At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to state this, that or the other, but it is “not done”. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, neither in the popular press nor in highbrow periodicals. – George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Over the years a relative handful of people endeavoured with mixed success to move the goal posts in connection with:-
Chinese foot binding
Female genital mutilation
The plutocracy’s privatisation of the public’s rent
… amongst a number of other worthy reforms.
As Orwell says, it’s just “not done”. To achieve change is difficult, even when it’s essential. The current hegemony employs very tough minders.
“It can never happen; so why bother?”
All of which makes the challenge the more worthwhile.
It’s a pity the vast majority of Australians don’t understand the term ‘rent seeking’, because they ought to know why the value of average real wages has been declining since 1972. The capitalist system has become terminally ill, because people and companies have given up producing wealth in favour of rent-seeking.
No, real wages simply decline as a result of inflation, some will say. Yes, but what generates that inflation? The printing of excessive paper currency? Yes, but why do governments find this to be necessary?
The decline in real wages and inflation can be traced back to the failure of governments to capture economic rent for their revenue. But what is this ‘rent’?
Rent arises when people come together in a community. It shouldn’t be confounded and confused with the rent paid under a lease by a tenant.
Rent is the return, not to labor nor capital, but to natural resources. It includes: land rents; oil and mineral rents; electronic spectra rents; fishing and forestry rents; air traffic rights, etc. Rent is not privately produced but simply arises where a community of people utlise natural resources.
In English law there is a long tradition of rents being part of the common wealth. It is only in recent history that we’ve savagely reduced the collection for revenue of natural resource rents and started to raise personal income, company taxes and sales taxes.
As a direct result, this has allowed companies and individuals to set their sights on trying to privatise and monopolise these publicly generated rents. As governments have failed in their duty to capture the rents of nature for revenue, economic rent has become an easy target for private interests and so-called entrepreneurs.
I’ve shown in the (middle) “GDP graph” on this page that land rent alone could replace all of Australia’s taxation on labor and capital, which is one third of GDP. When you add the other natural resource rents listed above, total economic rent is somewhere in the order of fifty per cent of the economy and we collect only about 5 per cent of this.
If we captured all of Australia’s economic rent for the necessary running of government and abolished the taxation that raises prices, lowers wages and generates periodic recessions, this would mean that there would be a substantial universal basic income payable to all Australians. There would be no need for pensions of any description.
In the spreadsheet in “Unlocking the Riches of Oz”, I showed how our GDP must rapidly double if we capture rent and abolish taxes on production, thrift and industry.
But we don’t capture rent, so we have those few, including banks, who do capture most of it – most certainly not the average home owner – growing incredibly wealthy at the expense of the other 99.5 per cent of Australians. You can’t become a billionaire without private capture of the public’s rent. This refers not only to holders of the most valuable lands across Australia, and those who take mortgages over them, but to the principals of big mining companies who finance ad campaigns to ensure they continue to retain the common wealth in their profits.
Once Australians understand rent seeking, they will also come to see the manner in which they are being played for fools by the already super wealthy.
And they’ll come to understand why we’re having this depression.
The article doesn’t get to grips with causes, but is well worth the read.
To me, Ireland has come to epitomise the procession of bursting national real estate bubbles. This is not so much because of my own fourth generational Irish background as the relative simplicity of Ireland’s case. It was Europe’s shooting star and then it disappeared.
America’s story can be similarly reduced, but the US has become lost in its Babel of cacophonic opinion.
Lewis’ piece says: “Two things strike every Irish person when he comes to America, Irish friends tell me: the vastness of the country, and the seemingly endless desire of its people to talk about their personal problems.”
Vast and gushing. Ireland is simpler. It’s not debatable that she attracted business by cutting business taxes, and that she attracted real estate speculation by insufficient property taxation. Now she’s bailing out her banks instead of her people. It’s so sad, but it’s terribly representative. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Maybe Ireland takes her advice from the cacophony?
It was US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) who famously said “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”
Unfortunately, there have been only a handful of lawyers openly prepared to challenge arbitrary taxation imposts as a government revenue base. The alternative to taxation, namely, capture of the rents of nature for revenue, strikes at the very heart of privilege and vested interest from whence top lawyers earn their living. They don’t want to cut their own throats, so it’s difficult to gainsay the leanings of the most powerful people in the profession, even when they’re wrong.
So, except for this few, The Law remains an ass.
Chief Justice John Marshall was influenced by William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England” amongst which are to be found the following words: “The earth, therefore, and all things therein, are the general property of all mankind, from the immediate gift of the creator. … there is no foundation in natural law why a set of words on a parchment should convey the dominion of land.”
There have been other great lawyers to speak out against taxation, of course, the likes of Justice Louis Brandeis in the US and Sir Samuel Griffith and Justice Rae Else-Mitchell in Australia.
But inertia has carried the day and we’ve seen Australian Taxation Office stationery even bearing the Goebbels-like slogan “Building a better Australia.” Incredible.
EXAMPLES OF THE DESTRUCTIVE POWER OF TAXATION
Whereas farmers were permitted to pay their land rent in kind, usually rice, under Raffles in colonial Indonesia, colonial powers in Africa used two tactics to keep the native population subservient: “One is to limit sharply the land available to the natives, and the other is to make taxes payable only in money.” (Geography of Hunger, Josue De Castro)
In Population Growth and Land Use, Colin Clark tells us that the second half of Tokugawa Japan (1750 to the revolution of 1868) wasn’t in a state of primitive barbarism despite exchange with foreigners being banned. Japan was largely urbanized and “bore some remarkable resemblances to Baroque Europe. …Taxation was excessive, and there were frequent famines. … both abortion and infanticide were widespread. … The drastic abolition of the old social order must have been welcomed as a great relief.”
Yes, that’s right. Infanticide. They were so financially desperate, they killed their children. That’s taxation under despots.
Today, taxation has become a little more subtle. It removes hundreds of billions of created wealth from those who created it and channels it to the uber wealthy, without requiring us to kill our kids to stay afloat. (That’s done by advancing excessive credit.)
Taxation creates recessions and depressions, but unlike infanticide, economists manage to keep this fact invisible to the public at large and off the front page. That’s the main function of economists: to ignore and hide economic rent, so the wealthy may continue to steal it.
Four of the ten commissioners held dissenting views, the most revealing sentence amongst which was “Causes of housing bubbles are still poorly understood”.
The commissioners and their staff will learn precisely how the tax system creates real estate bubbles when they investigate this blogsite. I forecast and explained this financial collapse. They’ve done neither.
TUMULT IN TUNISIA AND EGYPT FITS THE EXPLANATION I’VE GIVEN
Make no mistake about what’s now happening in Tunisia and Egypt. It is similar to the European protests that have taken place in Greece and Spain. It’s all to do with a concoction in the distribution of wealth.
Egypt’s well educated younger people are finding they’ve no jobs to go to. What is the purpose of education if the economic system is foundering and employment can’t be found? Where has the economy gone wrong and why are wages so low, anyway?
These are fair questions, and will increasingly be asked in places around the world where the privileged few continue to steal economic opportunity from others.
Americans and Australians may be expected to be late in taking to the streets. Most are in deep distraction, having entertained themselves to a standstill, certainly into a stunned silence on any consideration of the vast gap between themselves and the privileged few. They have their iPhone and Facebook and all’s right with the world.
What is happening around the globe isn’t the politics of envy; it’s rapidly becoming the politics of survival.
But governments have no answers because they won’t address the chicanery in the process that directs wealth away from the middle class and the poor.
As I’ve recently been asked to re-explain the basic perversion in all economies, I’ll try to do so again here.
The American social philosopher Henry George noted when taxation is introduced into the distribution of annual production (P), it diminishes the earnings of labour and capital.
In itself, this isn’t a surprise, but if the returns to labour (W) and to capital (I) should not be taxed, how can necessary government be funded?
George said the public revenue ought to come from natural resource rent (R), the surplus arising out of production by the mere existence of the community – that is, not from the efforts of private individuals nor companies.
In other words, where production is distributed to land, labour and capital as rent, wages and interest (P = R + W + I), taxation upon labour and capital would be unnecessary were the annual rent of land and natural resources to be captured for public purposes (P – R = W + I).
If the theory is true, it should be demonstrable in actuality. It is.
But it can only be shown in the negative, because we publicly capture only a small percentage of our revenue from land and natural resource rents. Therefore, George’s corollary should hold. That is, if we fail to capture publicly-generated rent, wages and the return to capital will fall, and privatised rent, expanding at the expense of labour and capital, will repetitively create unnecessary periods of recession and depression.
OK, let’s see if this is so:-
The following chart demonstrates the decline in average real wages in the US. (US Bureau of Labor statistics extend back further than those of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which commencing in the mid-80s nevertheless show the same pattern).
Be warned, the apparent increase from the late 1990s is when the CPI was re-defined!
This next chart shows the declining after-tax incomes of labour and capital and the increasing share of GDP to taxation and privatised economic rent.
And here is the picture of real estate booms leading to economic recession in Australia. I developed it, along with the previous graph, and believe it to be unique.
As these are the most basic data relating to the production and distribution of wealth, Henry George’s case is proven, before we concern ourselves with money, credit and debt, which are not wealth but tokens of exchange.
From Henry George’s theory, it would follow that increasing amounts of credit necessarily have to be extended to labour and capital after the fact, because their fair returns have been diminished by taxation. Meanwhile, inadequate land value capture has created unaffordable land prices. It’s not the price of homes that skyrockets, it’s the land.
Therefore, explaining industrial depression in terms of money, credit and debt, which have no place in the above fundamental distributional formula are expost facto and this is a logical fault.
Moreover, when capturing land rent, valuations of catastrophe-affected lands will decline sharply and naturally, to recognise the plight of people. As land value always fairly reflects owners’ situations, they will always make the best revenue base. Relative incomes don’t do this. Big landowners recoup their taxes in the rise in the price of their properties. Can renters and the poor do this?
Barack Obama has just completed a most inspiring piece of rhetoric – a brilliant pep talk encouraging Americans to do better.
Although the US President did touch upon closing loopholes and stopping rorts in the tax system (particularly those favouring the wealthiest 2% of Americans), he didn’t find a place to grease the wheels of productivity with economic rent.
Therefore, stuck with advisors steeped in their neoclassical economic training, Obama unfortunately won’t be able to deal with US debt nor meet his high-minded agenda.
Without the re-discovery of natural resource rents, the future is bleak for America. 🙁
Real estate valuers come in for a shellacking from time to time. Some Australian banks even tried to blame them for the 1991 recession, hoping they could sue them for losses the banks made when commercial property values collapsed as much as 75% in central city locations.
A friend yesterday asked me what I thought about the following article by Adam Schwab in Crikey yesterday:
22. Should the property market tumble, taxpayers will foot the bill
Memo to Australian journalists: For the sake of your credibility, the big four banks did not save Australia from the global financial crisis. Bank executives are not oracles with some sort of divine ability to allocate capital (in fact, the contrary is more accurate). Over the past three years the banks skirted the global crisis and continued to make record billion-dollar profits because they have continued to prop up the over-valued collateral on their bloated balance sheets, and because the Australian taxpayer continue to guarantee their funding sources.One could conclude that Australian banks have become a walking embodiment of moral hazard — privatised profits and, should the need arise, socialised losses. Meanwhile, the esteemed heads of these organisations receive remuneration in the millions or tens of millions, headed by Ralph “the $16 million dollar man” Norris.In fact it is Norris’ Commonwealth Bank that has placed Australian taxpayer dollars most at risk, as the briefest of looks at the bank’s balance sheet confirms.The CBA has total assets of $646 billion (which means its return on assets is a paltry 0.92%). These assets largely consist of loans made by the CBA to its customers. For example, if you have a mortgage with the CBA, the amount that you owe to the bank would appear on the bank’s balance sheet as an asset and on your personal balance sheet (if you were to construct one) as a liability. In CBA’s case, about half of its assets ($314 billion) are loans made on residential property. It has about $20 billion in personal loans (usually unsecured) and another $155 billion in business loans. While the CBA reduced its business loan book by $5 billion in 2010, it continued to grow its home loan book by $34 billion or 12%.The CBA then has about $610 billion in liabilities, of which $365 billion comes from depositors and the rest it borrowed from various places. That leaves about $35 billion in “net assets” or equity — this is shareholders’ funds.
The CBA therefore grew its loan book in 2010 by about the same amount it has as equity. This shows just how risky investing in a bank is.
When making a loan for a dwelling, banks such as the CBA will lend up to 95% of the value of the property (with an insurer covering the risk above 80%). The CBA is incentivised to keep growing its loan book because so long as mortgagees make their interest payments, the CBA is able to grow its profits. This was shown last year, when the CBA was able to grow home loan income by $700 million or 38%. This was largely due to strong volume growth (the bank made more loans).
If you think this could be a risky way to improve profits, you’d be right.
It is even riskier when deeper analysis is made into how banks “value” properties when extending loans.
Banks aren’t completely reckless — they don’t simply lend money to anyone. For example, if someone wants to buy a two-bedroom property in Frankston, the bank won’t lend the buyer $2 million. Instead, the banks will usually get a “valuation” done on the property. The problem is, most house valuations don’t value the asset on the present value of future cash flows, but rather, the valuation will generally involve a study of “comparable sales”.
That is, if the three-bedroom house next door sold for $800,000, and the house they are valuing is the same size, they will generally attribute a near identical value. The problem is, the house next door may very well be vastly over-priced (possibly, because another bank lent the owner of that property a sum based on a similarly overly optimistic valuation). This creates a “faux-positive feedback” loop.
Let’s consider a specific example.
Say the Commonwealth Bank agrees to lend a purchaser enough money to cover 90% of the cost of a property that the person wishes to buy (we will call this Property A). The purchaser ends up paying $500,000 for the property.
A few months later, a property down the street (Property B) that is quite similar to Property A is bought by a cashed up investor who has seen the property market appreciate and doesn’t want to miss out on the potential gains. The buyer of Property B has cash so didn’t need to borrow from the bank. Because the buyer of Property B has heard that property never goes down, and Property A was sold a while ago for $500,000, the buyer of Property B pays $550,000 for the asset. His rental yield is low (far less than what he would get putting the money in the bank), but it doesn’t matter — he will make a lot more money if the price of the asset continues to rise at 10%.
Later in the year, another house (Property C) also in the same street, is for sale. This time, the potential purchasers need to borrow from the bank and can contribute about 10% of the purchase price. Before the bank will lend the buyers any money, they get another valuation done. This time, the valuer (who is paid per job, so doesn’t spend too much time and doesn’t really care for the accuracy of the valuation) sees that Property B sold recently in the same street for $550,000. Property B and Property C are similar, so the valuer deems that property C is worth $570,000 because the market seems a bit stronger since Property B was sold. During that time, the rental yields for Properties A, B and C have not increased at all, so in reality, their respective value would not have changed.
Based on that information, the CBA is happy to lend the buyers of Property C about $510,000.
What has just happened?
In a short time, the price of Property C (and Property A) has increased from $500,000 to $570,000. This is not because of any fundamental shift in the value of the properties (as noted, rents didn’t rise), but rather, because the bank was willing to lend the borrower more money. (The difference in equity between the buyer of Property A and Property C is only $7,000, so the buyer of Property C doesn’t even really notice the price rise).
In the short term, the result is a positive one for the lender. That is because the buyer of Property C would be paying greater interest on their borrowing than had the price of the property remained the same. Perversely, the value of the “asset” on the bank’s balance sheet has also increased.
The increased profits made by the bank (or back to real life, made by the CBA in 2010) flow not only through to the bank’s bottom line, but also to its executive team’s hip pockets. This is because the CBA’s Group Leadership Share Plan is based directly on how much profit is generated by the bank. The more loans the bank makes, the more profits is generated, the more executives are paid.
Unsurprisingly, the remuneration paid to the CBA’s top 10 executive sky-rocketed, from $33.8 million in 2009 to $56.7 million in 2010 — an increase of 68%.
There you have it — a quick example of how the banks have been a leading cause (albeit not the only cause) of Australia’s property bubble, and have created an almighty risk for not only property owners, but also taxpayers. Meanwhile, those very risk-taking executives are handsomely rewarded for the privilege.
Should Australia’s residential property market tumble, and the value of the $320-odd billion on CBA’s balance sheet be written down, it will be the taxpayers footing the bill — not the executives.
I agree with the thrust of Schwab’s piece. It’s a good article, except for his attack on valuers as a group based upon a rather contrived example. It’s akin to painting all lawyers such as Adam as being negligent because not all of them are perfect. It’s nonsense.
I replied to my friend that, like lawyers, there are good valuers and not-so-good valuers, and the incidence of valuers relying on only one sale (even if it was the sale of the house next door) without further inquiry is tiny and remote.
It won’t be bad valuations that bring our banks down, but a general collapse in property prices as Schwab himself says. He’s also correct that “Banks aren’t completely reckless — they don’t simply lend money to anyone.”
Even when the market is bubble-inflated, valuers are required to assess potential sale properties at current market value. But they won’t accept a contract price as the market value of a property if it differs from the weight of comparable sales evidence.
Although the valuer does provide comments on the risk of the market declining, this is usually ignored by many bankers who simply want to provide a mortgage based upon the market valuation provided by the valuer. Most treat comments on the level of risk to the current price declining as merely conjectural, believing lending only 80% against the value will cover any risk of a decline in property values.
Yes, Sir Ralph Norris is paid excessively from the public rents banks accumulate unto themselves, Adam, and I agree the banking system has failed us. But am I now being just as tough on bankers as Schwab is on valuers? No, I don’t believe so. There is a structural problem here that needs to be addressed; repetitive failure of bank risk management is central to needless boom-bust cycles and I’ve written about it before.
IF IT QUACKS LIKE A DUCK AND WADDLES LIKE A DUCK, IT’S A DUCK
The Age reports today that Wendell Cox’s Demographia has released a study showing Melbourne to be 321st on a list of 325 most affordable world property markets.
In other words, we’re almost the world’s most unaffordable market: almost the world’s dearest city. Incredibly, London, with a population of 7.6 million is said to be cheaper than the city of Geelong which is home to a population of only 200,000 souls.
Amongst more important things I’ll mention later, it could be argued that homes and sites in Geelong are generally larger than those in London, but that’s not mentioned by Cox. Instead, he shoehorns Melbourne’s astronomical residential property prices to square with the extraordinary claim that they’re a result of its zoning regulations. Perhaps this means Melbourne also has the 321st worst residential zoning regulations in the world?
A strong case may be made that it was a combination of a relatively low property tax regime, necessitating higher taxes on productivity, which turned the once golden State of California into America’s economic basket case. It is no coincidence that the highest property tax-paying states in the US have proven to be its best economic performers; the property tax warns off the land speculator whilst enabling other taxes to be kept to a minimum.
Ken Henry’s review of the tax system caught up with the principle of capturing publicly-created economic rent by taking taxes off productivity and putting them onto land and natural resources, but the government has run scared of any such fundamental reform, preferring not to attempt to educate people to the principles behind such a proposed revenue switch. There’s a vast property and mining lobby to be appeased. Such timorous leadership consigns Australians to repeat the sorry saga of property bubbles and ensuing economic busts.
Wendell Cox and his ilk don’t particularly like zoning controls. They smack of excessive government interference with development. But whilst many examples may be found of excessive bureaucratic intervention in the development process, the zoning of land is clearly not the culprit for high prices.
It cannot be, because there is no shortage of suitably zoned residential land in Melbourne, now, nor previously. Yet the Housing Industry Association, Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Property Council of Australia have signed up to this explanation instead of understanding the dramatic benefits Ken Henry’s proposals would bring to industry and sustainable development .
There’s more than enough residentially-zoned land around Melbourne, and a massive amount of vacant and underutilised land within its existing boundaries. Nevertheless, Wendell Cox has found such admirers as the Institute of Public Affairs’ Alan Moran to support his vacuous conclusion. The Ayn Rand-like baggage to delimit zoning controls, if not get rid of them altogether, has come to override their logic.
Like most people untrained in the theory of valuations, Cox and Moran haven’t yet discerned that land price is the capitalization of that part of the economic rent of land which has not been captured to the public purse. The amount privatised simply becomes capitalized into the land price of a block of land.
Except for relative locational values, supply and demand plays little part in the price of a residential lot. Up-front government development costs play a far greater role. We allow too much publicly-generated economic rent to be privatised by a relatively few individuals, and Wendell Cox is their spokesperson.
As with real estate interests, who don’t appreciate the principles behind land-based revenues, Australia’s big mining companies recently also displayed a preference for retaining the public’s rent in their profits. Of course, banks also captured the economic rent of land from the public via interest and capital mortgage repayments on bubble-inflated prices. In both cases, the big boys will take it if the public doesn’t claim it.
For corroboration that a land price bubble is the result of inadequate rent capture, Cox and Moran could do worse than consider the early affects of Canberra’s land rent system. Public rent capture in the ACT initially kept both land prices and local taxation at bay, until the system was eventually undermined by the failure to maintain land rent payments at anywhere near market levels.
Since then, vested interests and ignorance have done their darndest in the ACT to ensure that there’s no difference between what is now only a nominal land rent system and freehold ownership in Australia.
Interestingly, when there was once no damaging income tax, it was often incumbent upon the freehold owner to pay his annual ‘quit rent’ if he wished to remain in possession of his property. (Owe[n]er: Middle English: He who owes the land rent.)
In an explosion of purple rage to the Heartland Institute on 4 July 2007, Wendell Cox castigated me for being anti-suburban for having pointed out his logical error in blaming zoning controls for bubble residential prices. I also showed the US cities he held so close to his heart for having the least zoning controls also had the highest crime rates in the United States. His own home city of St Louis topped the US crime list with its incredibly high murder rate. To let municipalities grow in an unbridled fashion in an environment of high taxation and inadequate infrastructure invites poverty and criminal behaviour.
Hopefully, the strange conclusions Cox and his fellows draw from their data will one day come to be seen for the canards they are. Meanwhile, the press will continue to report them dutifully as fact.
Breakfast Radio 3AW’s Ross Stevenson this morning asked Wendell Cox whether our ‘negative gearing’ of real estate had anything to do with Australia’s unrealistically high property prices.
“Probably not” (or something to that effect) said Wendell. “I don’t know much about that.”
Nor anything much about how the failure to collect economic rent instead of taxes created this worldwide real estate bubble, Wendell!