Sex and the… I mean: Cell and the City

People are often surprised by my dual interest in both molecular biology and political economy. The connection is not obvious. However, when you consider that my greatest interest is in eradicating extreme suffering, it starts to make more sense. I believe that science can, if humanity decides to utilize it altruistically, eventually eradicate the biological substrates of extreme suffering. That being said, it’s going to be a long haul, and that’s where political economy comes in, the bottom-line, money and resources. The question is how to structure our system in such a way so as to fund this type of progress. I often find myself thinking about how biological organization from the level of individual cells, tissues, organs, and organisms distribute resources, and how the physical allocation of these resources makes all the difference in the evolutionary success of the subject.

The cellular milieu is a sea of wonder. If you were able to sit inside a nano-sized submarine with enzymatic reactions sparking all around you, you might get the feeling of disorder and chaos. However, the cell is anything but disorganized. Membranes compartmentalize a wide range of pHs critical to the structure and function of enzymes and other molecules. The distribution of these compartments is a critical component of the cell, allowing for an unfathomable number of perfectly orchestrated events that rarely skip a beat. Cellular superhighways in the form of cytoplasmic scaffolding help traffic these molecules between compartments, optimized, among other ways, in terms of their distance from each other. For instance, DNA’s trusty messenger RNA travels from the nucleus to the rough endoplasmic reticulum where it is translated into protein, the substance that actually makes a person’s skin dark or eyes blue. The trafficking of RNA is essential to the basic functioning of the cell and often needs to occur so rapidly that the membrane of the rough endoplasmic reticulum is continuous with the outer layer of the nuclear envelope. In other words, they’re right next to each other. Other compartments need to be kept away from each other. There are concentration gradients, and other means of partitioning, but that’s the point, the cell optimizes its use of space both internally and externally. If it doesn’t, it either dies or over proliferates, often resulting in cancer.

Similarly, if cities and their citizenry are to thrive, they must optimize thier use of space, i.e. land. In a city, taxes are one of the primary drivers of land use. Taxes on land values allocate space more efficiently by spurring idle landlords into either using their land for productive purposes or selling it to others who will. This means, selling off vacant lots, renovating vacant floors, and constructing taller buildings in areas where there is demand for them. However, when there is a lack of pressure on individual landlords to economize on their use of surface area i.e. land, and a strong incentive to speculate on rising land values, more land will be held out of use. The cumulative effect on the city is that there is less room for everyone else, increasing the cost of land (rent, mortgage rates, purchasing prices).








Taxing labor, exchange, and buildings is detrimental to economic activity. The result is less exchange, and less building space. A lower supply of building space hurts laborers because of the higher rents and mortgage costs caused by the resultant artificial scarcity in land. Also, when less space can be utilized for business, there is less business and less demand for labor. This stifles wages. Furthermore, cities are hurt by these taxes due to the obvious fact that there is less of a financial reward for production after taxes are paid. Thus, it is necessary, in the interest of promoting the economic health of the city, to shift taxes off of the productive activities mentioned and onto land values.

Speculating on land does not actually produce wealth. In fact, it physically impedes it by withholding land required for productive activity out of use. Taxing land values actually creates incentives for production unlike other taxes. This runs counter to how most people commonly think about taxes. It is an issue of what economists call elasticity. If potato chips are taxed, less potato chips will be sold. Tax cars and there will be less cars. If land values are taxed though, there is still just as much as there was before. The real difference is that there is less of an incentive to waste space in areas where the demand for land is high. If a cell is to survive, it must use it’s space efficiently, and so must a city.
However, this isn’t to say that cities should be heavily zoned or planned top down. Some planning is obviously necessary, but just as there is no central conductor of the cell, so too can cities with the proper incentive to use space efficiently grow stably and organically.

When you consider the very common practice of cross collateralizing mortgage loans, it’s easy to infer the impetus on the part of both the individual landlord and banks, buying low and seling high, the promise of a free ride. However that free ride, its cumulative effects, have very serious consequences.







Cells, like cities, must maintain boundaries if they are to symbiotically thrive within the larger macrobiot. Indeed like cancer, the sprawl that is created in cities by high taxes on production and low taxes on land values disaggregates the efficiency of the divison of labor, killing cities with high rents, poverty, and criminality. Fortunately for humans, we are endowed with something greater than the sum of our molecular parts, more effective than the tumor suppressor p53. We don’t have to submit our cities to the painful selection process that preened our cells. We can make a conscious decision to change the way our cities are structured and alleviate a great deal of suffering in the process.


Top Ten Books on the Economics of Poverty?

Top Ten Books on the Economics of Poverty?

I’ve read the Elusive Quest for Growth by Easterly, which is probably very similar to the White Man’s Burden. I’ve also read The End of Poverty and The Bottom Billion. I’m not impressed with any of these books.

These authors don’t offer any tangible solutions that fit within any kind of encompassing or mechanistic framework, nor is there any practical or perspicuous explanation about how to achieve the vaguely described reforms they do advocate. We are just supposed to act impressed by all the stats they mention, which crazy enough, are not even valid. The numbers are doctored to support the conclusions of those officials responsible for the economic problems taking place in the first place.

Easterly and Sachs disagree over the most basic and discernible topics, one of which is whether or not to forgive poor countries of their debt. Collier seems to have an inkling that location is important in terms of “development”. He also has a good grip on the fact that resource rich countries are often poor because of rent-seeking. However, from what I remember, he never mentions the importance of nor delineates what economic rent actually is.

Sachs probably means well, but he’s obsessed with technology. Technology increases rent, and though there are ancillary effects of technology, it takes continuous growth for technology to outpace rent. Even if such growth is maintained, boom bust cycles persist, starving R&D expenditure and demand for the sake of land and IP speculation.

The best book I have ever come across on poverty, its causes and conditions, is Progress and Poverty by Henry George. Here, George offers a system based on merit, the entrepreneurial spirit, free trade, and an end to taxes on production (perhaps sans internalizing externalities), while simultaneously tackling the root cause of poverty as it exists in the speculation on the fruits of nature: land, water, oil, DNA, the electromagnetic spectrum, etc.

My attitude minus all the new age philosophy.

Will Smith says he’s not a great actor — but he’s a hardworking one.

“I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as … slightly above average in talent,” the 39-year-old actor tells CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview scheduled to air Sunday.

“Where I excel is with (a) ridiculous, sickening work ethic,” Smith says. “While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy’s eating, I’m working…”

This is the attitude we need to have if we want to make the world a better place, absolute focus and determination.

FAQ: Wouldn’t people be unable to afford homes under a land tax?

Hi Paul, thanks for your engagement. Certain activities are negative externalities (bads) that need to be internalized (accounted for in the cost), and other activities are positive and need to be liberated from the burden of taxation. So, tax bads, not goods is the central point. Which taxes are levied is just as important as how high or low they are.

When the burden of taxation is placed on land, this makes land more expensive to hold. When taxation is placed on improvements like homes, it makes holding homes more expensive. Thus, a tax on land that replaces all other taxes, including those on homes, would make homes cheaper to purchase, hold , and improve because these activities would not be taxed. In contrast, it would make large swaths of unused and speculatively held land expensive to hold.

A tax on land actually makes land cheaper to purchase precisely because it is more expensive to hold; the market is purged of speculators, thus making the relatively small amount of land one needs to construct a home on cheaper to purchase. See David Ricardo’s Law of Rent However, taxes on homes make them more expensive to construct, to purchase, to keep in use, to lease and rent, to fix and improve upon, and even to demolish when a person wants to build a nicer home. So, owning a home would be cheaper than ever under a single tax on land system.

Remember, this tax would also replace the income tax and all other taxes on production, which would mean that people would have more money to spend on less expensive homes.

How a “Broad Based” Tax System Milks the Poor

“The more complex the rules of taxation are, the more they can be subverted and evaded. As the tax code becomes a hieroglyphic that can be understood only by specialists, only those who can afford to pay the specialists can take advantage of its loopholes!”-Lindy Davies

You can apply the quote to what is happening right now in the United States. Listen closely when the Fox pundits say, “broaden the tax base”. This is how the rich rape the poor. Rich people own land. Whatever they pay in income tax is completely clawed back by increases in their land values, values created by the community. So, if the net effect is that the rich have the privilege of owning land, and this land brings them income that accrues through just owning land, not actually working, then where does all the money come from for public works? It comes from the people on the lowest incomes, people who don’t own land. Who are the real parasites? Who are the real moochers? To say it is the rich is only partly right. To blame the rich for simply being rich is only partly right as well.

It is the part of the riches’ income that is unearned from passive increases in their land values that is the real parasitism. So, heed their argument that you shouldn’t punish them for being productive; stop taxing their wages, and just recollect their unearned income. There is plenty of it to pay for everything, to end the deficit, to pay our loans back, to end the depression when the burden of taxation is removed from production, etc.

If they really wanted a system where everyone pulled their weight, they would place all taxation on unearned income. However, this is just a guise for exploiting loopholes in the exclusive, arcane, and liturgical text of a “broad based” tax system. It’s precisely because a “broad based” system seems fair that it is so destructive. It’s trickery, it’s fraudulence, it’s evil.

Georgist Quotes

“Men like Henry George [ the pioneer of land value taxation] are rare, unfortunately. One cannot imagine a more beautiful combination of
intellectual keenness, artistic form, and fervent love of
justice.”— Albert Einstein

“Both ground rents and the ordinary rent of land are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own… Ground rents seem, in this respect, a more proper subject of peculiar taxation… Nothing can be more reasonable than that a fund which owes its existence to the good government of the state should be taxed peculiarly”. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

“Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.” -Thomas Paine

“Every improvement in the circumstances of society tends either directly or indirectly to raise the real rent of land, to increase the wealth of the landlord”. – Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, Book I, p. 275)

Joseph E. Stiglitz
Nobel Prize in economics in 2001, former World Bank Chief Economist: In 1999 he was fired from his position as Chief Economist with the World Bank after he began to speak about his concerns. In an interview in 2001 with Greg Palast, a writer for The Observer (London), Stiglitz described in detail the four-step plan used by the international banking institutions to extract wealth from around the world. In his view the process leads to financial barbarism, pillage and plunder and has resulted in immense suffering, starvation and destruction. “It has condemned people to death,” Stiglitz said bluntly in the interview. When Palast asked Stiglitz what he would do to help developing nations, Stiglitz proposed radical land reform and an attack at the heart of “landlordism,” including excessive rents charged by the propertied oligarchies worldwide. When Palast asked why the Bank didn’t follow his advice, Stiglitz answered, “If you challenged it (property rights in land), that would be a change in the power of the elites. That’s not high on their agenda.” (From Greg Palast, “The World Bank’s former Chief Economist – including how the IMF and US Treasury fixed the Russian elections,” The Observer (London) October 10, 2001)

“The landowner who withdraws land from productive use to a purely private use should be required to pay higher, not lower, taxes”. James Buchanan Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, 1986

“I think in principle it’s a good idea to tax unimproved land, and particularly capital gains (windfalls) on it. Theory says we should try to tax items with zero or low elasticity, and those include sites”.
-James Tobin, served as an economic advisor for John F. Kennedy and taught at Yale University for many years. In 1955 he won the John Bates Clark medal and in 1981 the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

“Assuming that a tax increase is necessary, it is clearly preferable to impose the additional cost on land by increasing the land tax, rather than to increase the wage tax”.- Herbert Simon
Winner, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, 1978

“There’s a sense in which all taxes are antagonistic to free enterprise — and yet we need taxes. …So the question is, which are the least bad taxes? In my opinion the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land, the Henry George argument of many, many years ago”. Milton Friedman Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, 1976.

Comments on “How to End Poverty”

This is meant to be a simplified explanation, to spark the interest of those energetically seeking justice in the world. Parsimonious theories are easily open to criticism, but those robust theories that stand the test of time against such criticisms become the ones we revere the most. If however one is swayed by or employs logical fallacies of verbosity and authority, you should know that I’m someone who earnestly seeks the the truth, and desires to include the minds of all, not to stupefy or confuse. I posted this as an easy to understand teaser to learning more about the land value tax. However, for the sake of piquing interest in the subject, below are some quotes by some of the most respected minds in the world, both present and past, from across academic fields and political entrenchments, all essentially agreeing with the idea of land value taxation. They do so because it exposes one of the great truths about the world, why poverty and unnecessary suffering exists despite immense industrial progress-the land monopoly. Land value taxation is the silver bullet that, if implemented, will change the world for the better in the way we all truly long for. Though we may squabble and act petty over other issues; this is the one we can all agree on given patience, common sense, and love.

There are many facets of this idea that I have not explained for the sake of brevity and not overwhelming new comers.