Origins of the Silicon Valley Housing Crisis and How to Fix it

Most of the wealth being generated in Silicon Valley is the result of advanced engineering, risky venture capital and cut-throat business acumen in the face of rapidly-evolving competition. Visa, HP, Intel, Adobe, Ebay, Apple, Google, Facebook – the concentration of multi-billion-dollar enterprises in this tiny pocket of Santa Clara Valley is staggering.

But not everyone making big money in Silicon Valley had to major in a STEM field or produce any real wealth to do so. For those who have speculated on rising land values, the last 40 years has been a gamble that keeps paying off. In the 1960s, when the land in Santa Clara Valley was producing prunes instead of circuits, John Arrillaga Sr. and Richard Peery could see the wheels of a new boom beginning to turn. These young entrepreneurs spent the next decade building the corridor through which much of Silicon Valley’s world-changing innovation would pass.

By constructing custom and cost-effective office units quickly for emerging tech companies, Arrillaga and Peery dominated the region and became its go-to developers. Their signature, low-slung concrete buildings called tilt-ups made for cheap and quick construction early on. The pair was also among the first to build before tenants were confirmed, in the hopes that immediate availability would be attractive to businesses. The land they had bought up as young men began to generate formidable returns, and the speed of technological progress coupled with an apparently insatiable demand for more space created today’s Silicon Valley, synonymous with skyrocketing land values. While this new value injected into Santa Clara Valley draws people to the area and creates prosperity for those in innovative industries, it also attracts speculation where it is possible to capture significant wealth simply by owning land.

Arrillaga is worth more than $2.5 billion, a fortune earned in part from unparalleled skills as a developer, but also because he was able to extract a great deal of unearned wealth. The contribution of pioneering land developers to economic growth is undeniable, but unfortunately, taxation structures have not kept pace with the rapid transformation of unproductive land into a cybercity of millionaires and billionaires. The wealth that has been obtained from constructing buildings is hard earned, but the enormous increase in rental income resulting from rapidly-increasing land values has not been earned. It’s not as if aging structures have grown more valuable, it’s the land underneath them that has skyrocketed in this hub of innovation, land values created by an aggregation of economic activity not attributable to any one person, developer, or tech company. The value of this land is indeed a socially-created value.

Today, the success of entrepreneurs starting tech companies has made Silicon Valley the most expensive place to live in the United States. As these tech giants grow, the reach of their impact on the housing market spreads, and migrant employees move with their money to suburbs farther and farther out from where they work. In so doing, they shape land values and make other lasting changes to the urban environment. The gains generated by developers like Arrillaga and captured by speculators can ripple out into the wider community and inflate the cost of living.

By Unsplash via Pixabay.

The incredible wealth now being generated by high-tech industries in Silicon Valley has put a premium on all surrounding land, both commercial and residential. Working-class residents can only hold on to rent-controlled accommodation for so long before the profit motives of private developers see them evicted, and their housing demolished. According to the Guardian:

Between 2000 and 2013, the number of low-income households in the Bay Area increased by 10 percent, but the region lost 50 percent of units defined affordable for this population, according to researchers at the University of Berkeley, California, who have closely studied gentrification and displacement.

The proliferation of wealth in our communities is a wonderful thing; the only reason it causes such polarization is because systemic inequalities go unaddressed.

We can have the best of both worlds. For men like Arrillaga and Peery to have the opportunity to create these cash cow business parks and bring thousands of talented professionals to Silicon Valley is incredible, it should be celebrated.

As people have come together to produce a great deal of wealth in the tech industry, land values have boomed. Those who were able to get on the property ladder before an oncoming swell in land values simply sell or rent for huge windfall gains, unearned wealth, while prior tenants are displaced. Incoming renters are squeezed or turned away entirely by the high rent.

The problem is not the tech companies or their workers, and it is not the vulnerable tenants; it’s not even the landlords who benefit from, perhaps unconsciously, playing the working class renters and the angry anarchists off the techies. It’s our system of property taxation. The best and simplest way to correct the imbalance, to give justice to everyone, is to implement a system of Land Value Taxation while reducing taxes that harm the poor and the production of new wealth.

From the developer’s’ perspective, a Land Value Tax would in no way detract from the incentive to build in the first place, as the taxes on buildings would be eliminated, after sales and wage taxes. Furthermore, the incentive to build on unused, centrally-located land would increase. They would have an even greater incentive to build immediately because owning the land without having tenants would leave them in the red after paying their Land Value Tax bill each month. The site would not be a speculative asset, but one that only yields a positive return if a developer uses it well to meet people’s needs.

For Arrillaga and Peery, the taxes due on their development portfolio would have grown with the unprecedented business success of their tenants, from dirt cheap taxes on empty lots to large tax bills on lucrative land accommodating high-end office buildings. This would have generated a massive amount of public revenue without harming incentives toward innovation. The seeds of gentrification are nurtured by insufficient housing supply, but Land Value Tax would mean that centrally-located land would be developed to accommodate increasingly more people at comfortable densities.

By lauramba via Pixabay.

This policy encourages landowners to maximize the revenue they can generate by constructing and maintaining buildings of the highest caliber to attract tenants. As opportunity brings more people to an area for work, demand for housing pushes land values even higher, which increases revenue from the Land Value Tax even more. A landowner can then create more housing, often vertically, to cover the larger tax, or if they are unable or unwilling, sell to a developer who will. This applies not just to Silicon Valley, but to any in-demand area where the concentration of jobs forces living costs higher than many can afford.

Land Value Tax can be used as a source of revenue to fund great social programs, even while reducing wage and sales taxes -from health vouchers to housing for mentally ill homeless people, or even a universal basic income. Without a Land Value Tax, however, the benefits these social programs create will simply be captured by landlords through higher rent charges. Thus, the positive effects of these social policies would nearly be wiped out, funneled into the pockets of landlords as rent hikes. For example, if everyone was given a $10,000 basic income each year, all else being equal, what would happen to the cost of rent? It would go up by a comparable amount, and largely cancel out the benefits of basic income to the most vulnerable people. However, with Land Value Tax, incentives to increase housing supply would result in people being able to protect their basic income from rent hikes.

Governments will not be able to subsidize their way out of this housing crisis with palliative measures. Creating a system of incentives in which the market is enabled to correct itself is the most sustainable way forward, and offers the best hope of ensuring affordability for all while simultaneously giving a boost to incredible growth in future industries.

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Simulation Could Explain Why People Reject Smarter Economic Policy

If variety is the spice of life, then why are so many of us drawn to old habits? You might think of this phrase in the context of your Friday night plans, but economists are asking it about our approach to public policy. Despite a growing body of research indicating that the structure of U.S. property taxes could be vastly improved, we tend to be content with the status quo, and it hasn’t always been clear why. But now, using experimental economics, a professor at the University of Delaware is undertaking a one-year study to identify why people don’t respond to smarter economic policy that could greatly enhance their lives.  

Joshua Duke, Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Delaware, sees a big problem with how cities and municipalities in the United States tax property. Governments levy taxes according to the value of buildings and productive activities on the land instead of the land value itself. While property tax is by far one of the best taxes, especially over wage and sales taxes, it is still not as good as a land value tax. A land value tax is virtually the same as a property tax except that the tax is on the land value only, not the building. Property taxes have been structured this way for centuries, but Duke believes we could implement an alternative tax structure that raises tax revenue and stimulates economic development. This would run in contrast to the existing tax structure, which tends to generate and exacerbate wealth inequality by taxing regular people for working and exchanging, but fails to tax unearned income like that from passively owning an ever appreciating vacant urban lot.

By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Lower East Side) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Lower East Side), via Wikimedia Commons.
Duke’s interest lies primarily in land value taxation, a theory popularized by 19th century economist Henry George in which taxes are determined by the inherent value of land rather than what sits on it.

“The idea is that if you’re going to tax anything in society, probably the best thing to tax is the value of land. Not the value of the improvements on land, like a house, just the value of land, and the reason is that it’s non-distortionary**. That means that it doesn’t provide the incentive to do less property improvement than is optimal,” Duke said.

Duke is not the only economist to advocate for land value taxation . Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of ‘The Price of Inequality’ is one such prominent proponent of a land value tax.  Stiglitz considers rent-seeking behavior, like the privatization of land values, to be the primary element that generates inequality of wealth. Other economists, like Mason Gaffney, Fred Foldvary, Nic Tideman and Fred Harrison also support implementation of land value taxation.

According to Duke,“[land value taxation] really would make society a lot better. It’s one of these major things we could do. We don’t have to create anything, we can just change the way things are taxed and [as a result] increase society’s wealth,” Duke said.

Determined to understand why land value taxation is so rarely used, Duke is harnessing the power of experimental economics. He is constructing a virtual city, in which land value taxation is financially advantageous to all citizens. The citizenry will be composed of 100 students of business, economics, and engineering. Ultimately, Duke hopes to identify why people, given the option of introducing financially advantageous land value taxation, tend to reject this tax structure.

San Francisco California Before the Sun Rises via photopin (license)
San Francisco California Before the Sun Rises via photopin (license)

“Economics is all about simplifying reality. What we’re trying to do is reduce problems to the fundamental incentives that we want to study. You have an amount of income; how much of your income do you devote to improving your land and how much do you devote to consumption? Then do you feel that, over time, you’re being treated fairly by the tax system and do you vote to reject it? So we set up a little democracy using our computer program where participants in our experimental economics platform can vote,” Duke said.

Duke is already planning his next study. After the completion of this one-year project, he will use his findings to identify ways to help citizens overcome political objections to land value taxation initiatives. Ultimately, he hopes to aid economists and policy experts who are eager to see cities and municipalities usher in smarter economic policy.

 

 



**Distortion, in the most basic sense of the word, simply means change. In economics, it is almost always considered a harmful mutation in an idealized market, where there is perfect competition and no externalities, e.g. almost all taxes vis a vis reducing productive incentives, misallocating resources, etc. Just as breaking up inefficient monopolies encourages competition and benefits the market, land value taxation encourages competition and captures distortionary externalities. This encourages behavior that is good for markets and for people, which is what Duke means when he says that land value taxation is “non-distortionary.” In fact, shifting to land value taxation actually increases productive incentives, what we might call a positive distortion.

 

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Who Owns Geosynchronous Orbital Pathways?

Who owns outer space? Our most idealistic visions of the future require us to transcend our narrow personal or nationalistic interests, but increasingly, space seems likely to be divvied up among the powerful, as has so often happened with the Earth. Can space be managed to serve the common interest?

Managing a Commons

Space is generally thought of as a commons. A commons is a resource which is not under the exclusive control of anyone. This makes it an interesting and challenging economic coordination problem. The US Department of Defense classifies outer space as one of the “global commons” alongside the oceans, atmosphere, and cyberspace.

Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, and Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security write:

“…as rising nations and non-state actors become more powerful, the United States will need to pay more attention to emerging risks associated with the global commons, those areas of the world beyond the control of any one state—sea, space, air, and cyberspace—that constitute the fabric or connective tissue of the international system.”

Even during the heated Space Race between the United States and the USSR, there were lofty ideals about how to treat the cosmos. The Outer Space Treaty, ratified by all major world powers at the time, limits the use of orbital pathways and celestial bodies to peaceful purposes. Weapons of mass destruction are specifically banned. More interestingly, it also prohibits any signatory nation from claiming ownership of celestial resources.

The resources of space were not to be seen as just a bunch of loot waiting to be plundered. According to the Treaty, managing outer space was viewed as an international responsibility of utmost importance, for the benefit of all.

Photo: NASA on The Commons Van Allen Probes via photopin (license)
Photo: NASA on The Commons Van Allen Probes via photopin (license)

New Space Race

But a new space race is on. This time, a private space race. Billionaires are funding serious commercial spaceflight companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch Systems, and Bigelow Aerospace, and other lesser-known private companies and defense contractors are also competing. Additionally, competitions like the Google Lunar X Prize are under way. All of these enterprises share the goal of making space more accessible.

Elon Musk once raised the possibility of launching as many as four thousand micro-satellites into low Earth orbit for the purpose of providing worldwide high-speed internet access. Mark Zuckerberg had planned a similar service  via Internet.org. Both men have quietly put these plans on the back-burner; however, the inexorable trend of cheaper spaceflight is continuing to increase satellite congestion surrounding Earth.

The progress that SpaceX has made with reusable launch vehicles does help reduce the quantity of space junk per-launch, but it also makes spaceflight cheaper thus encouraging more congestion. Junk continues to accumulate much faster than it is burned up.

Kessler Syndrome

Space junk is any small debris left in orbit by spacecraft. The problem is that it can impact orbiting spacecraft at speeds up to twenty times faster than a bullet. Worse yet, in the event of a collision, more debris is created.

In the worst-case scenario, this process of collisions creating more debris starts a chain reaction called Kessler Syndrome. If there are enough orbiting satellites, this chain reaction can eventually consume all of them, and leave behind a speeding cloud of bullets encircling the Earth and keeping humanity grounded for a century or more.

In political economy, we would call this an example of tragedy of the commons.

To reduce this threat, a number of mechanisms have been proposed. Decommissioning large obsolete satellites can significantly reduce the likelihood. However, doing so is expensive and of little direct benefit to the individual spacefaring organization. Nonetheless, the European Space Agency has already planned missions as part of its Clean Space initiative.

Another theoretical mitigation technique includes the development of lasers to shoot down space junk, or to redirect it whenever it threatens important orbital spacecraft.

Photo: John Flannery Space Junk(license)
Photo: John Flannery Space Junk(license)

Financing cleanup efforts

Who ought to be paying for these cleanup efforts? If billionaires intend to start launching thousands of satellites, is it simply up to the public to clean up the mess?

The ‘polluter pays principle’ is standard in environmental law. In addition to aligning with our moral intuitions for responsibility, taxes on pollution have the benefit of discouraging the damaging activities that create pollution in the first place.

In keeping with this thought, it would be sensible to propose a Pigouvian tax on anyone who creates space junk, in proportion to the amount of junk that they create. Since this junk can be accurately detected, it would be straightforward to measure and determine the tax.

Amending the Outer Space Treaty and establishing a body to implement the polluter pays principle would be a common sense method by which we could work to eliminate the threat of space junk.

There’s another possible source of revenue if we consider that the orbital paths themselves are a finite resource. Satellite collisions have happened in the past and will continue going forward. Indeed, every satellite launched brings with it a small risk of collision. And the more satellites we have, the greater the likelihood of collision and, eventually, of triggering Kessler Syndrome.

Certain orbital pathways are more desirable than others. Geo-stationary orbits might be more desirable than low Earth orbit; a sun-synchronous orbit may be more desirable than an alternative orbit. If billionaires start launching thousands of satellites, it is entirely possible that we could eventually be forced to allocate these orbital paths by auction, in order to fund general collision insurance.

Such a model would certainly be more fair and predictable than our current process, which is for companies to patent orbital pathways, and sue anyone who infringes on it (regardless of collision risk). Granted, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation also has a permitting process in the United States. But permitting practices vary by nation, and there’s little or no international coordination for revenue-sharing, insurance, or cleanup.

Motherboard interviewed Andrew Rush, a patent attorney and entrepreneur with expertise in space law, who said “As more and more companies start commercial activities using satellites, and using new and innovative ways to do so, we should see an uptick in patent activity.”

“We may also see the attendant uptick in patent litigation around some of those activities,” he added. “I personally hope that’s not the direction that we go. I hope there’s a lot more licensing and a lot more cooperative ownership and stewardship of patents, rather than just suing each other. “

An exemplary model of proper resource management can be found in the Norwegian Oil Fund. Upon discovery of its oil reserves, Norway instituted the collection of economic rent based on the revenue generated from oil extraction, plus oil exploration licensing fees. The resulting revenue was then kept in a trust fund and used to invest both within Norway and internationally. As of June 2015, the fund has accrued $873 billion. Given its size and stake in companies worldwide, the fund has become an significant player in international affairs. As such, it pursues economic and social justice through its decisions concerning its holdings, divesting from companies that violate its ethical standards.

If our civilization is able to use market pricing to collect economic rent from the Earth’s geosynchronous orbits, we would enjoy similar success as Norway while preserving a critical resource. Such concepts are already proving successful here on Earth. London uses congestion pricing to reduce traffic in its city center, and uses that revenue to fund public transportation. Congestion in space is ultimately no different.

Let’s preserve our common inheritance of space for future generations, not at the expense of our current generation, but by achieving justice. We all deserve to share the benefits and the value of outer space.

 

Feature image: NASA on The Commons Satellites for Sale (license)

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Chinese Investment in US Real Estate Tops $110bn

The lessons of the 2008 financial crisis are quickly being forgotten. That market collapse was precipitated by an extraordinary rise of US land values, which was driven by the emergence of subprime lending on a mass scale.

Prices of residential and commercial real estate are once again on the rise. A major driver of this astounding rebound has been Chinese real estate investment. Chinese investors, seeking promising investments and a way to move their money out of the slowing Chinese economy, have poured $110 billion dollars into US real estate in the past five years. By contrast, the Chinese real estate market, which is putting a drag on the Chinese economy, has been called by many the largest land bubble in history. Chinese investments in the US market are inflating housing prices across the country and placing home ownership further out of reach of many Americans.

Over the past several years, Chinese investment in commercial properties has captured headlines. For example, in 2015, the Anbang Insurance Group purchased the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for $2bn and attempted to purchase Starwood Hotels for $14bn. However, the vast majority of Chinese speculative investment has been in the residential market, to the tune of over $93bn. Cities with the most rapidly rising housing costs–San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle–are popular markets with Chinese buyers. But as housing stock across the country continues to gain value, buyers are now turning their speculative intents to Chicago, Miami, and regions of middle America.

Chinese buyers are eager to speculate in the US real estate market. Not only because they see a lucrative investment opportunity, but because of concerns about the slowing Chinese economy. As the economy continues to slow and the value of the Yuan falls, citizens are eager to move wealth abroad and into dollar-backed assets, particularly in the form of land speculation. Despite efforts by the Chinese government to encourage domestic investments, speculation in US real estate by Chinese nationals is expected to exceed $200bn over the next 5 years.

photo credit: IMG_0953 via photopin (license)
photo credit: IMG_0953 via photopin (license)

When people speak of rising real estate prices, they certainly aren’t talking about bricks, they are talking about land. As a consequence of all this land speculation, Americans are finding it harder to obtain affordable housing and commercial space, and not only because of rising prices. Close to 70% of Chinese buyers pay cash, which is more appealing to sellers because deals can close much faster. This puts US residential buyers who require a mortgage at a disadvantage. Bidding wars with deep-pocketed foreign speculators also has the effect of pressuring US buyers with more limited liquid assets to sign off on larger mortgages than they can financially handle.

Prospective home buyers are not the only ones feeling the crunch. As homeownership becomes more unaffordable, the number of people in the rental market increases, driving up rents across the country. In 2016, rent increases are expected to outpace wage increases by about one percentage point. Faster than the general rate of inflation.

The periodic bubbles in real estate markets are a symptom of this rush to pocket the rising value of land, whether by foreigners or citizens. So far, the United States is not taking steps to curb either domestic or foreign speculation in real estate. Instead, Congress is going in the opposite direction by encouraging foreign “investment” in US property.

However, other countries are taking a stand. Hong Kong and Singapore have instituted a 15% tax on properties purchased by foreign buyers, a move that has slowed the rise in housing costs. Citing decreasing affordability of homes, Australia has instituted a similar tax. The Australian government also used legal means to intercede in the attempt by Chinese investment group Dakang Holdings to purchase the Kidman Farm empire, which controls 1.3% of the Australian landmass.

photo credit: Lavender Valley 2407 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Lavender Valley 2407 via photopin (license)

An alternative to such measures, which numerous eminent economists recommend, is a tax on land values. Land value taxation (LVT) is a twist on conventional property taxation, whereby improvements to the land are not taxed, but the land itself is taxed. Proponents argue that we ought to shift as much taxes as possible away from productive activity and onto land values. While other strategies would serve to limit foreign land purchases, taxing land values would actually halt idle landholding in general by making the speculative ownership of raw or underdeveloped real estate unprofitable.

When markets are operating correctly, profits are simply a return for productive activity, not a windfall that is achieved by excluding others as with the landed gentry in the feudal era. With LVT in place, Chinese or other foreign investors who wanted to make money by purchasing land would have to actually develop that land. They would need to attract residential or commercial tenants by providing desirable amenities and reasonable rents, and shouldering the risks involved in any sort of productive activity.

This would result in a growth of construction activity and an increase in US housing supply. Increased construction activity and decreased cost for commercial and residential real estate would stimulate the rest of the US economy, simultaneously decreasing unemployment and raising wages.  In effect, taxation of land values would convert the current Chinese desire for US land into a sustainable means of growth for the US economy.

Featured image photo credit: Light River via photopin (license)

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Detroit Conference: Reclaiming Our Land and Water

Detroit, Michigan

Once Detroit was motown, the home of Mustangs, Chevies and Cadillacs, of Aretha, the Jacksons, the Temptations. What happened? How can it be turned around? How can other cities escape the suffering that Detroit has endured?

In the 1960s, in the town of Southfield, the Detroit suburb where the Council of Georgist Organizations (CGO) annual conference will take place, a forward-thinking Mayor, James Clarkson, and an expert Assessor (Ted Gwartney, who will be one of our featured speakers) implemented reforms that made Southfield one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Southfield’s success reprised the tax and business climate Detroit enjoyed in the early 20th century, the policies that made it the USA’s automotive capital.

detr

This conference will explore that fascinating history, and bring together social scientists and reformers from around the world to focus on innovative solutions to today’s most “intractable” economic problems. The CGO looks beyond the ideological limits of “Left” or “Right” to explore viable Third Way policy solutions that can move society toward greater equality, without sacrificing prosperity.

For rates and reservation information, please click here. Here’s a PDF version of our brochure.

Source: Council of Georgist Organizations | Apr 27, 2015

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On National Sovereignty

by Lindy Davies

It’s become a convention, on the news, to refer to the Jihadist force that’s been gaining ground in Iraq and Syria as the “so-called” Islamic State. This seems to be a requirement. Sure, they call themselves a state — but they’re not! States are sovereign. They have governments, and ambassadors and such; they have seats in the UN General Assembly — like Syria, for example.

What is it, really, that constitutes a sovereign nation?

To begin with, it has to do with authority and control; we think of it as “where the buck stops.” It may be comforting to think of this as an absolute thing (i.e., Israel absolutely has it; the Palestinians absolutely don’t). But it is not all-or-nothing, of course; there are degrees. The “national sovereignty” of a place like “The Republic of South Vietnam” (or post-Dubya Iraq) is an evanescent thing, crafted on the fly to suit the interests of a larger power. Nevertheless, international diplomacy rests, however shakily, on the concept of national sovereignty. So far in human history, is nations that make and enforce laws. International law is an ad hoc matter. It is enacted by means of treaties, and only enforced at the national level, if nations choose to do so. (Has the International Criminal Court ever compelled the United States to do anything?)

Nations have various degrees of power, and various degrees, alas, of legitimacy. If the nation is not powerful enough, it may fall to conquest by external powers. But what if it is not legitimate enough? The (so-called!) Islamic State’s legitimacy is bestowed by Allah — the same Deity that confers legitimacy, via the Queen, to land tenure in Great Britain. (It has to be the same Deity: both faiths believe there is only one.) The classical Chinese concept of national legitimacy was called “The Mandate of Heaven.” It was thought possible for a ruling dynasty to lose this, become illegitimate, and become deposed. If a nation is not legitimate enough, therefore, it may succumb to internal revolutionary forces.

Eventually, Divine bestowal of sovereign power came to be vested in hereditary monarchs. In the minds of the Enlightenment philosophers, however, sovereignty came to rest in the incontestable, and infallible, will of the people. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that governments are instituted to secure the people’s inalienable rights, and that their powers — if they are just — are derived from the consent of the governed.

This raises questions. Who are “the governed”? How is their consent ascertained? How, and where, and in what ways are they to be “governed” — presumably through the exercise of the sovereign powers of a “government” which the people have chosen? According to Jefferson, a governments just powers are derived from the consent of the governed — and it wields those powers through the process of creating and enforcing laws. Does this mean that if a majority of a nation’s citizens decide, through some representative process, that slavery is OK, then slavery is OK? Well, it’s legal, anyway; fee-simple private ownership of human beings was legal in the United States for 75 years.

verb
“Nation is a verb.”

Furthermore, the idea of government cannot be separated from the question of jurisdiction. Over what area does sovereign control extend? There is no global government. Our concept of sovereignty is inextricably bound up with the idea of nationhood. Now, sometimes we might speak of a “nation” in spiritual or cultural terms — a holy covenant? a community brought together by its victimhood? a romantic generational consciousness, such as the “Woodstock Nation”? But, in stark political terms, such notions are frivolous. In the “real world,” nationhood is a matter of jurisdiction over a defined portion of the planet: a territory — a piece of land.

Job #1 for any nation is the administration of its territory: its boundaries and their defense; the duties and prerogatives of states, municipalities and other lesser jurisdictions; and — most important — what people can do with that territory: what rights they have to its possession and use. This has obvious economic implications, because all economic activity must use land in some way. It is incumbent upon a sovereign nation to set rules concerning how people use the land: to make stuff, to live on, and to dump their garbage in.

Fine, OK — all of this sounds so commonplace as to hardly be worth mentioning. But, when we start to think about how these issues play out, we find some astounding breaches of logic.

Many smart people have told us that international trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, dangerously erode national sovereignty. Democratic societies have repeatedly chosen to implement regulations deemed necessary to protect health, safety and the environment. Pacts like the TPP seem to be taking these powers away from governments.  I wonder how many citizens in struggling, export-dependent poor countries have any inkling what prerogatives their “sovereign governments” have given away in order to stave off trade sanctions.

But it’s not just the poor countries that are “yielding up their sovereignty” to multinational corporations — oh, no! Lots of people in the Great and Powerful USA are exercised about the increasing ease with which corporations reconfigure their profits into other jurisdictions to avoid paying “their fair share” of US taxes. Have the governed given their consent to that? Perhaps not, but the Emperor, in any case, has made it legal.

If Job #1 of a nation is to administer its territory, what can we say of a country that allows private investors to hold hundreds of thousands of hectares of that territory entirely idle, while its people have no place to make a living? Hasn’t that nation’s sovereignty been seriously degraded?

Furthermore, if a corporation is making “obscene” levels of profit in the United States and then paperworking them into another country to avoid taxes, well — did it not need land, locations and natural resources, to undertake the activities that created those profits? Did it fully compensate the community for the privilege of using that land?

Questions like these have a way of making one’s head swim. They seem to sudden, too sweeping. One is tempted to back-track to see whether some key factor has been left out. That impulse is both understandable and necessary — because in today’s discussions of economic policy a key factor is left out.

So let’s back-track. We’ve said that the most vital task of a nation is the administration of its territory. It defends against invasion, creates and enforces laws, and provides all kinds of infrastructure, both civil and physical. To the extent that nations do these things effectively, they become pleasant and prosperous places to live and do business. And to the extent that they become pleasant and prosperous places, the land in them — most of which is held in fee simple by private interests — increases in value.

land

Any nation that allows fee-simple ownership of land has already — long since — yielded up its sovereignty to private interests. These recent “sovereign giveaways” are just minor embellishments. We can close the barn door if we like, but the horse is long gone.

One of the many things this means is that, while the TPP will exacerbate a number of problems, the solution to those problems is not to be found in protectionism. “Local self-sufficiency” will only make the local landlords a bit less rich.

There was a West African nation that took a series of effective steps to assert its own rightful sovereignty — have you heard of it? It began with a military coup — nothing very noteworthy in that; there are lots of military coups — but this one set out to implement a novel program of reform. The country defaulted on its foreign debt. It proceeded to abolish all income taxes, VATs and tariffs, and to collect the value of land for its public revenue. And what happened? It no longer needed exports, or foreign loans, because its domestic markets were strong, its employment full. The most serious policy problem it had to deal with was the large numbers of people who wanted to immigrate. This country’s name is Alodia — but, alas, it is fictional. So far.

 

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Raiding Public Coffers: G20 Results

As world leaders assembled for an awkward “family photo” at this year’s G20 summit, Vladimir Putin was placed on the far right. This was done, perhaps in part, to keep distance between him and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who threatened to “shirtfront” rugby tackle the Russian president.

 

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Local newspapers put it comically; Putin has been “exiled to social Siberia.” But behind the photos of shirtless Putin on horseback, and all of the flamboyant posturing surrounding the G20 summit are serious geopolitical and economic issues that affect us all.

 

Interest-group politics veiled as pro-market reforms

 

Participating countries in the G20 summit produced a report including a “growth package”, a set of reforms which the OECD and IMF promise will yield, an oddly specific, 2.1% increase in economic growth by 2018.

 

Many of these reforms are not really about facilitating fair competition. Instead, they create and sustain private monopolies and tax loopholes. Don’t take our word for it, see the report for yourself. Below are the reforms.

“Reducing regulation and the costs of doing business”

 

In general, it is a good idea to minimize bureaucracy, and remove particular regulations that maintain artificial privileges (e.g. restrictive taxi licenses). The report does a good job of addressing that issue. In many cases, regulation does fall most heavily on small businesses and new entrants, giving an unfair advantage to large existing corporations.

But in the G20 growth package, this “reduction of regulation” includes the following kinds of policies which are not as competitive, fair, or beneficial as they may seem.

 

a. Privatizing Basic infrastructure

Utilities and basic infrastructure are often natural monopolies, meaning it is not practical to have a competitive market for them. Take water and sanitation for instance. There is only so much space in a city available for pipes, sewers, etc. It’s not feasible to have many competitors all using different pipes and subterranean tunnels.  Giving the privilege of providing vital services to private companies cannot be expected to “boost the competitiveness of the economy and the efficient allocation of resources.” (G20, p. 9)

 

waterprivitizationweb

 

However, it is sure to create very profitable business opportunities at the expense of the public. To continue using the previous example, if a private company is given the monopoly to provide all of the water for a city, they will charge very high prices. If there is no other way to get water, than to pay the water company, people will pay whatever it costs; nobody can survive without water.

 

Sure, people would spend more money (increasing GDP) if they were forced to pay ever more in water costs. However, it wouldn’t necessarily mean any more real wealth had been created, or that people’s lives had been improved; it’s quite the opposite actually. Yet, the report implies that everything will be peaches and cream if we focus on maximizing this narrow metric of economic success.

 

“Observed productivity and price changes in key infrastructure sectors in the 1990s … are estimated to have permanently increased Australia’s GDP by 2.5 per cent.” (G20 p. 5)

b. Reducing Pollution Fines

“The Government has also removed impediments to investment by repealing the mining and carbon taxes. The repeal of the carbon tax alone is expected to reduce annual compliance costs by $85.3 million. Both these reforms will directly reduce compliance costs and will contribute to a more dynamic economy.” (G20, p. 9)

 

The claim that such taxes would “contribute to a more dynamic economy” is dubious. Instead, it would likely just increase windfall gains for big polluters. Reducing the cost of polluting reduces a company’s incentive to not harm the environment. In other words, it will likely greatly increase pollution. If you want a more dynamic economy and less pollution, simply stop taxing regular people for working and make up for the difference by taxing pollution more.

 

pollutionweb

c. Deregulation of university fees

In our current education systems, the value of a university degree is more in the privileges it grants than the actual quality of the tuition. The biggest personal capital one gains from university are the personal relations and the pre-selection premium to one’s professional status – both of which involve strong network effects. Having gone to Harvard does give one access to certain labour markets regardless of what they happened to learn while studying.

 

Allowing education fees to soar in high-status universities is likely to cause further polarization of privilege, which reduces social mobility and structural adaptability. The one part of the growth package that actually seems to increase “equality of opportunity” (G20, p. 1) is that the government will be “supporting over 80,000 additional students in 2018 at an estimated cost of $820 million over 2014-15 to 2017-18.” (G20, p. 8) But these suggested public education subsidies and the resulting “price signals” (G20, p. 8) are likely to result in further windfall gains to elite-status universities – instead of encouraging improvements in education quality, as the growth plan insists it would. In other words, universities would simply increase tuition without improving education.

 

collegestuitionweb

In a market where educational services were separated from assessing professional competence, such competition between the education service providers would be more likely to “improv[e] the quality of tuition”. (G20, p. 8) In the current academic degree paradigm, where status matters and is dependent strongly on the body of students applying to each university, competition is unlikely to work efficiently for the benefit of all students.

d. Tax exemptions and deferment for options used in employee compensation (G20, p. 10)

This looks like nothing but yet another tax avoidance loophole for a few highly paid classes of employees (such as top management). Most employees are not compensated with options in any case, and there is no sensible reason to subsidize compensation in this form over regular wages.

 

“New investment and infrastructure”

 

Under current low interest rates, governments are likely to borrow in order to build expensive infrastructure projects. This results in large increases in surrounding land values. If a train station is built for instance, those that own land nearby will see their land’s value increase dramatically, allowing them to charge buyers and renters more. This is an unearned or windfall gain as economists call it.

 

 

If however, the value of land is taxed, and owners pay more for owning the best land near the new infrastructure, everyone will benefit equally. Infrastructure can even be constructed using borrowed money that is then paid back with the increased revenue coming from rises in land value. In many cases, it would actually be profitable for the public sector, creating extra revenue for other purposes: increasing access to education and medical care, lowering harmful taxes, and even providing a citizen’s salary (a.k.a. basic income).
New infrastructure is great, but not if it is used as a means of raiding the public coffer.

This is part 1 of our coverage of the G20 growth package. Stay tuned for more.

Tuure Parkkinen
  RootBug.org

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