This crash is The Big One; it has the signs of becoming a Category 5.
How do we know? We’ve “been there and done that” so many times before,
roughly every 18 years over the last 800 or more. Major wars and,
rarely, plagues have broken the rhythm, along with the little ice age,
reformation and counterreformation, political revolutions and reactions,
the rise of nation-states, the enclosure movement, the age of
exploration, massive European imports of stolen American gold, the
scientific and industrial revolutions, the Crusades, Mongol and Turkish
invasions, and other upheavals.
Yet, the endogenous cycle keeps returning, as soon as we find peace,
and economic life returns to its even tenors. What President Warren
Harding famously called “normalcy” soon evolved into another boom and a
shocking bust, as so often before. Calm and routine prosperity has never
been man’s lot for long: it somehow leads to its own downfall, cycle
Homer Hoyt published his classic 100 Years of Land Values in Chicago,
1833-1933, in December, 1933. He covered in fine detail the 5 major
cycles that crested and crashed in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, and 1926-29.
At the end he generalized “The Chicago Real Estate Cycle”, a regular
rhythm of boom and bust with the same features in the same sequence. The
boom sets us up for the bust. He could have omitted the limiting word
“Chicago”, its cycles were synchronized with national waves recorded by
other scholars like Arthur H. Cole, Philip Cornick, Lewis Maverick,
Frederick Lewis Allen, Harry Scherman, Carter Goodrich, Ernest Fisher,
Homer Vanderblue, Herbert Simpson, and others – surprisingly few others,
Alexander Field has recently reviewed much of this literature, but
held back from seeing cycles in the present or future. It is uncanny how
the latest boom tracks the events that Hoyt recorded and generalized.
There was “an increase in rents, building …, and subdivision …, each of
which was carried in turn to speculative excess, and each of which
interacted upon the others and upon land values to generate and maintain
the boom psychology”. The cycle, Hoyt continued, is “the composite
effect … of a series of forces that … communicate impulses to each other
in a time sequence, … in a definite order” (p. 369).
He breaks the major events down into 20 elements (pp. 373-403). We
can consolidate a few to simplify, but the cycle is not so simple: if it
were, mankind would have mastered it long ago, instead of constantly
repeating it. Rather, I add a few events that others than Hoyt have
noted – a dot precedes each of these non-Hoyt elements, below:-
• Population grows
• Building rents rise
• Values of standing buildings rise
• New building rises
• “Builders’ Illusion” sets in, where builders conflate the rise of land prices with a return on their building investment
• Easy credit comes forth to builders, land buyers, and subdividers
• Nationally, people moving to new areas raise total need for buildings, because migrants leave their old homes behind them
• Construction itself makes jobs, with demand for more buildings
• Outside money flows into growth areas, taking as security liens on new buildings and on lands. As to the local balance of payments, this has the same temporary effect as exporting the buildings and lands: unearned increments become part of the local economic base. However, this is a trap: it evolves into debt service, an outflow of funds that, over time, exceeds the original inflow
• Easy credit evolves into “shoestring financing” (the 1933 expression for today’s “subprime lending”)
• New buildings absorb vacant land; land prices boom and spread outwards
• Governments spend freely, on borrowed money, for street improvements and public works to boost land sales
• Population growth rate slows, but “authoritative” forecasts come forth of more population growth – today’s “irrational exuberance”, which Hoyt calls a “mania”
• “Builders’ Illusion” sets in, where builders conflate the rise of land prices with a return on their building investment, boosting the incentive to build above what the actual return on building per se would justify. This is because building, however legitimate, entails buying and selling land, a form of “flipping”. Unearned increment becomes, for some parties, part of the incentive to build. Ditto for “flipper-remodelers”: it’s fun to remodel or just redecorate on a rising market. This illusion may be most extreme in large, self-contained, integrated developments, where each building is expected, even in a steady market, to pay for itself in part by raising the value of adjoining parcels. The big developer, being human, may credit himself for the rising tide of the market in general. Such illusions, widely shared, can result in overproduction of new buildings relative to the basic demand.
• Land subdivision and development (or partial development) for urban use goes to greater excess than any other variable in the cycle. The quantity of land is fixed, but people spread out over more and more land. Call it bringing more land into the market, or bringing the market to more land, the effect is the same: a growing overhang of ripening land.
• “Expert” appraisals of land are based on sales of comparables, and upward price trends. These sales, in turn, were influenced by appraisers who based their opinions on earlier comparables and upward trends, and so on. This is because there is no cost of production to check excesses. Thus a herd mentality can take over, divorcing prices from reality: “Irrational Exuberance”.
• Rising debt service overtakes inflow of new capital
• Corruption and graft that inevitably accompany easy money come to light, eroding and then cracking confidence in markets and banks and the “high, wide, and handsome” libertine boomtime philosophy that has papered over coven and fraud.
• Lenders’ loan turnover has to slow down as they turn from short-term trade credit or commercial loans to long-term loans based on land collateral. A bank that is all loaned out, no matter how sound its balance sheet, can not make new loans much faster than its debtors pay back the old ones. Today’s loan originators can appear to escape from this constraint by packaging and securitizing bad loans for passage on to others, and finally to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but that just blows dust over the iron rule that some lender, or the taxpayer, is left at the end of the line holding the bag. Our complex modern apparatus
that seems so sophisticated is at bottom just a variation on how Andrew Jackson subsidized wildcat banks by accepting their notes for sales of public land. The more elaborate the deception, the greater the final letdown, as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is now learning. On July 26 the National Australia Bank shocked investors by saying it may lose as much as 90% of the value of its US mortgage-backed investments – worth more than $1 billion – and warning that the battered US housing market is poised to deteriorate further.
• A rise of land prices cannot simply flatten out at a high plateau, because the increment has become part of the expected return that buyers are paying for, and lenders are relying on. So prices that cannot rise further have to drop: there is no equilibrium level. (I expand on this point a few paragraphs below.)
• At the crest, asking prices almost always drop slower than bid prices. This makes sales (deeds recorded) drop sharply, even as recorded prices hold steady.
• “Shoestring” borrowers face foreclosure; their distress sales force prices down, in a cumulative spiral
• Banks, whose capital and surplus is always a small fraction of their liabilities, lose much of their capital and surplus when many debtors default. They are always vulnerable, since they borrow short and lend long, so they have to stop making new loans. Some or many fail.
Depositors may panic.
• Lending slows faster than recorded interest rates rise, because
banks cut off sub-prime borrowers. (Professor Ben Bernanke, in calmer
days, developed this thesis for the 1930’s.)
• Self-financed firms fare better than bank customers, but their
capital returns slower than before, or not at all, cutting their rate of
• Building stops; workers starve or emigrate; chaos reigns, we hit bottom
• Governments and leading gurus blame the crash on falling land
values, bend their efforts to bailing out big banks and sustaining land
values, prolonging the depression.
In the process most actors lose sight of the original cause,
speculation in rising land values, and the stage is set to begin the
Hoyt carried his research back to 1833, the birth of Chicago, but
that was not the birth of history. The Second Bank of the United States,
founded in 1816, helped along the “peace-dividend” boom that crashed in
1819 during James Monroe’s “Era of Good Feeling”. This, too, was a land
boom: Cole’s history of public land sales shows them peaking sharply
1817-19, only to drop like a stone.
Twenty-one years earlier, 1798 saw a serious crash of land sales and
prices, over which the First Bank of the United States presided. Among
other results this sent several rich Americans to debtors’ prisons,
discredited founder Alexander Hamilton and ruined his Federalist Party,
and cost Andrew Jackson his first big plantation.
Jackson’s ensuing hatred of central bankers smoldered until it erupted
in his erratic handling of the Second Bank of the U.S. when he was
President, 1829-37, and this Second Bank was presiding over the great
Canal Boom that busted in 1836-37.
History did not begin in 1798, either. Records grow murkier as we
look further back, but some colorful events stand out. One was the
Mississippi Bubble of 1720, to which Andrew Jackson compared his debacle
of 1798. It saw the founding of New Orleans, but was part of a
worldwide event, centered in Paris and in London (where it was “The
South Sea Bubble”).
Scottish banker John Law sold himself and his paper-money ideas to
the Duc d’Orleans, Regent of France, took over the Bank of France, and
engineered one of history’s more famous speculative manias – mostly
based on the insecure security of land titles in the Mississippi Valley.
Across the Channel, sober Englishmen and their famously conservative
bankers built castles in air in southeast Asia – their “south seas” –
and mighty was the fall thereof. After the Fall, of course, credit
tightened for everyone.
Before London, Amsterdam was the financial kingpin of the world. In
the 1630s it suffered something known to history as “The Tulip Bubble”.
Recent research by Maastricht Professor Piet Eichholtz, endorsed by our
own Robert Shiller, discloses that this had more to do with real estate
than tulips per se.
They find that housing prices dropped 50%, 1634-36, along the
Herengracht, an upper crust residential district. London scholar Anne
Goldgar dissociates this from the more famous Tulip Bubble that crashed
in 1639; we leave this detail for the specialists to settle. Our point
is that there WAS a land bubble that burst, even back then. Shiller has
also traced such a bubble in Norwegian history.
Back in New England, our first land bubble burst about the same time,
1640. This is when “The Great Migration” of Puritans stopped and
reversed itself. This happened just after Captain John Mason’s massacre
of the Pequods (1637) opened up the whole Connecticut and Thames Valleys
to English settlers.
It seems, though, that speculators got there first, deflecting
English settlement to the rocky soils and harsh climate and precarious
land titles of New Hampshire, which boomed then while Connecticut
languished. We will see this pattern of continental sprawl repeated
throughout American history. Indeed, it was repeated next door in New
York State where Dutch speculators, called “patroons”, tied up the
Hudson Valley while settlers poured from northern New England into the
Before Amsterdam were Augsburg and Antwerp, and before them was
Florence, premier banking center of the 15th Century. In 1454 the Peace
of Lodi ended 20 years of costly warfare and left Florence with a great
peace dividend, a secure, peaceful position. As has happened so often
since, this led to prosperity, luxury, conspicuous consumption, a land
boom and a bust in the late 1460’s, when several banks folded.
Florence rebounded for another cycle led by Lorenzo di Medici.
Popular history remembers Lorenzo as The Magnificent, a patron of the
arts, but as a banker he preferred “lazy loans” (political, long-term,
and land-secured) (Michael Veseth, 1990, and G.F. Young, 1930). He blew
on art and other luxuries the money that Cosimo had made by hard work,
serious banking, and a communal attitude toward fellow Florentines.
Politically, Lorenzo appeared strong and effective, but in 1494 the
Medici bank failed, Florentines sacked the Medici art collection, and
flocked to Savanarola, who ended an era with his Bonfire of the
The French scholar M.E. Levasseur went back even further in history,
publishing data on the price of land in France from 1200 A.D. to 1799,
its ups and downs in war and peace, prosperity and depression,
territorial expansion and contraction, good kings and bad. Suffice it
here that land cycles have a long history. None of it, to my knowledge,
differs in substance from Hoyt’s findings from Chicago, 1833-1933.
Why must there always be an upper turning point? Why cannot the good
times go on forever? Let us expand here on a previous point that I
oversimplified for brevity. I alleged that the “Rise of land prices
cannot simply flatten out at a high plateau, because the increment has
become part of the expected return that buyers are paying for, and
lenders are relying on. So prices that cannot rise further have to drop:
there is no equilibrium level.”
In abstract algebra, land prices could rise forever, unlikely as that
seems, provided market agents expect rents to rise forever, interest
rates not to rise, and exhaustible resources not to rise. The algebra is
fairly simple. Let:
a = current annual land rent
i = interest rate expressed as a decimal
g = annual expected growth of “a”, expressed as a fraction
V = value of land, derived as a discounted cash flow
Then, by summing an infinite series of rising rents starting from
“a”, each one discounted to the present, the rate of progression is
(1+g)/(1+i), and we have: V = a/(i-g)
(1) Rearranging terms: V = [a + Vg]/i
(2) Rearranging terms once more: V/a = 1/(i-g)
(3) V/a is what Brits call the “years’ purchase” of land. In the
stock market it is the “price/earnings ratio”. We will return to it; it
is a handy way to summarize matters.
Equation (1) is more “elegant” than (2), but the two equations are
equivalent, and (2) is the way most market agents see the matter, and
salesmen present it. Vg is the annual rise of land price this year, and
it grows every year as V rises.
For values, V, to level off, “g” must fall to zero. However, when “g”
falls to zero, V falls. In fact, when “g” falls at all, as from 3% to
2%, V falls. Once values are based on, say, g=3%, they cannot level off
without first taking a great tumble.
The pioneer mathematical economist Professor Irving Fisher of Yale
notoriously declared in 1929 that stock prices had reached a “permanent
high plateau”. There cannot be a “permanent high plateau” of land or
stock prices, if “high” means based on high values of “g”. Equation (3)
shows that high values of “g” mean high ratios of V/a, always a warning
flag, as Professors Shiller and Case have reminded us more than once. To
be permanent or stable, a plateau must be moderate. The current revival
of Fisher’s reputation suggests that some modern economists, too, have
blinded themselves to the simple relations shown in Equations (1), (2),
To save space I am not supplying numerical examples of the points
above. I urge readers who are blocked by or rusty on algebra to work out
examples on their own. It is easy, and makes matters much clearer.
It is an algebraic possibility that rents could conceivably keep on
rising, if not to infinity, at least to the trillions, centuries in the
future. Land prices could then follow along without a hitch. Common
sense and experience, however, tell us that does not happen. There are
several reasons why not.
• We do press on the limits of exhaustible resources, as is so evident today
• Landowners treat unearned increments as current income, raising
their consumption and lowering their real saving (in the manner of
Lorenzo the Magnificent), thereby raising interest rates
• In practice, in boom times, lemming psychology causes the “Vg” of
Equation (2) to get ahead of a realistic forecast of future rents. Many
buyers don’t even know where it came from; others are speculating on the
“greater fool” theory. The V/a ratio of Equation (3) has periodically
risen well above sustainable levels.
• People and capital spread out over more land, as we discuss next.
Galloping settlement sprawl, such as that of the last 16 years, has set
us up for The Great Crash of 2008. To repeat, we may call it bringing
more land into the market, or bringing the market to more land, the
effect is the same. There are both urban sprawl, and continental sprawl.
Let’s start with a modest case of urban sprawl.
At the same time, to tie us together we have the Interstate Highway
System, and many state highway systems. Interchanges create hundreds of
new commercial nodes. In the short run these may seem to bring urban
values to old farmland; in the long run and in the aggregate they create
an artificial abundance of urbanesque land, an overhang that presages
the crash phase of the cycle.
They also create an overhang of deferred maintenance and replacement,
for highways must in effect be rebuilt every 30 years or so, but at
higher prices for cement. Worst of all they create a permanent
commitment to wasting energy. These contingent liabilities have been
hidden during years of euphoria.
Today, as gasoline prices soar and tax revenues falter, they are all
too visible. Too much land accessed, and rising costs of accessing it,
combine to lower land prices.
We also have our inflated air transport system. The U.S. has 15,000
civilian airports, more by far than any other nation or group of
nations. The vastest of these, Denver International, takes 34,000 acres,
or 53 square miles. Other oversized ports are mostly in the south and
west: Dallas, Orlando, Kansas City, Atlanta, LAX, Seatac, and Miami, for
Some eastern ports are much smaller: Washington National is 1,000
acres; busy LaGuardia is only 600. Many general aviation ports are
smaller yet, down to under 100 acres. Estimating the mean civilian
airport area at 400 acres, (military airports, not included here,
average much bigger), 15,000 airports would require six million acres,
or 9400 square miles, about the area of New Hampshire.
While surface area is only one of the resources that air travel
consumes, it is symptomatic of the daunting resource requirements of
spreading people from Nome to Key West, from Eastport to Kauai, throwing
in American Samoa and Puerto Rico and The Virgin Islands, protecting
them all with military airports and bases and their logistics, and
linking them as tightly as Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The soaring costs, led now by jet fuel, and security aggravations,
and falling comforts of air travel are beginning to drive home these
rising demands on limited resources. Meantime, though, this nationwide
transportation network has brought vast new areas inside the urban
ambit. A rich Montana rancher and his wife can wing it into Denver or
Vegas in their private plane for a night on the town; but how long can
this dream of city-country affluence last?
To highways and airlanes let us add the power grid; huge
interregional water transfers and systems; several new kinds of radio
communication grids in bewildering novelty and abundance; the postal
service grid; UPS and FEDEX grids; natural gas lines; the telephone
grid; the banking network; the list goes on, and on. Most of these bring
service not just to the end-points, but to most of the included
How can land rents and values fall from oversupply, when land supply
is fixed? This fixity feeds the delusion that land rents and values can
only rise with population and capital formation. However, people and
capital can spread out to encompass and fructify more land. That is
sprawl, urban and continental (and worldwide, not covered here).
Professor Robert Murray Haig theorized in 1926 that if transportation
costs fell to zero, there would be no urban land values: one location
would be as good as another. That can’t happen, of course, but lower
transportation costs, as by an abundance of Ford’s Model T’s, would
lower land rents and values. He presented this just as a cautious
academic speculation (QJE, February 1926), but did he see something
coming? Seen or not, it did come right after he published.
To Henry George, “land speculation” meant holding land off the market
waiting for a rise. He likened it to an unconscious “combination” (a
cartel) of landowners creating an artificial scarcity. George missed the
next trick, however. He attributed industrial depressions to inexorably
rising rents and land prices that progressively squeezed labor and
investors off the land and into the unemployment lines. It was too
A good explanation must account for land value collapses, like
today’s, playing a key role in the crash itself. In George’s scenario,
lower land prices enable the later recovery, which they do, ultimately.
What about the timing, though, the sequence of events? Urban land prices
peaked in 1926; stocks crashed in 1929; unemployment peaked even later.
Like all cartels, the unconscious combination of land speculators
creates a “price umbrella” under which new resources enter the market.
Students of cartels recognize a “price-umbrella syndrome”. Cartels
create an artificial scarcity of a resource or product and an
artificially high “price umbrella” to shelter new competitors who come
from outside the cartel. Previously marginal or untapped resources enter
the market, often irreversibly.
In urban growth, the cycle periodically thus creates an artificial
surplus of half-developed land (graded, perhaps, roaded, platted, but
lacking buildings). Other new land is even less than half-developed:
accessed by new freeways, state highways, or county roads, but not even
subdivided. At the same time, the lavish use of durable capital to bring
settlers to all this marginal land creates a shortage of liquid
capital, a shortage of loanable and investible funds, a rise of interest
rates and a tightening of credit. The writer has analyzed elsewhere
this lavish, irreversible misallocation of capital (Gaffney, 1976).
Austrian cycle theorists have dwelt on this tilting of what they call
“the structure of production”, with too much capital getting sunk
irrecoverably in what they call “higher order” goods. Well and good,
they are onto something big and vital.
Unfortunately, though, they find its cause solely in “forced saving”
from bank expansion, with no reference at all to its “geo-economic”
roots, and the role of inflated land collateral enabling bank expansion.
Worst of all, they see no remedy except forcing down wage rates.
Forces of containment, notably including George’s land speculation,
have imposed uneconomic scatter and sprawl on settlement. They have held
back the logical areas for continuous settlement and forced the
pioneers to move around and beyond them.
If you examine a map of population density in the United States at
any time in history, you see that urban scatter and sprawl have their
counterparts in national patterns of land use, and they always have had,
in spite of the Indian menace. (A series of such maps to 1865 is in
John D. Hicks, The Federal Union.)
By 1890 the Census gave up trying to draw a “frontier line”. The
Director wrote, “the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated
bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier
line” — a passage that Frederick J. Turner misread, I think, as he
launched from it into his classic “Frontier in American History.”
It was not the frontier that was passing, but the last vestige of
orderly advance into it. The center of population continued to march
west-south-westward, as settlements grew ever more scattered. In 1893
another boom ended, evoking the populist plaint, “In God we trusted; in
Kansas we busted”.
George himself did not, to my knowledge, call the crash of 1893, or
explain its causes to his readers. It might have enhanced his reputation
among later economists, and justified the subtitle of Progress and
Poverty, “An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions”. By 1893,
however, he knew he had only few years left, and was preoccupied
advancing the cause in other ways that he considered important.
Perhaps he was right; many readers highly value his later works.
Perhaps, also, he perceived that the facts did not exactly fit the
simple scenario sketched so briefly in Progress and Poverty, and he
lacked time to revise his model, in which by then he was heavily
Georgists of the 1920s did poorly calling the real estate slump that
began in 1926, and the stock market crash of 1929. As late as 1932, at
the very nadir of The Great Depression, Harry Gunnison Brown, leading
Georgist economist of the times, dismissed the wreckage around him as “a
period of slack business” (The Economic Basis of Tax Reform).
Albert J. Nock and Frank Chodorov preoccupied themselves with carping
at Keynes and FDR and labor unions, preaching free markets as though
they had discovered them, and as though the system had not crashed after
1929. They opposed all totalitarians in principle, but in practice they
aimed most of their shots at FDR and The Allies, alienating a
generation of earnest activist reformers and anti-Fascists.
Career-minded professionals have to pause before issuing pessimistic
forecasts about land and securities markets, where confidence hangs by a
thread. Senator Charles Schumer warned of the IndyMac Bank collapse,
and right away foes jumped him for causing it. Homer Hoyt could publish
his masterpiece in the deepest trough of depression, when anyone with
eyes or ears knew the system had crashed, and revolution was in the air.
20 years later Hoyt had gone into real estate consulting and land
speculation, and declined to see any revival of his own cycle. Many have
put down even Robert Shiller for puncturing the euphoria: Michael
Mandel, Chief Economics Editor of Business Week, recently published
Rational Exuberance, whose title telegraphs its message, while the views
of his sunny senior columnist Jim Cooper remain reliably upbeat, week
after week, as we sink deeper into the mire.
In 2006 David Lereah published Why the Housing Boom will not Bust,
and How You can Profit from it. Lereah, often cited by the Washington
Post, is Chief Economist, National Association of Realtors. No one will
fault Mandel or Cooper or Lereah for pricking the bubble of
“confidence”; but today in summer 2008 they look like utter fools.
Robert Shiller has been warning, targeting mainly investors, that
residential real estate might be overvalued, but did not link this to a
general depression in the forthright manner of the four Georgists to be
cited below, nor with the same certitude. John Talbott deserves credit,
too, although he may have called an earlier crash that did not occur.
Alexander Field has declined to relate to current events his
thoroughgoing history of the literature on older crashes.
I do not know of a single Nobel Laureate in Economics who forecast
the present crash, or any other. Two of them, Chicago-Schoolers Robert
Merton and Myron Scholes, founded Long Term Capital Management to
demonstrate the brilliance of their investment theories. It went down in
flames in 1997, saved only by a Federal bailout. Nothing daunted, media
and public speakers seeking confirmation lean hard on Nobel Laureates
whom they can cite. The media might better consider others with better
Modern Georgists enter this period of danger and opportunity in
relatively good shape. Several have outstanding scorecards calling the
current crash. These include Fred Foldvary (2007, The Depression of
2008); Fred Harrison (2005, Boom/Bust); Michael Hudson (2006, “Guide to
the Coming Real Estate Collapse”, Harper’s, May); and Bryan Kavanagh
(2007, Unlocking the Riches of Oz).
Each has a slightly different take on it, but they all saw it coming
and stuck their necks out, far out, to forecast it in print. One of
their distinctive commonalities is their recognizing that land rent and
values are many times higher than most economists realize, and so play a
major role in macro-economic ups and downs.
Bear with me in thinking that these Georgists who foretold this crash
deserve a hearing, in preference to those who failed, and certainly to
those who still deny it. What solutions would they offer? I do not speak
for them, and they are not of one mind. There are a hundred more
specifics than can even be outlined here, but the following elements
seem reasonable and likely, knowing these authors.
One, of course, is to raise more public revenue from taxes on
property in general and land in particular. These include property
taxes, and in addition a host of other kinds of revenues. No less than
sixteen of these are detailed in this writer’s “Hidden Revenue Capacity
of Land”, forthcoming in the summer issue of the International Journal
of Social Economics. One of them, which Michael Hudson has explained in
several articles, is to reform the personal income tax (if we must have
one) to bear heavier on property income and lighter on wage income.
Another is always to base land assessments on current market value,
and update them annually. Earlier I criticized private fee appraisers
for using current comparables to value owner-occupied homes, as follows:
“‘Expert’ appraisals of land are based on sales of comparables, and
upward price trends. These sales, in turn, were influenced by appraisers
who based their opinions on earlier comparables and upward trends, and
so on. This is because there is no cost of production to check excesses.
Why, then, would I ask public assessors to join the misguided herd?
Because the public assessor is the one valuer whose overvaluation stops
the herd. The Assessor by law is supposed to follow a bull market, not
outguess it. When the “exuberance” appears in his wisdom to be
“irrational”, his job is still to go along, not judge.
When private fee-appraisers go along they confirm and reinforce a boom,
but when the tax Assessor goes along (and the tax rate isn’t lowered) he
douses a boom with cold water: higher taxes (Gaffney, 1985, pp.
91-109). It was the lack of such an automatic remedy that let the
farmland boom of the 1970’s soar so high above reality, then the urban
bubble of the late 1980’s, and now of 2001-2007.
The present income-tax treatment of “capital” gains, which nearly
forces the elderly to cling to their lands until they die, should be
changed to a tax on annual accrual of value, as proposed by our same
Professor Haig in the 1920’s. The “Hidden Capacity” article explains
practical ways of doing this.
Banks should be regulated away from lending on land collateral.
Following the South Sea Bubble there was such a movement in England. The
emergence of the industrial revolution, flawed as it was, suggests the
results were not all bad. I have not researched the history enough to
say much more, but logically there is a powerful reason to regulate
banks of deposit. This is because they are always technically insolvent,
never able to meet their short-term liabilities from their long-term
A related reform might be to treat notes secured by mortgages as part
of the property tax base. The counterpart is to tax the indebted
landowner (“mortgagor”) only on his equity, thus recognizing that the
creditor (“mortgagee”) is, de facto, part owner of the land. This idea
is so radical and upheaving that I only hint at it here, its pros and
cons would call for a book or two.
Public debt has often been a more stable asset for banks than
mortgages. Ever since FDR, banks have avoided the total dependency on
mortgage loans that led so many to fail from 1929-33. Should we then
limit banks to holding public debt? The problem is, it only takes one
wild administration to bankrupt a nation by making a virtue of spending
more and taxing less, egged on by certain extremist schools of economic
We have sometimes had provident Federal administrations, but even
they do not guarantee public thrift because there are 50 states, and
thousands of local governments. When Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary
from 1921-32, ran a Federal surplus, local governments and improvement
districts ran wild with debt. In the 1830’s President Andrew Jackson
lowered the national debt to zero, and subsidized the states besides,
but several of them went bankrupt anyway. There is no simple mechanical
substitute for sober judgment based on sound theory, and history, and
selfless public spirit.
Meantime, where is hope? Cleaning up the mess left from the last few
manic years will cost sweat and tears and some fortunes, whoever
undertakes it. Lower rents and land prices will finally let us recover,
but the process of getting from here to there entails a fall from
illusion to reality, from high to low, that will agonize many. New
administrations will prolong the agony by trying to defer it. They will
bail out a few of the victims and many of the culprits by raising the
national debt and inflating the currency to validate bad debts and
sustain land values.
Hope lies in observing how many cities and nations have risen from
disasters to new prosperity. John Stuart Mill stressed in his Principles
(1848) “the great rapidity with which countries recover from a state of
devastation; the disappearance, in a short time, of all traces of the
mischiefs done by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and the ravages of
Born-again San Francisco, 1907-30, makes a case study in fast
recovery after it burned to the ground in 1906. What can it teach us? It
had no State or Federal aids to speak of; no oil or gas royalties; no
power to tax sales or incomes or payrolls; no lock on Sierra water to
sell its neighbors, as now; no finished Panama Canal, as now; no
regional monopoly; no semitropical climate; and little flat land.
Its great bridges were unbuilt – it was more island than peninsula. It
had eccentrics, drunken sailors, tong wars, labor strife, race riots,
vice, vigilantism, civic scandals, and boatloads of illegal immigrants
whose records were lost in the fire. It had a mountain wall to the east,
fog above ground, and the San Andreas Fault below. These will never go
Statewide, mining was fading; irrigation barely beginning. Lumbering
was far north, wine around Napa, deciduous fruit around San Jose, citrus
and sunny beaches down south. Berkeley had the State University,
Sacramento the Capitol, Palo Alto had Stanford, Oakland and Alameda had
the major U.S. Naval supply center.
How did a City with so few assets raise funds to repair its broken
infrastructure and rise from its ashes? It had only the local property
tax, and much of this tax base was burned to the ground. The secret is
that it taxed the ground itself, raising money while also kindling a new
kind of fire under landowners to get on with it, or get out of the way.
Developments are interdependent, so each owner could improve his land
in the knowledge that other owners were subject to the same pressures,
so needed complements would arise in sync with his own investment.
In 1907 the City Committee on Assessment, Revenue, and Taxation
reported that revenues were still adequate, because before the quake and
fire razed the city, 75% of its real estate tax base was already land
value (S.F. Municipal Reports, FY 1906 and 1907, p. 777). The
coterminous County and School District used the same tax base. San
Francisco and Henry George were more in tune than perhaps either one
realized. They did not rely just on jawboning and cheerleading. Civic
spirit counts, but mainly they had a substantive program that worked.
This firm tax base also sustained San Francisco’s credit to finance
the great burst of civic works that was to follow. People flocked there
to open businesses, and find jobs and homes. The City bounced back so
fast its population grew by 22%, 1900-10, in the very wake of its
destruction; another 22%, 1910-20; and another 25%, 1920-30. It did this
without expanding its land area, and while providing wide parks and
It even pulled back from the treacherous filled-in level lands that
had given way in the quake. On its hills and dales it housed, and linked
with mass transit, a denser population than any major city except the
Manhattan Borough of New York. For a sense of its gradients, see the
chase scenes from the films Bullitt or Foul Play. It is these people and
their works that made San Francisco so livable, the cynosure of so many
eyes, and the commercial, financial, cultural, tourism, and light
manufacturing center of the Pacific coast.
The whole U.S. can follow this model today, but on a grander scale and
adapted to modern technology and values. Skeptics will wonder how we can
take more taxes from rents when they are falling. Here is the key: the
effect of untaxing trade, enterprise, work, and production is to raise
and sustain land and resource rents as a tax base. This does not work
through raising asking and holdout prices, but rather by raising bid
prices, activating the market.
Today we recognize a great variety of new ways these rents manifest
themselves to be tapped for public revenues (Gaffney, 2008). We can
seize these opportunities, old and new, and pull ourselves out of the
funk left by the great crash of 2008.
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MASON GAFFNEY first read about the economist Henry George when a high school junior. After he served in the Pacific during WW II, this interest led him back to get a Ph.D. in Economics at Berkeley, where he tried to meet his teachers’ skepticism and apathy with a dissertation, Land Speculation as an Obstacle to Ideal Allocation of Land. Since then he has published many books and articles on land use, economics, taxation, and public policy. He has been a Professor of Economics at several Universities; a journalist with TIME, Inc.; a researcher with Resources for the Future, Inc.; the head of the British Columbia Institute for Economic Policy Analysis, which he founded; an economic consultant to several businesses and government agencies; and a frequent speaker on economic topics, domestic and foreign, and in political campaigns. He has been Professor of Economics at U.C. Riverside from 1976 through the end of his life. Mason passed in the summer of 2020 and will be lovingly remembered and greatly missed by many. For more information, visit his website at MasonGaffney.org