“We need an anti-Rentier Campaign” says Michael Lind

image credit: Erick_ckB via flickr (cc)
image credit: Erick_ckB via flickr (cc)

A nice series of three short articles (h/t Gloria Picchetti) in Salon by Michael Lind, explaining the difference between an entrepreneur — who may become wealthy by providing goods and services people want — and a rentier — who seeks to become rich by exacting a toll or tax on productive work.

Lind mentions, in a positive way, the land value tax, and also notes that this isn’t a left/right issue, as labor unions and professional associations can be just as monopolistic as bankers.  The negative effects of “intellectual” “property” are noted, altho Lind seems to think that those who profit from patents are “inventors.” Of course there’s no mention of Henry George, but maybe changing our name to “Institute for the Study and Extirpation of the Useless Rich” would be a helpful step.

Salon describes Michael Lind as author of Land of Promise, for which Amazon carries 15 reader reviews. Not all the reviews are positive, but the criticisms seem to focus on his style and attitude, nobody complaining that his analysis is flawed. Lind is also a “co-founder of the New America Foundation,” whose sources of funding are unclear to me but seem to include rentier George Soros.

The remedies Lind suggests are quite centralized, such as changing federal tax laws, and maintaining financial repression with the object of moving people from private savings to social programs.  Not what I would propose, but what does a geoist in flyover country have to contribute to this discussion?


Are subsidies driving Chicago land prices back up?

Image linked from the Crain’s article

Of course they are, but it’s convenient to see it illustrated as Crains Chicago Real Estate Daily explains.

The proposal seems to be for Pam Gleichman and Karl Norberg to sell their 4.9 acre parcel (the Tribune story says 3.67 acres) near McCormick Place, in pieces, for a total of $195 million, which works out to something over $900/square foot, a level which I don’t recall seeing so distant from the loop.  We also learn from Crains that $90 million in TIF (real estate tax) money will be sought to help pay for these developments.  And of course the entire McCormick Place complex benefits from the 1% tax which all restaurant patrons in the central portion of Chicago (as far north as Diversey and as far west as Ashland) pay, not to mention the basic urban services, such as fire protection, transit, and streets, which are funded from other taxes.  We’re all paying so Gleichman and Norberg can get their $195 million. It’s only slightly comforting to realize that their venture is in bankruptcy, and the only reason we get to see these details is because they’re part of a court filing.  But it seems that, if everything works out as they claim, they’ll get to keep a large portion of this money.

Just for fun, we can consider what would have happened under a land value tax.  If the land was taxed at something approaching its full economic rent, it would likely already be developed pretty fully because nobody could profit by holding it underused.  There would likely be no bankruptcy because nobody would have loaned money on land with a modest selling price.

Why isn’t this the geoists’ slogan?

source: Chicago Pedestrian Safety Campaign

It’s all about the rent.  Once you understand what it is and how it works, you’ll look for it and see it everywhere.  You’ll know the fundamental cause of unemployment, low wages, economic stagnation, and poverty.  The cause that makes possible most of the other corruption and theft that plague our nation.

The slogan came from a local campaign to reduce pedestrian deaths, certainly a worthy cause and one that got some funding and creative minds.  But we should have thought of it first.

The difference between money and wealth/services


image credit: taken in 1990 by John Foss via Wikimedia (cc)

This article from the Guardian illustrates nicely the difference between what we want– goods (“wealth” in terms of political economy) and services– vs. money.  Money is a medium of exchange, which we can use to obtain wealth and services, but in itself it really isn’t capable of satisfying our desires. The particular example here is from the town of Volos, whose railway station is pictured.

I could imagine Greece not formally dropping the Euro, but just kind of abandoning it, using local currencies, perhaps eventually united into a new Drachma. It’s not clear from the article whether their government is attempting to tax the alternative-currency transactions.  The wiser course would be to tax economic rents instead of transactions, and that could be done in whichever currency is most practical.

Is the community collecting the rent at 31st Street Harbor?

linked from Chicago Public Building CommissionChicago Park District’s new harbor at 31st street reportedly cost $103 million and can accommodate 1000 boats.  “Rates for the new harbor range from about $3,780 for a 35-foot slip to more than $10,000 for the longest slips of 70 feet and more, excluding taxes and a 25 percent nonresident surcharge.”

One could imagine that these figures might actually cover debt service, maintenance, and the economic rent of the lakefront location.   But there’s no such indication in the Park District’s 2011-15 Capital Improvement Plan, which lists funding and projects, but makes little effort to tie the two together so there’s no indication of how much any project costs nor how it’s paid for.  Nothing in the latest posted (2010) Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, either.

But in the process of browsing the District’s web site, I did discover that I would be violating their regulations if, without a permit, I post on this web site a photo that I took on Park District property.

The Public Building Commission has some information on their web site, including some contracts and many construction photos.  Can’t wade thru all of the former, but they appear not to include any information on how the project is funded.

North America’s only full service railroad collects land rent

It’s not just in Japan (and Vancouver, sort of) that land rent is used to fund railroads.

Photo Credit: Gator Chris via Flickr (cc)

Originally built by the Federal government and now owned by the State, the Alaska Railroad is “North America’s last full service railroad” because it operates, on its own tracks, with its own rolling stock, freight and passenger service. Revenue is just a bit more than enough to cover operating costs, but how to pay for the capital expenditures– equipment, track, facilities– which must be constantly renewed and improved to run the railroad smoothly? Part of the answer is collecting the land rent. The Railroad owns some 18,000 acres of real estate (see source below), for which it last year received just under $13 million in land rent (see page 34 of this pdf).   This compares to total capital expenditures last year of $73.1 million, with the balance covered from various kinds of grants, as well as operating profit.

ARR provides more information about their leased and leasable land here.

Of course, this is collecting only a tiny part of the economic rent the railroad generates, but at least it’s a source that will grow as the railroad improves.

Thanks to Trains magazine for the original tip.

The Wealth Defense Industry

Wonderful phrase; wish I had thought of it.  It’s Jeffrey Winters’ term for the pile of lawyers and others who contrive technically-legal ways for wealthy people to avoid paying most of the tax for which they would otherwise be liable. His recent book, Oligarchy, seems to have a lot of other details we haven’t seen elsewhere.

All I actually know about Winters and his work comes from this interview, broadcast this afternoon on WBEZ. I did note one error: The U S federal income tax imposed in 1894 was the second, not the first, which was in  1861. He seems to have compiled a lot of data that we don’t usually see (some of it presented in this pdf article).  Naturally, altho his work is descriptive, he is asked about the potential for the Occupants or other movements to alleviate the oligarchs’ control.  One wishes that he had mentioned the importance of taxing privilege, instead of production. Perhaps he is unfamiliar with the concept.

Inside Job gets outside

Prize-winning documentary Inside Job was posted for free download at archive.org a few days ago.  It was withdrawn late yesterday or this morning, but in the interim I had a chance to watch it. It was pretty much as I expected: A very well-documented expose of the forces which brought down the world economy, emphasizing that they have been rewarded, not punished, for doing so, and essentially escaped prosecution (some paid fines amounting to a small part of their takings.)  It’s well put together, director Charles Ferguson seems to be a skilled and persistent interviewer, getting on-camera answers even from some of the guilty parties.  Ominous music reflects our ominous economic future, lots of shots showing the Manhattan skyline, other centers of wealth, as well as foreclosed houses and abandoned developments.

As a documentary with a point of view, this film says “The guys who drove us off this cliff and unpunished and still in charge,” which might lead one to suppose that, if only they could be caught and punished, perhaps our long-term future would become brighter.  These guys own the government, of course, so exactly how a prosecution would work isn’t clear.  Elliott Spitzer’s experience, reported in the movie, does not make one optimistic.

The problem, as I see it, is that Inside Job doesn’t tell the story from the beginning.  I would represent the principal causes of the global financial crisis as the five connected items below

5  Regulatory capture and control of the government

4  Concentration of financial power

3  Securitization

2 Loans against capitalized rent

1  Private collection of economic rent


IJ describes 5 quite well, addresses 3 and 4, but doesn’t get into the fundamentals.  As long as, and to the extent that, we have private collection of economic rent, we will continue to suffer from economic crashes.  Inside Job needs a prequel explaining the root cause of the problem.

Are tariffs even more regressive than I thought?

Tariffs– fees charged by the U S Government for the import of goods– are designed to protect politically-powerful interests who would otherwise be unable to compete as profitably with foreign producers.  So they are regressive in the sense that politically-powerful interests are likely to be relatively wealthy.

But according to this article, tariffs are also regressive in the sense that their direct impact on the poor exceeds that on the wealthy. “Luxury goods have very low tariffs, while cheap clothes, underwear, shoes and household products have much higher rates.”  Several examples are cited; I have no idea whether they’re typical.  Both the Cato Institute and the Democratic Leadership Council are quoted in support, an official of the former calling tariffs “our most regressive tax that the federal government imposes.”

A percentage of a lot is quite a bit

Here are a couple more examples of troubles we wouldn’t have under a just economic system.

Mortgage servicers incentivized to prevent mortgage modification. Many commentators have pointed out that, if the value of a property declines below the market value, and the homeowner is unable to pay, the lender is better off agreeing to reduce the principal to an amount consistent with current values.  (This is true even in the absence of any government-funded incentives.) So why does it rarely happen? It’s because lenders, apparently to conform to bizarre federal tax rules, have given up the right to modify loans.  Only the mortgage servicer, an independent company (tho sometimes a subsidiary of a big bank),  has the right to do that.  But the mortgage servicer is paid based on a percentage of the outstanding principal, thus has no incentive to help reduce it.  (Cash incentives offered under a recent federal program apparently aren’t large enough to matter.)

The geoist perspective: If land values were fully taxed,  real estate prices never would have bubbled, and mortgages would cover only the cost of the house, not the cost of the land it occupies.  Therefore mortgages would be smaller, perhaps rarer, and the whole problem of numerous underwater homeowners could never have occurred.

A little extra sleaze for municipal bonds. When a municipality (or, for that matter, any organization) issues bonds, they choose an underwriter who, for a fee, agrees to get all the bonds sold.  The issuer may choose the underwriter by open bid or by negotiation.  Academic research shows that, in the latter case, interest rates tend to be 17 to 48 basis points (hundredths of a percent) higher.  So how were 85% of the $378 billion in municipal bounds issued last year underwritten? By negotiation, which seems in theory to be costing taxpayers several billion dollars over the life of these bonds.   And that 85% includes 100% of bonds issues by the City of Chicago.  No one familiar with local government will be surprised at the reason: “[T]he city and its aldermen want to reward those who support public officials and politically connected charities.”

The geoist perspective: Most public debts are issued to benefit the underwriters and bond purchasers. At best, the funds are used for improvements that increase land values. Therefore, capital investments should be paid thru a tax on land values. If the landowner who benefits hasn’t enough cash to pay her share, she may need to borrow privately to cover it, but the general public should not be liable. If the improvement does not increase land rents enough to justify its cost, then it is not worth doing.

Much more information about both of these outrages is provided in the source articles, which you should read unless it would make your head explode.