OpenAI CEO Sam Altman believes AI can help usher in “unbelievable abundance,” but he says he wants to ensure that such abundance is shared. Toward that end, Altman has embraced a theory of 19th century political economist Henry George, who in his own lifetime worried about wealth amassing in the hands of the few following the Industrial Revolution. George posited that greater equality could be enjoyed if the economic value of land belonged equally to all members of society.
Altman similarly believes that in a world where jobs may create less economic value, a land tax could make up for income tax and guarantee that all individuals’ assets rise as land — a fixed asset — grows in value. He’s putting his money where his mouth is, too, leading a seed round in a six-month-old startup that represents a step in that same direction.
On its face, the outfit, called ValueBase, sounds fairly banal. It plans to use land-first models to create mass appraisal modeling and property valuations. Feeding into its algorithm data from weather balloons, aerial photography vendors and other sources, ValueBase says it can automate much of the appraisal of both land and buildings for municipal property tax assessors, many of whom still rely on pen and paper — and who focus primarily on the characteristics of buildings and less on the land where those buildings sit.
But the idea is to flip the model, says ValueBase co-founder Lars Doucet. “If you understand that land is one of the key drivers of value, you don’t necessarily need to crawl through people’s windows and rifle through their house and take all these invasive pictures. If you can value the land first, you can get more accurate because you have more access to the land characteristics, including distance to schools, distance to jobs, how much street noise there is, how much pollution there is [and] whether there is a nice view. All of these things are very legible without ever entering the property and therefore easier to calculate.”
It’s a smart approach for numerous reasons. For one thing, working with municipal property tax assessors could help those assessors make a clearer case to a home or building owner about why a property has been assigned a specific value. ValueBase could also become more valuable to cities as many tax assessors retire. (Most are middle-age white men in the U.S.)
ValueBase’s strategy is also self-serving. It gets access to critical data that it can use to create more commercial applications, including for brokerages and mortgage lenders.
Either way, ValueBase has a higher calling, insists Doucet. It wants to pave the way for public works in different places by learning as much as it can about every parcel in the U.S. and beyond. “If someone asks, ‘Hey, what’s all the land in Idaho worth?’ and ‘Can you tell me down to the parcel?’ we’ll be the first people they want to call about that,” he says.
Currently, it’s hard to imagine anyone asking that question, let alone of ValueBase, which still employs just four people, who are spread across North Carolina, Virginia and Texas.
Still, if Altman is right about the exponential rate of change we’re collectively facing, that could change, and he’s apparently willing to bet on it.
Hydrazine Capital, a fund run by Altman and business partner Ryan Cohen, led the $1.6 million round in ValueBase.
They were joined by former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, serial entrepreneurs Sahil Lavingia and Erik Torenberg, and others.
Pictured above: front and center is Will Jarvis, CEO of ValueBase; Doucet is in the far-right corner.