Wealth and Want
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Should some of us subsidize others? Under what circumstances? Should the wealthy subsidize the poor? More important, is it right for the poor to subsidize the wealthy?

Is there a difference between subsidizing those who can't meet their own needs (because of health or developmental problems, for example) and subsidizing those who have managed to gain some advantage over the rest of us (because of their ownership of land or natural resources, for example)?

John Dewey: Steps to Economic Recovery

You have heard much about various steps that should be taken to promote economic recovery. I propose this evening to concentrate attention upon one step, a step absolutely fundamental to permanent recovery of the sick patient, as distinct from remedies that dope the patient into a temporary hectic burst of activity; a step so simple and so basic as to be generally neglected.

The one thing uppermost in the minds of everybody today is the appalling existence of want in the midst of plenty, of millions of unemployed in the midst of idle billions of hoarded money and unused credit, as well as factories and mills deteriorating for lack of use, of hunger while farmers are burning grain for fuel.

No wonder people are asking what sort of a crazy economic system we have when at a time when millions are short of adequate food, when babies are going without the milk necessary for their growth, the best remedy that experts can think of and that the Federal Government can recommend is to pay a premium to farmers to grow less grain with which to make flour to feed the hungry, and pay a premium to dairymen to send less milk to market.

Henry George called attention to this situation over fifty years ago. The contradiction between increasing plenty, increase of potential security — and actual want and insecurity is stated in the title of his chief work, Progress and Poverty. That is what his book is about. It is a record of the fact that as the means and appliances of civilization increase, poverty and insecurity also increase. It is an exploration of why millionaires and tramps multiply together. It is a prediction of why this state of affairs will continue; it is a prediction of the plight in which the nation finds itself to-day. At the same time it is the explanation of why this condition is artificial, man-made, unnecessary, and how it can be remedied. So I suggest that as a beginning of the first steps to permanent recovery there be a nationwide revival of interest in the writings and teachings of Henry George and that there be such an enlightenment of public opinion that our representatives in legislatures and public places be compelled to adopt the changes he urged. ... read the whole speech


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

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.

Now suppose this $20,000 and all the rest of this same community product — i.e., the site or location rent of its ground — were paid every year to its rightful owner, the treasurer of New York City, what would become of taxation, with its inseparable retinue, Fraud, Evasion, Perjury, Inequality, and an all-pervading public sense of injustice? ... read the whole article


Mason Gaffney: Land as a Distinctive Factor of Production

Las Vegas, not a typical city, is the largest I know of that indeed grows in worthless desert.  Here another factor stands out clearly: new lands are peripheral and only imperfect, partial substitutes for central land.  The city must range farther for water, power, waste disposal, raw materials and markets.

The high marginal cost of adding to spreading cities, and the low true net value of the additions, are concealed, in our culture, by an elaborate and pervasive system of subsidies and cross-subsidies built into our institutions and political power structures.  These drain the old centers to feed the fringes.  In a systemwide accounting we find the true social cost of urban sprawl as we know it today to exceed the gains at the margins.  We are not so much adding land to cities as wasting capital, dissipating central rents to do it.  Thus the private rent gradient and resulting land-value gradient that we observe in the marketplace is much flatter than the true gradient that is hidden under the subsidies.  Even so, the visible gradient remains impressive: values rise to $2,000/psf in San Francisco, Chicago and Manhattan, and $25,000/psf in Tokyo.

Land of rare and limited qualities is often the basis of market control: retail sites, rights-of-way, rare ores, water rights, are familiar examples.  Even land of less rare qualities is often used for market control.  American farm output is controlled by means of acreage limitations; Texas and now OPEC oil production by oil well protates; and so on. Read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: Nonpoint Pollution: Tractable Solutions to Intractable Problems
The Special Challenge to Economic Thinking
The Search for Surrogates
Sources of Nonpoint Pollution
What Problems are Created?
What Problems are Unsolved by Excise Taxes on Surrogates?
The Case of Forestry
The Case of Urban Settlement
The Case of Agriculture
The Common Theme from Forest, City and Farm

...  In fact, land use decisions are superimposed on a settlement pattern based on massive market failure in land.  The phenomena rather imprecisely called "land speculation" and "absentee ownership" betray market failure; and no one disputes there is massive regulatory failure in pricing and subsidizing transportation, which in turn determine land rents and values.  Result: the land market is not efficient; land is not properly priced and allocated to begin with.  This is the thread I will follow, although it may run afoul of The Great Secular Superstition.   ...

Part of any solution here is to stop subsidizing dredging.  Subeconomic harbors would close; others would finance their own dredging, with this bonus for the welfare of all: they would redirect their lobbying budgets from the zero-sum game of soliciting federal funds to the constructive game of promoting runoff control.  

Sediment also silts up reservoirs; and again we have too many, thanks to a long history of subsidizing water supply in western states.  That is the pork you trade us for all those tiny harbors.  We make it worse by penalizing water conservation ("use-it-or-lose-it" is the rule).  

The lobbies and the engineers don't see it that way, of course, but then that is part of the problem, isn't it?  We are so used to living and learning under the logic of the lobbies that we, the rightful heirs of Emerson and Thoreau, are conditioned to reject our own direct perceptions.  

In the logic of true values we should probably put more weight on other damages, such as that land is sterilized, and people are poisoned.  Species are destroyed or constricted, leaving the natural world to surviving coyotes, crows and sparrows.  High‑grading the forests leaves weed trees to inherit the earth, a form of genetic pollution.  ...

Several writers treat salt runoff lightly.  It may be of small concern in this region, but it is of monumental moment in the arid west.  Downstream water becomes unusable, and water pooling and exchanging, from which so many economies could result, become much harder to negotiate ("my water is better than your water," etc.).  

While we can't blame Washington for everything, it has a lot to answer for here.  Much salt runoff comes from Federally subsidized water.  Kesterson Refuge is poisoned by runoff from the Westlands Water District, irrigated under heavy Federal subsidy from the Central Valley Project (in spite of its long and notorious violation of acreage limitation provisions of the Reclamation Act).  The worst problem on the Colorado is salt runoff from the Wellton-Mohawk project, near Yuma, a subeconomic boondoggle from start to finish.  All extant Colorado River salt problems are now aggravated by the subsidized Central Arizona Project.   ...

Farming manifests the same problem as forests and cities.  Public policy suppresses full use of the best lands while subsidizing use and abuse of marginal lands.  As we said of urban sprawl, the more land in use, the more runoff.  Here are some elements that cause "agricultural sprawl." 
a) Urban sprawl takes the best land out of farming.   ...
b) Land retirement programs ...  put good land on ice to support prices.  Under the resulting "price umbrella," marginal land enters production.  This is classic cartel behavior.  
c) Surpluses are destroyed at home, or dumped (sold below cost) abroad, under Federal subsidy.  
d) Some crops associated with high erosion receive strong support or protection: wheat, corn, cotton and sugarbeets, for example.  
e) SCS funds are not allocated by need, but per Senator.  ...
f) We raise a farmer's property tax assessment for installing a truly conserving device like a Harvestore — it is so visible.

Meantime we subsidize new and submarginal lands in dozens of ways.  But on the farm as in the city, the more land, the more runoff.  I have cited the Feds for the Westlands Water District draining into Kesterson Refuge, and the Wellton-Mohawk Project draining into the Colorado River.  

The State of California is as bad.  The whole arid southwest quarter of the Great Central Valley is being brought into cultivation using subsidized water from the California Water Project's Westside Canal.  Promoters there have discovered another treadmill effect, the "groundwater treadmill" of local-depletion-and-state-rescue, a treadmill that seems good for any number of cycles.  But salt runoff has reached such a pass that the next rescue requirement will be a "brine line" to the sea, a line whose outlet is as sought-for as a nuclear waste dump.  

South of the Tehachapis the MWD has its own variation, the Mulholland cycle.  MWD frightens city voters with drought forecasts, secures entitlements to excess water, and dumps it on surrounding deserts to enrich land speculators there.  While waiting for urban sprawl to reach them they farm with the mindset of short-term tenants, caring nothing for soil conservation or permanent farm improvements.  

Mulholland began the game in 1913, storing Owens Valley water in the San Fernando Valley (remember Chinatown with Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson?)  It was too good not to replay; there have been several Sons of Chinatown.  MWD is now watering an "avocado crescent" 200 miles north-south, with groves on slopes up to 45 degrees.  

Will pesticide taxation control those problems?  Rather, toxic runoff is just another of several reasons why we must face up to radical review of our political-economic treadmills, driven as they are by what TIME Magazine has called The Great American System of Public Works for Private Profit.   Read the entire article

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 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.
On a level field, recycling would roll over extraction of virgin material. We could spare forests and salmon and have a healthier eco system. Look at restoration. Money has to come from the public treasury but we could look at it as public investment. Pay for restoration and land values increase, so land dividends would increase. Direct investment benefits the entire public.

Now the public is paying for private parties. That is not fair. ... 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. ...  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

Fred Foldvary: Geo-Rent: A Plea to Public Economists

Land values in many parts of the United States are very high, and one reason is supply-side restrictions. But much of the value reflects the capitalization of amenities. Today, government works are financed in large part by taxes on labor, profits, sales, and non-land real estate. The owners of land receive an implicit subsidy. This implicit subsidy is of great empirical importance, yet is not discussed in microeconomics textbooks, and is usually ignored in the tax analysis in public finance.... Read the entire article


Fred E. Foldvary — The Ultimate Tax Reform: Public Revenue from Land Rent

The rental value of oil, minerals, and water is more complex. Government often subsidizes water, especially to agriculture, selling below cost, whereas efficient provision would base the price on the market price, often above cost, the extra amount being rent. Offshore oil leases are commonly bid on by companies, and the bids are basically the rent they pay for the leases. There can also be extraction fees that take the rent as the raw material is taken out. Such fees can be paid for taking natural resources such as timber and wildlife. ...

How to make the transition

The switch to land value taxation will affect most significantly those who own land at the time of the transition. These are the persons who have been subsidized, receiving site rental and land value from civic works paid for mostly by taxes on wages when earned or spent. But even many landowners would not see their total tax burden rise. Their wages, profits, interest, and consumption would all become untaxed, and taxes on their buildings and other improvements would be eliminated. ...

The collection of land rent for public revenue reconciles the individual and the community. The community and its government no longer intrude into the individual’s private life and stifle his or her pursuit of economic well being. The tax on land value is not a tax in substance, but only in the form of payments to government. In substance, the payment is a sharing of the benefits provided by community and nature, and a payment for the services that generate the value of the land. If this payment is not made by the landholder, the services become a subsidy, producing a value not returned to the community. ... read the whole document

Fred Foldvary: Underprivileged or Rights-Deprived?

Poor folk are often labeled "underprivileged" and richer folk are called "privileged." For example, there is a book titled "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All." But "privileged" and "underprivileged" are confused and misleading expressions. If you think the poor are "underprivileged," then you don't really understand poverty.

What is a "privilege?" The term originally meant "private law." A privilege is a special advantage or prerogative or immunity or benefit given only to some people only because they have power or are favored by those with power. If everyone is entitled to something, like freedom of expression, or if everyone may obtain an item such as a passport with the same rules applying to all, then it is not a privilege but a right.

Whether a rich person is "privileged" depends on how he got the money.  ...

So if a person is poor, it is not because he is lacking in special protections, subsidies, and other privileges. A person is usually poor because he has been deprived of the natural right to work. Governments world-wide impose barriers between labor and productive resources, keeping some workers deprived of labor and others who do work deprived of their earnings from labor.

Taxes on wages create a wedge between the cost of labor to employers and the take-home pay of the worker. More costly labor results in less employment. Taxes on the income from capital goods and on the sale of goods has the same effect. There are unemployment taxes, disability taxes, and payroll taxes that increase the tax wedge. On top of that, there are minimum-wage laws that prevent the least productive workers from getting hired. There are permits, zoning, and other rules and costs that also prevent some workers from becoming self-employed.

Deprived of the full natural right to peaceful enterprise and labor, and the natural right to fully keep one's earnings, the poor have little or no income, and depend on charity and governmental assistance. To call them "underprivileged" is a lie. The rights-deprived poor do not need privileges. They just need government to stop interfering with their right to work and save!

The biggest privilege world-wide is subsidies to landowners.  ...

Some also consider a corporation to be a privilege, since the firm has a charter from a government.  ...

Real privileges are favors arbitrarily given to some groups and not others.  ...

The really underprivileged folks are all consumers, taxpayers and those who are restricted from peaceful and honest practices or have to pay extra to the government while others are unrestricted and non-taxed. These people lack privileges which others have. The proper remedy is not to expand privileges, but to eliminate all governmental privileges. That is why libertarians and geoists alike have the motto: "Equal rights for all; privileges for none!" Read the whole article

Bill Batt: The Nexus of Transportation, Economic Rent, and Land Use
... The failure to collect site rent leads to a distortion in land use configurations. If patterns unfolded along the lines of both social preference and economic efficiency, high value landsites would tend to have high value buildings, and low value landsites would tend to be vacant or have very modest buildings. Consistent with this, urban centers sites would tend to have office and commercial use, surrounded by lower-value residential land uses, and still further out would be farms and forests. The ratio of building to land value, land to total value (or for that matter any other ratio between buildings, land, and total values) would be relatively constant throughout a region. Instead, the ratio of land value to total value consistently tends to reveal a patchwork of random development. This inefficient settlement of land sites is what we know as sprawl.

Land Rent is Capitalized Transportation Cost
There is another dimension to the distortion of land use in contemporary life. That is the heavy subsidy granted to motor vehicle transportation services. Estimates are that the typical driver pays only about a tenth of the true cost of his travel; society picks up the rest. This profuse subsidy paid to private automobile and truck transportation further encourages people to locate on sites at far greater distances from where they would choose than if they had to pay the full burden of that travel. ...

This relationship has been demonstrated more empirically in a recent study by the Urban Land Institute. The author concluded that, for Portland Oregon,

each additional mile [traveled] translated into slightly more than $5,000 in housing costs; closer-in locations command a premium, those farther out save money. A ten-mile difference, all other things being equal, would amount to about $56,000 in new home value.

For a household in which one worker drives downtown (or at least to a more central location) to work, that ten-mile difference may amount to 4,600 miles annually, assuming 230 days of commuting and a round-trip of 20 miles each day. Moreover, if non-work trips to the central area and elsewhere doubled that amount, the tradeoff would be about 9,000 miles annually, which could mean a higher/lower driving cost of $3,000 annually, not counting the time saved/spent.(7)

That's the savings for living closer to the urban center by ten miles. If the urban resident has to rely upon a car nonetheless, subtracting some $3,000 annual travel expenses will still leave him paying again that much, and likely more, to own a car. Seven years ago James Kunstler put the true costs along with other experts at about $6,100 annually.(8) The American Automobile Association calculated that a car driven 15,000 miles in 2001 cost 51¢ per mile or $7,650.(9) Even that figure reflects only direct costs to the driver, not those passed on to society. One study calculated that the total costs of motor vehicle transportation to our society equal approximately one-fourth of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).(10) In 1991 road user fees totaled only about $33 billion whereas the true costs to society were ten times that;(11) put another way, drivers paid only 10% of the true costs of their motor vehicle use.(12) ...

Correcting Distortions by Pricing: Increasing the Collection of Land Rent
Recovering the economic rent from urban parcels helps people to appreciate the true costs of the transportation versus location trade-off. It brings the carrying costs of site choices back to the present time and makes them comparable with travel choices. The payment of site rent becomes an operating cost. The other corrective policy needed is to raise transportation costs to a level commensurate with their full value as private goods. Transportation user fees, in the form of motor fuel taxes, green taxes, congestion fees, and administrative costs (for the administration of drivers' licenses and registration fees) could easily provide the needed price corrections to bring into balance marginal transportation costs and land rent collection. Doing so would equilibrate choices between people living and working in high rent urban centers and those in peripheral low rent (but higher travel cost) locales.

Figure 2 shows how a tax on land value (or alternatively the tax on land rent) coupled with the proper design of transportation fees can equilibrate the competitive advantage of markets in urban areas relative to suburbs, thereby reducing, and perhaps even reversing, the centrifugal forces of sprawl development. The land tax cannot alone redress the problem, especially so long as such inordinate social subsidies are granted to private motor vehicle transportation services. Nor can transportation fees, raised to a level fully commensurate with the social and private costs they incur, alone ensure that the price of locations will be matched. But to the extent that both are assessed, they reach far toward correcting this disequilibrium. One could even argue that all site rent should be recaptured by society and that all transportation costs that are identifiable as consumption of private goods should be priced accordingly. Some advocates even suggest that doing so will not only foster economic efficient behavior but also provide sufficient revenue for a citizen's dividend consistent with economic justice.... read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: Cannan's Law
Perverse fiscal federalism is DEsocialization of rent -- creating new private rents using public monies wrung from workers. This is inherent in grants for capital spending, e.g. for sewerage; and tax exemption of muni bonds. These are given to municipalities as such. That is only a step away from returning dollars to landowners as such, because municipalities are defined as areas of land, a group of local landowners. Desocialization is inherent in farm subsidies, e.g. payments to fallow land, using tax money from workers. It is inherent in preferential assessment of farmland, e.g. California's Williamson Act, where the state pays localities for their lost tax revenues from underutilizing lands. It is inherent in the use of property-tax exemptions to subsidize many underutilizations of land and hobbies of the rich, like redundant airports for private jets, cemeteries, golf courses, campuses, church parking lots, conservation easements, timber, etc. Some of these may foster socially defensible uses, but note it is the lands, not the personnel, that are tax-exempted. ...read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: Economics in Support of Environmentalism
Sprawl is not the product of free choice
A favorite fallacy is that sprawl results from free individual choice. In fact, sprawl results mainly from subsidies to sprawl, enforced through taxation and/or utility rate regulation. Thus it is imposed, not freely chosen. The classic case, which exemplifies the whole genus, is postal service. It costs you 29¢ to send a letter across the street downtown, or from rural Idaho to rural Florida. The generic name for such subsidies to sprawl is "postage-stamp pricing" (a species of spatial cross-subsidy), which gives you the idea.

In British Columbia, people move around a good deal by car-ferry, because of the terrain. The Provincial Government ("The Crown Provincial") runs the system. There are many lovely little islands in the Straits of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, favored by the wealthy, the exclusive and reclusive. Being more sybaritic than Henry D. Thoreau, and politically puissant, they have demanded and received car-ferry service. This service costs about $10 for every $1 in revenue. The resulting deficit is covered by raising rates on the main plebeian line, Victoria-Vancouver. Naturally, these cheap ferries attract new visitors to the islands, and new demand for land there. ...

The public pays twice
Let's go back to those Channel Islands in British Columbia, with subsidized car-ferries. Naturally, as I said, these cheap ferries attract new visitors to the islands, and new demand for land there. Developers and hopeful subdividers bid up land prices. This is not what the old settlers had in mind: their environment is threatened, including the habitat of endangered species. They appeal to the Crown, which subsidizes their ferries, to help them preserve land for habitat.

They want the government to buy some of it, paying the high prices created by the ferry subsidy, to keep it from use by people who might use the ferries. Thus the government would pay twice: to subsidize the ferries, and then to retire the land at the high prices made possible by the ferries. Failing that, they want the Crown to downzone most of it. The landowners are not charged when the ferries raise their asking prices, but demand compensation when downzoned.

Here, in microcosm, is the American problem with sprawl and habitat. Multiply that ferry subsidy a thousand times, and you have the Great American System of Public Works and Services for Private Gain. First the public pays to bring urban demand to remote lands; now the landowners, the spoiled children of the national family, demand to be paid again for downzoning or selling that same land to preserve habitat. They demand payment not to cash in on the opportunities we just gave them free.

Thus far, it is true, the courts have let us downzone without compensating. However, now a storm has gathered. Proposition 300, on the ballot in Arizona, demands compensation for downzoning - it is aimed at the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. There is a movement in Congress to compensate for any Federal regulation that devalues land by more than 50%. It is led by Congressman Billy Tauzin, a Democrat from Louisiana. You can imagine what a more conservative Congress might do. Speculative landowners may soon get everything they demand, leaving heavy debts to which their light tax payments now contribute very little.

Proactive solutions
How do we dig out from this one?
  • I'll repeat: go with the flow of cutting public spending by cutting down subsidies to urban sprawl. They are a major source of the problem. We'll never win the environmental fight until those subsidies are withdrawn.
  • A second proactive solution is to motivate and help the owners of good land to sell or develop it. To help them, make infilling a positive goal. If you put impost fees on new buildings, do so only in outlying areas that require new public services, not on new buildings that help renew places like South Central L.A. If you ration sewer hookups, save them for central land with street improvements already in place.

Those are the carrots. A good stick is also needed. We have seen how leapfrogging results from the scattered locations of motivated sellers. We can motivate sellers near-in, and in compact increments as we expand spatially, by raising land taxes there. Proposition 13 makes this difficult, but not impossible: many special assessments have the essential motivating quality of land taxes, with a different legal form, that exempts them from Proposition 13.

I could wax rhapsodic about the results to expect from such taxation, but have done so elsewhere and will leave it with a word: visit Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Copenhagen, or Johannesburg, which have made use of this principle to excellent effect.... read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: 18 Fallacies
6. "You can't stop a landowner from pumping on his own land"

Wrong! You can even control his hunting and fishing there, and apply police power. As to pumping, it depends on whether he owns what is under his land.

If it is oil, we all know mineral rights are routinely severed from surface rights by sale, reservation or lease. Water can be subject to constraints, too.

Limits on pumping water are not as common or severe as Huey Johnson and I think they should be, but they do exist. In coastal areas, pumping is limited and/or taxed to stop salt water intrusion.

Further inland, pumping can be stopped to control movement of toxic plumes that destroy valuable aquifers: this is done in the Bunker Hill aquifer under the Santa Ana River, threatened with fouling by toxins from Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino.

Pumping is routinely stopped to prevent 'export' of water from lands overlying an aquifer: California calls that the 'correlative rights' doctrine. It is not always well observed, and not often well-advised, but very well established.

If that does not suffice to stop overdraft, pumping is controlled to prorate water among surface owners, and shorten pump lifts.

Also, pumping wells near streams can be stopped to prevent the indirect diversion of surface water. This happens on the alluvial fans that are so common in the west.

A simple solution to half our tractable water problems would be a severance tax on water withdrawals. If you can regulate it you can tax it.

A tax can be viewed as nothing more than an economic price charged by the owner of water (the state) for using its property.

If Chicago-School (and Rand Corporation) economists were more consistent in their ardor for the price system, and less consistent in their anarchistic mistrust of legislatures, they would seize upon this obvious application of the price system and boost it with all the considerable influence they wield.

Whether one chooses taxation regulation, we must control pumping in some manner if any system of surface control is to work.

While California rations and conserves surface water, landowners in the arid San Joaquin Valley just punch more and more wells into the aquifers and pump up free water the State keeps recharging at high cost.

Thus they play out their destined role in The Great Water Treadmill: subsidized water supply followed by overdraft followed by State rescue projects followed by new overdrafts, etc. ad bankruptcy.

This treadmill got well started in 1913 when Los Angeles tapped the Owens Valley waters to supply free water in the San Fernando Valley.

The lands there were timely pre-purchased by insiders, giving a clue to the forces behind the premature seizures and diversion of water.

The episode was dramatized in the film Chinatown, so the scenario is often now labelled 'the Chinatown syndrome' although the key names like Mulholland, Otis and Chandler sound distinctly occidental.

It is not just history; it is the present and near future: the Great Treadmill keeps turning. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) now presides over our destinies.

The MWD presses for more water sources, preaches domestic conservation, imposes rationing on its old customers -- and annexes new desert lands to water.

In similar fashion, Kern County landowners keep irrigating desert lands and overdrafting, while petitioning the Sacramento legislature for 'emergency' aid.... Read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: How to Revive a Dying City

"French Equity" (Equity in Kind)

Under the Code Napoleon, a French testator must divide real estate equally among all children. Money cannot substitute for land; the Code requires equity in kind. The resulting fine subdivision is called morcellement, and the Code demands it without regard for efficiency.

Each heir, in fact, must get an equal share of land of each quality: meadow, woodland, etc.

Today we approach French Equity indirectly, and expensively. We distribute land haphazardly, but seek to make every parcel equally good by extending utilities and roads to all parcels on the same terms, regardless of cost or location.

Economists call such schemes "postage stamp pricing," because postal rates do not vary with delivery costs. Manhattan has 64,000 residents per square mile; Montana has 5.4. It costs a lot more to collect or deliver mail in Montana. The reason postal rates rise is that the U.S. urban population is spreading out more like Montana and less like Manhattan (which once had over 100,000 per square mile). Here are five other examples:

  • The British Columbia Ferry Service. This socialized system has two urban lines that make money, but the whole system hardly breaks even, because lesser lines serve remote areas. The worst costs $12 for every dollar of revenue.
  • British Columbia Hydro. This socialized power system charges uniform rates throughout the Province. Users living in high-density Vancouver are cheap to serve. A few live on the Yukon border, where (I surmise) it costs hundreds of dollars to earn a dollar of revenue.
  • Water and sewer service in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. City investments have been captured, controlled, and milked by suburban land development interests, helped by state legislators.
  • State university campuses. The legislative ethic demands a prize, such as a university campus, in every electoral district. Most of the eight UC campuses have excess land; some have excess floor space. Sacramento solves rising enrollment not with more intensive use of existing campuses, but with the costly creation of new ones, each to enrich influential land speculators.
  • Water supply in California. The high real cost of serving new settlements is passed on to older settled areas through an accounting device called "melding," stirring all the accounts in the same pot. Melding passes through several levels: a state wholesaler serves the metropolitan district, which serves local districts, which serve cities. At the end of the line, in Riverside, it costs society $1800 to serve the marginal acre-foot (a unit of water) selling for $20. This subsidy is worth fortunes to developers; the cost is spread so others won't notice.
Problems with French Equity
There are two problems with these subsidies as an approach to equity: they are not equitable, and they are wasteful.
  • Equity achieved by regional cross-subsidy is not interpersonal, but interregional. It is like U.S. "foreign aid" programs, which tax the poor in rich countries to aid the rich in poor countries. Some who hold speculative land and enjoy subsidies are among the world's richest people and cor-porations. Equity is not served by milking middle-class neighborhoods to further enrich wealthy owners. "Public works for private gain" is bad enough, but worse when profiteers are already rich.
  • How about waste? Subsidy creates waste in the amount of the subsidy, almost by definition. The New York Regional Plan Association estimates the social cost of creating a new lot on the urban fringe at four times the lot's price (probably an underestimate). Why develop a lot worth only one quarter of its cost? Because other people pay the other three quarters. This process transfers ground rent from areas of overcharge to areas of undercharge, but it destroys much of the ground rent. To spread the surplus, we lose much of it.

Has French Equity any merit? It passed for a way to create jobs when Keynes actually urged waste as a route to full employment. Those ideas are now dormant, but we still do not understand the problem. If we had to fire teachers or policemen each time a city extended utilities to a campaign donor's raw acres, we would better sense the true cost of public works for private profit.  ... read the whole article

TRED (Committee on Taxation, Resources and Economic Development): TRED 6: Government Spending & Land Values: Public Money & Private Gain
Billions of tax dollars are spent annually on government subsidy programs which are designed to help certain groups, areas, and industries, and contribute to the general welfare. Despite the good intentions of legislators, however, analysts point to evidence that the programs are not only burdensome for the taxpayer but often fail to do their intended jobs. Critics find that major benefits go not to those whom the programs are designed to help, but to others who can "capitalize" on them.

One major feature of the subsidy benefit pattern -- unintended but predictable -- is the capitalization of land values. The value of land will increase when the benefits, chiefly money income, are enhanced by government subsidization. When the land is sold, the benefit of a subsidy which seems likely to continue will be captured by the seller. Thereafter, tax funds that continue to subsidize a program will not fully benefit those for whom they were presumably intended, but the seller will have made a capital gain.

A classicc example can be drawn from the experience of federal farm programs. Taxpayers and consumers have been spending billions annual to aid some farmers. In practice, of course, these programs have often -- and intentionally -- reduced farm output and raised consumer prices. The consumer-taxpayer is thus dealth a double blow, in effect subsidizing an increase in his own food prices. Yet the operating farmer, burdened with a higher land price, fails to get the full benefits of the programs established for his welfare.

In farm programs, as in some other subsidy programs, the expected annual benefits are capitalized into higher land prices. Then, after land prices have gone up to reflect these benefits, the annual payments to farm operators in effect support the higher land prices. In effect, the seller of land realizes the benefits of government subsidy into perpetuity. A somewhat similar pattern is to be expected in other public spending programs, including those concerned with urban renewal, where benefits are localized. The pattern shows that farm programs do not raise wages of low-paid farm labor, that urban projects do not rid cities of slums, and that the taxpayer-consumer bears the burden of both.

This volume explores, and at least attempts to define, the extent to which land values tend to capture the benefits of subsidies and other government spending through capitalization. It includes papers by proponents as well as critics. The contributors, who include some of the nation's leading economists, discuss the nature and effects of farm and housing programs, commodity price supports, transportation outlays, land preservation projects, water resource development, and urban renewal programs. Their work will be of more than routine interest to economists, political scientists, lawyers, political officeholders and government officials, planners, and all others who seek to unravel the complex fabric of multi-billion-dollar government spending programs.


C. Lowell Harriss

Part I Introduction and Theory

1. The Economics of Federal Subsidy Programs

Jerry J. Jasinowski
Research Economist, The Joint Economic Committee

2. The Capitalization of Property Taxes and Subsidies

Raymond L. Richman
Professor of Economics, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Part II Housing and Agricultural Subsidies

3. Federally Subsidized Housing
Program Benefits

Henry B. Schechter
Senior Specialist in Housing, The Library of Congress

4. Capital and Current Expenditures in the
Production of Housing

Richard F. Muth
Professor of Economics, Stanford University

5. The Incidence of Benefits from Commodity
 Price-Support Programs: A Case Study of Tobacco

Robert F. Boxley and William D. Anderson
Agricultural Economist and General Attorney,
Natural Resources Economics Division, United States Department of Agriculture

6. The Benefits and Burdens of the United States
Sugar Quota System

Roy A. Ballinger
Agricultural Economist, United States Department of Agriculture

Part III: Transportation, Water, and Other Factors Affecting Land Value

7. Transportation Outlays: Who Pays and
Who Benefits?

Martin O. Stern and Robert U. Ayres
Senior Staff Member and Vice President,
International Research and Technology Corporation

8. Estimating the Benefits of Stream Valley
 and Open Space Preservation Projects

Robert E. Coughlin and Thomas R. Hammer
Vice President and Research Associate,
Regional Science Research Institute

9. Land Value Increments as a Measure
of the Net Benefits
 of Urban Water Supply Projects in Developing Countries: Theory and Measurement

Royl W. Bahl, Stephen P. Coelen, and Jeremy J. Warford
Professor of Economics and Graduate Student, Syracuse University;
Economist, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development

10. Capitalization of the Benefits of Water Resource Development

Darwin W. Dalcott
Professor of Economics, University of Kansas

Part IV: Urban Renewal: A Seminar

11. The Distribution of Benefits and Costs
 of the Federally Subsidized Urban Renewal Programs

Arthur P. Becker
Professor of Economics, University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee

read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: Full Employment, Growth And Progress On A Small Planet: Relieving Poverty While Healing The Earth
6. Energy-wasting biases. Identifying and eliminating tax biases to both extracting and consuming energy, and other primary products. Whether on balance these biases raise or lower prices to consumers is not known, but neither is it relevant here: the point is that the combination raises the total volume of extracting the primary products, and of course of consequent combustion and pollution. The writer has identified many of these biases elsewhere (Gaffney, 1978). Suffice it here to observe the following. It is not just that a commodity like gasoline is subsidized; it is worse than that. Within the stream of production, subsidies go to those activities involved in extraction, while taxes fall on activities downstream that conserve and economize on the primary product (Gaffney, 1982). ... read the whole article

Mason Gaffney:  The Taxable Surplus of Land: Measuring, Guarding and Gathering It  (for the Duma Hearings in Moscow, 1999)
To tax rent we must be sure there is rent to tax, and we must adopt public policies to husband and maximize it, and avoid policies that lower and dissipate it. This covers the whole area of public spending, a vast topic, so I will give just a few pointed examples.
i. Avoid "perverse subsidies." These are subsidies that encourage harmful things like
  • polluting air and water,
  • wasting water,
  • cutting timber whose value is less than the cost of logging, or
  • populating remote regions whose costs exceed the benefits derived.
Cape Breton Island, the northern tip of Nova Scotia, contains the most polluted area in Canada thanks to years of subsidies to sustain its uneconomic, obsolescent coal and steel industries that employ just a few people by fouling one of the most scenic jewels in North America.
We have mentioned how we actually subsidize people to withdraw scarce water from our overdrawn rivers in the arid U.S.A. The so-called water "shortage" in the lower Colorado River is entirely an artifact of such misguided policies: every major agency drawing on the Colorado is actually subsidized to do so, when they should be paying for the privilege. If they paid, they would stop wasting water, and would enrich the Treasury, which could then abate taxes on work, trade, and saving.
The U.S. Forest Service has turned a great national asset, our national forestlands, into a drain on the Treasury by subsidizing forest roads in subeconomic areas. It makes money selling good timber in good areas, but then spends $10 on roads into subeconomic areas to get $1 in revenues from sale of timber to private parties, destroying scenic values and watershed protection.
Perverse subsidies like those are unspeakably foolish and wasteful. They "dissipate rent" so there is none left to tax.
ii. Avoid letting lessees of public land conceal their revenues. Many minerals and hydrocarbons on public lands are leased by private firms, subject either to "royalties" or "severance taxes" based on the value of output. Many of these private firms are "vertically integrated," meaning they own the downstream firms, often in other countries, to which they sell. They grow skilled at shifting profits away from where taxes are higher to where they are lower, by rigging the internal transfer prices. That is, they sell to themselves at artificially low prices, so your share of their revenues disappears. What they call "world market" prices are really their own internal prices, adjusted to help them steal from you. You must guard against that.
iii. Avoid letting lessees or taxpayers pad their costs to understate their net revenues. When you let lessees or taxpayers deduct their costs (as you should) from the tax base, you must audit those alleged costs to be sure they are real and legitimate. Pay these auditors well, and support them: they will save you a hundred times what you pay them.
iv. Avoid dissipating rent by allowing open access to resources like fisheries, which we have already discussed.
v. Avoid trying to distribute rents to consumers by capping prices below the market. This, of course, is the history of energy prices in Russia; it has also been used, in milder forms, in Canada and the U.S. What is wrong with it? In a word, it fosters wasteful use, and aborts a lot of economical production. In addition, it leaves a lot of rent in private hands, untaxed (see "D", next below).
It is easy to understand the dire need for guaranteed fuel in a northern continental winter climate. You mustn't let people freeze, and they will bless and support you for keeping them warm. As society gets better organized, though, you can gain by guaranteeing the poor a minimum cash income with which to buy fuel and other needs at market prices, rather than lavishing them with free fuel that you might be exporting to meet other urgent needs. You can provide the cash income from the rents created when fuel prices rise, and have a lot more to spare from the resulting net gains, which I next explain. ...    Read the whole article

Ted Gwartney:  A Free Market Strategy to Reduce Sprawl
  • Unused land is far more abundant than we realize.
  • End the Public Subsidy of Land Speculation and Sprawl
  • Counterproductive growth limitations and regulations should be abolished.
  • A Strategy for Urban Renewal
  • A Strategy for Economic Development
  • Public Finance by Self-Financing
End the Public Subsidy of Land Speculation and Sprawl
... If land holders can produce a higher return on investment by not using land for productive purposes but rather hold it for a higher price from those willing and able to pay the higher price in the future, there is a flaw in public policy. Public policy thereby gives speculative, nonproductive investment a higher return than productive investment. Sprawl is subsidized by taxes on production and distribution and the failure to recapture the benefits resulting from public improvements. If we choose to end this subsidy, we would reduce sprawl.

One example that I know is that of a friend who bought land within the city but did nothing with it. I asked him why he put good money into an investment that had no visible return? He replied that, by holding the land for future sale or development, his long term return, in capital gains would exceed 18% annually. If he built a building on the site now, his long term return would only be 12% annually, including both net income plus capital gains. Why should he use his land now when it would be more profitable for him to not use it, but to hold it for a larger future gain?

Most major cities have a substantial amount of fully serviced but unused or underused land sites. It is estimated that 38% of the land area in Los Angeles is unused, 30% in New York City and 25% in Washington, D.C. Intercity sites are bypassed because land speculators receive a greater benefit by ignoring the highest and best use of land sites. A greater profit is made when development is delayed and the land price increases to higher levels. But building within existing developed areas uses the existing and underused infrastructure, roads, transit, public facilities, and services. Sprawl requires new expenditures on public goods and services, more government, more taxes, more dislocation. ... Read the whole article

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 4: The Limits of Privatization (pages 49-63)

Free Market Environmentalism
One other version of privatism is worth considering. Its premise is that nature can be preserved, and pollution reduced, by expanding private property rights. This line of thought is called free market environmentalism, and it’s favored by libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute.

The origins of free market environmentalism go back to an influential paper by University of Chicago economist Ronald Coase. Writing in 1960, Coase challenged the then-prevailing orthodoxy that government regulation is the only way to protect nature. In fact, he argued, nature can be protected through property rights, provided they’re clearly defined and the cost of enforcing them is low.

In Coase’s model, pollution is a two-sided problem involving a polluter and a pollutee. If one side has clear property rights (for instance, if the polluter has a right to emit, or the pollutee has a right not to be emitted upon), and transaction costs are low, the two sides will come to a deal that reduces pollution.

How will this happen? Let’s say the pollutee has a right to clean air. He could, under common law, sue the polluter for damages. To avoid such potential losses, the polluter is willing to pay the pollutee a sum of money up front. The pollutee is willing to accept compensation for the inconvenience and discomfort caused by the pollution. They agree on a level of pollution and a payment that’s satisfactory to both.

It works the other way, too. If the polluter has the right to pollute, the pollutee offers him money to pollute less, and the same deal is reached. This pollution level — which is greater than zero but less than the polluter would emit if pollution were free — is, in the language of economists, optimal. (Whether it’s best for nature is another matter.) It’s arrived at because the polluter’s externalities have been internalized.

For fans of privatism, Coase’s theorem was an intellectual breakthrough. It gave theoretical credence to the idea that the marketplace, not government, is the place to tackle pollution. Instead of burdening business with page after page of regulations, all government has to do is assign property rights and let markets handle the rest.

There’s much that’s attractive in free market environmentalism. Anything that makes the lives of business managers simpler is, to my mind, a good thing — not just for business, but for nature and society as a whole. It’s good because things that are simple for managers to do will get done, and often quickly, while things that are complicated may never get done. Right now, we need to get our economic activity in harmony with nature. We need to do that quickly, and at the lowest possible cost. If it’s easiest for managers to act when they have prices, then let’s give them prices, not regulations and exhortations.

At the same time, there are critical pieces missing in free market environmentalism. First and foremost, it lacks a solid rationale for how property rights to nature should be assigned. Coase argued that pollution levels will be the same no matter how those rights are apportioned. Although this may be true in the world of theory, it makes a big difference to people’s pocketbooks whether pollutees pay polluters, or vice versa.

Most free marketers seem to think pollution rights should be given free to polluters. In their view, the citizen’s right to be free of pollution is trumped by the polluter’s right to pollute. Taking the opposite tack, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that polluters have long been trespassing on common property and that this trespass is a form of subsidy that ought to end.

The question for me is, what’s the best way to assign property rights when our goal is to protect a birthright shared by everyone? It turns out this is a complicated matter, but one we need to explore. There’s no textbook way to “propertize” nature. (When I say to propertize, I mean to treat an aspect of nature as property, thus making it ownable. Privatization goes further and assigns that property to corporate owners.) In fact, there are different ways to propertize nature, with dramatically different consequences. And since we’ll be living with these new property rights — and paying rent to their owners — for a long time, it behooves us to get them right. ... read the whole chapter



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