The land-taxers I know are pleased with Wonkblog’s decision to hand “land value taxation” its coveted “most worthwhile yet hopeless policy crusade of the year” award for 2013. I guess the land value taxation pilot program Connecticut approved last June isn’t good enough. However, Wonkblog courteously acknowledged Mason Gaffney’s work on the subject.
Aside from linking to the Slate post on the topic that I discussed back in October, Wonkblog linked to another one from December in which Matthew Yglesias informs us that his correspondents told him that the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds report contains enough data to calculate the value of privately held land in the U.S. The number? $14.488 trillion. He concludes:
So who cares? Well, you should care. This number is high enough that it tends to confirm that [sic] view that taxation of land and other natural resources, supplemented by pollution fees and things like congestion charges could replace all taxes on labor and investment and still fund an ample welfare state and public sector.
Lamentably, Yglesias doesn’t show his readers why $14.5 trillion in land value “tends to confirm that view that taxation of land and other natural resources … could replace all taxes on labor and investment.” Indeed, his statement implies that the only thing standing between handing every American a citizen’s dividend equivalent to median household income is a posse of mustachioed landowners.
Alas, this is not how land value taxes work, but Yglesias’ vague editorial provides an opportunity to discuss the difference between “land value” and “land rent.” Land rent is the annual amount one pays to use land. Land value is the purchase price of real estate absent improvements. Land rent is like annual income; land value is like lifetime income once you’ve accounted for your JD premium. The ratio of land rent to land value is the “capitalization rate,” a percentage that differs among cities. Basically, it’s the discount rate; the higher it is, the lower the land value.
When Georgists talk about taxing land rent, the calculation is easy: Just multiply the rental value by the percent to be taxed. Let’s say we have a parcel that rents at $100,000 annually. Divided by a capitalization rate of 5 percent, its land value is $2 million. If we want to tax 80 percent of the land rent, we get $80,000 in land rent tax. Easy-peasey.
Now, like the typical Slate reader you’re thinking, “Why not tax land values instead? Wouldn’t an 80 percent tax on that yield $1.6 million?” And it’d be a good question—two even. The reason is that the amount taxed gets subtracted from the rental value, so as the land rent tax goes up, the land value drops. The rental value, however, remains the same. Here’s the equation:
Land Value = (Rental Value – Tax Amount) / Capitalization Rate
So taxing $80,000 from our parcel leads to a net rental value of $20,000 divided by a 5 percent capitalization rate and we get a land value of $400,000, not $2 million. If we want to express the land value tax as a percentage, then we modify the equation:
Land Value = Rental Value / (Capitalization Rate + LVT Rate)
…And then solve for the land value tax rate. In our case, it’s a 20 percent land tax on a $400,000 parcel, not an 80 percent tax on a $2 million parcel. Got it? Good.
So we have a $14.488 trillion chunk of land that Yglesias believes tends to confirm the view that land taxes can finance an ample welfare state and public sector. Unfortunately, he gives readers neither his estimate of the land’s rental value nor that of the capitalization rate he used to close the accounting identity detailed above.
I can help. I’ll assume a generously low capitalization rate, 3.88 percent, the same as the current yield on 30-year T-bills (the aforementioned Gaffney recently demonstrated that wealthy people get much lower discount rates than poor people). We get a mere $562.1 billion in taxable land rent, which isn’t even enough to cover the federal deficit.
Now’s the part where Slate readers might question why Yglesias thinks this is sufficient to finance an ample welfare state and public sector, but they wouldn’t realize that government at all levels collected about $4.3 trillion in taxes in 2012. Add that back to annual GDP and we have $21.1 trillion to work with. How much of that is land rent? Again, we’ll have to fill in the annual rental value because Yglesias does not. Let’s say it’s only 20 percent, and we get $4.2 trillion in taxable land rent and at our 3.88 percent capitalization rate, $108 trillion in pretax land value.
You can tweak the capitalization rate and the percent of land rent as a share of GDP, but I think 20 percent is too low, if only because by the time you tax the land value down to $14.5 trillion as we do now, governments get less revenue than under the current tax system. This is implausible. Raise the percentage of GDP that goes to land rent to 30 percent, and you have well over the $5.7 trillion U.S. governments currently spend. Anything more is Hanukkah.
Of course, none of these calculations account for the increases to national income by recovering the deadweight losses imposed by our current tax system or the costs of administering it. Nor do we know if the Fed’s assessments undervalue land, which I—as does Gaffney—bet they do because hiding wealth in land is a time-honored practice. So yes, we should be confident that there’s enough land value (plus other rents, like spectrum rights, mineral rights, IP rights, etc.) to finance government and the welfare state, but a $14.488 trillion land value assessment alone is insufficient to prove it.