Land value capture is an idea whose time has come

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Using land value capture for New York City subway improvements makes sense because other funding methods have failed politically. Earmarking some of the state income tax to the subway might be better, but people who don’t use the subway — the majority in New York State — just don’t want to pay. So the state must look elsewhere.

In the meantime, new subway lines are rare, even though the population and economic output of the city have grown substantially. The new Second Avenue line opened only last year, though construction started in 1972 and had to overcome numerous fiscal and political obstacles. On the older lines, delays are frequent and the system lacks modern technology. It is not unusual for signal switches to date from the 1930s. By one estimate, a much-needed revamp of the New York City subway system would cost more than $100 billion.

It is also good practice to consider when one’s argument doesn’t hold:

My own locality, Fairfax County in northern Virginia, treats landowners and real estate developers pretty favorably. They have been a dominant special interest group with many state and local politicians. That might not sound ideal, but those individuals have strongly supported the building out of the community, creating jobs and keeping down home prices. If landowners had been asked to foot more of the bill, the local political pressures for pro-growth policies probably would have been less strong and a NIMBY mentality would have prevailed. Unlike with the New York City subway, here the local interests have much greater sway, and thus land value capture could clog up politics rather than inducing new construction.

Recently I spent a day at a conference discussing Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty,” a late 19th century work that is perhaps the best-selling economics book in U.S. history. George spent much of his life campaigning for a relatively high tax on land and thus landlords, developing the fairness and efficiency arguments I mentioned above. By the end of the conference, I concluded that George had some good economic arguments, but also that he was politically naive. At the margin we should move in George’s direction, but ultimately landowners have to be part of the building coalitions rather than pure victims.

Do read the whole thing.


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