Two months ago, I argued Britain was once again the sick man of Europe. It had the second-highest per capita COVID death rate among major countries. Economic output had fallen 20 percent from the year before.
The crisis wasn’t lost on policymakers. The dual shock of coronavirus and Brexit — Britain formally left in 2019 but still applies EU rules and regulations this year — has led to something of a quiet revolution in Whitehall: the potential rebirth of the interventionist state.
There is still much wrong with how the British government has handled both events, the poster child for COVID being the decimation of the British aviation and travel industry as well as the arts. Not since the closing of the coal mines has an entire industry shrunk so dramatically.
I like the Dutch system, which is a combination of government-built social housing rented out at below-market prices and rental subsidies, which can reach up to a third of the average private rent, and for which about one in five households qualify.
One can tell two very different stories about the American economy.
In one, growth is robust, unemployment is at its lowest in half a century and the stock market is booming. This is the story President Donald Trump likes to tell.
In the other, two in five Americans would struggle (PDF) to come up with $400 in an emergency. One in three households are classified as “financially fragile“. Annie Lowrey writes in The Atlantic that American families are being “bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars and child-care centers.” This is the story Bernie Sanders and the Democrats tell: for millions of Americans on seemingly decent middle incomes, life has become too hard.
Sanders’ solution is to bring “democratic socialism” to America. He cites European countries like Denmark and Sweden as inspiration. They’re not bad places to imitate — but they have actually moved away from socialism and toward a mix of free markets and the welfare state. It is why they rank among the freest and most competitive (PDF) economies in the world.
If you’re trying to control housing costs in your city, don’t look to Berlin for inspiration.
The German capital is due to implement a five-year, across-the-board rent freeze in March. The measure is expected to save around 340,000 tenants money during that period, but it will come at the expense of housing affordability in the long term.
The German Economic Institute in Cologne estimates that Berlin’s policy will reduce the value of some properties by more than 40 percent.
A consequence of that will be underinvestment. The BBU, a trade association of developers in the Berlin and Brandenburg region, says its members expect to reduce investments by €5.5 billion and construction by a quarter.
California may be the future of the Democratic Party, but the left doesn’t have everything figured out in the Golden State.
Michael Greenberg reports for The New York Review of Books that California likes to think of itself as a liberal bastion against the far-right policies of Donald Trump.
It is refusing to cooperate with the president’s anti-immigrant policies. It has enacted its own environmental and net-neutrality laws which, given the size and influence of California’s economy, could have a nationwide effect.
Angela Merkel’s response to Emmanuel Macron’s EU reform push is to beef up the Eurogroup: the regular conclave of finance ministers from the nineteen countries that use the single currency. Merkel would add economy ministers to the meetings and expand the Eurogroup’s remit to include all areas of economic policy.
Mehreen Khan argues in the Financial Times that it’s a good way to sabotage eurozone reform: “you effectively hollow out decisionmaking power and create a glorified talking shop.”
I think that’s an exaggeration, but Merkel and Macron do have different priorities.
The former, backed by a Dutch-led alliance of liberal member states, calls for structural reforms to boost competitiveness in the south. Macron argues for investments to promote convergence.
Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Niskanen Center tells The Washington Post that expanding affordable housing in America’s major cities is the key to reducing inequality.
Wages have barely budged in decades, yet housing costs have soared due to restrictive zoning and land-use policies. Young and working Americans are now unable to save. Homeowners are getting richer.
Kevin D. Williamson, a conservative columnist who was recently hired and then fired by The Atlantic for his right-wing views (more on that here), has similarly argued in National Review that working-class Americans left behind in the Rust Belt need to move to the coasts. He partly blames them for staying put, but recognizes that policy plays a role.
Consider California, where so many of the jobs in the new economy are. Its housing crisis (you can buy a private island or a castle in Europe for the price of a San Francisco apartment) is entirely man-made, “a result of extraordinarily restrictive zoning and environmental codes and epic NIMBYism of a uniquely Californian variety.”
A Republican Party wishing to renew its prospects in California (which it once dominated) or in American cities could — and should — make affordable housing the centerpiece of its agenda for the cities.
In the past, revolt and unrest in Britain were typically sparked by the cost of bread and corn. Today, it is the price of housing.
This month, the average price of a home in London reached £500,000. The average housing price in the whole country is now ten times the average wage. The increase is due more to limits in supply than to a steep rise in demand.
If Britain wants to defuse this time bomb that is anemic to the idea of a “property-owning democracy,” a concerted national effort has to begin immediately. To make up for the housing shortfall, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 homes need to be built every year for at least the next decade.
Those who say that this can’t be done should look to the achievements of Harold Macmillan. Despite the constraints of rationing and postwar austerity, 300,000 homes were build every year while he was housing minister between 1951 and 1954.
How was this done? Well, there was a concerted effort by the national government. Most famously, “new towns” were created, such as Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, both close to London.
At this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, there was a whole raft of events all centered on how to try to end the housing crisis. It was generally acknowledged that new garden cities and ecotowns only represent the start of what has to be done. There needs to be more construction on urban brownfield land and the idea of apartment living should be rehabilitated.
Part of the problem lies in the notion that all development is bad development. This is simply not true. It’s only that developments that blend in well with their surroundings tend to go unreported.
The more serious problem is lack of space. In the last eighty years, the average space of a home has shrunk from 153 square meters in the 1920s to 96.8 square meters today. Houses in Britain are now 80 percent smaller on average than those in Germany and 53 percent smaller than those in Denmark. Little wonder that only one in four buyers would choose a home that was built in the last ten years. Simply ramping up production of the sort of homes that are currently being built would appear to be a mistake.
In a country where the phrase “An Englishman’s home is his castle” still holds more than a grain of truth, this is an issue that can not be left to partisan politics or even to the markets, as that is what has brought us to this point. Until there is a significant chance in policy, the dream of owning a property will remain just that for many young Britons — a dream.
The Post‘s reporting should come as a powerful reminder that housing, like all services, is best left to free markets; that government projects designed to provide what the market supposedly cannot encourage abuse and often make the very problems they were supposed to address worse. The newspaper’s findings are staggering. Read more “Will the “Affordable Housing” Lie Ever Die?”