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Capital Gains — or Land Gains?
Everett Gross: Explaining Rent
Michael Hudson: The Lies of the Land: How and why land gets undervalued
Turning land-value gains into capital gains
YOU MAY THINK the largest category of assets in this countrly is industrial plant and machinery. In fact the US Federal Reserve Board's annual balance sheet shows real estate to be the economy's largest asset, two-thirds of America's wealth and more than 60 percent of that in land, depending on the assessment method.
Most capital gains are land-value gains. The big players do not want their profits in rent, which is taxed as ordinary income, but in capital gains, taxed at a lower rate. To benefit as much as possible from today's real estate bubble of fast rising land values they pledge a property's rent income to pay interest on the debt for as much property as they can buy with as little of their own money as possible. After paying off the mortgage lender they sell the property and get to keep the "capital gain".
This price appreciation is actually a "land gain", that is, it's not from providing start-up capital for new enterprises, but from sitting on a rising asset already in place, the land. Its value rises because neighbourhoods are upgraded, mortgage money is ample, and rezoning is favorable from farmland on the outskirts of cities to gentrification of the core to create high-income residential developments. The potential capital gain can be huge. That's why developers are willing to pay their mortgage lenders so much of their rent income, often all of it.
Of course, investing most surplus income and wealth in land has been going on ever since antiquity, and also pledging one's land for debt ("mortgaging the homestead") that often led to its forfeiture to creditors or to forced sale under distress conditions. Today borrowing against land is a path to getting rich -- before the land bubble bursts. As economies have grown richer, most of their surplus is still being spent acquiring real property, both for prestige and because its flow of rental income grows as society's prosperity grows. That's why lenders find real estate to be the collateral of choice.
Most new entries into the Forbes or Fortune lists of the richest men consist of real estate billionaires, or individuals coming from the fuels and minerals industries or natural monopolies. Those who have not inherited family fortunes have gained their wealth by borrowing money to buy assets that have soared in value. Land may not be a factor of production, but it enables its owners to assert claims of ownership and obligation, i.e., rentier income in the forms of rent and interest. Read the whole articleMichael Hudson and Kris Feder: Real Estate and the Capital Gains Debate
Capital gains taxation has been a divisive issue in Congress at least since the debates surrounding the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which, aiming to eliminate tax loopholes and shelters and preferences, repealed preferentially low tax rates for long-term gains.1 To bring effective capital gains tax rates back down again was President Bush’s “top priority in tax policy.“2 In 1989, Senate Democrats blocked a determined drive to reduce effective tax rates on the part of Bush, Republican Senators Packwood, Dole and others, and a few Democratic allies.3 The administration argued that the tax cuts would stimulate economic growth and induce asset sales, thereby actually increasing federal tax revenues; Congressional Democrats countered that the plan benefited mainly the wealthy, and that tax revenues would in fact decline.4 The Joint Committee on Taxation projected that budget shortfalls beginning in 1991 would sum to about $24 billion by 1994 -- and that most of the direct benefits would go to individuals with over $200,000 in taxable income. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said that a third of the savings would be enjoyed by those with gross incomes over one million dollars. Read the whole articleMason Gaffney: Full Employment, Growth And Progress On A Small Planet: Relieving Poverty While Healing The Earth
They err even more egregiously, and tendentiously, in making their favorite cause the exemption of “capital gains” from taxation. I put “capital gains” in quotes because most capital gains are land value gains (Gaffney, 1990). “Capital gains” is one of those slippery euphemisms that P.R. people came up with, and the media circulate, to camouflage unearned increments as functional incentives and rewards for creating capital, and investing it in income-creating ways. It’s a way of controlling us by corrupting the language. A tragedy of modern Georgism is how easily its Philadelphia convention, during the first Bush Administration, was stampeded into memorializing Congress to repeal the capital gains tax. A convention of land speculators could have done no worse. Most modern Georgists simply did not understand, or seem to care to understand, how the income tax works. There has been some progress since then; but still, they need to wake up and smell the coffee. Read the whole article
Mason Gaffney: The Partiality of Indexing Capital Gains
We surely agree with Roberts et al. that domestic capital formation is a crying current need; and the means is to foster saving and investing (but properly defined, as below). We also agree there is a strong, bi-partisan case for raising investment flows of the income-creating, work-activating kind. Here, however, we meet the problem of distinguishing new capital from old assets, especially land.
Land is not formed, like capital, by saving and investment; land is not reproducible. For that very reason land tends to appreciate, and therefore has to be a major source of what are misleadingly called "capital" gains. Again for that very reason, there is no supply-side kick in untaxing gains. Most of them are land gains, and should be called that. To use land as a store of value is macro-economically unproductive at best, and on balance counterproductive and destabilizing (considering its effect on financial institutions like the S&Ls).
To handle this matter we need two semantic distinctions which often are lost in the word-fencing of debate. Walter Heller, whose policies still enjoy bi-partisan support, thought and spoke in a Keynesian framework where "investment" means "investing," an affirmative, job-making action. It is a process, not a store of value; an economic flow, not a fund. It is not the asset held: this "investment" is a noun, macro-economically static and sterile. [Land may appreciate, and one may call this "investment," but the appreciation employs no one and creates no new wealth (although it may reflect the externalities of wealth created by others). ]
To signalize these differences I use the present participle "investing," rather than the ambiguous noun "investment." [Webster's 9th New Collegiate defines investment both ways: it is an action, (the Keynesian usage); it is also an asset being held, a store of value. Such a two-faced word is a natural medium for double-talk, and has been so exploited, to the detriment of general understanding.] ...
As to borrowing on land, that can be worse than barren when the financial system rises and falls on a land bubble, as it has and is.
Heller and his contemporaries also knew that the incentive driving job-making investing is MRORAT, the Marginal Rate of Return after Taxes. [Economists of the 1960s, following Keynes, called it the MEC, or "Marginal Efficiency of Capital," an awkward phrase now little used. Awkward or not, and intended or not, it had great historical consequence by putting the emphasis where it belongs, on marginal rates of return, excluding rents.]
The marginal idea is pivotal. The Average ROR includes rents; the Marginal ROR is the pure return to new investment, Keynes' "inducement to invest," which is activating and functional.
These Heller ideas were invoked again by supply-siders in early Reagan times. However, policy over the course of the 80s lost the substance of that policy, keeping only the guise. Domestic leaders forgot the usage of "investment" in macro-economics.
They gradually slipped into an illusion that buying and holding and bidding up old assets like non-reproduceable lands and stocks would make jobs and produce goods. They forgot to distinguish old from new assets, and marginal from average returns on investment (average returns, recall, include rents). Both critics and supporters of "supply-side" policies now darken counsel by debating current policies in supply-side terms, when the terms no longer describe the policy at issue.
Along with normal confusion, there is intelligence behind such error. The case for downtaxing gains depends in part on exploiting confusion, in order to pass off rent-raising as an incentive for saving and investing, and so to disguise its non-functionality and eminent taxability. The policy is called "supply side," but isn't.
The litmus test of the sincerity of capital-formation champions is their treatment of irreproduceable land. Raising rents and land prices, and protecting the gains from taxation, is purely distributive, with no power to foster saving and investing. On the contrary, a higher share for rent and/or land purchase must mean a lower share for the investor in new capital.
Ignoring land and its distinctive attributes has the effect of treating land as though it were true, reproduceable capital, to be formed by saving and investing, to be routinely worn out and replaced in the normal course of life and business. It lets advocates of investing and capital formation abuse the legitimate case for macro incentives, exploiting the case to camouflage unearned, nonfunctional rents and increments to land value.[Brookings' major contribution to our subject is Henry Aaron (ed), 1976, Inflation and the Income Tax, with chapters by 15 eminent economists. Land is treated by none and is not in the index. [It is mentioned in passing only by one, George Lent.]]
Tantamount to ignoring land is minimizing its weight. Thus one may acknowledge it indulgently, while actually dismissing it. In fact, though, land comprises some half the assessed value of taxable real estate in California, and is not dismissable. Half the assessed value means more than half the market value because of assessment discrimination favoring land. A raft of studies of assessment discrimination, like the sales/assessment ratio studies of the U.S. Census, show consistent patterns of discrimination favoring land. In addition to ordinary assessment discrimination there is much legislated underassessment, for land in forest, farm, country club, and other favored uses.
[An interesting recent case involves Charles H. Keating, Jr. of Arizona. He and Kemper Marley posed as farmers to secure "millions of dollars in agricultural tax breaks on land they planned to develop." The breaks result from lower assessed land values for "farmers." [Steve Yozwiak, "Land-tax bill OK reached," The Arizona Republic, 13 April 89.] ...
Most states legislate similar loopholes, widely used by suburban land speculators. More generally, the effect in California of Prop. 13 is to keep much land assessed not much above its 1978 valuation.] If that data were not enough, most of us resident in California have been through one or more years since 1976 when the value of our homes alone rose by more than our annual salaries. ...
Considering the true nature of most "capital" gains, it is not surprising that economists have not come forward with claims of large macro benefits from untaxing gains. The CBO, using a Washington University Model, recently estimated that excluding 30% of gains from the income tax base would raise GNP by only "0.1%" - a number well below the accuracy of any macro model, and effectively zero. James Poterba last year came up with another figure near zero. ... read the whole articleMason Gaffney: Property Tax: Biases and Reforms
Priority #1. Safeguarding the property tax
Priority #2: Enforce Good Laws
Priority #3. De-Balkanize Tax Enclaves
Priority #4. What Tax to Fight First?
Priority #5: Make Landowners Pay Their Taxes
The solution is to make the regressive taxes pinch landowners. The income tax, when new, was designed to do exactly that. Georgists like Congressman Henry George, Jr. and Warren Worth Bailey took the lead in shaping it to do so. Over time, though, it has changed into mainly a payroll tax, and as it changed it became increasingly popular with landowners. It served their greed and became the clarion call of their constant clamor for "property tax relief."
In 1942 Congress excluded 50 percent of "capital" gains from taxable income, and broadened the definition of "capital" assets. As top-bracket rates on "ordinary" income rose above 50 percent, Congress capped capital gains rates at 25 percent. Meantime, wage-taxwithholding was sold as a wartime measure - "We must all do our duty." College professors were dutifully indoctrinating their students that the income tax is the perfect tax: fair, progressive, allocationally neutral, all at once.
Then income tax rates went wild, going as high as 92 percent on "ordinary" income (but capped at 25 percent for capital gains). Federal and state income taxes became the mainstay of public finance. Owners of income property soon learned to avoid almost all income taxes by claiming short tax lives by which fictitious inflated depreciation write-offs offset all their cash flow. Once a property has exhausted its depreciation "basis," owner A sells the property to owner B, who depreciates it all over again, and so on through several rounds. The only "recapture" of this excess depreciation is when A sells to B for a capital gain; in effect, the rent of income property shows up as "capital gains." This tax burden is minimized by keeping rates low on capital gains.
Many who think of themselves as "Georgists" have shut their eyes to this important matter. Some simply declare a pox on all forms of income tax. Others even join the hue and cry for exempting capital gains, specifically and preferentially, from income tax. These positions are, I submit, foolish. So long as we have an income tax that treats land income kindlier and gentler than wage and salary and interest income, so long will we have perpetual clamor for "property tax relief" by shifting the burden to incomes, until no burden remains to shift - a condition we are approaching in half the states. Read the whole article
Mason Gaffney: Sounding the Revenue Potential of Land: Fifteen Lost Elements
Correcting for downward bias in standard data
c. Use of “NIPA” accounts from the U.S. Department of Commerce
The standard source of data on GNP and its components is the National Income and Product Account (NIPA), kept and published regularly by the U.S. Department of Commerce. When it comes to rent, however, NIPA depends on the IRS figures, which thus are passed along to all students of economics as the “official” accounting. We have just seen how far from reality these data are.
NIPA is worse, in a way, because NIPA explicitly excludes “capital gains” from National Income. That is, first the IRS converts rents into capital gains, and then NIPA banishes capital gains from GNP, National Income, and National Product. “Capital gains” is an artificial term, that includes all gains realized from the sale of what Congress defines at any time as “capital assets.” “Capital assets” include land and improvements, housing, common stock, growing timber, breeding herds (including race and show and riding horses), mineral and hydrocarbon reserves in the ground, and several other favorite holdings of the rich and well-connected. As we saw in “b”, most commercial rents show up as capital gains, so that NIPA does not report them at all. Then along come highly visible economists like Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow, Theodore Schultz, Edwin Mills, Jan Pen, and others to look up this datum, and declare that land rents are no more than 5% of national income, and cannot possibly support modern governments. This is unfortunate, and quite misleading.
NIPA is better by virtue of its making a gesture at including the imputed value of owner-occupied housing. Whether they do it right is a question on my agenda. Read the whole article
Nic Tideman: Land Taxation and Efficient Land Speculation
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper