Tax and Mend

It may sound boring, but the LVT could help fix our economy.

By Kellie C. Murphy
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 32 | Posted Nov. 26, 2008

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Mind the map: Residential neighborhoods would see a tax decrease under LVT--some (like Kensington, above) as much as 95 percent.

"The mayor wants to rely on a playbook that goes back to every recession since 1930," says R. Joshua Vincent, executive director of the Henry George Foundation of America Center, speaking of Michael Nutter. "It sounds corny, but why in a city of poor people are poor people being expected to shoulder the city's burden?"

Whether it's libraries or pools, neighborhood folk are feeling the pain. But Vincent and those in his organization think there's an alternative to all this penny- pinching: a new kind of tax reform--the kind that will blow the roof off the Philadelphia tax structure. Vincent and other experts call it "Tax 2.0." And the accelerant for this roof-blowing? Land Value Taxation, or LVT.

LVT is half of the city property tax--the half nobody knows. Building or structures taxation--the tax city residents have come to dread--encourages blight because as buildings improve, taxes get raised, which is debilitating for a home or small business owner. Conversely, utilizing LVT puts the onus back onto big business and the slumlords. By taxing the land and lowering (if not abolishing) the tax on structures, the city reaps tax revenue in a more even-handed way.

"If you look at the newspapers, they're saying business taxes are dropping, transfer taxes are dropping, wage taxes are dropping. But you don't hear anything about real estate taxes dropping," says Vincent. "That's because people pay their real estate taxes. They always do. So our idea is that real estate taxes will end up being more of a go-to tax."

LVT typically carries a higher rate than structures taxation, and experts agree that most city taxpayers would see significant decreases in property taxes under a tax configuration that puts LVT to use. This theory has held in other Pennsylvania towns like Altoona and Allentown in the wake of the steel industry collapse. Harrisburg was brought back from near bankruptcy via LVT.

But the small-city model of tax restructuring using LVT could prove disastrous for a large, urban center.

"I've talked to a lot of people around the world about this issue," says Barry Mescolotto, acting director of assessments for the City of Philadelphia. "I spoke to a delegate we had here recently from an African country that just went through a civil war, and didn't have taxes at all, and who came here to study the way we assess property. I said to him, 'If I were starting fresh, like you are, and had very few buildings that were worth anything, I would absolutely set up the tax structure to use LVT from the beginning.' It's easy to maintain, very efficient and it works."

But Mescolotto sees obstacles when implementing LVT in a fully developed city: "Who's to say what the land is worth under all these buildings?"

Nonetheless, Mescolotto's office is implementing a new valuation system called RealWare, which values each property as a separate component from the land.

"But we can't totally remove improvement assessments in a modern city because you can't easily tell the difference between amenities to residential properties," he points out.

Vincent knows there are obstacles.

"We have to really persuade people. This is an idea that can be brought in without hurting the 'big dog,'" he says. "Here people are a little nervous because most valuable land, really valuable land, which would be taxed, is owned by corporate entities that are rather powerful."

Simply put, LVT rates are higher for land than for property. Therefore, corporations, abandoned lots, empty zoned-for-retail structures and high rises would be taxed enormously under LVT, while the corner bodega owner and many rowhome neighborhoods would get reassessed to a lower rate than the current standard.

"Say a guy owns a ramshackle house in North Philly, and his tenants say, 'Why don't you fix the roof and put in new bathrooms and pipes?,'" says Robert Inman, professor of finance and economics at Penn. "And he says, 'Okay, maybe you'll pay a little more in rent, but the assessor will come by and bump up my taxes,' so he doesn't do it. The property part of the property tax discourages people from improving their homes."

That, says Vincent, is what LVT could help resolve.

"We would be shifting away from having people sitting on land that's blighted or underused," he says. "There's so much vacant land out there. The more valuable the city becomes, the more land value tax revenue can come in and we can leave small businesses and home owners alone."

Philadelphia had a tax reform commission a few years ago with Michael Nutter as chairman. Yet reform commissions don't necessarily create lasting reform. Professor Inman read the report the commission released, and notes that changes like these won't be easy, especially after moving away from two very unpopular taxes: the city wage tax and the gross receipts tax.

"Change is very difficult. If a new tax has a lot of attractive features, the most important thing to do in any kind of reform is to spend the money wisely," he says. "Spending money from a land tax to continue reducing the other two taxes would be a real improvement for the city economy. But to have change you really have to have progressive political leadership that's willing to say, 'I understand that most of the city's going to be better off with change, so let's try this.'"

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 32 of 32
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1. Steven Cord said... on Nov 25, 2008 at 06:56PM

“Land tax good, building tax bad. Just do it gradually, a bit more each year. ”

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2. Steven Cord said... on Nov 25, 2008 at 06:56PM

“Land tax good, building tax bad. Just do it gradually, a bit more each year.”

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3. Nicholas D. Rosen said... on Nov 25, 2008 at 07:20PM

“Maybe the assessors can't do an absolutely perfect job of distinguishing land value from building value, but so what? Right now, land and buildings are taxed at the same rate, so people who improve their properties get hit with higher taxes, while slumlord and speculators owning vacant lots get off easy. If land were taxed at, say, four times the rate on buildings, that would be a great improvement (and cutting the tax on improvements would lead to great improvements, if you'll pardon the pun). If assessments weren't perrfect, and someone paid land-rate taxes on a small part of the value of his building, or someone got off paying only the building rate on part of the value of his land, we'd still be much closer to a good tax system than we are now.”

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4. Mason Gaffney said... on Nov 26, 2008 at 06:37AM

“Land values are marked by continuity in space; building values are not. That's why you can put land values on a map - most neighboring parcels are comparable to each other in value. That's how NYC taxed residential land values while exempting new buildings (below a ceiling value) from 1921-32, and boomed while Philly and other eastern cities faded. Its outstanding Tax Commissioner, Lawson Purdy, wrote a manual on how to do it. It's pretty dull for most readers, but for a livelier presentation see "New Life in Old Cities", from the Robert Schalkenbach Fdtn., New York City.”

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5. Edward Dodson said... on Nov 26, 2008 at 06:37AM

“Land values are marked by continuity in space; building values are not. That's why you can put land values on a map - most neighboring parcels are comparable to each other in value. That's how NYC taxed residential land values while exempting new buildings (below a ceiling value) from 1921-32, and boomed while Philly and other eastern cities faded. Its outstanding Tax Commissioner, Lawson Purdy, wrote a manual on how to do it. It's pretty dull for most readers, but for a livelier presentation see "New Life in Old Cities", from the Robert Schalkenbach Fdtn., New York City.”

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6. Edward Dodson said... on Nov 26, 2008 at 07:06AM

“What is being proposed has been needed for decades. For over 30 years I worked in the housing finance sector and watched as rising land prices made housing less and less affordable for lower- and middle-income families. The only way to stabilized land prices at an affordable level is by making it unprofitable to hold land off the market (or, to ignore the land you do own because the taxes are so low you need do nothing with it). Philadelphia (and all communities) ought to be moving toward a land only property tax base, so that some time in the near future all property improvements are exempt from taxation and the full location rental values are collected to pay for public goods and services. ”

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7. Alanna Hartzok said... on Nov 28, 2008 at 11:29AM

“I have recently completed development of a global education program on land value taxation, or land value "capture" as it is coming to be known worldwide. From our analysis of the use of this policy both in the US and other developed countries there is no obstacle to separating land value from building/improvements value. Mr. Mescolotto should rest assured that there are no practical barriers for implementation of this policy in Philadelphia and the benefits would no doubt be significant.”

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8. stillman said... on Nov 28, 2008 at 11:29AM

“I have recently completed development of a global education program on land value taxation, or land value "capture" as it is coming to be known worldwide. From our analysis of the use of this policy both in the US and other developed countries there is no obstacle to separating land value from building/improvements value. Mr. Mescolotto should rest assured that there are no practical barriers for implementation of this policy in Philadelphia and the benefits would no doubt be significant.”

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9. Jonathan Hall said... on Dec 1, 2008 at 02:03PM

“The very value that city government creates falls on the land. If the police, firemen, and other city workers are creating value then it will appear at the only purchase needed to attain them, and that is the land. The value does not attach to buildings because they can be built up or down independently but the land area of a city does not change with private sales. Land is where the created value is realized in the market. If land does not carry the burden of funding these departments then subsidy, theft and crippled cities are the result. Its a no-brainer that the most effective way to fund preservation and enhancement of a city is with the value it creates. ”

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10. stillman said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 09:49AM

“It seems clear that the wage tax and gross receipts tax are killing the opportunity for Philadelphia to make any growth as a city, forget about tax revenues for a moment. the most wealth in the city is locked up for all intent and purpose by the wealthiest land owners who have no incentives to put that land back into use. this mode of taxation not only can spur better tax revenues but it can start to make Philadelphia itself grow again by tapping into its greatest resource - its people.”

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11. Frank de Jong said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 09:59AM

“LVT is an excellent idea. If buildings were taxed lightly--or not at all--and land taxed more heavily, building sprawl would become more expensive than building infill. The invisible hand of the market would do the rest: • the amount of affordable housing available would increase, even without involving subsidies, since builders could avoid higher land costs by building efficiently on small lots (row houses, low-rise, semi-detached); • housing stock and rental units would improve since renovations, additions and other improvements would not incur increased taxation while adding rental and resale value to property; • the amount of vacant land, parking lots and other urban land uses that bring in minimal revenue would be reduced since property owners would be able to develop this land without tax penalty; and • suburban sprawl would decline since servicing new developments would incur high land taxes whereas higher density infill would avoid taxation. Municipalities could gradually make the shift to a land- or site-based tax. Assessors would, as now, continue to appraise buildings independently of the land they are built upon. And zoning for various types of land use would remain unchanged. However, city hall would set one tax rate for buildings and another for land. Over the years, the rate for buildings would be reduced and the rate for land increased to make up the difference. The shift could be partial or entire, depending on how seriously the municipality wished to reduce sprawl. This tax "split and shift" is meant to be revenue-neutral: overall taxes for the average residential property owner would not increase or decrease.”

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12. Art Costa said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 10:09AM

“Mr. Vincent is absolutely right, for reasons which are not only critical to cities, like Phillidelphia, but to entire regions and states. Healthy city regions are critical to a stable economic base. LVT provides bother the immediate need of revenue by tapping the untapped wealth which resides in empty buildings and vacant lots within the most viable land areas in a city and providing the necessary fair revenues to pay for what the city needs - infrastructure, schools and social services. It is the fairness of LVT which is as important as the sufficiency of revenue it produces that makes it so essential in urban centers. The tax base in our cities has dwindled in large part because we starve it from tapping the very wealth continued within. And then we ask the state and outlying areas to pay to keep the city hobbling along. This is just not a sustainable scenario, but one we all find ourselves in. LVT relieves that by freeing up land wealth, reducing the burden of those already paying their fair share (and, in some cases, more). It is a win-win proposition. The way it is implemented mitigates risk while starting to reconnect the vitality of the urban center. PA is in the exceptional situation whereby the City can make the decision. Do it! ”

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13. Sue Honsl said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 10:09AM

“Mr. Vincent is absolutely right, for reasons which are not only critical to cities, like Phillidelphia, but to entire regions and states. Healthy city regions are critical to a stable economic base. LVT provides bother the immediate need of revenue by tapping the untapped wealth which resides in empty buildings and vacant lots within the most viable land areas in a city and providing the necessary fair revenues to pay for what the city needs - infrastructure, schools and social services. It is the fairness of LVT which is as important as the sufficiency of revenue it produces that makes it so essential in urban centers. The tax base in our cities has dwindled in large part because we starve it from tapping the very wealth continued within. And then we ask the state and outlying areas to pay to keep the city hobbling along. This is just not a sustainable scenario, but one we all find ourselves in. LVT relieves that by freeing up land wealth, reducing the burden of those already paying their fair share (and, in some cases, more). It is a win-win proposition. The way it is implemented mitigates risk while starting to reconnect the vitality of the urban center. PA is in the exceptional situation whereby the City can make the decision. Do it!”

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14. Alan Feinberg said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 10:25AM

“It makes enormous sense to reduce speculation and increase improvements.”

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15. andy Mazzone said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 10:27AM

“evidence has shown that states with the highest percent of their funding coming from real estate taxes(a proxy for a lvt),as opposed to sales and income taxes supplying the majority of the funding, usually have the highest personal income per capita. This is indirect evidence of the benefits that a lvt would bring.”

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16. H W Batt said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 10:28AM

“Phili's chance to institute a land value tax could turn its failing economy toward renewal -- what more argument could city leaders ask for! The data simulations all demonstrate its power, all arguments accord fully with economic theory, and the record of cities elsewhere makes clear that such a tax shift powerfully works. Taking the other perspective, there's ample demonstration of how the taxes on labor and goods have all but destroyed its economy. If no action eventuates in times like these, it's unlikely ever to occur. Now's the time. We're watching, even from here in New York.”

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17. Rich Nymoen said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 11:31AM

“The land tax seems like a no brainer. If insurance companies can tell the difference between the land and building value of a property, then the assessors can do it too.”

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18. Wyn Carter Achenbaum said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 12:21PM

“As someone who grew up in the then-distant Philadelphia suburbs near Valley Forge, and has watched as Philly's sprawl has made that area merely a waypoint in thousands of people's daily commutes, I applaud the proposal to use Land Value Taxation to reverse the centrifugal force that Philadelphia's wage and sales taxes and over-taxing of buildings and undertaxing of its land values have created. Philadelphia has the transportation system and many other kinds of vital infrastructure, but its tax structure permits, even encourages, the underuse of its choicest sites, well served by that infrastructure. LVT is the only tool I know of to nudge those who are sitting on empty nests in choice locations to start laying eggs there themselves, or to make those nests available to entrepreneurs who will. Neighborhoods with empty lots can blossom with neighbors who will help make them lovely places to live, for all. Commercial blocks with too many parking lots or chainlink-and-weeds parks will give way to 21st century buildings which will house the businesses for entrepreneurs whose vision now goes untested, and housing for people who currently must drive or otherwise commute long distances to housing they can afford, wasting time, energy and polluting the air. Urban sites ought not to be investors' nest eggs or planned bequests for grandchildren to do with as they might choose 20 or 30 years from now. Rather, we should set our incentives to nudge the nest-sitters to lay eggs now and hatch them. Reducing the annual "penalty" on having good, modern, technologically efficient and appealing buildings, and increasing the incentives that lead to more intensive use of underused sites will create jobs and affordable housing and short commutes and less energy usage and prosperity, for all. Which of these outcomes would you prefer not to have?”

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19. Robert Jene said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 12:21PM

“As someone who grew up in the then-distant Philadelphia suburbs near Valley Forge, and has watched as Philly's sprawl has made that area merely a waypoint in thousands of people's daily commutes, I applaud the proposal to use Land Value Taxation to reverse the centrifugal force that Philadelphia's wage and sales taxes and over-taxing of buildings and undertaxing of its land values have created. Philadelphia has the transportation system and many other kinds of vital infrastructure, but its tax structure permits, even encourages, the underuse of its choicest sites, well served by that infrastructure. LVT is the only tool I know of to nudge those who are sitting on empty nests in choice locations to start laying eggs there themselves, or to make those nests available to entrepreneurs who will. Neighborhoods with empty lots can blossom with neighbors who will help make them lovely places to live, for all. Commercial blocks with too many parking lots or chainlink-and-weeds parks will give way to 21st century buildings which will house the businesses for entrepreneurs whose vision now goes untested, and housing for people who currently must drive or otherwise commute long distances to housing they can afford, wasting time, energy and polluting the air. Urban sites ought not to be investors' nest eggs or planned bequests for grandchildren to do with as they might choose 20 or 30 years from now. Rather, we should set our incentives to nudge the nest-sitters to lay eggs now and hatch them. Reducing the annual "penalty" on having good, modern, technologically efficient and appealing buildings, and increasing the incentives that lead to more intensive use of underused sites will create jobs and affordable housing and short commutes and less energy usage and prosperity, for all. Which of these outcomes would you prefer not to have?”

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20. Billy Fitzgerald said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 12:24PM

“People respond to incentives. If the objective is to generate jobs, raise incomes and improve Philadelphia, then why are those jobs, incomes and improvements discouraged by taxing them? Land Value Taxation (LVT) is not a tax but a user fee - a payment for benefit received. A parking meter is an example of LVT - if you want to park, just pay the fee. You are paying for the use of the land under your vehicle. Land close to centers of population and with easy access to public services is ideal for development and use and therefore very valuable. Create an incentive to put the land to work (and avoid urban blight) by charging user fees based on the annual rental value of the land. Encourage employment by lowering taxes on wages and incomes. Foster renovation by reducing the tax on building improvements. If we wish to change behaviors, we must change incentives. ”

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21. Cazie Perry said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 12:58PM

“Mr. Vincent did a wonderful job explaining the LVT. I think the City of Philadelphia need to take a real good look at the LVT. Some of our fiscal problems could be solved.”

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22. Caspar Davis said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 05:11PM

“LVT is simply a better mousetrap. Assessing land value should actually be much easier than assessing buildings, since it is almost entirely dependent on location. Infrastructure improvements are the main source of disproportionate property value increases - especially rail transit, which causes property valuers to soar, entirely because of investment made by the city as a whole. Therefore the whole city should reap the benefit, not just the local property holders. LVT works for cities and for everyone except the people and corporations who are sitting on undeveloped, or underdeveloped urban land in hopes of getting windfall profits.”

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23. Robert Jene said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 08:16PM

“This tax shift adds incentive to taxation - the incentive to use land more productively. It recognizes the social nature of land and therefore is a natural solution to a flagging economy. I hope you realize that it would help everybody. I do not subscribe to the idea that commercial, industrial and retail users would be bearing more of the burden. What are you thinking about? These are the people who are already using the land more productively and providing jobs, goods and services to the community all the while being taxed on the capital they have invested in their enterprises. I do not like the notion of the political pandering some use to promote this idea by promising that most home owners and small business owners would have a reduction in property taxes. This is not the point. Citizens should be proud to pay their property tax under this system regardless of whether their property tax goes up or down. The built in incentive in this tax shift will make big improvemens on the local economy of their neighborhood for all to enjoy.”

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24. Mirella Landriscina said... on Dec 3, 2008 at 07:34AM

“Any Philadelphian who works in Center City, occasionally catches a movie there, sometimes visits the Gallery, or drops by a few times a year to enjoy dinner at a favorite restaurant downtown, should be for the land value tax. Why? Because when you do any of these things you help raise the value of land in Center City. All of the Philadelphians regularly working, dining, or visiting Center City create the value of that land. But, currently, it's mostly corporate real estate owners who get to profit from the land value Philadelphians create together. The land value tax will help correct some of that imbalance, so that the city as a whole benefits from the activities and the energy that the city as a whole produces.”

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25. Sue Honsl said... on Dec 7, 2008 at 06:28PM

“I'm happy to see so many positive comments in favour of the land value based taxation idea. This is a sound, just way of taxation that encourages more productive land use, creates housing and jobs and as an added social and ecological bonus - can create self-funding public transit. Better transit routes add to land values - increased land value tax gets used to pay off the capital costs of the transit; fares pay for operating costs. Hope this type of tax measure gets (back) in in Philadelphia. ”

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26. JDK said... on Dec 20, 2008 at 03:39PM

“After all is said and done, it seems that more should be done than said. This idea has been around in actual use for many years in Pennsylvania (unlike other states where legal obstacles exists). Vincent's organization CSE (which helped other PA jurisdictions actually implement LVT in the 70s, 80s and 90S) has been located in Philly for a decade. Articles explaining the salubrious effect that LVT could promote abound in Philadelphia press over the years. But what they all lack is the direct naming of names of the only people that can actually make LVT happen: the elected officials. These elected city officials (the mayor and council) need to be pinned down on the record with respect to their positions. Until you get a majority on the record for LVT, it will never happen. Good ideas, like LVT just don't happen. Elected officials have to vote to enact them. They will vote for even the best of good ideas ONLY if they have a colleague who is a champion and leads them, or if they fear they will not get reelected if they fail to enact something or if they see a situation so bad that they will try almost anything.”

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27. David Chester said... on Jan 1, 2009 at 06:41AM

“As a tax payer whose money has been used for improvement of my town and its infra-structure, where is my return on this business investment? As the land becomes more productive and valuable, surely I deserve some interest or dividend on what I have plowed into the ground under my town. Yet the land owner is legally allowed to take it as a return on his investment in a natural resource that he has no right to with-hold and which is regared by many as a gift to all. And the strange thing is that the rent, being the means by which the productive advantages of the land should be shared on a national basis, this rent is something that for most part he is not even aware of. I would like to see all annual accounting statements by the big concerns with the ground rent entered on both sides of the ledgers, then it would at least be clear what they are doing with our dividends from our land rights. I would most prefer to see that the moral principles by which the US was founded, be expressed today through LVT so that what is being taken by the monopolist landlords and banks be returned to the people. Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor and he is still thought of as a hero. Our government does the same thing 600 years later in the name of achieving ends without yet being aware of the unscrupulous means by which what is mistakenly thought to be justice is obtained. The ends have never justified the means: TAX TAKINGS NO MAKINGS”

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28. David Chester said... on Jan 1, 2009 at 06:44AM

“Sorry about the spelling of the last line. Replace NO with NOT of course! ”

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29. dawn shiner said... on Jan 2, 2009 at 09:09PM

“I have been trying to grasp this Land Value Taxation piece for years. I highly recommend reading Henry George's Progress and Poverty. I also just gained a great deal of clarity reading "Taxation Housing and Social Mobility" -- Dr. Adrian Wrigley's Fringe meeting presentation at the Liberal Democrat Conference, September 2008, Bournemouth. fiscalreform@fmail.co.uk There is great soundness in this tax structure' in that it benefits the whole. Albeit those invested in the current disempowering economic scheme of things will resist, I'm glad Barry Mescolotto sees the ease of maintenance, efficiency and that "it works." The task at hand is a concerted educational effort. May the people understanding how economics can work for the good of the whole and demand it. What I don't understand is why the people don't demand Land Value Taxation for their own overall well-faire. ”

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30. JDK said... on Jun 4, 2009 at 04:24PM

“Great Idea, as I've previously noted:

But as usually, when all is said and done; there continues to be more said than done.

It time to name names. Are they for or against LVT. If they won't be put on the record in writing as for LVT, then they are against it.

1st District - Frank DiCicco
2nd District - Anna C. Verna
3rd District - Jannie L. Blackwell
4th District - Curtis Jones, Jr.
5th District - Darrell L. Clarke
6th District - Joan L. Krajewski
7th District - Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez
8th District - Donna Reed Miller
9th District - Marian B. Tasco
10th District - Brian J. O'Neill

Blondell Reynolds Brown
W. Wilson Goode, Jr.
Bill Green
William K. Greenlee
Jack Kelly
James F. Kenney
Frank Rizzo”

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31. Scott Baker said... on Jul 1, 2009 at 09:31AM

“As a recent graduate of the NY Henry George School of Social Science, I recognize the Single Tax when I see it! Yes, we need this kind of reform desperately. For contrast, witness what is happening in Proposition-13 hobbled California, where it has become impossible to raise revenue except in good times. (They also need a state bank like North Dakota has, one of 4 states running a surplus this year. See Ellen Brown's article on that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ellen-brown/californias-empty-wallet_b_222622.html).
As an editor for Op Ed News, I thought this article was so valuable I posted a link to it in today's edition. See my multiple articles on Henry George and Geonomics there too.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Let's act now!”

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32. John Steinsvold said... on Jul 2, 2009 at 08:58PM

“An Alternative to Capitalism?

The following link, takes you to a "utopian" article, entitled "Home of the Brave?" which I wrote and appeared in the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/steinsvold.htm

John Steinsvold

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