Proposed new local spending currency can only work with a full land rent

Council owned land Manukau. The other property owners get unearned capital gains from rise in land value.

Two of my previous posts have advocated local authorities get authority from Government to issue a new currency which decays like ordinary goods decay. It would exist alongside the national currency. Because it decays, it will circulate much faster than the national currency, the rate being dependant on the rate of decay.

The previous idea was to do what the Mayor of Wōrgl, Austria did during the Great Depression in 1932, to spend it into existence by paying part of the wages of council employees in that currency. In the case of Wōrgl that was a Work Certificate that had to be stamped every month. Owners of the certificates would have to buy a stamp every month worth 1% of the note’s face value. That means over 12% a year of decay, or a -12% interest rate. Well that turned out to be big because the certificates circulated so fast that the town had to withdraw a large percentage of the notes from circulation.

Unemployment dropped and a great deal of infrastructure was built all within the space of the 15 months that they currency existed. Wōrgl was the centre of attention and many local towns wanted to do the same.

The locking down of countries including of borders during the pandemic has left us facing a worldwide depression worse than the Great Depression. In New Zealand we will always be partly dependent on the rest of the world, no matter how successfully we manage our borders to keep out the virus. Interdependence is a fact of life.

But there has always been another elephant in the room. If you could buy property with this new local money that circulates so much faster than the national currency it would fuel a property boom. You would just blow up land prices. And, as anyone familiar with leasehold properties knows,  you can only keep land prices down by extracting the proper land rent from them.

It is possible, even probable, that Wōrgl in 1932 will have had their rates struck on unimproved land values and their rates might have been relatively high compared with 21st century New Zealand. I don’t really know.

To stop speculation land rent is needed

The elephant in the room is about the need to have a full land rental on land. What is that, you say? It should be about 5 or 6% of the unimproved land value, according to valuers I know. And this should go to the public purse because it is the public that has built the infrastructure to give the landowners the windfall and it is the public that has set up businesses and organisations and clubs and facilities in the district. And we know the main cause of wealth disparity is the privilege given to property owners.

Well, think of Auckland which has had leasehold land for years and the land owners reap that windfall which rightly belongs to the public (read Central Government or Local Government).

In 2108 Core Logic estimated there to be roughly 17,000 leasehold properties currently in New Zealand. A lot are in Auckland and 15% of central city apartments are on leasehold land. Land is usually owned by churches, councils. Christs College in Christchurch once owned land under 2000 homes there. Most online references to leasehold land mention the banks are  averse to lending on leasehold land. Many tell you that investors  won’t get any capital gain and some talk about the sudden jumps in yearly ground rent, especially when the land rent rises if the land is sold. Most ridiculous of all you still have to pay rates. What a mess!

The banks are loath to lend on them. Guess why? Because when land increases in value due to community activity around it, and the land is sold, the banks will be able to lend out more money. Or I should say they will be able to create more brand new money and get the interest on it. As a group banks want their share of the eventual capital gain. But with leasehold properties, they would be lending only on the value of the house and that doesn’t have any capital gain. In fact it usually declines.

Obviously the owners of  land are the ones to gain from a tax system that turns a blind eye to their unearned gains.  Groups that lease out land with houses on them include St Johns Trust in Auckland that used to own more, but still owns properties in Tamaki Drive. The rent they enjoy should be reaped by society.

If you buy a house on leasehold land you pay a ground rent. This can be enormous and it means that the price of leasehold properties is extraordinarily low. Add in the sudden jumps of the seven year lease reviews and you get more problems.

Let’s look on Trademe Property. One house advertised now called On the Park is in Campbell Road, One Tree Hill costing $170k with a rental of $27,500 a year, fixed to 2017. The agent says the big house would cost $2 million if it were on freehold land. At a 5.5% rent ratio I work out that the land value would be around $500,000.

Ngati Whatua owns some properties on leasehold land and Napier Port used to. There will be many more owners in Raglan, New Plymouth and Lake Rotoma who are reaping the full land rental.

Land owners, industrialists and bankers still hold power

So let’s get back to  the process of colonisation because this may shed some light. When colonists arrived they  were steeped in Western economic belief that land could be owned, whereas this was a completely foreign concept to Māori. Moreover our colonist ancestors had commercial banks and within decades had a national currency. Tax had to be paid in that currency. It’s all tied up. Britain had of course previously discovered that land ownership led to a huge growth of banking and industry. But they had to subvert the economics departments of universities to prevent them from telling it how it was. As Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison wrote, the land barons, industrialists and bankers were the ones originally to corrupt the economics departments of American universities by conflating land with capital and omitting mention of banks and money.

Today that power is ever present. Efforts to bring in a full land tax or land rent at central Government level will prove fruitless. The 2010 Tax Working Group report concluded a land tax was needed but it was completely ignored by the then government. Our Prime Minister stated in 2019 that while she leads the Labour Party there will be no capital gains tax. And both of these reports recommended that only a small proportion of the unearned gains be recouped by Government not the full land rent. They belong to Government.

So how do we find a solution?

Somehow, somewhere, someone is going to finally understand that working for reform at central level is not going to have results. We don’t need to waste all that time fruitless badgering central government when their hands are actually tied. The banks, the land owners and the industrialists, even of New Zealand Aotearoa, are between them far too powerful to allow a full land rent nationally and what’s more they will resist any monetary reform at central level.

It’s how the world works.

Could the other way of issuing new money be by buying up land using partly the new local money that decays? And if so, what land should be bought? Can the Council like the NZTA force the sale of property? At local level land at least some land is Council owned now.

It’s usually parks, cemeteries, and golf courses that are owned by council now. Auckland

And could local government collect the full land rent? Councils are bound by the laws governing them. They can only strike their rates as Central Government dictates and rates have never captured the full land rent. Landowners still reap some unearned capital gain.

There is one thing that is currently hard to get our heads around. Councils at some time are going to have to defy or disobey the Central Government. The political challenges of combining a full land rent with monetary reform are considerable, but not insuperable if we put our collective minds to it.

If we don’t, the wealth gap will continue to widen and when we have so many ultrarich we won’t be able to control climate change. Oxfam in a 2015 study found that it is this group of ultrarich (10%) that emits half of our total emissions. And with an unliveable climate billions will die. That is not being too melodramatic.

 

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Rebooting the Economy for Justice and Sustainability

Here is my recipe for what Government must do to revive the economy after the coronavirus.

  1. Have a Debt Jubilee. Our private debt has been growing steadily, fuelled mostly by the housing bubble. It has been going up since the GFC in 2008 and recently flattened out. So how does private debt get relieved? By a one- off handout to all citizens. Australia after the GFC was the only country to not to go into a recession after the GFC, largely because it gave $1000 to all who had paid tax. The handout was reduced for those receiving higher salaries and those receiving $100,000 or more didn’t get one. In addition they doubled the handout to first home buyers. Those receiving it must pay off their debt with it as a first action. Of course this should go to everyone with a bank account not everyone who had paid tax the previous year as it clearly omits those who care for children without pay or who care for elderly.
  2. Because the virus has exposed the huge poverty and homelessness in New Zealand, it is critical to address the housing issue. So far we have had the wrong approach. The large gap between rich and poor is largely the result of “the getting on the housing ladder” phenomenon. Those who own houses have seen their net wealth increase because the price of houses rises. Recently the best way to invest money is to buy property. The price of houses rises due to a. The building of government infrastructure like railway, hospitals or schools. b. Local government infrastructure like roads, buses, sewage, water, underground rail. c. Natural features like rivers, elevation, lakes, climate. d. Commercial activity in the area. e. Neighbours building. In other words society as a whole is responsible for rises in house prices. The capital gains belong to society not the individual land owner. Of course the building value doesn’t increase it is actually the land value that increases. Land Value Tax is the obvious solution but the nearest thing we have now is the rates let’s look at that. Unfortunately if we have got into the practice of striking rates on the capital value of the house so we disincentivise building. So one of my first actions would be to legislate to require all councils to strike rates on land value alone (or unimproved value). This would also stop urban sprawl. I also think rates should be levied as a percentage of land value, and this should be raised at the same time as income tax and GST are phased out. GST is regressive and income tax is plain illogical. And you could reduce the cost of resource consents which would make it cheaper to build. While talk of a wealth tax is easily understood, it should be for using land and other natural resources not that acquired through entrepreneurship or hard work. This action would also divert investment towards useful businesses. Most investments in NZ now are property because our tax settings have encouraged it.
  3. The third thing I would do would be immediately would be to establish a public bank like the Bank of Dakota to fund infrastructure. Alternatively the Social Credit leader and many economists have talked about the Reserve Bank buying Government Bonds at zero interest from the Treasury. I am not sure which of these would be better.
  4. You may have thought that a UBI should have been first on my list. No, it’s not because if it is funded the wrong way it is disastrous. For example by putting up GST or income tax – wrong. UBI should be thought of as “sharing the rents”. People are getting back what they are entitled to. In other words our real wealth is our land, our water, our fisheries, our forests, the air. Those who monopolise more than their share should compensate the rest of society. Carbon taxes and pollution taxes fall into this category as well as land, which is the big one. But also tax on natural monopolies, like the monopoly to create the country’s money which the banks have.
  5. Legislate to allow councils to create a local currency with a circulation incentive. The law would also require the more well-off local people to back the currency with national currency and a committee to ensure there was no inflation. This currency is strictly for spending and is not a saving currency. It may be that government itself could issue this currency, since it would be simpler to alter all EFTPOS machines to accept two currencies and we are a small country.
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Interview on the Big Shift

Half hour interview with Karl Fitzgerald of Prosper Australia on the Big Shift. https://www.mixcloud.com/RenegadeEconomists/

I was surprised when I played it today how animated I sounded. Now I need to finish promoting this book and get on with writing the next one, probably entitled Emergency with a subtitle about the need to have a climate currency and how it could be applied.

The notes are on Karl’s site

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