There is no mystery…

Ships Abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove San Francisco during the California Gold Rush 1849 (public domain image from Wikimedia)

…as to the cause which so suddenly and so largely raised wages in California in 1849, and in Australia in 1852. It was the discovery of the placer mines in unappropriated land to which labor was free that raised the wages of cooks in San Francisco restaurants to $500 a month, and left ships to rot in the harbor without officers or crew until their owners would consent to pay rates that in any other part of the globe seemed fabulous.

                              …Henry George; Progress & Poverty Book V Chapter 2

George goes on to describe how gold mining was organized, and why it was the form of tenure rather than just the availability of gold that raised wages:

[I]t was by common consent declared that this gold-bearing land should remain common property, of which no one might take more than he could reasonably use, or hold for a longer time than he continued to use it. This perception of natural justice was acquiesced in by the General Government and the Courts, and while placer mining remained of importance, no attempt was made to overrule this reversion to primitive ideas. The title to the land remained in the government, and no individual could acquire more than a possessory claim. The miners in each district fixed the amount of ground an individual could take and the amount of work that must be done to constitute use. If this work were not done, any one could relocate the ground. Thus, no one was allowed to forestall or to lock up natural resources. Labor was acknowledged as the creator of wealth, was given a free field, and secured in its reward.

— Progress & Poverty, Book V, Chapter 2

And now I tripped over a 2002 paper (From Commons to Claims: Property Rights in the California Gold Rush by Andrea G McDowell) that provides a lot of detail and background supporting George’s assertion. A particular mining claim might be 100 to 900 square feet. A miner would work it for a few weeks, then expect to move on to another one.  Thus the first miners to arrive had an incentive to avoid land monopoly, because they’d be looking for land again in a short while. “[The miners’] position can be summed up as a rejection of a fee-simple interest in mining claims on the grounds that this would result in the monopoly of the diggings by capitalists and the exclusion of individual miners from the chance to strike it rich.”

There’s a lot about how various mining districts managed their operations — certainly not all the same and often poorly documented, with a lot of the information coming from personal journals and correspondence rather than official sources.



Why trust corrupt governments to honestly administer a land value tax?

bar chart of what folks say they're afraid of
source: Chapman University Survey of American Fears

I don’t know that governments are always and inevitably corrupt, but there sure seems to be a lot of corruption going on.  It isn’t a new development; maybe it’s worse nowadays or maybe just more visible.

So how can we single taxers say that we want the government to collect all, or nearly all, of the economic rent? Don’t we know that it will be stolen or, at best, wasted?

Not necessarily.  Consider the following:

In the U S at least, real estate tax is administered and collected at the local — that is, substate– level. This is where the records and expertise needed to operate a land value tax exist.

Unlike income tax or sales tax, nearly all the data involved in real estate taxation is public information.   Most of this data is accessible to everyone with internet access, generally without fee. I can see how much real estate tax my neighbor paid.  I cannot see how much income tax they paid. The same goes for sales taxes and most other kinds of taxes. So cheating in real estate tax can be seen.  That doesn’t mean it will always be impossible for people to cheat, but it provides a much greater possibility that cheating will be observed and rectified.

Government corruption seems to be a function of government size.  A survey earlier this year found that “87% of voters nationwide believe corruption is widespread in the federal government. Solid majorities believe there is also corruption in state (70%) and local (57%) government.”  Looked at the other way round, only 13% of us believe the federal government is possibly honest, compared to 30% for states and 43% for localities.  I actually believe that one of the local governments to whom I pay taxes is pretty honest and efficient.

State and federal governments might logically collect some of the economic rent.  Examples currently include severance taxes and could reasonably include rents for electromagnetic spectrum should our rulers become persuaded to levy and collect them. Existing federal agencies are able to review and evaluate collection efforts.


Another example of location value

Don’t know if fair use permits me to use Bloomberg’s picture, so here’s a goose in Aurora, maybe somewhere near the site of interest. Image credit: Kenneth Cole Schneider (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Just in case anybody doubts that location has value in the 21st century, here’s a report from Bloomberg about a 31-acre Aurora parcel that became valuable because it’s adjacent to the CME Group‘s data center, enabling one to trade a millionth of a second faster. The site sold for $14 million, “probably twice as much as it’s worth” according to a local real estate exec. I would argue that it must be worth $14 million, else the buyer would not have paid it.

The article reports a couple other nearby deals, but provides no parcel numbers nor even a map, so we can’t see what the assessment of this parcel is.  There’s also no indication who the seller was.

Extreme land value follies in Vancouver

Credit: tglucas500 via flickr
Credit: tdlucas5000 via flickr

Up in Vancouver BC, analyst Jens von Bergmann calculates that the increase in land value for single family houses over the past year exceeded the total income earned by the entire population of the City.  Median increase was $262,000, average was $318,877.  Von Bergmann estimates this to be equivalent to $126/hour, assuming people work a 40 hour week 62 weeks per year (allowing for multiple-worker households).  By comparison, actual labor yields an average income of $26/hour (all figures in multicolored Canadian dollars, of course).

But the land price appreciates every hour of every day, so it might make more sense to calculate the median increase as $29.89 (mean $36.38) per hour.

Of course this cannot continue indefinitely, but something like it has been going on for a long time in Vancouver, as well as a few other cities.  Wealthy international buyers from less stable places want a refuge, as well as perhaps an investment.  But even this group, depending on developments overseas, must eventually be limited.  Some analysts — Garth Turner comes to mind — have been warning of a crash for years and years.

What really impresses me about von Bergmann’s analysis is that BC assessment authorities appear to do a decent job of estimating land value, and making the data broadly available.  It’d be worth something to live in a place like that.

h/t Wealth and Want.

Suppose Northern Illinois University, all its students, staff, and buildings disappeared

NIU campus scene. Credit: EarlRShumaker via flickr (cc)
NIU campus scene. Credit: EarlRShumaker via flickr (cc)

Well, then, that would reduce economic activity in the region.  On that basis, the University estimates the impact would be $900 million annually.  That’s figured by counting staff salaries, student expenditures, capital improvements, and the multiplier effect of each.

But of course this is a phony argument, intended to maintain the flows of tax dollars to the state’s “higher education” system. Let’s just suppose that all government funding of the University stopped. Quite possibly it could remain in operation, as lots of nongovernment schools do. But suppose otherwise.  Tomorrow morning we wake up and find that Northern Illinois University is going out of business.  And, just to keep the exercise meaningful, suppose none of the other Illinois government schools are able to pick up the slack; maybe they went out of business too, or maybe they just won’t expand.

So now there’s a big campus for sale. Would a nongovernment school want to buy it?  Or maybe one or more other organizations, such as a mental hospital, retirement community, corporate think-tank, drug rehabilitation center, penal facility, religious group, will want to buy the space?  The campus won’t remain empty.  It will be re-used or redeveloped, and that will involve an unknown (but positive) number of jobs and investments.

What about the students? It seems the economic return on college credentials is decreasing,  but surely it has some value for some people.  There are lots of colleges, public and private, looking for students.  Some students will decide to put full-time formal education aside for a time, look for jobs or start businesses.  And starting a business might be a good idea, with a labor force suddenly available.

And the faculty? Surely they’re employable, as consultants or teachers elsewhere, or doing something else.  If they really can’t do anything but teach at a government school, what necessary skills do they lack?

Meanwhile, we also need to consider the benefit to taxpayers of no longer funding the University.  How much would they save?  Or, more  likely, taxpayers would “save” nothing, but more funds would be available to cover other existing obligations, which does seem to result in some public benefit.

One more thing.  This topic was raised by a link in an email I received, labeled “What’s a state university worth to the region in which it’s located?”  That’s kind of meaningless; do we mean “to the people living in the region,” or “to the taxpayers of the region,” or “to the owners of land in the region,” or something else? And necessarily, the analysis needs to imagine what would happen in the absence of the university.  Do there exist any examples of a significant state university shutting down?  I know of none.  Perhaps a test is needed. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Cold Spring Shops hasn’t commented on this.


I don’t understand GovCare Part 2

image credit: Paul Narvaez via flickr (cc)
image credit: Paul Narvaez via flickr (cc)

Over at New City, Tony Fitzpatrick tells us how he survived a heart attack.  The good news, of course, is that he did, and it seems to have been due to an aware spouse, responsive ambulance, and nearby hospital with skilled and dedicated staff.  Except for the first, those are advantages of living in a more-or-less functional and prosperous city, with pretty decent emergency services, all of which is reflected in the cost of land.

But somehow, because before “ObamaCare” Tony’s pre-existing condition prevented him from getting insurance for medical expenses, he credits O’Care with his survival.  As if, five years ago, there were no ambulances, no hospitals, or no medical staff. In 2010 an ambulance still would have come, he still would have been taken to the closest available hospital, and the staff still would have done their best for him.  The only difference is that, afterwards, he would have gotten a big bill, even bigger than the bill he probably did (or will) get.  He might have paid the bill, or worked out some payment plan, or had to sign up for some kind of public assistance.  And very possibly the hospital would have written off part of the bill.  (Either way, before or after O’Care, the hospital would have a considerable staff who spent their time negotiating payments, filling out forms, etc.)

It wasn’t Obamacare, Tony.  It was living in a city with helpful people and pretty good medical services. Either way, we’re all paying for it.

And, yeah, somebody ought to make this comment on Tony’s article, but I can’t seem to get thru New City’s spam protection.  Maybe someone else can.

Quid Pro Brew

image credit: Bernt Rostad (cc) via flickr
image credit: Bernt Rostad (cc) via flickr

I was wondering a few weeks ago why Revolution Brewing supported the lobbyist-friendly “Transit Future” funding effort.  How foolish I was, is not brewing a regulated industry desirous of government favors? WBEZ reminds us of the “Small Brew Act,” which would cut the federal taxes on the first 60,000 barrels produced. Senator Kirk, who has never done anything constructive that I can recall, toured the Lobbyist Revolution Brewery and spoke kindly of the act.

Of course, there is no just reason to impose any tax on production of beer or anything else people want, provided that land rent is collected by and for the benefit of the community. In the same situation, I might do the same thing Revolution has done, especially if I knew more about political strategy and good beer than about smart fiscal policy and public finance.  But it’s a shame they’re doing it.


Progressive proposal from Kenya

detail from photo by Jennifer Wu via flickr (cc)
detail from photo by Jennifer Wu via flickr (cc)

Writing in Standard Digital, Charles Kanjama proposes that “If government was clever, it would include a value-capture approach in project financing.”  He’s writing about big infrastructure projects, which in his time (2014) and place (Kenya) include railway and port improvements. He suggests that perhaps half the cost should come from land value tax, without explaining why it would be appropriate for landowners to receive half the benefit of improvements paid for by the general community.  (Kanjama is an attorney and accountant who was rated among the top 100 legal minds in Kenya as well as one of the 100 most influential people in that country.)

The same edition (January 4 2014) carries another article showing a problem resulting from failure of the community to collect all the rent.  It seems that the government wanted to remove a large number of squatters who had settled in a protected forest.  Ordered to vacate, they each received 400,000 shillings ($4604.67 US, according to Wolfram Alpha) to purchase land elsewhere.  Now the time for relocation has expired, and many spent the money on things other than land.  Of course I don’t know these people, don’t know what land was available, don’t know their needs, but very clearly if land were nearly free (as results from a high land value tax) they would almost certainly be better off.

What cell towers might be worth

Water tower on Plymouth Court in downtown Chicago.  Photo by Menaceofprivilege 2013.
Water tower on Plymouth Court. Photo by Menaceofprivilege 2013.

I just happened on this article from Reuters (via Yahoo),  reporting that AT&T has long-tem leased or sold 9700 cell towers for what appears to be $500,000 each, including a leaseback of each at $1900/month with 2% annual escalation.  Lots of details aren’t included, but it gives some idea of what an old water tower or other (possibly disused) elevated location in an urban area can be worth. Curious why there don’t appear to be any antennas on the downtown Chicago tower pictured here; perhaps they’re on the other side.