The Cause of Global Inequality: Comparing Jared Diamond and Henry George

Can inequality within and between societies be explained in terms of merit and intelligence, or are the most important determinants of inequality beyond individual control? Both economist Henry George and geographer Jared Diamond essentially asked this same question, examining the fundamental forces that have shaped human history. They come to startlingly similar conclusions. These similarities have not, until now, been connected and compared so directly.

Henry George, as an economist, had a view of history which emphasized the importance of the privatization of the economic value of land. Jared Diamond emphasizes the importance of the orientation of large land masses along an east-west axis in shaping history. What is common to both theses is the importance of land – the petri dish which supports human cultures.

Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel is probably the most popular book ever written about the role of agriculture in the evolution of human societies. George’s magnum opus Progress and Poverty was likely the best-selling book in the world, after the Bible, when it was published in 1879. Princeton historian Eric F. Goldman described a society in which enormous numbers of people found that their “whole thinking had been redirected by reading Progress and Poverty in their formative years. In this respect, no other book came anywhere near comparable influence.”

Both books tackle such large questions that they are frequently attacked for being deterministic and for broad-stroking details. While the details are contentious, the core theses are straightforward and robust. Postmodernism has made many scholars afraid to distil general forces and has turned ‘generalization’ into a pejorative term.  But among those seeking useful answers for the current state of the world, Diamond and George are responsible for paradigm shifts within many fields of inquiry. It is not my goal with this piece to defend all of these thinkers’ ideas with an exhaustive list of historical examples, but merely to compare their most defining ideas.

Land Determines Human Progress

Diamond’s thesis is that Eurasia had ideal conditions for agriculture and the success of its people was not due to intelligence or merit. Essentially, crops that flourished in the fertile crescent (self-pollinating hermaphrodites) could move east and west much easier than they could move north and south. Globally, those who controlled land on this east-west axis were able to grow huge food surpluses and advance rapidly, inheriting selectively bred food crops, technology, and ideas at a much faster rate than areas not on this physical and intellectual jet stream.

Diamond writes that effective agriculture and food storage were “prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.”

Photo: Stuck in Customs The Infinity of China via photopin (license)

Food surpluses freed people’s time and energy for innovative pursuits, supported dense hubs where people could exchange ideas, and supported large militaries to exact tribute and rent from traders and inhabitants. In other words, it was principally differences in access to well-located land that made it possible for some societies to advance to the point of being effective at conquest and colonization.

If George were aware of Diamond’s thesis, he might remark that there is a global privilege, or economic rent, associated with controlling land on this east-west axis. George mostly goes about describing this within societies – as opposed to Diamond’s sole focus on comparing civilizations – arguing that those who control the best locations and can charge rent for them have a return far beyond that which is justified by their individual merit. On the collapse of societies, both thinkers boil it down to sprawling and wasteful land use.

In Progress and Poverty, Henry George discusses how sprawl and the inequality it produced was the cause of the decay and fall of the Roman Empire:

“Rome arose from the association of independent farmers and free citizens of Italy. It gained fresh strength from conquests, which brought hostile nations into common relations. Yet the tendency to inequality hindered progress from the start, and it only increased with conquest.”

“Great estates—“latifundia”—ruined Italy. The barbarism that overwhelmed Rome came not from without, but from within. It was the inevitable product of a system that carved the provinces into estates for senatorial families. Serfs and slaves replaced independent farmers.”

George, firstly, notices that private property is a natural thing related to human production and in ancient times when the population was sparse “ownership of land merely ensures that the due reward of labor goes to the one who uses and improves it.” But over time, with the density of the population, rent increased forcing civilizational sprawl.

Conquests led to appropriation of land and slavery. The Roman armies moved outwards from Latium demanding land; victory gave more land to the farmers; excessive demands again brought exhaustion of fertility; again the armies moved outwards. Early 20th-century professor of economic history Vladimir Simkhovitch wrote: “Province after province was turned by Rome into a desert, for Rome’s exactions naturally compelled greater exploitation of the conquered soil and its more rapid exhaustion. Province after province was conquered by Rome to feed the growing proletariat with its corn and to enrich the prosperous with its loot. The devastation of war abroad and at home helped the process along.”

Photo: Jerzy Durczak Sunny fields via photopin (license)

Diamond describes the way in which Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations grew crops and grazed cattle in an irresponsible and wasteful manner.  If land was plentiful for the dominant culture, who had subdued the inhabitants, they could afford to destroy the soil and move on. The only reason western Europe was able to survive similar irresponsible methods, according to Diamond, was its rainfall, unlike the drier Mediterranean and more inland areas of the Middle East, which were not always deserts.

In this way, George and Diamond agree on the importance of land and resource management in the rise and fall of civilizations, as opposed to the individual merit of those involved, but they describe very similar phenomena through unique and largely comparable lenses.

It is difficult to compare thinkers from such different times on issues like the environment. However, one possible difference between George and Diamond are their views on population. George viewed humans, unlike other species, as capable of multiplying their productivity, using fewer resources to produce more wealth. Diamond’s theory that Easter Island, for instance, was a Malthusian (population) trap might put George’s and Diamond’s philosophies at odds. George was likely more of an optimist in terms of population and technology,  if the land problem could be adequately addressed first.

Resource Distribution within Societies

To illustrate, Vikings, a popular historical drama on the History Channel (spoiler alert), features the fearless upstart Ragnar Lodbrok. Ragnar bases his legitimacy as a ruler on the idea that he can supply his people with not only new sources of loot but, most importantly, land.  He dramatically demonstrates this mid-battle in an impassioned speech to his warring countrymen. Instead of fighting each other for land, says Ragnar, they should join forces in killing other peoples. Despite historical inaccuracies common in such dramas, scholars believe the Vikings raided other parts of Europe principally out of a hunger for land.

According to George, when a society does not use its own resources well, it leapfrogs to others. He believed that the Western land tenure system creates extreme social stratification whereby the rewards of economic and technological progress go disproportionately to the owners of land. Fear of poverty and an emphasis on unearned wealth and status seeking surrounding this dynamic leads to militarization and a colonial leapfrogging mindset.

Contemporary Georgist economist Mason Gaffney referred to what causes this as ‘milking the core to feed the periphery’. The poor in the center of a society, like large cities, are paying a great deal of their earnings out as rent and those seeking to avoid this rent sprawl in a multitude of ways – from urban sprawl, to heading west during American expansion, to invading other countries for resources, as was the case with the Romans and Vikings as well.

Photo: Israel Defense Forces Artillery, Infantry & Armored Corps Exercise in the Golan via photopin (license)

Gaffney and Fred Harrison describe how land hunger drove millions of people to make the dangerous passage across the oceans to the Americas. Over the course of three centuries, those who came from the Old World gradually displaced or decimated the tribal societies of “First Americans” who occupied the continent for thousands of years. Such a huge, and resource-rich continent provided the oppressive Old World regimes with a safety-valve, or what Harrison describes as “a continental-wide bolthole to freedom.” At least for a time.

“When the land ran out in the 1890s,” writes Harrison, “the land of plenty turned into a hell of poverty.” The poverty that plagued the Old World had arisen with an equal vengeance in the New World cities established by the descendants of the first Old World migrants. Of course, the land did not actually “run out” in a literal sense; the commons was given away to the railroads, to politicians and their close friends, to land speculators, and to settlers.

After the Revolution, huge sections of land were bought up by rich speculators, including George Washington and Patrick Henry. As the veterans returned home, speculators immediately showed up to buy the land warrants given by the government. Many of the soldiers, desperate for money, sold their 160 acres for less than $50.

This kind of hoarding of land creates an artificial scarcity, and this can, in turn, be used to stoke public sentiment toward war. As was the case with Rome and other empires, George argued that this process is unsustainable; at some point, people become more focused on raiding and stealing the wealth others have produced than on creating real wealth themselves. The returns are just too low by comparison. Rent-seekers parlay their power, even if originally earned through productive means, into more rent-seeking and even buy political power to cement their positions. The social pact is destroyed as the society continuously undermines its productive base. This dynamic, which George viewed as cyclical, had happened long before the Viking raids of the Middle Ages. In Progress and Poverty, he wrote the following:

“In the history of every nation we may read the same truth: our primary social organization is a denial of justice. Allowing one person to own the land makes slaves of others. The degree, or proportion, of slavery increases as material progress goes on.

The effect of invention and improvement on the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of nature. What has been the result? Simply that landowners took all the gain. The wonderful discoveries and inventions of our century have neither increased wages nor lightened toil. The effect has simply been to make the few richer — and the many more helpless!”

Conclusion

According to Diamond, people who were lucky enough to have come from land along the longest stretch of east-west land were able to parlay that ownership into more land, decimating those who got in their way. If these east-west cultures existed in environments with lots of water, they could withstand the assault of unsustainable agricultural practices and continue to conquer other parts of the world. If not, they collapsed. George thought that those lucky enough to own land within a society enjoy the same type of unearned luck and privilege. In this way, George describes the cause of poverty within societies, and Diamond describes reasons for inequality, poverty, and colonialism between societies. Both describe why this system of resource allocation and use are unsustainable and ultimately lead to social and environmental collapse, respectively. They also agree that land and location, both its geographic position and land policy, is the most important single factor in determining the fate of civilizations.

If George were alive today, he and Diamond might sit down together and decide that they liked the idea of a global system for sharing the value of land, perhaps as a citizen’s dividend (basic income), which would equalize the historically generated value of land with the descendants of conquerors and the descendants of victims of conquest alike. This would help correct at least the economic misfortunes of people disadvantaged by their geographic position. This would overwhelmingly help those in the global south, the people who not only did not benefit from being on the east-west axis but who were also colonized by those people who did benefit. If done correctly, it could eventually wipe out disadvantages due not to merit, but simply being born on the wrong side of the proverbial railroad tracks.

 

Additional references

Simkhovitch, V. G. (1916). Rome’s fall reconsidered. New York: Ginn.
Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-2001.

 

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Financialization Of Housing Violates Human Rights

“Housing is at the centre of an historic structural transformation in global investment and the economies of the industrialized world with profound consequences for those in need of adequate housing.”

Adequate housing is a human right, and securing it for all people is not only a moral imperative, it is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that have been developed by the United Nations and targeted for achievement by 2030. All signatory member states are bound to pursue this goal in earnest.

Leilani Farha is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, and she has reached some unsettling conclusions about the worsening of what she terms the “financialization of housing” in a report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council at the beginning of the month.  Prosper Australia’s (Earth Sharing Australia) Speculative Vacancies report is held up as a primary source of evidence regarding the scale of the issue, a study that EarthSharing.org is excited to replicate in the United States as well. 

Photo: Leilani Farha

After the enormous losses incurred from the 2008 global financial crisis – by homeowners, banks, and taxpayers – it seemed reasonable to expect that any legislative response would crack down on the deficiencies in the system that had made such a crisis possible. In a nutshell, the opportunities for corporate finance to turn housing debt into a commodity were left unchecked, and the practice of packaging mortgage-backed securities into enormous bundles and selling them as an investment became widespread.

According to Farha, the resulting catastrophe of mortgage defaults and foreclosures actually ended up being a huge win for corporate finance, as companies were able to sweep up billions of dollars worth of property at fire sale prices from state governments who had been forced to assume responsibility for high-risk mortgages.

“Individuals and families who were affected by the crisis were often blamed for taking on too much debt and new rules and regulations were put in place to restrict their access to mortgages. Austerity measures cut programs on which they had relied for access to housing options, and the march towards the financialization of housing continued.”

There is a need now more than ever to reclaim housing as a social commodity and to disincentivize its treatment as a cash cow, an asset for the accumulation of wealth and an easy tax haven for the world’s super-wealthy.

Farha outlines the way in which a vast amount of investment properties are being left empty and suggests that even without occupants, a property can generate significant value for the owner. In Melbourne, a full 20 percent of investor-owned properties are vacant, equating to about 82,000 homes. In London, the wealthy suburbs of Chelsea and Kensington saw a 40 percent increase in vacant properties between 2013 and 2014.

Photo: woodleywonderworks via photopin (license)

“In such markets, the value of housing is no longer based on its social use. The housing is as valuable whether it is vacant or occupied, lived in or devoid of life. Homes sit empty while homeless populations burgeon.”

Farha says there is a “gross imbalance” between the resources that governments devote to assuaging the needs of the ownership class and what is a “complete deficit” of attention paid to those who cannot meet their needs for a safe, affordable place to live. The situation is likely to worsen with the proliferation of international trade agreements, which tend to have the effect of intimidating governments out of regulating investment in property and the development of luxury rentals. A precedent has already been set by cases of treaty arbitration wherein millions of dollars in damages have been awarded to foreign investors.

The human right to adequate housing is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and half a dozen other international conventions and covenants. This right, under our present system, is in constant conflict with the use of land as a store of wealth and a means of capital appreciation, and governments have made the problem worse by providing tax subsidies for homeownership, tax breaks for investors, and bailouts for corporate finance.

A system of Land Value Taxation would discourage such ubiquitous property speculation and exert downward pressure on prices. Confronted with tax bills that more accurately reflect the public value of centrally-located land, speculators and other stakeholders will find it much less attractive to hold onto housing as a deposit box for wealth. The revenue generated from this tax could be used to revitalize the stock of public housing, though this would simply be a cherry on top of the more significant shifts in incentives created by the Land Value Tax.

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Rent-Seeking Drives Inequality

In 2010, the world’s 62 richest billionaires collectively held $1.1 trillion in wealth. At the same time, the poorest half of the world’s population held wealth amounting to $2.6 trillion. Just six years later, in 2016, those 62 billionaires had amassed a further $660 billion, and the poorest half had been stripped of the equivalent of more than $800 billion.

This should be the dying breath of trickle-down economics. Ahead of the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Oxfam Great Britain chief executive Mark Goldring said that “it is no longer good enough for the richest to pretend that their wealth benefits the rest of us when the facts show that the recent explosion in the wealth of the super-rich has come at the expense of the poorest.”

Oxfam senior economist and former special adviser to President Obama Didier Jacobs published a discussion paper in November 2015, called Extreme Wealth is Not Merited, in which he detailed the “six rungs” of the rent-seeking ladder: crime, cronyism, inheritance, monopoly, globalization, and technology.

He argues that few, if any, of these rungs allow a person to become extremely wealthy based on merit, and that “meritocracy calls for talented people to be rich, but not extremely so”. In an analysis of the wealth portfolios of the Forbes list of billionaires, Jacobs offers insight into the relative importance of each rung:

“Fifty percent of the world’s billionaire wealth is found to be non-meritocratic owing to either inheritance or a high presumption of cronyism. Another 15 percent is not meritocratic owing to presumption of monopoly. All of it is non-meritocratic owing to globalization.”

 

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According to Jacobs, for the world’s richest, wealth begets wealth, and clearly the most prosperous avenues to enormous wealth are through currying favor with politicians or simply receiving a fortune as a hereditary right. All billionaires have benefited from globalization, population, and economic growth. Jacobs suggests that the world will inevitably see its first trillionaire in coming decades, and it will be the result not of some extraordinary talent but of continued growth in the global economy.

In a February 2016 interview with Inequality.org, Jacobs compared modern wealth with the merit of Johan Gutenberg. “He invented the printing press in 1439. Most of us would agree, I think, that the printing press amounts to an invention as least as important as Google. Yet Gutenberg did not become a billionaire…because the world economy in the fifteenth century was simply too small and too fragmented to support any billionaire fortunes.”

Jacobs says the idea of meritocracy makes sense for the middle class, and “an outstanding nurse is likely to make more money than an average one and would deserve that extra income”. But the kind of extreme inequality of wealth we see today cannot be justified by the same concepts of meritocracy, as these fortunes are so dependent on collective resources.

Henry George’s definition of land was actually very broad, encompassing “all natural forces and opportunities”. In this way, we can see applications of his principle of shared utility to not just land and natural resources, but to intellectual property, and the forces of globalization and ongoing economic growth. That we should begin to see the existence of trillionaires while so many still struggle to live on wages and are taxed on their labor is a great injustice.

George promoted the idea of the Land Value Tax as a way to fairly distribute economic rent, what would otherwise be unearned wealth, concentrated in the hands of the mega-rich. He also advocated a guaranteed basic income or citizens’ dividend, and a policy of this nature should be funded by taxing the economic rent from land. This way, when public initiatives and global systems create added value for businesses and the rich, that value will be returned to the public instead of being lost to further private stockpiling.

Jacobs says that today, every single billionaire’s wealth “depends on having access to a large population that’s linked through a globalized economy”. Those massive increases in wealth are crystallized in high land values, especially in ritzy locations in major global cities like New York and London. The rich can’t take their land with them to the Switzerland or the Cayman islands.

“The more this global economy grows, the richer our billionaires get. This growth happens independently from any one individual’s effort and talent, so we can’t say that billionaires deserve the profits that go hand in hand with economic growth.” Much of what appears on the balance sheets as profits for productive activities is really land holdings in global hubs. By simply taxing the value of land, we could capture that surplus, without taxing any earned wealth or reducing productive incentives. There would be enough to fund all healthcare, schools, transportation systems, etc without any taxes on normal people. We could have all of the wealth creation of a purely capitalist system while realizing the noble dreams of socialism.

 

Featured photo: FraVal Imaging Malaga muelle uno via photopin (license)

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Is The American Dream Dead in Northern California?

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams said the American dream mandates that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. But what does that actually mean?

For some, the vagueness of the American dream concept makes it difficult to quantify. Identifying a more specific metric of focus would offer a clearer picture of American opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for all people.

TechCrunch.com journalist Kim-Mai Cutler delivered a presentation at Earthsharing.org’s BIL Oakland 2016: Recession Generation event on July 9, in which she focused on the intersection between opportunity, technology, and land. To address this intersection, she referenced the research of Stanford University economist Raj Chetty.

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Figure 1

Chetty analyzed the family income records of 40 million children over the past 20 years and calculated the likelihood of a child born into the poorest 20 percent (lowest quintile) of society reaching a higher quintile in income. Isolating geography as a determining factor, Chetty found that, for example, the city of San Jose provides the best opportunities for a poor child to reach the 80th percentile in income distribution, compared to all other cities across the country. This is shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 2

Despite this, Figure 2 shows a trend reflected statewide and across the United States wherein median wages are increasing, but poverty is also on the rise, and homeownership is falling.

This trend in Santa Clara County flies in the face of conventional thinking, whereby poverty should decrease as incomes and opportunities multiply. If people are making more money, yet are less able purchase a home, the home price must be rising faster than the wage.

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Figure 3

Similarly, apartment rent is skyrocketing. There is a lot of job growth, which would tend to indicate that labor is more in demand and that incomes will be higher, but most of the new jobs do not pay well – most make less than 50 percent of the average median income (AMI), as seen in Figure 3.

To add insult to injury, Figure 4 shows that many lower-wage workers fall well short of average asking rents, and are therefore unable to work and live in the same area. These people must either cohabitate or commute long distances in order to secure housing that they can afford.

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Figure 4

These are direct consequences of Proposition 13, which greatly limits property taxation in the state of California. Proposition 13 defines what a parcel of real estate can be taxed, how much that tax can grow annually, and when the parcel’s value can be reassessed. Over time, this has created severe market distortions, as developers have no incentive to build additional housing that is affordable. This ultimately limits housing supply, forces workers to commute further from the urban centers, and leads to additional sprawl.

How does this all affect upward mobility? For starters, family commute times correlate with a child’s future success and earnings. Figure 5, from Chetty’s study, shows that a transit time of 15 minutes or less significantly correlates with a child’s upward mobility.

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Figure 5

If the American dream is precipitated by upward mobility from one income quintile to the next, it is becoming an unattainable dream for an increasing percentage of the population. Without significant policy change, it will become impossible for many families to escape wage slavery.

Remedies do exist – some to resolve the problem altogether, and others to mitigate it. Metro San Francisco has seen a significant growth of working professionals choosing cohabitation, as well as the tiny house movement of 100-400 square-foot spaces. Unfortunately, these behaviors do not address the structural inequities and land misuse created by the current policy environment and Proposition 13.

With this in mind, it would be sensible for new housing construction in the Bay area to occur where economic activity is most concentrated, namely downtown San Francisco. Downtown areas tend to have the greatest land values, but traditional strategies for construction in the city center tend to be very expensive, politically treacherous, or otherwise ineffective. While cohabitation and tiny houses might make the area more affordable for a few, government must incentivize urban development in high-demand areas to effectively turn the tide of this crisis. To this end, the city and state must consider a Land Value Tax.

The economist Henry George documented this phenomenon of market exclusion 137 years ago in his seminal work Progress and Poverty. George demonstrated how rent increases faster than wages, and to expedite new construction, he recommended eliminating taxes on work and consumption and shifting the source of revenue to Land Value Taxation. His idea was to encourage landowners and developers to increase residential and commercial space in order to pay the Land Value Tax, while generating a respectable return and providing value to others. Land Value Taxation naturally becomes even more effective wherever land values are higher, like the urban core of cities. Implemented in cities, Land Value Taxation leads to a substantial increase in both living and working space.

California faces a unique challenge due to the limits imposed by Proposition 13, and overcoming this would require a difficult voter-approved constitutional amendment to completely overhaul the property tax system. State legislators and regional and city planners would be remiss not to consider a Land Value Tax, which has had demonstrated success in increasing residential space in the United States and abroad.

 

Watch Kim-Mai Cutler’s presentation below:

 

Images: Keynote presentation by Kim-Mai Cutler at BIL Oakland: Recession Generation 2016

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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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Fixing The Bay Area Housing Crisis

The San Francisco Bay Area is in the midst of a severe housing affordability and displacement crisis, the result of years of inadequate public policy, a clash of generational attitudes, and ubiquitous obstruction of new housing projects. At the BIL Oakland: Recession Generation conference, hosted by EarthSharing.org on July 9, a panel of four housing advocates shared their thoughts on where to go from here.

Zac Shore, Stephen Barton, Alex Lofton and Tim Colon described a multi-faceted crisis requiring concurrent and complementary solutions.

Zac Shore is the director of development for Panoramic Interests, a construction company focussed on affordable student housing, workforce housing and homeless housing in San Francisco.

The company has a modular construction ethos that crystallized when they traveled to the U.K. and witnessed the construction of 190 apartments in eight days using shipping containers.

“When we saw that, we were convinced, and now we’re starting to build with it on a large scale in San Francisco.”

Panoramic Interests has built hundreds of apartments for students and workers, and is now beginning to build for the homeless. Shore cited demonstrable cost savings associated with housing homeless, cutting down on chronic use of emergency services and offering an economic incentive alongside the humanitarian one.

Stephen Barton represented the Bay Area Community Land Trust and the Committee for Safe and Affordable Homes. Barton has a PhD in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and was director of the Housing Department and deputy director of the Rent Stabilization Program in Berkeley, California before retiring recently. He has written widely on housing policy and co-authored Common Interest Communities: Private Governments and the Public Interest.

Barton argues that new construction does not have the ability to solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis.

“It’s not to say that increasing the housing supply is not important, because it’s desperately important,” he said. “But of course we have Prop. 13 here in California and its progeny designed to protect real estate investors’ windfall profits, and of course encouraging land speculation because people who own vacant and under-utilized land hardly pay anything in taxes.”

Using taxes to treat rental property like a business rather than personal real estate would be a step in the right direction, “to recapture through taxation the value that we and those who came before us have created,” Barton said.

“If you applied a two percent tax to rental property in the whole Bay Area, you would raise $500 million a year and it could lead to construction of as many as 50,000 affordable apartments.”

“About half of the rent that tenants pay in the Bay area is not, in fact, necessary to profitably operate and maintain the housing once it’s been built and the construction costs are amortized. Instead, it’s basically an admission charge – ‘welcome to the magic kingdom, here’s how much you have to pay to be here in the Bay area’.”

Alex Lofton is a co-founder of Landed San Francisco, a community-based brokerage organization that raises capital from investors interested in local real estate, and uses that money to support first home-buyers with down payments.

“Our whole system is set up on the intergenerational transfer of wealth: you’ve got to ask your mom or you dad, or brother or sister, or grandparents to help you buy your first house, especially in expensive places. So we just say ‘Why can’t there be other options than mom and dad…to borrow that money?’”

“You live in a place like this and you question if you’ll ever become an owner…the leap from renter to owner is just impossible.”

While affordability was the main problem with Bay Area housing, requiring greater supply and higher incomes, another way forward was thinking about the concept of ownership differently, and coming up with creative ways for whole communities to help people get started in the property market.

“There isn’t a silver bullet, it does take a lot of solutions.”

Tim Colen, at the time of conference, was executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, an organization promoting well-designed and well-located housing. Prior to this, he was president of the Greater West Portal Neighborhood Association, and spent 25 years working as geologist.

San Francisco is cursed by having a red-hot economy, and highly-skilled workers flooding into a city that has a history of under-producing the amount of housing it needs.

“We have chosen policies for the last two or three decades that have led us to this position where our population is growing by about 10,000 residents per year… a city that has a historic production rate [of houses] somewhere around 1700-1800 units a year.”

“It’s already a city that’s become hostile to the young, young families, seniors, immigrants, the artists, the weirdos, the hippies, everybody. It’s going in the direction of becoming a luxury resort with a certain amount of housing we can afford to subsidize.”

In Sacramento, liberal democrat Governor Brown has taken a bold step by introducing “by-right housing”, whereby if certain conditions are met by developers then new builds cannot be obstructed.

“It’s the first tool we’ve seen in ages that says ‘you can’t appeal projects to death anymore’,” Colen said.

The dominant conversation around housing has been one of intergenerational change, and the desire of previous generations to keep things the way they are, Colen said, and this has tipped the balance of power toward those who say no to development and increase construction costs.

“We’re strangling ourselves,” he said. “There is not enough money in the world to subsidize our way out of this problem.”

 

This panel discussion highlights a struggle between established residents and newcomers, who should be joining forces against an entirely different threat. Renters are being squeezed out of the Bay as prices surge, while would-be newcomers, many of whom are tech workers, are kept out by the same phenomenon. Both blame each other, yet it is landowners who are making a killing off the skyrocketing costs for space in the Bay Area.

Yes, tech workers drive up the cost of land, but freezing new construction also makes apartment rents artificially high. Both groups are right, but it is unfettered and untaxed landlordism that is the real problem.

There is a way to help protect those in danger of being forced out of the Bay, while also giving access to newcomers in innovative industries: tax the rising value of land and reduce taxes on working and exchanging. A citizen’s dividend paid out of the revenue from a land value tax, what some call a basic income, should be given to everyone to be spent as they wish. They would use this money to subsidize their apartment, while construction could boom in downtown San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay. With more people able to fill the new units in the central locations, this would take pressure off areas even slightly outside the central business district. This in turn would retard the rise in rent from what it otherwise would be, while putting more money in vulnerable people’s pockets to secure housing.

 

 

Feature photo: Guner Gulyesil City Romance via photopin (license)

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Joshua Vincent: Land Value Taxation In Practice

Significant changes to any system of taxation require significant upheaval, and perseverance from citizens in and out of government. EarthSharing.org spoke with land value taxation proponent Joshua Vincent earlier this month, in a conversation covering attitudes towards land value tax, its applications, and the activism required to advance it. Watch the interview below, broken into three parts.

Vincent has been executive director of the Center for the Study of Economics since 1997. He has consulted for more than 75 municipalities, counties, NGOs and national governments. He works with tax departments and elected officials to promote land value taxation, and has testified as an expert witness on its impact. Vincent is the editor and publisher of Incentive Taxation.

Best Valuation Methods

Vincent lays out best practices for calculating land values, most of which “rely on values that have already been established by the assessor.” By looking at sales prices in an area, particularly of vacant lots but also of derelict buildings set for demolition, a fairly accurate picture of land value can be obtained.

Building values are more complex, but still absolutely necessary for revealing land values: by subtracting building value from a property’s total value, the ideal taxable land value can be calculated. Vincent says that “if we want to help capital and labour escape taxation we have to figure out what the building is worth, because that’s where the labour and the capital goes.”

The most effective valuation systems are in states that “update their assessments on a fairly regular basis, and they also change the percentage of land value to building value to reflect essentially what the market is,” Vincent says.

Using the example of an Atlantic City casino, Vincent says that while 20 years ago the property value would have skyrocketed due to market dominance and profit levels, today that profit has been reduced substantially. “Right now the land value is half of the total parcel value, because the building has lost its revenue-generating capacity,” he says.

Approaching City Officials

A land value tax is not just an end unto itself to reduce inequities in wealth. Vincent says the focus of any campaigners for land value taxation should be its application to almost any pre-existing problems in a city.

“You have to identify a problem that the community suffers from,” Vincent says, whether it be blight, population loss, or perceived high taxes. City officials will usually tend toward enlightened self-interest, and the revenue-neutral tax abatements that a land value tax allow are attractive to public representatives whose priorities are job creation and citizen well-being.

“We would then propose: well how about a universal permanent abatement on all buildings, and not just new buildings, not just condos, but all buildings past, present and future?”

Joel Bedford SoHo 1 via photopin (license)
Joel Bedford SoHo 1 via photopin (license)

One discussion is not enough to effect real policy change, and Vincent says any correspondence should be followed up with a second meeting, further information, and a push for the council to crunch the numbers of what is a very practical, “nuts-and-bolts” policy.

“The mistake a lot of reformers of all types make is they march into a city council chambers or a mayor’s office and say ‘here’s a reform, do it’, and then they turn around and leave. I think what we are putting forward is something that is practical, it is doable, and you can demonstrate immediately how it is doable.“

Who Is Likely To Oppose Land Value Taxation?

Entrenched interests exist that have made fortunes extracting rent from populations without investing back into them, and these interests comprise the most likely and vigorous opponents of land value taxation. Vincent points the finger at speculative, “absentee owners who have a business model that depends on blight and the decay of the neighborhood.”

“A lot of people that oppose land value tax are people that have adopted business models and used tactics to thrive in a declining city,” he says. “You extract rent, literally, from the tenants but you don’t put anything into the property; you let it run down. That’s the successful business model. And they will oppose a land value tax, because their buildings have fallen apart to such a degree that they wouldn’t benefit from such a land value tax.”

Automobile-intensive businesses are another example, and in the past, owners of flat-surface parking lots have voiced opposition to changes of the tax structure. Vincent says these businesses feed off the value of urban land, itself the product of the people and the government, but “they’re doing nothing to create that value, and they’re doing nothing for the community”.

Vincent points out that some among these interests have actively funded anti-land value taxation campaigns, like in Allentown in 1997.

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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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Bidding Wars Create New Headaches for Vancouver Renters

Finding a new apartment in a competitive housing market can be exhausting: constantly scouring classified ads, racing from one showing to another, hoping that your credit history and persona can charm potential landlords. But just when you thought finding an apartment couldn’t be more difficult, prospective tenants are finding themselves in rental bidding wars, as landlords exploit competitive real estate markets to maximize revenues.

Vancouver, British Columbia has a housing market rivaling the aggressive competition of New York City and San Francisco. The vacancy rate decreased from 1.8% in 2014 to 0.8% today, and the average rent is $2,230. Neither metric shows any sign of improving as the population continues to grow, partially driven by Vancouver’s strong job market.

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Photo: justenoughfocus Lights of Coal Harbour via photopin (license)

It is not uncommon for prospective renters to conduct searches spanning months, which can cause substantial disruption in their lives. But some landlords are now taking steps that will exacerbate this problem – once you find an apartment in your price range, bidding wars between applicants will probably increase the list price.

As Devin Cox and his roommate hunted for an apartment in Vancouver, they noticed that approximately a quarter of all rental applications asked prospective renters to list the maximum amount above the asking price they would be willing to pay. According to Cox, multiple landlords notified them of higher offers and gave them the chance to increase their bid.

This practice is not illegal, and is even being highlighted in classified ads. A recent Craigslist posting for a studio apartment noted that monthly rent would be determined by an on-site auction. While this practice might be gaining steam in Vancouver for the first time, it has plagued US cities with limited housing stock for several years, particularly New York City and San Francisco.

Housing advocates cite bidding wars as a reason to implement stricter rental laws. At present, Vancouver officials are taking no action to curb this practice. Bidding wars have been blamed for worsening Vancouver’s housing crisis, although no studies have investigated the full extent of their effect.

Bidding wars are another way in which landlords are taking advantage of Vancouver’s economic success. Yet, they are just a symptom of deeper issues. The city’s infrastructure, people, and businesses are enticing large swathes of educated workers to relocate there, increasing the value of land in the metropolitan area. This increasing land value is a social product that should be reinvested in the community. Unfortunately, this value is being depleted through rising rents that are far outpacing wages.

If Vancouver will not take steps to eliminate bidding wars, it should at the very least take steps to increase residential space. Government officials should consider implementing a land value tax (LVT).

American political economist Henry George argued that taxing productive activity discourages production. Taxing buildings punishes those who build vertically, and results in a reduction in urban housing and worksites. To encourage more construction, he proposed abolishing the building taxes altogether, and shifting all taxes onto land. He argued that land is our common inheritance, and we can achieve justice by sharing the revenue from land.

Photo: Caelie_Frampton 6th ANNUAL WOMEN’S HOUSING MARCH via photopin (license)
Photo: Caelie_Frampton 6th ANNUAL WOMEN’S HOUSING MARCH via photopin (license)

There are many nuanced arguments in favor of this strategy. George argued that sufficiently-high land value taxation would actually encourage landowners to develop residential and commercial space, adding value for others, in order to pay the land value tax as well as provide themselves a respectable return. This additional housing inventory would ultimately reduce housing costs. But also the increase in construction and development would create a high demand for labor, thereby reducing unemployment and improving wages.

Given the extreme nature of Vancouver’s housing market, officials should move quickly to keep Vancouver a place where all people can afford to live and live well. The Vancouver mayor and council can be contacted online, over the phone, in person, or using a mobile app, details of which are listed at vancouver.caRead more on the problems of bidding wars and speculation.

 

Featured image: James Wheeler Granville Island Bridge via photopin (license)

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EarthSharing.org on Stanford Radio KZSU 90.1 FM Promoting the Recession Generation Event

WKZSU 90.1 FM Stanford University Radio Interviews EarthSharing.org

 

July 5th, 2016, Edward Miller and Jacob Shwartz-Lucas were invited onto Stanford University Radio to discuss an event they would organize in Oakland a few days later. The event was titled BIL Oakland 2016: The Recession Generation.

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The discussion revolved around the event’s aim of helping young adults to navigate the challenges of living in our harsh economic climate and rapid technological disruption.

Jacob and Edward discussed their motivations for putting on the conference. This included explaining their backgrounds, and what changes they want to see in the world.

photo credit: Jane Says via photopin (license)
photo credit: Jane Says via photopin (license)
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