Washington Post: Piketty Nails the Ills, George the Cure
|June 9, 2014||Posted by Staff under Good Press|
This 2014 excerpt of the Washington Post, May 14, is by Charles Lane, a Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, financial issues and trade.
The year 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in the United States. The Allies liberated Paris 70 years ago. And, of course, it’s been 135 years since “Progress and Poverty,” by the American journalist Henry George, was published in 1879.
What’s that? Never heard of George or his treatise on the causes of inequality? It sold 3 million copies. Perhaps you missed “Progress and Poverty’s” anniversary while perusing this year’s equally improbable bestseller, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.
With its sweeping review of historical data, culminating in a warning about capitalism’s inexorable, destabilizing, tendency toward inequality — to be cured by a global wealth tax — Piketty’s book has earned comparisons with “Das Kapital,” by Karl Marx.
Yet Piketty’s project may have more in common with George’s book than Marx’s, and not only because each tome reached U.S. readers six years after a ruinous financial crisis — the Panic of 1873 for George, the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers for Piketty.
Analyzing the stagnant economy and rich-poor gap of his day, George blamed not free markets, which he considered efficient and fair, but their corruption by a privileged few.
Specifically, George argued, land owners commanded a high and growing share of U.S. income even though their claim to it was based on something as unproductive as mere ownership — as opposed to the laborer’s work effort or the investor’s risk-taking.
For George, the solution was to abolish all taxes except a “single tax” on the value of land. Since land could neither be created nor destroyed, taxing it would reduce neither society’s total wealth nor owners’ incentives to put property to productive use — buildings and other improvements wouldn’t be taxed.
To the contrary, taxing land, and only land, to pay the government’s bills would liberate labor and capital to seek their most productive use and thus to grow the economy. A huge source of unearned wealth would be curbed, if not eliminated. Capitalism would be redeemed and democracy saved.
“It is not enough that men and women should vote,” George wrote (including a gender that could not, at that time, cast ballots). “They must have liberty to avail themselves of the opportunities and means of life; they must stand on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature. . . . This is the lesson of the centuries. Unless its foundations be laid in justice, the social structure of the United States or any other country cannot stand.”
To Piketty, like George an admirer of market efficiency and opponent of protectionism, the resulting accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands threatens economic fairness, economic dynamism — and democracy.
And so, updating Henry George’s single tax, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax.
For Piketty and George, the bottom line, both moral and economic, is to socialize “rent” — rent, that is, not in the colloquial sense but in the economic sense of income disconnected from productivity.
It’s an attractive vision: an egalitarian, productive society, purged of parasitical rent-seeking through the expedient of well-aimed taxes.
Ed. Notes: The author claims that the problem with taxing land — or charging land use fees or deed fees or leasing public land or instituting land dues — is not moral but practical. He thinks that assessing the value of a location — apart from any building atop it — can not be done. However, there are many jurisdictions already doing it — notably Singapore and Hong Kong — and private parties in the real estate business appraise the value of sites all the time. So determining rent for land is really not an issue and should not be an obstacle. Governments should be gathering all the rents they can, while not taxing people’s efforts, and disburse the revenues in the most equitable ways possible.