Pure recreation.

Molly Young writes:

One thing to do on a roadtrip is to pretend you are a king about to design his own country. Things like signage, medians and highway geography suddenly become interesting under this assumption, because you’re free to borrow ideas, make corrections and mentally replace Cracker Barrels with taco trucks.

This is how I spent many wasted years, and I still like the concept. I was really into

  • the shapes of certain cities, particularly island and archipelago cities like Montréal, Hamburg, Stockholm, Venice, and also the concept of the city-state;
  • the idea of middleman minorities, subethnic populations, biohistory;
  • fragmented political systems and proportional representation;
  • and the broad idea of institutional excavation/ruin-in-a-nation — how did the dominant forms of family life emerge in a particular society, or of public institutions?

So I’d make maps with keys, departments, provincial boundaries, maps of resources and clusters of industries and election results.

This happened in dialogue with early, primitive iterations of games like SimCity and Civilization, and I’d sketch out my ideal form of a simulation game — I fantasized about massively multiplayer games that would mimic The World ca. 1955: individuals would act as firms or as political entrepreneurs or as leaders, and, if you were in the Politburo, there might be murder involved. The idea was that you could generate millions of crude counterfactuals.

It occurs to me that this is a potentially dangerous impulse — the love of patterns and order, the desire to manipulate and control, etc. My hope is that it was mostly innocent, and I’m enough of a believer in Knightian uncertainty that I’m reluctant to impose my schemes on others. But perhaps this is the frame of mind that makes one interested in public policy, or, my earlier/parallel loves, state theory and ethnography.

All this is by way of introduction to the schemes that I would impose if I were inclined to impose schemes.

(1) I’m interested in property taxes. Do property taxes get a bum rap? As Rajan and Zingales argue in Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists,

A tax based on property (not income) tends to penalize the efficient and reward the inefficient. …

After an amusing illustrative example,

Some readers may wonder why a free market in land will not lead to the efficient allocation of resources. In other words, why doesn’t the efficient son of the soil not buy out the incompetent writer? The problem is that the writer gets psychic nonmonetary value from the land that makes up for her incompetence at farming. This psychic income is not taxed. As a result, even if her psychic income does not make up for the lost monetary income, the sng of the soil will find it hard to buy her out. Under the current tax regime, psychic income does not make up for the lost monetary income, the son of the soil will find it hard to buy her out. Under the current tax regime, psychic income is tax exempt while anyone who produces monetary income faces the full burden of taxes. So everything else being equal, the producer of monetary income is willing to pay less for a piece of proerty than one who enjoys psychic income from it. Similarly, the current tax regime subsidizes the survival of incompetent businessmen who get personal value from running their firms. A change from taxes on the income generated by property to a tax on the value of property itself will avoid these inefficiencies. …

To avoid rewarding incompetence, the value should be measured as a notional market value under average alternative management.

This is fascinating, and difficult if not impossible to implement in practice. In the United States, we find the property tax distasteful because we associate it with what the British call “the postcode lottery” — it is administered at the local and state levels, and it appears to reinforce and exacerbate pernicious inequalities. Would a nationwide property tax — with rigorously enforced assessments designed by the likes of Rajan and Zingales — prove more attractive? Well, property owners wouldn’t like it. But say it’s a swap: this would, say, replace income taxes, or a large share of income taxes.

What would happen? For one thing, the broad distribution of home ownership would end. Ownership is a skill. I can easily imagine a scenario in which most people who presently own their homes become renters — and, as a happy side effect, unemployment rates would decrease. There would, of course, be some unhappy side effects, if you believe, as a lot of paleos do, that more volatility, more people moving from state to state, region to region, is a bad thing. Also, there’s the embourgeoisiement angle — would people set fire to their houses or poop on the lawn if they didn’t own the property? My guess is that the class of owners would get good at mitigating these effects.

This concept would clearly undermine federalism/Tiebout choice/jurisdictional diversity, etc., though one hopes there’d be some countervailing decentralization. Imagine:

The property tax base is nationalized, and the other main source of revenue is a VAT. Information re: payroll/income is still collected for purposes of mitigating the regressive impact — transfers to people with modest incomes, or based on family size, etc. Schools are funded through a nationalized version of the Swedish system, i.e., “progressive vouchers” are disbursed to approved schools — we can exclude parochial schools, etc., if you insist, and promote monitoring/oversight by mandating open data formats, release of key metrics that can then be sliced, diced, and presented to parents by various third party providers, not-for-profit, for-profit, and public. This works in tandem with a Murray-style “democratization of credentials.” The progressive vouchers work by using the price system to compensate (imperfectly) for disadvantage, e.g., students from poor families and/or underrepresented minorities and/or with learning disabilities would be assigned a larger voucher amount.

Tiebout is still at work, though somewhat constrained, as local education authorities compete to offer desirable school places. Also, all kinds of other services are in the mix, man. To raise revenue: piggyback on the VAT? Or, in a reversal, the feds could avoid an income tax, or use it as a tax on the superrich, while cities and towns could use it more frequently than they do now (i.e., hardly ever).

(2) I’d invest a lot of money in freight rail.

(3) I’d adopt the Kleiman approach to marijuana and alcohol.

(4) I really wish I could eat breakfast tacos every day. Healthy ones. Healthy-ish ones. Can we invent some device that gives you the sensation of eating without involving actual eating? We could overhaul the food-industrial system to make it more resilient, etc. I’m totally open to that. I could also move to Texas.

(5) I have some other ideas, but who in their right mind would want to live in my hellish dystopia?