “transitional gains trap,” using the example of taxi medallions. The first generation that buys into the system gets in cheap and enjoys outsized gains, but the next generation has to pay “full price” for it. Sure houses appreciate over time because of the land values, but the person who just bought one had to really shell out for that privilege and hasn’t had much time to reap the rewards. So even if transitioning to a non broken system makes everybody better in the long run, the pain to change over is too much for some people.
There are four different ways to do it. The first is just to phase in land value tax gradually over time, like say, over 20-40 years. The challenge with this is that’s going to be quite a political feat to get it to stick over many generations of politicians.
The second is to levy land value tax as a sort of lien, something that you don’t have to pay until you sell the property, or pass it on to your heirs. So grandma and Farmer Brown aren’t going to be kicked out of their homes because of the land value tax. And just for the record, Farmer Brown’s land value isn’t going to be super high anyways — farmland is pretty cheap, it’s urban land that’s expensive. Farmer Brown will likely just get a tax break compared to what he’s currently paying in property taxes.
I hope that I’ve inspired you to read “Does Georgism Work? Part 1: Is Land Really A Big Deal?” and “Lars Doucet On Taxing The True Value Of Land” and then, for the next step, that you become a U.S. Senator and can actually act on your knowledge. Perhaps you can replace Senator Karen and Elon Musk won’t be distracted from creating the minivan-with-dog-mode that I crave.
Mangrove trees in Fort Lauderdale. Nobody told them “they aren’t making any more land.”