Summarising our whole system shift for a new economy

Designing a new economy has major challenges politically. We want two major changes that actually aren't politically realistic in the current world where eight individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 50%. There is too much concentrated power.

If we want monetary reform it is unavailable at national level because there are simply too many bank lobbyists in the world's capitals who are spending far too much for any public interest lobbyists to match. Then again, if we want to replace

Then again, if we want to replace income tax with land tax, forget it. Not a goer either from a practical political viewpoint. No self respecting politician will touch it if taxing land reduces its market value and threatens a politician's votes.

What about getting a Basic Income and replacing the intrusive welfare system? Well that depends on how you would fund it. The problem is most of the current solutions are a drag on the economy. You must not fund it from GST which is regressive or from income tax which is a drag on the economy.You must fund it by sharing the rent on land and other monopolies.

Well where do we go then? You have painted a dismal picture.

Most respond by saying "Oh well bring A or B in gradually". That takes ages and moreover when A is implemented it affects B and C. So the idea of just imposing a 1% land tax and bringing it up gradually is quite impractical. We have to think in terms of whole systems. It is a whole system shift we need. Redesign the political economy from scratch.

The fact of the matter is that we must be politically savvy to come up with a solution. Many economists might agree that land tax is the most logical tax, but unless they are standing for office, they don't have to face the public. It is one thing to be an economist and another to be a politician. Victoria University's 2010 Tax Working Group which was stacked with economists from many government departments as well as consultants and academics, proposed a land tax. Did the government listen? Not that I can recall. I don't remember their recommendations on land tax being discussed in the public arena for more than a day.

What about Positive Money and all its followers saying that money should be spent into existence not lent into existence? They make a very good case, you can't fault it. And yes, the British Parliament took it seriously enough to have a parliamentary debate. But do you believe it will go further? You only have to read Nomi Prins book 'All the Presidents Bankers' to get an idea how close presidents have been to the big bankers for over a century. Hilary Clinton's campaign was funded by investment bankers and Trump has six Goldman Sachs bankers in his cabinet. He has already moved to get rid of the weak regulations they now have.

When considering the political feasibility of putting in the idea of Michael Kumhof and Jaromir Benes' Chicago Plan Revisited, a plan making bank debt illegal, Lietaer, Arnsperger, Goerner and Brunnhuber listed five reasons for not recommending it.[1]
"1.Replacing a monoculture with a monoculture is not the way to generate diversity in exchange media.
2. While it is true that a Chicago Plan reform would eliminate risk of widespread banking crashes and of sovereign debt crises, there would still be monetary crises.
3. If governments were the only ones in charge of creating money there might be a risk of inflation. Such a risk is real and demonstrated in 2009 by the hyperinflation crippling the Zimbabwean dollar after President Mugabe instructed the central bank to print its currency by the trillions.
4. The fourth reason can be summarised as ‘political realism’. Any version of the Chicago Plan will be fought to the death by the banking systems because it threatens both its power base and its business model. Even after the excesses triggering the 2007-8 collapse, or in the middle of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the banking lobby managed to deflect the implementation of any significant changes. In 2010, for every elected official in Washington, there were three high-level lobbyists working full-time for the banking system. The financial services industry including real estate spent $2.3 billion on Federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than health care, energy, defence, agriculture and transportation industries combined." (In USA, according to Gar Alperovitz, in 2010-11 the FIRE section (finance, insurance, real estate) section spent nearly $1 billion in lobbying against bank regulation.)

"5. The final argument is about risk. Nationalising the money creation process cannot be done on a small pilot scale. It must be implemented on a massive, national scale or, in the case of the euro, a multinational scale. Any change always involves the risk of unintended consequences. Logically, large scale change involves greater risk."

Yes, there is a way to go. The ideas came from the permaculture teachers in our new economics movement. Reform the very structure of governance to give quite substantial powers to  local government, turn governance upside down as well and then we might have a chance. The centralised governance structure must be replaced with distributed governance. Then we need to rethink the powers given to or claimed by local governance. In fact central government is not going to give very local government big powers like money creation, land ownership or revenue raising power, so they have to claim it themselves. This is where rebellion must be focussed. 

So we have proposed spending money into existence at the very lowest level of government (in New Zealand that would be the Community Board). That money will gradually buy up land. The Community Board would then receive land rent from the property holder and pay the rates (local taxes) of that property holder. This process happens gradually, while closely monitoring inflation. If there is a sign of inflation, the rate of decay of money can be adjusted or the money spent at a higher level of governance.

So the Community Board claims the right to issue money, to buy land with that money, to receive public revenue. It could also impose certain resource rents to be determined.

With the growing revenue from land rent the Board would be able to distribute regular Citizens Dividends and build and maintain essential infrastructure.

There would have to be participatory budgeting so that the balance between infrastructure and dividends was maintained and the public was behind the Board.

Now if we are going to reclaim the right to issue money, we might as well design it properly while we have the chance. It is there we look to history and read Bernard Lietaer. He cites a period of 2000 years of a decaying Egyptian currency which had huge social, educational and economic benefits, 200 years of European currencies in the central middle ages that resulted in an age of prosperity, equality, high education and more leisure and finally a period in 1932-3 in a small Austrian town during the Great Depression. Each of these had a decaying currency, much as goods decay.

So the new money would be designed to decay. In practical terms, it would keep its face value but attract a regular payment to keep it valid. The local Board would develop a more equal relationship with its local Council who would inevitably end up accepting the new currency for rates. This would eventually pass on to central government who would have to accept it for taxes.

So what we propose is a new currency that soon is accepted by central government for taxes. This means it is a new national currency. They way this works out is that each local board keeps its currency from inflation so all are on a par. They flow into a stream that flows into a river towards central government.

Auckland home owners are “richer” than last year by $64 billion

The average price for an  Auckland home is now just over $1 million. The media focuses, as they usually do, on how impossible it is nowadays for young people to buy a house, with a side mention of how difficult it is for nurses, service workers and teachers to buy a house, and how the Auckland problem is spilling over to the entire country. There has also been a great deal of publicity in the last six months about homelessness, with a marae in Auckland shaming the Government into action by opening its doors to the homeless for the winter.

But there is another big issue that is almost never mentioned – the lost potential public revenue from land rent. Land rent is what the occupier would pay to the public if the public owned the land. Many have explained that the rise in value of homes is really the accumulated land rent over that period. It is also called the capital gain or unearned windfall.


Recent figures from Quotable Values New Zealand allow us to work out the on-paper profit for our country's homeowners and for Auckland's homeowners. This of course is just on-paper, but because it represents their realisable assets it does allow homeowners to do other things e.g. borrow more for other purposes. This calculation acknowledges that the figures are the houses that are sold only. Houses sold in that period were more like one tenth of the housing stock. But if my neighbour's house sells for $1million and ours is similar we know ours could sell for a similar price. Our house value is what a valuer would estimate or better still what the market would pay. Valuers value by looking at what did sell in the district and making comparisons. The bank recognises this as the value of our asset.

And the fact that I had a huge mortgage didn't really make any difference. Supposing I only have $200k and buy a $900k house, selling it a year later for $1 million. I make a profit of $100k because my deposit of $200k was turned into $300k.

Let's first take Auckland where the figures are the most dramatic. 

House prices rose nearly 16% last year. The average uplift in Auckland house prices in that period was $138,781.

Since land values are created by the community around them, by the governments and communities that serve that site, the uplift belongs to the public purse. Rise in property prices are virtually all attributable to the rise in land prices. Schools, hospitals, infrastructure are built by government, central and local, and the private land owner reaps the profit. Businesses arrive, clubs start. Without a community around it, land has little value. (Even agriculture requires transport infrastructure. Land for conservation is usually publicly owned). 

The total uplift for Auckland properties was 461,669 (the number of residential properties in Auckland Council) multiplied by $138,781, or $64 billion.

Sold Home For Sale Sign and House

Now supposing this uplift was publicly captured month by month in the form of a full land rent, as it should be. What would the council do with it?

1. They could give half to the government straight away, leaving $32 billion.

2. They could put aside about $20 billion for infrastructure building and upgrading including rapid transit, and debt relief, leaving $12 billion still to be shared.

3. Sharing the rents is important. So the $12 billion could be given out as a Citizens Dividend to every man, woman and child in Auckland. The population of Auckland is about 1.58 million, making about $7,600 per person. For a family of five that would be $38,000.

That should help a few homeless families!

New Zealand homeowners are $138 billion richer than last year 

There are at least 1,771,2000 residential homes in NZ (2013 census). The average uplift in NZ house prices was the difference between the Aug 2016 price and the August 2015 price, which as $78,196.

So multiplying these two, New Zealand homeowners on paper have assets worth about $138 billion more than last year. The tax take last year was $66.6 billion. So it is more than double the tax take. All this is privately captured when it really should be going to the state. In comparison to the $138 billion uplift for NZ, the GDP last year was about $170 billion.

However there are several political obstacles stopping us from applying these solutions in our current context:

• Aucklanders pay rates. However Auckland Council was introduced by legislation when amalgamation took place. This mandated that the rates were levied on capital values, thus requiring legislation for a change to rating system on land values. There is only miniscule awareness of this as a political issue.

• The viability these days of a centrally imposed land tax is not good, given the fact there are at least three bank lobbyists for every legislator and neoclassical economics is in full bloom. Nowadays the power of the landed and moneyed elite is so much greater in relation to the 99% than it has ever been.

• It has been legally impossible to impose land tax in NZ since 1992, though the PM seems not to know this because it was he that suggested putting a land tax on property bought by foreigners earlier in 2016. The idea died within a day or two. However this law could easily be reversed.

• No politician wanting to be re-elected would advocate a measure that was going to bring down house prices and leave homebuyers with negative equity. A 5-6% land tax would actually be for politicians and doing it gradually wouldn’t work either.

• Imposing a land value tax must go hand in hand with dropping of income tax so this has to be incorporated into the solution.

But all is not lost! The obstacles are not insuperable. Think about the untenable current situation of housing prices and its destructive consequences of widening the wealth gap. We have to start on other ground breaking solutions. Let’s be pioneering here.

A little history might give hope. New Zealand had a Liberal Government in the 1890s that imposed a land tax to break up big land holdings. Then it extended, but unfortunately it was at a higher rate per acre for large landholdings than for smaller ones, which was essentially unfair. This resulted in a new political party dominated by larger farmers. But land tax never reached more than 20% of the tax take, and income tax was gradually increased and extended. The same Liberal Government did however enact legislation to empower local government to hold a referendum where ratepayers could choose between land value rating systems and capital value. This was in place for 80 years and always resulted in the more equitable the public choosing land value rating systems. Cities like Wellington and Napier built on this rating system are compact.

If money buys lobbying power, then we have to be more strategic and try different tactics. This might point to governance reform giving much more power to local authorities and to even smaller governance units. Given that the banks have a vested interest in profiting from the buying and selling of land and from the private ownership of natural resources and infrastructure, a host of local innovative actions may be the surprise option. And this would require huge resistance from local communities that are determined to share land values and preserve natural resource values.

Maybe the old system should be left alone to collapse and die, and the new paradigm system reinvented at local level. We need to ask how land trusts can connect with localised governance units whose revenue is derived land and resource rents. But where would the money come from to buy the land? Maybe we need to create a local currency designed to circulate at an optimal speed. Maybe when there is surplus locally it can be steered from the periphery to the centre of government.

Certainly clever, innovative thinking is called for and it should be all hands on deck for that task!

Use Land Value Capture to help fund the Inner City Rail Link

Public land near the rail hubs should never be sold to private investors to help fund the Inner City Link. That is exactly the land that needs to stay in public hands.

The Jubilee Line Extension of the London underground, built during the 1990s generated huge uplifts in land values for the properties within 1000 meters of the hubs. A study showed that whereas the cost of the extension was £3.5 billion, the benefits to these property owners was £9 billion.

The practice of capturing at least part of this uptake in land value to fund the Inner City Rail Link could easily be applied to Auckland. Land Value Capture has contributed to the funding of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Melbourne inner city rail. If the Far North District Council uses this practice to build remote roads, why can't Auckland?
Helpfully today the Mayor issued a media statement outlining the exact businesses that stand to gain from the City Rail Link construction here. Yes it will bring business that is true, but wow what an increase in the land value they will all reap!  Nice. Public funding brings private gain. Sweet as.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of meeting Rick Rybeck, a city planner from Washington DC who, after their council had taken out one of the hubs from a plan for such a link, came to him and offered him a huge sum if they would change it back. He eventually worked out their land value would have risen at least twice this. He now works as a consultant on Land Value Capture.

Tax reform or monetary reform? Which is most important?

The meshing together of Georgism with monetary reform remains a challenge, especially for ardent individuals who claim their cause to be the most critical. I have heard monetary reformers say Georgism is irrelevant and I have even heard a Georgist describe monetary reform as "heresy" and declare it must be "exorcised" at all costs. Then there are the moderates who say Georgism is more important than monetary reform but willingly acknowledge monetary reform is needed. Critics come in many varieties. Regrettably there is a tendency for advocates from both sides tend to promise a growing list of wonderful results from their reform. Maybe Henry George School people only see landlords as “the enemy,” and to mention money, credit and bankers confuses them. Do we see people on both sides arguing that the others should just get off their territory?

Recently I heard a Georgist argue that if you transfer land into community ownership then the money issue disappears.

So let's tease this one out. To some extent he is right, but he misses several vital factors. For instance he doesn't appear to understand the growth imperative will still be present, so he needs to work out where the excess money will go, and follow the results to their logical conclusion.

Take the important book Money and Sustainability, The Missing Link, a Club of Rome Report by Bernard Lietaer, Christian Arnsperger, Sally Goerner and Stefan Brunnhuber. The authors say there are five results of creating money as interest-bearing debt – amplification of boom and bust cycles, short-term thinking, compulsory growth, and devaluation of social capital where selfish behaviour replaces co-operative behaviour.

Or take another example of monetary reformers overpromising. While we can't tell if she actually believes it herself or not, monetary reformer Amanda Vickers lists their extravagant promises. She writes in the Otaki Mail, "Sovereign money advocates extrapolate further that the outcome would also be far-reaching throughout our economy and our lives. They say it could also improve: the inequality gap, child poverty, housing bubble control, student debt, state asset sales, job security, local businesses performance (due to the 10% higher output gains), budgets for local community projects and facilities, health care and education."

Positive Money in their little video says money is created every time someone takes out a mortgage. The money doesn't come from someone else's saving but is new money just created. The bank enters your debt as an asset on their accounts then enters the same amount in the liabilities column of their books, your deposit. The entire money supply is on loan from the banking system. When they charge interest on this money creation £200 billion a year is transferred from the public to the financial sector every year in UK. Since money is created as interest-bearing debt, if we all pay off our debts the current economic system would collapse. There would be no money in the system.The debt can never be repaid. The money creating power needs to be transferred to some democratically accountable body and spent into existence instead. He mentioned it has been pumped into property bubbles and financial markets.

They claim it would reduce inflation and that you would also be able to move towards a low carbon society this way.

dscn1459So what I take out of this is that Positive Money people, by not addressing tax reform, may think that if you create money by spending it into existence you will avoid rising land prices. By creating a monetary authority to control inflation they give their new monetary authority magic power to stop money going into a land bubble. It simpley wouldn't happen this way.

So let's go back to the Georgist's claim that when you have land in community ownership the money issue disappears. Not so. If you continue to create money as interest bearing debt, then money still moves from the public to the financial sector. Though there is always the personal desire to pay off your debt the money supply would disappear if everyone did this. Moreover, there is always the mathematical imperative for the money supply to grow in order to pay off the debt with interest. That is what we don't want on a finite planet.

It is true that when there is either no cost or little cost on the holding of land AND money is created without interest or with low interest, you get money pouring into land inflation. Anyone who has paid a mortgage knows that when interest rates decline, there is what they call a housing bubble (it is really a land price bubble). This is undesirable. And if you take land out of the market entirely money won't go into a land bubble, but it will go into some other form of monopoly.

When Karl Fitzgerald of Prosper Australia did his 2013 study Total Resource Rents of Australia, he subtitled it "Harnessing the Power of Monopoly." The list includes Land Residential, Land Commercial, Land rural, Land other, Subsoil Minerals, Oil and Gas, Water Rights, Taxi Licences, Airports, Utilities, Fishing, Forestry, Gambling, EMS, Satellite Orbit Rights, Internet Infrastructure, Domain Name Registration licence, Banking Licences, Corporate Commons Fee, Patents, Parking fees, Public Transport, Liquor Licences, Vehicle Rego Licences, Sin Taxes on Tobacco and Alcohol, Carbon Taxes, Non Tax Revenue (sale of goods). That's quite a list of the things you can claim a monopoly right on. "Land" in its widest sense is actually a list this long and longer.

So if we just deal to land by taking it out of the marketplace, you just put your money into monopolising another part of the commons. You could buy a much desired personalised number plate. The plate "F1" fetched £14 m and the number plate with the number 1 was bought by an Emirati businessman for £7.25m in 2008. Perhaps you could buy a domain name? sold in Nov 2014 for $10m and in 2010 for $35.6m.

Or the extra money could go into the financial sector including securities, commodities, venture capital, private equity, hedge funds, trusts, and other investment activities like investment banking). Nothing productive here. Yale economics professor Robert Schiller says, "The classic example of rent-seeking is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is helping nobody in any way, directly or indirectly, except himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free. If enough lords along the river follow suit, its use may be severely curtailed." Yet that is where a lot of money and activity is going.

In June 2015 the Guardian reported that "Adair Turner, the former chair of the Financial Services Authority, gave a memorable critique of the UK financial services industry in the wake of the credit crisis when he said that some of the activities carried out by the City’s finance firms were “socially useless”."

There are many places where the excess money can go if there is tax reform but no monetary reform. We haven't even touched on fishing quotas, art investments, oil and gas, utilities, or forestry. Leaving the growth imperative firmly in place by leaving money created as interest bearing debt will invite trouble and plenty of it.

However there is no doubt that land price inflation would disappear if all land was owned communally and leased from a public entity instead. While the boom-bust cycles would exist for other parts of the commons that remain in the market place, these cycles would no longer be present for land prices.

As Professor Michael Hudson explains "In a nutshell,land rent today is paid out as mortgage interest. Ditto for oil and gas, and monopolies.In terms of reform, financial and tax reform must go together. What is not taxed will be capitalized into bank loans. That’s the basic message."

In one of Michael Hudson's papers he quotes from Tolstoy when discussing the issue with Henry George. "The land cultivator in a bad year, not being able to pay the rent exacted from him by force, would have to enslave himself to the man with money in order to keep his land and not lose everything."

Sharing the rents brings social justice – solution to the Auckland housing crisis

imagesDuring Parliament’s question time there are always a lot of questions about house affordability, especially in Auckland. The National government’s solution to rising house prices is just “release more land”. And the Prime Minister usually replies that home affordability was worse when Labour was in government because that included the period leading up to the Global Financial Crisis. Stalemate. Election year biffo. They then go on to questions about poverty, especially child poverty. In New Zealand, ever since Helen Clark introduced an income support scheme called Working for Families anti-poverty groups have rightly pointed out that as it only goes to families in work, children of beneficiaries are the ones that miss out and that is unfair.

Sadly nobody in Parliament ever raises the issue that when “land owners” monopolise land without paying a full rent to the public for the privilege, the rental they should have paid just capitalises into the market value of their homes. Rent is thus privately captured not publicly captured. That capital gain doesn’t belong to them. The very meaning of “freehold” land is land without rent. When settlers came to New Zealand from England in the late 1800s what they wanted was to stand on a piece of land and know that a landlord couldn’t push them off. But the English colonists brought with them their very entrenched legal system of land ownership and imposed on the Maori a strange concept they called “ownership of land”. It was the land tenure system together with the English banking system which was at the very heart of the colonisation process.

Leaving aside the banking system for the moment, let’s concentrate on the land tenure system. When land is held in common, land tenure is about rights to use land. What the settlers really wanted was security of tenure and they wrongly equated this with a freehold land ownership arrangement. Indigenous people share the rights to use the land with others in their iwi or tribe or in their hapu or subtribe through a complicated system different in each iwi or hapu. Colonisation changed the land tenure system and introduced commercial banks.

We are coming up to a general election and the Labour Party, Mana and the Internet Party are all showing concern to engage and enrol the one million non-voters from last election. The Internet Party rightly makes it easy to join a party and participate, through their clever use of smartphone apps and discussion websites.

But what better way to engage young disaffected voters than to share the land rents? Wouldn’t they be delighted it a political party said it was going to charge a full land rental and share it with them by giving them a Citizens Dividend from time to time?

Let’s have a look at the home values in central Auckland suburbs for a start. Parnell, Mission Bay, Mt Eden, Epsom, Herne Bay, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn houses have risen in value by probably an annual rate of exceeding 10% over the last year. In some cases it is 14%, but let’s take the lower value. An article the other day in the Weekend Herald showed a three bedroom home in Grey Lynn for sale at $895,000 and the subsequent text showed it had probably risen at least $103,000 in the last year. What land tax did that owner pay? Rates contain land tax but actually everyone pays on their capital value these days. (by legislation when the supercity was formed, no choice these days like we used to have). So if every home in the inner suburbs has a capital value rise of say an average of $100,000, just think of that accumulated rental which has been privately captured in the inner Auckland suburbs. This rental rightly belongs to the public because it is government both central and local that has paid for the infrastructure, the hospitals, schools and parks and it is the public which has provided the inner city shops and businesses and activities. Suppose there are 100,000 homes in those inner suburbs each rising by $100,000 in a year. That is a capital gain of $10,000,000,000. Yes it is $10 billion which rightly belongs to the public and we haven’t even tried to calculate the rising value of the CBD and Parnell and Newmarket and Ponsonby shops and offices. This total will be far higher.

Dividing this three-way between central and local government and the 4.4m citizens of New Zealand is the next challenge. But for electoral purposes it would make very good sense to give out a citizens dividend straight away. Let’s, for instance, use $4.4 billion of the $10 billion. That is $1000 per citizen. When dependents get it, the money is taken by the designated carer, usually a woman. So a woman with three children would get $4000 a year from this dividend. Nice one. A young solo mother in Northland or Hastings or Greymouth. Since she is on a benefit she doesn’t get Working for Families. She spends it on the basics of food. The next dividend would bring more. When land rents are shared everyone gains. Labour spokesperson on Welfare Jacinda Ardern would not have to think up anything more complicated than this to right the wrong of children in poverty. It would answer the “Feed the Children” plea of The Mana Party.

I have discovered Fred Harrison's site where his videos tell a great many stories about the value of sharing the land rent. Fred Harrison is a long time campaigner for sharing land rents.

Labour and the Greens both go into the election advocating a Capital Gains Tax on property that isn’t the family home. Unfortunately the Greens have chosen a 15% Capital Gains Tax. That means when a house is sold (and only then) the Government gets a small fraction of the total rent. The property “owner” gets to keep the 85% that rightly belongs to the public. Well I guess it is a start, but honestly it is an extremely timid policy when you see the whole logic of sharing the rents.

Nobody in this whole debate has raised the issue of how many vacant sections there are in Auckland. If speculators are sitting on sections and not paying much (the council even slashes their rates) then naturally they will continue to speculate. A Capital Gains Tax will only delay the sale even further. You must make people pay for the privilege of "owning" land, or monopolising it. If speculators had to pay a full land rental rather than reduced rates, that would spur them into action. Either they would build or they would sell.

Income tax with tax deductibility invites cheating and corrupts honest people

Tax Fraud - TimeToday I heard of someone who in the process of defrauding the tax department. I won’t go into the details of it on this occasion.

We have all heard these tax evasion stories. It’s because the tax system invites fraud like that. I can remember sitting in the accountant’s office at tax time and noting the way the accountant asked his questions. My husband was a GP and we had both written books, so our expenses for our book writing were tax deductible. The accountant would say, “And this $480, was that for travel associated with your book?” It was in the days when you had printed bank statements posted to your homes and it was a matter of labelling each sale and matching it up with a cheque. There was no internet banking then, and it was easy to forget to record a cheque properly.

The time with the accountant was a cross between a conspiratorial plot and an open honest discussion. I know never felt comfortable any way. We usually ended up so that some expenses were declared correctly and some dishonestly. I got the impression that the accountant had to run a fine line between pleasing his clients and keeping a good reputation with the IRD, so the atmosphere was palpable.

Just imagine this occasion multiplied a few thousand times by couples all over the western world. Is it or isn’t this item tax deductible? Such a waste of time. So many hours spent by so many on tax avoidance. Why? Because we have income tax, a completely illogical tax. We should tax what we hold or take not what we do or make.

Apart from the occasional saint, we all have tendency to get away with what we can and the system just brings out the dishonesty in us. Accountants will be more familiar than I am with all the various ways people can cheat – by declaring family gifts as tax deductible capital items and other forms of false deductions, as well as having offshore bank accounts and making false invoices. Then there is the straight “cash job” indulged in by a range of tradespeople and others.

Just as a welfare system based on your relationship status invites you to cheat, so a tax system based on what you earn invites you to cheat. Cheating is an inevitable result of a wrongly targeted tax system and an outdated welfare system.

In contrast a land rental cannot be avoided. There are no tax deductions. You pay for what you use of the commons and that is that. You can’t take your land offshore and hide it in a tax haven. You can’t cheat. The tax is simple and cheap and hard to evade. Likewise if you use water commercially for irrigation or other purposes, you pay for the use of the water. Simple. No tax deductibility there either.

Private capital gain from houses eclipses government gain from progressive tax

Being a political junkie I have been following the Labour leadership issue closely. I have been addicted to twitter. I have read all the good commentators and I became especially enthusiastic when reading David Cunliffe’s speech called Dolphins and the Dole. It said all the right things. But when he announced he was standing, and just when I was getting really excited about his possible leadership, I heard him endorse higher taxes for the rich. Then I remembered why the policy of the New Economics Party is different from Labour’s.

I recalled a short video I had seen where Fred Harrison, the author of Ricardo’s Law – the Great Tax Clawback so I watched it again.

In this video Harrison visits the Hyde Park area near Harrods in London and says the houses are worth millions of pounds. The location of these houses means they benefit from the park, good transport and some superb businesses in the area. These improvements are the work of the community. It is the community that have added value to that land. The poor in apartment homes has paid for the infrastructire in their taxes. It is the poor who are subsidizing the rising land values of the privileged near Hyde Park.

Harrison says sure, the rich with progressive taxes pay about five times as much tax as the poor, but this is all made up for by the huge gains their well sited homes enjoy from these services to their sites.

I couldn’t help thinking about the houses in Parnell, inner Remuera, Epsom, Herne Bay, Freemans Bay and Orakei. It might be their homes. Yes, we owned one once in Mt Eden and made hundreds of thousands when we sold after 13 years. Although at the time we smiled and patted ourselves on the back for making such a good buy, we knew in our bones there was something really unfair about it all.

In Parnell a home might sell for $2 million and the 12% rise on that house price would bring in an extra unearned $224,000 in the first year. This money rightly belongs to society who provided the infrastructure, built the other homes, made the roads, developed the good schools, the CBD, Newmarket and the boutique Parnell shopping centre.

In swanky Herne Bay the capital gains made since 2000 have been astronomical. As one writer says of Herne Bay; “Nip/tuck surgeons live side-by-side with interior designers, ad agency chiefs, and entertainment lawyers.” (Jane Phare, NZHerald)

In 2008 houses in Herne Bay were the first to average $2 million. Their homes are worth 50% more than Remuera houses. Jane Phare in Dec 2008 said the average house price was $2.19m there, and there had been a gain of 24% in house prices over the last year.

A quick look at trademe shows a few houses for sale in the millions.

Dean Barker bought a house in Herne Bay for $5.6 million in 2007. An article on rising house prices TVNZ Aug 8, 2013 said “in Auckland the rate of increase has been even higher, at 12.8% over the last 12 months.” If Dean Barker had been experiencing an average of 10% yearly rise in property value since then (and this is quite likely), his home would be worth $9.9m today. That is a jump of $4.3 million. Even with the steepest progressive tax system, the government could never charge him this amount in income taxes. And whatever it was his tax lawyers and accountants would minimize it. The difference in the two amounts is what the taxpayers are missing out on by not recouping the cost of the government and community services to Dean Barker’s property.

And if the rise in house values on a $3 million Herne Bay property continues at its current rate of 12.8% a year, next year that house will be worth $384,000 more.

In September, 2012 Auckland businessman Grant Nola and his former Bulgarian tennis pro wife Pavlina sold their bungalow on William Denny Ave in Westmere for $2.25 million - $350,000 above its council valuation of $1.9 million. They had bought it three years earlier for $932,000. This is a cool $1.93m profit in three years – once again money belonging to society not to the owners. A progressive tax rate for him would be nothing but a nuisance to be dealt with by tax lawyers and accountants.

Now just imagine if all those capital gains had been captured publicly instead of by the landowner and the bank which issued higher a higher mortgages. The public purse is missing out on billions. And think of all those young people working for a pittance in cafes, bars and hotels and paying their GST and their income tax. Not fair. Or the taxidriver who made just $3 a hour on his long day’s work. Capital gains on houses in Orakei or Takapuna or Queenstown or Fendalton are in their dreams.

Some politicians, arguing for increased income taxes for the rich, will be telling the public they don’t mind paying this tax themselves. But the wealth of the wealthy comes from land ownership and not from a salary, no matter how high. An owner of a home in an elite street makes money from the monopoly privilege of owning this precious land, while Auckland develops round about him.

The gap between the rich and the poor is not the gap between those who earn big salaries and the others. It is the gap between those who own valuable property and those who don’t own property at all.

If we don’t tax what we use (land and other natural resources) but tax what we earn, then wealth pools with landowners while the poor can’t buy food for their children let alone buy land. The effect of progressive tax systems is minor compared with the gains made from rising house values. Those who have the privilege of living in inner Auckland grow rich on the work of others while those who live in small towns or those who rent grow ever poorer. While the part time professional working for a council pays GST on everything he buys and pays income tax, the landowner watches his house value rise.

I don’t know what the solution is for any one person. Martin Adams whose excellent new book Sharing the Earth, puts it rather more strongly. He says the capital gains you make from your house is really stolen from the public at large.

We must get a fairer tax system, where we tax what we hold or take, not what we do or make.