A Remembrance of Arthur P. Becker

Richard W. Lindholm

[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology,
Vol.39, No.1, January, 1980]

PROFESSOR ARTHUR P. BECKER, 60, died on November 17, 1978 in Milwaukee. He was head of the economics department (1948-1963) and professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the past 30 years. His doctorate was from the University of Wisconsin. He is survived by his wife Bernita and six children - three sons and three daughters.

I knew Art Becker as a colleague at Ohio State right after World War II and since as a fellow land tax analyst. In 1948 Art moved back to Wisconsin to head the new economics department at the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee). He brought Mason Gaffney to the department and the center for the study of land taxation was born.

Professor Becker headed the Committee on Taxation Resources and Economic Development (TRED), a group of fiscal economists. THED through the holding of annual seminars and the publication of papers and discussions presented and developed a scholarly and useful series of over ten volumes published by the University of Wisconsin Press. This "shelf" of property tax studies was made possible financially by the support of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation of New York and the Lincoln Foundation of Cambridge, Mass. Weld Carter, the committee's executive secretary, and Professor Gaffney worked closely with Becker and provided substantial intellectual and organizing support. Becker edited and contributed to the TRED publication titled, Land and Building Taxes.

Professor Becker was considered by academic, government and business tax specialists to be the nation's leading property tax scholar. This position was recognized when the National Tax Association selected him to be chairman of the Association's property tax committee in the early 1970s. The report of the committee is titled the Erosion of the Ad Valoren Real Estate Tax Base. A basic recommendation which is closely tied to Art's interest in the land tax calls for the levy of user charges based on service costs on all real estate including government and church-owned property.

A highlight of Professor Seeker's career was his paper before the assembled delegates to the National Tax Association's 1976 annual Conference held in Phoenix. He called for emphasis on supply management policies even though they are regarded as largely intractable. Unemployment was seen to arise not from a shortage of demand but rather a shortage of supply. He called for channeling capital and income into the hands of "those who contribute to production."

A principal source of income going into the hands of non-productive individuals and businesses was identified to be economic rent. The drain imposed by land rents going into private hands was seen to sharply reduce investment opportunities and to place a huge burden on all active producers of economic goods and services. If a substantial portion of these land rents arising in urban, rural, and natural resource areas were paid as taxes the level of wage and profit taxes paid by supply providers could be sharply reduced and efforts of these productive agents stimulated. The removal of a substantial portion of the dead hand of economic rent through taxation of land, with a sharp reduction of taxes on producers would be a major step toward the expansion of supply and would result in increased employment without inflation. (1).

Seeker's study of the location of the impact in Milwaukee of shifting to the finance of state and local activities through exclusive use of Wisconsin's state income tax or exclusive use of the property tax must be rated the basic analysis of this tax policy decision area. A fundamental finding of the study was that "the concentration of the ownership of taxable property makes the property tax more progressive than do the effective rates of the state (Wisconsin) individual income tax" (2).

This careful and detailed analysis of Art's goes on to demonstrate that a shift of school financing to the state income tax and away from the use of the local property tax would increase tax payments of ten of the fourteen family income classes of Milwaukee. This study is turning out to be a forecast of a new urban political-economic trend demonstrated by the recent action in Pittsburgh where a 48 mill increase in the land tax was selected over the alternative revenue source, a new one and one-fourth percent wage tax.

Arthur Seeker's dedication to social science scholarship informed and enlivened his teaching, his other major professional commitment. It also made him a much sought after consultant - by this journal and by other interests in various parts of the country. His cordial and genial personality endeared him to colleagues, students and other associates, in whose midst he leaves a lasting void. To his family, his first love, we extend our deepest condolences.