What’s going on in Venezuela?

Feb 3 JDN 2458518

As you may know, Venezuela is currently in a state of political crisis. Juan Guaido has declared himself President and been recognized by the United States as such, while Nicolas Maduro claims that he remains President as he has been for the last six years—during most of which time has has “ruled by decree”, which is to say that he has been effectively a dictator.

Maduro claims that this is a US-backed coup. I’ve seen a lot of people on the left buy into this claim.

I’m not saying this is impossible: The US has backed coups several times before, and has a particular track record of doing so against socialist regimes in Latin America.

But there are some reasons to be skeptical of it.

Unrest in Venezuela is nothing new, and looks to be quite grassroots. There have been widespread protests against Maduro—and severe crackdowns against those protests—for several years now. Guaido himself got his start in politics by organizing protests against Chavez and then Maduro, starting when he was a college student.

While Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, remains extremely popular, most of the support for Maduro in Venezuela seems to come from the military and other elites. This is looking a lot like the Lenin/Stalin pattern: A charismatic and popular authoritarian socialist revolutionary opens the door for a murderous psychopathic authoritarian socialist who rules with an iron fist and causes millions of deaths. (In China, Mao managed to play both roles by himself.)

Guaido himself rejects all claims that he’s working for the US (but I suppose he would in either case).

And so far, no US troops have been deployed to Venezuela, and at the moment, Trump is currently only threatening for more sanctions or an embargo, not a military intervention. (He’s Trump, so who knows? And he did talk about invading them a year or two ago.)

The best evidence I’ve seen that it could be a US-orchestrated coup is a leaked report about a meeting discussing the possibility of such a coup a few months ago. But at least by the most reliable accounts we have, the US decided not to support that coup. I guess that could be part of the cover-up? (It feels weird when the crazy-sounding conspiracy theorists actually have a point. There totally have been US coups against Latin American governments that were covered up for decades.)

Even if it is actually a coup, I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing.

The American and French Revolutions were coups, after all. When you are faced with a strong authoritarian government, a coup may be your only option for achieving freedom.
Here’s a bit of evidence that this is indeed what’s happening: the countries that support Guaido are a lot more democratic than the countries that support Maduro.

Guaido has already been recognized by most of Europe and Latin America, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru. Among those supporting Maduro are China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey—not exactly bastions of liberal democracy. Within Latin America, only Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, and Uruguay support Maduro. Of those, only Mexico and Uruguay are recognizably democratic.

The average Democracy Index of countries that support Guaido is 7.5, which would be a “flawed democracy”. The average Democracy Index of countries that support Maduro is only 4.4, a “hybrid regime”.

Here is a plot of the Democracy Index by country supporting Guaido:democracy_index_guaido

Here is a plot of the Democracy Index by country supporting Maduro:

democracy_index_maduro

Since the entire EU recognizes Guaido, I could have shown each European country separately and biased the numbers even further, but I decided to specifically stick to major European powers with explicitly stated positions on Venezuela.

And we know that Maduro was a ruthless and autocratic dictator. So this is looking an awful lot like a democratic uprising against authoritarianism. It’s hard for me to be upset about that.

Second, Venezuela was in terrible shape, and largely due to Maduro’s administration.

After Maduro was elected (we’re still not sure how legitimate that election really was), Maduro underwent a total economic meltdown. Depression, hyperinflation, famine, a resurgence of malaria, and a huge exodus of refugees all followed. Millions of people are now starving in a country that was once quite rich. Nearly 90% of the population now lives in poverty. The story of Venezuela’s economy is one of total self-destruction.

Due to the bizarre system of subsidies and price controls in place, oil is now 100 times cheaper in Venezuela than water. Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted under Maduroto its lowest levels in decades, which might be good for climate change but is very bad for a country so dependent upon oil export revenue. It’s pretty much a classic cautionary tale for the Resource Curse.

Maduro, like any good socialist dictator, has blamed US sanctions for all his country’s economic failings. But there have not been strict US sanctions against Venezuela, and we remain their chief purchaser of oil by a wide margin. If you’ve ever bought gasoline at a Citgo station, you have paid for Venezuelan oil. Moreover, if your socialist country is that heavily dependent on exporting to capitalist countries… that really doesn’t say much in favor of socialism as an economic system, does it?

I don’t know what will happen. Maybe Maduro will successfully regain power. Maybe Guaido will retain control but turn out to be just as bad (there’s a long track record of coups against awful dictators resulting in equally awful dictators—Idi Amin is a classic example). Maybe Trump will do something stupid or crazy and we’ll end up in yet another decades-long military quagmire.

But there’s also a chance of something much better: Maybe Guaido can actually maintain power and build a genuinely democratic regime in Venezuela, and turn their economy back from the brink of devastation toward more sustainable growth. When the devil you know is this bad, sometimes you really do want to bet on the devil you don’t.

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.