[economics professor Gregory] Clark starts with a defense of Malthus. In most societies at most times in human history, Malthus was right. The population expanded until everyone was living at a subsistence level. Given an improvement in technology or health care the long-term result was not that people on average had an improved standard of living, but rather a population of increased size living at an even lower material standard. You had to be robust in filthy Europe to survive infections, but even an underfed weakling was relatively safe from disease in hygienic Japan and China. The consequence was that China and Japan were more densely populated and strikingly poor by European standards right up to the Industrial Revolution.
Population growth combined with personal income growth is an anomaly, according to Malthus and Clark. The U.S. population has been growing steadily in recent years and our average inhabitant is no better educated than before. Politicians stand up and angrily ask why average personal income hasn’t grown. The real question is why average personal income hasn’t shrunk.
The past 100 years hasn’t fit Malthus well, perhaps due to the Green Revolution and tapping into fossil fuels on an industrial scale for the first time. But maybe Malthus is being proved right by the real estate market?
As noted previously here, a friend said that his daughter was “making a ton of money” at Goldman. It then transpired that the young woman couldn’t afford an apartment on her own, even spending half of her after-tax income. The “ton of money” was entirely captured by Manhattan landlords, reducing the young lady to the same standard of living as an entry-level office worker in Manhattan circa 1960.
“Affordable Housing Crisis Spreads Throughout World” (WSJ, April 2, 2019):
Across 32 major cities around the world, real home prices on average grew 24% over the last five years, while average real income grew by only 8% over the same period, according to Knight Frank, a London-based real-estate consulting firm. Economists say it is striking that affordability has worsened even during a period of global prosperity over the last six years. But income growth has been unable to keep pace with a rapid run-up in home prices.
Americans often blame local policies, e.g., zoning regulations, for the inability of today’s median-income urban residents (among a population of 330 million) to afford what would have been considered a normal-sized apartment back in 1970 (U.S. population 205 million). But the WSJ article shows that the trend is consistent almost everywhere in the world. Tokyo is a notable exception, which the authors attribute to a free market in housing (why not to the lack of Malthusian population growth? Japan has roughly the same number people today compared to 30 years ago).
Readers: What do you think? In 1910, Haber and Bosch came up with a clever trick for a dramatic boost in agricultural production. So it looked like Malthus was wrong. But there haven’t been any clever tricks for boosting the production of housing, so we’ll have 8 well-fed urbanites sharing a 2BR apartment originally built to accommodate 1-2 people. Can we rely on robots to get us out of this? Human population can expand exponentially while maintaining a high standard of living because solar-powered robots will be able to build residential skyscrapers at ridiculously low prices?
- analysis of whether it is possible to run all government functions via a land tax (Henry George proposed this back in 1879 when government was a much smaller fraction of GDP)