Showing posts with label land. Show all posts
Showing posts with label land. Show all posts

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Beware of pedlars of supply-side solutions to home affordability

One thing you can be sure of is that if house prices are soaring, governments will be holding inquiries into it. Unfortunately, the other thing you can be sure of is that nothing will come of those inquiries.

Why? Because their purpose is to express the government’s deep concern about the worsening affordability of homeownership – its heart-felt sympathy for young people struggling to buy their first home – not to tackle the problem.

Why? Because policy decisions made by governments – federal and state – over many years have rigged the housing market in favour of people who already own their homes and against those who’d like to own.

Why? Because the number of voting homeowners far exceeds the number of voting would-be homeowners. The established homeowners – and the industries that benefit from the rigged market, such as property developers and real estate agents – get shirty if they think their privileges are threatened.

Labor summoned its courage and promised to act against negative gearing and the deep discount of capital gains tax in the 2016 and 2019 federal elections but, since its shock defeat in 2019, its courage has deserted it.

Speaking of housing inquiries, as we speak Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has a parliamentary committee inquiring into “housing affordability and supply”. As its terms of reference make clear, it’s not actually about housing affordability, but really about blaming rocketing house prices on inadequate supply rather than excessive demand.

Why? Because, with a federal election fast approaching, its real motivation is to shift the blame for increasingly unaffordable house prices away from the feds and on to the states. Whereas most of the policies promoting demand for homeownership are under the influence of the federal government, most of the policies affecting the adequacy of the supply of homes are influenced by the state governments and their creature, local government.

When I wrote about the causes of rocketing house prices last week, I knew I was leaving myself open to attack because I focused solely on factors adding to demand and didn’t get to supply factors before I ran out of space.

True, no analysis of change in any market price is adequate if it doesn’t examine both sides of the market. So let me make amends.

In simple economic theory, if the price of some item rises, the reason should be that demand has outstripped supply. Let supply catch up and the price should return to where it was. If the demand for homes rises by 100, build 100 more homes and the price should be unchanged.

But such thinking is grossly oversimplified – especially when applied to something as complex as the housing market. For a start, the simple model is designed to analyse markets for “commodities” – simple consumer goods or services you buy and soon eat or use up.

Homes, however, are assets that last for decades and have a resale value. Most of that value resides in the land on which the home is built, and the land goes on forever.

This means a home is both a consumption good – it provides its owner or tenant with somewhere to live – and an investment good, which should at least hold its value over time and probably increase in value.

As the Reserve Bank’s submission to the latest inquiry has pointed out, the growth in the number of homes has pretty much kept up with population growth in recent decades, meaning a shortage of places to live can’t explain rising house prices.

In any case, the price of buying a home is an unreliable guide to the price of finding somewhere to live since there are two reasons for buying a home: as a place to live and as an investment (a good place to park your wealth).

The better guide to the cost of finding somewhere to live comes not from the price of houses and units but from the price of renting. And the figures show that (with the possible exception of Sydney), the cost of renting in capital cities has risen only a little faster than other consumer prices.

This fits with our earlier finding that the number of homes has kept pace with population growth. And it leaves little support for the widely aired claims of people from conservative think tanks that house prices have risen because state and local government planning and zoning regulations are limiting the release of land for housing development or the growth of medium and high-density housing.

This argument has been debunked by Dr Cameron Murray of the University of Sydney. Being based on mere modelling, it fails to take account of the empirical fact that zoning regulations have been eased in recent years, specifically to ensure that home building keeps up with population growth.

This has happened over many people’s objections to the growth in high-density housing. But, unless we want our capital cities to keep sprawling outward forever, more high-rise housing is an inevitable consequence of business’s demand for – and almost every economist’s support for – rapid population growth.

All this suggests it’s the strong demand for home ownership, not any inadequacy in the supply of homes that’s driving prices up so rapidly. But what, and why? I think house prices are rising strongly because federal government decisions have made housing more attractive as an investment.

They’ve made home ownership more favourably taxed than other forms of investment, such as shares, art and antiques, or fixed-interest investments. This has always been true, but it’s become more so, first, with the Hawke government’s introduction of a capital gains tax in 1985, while exempting the family home.

But the biggest change came with the Howard government’s move in 1999 from taxing only real capital gains to taxing the full nominal gain but at only half your marginal tax rate. The popularity of negatively geared property investment took off from that time.

Ask yourself this: if the number of homes is pretty much keeping up with growth in the number of households, what happens when some homeowners decide they’d like to own more than one home, maybe many more? They use their superior borrowing-power to outbid the other home owners, existing and would-be.

The supply of land for housing is limited, but not fixed. That’s because cities can sprawl, or you can pack more households onto to the same bit of land by building up. But both solutions add to costs.

The simple demand-versus-supply model assumes the “commodity” in question is “homogeneous” – all the same. But with houses and units, it would be closer to the truth to say every home is different. Even two houses of the same design are different if they’re in different suburbs.

And some homes are in prime positions – on the harbour, near the beach, closer to town. The cheaper it becomes to borrow, the more people will bid prices higher to get the fabulous place they want.

The more governments use high immigration to increase the size of cities, the more competition there is to buy a detached house, and the more people will pay to get a place that’s close to the CBD.

Ever-rising house prices is a demand story more than a supply story.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

How canny treasurers keep the tax we pay out of sight

We can be sure that tax and tax “reform” will be a big topic (yet again) this year, but what will get less attention is how behavioural economics explains the shape of the existing tax system and makes it hard to change.

I read that this year we may attain the economists’ Holy Grail of replacing state conveyancing duty with a broad-based annual tax on the unimproved value of land under people’s principal residence.

Economists regard taxing homes whenever they change hands as highly economically inefficient because it discourages people from moving when they need to move, whereas taxing the ownership of land as highly efficient because it’s hard to avoid and is naturally “progressive”, hitting the rich harder than the poor.

Holy grails are, however, wondrous things, but almost impossible to attain. Economists have been preaching the virtues of such a switch for at least the past 30 years, with precious few converts (bar, in recent times, the ACT government).

Why have state politicians been so unreceptive to such a patently good idea? Because politicians instinctively understand what most conventional economists don’t: the wisdom of Louis XIV’s finance minister’s declaration that “the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”.

Or, to put it another way, because conventional economists don’t know enough behavioural economics – the study of how the world actually works thanks to human fallibility, rather than how it would work if we were all as rational as economic textbooks assume us to be.

A central element of the political economy of taxation is that what the punters don’t notice they don’t worry about.

And to every revenue-hungry state treasurer (which is all of ’em), the great virtue of conveyancing duty is that when you’re buying a place for $1 million and someone presents you with a tax bill for $40,000, it looks a relatively small amount and the least of your worries right now.

By contrast, when you open your mail one day and find the government demanding to be paid, say, $5000, you tend to get resentful. Because we’ve spent all our lives in a market economy, we’re used to the notion that, if you want something, you have to pay for it.

And with the converse: you don’t shell out good money without getting something you want in return. Annual land tax breaches that rule: you write a cheque for five grand and just post it off into the void. (This was also part of the reason the old “provisional tax” was so unpopular.)

Behavioural economists demonstrate empirically what politically astute treasurers know instinctively: you greatly reduce the hissing if you can whip the tax away without it being seen. This is why, when introducing the goods and services tax, Peter Costello wrote into the act the requirement that retail prices be quoted inclusive of the tax, without the tax being shown separately.

Of course, for wage earners, personal income tax has worked that way for decades. The pay office extracts an estimate of the tax you’ll have to pay and sends it to the taxman before you even see your pay.

After a while, you pretty much forget you’re paying tax on much of what you buy and are being paid much less than you’re earning. Which also demonstrates the wisdom of a saying familiar to treasurers: a new tax is a bad tax; an old tax is a good tax.

We object loudly to almost all proposals for new taxes – land tax on the family home, a road congestion tax and many more. We spent 25 years working up the courage to impose a value-added tax on “almost everything we buy” (during which time we copied the Kiwis’ crafty idea of renaming it the more innocuous “goods and services tax”).

But here’s the trick: once the new tax has been passed and taken effect, it takes only a year or two for us to accept it as part of the furniture. Behavioural economists call this quirk of human nature “status-quo bias”.

And, of course, just about the oldest tax of all is what Malcolm Fraser used to call “the secret tax of inflation” aka bracket creep.

It’s the tax increase you have when you don’t like tax increases.

Our “revealed preference” (not what we say, but what we do) is that bracket creep's our favourite tax.

Which is why treasurers of both colours give us so much of it.
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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Compared to you and me, the feudal serfs had it easy

Back at work yet, or still enjoying your summer break? Either way, you probably wish you had more annual leave. I could tell you to count your blessings, that today’s full-time workers get much longer holidays than workers have ever had.

But maybe that isn't true. It’s certainly true that we get longer holidays and work fewer hours than workers did in the 19th century but, according to the sociologist Juliet Schor, the 19th century – not long after the end of the Industrial Revolution – was an aberration in the history of human labour.

Indeed, if we’re to believe Dr Lynn Parramore, senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, we’re working a lot harder than medieval peasants did. “Ploughing and harvesting were backbreaking toil,” she says, “but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off.”

The church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent holy-days. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off, quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment, she says.

There was no work on Sundays, and when ploughing and harvesting seasons were over, peasants got time to rest, too. In fact, according to Schor, during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

I’m not sure every scholar would agree with this assessment, and the 14th century was the tail end of England’s feudal system, which began after the French Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

So if you’re not sure you’d have been happier as a serf – good thinking.

Feudalism was the system of political and economic organisation that preceded England’s Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, before we got to a capitalist or market economy approximating what we have today.

According to the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, feudalism was a social and economic system defined by inherited social ranks, each of which possessed social and economic privileges and obligations. Wealth derived from agriculture, which was arranged not according to market forces but on the basis of customary labour service owed by serfs to landowning nobles.

The king owned all the country’s land, but leased much of it to nobles, often called barons. The barons ran the decentralised, feudal system. These “lords of the manor” were in complete control of their manor, meting out justice, minting their own money and setting their own taxes.

The barons divided some of their land between their knights. The knights, in turn, distributed some of their land to the serfs, also known as villeins or peasants.

That covers people’s privileges, now their obligations. In return for their land, the barons paid rent to the king and provided him with knights to fight his battles when required. In return for their land, the knights provided their baron with personal protection and military service to the king.

In return for their land, the serfs paid their master with maybe a third of the food they grew, as well as being compelled to work on his own land. They couldn’t leave the manor and needed their lord’s permission to marry. They were often charged a fee for use of any of the improvements on the manor – roads, bridges, mills and bakehouses. And sometimes they had to fight in the baron’s battles.

Serfs lived with their animals in one-room homes they built themselves with wattle-and-daub (woven twigs daubed with mud). Their clothes were self-made, mainly of wool and very scratchy. They grew rye, wheat and other grains, grazed sheep on the common, had a kitchen garden and a few apple and pear trees.

Most of what they ate they grew themselves: little meat, but lots of rye bread and a stew of peas, beans and onions, called pottage. Berries, nuts and honey were gathered from the woods.

The feudal system fell into decline for many reasons. One was that the military became full-time professionals. Another was the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348, which killed many of the serfs. Landowners desperate for workers to harvest their crops had to do the unthinkable: pay actual wages to anyone who’d work their land – and the wages were high. Thus did the lords lose their hold over the serfs.

But Professor Richard Grabowski, of Southern Illinois University, has advanced a more economic theory. Manorial agriculture wasn’t very efficient, even though productivity could have been improved by such measures as removing stones from fields, adding mineral fertilisers and making greater use of fodder crops.

But the system of forced labour precluded use of these techniques because they required more care and skill than the serfs had any incentive to apply when working in the lord’s fields rather than their own.

Creating this incentive would have required shifting to paid labour, but this would cost the lord the ability to order his serfs to help fight a rival lord trying to grab his land. The first lord to free his serfs would lose his land to the others.

So the lack of national enforcement of property rights was another barrier to greater productivity. As the feudal system gradually broke down, the basis for power shifted from how many serfs you controlled to how good you were at using your land to generate more income.

England’s long Agricultural Revolution involved moving to market relationships between land owners and labourers, and almost all rural production being sold in markets, as well as huge improvements in agricultural productivity, making the nation much more prosperous.

People may have worked more hours on more days in the year, but they were much better paid to do it.
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Monday, November 16, 2015

How to fix everything: cut my tax

If I was on a mission to make big progress in increasing productivity and participation in the workforce, I wouldn't start with tax reform.

That the people who profess to be so concerned about productivity and participation have started with tax reform does make you wonder about their motivations. Especially when you realise that the primary beneficiaries of the particular reforms the urgers are seeking would be their good selves.

The motives of the Business Council and other business lobby groups are transparent: their high income-earners want to pay less tax, so are happy to see other people pay more.

To them, this is the attraction of using an increase in the goods and services tax to pay for cuts in income taxes.

The better-off (such as me) benefit because their higher rate of saving limits how much more GST they pay. They benefit even further if the cut in income tax is shaped in a way that favours high income earners.

Powerful people pursuing their self-interest is hardly surprising. Nor is seeing them seek to disguise their self-interest with happy chat about improving incentives to "work, save and invest" and professing to be terribly concerned that Oz will miss out on foreign investment or that all our top executives will be lured away by American corporations.

But if, as a would-be reformer, I did get down the to-do list as far as taxation, what "reforms" would I make?

First, I'd remember that all the bracket-creep we've subjected ourselves to in recent years is the standard way governments achieve a recovery in tax collections after they find they've earlier gone overboard with tax cuts and tax breaks - as we did in the first stage of the resources boom.

I'd remember that Treasury has overstated the extent of bracket creep because its projections assumed a much higher rate of wage growth than has transpired. It's true, however, that bracket creep is regressive, hitting people on the lower tax rates proportionately harder than people whose incomes have reached the top tax rate.

So if I felt it was time to ease up on bracket creep, I'd do it simply by lifting all bracket limits bar the top one by the same percentage, determined by the rate of price (not wage) inflation over the period. This would yield a quite noticeable weekly saving to workers.

That is, I'd belatedly do what in an ideal world I should have been doing once a year: indexing the tax scales to price inflation.

What I wouldn't do is con the punters by using the regressiveness​ of bracket creep as cover for a tax cut biased in favour of high income-earners (particularly when the earlier tax cuts and tax breaks the punters have been paying for were themselves biased in favour of high income-earners).

Second, to cover the cost of this tax cut - and possibly also to increase our tax-raising capacity to cover the future growth in health and education spending Treasury is always agonising over in its intergenerational reports - I'd increase not GST but a uniformly applied land tax (which could apply to the same tax base as local government rates).

Why? Partly because GST is a regressive tax, whereas land tax is progressive, hitting higher-income households proportionately harder than lower-income households.

Do that and the need to "compensate" low income-earners disappears - though it would be necessary to institute reverse-mortgage arrangements for asset-rich/income-poor oldies.

It would also remove the government's temptation to short-change the punters by double-counting the return of bracket-creep as compensation.

Increasing land tax would mean the reform package made the tax system fairer rather than less fair - surely an important goal of honest tax reform.

As well, universally applied land tax is more efficient than GST in that, as every economist is supposed to remember, it would do less to distort people's decisions about whether to "work, save and invest".

The argument that income from capital and, for high earners, income from labour, need to be taxed more lightly because globalisation has made financial capital and executive labour more mobile between countries, is widely used - especially by Treasury - to justify taxing consumption more heavily.

But how can these guys be fair dinkum in this argument when they're overlooking the ultimate immobile tax base, land?

Finally, though excessively generous superannuation tax concessions and capital gains tax concessions are overdue for reform, I'd use the proceeds to reduce the structural budget deficit, not throw them into the tax reform pot to help justify tax cuts for high income-earners.

It's arguable that budget repair is more important than tax reform.
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Saturday, July 18, 2015

All we should be doing to protect land and water

You get the feeling Tony Abbott doesn't lie awake at night worrying about what our economic activity is doing to our natural environment.

In which case, those of us who do care about ecological sustainability – including many Coalition voters and, in all probability, Abbott's successor, whether Liberal or Labor – will have a lot of catching up to do.

This looks like being true of our excessive contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. But it also applies to the more mundane problems of protecting and restoring our degraded land, water systems and native flora and fauna.

So what should we be doing, even if we aren't yet? The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have produced a paper on Using Markets to Conserve Natural Capital. As the name implies, it has economists' fingerprints all over it.

In many cases the adverse environmental consequences of economic activity aren't reflected in the costs faced by producers and their customers, a classic instance of "market failure" – where the operation of market forces does not produce satisfactory outcomes for the community.

For instance, industries will continue to emit excessive greenhouse gases if there's no market value placed on retaining a stable climate system. And farming may cause land degradation if there's no market value placed on preserving the services the ecosystem provides to society by allowing us to grow food and fibre.

All this is a way of saying that the economy and the environment are inextricably linked but, left to its own devices, the market isn't capable of ensuring we don't stuff the environment and thereby stuff the economy.

Most economists accept this truth, but argue that the least economically costly way to fix the problem is to intervene in markets in ways that harness market forces to the service of the environment.

Often this can be done by getting the social (community-wide) costs of environmental damage incorporated into the private costs borne by producers and consumers. This was the rationale for the Gillard government's policy of using a hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme to put a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The concerned scientists accept this logic and propose four market-oriented interventions to reduce future damage to the nation's "environmental assets" and to fix past damage.

Their first proposal is to change the law to impose on all landowners, public or private, a "duty of care" to prevent further damage to their land and water resources. Developing codes of practice would give landowners greater certainty about their obligations.

This reflects the principle that the community's right to a clean and sustainable environment overrides the rights of individuals to unrestricted use of their private property.

Actions of great environmental value that go beyond the standard of care required – such as fixing damage done in the past – could be purchased by governments from private owners using programs that use market-based instruments, such as Victoria's BushTender​ program.

The scientists' second proposal is for the federal government to supplement our efforts to reduce carbon emissions by paying farmers, Indigenous communities and other landowners to engage in "carbon farming" – doing things that improve the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material or soil organic matter, where it stays.

If you do this right, it can also be used to restore degraded land. But it involves having a price on carbon so farmers can be rewarded with valuable "carbon offset" certificates.

However, there are risks if the market for carbon offsets isn't properly regulated. "Without complementary land-use controls and water accounting arrangements in place, carbon forests could take over large areas of high quality agricultural land and affect water availability," the paper warns.

"This could create adverse impacts on food and fibre production, and affect regional jobs that are dependent on these industries."

The scientists' third proposal is that we reform the tax system to make it one that doesn't encourage unsustainable practices, but rather encourages the conservation and repair of the natural environment.

"Subsidising or providing economic incentives for fossil fuels makes no sense because it results in increased costs to the environment, costs we will all have to bear sooner or later," the paper says.

It particularly makes no sense when at the same time we're using a tax on carbon to discourage the use of fossil fuels or, as now, spending taxpayers' money to pay for "direct action" to reduce emissions.

And yet our miners and farmers are exempt from paying petrol excise on fuel used off-road. It's the obvious tax break to get rid of – and save the government money.

The paper also recommends establishing a broad-based land tax to provide long-term, equitable funding for paying farmers, Indigenous communities and other land holders to restore and maintain environmental assets in a healthy condition.

Finally, the scientists propose government action to encourage sustainable farming practices. They say farmers need to receive a financial reward for managing their farms sustainably and suppliers, retailers and consumers need to have confidence that their products satisfy rigorous standards.

A farm is sustainable when environmental assets located on the farm are being maintained in a condition that contributes to the overall health and resilience of its surrounding region.

Environmental assets – not all of which will be on farms – include soil, native vegetation, native fauna, water resources (rivers, aquifers, wetlands, estuaries) and carbon.

The financial reward doesn't have to come from the government. Consumers will pay a premium for food that has been grown sustainably, provided they have some assurance this is so.

The government's role is to support the development of voluntary, industry-based sustainable certification of farms and to ensure such schemes are trustworthy. The government should also be active in the development of international sustainability standards so our exporting farmers can participate and benefit.

All very sensible stuff. Now we just need a sensible government.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Increase property tax, not the GST

Let me tell you something neither side of politics will: we'll be paying a lot higher taxes over the next decade than we are today. And don't think you could have up to 10 years before that prediction comes to pass – it's already started.

It's happening because of bracket creep. This year's budget says the present intention is to let inflation push people into higher tax brackets for another five years before our next tax cut in 2020.

The more continuing falls in the prices of iron ore and other mineral exports slow the growth in company tax collections, the further into the future the timing of our next cut in income tax.

So much for the man who says he stands for lower taxes, whereas his opponents stand for higher taxes. It does seem that Labor may summon the courage to go to the next election promising to reduce superannuation tax breaks for the well-off and to do something about negative gearing.

But continuing bracket creep plus those small reforms – should we ever see them – won't be sufficient to stop budget deficits getting ever higher as government spending – federal and state – continues growing strongly. In particular, spending on health and education are almost certain to grow faster than the nation's income (gross domestic product) is growing.

Similarly, don't believe the team captain when he claims to stand for "smaller government". We have the inglorious retreat from last year's budget – which was intended fix the budget deficit for good and all, and do so almost solely by cuts in government spending – to convince us that the electorate simply won't tolerate the scale of cuts, nor the unfairness, needed to hold our spending down to the level that receipts from our present collection of taxes are able to cover.

Usually, this is the point where the question of raising collections from the goods and services tax is raised. Either raising its rate from 10 per cent, or broadening its net to include food, education and health. Or both.

Be under no illusion, the rich and powerful of this country have their hearts set on raising more from GST. They want it not to cover ever-rising government spending but to cover the cost of cutting the rate of company tax and the top rate of income tax.

They argue that globalisation has intensified the "tax competition" between countries. Financial capital is now a lot more mobile and if we tax it too heavily it will go elsewhere. So we need to cut our taxes on highly mobile resources (company tax and income tax on highly paid executives) and increase tax on less mobile resources (consumption tax paid by punters who can't move countries).

That this would shift the burden of taxation from the well-off to the less well-off is just an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of a globalising world, we're told.

But this is where someone of consequence has said something new and different. In a paper to be released on Wednesday, the head of the Grattan Institute, John Daley, with help from Brendan Coates, argues that the obvious tax we need to raise is not GST but property tax.

He's right, and it's amazing it's taken so long for someone to say the obvious. Real estate is the ultimate immobile resource. A tax on land – with or without the improvements built on it – is very hard to avoid, even by foreign multinationals. It's also highly "efficient" in the economists' sense that it does little to distort people's behaviour. It doesn't discourage them from working, saving or investing.

Since it's the state governments that do most of the spending on health and education – and Abbott still has on the books his plan to cut his budget deficit by reducing federal grants for public hospitals and schools by $80 billion over a decade starting in 2017 – it's appropriate that the tax would be levied by the each of the states, which would keep the proceeds.

Politically, I don't imagine voters would view the prospect of higher property tax with any less hostility than they'd view higher GST. But there's one big difference: increasing property tax would much fairer.

GST is "regressive" – it takes a higher proportion of low incomes than high incomes – whereas property tax is "progressive", hitting the rich harder than the poor. It's actually a tax on one of the main forms in which we keep our wealth.

At present we pay three taxes on property: local government rates, stamp duty when properties are bought and land tax on property other than the family home.

Daley proposes leaving these taxes unchanged while adding a new "property levy" imposed on all property, including owner-occupied homes. The levy would be applied to the same tax base as used for local rates.

He estimates that an annual levy of just $2 for every $1000 of unimproved land value, or $1 for every $1000 of improved value (land plus building), would raise about $7 billion a year.

A homeowner would pay a levy of $772 a year on the median-priced Sydney home, valued at $772,000, or $560 a year on the median-priced Melbourne home, valued at $560,000.

What would we get for that? Mainly, more healthcare, giving us longer lives and less infirmity. Not a bad deal.
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