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Friday, 5 August 2005

Old Socialist

Red Ken's Side-Kick Visits Philadelphia, or 'Signal Failure at Earls Court'
(Hardcopy version available in the Weekly Press, above, for week of 10 August)

Dave Wetzel calls himself a Socialist. He's to the left of anyone who says he's on the Left, he says. Wetzel, a former bus driver (like his father) and a former antique dealer ('You'll call it junk dealer,' he says) in Cornwall, a former Chinese restaurant owner in Brantford (his daughter is married to a Chinese cook), is now vice chair of London Transport. That's the board that oversees London's Underground, bus system, the Victoria Coach Station, and the like. Given the recent Tube and bus bombings, you'd think that transportation security would be, er, like on his mind.

You would be wrong.

For more than two hours yesterday, Wetzel waxed about the wonders on London's centre city vehicle 'congestion' tax (£8 per day), the wonders of pedestrianism and biking (though his bike has been put away these past 18 months) and the wonders of real estate tax reform. He's especially excited about advancing the reformation of our Anglo-American two-tier real estate tax system that targets land values plus the assessed valuation of improvements. (That's buildings to you and me).

Actually, that tax business is what brought Wetzel to the Warwick Hotel, in that he was a principal speaker at a group wank of the Georgist Society of America. Forget George III. These guys (as Wetzel's impeccable Socialist credentials suggest) are as far from being Royalists as Wetzel and his pal, London Mayor 'Red' Ken Livingstone, are from being Tories. The 'George,' in this case, is Henry George, an early 20th century Philadelphia native and societal reformer who epoused taxation of land without taxing improvements.

It gets complicated. But the gist of George's tax proposal -- and it's largely a good idea in its rough form -- is that government should tax the shit out of land (a commodity that only has any value because of location and services provided to it) and, meantime, it should forget about taxing improvements. By withholding taxes on improvements, the reasoning goes, landowners (even slumlords) would be encouraged to build and improve (a factory here, housing for elderly there, a carport in every pot). The concept is sound. Moreover it sticks it to rich landowners, the folks who, like all good Capitalists, make money by doing nothing. And, plu-eeze, don't give me that shit about creating new jobs).

So we had two hours and change of that. To be sure, good stuff. But, whoa, Nelly, what about your transport system, Dave? A few words about terrorists, maybe?

Dave was obliging, espousing the same party line spouted by Ken shortly after the 7/7 attack. We must realise, he went on, what the root causes of terrorism are. Dave reminded us that big-boy terrorists were only once simply misunderstood 'youfs,' deprived of the blessings of a Capitalist society. And more rubbish like that. The audience actually clapped approval.

What really got Dave's blood flowing were his sweet reminiscences about how he and Ken instituted London's centre city car tax. The tax is, in fact, silly, punitive, and hardly redirects drivers to public transport. The fact is -- at least, until the bombings, that is -- the London public transportation system was already fully integrated, embracing the rich (auto owners) to the working class (wannabe auto owners). (This, of course, sharply contrasts with Philly Septa system -- All the Poor. All the Time.) Dave took particular delight in noting that failure to pay the daily tax results in gargantuan penalties -- ultimately leading to the confiscation and crushing -- yes, and crushing -- of the violator's car. That smarts. Dave noted, however, that last joyous event hasn't happened yet. But he said, with a twinkle in his eye, he's looking forward to day when he can push the button.

'Hey, Dave,' I said after the meeting. 'What about the Routemasters?'
'We'll only have seven left,' he said.
'In the tourist area.'
'Yeah, that's right.'

Go get 'em, Dave!
--Richard Carreño

Henry George's birthplace, now the Henry George School of Social Science, is located at 413 South 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147. Vox: +215.922.4278.

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