Tuesday, June 1, 2021

What's Wrong With The Land Value Tax?

Ever since I read this book review about Georgism, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I'd always heard from the economists I knew that the land value tax was a good idea that we could never really do because of politics, and I didn't understand why. But now, having gone down the Georgism rabbit hole, I understand far more acutely both why it would be a great idea, and why politics makes it extremely difficult to do.

The rabbit hole started with the book review. After reading it, I got really excited about the ideas of Georgism, and then I got to wondering -- how practical is it, really?

I found this article on strongtowns.org talking about "The Pennsylvania Land Tax Experiment." Turns out over a dozen towns in Pennsylvania have tried some variation on it, using a "graded tax" that taxes the total property value at a low rate, and the total land value at a higher rate. Wow! I thought. They actually did it! But the Strong Towns article glossed over the fact that some towns in Pennsylvania used to have a Land Value Tax, but repealed it later. Including Pittsburgh. That seems like a pretty big hole in the story. What went wrong?

This article on landvaluetaxguide.com has the whole story.

It is sort of because implementing it is hard. However, it's not for the reason you might think! The assessments themselves are easy enough. For one thing, you can easily calculate the land value of most houses by subtracting the sale price from the amount your insurance will pay out if your house burns down. And assessors are used to evaluating somewhat intangible things about a property, when there's no market data for years at a time (because no one has bought or sold the house). It's not that much more of an issue to evaluate the structures separately from the land.

No, it turns out the problem is local politics. City politicians and assessors always have the incentive to systematically underprice houses, in order to lower property taxes. This is benign enough most of the time; tax rates have to be a little higher to accommodate it, and it all more or less works out. But in Pittsburgh, this problem got way, way worse, essentially because the county that it's in reassesses home values very infrequently. One day they decided to finally get it together and re-price all the houses, and when they did, everyone was paying WAY more taxes than they were before! People got mad and blamed this on the graded tax, and in the resulting uproar, they repealed it.

My takeaways from this story are: 1) Land-value tax is actually pretty doable, 2) Home value reassessments are actually quite important, and need to happen regularly to maintain a healthy tax system (pointed glare at California and Prop 13). Also, more tentatively: 3) The incentives of land owners make it difficult to maintain an LVT. After all, land owners want to extract economic rents, and if they've been doing so already for hundreds of years, it's politically difficult to take that away.

This article also believes that part of the reason LVT was so successful early on in Pittsburgh, and why it was so unsuccessful later, was that everyone was on board. City assessors and officials were Henry George fans. They understood the purpose of LVT and wanted to make it a reality. Later on, everyone sort of forgot about it, County assessors came in and didn't really care about the ideals of Georgism, and everyone started wondering why they had this weird tax system in the first place. Why not just rely on income taxes?

Well, because income taxes are distortionary. And more to the point, Georgism was invented before income taxes. Imagine living in that halcyon time when no one quite knew what tax system would work best, when you could discuss and debate what would come next, before the creation of massive government bureaucracies around one single form of taxation, before everyone's minds calcified into believing that that form of taxation was the only sensible one!

... Oh well. Those aren't the times we live in. And it seems the land value tax is too good for this timeline.

Friday, August 28, 2020


 It was never meant for us.

You might be excused for thinking it was, because it was so beautiful. With its tree-lined avenues, distant hills that twinkled with lights after dark, the restaurant patios open until late in summer, the gentle sunlight that returned day after day through the green winter, you might think, of course this place was meant for us to enjoy. What else could it be for? Who else, when you enjoyed it so much?

But you were wrong.

You began to realize, strolling down the tree-lined avenues, that you would never look out and feel safe from one of those warm windows. The houses were beautiful. They were small, but they came in all colors, trimmed neatly with terra cotta, fronted by fruit trees and hanging vines that wafted enticing scents across the sidewalk.

But they were not for you.

The people in them never wanted you there. The beautiful houses had to stay the same, to be preserved, always with their bounty of zucchinis and lemons left out in baskets saying "Free." They would offer you the fruits of their gardens. But the houses were not for you.

But you accepted that. The houses might have made you angry, with their yellow terra cotta walls and wide bay windows, windows that you would never look out of and feel safe. But you let that pass by you. It was simply the price. To be there, to stroll down the tree-lined avenues, to wake up every morning to that everpresent sunlight, to be enticed by the smells of the hanging vines and eat the fruit that fell from the trees, it was worth it.

You thought there was something meant for us there, even if the houses were not.

We came there, and what we felt was meant for us there was each other. We came in groups; alone; from power; powerlessly. We came begging, and we came giving. We crammed ourselves into tiny rooms, or spent what we had on large rooms, polished wood floors, fruit trees.

(Fruit trees that we did not own.)

What we had, we shared.

But even this was not meant for us.

It was not enough, then, to have and to share. For this place was never meant for us. The fruit trees grew, and they brought us, and with us, the fruits of our labors. We worked. We strolled down the tree-lined avenues, at night, afterward, and told ourselves that one day this would all be ours.

But it was never meant for us.

We would work, and work, and keep on working, and it would consume us, swallowing the fruits of our labors as we swallowed the sweet plums from the trees.

If you ate the fruit, you might stay forever. If you stayed forever, you might eat the fruit. For some, the price was right.

For some, perhaps one day, after many years, they looked out of a small window and found that they felt safe. Perhaps they even had one fruit tree of their own.

Perhaps they did.

But I may never know. It was never meant for me.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Fiction I've Been Reading Lately, #3

(In this case, for a loose definition of "lately"; this post has been sitting in my drafts for a while.)


Lady Archimedes by White Squirrel (link) -- 7/10. A worthy conclusion to The Arithmancer. Similar review to my first: comforting, not ultimately all that standout, but still a fun read.

Worth the Candle by Alexander Wales (link) -- 9/10. In terms of sheer writing quality -- plot pacing and humor especially -- Worth the Candle is one of the top things I have ever read. I do not say this lightly; I give up on many works that others enjoy because I consider the writing quality too low. It's better than most published fiction I've read.

Wales has a talent for making it feel like the most extreme thing possible is happening, in almost every set of chapters he releases. Surprising and world-shaking information is revealed, fascinating character interactions happen, and most of the main characters face life-or-death challenges.

I will say-- I do dislike the harem elements. I appreciate the amount of disclaimering and qualification and analyzing-to-death of the trope that happens in-story (it gets pretty meta sometimes), but ... it's still, fundamentally, a choice that Wales is making to make the story about that. And it makes me even more uncomfortable that most of the fandom seems to be coming from the perspective that they'll just barely tolerate the feminist disclaimers in exchange for the rest of it, whereas from my perspective it's just the opposite. It also sometimes bugs me how lacking in self-awareness the main character is about certain things, but that also gets called out by the narrative most of the time.

The rest of it is worth it for me, but it does diminish my enjoyment of the series somewhat.

Marked for Death by various authors (link) -- 8/10. Marked for Death is in the "online fiction" section of this post, but to be clear, it is not exactly just fiction. It's not exactly Naruto fanfiction, either (although that's a lot closer). It's something called a "quest," which is essentially a roleplaying game played by post on a forum. However, unlike most instances of the genre, Marked for Death is not just choose-your-own-adventure -- nor is it collaboratively written by all its participants. Instead, the thread participants discuss and vote on plans for the protagonist, and a set of authors take turns writing chapters about what happens based on those plans.

You don't need to know any of that to read it, however. I knew nothing about Naruto or quests when I started reading it, and have gradually picked up the necessary parts of worldbuilding and a little bit about the hivemind that produces the work over time.

It's very, very long. Like a D&D game, there's no fixed end, so plot arcs rise and fall. I tend to prefer longer works because I like following the same characters over a long period of time. It's also pretty compelling, though I've found it to be slowing down a little bit recently.

Skip the Chosen for the Grave interludes.


What Did You Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga (vols 1-13) -- 10/10. This caters to my extremely specific special interest of "home-cooked Japanese cuisine," and thus may not be of great interest to others. But in addition to lots of great recipes, the story depicts what it's like to be a long-term-partnered gay person in Japan, internalized homophobia included. The characters are likeable and the story is interesting, ranging from sad to heartwarming to funny. I also like that this is a story about older people (40s and 50s), which seems to be uncommon.

I liked this manga so much that I got significantly more serious about learning Japanese, just so I could read the next volume before it gets translated into English. I still haven't reached the required level yet, sadly; it's an adult manga, so it lacks furigana and has pretty complex conversations.

Oishinbo by Tetsu Kariya & Akira Hanasaki -- 5/10. This is more of an Iron Chef-style food manga, where Manly Men compete to make The Best Food Possible. I'm not really a fan. I did enjoy their recipe for "eggplant for people who don't like eggplant." It's also interesting to read because it's a bit older, and shows how environmentalist sentiments manifest in Japan (ex.: "eat local" is taken to mean, in part, "eat Japanese varieties of vegetables, because they are obviously superior").

Published Fiction

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (5-book series) -- 9/10. Along with Temeraire, this fiction takes its place in the very small "feminist historical fantasy about dragons set near 1800" genre. Along with Temeraire, it's truly excellent. One of the few series that tracks a set of realistic scientific discoveries (the main other example I can think of is the sadly-unfinished Steerswoman series), and the characters and plot are also pretty great. Highly recommended.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon -- 7/10. I read this series because I was tired of reading stuff oriented towards the male gaze, and wanted something with a hefty dose of heterosexual female gaze. I was not disappointed in that regard. Plenty of "his iron-hard thighs covered with soft golden down", et cetera. It does, however, adhere to the unfortunate trope of romance novels not really getting what consent is. (This is mostly in the first book or two, though.)

I also learned, from these books, what all those people on Tumblr were talking about when they complain about gay characters being depicted as villains or, at best, never achieving true happiness. I can't comment on the depiction of Native Americans in later books, due to my own lack of knowledge, but I suspect that someone more informed than I would not be pleased.

The plot of these books is just ... truly weird, and doesn't conform at all to normal narrative expectations about the setup. It's a time travel story, but it's mostly not about time travel at all. In fact, a lot of it is more ... slice of life.

Some of it is also, frankly, just plain gross. The main character is a surgeon and the books go into a remarkably unpleasant level of detail about certain operations.

Overall, though, I found these enjoyable, with a number of caveats. (I also learned a surprising amount about Scottish and early American history.)
I wouldn't recommend them to everyone, but they are certainly good for what they are.

Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin -- 8/10. I liked these, but not as much as I'd hoped to given how highly they came recommended. I spent half the series on the edge of my seat waiting for the big backstory/explanatory reveal about the Moon, which never really came; the mechanics of the world were much less fleshed-out and much more handwavy than I was hoping. It's nevertheless very good; I think I've just been spoiled by rationalist fiction and Brandon Sanderson, where there's always some greater mystery that gets revealed and makes sense of things in some satisfying fashion. This book was satisfying, but not in that particular way.