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Tax The Land, Save The People

One man’s quixotic—but totally serious—quest to upend the tax system, rebalance wealth, and cure all of our social ills.

SLIDESHOW

David Giesen preaches the benefits of a land value tax on his “Land, Buildings, and Revolutionaries” walking tour.

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Giesen introduces people on his Saturday-morning tour to Henry George, the father of the single tax.

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Giesen’s tour winds through some of the city’s poshest neighborhoods, as well as its poorest.

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The year is 2037, and San Francisco is thriving. The housing crisis is a distant memory. Homelessness is at an all-time low, and many nonprofits have shut their doors because their services are no longer needed. Companies are flocking to San Francisco, since it levies no business, sales, or income taxes. KQED pledge drives are a thing of the past, as the station is now bankrolled by local government. High-quality education is available to all who want it, and San Francisco teachers can afford to live well in the city. All museums are free. Any resident can get medical care without paying a dime. Muni is free—and so efficient that Chariot no longer exists. And all of that bounty is funded by the multibillion-dollar gold mine under our feet, beneath Mission taquerias, SoMa high-rises, Haight-Ashbury bong shops, Alamo Square Victorians, and Outer Sunset surf shacks.

San Francisco, in this idyllic fantasy, hasn’t struck oil or started fracking. It hasn’t unearthed a second Comstock Lode. Instead, it has finally realized the wildest dreams of a man named David Giesen. Since the late 1990s, Giesen has been pounding the pavement of the Financial District, Chinatown, and the Tenderloin, leading walking tours and telling anyone willing to listen about a simple yet radical way we could eliminate social and economic inequality, fill public coffers, and do away with taxes on income, property, and goods. Though Giesen cuts an iconoclastic figure—he’s about five foot eight with frizzy gray hair and a uniform of long gray socks under brown sandals, wire-rimmed glasses, a short-brimmed cycling hat, and the type of cargo pants that unzip into shorts—his ideas are not nearly as eccentric as they seem. In fact, they’re not Giesen’s ideas at all; they come from a prominent 19th-century San Franciscan named Henry George, who proposed a single tax system as a solution to inequality. Rather than taxing wages or buildings or goods, George argued, we should tax the value of our most important and finite commodity: land. When Giesen bikes from work through the Presidio to his home in Bernal Heights, or walks the streets on his “Land, Buildings, and Revolutionaries” tours—as he does almost every Saturday—he sees not only the city’s daunting problems but also the billions of dollars of untapped wealth underfoot.

Giesen is far from the first person to latch on to the idea of a so-called land value tax since George first presented it in 1879 in his wildly popular book Progress and Poverty. George wrote the tome after seeing how great wealth and technological progress thrived cheek by jowl with an ever poorer and more marginalized segment of the citizenry in New York and San Francisco. He began studying the puzzling question of why great riches and crippling poverty coexisted and found that land in cities was highly valued because of its proximity to social services, cultural resources, and the latest technology, but that evenly, land speculation drove up the price of housing faster than wages increased.

George’s ideas drew praise from 19th-century academics, scientists, activists, and ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, his proposal for a land value tax, also called a single tax, fell into increasing obscurity throughout the 20th century. It pops up in popular culture now and then—Michael Kinsley just wrote about George in Vanity Fair—and several municipalities in the United States have toyed with the idea of a land value tax, but with no success thus far. And were George to come back to life in San Francisco tomorrow, he’d likely recognize much of what once troubled him: A one-bedroom apartment with quartz countertops and in-unit laundry next door to Twitter, Square, and Uber rents for $4,410 a month, just two blocks removed from the city’s urgent care clinic for homeless, low-income, and disadvantaged residents and three blocks from an open-air drug market on the lawn in front of City Hall. Progress and poverty persist, side by side.

But let’s imagine for a moment that things had turned out differently and that San Francisco is living per George’s ideal. The land under the Chronicle building at Fifth and Mission, say, like all land in San Francisco, is taxed at 95 percent of its value (which is determined by its “social fertility”—that is, its proximity to services and places where people want to be—and not by the value of the building). That rate is high enough to discourage land speculation, but it still leaves a profit margin that encourages private property ownership. Owing to the high tax, however, property is no longer a blockbuster investment and its sale price plummets. Now investors must funnel money into goods and services, much to the delight of entrepreneurs and their employees, whose wages will rise. The tax on land values has replaced all other taxes in San Francisco, including those on building materials and labor costs. Construction booms, the city grows upward and becomes denser; landlords stop keeping units vacant to create artificial scarcity. The price of housing drops citywide, due in part to the fact that landlords now must compete with one another to keep their buildings full (the only way they can make money, since land speculation is no longer possible). And, as described above, the city brims with free, efficient, and premier services; Giesen’s wildest dreams have come true.

Giesen has spent the last 21 years shouting this vision into the wind, first by working for the Henry George School—which used to host continuing education classes but, by the time he found it, was reduced to “many volumes and lots of pamphlets” stockpiled in the basement of a granny unit on Shrader Street—and then by leading a free walking tour of his own design based on George’s ideas. Since Giesen moved to San Francisco on New Year’s Day, 1996, the average value of a residential lot in San Francisco has risen from approximately $320,000 to slightly more than $1 million. This September, the U.S. Census Bureau found that after factoring in cost of living, California has the highest rate of poverty in the nation, with one in five citizens living below the poverty line. Politicians and activists have pecked away at the problem, and the governor recently signed a package of three housing bills—SB 2, SB 3, and SB 35—hailed as the state’s most concerted effort in recent years to address the issue of affordable housing. And yet these laws are incremental at best. To end the city’s housing crisis entirely, we’ll need to consider far more dramatic measures. Perhaps the moment has come to take Henry George—and his wild-haired, sandals-and-socks-clad apostle—seriously.

 

Most of what you need to know to understand David Giesen can be found in the way he crosses the street. “We stop for cars, but we do not stop for red lights,” he instructs the small group assembled around him on the corner of Mason and O’Farrell one Saturday morning in July. Giesen and his fellow travelers are about to embark on the walking tour he has led 42 weeks a year for the last 19 years. Such a long run might lead you to believe this is the Les Misérables of walking tours, but by Giesen’s count a mere 5,000 souls have hit the streets with him over that time, a number that breaks down to approximately six participants per outing. Giesen’s tour has been powered by his unwillingness to stop stumping for an idea—a land value tax—that is an economic red light in most political and academic circles.

Economists applaud the idea’s potential to encourage development and distribute wealth more evenly, but they dismiss the notion of a high land value tax replacing all other taxes as impossibly idealistic. Transitioning away from so many different municipal, county, state, and federal tax systems would be a logistical nightmare, they say. It would face so much opposition from current property owners, who would stand to suffer a huge loss in the value of their property, that it would never get off the ground. But to Giesen, a land value tax isn’t just a way to encourage the construction of more housing—it’s a tool of social and economic justice, a route to a stronger, more unified community. “This walk’s goal is to change your life,” he tells his guests every time before setting out.

The tour is like a Noam Chomsky–led version of City Guides. Stops include Glide Memorial Church, the Bohemian Club, and a residence near Sutter and Taylor reportedly associated with the Black Panther Party. Giesen strides up the sidewalks and halts abruptly at his chosen landmarks, flinging open a black binder stuffed with photos and clippings and examples of whatever point he’s about to hammer home. At 450 Sutter, the original site of Temple Emanu-El, he breaks into a full-throated baritone rendition of the African American spiritual “Go Down Moses.” Throughout the first hour, he uses each point along the tour to make a case for his hypothesis that social movements need land to thrive. This mobile polemic builds slowly around “the land question,” as Giesen puts it, and only in the second hour, at the feet of the monument to Sun Yat-sen in St. Mary’s Square in Chinatown, does he introduce George’s land value tax.

Giesen first encountered the idea in the mid-1970s when he plucked Progress and Poverty from the shelves of his high school library in Dallas County, Texas. “I don’t think it had ever been checked out,” he says. He mimes opening a book with a creaky spine, a look of wonder on his face. “What a tale George told!” The book, published while George was living and working as a journalist in post–gold rush San Francisco, argues that the solution to inequality is to give everyone the same access to land or the same benefit from the land’s value. This would be accomplished, George claims, by taxing land at or at close to its undeveloped value and using those taxes to wholly fund the government. This would discourage land speculation; protect wages from income, sales, and property taxes; and encourage development.

“I wasn’t sophisticated enough to really grasp the great detail of the economic analysis,” Giesen says of his first encounter with Progress and Poverty, “but what really struck me was his idea of, Let’s treat the earth as the birthright of all people.” As smitten as he was with George’s work, he eventually lost track of the book. Its social justice sentiment stuck with him, though, and 20 years later, he rediscovered George’s ideas while living in Mendocino County. As a friend was describing Progress and Poverty to him, Giesen kept thinking, “This is just pipe dream stuff. Really? I was so excited by this?” But upon opening a copy of the book again, he was taken back to his first reading of it all those years ago in Texas. “I open it up and I have the same emotional experience, which is, This is right. It doesn’t matter whether this is ever going to come into being. This thrill of treating the world as the birthright of all people struck me all over again.”

Reconnecting with George shook up Giesen’s world. In short order, he moved from Fort Bragg to San Francisco and began working for the Henry George School, which paid him $500 a month to develop a performance based on the philosophies of John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Theodore Roosevelt, and George that conveyed the idea of access to land as a fundamental right. Giesen performed the play for schoolchildren around California, Oregon, and Texas. He eventually managed to nudge his salary up to $1,600 a month, but “I could see this was not a way to become a fortysomething adult,” he laughs. So he went into full-time teaching at public and private schools, and in 1998, he channeled his zeal for George’s ideas into a walking tour.

“I thought that once people heard the idea of sharing land values, people would go, ‘Well, duh! Why didn’t I think of that too?’” he reflects one evening after teaching third, fifth, and sixth grades at the German International School of Silicon Valley’s Presidio campus. He envisioned a legion of budding Georgists who would take the land value tax message to the streets and the halls of government. He imagined revolution. “How naïve,” he says now. “Folks hadn’t heard of it, but they didn’t want to hear of it either.”

It wasn’t always thus. George’s ideas were massively popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leo Tolstoy supported George’s ideas of a land value tax. Albert Einstein wrote that spreading George’s work was a “deserving cause.” Emma Lazarus hailed Progress and Poverty as “not so much a book as an event.” And George’s ideas have drawn the interest of more modern, and more local, figures, too. In 1973, then-assemblymember Willie Brown wrote a letter to a friend of Giesen’s, Richard Pensack, professing to be a member of the Henry George School. Brown wrote that he had twice proposed a land value tax in the state assembly, with no success. “I hope that one day we will see it tried in California, if only on a trial basis,” he concluded. (Brown declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Giesen estimates that only a few hundred people in the United States are active Georgists and that maybe a few thousand more are familiar with George’s work. Kinsley’s recent Vanity Fair article got a couple dozen retweets on Twitter. Stanford University’s radio station, KZSU, hosts a weekly Georgist show; in June, San Francisco supervisor Katy Tang was a guest. “Everybody knows this is an option,” Alan Auerbach, a professor of economics and law at UC Berkeley, says of a land value tax. “It’s not like people haven’t thought about it. The fact that it hasn’t been proposed by anybody suggests that there must be pretty strong resistance to it.”

Jeffrey P. Cohen, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Connecticut School of Business, has studied George and the idea of a land value tax. He says that the winners and losers under such a tax would depend on how the tax was structured, but generally, large landowners and people with undeveloped plots of land would be hardest hit. “The people who stand to lose tend to be more vocal than those who stand to gain,” Cohen says. “That’s the bottom line of why I think we haven’t seen it more in the United States.”

Ask Giesen why he thinks people don’t want to hear about George, and he gestures to the letter from Brown, resting between us on the table in the school kitchen. Brown’s political star was on the rise, and Georgism was gaining him neither respect nor power. So he hitched his wagon to real estate development and, as mayor of San Francisco, promoted numerous major redevelopment projects. The fact that supporting George makes one a political leper is something Giesen knows well; he ran as a fringe candidate for San Francisco mayor in 2003, and his unflagging belief that a land value tax should be instituted as a matter of social justice isn’t popular among his fellow members of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club. Nevertheless, his faith remains undimmed. “I’m a revolutionary,” he says. “I’d like to see the revolution occur.”

Persistence in the face of adversity is a virtue, but in too great a dose it has another name: insanity. As much as Giesen wants to see that happy day of Georgian deliverance arrive, he admits that his idol’s view of the world could be wrong and that he himself might not be wholly sane for clinging to a proposal with so little traction. Yet persist he must, lest he be guilty of the fault he finds in so many social movements: asking for too little.

 

Then again, there are certain times when Giesen’s labors don’t seem quite so fruitless. One of those days came last December, when Giesen gave a private tour to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, during Corbyn’s holiday visit to a niece in San Francisco. As they wound their way toward St. Mary’s Square—and then later at the Corbyn family holiday party—Giesen expounded to the man who is fast becoming Britain’s Bernie Sanders (having won 40 percent of the vote in June’s parliamentary elections) that the best way to benefit the laborer is to tax land rather than wages.

By Giesen’s account, Corbyn listened and asked precise questions, but didn’t show special interest in the idea of a land value tax. So Giesen was shocked some months later to find a small mention of a possible land value tax in the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto. “There’s 13 million people in the United Kingdom who have taken [to Corbyn’s ideas], and that wouldn’t have happened without—” Giesen says excitedly, before backpedaling. “A high-ranking member of British parliamentary government has come along on [the walk], we can say that. And it didn’t detract from his appreciation of Georgism.”

A land value tax on this side of the pond, especially in California, seems less plausible. Californians passed Proposition 13 in 1978, fixing property assessments at 1975 levels and capping increases at 2 percent per year. The law has been both loved and hated, and it has proven impossible to undo so far. Given that reality, “I think California would definitely not be the first state to adopt a tax like this,” Berkeley’s Auerbach says. Not that he sees no merit in the idea: A land value tax is a “reasonably progressive way” to raise revenue. But Auerbach also sees significant barriers to implementation. A land value tax would make land itself a less desirable asset and quickly lower its value, he explains. In the long run, that “may not be a big deal,” because housing prices would fall. But in the short term, such a policy would mean a huge capital loss for anyone who already owned land.

“Imagine that you’re a relatively young person who is just barely able to get into the housing market,” he says. “You borrow heavily to buy a house, and you have to work hard to make mortgage payments. Along comes a rule change that says we’re going to destroy a large fraction of the value of your real estate by implementing a land tax. Probably wouldn’t be a big fan of that.”

Auerbach sees George’s proposal of taxing land so heavily that we wouldn’t need other taxes as overly idealistic. “But certainly thinking about it as a part of a broader tax system is not at all crazy,” he says. Such a tax could start low and be stepped up over time, or be implemented alongside other taxes. Cohen echoes this sentiment, envisioning a land value tax working well in concert with a much lower property tax. And Giesen admits that intermediate steps may be necessary to get to a single tax system. “It’s not simply, ‘It’s either the land value tax or you can all go to hell,’” he says. “But why not articulate a vision, too, of something bigger? Why think so small?”

Why indeed? Small has gotten us where we are now, and where we are now is ugly. Homelessness and the housing crisis are unrelenting realities. KQED needs millions in donations each year to balance its budget. San Francisco’s teachers are fleeing for the suburbs. Muni is neither free nor particularly efficient. “Here’s something that really would in fact transform the human experience and the social experience,” Giesen muses. “Can we get there?” It’s the question that’s kept him walking for nigh on two decades. But he follows with an even better question: “What are we willing to give up to be there?”

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 

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