Conference Fringe Topic decided - speakers invited included Wolf

26 Jul 2010

ALTER's Executive committee has met to decide on its Party Conference fringe event theme at Liverpool in September. Speakers will be asked to comment on a new chapter in the successful book (The Case for a New Peoples Budget) which ALTER published last year, by Brian Hodgkinson, probing the links between the global banking crisis and failure in land markets.

"Has the Banking Crisis strengthened the case for LVT?" Many respected commentators in the UK press and blogosphere say it has, including Martin Wolf of the FT - who is being asked to speak alongside Hodgkinson. We quote below from Wolf's concluding remarks after a month-long debate on his FT-hosted blog:-


This ended up as a heated debate. Nobody will be surprised if I conclude that the result of the debate (often surprisingly ill-tempered) was pro-LVT 10, anti-LVT zero. I am surprised by some of what the anti-LVT proponents have said. I would have thought they would wish to open their minds a bit. I did and was persuaded of the case, as a result. Is not the purpose of such exchanges to learn from one another?

Some of the arguments addressed at the case for LVT are quite extraordinary.

The essential point is quite simple: the value of resources is created by the economic activity of other factors of production. The owners of these resources can become hugely wealthy and are often untaxed on that increase in wealth: the Duke of Westminster is the richest Englishman simply because he owns a large amount of land in a valuable part of London. So why should he have command over the labour of so many other people?

That wealth is, in the strictest sense, unearned. If that rise in wealth were taxed away, other taxes - those on labour, capital and entrepreneurship - could fall. This would be both efficient (because taxes on rent do not create distortions, as Ricardo showed) and also just, because the wealth was unearned. Now, surprisingly, the UK allows foreign landowners to enjoy the increase in value created by the British economy, entirely tax-free. This is utterly crazy.

Let me add four other points.

First, throughout history, the main source of wealth was land-ownership. The parasitic landowner became wealthy on the efforts of others - peasants, tenants and even developers. Sometimes the parasite was also a farmer or developer, but that does not change the fact that these are two distinct economic roles. The parasite built fine castles and palaces and often sponsored music and culture. But he was still a parasite. The beauty of capitalism is that many of the wealthiest are no longer parasites. This is good. But many of the wealthy still are parasites. Moreover, now everybody wants to get rich by being a mini-landowner. That is a huge diversion of effort.

Second, the financial system's ills are the result of unchecked credit-creation. Yes. But unchecked credit-creation would be impossible without collateral. Land is always the principal form of collateral (buildings are a depreciating asset). That is why financial bubbles that do not create credit booms (like the dotcom bubble) are economically benign, while property bubbles are potentially catastrophic. When the value of collateral collapses, the financial system implodes.

Third, there is really nothing new about this understanding of the role of resource rents. They were central to the classical system, from which modern economics, in its various forms, derives. Ricardo's analysis of rent remains intellectually impeccable.

Finally, as Herman Daly has noted (http://steadystate...zing-henry-george/), today economically valuable resources are much more than just land (and what lies below it). They include all the services of the biosphere - those that are appropriated, those that are appropriable and those that are non-appropriable. If we do not think seriously and intelligently about how to price resources, we are likely to go seriously adrift, perhaps even into disaster. Here land is the least of our problems - it is appropriable and, by and large, appropriated. So, at least, the price mechanism works, even though the distribution of the gain is grossly unjust. But, in other cases, no appropriation is possible, or at least it is not easy. Nobody can appropriate the atmosphere. It is nigh on impossible to appropriate the oceans. How do you own species diversity? These are serious challenges.

So, I conclude where I started: resources matter. It was a great mistake to exclude them from the canonical neo-classical model. It is also a great mistake not to tax their owners to the hilt.

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