We featured the libertarian transhumanist perspective of Zoltan Istvan a few weeks ago. In this May 2, 2017 episode, we speak with James Hughes, who couples a concern for transhumanism with a progressive attitude and a focus on economic justice.
Hughes is an American sociologist and bioethicist who falls on the progressive side of the political spectrum. He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which he founded with Nick Bostrom. He serves as Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston.
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.
In this April 11, 2017 episode, Mark Mollineaux, Jacob Shwartz-Lucas, and Edward Miller discuss the land-use policies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and more. How responsible is municipal ownership of land for the world-class infrastructure and vibrant economies of these cities?
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.
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.
We would like to invite you to an exciting event in New York City on how natural resource policy has gone so wrong. Don’t miss the chance to be a part of this vital ethical and economic debate that will shape policy dialogue for years to come.
Friday, May 19th, 9:00 am – Noon 22 East 30th Street, New York, NY 10016
For further information and/or to attend email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“To make the economy work on behalf of citizens and nature, the special privileges of the past will have to be terminated.” The words of Frederic S. Lee, editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, elucidate the powerful implications of a new piece of writing from Georgist economist Mason Gaffney.
Gaffney’s Nature, Economy, and Equity: Sacred Water, Profane Markets appears in the November 2016 edition of AJES and challenges the fundamental assumptions of even the most liberal economic dogmas of the past century. Lee says that by recognizing the tendencies toward capital accumulation inherent in laissez-faire capitalism and enshrining the sanctity of nature at the forefront of any policy discussion, Gaffney has produced “principles of universal relevance”.
To foster an ongoing public dialogue on Sacred Water, Profane Markets, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation is co-sponsoring an event in New York on May 19, with the International Union for Land Value Taxation, a United Nations ECOSOC NGO, the Center for the Study of Economics and The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.
This event will explore how a just system of charging for nature’s services can not only protect nature from excessive use but also make the market for produced goods and services healthier by preventing the development of monopolies that impede economic efficiency and destroy social harmony.
FROM THE ORGANIZERS
Sacred Water, Profane Markets should be of particular interest and provide ground-breaking insights to any professional, NGO, or others with an interest in or responsibility for managing, funding, using or caring for substantial bodies of water for municipal, domestic, commercial, agricultural, industrial, amenity, leisure or hydropower purposes.
Two of our speakers, David Triggs and Mary Cleveland, will address the economics and management of water. They will describe how a just system of charging for nature’s services can not only protect nature from excessive use but also make the market for produced goods and services healthier by preventing the development of monopolies that impede economic efficiency and destroy social harmony.
Drawing upon many years of practical experience in both developed and developing countries and extensive academic research they will show how a healthy balance of demand management and market forces may be used to ensure both safe drinking water for all in water scarce cities and the optimum sharing of water between agricultural, industrial and commercial users of water. They will provide fresh thinking with regard to how the cost benefit analyses that underpin major water related capital projects throughout the world may be improved to avoid unnecessary waste of natural, human and financial resources. The principles underpinning this approach apply to wider economic and public revenue issues.
Our third speaker, David Michel, has researched and written about transboundary water governance, maritime resources management, and water conflict and cooperation. He is co-author of Toward Global Water Security: US Strategy for a Twenty-First-Century Challenge. He will share his views about the water ethics and policy presented by the first two speakers and how these might make a valuable contribution to a global water grand strategy formulation. The intention of Dr. Michel’s current work on global water security is to maximize the potential for civil society and the private sector to speak with a cohesive voice on water ethics and policy.
Following the three main speakers several designated respondents will draw on their own insights and experiences in water ethics and management in giving their input to the proposed reconciliation of Sacred Water and Profane Markets. The main speakers and the respondents will then participate in a plenary round table discussion on a number of key points and questions raised by forum attendees.
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.”
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, HenryGeorge discusses how sprawl and the inequalityit 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.”
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.
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.
Simkhovitch, V. G. (1916). Rome’s fall reconsidered. New York: Ginn. Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-2001.
“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.
Over the last 60 years, dozens of studies on patenting, innovation and economic growth have found that patents foster ex ante innovation — meaning, they induce people to invent because of the prospect of reward. This causal relationship is widely accepted, and some studies have also shown upticks in metrics like foreign direct investment following implementation of strong patent laws.
The patent system is also one of the most effective tools for knowledge-sharing and technology transfer ever devised. A 2006 study by French economists Francois Leveque and Yann Meniere found that 88 percent of U.S., European, and Japanese businesses were reliant on the information disclosed in patents to keep up with technological advances and direct their own R&D efforts.
But neither profit nor innovation is enough to justify the full extent of the patent race; that is, a “first come, first served” approach to patent law that does not allow for the same discoveries to be made independently. It is also hard to argue for the way in which the current system encourages breaking patents down into smaller segments that can be exploited for gain on the basis of blocking further innovation.
Patent law requires careful reform that balances the need to keep U.S. innovation from disappearing overseas and the opportunities for boutique innovators to create without fear of excessive litigation.
The relationship between patents and innovation remains uncertain in some ways. One problem is that very often the measure for innovation is the patent itself, and there exists an assumption that a higher number of patents will lead to more innovation.
A 2009 study utilized an online game called PatentSim, developed to see how innovation was affected by different patent systems. It featured an abstract model of the innovation process, a database of potential innovations and a network through which users could trade and enforce patents. The software compared a traditional patent system, a “commons” system with no patent protection, and a system with a combination of patents and open-source protection.
The initial results of this study were “inconsistent with the orthodox justification for patent systems”, showing that full or partial patent systems generated significantly lower rates of innovation, productivity, and societal utility than a commons system. Even in repeat studies in which participants knew enough about patents to generate more innovation, the “pure commons” system still returned higher productivity and social utility. Interestingly, the creators of PatentSim decided to patent it.
In a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter said the patent system was “the innovator’s friend”, but not the friend to a general public that wanted innovations to be used for everyone’s benefit. In other words, innovation is a force for personal gain as well as social good, and often the balance is tipped in favor of one at the expense of the other.
“Industry giants can lock up ideas and sit on patents in order to discourage competition. We should favor “use it or lose it” rules that ensure that true innovators can’t be driven out of an industry because incumbents protect their turf,” Kanter said.
Under current regulations, patent holders are not penalized if they do not use their patents. This allows for the existence of entities like patent holding companies (PHC), patent assertion entities (PAE), and non-practicing entities (NPE). There are legitimate reasons for these kinds of organizations to exist, but many are what are known as “patent trolls”.
Patent trolls amass patents with the sole intention of filing infringement suits. The Patent Office has a habit of issuing vague patents, allowing the troll to threaten legal action against as many entities as possible and demand licensing fees running into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
2015 was the biggest year to date for patent lawsuits, and two-thirds of these were filed by non-practicing entities. The prevalence of lawsuits of this nature drew attention from President Obama’s administration. A 2011 law, the America Invents Act, made it illegal to file a patent lawsuit against multiple defendants. President Obama also ordered the Patent and Trademark Office to require more specific information about patents and infringements to protect businesses that were “simply using off the shelf technology”, according to the New York Times.
Forbes writer Matthew Herper asks whether there is really a “need to ‘fix’ the legal system that has enabled America to become number one in the global biotech, software, hardware, medical devices, energy, genomics, and nanotechnology industries”. Herper claims that reforms to the patent system are “well meaning in their search to restrain patent trolls, but have created tremendous unintended consequences”, most notably in medical biotechnology research and development. “Let us be clear: investments in the biotech industry are based entirely on patents. Without strong patents, we cannot raise money to find cures for disease.”
Earlier this year, we published a discussion of how any attachment of property rights to elements of biology should be treated with extreme care. The patent system is not ideal, but it’s best elements are vital to our economy. This complexity is perhaps described best by two famous economists, Fritz Machlup and Edith Penrose, who stated:
“If we did not have a patent system, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge of its economic consequences, to recommend instituting one. But since we have had a patent system for a long time, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge, to recommend abolishing it.”
No new technology can be manifest in a vacuum. That is to say, every so-called innovator is dependent on the accomplishments of countless others who have come before them. The societal need for innovation, and its fundamental dependence on past innovations, illustrates the need to capture some of the value of intellectual property for private gain and leave some for public good.
Patents offer an essential safety net to small businesses with new ideas and to high-cost, R&D-intensive research companies. After accounting for cost recovery and preventing blatant appropriation, however, our system of patents has a lot of unintended consequences for which to answer. If these are to be addressed, some kind of Patent Value Tax and public auction of unused patents should be implemented; in the same way that a Land Value Tax would see land changing hands until the right person could maximize its value, patents could be exchanged so that those most useful to society do not sit idle.
It is also worth considering that patents only report a final, positive result of a larger research process, thus hiding failures that others will likely encounter as well. If we are talking about innovation we should recognize the importance of failure, and that understanding what doesn’t work is also a part of technological progress.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has concluded that while patents encourage innovative research and development, they are also “dangerous” in their power to deny access and limit public participation in science and culture. The report concludes: “Where patent rights and human rights are in conflict, human rights must prevail.”