Lolling on the beach or in your backyard or by a mountain brook … many Americans can only dream of taking time off, while our European cousins and counterparts get a month or more of leisure each year – by law – and the pleasures with it.
If only we Yanks worked to live rather than vice versa. With even a couple weeks off, we'd feel much better and complain less, or so those of us who take vacations tell the psychologists. The daily stress drains away and we get reacquainted with loved ones, besides our job performance going up. These and other benefits last for months.
Why do we Yanks endure a life of excess drudgery? Besides our work-ethic heritage and our class-consciousness non-heritage, an overlooked factor is the cost of living. Not just any cost of living, but of housing, or more precisely, of land, especially locations in cities and along coasts. Americans spend about twice as much on housing – read, land – as do Europeans. Our European brethren may pay higher taxes, but much of that expense comes back as affordable health care, while ours fetch us fighter jets (that we don't even get to take rides on). They can afford leisure; we can't.
Needing a place to live need not make it so pricey to live. There is a way to tamp down land prices, if a nation reared on the virtues of land speculation could accept that. The incessant drumbeat here: rising land costs good. Imagine the media calling a recovery in gasoline prices good!
Presently, the hefty sums we pay for land do allow some to vacation yearly, even live in Bali. Yet, none of these individuals – many of whom are upstanding members of the middle class – made land, nor made land valuable. Rather, locational values reflect the presence of society – density up, site value up.
While our paying for land has been a boon to some, it has been a bust for our economy, never mind our cost of living. When buyers bid up the price of land, they swell mortgages. More onerous debt makes an economy top-heavy. Unstable economies waver than tumble into recession. Big investors acknowledge this link between “real estate” bubbles and recessions.
If we're ever to smooth out the business cycle, bring down the cost of living and make vacations universal, we have to let everyone ride the real estate gravy train (next stop: time off). That means we'd direct our spending for some Earth into everyone's pockets. Sort of like what Aspen Colorado does.
That ski resort, where a vacant lot can go for millions, was becoming so expensive, even some lawyers could not afford to live there. To keep their waiters and teachers and police housed nearby, the town voted to tax real estate sales and direct the funds into housing assistance. They even let doctors making six figures qualify!
To harvest more of its land's value, any town could simply shift its property tax off buildings, onto land. Where a tax on land rises, there the price for land falls. In effect, residents would pay “land dues” to their neighbors rather than a mortgage debt to a banker. And by shrinking overall debt, they'd rebalance their economy.
A tax on land may seem like an attack on middle-class homeowners, but it's not. The ones who'd pay the most are those who own the most valuable sites. Take Milt Romney, who owns La Jolla oceanfront. Its 2009 assessment of the house is $1,020,000, but 92 percent of the market price of the property is the land, $11,220,000, which would become part of San Diego's tax base. Nearby beach access properties lease for $50,000 a month. Since whoever put the beach and ocean there doesn't need that compensation, channel it into the community kitty.
Don't have a beach? No problem. Any state could copy Alaska, which pays its residents a dividend. That state has oil, but even if a state lacks minerals, timber, grazing land and wilderness for hunters and hikers, every state has a goldmine – urban land values, transportation hubs and transportation arteries.
And national governments already pay Social Security. To pay all ages much more, governments could charge polluters, auction off bandwidth and recover resource royalties. Another immense stream that government now neglects is all the money changing hands, upward, thanks to corporations being able to limit their liability and stockpile patents and copyrights for mere filing fees. So, run government like a business and charge full market value for such special privileges.
All those socially-generated values of everything from land titles to bank charters total trillions of dollars each year. Imagine redirecting those flows into public treasuries. Governments would be so flush, we could axe the senseless taxes that now increase the cost of living: the imposts on wages, sales and buildings.
Likely, it'd be necessary to address the spending side of the revenue equation, too, and cut waste: the funding for war, the drug war, agribusiness, sprawl development – plug your favorite leak. Then government could easily pay the citizenry a dividend and we citizens could kick back. In bumpersticker-ese, this geonomic policy reads: “Keep earnings, share Earth.”
Each year, Americans spend many trillions for the gifts of nature and the privileges of government – goods that exist due to nobody's contribution of labor or capital. So, to whom should we pay? Make it ourselves and we all could relax. If ritzy Aspen and libertarian Alaska could dip their toes into the founts of economic justice, let America be not far behind. Promote legislation not to regulate time off, but to establish a Citizens Dividend, empowering us to not just enjoy vacations, but enrich our lives.