It’s always good to know your roots, to know what you’re up against, to know what to keep and what to change.
The saying was, land speculators “produce more poverty than potatoes and consume more midnight oil in playing poker than of God’s sunshine in the game of raising wheat and corn.” —Prof. Benjamin Hibbard, the earliest land scholar, 1924 (or even earlier).
Ever wonder where those names for towns and downtown streets come from? The names of US universities? Even the names of some military bases?
“The successful land dealer of one generation became the banker, the local political oracle and office holder, or the county squire of the next. Scarcely a city or country town in the West but had its first family whose fortune had been made by shrewd selection of lands and their subsequent sale or rental to later comers.”— 1942, Historian Paul W. Gates (1901–1999), widely considered to be the foremost authority on US land policy who wrote 10 books and 75 academic articles.
“America has always been a nation of real estate speculators… Real estate speculation was an integral part of the winning of the west, the construction of our cities, and the transformation of American home life, from tenements to mini-mansions.” — 2013, Economist Edward L. Glaeser of Harvard University and NBER
The original US Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, funded the new, federal US Government with a tax on land. About a decade later, some Founding Fathers met again, yet without Congressional authority and in secret, to replace the land tax with tariffs, at the behest of land speculators, which most of them were. Ben Franklin lost a bundle speculating in land— which may be what motivated him later in life to support the physiocrats, the thinkers who advocated a single tax on land value instead of on people’s labor or capital goods, like houses. (Daniel Friedenberg’s Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Land, 1992)
Soon after the colonies protested the taxes that the British levied on them, the farmers of western Pennsylvania protested the tax on their product — whiskey. As a replacement tax, the frontier sodbusters advocated a levy on land. Back then, people clearly saw that a tax on the value of land would collect much more revenue in cities like Philadelphia, where locations were very spendy (still are), than in the countryside like backwoods Pennsy, where land is dirt cheap. To quell the Whiskey Rebellion, president George Washington — the nation’s richest man and biggest landowner — put into the field four times as many soldiers as he ever led against the British (Nathan Miller’s Stealing From America, 1992).
For the first decades of its existence, the young US government supported itself not only with tariffs but also by selling western lands. Most of the sales of prime land were not to settlers but to speculators who eventually sold the fertile land to settlers. If the US had cut out the middle man, it could have directed all those sale proceeds into the public treasury. However, most often the employees of the government’s land office were in cahoots with the speculators; everybody knew what was going on (Everett Dick, The Lure of the Land, 1970). Further, the government did not have to sell the land but could have leased it, just as the modern state of Israel does today. Or, if selling, government could tax or otherwise levy land at its annual rental value (functionally, no different from leasing it).
One of the favorite places to found a city is by the mouth of a river: London on the Thames. New York on the Hudson. New Orleans on the Mississippi. On the Pacific Coast, the major river that drains the western half of North America is the Columbia. Near it’s mouth sits Portland, yet that city is not the region’s premier city. That title belongs to rival Seattle. How did that happen? Recognizing their natural advantage, the founders of Portland kept their prices for land high. The city fathers of Seattle undercut them—and soon outgrew the city to their south, by leaps and bounds. It’d be as if Philadelphia outgrew New York (which did not happen).
The hierarchy of cities was flipped again elsewhere by speculator greed. The natural pass thru the Rocky Mountains is by Cheyenne Wyoming. When railroads started extending westward, speculators figured the iron horse had no choice but to pass through Cheyenne so they kept the price for land high. To their south, the city fathers of Denver undercut them, attracted the railroad, and outgrew their rival to the north. Today, Cheyenne remains a town while Denver is a major American city.
Such is the counterproductive power of land speculation. Conversely, there is a potent, productive stimulant: the public recovery of land value. When Johannesburg South Africa was dying after the nearby mines played out, the city fathers shifted their property tax to fall only on land, not on buildings. So owners developed vacant lots and kept their parcels at highest and best use. Johannesburg grew to become the financial capital of Africa. Its rival city to the south, Cape Town, situated on one of the most strategic ports on the planet, lagged behind. It was as if Albany New York had eclipsed New York City—unfathomable.
“History is bunk,” Henry Ford said. Many Americans have expressed anti-intellectual sentiments. Yet it is good to know one’s roots, what one is up against, and what to keep and what to change. To his credit. Ford also said,“We ought to tax all idle land the way Henry George said—tax it heavily, so that its owners would have to make it productive.”
Will academia tell this tale? One of the major business schools in the US is Wharton’s at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Whartons were one of the early major land speculators. So were the Roosevelts. Later, so was Leland Stanford. And more recently James Irvine (University of California at Irvine). So don’t hold your breath. Instead, for more on the link between speculators and universities, see Dr. Mason Gaffney’s Corruption of Economics. Information such as this won’t be fed to you, You have to look for it.
Speculators Are Us. This is a brief, partial History of the United States from the POV of those who benefited the most from it.
Never in American history has the debate over income inequality so dominated the public square, with Democratic presidential candidates and congressional leaders calling for massive tax increases and federal expenditures to redistribute the nation’s income. Unfortunately, official measures of income inequality, the numbers being debated, are profoundly distorted by what the Census Bureau chooses to count as household income.
The published census data for 2017 portray the top quintile of households as having almost 17 times as much income as the bottom quintile. But this picture is false. The measure fails to account for the one-third of all household income paid in federal, state and local taxes. Since households in the top income quintile pay almost two-thirds of all taxes, ignoring the earned income lost to taxes substantially overstates inequality.
How Redistribution Works
Average earned and net income by quintile, 2017
Source: Calculations by authors based on official government data
The Census Bureau also fails to count $1.9 trillion in annual public transfer payments to American households. The bureau ignores transfer payments from some 95 federal programs such as
- Medicaid and
- food stamps,
which make up more than 40% of federal spending, along with dozens of state and local programs. Government transfers provide 89% of all resources available to the bottom income quintile of households and more than half of the total resources available to the second quintile.
In all, leaving out taxes and most transfers overstates inequality by more than 300%, as measured by the ratio of the top quintile’s income to the bottom quintile’s. More than 80% of all taxes are paid by the top two quintiles, and more than 70% of all government transfer payments go to the bottom two quintiles.
America’s system of data collection is among the most sophisticated in the world, but the Census Bureau’s decision not to count taxes as lost income and transfers as gained income grossly distorts its measure of the income distribution. As a result, the raging national debate over income inequality, the outcome of which could alter the foundations of our economic and political system, is based on faulty information.
The average bottom-quintile household earns only $4,908, while the average top-quintile one earns $295,904, or 60 times as much. But using official government data sources on taxes and all transfer payments to compute net income produces the more complete comparison displayed in the nearby chart.
The average bottom-quintile household receives $45,389 in government transfers. Private transfers from charitable and family sources provide another $3,313. The average household in the bottom quintile pays $2,709 in taxes, mostly sales, property and excise taxes. The net result is that the average household in the bottom quintile has $50,901 of available resources.
Government transfers go mostly to low-income households. The average bottom-quintile household and the average second-quintile household receive government transfers of some $17 and $4 respectively for every dollar of taxes they pay. The average middle-income household receives $17,850 in government transfers and pays an almost identical $17,737 in taxes, while the fourth and top quintiles of households receive government transfers of only 29 cents and 6 cents respectively for every dollar paid in taxes. (In the chart, transfers received minus taxes paid are shown as net government transfers for low-income households and net taxes for high income households.)
The average top-quintile household pays on average $109,125 in taxes and is left, after taxes and transfer payments, with only 3.8 times as much as the bottom quintile: $194,906 compared with $50,901. No matter how much income you think government in a free society should redistribute, it is much harder to argue that the bottom quintile is getting too little or the top quintile is getting too much when the ratio of net resources available to them is 3.8 to 1 rather than 60 to 1 (the ratio of what they earn) or the Census number of 17 to 1 (which excludes taxes and most transfers).
Today government redistributes sufficient resources to elevate the average household in the bottom quintile to a net income, after transfers and taxes, of $50,901—well within the range of American middle-class earnings. The average household in the second quintile is only slightly better off than the average bottom-quintile household. The average second-quintile household receives only 9.4% more, even though it earns more than six times as much income, it has more than twice the proportion of its prime working-age individuals employed, and they work twice as many hours a week on average. The average middle-income household is only 32% better off than the average bottom-quintile households despite earning more than 13 times as much, having 2.5 times as many of prime working-age individuals employed and working more than twice as many hours a week.
Antipoverty spending in the past 50 years has not only raised most of the households in the bottom quintile of earners into the middle class, but has also induced many low-income earners to stop working. In 1967, when funding for the War on Poverty started to flow, almost 70% of prime working-age adults in bottom-quintile households were employed. Over the next 50 years, that share fell to 36%. The second quintile, which historically had the highest labor-force participation rate among prime work-age adults, saw its labor-force participation rate fall from 90% to 85%, while the top three income quintiles all increased their work effort.
Any debate about further redistribution of income needs to be tethered to these facts. America already redistributes enough income to compress the income difference between the top and bottom quintiles from 60 to 1 in earned income down to 3.8 to 1 in income received. If 3.8 to 1 is too large an income differential, those who favor more redistribution need to explain to the bottom 60% of income-earning households why they should keep working when they could get almost as much from riding in the wagon as they get now from pulling it.