2012 Global Conference Review

Report of TheIU Global Conference 2012, Argentina, by Bill Batt

But for the awesome skill and untiring work of two simultaneous translators, the just-past 28th conference of the International Union for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade would not have been the success it was. All sessions were completely comprehensible — Spanish presentations were audible in English, and English ones were accessible in Spanish; we needed only to put on our earphones as called for. The two translators were just fantastic, ably swapping off their responsibilities every twenty minutes for the duration, every day. Almost all the sessions, as recorded in video and audio, may soon be available online at www.asap.org.ar, and powerpoint or text versions are there now. Check this page for updates.

Thanks to Hector Sandler for making this conference possible by introducing three organizations based in the City of Buenos Aires as joint host with The IU and arranging for the Faculty of Law, Buenos Aires University, kindly providing the conference venue. The IU itself was able to enjoy a passive role this time because the Argentine Association of Budget and Public Financial Administration (ASAP) and the Institute of Economic Training (ICE) were co-sponsors. ASAP is the Argentine affiliate of the International Association of Public Budgeting (ASIP), which also collaborated in the conference’s planning.

The May 15 to 18 conference theme was “Housing, Land and Social Inclusion: A Taxation System to Achieve it.” Some 91 people were registered for the three-day-long sessions held at the University of Buenos Aires School of Law. Thirteen attendees were non-Latin-Americans and well known to the International Union membership. They were Peter Meakin (South Africa), Fred Harrison (UK), Dave and Heather Wetzel (UK), Roger Sandilands (UK), Frank Peddle and his son Liam (Canada), Jacob Schwartz-Lucas (US), Jesper Raundall Christensen (Denmark) and yours truly, Bill Batt (US).  Three others are dual citizens: Wendy Rockwell, an American in Costa Rica, Quizia Gonzales, Honduran in New York, and IU President Fernando Skornik-Gerstein, Argentine, but now in Madrid.

Challenges in China

The subject matter of the conference was wide-ranging. There were three presentations on contemporary challenges in China. Roger Sandilands, an economist at University of Strathclyde, presented a paper on “Housing Policies and Urban Land Values in China: Lessons from Latin America and Singapore.” A later session allowed Fernando and Dave Wetzel to exchange their differing opinions on China’s future, both based on their personal observations. Dave is far less optimistic, due to Fernando’s interpretation of Chinese law as against Dave’s appreciation of how leasing land for new developments fails to collect the economic rent on ALL sites and fails to capture future land value increases during the period of the lease.  For example, when one new metro/subway/underground railway was built in a locality, no plans were made to capture the land gains when the 70 year lease was originally negotiated or auctioned.

Fred Harrison’s first paper explored the looming prospect of world conflict, based on the specter of increased debt, depression, and growing contradictions of capitalism. His thesis will be spelled out more fully in his next book.

Materials sent prior to our arrival made clear that Argentina once had a very strong Georgist movement, and in fact was able to enact a land value tax for a short time. It failed to take hold, however, due to changes in government administrations and lack of popular understanding, proving that essential to a policy’s success is education and support of the public.  Guillermo Andreau, by early training an agricultural engineer but whose current focus is the right of access to land spoke about the deprivations resulting from that denial. His explanation for the corruption of economic, moral, and policy sciences in Argentine nation’s history echoed much of what we know from Mason Gaffney’s account.

Conference was a tribute to Hector Sandler

Credit should go especially to Dr./ Professor Hector Sandler, Argentina’s venerable and charismatic Georgist, who was responsible for arranging the program, chairing many of the panels, and bringing our philosophy to his countrymen.  Now well into his 80s, he was nonetheless always unfailingly clear and persuasive. His younger brother Guillermo, his son Ernesto, and granddaughters, Georgists all, were recruited for presentations in what was at times a family affair. This conference was thus very much a tribute to Hector, who was fully deserving of this commendation.

Brother Guillermo Sandler, an economist in his own right, directs a Program for the Study of Economics of the Public Sector in Argentina.  Granddaughters Natalia Arbelo and Patricia Abelenda offered compelling graphical presentations that demonstrated how much empirical data exists in support of Georgist claims. Their land value maps and economic rent estimates were all supported by solid numbers. It was a highlight of the conference, to my thinking worthy of their presenting at other conferences. Ernesto’s other obligations meant his paper was read for him. His book, Toward an Economy Without Barriers, will soon be published in English, and the summary we were privileged to receive suggests that it is well warranted.

Presentations from those coming from afar were also well received. Besides those mentioned above, Quisia Gonzales talked about the treatment of minorities in Honduras, on which she was able to speak first hand. Wendy Rockwell, who has made Costa Rica her home for years, created a powerpoint based on graphics collected from many sources illustrating the merits of land value taxation. Peter Meakin’s paper on South Africa argued that land taxes would be employed if that nation’s constitution were followed. He’s been thinking about a lawsuit to challenge this contradiction. Frank Peddle looked at land rights from an international perspective, the paper to be online shortly.

Two of the Argentine presenters were American-trained economists.  Professor Raul Cuello studied years ago at Columbia with Georgists Carl Shoup, Lowell Harriss, and Bill Vickrey. His paper, titled “Economic Thinking and the Tax Structure,” traced lots of early economics, emphasizing the importance of William Petty, a British economist, scientist and philosopher in the time of Cromwell. Petty’s ideas, argued Professor Cuello, were influenced by Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon, and antedated Adam Smith by half a century. In my post conference correspondence with him, he again urged me to look at the work of Petty more closely. Claudio Lutzky, the second American trained economist at the conference, received his graduate education at George Mason University. Lutzky’s talk was on climate change solutions, particularly a carbon tax, and would be attending the Rio conference on Sustainable Development a month later.  I was able to refer him to Peter Barnes’ book, Who Owns the Sky (1991), a book he hadn’t known, and which provides the most elegant Georgist solution of any: auction rent of the air-pollution sink for what revenue it can provide.

Dave Wetzel’s final paper, Land Rent for the People, started by showing how investments in transportation infrastructure raised the market value of proximate land sites. His examples were taken from actual cases: first from the redevelopment of London’s East End Canary Wharf area where vacant and derelict sites were soon transformed into high-rise employment centers. The second instance was the redevelopment of the Jubilee Line which has increased values by £13 bn when the line itself only cost £3.5 bn to rebuild. By extension Dave was able to show that all capital investments in a locale, not just transportation, generate increased site values that arguably should be returned to the public that created it all. The slides in his presentation contrasted the wasted opportunities in some areas with the prosperity generated in others.

Lessons for the future

Like all conferences, this one offered lessons for the future: publicity could have improved the sporadic attendance, and a registration list of those present, distributed to all, would have allowed better networking than was possible during the breakout sessions. Name tags, with affiliations, and written in large letters would also have helped, as well as providing better security against pickpockets and theft. A coat and hat check service would have served. There might have been greater opportunity to see a bit more of Buenos Aires than what time was budgeted. The city of 15 million offered far more opportunities for Georgists than we saw. And the websites showing the land value maps for all the provinces in the country could have been given us to see what gains have been made to date. I refer others to them here. These land value maps and economic rent estimates all support solid simulations. (Or, for another sample, see ESRI.com: “City of Cordoba, Argentina, Modernizes its Land Registry Administration;” and http://mapa.buenosaires.gob.ar/)

Additional information

The best land value maps are in Costa Rica.  Take a look at this site where almost the whole country has been valued.