New York’s transit system, like those here on the U S mainland, finds itself in a financially unsustainable position. Despite huge subsidies from taxation of productive activity, its managers claim a need for $10 billion additional capital funds, and the current year’s budget assumes a docile union as well as $35 million that appears imaginary.
And, like private-sector corporate managers, its chief has departed the troubled system for triple the compensation at a more prosperous organization, in this case the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway. Would you blame him?
For those of us who seek reliable transit funding from a source which does not burden productivity, the important point is what this relocated executive calls Hong Kong’s “sustainable financial model.” And what is that? Simple, and no surprise to those who have been paying attention here. The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway Corporation “earns millions of dollars from real estate developments along its rail lines.” That’s all it takes. Collect some of the land value, which public transportation supports, to fund the operation at reasonable fares. [Oh, yeah, and get competent managers for the transit operation, but they don’t mention that here.]
I have previously discussed Hong Kong’s land tenure system, under which the land is publicly owned, but improvement owners have security of tenure in exchange for paying significant land rent. One result is that most working people don’t have to pay any sales or income taxes. Another is that land is efficiently used.
But there are a couple of concerns:
Since Hong Kong doesn’t collect all the economic rent, speculation can still drive up the cost of housing as well as any activity which uses land (and they all do).
Wealthy mainland residents are moving to Hong Kong to take advantage of the increased liberties which HK residents get, further driving up costs for local people.
Now we read that every HK has declared a sort of citizens’ dividend, every permanent resident will get HK$6,000 (US$773, currently). Bloomberg calls it a “handout,” but I think “share of economic rent” might be more appropriate. Opponents of the move say it will be inflationary, and certainly it could lead to higher economic rent, with speculation driving land costs even higher. Of course, if people expected the government to collect all the economic rent, speculation would not occur. While the cost of living might still increase, giving an equal dividend to every resident would tend to flatten the income distribution, helping the poor much more than the wealthy.
Georgists often like to point to Hong Kong as a successful example of funding a community’s needs from economic rent. The result is a prosperous and (relatively) free city, a magnet for immigrants. But our information is old, and numerous changes have happened since the transfer of power, from UK to PRC in 1997.
So I was pleased to spend a bit of time this afternoon with a Hong Kong native, who now lives and works in Chicago. Not familiar at all with Henry George, not even interested in political philosophy as far as I could tell, but able to speak with me about current economic conditions. If I have any errors below, I trust that someone will correct me. Continue reading Collecting the Rent in Hong Kong