From Germany to America: A Dialog on Inequality

By Polly Cleveland

At a coffee break between sessions at the annual History of Economics Society meeting, I chatted with D___, a tall, blond young woman, a professor of political science at a German university. On hearing that I work on inequality, she immediately challenged me.

D: “I don’t believe in equality. Inequality is just a statistic, a side effect. What’s relevant is how people actually live. What matters are policies to improve citizen’s wellbeing, like health or education, not policies to reduce inequality.

P: But aren’t those statistics useful in identifying those societies that are or are not doing a good job providing those services? After all, there are many statistical studies showing that more equal societies have grown faster and have a higher GDP per capita.”

D: No. Inequality statistics are just an artifact. They don’t mean anything. We could all be perfectly equal in extreme poverty, like we were in East Germany. [Obviously before she was born.] Is that what you want?”

P: In the United States, our Congress just passed a new tax law reducing income taxes for the rich and for large corporations.  That will surely lead to reduced services and other benefits to poorer people.

D: Well, what do you want? A flat tax? The same tax on each person? That would be a perfectly equal tax.

P: A flat tax would be regressive because it would take a higher percent of the income of poor people—if they could pay it at all. How about a flat percentage tax on wealth? Since wealth is much more unequal than income, that would be more progressive even than an ideal progressive income tax.

D: That’s not the point. We need to focus on ordinary citizens’ wellbeing. If we do that, the rest will take care of itself.

P: OK, how about a basic income grant, that is, the same sum paid monthly to every citizen of a country, man woman and child, rich and poor. A large enough sum to provide a modest living. That idea has become very popular lately. It is being promoted by some Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs.

D: No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. People should contribute to society. Basic income would give people bad incentives. They would take it easy.

P: Wait a moment, there’s a difference between basic income with no strings attached, and public assistance money. Here and I assume in Germany, public assistance is phased out as people earn more income. What’s amazing is that some people who receive assistance keep on working even though they lose income. The dignity of holding a job is very important.

D: Well you may be right about that, especially in Germany.

P: In the 1970s there was a guaranteed minimum income experiment run for five years in Manitoba, Canada. Recipients received additional income which—as with public assistance—was phased out as they earned more. A few years back Evelyn Forget, who’s here at the conference, analyzed the data. She found that only new mothers and teenagers worked substantially less. The teenagers became more likely to finish school, presumably due to less pressure to support their families. New mothers and school age teenagers are just the people you’d want to stay home. Remember, this was not a fixed basic income, but a guaranteed minimum with a sharp phase-out at 50% or more effective tax.

D: Still, you have to make a choice. Do you want equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? You can’t have both.

P: Actually, I think you can, sort of. A basic income grant, plus the public services we expect in a modern society—health, education, pensions, security, justice –including protection from unfair practices like monopolies—those should guarantee a rough equality of opportunity. Above that, it should be OK for people to earn high incomes by hard work, talent, or even luck. But you need progressive taxes to finance the system.

Whoops, just as I was getting to the punch line, the elevator arrived to take us downstairs to the next sessions. I would have said that as Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations (1776), taxes should be proportional to benefits received—a notion more radical than any proposed by today’s leftists. Chief among benefits received, Smith included government protection of title to land, in an era when some 2% owned most of the land in England. The tax he favored was a tax on the value of that land, a tax that would capture the “rent” or unearned income England’s “great proprietors” gained from the mere title to land granted and protected by the king. England had a land tax, but at low rates and poorly administered. The French “Philosophe” reformers whom Smith visited in Paris is 1766 advocated land taxes, as did the next generation of economists such as David Ricardo.

A hundred years later, in 1879, the American economist and radical reformer Henry George took Smith’s idea and ran with it. In his world-wide bestseller Progress and Poverty, George argued that all taxes should be replaced with taxes on land values only, and the revenues used for public purposes like schools and infrastructure (including public bath houses!). This was a perfectly practical proposal: property taxes then and now are assessed on land and buildings valued separately. In the heyday of George’s influence in the late 19th and early 20th century, assessors just left out the buildings and raised the rate on land to make up the difference.

Now almost 140 years later, as support for basic income has grown, some advocates have made the obvious connection: why not finance basic income with a land tax? That squares the circle, doesn’t it? Equality of opportunity at the bottom via a basic income grant, financed by a tax that limits inequality of outcome at the top.

That might be too theoretical for my pragmatic German acquaintance. She’s right, though, that we need to be more specific in talking about inequality.

How Colonies Can Liberate Themselves by Taxing Real Estate

By Polly Cleveland

Greece, Haiti, and Puerto Rico have something important in common: they are colonies. Puerto Rico started out as a Spanish colony and was then acquired by the United States as a “gift with purchase” of the Philippines in 1898. Greece and Haiti (itself a former colony of France) have become debt colonies of the multinational banks and their supporting governments. In all three, wealth is highly unequal. Most of the land, and all the best land, is owned or controlled by absentee natives or by outside organizations—foreign corporations, banks or governments. Local government is corrupt, incompetent, and obligated to outsiders if not actually controlled by them. There’s a two-fold net effect. On the one hand, there’s a continuing drain of working capital and labor to the outside, as rents, interest, profits flow out and young adults emigrate. On the other hand, the extraction process cripples the economy, by cutting off working capital and killing labor incentives. The local government, cannot or will not provide adequate services, due to corruption and lack of tax money. Metaphorically, these colonies are being bled dry.

Suppose a reform government were to come to power in these places and suppose it could stave off foreign threats. How could it stop the bleeding?

New settlers in the 19th-century United States faced a similar problem. Large chunks of good land were held vacant by absentees, often railroad companies. The resulting scatter made it hard to build public works like dams and canals for irrigation. Meanwhile, the railroads charged exorbitant monopoly rates to ship the settlers’ grain to market. The solution: tax the value of property in the district. Because the absentees were not using their land, the tax helped force them to sell to incoming settlers. Until the middle of the 20th century, property taxes were the dominant means of state and local finance, so using them to bring in revenues for local development while nudging out absentees made perfect sense.

The same strategy can work for modern colonies. A reform government can heavily tax the value of real estate, possibly with exemptions for small resident property owners. Better yet, and much easier to implement, tax only the land component of real estate. Such a tax would force absentee owners to send euros or dollars back to the colonies. The government could then begin to provide services and repair infrastructure. But why tax real estate? Why not tax income or imports? Because absentees and foreign based corporations can easily avoid income taxes by funny accounting. Taxes on most imports are regressive and a drain on the economy. The real money is in real estate.

All but the most primitive governments keep some sort of registry of property, crude and out of date in Greece, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. A reform government can easily create new cadastral maps—that’s what George Washington did as he surveyed Native American land. In the age of GPS it’s even easier. The government can then place the existing claims on the map. The recorded “owner” may be a shell corporation based in the Bahamas, but no matter. Just tax it. Where claims overlap, they can be taxed twice—forcing owners to resolve the boundaries. The government can claim any blank spots—forcing hidden informal owners to declare themselves or lose the property.

How should a reform government estimate the value of property in order to tax it? This may appear a daunting problem when the property market is not very active—large absentees mostly do nothing—and many transactions are informal. But an experienced appraiser can in fact put a reasonable assessed valuation on property by walking around and observing activity. A great advantage to taxing land only is that value depends entirely on location and tends to vary smoothly from one spot to another. Property owners then can, and will, challenge their valuations—but they will have to show that the valuation is out of line with that of neighboring properties.

Another strategy for getting initial property values is to ask owners to declare the values themselves, with the government having the right to purchase the properties at the declared value. The government right to purchase, if enforced, takes away owners’ incentive to understate the value.

Once the government imposes taxes, some owners—absentees especially—will decide to sell in order to pay the tax. These sales will provide government assessors with more information, enabling them to make more accurate assessments. Meanwhile the purchasers of the property will put it to use, generating production and jobs.

When Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government took power in the American colony of Cuba, they nationalized most foreign-owned property. In accordance with international law, they offered compensation, which all but the Americans accepted. I have to wonder, if they had tried taxation instead of nationalization, could they have pulled off a smoother transition, while giving the U.S. less excuse for military intervention?