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.

Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things

July 20, JDN 2457590

My posts recently have been fairly theoretical and mathematically intensive, so I thought I’d take a break from that today and offer you a much simpler, more practical post that you could use right away to improve your own finances.

Cognitive economists are so accustomed to using the word “heuristic” in contrast with words like “optimal” and “rational” that we tend to treat them as something bad. If only we didn’t have these darn heuristics, we could be those perfect rational agents the neoclassicists keep telling us about!

But in fact this is almost completely backwards: Heuristics are the reason human beings are capable of rational thought, unlike, well, anything else in the known universe. To be fair, many animals are capable of some limited rationality, often more than most people realize, but still far less than our own—and what rationality they have is born of the same evolutionary heuristics we use. Computers and robots are now approaching something that could be called rationality, but they still have a long way to go before they’ll really be acting rationally rather than perfectly following precise instructions—and of course we made them, modeled after our own thought processes. Current robots are logical, but not rational. The difference between logic and rationality is rather like that between intelligence and wisdom. Logic dictates that coffee is a berry; rationality says you may not enjoy it in your fruit salad. Robots are still at the point where they’d put coffee in our fruit salads if we told them to include a random mix of berries.

Heuristics are what allows us to make rational decisions 90% of the time. We might wish for something that would make us rational 100% of the time, but no known method exists; the best we can do is learn better heuristics to raise our percentage to perhaps 92% or 95%. With no heuristics at all, we would be 0% rational, not 100%.

So today I’m going to offer you a new heuristic, which I think might help you give your choices that little 2% boost. Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things.

This is a little mantra to repeat to yourself whenever you have a purchasing decision to make—which, in a consumerist economy like ours, is surely several times a day. The precise definition of “cheap” and “expensive” will vary according to your income (to a billionaire, my lifetime income is a pittance; to someone at the UN poverty level, my annual income is an unimaginable bounty of riches). But for a typical middle-class American, “cheap” can be approximately defined by a Jackson heuristic—anything less than $20 is cheap—and “expensive” by a Benjamin heuristic—anything over $100 is expensive. It doesn’t need to be hard-edged either; you should apply this heuristic more thoroughly for purchases of $10,000 (i.e. cars) than you do for purchase of $1,000, and still more so for purchase of $100,000 (houses).

Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things; what do I mean by that?

If you are going to buy something cheap, you can choose the expensive variety if you like. If you have the choice of a $1 toothbrush, a $5 toothbrush, and a $10 toothbrush, and you really do like the $10 toothbrush, don’t agonize over it—just buy the damn $10 toothbrush. Obviously there’s no reason to do that if the $1 toothbrush is really just as good for your needs; but if there’s any difference in quality you care about, it is almost certainly worth it to buy the better one.

If you are going to buy something expensive, you should choose the cheap variety if you can. If you have the choice of a $14,000 car, a $15,000 car, and a $16,000 car, you should buy the $14,000 car, unless the other cars are massively superior. You should basically be aiming for the cheapest bare-minimum choice that allows you to meet your needs. (I should be careful using cars as my example, because many old used cars that seem “cheap” are actually more expensive to fuel and maintain than it would cost to simply buy a newer model—but assume you’ve factored in a good estimate of the maintenance cost. You should almost never buy cars that aren’t at least a year old, however—first-year depreciation is huge. Let someone else lease it for a year before it you buy it.)

Why do I say this? Many people find the result counter-intuitive: I just told you to spend 900% more on toothbrushes, but insisted that you scrounge to save 12.5% on a car. Even if we adjust for the asymmetry using log points, I told you to indulge 230 log points of toothbrush for a tiny gain, while insisted you bear no-frills bare-minimum to save 13 log points of car.

I have also saved you $1,991. That’s why.

Intuitively we tend to think in terms of proportional prices—this car is 12.5% cheaper than that car, this toothbrush is 900% more expensive than that toothbrush. But you don’t spend money in proportions. You spend it in absolute amounts. So when you decide to make a purchase, you need to train yourself to think in terms of the absolute difference in price—paying $9 more versus paying $2000 more.

Businesses are counting on you not to think this way; that car dealer is surely going to point out that the $16,000 model has a sunroof and upgraded tire rims and whatever, and it’s only 14% more! But unless you would seriously be willing to pay $2,000 to get a sunroof and upgraded tire rims installed later, you should not upgrade to the $16,000 model. Don’t let them bamboozle you with “it’s a $5,000 value!”; it might well be a $5,000 price to do elsewhere, but that’s not the same thing. Only you can decide whether it’s of sufficient value to you.

There’s another reason this heuristic can be useful, which is that it will tend to pressure you into buying experiences instead of objects—and it is a well-established pattern in cognitive economics that experiences are a more cost-effective source of happiness than objects. “Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things” doesn’t necessarily pressure toward buying experiences, as one could certainly load up on useless $20 gadgets or spend $5,000 on a luxurious vacation to Paris. But as a general pattern (and heuristics are all about general patterns!) you’re more likely to spend $20 on a dinner or $5,000 on a car. Some of the cheapest things people buy, like dining out with friends, are some of the greatest sources of happiness—you are, in a real sense, buying friendship. Some of the most expensive things people buy, like real estate, are precisely the sort of thing you should be willing to skimp on, because they really won’t bring you happiness. Larger houses are not statistically associated with higher happiness.

Indeed, part of the great crisis of real estate prices (which is a phenomenon across all First World cities, and surprisingly worse in Canada than the US, though worse still in California in particular) probably comes from people not applying this sort of heuristic. “This house is $240,000, but that one is only 10% more and look how much nicer it is!” That’s $24,000. You can buy that nicer house, or you can buy a second car. Or you can have an extra year of your child’s college fund. That is what that 10% actually means. I’m sure this isn’t the primary reason why housing in the US is so ludicrously expensive, but it may be a contributing factor. (Krugman argued similarly during the housing crash.)

Like any heuristic, “Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things” will sometimes fail you, and if you think carefully you can probably outperform it. But I’ve found it’s a good habit to get into; it has helped me save money more than just about anything else I’ve tried.

Elasticity and the Law of Supply

JDN 2457292 EDT 16:16.

Today’s post is kind of a mirror image of the previous post earlier this week; I was talking about demand before, and now I’m talking about supply. (In the next post, I’ll talk about how the two work together to determine the actual price of goods.)

Just as there is an elasticity of demand which describes how rapidly the quantity demanded changes with changes in price, likewise there is an elasticity of supply which describes how much the quantity supplied changes with changes in price.

The elasticity of supply is defined as the proportional change in quantity supplied divided by the proportional change in price; so for example if the number of cars produced increases 10% when the price of cars increases by 5%, the elasticity of supply of cars would be 10%/5% = 2.

Goods that have high elasticity of supply will rapidly flood the market if the price increases even a small amount; goods that have low elasticity of supply will sell at about the same rate as ever even if the price increases dramatically.

Generally, the more initial investment of capital a good requires, the lower its elasticity of supply is going to be.

If most of the cost of production is in the actual marginal cost of producing each new gizmo, then elasticity of supply will be high, because it’s easy to produce more or produce less as the market changes.

But if most of the cost is in building machines or inventing technologies or training employees which already has to be done in order to make any at all, while the cost of each individual gizmo is unimportant, the elasticity of supply will be low, because there’s no sense letting all that capital you invested go to waste.
We can see these differences in action by comparing different sources of electric power.

Photovoltaic solar power has a high elasticity of supply, because building new solar panels is cheap and fast. As the price of solar energy fluctuates, the amount of solar panel produced changes rapidly. Technically this is actually a “fixed capital” cost, but it’s so modular that you can install as little or as much solar power capacity as you like, which makes it behave a lot more like a variable cost than a fixed cost. As a result, a 1% increase in the price paid for solar power increases the amount supplied by a whopping 2.7%, a supply elasticity of 2.7.

Oil has a moderate elasticity of supply, because finding new oil reserves is expensive but feasible. A lot of oil in the US is produced by small wells; 18% of US oil is produced by wells that put out less than 10 barrels per day. Those small wells can be turned on and off as the price of oil changes, and new ones can be built if it becomes profitable. As a result, investment in oil production is very strongly correlated with oil prices. Still, overall production of oil changes only moderate amounts; in the US it had been steadily decreasing since 1970 until very recently when new technologies and weakened regulations resulted in a rapid increase to near-1970s levels. We sort of did hit peak oil; but it’s never quite that simple.

Nuclear fission has a very low elasticity of supply, because building a nuclear reactor is extremely expensive and requires highly advanced expertise. Building a nuclear power plant costs upward of $35 billion. Once a reactor is built, the cost of generating more power is relatively trivial; three-fourths of the cost a nuclear power plant will ever pay is paid simply to build it (or to pay back the debt incurred by doing so). Even if the price of uranium plummets or the price of oil skyrockets, it would take a long time before more nuclear power plants would be built in response.

Elasticity of supply is generally a lot larger in the long run than in the short run. Over a period of a few days or months, many types of production can’t be changed significantly. If you have a corn field, you grow as much corn as you can this season; even if the price rose substantially you couldn’t actually grow any more than your field will allow. But over a period of a year to a few years, most types of production can be changed; continuing with the corn example, you could buy new land to plant corn next season.

The Law of Supply is actually a lot closer to a true law than the Law of Demand. A negative elasticity of supply is almost unheard of; at worst elasticity of supply can sometimes drop close to zero. It really is true that elasticity of supply is almost always positive.

Land has an elasticity near zero; it’s extremely expensive (albeit not impossible; Singapore does it rather frequently) to actually create new land. As a result there’s really no good reason to ever raise the price of land; higher land prices don’t incentivize new production, they just transfer wealth to landowners. That’s why a land tax is such a good idea; it would transfer some of that wealth away from landowners and let us use it for public goods like infrastructure or research, or even just give it to the poor. A few countries actually have tried this; oddly enough, they include Singapore and Denmark, two of the few places in the world where the elasticity of land supply is appreciably above zero!

Real estate in general (which is what most property taxes are imposed on) is much trickier: In the short run it seems to have a very low elasticity, because building new houses or buildings takes a lot of time and money. But in the long run it actually has a high elasticity of supply, because there is a lot of profit to be made in building new structures if you can fund projects 10 or 15 years out. The short-run elasticity is something like 0.2, meaning a 1% increase in price only yields a 0.2% increase in supply; but the long-run elasticity may be as high as 8, meaning that a 1% increase in price yields an 8% increase in supply. This is why property taxes and rent controls seem like a really good idea at the time but actually probably have the effect of making housing more expensive. The economics of real estate has a number of fundamental differences from the economics of most other goods.

Many important policy questions ultimately hinge upon the elasticity of supply: If elasticity is high, then taxing or regulating something is likely to cause large distortions of the economy, while if elasticity is low, taxes and regulations can be used to support public goods or redistribute wealth without significant distortion to the economy. On the other hand, if elasticity is high, markets generally function well on their own, while if elasticity is low, prices can get far out of whack. As a general rule of thumb, government intervention in markets is most useful and most necessary when elasticity is low.

What if you couldn’t own land?

JDN 2457145 EDT 20:49.

Today’s post we’re on the socialism scale somewhere near the The Guess Who, but not quite all the way to John Lennon. I’d like to questions one of the fundamental tenets of modern capitalism, but not the basic concept of private ownership itself:

What if you couldn’t own land?

Many things that you can own were more-or-less straightforwardly created by someone. A car, a computer, a television, a pair of shoes; for today let’s even take for granted intellectual property like books, movies, and songs; at least those things (“things”) were actually made by someone.

But land? We’re talking about chunks of the Earth here. They were here billions of years before us, and in all probability will be here billions of years after we’re gone. There’s no need to incentivize its creation; the vast majority of land was already here and did not need to be created. (I do have to say “the vast majority”, because in places like Japan, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands real estate has become so scarce that people do literally build land out into the sea. But this is something like 0.0001% of the world’s land.)

What we want to incentivize is land development; we want it to be profitable to build buildings and irrigate deserts, and yes, even cut down forests sometimes (though then there should be a carbon tax with credits for forested land to ensure that there isn’t too much incentive). Yet our current property tax system doesn’t do this very well; if you build bigger buildings, you end up paying more property taxes. Yes, you may also make some profit on the buildings—but it’s risky, and you may not get enough benefit to justify the added property taxes.

Moreover, we want to allocate land—we want some way of deciding who is allowed to use what land where and when (and perhaps why). Allowing land to be bought and sold is one way to do that, but it is not the only way.

Indeed, land ownership suffers from a couple of truly glaring flaws as an allocation system:

      1. It creates self-perpetuating inequality. Because land grows in value over time (due to population growth and urbanization, among other things), those who currently own land end up getting an ever-growing quantity of wealth while those who do not own land do not, and very likely end up having to pay ever-growing rents to the landlords. (I like calling them “landlords”; it really drives home the fact that our landholding system is still basically the same as it was under feudalism.) In fact, the recent rise in the share of income that goes to owners of capital rather than workers is almost entirely attributable to the rise in the price of real estate. As that post rightly recognizes, this does nothing to undermine Piketty’s central message of rising inequality due to capital income (pace The Washington Post); it merely tells us to focus on real estate instead of other forms of capital.
      2. It has no non-arbitrary allocation. If we want to decide who owns a car, we can ask questions like, “Who built it? Did someone buy it from them? Did they pay a fair price?”; if we want to decide who owns a book, we can ask questions like, “Who wrote it? Did they sell it to a publisher? What was the royalty rate?” That is, there is a clear original owner, and there is a sense of whether the transfer of ownership can be considered fair. But if we want to decide who owns a chunk of land, basically all we can ask is, “What does the deed say?” The owner is the owner because they are the owner; there’s no sense in which that ownership is fair. We certainly can’t go back to the original creation of the land, because that was due to natural forces gigayears ago. If we keep tracing the ownership backward, we will eventually end up with some guy (almost certainly a man, a White man in fact) with a gun who pointed that gun at other people and said, “This is mine.” This is true of basically all the land in the world (aside from those little bits of Japan and such); it was already there, and the only reason someone got to own it was because they said so and had a bigger gun. And a flag, perhaps: “Do you have a flag?” I suppose, in theory at least, there are a few ways of allocating land which seem less arbitrary: One would be to give everyone an equal amount. But this is practically very difficult: What do you do when the population changes? If you have 2% annual population growth, do you carve off 2% of everybody’s lot each year? Another would be to let people squat land, and automatically own the land that they live on—but again practical difficulties quickly become enormous. In any case, these two methods bear about as much resemblance to our actual allocation of land as a squirrel does to a Tyrannosaurus.

So, what else might we use? The system that makes the most sense to me is that we would own all land as a society. In practical terms this would mean that all land is Federal land, and if you want to use it for something, you need to pay rent to the government. There are many different ways the government could set the rent, but the most sensible might be to charge a flat rate per hectare regardless of where the land is or what it’s being used for, because that would maximize the incentive to develop the land. It would also make the rent fall entirely on the landowner, because the rent would be perfectly inelasticmeaning that you can’t change the quantity you make based on the price, because you aren’t making it; it’s just already sitting there.

Of course, this idea is obviously politically impossible in our current environment—or indeed any foreseeable political environment. I’m just fantasizing here, right?

Well, not quite. There is one thing we could do that would be economically quite similar to government-only land ownership; it’s called a land tax. The idea is incredibly simple: you just collect a flat tax per hectare of land. Economists have known that a land tax is efficient at providing revenue and reducing inequality since at least Adam Smith. So maybe ownership of land isn’t actually foundational to capitalism, after all; maybe we’ve just never fully gotten over feudalism. (I basically agree with Adam Smith, and for doing so I am often called a socialist.) The beautiful thing about a land tax is that it has a tax incidence in which the owners of the land end up bearing the full brunt of the tax.

Tax incidence is something it’s very important to understand; it would be on my list of the top ten economic principles that people should learn. We often have fierce political debates over who will actually write the check: Should employers pay the health insurance premium, or should employees? Will buyers pay sales tax, or sellers? Should we tax corporate profits or personal capital gains?

Please understand that I am not exaggerating when I say that these sorts of questions are totally irrelevant. It simply does not matter who actually writes the check; what matters is who bears the cost. Making the employer pay the health insurance premium doesn’t make the slightest difference if all they’re going to do is cut wages by the exact same amount. You can see the irrelevance of the fact that sellers pay sales tax every time you walk into a store—you always end up paying the price plus the tax, don’t you? (I found that the base price of most items was the same between Long Beach and Ann Arbor, but my total expenditure was always 3% more because of the 9% sales tax versus the 6%.) How do we determine who actually pays the tax? It depends on the elasticity—how easily can you change your behavior in order to avoid the tax? Can you find a different job because the health insurance premiums are too high? No? Then you’re probably paying that premium, even if your employer writes the check. If you can find a new job whenever you want, your employer might have to pay it for you even if you write the check.

The incidence of corporate taxes and taxes on capital gains are even more complicated, because it could affect the behavior of corporations in many different ways; indeed, many economists argue that the corporate tax simply results in higher unemployment or lower wages for workers. I don’t think that’s actually true, but I honestly can’t rule it out completely, precisely because corporate taxes are so complicated. You need to know all sorts of things about the structure of stock markets, and the freedom of trade, and the mobility of immigration… it’s a complete and total mess.

It’s because of tax incidence that a land tax makes so much sense; there’s no way for the landowner to escape it, other than giving up the land entirely. In particular, they can’t charge more for rent without being out-competed (unless landowners are really good at colluding—which might be true for large developers, but not individual landlords). Their elasticity is so low that they’re forced to bear the full cost of the tax.

If the land tax were high enough, it could eliminate the automatic growth in wealth that comes from holding land, and thereby reducing long-run inequality dramatically. The revenue could be used for my other favorite fiscal policy, the basic income—and real estate is a big enough part of our nation’s wealth that it’s actually entirely realistic to fund an $8,000 per person per year basic income entirely on land tax revenue. The total value of US land is about $14 trillion, and an $8,000 basic income for 320 million people would cost about $2.6 trillion; that’s only 19%. You’d actually want to make it a flat tax per hectare, so how much would that be? Well, 60% of US land is privately owned at present (no sense taxing the land the government already owns), and total US land area is about 9 million square kilometers, so to raise $2.5 trillion you’d need a tax of $289,000 per square kilometer, or $2,890 per hectare. If you own a hectare—which is bigger than most single-family lots—you’d only pay $2,890 per year in land tax, well within what most middle-class families could handle. But if you own 290,000 acres like Jeff Bezos, (that’s 117,000 hectares) you’re paying $338 million per year. Since Jeff Bezos has about $38 billion in net wealth, he can actually afford to pay that ($338 million per year is about one-tenth of what Jeff Bezos makes automatically on dividends), though he might consider selling off some of the land to avoid the taxes, which is exactly the sort of incentive we wanted to create.

Indeed, when I contemplate this policy I’m struck by the fact that it has basically no downside—usually in public policy you’re forced to make hard compromises and tradeoffs, but a land tax plus basic income is a system that carries almost no downsides at all. It won’t disincentivize investment, it won’t disincentivize working, it will dramatically reduce inequality, it will save the government a great deal of money on social welfare spending, and best of all it will eliminate poverty immediately and forever. The only people it would hurt at all are extremely rich, and they wouldn’t even be hurt very much, while it would benefit millions of people including some of the most needy.

Why aren’t we doing this already!?

How following the crowd can doom us all

JDN 2457110 EDT 21:30

Humans are nothing if not social animals. We like to follow the crowd, do what everyone else is doing—and many of us will continue to do so even if our own behavior doesn’t make sense to us. There is a very famous experiment in cognitive science that demonstrates this vividly.

People are given a very simple task to perform several times: We show you line X and lines A, B, and C. Now tell us which of A, B or C is the same length as X. Couldn’t be easier, right? But there’s a trick: seven other people are in the same room performing the same experiment, and they all say that B is the same length as X, even though you can clearly see that A is the correct answer. Do you stick with what you know, or say what everyone else is saying? Typically, you say what everyone else is saying. Over 18 trials, 75% of people followed the crowd at least once, and some people followed the crowd every single time. Some people even began to doubt their own perception, wondering if B really was the right answer—there are four lights, anyone?

Given that our behavior can be distorted by others in such simple and obvious tasks, it should be no surprise that it can be distorted even more in complex and ambiguous tasks—like those involved in finance. If everyone is buying up Beanie Babies or Tweeter stock, maybe you should too, right? Can all those people be wrong?

In fact, matters are even worse with the stock market, because it is in a sense rational to buy into a bubble if you know that other people will as well. As long as you aren’t the last to buy in, you can make a lot of money that way. In speculation, you try to predict the way that other people will cause prices to move and base your decisions around that—but then everyone else is doing the same thing. By Keynes called it a “beauty contest”; apparently in his day it was common to have contests for picking the most beautiful photo—but how is beauty assessed? By how many people pick it! So you actually don’t want to choose the one you think is most beautiful, you want to choose the one you think most people will think is the most beautiful—or the one you think most people will think most people will think….

Our herd behavior probably made a lot more sense when we evolved it millennia ago; when most of your threats are external and human beings don’t have that much influence over our environment, the majority opinion is quite likely to be right, and can often given you an answer much faster than you could figure it out on your own. (If everyone else thinks a lion is hiding in the bushes, there’s probably a lion hiding in the bushes—and if there is, the last thing you want is to be the only one who didn’t run.) The problem arises when this tendency to follow the ground feeds back on itself, and our behavior becomes driven not by the external reality but by an attempt to predict each other’s predictions of each other’s predictions. Yet this is exactly how financial markets are structured.

With this in mind, the surprise is not why markets are unstable—the surprise is why markets are ever stable. I think the main reason markets ever manage price stability is actually something most economists think of as a failure of markets: Price rigidity and so-called “menu costs“. If it’s costly to change your price, you won’t be constantly trying to adjust it to the mood of the hour—or the minute, or the microsecondbut instead trying to tie it to the fundamental value of what you’re selling so that the price will continue to be close for a long time ahead. You may get shortages in times of high demand and gluts in times of low demand, but as long as those two things roughly balance out you’ll leave the price where it is. But if you can instantly and costlessly change the price however you want, you can raise it when people seem particularly interested in buying and lower it when they don’t, and then people can start trying to buy when your price is low and sell when it is high. If people were completely rational and had perfect information, this arbitrage would stabilize prices—but since they’re not, arbitrage attempts can over- or under-compensate, and thus result in cyclical or even chaotic changes in prices.

Our herd behavior then makes this worse, as more people buying leads to, well, more people buying, and more people selling leads to more people selling. If there were no other causes of behavior, the result would be prices that explode outward exponentially; but even with other forces trying to counteract them, prices can move suddenly and unpredictably.

If most traders are irrational or under-informed while a handful are rational and well-informed, the latter can exploit the former for enormous amounts of money; this fact is often used to argue that irrational or under-informed traders will simply drop out, but it should only take you a few moments of thought to see why that isn’t necessarily true. The incentives isn’t just to be well-informed but also to keep others from being well-informed. If everyone were rational and had perfect information, stock trading would be the most boring job in the world, because the prices would never change except perhaps to grow with the growth rate of the overall economy. Wall Street therefore has every incentive in the world not to let that happen. And now perhaps you can see why they are so opposed to regulations that would require them to improve transparency or slow down market changes. Without the ability to deceive people about the real value of assets or trigger irrational bouts of mass buying or selling, Wall Street would make little or no money at all. Not only are markets inherently unstable by themselves, in addition we have extremely powerful individuals and institutions who are driven to ensure that this instability is never corrected.

This is why as our markets have become ever more streamlined and interconnected, instead of becoming more efficient as expected, they have actually become more unstable. They were never stable—and the gold standard made that instability worse—but despite monetary policy that has provided us with very stable inflation in the prices of real goods, the prices of assets such as stocks and real estate have continued to fluctuate wildly. Real estate isn’t as bad as stocks, again because of price rigidity—houses rarely have their values re-assessed multiple times per year, let alone multiple times per second. But real estate markets are still unstable, because of so many people trying to speculate on them. We think of real estate as a good way to make money fast—and if you’re lucky, it can be. But in a rational and efficient market, real estate would be almost as boring as stock trading; your profits would be driven entirely by population growth (increasing the demand for land without changing the supply) and the value added in construction of buildings. In fact, the population growth effect should be sapped by a land tax, and then you should only make a profit if you actually build things. Simply owning land shouldn’t be a way of making money—and the reason for this should be obvious: You’re not actually doing anything. I don’t like patent rents very much, but at least inventing new technologies is actually beneficial for society. Owning land contributes absolutely nothing, and yet it has been one of the primary means of amassing wealth for centuries and continues to be today.

But (so-called) investors and the banks and hedge funds they control have little reason to change their ways, as long as the system is set up so that they can keep profiting from the instability that they foster. Particularly when we let them keep the profits when things go well, but immediately rush to bail them out when things go badly, they have basically no incentive at all not to take maximum risk and seek maximum instability. We need a fundamentally different outlook on the proper role and structure of finance in our economy.

Fortunately one is emerging, summarized in a slogan among economically-savvy liberals: Banking should be boring. (Elizabeth Warren has said this, as have Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.) And indeed it should, for all banks are supposed to be doing is lending money from people who have it and don’t need it to people who need it but don’t have it. They aren’t supposed to be making large profits of their own, because they aren’t the ones actually adding value to the economy. Indeed it was never quite clear to me why banks should be privatized in the first place, though I guess it makes more sense than, oh, say, prisons.

Unfortunately, the majority opinion right now, at least among those who make policy, seems to be that banks don’t need to be restructured or even placed on a tighter leash; no, they need to be set free so they can work their magic again. Even otherwise reasonable, intelligent people quickly become unshakeable ideologues when it comes to the idea of raising taxes or tightening regulations. And as much as I’d like to think that it’s just a small but powerful minority of people who thinks this way, I know full well that a large proportion of Americans believe in these views and intentionally elect politicians who will act upon them.

All the more reason to break from the crowd, don’t you think?

The Rent is Too Damn High

Housing prices are on the rise again, but they’re still well below what they were at the peak of the 2008 bubble. It may be that we have not learned from our mistakes and another bubble is coming, but I don’t think it has hit us just yet. Meanwhile, rent prices have barely budged, and the portion of our population who pay more than 35% of their income on rent has risen to 44%.

Economists typically assess the “fair market value” of a house based upon its rental rate for so-called “housing services”—the actual benefits of living in a house. But to use the rental rate is to do what Larry Summers called “ketchup economics”; 40-ounce bottles of ketchup sell for exactly twice what 20-ounce bottles do, therefore the ketchup market is fair and efficient. (In fact even this is not true, since ketchup is sold under bulk pricing. This reminds me of a rather amusing situation I recently encountered at the grocery store: The price of individual 12-packs of Coke was $3, but you could buy sets of five for $10 each. This meant that buying five was cheaper in total—not just per unit—than buying four. The only way to draw that budget constraint is with a periodic discontinuity; it makes a sawtooth across your graph. We never talk about that sort of budget constraint in neoclassical economics, yet there it was in front of me.)

When we value houses by their rental rate, we’re doing ketchup economics. We’re ignoring the fact that the rent is too damn highpeople should not have to pay as much as they do in order to get housing in this country, particularly housing in or near major cities. When 44% of Americans are forced to spend over a third of their income just fulfilling the basic need of shelter, something is wrong. Only 60% of the price of a house is the actual cost to build it; another 20% is just the land. If that sounds reasonable to you, you’ve just become inured to our absurd land prices. The US has over 3 hectares per person of land; that’s 7.7 acres. A family of 3 should be able to claim—on average—9 hectares, or 23 acres. The price of a typical 0.5-acre lot for a family home should be negligible; it’s only 2% of your portion of America’s land.

And as for the argument that land near major cities should be more expensive? No, it shouldn’t; it’s land. What should be more expensive near major cities are buildings, and only then because they’re bigger buildings—even per unit it probably is about equal or even an economy of scale. There’s a classic argument that you’re paying to have infrastructure and be near places of work: The former is ignoring the fact that we pay taxes and utilities for that infrastructure; and the latter is implicitly assuming that it’s normal for our land ownership to be so monopolistic. In a competitive market, the price is driven by the cost, not by the value; the extra value you get from living near a city is supposed to go into your consumer surplus (the personal equivalent of profit—but in utility, not in dollars), not into the owner’s profit. And actually that marginal benefit is supposed to be driven to zero by the effect of overcrowding—though Krugman’s Nobel-winning work was about why that doesn’t necessarily happen and therefore we get Shanghai.

There’s also a more technical argument to be had here about the elasticity of land supply and demand; since both are so inelastic, we actually end up in the very disturbing scenario in which even a small shift in either one can throw prices all over the place, even if we are at market-clearing equilibrium. Markets just don’t work very well for inelastic goods; and if right now you’re thinking “Doesn’t that mean markets won’t work well for things like water, food, and medicine?” you’re exactly right and have learned well, Grasshopper.

So, the rent is too damn high. This naturally raises three questions:

  1. Why is the rent so high?
  2. What happens to our economy as a result?
  3. What can we do about it?

Let’s start with 1. Naturally, conservatives are going to blame regulation; here’s Business Insider doing exactly that in San Francisco and New York City respectively. Actually, they have a point here. Zoning laws are supposed to keep industrial pollution away from our homes, not keep people from building bigger buildings to fit more residents. All these arguments about the “feel” of the city or “visual appeal” should be immediately compared to the fact that they are making people homeless. So 200 people should live on the street so you can have the skyline look the way you always remember it? I won’t say what I’d really like to; I’m trying to keep this blog rated PG.

Similarly, rent-control is a terrible way to solve the homelessness problem; you’re created a segregated market with a price ceiling, and that’s going to create a shortage and raise prices in the other part of the market. The result is good for anyone who can get the rent-control and bad for everyone else. (The Cato study Business Insider cites does make one rather aggravating error; the distribution in a non-rent-controlled market isn’t normal, it’s lognormal. You can see that at a glance by the presence of those extremely high rents on the right side of the graph.)

Most people respond by saying, “Okay, but what do we do for people who can’t afford the regular rent? Do we just make them homeless!?” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cato Institute or Business Insider were okay with that—but I’m definitely not. So what would I do? Give them money. The solution to poverty has been staring us in the face for centuries, but we refuse to accept it. Poor people don’t have enough money, so give them money. Skeptical? Here are some direct experimental studies showing that unconditional cash transfers are one of the most effective anti-poverty measures. The only kind of anti-poverty program I’ve seen that has a better track record is medical aid. People are sick? Give them medicine. People are poor? Give them money. Yes, it’s that simple. People just don’t want to believe it; they might have to pay a bit more in taxes.

So yes, regulations are actually part of the problem. But they are clearly not the whole problem, and in my opinion not even the most important part. The most important part is monopolization. There’s a map that Occupy Wall Street likes to send around saying “What if our land were as unequal as our money?” But here’s the thing: IT IS. Indeed, the correlation between land ownership and wealth is astonishingly high; to a first approximation, your wealth is a constant factor times the land you own.

Remember how I said that the average American holds 7.7 acres or 3 hectares? (Especially in economics, averages can be quite deceiving. Bill Gates and I are on average billionaires. In fact, I guarantee that Bill Gates and you are on average billionaires; it doesn’t even matter how much wealth you have, it’ll still be true.)

Well, here are some decidedly above-average landowners:

  1. John Malone, 2.2 million acres or 9,000 km^2
  2. Ted Turner, 2 million acres or 8,100 km^2
  3. The Emmerson Family, 1.9 million acres or 7,700 km^2
  4. Brad Kelley, 1.5 million acres or 6,100 km^2
  1. The Pingree Family, 800,000 acres or 3,200 km^2
  1. The Ford Family, 600,000 acres or 2,400 km^2
  1. The Briscoe Family, 560,000 acres or 2,270 km^2
  2. W.T. Wagonner Estate, 535,000 acres or 2,170 km^2

I think you get the idea. Here are two more of particular note:

  1. Jeff Bezos, 290,000 acres or 1,170 km^2
  1. Koch Family, 239,000 acres or 970 km^2

Yes, that is the Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and the Koch Family who are trying to purchase control of our political system.

Interpolating the ones I couldn’t easily find data on, I estimate that these 102 landowners (there were ties in the top 100) hold a total of 30 million acres, of the 940 million acres in the United States. This means that 3% of the land is owned by—wait for it—0.000,03% of the population. To put it another way, if we confiscated the land of 102 people and split it all up into 0.5-acre family home lots, we could house 60 million households—roughly half the number of households in the nation. To be fair, some of it isn’t suitable for housing; but a good portion of it is. Figure even 1% is usable; that’s still enough for 600,000 households—which is to say every homeless person in America.

One thing you may also have noticed is how often the word “family” comes up. Using Openoffice Calc (it’s like Excel, but free!) I went through the whole top 100 list and counted the number of times “family” comes up; it’s 49 out of 100. Include “heirs” and “estate” and the number goes up to 66. That doesn’t mean they share with their immediate family; it says “family” when it’s been handed down for at least one generation. This means that almost two-thirds of these super-wealthy landowners inherited their holdings. This isn’t the American Dream of self-made millionaires; this is a landed gentry. We claim to be a capitalist society; but if you look at who owns our land and how it’s passed down, it doesn’t look like capitalism. It looks like feudalism.

Indeed, the very concept of rent is basically feudalist. Instead of owning the land we live on, we have to constantly pay someone else—usually someone quite rich—for the right to live there. Stop paying, and they can call the government to have us forced out. We are serfs by another name. In a truly efficient capitalist market with the kind of frictionless credit system neoclassicists imagine, you wouldn’t pay rent, you’d always pay a mortgage. The only time you’d be paying for housing without building equity would be when you stay at a hotel. If you’re going to live there more than a month, you should be building equity. And if you do want to move before your mortgage ends? No problem; sell it to the next tenant, paying off your mortgage and giving you that equity back—instead of all that rent, which is now in someone else’s pocket.

Because of this extreme inequality in land distribution, the top landholders can charge the rest of us monopolistic prices—thus making even more profits and buying even more land—and we have little choice but to pay what they demand. Because shelter is such a fundamental need, we are willing to pay just about whatever we have in order to secure it; so that’s what they charge us.

On to question 2. What happens to our economy as a result of this high rent?

In a word: 2009. Because our real estate market is so completely out of whack with any notion of efficient and fair pricing, it has become a free-for-all of speculation by so-called “investors”. (I hate that term; real investment is roads paved, factories built, children taught. What “investors” do is actually arbitrage. We are the investors, not them.)

A big part of this was also the deregulation of derivatives, particularly the baffling and insane “Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000” that basically banned regulation of derivatives—it was a law against making laws. Because of this bankers—or should I say banksters—were able to create ludicrously huge amounts of derivatives, as well as structure and repackage them in ways that would deceive their buyers into underestimating the risks. As a result there are now over a quadrillion dollars—yes, with a Q, sounds like a made-up number, $2e15—in nominal value of outstanding derivatives.

Because this is of course about 20 times as much as there is actual money in the entire world, sustaining this nominal value requires enormous amounts of what’s called leverage—which is to say, debt. When you “leverage” a stock purchase, for example, what you’re doing is buying the stock on a loan (a generally rather low-interest loan called “margin”), then when you sell the stock you pay back the loan. The “leverage” is the ratio between the size of the loan and the amount of actual capital you have to spend. This can theoretically give you quite large returns; for instance if you have $2000 in your stock account and you leverage 10 to 1, you can buy $20,000 worth of stock. If that stock then rises to $21,000—that’s only 5%, so it’s pretty likely this will happen—then you sell it and pay back the loan. For this example I’ll assume you pay 1% interest on your margin. In that case you would start with $2000 and end up with $2800; that’s a 40% return. A typical return from buying stock in cash is more like 7%, so even with interest you’re making almost 6 times as much. It sounds like such a deal!

But there is a catch: If that stock goes down and you have to sell it before it goes back up, you need to come up with the money to pay back your loan. Say it went down 5% instead of up; you now have $19,000 from selling it, but you owe $20,200 in debt with interest. Your $2000 is already gone, so you now have to come up with an additional $1,200 just to pay back your margin. Your return on $2000 is now negative—and huge: -160%. If you had bought the stock in cash, your return would only have been -5% and you’d still have $1900.

My example is for a 10 to 1 leverage, which is considered conservative. More typical leverages are 15 or 20; and some have gotten as high as 50 or even 70. This can lead to huge returns—or huge losses.

But okay, suppose we rein in the derivatives market and leverage gets back down to more reasonable levels. What damage is done by high real estate prices per se?

Well, basically it means that too much of our economy’s effort is going toward real estate. There is what we call deadweight loss, the loss of value that results from an inefficiency in the market. Money that people should be spending on other things—like cars, or clothes, or TVs—is instead being spent on real estate. Those products aren’t getting sold. People who would have had jobs making those products aren’t getting hired. Even when it’s not triggering global financial crises, a market distortion as large as our real estate system is a drain on the economy.

The distorted real estate market in particular also has another effect: It keeps the middle class from building wealth. We have to spend so much on our homes that we don’t have any left for stocks or bonds; as a result we earn a very low return on investment—inflation-adjusted it’s only about 0.2%. So meanwhile the rich are getting 4% on bonds, or 7% on stocks, or even 50% or 100% on highly-leveraged derivatives. In fact, it’s worse than that, because we’re also paying those rich people 20% on our credit cards. (Or even worse, 400% on payday loans. Four hundred percent. You typically pay a similar rate on overdraft fees—that $17.5 billion has to come from somewhere—but fortunately it’s usually not for long.)

Most people aren’t numerate enough to really appreciate how compound interest works—and banks are counting on that. 7%, 20%, what’s the difference really? 3 times as much? And if you had 50%, that would be about 7 times as much? Not exactly, no. Say you start with $1000 in each of these accounts. After 20 years, how much do you have in the 7% account? $3,869.68. Not too shabby, but what about that 20% account? $38,337.60—almost ten times as much. And if you managed to maintain a 50% return, how much would you have? $3,325,256.73—over $3.3 million, almost one thousand times as much.

The problem, I think, is people tend to think linearly; it’s hard to think exponentially. But there’s a really nice heuristic you can use, which is actually quite accurate: Divide the percentage into 69, and that is the time it will take to double. So 3% would take 69/3 = 23 years to double. 7% would take 69/7 = 10 years to double. 35% would take 69/35 = 2 years to double. And 400% would take 69/400 = 0.17 years (about 1/6, so 2 months) to double. These doublings are cumulative: If you double twice you’ve gone up 4 times; if you double 10 times you’ve gone up 1000 times. (For those who are a bit more numerate, this heuristic comes from the fact that 69 ~ 100*ln(2).)

Since returns are so much higher on other forms of wealth (not gold, by the way; don’t be fooled) than on homes, and those returns get compounded over time, this differential translates into ever-increasing inequality of wealth. This is what Piketty is talking about when he says r > g; r is the return on capital, and g is the growth rate of the economy. Stocks are at r, but homes are near g (actually less). By forcing you to spend your wealth on a house, they are also preventing you from increasing that wealth.

Finally, time for question 3. What should we do to fix this? Again, it’s simple: Take the land from the rich. (See how I love simple solutions?) Institute a 99% property tax on all land holdings over, say, 1000 acres. No real family farmer of the pastoral sort (as opposed to heir of an international agribusiness) would be affected.

I’m sure a lot of people will think this sounds unfair: “How dare you just… just… take people’s stuff! You… socialist!” But I ask you: On what basis was it theirs to begin with? Remember, we’re talking about land. We’re not talking about a product like a car, something they actually made (or rather administrated the manufacturing of). We’re not even talking about ideas or services, which raise their own quite complicated issues. These are chunks of the Earth; they were there a billion years before you and they will probably still be there a billion years hence.

That land was probably bought with money that they obtained through monopolistic pricing. Even worse, whom was it bought from? Ultimately it had to be bought from the people who stole it—literally stole, at the point of a gun—from the indigenous population. On what basis was it theirs to sell? And even the indigenous population may not have obtained it fairly; they weren’t the noble savages many imagine them to be, but had complex societies with equally complex political alliances and histories of intertribal warfare. A good portion of the land that any given tribe claims as their own was likely stolen from some other tribe long ago.

It’s honestly pretty bizarre that we buy and sell land; I think it would be valuable to think about how else we might distribute land that didn’t involve the absurdity of owning chunks of the planet. I can’t think of a good alternative system right now, so okay, maybe as a pragmatic matter the economy just works most efficiently if people can buy and sell land. But since it is a pragmatic justification—and not some kind of “fundamental natural right” ala Robert Nozick—then we are free as a society—particularly a democratic society—to make ad hoc adjustments in that pragmatic system as is necessary to make people’s lives better. So let’s take all the land, because the rent is too damn high.