Conference of State Legislatures (Boston)

David Giesen

[ GroundSwell, July-August 2007]

The attraction wasn’t three ounces of beer or a give-away visored cap or a five minute chair massage. Instead, a gameboard featured a high-rise skyline of colorful plastic 1 inch cubes. And when passing legislators or legislative staff or legislators’ spouses ambled by and were hailed with an invitation to “Tell me about your city’s rent scape,” half could not pass up the opportunity to brag on their hometown’s high rents. The key to success for two georgists, myself and Al Katzenberger, was listening.

Oh, we talked. Me? Fast and furious. Al? Quiet but assertive (“This could work in Michigan!”) Georgists do talk, and with good tidings. But the attraction is listening.

After inquiring where to live and why rents differ place to place across their city or state (after all, these were state legislators, not city councilors), I drew my discussant attention to a stacked set of eleven rectangular blocks with labels indicating a public service or good such as roadways, public schools, universities, fire protection, museums & parks, etc.

“What would likely happen to the desirability of your city if there were no parks and no paved streets?”

Blank stare.

“Well, what if there were no fire protection ?”

“I guess it’d go down.” So I’d remove a block from the stack, and then repeat the first question . . . and end by removing more blocks at each verbal prompt from the listener and thinker in front of me.

I bit my tongue. I squirmed like a game show audience member who knows the answer to the Jeopardy question as the seconds tick silently by. “You’re in government and you don’t know whether public infrastructure adds or subtracts to the desirability of city and state?!”

Instead of pinching the tip of my tongue off, I spoke. Not so as to leave no room for a question in return. “I suggest that the entire value of government, to the extent there is value of government, is embedded in the rent of land.”

Blank stare.

I repeat the declaration. Government value is not embedded in buildings or labor for plainly, buildings and labor most pay for desirable locations, and the locations are desirable because of the propinquitous public infrastructure.

The moment my student concludes that some public services do account for the desirability of location, I spin the blocks around, revealing another set of labels. “This is how that public infrastructure is paid for at present: sales tax, income tax, import taxes, business taxes, property tax [two separate blocks, one specifying land only and the other improvements only], etc.”

With this the legislator, staff or spouse agrees with a roll of the eyes. Oh, those onerous taxes!

“But haven’t we just established . . . you just told me . . . that the value of government is embedded in the rent of land? Look at this from a renter’s point of view and you’ll see it plain as the ocean is a plain. The working renter pays taxes to pay for public infrastructure, and that infrastructure commutes value to land that shows up as higher rent. The renter pays twice for public infrastructure: taxes to government, and the value of those taxes as they inhere in land rent.”

Astonished stare. “They pay twice!”

There you have it, dearies. The Socratic script employed to a measure of success in Boston at the National Convention of State Legislators, August 5-9. The key? Listening.

The measure of success, you stammer? What was the measure of success?

A request from a state legislator who teaches economics for a set of my tax/public infrastructure labels to affix to his own rectangular wooden blocks (“My students will get this.”)

The director of a program at the American Legislative Exchange Council choking on his No-new taxes mantra as he haltingly admitted no taxes on production are better than no New taxes.

The Americans For Tax Reform folk abandoning their ideal for the Georgist ideal. (Note: their salaries are paid through next summer by the NFTR so don’t go chasing them down unless you’re ready with cash in hand).

The sight of SEIU apparatchiks defending taxes on labor rather than embracing socialized land rent and an end to dishonoring labor by taxing it.

The Parents Teacher Association (PTA) booth beading sweat as they reflected upon the education their children are getting in being complacent land slaves.

The silence in panel discussion of the Speaker of the Florida State Assembly when his Jim Crow paean to eliminating the property tax altogether was challenged in Q & A as certain to raise land values to the detriment of the young families he claimed were injured by Florida’s high land values. The Lincoln Land Institute expert on hand confirmed for the Speaker that his plan would raise land values, thus making real estate even less affordable what with the added mortgage interest burden. Ooops.

The Oklahoma legislator, self-described as the most conservative member of that state’s legislature, stopping for twenty minutes with Al and me and demanding take-away literature. The contact cards given us by legislators.

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