Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Swing, Camelbacks and Daylight Robbery

     Jazz musician Eric Felten has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on how taxes but an end to the era of Swing music. In 1944 the federal government created a “cabaret tax” that added a 30% tax to the tab of anyone in an establishment with either dancing or singing. Felten says it “is no coincidence that in the back half of the 1940s a new and undanceable jazz performed primarily by small instrumental groups—bebop—emerged as the music of the moment.”
      He asks: “How differently might the aesthetic impulse behind bebop have been expressed if it had been allowed to develop organically instead of in an atmosphere where dancing was discouraged by the taxman? Jazz might have remained a highly sophisticated popular music instead of becoming an artsy niche.”
      Consider how taxes have change architecture.
      New Orleans has two oddities in the housing market, the Camelback house and the Shotgun house.

     The Shotgun house is said to have earned that label because one could fire a shotgun through the front door and have the pellets exit the house through the back door. It was narrow but long, one room wide at most. You would enter into the living room and find a door from that room into the bedroom behind it and there was another door into the kitchen behind it. The rooms would be in a long row with no hallway at all.

     Similar was the Camelback house. This was basically a Shotgun house with a second floor but not as you might expect. At the rear of the house would be stairs going to the second floor. But the second floor never extended to the front of the house. People said this truncated second floor looked like the hump of a camel, hence the name.

     Both of these oddities are the creation of local government policy.

     Some have argued that the Shotgun house exists because land in New Orleans, where they are mostly found, is scarce. But the extended length of these homes would not justify that argument. After all a house that is half as wide but twice as long still covers the same amount of land. Lots could have been wider but less deep and still have used the same amount of land.

     The alternative theory, and a popular one, is that the houses were narrowly built because land width was a factor in taxation. The wider the house the more highly taxed it was. It was noted that such narrow houses were frequently built in poor areas. Exactly what we would expect. Taxes drive up the cost of housing and the people least likely to afford housing are the poor, so they would need creative means to avoid the taxes.

     The Camelback house was routinely taxed as a single-story house because the second floor was only partial, which is why they were designed that way.

     This would not be the first time architecture was distorted by taxation.

     Amsterdam is famous for it’s very narrow, tall, long buildings with narrow, steep stairways. This was done because property taxes depended on the frontage of the residence.

     Anyone who has gone up or down those stairs will tell you that it impossible to bring in furniture. So, many Amsterdam houses were built with hooks at the top front with windows that were almost as wide as the house. Furniture would be lifted by a hoist to the window and then pulled inside

     The length or height of the house didn’t matter, only the width so, of course, homes were very narrow. The narrowest in Amsterdam is found at 7 Singel where the front of the house is barely wider than a front door. The entire frontage is just one meter wide.

     In England taxes made housing worse for people for a very long time. Politicians wanted to tax income but they weren’t sure how to do it back in the late 1600s. People felt that government knowledge of one’s income was an intrusive violation of their privacy. So the politicians decided to tax windows instead.

     The assumption was that wealthy people had bigger houses with more windows. And, since glass at the time was not cheap they also assumed this indicated wealth. This tax was introduced by King William III on New Year’s Eve in 1696 until 1851. One result was that even as glass dropped in price English housing often remained dark, dingy, and lacked fresh air. In some of the older buildings you can see where windows that once existed were bricked up in order to lower the taxes.

     The phrase “daylight robbery” did not originally mean a robbery conducted in the light of day, it meant the robbery of daylight from homes through the window tax.
     The repeal of the widow tax in 1851 was largely influenced by the great classical liberals of the day, Richard Cobden and John Bright, the leaders of the Anti Corn Law League and proponents of free markets. A letter from Cobden to Robertson Gladstone lays out Cobden’s idea for the budget. Francis Hirst, in 1903, wrote “Within a little more than a generation the whole of Cobden’s ‘National Budget’ was adopted.” Cobden told Gladstone: “There is the window tax, which, although it does not, like the Excise duties, operate as a direct impediment to productive industry, is open to the fearful objection, that it 'obstructs the light of heaven;' and, in these brief words, we may read its inevitable doom. London, Bath, and other large cities are pressing the abolition of this tax annually upon the House, through Lord Duncan, and you must not think of excluding it from your 'National Budget.'”
     Taxes distort any market and music and architecture are just two examples.

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