One of my best episodes ever. Lars Doucet is the author of Land is a Big Deal, a book about Georgism which has been praised by Vitalik Buterin, Scott Alexander, and Noah Smith. Sam Altman is the lead investor in his new startup, ValueBase.
Talking with Lars completely changed how I think about who creates value in the world and who leeches off it.
We go deep into the weeds on Georgism:
Why do even the wealthiest places in the world have poverty and homelessness, and why do rents increase as fast as wages?
Why are land-owners able to extract the profits that rightly belong to labor and capital?
How would taxing the value of land alleviate speculation, NIMBYism, and income and sales taxes?
(00:00:00) - Intro
(00:01:11) - Georgism
(00:03:16) - Metaverse Housing Crises
(00:07:10) - Tax Leisure?
(00:13:53) - Speculation & Frontiers
(00:24:33) - Social Value of Search
(00:32:36) - Will Georgism Destroy The Economy?
(00:38:51) - The Economics of San Francisco
(00:43:31) - Transfer from Landowners to Google?
(00:46:47) - Asian Tigers and Land Reform
(00:51:19) - Libertarian Georgism
(00:55:42) - Crypto
(00:57:16) - Transitioning to Georgism
(01:02:56) - Lars's Startup & Land Assessment
(01:15:12) - Big Tech
(01:20:50) - Space
(01:23:05) - Copyright
(01:25:02) - Politics of Georgism
(01:33:10) - Someone Is Always Collecting Rents
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:00:39:
Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Lars Doucet, who developed the highly acclaimed game Defender's Quest and part two is coming out next year, but now he's working on a new startup. But the reason we're talking is that he wrote a review of Henry George's Progress and Poverty that won Scott Alexander's Book Review Contest and now it has been expanded into a book called Land is a Big Deal.
Lars, welcome to the podcast.
Lars Doucet - 00:01:10:
Great to be here, Dwarkesh .
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:01:10:
Let's just get into it. What is Georgism?
Lars Doucet - 00:01:12:
The book is based off of the philosophy of a 19th century American economist by the name of Henry George from whom we get the name Georgism and basically George's thesis is kind of the title of my book, Land is a Big Deal.
Georgism is often reduced to its main policy prescription that we should have a land value tax, which is a tax on the unimproved value of land, but not a tax on any buildings or infrastructure on top of the land, i.e. anything humans add.
The basic insight of Georgism is reflected in the aphorisms you hear from real estate agents when they say things like the three laws of real estate or location, location, location and buy land, it's the one thing they're not making any more of. It's basically this insight that land has this hidden role in the economy that is really underrated. If you look at history through the right lens, control over land is the oldest struggle of human history. It goes beyond human history. Animals have been fighting over land forever. That's what they're fighting over in Ukraine and Russia right now. And basically the fundamental insight of Georgism is that over the last century, we've had this huge conflict. All the oxygen's been sucked up by Capitalism and Socialism duking it out. We have this assumption that you either have to be pro-worker or pro-business and that you can't be both. And Georgism is genuinely pro-worker and pro-business. But what it's against is land speculation.
If we can find a way to share the earth, then we can solve the paradox that is the title of George's book, Progress and Poverty. Why does poverty advance even when progress advances? Why do we have all this industrialized technology and new methods and yet we still have inequality? In George's time it was industrial technology and in our time it’s computers and everything else. We have all this good stuff. We can make more than we've ever made before. There's enough wealth for everybody. And yet we still have inequality. Where does it come from? George answers that question in his book. And I expand on it in mine.
Metaverse Housing Crises
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:03:15:
I'm excited to get into the theory of all of it in a second. But first, I'm curious how much of your interest in the subject has been inspired by the fact that as a game developer, you're constantly dealing with decentralized rent seekers, like Steam or the iOS app store? Is that part of the inspiration behind your interest in Georgism or is that separate?
Lars Doucet - 00:03:38:
That's interesting. I wouldn't say that's what clued me into it in the first place but I have become very interested in all forms of rent seeking in this general category of things we call land-like assets that come to first-mover advantages in these large platform economies. I've started to think a lot about it basically. But the essence of land speculation is you have this entire class of people who are able to basically gate keep access to a scarce resource that everybody needs, which is land, that you can't opt out of needing. And because of that, everyone basically has to pay them rent. And those people don't necessarily do anything. They just got there first and tell everyone else, “Well, if you want to participate in the world, you need to pay me.”
The connection with game development that actually clued me into Georgism was …. I'd heard and read about Georgism before and thought it was interesting but then I started repeatedly noticing this weird phenomenon in online multiplayer games of virtual housing crises, which is the most bizarre concept in the world to me. Basically a housing crisis in the Metaverse and predecessors to the Metaverse going back 30 years. As early as Ultima Online when I was 19. It was this online game that you could play. And you could build houses in the game and put them down somewhere.
What I found was that houses were actually fairly cheap. You could work long enough in a game to be able to afford to buy blueprints for a house which will be put somewhere but there was no land to put it on. At the time, I thought, “Oh, well. I guess the server filled up.” I didn't really think much about it. I was like, “This stinks. I didn't join the game early enough. I'm screwed out of housing.” And then I kind of forgot about it. And then 20 years later, I checked back in and that housing crisis is still ongoing in that game. That game is still running a good 25 years later and that housing crisis remains unsolved and you have this entire black market for housing. And then I noticed that that trend was repeated in other online games like Final Fantasy 14. And then recently in 2022, with all this huge wave of crypto games, like Axie Infinity, Decentraland, the Sandbox and then Yuga Labs' Board-Ape Yacht Club, the Other Side, had all these big land sales.
At the time, I was working as an analyst for a video game consulting firm called Novik. And I told my employers, we are going to see all the same problems happen. We are going to see virtual land speculation. They're going to reproduce the conditions of the housing crises in the real world and it's going to be a disaster. I called it and it turns out I was right. And we've now seen that whole cycle kind of work itself out. And it just kind of blew my mind that we could reproduce the problems of the real world so articulately in the virtual world without anyone trying to do it. It just happened. And that is kind of the actual connection between my background in game design and getting “George-pilled” as the internet kids call it these days.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:06:43:
There was a hilarious clip. Tim Dillon was on Joe Rogan's podcast and they're talking about Decentraland, where if you want to be Snoop Dogg's neighbor in the Metaverse, it costs like a couple million dollars or something. Joe Rogan was like, “So you think you can afford to live there?” And then Tim Dillon's like, “No, but I'm going to start another Metaverse and I'm going to work hard.”
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:07:10:
Let's go into Georgism itself. Tyler Cowen had a blog post a long time ago where he was comparing taxing land to taxing unimproved labor or unimproved capital. It's an interesting concept. So I have a CS degree, should I be taxed at the same level as an entry level software engineer instead of a podcaster because I'm not using my time as efficiently as possible? In some way, leisure is the labor equivalent of having an unimproved parking lot in the middle of San Francisco. Or if I'm just keeping my capital out of the economy and therefore making it not useful, maybe I should have that capital taxed at the rate of the capital gains on T-Bill. And this way, you're not punishing people for having profitable investments, which is what you're kind of doing with capital gains. What would you think of that comparison?
Lars Doucet - 00:08:07:
Before you can even answer that question, you've got to go back to the ground moral principles you're operating on. Is your moral operating principle — we want to increase efficiency so we're going to tax everyone in a way to basically account for the wasted opportunity cost? Which brings up a lot of other questions of who decides what that is.
I think the Georgist argument is a little different. The tax we propose is efficient but it actually stems kind of from a different place, a more fundamental aspect of justice. From our perspective, if you work and you produce value, your work produced that value. If you save money and accumulate capital in order to put that capital to work to receive a return, you've also provided something valuable to society. You saved money so a factory could exist. You saved money so that a shipping company could get off the ground. Those are valuable contributions. But nobody made the Earth. The Earth pre-exists all of us.
Someone who provides land actually does the opposite of providing land. They unprovide land, and then they charge you for opening the gate. So the argument for charging people on the unimproved value of land is that we want to tax unproductive rent seeking. We want to tax non-produced assets because we want to encourage people to produce assets. We want to encourage people to produce labor, to produce capital. We want more of those things. And there's that aphorism that if you want less of something, you should tax it.
Maybe there is a case for some kind of galaxy brained take of taxing unrealized opportunity costs or whatever, but I'm less interested in that. My moral principles are more about, let's start with just taxing the things nobody has made and that people are gatekeeping access to. Let's essentially tax monopolies and rent seeking and then if we still need to raise more taxes, we can talk about that later. But let's start with just taxing the worst things in society and then stop taxing things we actually want more.
We have this mentality right now where everything's a trade off and we have to accept the downsides of income taxes, of sales taxes, of capital taxes because we just need the revenue and it has to come from somewhere. My argument is that it can come from a much better somewhere. So let's start with that.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:10:39:
So I guess if it was the case that we've implemented a land value tax and we're still having a revenue shortfall and we need another kind of tax and we're going to have to keep income taxes or capital gains taxes. Would you in that situation prefer a tax where you're basically taxed on the opportunity costs of your time rather than the actual income you generated or the returns you would generate on your capital?
Lars Doucet - 00:11:04:
No, I think probably not. I think you would probably want to go with some other simpler tax for the sake of it because there's too many degrees of freedom in there. We can talk about why I will defend the Georgist case for land value tax but I think it gets different when you start judging what is the most valuable use of your time because that's a much more subjective question. Are you providing more value to society as being a podcaster or being a computer science person or creating a startup? That may not be evident for some time.
Think of people who were never successful during their lifetimes. Think of the guy who invented the FM radio. He threw himself out a window because he never got it really adopted during his lifetime but it went on to change everything. If we were taxing him during his lifetime based off of what he was doing, of being a “failure”. If Van Gogh was taxed for wasting his life as an artist as he thought he was, which ultimately led to his suicide. A lot of these things are not necessarily realized at the time and it would need a much bigger bureaucracy to figure that all out. So I think you should go with a more modest tax.
After land value tax, I think you should do things like severance tax on natural resources and other taxes on other monopolies and rents. And so I think the next move after land value tax is not immediately to capital and income taxes and sales taxes, but to other taxes on other rent seeking and other land-like assets that aren't literally physically land. And then, only after you've done all of those, if you still absolutely need more taxes then move on to the bad taxes.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:12:58:
What is a severance tax?
Lars Doucet - 00:12:59:
Severance tax is a tax on the extraction of natural resources. It is what Norway does with their oil industry that has been massively successful and a key reason that Norway has avoided the resource curse.
A Georgist purist will say it's essentially a land value tax but of a different kind. You can't normally extract land. Like in this house you're living in, you're not using up this land, but you can use up non-renewable resources. So a severance tax is basically — Nestle should be charged a severance tax for the water they're using, for instance, because all they're doing is enclosing a pre-existing natural resource that used to belong to the people and they're just putting it in bottles and selling it to people. They should be able to realize the value of the value-add they give to that water, but not to just taking that resource away.
Speculation & Frontiers
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:13:53:
No, that makes sense. Okay, so let's go deep into the actual theory and logic of Georgism. One thing I was confused by is why property owners who have land in places that are really desirable are not already incentivized to make the most productive use of that land. So even without a land tax, if you have some property in San Francisco why are you not incentivized to construct it to the fullest extent possible by the law to collect rents anyways? Why are you keeping it as a parking lot?
Lars Doucet - 00:14:28:
Right. So there's a lot of reasons. And one of them has to do with, there's an image in the book that this guy put together for me. I'll show it to you later. But what it does is that it shows the rate of return. What a land speculator is actually optimizing for is their rate of return, right? And so if land appreciates by 10% a year, you're actually incentivized to invest in vacant land or tear down a property because the building of a tear down property is worth negative value. The land's cheaper because there's garbage on it. Basically your marginal dollar is better spent on more land than it is on building up.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:15:16:
But eventually shouldn't this be priced into the price of land so that the returns are no longer 10% or they're just basically what you could get for any other asset? And at that point, then the rate of return is similar for building things on top of your existing land than buying a new land because that return has been priced into other land.
Lars Doucet - 00:15:38:
We just don't see that empirically. We see rising land prices as long as productivity and population increases. Those productivity and population gains get soaked into the price of the land. It's because of this phenomenon called Ricardo's Law of Rent and it's been pretty empirically demonstrated. It has to do with the negotiation power. Some people of course do build and invest. There's a lot of local laws that restrict people's ability to build. But another reason is just that it also has to do with the existing property tax regime. The existing property tax regime actively incentivizes empty lots because you have a higher tax burden if you build.
So what actually happens is a phenomenon that's similar to oil wells. It's not just because of property taxes, those do encourage you to keep it empty. But there's this phenomenon called land banking and waiting for the land to ripen. Sure, I could build it now but I might have a lot of land parcels I've got and I don't need to build it now because I think the prices might go up later and it would be better to build on it later than it is now. And it's not costing me anything to keep it vacant now. If I build now, I'm gonna have to pay a little bit more property taxes. And I know in three years that the price is gonna be even better so maybe I'll wait to incur those construction costs then and right now, I'm gonna focus more on building over here. And I've got a lot of things to do, so I'm just gonna squat on it here.
It's the same way as to how I'm squatting on about 30 domain names, most of them bought before I got into Georgism. It's like, “Yeah, I'll pay 15 bucks a year to just hold it. Why not? I might use that someday.” I should probably release all the ones I have no intent of using because I was looking for a domain for my startup the other day and every single two-word dot com is taken and has been for 10 years and it's a similar phenomenon. Some of it is economic rational following of incentives and some of it is just — This is a good asset, I'm just gonna hold on to it because why not? And I don't have any pressure to build right now.
This happens on the upswing and on the downswing of cities. So while the population's growing and while the population is declining, people will just buy a lot of land and hold it out of use because it's also just a great place to park money because it's an asset that you know if the population ever starts growing, it's gonna keep its value better than almost any other hard asset you have.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:18:16:
Yep. I guess another broader criticism of this way of thinking is that this is all scarcity mindset that land is limited. Why don't we just focus on the possibility of expanding the amount of usable land? There's not really a shortage of land in the US. Maybe there's a shortage of land in urban areas but why don't we expand into the seas? And why don't we expand into the air and space? Why are we thinking in this sort of scarce mindset?
Lars Doucet - 00:18:48:
I love this question because actually our current status quo mindset is the scarcity mindset and Georgism is the abundance mindset. And we can have that abundance if we learn to share the land. Because right now, why don't we expand? And the answer is we've tried that. We've done it twice. And it's the story of America's frontier. Right now there's plenty of empty land in Nevada, but nobody wants it. And you have to ask why, right? You also have to ask the question of how did we have virtual housing crises in the Metaverse where they could infinitely expand all they want? How is that even possible?
The answer has to do with what we call the urban agglomeration effect. What's really valuable is human relationships, proximity to other human beings, those dense networks of human beings. In a certain sense, the issue is that land is not an indistinguishable, fungible commodity. Location really matters. America has a finite amount of land, but it might as well be an infinite plane. We're not going to fill up every square inch of America for thousands of years if we ever do. What is scarce is specific locations. They're non-fungible.
To a certain extent, if you don't want to live in New York, you can live in San Francisco or any other big city. But what makes New York New York is non-fungible. What makes San Francisco San Francisco is non-fungible. That particular cluster of VCs in San Francisco, until or unless that city completely explodes, and that moves somewhere else to Austin or wherever, at which point, Austin will be non-fungible. I mean, Austin is non-fungible right now.
Let me talk about the frontier. We have done frontier expansion. That is why immigrants came over from Europe, and then eventually the rest of the world, to America to settle the frontier. And the losers of that equation were, of course, the Indians who were already here and got kicked out. But that was the original idea of America.
I like to say that America's tragedy is that America is a country that has the mindset of being a frontier state, but is in fact a state which has lost its frontier. And that is why you have these conversations with boomers who are like, “Why can't the next generation just pull itself up by its bootstraps?” Because America has had at least two major periods of frontier expansion. The first was the actual frontier, the West, the Oregon Trail, the covered wagons, the displacement of the Indians.
That was a massive time. That was the time in which Henry George was writing. That was when that frontier was closing. When all that free land was being taken, and the advantages of that land was now being fully priced in. What it means for a frontier to close is that now the value of good productive land is fully priced in. But when the frontier is open, you can just go out there and take it, and you can get productive land and realize the gains of that.
The second frontier expansion was after Henry George's death. It was the invention of the automobile, the ability to have a job in the city, but not have to live in the city. Like I commuted in to visit you here, right? That is because of the automobile frontier opening that has allowed me to live in some other city, but be able to do productive work like this podcast by driving in. But the problem is that sprawl can only take you so far before that frontier closes as well, and by closes I don't mean suburban expansion stops. What I mean is that suburban homes fully price in the value of the benefits are able to accrue by having that proximity to a city, but still being able to live over here, through Ricardo's Law of rents.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:22:37:
Yeah, but I feel like this is still compatible with the story that we should just focus on the increase in technology and abundance rather than trying to estimate how much rent is available now, given current status quo technologies. The car is a great example of this, but imagine if there were flying cars. Like in Where Is My Flying Car? There's a whole analysis about how if people are still commuting for 20 minutes a day, a lot more land is actually in the same travel distance as it was before, and now all this land would be worth as much, even in terms of relationships that you could accommodate. So why not just build flying cars instead of focusing on land rent?
Lars Doucet - 00:23:21:
Well, because these things have a cost. The cost of frontier expansion was murdering all the Indians and the cost of automobile expansion was climate change. There has to be a price for that. And the problem is eventually, when you get to the end of that frontier expansion, you wind up with the same problem we had in the first place. Eventually, the problem is the first generation will make out like gangbusters if we ever invent flying cars, even better like Star Trek matter teleporters. That'll really do it. Then you can really live in Nevada and have a job in New York. There are some people who claim that Zoom is this but it's not. We've seen the empirical effects of that and it's the weakest like semi-frontier we've had and it's already closed. Because of Zoom, houses like this over in Austin have gone up in value because there is demand for them and there's demand for people to telecommute. So the increased demand for living out in the suburbs is now basically priced in because of the Zoom economy. And so the thing is the first people who did that, those who got there really quick, the first people to log in to the Ultima online server, were able to claim that piece of the frontier and capture that value. But the next generation has to pay more in rent and more in home prices to get that.
Social Value of Search
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:24:34:
Actually, that raises another interesting criticism of Georgism. This actually is a paper from Zachary Gochenour and Bryan Caplan titled A Search-Theoretic Critique of Georgism, and the point they made was that one way of thinking about the improvement to land is actually identifying that this land is valuable. Maybe because you realize it has like an oil well in it and maybe you realize that it's in the perfect proximity to these Chinese restaurants and this mall and whatever and then just finding which land is valuable is actually something that takes capital and also takes you deciding to upend your life and go somewhere, and all kinds of effort. That is not factored into the way you would conventionally think of the improvements to land that would not be taxed, right? So in some sense, you getting that land is like a subsidy for you identifying that the land is valuable and can be used to productive ends.
Lars Doucet - 00:25:30:
Right, yeah, I know. I've read that paper. So first of all, the first author of that Zachary Gochenour, I've not been able to pin him down on what exactly meant on this, but he's made some public statements where he's revised his opinion since writing that paper and that he's much more friendly to the arguments of Georgism now than when he first wrote that paper. So I'd like to pin him down and see exactly what he meant by that because it was just a passing comment.
But with regards to Kaplan's critique, Kaplan's critique only applies to a 100% LVT, where you fully capture all of the land value tax, and the most extreme Georgists I know are only advocating for an 85% land value tax. That would still leave 15% and Kaplan doesn't account at all for the negative effects of speculation. He's making a “speculation is good, actually” argument. Even if we grant his argument, he still needs to grapple with all the absolutely empirically observed problems of land speculation. And if we want to make some kind of compromise that maybe speculation could have this good discovery effect, there's two really good answers to that.
First, just don't do 100% LVT, which we probably can't practically do anyway because of natural limitations. It's like how you don't want to do 115% land value tax. That drives people off the land. So we want to make sure that we have a high land value tax but make sure not to go over. That would leave a sliver of land rent that would still presumably incentivize this sort of thing. There's no argument for why 100% of the land rent is necessary to incentivize the good things that Kaplan was talking about.
The second argument is when he talks about oil, we have the empirical evidence from the Norwegian massively successful petroleum model that shows how you should deal with this in the case of natural resources. What Norway does is that they have a massively huge severance tax on oil extraction. According to Kaplan's argument, this should massively destroy the incentive for companies to go out there and discover the oil but empirically, it doesn't.
The oil companies' argument is that they need the oil rents. We need these oil rents or we will not be incentivized for the massive capital cost of offshore oil drilling. Norway's like, “ Well, if you just need to cover the cost of offshore oil drilling, we'll subsidize that. We'll just pay you. We'll pay you to go discover the oil. But when you find the oil, that oil belongs to the Norwegian people.” You may keep some of the rents but most of it goes to the Norwegian people. But hey, all your R&D is free. All your discovery is free. If the problem is discovery, we just subsidize discovery. And then the oil companies are like, “Okay, that sounds like a great deal.” Because without that, what the oil companies do is that they're like, “Okay, we're taking all these risks. So I'm gonna sit on all these oil wells like people sitting on domain names because I might use them later and the price might go up later.” But now because there's a huge severance tax, you're forced to drill now and your actual costs of discovery and R&D and all those capital costs are just taken care of.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:28:26:
But isn't there a flip side to that? One of the economic benefits of speculation, obviously there's drawbacks, but one of the benefits is that it gets rid of the volatility and prices where our speculator will buy when it's cheap and sell when the price is high. And in doing so, they're kind of making the asset less volatile over time.
If you're basically going to tell people who have oil on their land that if you don't take it out, you're gonna keep getting taxed then you're encouraging this massive glut of a finite resource to be produced immediately, which is bad if you think we might need that reserve in the ground 20 years from now or 30 years from now when oil reserves are running low.
Lars Doucet - 00:29:10:
Not necessarily. The problem is that speculation in the sense you're talking about, like encouraging people to do arbitrage, is good for capital because we can make more capital. But we can't make more land and we can't make more non-renewable natural resources. And I just think the evidence just doesn't support that empirically because if anything, land speculation causes land values to just constantly increase, not to find some natural equilibrium. Especially with how easy it is to finance. Two-thirds of bank loans just chase real estate up.
If you look at the history of the prices of residential real estate in America, it's not this cyclical graph where it keeps going back down. It keeps going up and up and up, just on a straight line along with productivity. And it underlines and undergirds major issues, everything that's driving our housing crisis, which then undergirds so much of inequality and pollution and climate change issues.
With regard to speculation, even if I just bite that bullet and am like, “Okay, speculation is good actually.” I don't think anyone's made the case that speculators need to capture a hundred percent of the rents to be properly incentivized to do anything good that comes out of speculation. I think at some small reasonable percentage, 5 to 10% of the rents, maybe 15% if I'm feeling generous, but I don't think anyone's empirically made the case that it should be a hundred percent, which is more or less the status quo.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:30:31:
With regards to that pattern, the fact that the values tend to keep going up implies that there's nothing cyclical that the speculators are dampening.
Lars Doucet - 00:30:41:
Well, there are cycles to be sure, but it's not like something that resets to zero.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:30:45:
Yeah, but that's also true of the stock market, right? Over time that goes up but speculators still have an economic role to play in a stock market of making sure prices are…
Lars Doucet - 00:30:55:
The difference is that people are now paying an ever increasing portion of their incomes to the land sector and that didn't used to be the case. You have people now who are paying 50% of their income just for rent. That's not sustainable in the long term. The cycle you have there is revolution. [Laughter]
No, I’m serious. You look through history, and you either have land reform or you have revolution. Either you have a never ending cycle of transfers of income from the unlanded to the landed and eventually the unlanded will not put up with that. There was a real chance at the end of the 19th century of America going full on Socialist or Communist and the only thing that saved us was... George's argument was, it's either Georgism or Communism. And if you want to save capitalism and not go totalitarian, we need Georgism. What George failed to anticipate was, of course, the automobile.
The automobile kicked the can down another couple generations and it came at the cost of sprawl. That made everyone feel like we had solved the issue but the cost of sprawl is enormous in terms of pollution and poor land use. Just look at Houston right now. We've come to the end of that frontier and now we're at the same question. You see this resurge in interest in leftism in America and that's not a coincidence. It’s because the rent is too damn high and poor people and young people feel really, really shoved out of the promise and social contract that was given to their parents and they're jealous of it and they're wondering where it went.
Will Georgism Destroy The Economy?
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:32:36:
Yeah. Actually, you just mentioned that a lot of bank loans are given basically so you can get a mortgage and get a house, towards land. There was an interesting question on Twitter by Trevor Acorn. They asked if that's the case and if most bank loans are going towards helping you buy land that's artificially more expensive, but now you implement a land value tax and all these property values crash. Well then all these mortgages.. they obviously can't pay them back.
Lars Doucet - 00:33:13:
Right, right. Are we gonna destroy the banking sector?
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:33:15:
Exactly. We'll have a Great Great Depression?
Lars Doucet - 00:33:17:
I’m not trying to compare landlords to slave owners or something but the South had an entire economy based on slavery. This thing that we now agree was bad and it's like we should have kept slavery because it really disrupted the Southern Economy when we got rid of slavery. But it was still the right thing to do.
There is no magic button I could push, as much as I might like to do so, that will give us 100% land value tax everywhere in America tomorrow. I think the actual path towards a Georgist future is gonna have to be incremental. There'll be enough time to unwind all those investments and get to a more sane banking sector. If we were to go overnight, yeah, there would be some shocks in the banking sector and I can't predict what those would be, but I also don't think that's a risk that's actually gonna happen. Because we just cannot make a radical change like that on all levels overnight.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:34:13:
Yeah, okay. Let's get back to some of these theoretical questions.
One I had was, I guess I don't fully understand the theoretical reason for thinking that you can collect arbitrarily large rents. Why doesn't the economic principle of competition hold for renting for the same reason that profit is competed away in any other enterprise? I get that there's not infinite landowners, but there are multiple landowners in any region. So if one landowner is extracting $50 a profit a month, and another landowner is extracting a similar amount and they're both competing for the same tenant. One of them will decrease their rent so that the tenant will come to them and the other one will do the same and the bidding process continues until all the profits are bidded away.
Lars Doucet - 00:35:04:
So this is Ricardo's law of rent. And there's a section in the book with a bunch of illustrations you can show. The issue is that we can't make more land, right? You might be like, “Well, there's plenty of land in Nevada.” But the point is there's only so much land in Manhattan.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:35:19:
But the people who have land in Manhattan, why aren't they competing against themselves or each other?
Lars Doucet - 00:35:23:
Because the nature of the scarcity of there's only so many locations in Manhattan and there's so many people who want to live there, right? And so all the people who want to live there have to outbid each other. Let me give a simple agricultural example model and then I will explain how the agricultural model translates to a residential model.
Basically, when you are paying to live in an urban area, or even a suburban area like here in Austin, what you're actually paying for is the right to have proximity to realize the productive capacity of that location i.e. I want to live in Austin because I can have access to a good job or whatever is cool about Austin, a good school, those amenities. The problem is you have to pay for those and you have to outbid other people who are willing to pay for those. And Ricardo's law of rent says that as the value of the amenities and the productivity of an area goes up, it gets soaked into the land prices. And the mechanism by which it happens is, say I want to buy a watermelon and there's only one watermelon left, I have to outbid that guy. But the watermelon growers can be like, “Oh, a lot of people want watermelon.” So next season, there's going to be more watermelons because they’re going to produce more watermelons.” But because there's only so many locations in Austin within the natural limits of our transportation network, it forces the competition on the side of the people who are essentially the tenants. It forces us into one sided competition with each other.
A simple agricultural example is — say there is a common field that anyone can work on and you can make 100 units of wealth if you work on it. And there's another field that you can also earn 100 units of wealth in, but it's owned by a landowner. Why would you go and work on the landowner’s land when you're going to have to pay him rent? You wouldn't pay them any rent at all, you would work on the field that's free. But if the landowner buys that field and now your best opportunity is a free field that will only produce 10 units of wealth, now he can charge you 90 units of wealth because you have no opportunity to go anywhere else.
So basically as more land gets bought, subject to private ownership in an area, landowners over time get to increase the rent. Not to a maximum level, there are limits to it. And the limit is what's called the margin of production, which is basically you can charge up to the best basic free alternative and this is where the competition comes in.
You can realize that geographically, like out on the margins of Austin, there's land that basically is available for quite cheap, and it might be quite far away, and it used to be not so quite far away 20-30 years ago. As that margin slowly gets privatized, landowners can charge up to that margin. The other limit is subsistence. They can't charge more than you're actually able to pay.
When the entire continent's free, the first settler comes in, strikes a pick in the ground, keeps all of their wealth, but as more and more of it gets consolidated, then landowners are able to charge proportionately more until they're charging essentially up to subsistence. This is how frontier expansion works.
The Economics of San Francisco
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:38:51:
Does that explain property values in San Francisco? They are obviously very high but I don't feel like they're that high where the software engineers who are working at Google are living as subsistence levels, neither are they at the margin of production where it's like, this is what it would cost to live out in the middle of California, and then commute like three hours to work or something.
Lars Doucet - 00:39:13:
It has to do with two things. First of all, it's over the long run. You've had a lot of productivity booms in San Francisco and so it takes some time for that to be priced in and it can be over a while. But given a long enough time period it'll eventually get there.
And then when we're talking about stuff, it's also based off of the average productivity. The average resident of San Francisco maybe doesn't necessarily earn as high an income as a high income product worker. And so this means that if you are a higher than average productivity person, it's worth it to live in the expensive town because you're being paid more than the average productivity that's captured in rent, right? But if you're lower than average productivity, you flee high productive areas. You go to more marginal areas because those are the only places you can basically afford to make a living.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:40:06:
Okay, that's very interesting. That's actually one of the questions I was really curious about so I'm glad to hear an answer on that.
Another one is, so the idea is that land is soaking up the profits that capitalists and laborers are entitled to in the form of rent. But when I look at the wealthiest people in America, yeah there's people who own a lot of land but they bought that land after they became wealthy from doing things that were capital or labor, depending on how you define starting a company. Like sure, Bill Gates owns a lot of land in Montana or whatever, but the reason he has all that wealth to begin with is because he started a company, that's basically labor or capital. So how do you explain the fact that all the wealthy people are capitalists or laborers?
Lars Doucet - 00:40:47:
One of the big misapprehensions people have is that, when they think of billionaires, they think of people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Those are actually the minority billionaires, most billionaires are people involved in hedge funds, they are bankers. And what are two thirds of banks? It's real estate.
But more to your point, I don't necessarily have a problem with the billionaire existing. I don't necessarily buy the narrative that billionaires are solely responsible for everything that comes out of their company, I think they like to present that image. But I don't necessarily have a problem with a billionaire existing. I have a problem with working class people not being able to feed their families. So the greater issue is the fact that the rent is too high rather than that Jeff Bezos is obscenely rich.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:41:45:
No, no. I'm not complaining that your solution would not fix the fact that billionaires exist. I also like that there are billionaires. What I'm pointing out is that it's weird that your theory says that all the surplus in our society is going to landowners and yet the most wealthy people in our society are not landowners. Doesn't that kind of contradict your theory?
Lars Doucet - 00:42:11:
A lot of the wealthy people in our society are landowners. Making wealth off land is a way to make wealth without being productive. Like you said in your interview with Glaeser that, the Googleplex, the value of that real estate is not comparable to the market cap of Google. But now compare the value of all the real estate in San Francisco to the market caps to some of those companies in there. Look at the people who are charging rent to people who work for Google. That's where the money's actually going.
If you earn $100,000 in San Francisco as a family of four, you are below the poverty line. The money is going to basically upper middle class Americans and also the old and the wealthy who own tons of residential land. They are essentially this entire class of kind of hidden landed gentry that are extracting wealth from the most productive people in America and young people, especially. And it creates really weird patterns, especially with service workers who can't afford to live in the cities where their work is demanded.
Transfer from Landowners to Google?
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:43:30:
Okay, so what do you think of this take? This might be economically efficient but the effect of the land value tax would be to basically shift our sort of societal subsidy away from upper middle class people who, happen to own land in urban areas and shift that to the super wealthy and also super productive people who will control the half acre that Google owns in Mountain View. It's easing the burden on super productive companies like Google so that they can make even cooler products in the future. But it is in some sense a little aggressive, that you're going from upper middle class to tech billionaire. But it will still be economically efficient to do that.
Lars Doucet - 00:44:18:
Well, no, I don't quite agree with that because although there are a lot of upper middle class Americans who own a lot of the land wealth, it's not the case that they own where the majority of the land wealth is. The majority of the land wealth in urban areas is actually in commercial real estate. It’s in the central business district.
I work in mass appraisal, so I've seen this myself in the models we build. If you look at the transactions in cities and then you plot where the land value is in a graph, it looks like this _/\_ And this, the peak, is the city center and that's not a residential district. While the residential districts are sucking up a lot of land value and the rent is too damn, the central commercial real estate is an order of magnitude more valuable. And this even holds even in the age of Zoom. It's taken a tumble but it's starting from a very high level. A lot of this real estate is very poorly used. In Houston especially, we have all these central parking lots downtown. That is incredibly valuable real estate and just a couple of speculators are just sitting on it, doing nothing with it. That could be housing, that could be offices, that could be amenities, that could be a million things. And so when you're talking about a land value tax, those are the people who are going to get hit first. And those are people who are neither nice, friendly upper middle class Americans, nor are they hard working industrialists making cool stuff. They're people who are doing literally nothing.
If you do a full land value tax, yeah, it's going to shift the burden in society somewhat. But I feel that most analyses of property taxes and land value taxes that conclude that are regressive. I think that's mostly done on the basis of our current assessments and I feel like our assessments could be massively improved and that if we improve the assessments, we can show where most of our land values actually concentrated. Then we can make decisions about if we are comfortable with these tax shifts.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:46:18:
So a while back I read this book, How Asia Works.
Lars Doucet - 00:46:45:
Yes, I'm a fan.
Asian Tigers and Land Reform
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:46:47:
One of the things the author Joseph Studwell talks about is he's trying to explain why some Asian economies grew like gangbusters in the last half of the 20th century, and one of the things he points to is that these economies implemented land reform. They distributed land away from the existing aristocracy and gentry towards the people who are working the land.
While I was reading the book at the time, I was kind of confused because there's something called the [Unclear]. The idea is that regardless of who initially starts off with a resource, the incentive of that person will be to lend out that resource to be worked by that person who can make most productive use of it. And Studwell was pointing out that these small peasant farmers will pay attention to detail of crop rotation and making the maximum use of this land to get the maximum produce whereas if you're like a big landowner, you will just try to do something mechanized that is not nearly as effective. And in a poor country, what you have is a shitton of labor. So you want something that's labor intensive.
Anyways, backing up a bit, I was confused while I was reading the book because wouldn't what you would expect to happen in a market is that the peasants get a loan from the bank to rent out that land and then they are able to make that land work more productively than the original landowner. Therefore, they are able to make a profit and everybody benefits basically. Why isn't there a [Unclear] solution to that?
Lars Doucet - 00:48:24:
Because any improvement that the peasants make to the land will be a signal to the landowner to increase the rent because of Ricardo's law of rent. And that's exactly what happened in Ireland and George talks about this in Progress and Poverty. A lot of people were like, why was there famine in Ireland? It's because the Irish are bad people. They're lazy. Why didn't they improve? It's because if you improve the land, all that happens is you still are forced into one sided competition and the rent goes up.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:48:50:
Yep, ok. That makes sense.
The taxes you would collect with the land value tax, are they meant to replace existing taxes or are they meant to give us more services like UBI? Because they probably can't do both, right? Like you either have to choose getting rid of existing taxes or getting more..
Lars Doucet - 00:49:08:
Well, it depends how much UBI you want. It's a sliding scale. How many taxes do you want to replace versus how much? You can have a budget there. I show in the book the exact figures of how much I think land value tax could raise. And I forget the exact figures, but you can pull up a graph and overlay it here of whether you're talking about the federal level or federal, local, and state.
There's $44 trillion of land value in America and I believe we can raise about $4 trillion in land rents annually with 100% land value tax. We would probably do less than that in practice. But even on the low end you could fully pay for any one of social security, Medicare plus Medicaid together, so the second one is healthcare or defense, entirely with the lowest estimate of what I think land rents could raise. I think you can actually raise more than that and I give an argument in the book for why I think it's closer to like $4 trillion. And that could pay for all three and have room over for a little bit of extra.
So I mean, it's up to you. That's a policy decision of whether you want to spend it on spending, whether you want to spend it on offsetting taxes or whether you want to spend it on UBI. I think the best political solution, because if I bite the bullet that there might be some regressivity issues left over, you want to do what's called a UBI or what in George's time was called a citizen's dividend. This will smooth over any remaining regressivity issues.
But I very much am in favor of getting rid of some of these worst taxes, not just because they have deadweight loss and land value tax doesn't, but also because there's this tantalizing theory called ATCOR, All Taxes Come Out of Rent, which suggests that if you reduce other taxes, it increases land values, which means that if it's true in the strongest sense, it means the single tax Land value tax replaced all taxes would always work. I'm not sure if I buy that, I want to see some empirical evidence, but I think at least some weak form of it holds such that when you offset other worst taxes, not only do you get rid of the deadweight loss from those, but you also wind up raising at least a little bit more in land value tax revenue.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:51:20:
As somebody who has libertarian tendencies, this obviously seems better than our current regime of taxing things that are good, basically capital and income. But my concern is that the way I'm guessing something like this would be implemented is it would be added on top of rather than repealing those taxes. And then, I guess we would want to ensure….
Lars Doucet - 00:51:44:
I get this one a lot. I have been a libertarian in my past, and I have a soft spot for libertarianism. I used to be a Ron Paul guy back in the day for a hot minute.
I think the thing to assuage your concerns there is, what is land value tax? It's property tax without a tax on buildings. So the natural path to actually getting land value tax comes from reforming existing property tax regimes by reducing an entire category of taxation, which is the tax on buildings. And so that's what I think is the most plausible way to get a land value tax in places like Texas.
What I actually proposed for our first step is not 100% land value tax federally. I don't even know how you get there. I think what you actually do is you start in places like Texas and legalize split-rate property tax, re-tax buildings and land at separate rates, set the rate on buildings to zero, collect the same dollar amount of taxes.
Let's start there. There's proposals to do this in various cities around the nation right now. I think there's one in Virginia. There's a proposal to do in Detroit. I think there's some talk of it in Pennsylvania and some places. I'd like to see those experiments run and observe what happens there. I think we should do it in Texas. And that would be something that I think would be very friendly to the libertarian mindset, because very clearly no new revenue and we're exempting an entire category of taxation. Most people are gonna see savings on their tax bill and the people who own those parking lots downtown in Houston are gonna be paying most of the bill.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:53:14:
By the way, is there a Georgist critique of the government itself? In a sense that government is basically the original land squatter and it's basically charging the rest of us rents. It's neither productively improving. As much as at least it's getting rents or must work. Like if you think about it, even your landlord usually is not charging you 40%, which is what the income tax rate is in America, right? And it's almost like you can view America as the landlord of America.
Lars Doucet - 00:53:46:
If what you're asking is Georgism compatible with full anarcho-capitalist libertarianism, probably not 100%. I think we can have a little government as a treat. But if you look throughout America's founding, I don't think it's a coincidence that originally, it used to be that only white land-owning men could vote. A government by the landowners for the landowners of the landowners. And that's very much kind of the traditional English system of government, just neo-feudalism.
Georgism certainly has a critique of that. That the government is often instituted to protect the interests of landowners. But what's interesting is that if you look throughout history, I'm very much a fan of democracy, rule of the people. I kind of sympathize with Milton Friedman here, where he might want to have less government than we have now, but he doesn't believe we can have no government. And then he goes on to endorse the land value taxes, the least worse tax. Because income tax especially, I feel is a gateway drug to the surveillance state. One of the advantages of land value tax is you don't even care necessarily who owns the land. You're just like, “Hey 4732 Apple Street, make sure the check shows up in the mail. I don't care how many shell companies in the Bahamas you've obscured your identity with, just put the check in the mail, Mr. Address.”
Whereas the income tax needs to do this full anal probe on everyone in the country, and then audits the poor at a higher rate than the rich, and it's just this horrible burden we have. And then it gives the government this presumed right to know what you're doing about everything you're doing in this massive invasion of privacy.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:55:42:
By the way, speaking of shell companies in the Bahamas there's an interesting speculation about what would happen if crypto really managed to make your log of transactions private. Then, I guess the idea is that the only legible thing left to the government is land. So it would force the government to institute a land value tax, because you can't tax income or capital gains anymore since that's all on like the blockchain and is obscured in some way. Is crypto the gateway drug to Georgism, because it'll just move income and capital to the other realm?
Lars Doucet - 00:56:20:
Yeah, it's just so weird. I've gone on record as being a pretty big crypto skeptic. But I have noticed a lot of crypto people get into Georgism, not the least of which is Vitalik Buterin who endorsed my book and is a huge fan of Georgism. I'll take fans from anywhere, even from people I've had sparring contests with.
I'm generally pretty skeptical that crypto can fulfill all its promises. I am excited by those promises, and if they can prove me wrong, that would be great. And I think there's some logic to what you're saying, that if we literally couldn't track transactions, then I guess we don't have much to tax except land. I don't think that'll actually come to pass just based off of recent events.
And that's basically my position on it. But I have noticed that a lot of crypto people are some of the easiest people to convince about Georgism, which was completely surprising to me. But I've learned a lot by talking to them. It's very interesting and weird.
Transitioning to Georgism
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:57:16:
There were some other interesting questions from Twitter. Ramon Dario Iglesias asks, how do you transition from a world today where many Americans have homes or atleast are aspiring to have homes to a world with a different regime? They might still have homes, but who knows. Their property will just be thought about in a completely different way. How do you transition to that? What would that transition look like for most Americans?
Lars Doucet - 00:57:39:
There's this issue that I have to grapple with called Gordon Tullock’s Transitional Gains Trap. If you think about taxi medallions in New York City, it's this artificially scarce asset that allows you to operate a taxi. The first generation that got their taxing medallions basically got in cheap and then made out like gangbusters afterwards. But the second generation had to buy those taxi medallions at the fully priced-in value. And now when you come in and you're like, “Oh, okay. We're going to abolish taxi medallions.” Say you were going to do that, you would screw over that entire second generation who bought in in good faith after the value of the asset had been fully priced in. Even if you admit that the system is now unfair, removing that unfairness screws over the people who played by the “unfair rules.” So how do you grapple with that? And I think it's something that Georgists need to grapple with because we can't just imagine a future utopia without accounting for being fair to people who played by the rules, including people like myself. I'm a homeowner. Am I intending to screw over myself and everyone like me?
I think this is where it's really important to do the math of knowing exactly who's going to be a winner, who's going to be a loser, who's going to pay more, who's going to pay less. I think it's really salient that a lot of the value of land is commercial downtown real estate. And I think that a revenue neutral property tax shift where we exempt the taxation of all buildings, but collect the same amount in property taxes as we're doing now, but just from the land and then a modest citizen's dividend is a really good first step. And then over the years, you can raise the land value rate as you also decrease things like income tax and sales tax. I think that's a transition that gets us there without really screwing anyone over. And for any edge case, like a poor sympathetic widow who has no income but has a high value home, you just make it so she doesn't have to pay the land value tax until she dies or sells the estate.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:59:32:
And I guess even there, the worst case scenario is the status quo where they don't have to pay land value taxes, which is already the case now, right?
Lars Doucet - 00:59:42:
Nobody cares about the people who are being evicted and displaced by the status quo.
Dwarkesh Patel - 00:59:47:
One snafu in terms of figuring out how to price the land is by the time that a land value tax was passed, it'll have been years after this political talk of having a land value tax. And that talk will in turn affect the prices of homes that are sold during that time. So then you'll look at the land selling value and be like, “Oh wow. This house on the outskirts of San Francisco only sold for $200,000.” Does that mean that the unimproved land there is only worth $100,000? Won’t that really conflate the data when you actually go about implementing this?
Lars Doucet - 01:00:28:
It’s important to remember that land selling value is derived from land rental value, not the other way around. Land selling value is the net present value of the future flow of income that can be generated from the property. So the property's inherent productivity is inherent to it. And the selling price of it is based off of the capitalization of that value minus the expectation of any taxes. So a 100% land value tax will theoretically reduce the selling price to zero. But the land will still be as productive as it always was. It's just that the flow of those rents are being redirected. And so that's the thing is that, and also in mass appraisal, one of the things you do is you decapitalize the effect of the tax.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:01:18:
But I'm saying, you don't know what the probability of a tax is in the mind of the property owner or the property seller. Since you don't know that, it's hard to estimate what is the actual capitalization, the right value..
Lars Doucet - 01:01:35:
Are you concerned about the societal effects of the depreciation of land prices or are you more concerned about just the calculation issue?
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:01:16:
The calculation issue.
Lars Doucet - 01:01:17:
Here's the thing. Empirically, if the land selling price has dropped to zero, then you are fully capturing all of the land rents. And if it's above zero, you have not captured all of the land rents.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:02:00:
In the first two years that you try to implement this, you would be trying to mess with the rate.
Lars Doucet - 01:02:11:
It's more complicated than this but if there's any vacant lots in the area, and they're selling for anything, there's still land rent in that property.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:02:21:
Gotcha. But this is not something you would be able to figure out on day one. You would know over the course of years of fudging the numbers.
Lars Doucet - 01:02:26:
We're doing property tax assessments right now. We're doing mass appraisal all the time right now. You could keep it updated every six months if you had the right technology, which is something I'm pushing for. You can see the prices change in real time as transactions come in and you can use multiple regression and geographic weighted regression to work out the difference between the improvements and the land prices.
If you had a rental registry and knew what everyone was paying in rent, you'd be able to keep even better track on what's going on with that.
Lars's Startup & Land Assessment
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:02:56:
This might be actually a good point to talk about your new startup. This is actually something I don't know about either. What is the idea? What are you up to?
Lars Doucet - 01:03:04:
I'm transitioning out of video games and into municipal property tax assessment, mass appraisal. My new startup is called Value Base.
I think the best criticism of Georgism is — how are you actually going to separate land value from improvement, from building value? We can't do a land value tax till we put a price on every parcel of land. So how are you going to do that? And I thought that was the best, most good faith criticism that remained. And it seemed like we gotta get good at that. So I looked into it and I realized that there are a lot of research papers that have been posted in the last 15 years about how to practically do this. And then I went and started interviewing a bunch of assessors and I realized that the state of the practice is pretty far behind. Only 15% of most property tax assessment offices even use multiple regression. A lot of them are using the cost approach, which is basically where you, it's what Ed Glaesar talked about in your interview with him where you estimate the cost of building and you applied depreciation and you subtract it from the observed selling price to get the assumed land price. And that works okay but a lot of assessment is not only using essentially only that method, but also another issue is that just a lot of those cost tables are very out of date. Assessments themselves are not always done every year in some. It's not imperative to find places that haven't done reassessments in more than 10 years.
Most places it's one to five. I think we should be doing everything we can to get all the latest mass appraisal technology and research. One of our first hires was one of the guys who was the first author on all these papers we were reading. And we're just here to update municipal property tax assessors on the latest methods so that we can accurately know what all the land in America is worth. And this will solve a lot of our regressivity issues too, because we know that a lot of landlords are actually under assessed relative to homeowners, believe it or not, because they're more likely to protest their property taxes. And minorities tend to be over assessed and poor people tend to be over assessed. That's why property taxes are sometimes called regressive. It is because the assessments need to be fixed.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:05:41:
I see. I guess because if you have more property, getting your rate changed from like 1% to 0.8% is worth thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of dollars.
Lars Doucet - 01:05:54:
Right. And there's a lot of other issues too. There's all sorts of reasons that you can have these things, often from no malintent whatsoever. Just out of date assessments can also cause all sorts of issues.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:06:11:
In the book, you're talking about the percentage of tax income that is literally just spent on figuring out how much income tax to collect and whether people have paid or whatever is a lot. So I get that.
One worry that people might have is that while income taxing is obviously very inefficient at least it has a nice property that it feels like there's this hard figure that ought to exist. Like I made this much income this year. Whereas figuring out how much land is worth… I get that if you figured out the rent value, that's like the value of land, but it just feels much more murky. And therefore it might potentially enable corruption in the level of whoever's doing the assessment or however that method of assessment is happening. They'll just use these fancy algorithms to nudge it one way or another, in a way that benefits big corporations or whoever they want.
Lars Doucet - 01:07:09:
That's a really good argument and the reply to that is that we need to move towards more transparency because land value follows certain rules that should logically make sense. We know some things that drive locational value. First of all, we should move towards open source models and open data whenever possible, which is something that we want to do.
A lot of these cities will post on the open data portal. My mission in life is to be able to advance the state of the art of this technology and make it so anyone can kind of check on stuff. In any city in America, you should be able to look up your property tax assessment on a map and compare it to your neighbor. And what you shouldn't see is a Christmas tree effect, where your neighborhood looks like Christmas tree lights of green and red of people whose property tax assessments like massively differ. That's the case in a lot of cities.
If the land values have been correctly assessed in this neighborhood, most of these parcels should be about the same value. Maybe the cul-de-sacs are worth a little bit more but your neighbor's land shouldn't be worth 20% more than yours. And if it is, it'll stick out on a map like a sore thumb. And if the data and the algorithms are all open source and open data, you should be able to check anyone's math. And you should be able to use that to then protest your taxes if they seem off. And that's kind of the argument for land value taxes.
You can hide all kinds of stuff in income taxes and capital taxes. That's what the Caymans and the Bahamas are for. It's very easy to find people are getting a break on their property taxes. I’m not saying corruption won't happen but it'll be very easy to see because you'll be able to see just this mansion that suddenly has this discontinuity on the land value map. Someone gave this person a break and maybe we should write an article in the local newspaper about this.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:09:01:
Yeah, it'll be way better than how income taxes work. None of it's open to potentially even the government itself, right?
Another concern is that that’s fine for things that are above ground and legible but what if you find out through some sort of surveying that this land has a lot of oil under it and then you buy it but obviously you're not going to tell the government that I just found an oil well.
Lars Doucet - 01:09:26:
So this is the sort of theoretic critique…
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:09:27:
No, not even that. You literally won't declare it. So in a sense, you're still being a speculator, but in fact, you're incentivized even more to be a speculator in the sense that as soon as you declare that there's oil underneath this ground then the government is going to start taxing you for it. So you just want to hang on to that as long as you can and keep that private.
Lars Doucet - 01:09:48:
We need to talk about mineral policy in America, because especially states like Texas, mineral rights and land rights are totally different. Usually when you buy land in Texas and in America, you actually don't have the mineral rights. Those are very severable. A lot of people are very interested in those mineral rights and so usually if you're not paying attention, generally speaking, you're not getting the mineral rights when you're buying land. And if you are, you're paying more for them.
I think with the case of minerals you have to have something more like the Norwegian model where you need to basically give some incentive to someone to produce or to not withhold that resource. A good example would be the treasure law in England because England has ancient Anglo-Saxon treasure and Roman treasure. Before what they would have as someone would find it and like go like hide it or melt it down because they didn't want the government to tax them.
So they passed this treasure law, which is not perfect, but it's okay. They're like, “This is our heritage. We want that in a museum.” So here's the deal. If you find treasure, you're going to get paid and the landowner is going to get paid. So there's an incentive for people to go out with metal detectors and there's an incentive for a landowner to let people do that. And then the government's going to put it in a museum. You're going to be rewarded for the discovery of that thing but the value of that thing itself is going to be captured because it's the heritage of the British people.
The opposite of this is the Spanish government. Whenever someone finds a galleon full of gold on the bottom of the ocean, if you go and you invest the capital to bring that up to the surface and you're in Spanish waters or the Spanish government finds you and you don’t take it to Spain, a Spanish admiralty court is going to try to get its claws on that gold.
The incentives the Spanish government is producing is basically to make sure that nobody ever, ever recovers a ship.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:11:59:
Yeah. And if they do it just ends up in some sort of foundry in another country.
Lars Doucet - 01:12:05:
Yeah, the Spanish government's approach to sunken treasure basically incentivizes people never to go after it.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:12:11:
A general critique of Georgism in general, or implementing it would be… Listen, the reason America and other developed countries are wealthy is because they are very strong in terms of honoring contracts, especially honoring people with property rights.
In some sense, you have a contract with the government that “Hey, I have this property.” and once you don't honor that, people will get too concerned to want to invest in America or in American assets and that will have all kinds of economic repercussions where people are like, “Oh, I guess my property is not mine?”. Maybe other things I thought I was investing in like, “My stocks are not mine. So why should I buy these stocks in America?”
Lars Doucet - 01:13:00:
This is a fully general argument against change. And I also don't agree with all the assumptions. If America doesn't honor its agreements, what are they worth?
We've violated all kinds of treaties, with the Indians especially, but also all sorts of international treaties. There have been all kinds of instances where we’ve changed rules on things and changed asset classes. We had an entire period where we just banned all sales of alcohol and then we had a time where we completely undid that and brought it all back. There's been times where we've made major, major changes to the rules of what kind of asset classes we have.
This argument is often brought up with any kind of labor protections and things. Where it's like, we have these rules and therefore we can never change them. I think the best answer to this is that you need to acknowledge Gordon Tullocks’ Transitional Gains trap and if there's someone who's going to be put out, then you make sure that there's some compensation in the system to smooth over the transition. But the rule of law doesn't imply that any change to the status quo is going to undermine trust in it.
I think it's important to remember that George is not interested in seizing land. That's a very big distinction from the Maoist position which is — murder of the landlords, or the more modest Asian reforms.
First of all, when you're talking about How Asia Works, like they took the land away from the big landowners, gave it to the peasants, and it made those countries way more productive. I don't think anyone would look at those Asian countries now and compare them to where they were going to be and say “Well, the rule of law is weaker now than it used to be.” George isn't even advocating for that. He's just advocating for raising taxes on land and exempting all of the building taxes. So I don't think it amounts to seizure of land for those reasons. But even if it did amount to that, I think sometimes it's worth biting some bullets.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:15:11:
Okay, let's move on to dessert. Let's move on to some more fun interpretations and applications of Georgism.
I think Byrne Hobart had this blogpost on The Diff. I don't know if you follow him but he's a great finance writer. He was talking about how if you have a Facebook account or a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, you were in some sense very early to YouTube and Facebook, and now you have this land. And Facebook punishes you if you have a big account and are not posting frequently or not getting enough engagement and you'll have a harder time reaching people in the future.
Byrne had this Georgist interpretation of that. Where it's like you have this productive asset, a profile that you're able to build on the early days of Facebook, and if you're not posting on it then we're not going to give you the advantage of having millions of followers. But anyway, there's all kinds of ways you can apply Georgism.
You can think of the App store as rent seeking from Apple where they charge you 30% tithe. And there's all kinds of other places in the digital world where you can think of this. How do you think about Georgism in the context of those kinds of things?
Lars Doucet - 01:16:30:
I've actually written a policy paper on how to apply the theories of land value tax to virtual worlds. The question with virtual real estate is when does something actually operate like a land-like asset? And then to what extent do Georgist principles apply? That doesn't necessarily mean to just do LVT.
First of all, let me define what I mean by a land-like asset. A land-like asset has three properties. It is scarce in supply. It is necessary for production. And it obtains locational value by virtue of its position in some kind of graph. As an example, I create a fictional MMO and I give the example of a unicorn, a permit, and a plot of land. The unicorn is scarce, but it's not necessary for production. Any value you can get from the unicorn, you can get some other ways. It's really nice to have and there's only like 10,000 on the server. A permit is like a permit to brew potions. You're part of the witches guild. You can brew potions. My apprentice witch has to pay rent to me to gain access to my permit to be allowed to brew potions, but all permits are fungible. So there's no locational value. And then a plot of land like we've talked about. So this becomes the real speculative asset. Domain names are probably the closest thing to this. Vitalik Buterin has actually written a post about how to apply Georgist theory to domain names and also all the wrinkles that are involved.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:17:55:
By the way, he did this on your blog, right? As a guest post.
Lars Doucet - 01:17:58:
Well, progressandpoverty.substack.com is not technically my blog. It's a group blog where a lot of us Georgists post. So yeah my blog in the sense of our blog. Yeah, and he cross posted it. He also posted it on his own blog.
But there's other considerations to remember when we go away from literal land. For instance, with domain names, especially with the Ethereum name system, you have issues of identity that don’t apply to literal land. If someone buys this house from you, maybe the next person who lives here is going to get some of your mail for like a week or two but like no one's going to think that they're you necessarily. But if I buy Vitalik.eth there might be some confusion. I might be able to get some transactions that were meant for him. And so there's these other considerations and he deals with all of that.
I wrote a policy paper about how to apply LVT in virtual worlds but that was more in these more kind of literal simulacra of the real world in virtual worlds than kind of the things you're talking about, YouTube accounts and charts in app stores, which are user generated content platforms.
I haven't fully analyzed user generated content platforms. But I do think chart positions are a sort of virtual land. They essentially do charge rent for that not just their flat 30% fee across everything but also in the kind of advertising Red Queen’s race you have to do to stay on those charts. You essentially have to buy that position and then keep it. There's this huge first mover advantage that turns into rent seeking. And I haven't fully analyzed exactly how you applied Georgist theory there. But I do think there's something to it.
I also think there's something to extremely long-lived copyrights and patents. It's a little undercooked at the moment. I don't have a fully fledged theory of it. But certainly other monopoly assets like orbital real estate, radio spectrum. Essentially anywhere you’re able to capture the rights of the possibility space. You know how John Carmack had a lot of algorithms some of which were patented and he wasn't even allowed to use them in his own games because someone else had speculatively patented them.
Carmack's reverse was the particular algorithm that they weren't allowed to use in Quake III or because someone had speculatively patented it. And there's like no other way to do that thing. So in Quake III, this one particular sub routine had to be 25% slower because someone had patented the algorithm that could make it faster. Imagine if you could patent the Pythagorean theorem. So that kind of nonsense and you can just rent seek off that for 20 years.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:20:51:
Jesus. That's funny.
Let’s move on to another juicy implication that you were just talking about, which is space. Hopefully, humanity will eventually conquer space and the rest of the galaxy and this is where Georgism will be really interesting and applicable because we obviously want to encourage and incentivize people to go to new worlds and make use of stars and planets. But we obviously don't want it to be the case that if you got to Mars a year earlier you forever have rights to everything on Mars and all the resources. For example, if Musk gets to Mars a year before Bezos, he has the rights to everything.
Georgism in space is actually a place that makes a lot of sense. Have you put much thought into interstellar Georgism?
Lars Doucet - 01:21:41:
Interstellar Georgism is actually current international law. Although I think the outer space treaty will last for about five minutes once the interplanetary space race gets going in earnest. [Laughter]
But the current law, the law of the international order of the outer space treaty, basically says that nobody's allowed to claim interstellar bodies like the Moon or Mars for China or the US. We have a flag there but it's not American territory. It's basically international waters, so to speak.
Once the actual possibility of having permanent bases shows up, then we will have to hash that out. But basically I think we should take that and run with it. If you are going to take possession of interstellar bodies, it will become a question of who exactly becomes the government in that scenario. Is it some international coalition? Is it the UN? I'm not a huge fan of the UN or it just turns out that whatever sovereign government gets there first just gets to claim it, but can you have Georgism and within those confines? I think we certainly should. Because otherwise what you're going to get is that you're going to get under investment. You're going to get so much under investment because the first people to get there are going to basically charge rent to all the people who come next.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:23:05:
Yeah. I just remembered the other question I wanted to ask which was about copyright. That's a really interesting and complicated area because it's hard to think of what is the intrinsic value of the land of the idea and what is the improvement you've made. What do you get to call as the improvement on the the song you discovered? Maybe it’s the melody? But the melody would have existed anyways, so then the specific lyrics that you came up with? I don't know.
Lars Doucet - 01:23:31:
It's not exactly clear to me what the implication of Georgism is on copyright. If you Zoom out, Georgism is not just about land. That's why a lot of people are like, “Why are you so obsessed about land?” It's mostly about the enclosure of natural monopolies and economies that are based entirely around rent seeking. And it's clear we have this with eternal copyright.
If we had the copyright laws we have today when Disney was first getting started, the Brothers Grimm would still be under copyright and they would not have been able to get off the ground with a lot of their early properties and then they pulled the ladder up right behind them.
It's clear they're rent seeking in a lot of ways and refusing to give back to the commons from which they first enriched themselves. The question then becomes — can you easily parse copyright as land?
It's a very undercooked theory, but there's something there. Probably what it catches out to is that copyright terms should be shorter. At some point when an idea has become part of the cultural consciousness for so long it should become part of just the background collective commons, because all ideas are essentially remixed and built on top of other ideas. But we want to incentivize people to create new ideas in the first place. It's not a perfect analogy to land, but there is something there about rent seeking that needs to be addressed. And it probably just caches out to just reducing copyright terms.
Politics of Georgism
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:25:02:
Let's talk about the political feasibility of land value tax. Do you think it will be something that will get passed in a democracy? A lot of people have homes or want to have homes, but on the other hand, if you just redistribute… If you don't have many acres in the middle of San Francisco, then you would maybe still come out net ahead, but could you be able to explain that to people? And obviously there's tenants who would definitely benefit from this.
Anyway, what is your thought on how politically feasible this is now or would be in the future?
Lars Doucet - 01:25:36:
I think it's more politically feasible than we think. I think it just has low salience right now and if more people start talking about it, I think it's going to make a lot of sense. Especially if it's pitched as property tax reform. Like right now in Texas, you have people who are trying to abolish property tax, which will turn this state into California like that. *snaps fingers*
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:25:55:
Why? Why would it turn into California?
Lars Doucet - 01:25:57:
Because California has some of the lowest property taxes in the nation, Proposition 13, and it creates an entire layer of landed gentry and really, really, really expensive housing. Housing is already getting expensive in Austin and property taxes have an effect of lowering property prices. Property taxes are an imperfect land value tax. And so basically, it will just reproduce the economic conditions that empirically exist in California.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:26:21:
There's this funny saying that the Texas Constitution is not a government document, but rather an anti-government document. But one of the positive by-products if you’re a Georgist is that since it makes taxing income so hard, governments are forced to tax property and hopefully eventually land.
Lars Doucet - 01:26:40:
I have a bone to pick with the Texas Constitution because Houston had a single tax mayor in 1911 and had an active, Georgist land value tax. And it would have still had it today if it wasn't for a state judge who basically shut them down.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:27:09:
Why? What was the reason?
Lars Doucet - 01:26:33:
Because there's a clause in this state constitution of Texas that says all property taxation has to be uniform and that's interpreted as uniform across both the buildings and the land. You can't tax them at separate rates.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:27:09:
So does that mean that constitutionally you could just put it in a Texas Senate?
Lars Doucet - 01:27:14:
It's up to interpretation. There are some people who interpreted that as — you can't tax this guy at a higher rate than that guy. You have to tax them based on the value of their property. And then you could claim that it's still uniform. We're just taxing land and we have all these exemptions and categorizations already. This is just another one of those. We tax agricultural land at a different rate. If you put a bunch of cows on a property suddenly it's magically less valuable. So why can't we target just the land? And so if you have the right judge, maybe you could get away with that.
But anyway, to go towards political feasibility, I think it could be more feasible than we think, especially if pitched as property tax reform because people already feel that property taxes are too high. “Hey, everyone, let's exempt all your buildings.” I think you could build a coalition that's excited about that. Especially if you do the math and show what the change in your taxable rate is going to be.
I think just a revenue neutral property tax shift to land can be quite popular. There's a lot of cities around the US right now where this is being floated. Organizations like Strong Towns, the Center for Property Tax Reform, and the Lincoln Land Institute are working on a lot and talking to places about it. Detroit is talking about it right now and they could desperately use it. I think it could pass.
And also Henry George's salience is coming back. In Norway, the Ruling Center Party coalition just passed a new severance tax. They have a very successful resource management policy with oil. They also have one from the early 1900s in hydro power, which was set up by Norwegian Georgists. The Ruling Center Party coalition just put one in for salmon farming aquaculture locations. A new severance tax on that. And they name-checked Henry George when they implemented it in the speech. So I think if they are willing to stand up to the landowners in Oslo and pass a land value tax, that would be the next step. I'm not sure if they're brave enough to do that. We're starting to see this bubble up and so I think a revenue neutral property tax shift to land is the politically popular way to do it. Because it can be done on the local level without having to change a whole bunch of laws. It's a little complicated in Texas because of that's stupid state constitutional provision but in other states, they don't have that. There's other States in which any municipality could do it right now if they wanted.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:29:33:
One of the things you talk about in the book is that in some sense the value of your land is caused by the other people around you, of other properties, of other amenities and companies or whatever that are near. So it's kind of like a publicly contributed value.
But if you think about it that way, doesn't it make sense that your land taxes should go to that community which is the one that's creating all this value rather than being distributed federally? So maybe we should have land value taxes on local levels but then it goes to pay towards local amenities. If you live right next to the subway and the reason the properties there are valuable is because you're right next to the subway, then that goes towards making the New York subway better but it doesn't go towards the city hall and Kentucky or something.
Lars Doucet - 01:30:21:
If you wanted to create a model for a bottom up decentralized America, I would take that bargain. We still got to fund the federal government somehow and so I would like to repeal the federal income tax and have that funded by land value tax. But if that's as far as I could ever get, I'd shake your hand and take that deal right now. It sounds good.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:30:42:
Yeah, fair enough.
One more question. This was actually from Twitter from Craig Fratrik, the question is — if one of the reasons why we think of land as being a public thing is because your land value is contributed by people around you. But what if you own so much land that you are the one that's contributing to the value of all your land. So if you're thinking like Disney World, they basically own half of Orlando and they're the ones that are creating nearby amenities, which are making the rest of Disneyworld valuable. In that case, are they entitled to all the proceeds?
Lars Doucet - 01:31:19:
In a way, yes. What's interesting is that this is often posed as a gotcha question for Georgists but internally we call this the Disney World question and it's actually a really interesting case.
The thing you have to realize now is who is Disney World in this situation? Disney World is the government in this case. Disney World is the community. Disney World is the city. It's a private city and then there's all these questions of who is the citizen of Disney World and is it an equitable democracy or whatever, which will leave aside for the moment. But the point is that Disney World has fully internalized the positive externalities of their own building,. So the incentive structure has changed. We fully acknowledge that and we just bite that bullet. So the question then becomes what do you do about it? It's a really interesting city, which is essentially a private city.
There can certainly be issues with company towns, especially when local monopolies enforce bad local laws like you have to buy from the company store, which is mostly an issue of governance. But in terms of land use, actually if a landowner owns the entirety of a large enough to internalize all their building things that does change the situation. Then you need to see them less as the private owner of a parcel and more as a private operator of a city and that changes the governance question and it becomes a completely different category of problem. Then there's questions like, what is the right mix of taxes and subsidies? Do you even want to have these sorts of entities in the first place? What does the governance question look like? But the important thing to realize is that you are no longer dealing with a private landowner, you are dealing with a private city.
Someone Is Always Collecting Rents
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:33:09:
So is maybe one way to think about Georgism that somebody has to be collecting the rents? And what Georges is saying is we want the rents collected by the government and not by the person who is a private landowner, presumably because the government will do more public-facing things with it. But rents have to be collected, we just have we're just trying to decide who will collect it?
Lars Doucet - 01:33:32:
Right. Rents will be collected one way or another and if we leave it to the status quo, private actors free riding off their neighbors will collect them and make everything worse. They will cause less investment and they will hold the best land out of use and there'll be less building than there should be and the rent will be too damn high.
The rent has to be collected one way or another so it might as well be collected on behalf of the community. Not only will this fix the incentives, but then it also shares the wealth with the people who actually produce the wealth. And if the community is itself this giant private city, then that kind of changes the equation a bit. And I have not fully delved into the Disney World issue and the Disney World question and that's a little separate academically from actually existing Disney World and how anyone feels about that institution in particular. But the important thing to realize is that we're now dealing with a different domain. Because then the question is, who is a citizen of Disneyland? Who is a tenant of Disneyland? What is the governance of Disneyland? You realize now Disneyland essentially is the government. And I think that's actually kind of literally true in actually existing Disney World because they have their own special district that operates essentially as a private government. It's just its own kind of question. But the point is very much yes, the rents have to be collected one way or the other so they might as well be collected on behalf of the community. One way to implement that is through a government because we have this nice little democracy we can use.
But there's this whole charter cities movement and then a movement I like even better called starter cities, which is less like let's find some third world country and hope our sovereignty doesn't get revoked in five years, and more like let’s build cities somewhere in America where rezoning is pretty loose. You could have everyone who lives there basically be a shareholder of a private entity and share out the land rents that way. Another way to implement it would just be ground leases rather than land value tax within a private city. And then everyone who lives there is de facto a shareholder of the city. There's some people who are trying to build stuff like that, which I'm very much interested in.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:35:32:
Awesome. Final question. What is next for you?
Lars Doucet - 01:35:35:
I'm still a game developer and on nights and weekends I'm overseeing a project that will be released next year, Defender's Quest 2, after a good decade of development. I'm happy for that to be finished. But additionally I am working on a startup called Valuebase and that is a municipal mass appraisal company. We're going to partner with local municipalities. We've already got a couple of customers who are interested in what we're doing. We're going to massively update the state of the practice of municipal mass appraisal in America to be more accurate, more efficient and more up to date with the latest models and more transparent, leaning into open source and open data solutions wherever possible. I think that can be the practical step towards Georgism not just to implement georgism but even to advocate for it. Because you know, in the Edward Glaesar interview, I'm super happy to have Glaeser's endorsement even if he thinks Georgism isn’t a panacea.
One of the things about his critique of it not being a panacea is that I think he's under the impression that land isn't a big deal.
And I think it's a polycea even if it's not a panacea. I'll settle for curing multiple diseases even if I'm not curing literally all of them.
And how important you think Georgism is depends on how much the land is worth. And to do that, we have to measure it. And we're not super good at measuring it right now. And I think we need to get super good at measuring it.
When I was talking about this originally, someone challenged me and said “The reason I don't think you can do this is because if you really could, then people would give you millions of dollars to go do it.” And well, we just closed a round led by Sam Altman and that's exactly what happened. And now we're going to do it. I'm really grateful to that commenter for challenging me in that way because I really see my life's work as making Georgism possible and practical and I think the way to do that is to measure the value of the land and to put those tools out there for anybody to be able to pick up.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:37:50:
Awesome. Okay. So the book is Land is a Big Deal. And where else can people find you?
Lars Doucet 1:37:36
You can find me at a couple of places. On the website landisabigdeal.com. You can find me on Twitter @larsiusprime. The book is based on a series of articles that you can find at gameofrent.com. And valuebase.com. And that's everything I do.
Dwarkesh Patel - 01:38:22:
There's books you read where you're like, “Oh, that's interesting. I guess I shifted my priors slightly.” And there's books like, “Oh, fuck, why did I not think about it that way? Wow, that changes how I think about everything.”
It really is one of those books. I think you have a metaphor in the book about seeing the cat in a picture. Anyway, I highly recommend the book. It's one of those books you will read where you'll just have a completely new perspective on an entire field.
Awesome. Thanks, Lars. Thanks for coming on today and thanks for making your way all the way over here to do this interview live.
Lars Doucet - 01:38:57:
Well, thanks for grilling me. Thanks for all the hard questions. I really like to be challenged in that way and like to really engage with the best faith, hard-hitting critics to make sure we really understand what we're talking about here. Because none of this matters unless it works. I'm not here to defend Henry George's honor. I'm here to explore whether this can actually be a solution to our problem.