Chairman of South African Constitutional Property Rights Foundation (www.sacprif.org) a voluntary think tank based in Cape Town, focused on the South African constitution which promises access to land to all citizens. Qualifying Innovator of the Year Award for inventing the Meritax CAMA Municipal Valuation and Rating System 2005. Registered Property Valuer; Member - SA Institute of Valuers;
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The late Susan Sontag, a 20th century American author defined miracles as being something unexpected, “it’s as if they open up a gap in which a more intense or creative or daring action can take place.” In this spirit it is possible to conjure an amazing South African economic miracle which relies on a change in the nation’s tax priorities. The trouble began when the 1994 Interim Katz Tax Commission (para 1.5.4.h) carelessly assumed there should be a balance of taxes, “avoiding any attempts to shift the tax burden predominantly onto any single dimension of economic activity.”
But what if not all taxes have the same consequences? For instance, taxes on land can rise to 100% of its rent without affecting its supply. And land prices will fall. Personal taxes on incomes and consumption however reduce the supply of goods whilst the cost of labour, capital, and shopping rises. If these taxes approach 30% they become a disincentive.
Therefore it would surely be prudent and a great boost to the economy if Treasury were to gradually substitute personal taxes for a single tax on land rents? The best examples of ‘low tax, low land price’ regimes are Hong Kong and Singapore where GDP per head is some five times that of South Africa’s, without farm or mining sectors to speak of. They import everything, even water.
In sec 25.5[i] of the constitution citizens are promised equitable access to land. This is shorthand for ensuring that at least each of the five million unemployed are given an opportunity to own (say) a hectare of arable land. Twenty seven million of these are reported to be unused[ii]. But the state’s promise of land to all has not been honoured and the excuse is that expropriation is unaffordable, that the available resources are not available. A change in the tax mix will make land affordable and also herald a genuine South African tax-haven.
There is a reasonable chance of a quick and high-impact result because the Davis Tax Review Committee will surely sanction penalties on ratepayers who are not using land to grow, rear, build or make things but just waiting for the price to go up. Unused residential plot prices have risen fourteen times on average since 1994, whilst CPI rose by four times. This is all the more senseless because land prices are unearned. Also what zoning scheme anywhere permits disuse?
It is common cause that able bodied but jobless citizens, even illiterates and indigents, can learn how to develop a country estate and mansion by shaping the earth’s materials for themselves, as the sketch and texts on page 2 suggest.
The tax-haven option does not rely on one citizen moving to the country because no exodus will mean that wages and conditions in the towns and cities will have improved, satisfactorily.
SACPRIF[iii] a twenty year old Cape Town based PBO think tank is currently preparing a submission for the Davis Tax Review Committee. Our testimony will comply with the Social and Ethics Committee Regulations of the Companies Act[iv]. Our hardback report will be a limited and numbered edition for subscribers only. Our bank details.
Miss Sontag also held that “The only really interesting action in life is a miracle or the failure to perform a miracle.” We should ask how interested will rich and poor be in the latter?
Julius Seizure, AKA Julius Malema, scorns Madiba’s economic legacy (Cape Times, 17 Dec). Yet on the twentieth anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize award to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk they could also have shared the Laureate for Economics (conferred by Sweden’s Riks Bank in memory of Alfred Nobel who left no money for economics or mathematics). This would be in recognition of their astonishing Constitutional property rights pact in Sec 25.5: “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.”
This is the blue print for digging out poverty, root and branch. In one sentence it ends the landless, proletarian life-style of dependency on wage contracts. Those minimum wage takings have wreaked their wretched toll in South Africa’s rusty corrugated iron suburbs where five million unemployed are denied productive land and the self-employed jobs it will offer. That does not count the six million others who live in dangerous and degrading urban hell-holes, grasping at delivery of this or that service, when in 1994 their leaders were signing off on hectares not lavatories.
And who on earth gave permission for land to stay fallow, for years on end There is not a town planning scheme in the world which does not go on and on about precisely what owners can do to land, never what they cannot.
Mr Malema nevertheless wants to nationalise land without compensation. True to form that is ill-considered because if he would instead promise to gradually nationalise not land, but land rents, and simultaneously privatise wages, salaries, profit, interest, capital gains and consumption by retiring income taxes and vat, South Africa would become a tax haven. Another Mandela and FW de Klerk landed victory which trumps the Freedom Charter.
a study of a phenomenon David Ricardo noted going on two centuries ago. When wine grapes rise to $10,000 a ton from the very best land (last year, cabernet sauvignon commanded an average of $4,021 a ton in the Napa Valley), then vineyard prices soar from $18,000 an acre in the 1980′s to $100,000 an acre five years ago and now for a top pedigree up to $300,000 an acre (The New York Times, April 9, via Wyn Achenbaum). Pricey land does not make wine pricey; spendy wine makes land spendy. While vintners make their wine tasty, nature and society in general – not any lone owner – make land desireable. Steve Kerch of CBS’s MarketWatch (April 5) notes that much of what a home sells for on the open market is a reflection of intangible factors such as what school district the house sits in. The price the builder has to pay for the land also tends to be driven by the same intangibles. Because the value of land comes from society, and because one’s use excludes the rest of society, each user owes all others compensation, and is owed compensation by everyone else. Sharing land’s value, instead of taxing one’s efforts, is the policy of geonomics.
a way to have everybody pulling on the same end of the rope. Last summer’s expansive forest fires shed light on growing class resentment in the West. Old log-gers and ranchers rankled at the new urgency to stamp out the blazes that threatened the recent Aspenesque settlers. The newcomers expected working class firemen to make protecting their expensive homes top priority. (Chr Sci Mntr, Spt 7) The tinder for this envy? Rich people moving in bid up the price of land, making it hard to afford by people on the margin. The fault really lies with our system of privatizing land value. If this rising value were collected by land dues and shared by rent dividends – the essence of geonomic policy – who’d complain? The more people move in, the higher the land value, and the fatter the dividend paid to residents. Then people on the margin might go out of their way to invite rich outsiders in.
what you do when you see economies as part of the ecosystem, following feedback loops and storing up energy. Surplus energy – fat or profit – enables us to produce and reproduce. To recycle society’s surplus, the commonwealth, geonomics would replace taxes with land dues (charged to users of sites and resources, in-cluding the EM spectrum, and extra to polluters), and replace subsidies with rent dividends to citizens (a la Alaska’s oil dividend). Without taxes and subsidies to distort them, prices become precise, reflect accurately our costs and values; then, motivated by no more than the bottom line, both producers and consumers make sustainable choices. While no place uses geonomics in its entirety, some places use parts of it, most notably a shift of the property tax off buildings, onto locations. Shifting the property tax drives efficient use of land, in-fills cities, improves the housing stock, makes homes affordable, engenders jobs and investment opportunities, lowers crime, raises civic participation, etc – overall it makes cities more livable. Geonomics – a way to share the bounty of nature and society – is something we can work for locally, globally, and in between.
the study of the money we spend on the nature we use. When we pay that money to private owners, we reward both speculation and over-extraction. Robert Kiyosaki’s bestseller, Rich Dad’s Prophecy, says, “One of the reasons McDonald’s is such a rich company is not because it sells a lot of burgers but because it owns the land at some of the best intersections in the world. The main reason Kim and I invest in such properties is to own the land at the corner of the intersection. (p 200) My real estate advisor states that the rich either made their money in real estate or hold their money in real estate.” (p 141, via Greg Young) When government recovers the rents for natural advantages for everyone, it can save citizens millions. Ben Sevack, Montreal steel manufacturer, tells us (August 12) that Alberta, by leasing oil & gas fields, recovers enough revenue to be the only province in Canada to get by without a sales tax and to levy a flat provincial income tax. While running for re-election, provincial Premier Ralph Klein proposes to abolish their income tax and promises to eliminate medical insurance premiums and use resource revenue to pay for all medical expense for seniors. After all this planned tax-cutting and greater expense, they still expect a large budget surplus. Even places without oil and gas have high site values in their downtowns, and high values in their utility franchises. Recover the values of locations and privileges, displace the harmful taxes on sales, salaries, and structures, then use the revenue to fund basic government and pay residents a dividend, and you have geonomics in action.
suitable for framing by Green Parties. When Greens began in Germany two decades ago, they defined themselves as neither left nor right but in front. Geonomics fits that description. The Green Parties have their Four Pillars; geonomists have four ways to apply them:
Ecological Wisdom. Want people to use the eco-system wisely? Charge them Rent and, to end corporate license, add surcharges. To minimize these costs, people will use less Earth.
Nonviolence. Want people to settle disputes nonviolently? Set a good example; don’t levy taxes, which rely on the threat of incarceration, to take people’s money. Try quid pro quo fees and dues.
Social Responsibility. Want people to be responsible for their actions? Don’t make basic choices for them by subsidizing services, addicting them to a caretaker state. Let people spend shares of social surplus.
Grassroots Democracy. Better have grassroots prosperity. Remember, political power follows economic. Pay people a Citizens Dividend; to keep it, they’ll show up at the polls, public hearings, and conventions.
more transformation than reform; it’s a step ahead. Harvard economics students this year did petition to change the curriculum, in the wake of the English who caught the dissension from across The Channel. French reformers, who fault conventional economics for conjuring mathematical models of little empirical relevance and being closed to critical and reflective thought, reject this “autism” – or detachment from reality – and dub their offering “post-autistic economics”. Not a bad name, but again, academics define themselves by what they’re not, not by what they are, unlike geonomists. We track rent – the money we spend on the nature we use – and watch it pull all the other economic indicators in its wake. We see economies as part and parcel of the ecosystem, similarly following natural patterns and able to self-regulate more so than allowed, once we quit distorting prices. To align people and planet, we’d replace taxes and subsidies with recovering and sharing rents.
in part the Great Green Tax Shift maxed out. Economically, taxing pollution and depletion does reduce pollutants and extracts – and thus the tax base; plus such taxes are regressive, requiring a safety net. On the other hand, collecting site rent is progressive and generates a revenue surplus payable as a dividend to residents, which can serve as the safety net. Environmentally, taxes on waste and extraction do not drive efficient use of land, as does getting site rent.
of interest to Dave Lakhani, President Bold Approach (Mar 8) and Matt Ozga (Jan 29): “I write for the Washington Square News, the student run newspaper out of New York University. Geonomics seems like it has great significance, especially in this area. When was geonomics developed, and by whom?”
About 1982 I began. Two years later, Chilean Dr Manfred Max-Neef offered the term geonomics for Earth-friendly economics. In the mid-80s, a millionaire founded a Geonomics Institute on Middlebury College campus in Vermont re global trade. In the 1990s, CNBC cablecast a show, Geonomics, on world trade as it benefits world traders. My version of geonomics draws heavily from the American Henry George who wrote Progress & Poverty (1879) and won the mayoralty of New York but was denied his victory by Tammany Hall (1886). He in turn got lots from Brits David Ricardo, Adam Smith, and the French physiocrats of the 1700s. My version differs by focusing not on taxation but on the flow of rents for sites, resources, sinks, and government-granted privileges. Forgoing these trillions, we instead tax and subsidize, making waste cheap and sustainability expensive. To quit distorting price, replace taxes with “land dues” and replace subsidies with a Citizens Dividend.
Matt: “This idea of sharing rents sounds, if not explicitly socialist, at least at odds with some capitalist values (only the strong survive & prosper, etc). Is it fair to say that geonomics has some basis in socialist theory?”
A closer descriptor would be Christian. Beyond ethics into praxis, Alaska shares oil rent with residents, and they’re more libertarian than socialist. While individuals provide labor and capital, no one provides land while society generates its value. Rent is not private property but public property. Sharing Rent is predistribution, sharing it before an elite or state has a chance to get and misspend it, like a public REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) paying dividends to its stakeholders – a perfectly capitalist model. What we should leave untaxed are our sales, salaries, and structures, things we do produce.
a new field of study offered in place of economics, as astronomy replaced astrology and chemistry replaced alchemy. Conventional economics, in which GNP can do well while people suffer, is a bit too superstitious for my renaissance upbringing. If I’m to propitiate unseen forces, it won’t be inflation or “the market”; let it be theEgyptian cat goddess. At least then we’d have fewer rats. Meanwhile, believing in reason leads to a new policy, also christened geonomics. That’s the proposal to share (a kind of management, the “nomics” part) the worth of Mother Earth (the “geo” part). If our economies are to work right, people need to see prices that tell the truth. Now taxes and subsidies distort prices, tricking people into squandering the planet. Using land dues and rent dividends instead lets prices be precise, guiding people to get more from less and thereby shrink their workweek. More free time ought to make us happy enough to evolve beyond economics, except when nostalgic for superstition.
an answer for Jonathan of the Green Party (Nov 7): “What does ‘share our surplus’ mean?”
Our surplus is the values that society generates synergistically. It’s the money we spend on the nature we use: on land sites, natural resources, EM spectrum, ecosystem services (assimilating pollutants). It’s also the money we pay to holders of government-granted privileges like corporate charters. We could share it by paying for the nature we use and privileges we hold to the public treasury then getting back a fair share of the recovered revenue. Used to be, owners did owe rent (“own” and “owe” used to be one word). And presently, some lucky residents do get back periodic dividends: Alaska’s oil dividend and Aspen Colorado’s housing assistance. Doing that, instead of subsidizing bads while taxing goods, is the essence of geonomics.
Jonathan: “Is local currency what you mean?”
Editor: It’s not. Community currency is a good reform, but every good reform pushes up site values. That makes land an even more tempting object of speculation. Now, any good will eventually do bad by widening the income gap – until you share land values.