Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

It’s not your imagination: Housing is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Inflation adjusted into 2000 dollars, the median price of a house has risen from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 today. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s an increase from $44,000 to $173,000.

Things are particularly bad here in California, where the median price of a new home is $517,000—and especially in the Bay Area, where the median price is $838,000. Just two years ago, people were already freaking out that the median home price in the Bay Area had hit $661,000—and now it has risen 27% since then.

The rent is too damn high, but lately rent has actually not been rising as fast as housing prices. It may be that they’ve just gotten as high as they can get; in New York City rent is stable, and in San Francisco it’s actually declining—but in both cases it’s over $4,000 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment. The US still has the highest rent-to-price ratio in the world; at 11.2%, you should be able to buy a house on a 15-year mortgage for what we currently pay in rent near city centers.

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

It’s a problem in Canada: Housing in the Toronto area recently skyrocketed in price, with the mean price of a detached home now over $974,000 CAD, about $722,000 USD.

It’s a problem in the UK: The average price of a home in the UK is now over 214,000 pounds, or $274,000 (the pound is pretty weak after Brexit). In London in particular, the average home now costs nine years of the average wage.

It’s even a problem in China: An average 1000-square-foot apartment (that’s not very big!) in Shanghai now sells for 5 million yuan, which is about $725,000.

Worldwide, the US actually has a relatively low housing price to income ratio, because our incomes are so high. Venezuela’s economy is in such a terrible state that it is literally impossible for the average person to buy the average home, but in countries as diverse as France, Taiwan, and Peru, the average home still costs more than 10 years of the average household income.

Why is this happening? Why is housing so expensive, and getting worse all the time?

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

The most obvious and fundamental reason is basic supply and demand. Demand for housing in major cities is rapidly rising, and supply of housing just isn’t keeping up.

Indeed, in California, the rate of new housing construction has fallen in recent years, even as we’ve had rapid population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. This is probably the number one reason why our housing here is so expensive.

But that raises its own questions: why aren’t more houses getting built? The market is supposed to correct for this sort of thing. Higher prices incentivize more construction, so prices get brought back down.

I think with housing in particular, we have a fundamental problem with that mechanism, and it is this: The people who make the policy don’t want the prices to come down.

No, I’m not talking about mayors and city councils, though they do like their property tax revenue. I’m talking about homeowners. People who go to homeowners’ association meetings and complain that someone else’s lopsided deck or un-weeded garden is “lowering property values”. People who join NIMBY political campaigns to stop new development, prevent the construction of taller buildings, or even stop the installation of new electrical substations. People who already got theirs and don’t care about anyone else.

Homeowners have an enormous influence in local politics, and it is by local politics that most of these decisions about zoning and development are made. They make all kinds of excuses about “preserving the community” and “the feel of the city”, but when you get right down to it, these people care more about preserving their own home equity than they do about making other people homeless.

In some cases, people may be so fundamentally confused that they think new development actually somehow causes higher housing prices, and so they try to fight development in a vain effort to stop rising housing prices and only end up making things worse. It’s also very common for people to support rent control policies in an effort to keep housing affordable—and economists of all political stripes are in almost total consensus that rent control only serves to restrict supply, increase inequality, and make housing prices even worse. As one might expect, the stricter the rent control, the worse this effect is. Some mild forms of rent control might be justifiable in particularly monopolistic markets, but in general it’s not a good long-term solution. Rent control forces rationing, and often the rationing is not in favor of who needs it the most but who is the most well-connected. The people who benefit most from rent control are usually of higher income than the average for the city.

On the other hand, removing rent control can cause a spike in prices, and make things worse in the short run, before there is time for new construction to increase the supply of housing. Also, many economists assume in their models that tenants who get forced out by the higher rents would get compensated for it, which is not at all how the real world works. It’s also unclear exactly how large the effect sizes are, because the empirical studies get quite mixed results. Still, rent control is a bad idea. Don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Krugman.

It’s also common to blame foreign investors—because humans are tribal, and blaming foreigners is always popular—even though that makes no economic sense. Investors are buying your houses because the prices keep rising. It’s possible that there could be some sort of speculative bubble, but that’s actually harder to sustain in housing than it is in most other assets, precisely because houses are immobile and expensive. Speculative bubbles in gold happen all the time (indeed, perhaps literally all the time, as the price of gold has never fallen to its real fundamental value in all of human history), but gold is a tradeable, transportable, fungible commodity that can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities. (Because it’s an element, you’re literally only limited to the atomic level!)

Moreover, it isn’t just supply and demand at work here. Fluctuations in economic growth have strong effects on housing prices—and vice-versa. There are monetary policy effects, particularly in a liquidity trap; lower interest rates combined with low inflation create a perfect storm for higher housing prices.

Overall economic inequality is a major contributor to steep housing prices, as well as the segregation of housing across racial and economic lines. And as the rate of return on productive capital continues to decrease while the rate of return on real estate does not, more and more of our wealth concentration is going to be in the form of higher housing prices—making the whole problem self-reinforcing.

People also seem really ambivalent about whether they want housing prices to be low or high. In one breath they’ll bemoan the lack of affordable housing, and in another they’ll talk about “protecting property values”. Even the IMF called the increase in housing prices after the Second Depression a “recovery”. Is it really so hard to understand that higher prices mean higher prices?

But we think of housing as two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it’s a durable consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator—something you buy because it’s useful, and keep around to use for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a financial asset—a store of value for your savings and a potential source of income. When you’re thinking of it as a consumption good, you want it to be “affordable”; when you’re thinking of it as an asset, you want to “protect its value”. But it’s the same house with the same price. You can’t do both of those things at once, and clearly, as a society—perhaps as a civilization—we have been tilting way too far in the “asset” direction.

I get it: Financial assets that grow over time have the allure of easy money. The stock market, the derivatives market, even the lottery and Las Vegas, all have this tantalizing property that they seem to give you money for nothing. They are like the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone in days of yore.

But they are just as much a chimera as the Philosopher’s Stone itself. (Also, if anyone had found the Philosopher’s Stone, the glut of gold would have triggered massive inflation, not unlike what happened in Spain in the 16th century.) Any money you get from simply owning an asset or placing a bet is money that had to come from somewhere else. In the case of the stock market, that “somewhere else” is the profits of the corporations you bought, and if you did actually contribute to the investment of those corporations there’s nothing wrong with you getting a proportional share of those profits. But most people aren’t thinking in those terms when they buy stocks, and once you get all the way to sophisticated derivatives you’re basically in full gambling territory. Every option that’s in the money is another option that’s out of the money. Every interest rate swap that turns a profit is another one that bears a loss.

And when it comes to housing, if you magically gain equity from rising property values, where is that money coming from? It’s coming from people desperately struggling to afford to live in your city, people giving up 40%, 50%, even 60% of their disposable income just for the chance to leave in a tiny apartment because they want to be in your city that badly. It’s coming from people who started that way, lost their job, and ended up homeless because they couldn’t sustain the payments anymore. All that easy money is coming from hard-working young people trying to hold themselves out of poverty.

It’s different if your home gains value because you actually did something to make it better—renovations, additions, landscaping. Even then I think these things are sort of overrated; but they do constitute a real economic benefit to the people who live there. But if your home rises in value because zoning regulations and protesting homeowners stop the construction of new high-rises, that’s very much still on the backs of struggling young people.

We need to stop thinking houses as assets that are supposed to earn a return, and instead think of them as consumption goods that provide benefits to people. If you want a return, buy stocks and bonds. When you’re buying a house, you should be buying a house—not some dream of making money for nothing as housing prices rise forever. Because they can’t—sooner or later, the bubble will break—and even if they could, it would be terrible for everyone who didn’t get into the market soon enough.

What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”