5:28:12 On Taxes, We Should Go Green

For more and more Oregonians, the word “sustainability” rolls off the tongue in that tone peculiar to true believers.

Weekly, our neighbors, like us, dutifully take a blue and a green recycling cart to the curb, freeing up our landfills of recyclables and compostables, respectively. My co-workers collect banana peels and other wet garbage to start composting beneath the break-room sink. I even bicycle to my day job, leaving our up-to-54-miles-per-gallon car in the garage and earning sustainability merit points from whomever’s counting.

But too often, I find sustainability initiatives well-intentioned, voluntary window dressing.

I’m not convinced current "sustainability" efforts check the larger woes of progress: rampant real estate speculation, traffic congestion by driver-only cars, shoddy stick houses … the list goes on.

I’d like to see more steps to implement a green economy.

I believe real sustainability needs a shift of our tax structure over to green taxes.

I interpret green taxes simply: If the resource is a gift of nature such as land, water, air, forest or mineral (often referred to as the “environmental commons”) and it is used by an individual or corporation, then it is taxed to benefit the community and preserve the resources.

[Henry George]Everything else is tax-free, including productive work and efforts of individuals and corporations. No more income taxes; income is not a gift of nature.

Can this really be done? Yes, if staged.

A form of green taxes applied to land has been around in isolated form since its original formulation by the American journalist and economist Henry George (1839-1897) in his classic Progress and Poverty.

Land-only tax structures (with buildings tax-exempt, encouraging highest-and-best use) have existed in a pure or modified form in Pennsylvania, along with foreign countries like Australia, China and Taiwan, since the 1920s.

Alan Durning, of the environmental think tank Sightline Institute in Seattle, wrote in 2006 that almost two-thirds of state legislators and local officials are somewhat or very familiar with the green tax approach to property taxation. Unfortunately, they never hear from constituents about this issue. The missing piece for action is public support.

Our task is simple: Get smart on green taxes and urge our representatives to encode our economy with eco-friendly taxes to replace the productivity-sapping taxes we now have. Doing so will both sustain and make best use of our natural resources.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Portland Tribune.

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The Cat at Light's End

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