Rent control is keeping rents high in San Francisco

A friend owns a three-unit building in San Francisco, occupying the top floor himself. The two tenants underneath have fled. One lost a job and the other kept the job, but decided to lose the California tax rates and mask/shutdown protocols. Both units are now vacant.

I asked how much rents have fallen and he responded with “30 percent.” Why not rent the units out at the current market rate? “If you ever rent to someone in San Francisco,” he replied, “you can never raise their rent more than about 2 percent per year after that. You’re locked it at whatever rate you start with. So I am waiting until the shutdown ends, hoping that market rents will come back closer to what they were when I bought the building.”

(Why not turn the vacant units into AirBnBs? San Francisco limits AirBnB to 90 days per year, requires them to be part of the owner’s residence, requires a variety of registrations and taxes, etc.)

If his experience is typical, there are a lot of landlords withholding supply and therefore the true market rents should actually be lower than what we’ve heard.

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Will Black Americans have more spending power after receiving reparations?

Suppose that President Kamala Harris writes every American who identifies as “Black” (including Rachel Dolezal and, everyone’s new favorite Black American, Jessica Krug) a fat reparations check. Will Black Americans have greater spending power as a result?

Some Blacks are on means-tested welfare programs, such as public housing, Medicaid, or SNAP. If they receive a reparations check, maybe their “means” will now be greater and they’ll have to pay more for housing, health insurance, and food. A 2015 Census report:

At 41.6 percent, blacks were more likely to participate in government assistance programs in an average month. The black participation rate was followed by Hispanics at 36.4 percent, Asians or Pacific Islanders at 17.8 percent, and non-Hispanic whites at 13.2 percent.

The Son also Rises (Clark 2014; Princeton University Press) contains a survey of the academic literature regarding the effect of family wealth and unearned cash transfers on children. In 1832 there was a land lottery in Georgia where winners received a parcel of land roughly equal in value to the median family wealth at the time (i.e., the typical winners ended up with twice as much wealth, about $150,000 extra in today’s money). How did the children of the winners do?

They were no more literate than the children of losers. Their occupational status was no higher. Their own children in 1880 (the grandchildren of the 1832 winners) were again no more literate. Worse, they were significantly less likely to be enrolled in school than the grandchildren of the losers. … Wealth is not statistically higher for lottery winners’ children…

(Clark also reviews a study of Cherokee Indians who, starting in 1998, received substantial boosts to their income from casino profits. For children who had not been living in poverty, “there was no measurable change in any educational outcomes, including high school graduation rates…” This was despite the fact that a child who graduated high school would immediately become eligible for his or her own $4,000-per-year payment.)

“Divorce laws and the economic behavior of married couples,” by Alessandra Voena, a University of Chicago economist, concluded that an increased opportunity to obtain cash via a divorce lawsuit reduced reduced married women’s labor force participation rate. Similarly, successful child support plaintiffs generally reduce their working hours so that cash from the defendant is not turned into a higher standard of living for the child, but rather increased leisure time for the adult plaintiff.

See Long-term effects of short-term free cash (guaranteed minimum income experiments) for a reference to a paper regarding how just a few years of free government cash resulted in a lifetime of reduced labor force efforts. Those who got the cash were more likely to end up on disability and, if not Hispanic, to divorce their husbands and wives (additional gender IDs were unavailable in the 1970s).

Readers: What do you think? Will the free government cash result in higher spending power and standard of living or reduced working hours and additional leisure time for Americans who identify as “Black”?

Related:

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Will the post-plague world change the work-versus-welfare tradeoff?

Some of my friends were discussing whether adjustments due to coronapanic will make it irrational for more Americans to work, rather than to set themselves up for welfare (means-tested public housing, Medicaid, SNAP, and Obamaphone). As with child support profits, there is a a lot of variability from state to state. From Cato’s work-versus-welfare trade-off 2013:

What’s changed with coronaplague? The desk jobs are less fun: sit at home and stare at a screen all day. The non-desk jobs are more dangerous: work in a supermarket and be exposed to hundreds of people every day, any one of whom might kill you with a breath.

What about spending? An MBA friend’s perspective:

I guess the worst-hit people will be those who earn $80-150k

They used to be able to afford a lot of “near luxury” stuff despite not being eligible for the good welfare gravy train and despite the high taxes that the government hits them with to support the welfare gravy train. but now they will be stuck at home. Near-luxury goods such as restaurant meals, airline tickets, theater tickets, and theme park tickets all go way up in price due to mandated de-crowding measures,

Everything will cost more. so the difference between their lifestyle and a welfare family will become minimal. since they won’t be able to afford meals out anymore. they would be better off not working, playing Xbox and swiping EBT card for food. do some cash labor for luxuries (if cash isn’t outlawed under the pretext that it spreads coronavirus!).

Readers: What do you think? Except for those who can earn well above the median, will working be a completely irrational choice for an American?

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Free rent today leads to higher housing costs tomorrow for America’s poorest?

One good thing about the U.S. response to coronaplague has been allowing our low-income residents, documented and otherwise, to skip paying rent while simultaneously forbidding landlords from initiating evictions (maybe until mid-2021 here in Maskachusetts?). So… the working poor are protected from harm by a benevolent government during this period when they are no longer “working” (probably making more money, though!).

Maybe not!

We’ve been doing a lot of helicopter flying lately with a photographer whose bread and butter is aerial real estate images. A typical mission involves going to a town with a lot of low-skill immigrants and/or multi-generational welfare-dependent native-born Americans and photographing an apartment building from the 1950s.

Why does anyone need these pictures? “All the rental landlords are trying to organize condominium conversions. Since they can’t collect rent, it makes a lot more sense to sell the apartments,” was the answer.

Especially given the high transaction costs of buying and selling real estate in the U.S. (5-6 percent every time someone needs to move!), is it fair to say that the result of today’s policy change will be higher long-run housing costs for low-income residents of the U.S.? With millions of immigrants arriving, plus population expansion from children of already-present immigrants, and a shrinking pool of rental housing, won’t that translate into higher rents?

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Most gunshot wounds are self-inflicted, coronaconomy edition (Sweden v. the Shutdown Karen Countries)

I personally don’t think economic performance is relevant when evaluating coronaplague policy. In a world where people don’t care about anything other than Covid-19 death risk, what difference does it make if they’re getting richer or poorer? That said, unemployment and poverty do lead to poor health outcomes and death. It just takes a while. So there is also a health angle to economics (see this post from March: “If All Lives Have Equal Value, why does Bill Gates support shutting down the U.S. economy?”).

“‘Striking’ Crisis Gap Exposed as Swedish Economy Stands Out” (Bloomber, June 16):

In a report on Monday, Capital Economics presented data that give Sweden an irrefutable edge. From peak to trough, Swedish GDP will shrink 8%; in the U.K. and Italy, the contraction is somewhere between 25% and 30%, according to estimates covering the fourth quarter of 2019 through to the second quarter of 2020. The U.S. is somewhere in the middle, it said.

Sweden has kept shops, gyms, schools and restaurants open throughout the pandemic. But the strategy, which the government says wasn’t shaped with the economy in mind, has resulted in one of the world’s highest mortality rates. Sweden’s state epidemiologist recently acknowledged he would have opted for a tighter lockdown with the benefit of hindsight.

(The article is written for American members of the Church of Shutdown, so the journalist points that Sweden has “one of the world’s highest mortality rates” without noting that the U.S. overall, in Month 4 of various degrees of shutdown, is only about 30 percent behind Sweden, that plenty of U.S. states have experienced higher death rates so far than Sweden, and that some countries that did shut down actually have higher mortality rates than Sweden. And, of course, Sweden is not actually planning on a “tighter lockdown” even when the inevitable second wave hits (Sweden’s latest plan).)

A figure from the article:

A gun enthusiast friend is able to say, in response to about 90 percent of news articles about companies or universities, “most gunshot wounds are self-inflicted.” These economic data from the Shutdown Karen countries add some ammunition to his theory!

(Again, since nobody cares about how poor they become, as long as they can be saved from the evil virus, I don’t think the self-inflicted impoverishment of the shutdown nations is relevant except that it will inevitably result in a shorter life expectancy and more deaths in the long run than any conceivable savings of Covid-19 deaths from the shutdown. See the Preston curve of life expectancy vs. per capita income.)

There might be some measurement errors for the U.S. A lot of our GDP for this quarter, for example, is going to be cleaning up cities after riots, the classic broken window fallacy. Also, people have been spending like crazy to try to adapt to the shutdown. Americans would prefer to go to a gym, but they’re buying home exercise gear as an interim stopgap. (Sweden’s gyms never closed, so they wouldn’t have as much of this type of no-added-value spending.) Americans would prefer to meet people in person, but they’re buying webcams for the Zoom sessions that they don’t enjoy. Ordinarily, Americans don’t need everything in the house or yard to be perfect, but as long as they’re locked into their houses why not fix everything up and tell the landscapers to go deluxe? (Anecdote: We had our shrubs mulched for the first time! I wanted to give Joe the Electrician some work, so we had him do a bunch of low-importance fixes (bad news for the Democrats who envision themselves as champions of the working American; like Joe the Plumber, Joe the Electrician is not easy to persuade: “The thing about Trump is that he does what he said he was going to do.”). Maybe all of this will cost $3,000 and add $500 in long-term value to the house?)

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Post-coronaplague world of employment will be even less friendly to older workers?

All of my friends in the new work-from-home economy say that coworkers with newly unskooled children to manage are “useless”. Employers who fire their least productive employees, therefore, in an age-neutral manner, may actually be firing an older-than-average population (and, coincidentally, saving a ton of money on employer-provided health care for both these older adults and their children!).

I’m wondering if the new “wear a mask 8 hours/day” policies will also winnow the older workers out of the U.S. labor force. Older people have reduced lung capacity and muscular strength compared to the young, so they are going to be more impaired by the masks. Already in retail stores I have noticed some older workers struggling and, in some cases, wearing the mask around their necks, even when interacting fairly closely with customers.

Finally, you have the actual risk of coronaplague. As workers get closer to the average age of a Covid-19-tagged death (82 in Massachusetts), they might not want to take the risk of coming into contact with a lot of co-workers, customers, etc.

Related:

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (EEOC): “The ADEA prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older.” (i.e., employers wouldn’t hire people over 40 without the threat of lawsuits and coercion by the government)
  • “Lung Capacity and Aging” (American Lung Association): “Your lungs mature by the time you are about 20-25 years old. After about the age of 35, it is normal for your lung function to decline gradually as you age. This can make breathing slightly more difficult as you get older.”
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Making $200/hour on the coronapanic front line

Text from a pilot:

A good friend’s daughter works at a local restaurant in summer breaks from college. They called her up and offered her $40 an hour to come and hand out the take out orders because they could not get anyone employed full time before to show up until unemployment runs out. She ended up making $800 for one shift because the guilty-conscience of the Wellesley Elite was tipping her $20 for each bag of food she brought to their Mercedes while saying “Thank you for your front line service”.

Now that the summer heat is upon us and wearing a mask will become more uncomfortable, what will be the additional wage that employers will have to pay to entice workers into these jobs where hours of mask use is required?

Related:

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Facebook pay cuts for remote employees who move to Nevada or Texas prove that the labor market is rigged?

“Zuckerberg says employees moving out of Silicon Valley may face pay cuts” (CNBC):

The company will begin allowing certain employees to work remotely full time, he said. Those employees will have to notify the company if they move to a different location by Jan. 1, 2021. As a result, those employees may have their compensations adjusted based on their new locations, Zuckerberg said.

“We’ll adjust salary to your location at that point,” said Zuckerberg, citing that this is necessary for taxes and accounting. “There’ll be severe ramifications for people who are not honest about this.”

If there is a market for productivity and accomplishment, the remote worker should be able to get paid the same regardless of location, no? For items where there is a functional market, we can’t say “Oh, this is of excellent quality, but was produced in Cambodia so I am going to pay only half as much as I would pay for the same item, same quality, made in higher-cost China, right?

Readers: Does the fact that Facebook can unilaterally set the price it will pay for labor depending on the cost of housing from which the labor toils show that the market for Silicon Valley labor is rigged?

Related:

  • High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation (Wikipedia): High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation is a 2010 United States Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust action and a 2013 civil class action against several Silicon Valley companies for alleged “no cold call” agreements which restrained the recruitment of high-tech employees.
  • Hacker News thread on this post (my favorite: “Supply and demand makes sense as an explanation [for why on-site workers in different locations are paid different amounts], but it doesn’t actually explain this one. If facebook were just charging a market rate determined by supply and demand, then your salary would drop when you become remote, regardless of where you actually live, as your location has nearly no bearing on your productivity or competition for the same job. The fact that Facebook wants workers to report their location, as they cannot easily see the difference, shows their motivation cannot be driven by supply and demand.” Also good: “Salary based on an individual’s needs is quite the ‘hmmmmm’ moment. It is one of the reasons Violet Newstead — Lily Tomlin’s character in 9 to 5 — is given when she furiously demands to know why she was passed over for a fair promotion. The guy who got the job instead? Well had a wife and kids to support. He needed it more.” And quoting American academia’s favorite thinker: “No, it just proves that Marx was right about the nature of the wage/salary. The value of labour power is the cost of reproducing/maintaining that worker at a particular standard of living, not some particular fraction of the value generated at work.”)
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If coronashutdown is to protect the old, why do young people have to pay for it?

The average age of a Covid-19-tagged death here in Massachusetts is 82. Thus, presumably to the extent that any lives are saved from Covid-19 by our educational, social, and economic shutdown, they will be roughly 82-year-old lives.

Let’s assume for sake of argument that the shutdown makes sense as a mechanism for saving lives. Flatten the Curve will save more people from Covid-19 by delaying their infection than will be killed from (a) the shutdown of regular health care, (b) poverty and unemployment, (c) starvation in poor countries, (d) the suspension of clinical trials for new drugs, (e) the suspension of clinical training for the next generation of medical doctors, etc.

Now that we’ve assumed shutdown is an actual life-saving mechanism, we come to the cost and who pays. Just this year’s federal budget deficit is on track to be $4 trillion. So that’s $4 trillion that will be borrowed before the inevitable bailout of the big-spending state governments (not allowed to issue bonds so they borrow by making public employee pension promises that they don’t fund).

The ordinary borrowing mechanism of the federal government imposes the costs onto people who are still young enough to work and pay taxes, right? And since federal government tends not to repay debt, but merely roll it over and pay more interest, the younger the person the more he/she/ze/they will have to pay, right? Is it fair to say, then, that Americans who are currently in their 20s will bear the highest burden from coronashutdown? (current children will pay too, but they won’t start paying taxes for a few years yet so their future payments have to be discounted)

Is this our revenge on them for saying “OK Boomer”?

(The young folks above would be violating our Massachusetts town’s mask order, but the photo is from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (“Stay Home or Die” will be the new license plate motto?) so they’re not breaking the law there.)

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Will we need caravan-loads of immigrant workers after we are done with coronapanic?

Immigrants may have played a substantial role in the American coronaplague. Via immigration and children of immigrants we grew our population from 200 million to 330 million (Pew) with no corresponding increase in health care system capacity. So our terror regarding overburdened hospitals was in some ways a result of the immigration. The worst-plagued cities in the U.S. have been New York (40 percent foreign-born) and Boston (25 percent foreign-born).

But the shutdown plus policies that have made collecting unemployment more lucrative than working for the typical American are winnowing the natives out of the labor force. See “Since coronavirus crisis began, one-fifth of Massachusetts workforce has filed for unemployment” (masslive, April 30), for example. Also, “Labor Markets During the Covid-19 Crisis: A Preliminary View” (Berkeley and U. Chicago agree that Americans don’t like to work!):

First, job loss has been significantly larger than implied by new unemployment claims: we estimate 20 million lost jobs by April 8th, far more than jobs lost over the entire Great Recession. Second, many of those losing jobs are not actively looking to find new ones. As a result, we estimate the rise in the unemployment rate over the corresponding period to be surprisingly small, only about 2 percentage points. Third, participation in the labor force has declined by 7 percentage points, an unparalleled fall that dwarfs the three percentage point cumulative decline that occurred from 2008 to 2016. Early retirement almost fully explains the drop in labor force participation both for those survey participants previously employed and those previously looking for work.

In other words, a lot of existing Americans are done working! This is consistent with past periods of unemployment, in which Americans who get accustomed to lying on the couch watching TV while consuming alcohol and opioids transition seamlessly to SSDI (see “Long-Term Joblessness and Disability Benefits Receipt” (ssa.gov): “At 20 years after their job loss (voluntary or involuntary), these workers had a 25 percentage point higher likelihood of receiving DI or SSI benefits”).

Could it be, then, that to replace the Americans who stop working we will need to grow the population to 400 million or so? (we don’t have an Australia/New Zealand/Canada-style policy favoring working-age skilled immigrants so we will probably need 10-20 immigrants to replace each skilled American who has gone into SSDI/opioids or conventional retirement) And then, when the next plague hits (evolution may just be a theory, but it seems to produce a steady supply of new viruses…), we’ll get into a double secret panic regarding hospital capacity.

Related:

  • When Swedish infidels do business in the U.S… the IKEA Covid-19 page says “we have made the decision to furlough hourly U.S. co-workers in store locations and our Service Office effective April 19, 2020. This will allow our hourly co-workers, who are no longer able to work due to closures, to apply for expanded unemployment benefits.”
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