By Michael Hudson, a research professor of Economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. His latest book is “The Bubble and Beyond.”
Taxes pay for the cost of government by withdrawing income from the parties being taxed. From Adam Smith through John Stuart Mill to the Progressive Era, general agreement emerged that the most appropriate taxes should not fall on labor, capital or on sales of basic consumer needs. Such taxes raise the break-even cost of employing labor. In today’s world, FICA wage withholding for Social Security raises the price that employers must pay their work force to maintain living standards and buy the products they produce.
However, these economists singled out one kind of tax that does not increase prices: taxes on the land’s rental value, natural resource rents and monopoly rents. These payments for rent-extraction rights are not a return to “factors of production,” but are privatized levy reflecting privileges that have no ongoing cost of production. They are rentier rake-offs.
Land is the economy’s largest asset. A site’s rental value is set by market conditions – what people pay for being able to live in a good location. People pay more to live in prestigious and convenient neighborhoods. They pay more if there is local investment in roads and public transportation, and if there are parks, museums and cultural centers nearby, or nice shopping districts. People also pay more as the economy grows more prosperous, because one of the first things they desire is status, and in today’s world this is defined largely by where one lives.
Landlords do not create this site value. But speculators may seek to ride the wave by buying property on credit, where the rate of land-price gain exceeds the interest rate. This “capital” gain is the proverbial free lunch. It is created by public investment, by the general level of prosperity, and by the terms on which banks extend credit. In a nutshell, a property is worth whatever a bank will lend, because that is the price that new buyers will be able to pay for it.
This logic was more familiar to the public a century ago than it is today. A property tax to collect this “free lunch” rent is paid out of the rent. This leaves less to be capitalized into new interest-bearing loans – while freeing the government from having to tax labor and industrial capital. So this tax not only is “less bad” than others; it is actively desirable to reduce the debt overhead. Rent levels are not affected, but the government collects the rent instead of the property owner or, at one remove, the mortgage banker who turns this rent into a flow of interest by advancing the purchase price of rent-yielding properties to new buyers.
Real estate was the major source of rising net worth and wealth for America’s middle class for over sixty years, from the return to peace in 1945 until the 2008 financial collapse. Rising property prices were fueled largely by banks providing mortgage credit on easier terms. But by 2008 these terms had reached their limit. Interest rates were seemingly as low as they could go. So were down payments (zero down payment) and amortization rates (zero, with interest-only loans) and property values were becoming fictitious as a result of a tidal wave of fraud by the banking system’s property appraisers, while the income statements of borrowers also was becoming fictitious (“liars’ loans,” with the main liars being the mortgage writers).
If the rise in real estate prices (mainly site values) had been taxed, there would have been no financial overgrowth, because this price-gain would have been collected as the tax base. The government would not have needed to tax labor either via income tax, FICA wage withholding or consumer sales. And taken in conjunction with the government’s money-creating power, there would have been little need for public debt to grow. Taxing rent extraction privileges thus would minimize debt levels and taxes on the 99%.
The next leading form of economic rent is taken by oil, gas and mining companies from the mineral deposits created by nature, as well as by owners or leasers of forests and other natural resources. Classical economics from David Ricardo onward defined such income received by landlords, mining companies, forestry and fisheries as “economic rent.” It is not profit on capital investment, because nature has provided the resource, not human labor or expenditure on capital – except for tangible capital investment in the buildings erected on the land, saws to cut down trees, earth-moving equipment to do the mining, and so forth.
The basic contrast is between a productive industrial economy and a rent-extracting one in which special privileges, monopoly pricing and economic rents divert spending away from tangible capital investment and real output. Classical economists defined economic rent generically as “empty” pricing in excess of technologically necessary costs of production. This would include payments to pharmaceutical companies, health management organizations (HMOs) and monopolies above their necessary cost of doing business. Much like paying debt service, such economic rent siphons market revenue away from tangible production and consumption.
It was to demonstrate this that Francois Quesnay developed the first national income statistics, the Tableau Économique. His aim was to show that the landed aristocracy’s rental rake-offs should form the basis for taxation rather than the excise taxes that were burdening industry and making it uncompetitive. But for the past hundred years, commercial banks have opposed property taxes, because taxing the land’s rent would mean less left over to pay interest. Some 80 percent of bank loans are for real estate, mainly to capitalize the rental value left untaxed. A property and wealth tax would reduce this market – along with the government’s need to borrow, and hence to pay interest to bondholders. And without a fiscal squeeze there would have been less of an opportunity for the financial sector to push to privatize what remains of the public domain.
Today’s central financial problem is that the banking system lends mainly for rent extraction opportunities rather than for tangible capital investment and economic growth to raise living standards. To maximize rent, it has lobbied to untax land and natural resources. At issue in today’s tax and financial crisis is thus whether the world is going to have an economy based on progressive industrial democracy or a financialized and polarizing rent-extracting society.
The Ideological Crisis Underlying Today’s Tax and Financial Policy
From antiquity and for thousands of years, land, natural resources and monopolies, seaports and roads were kept in the public domain. In more recent times railroads, subway lines, airlines, and gas and electric utilities were made public. The aim was to provide their basic services at cost or at subsidized prices rather than letting them be privatized into rent-extracting opportunities. The Progressive Era capped this transition to a more equitable economy by enacting progressive income and wealth taxes.
Economies were liberating themselves from the special privileges that European feudalism and colonialism had granted to favored insiders. The aim of ending these privileges – or taxing away economic rent where it occurs naturally, as in the land’s site value and natural resource rent – was to lower the costs of living and doing business. This was expected to make progressive economies more competitive, obliging other countries to follow suit or be rendered obsolete. The era of what was considered to be socialism in one form or another seemed to be at hand – rising role of the public sector as part and parcel of the evolution of technology and prosperity.
But the landowning and financial classes fought back, seeking to expunge the central policy conclusion of classical economics: the doctrine that free-lunch economic rent should serve as the tax base for economies seeking to be most efficient and fair. Imbued with academic legitimacy by the University of Chicago (which Upton Sinclair aptly named the University of Standard Oil) the new post-classical economics has adopted Milton Friedman’s motto: “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” (TINSTAAFL). If it is not seen, after all, it has less likelihood of being taxed.
The political problem faced by rentiers – the “idle rich” siphoning off most of the economy’s gains for themselves – is to convince voters to agree that labor and consumers should be taxed rather than the financial gains of the wealthiest 1%. How long can they defer people from seeing that making interest tax-exempt pushes the government’s budget further into deficit? To free financial wealth and asset-price gains from taxes – while blocking the government from financing its deficits by its own public option for money creation – the academics sponsored by financial lobbyists hijacked monetary theory, fiscal policy and economic theory in general. On seeming grounds of efficiency they claimed that government no longer should regulate Wall Street and its corporate clients. Instead of criticizing rent seeking as in earlier centuries, they depicted government as an oppressive Leviathan for using its power to protect markets from monopolies, crooked drug companies, health insurance companies and predatory finance.
This idea that a “free market” is one free for Wall Street to act without regulation can be popularized only by censoring the history of economic thought. It would not do for people to read what Adam Smith and subsequent economists actually taught about rent, taxes and the need for regulation or public ownership. Academic economics is turned into an Orwellian exercise in doublethink, designed to convince the population that the bottom 99% should pay taxes rather than the 1% that obtain most interest, dividends and capital gains. By denying that a free lunch exists, and by confusing the relationship between money and taxes, they have turned the economics discipline and much political discourse into a lobbying effort for the 1%.
Lobbyists for the 1% frame the fiscal question in terms of “How can we make the 99% pay for their own social programs?” The implicit follow-up is, “so that we (the 1%) don’t have to pay?” This is how the Social Security system came to be “funded” and then “underfunded.” The most regressive tax of all is the FICA payroll tax at 15.3% of wages up to about $105,000. Above that, the rich don’t have to contribute. This payroll tax exceeds the income tax paid by many blue-collar families. The pretense is that not taxing these free lunchers will make economies more competitive and pull them out of depression. The reality is the opposite: Instead of taxing the wealthy on their free lunch, the tax burden raises the cost of living and doing business. This is a major reason why the U.S. economy is being de-industrialized today.
The key question is what the 1% do with their revenue “freed” from taxes. The answer is that they lend it out to indebt the 99%. This polarizes the economy between creditors and debtors. Over the past generation the wealthiest 1% have rewritten the tax laws to a point where they now receive an estimated 66% – two thirds – of all returns to wealth (interest, dividends, rents and capital gains), and a reported 93% of all income gains since the Wall Street bailout of September 2008.
They have used this money to finance the election campaigns of politicians committed to shifting taxes onto the 99%. They also have bought control of the major news media that shape peoples’ understanding of what is happening. And as Thorstein Veblen described nearly a century ago, businessmen have become the heads most universities and directed their curriculum along “business friendly” lines.
The clearest way to analyze any financial system is to ask Who/Whom. That is because financial systems are basically a set of debts owed to creditors. In today’s neo-rentier economy the bottom 99% (labor and consumers) owe the 1% (bondholders, stockholders and property owners). Corporate business and government bodies also are indebted to this 1%. The degree of financial polarization has sharply accelerated as the 1% are making their move to indebt the 99% – along with industry, state, local and federal government – to the point where the entire economic surplus is owed as debt service. The aim is to monopolize the economy, above all the money-creating privilege of supplying the credit that the economy needs to grow and transact business, enabling them to extract interest and other fees for this privilege.
The top 1% have nearly succeeded in siphoning off the entire surplus for themselves, receiving 93% of U.S. income growth since September 2008. Their control over the political process has enabled them to use each new financial crisis to strengthen their position by forcing companies, states and localities to relinquish property to creditors and financial investors. So after monopolizing the economic surplus, they now are seeking to transfer to themselves the economic infrastructure, land and natural resources, and any other asset on which a rent-extracting tollbooth can be placed.
The situation is akin to that of medieval Europe in the wake of the Nordic invasions. The supra-national force of Rome in feudal times is now situated in Washington, with Christianity replaced by the Washington Consensus wielded via the IMF, World Bank, WTO and its satellite institutions such as the European Central Bank, backed by the moral and ideological role academic economists rather than the Church. And on the new financial battlefield, Wall Street underwriters have used the crisis as an opportunity to press for privatization. Chicago’s strong Democratic political machine sold rights to install parking meters on its sidewalks, and has tried to turn its public roads into privatized toll roads. And the city’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel has used privatization of its airport services to break labor unionization, Thatcher-style. The class war is back in business, with financial tactics playing a leading role barely anticipated a century ago.
This monopolization of property is what Europe’s medieval military conquests sought to achieve, and what its colonization of foreign continents replicated. But whereas it achieved this originally by military conquest of the land, today’s 1% do it l by financializing the economy (although the military arm of force is not absent, to be sure, as the world saw in Chile after 1973).
The Financial Quandary Confronting Us
The economy’s debt overhead has grown so large that not everyone can be paid. This poses the question age-old question of Who/Whom. The answer almost always is that big fish eat little fish. Big banks (too big to fail) are eating little banks, while the 1% try to take the lion’s share for themselves by annulling public and corporate debts owed to the 99%. Their plan is to downgrade Social Security and Medicare savings to “entitlements,” as if it is a matter of sound fiscal choice not to pay low-income recipients, in order to reward rentiers at the top, who have re-christened themselves “job creators.”
The problem is not Social Security, which can be paid out of normal tax revenue, as in Germany’s pay-as-you-go system. This fiscal problem has been falsely depicted as a financial problem, as if one needs to save in advance by a special tax on the 99%. The real pension cliff is with corporate, state and local pension plans, which are being underfunded and looted by financial managers. The shortfall is getting worse as the downturn reduces local tax revenues, leaving states and cities unable to fund their programs, to invest in new public infrastructure, or even to maintain and repair existing investments. Public transportation is suffering in particular – raising user fees to riders in order to pay bondholders. But it is mainly retirees who are being told to sacrifice. (The sanctimonious verb is to “share” in the sacrifice, although this evidently does not mean the 1%.)
The bank lobby suggests that the economy borrow its way out of debt. Their proposal to “stabilize” the financial system is for the government to bail do for the banks what it has not been willing to do for recipients of Social Security and Medicare, or for states and localities no longer receiving revenue sharing, or for homeowners in negative equity suffering from exploding interest rates even while bank borrowing costs from the Fed have plunged. The government is to supply nearly free credit to the banks, to lend debtors enough – at the widest interest-rate markups in recent memory – to keep paying the debts that were run up before 2008.
The problem is that this set of policies will further destabilize the economy rather than alleviating today’s debt deflation. What makes this a quandary is that the proposed moves to cure this instability will only make things worse. The Fed’s prime directive is to keep interest rates low – to revive lending not to finance new business investment to produce more, but simply to inflate the asset prices that back the bank loans that constitute bank reserves.
However, if the Fed keeps interest rates low, there is no way that corporate, state and local pension plans can make the 8+% returns needed to pay their scheduled pensions. But if the Fed lets interest rates rise, this will reduce the capitalization rate at which banks lend against current rental income and profits. That will lower prices for real estate, corporate stocks and bonds, pushing the banks even deeper into negative equity. So if the economy is saved, the banks cannot be. This is why the Obama Administration has chosen to save the banks, not the economy.
Either way, the financial system cannot continue along its present path. Only debt write-offs will “free” markets to resume spending on goods and services. And only a shift of taxes onto rent-yielding property, finance and monopolies will save financialized prices from being loaded down with interest charges as banks lend to raise the economic overhead rather than for production and employment.
The solution for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is to de-financialize them, treating them like government programs for military spending, beachfront rebuilding and bank subsidies, paid out of current tax revenue and new government money creation, which is what central banks are supposed to facilitate, after all.
Governments shy away from confronting these lines of solution mainly because the financial sector has sponsored an economic tunnel vision that ignores the role of debt, money, tax philosophy, and the phenomena of economic rent and asset-price inflation that are the defining characteristics of our financialized age. The focus of government policy is to save a financial system that cannot be saved more than temporarily. The economy will shrink as a result of income being diverting to pay credit card debt and mortgage debts. Students without jobs will remain burdened with student debt (over $1 trillion), with the time-honored safety valve of bankruptcy closed off to them. Many graduates are still living with their parents as marriages, and family formation (and hence, new house-buying) turn down.
Now that the debt build-up has run its course, the banking sector is left to put its hope in gambling on mathematical probabilities via hedge fund capitalism. So Casino Capitalist has become the stage of finance capitalism following Pension Fund capitalism, and preceding the insolvency stage of austerity and neofeudal property seizures.
Austerity will deepen rather than cure the public budget deficit. Unlike past centuries, this deficit is not being incurred to wage war, but to pay a financial system that has become predatory on the “real” economy of production and consumption. The collapse of this system is what caused today’s budget deficit. Instead of recognizing this, the Obama Administration is trying to make labor pay. Pushing wage-earners over the “fiscal cliff” to make it pay the costs of Wall Street’s financial bailout can only shrink of the domestic market more, destabilizing the economy by pushing into a fatal combination of tax-ridden and debt-ridden fiscal and financial austerity.
What is held out as the technocratic hope of “deleveraging” means diverting yet more income to pay the financial sector rather than to resume economic growth and restore employment levels. Yet the recent lesson of European experience is that despite austerity, debt has risen from 381% of GDP in mid-2007 to 417% in mid—2012. That is what happens when economies shrink: debts mount up at arrears (and with stiff financial penalties). Yet the aim of Obama Administration of Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Erik Holder et al. seems to be to make America look like Europe, wracked by rising unemployment, falling markets and the related syndrome of adverse social and political consequences of financial warfare waged against labor, industry and government together.