The U.K. snap election ended with the confusion and dissatisfaction of a hung parliament today, as the Conservative Party lost its majority and the Labour Party made significant gains. Results aside, this 51-day election campaign has been a huge test for public perceptions of Land Value Taxation.
Labour’s manifesto proved hugely popular and was a major talking point of the campaign. The replacement of council tax with a Land Value Tax was one of its planks, and this presented the media and the public with an opportunity to give LVT its due diligence. Evidently, tens of thousands of U.K. voters were not dissuaded from voting Labour by the idea.
By the end of the campaign, LVT was making regular appearances in newspaper columns and generating productive public debate. Last week, a letter to the editor from Rev. Paul Nicholson in The Guardian read:
Rents must stop taking the money needed for food, fuel, water and other necessities. Several parties’ manifestos gave land value tax a nod. The advantages are that land cannot be placed tax-free in an overseas bank, taxing land forces into use the 600,000 plots of unused land owned by the big builders, it is progressive, it relieves the incomes of hardworking people and companies by enabling the abolition of inefficient taxes such as council tax, business rates and stamp duty.
Predictably, there were also waves of misinformation delivered by the Conservative Party and infamous U.K. tabloid publications, quick to label LVT a “garden tax” that would potentially triple the tax bills of regular working families and force farmers to raise their prices.
These kinds of arguments have only given more coverage to the policy, and given experts the opportunity to clarify exactly what LVT does and does not achieve. Land Value Tax is now on its way to being a mainstream policy idea across the U.K., where for years disillusionment has been spreading regarding the ownership, under-use, and monopolization of land. Responding to a prominent criticism of LVT as a “Marxist tax grab”, senior lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies Chris Game had this to say:
There’s a minor irony here. The principle of land value taxation – the recognition that land’s true ‘location’ value derives less from the actions of the individual owner than from the wider efforts of the community in creating transport links, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, and the community should benefit from this ‘unearned betterment’ part of the value accordingly – does indeed have history. Far from an invention of Corbyn’s Labour Party, it dates back well beyond Marx to at least the 18th Century classical economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo: hardly proto-Marxists. Indeed, the bearded one himself dismissed it as a distraction from the historically inevitable transition from capitalism to communism.
While the millions who voted for progressive policy and economic justice in the U.K. this week will be left disappointed by the familiar government taking shape before them, this unexpected election cycle has propelled an otherwise unknown idea into the public consciousness. Land Value Tax will be a familiar proposal the next time it is put before voters, and debates on its efficacy will hopefully continue in the public and private domains.
In this April 25, 2017 episode, Kedar and Mark have a conversation about Georgism, Prop 13, and why this all matters.
Starting in 2017, EarthSharing.org has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.
Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?
An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.
Properties near Central Park are vastly more valuable than those even a few blocks away. Parks are among many publicly funded amenities that can raise the value of land because people want to be near to them. Since a Land Value Tax is designed so that governments obtain most or all of their revenue from it, any increase in tax revenue must come from increases in land value. This is why LVT is often thought of as a “single tax” or “central tax”.
To increase annual revenue, governments must construct parks, public spaces, and infrastructure to raise land values. This spurs the ‘Up & In’ private development discussed in Part I, but it also creates an incentive for government to develop and maintain such spaces and amenities.
People have to actually like the spaces in order for government to be able to increase revenue. Therefore, the nature of government intervention in urban planning and infrastructure will likely better reflect people’s needs under LVT, since government revenue will depend directly on the quality of public spaces. This concept applies to roads, utilities, amenities, and many other public works.
Using land value as the central or sole source of revenue aligns the government’s interest with that of the general public in many ways. Though it would improve government incentives in many ways, Land Value Tax would not render zoning completely unnecessary. There are many legitimate and illegitimate zoning restrictions, and these do not disappear ipso facto a land value tax.
If government spends money efficiently, in line with people’s needs, tax revenue will also increase vis a vis land value. For more information on this, see the Henry George Theorem. The theorem, supported by Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz, Willam Vickery, and others describes how governments can sustainably fund all activities, solely using a land value tax, through the creation and maintenance of public works. For an example, watch the video above.
Skyscrapers Everywhere? No.
Some people become confused when thinking about a Land Value Tax, believing it would cause tall buildings to be constructed in the middle of the Amazon rain forest or the Sahara desert. This mischaracterization stems from thinking that the incentive to use land intensively applies to areas with low land values.
If the land value is high, a landowner must generate more income to cover their high tax bill. This is often accomplished by constructing taller buildings, offering more units on which to collect rent. However, if the land value is low, the incentive to build is low as well. This will be reflected in the height of the building, or the lack of a building altogether in areas further from city centers.
Incidentally, even if the Land Value Tax paid by a particular owner is low, there is still an incentive to not own enormous tracts of land for mere speculation. Speculative gain becomes less attractive when any increase in land value will be accompanied by a heftier tax bill. This means that it is easier for small-scale farmers to get started, whereas the current tax system favors large monoculture agribusiness.
Who Pays And Where?
A progressive income tax is said to be pro-poor because those with more income pay more than those with little. In theory, this is a proxy for taxing all wealth progressively, but it is not so in practice. Land value taxation is progressive in a spatial sense. Those who own the best locations pay much more than those who own less valuable locations, and renters do not pay taxes at all. The Land Value Tax curve is very steep as you can see in Figures 2 and 3. This means that wealthy landowners pay a vastly higher tax than owners of outlying parcels.
Of course, in practice land values do not make a perfectly smooth curve. Below is a land value map of Chicago, looking south toward the loop along Lake Michigan.
Tax The Rich
A square meter of land in New York City will buy an acre of land in upstate New York. An acre of land in some parts of the Saharan desert are the price of a hamburger. Yet, $120,000 will only buy you a square meter of land in Pollock’s Path, Hong Kong. Who owns the most valuable land in Chicago, in the City of London financial district, or in New York’s Times Square and on Wall Street? There are not your average Joes. By shifting to a land value tax, the vast majority of revenue would come from the super-rich, not from regular working people. However, unlike taxes on income and abstract financial instruments, land can not be hidden in Swiss bank accounts and the Cayman Islands.
Some worry that multinational corporations will leave high-value areas for this reason. However, if a few decide to leave, it will be those that take up lots of space and hire few employees. Land values and taxes will drop until an equilibrium is reached. What remains are the productive businesses who use space for employees rather than cars, companies who pay their fair share of taxes and contribute to the economic vitality of their communities.
Leave Ma & Pa Alone
Productive businesses will get a boost. With zero taxes on wages and sales, hiring people and selling things will be less expensive. Such businesses will also benefit from lower rent, especially for the average ma and pa shop.
How Is A Land Value Tax Levied?
The Land Value Tax is not the same as a property tax, which is levied on both land and buildings. The Land Value Tax is levied on land only, not buildings. All land is taxed at the same rate, but landowners near the city center naturally pay more than those further away. Let’s imagine for example that the Land Value Tax is set at 10 percent of the market value for all land.
The amount of tax paid by each owner varies as a function of the land value only. The tax rate does not vary from plot to plot, and the value of the building on a given plot will not change the amount of tax paid by the owner.
Hypothetically, land in the city center assessed at $1,000/sq ft will pay $100/sq ft in Land Value Tax per year. Land relatively further from the city center assessed at $100/sq ft will pay $10/sq ft in Land Value Tax per year. Breaking the tax into monthly payments is ideal.
In order to have the effects described in this article, value assessments need to be accurate and the Land Value Tax needs to be high enough to generate the right incentives. LVT is not an additional tax, but a replacement for most other taxes like those on wages and sales. Pollution taxes and a few other good taxes should remain, but the Land Value Tax would be the primary source of revenue.
No Taxes, Just Rent.
So, what does all this mean for the average person? People who do not own land do not pay any taxes under Land Value Taxation, including wage or sales taxes. Public transportation could be made free because such services increase land values and thus revenue.
Many landowners would actually pay far less than they currently do in property taxes, since they own land at the periphery and beyond. Add to that the savings from other types of tax being eliminated, and their total tax burden would be drastically lower as a group. Almost all revenue would come from ultra-wealthy central landowners. If a rural area did gentrify quickly, landowners could protect themselves by purchasing insurance in advance. Those wishing to become landowners pay a lower purchase price, since buyers and sellers know that the Land Value Tax must continuously be paid.
Apartment Rent Decreases
We know that if the supply of something rises, the price falls. If more space is available in and near urban centers, ceteris paribus, the rent decreases, facilitating more urbanization and reversing sprawl over time. Increasing the supply of residential and commercial units will likely become a much faster and cheaper process as advances continue to be made in modular construction and 3D printing. Buildings can be stacked upon one another like legos as demand for particular locations rise or even fall. With the removal of taxes on buildings, labor, demolition, and other construction inputs, developers will be able to streamline the process. The seven-storey apartment building below was built in 11 days, even in the absence of Land Value Tax incentives.
High Rises, Not Just For The Rich
Fancy high-rises currently cause displacement and are often built with speculative returns in mind. Land values are going up, but these values are not being taxed away, as they would under Land Value Taxation. Rather than build for the people who need housing now, property owners build for the rich elite that will occupy the units later, perhaps years after.
Thus, whole buildings sit vacant in the United States, while entire cities sit vacant in China! Under Land Value Taxation, an urban landowner would have to run at an exorbitant loss to accomplish this, and would instead opt to provide relatively less extravagant units in the short term.
Under Land Value Taxation, new luxury developments or an influx of rich people to an area would spur the creation of more housing units nearby. The first thing to be pushed higher is land values, then tax, followed by development incentives, and the area’s housing supply.
This greater supply of housing units, in turn, lowers apartment rent relative to its high just before additional construction.
The Land Value Tax in no way terminates or precludes existing safeguards protecting existing tenants from gentrification, safeguards like rent control. If rent control were still in place under Land Value Tax, developers would simply have to find ways to create more units at a fixed rent in order to generate the required income to pay the tax.
The land value tax would make rent control unnecessary, but that is a decision financially liberated renters can make for themselves after land value tax has been in place for a long while. Remove economic chains before crutches. Let people decide for themselves what protections they want to pare back after they have the luxury of thinking in terms of economic efficiency and utilitarianism rather than their day to day survival.
Tenants would benefit from land value tax for three reasons:
First, it would make cities more compact overall, so affordable housing units will tend to be closer to the city center than they are now;
Second, a city would have a stable and ample source of funding for public transportation, services, a citizen’s dividend, public renters insurance, etc.
Third, it would reduce the pervasiveness of land speculation, which causes the belief that housing markets don’t work and must be interfered with. The reason for this market failure is speculation, not new construction per se. Speculation, holds down supply, creating a sense of scarcity and desperation, like a few people hogging all the seats on the metro train -while pregnant women and the elderly are forced to stand, cramming together near the doors.
In truth, the Land Value Tax would be an enormously powerful tool for fostering inclusive communities that benefit everyone.
Why is it that, every year, the average American spends almost an entire work week stuck in traffic? We are wasting so much time, money, and resources making our daily rounds, but when exploring better ways of doing things, conversations tend to be dominated by improvements to public transportation and more fuel-efficient cars. But to focus solely on transport is to ignore the elephant in the room: the problem is not getting from A to B, but that we live in cities where the long commute is necessary in the first place.
How can we create walkable cities with affordable housing, a strong sense of community, more parks, the means to innovate, explore, create art, enjoy nature, and all of the other things that make communities thrive? What’s the secret?
Underused And Over Capacity
Spaces can feel like they’re at capacity when in reality they are just poorly organized. This can be said of a single room in a house where clothes are strewn across the floor or of an entire city where vacant lots and short buildings are scattered across the landscape. It is possible to make better use of space on a macro scale so that everybody can have affordable housing near job opportunities, public transportation, and nature. Right now, vacant and underused sites make this very difficult, dividing neighborhoods, forcing sprawl to outlying areas, increasing demand for oil, and causing a great deal of ecological damage in the process. Car culture ensues; walkability and the social nature of space decays.
Taxing land value, not buildings and improvements, encourages the development of city centers, allowing more people to be accommodated. This is because landowners require a higher return to cover the Land Value Tax and still make a profit. Centrally-located land in urban centers will attract the highest Land Value Tax, and this will create the strongest incentives to develop vacant and underused sites. Done properly, as the main or only tax, the Land Value Tax increases the housing supply and lowers rent in and near city centers. In the long term, urban sprawl can be reversed.
Up & In vs Down & Out
Our cities have taken a long time to get this bad, and it stands to reason that the remedy would be gradual as well. A high Land Value Tax, uniformly applied, can gradually reverse sprawl, putting vacant and underused land to its best use. There are many other positive social, environmental, and economic effects of Land Value Taxation, but many of these can only be understood by first understanding the spatial effects. Under such conditions, cities develop up and in toward the city center, instead of down and out, away from the city center (see Figure 2 below). Many will notice the fully intended pun here, as the shape of a city has a lot to do with human welfare. Under Land Value Tax, up and in produces good results, down and out produces bad results.
Land Value Tax And Sprawl
When there is no incentive for vacant lots to be developed into productive community spaces, there will obviously be fewer buildings. There will also be fewer parks since the surface area is wasted on vacant and underused sites. In a city with a Land Value Tax, not only is the vacant land filled, but buildings are consistently higher closer to the central business district. In the end, more people have the opportunity to live and work closer to the urban core. Starved of taxes on labor and other economic activity, a government must raise revenue by investing in beautiful and inspiring public spaces where people are willing to pay more for the privilege, thus bidding up the land value and in turn government revenue from the land value tax.
Under this system, much of the wild areas destroyed by current sprawl (Figure 2) are reoccupied by trees and other natural features. Farms can also be closer to cities, reducing transportation costs. The Land Value Taxation city also has a great deal of green on buildings, as the need to maximize the land value incentivizes ecological architecture in the form of vertical, rooftop, and green wall farming.
How Land Value Taxation Improves Good-Density
Use It Or Lose It
Vacant lots, ground level parking, and paved or barren areas left unused are commonplace in our cities. In many cases, this is extremely valuable land in central business districts. If a Land Value Tax is applied here, the total tax paid will be drastically higher relative to vacant land further from the city.
Imagine that you are the owner of that vacant lot. Will you continue to leave it unused if the tax bill is much higher? Without Land Value Taxation, you may have left the land vacant because you did not want to take a financial risk to build anything. You were simply waiting for the land value to rise. However, that rising value is taxed away under Land Value Taxation. Thus, you start to view owning the land as less of a passive investment and more as something that can only be beneficial when it is used well.
You must either start generating income from the land to pay the tax, or sell it to someone who will. Similarly, if you own a small building among centrally-located skyscrapers, you will be incentivized to build higher, to generate more income in order to pay the tax and keep what is left over. Use it or lose it, as the saying goes. While there would be no law that said the land must be used for a particular purpose, financial self-interest would drive landowners toward the most efficient use. They would inadvertently be doing what is in the best interest of everyone.
Cumulative Spatial Effect
Under Land Value Taxation, all landlords are faced with the same incentive: meet the market demand for space in the area or sell to someone who will. Cumulatively, more of the demand to use central locations is satisfied and there is less demand to use outlying areas.
The areas with the highest land values pay the highest Land Value Tax. Thus, these high-value areas also have the strongest incentive to build high, while those areas that are lower in value have increasingly less incentive to develop as the need for space was fulfilled in the city center. The incentive to build high exponentially decreases moving away from the city center.
Boost to Urban Farming
Farming can use very little land and still produce a lot of food. The video below shows a man who produced a million pounds of food in one year on only three acres. His permaculture farming techniques could be stacked in buildings closer to the urban core and/or near the city on community farms. Necessity is the mother of invention and such practices could become widespread with the proper economic incentives in place, i.e. a Land Value Tax. Such an operation requires a lot of labor but little land. Therefore, if taxes are shifted off wages and onto land, these activities become more practical and profitable.
More Idyllic Farming Communities Nearby
Environmentally destructive farming practices, such as widespread use of pesticides, only make financial sense when land is cheap relative to labor. The equation is reversed when taxes are moved off labor and onto land. Though cities would welcome more people, it would also make living and working in outlying areas much more affordable too. This is because the cost to buy or rent rural land would decrease and wages for rural workers would increase.
Ultimately, this would give people greater freedom with respect to where and how they lived. Today’s huge monoculture plantations would be broken up, and the resulting farms would employ more labor. An increased demand for such labor would further increase wages.
“No one would want more land than he could profitably use. Instead of scraggy, half-cultivated farms, separated by great tracts lying idle, homesteads would come close to each other. Emigrants would not toil through unused acres, nor grain be hauled for thousands of miles past half-tilled land.” – Henry George, Social Problems
My father’s side of the family were peanut farmers and Angus ranchers in west Texas and east New Mexico. I grew up riding horses, and was active in both 4-H and Future Farmers of America. I even took part in junior bull riding. I thought that Willie Nelson was just about the greatest guy ever. Ok, let’s admit it, Willie Nelson is an amazing person, both as a musician and in his desire to help people and animals alike. The kinds of people Willie really intends to help with his farmer benefit concerts are the type of people I would like to see helped.
Billions of taxpayer dollars go toward subsidizing crop production each year. So often, the supposedly vulnerable members of the agriculture community are held up as an example of why this is a necessary and compassionate policy. Not only is this perception false, but the very image of the struggling, cash-strapped family farmer is one that doesn’t really hold true in the 21st century. In the 1930s, about 20 percent of the U.S. population were actively working in agriculture. Today, it’s only one percent and the rate of new farmers entering the workforce is dropping dramatically.
When we imagine a family farm, we think of the painting American Gothic, Charlotte’s Webb, Babe, and the Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing label. It’s a reminder of how things supposedly ought to be, an idyllic country fantasy of modest people working and often struggling to provide the rest of us with food.
Everyone seems very concerned about the plight of family farmers these days. But, what does the term “family farmer” really mean? Pretty much everyone has a family. What I really want to know is: who are these farmers who don’t have families? They are the ones who really need help!
The USDA claims that 97 percent of farms are family farms. However, this classification relates to the ownership structure and the top-level management rather than who actually works the land. Just 59 percent of farm laborers and supervisors are U.S. citizens. Half of the hired labor on crop farms, according to the USDA, is people not even legally allowed to work in the United States. They are mostly Mexican migrants making abysmally low wages. Farming subsidies surely don’t go to these ‘family farmers’. Many probably miss their families desperately.
‘Small family farms’ as the USDA defines them, operate 48 percent of all farmland and own 47 percent of the value of farm real estate including land and buildings. In 2012, they held 40 percent of U.S. cattle, 89 percent of the horse inventory, and “grew 64 percent of all acres in forage production”. Yet, despite owning so much, they only produce 20 percent of agriculture sales and five percent of the country’s net farm income. Almost half of small farms are “off-farm occupation farms” which means that the operator’s primary occupation is not farming.
Farmers soak up about $20 billion in subsidies each year. Despite the rhetoric of “preserving the family farm,” the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from federal farm subsidy programs. According to Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook, most subsidies go to the largest and most financially secure farm operations.
The first thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the farmers counted by the census of agriculture do not get farm bill subsidies. So most farmers don’t get anything… And even within the third that does get money from farm bill subsidy programs, the very large ones dominate. And it’s getting more and more concentrated all the time.
Farming subsidies largely prop up wealthy landowners who are not what we would we would intuitively agree to be real family farmers at all. In general, the concept of the nice old landowning family farmers struggling to make ends meet simply doesn’t exist on a large scale anymore. The average farm household enjoys an income about 15 percent higher than that of the average U.S. family.
Cook goes on to describe to Mother Jones how historical subsidies can be enjoyed by subsequent generations who have no involvement in production:
Absentee owners exist everywhere. Let’s say you and I are brothers. You came to town to be a journalist, I came to work at an environmental group, but we both came from a farm family in Arkansas. If mom and dad give us 5,000 acres in their will, we don’t have to go back down to Arkansas and farm. We’ll get the direct payments automatically for that rice and cotton mom and dad kept growing, and on top of that we’ll get other payments.
What we should do is not only cut off these subsidies to landowners but tax the farmland in proportion to its value. This would enable us to fund government without taxing farm equipment and labor.
This would actually help small farmers, whose major startup cost is purchasing land. But wait, if you tax land, wouldn’t their costs go up? No. Unlike taxing consumer goods, which drives up prices, taxing land has the benefit of not reducing its supply. Somebody always owns it. Taxing it makes hobby ownership less attractive, thus actually lowering the purchasing price.
If you’re an economics wonk, here’s an explanation of taxes on inelastic supply:
If the taxes on labor and equipment were reduced while the cost to purchase land went down too, this would be a boon for families purchasing small plots of land to grow food. Their holding costs for land would be higher, but that would just incentivize them to use land more efficiently, like real family farmers used to do.
We could actually see a resurgence of what we would agree is real family farming. These families could hire a lot of workers and pay them more without the burden of paying wage and sales taxes. And if all of these families were using less land and employing more people at higher wages, family farms could thrive and new farmers could enter the market.
Significant strides toward a fairer tax system have been made in Scotland, where the establishment of a dedicated commission on land reform has cemented the policy direction of the leading Scottish National Party.
SNP, Scotland’s governing party, held its annual conference in March, and attendees were jubilant at the commitment made to some form of land taxation. An amended motion stated that as the government works through its land reform program it “must include exploring all fiscal options including ways of taxing the value of undeveloped land”.
Back in 2015, grassroots SNP members rejected the party’s proposed land reform policy, on the basis that it didn’t go far enough and was thought to be a watered-down version of the ideal policy. This was considered significant then because it is rare for a party’s membership to overturn a policy on its own and send its representatives back to the drawing board.
Writing for Bella Caledonia, Jen Stout explains that growing pressure for land reform in Scotland was bolstered by debate during the nation’s independence referendum in 2014.
“The stark inequalities that damage Scottish society so much were a frequent topic, and few statistics hit you so hard as ‘432:50’ – around 432 interests own half the private land in Scotland. That private land, incidentally, makes up 89 percent of our 19 million acres. Community ownership accounts for two percent. Just one man, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, owns one percent of Scotland.”
Adding to the chorus of Land Value Tax advocates is the Scottish Green Party, one member of which has prepared a manifesto on implementing Land Value Tax. Andy Wightman writes that the only major barrier to achieving this is the establishment of a land register, which currently does not exist for Scotland.
“Land Value Taxation is no longer the preserve of advocates and lobby groups on the margins of public debate. It is now a mainstream part of contemporary debates over the future of public finances, local revenues and public infrastructure.”
“There are signs that the public is becoming weary of the house price escalator. For one thing, young people (and by that I mean almost anyone under the age of 30) are being impoverished through the high cost of accessing property. For another, the credit crunch has exposed the weakness of an asset-based debt model. Combined with pressure for just rewards, fairness and greater equality, the arguments for LVT suggest its time may at last have come.”
For all the progress being made in setting the priorities of major political parties, significant misunderstanding of the Land Value Tax policy remains. Public opinion regularly equates a land tax with explicit “community ownership”, which is a failure to grasp the concept of returning the value of public goods to communities.
Wightman writes that while some industries, like forestry and agriculture, and the owners of buildings on high-value land would be resistant to the new system, serious effort should be expended to educate low and middle-income families and the business, retail and industrial sectors on their potential cost savings.
Support for Land Value Taxation in Scotland is now a force to be reckoned with, and its proponents are numerous and well-respected. EarthSharing.org will be continuing to observe and encourage this debate as it develops.
“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.
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.
“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.
We now know that sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, is the leading cause of the U.S. obesity epidemic. Two-thirds of adults and a third of children are considered overweight or obese, and the dietary choices that have created this crisis are often the result of understandable thrift. Our tax environment offers market-shifting subsidies to conglomerate producers of some of the worst things we put into our bodies.
Co-opting Noble Wartime Policy
Agricultural subsidies were used to great effect during World War II, as a way to shore up supplies of corn and wheat to prevent a shortage of troop supplies. These policies served their intended purpose, but without a timeframe, they were allowed to become entrenched by farming businesses which stood to benefit. The foods we are encouraged to eat today, and what we are told about nutrition and cardiometabolism, are in no small part influenced by lobbying from within the system created by wartime pragmatism.
The justification for subsidies today is that the U.S. government wants agriculture to be competitive globally. However, the choices American consumers are making have turbocharged healthcare costs related to obesity. So, two opposing goals are being pursued simultaneously, all while the agriculture industry preys on vulnerable people with cheap, unhealthy foods. A common response is the suggestion to tax sugary foods, but this may not be the best way to optimize incentives.
A study of subsidized foods and their relationship to cardiometabolic risk measured that overall, 56 percent of calories consumed were among the major subsidized food commodities – corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock. The study concluded that higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks. Therefore, better alignment of agricultural and nutritional policies has the potential to significantly improve population health.
The majority of subsidies go to commercial farms with an average income of $200,000 and average net worth close to $2 million, according to a report by Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Brian Riedl. The reality of agricultural subsidies is incongruous with their intent; instead of raising farmer incomes with higher crop prices, they promote overproduction and lower prices further.
Smallholder family farms are largely excluded from subsidies, and instead they finance consolidation and raise land values to prohibitive levels. In the decade preceding 2007, many agricultural subsidies were distributed to Fortune 500 companies, celebrity “hobby farmers”, and sympathetic Members of Congress, including:
$2,849,799 – John Hancock Life Insurance
$1,183,893 – International Paper
$534,210 – Westvaco
$446,914 – ChevronTexaco
$553,782 – David Rockefeller
$206,948 – Ted Turner
$225,041 – Senator Charles Grassley (R- IA)
$45,400 – Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR)
$161,084 – Representative John Salazar (D-CO)
A 2006 Washington Post investigation discovered 75 acres of Texas housing for which the owners could claim agricultural subsidies based on “historical rice production.” Over the past 25 years, rice plantings in Texas have plummeted from 600,000 acres to 200,000, in part because people can now collect generous rice subsidies without planting rice. This illustrates that once implemented, even a seemingly sensible subsidy can become a useless bureaucratic burden that must be repealed or risk becoming ridiculous.
The Sugar Conspiracy
Robert Lustig, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, says a person increasing their sugar consumption is a big problem because “sugar both drives fat storage and makes the brain think it is hungry, setting up a vicious cycle.”
More specifically, Lustig confirms that it is fructose that is harmful. Fructose is a component of the two most popular sugars: table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup has become ubiquitous in soft drinks and many other processed foods.
According to the World Health Organization, food marketing has been shown to influence children’s dietary preferences and behavior, increase the risk of becoming overweight and obese and form habits which persist into adulthood.
Amanda Long, Director-General of Consumers International, says that “the majority of adverts seen by children around the globe are for heavily processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.”
Research in the science journal Nature concluded thatyoung children are not responsible for their food choices, and are incapable of accepting personal responsibility in amongst so many influences including parenting, social factors, and advertising. Obese children are ostracized by their peers, and their quality of life, as measured by self-reported distress, is comparable to those receiving cancer chemotherapy.
In September 2016, NPR reported that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.
That these documents are so old only serves to magnify the implications of this ongoing corporate behavior. A report published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal highlighted ways in which these practices continue.
Report co-author Stanton Glantz told The New York Times this sugar industry strategy of sponsoring research was a smart one, “because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion.”
The response from the Sugar Association was to say that at the time of publication, “funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today.” In one recorded study, a finding of health benefits from a diet of less sugar and more vegetables was dismissed, because such a dietary change was not considered feasible.
In the aftermath of these revelations, the sugar tax debate ignores the more fundamental forces that have given agricultural mega-producers so much influence.
Sweetening The Deal
Subsidies are either going to artificially inflate farmland values and rents, or wind up in the back pockets of supermarkets. If the farming of certain crops is supported by a failsafe government subsidy, supermarkets will see no need to reimburse farmers for the full cost of production, resulting in lower prices and stagnating incomes.
Under a system of Land Value Taxation, all production would be tax-free and, in a sense subsidized. Other foods could compete with corn, and we might experience a decrease in the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in cheap, readily available processed foods.
Farmland is not particularly valuable in comparison to its urban counterpart, so many farmers could expect to be better off under such a policy. Nevertheless, a Land Value Tax would also encourage small-surface-area, horticulture as opposed to extensive, land-wasting monoculture that is subsidized by the public purse. Not only that, it would create a lot of jobs in sustainable farming, since taxes on labor would be removed in a pure Land Value Tax system.
What if there was a set of questions that could predict with a high degree of accuracy your political views on a variety of issues? Social scientists suggest that we process information based on our pre-existing worldviews. In other words, our cultural outlooks shape our thinking. Cultural Cognition Theory suggests that this can be used to predict perspectives and help us understand how they form.
Hotbed issues such as climate change continue to draw political battle lines among the general public, despite scientific consensus. Even neutral information is processed through our own individual political filters. But why? Addressing this question is vital for understanding public perceptions of risk and building support for crucial new policy. Is it a lack of credible information, a failure to communicate evidence effectively, or something else entirely?
Dan Kahan is a distinguished professor of law and psychology at Yale University whose research has been focused on risk perception, science communication, and applications of decision science to law and public policy. He is part of the Cultural Cognition Project, examining the impact of group values on perceptions of risk. Across a number of studies, his research has explored public divergence over climate change and scientific expertise in general.
The cultural theory of risk was developed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky in the 1970s, asserting that people form risk perceptions and beliefs that are influenced by and harmonious with their ways of life. A simple example is the “white male effect”, which is a propensity for Caucasian men to perceive social threats as less significant than do women and minorities.
Kahan’s research has concluded that people form perceptions of risks to society that emphasize their worldviews and cultural outlooks. Thus, political polarization occurs surrounding contentious issues despite the presence of empirical data and scientific consensus. In analyzing how and why these perceptions form, this kind of research can offer insights into the best ways to shape and inform public opinion on risks to society, and to develop and implement better policy.
Intuitively, support for public policies that address societal risks like green technology, vaccinations and gun control should increase as people become aware of and sympathetic to these issues. The problem is that facts are less important than values in the formation of perceptions, and Kahan argues that “identity-protective cognition” causes people to dismiss information that conflicts with their values as a kind of “identity self-defense mechanism”.
Cultural cognition is evaluated through attitudinal scales, which Kahan says “should be thought of as measures of latent or unobserved dispositions, for which the items that make up the scales are simply observable indicators.”
Two continuous scales rank attitudes along two dimensions, referred to as “grid” and “group” ways of life. The first scale, “Hierarchy-egalitarianism”, runs from “high grid” individuals who support the maintenance of status-based systems through to “low grid” individuals who believe entitlements should be based on merit rather than position.
On the second scale, “Individualism-communitarianism”, individuals classed as “weak group” expect to fend for themselves while those classed as “strong group” value solidarity over competitiveness. Responses in agreement or disagreement with value statements are aggregated to form continuous “Hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “Individualism-communitarianism” worldview scores.
Cultural cognition research has revealed a tendency for people to perceive knowledge, honesty, and shared interest in experts who they believe to share their values. A common idea in science communication is that evidence of environmental threats has been ineffectively conveyed to the public, or that scientific literacy is too low. However, it has been shown that polarization over environmental threats is actually greatest among the science-literate. Dramatic public division on these issues is not a result of incomprehension, but instead stems from a distinct cultural conflict of interest.
A 2010 study on perceptions of HPV vaccine risk showed that people will selectively accept evidence to validate previously held beliefs, which suggests that even a balanced argument may increase polarization in people with opposing values. People also base their perceptions of expert credibility on values rather than the content of any argument. The study showed that if a person hears an argument they are predisposed to reject being made by an advocate whose values they share or vice versa, polarization shrinks to insignificance.
Kahan’s research demonstrates that bombarding the public with information or expert evidence on social risks can create a backlash and thus become counterproductive. This is likely to occur in people regardless of their political party or cultural belief system. To reduce combative polarization, it is more effective to present a culturally congenial solution that fits within prescribed worldviews.
As Kahan puts it, “don’t try to convince people to accept a solution by showing them there is a problem. Show them a solution they find culturally affirming, and then they are disposed to believe there really is a problem in need of solving.”
Cultural cognition theory has useful applications in the context of Earth Sharing and Henry George’s ideas about Land Value Taxation. While presenting any policy argument based on a demonstrable problem is liable to be rejected on the basis of predetermined values, presenting the same policy argument framed around the solution and decorated with sympathetic values is likely to succeed. Proponents of significant political change are too often focused on highlighting risks that they believe need to be addressed, failing to speak to people’s core values. In the absence of a framework of values, the substance of the message is lost to partisan interpretations of the supposed risk.
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.”
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.