(Week 23 - Friday, Jan. 16 / 2009)
In the last two columns I have introduced to this discussion the concepts of "micro-taxation" and "macro-taxation" (taxation, respectively, by governmental bodies who do not, and who do, issue the money being collected). Questions arise as to how rates of micro and macro-taxation might be determined, how forms of taxation we are familiar with (income, property, sales, estate, etc.) fit into the picture, how might issues of equity be addressed, and many others. To create a basis for answering these it is necessary to introduce another fundamental concept into the discussion, "value-added".
"Value-added" is a term that is already common in economics, and is relatively familiar to the public in much of the world as a mode for taxation. This is especially true in Europe where the "value-added tax" (VAT) is the basis of the taxing regime. The idea is expressed by other names in various locales, as for example in Canada and New Zealand, where it is known as the "goods-&-services tax" (GST). The term is relatively less known (but not entirely unknown) in the United States due to the unique way our taxing structure has evolved, but is reflected in a very limited sense in how we think of the "sales tax", as well as the oft proposed "flat tax". All this notwithstanding, these and other expressions have been co-opted in a way that is not wholly consistent with economic reality by the "debt-money" financial culture, so our understanding of the term "value-added", and its derivative expressions could benefit by reconstructing them "from the ground up", so to speak.
Defining "Value-Added" and some Derivative Expressions:
The most fundamental rule of economics, in my view, is that one should think first in images of the actual material and human realities of economic enterprise, and only then add in the factor of money. As an exercise, let us track in our imagination the progress of a product as it emerges from the untapped resources of the earth through to final use.
Before its extraction, an untapped resource has no economic value as it merely lies there in the ground. Presently someone comes along to mine it, pick it, hunt it, fish it, pump it, cut it down, bulldoze it into a heap, or otherwise perform the task necessary to wrest it from the earth. When this raw material is gathered up into a form that can be offered on the market, it has become a "commodity". Someone with a use for it in mind then will buy it as a commodity.
Let us imagine wood that has been given value by a logger in the sense that he has put work into transforming it from standing trees, to logs ready to be picked up for other uses at the landing. This net increase of value is "value-added".
It may happen that the party who shows up to haul away the logs wants them for personal firewood, the additional processing for which he will do himself. This buyer then is the final "consumer". In this case there was only one value-added increment between unrealized potential in the earth (standing trees) and end product (firewood).
More commonly the party who shows up to purchase the logs does not want them for final consumption, but intends to process them into an intermediate product; a more refined commodity, if you will. He may, for example, be a lumberman looking to buy saw logs. He will pay a railroad to transport them to his mill, where he intends to saw them into lumber. From there a lumberyard will buy the lumber, hire a trucker to transport it to their location, and place it on racks where it is more accessible to those who need lumber for their enterprise. Let us further suppose that a contractor buys the lumber and makes it into a house, which is then sold to a consumer who wants to live in it.
If we track the wood from earth-to-log-to-train-to-sawmill-to-truck-to-yard-to-contractor-to-consumer we can easily see that an increment of value has been added to it at each stage of the process. In economic terms, each of these quantum increases are said to be "net value-added", and the sum of all these steps is the "total value-added" of the product.
Note that we have talked through this example so far without any reference to money. We have referred to value-added with respect only to the worth of the product in physical terms. Ideally, money enters the picture as a medium of convenience to facilitate the exchanges required to move the increasingly valuable product along. Each tradesman who performs his necessary task must be compensated according to his net "cost of production" (i.e. expenses incidental to performing his step in the process), plus receive a "profit" to cover his living expenses, plus have something left over for continuing his business.
For practical reasons these value-added increments must be expressed in monetary units. It follows, then, that these successive price increments (net value-added) accruing proportionally to each step in the process determine ultimately the price a consumer would need to pay (total value-added) in order to maintain overall economic equity for everyone who participated in bringing the wood from raw material to final product. I call this process "value-added monetization".
In the next column I will describe more specifically how this "value-added monetization" occurs.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.