Property and Life ChoicesHow does owning (or not owning) real estate, and mortgage debt, influence the behaviour of individuals in their wider lives? What are the consequences of these patterns for whole nations?
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In 1840 the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon coined the phrase “property is theft!” (La propriété, c'est le vol !). Although he later criticized it himself, and Karl Marx considered it self-contradictory, this slogan became a propaganda underpinning for the total expropriation of private property by the wardens of so-called Communist states acting on behalf of “the masses”. The outcome of course was a defacto reallocation of land holding from very large numbers of individuals to a small clique of those who had seized political power. Much later in countries such as Russia (when the USSR collapsed) and China (with generational devolution to a ‘red elite’) those power cliques also gained de jure control of the stolen assets. The consequences are still working through those societies.
These radical changes in land holding during the 19th and 20th Centuries however were not unique, either physically or in their political effects. For example the many English Enclosure Acts, which reached a culmination in the early 19th Century but had been proceeding for several centuries, drove vast numbers of peasants off their traditional landholdings without compensation, forcing them into cities as a new poor, and fuelled the labour pool for an industrial revolution (McElroy 2012). The new owners of seized lands were a ruling elite who created a complex legal code to buttress their own security.
These large internal population movements also led to forced and voluntary migration to “new” lands in the Americas and Australasia. Rural to urban migration has become a feature of emerging market economies everywhere. Land tenure and housing have played and continue to play a central role in the process worldwide. At the moment China is in the midst of the largest rural to urban migration in human history.
Ultimately, new urban classes acquire a kind of coercive power themselves by force of numbers, so the controllers of land and capital fnd it necessary to enter into a loose social contract for the exchange of labour as an input to industry. From the mid 19th Century this social contract drove a political revolution in the form of expanding representative democracy. To this day, the understanding of the democratic contract divides between those (typically the privileged) who essentially see it as a tool for social control by consent, and the bulk of the population who see democracy as an egalitarian tool for the fair distribution of power and resources.
It is well understood by most governments today, whatever their nominal ideology, that encouraging the private ownership of residential property is one of the most effective ways of ensuring social stability. A simple Australian example would be that after World War II, very large numbers of footloose demobilized soldiers could have been a distinct threat to the established order. It made very good political sense to direct them as soon as possible into stable employment, and into household ownership. My father, for example, who had minimal formal education, as an ex-soldier was offered both free trade training and loans for home house purchase on a very low government supported mortgage rate of about 2%. Of course, the governments of the day (mostly conservative) presented these opportunities as a big thank you to the brave men who had saved the nation.
Amongst the first acts of states which give up the lunacy of total centrally planned economic control is to move rapidly to create a residential owning middle class. As Russia formally abandoned communism in the early 1990s it did just that, allowing citizens to purchase their accommodation at very low cost. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China moved in exactly the same direction, even while maintaining a façade of communist ideology. The communist state of Vietnam has acted in exactly the same way. When you have a home and a mortgage, you are probably reluctant to start a revolution, and the political elites have a significant hold on your behaviour.
Almost since its British foundation as a prison camp in 1788, “success” in the colonies and then the nation of Australia has been predicated upon the possession of land, whether it was gifted, inherited, seized, or purchased. The continent of Australia is a very large chunk of dirt, much of it unsuitable for human habitation, but still with more thousands of square kilometres of emptiness than any Englishman might dream of. Nevertheless, the vast bulk of Australia’s 23 million people continue to crowd into a handful of cities around the coast. Much of their life interest is obsessed with bidding up the price of real estate in these special urban locations. In critical ways the politics and economic activity of Australia continues to revolve around land.
The systems of taxation in Australia are riddled with provisions relating to land holding and the possession of buildings. The finances of the many levels of government would become unsustainable, at least in their present intentions, without recourse to property taxation and the many activities which depend upon building construction. It has been estimated that 44% of the cost of new housing is sunk in taxation imposts of various kinds (Hurley 2012).
The value placed on home ownership is largely determined by culture. For example, in China today a prime qualification required to be an eligible bachelor is owning an apartment. Since men significantly outnumber women in many parts of China, while the capital requirements for housing purchase are beyond the reach of tens of millions, this is a serious source of social discontent. Making this discontent more bitter is that China now has tens of millions of unsold luxury apartments, indeed whole "empty cities" built by speculators in corrupt collusion with local government officials and wasted investment funds (and, incidentally, built with Australian steel).
Making this discontent more bitter is that China now has tens of millions of unsold luxury apartments, indeed whole "empty cities" built by speculators in corrupt collusion with local government officials and wasted investment funds (and, incidentally, built with Australian steel).
Anglo-Saxon majority cultures, such as the Australian one, have nothing approaching China’s culturally mandated matrimonial pressure on home ownership. The problem in Australia is simply that home ownership itself appears to be one of the main metrics for judging life success. My own birth family for example tends to consider me a ‘failure’ since I have shown little attachment to the property mantra. Some very prosperous nations have a very different perspective on home ownership. For example, Germany:
Europe's biggest economy has not had a single housing boom in the post-war period ...
That record comes courtesy of a cultural disinterest in home ownership, progressive social housing programs, conservative banking policies and government legislation that protects and encourages long-term renters.
Over the last decade, the ratio of house prices versus household incomes has been falling in Germany, and despite a slight pickup over recent years, it was still almost 17 per cent below its long-run average at the end of last year.
By contrast, Australia has the third-highest house price to income ratio in the world, at 4.3 times the average annual income according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics [Bagshaw 2014].
The tenor of the discussion so far here has been that home ownership tends to stabilize the lives of most people because of the financial obligations and forced savings which mortgages impose, and because the act of possessing such a major asset in itself disinclines individuals to risky behaviour. Home ownership encourages people to remain in steady employment, and it can be a significant factor in personnel decisions about whether to hire when candidates seem equally matched. It is noted that owning property can be a major influence on matrimonial choice, especially for women, and especially where the raising of children is anticipated. We commented above that with the exception of the early “Communist” aberration, governments worldwide have usually seen the value of having citizens who are settled with the highest possible level of home ownership. This provides a kind of security not just to the individuals directly involved, but reassures ruling elites that less privileged parts of the population will not take to the streets and forment revolution if they have something significant to lose.
In the light of the preceding paragraph it is interesting and a bit disturbing that in the last few decades there have been important forces moving to undermine the prospect of home ownership for young people. These forces are often unintended side effects of other decisions, and impact unevenly in particular cultures. A strong example would be the huge growth of tertiary student debt in the United States of America. It is gradually becoming apparent that this kind of student debt impacts negatively upon life choices for home ownership, employment, and even marriage (Korkki 2014, Konczal 2014, Brown 2013, Taieb 2013).
Another major influencing factor for instability would be changes in personnel practices and company management where most employees can no longer look forward to a lifetime engagement with one or even a few employers, and many are restricted to part-time jobs or outsourced work. With management taking a predatory short-term approach, and evading responsibility for in-house training and mentoring, it is not surprising that many younger workers adopt a frankly opportunistic outlook to company employment and become somewhat wary of taking on long term debt. In many countries, post-GFC prospects for employment or a career by younger workers have become an impossible dream. Buying a house is the last thing they can contemplate. Their best hope lies in mobility, sometimes international mobility.
A third factor influencing long term commitment has been an ever spiraling acceleration of consumer consumption, heavily promoted by business itself, which has inevitably led to a large part of the population carrying unsustainable consumer debt and surrendering to a mentality of “live for the day”. The “greed is good” creed amongst captains of industry and their political servants is eventually bound to have a psychological blowback amongst the common people who must buy the products of industry for it to profit, yet find that they have become unsure of how to pay the bills next month, let alone on a 20 year mortgage commitment.
This topic could be summarized by the proposition that property ownership, and especially the debt that often goes with it, has multiple and sometimes contradictory effects on individual behaviour. In the Australian context, the ratio of income to housing purchase costs looks rationally unsustainable. That ratio is one of the highest in the world, and historically elsewhere this kind of imbalance has led to property price crashes. However the Australian situation has continued to defy gravity for quite a long time, perhaps buoyed by immigration and a mining boom (which is now tailing off).
I think that housing prices in Australia are only indirectly a product of the very popular use of property as everyman’s investment vehicle. The whole deal is made possible by the taxation system ( negative gearing on leveraged property especially, plus the absence of a capital gains tax, or inheritance tax) and the taxation system is driven in complicated ways by the political system. Both major parties have a taxation tiger by the tail and they don't know how to let go of it. Other paradigms are possible, such as the German example given earlier, but nobody knows how to get from here to there (and of course Germany has its own flavour of problems). Major change in Australia may come as an unintended consequence of other things (e.g. a collapse of the China trading relationship), but is unlikely to be pleasant and won’t be voluntary. One possible solution to the taxation dilemma, and hence indirectly to the housing tax problem, would be to find a way to force corporations to make the kind of real tax contribution to the society which was normal in the 1950s. This is a transnational issue. The following example (Ritholtz 2011) from the United States illustrates a worldwide pattern:
Corporate Taxes as a Percentage of Federal Revenue
Corporate Taxes as a Percentage of GDP
Individual Income/Payrolls as a Percentage of Federal Revenue