Common Ground USA Co-Sponsored Internet Forum
Herbert Barry, III
GroundSwell, November-December 2003]
An email forum, 10-16 October 2003, was entitled "Taxes
Without Tears." It was the second forum of "The Simple
Society's Alliance for Human Empowerment," organized by John
Watkins. It began with an introductory message by each of eight
panelists. A larger number of participants received the messages and
also could send messages to the entire group. Common Ground-USA
donated $100 and designated Nadine Stoner, Herb Barry, Gib
Halverson, Sue Walton, Chuck Metalitz, and Wyn Achenbaum as
participants. Hanno Beck participated for the Banneker Center.
The seven e-forum panelists included five Georgists whom I know
and greatly respect: Dr. Fred Foldvary, who chaired the panel,
Jeffrey J. Smith, Edward Dodson, Dr. Steven Cord, and Dr. Nicolaus
Tideman. The others were Paul deLespinasse and Dennis Logue. Notable
participants were students of Fred Foldvary at Santa Clara
University in California.
The participants initially received two essays: "The Henry
George Canons of Taxation" and "The Adam Smith Canons of
Taxation." In accordance with most email discussion groups, the
comments by the panelists and other participants dealt with diverse
topics and problems. A total of several hundred messages were sent
to the participants during the span of seven days. Most of the
messages were brief, printed in a single page.
Nicolaus Tideman in an initial statement suggested that states
should tax localities and national governments should tax states.
The right to secede by states and localities would ensure voluntary
rather than compulsory acceptance of the tax imposed by the higher
government. Similarly, individuals and groups would be free to move
away if dissatisfied with the local tax policy. Several messages
disputed this proposal but Tideman did not participate further.
Panelist Steven Cord pointed out the value of knowing the formula
for shifting property taxes from buildings to land. On the third day
he withdrew from the "fruitless talk." The other Georgist
panelists participated actively throughout. Paul deLespinasse was
the only other panelist who participated substantially. John Watkins
participated very constructively.
The majority of participants agreed that taxes should be
decreased on income and sales while taxes on land, on other natural
resources, and user fees should be more important sources of
revenue. There was no consensus of support for Henry George's
proposed "single tax" on land and natural resources,
abolishing all taxes on the fruits of human efforts.
Some highly useful comments were contributed by Georgist
participants. Fred Foldvary proposed "that city charters enable
neighborhoods to go private and deduct the city's savings from the
resident's taxes." Edward Dodson proposed "Exemption of
the value of buildings of all types from the property tax." I
believe that the term "exemption" has the important
advantages that it implies the goal to abolish taxation of buildings
and that it is more likely to obtain public understanding and
support than the equivalent proposal for lower millage on buildings
than on land. Jeffrey Smith stated "Government must collect
first all publicly generated values before even attempting to
collect any privately generated values." Steven Cord commented
on a message "...you seem to be advocating land
nationalization. You'd be giving the government more power than it
has now." Sue Walton stated that the messages were too detailed
and needed to be more practical.
Fred Foldvary asked for preferences on four taxation options. (1)
Land rent, pollution charges, user's fees. (2) Distribute land rent
equally, charge directly for government services. (3) Include wealth
taxes. (4) Tax anything at an equal rate. John Watkins proposed six
attributes of an ideal system. (1) All taxes visible to payers. (2)
User fees or taxes related to cost of the services. (3) Nobody to be
taxed for services to any other person. (4) Rent for the commons
collected and distributed equally to all owners. (5) Services
provided and taxed at the lowest possible government level. (6) Tax
shareholders of corporations rather than corporations. Paul
deLespenasse made four proposals. (1) Repeal social security tax and
other payroll taxes. (2) Repeal all tariffs. (3) Abolish inheritance
taxes. (4) Flat-rate income tax.
Some topics were debated. Should tax rates be different on earned
and unearned income? Fred Foldvary commented "Earned income
comes from labor and unearned income comes from land." Should
there be a wealth tax? Fred Foldvary stated "Wealth can be
hidden, and the production of wealth can be inhibited by taxing it."
Should pollution caused by cars be limited by a tax on gas or on the
pollution emitted by individual cars? Although it is technically
feasible to measure emissions by each car, a tax on gas has the
advantage of simplicity. Are congestion charges desirable? Fred
Foldvary stated that they are a long-term, permanent, necessary
payment. The more general concept is peak-load pricing.
Students at Santa Clara University contributed useful messages. A
few of the comments disputed Georgist proposals, for example stating
that the present tax policies are satisfactory and that it would be
dangerous to change them. These comments expressed the fear that
motivates most people to accept the currently flawed tax policies.
John Watkins requested messages on the last day to discuss the
objectives of a better tax policy. (1) What obstacles stand in the
way of achievement? (2) Which organizations and individuals will be
adversely affected? (3) What's the simplest way to overcome these
barriers? (4) What priority should be assigned if societal resources
must be rationed? The messages on that day generally did not answer
these questions. In common with the messages on prior days, comments
were diverse and generally argumentative.
I believe that the email forum was stimulating and informative
for most of the participants. Messages were generally concise and
cogent. Several participants were experienced, articulate Georgists.
The students at Santa Clara University provided a group of
participants who were not previously committed either to supporting
or opposing Henry George's proposals. In spite of efforts by John
Watkins, the forum did not focus on a clear objective and did not
reach consensus on any general conclusions.