Economics, Model, Quick Fix

Not Just Zoning: Housing Prices Driven By Beauty Contests

No, this isn’t a post about very pretty houses or positional goods. It’s about the type of beauty contest described by John Maynard Keynes.

Imagine a newspaper that publishes one hundred pictures of strapping young men. It asks everyone to send in the names of the five that they think are most attractive. They offer a prize: if your selection matches the five men most often appearing in everyone else’s selections, you’ll win $500.

You could just do what the newspaper asked and send in the names of those men that you think are especially good looking. But that’s not very likely to give you the win. Everyone’s tastes are different and the people you find attractive might not be very attractive to anyone else. If you’re playing the game a bit smarter, you’ll instead pick the five people that you think have the broadest appeal.

You could go even deeper and realize that many other people will be trying to win and so will also be trying to pick the most broadly appealing people. Therefore, you should pick people that you think most people will view as broadly appealing (which differs from picking broadly appealing people if you know something about what most people find attractive that isn’t widely known). This can go on indefinitely (although Yudkowsky’s Law of Ultrafinite Recursion states that “In practice, infinite recursions are at most three levels deep“, which gives me a convenient excuse to stop before this devolves into “I know you know I know that you know that…” ad infinitum).

This thought experiment was relevant to an economist because many assets work like this. Take gold: its value cannot to be fully explained by its prettiness or industrial usefulness; some of its value comes from the belief that someone else will want it in the future and be willing to pay more for it than they would a similarly useful or pretty metal. For whatever reason, we have a collective delusion that gold is especially valuable. Because this delusion is collective enough, it almost stops being a delusion. The delusion gives gold some of its value.

When it comes to houses, beauty contests are especially relevant in Toronto and Vancouver. Faced with many years of steadily rising house prices, people are willing to pay a lot for a house because they believe that they can unload it on someone else in a few years or decades for even more.

When talking about highly speculative assets (like Bitcoin), it’s easy to point out the limited intrinsic value they hold. Bitcoin is an almost pure Keynesian Beauty Contest asset, with most of its price coming from an expectation that someone else will want it at a comparable or better price in the future. Houses are obviously fairly intrinsically valuable, especially in very desirable cities. But the fact that they hold some intrinsic value cannot by itself prove that none of their value comes from beliefs about how much they can be unloaded for in the future – see again gold, which has value both as an article of commerce and as a beauty contest asset.

There’s obviously an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here, with steadily increasing house prices needed to sustain this myth. Unfortunately, the housing market seems especially vulnerable to this sort of collective mania, because the sunk cost fallacy makes many people unwilling to sell their houses at a price below what they paid for it. Any softening of the market removes sellers, which immediately drives up prices again. Only a massive liquidation event, like we saw in 2007-2009 can push enough supply into the market to make prices truly fall.

But this isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s deliberateness here as well. To some extent, public policy is used to guarantee that house prices continue to rise. NIMBY residents and their allies in city councils deliberately stall projects that might affect property values. Governments provide tax credits or access to tax-advantaged savings accounts for homes. In America, mortgage payments provide a tax credit!

All of these programs ultimately make housing more expensive wherever supply cannot expand to meet the artificially increased demand – which basically describes any dense urban centre. Therefore, these home buying programs fail to accomplish their goal of making house more affordable, but do serve to guarantee that housing prices will continue to go up. Ultimately, they really just represent a transfer of wealth from taxpayers generally to those specific people who own homes.

Unfortunately, programs like this are very sticky. Once people buy into the collective delusion that home prices must always go up, they’re willing to heavily leverage themselves to buy a home. Any dip in the price of homes can wipe out the value of this asset, making it worth less than the money owed on it. Since this tends to make voters very angry (and also lead to many people with no money) governments of all stripes are very motivated to avoid it.

This might imply that the smart thing is to buy into the collective notion that home prices always go up. There are so many people invested in this belief at all levels of society (banks, governments, and citizens) that it can feel like home prices are too important to fall.

Which would be entirely convincing, except, I’m pretty sure people believed that in 2007 and we all know how that ended. Unfortunately, it looks like there’s no safe answer here. Maybe the collective mania will abate and home prices will stop being buoyed ever upwards. Or maybe they won’t and the prices we currently see in Toronto and Vancouver will be reckoned cheap in twenty years.

Better zoning laws can help make houses cheaper. But it really isn’t just zoning. The beauty contest is an important aspect of the current unaffordability.

Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Cities Are Weird And Minimum Wages Can Help

[6-minute read]

I don’t understand why people choose to go bankrupt living the most expensive cities, but I’m increasingly viewing this as a market failure and collective action problem to be fixed with intervention, not a failure of individual judgement.

There are many cities, like Brantford, Waterloo, or even Ottawa, where everything works properly. Rent isn’t really more expensive than suburban or rural areas. There’s public transit, which means you don’t necessarily need a car, if you choose where you live with enough care. There are plenty of jobs. Stuff happens.

But cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco confuse the hell out of me. The cost of living is through the roof, but wages don’t even come close to following (the difference in salary between Toronto and Waterloo for someone with my qualifications is $5,000, which in no way would cover the yearly difference in living expenses). This is odd when talking about well-off tech workers, but becomes heartbreaking when talking about low-wage workers.

Toronto Skyline
Not pictured: Selling your organs to afford a one-bedroom condo. Image Credit: Abi K on Flickr

If people were perfectly rational and only cared about money (the mythical homo economicus), fewer people would move to cities, which would bid up wages (to increase the supply of workers) or drive down prices (because fewer people would be competing for the same apartments), which would make cities more affordable. But people do care about things other than money and the network effects of cities are hard to beat (put simply: the bigger the city, the more options for a not-boring life you have). So, people move – in droves – to the most expensive and dynamic cities and wages don’t go up (because the supply of workers never falls) and the cost of living does (because the number of people competing for housing does) and low wage workers get ground up.

It’s not that I don’t understand the network effects. It’s that I don’t understand why people get ground up instead of moving.

But the purpose of good economics is to deal with people as they are, not as they can be most conveniently modeled. And given this, I’ve begun to think about high minimum wages in cities as an intervention that fixes a market failure and collective action problem.

That is to say: people are bad at reading the market signal that they shouldn’t move to cities that they can’t afford. It’s the signal that’s supposed to say here be scarce goods, you might get screwed, but the siren song of cities seems to overpower it. This is a market failure in the technical sense because there exists a distribution of goods that could make people (economically) better off (fewer people living in big cities) without making anyone worse off (e.g. they could move to communities that are experiencing chronic shortages of labour and be basically guaranteed jobs that would pay the bills) that the market cannot seem to fix.

(That’s not to say that this is all the fault of the market. Restrictive zoning makes housing expensive and rent control makes it scarce.)

It’s a collective action problem because if everyone could credibly threaten to move, then they wouldn’t have to; the threat would be enough to increase wages. Unfortunately, everyone knows that anyone who leaves the city will be quickly replaced. Everyone would be better off if they could coordinate and make all potential movers promise not to move in until wages increase, but there’s no benefit to being the first person to leave or the first person to avoid moving [1] and there currently seems to be no good way for everyone to coordinate in making a threat.

When faced with the steady grinding down of young people, low wage workers, and everyone “just waiting for their big break“, we have two choices. We can do tut-tut at their inability to be “rational” (aka leave their friends, family, jobs, and aspirations to move somewhere else [2]), or we can try to better their situation.

If everyone was acting “rationally”, wages would be bid up. But we can accomplish the same thing by simple fiat. Governments can set a minimum wage or offer wage subsidies, after all.

I do genuinely worry that in some places, large increases in the minimum wage will lead to unemployment (we’ll figure out whether this is true over the next decade or so). I’m certainly worried that a minimum wage pegged to inflation will lead to massive problems the next time we have a recession [3].

So, I think we should fix zoning, certainly. And I think we need to fix how Ontario’s minimum wage functions in a recession so that it doesn’t destroy our whole economy during the next one. But at the same time, I think we need to explore differential minimum wages for our largest cities and the rest of the province/country. I mean this even in a world where the current minimum $14/hour wage isn’t rolled back. Would even $15/hour cut it in Toronto and Vancouver [4]?

If we can’t make a minimum wage work without increased unemployment, then maybe we’ll have to turn to wage subsidies. This is actually the method that “conservative” economist Scott Sumner favours [5].

What’s clear to me is that what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

I do believe in a right to shelter. Like anyone who shares this belief, I understand that “shelter” is a broad word, encompassing everything from a tarp to a mansion. Where a certain housing situation falls on this spectrum is the source of many a debate. Writing this is a repudiation of my earlier view, that living in an especially desirable city was a luxury not dissimilar from a mansion.

A couple of things changed my mind. First, I paid more attention to the experiences of my friends who might be priced out of the cities they grew up in and have grown to love. Second, I read the Ecomodernist Manifesto, with its calls for densification as the solution to environmental degradation and climate change. Densification cannot happen if many people are priced out of cities, which means figuring this out is actually existentially important.

The final piece of the puzzle was the mental shift whereby I started to view wages in cities – especially for low-wage earners – as a collective action problem and a market failure. As anyone on the centre-left can tell you, it’s the government’s job to fix those – ideally in a redistributive way.


[1] This is inductive up to the point where you have a critical mass; there’s no benefit until you’re the nth + 1 person, where n is the number of people necessary to create a scarcity of workers sufficient to begin bidding up wages. And all of the people who moved will see little benefit for their hassle, unless they’re willing to move back. ^

[2] For us nomadic North Americans, this can be confusing: “The gospel of ‘just pick up and leave’ is extremely foreign to your typical European — be they Serbian, French or Irish. Ditto with a Sudanese, Afghan or Japanese national. In Israel, it’s the kind of suggestion that ruins dinner parties… We non-indigenous love to move. We don’t just see it as just good economic policy, but as a virtue. We glorify the immigrant, we hug them at the airport when they arrive and we inherently mistrust anyone who dares to pine for what they left behind”. ^

[3] Basically, wages should fall in a recession, but they largely don’t, which means inflation is necessary to get wages back to a level where employment can recover; pegging the minimum wage to inflation means this can’t happen. Worse, if the rest of the country were to adopt sane monetary policy during the next bad recession, Ontario’s minimum wage could rise to the point where it would swallow large swathes of the economy. This would really confuse price signals and make some work economically unviable (to do in Ontario; it would surely still be done elsewhere). ^

[4] I think we may have to subsidize some new construction or portion of monthly rent so that all increased wages don’t get ploughed into to increased rents. If you have more money chasing the same number of rental units and everything else remains constant, you’ll see all gains in wages erased by increases in rents. Rent control is a very imperfect solution, because it changes new construction into units that can be bought outright, at market rates. This helps people who have saved up a lot of money outside of the city and what to move there, but is very bad for the people living there, grappling with rent so high that they can’t afford to save up a down payment. ^

[5] No seriously, this is what passes for conservative among economists these days; while we all stopped looking, they all became utilitarians who want to help impoverished people as much as possible. ^

Economics, Model, Politics

Minimum Standards or Broad Access?

[5-minute read]

There are two sides to every story. Zoning and maximum occupancy regulations are exclusionary and drive up the price of housing. They are also necessary to prevent exploitative landlords from leaving their tenants in squalor. Catastrophic health insurance plans leave patients uncovered for many of the services they might need. They’re also often the only plans that are rational for younger people to buy.

Where you come down on either of these – or any similar cases where there’s a clear trade-off between maximum access and minimum standards – is probably heavily dependent on your situation. If you’re an American millennial without an employer-provided or parental health care plan, you’re probably quite incensed about the lack of catastrophic health care insurance. For healthy young adults, those plans were an excellent deal.

Similarly, workaholics in the Bay Area sometimes want to be able to stuff a house full to the bursting to save on rent. If you’re never going to be home, regulations around the number of square feet per bed feel incredibly onerous.

I like to point out that regulation is a trade-off. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it’s a trade-off made at the middle. People in the long probability tails – those who are far from the median when it comes to income or risk-tolerance often feel left out by any of the trade-offs made by the majority. This is an almost inevitable side-effect of trade-offs that I rarely see mentioned.

If you have health problems for which Obamacare didn’t mandate coverage, then you might find yourself wishing that the coverage requirements were even more expansive. If you find yourself really hating the illegal AirBnB you’re living in with twelve other programmers, you might wish that the city’s rental enforcement unit was a bit more on their game.

Most articles about people on the extremes leave out the context and leave out the satisfied middle. They don’t say “this is the best trade-off we could get, but it’s still imperfect and it still hurts people”. They say breathlessly “look at this one person hurt by a policy, the policy hurts people and is bad; the people who advocate for it are evil.”

It’s understandable to leave out the middle in the search of a better story. The problem arises when you leave out the middle and then claim all advocates are evil for failing to care about the fringes. Because most of the time, no one is being evil.

The young people skipping out on coverage because it’s not worth it for them aren’t shirking a duty. They’re making the best of their limited finances, ravaged by a tough entry-level job market and expensive university education. The NIMBYs who fight against any change to local building codes that might make housing more affordable are over-leveraged on their houses and might end up underwater if prices fall at all.

Even appeals to principles don’t do much good in situations like this. You can say “no one should live in squalor”, but that might run right up against “everyone should be able to afford a place to live”. It can be that there simply isn’t enough housing supply in desirable cities to comfortably accommodate everyone who wants to live there – and the only way to change that involves higher direct or indirect taxes (here an indirect tax might be something like requiring 15% of new rental stock to be “affordable”, which raises the price of other rental stock to compensate), taxes that will exclude yet another group of people.

When it comes to healthcare in America, you can say “young people shouldn’t be priced out of the market”, but this really does compete with “old people shouldn’t be priced out of the market” or “pre-existing conditions shouldn’t be grounds for coverage to be denied”.

The non-American way of doing healthcare comes with its own country specific trade-offs. In Germany, if you switch from the public plan to a private plan it is very hard to get back on the public plan. This prevents people from gaming the system – holding cheaper private insurance while they’re young, healthy and earning money, then trying to switch back during their retirement, but it also can leave people out in the cold with no insurance.

In Canada, each province has a single, government-run insurance provider that charges non-actuarial premiums (premiums based on how much you make, not how likely you are to use healthcare services). This guarantees universal coverage, but also results in some services (especially those without empirical backing, or where the cost-benefit is too low) remaining uncovered. Canada also prohibits mixing of public and private funds, making private healthcare much more expensive.

Canadians aren’t spared hard choices, we just have to make different trade-offs than Americans. Here we must pick (and did pick) between “the government shouldn’t decide who lives and who dies” and “care should be universal”. This choice was no less wrenching then any of those faced by Obamacare’s drafters.

Municipalities face similar challenges around housing policy. San Francisco is trying to retain the character of the city and protect existing residents with rent control and strict zoning regulations. The Region of Waterloo, where I live, has gone the other way. Despite a much lower population and much less density, it has almost as much construction as San Francisco (16 cranes for Waterloo vs. 22 for SF).

This comes at a cost. Waterloo mandated that houses converted into rental properties cannot hold more than three unrelated tenants per unit, thereby producing guaranteed renters for all the new construction (and alleviating concerns about students living in squalid conditions). The region hopes that affordability will come through densification, but this cuts down on the options student renters have (and can make it more expensive for them to rent).

Toronto is going all out building (it has about as many cranes on its skyline as Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix combined), at the cost of displacing residents in rooming houses. There’s the hope that eventually supply will bring down Toronto’s soaring house costs, but it might be that more formal monthly arrangements are out of the reach of current rooming house residents (especially given that rent control rules have resulted in a 35-year drought on new purpose-built rental units).

In all of these cases, it’s possible to carve out a sacred principle and defend it. But you’re going to run into two problems with your advocacy. First, there’s going to be resistance from the middle of society, who have probably settled on the current trade-off because it’s the least offensive to them. Second, you’re going to find people on the other underserved extreme, convinced all the problems they have with the trade-off can be alleviated by the exact opposite of what you’re advocating.

Obamacare looked like it would be impossible to defend without Democrats controlling at least one lever of government. Republicans voted more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare. Now that they control everything, there is serious doubt that they’ll be able to change it at all. Republicans got drunk on the complaints of people on the long tails, the people worst served by Obamacare. They didn’t realize it really was the best compromise that could be obtained under the circumstances, or just how unpopular any attempt to change that compromise would be.

(To be entirely fair to Republicans, it seems like many Americans, including many of those who opposed Obamacare up until Obama left office, also just realized it was the best possible compromise.)

This is going to be another one of those posts where I don’t have a clear prescription for fixing anything (except perhaps axing rent control aka “the best way to destroy a city’s rental stock short of bombing it”). I don’t actually want to convince people – especially people left out of major compromises – not to advocate for something different. It’s only through broad input that we get workable compromises at all. Pluralistic society is built on many legitimate competing interests. People are motivated by different terminal values and different moral foundations.

Somehow, despite it all, we manage to mostly not kill each other. Maybe my prescription is simply that we should keep trying to find workable compromises and keep trying not to kill each other. Perhaps we could stand to put more effort into understanding why people ask for what they do. And we could try and be kind to each other. I feel comfortable recommending that.

Epistemic Status: Model