The Dissing of Henry George

By Polly Cleveland


My father, born in 1910, told me that when he was young every educated person read Progress and Poverty.

Henry George (1839–1897) was a journalist, self-educated economist and philosopher, and eventually prominent politician. In 1879 he published Progress and Poverty, which soon became a worldwide bestseller. George argued, in very brief, that the cause of growing inequality with growing wealth was unequal ownership of land (including all natural resources). His “remedy” was to shift all taxes onto land. George did not invent his analysis or remedy. Rather, he simply lifted ideas from the classical economists including Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. But unlike them, George passionately and successfully promoted the land value tax remedy—later known as “the single tax.”

George’s followers played a major role in the early 20th Century Progressive movement. Starting even before George’s death in 1897, in the midst of his second campaign for mayor of New York City, mayors and governors around the US began implementing land taxation. They did this mostly by raising the land component of the ordinary property tax while lowering the building component. In downtown Cleveland, a bronze statue of Tom L. Johnson, Mayor from 1901 to 1909, depicts him holding a copy of Progress and Poverty. California irrigation districts were financed by plain land taxes. Under Governor Al Smith, New York City buildings were exempt from tax from 1920 to 1932. Following the 1913 amendment to the Constitution to allow a national income tax, the tax itself was designed in 1916 by a Georgist Congressman, Warren Worth Bailey, to fall strictly on the very wealthy.

The robber barons were not amused. Holders of vast undeveloped lands, they resented the bull’s-eye painted on their backs. As Mason Gaffney has documented in “Neoclassical Economics As a Stratagem against Henry George”, John D. Rockefeller, Ezra Cornell and others funded departments of economics to refute George. Gaffney quotes Simon Patten, “Nothing pleases a…single taxer better than….to use the well-known economic theories…[therefore] economic doctrine must be recast.” (1908). John Bates Clark (1847-1938) at Columbia University, led the recasting effort. Clark claimed that inequality was justified, because “the share of wealth that falls to any producing agent tends, under natural law, to equal the amount that he creates. A man’s pay tends to equal the value of the product or fraction of a product that can be specifically imputed to him.” (1898). Here began a tradition, alive to this day, of treating George and his supporters as crackpots.

On the right, there were economists like Willford I. King (1880-1962), the founder of national income statistics, and a fanatic for U.S. racial purity. In a 1924 Journal of Political Economy article entitled “The Single-Tax Complex Analyzed”, King writes: “the single taxers are not merely advocates of an economic policy but … they are a religious cult and that their intense devotion to their creed has little connection with logic or reasoning.”

On the left, Marxists whistled the same tune, for a different reason: George after all had proposed to save capitalism by tax reform, making revolution impossible. Thus we find Robert Heilbroner devoting eight snarky pages of The Worldly Philosophers to George. He deems George “messianic” and “naïve” and calls his analysis “superficial and faulty”. (1986)

In the middle, there are serious economic historians like Mark Blaug. In Economic Theory in Retrospect (1996) he presents a jumble of mutually contradictory assertions in a two-page treatment, concluding with a snide run of alternative facts:

Be that as it may, Progress and Poverty, a wonderful example of old-style classical economics, was thirty years out of date the day it was published and the idea of confiscating the income of a leading social class was deeply shocking to a generation bred on Victorian pieties. In consequence, the concept of site value taxation was never seriously discussed, and to this day the only examples of it are to be found among local governments in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

After he was invited to lecture in Australia, where George is still popular, Blaug published a kinder view of George in an obscure European journal. When I interviewed him in 2002 at his home in Leiden, he commented that “George is threatening to the powers that be,” making it “extremely tempting to put him down.” Also, “Economists don’t want to waste time looking at threatening ideas!” And finally, “There’s an aura of quackiness about George. It is a reputation that is extremely difficult to reverse.” (See my book chapter on Blaug, and my response to the commonest criticisms of George.)

But why the quackiness? Why not attack George the way opponents attacked Marx, as an alien threat? A colleague suggests it’s the hyper enthusiasm of George’s followers. I doubt it. Every intellectual leader has his or her groupies. Look at the followers of Ayn Rand! Rather, George was as American as apple pie. He appealed to the American sense of justice, he supported a reformed and fair capitalism, his remedy was easy to understand and apply, and he was immensely popular. You can’t dismiss a leader like that as an alien threat. But you can liken him to another familiar American figure: the snake oil salesman.

The latest attack on George happens right here in the January/February 2017 issue of Dollars & Sense. In a review of James Galbraith’s new book, Inequality, Steven Pressman condescendingly puts down the author’s case for land value taxation. Bob Heilbroner must be smiling up there.

James Galbraith Tells Us What Everyone Needs to Know About Inequality

By Polly Cleveland

Inequality has surged in the U.S. over the last forty years; many observers now blame the deregulation and tax cuts for the rich starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In his new short book, Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know, James Galbraith explains how this happened through the change in U.S industrial structure:

“In the early postwar period, the dominant American industrial corporation–such as General Motors, General Electric, American Telephone & Telegraph, International Business Machines–was an integrated behemoth that contained within itself not only production, but every phase of basic research, product design, and marketing that was relevant to its mission. Therefore incomes were distributed within the corporation by administrative decisions, governed by the bureaucratic imperatives and prerogatives of those in charge, and strongly responsive to the incentives of a highly progressive income tax structure. Top scientists and engineers, as well as top executives, were paid salaries, and salaries were regulated by the corporation. Tax structures also gave strong incentives for the corporation to retain profits, rather than pay them out as dividends, and to reinvest the proceeds–whether in factories or in the palatial towers that grew up in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Chicago in those years.

All of this changed with the tax “reform” movements of the 1970s and 1980s, which pushed for lower top marginal tax rates, fewer special exemptions from the tax, and for a “shareholder-value” model of corporate compensation. And a special feature of this change was that it created strong incentives to restructure the corporation itself.

“In particular, as the digital revolution came into view, the top technologists in the big corporations realized that they would be far better off if they set off on their own, incorporated themselves as independent technology firms, and then sold their output back to the companies for which they had formerly worked in salaried jobs.…

The effect of this structural transformation on the distribution of household incomes in the United States, as recorded in the tax records, is astonishing. For there were created, mainly in the 1990s, a handful of citadels of stratospheric incomes, previously unknown in the country and concentrated in the tiny handful of locations. One of these was Manhattan, the home of Wall Street and the source of finance. A second was Silicon Valley, a cluster of counties in Northern California. And the third was Seattle, Washington, and its near suburbs.”

Galbraith is describing the same phenomenon that Barry Lynn documented at length in his chilling 2010 exposé: Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. That is, the transformation from vertically integrated firms to horizontally-integrated monopolistic trading companies, buying inputs from all over the world, squeezing both their suppliers and their customers. But Galbraith adds a new insight: not only did the postwar high-tax regime induce corporations to keep executive pay in check, it also induced them to retain profits and reinvest them in the corporation. With the 1980’s “greed is good” transformation, rates of reinvestment slowed as executives started taking more for themselves—surely helping slow the overall rate of growth.

Wait a moment! High taxes on income and profit produced more investment and growth? That’s the exact opposite of today’s Republican, and often Democratic, mantra that high taxes kill investment and growth. But the postwar taxes that tamed the corporate behemoths were in fact high marginal rates, top rates in a steeply progressive system. These were the very taxes imposed at the beginning of World War II to prevent war profiteering. These were taxes designed to capture the “unearned income” or “economic rent” of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals. It was perfectly logical for such corporations and individuals to “avoid” such taxes by investing money they would otherwise lose.

If high marginal income and profit taxes are so beneficial, is there any prospect—given the political will— of returning to such tax levels? Unfortunately, now that so many multinational corporations and wealthy individuals are registered or domiciled in tax haven countries, any simple effort to impose truly high marginal rates on profits or income will simply lead to more creative evasions, corruption (see Panama), and tax wars.

But, assuming the political will, are there other approaches? Galbraith proposes:

A much older and yet, to this day, still more promising alternative to taxing financial wealth is to tax land value, including the value of mineral and energy resources in the ground. The economic concept behind this idea is that of Ricardian rent–the argument that rents (which are inherently unproductive) flow to the owners of the fixed and non-reproducible asset, namely land. By taxing land and minerals, one reaches the least defensible forms of accumulated wealth, while at the same time doing the least to distort market decisions as between capital investment and hiring of labor. And there is another advantage: unlike financial wealth, land stays put. It exists in fixed jurisdictions with registered ownership; all the taxing authorities need to do is to send an appraiser, and then a bill. Local property taxes already work this way; however, in the United States landowner opposition to land taxes has been fierce, and many states are barred by their constitutions from levying property tax on a statewide basis. In California, notoriously, even local property taxes were capped in the late 1970s by a ballot measure strongly supported by wealthy landholding interests.

Land taxation has been for a century the program of the followers of the 19th century American economist Henry George, whose influence was vast around the world a century ago. One of his followers was the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China in 1911. And Maoist China, by conducting an early war against landlords, ended up having the world economy most like the Georgist program in the modern age. But instead of taxing land value, the Chinese state actually owns it, and collects the land rent for itself. By doing this, Chinese municipalities and provinces have enjoyed ample revenue from which to make capital improvements, which is why Chinese cities have been able to grow like weeds in the reform era…

To this I would add that land taxes weren’t new in China: they financed Chinese empires as early as 2000 BC. Stiff land taxes of four shillings to the pound of assessed value financed the transformation of British finance in 1688; Adam Smith deemed them “the most equitable of all taxes.” Taxes on high profits and incomes and on land values all capture unearned income, or rents, forcing taxpayers to invest productively to pay the tax.