How Jeb Bush could get his 4% growth (for a few years, at least)

US presidential hopeful Jeb Bush says that, with the right policy reforms, the US can achieve 4% annual growth. As economic historian (and Adam Smith Institute Fellow) Anton Howes has pointed out, historically it’s very hard to sustain growth above 2% except when you’re catching up, either after a recession or as a poor country converging on rich ones.

For the US, 4% growth would mean catching up to the pre-2008 trend for a few years, and then reverting to normal. Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Warsh, two economists who are likely to advise Bush on economic issues during the campaign, suggest that investment-focused tax cuts and pro-competition deregulations might help the US to recover back to the pre-2008 trend. Well, maybe.

One thing they did not mention was liberalising planning (or urban zoning, in American English). But that could deliver a big boost to GDP. An NBER working paper by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti released earlier this year argued that:

…worker productivity is increasingly different across cities. We calculate that this increased wage dispersion lowered aggregate U.S. GDP by 13.5%. Most of the loss was likely caused by increased constraints to housing supply in high productivity cities like New York, San Francisco and San Jose. Lowering regulatory constraints in these cities to the level of the median city would expand their work force and increase U.S. GDP by 9.5%.

Basically, making it easier for people to move around makes it easier to put people into the jobs where they’re most productive, and constraints on housing supplies make it much harder for people to move around.

Deregulating planning, then, could massively boost US GDP – even bringing constraints in the most productive cities down to the average level would increase it by nearly 10 percent. Spread over a few years, and combined with the standard 2% we’d expect from the US economy normally, that’s about one Presidential term’s worth of 4% growth.

This is really just a moot point – the President doesn’t have much say over local zoning laws. But who knows? This might be one time where the Presidential bully pulpit comes in handy.

Mostly, this is instructive for those of us in other cities where supply constraints make it difficult for people to move in. How much richer Britain might be if it was a little easier to build houses in the places people want to live – and work.

Yes, let’s blow up the planning system

Today Marina Hyde suggests that instead of spending £7.1 billion to do up the Palace of Westminster we could just hire an arsonist for rather less. Amusing although we think there might be a trick being missed there: shouldn’t we be running a competition to see who would pay most for the privilege?

But on to other things that we might burn down, blow up. Here’s something about “affordable housing“:

Coming at the problem from these different starting points, both reports make an estimate the gap between what genuinely affordable homes would cost to build and how much of the cost could be financed from rents. They both conclude that this gap is about £59,000 per house (on average, with considerable variation between London and the rest of England). This is the amount that would need to be provided by a combination of government grant, free or low-cost land from local authorities, contributions from developers and – potentially – cheaper debt through government guarantees.

That’s the cost to us of the planning system. Or at least one incomplete but roughly accurate method of measuring it. The value of an asset really should be the net present value of all future income from it and that’s roughly what they’re estimating there. And yet the land to build a house upon costs around £1,000. It’s the planning permission that allows you to build a house upon that land which is the thing that is in short supply. And that’s where the £58,000 is. The scarcity value of the planning permission.

Given that planning permission is something that is manufactured very simply within the bureaucracy it is therefore not beyond the wit of man to make more of it. Or we might observe that the last time the free market did provide the housing needs of the nation was the 1930s. Before the imposition of the Town and Country Planning Acts which led to this artificial shortage of planning permissions. Thus the solution to our housing woes is really very simple indeed.

Burn down the planning permission system.

We’d happily pay for the privilege of applying the burning brand: but who is willing to outbid us?

To explain the price of English housing once again

Absolutely everything you need to know about the absurd cost of English housing is contained in these few paragraphs:

A farmer has rejected a £275million offer for his land from housing developers wanting to build a new town.

Robert Worsley said he would be ‘doing a massive disfavour’ to the community where he has lived all his life if he ‘took the money and ran’.

The 48-year-old father of two has run 550-acre farm for the last 15 years.

He was approached by agents for housebuilder Mayfield more than two years ago. Other landowners on adjoining sites in Twineham, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, are also believed to have been offered large sums.

The multi-million pound potential offer is 100 times the farm’s current value, even though it covers only one-seventh of the proposed 10,000-home development.

It’s Mr. Worsley’s land, he can do as he wishes with it.

But there’s the reason that English housing is so expensive. Land that may potentially be built upon is worth 100 times that same land that cannot potentially be built upon. That is, the chitty that is issued to allow building upon a piece of land is at least 99% of the cost of the land plus chitty. It is therefore the planning system that makes housing so expensive.

Thus, as we’ve pointed out ad nauseam, the answer is to issue more chittys so as to bring down the cost of them. There’s no mystery here, no problem. If something is expensive because it is in artificially short supply then the answer is to increase the supply of it.

Perhaps we might suggest abolishing the Town and Country Planning Acts?

Nationalising the trains won’t solve this problem

It’s something of a puzzle why the idea of nationalising the train system again is so popular. The complaint seems to be that ticket pries are high, if we nationalise then ticket prices won’t be so high. Apologies for referring to Richard Murphy again but he has laid out that fallacious argument for us:

The Tories want to regulate rail fares.

Almost all rail companies are already state subsidised.

Rail rolling stock leasing is a tax arrangement for the finance industry.

The farce of rail privatisation continues when the state run East Coast route proved that state ownership works best.

And yet only the Greens are stating the obvious, which is that the answer to these state interventions in an industry that should never be in private hands is nationalisation.

I really think the time for rail nationalisation has come.

It is true that ticket prices are high as compared with other European countries. It is also true that there are subsidies. But this does not then go on to mean that nationalisation will reduce train fares. Because the reason that train fares are high is the result of a deliberate and specific political decision. That British train travellers should pay more of the cost of their journeys than do travellers in other European countries.

This is not a function of who owns or who operates those railways. It is, as we say, a function of a deliberate political decision. That there’s going to be some mixture of general tax subsidy to railways, plus some measure of income from travellers, is an accepted fact by all. At some point we need to decide what the split between those two is. Should that retired accountant in Norfolk have to pay the full cost of his travels around the country to campaign, should the general taxpayer be subsidising him to do so and if so, to what extent?

The general outcome of this decision is that, here in the UK, we expect those doing the travelling to pay more of the cost of their travelling than other European countries conclude. This is not, as above, an outcome of how the industry is structured, owned nor run. It’s simply that we have decided that non-train travellers should be subsidising train travellers less than others conclude.

You can, of course, make other arguments for nationalisation. But this specific one doesn’t work. Because train tickets are not priced as they are because there are private operators. But priced as they are because we’ve decided on less subsidy. And that subsidy could be increased (not that we would argue that it should be) without nationalisation, just as that subsidy could remain the same with nationalisation (not that we would recommend that either).

This is an argument about the correct level of subsidy, not one about who owns or operates. Thus changing who owns or operates changes nothing about the subsidy nor ticket prices.

Why don’t we just be sensible about housing?

A fine piece in the Telegraph about British housing. The major point being that we have so many layers upon layers of housing policies, each trying to undo the inefficiencies created by the previous layer, that we might as well scrap the lot and actually have a free market again:

Each and every proposal wheeled out in the course of the election campaign involves yet more complexity. Hidden subsidies are added to distortions, and rules and regulations are piled on top of each other until their purpose gets lost. If a therapist was analysing British housing policy, they’d quickly conclude the patient was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Government comes up with one kind of subsidy, doesn’t like the side-effects, then comes up with another to try to correct it.

In fact, the simplest thing would be to strip away all the distortions, and try creating a free market in housing.

Quite so, we have been saying this for some time ourselves. Just as an example, the last time the British housing market managed to produce the level of new build that all say is necessary today was in hte 1930s. That is, before the Town and Country Planning Act and back when we did in fact have a free market in who may build what and where. If we want to get back to that level of building then why on Earth don’t we go back to those policies? We do, after all, have actual evidence that it works.

Worse, and this is less widely discussed, our homes are getting smaller. A survey by LV Financial Services last year found that the average size of the British home had shrunk by two square metres, from 98 to 96 square metres, in the decade from 2003 to 2013. The average new home built in the last five years measured only 76 square metres, so that average is only going to come down. According to research by the think tank Policy Exchange, we now have the smallest homes in Europe. Even the Greeks have more space to live in than we do.

The average Irish home is 15pc bigger, a Dutch one 53pc, and a Danish one 80pc more spacious. Those are huge differences, given that many of those countries are poorer than we are, and just as densely populated.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Insisting that people live in rabbit hutches that cost 5 and 7 times annual incomes? And, as we all know, the major cost of a house in the SE of England (where the problem actually exists) is that scarcity value of the chitty to build a house on a particular piece of ground. Simply issue more chitties and the problem is solved. Better yet, abolish the system of chitties altogether.

You know, the way to solve problems caused by government is to get government to stop doing the things that cause the problems. Housing is expensive in England because of government, let’s have less government and make housing cheap again.