Recently at Future Perfect Bryan Walsh highlighted The housing theory of everything, by Sam Bowman, John Myers and Ben Southwood. It reminded me a lot of Lars Doucet’s series (now turned into a book) about Georgism on Astralcodexten. Like everyone else, I agree with these authors that real estate markets is economically bizarre, it is prone to financial crises (you don’t have to say “bubble” if you don’t want to, you can just say “cycle” instead), surface land is limited, owners extract rents, improving land regulation and taxing surface to fund public goods (or UBI) would be net positive, there are historic injustices in access to land and credit, etc.

But rent-seeking behaviour plagues the economy everywhere, and I don’t get close to thinking all / most economic problems depend on this one in particular (e.g., it doesn’t explain why the Central Valley is so bad – possibly it’s the other way around: the Coast is a brain drain), nor that this is an urgent priority – on a par with catastrophic risks, poverty in low-income countries, or animal suffering, or risks to democracy (did you know that President Bolsonaro had more votes yesterday than four years ago, even after his scandalous behavior during Covid-19 pandemic and his use of the Independence Day to talk about his sexual life?), etc.

Actually, whenever I read something along these lines, I wonder:

a. Parochial bias: Are the authors (or the main audience) millennials who are personally concerned with housing issues – i.e., are thinking about buying real estate, or moving to a major city (in the Bay Area, or in NY, or London…?)  and finding rents unaffordable? Is it possible that this leads one to overvalue this problem? (at least from something like an EA POV)

I hate ad hominem arguments, too, but it’s fair to ask how biased one is, especially when EA has been talking about diversity. For full disclosure, I am a millennial from a LMIC thinking about how I’ll solve my own housing issues.

(I wonder if in a few years the rising costs of kids’ education will get a similar coverage)

b. Negative spillovers: Suppose that housing is really the main limitation for continued economic growth in major hubs. So by making it more affordable, more people would move to these places, and we would observe everyone’s income increasing (way more than the increase in other places), so confirming our theory. What is the problem with that?

In a nutshell, economic growth is said to start in a place A, given some luck and adequate conditions, attracting capital and people, which generates a positive feedback loop of more growth. But because of limitations of place A, and because other places (such as B) start to copy some of those conditions, marginal rates of return in A decrease in relation to place B - which begins to attract resources and people, eventually catching-up with A.

But if the “housing theory of everything is correct”, then we could delay the deceleration in A, so delaying catch-up effects for B. This wouldn’t be a problem if people followed with the flow, but it turns out people are “sticky” to places (and jobs, btw), and that’s not just because they find housing expensive – as shown by the case of No Lean Season and highlighted by Banerjee & Dufflo.

Is there any evidence for negative spillovers? Well, one of the critiques of some cash transfers programs (such as the Malawi Social Action Fund) is that they may imply negative spillovers to regions that did not receive the intervention. Also, common sense: just ask any politician if they think cities and regions compete for people and resources – or check some EA Forum posts suggesting there might be some competition for the next EA Hub outside the Bay.

Curiously, I haven't seen so many people (but maybe that's observationn bias, too) talk about work from home as a way to mitigate the effects of housing problems, even though it might decrease some urban issues (like traffic congestion) and the demand for housing in big centers – and lead high-income workers to small cities or to pleasant middle-income countries.

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[Nuance]

While I buy the housing theory of everything and support more housing, I don't think it is nearly one of the most pressing problems.

But I think it's very cheap for us to occasionally say "while it's not the most important thing, it would be good if we fixed it".

I feel similarly about homelessness, sexism in politics, human rights abuses in small countries. 

Echoing Nathan:

  1. YIMBY land-use policy isn't among the very top problems of the whole world -- it isn't as important as AI alignment, biorisk & nuclear war risk mitigation, global development, etc. That's why it's usually not considered a core EA cause area.

  2. But, in many western first-world "superstar cities", I believe that YIMBY/housing issues are indeed the #1 economic issue holding back growth in those cities. It's not just young people complaining about first-time homebuying; it really is a massive economic distortion that causes many tragic problems and inefficiencies. So, when people living in cities like London apply an "EA mindset" to prioritize /among local political issues/ instead of among all possible causes, they correctly realize that housing restrictions are a huge problem sabotaging their homeland.

I would guess (although I'm not sure) that in most LMIC, it would be rare for san-fransisco-style land-use overregulation to be the #1 most important obstacle to development. Personally, I am both a big fan of EA and a big fan of YIMBYism. But if I lived in Turkey instead of California, I'd probably spend less time thinking about how to fix housing and more time thinking about how to fix inflation & bad monetary policy. Each nation is unique, so I think there is a huge amount of benefit from applying an "EA mindset" to the issues of your local politics (see for instance Zvi Moshovitz's vision of EA inspired political analysis: https://thezvi.substack.com/p/announcing-balsa-research), even if those local issues aren't as globally important as AI, nuclear war, climate change, etc.

(PS, on a separate note I am totally enthusiastic about the potential for work-from-home to mitigate housing problems, by breaking the monopoly of the few top cities and promoting more "governance competition" as cities are forced to compete more to attract residents! Also excited about the potential for "virtual immigration" and people working remotely across national borders. I agree than more people should be excited about this; for more info you might enjoy my entry in a sci-fi worldbuilding contest where I talk more about these ideas: https://worldbuild.ai/w-0000000088/.)