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?

The Democrats Confront Monopoly

By Polly Cleveland

In the 1970’s when I studied microeconomics in grad school, we got to monopoly briefly in one of the last chapters of the text. We learned that monopoly really wasn’t a such a problem. If a big corporation tried to raise prices to take advantage of a monopoly position, why, competitors would immediately rush in. So not to worry, it was in the interest of monopolists to behave. Moreover, monopolists enjoyed economies of scale, allowing the likes of Walmart to deliver lower prices to consumers than the mom and pop stores they put out of business. By that measure, laws like the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, designed to protect small businesses from anticompetitive practices…were actually anti-social as they kept consumer prices high. There was no hint of trustbusters’ original concern for concentrated political power, or exploitation of workers. This was the Chicago School theory of benign monopoly.

Since I knew the brutal history of some of the great monopolists like Standard Oil, American Tobacco, or AT&T, I took this lesson with a grain of salt. But I didn’t worry too much. Why? Because for the post World War II period, corporate concentration hadn’t notably increased. Yes, some big firms had merged, but others had broken up. Antitrust seemed to be doing its job. Little did I know how the Chicago theory of monopoly was even then taking the legal world by storm. That was the work of Yale Law School professor Robert Bork, who published The Antitrust Paradox in 1978. (In 1987, the Senate would deem Bork too conservative for the Supreme Court.)

The Democrats Confront Monopoly”, by Gilad Edelman in the November/December Washington Monthly, tells the story. Starting slowly in the Reagan Administration, then with gathering momentum, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, larger and larger mergers got the green light from the Justice Department and the courts. It was Bill Clinton after all, who took the Glass-Steagall shackles off the banks, allowing the disastrous merger of commercial and investment banking.

Meanwhile, economists began to notice growing inequality and wage stagnation. They came up with a variety of explanations: Maybe workers lacked skills to work with modern technology. Maybe it was competition with low wage workers overseas. Maybe it was just inevitable as machines took over jobs. I focused on a different explanation: Starting in the Reagan Administration, the tax system—federal, state, and local—increasingly favored what was not yet called The One Percent.

But in 2009, a book knocked me over: Barry Lynn’s Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism. Lynn, a business journalist, had seen a what we economists had missed: growing monopolization was making the American economy more unequal, less innovative and more unstable. In fact, the same was happening internationally, as multinational corporations took over more and more of the world economy. But Lynn didn’t stop with an exposé. Instead, he created a team of researchers at the New America Foundation, where he was a fellow. His team produced a whole series of eye-opening reports, published mostly in the Washington Monthly. Gradually the message got out, and was picked up by leaders on the left end of the Democratic Party, including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken, and economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.

Then, disaster, and a lesson. On June 27 this year, Lynn’s team released a statement welcoming a European antitrust action against Google. Google, a major funder of New America, apparently complained. Two days later, Lynn’s team were told to be out by the end of August. As observed in hundreds of outraged editorials and articles, there could hardly have been a better textbook example of the dangers of monopoly.  Lynn and his team have now set themselves up as the Open Markets Institute, but funding remains precarious.

Meanwhile, the team continues research and publication. In the same issue of the Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman explains How Big Medicine Can Ruin Medicare for All. Unless we address the growing monopolization of hospitals and their suppliers, Medicare-for-all or single-payer will resemble the Pentagon facing the defense contractors. (I can relate to the medical monopoly issue: In New York City, Mount Sinai Hospital has just taken over a number of other hospitals and medical buildings. Doctors practicing in these places were given a choice: sell their practices to Mount Sinai or get out. My gynecologist sold Sinai her practice; my shoulder surgeon angrily moved to an inconvenient midtown location.)

In June 2016, at an event organized by Lynn, Elizabeth Warren delivered a stunning speech on the damage of monopoly and the importance of reviving antitrust. Shortly afterwards, I attended a New York presentation by Alan Blinder, Hillary Clinton’s economic policy advisor. He focused on Hillary’s positions on issues vis-à-vis Trump’s and those of the median voter, complete with graphs. He suggested that Bernie had pulled her away from that median voter—a bad idea. Absolutely not a hint that Hillary should lead, rather than try to sniff out the densest patch of voters. One issue Blinder didn’t have on the list was antitrust, so I raised my hand and asked. “Oh,” he said, “that’s not a priority at present, but maybe after her first two years…”