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Mason Gaffney:  Full Employment, Growth And Progress On A Small Planet: Relieving Poverty While Healing The Earth

In forestry, the places to grow commercial timber are lands that are “flat, wet, and warm,” as John Baden summarizes it. (He might have added, “accessible.”) Failure to restock such lands economically pushes demand onto lands that are steep, dry and cold, creating the “forestry sprawl” from which we suffer.

Failure to put indigenous waters of southern California to full economical use creates the appearance of scarcity where there is actually enough water. It drives demand northwards to the Owens Valley and the Feather River, and eastward to the Colorado River, at enormous social cost, much of it for energy. Those who issue doomsday dessication scenarios, and deplore the loss of water to farming, also seem to have no idea of how a handful of giant landowners waste most of our water on low-valued uses like pasture, hay, small grains and rice, using primitive wasteful methods like flooding, or furrow irrigation. Only 2-3% of our irrigated lands use basic conservation techniques like drip emitters. Those who waste water in this way are basically substituting water, a limited natural resource, for the labor and capital others use to conserve water while growing higher-valued crops (Gaffney, 1997; Kahrl). ... Read the whole article


Mason Gaffney: Red-Light Taxes and Green-Light Taxes

II. What is waste, and what should we do about it?

We are all against wasting resources: wonderful - but what is waste? In answering, I will deal with two cognate questions.

  • We agree, we should combat waste with a family of green taxes, but what green taxes? When, and where, and why?
  • We agree on containing sprawl, but should we stress repelling people from designated green areas, or attracting them to designated human habitats?

A. What is waste?

The question has been faced before. Gifford Pinchot was a leader with a magic name in the U.S.A. during the early conservation era. He answered well for his times and, I submit, for ours too.

"... natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many and not merely for the profit of a few. ... the people shall get their fair share of the benefit which comes from the development of the country which belongs to us all."

He did not say just "preserved;" he said "developed and preserved." Today I suspect he would say "REdevelop," to get away from the negative baggage carried by "develop;" I certainly will.

Pinchot went on:

"The first principle of conservation is development, the use of the natural resources now existing ... for the benefit of the people who live here now. There may be just as much waste in neglecting the development and use of certain natural resources as there is in their destruction by waste. ... Conservation, then, stands emphatically for the use of substitutes (he mentions water for power and transportation) for all the exhaustible natural resources, ... The development of our natural resources and the fullest use of them for the present generation is the first duty of this generation. ...

In the second place conservation stands for the prevention of waste. ... "

So Pinchot was against waste, like everyone, but he gives it a new turn (or, rather, an old turn that many have forgotten). To him, WASTE MEANS FAILING TO USE RENEWABLE RESOURCES. Urban land makes a good example. Urban land, economically speaking, is a lot like falling water, strange as it seems. Economists (who are not all bad) classify urban land as a "flow resource." They liken it to flowing water because its services perish with time, whether used or not - and we are trapped in the one-way flow of time. It is an even better example of a "flow resource" than water itself, because unused water may have other uses downstream. Even in wasting out through California's Golden Gate, fresh water repels salinity. The unreaped harvests of idle land, however, flow down the river and out the Golden Gate of time like lost loves, and magic moments that passed us by. The waste of NOT using flow resources is just as real as the waste of misusing exhaustible resources. Indeed, when we tote up the transportation costs of disintegrated urban settlement patterns, it is clear that failure to use good urban land is a major cause of wasting energy.  ... read the whole article

Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan: The Political Economy of Land: Putting Henry George in His Place

Concerns about urban policies also raise questions about the current relevance of Georgist ideas. For example, it is pertinent to ask whether a more uniform land tax would encourage the more efficient utilisation of urban space. George argued that, in order to cover the costs of a higher rate of land tax, landowners would be forced to put their land to its most productive use, and could not afford to hold it idle. Here is a clear link with the modern concerns to discourage ‘urban sprawl’ and to promote ‘urban consolidation.’ To the extent that a higher land tax would encourage the development of more housing in existing urban areas, the pressures for housing development in outlying areas would be significantly reduced. This, in turn, could reduce the burgeoning demand for transport that is currently characteristic of large cities.

Land tax also impacts on the politics of peripheral urban expansion. Currently, the prospect of huge capital gains resulting from decisions by local governments to rezone land from rural to urban acts as an incentive for landowners on the fringes of built-up areas to lobby for changes that will allow increased development. Hence, landowners push for rights to subdivision, irrespective of whether or not there is actual demand (Day, 1995: 3). By creaming off the gains from windfall increases in land values, land tax obviates this bias towards relentless urban expansion.

However, the question remains: would a uniform land tax be sufficient to produce more efficient patterns of urban development? Or would there still be a need for direct land use controls? Land tax can certainly be a tool for discouraging the wasteful use of land. It tends to discourage people from purchasing excessive amounts of land or leaving it idle. However, it may also encourage the overdevelopment of land in order to produce the income stream necessary to pay the higher rate of tax.

Critics of urban consolidation such as Patrick Troy (1996) have examined the potential problems of such overdevelopment, including a range of environmental impacts such as altered hydrological processes. It seems to be an overly bold claim that a Georgist land tax alone would be sufficient to achieve optimal urban development patterns. Land use controls a necessary adjunct to land tax - in setting minimum requirements for green space, for example.

Local government planning controls are also important to prevent incompatibility of land uses, such the development of hazardous or unhealthy industrial activities adjacent to residential areas. Targeted decentralisation policies are a means of encouraging the further development of regional centres. Such policies can work in conjunction with land taxes to ease growth pressures in the larger cities, while addressing long-standing spatial, social and economic inequalities (Stilwell, 2000: 254-260). The desirability of promoting more decentralised regional development is consistent with a Georgist perspective, but not altogether compatible with the claim that land tax would facilitate urban consolidation. It seems clear that it ‘overburdens’ land tax to expect it alone to produce the best spatial outcomes, taking account of all the economic, social and environmental issues involved in urban and regional policy. The various other policy instruments – including regulations relating to green space, zoning, and the provision of public infrastructure to pave the way for decentralisation – are important complements to land taxation. In other words, land tax is best regarded as a necessary but not sufficient condition for more effective spatial policy. ... read the whole article


Jeff Smith: Sharing Natural Rents to Sustain Human Society

Rent rules

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

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