Faculty Profile

C. Lowell Harriss
October 1, 2005

C. Lowell Harriss is Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, where he taught economics from 1938 until his retirement in 1981. He then served as executive director of the Academy of Political Science until 1987. He has been a consultant to and a member of numerous government commissions and boards of professional organizations. He has written and edited many books and hundreds of articles, and is the recipient of countless honors and awards. Dr. Harriss has been a valued associate of the Lincoln Institute since its founding in 1974, as a faculty member, research scholar, and board member. Joan Youngman, senior fellow and chairman of the Institute’s Department of Valuation and Taxation, spoke with him about his lifelong commitment to education, public service, and property taxation.

Joan Youngman: How does land value differ from improvement value as a property tax base?

Lowell Harriss: The significant factor with land is location, the unimproved condition of nature in the most fundamental economic sense. Whatever results from private or public investment and labor, such as streets, buildings, and so forth, is not part of land in this definition. Land differs from other productive resources because it is immobile and its quantity is fixed.

Land exists not because people produce it, but because it’s there by nature. The price one pays for land, as contrasted with other resources, has no role in creating supply. Land is also unique in that no two pieces are the same, so the kind of analysis appropriate for labor and capital with fungible aspects is not applicable to land.

Another important element is the ability to control land use–for example, to receive rent as payment for access, rather than because the owner created anything. The person who controls land use can serve a constructive function by directing it into better instead of poorer uses, and I think there should be the prospect of rewards for doing so. Market forces will indicate demand, and one interested in public policy hopes that the land will be used in the best possible ways. The owner of desirable land will get higher returns, but not because of anything he or she did to create it.

Almost any urban use illustrates this. Some thirty or forty years ago, I was walking down Park Avenue and I saw a very fine building in a key location, 64th Street, I think, housing some offices of the New York City Board of Education—much too valuable a location to be used for administrative purposes. I raised this point with someone in the school system, and he said that they were moving out. They had come to the same economic realization.

Any use of land prevents another use. Holding land idle or partially idle affects not only the owner but neighbors and society at large. Others will have to travel further to get to work or to the grocery store or to school. Land is so crucial, so important to life, that society will be better off if there are forces, market forces or governmental forces, inducing better rather than poorer uses.

JY: How can the tax system encourage better land use?

LH: A tax system that imposes higher taxes on land creates pressure on owners to make more productive use of their land. I don’t like the term “land value tax,” because it emphasizes the tax aspect. My focus over the years has been on reducing the tax rates on structures to induce more investment in improvements. I have not emphasized increasing the tax rates on land to increase pressure for better land use, but these can go together. If the tax system can create a built-in inducement, year in and year out, for better use of land, that will be a plus. I don’t want to be unduly skeptical about more direct land use regulation, but government is politics and the political pressures that affect government regulation do not always represent mankind at its best.

JY: How would you deal with past improvements to land, before the implementation of a land-based tax?

LH: I would just establish the tax on the current condition of the land. The past is past. We’re not talking about a tax on capital gains but a recurring tax on an immobile resource. Some of its current value does reflect prior capital investment, the same as for structures, but I don’t see how to make any differentiation for an annual tax on land value. As a practical matter we have no market for land the way it was hundreds of years ago.

Going forward, it would be desirable to distinguish the value of unimproved land from the value of capital improvements to the land, such as infrastructure and grading, that aren’t viewed commonly as “buildings” but that represent investment and effort. The tax system should not create obstacles to investment. I would certainly be open to learning more about what might be administratively feasible in that regard.

JY: What about the taxation of farms, forests, and open space?

LH: Well, this raises complicated concerns. On one hand, I think it would be good to have additional pressure on some owners of agricultural land to speed up nonagricultural development, especially in the urban fringe. On the other hand, decisions about land use are often irreversible. Covering more acres in Westchester County, where I live, with asphalt and buildings will affect drainage for years to come. I think if anything there should be bias against decisions that are costly in the long run and difficult to reverse if conditions change. But it’s also pretty clear that interests vary, and what is in the interest of farmers is not always in the interest of the public as a whole.

Land is a large part of farm investment, and anticipated future income is reflected in land prices. The market value of land does not necessarily reflect current cash flow, so if taxes are high they may constitute a substantial portion of farm income. I’m sometimes considered not very sympathetic to farmers, because I think they have undue political influence.

The effect of many state and federal programs to benefit farms will be capitalized into higher land values. The consumer will pay forever, and the benefits will go to the person who owned the land when the policy was established. This is not a new conclusion. It’s been in the literature since farm programs began in the 1930s, but it has not affected the political decision-making process. Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts asked why the family farm deserves more consideration than the family shoe store, and I agree with the implication of his question.

JY: What about two people who own identical parcels of land, side by side, but one has a small, older house and the other has a new commercial building or shopping center? Many people think it’s unfair to impose the same tax on both.

LH: There are real problems here, too, partly because of imperfections in the capital markets. The person with unimproved land, let’s say it’s a widow, might ideally get a reverse mortgage to realize cash income from her property. The logical thing at that stage of life is to consume capital, for example, by drawing down retirement accounts. We have a systematic market that enables us to live off of our capital when it’s in the form of financial investments, but it’s not that well developed for the real estate market.

I always want to be sympathetic with the person who is having trouble, but wise public policy cannot be made well by concentrating on the extreme cases. Society needs to deal both with the cases of human need and with other problems such as the pressures on land use. Those whose land has become valuable, not because of what they did, but because of their neighborhood, are lucky, even though they may not recognize it. We need separate instruments to deal with separate problems, such as the person whose tax bill goes up even when his cash income does not.

Another aspect of the question is that the property tax is not a personal tax and cannot be evaluated on the same grounds as, say, an income tax. To attempt to do so can mislead. A rich person may own no land and a person with very little cash may own a good deal of land. There are ways to deal with the cash-flow problem, such as circuit breakers that limit property taxes to a certain percentage of income or deferral of tax payments until the property is sold.

JY: Is speculation a special concern? Is everyone who holds property with the hope that it will rise in value a speculator?

LH: I’ve always been reluctant to use the term “speculation,” and I certainly would not say that public policy should penalize the speculator. But, to the extent that government plays a role, I would say its bias should be toward use rather than idleness, and tax policy also supports this view. There is a whole range of speculation, from an owner deciding not to sell a house this week because of hopes for a better price next week, to holding a plot of ground idle in downtown Manhattan, knowing that someone is going to offer a very high price for it eventually.

The developer is presumably a constructive element in the total process. I don’t think anyone really wants equilibrium, but something better than what would be equilibrium. More people live better by reasonable standards now than was the case 20 or 100 years ago, and the real estate developer has played a part in that process. Sometimes it’s fashionable to be disparaging of developers, but we owe a lot to them. Maybe we’ve overpaid some of them, but plenty of them have lost their shirts. It can be a very risky business.

JY: How should the tax system treat government-financed improvements to land?

LH: In New York City, for example, I don’t know how much of the cost of building and extending subways could be borne by taxing the increments of the land value in the neighborhood, but probably a good deal. It’s not going to slow down progress to use those land value increases to help finance the expansion of the subway system.

We need to distinguish, however, between year-in, year-out financing of government by taxes on land and more or less one-time charges. That is, if the subway system is extended, there will be immediate capital gains as well as a long-term increase in the property tax base. Each of these effects deserves consideration in public policy.

JY: What is the difference between someone who invests in a piece of land and then watches as the price of land rises and someone who invests in a stock and then watches the stock market rise?

LH: Well, as far as income taxation is concerned I would think they are the same, but for financing local government they’re very different. The land stays in place, yet the stockholder can move. The ability of the landowner and stockholder to pay may be the same, but that isn’t the only relevant consideration. In thinking about how to tax gains you need to take into account whether the taxpayer can move from the jurisdiction.

I think that taxing people annually to finance local government, based on their ownership of land, is good public policy. The effort to apply that same principle to intangibles was a complete failure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because you can’t tax people locally on the basis of resources that are so mobile.

The distinction here is not between earned and unearned income. For income tax purposes the tax is applied after a sale when the owners have realized their gain. But, to finance schools and other services you don’t want to rely on residents’ decisions about whether or not to sell their land. You want a permanent and steady source of tax revenue.

This is quite different from the question of unearned income, that is, whether or not the owner grew rich in his sleep. If the Astors became rich from owning land in Manhattan, but paid their property taxes year in and year out, well, so be it. I think that the property tax can take only a very limited account of differences in wealth. The administrative difficulties of a net wealth tax could be enormous. And the identification of a property tax with a tax on wealth or net worth is, I think, diverting and dangerous. It shifts attention from the goal of financing government to issues of personal status and relative position.

JY: Could you say more about the problem of jurisdictions competing for business by offering tax reductions?

LH: It seems to me there is no need for property tax exemptions on land. Special concessions may be appropriate for buildings, as an acceptable means of competition, but I’m dubious and favor broad reduction of taxes on structures. In any case, the land is not going to move. If you give concessions for land, they will tend to be capitalized into capital gains for the present owners. Under a two-rate land and buildings tax system, any concessions should be made on the basis of the variable resource, which is the building value. Inducements are not going to create more land, but they might create more structures. In this way, economic development incentives might be more effective under a land tax.