By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall
Re-Solving the Economic Puzzle
Walter Rybeck 2011
What if there were a single, simple solution to the current credit/debt crisis? What if mere tax reform could end the recession, repay public debt, and reverse growing income inequality? What if this tax could also end real estate bubbles and speculation and reverse urban decay and sprawl? What if it could also make cities and states more financially self-reliant, thus reducing their reliance on federal subsidies and the size of federal government?
It all sounds highly improbable, doesn’t it? But Walter Rybeck, a former urban affairs official in the Johnson, Nixon and Carter administration, claims that widespread adoption of a Land Value Tax (LVT) would accomplish all these objectives. What’s more, political thinkers across the political spectrum (e.g. Patrick Buchanan, Milton Friedman, Michael Hudson, Martin Luther King, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stigliz) have all spoken in favor of this type of tax reform.The LVT, which taxes unimproved land, dates from pre-revolutionary times. Prior to the enactment of the Federal Income tax in 1913, most public services were financed locally via an LVT. Progressives like it because it shifts the tax burden from small business and low and moderate income families to real estate developers and speculators. Conservatives like it because it shrinks the size and role of federal government, as well as leading to a reduction in company and income tax.
Here is what conservative free market economist Milton Friedman had to say about Land Value Tax (The Times Herald, Norristown, Pennsylvania; Friday, 1 December, 1978): “We need taxes. So the question is, which are the least bad taxes? In my opinion the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land, the Henry George argument of many, many years ago.”
Ending the Monopoly on Land Ownership
Like Henry George, author of the 1879 Progress and Poverty, Rybeck proposes to end the ruling elite’s monopoly on land and natural resources through tax reform – by gradually replacing income, company, sales, and property taxes with a tax on unimproved land and resources. As he explains in Re-Solving the Economic Puzzle, land is the ultimate source of all wealth. In the US 3% of the population own 95% of private land. Ted Turner alone owns two million acres, equivalent to nearly two Rhode Islands. In many cities, a few wealthy families own all the prime downtown sites.
Rybeck’s definition of land includes all the natural resources accompanying it – soil, forests, game, grazing rights, water, oil, gas, minerals and the electromagnetic waves (broadcast, cellphone, and wi-fi spectrum) above it. Like Henry George and modern Georgists, he argues that land and resources should be public property. Because no one produced any of this stuff, no one has a right to claim an exclusive monopoly over it.
According to Rybeck, our current system of taxing labor and productivity is grossly unfair to all but the top 1% of Americans. Besides being more equitable, the LVT also ends curbs the real estate speculation that leaves vast areas of American cities vacant. Setting land taxes too low inadvertently rewards landowners for keeping land vacant or turning it into parking lots.
High land vacancy rates were already a major problem during the Nixon administration. In 1970, cities with a population of 100,000 had a 22% vacancy rate, and those over 250,000 a 13% vacancy rate. Thanks to the 2008 economic crisis, an epidemic of vacant foreclosed homes has massively increased this urban blight. Worse still, low land taxes reward middle class families for moving to the suburbs. In doing so, they abandon expensive infrastructure (water, sewage, lighting, schools, etc) that was created to accommodate them. As they spread out into sprawling suburbs, taxpayers must fund new infrastructure.
Cities and Countries Successfully Adopting an LVT
The final third of Re-Solving the Economic Puzzle relates the success stories of the 25 cities and five countries that have spared themselves economic disaster by adopting an LVT. The communities Rybeck singles out include
- California Irrigation Districts (1887)
- Fairhope Alabama (1894)
- Arden Delaware (1890)
- Cleveland (1901)
- Pittsburgh (1913, 1979)
- New York City (1918)
- Miami (Ohio) Conservancy (1929)
- Rosslyn Virginia (1950)
- Southfield Michigan (1960)\Harrisburg and 15 other Pennsylvania cities (1980-1990)
Sadly many of these communities subsequently caved in to special interests and began taxing capital improvements, rather than land values. Those who did so are confronting a major debt crisis, as well as decaying schools and infrastructure.
Pittsburgh, one of the backsliders, saw the error of their ways in 1979 and instituted a gradual return to what Rybeck refers to as a two-tier land tax. At present, Pittsburgh taxes unimproved land six times as heavily as improvements. The resulting revival of their central city is referred to as Renaissance II. Thanks to their Land Value Tax, Pittsburgh didn’t experience the same real estate bubble as other US cities. Thus their housing market didn’t collapse in 2008. In addition, their current foreclosure rate is the lowest in the country.
Countries which have adopted an LVT include Hong Kong (1843), New Zealand (1878), Denmark (1912), South Africa (1916) and Taiwan (1949).
To learn more about Land Value Tax, check out the LVT Facebook page.
Dr. Bramhall is a retired American child and adolescent psychiatrist, activist and political refugee in New Zealand.
Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. She has also published two young adult novels about political activism: The Battle for Tomorrow: A Fable
She is involved in the national leadership of the New Zealand Green Party and has a political blog at StuartJeanneBramhall.com