Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
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Jeffery J. Smith
The Geonomy Society
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The Georgist movement has its own Jeff Smith, and while we haven't sent him to Washington for more than a few days at a time, he has a lot to say, and we should be listening to it.  Like Frank Capra's Mr. Smith, what he has to say is not to accrue to the benefit of any special interest.  He speaks eloquently about things that are in our common interest, reforms which will lead to happier lives lived in equal liberty.

Jeff Smith and Kris Nelson: Giving Life to the Property Tax Shift (PTS)
John Muir is right. "Tug on any one thing and find it connected to everything else in the universe." Tug on the property tax and find it connected to urban slums, farmland loss, political favoritism, and unearned equity with disrupted neighborhood tenure. Echoing Thoreau, the more familiar reforms have failed to address this many-headed hydra at its root. To think that the root could be chopped by a mere shift in the property tax base -- from buildings to land -- must seem like the epitome of unfounded faith. Yet the evidence shows that state and local tax activists do have a powerful, if subtle, tool at their disposal. The "stick" spurring efficient use of land is a higher tax rate upon land, up to even the site's full annual value. The "carrot" rewarding efficient use of land is a lower or zero tax rate upon improvements.

Jeff Smith Share Rent, Transform Society
If society decided to share among its members all the annual value of society's sites and resources and air space, what would happen? 

It doesn't matter who owns what. What matters is who gets the rent. We have millions of acres of forest we Americans own together, and we are losing rent on it. 

The word property cannot convey the distinction between rent and land.  ... A word for that is geonomics, earth-focused economics. It hones in on all this flow of rent that is so overlooked. Shift the focus to sharing; then owning of land loses importance and belonging to earth regains its importance. It is a different identity for human beings as parts of the economic system.  ...

In the past, land owners owed services to king, but in this age of equality then we owe our neighbors. We have an equal right to the earth.

The community creates rent. Land value rises when infrastructure goes on land. Technology progresses when the community becomes more tranquil and density goes up. Density is a really good measure of land value. No one owner by himself is responsible for density. Rent from land value is justified because all should share in the rent.
If the community collected the rent, it would motivate owners not to speculate in anticipation of a higher future return. There would be a tendency to infill in the city and make cities more efficient. ...

When built, BART (Bay Area CA Rapid Transit) did a study and found it could run BART free. If we had free mass transit, people would choose to ride instead of drive. It becomes more efficient and more people use, increasing the mobility of citizens in the region. If we get people out of cars, that reduces air pollution, noises, run off, and use of resources.
It is not just collecting ground rent but also untaxing other systems. Untax labor and make it more affordable. Enterprises such as recycling and reforestation, weatherization, reconstruction, and health enterprises are labor intensive and made more expensive artificially by taxing labor. We subsidize business: free roads for the timber industry, cheap water for agribusiness. Stop those subsidies and recycling could compete.

Now the public is paying for private parties. That is not fair.
    If you take taxes off labor and capital, more investment flows into jobs, and we would have close to full employment, so labor could demand full market value for services. We could double the income of the average worker with no loss in standard of living.  If fewer demands are placed on government by citizens, it doesn't have to borrow so much.   If you reduce the amount of tax on the economy, and reduce the amount of redeemable notes, then we should be able to eliminate inflation. It is unmasked. You can see lower prices; the cost of living goes down. It will change social relationships. Labor and capital make up, with higher wages for labor, lower taxes for capital, and more investment funds.  Labor can negotiate from a position of strength. Capital might want to share management decisions and spread that risk of liability to workers. It tends to reduce hierarchy and increase equality in society. 
What other social relations might change? Increase land ownership participation in community and it benefits community, with town hall meetings and block parties. Those kinds of communities have less crime.  ... Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: What the Left Must Do: Share the Surplus
What would you do if you could work two days and take five off? Write? Play soccer? Tend to the community garden? Time off is an option made increasingly viable by our relentlessly rising rate of productivity. French Marxist and media critic Jean Baudrillard, while still advancing the interests of labor, implores the Left to move on from seeing humans as workers to seeing workers as human beings, with more needs than merely the material. Enabling people to live their lives more fully is an issue made to order for rescuing the Left from the doldrums that descended when “history ended”.

What would single mothers do with enough income to stay home? What would minorities do with the wherewithal to begin their own businesses? What would communities do if they did not leak resources up to an upper class and out to a distant lender or tax collector? What would the elite do without our commonwealth? The means to these ends is an extra income apart from labor or capital (savings), that is, a “social salary” from society’s surplus, a “Citizens Dividend” from all the rents, natural and governmental, that people pay for land and to the privileged, redirected to everyone equally.  Merely demanding a fair sharing of the bounty from nature and modern society would raise people’s self-esteem, a key component for political involvement. Actually receiving an income supplement would transform our lives and restructure society.

Unless humanity needs militarism, corporate welfare, and debt service, it’s fair to say most public revenue gets wasted. Demanding a dividend – similar to Alaska paying residents a share from oil royalties – forces a new dialog on spending priorities. Beyond arguing “bread not bombs”, a dividend replaces expenditures by politicians (necessarily influenced by donors) with spending by citizens, the people who generate the surplus in the first place. With a dividend, citizens get to see themselves as direct beneficiaries from reigning in the wild spending spree on imperial aggression, disloyal multinationals, and on “borrowing” money that never existed until “lent” by the Federal Reserve. ...

Meanwhile, ignoring our common assets guarantees that we continue to pay rent rather than begin to receive rent. Conversely, insisting upon a fair share could win us the world we want. While it breaks an old habit to leave jobs behind in favour of fair distribution, just recognizing surplus empowers people. It reaffirms the very existence of our commonwealth and challenges the narrow view of property as exclusively private. While the Left gets excoriated for wanting to be big spenders, demanding a dividend in lieu of waste and a shift of taxes from individual effort to social surplus helps refurbish the Left’s image.

The call to share the commonwealth enjoys an unshakable moral base and gets high marks for real world success, unlike taxes upon true earnings. Once implemented, sharing rent will grant us leisure – time enough to evolve and reconnect with friends, family, and neighbours – and drain away fortunes rather than let the fortunate continue to soak society. Hence support for shifting taxes and paying dividends to the citizenry grows already, without the Left’s leadership. It’s time to run with the banner of an extra income for everyone, in the halls and capitols of governments everywhere. To liberate humans from exploitive labor, let us advance the sharing of society’s surplus.

To prove I'm not tilting marx-ward, I fear I may one day soon have to write "What the Right must do (or quit doing)," too.  Read the whole article

 Jeff Smith: How Sharing Earth Brought Peace
Since forever, humans have claimed and counter-claimed every square inch of this planet. Occasionally, these disputes have ended peacefully. What has worked in other times and places might work again in the Mideast. Delivering a double dividend, what settled land disputes also developed moribund economies and revived developed ones. Among others, New York, now aiming to rebuild, has used this policy before. Because it's growing popular among environmentalists, greens could lead the US to geonomics.

...  These cases involved different classes, not different cultures. Yet with a new twist the rent rebate that worked within society may work between societies. The Koran urges landlords to not gouge tenants but to consider land a trust. In Israel, admonished to not own land forever, since the land is Mine (Leviticus), the National Trust leases all the land to the occupants. These strictures could lead to geonomics.

Israel and Palestine would establish a steward to collect land dues and disburse rent dividends a la Alaska's oil dividend. Since land is more valuable in Israel than in Palestine, Jews would pay in more than Arabs, yet everyone would get back the same. And since Israelis prosper, they drive up land values; having Jews as co-owners developing land, raising its value, fattening everyone's Citizens Dividend Arabs might accept that. Profit does make for strange bedfellows. Two archrivals, China and Taiwan, recently agreed to explore for oil together.

While sharing rent may soothe hurt feelings, collecting it stimulates development.  ...

Using geonomics, people have turned some of the poorest lands into the richest economies. Hong Kong is a barren rock owned by the public. The city collects enough site-rent to keep taxes on effort way down.  ...

Where to draw a line in the sand becomes a lot less contentious when land and oil are no longer spoils of war and when neighbors do not endure drastically different standards of living. Growing up, we learn to not fight over toys but to take turns. Societies need to learn this, too.

Early last century, Gifford Pinchot, first head of the US Forest Service, said: "The earth belongs of right to all its people and not to a minority, insignificant in numbers but tremendous in wealth and power. The people shall get their fair share of the benefit which comes from the development of the country which belongs to us all with equal opportunity for all and special privileges for none." A man in a Republican administration could say that then. We need to hear it again now.   Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: How Profit Shapes Urban Space
Like the rest of the universe, US cities keep expanding. Some time before the universe begins to contract, American metro regions may, too. What counterpart to gravity might suck suburbia back into the hole of our doughnut cities? One of the most fundamental forces in the world - money. 

It was the lure of cold cash that drove urbanites out of downtown. The usual suspect, the car, was merely a convenient ride. Despite our present dependency on cars, the drive to profit is powerful enough to bring people back. 

Local governments have begun to modify the profit motive. Rather than meekly pick up the ever-rising tab for expanding the infrastructure, some localities now charge developers a portion of this cost. While this move may stymie development at the edge, what’s  needed is something to draw development into the urban core.
Without spending a penny of subsidy, cities can make urban renewal more profitable than suburban development. How is about as commonsensical as Einsteinian physics, but like "e=mc2", it works. The trick is to forget subsidies and lower one tax while raising another. That is, levy a tax or charge a fee to collect land value while eliminating any tax on buildings or improvements.
The present property tax works backwards, like an intruder from the anti-universe. It increases as owners improve their property; it decreases when owners let buildings dilapidate. "Save money, create slums," cities tell owners. ...   Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: Planning by Markets
Taxes -- an aspect of politics, not markets -- motivate misuse of land.
  • The tax on buildings discourages maintenance and breeds slums (Lynn 1973). After the neighborhood really goes down hill and the owner has milked every last penny out of the structure, he just walks away. Thus urban cores decay (Pickard 1966), an entropy that seems inevitable yet is policy-induced(1).
  • In growing areas, custom design creates more valuable homes, hence more tax liability. To avoid the penalty, developers can under-build or sacrifice esthetics. Cookie-cutter developments all in a row reduce built value and property taxes(2).
  • Taxing sales raises the cost of living while taxing income lowers the ability to afford to live. Like a vise, regressive taxes squeeze out the discretionary income of the poor who cannot afford the city they may like. Necessity crams them into the structures that cut corners.

While taxes are creatures of legislatures, ground rent is a phenomenon of markets. What's political is what we do with it. Most of us forget it's there, letting it reward speculation and sprawl. ...

How long would it take to ecologize cities after shifting its property tax? While Johannesburg (South African) levied a rate of only 3 percent on site value, it enjoyed the fastest site-recycling rate in the world, a little over 20 years. Within a couple decades, we could have those cities we'd love.

As cities grow more livable and lovable, their site values rise. The resultant increase in land dues would push owners to continually convert to highest and best use automatically. In this positive feedback loop, cities would constantly renew.

While generals and anarchists might not easily find common cause, planners and markets can, when planners paddle with, not against, the mighty current of rent. Correcting the market, so that taxes and rents no longer interfere with the choices of owners and developers, would attain highest and best use of sites automatically.  Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: Sharing Natural Rents to Sustain Human Society
To get rich, or more likely to stay rich, some of us can develop land, especially sprawling shopping centers, and extract resources, especially oil. While sprawl and oil depletion are not necessary, they are more profitable than a car-free functionally integrated city. Under the current rules of doing business, waste returns more than efficiency. We let a few privatize rent -- ground rent and resource rent -- although rent is a social surplus. As if rent were not profit enough, winners of rent have also won further state favors -- tax breaks, liability limits, subsidies, and a host of others designed to impel growth (20 major ones follow herein).

If we are to sustain our selves, our civilization, and our eco-system, we must make some hard choices about property. What we decide to do with rent, whether we let it reward our exploiting or our attaining eco-librium, matters. Imagine society waking up to the public nature of rent. Then it would collect and share its surplus that manifests as the market value of sites, resources, the spectrum, and government-granted privileges. Then we could forego taxing labor and capital. On such a level playing field, this freed market would favor efficiency - the compact city - not waste - the mall and automobile....  Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: Leaking Economic Value of Communities
Wearing pajamas outdoors in the winter, one wouldn’t expect to retain body heat. Yet, people do try to sustain community while hemorrhaging its commonwealth. Losing it, residents must work more than necessary.

When residents import food and energy, they deprive others in the community of income. Yet, the loss pales when compared to paying mortgages and [income] taxes. A recent study of Oakland, CA found torrents of dollars pumped out of town headed for the treasuries of distant capitols and the bank vaults of distant lenders.

While mortgages and interest elevate an elite elsewhere, they keep debtors on a treadmill at home. To those anxious over every next payment, how appealing is an economy no longer expanding its girth? In addition, what’s their debt for? Credit? The total savings of all members of a community should suffice. Local bank "used to" be the norm.

The other major drain, taxes, at about 40% of the average worker’s income, usually total more than the value of government services received. And who receives them? Corporate loggers, miners, factory farms, and tractor trailers. Lose such subsidies, leveling the playing field, and local recyclers, family farmers, and freight haulers could compete. Their success would plug the visible leaks - imported food, energy, and materials.

While a community might not be able to command a distant capitol to turn off the subsidies, a locality may be able to avoid federal and state taxes.
...  Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: Subsidies at Their Worst: Privileges
Money is the mother's milk of politics. Yet the milk invested by lobbyists and those they represent is a drop in the bucket compared to the flow they get back from the public tit, thanks to the milkmaid state. Politicians grant well-connected big businesses:
a. direct cash outlays, such as cash to corporations for advertising overseas,

b. lucrative contracts, such as with weaponeers et al campaign contributors, and

c. tax breaks that burden would-be competitors, such as tariffs that protect GM and Ford but not autoworkers. Even if we were to abolish subsidies (a) and taxes, eliminating the advantage of tax breaks (c), and negotiate responsible contracts (b), that'd still leave in place

d. seven subtle privileges, mere pieces of paper that government grants its customers at nowhere near market value, positioning the privileged to claim all the surplus value of society.

1. The corporate charter's salient feature is to limit the liability of those choosing to profit by putting others at risk. ...

2. Pollution permits, performance waivers, land use exemptions -- whether granted by bureaucracies, legislatures, or courts - are worth much more than however much government charges and business pays. ...

3. Patents protect the basement inventor, right? Wrong. ...

4. Utility franchises create monopolies in exchange for some public service, such as providing electricity, phone communication, etc. ...

5. Communication licenses for TV, radio, cell phones, and the like are given away for free or for far less than market value, turning recipients into "instant billionaires" (the business press gleefully notes). ...

6. Resource leases for public oil, minerals, forests, and grazing land, are often let at "fire-sale" prices. ...

7. Land titles do protect the average homeowners but because they cost virtually nothing (a paltry filing fee often about $2.00), they also protect enormously wealthy absentee landlords. ... 

Land titles are the granddaddy of all privileges. Historically, titles preceded all others and created a class of elite owners with the power to win the six other indirect subsidies, along with the more direct ones – grants, contracts, and tax favors. To undo and reverse this history, it's necessary to collect and share the natural rents from all seven inconspicuous privileges.

For these pieces of paper, government should charge full market value. ... 

Getting a Citizens Dividend would not only eliminate poverty, it'd also erase any rationale for subsidies - direct or indirect - to the poor or to the privileged. Repealing the free ride of privileges would be like repealing capitalism. Without those subtle detours imposed upon public revenue, owners would have to work to amass a fortune, and work is one of the worst ways known to strike it rich.

What you can do: Dry up the milkmaid state. Dispense with the notion that the state must meddle in enterprise. Dispense the notion from others, too. Focus government on its lone raison d'etre - defend rights. Demand your right to a fair share of natural revenue. ...  Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: The Property Tax Shift

Jeff Smith: What To Do About the Real Estate Bubble
What’s bubbling, and until when?

Sellers are happy. So are developers and speculators. Real estate has gone all bubbly, and that bubble has gone ballistic. What goes up, however, must soon do something else. ...

Actually, it’s not housing whose price has entered the stratosphere. Buildings age – get older, more worn out. What’s getting more valuable is the land, the location – whether it has a building on it or not. Buildings you can make more of, but land you can not, especially locations along the coasts or on the good side of town. None of that would matter if you could ever get buildings to hover around in the air. Meanwhile however, speculators are happy.

... What’s seemingly good for landowners is not necessarily good for the economy. As people spend more on land, something nobody produced, they spend less on output, things people do produce. As producers get less money spent on their products, eventually they take the hint and produce less. "Produce less" is another way of spelling recession.

Plus, more expensive land means heavier borrowing to buy it. More debt means more inflation and less stability. When producers cut back, borrowers have a much harder time paying back their debts. As people go bankrupt, they drag others down with them. A collapsing house of cards is another way of spelling depression.

Preventing bubbles?

If land values didn’t get inflated, of course they would not have to get deflated.Call it mutual compensation for deprivation from part of our common natural heritage. While in rhythmic systems, prices must rise and fall, but they need not boom then bust; they could climb then glide. What would temper economies, preventing bubbles? Rather than let a few lucky owners collect land values, neighbors would have to recover land values for themselves. Nobody made land, and no lone owner made its value; the presence of society in general did that. Plus, for excluding everyone else from their sites, owners owe everyone else, as each one of us owes everyone for excluding them.

To recover land value, government could either transform the property tax into a land tax or replace it and other taxes with land dues or land use fees or an annual deed fee. ...

To pay the land dues, owners use their land efficiently; owners who had been speculating get busy and develop. No longer allowed to tax anything that moves, local governments, too, which presently let acres of abandoned urban land and buildings lie fallow, get busy, too, and make sure to get those acres into the hands of ambitious owners who’ll pay land dues. More locations put to use and more buildings put up increases supply, which dampens price.

Better still, as government recovers land rent, that leaves owners with less land rent to capitalize into land price. Hence buyers need not borrow so much.  ...

Land would still rise in value. With every discovery of a nearby natural resource. With the opening of every new bridge. With every techno-advance, as silicon wafers did for Silicon Valley. With every jump in income and drop in crime, land value rises. But no longer into a bubble. Because every rise would find its way – via land dues and rent dividends – into everyone’s pockets. ...

If the 18-year average holds for this cycle, then real estate still has a few more years of sucking all the investments and purchasing power out of the rest of the economy. Land is still able to soak it all up, and lenders are still willing to pump more in. So despite the premature panic (markets almost never do what everybody says they’re going to do), Mankiw’s 2007 would be the earliest that the current bubble would burst, and 2008 is just as likely.

Then land prices will fall for a few years. Since the run-up was steep, the drop will be, too – after correcting for inflation, maybe as much as 50%. Which will be an enormous relief for the economy – just what the doctor ordered. With land affordable again, a new cycle can get under way. Whether the new one will be boom and bust or climb and glide is up to us, whether we’re willing to practice geonomics, to forego taxes and subsidies in favor of land dues and a Citizens Dividend.

While I don’t mind the current gambling, I do mind the widening of the cavernous gulf between haves and have-nots, and I boil over while workweek grows more onerous, and just seethe watching vacant lots and abandoned buildings push development out from urban cores to sprawl on suburban farmland. To reverse that, let’s let go of the individual owner’s hold on land rent and share Earth’s worth equitably among us all. We’ll all be glad we did. ...  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