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 July/August Issue Is Out!

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The July/August issue of Dollars & Sense is out! We fell a bit behind because of our recent office move. But the issue has now been sent out to e-subscribers and the print edition is at the printers.

We have posted three articles from the issue online already:  Josean Laguarta Ramírez’s Enforcement of Puerto Rico’s Colonial Debt Pushes Out Young Workers, John Miller’s A Clintonomics Sequel, and Alejandro Reuss’s An Historical Perspective on  Brexit.

(Alejandro’s take on Brexit, along with the two-part article the first part of which is our current cover story, have some similarity in perspective to a piece by Dani Rodrik that is making a splash recently, The Abdication of the Left, from Project Syndicate.)

Here is the editorial note from the July/August issue, with a review of the contents:

Out of the Frying Pan …

Life in capitalist society, in “ordinary” times, is no picnic. It’s more like a fish fry—and we’re the ones in the pan.

Rob Larson, in the second part of his study of the economics of information, shows the relentlessness of capitalist corporations in controlling the information we see about them, in a range of arenas: from advertising, to corporate public relations, to influence over the organizations—mass media and credit rating agencies—that are supposed to render independent judgment of them.

Suzanne Schroeder continues along those lines, arguing that the problems of private credit rating run deeper than the conflicts of interest laid bare by the recent financial crisis (for example, the outrageous granting of top “AAA” ratings to mortgage-backed securities and the like). Rather, the problem is that the standard methods of credit rating rely on the assumptions of an inherently stable and self-correcting capitalist economy. A solution, Schroeder argues, requires not only an alternative approach to credit rating, but also a reorientation of government policy to “stabilize an unstable economy.”

Of course, these are not ordinary times, and all of the contradictions and outrages of capitalist society are amplified.

José A. Laguarta Ramírez’s article about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis points to its roots in colonialism. Subordinate to the U.S. government politically and to U.S. corporations economically, Puerto Rico is now mired in “odious debt”—neither incurred freely by its people nor used for their benefit. Meanwhile, legislation just passed by the U.S. government will impose harsh austerity and an undemocratic “oversight” board. Laguarta Ramírez suggests that the solution to the crisis lies in the direction of repudiating the debt, which in turn points in the direction of political independence.

D&S co-editor Alejandro Reuss looks at the eurozone crisis. The structure of the monetary union deprived member countries of the means to respond individually, and did not institutionalize ways to respond collectively (like automatic fiscal transfers to the hardest-hit areas). This faulty structure, Reuss argues, was not just an accident, but a result of the long-range neoliberal turn of economic policymaking in Europe—in which the mainstream social democratic parties are seriously implicated. The most recent twist, the UK’s “Brexit” referendum, is a nationalist and nativist reaction to the crisis of internationalized capitalism—to which the left must answer with a new socialist internationalism.

Arthur MacEwan addresses the question of whether we’re staring into an abyss of long-term economic stagnation. There are good reasons, he notes, to think of economic stagnation as an inherent problem in capitalist economies, rooted in “over-accumulation”: Profit-making in one period gives capitalist enterprises the means invest in expanded plant and equipment, and the expanded capacity means more goods and services can be produced—sometimes more than people are able and willing to buy. MacEwan, however, also points to more particular causes of the current stagnation, and argues that a solution requires government policies to reduce inequality, maintain demand and employment, and invest in new infrastructure.

With each new piece of news—the Puerto Rico debt crisis, the Brexit vote, the victories of the right in Latin America and Europe—it seems like we’re going from the frying pan into the fire. But consider each of the problems described above—the chronic and the acute. For each, there are solutions, and it comes to us to organize and fight for them.

Yes, we’re going into the fire. But what will emerge from the flames?