Sunday, May 13, 2012

on the other hand: government ownership

At a screening of Vanishing New York at Mary House (Catholic Worker), Eric Ferrara suggested that communities ought to pool their resources and buy up all the land of their neighborhoods. There's a kind of populist appeal to the idea, but I'd worry that turning everyone into property owner -- sending the entire community into the commerce of property -- would end in disaster. Cooperative boards are notoriously vicious and unhealthy, and I don't see why ordinary people would do any better in the cut-throat economy of landlords and developers. Maybe if there were rules to govern them, constraints on how people could sell and rent...

But why reinvent the wheel. The notion of community ownership already exists, and it's called Government. Of course, everyone complains about government management of housing projects, for example, so why would anyone want to expand the government into communities?

Government poorly manages housing projects because government doesn't have the budget surplus -- after spending on its priorities that mostly go to keep the wealthy around -- to spend on mere people in low-income housing. But what if the city owned the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side as well?

Here's an extreme Georgist plan: tax the hell out of upscale properties, get the landlords to disinvest and abandon their properties to the government. With sufficient funding, the city is quite effective. The parks and libraries are well managed, and upscale properties could too, especially garnering all those exorbitant rents. And instead of taking the profits off to Westchester where the landlords live now, the money could be reinvested in the city itself in, for example, housing project management.

If the city did a good job serving the rich, they'd make a bundle for its treasury. Rent-taking -- landlords, in this case -- is the black hole of every economy. It's unproductive, non-innovative, mere wealth that skims off commerce and residential incomes. Development is productive, but the city can develop too. And if the city were successful at an upscale landlord, there'd be every incentive for the city to develop and bring more rich folks into their rental economy. And the wealthy could in turn drive the rest of the economy with their needs that labor services.

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