These four charts show why you should worry about rising house prices and inequality

LOL, no chance. Image: Getty.

When we want to measure the economic activity of a country, we tend to reach for the gross domestic product, or GDP. This may be an imperfect measure, but it does allow us to track where the money comes from for every item bought and sold. It tells us whether we worked to earn it through wages, or whether it came from capital income – including stock dividends, rents and capital gains on assets such as housing. The Conversation

When it comes to the US, economists became used to the idea that the share of GDP attributable to labour income fluctuated around 60 per cent while the remaining 40 per cent was capital income.

Then came Thomas Piketty. His 2014 book, Capital in the 21st century explained that the labour share has actually been more unstable over the past century than commonly assumed.

Piketty’s data also showed that the capital share has increased quite significantly at the expense of the labour share over the past three decades. Both in the US and in the UK, for example, the labour share declined from about 70 per cent in the 1970s to about 60 per cent in recent years. This was seized upon as it helps to explain the recent increase in wealth inequality. A large majority of the population gets most of their income almost exclusively in the form of wages. Only a few lucky ones own enough financial assets such as real estate and stocks to earn the equivalent of an annual wage.

More than 80 per cent of the stock market’s value in the US is held by the top 10 per cent. With an average interest rate of 5 per cent, $1m in stocks are needed to get a return of $50,000, which is close to the median household income. The person who can make a living from his capital income is certainly no average Joe.

Capital gains

A look at four charts helps to show why this matters, and the impact it can have on those without the means to live on income from capital assets.

Image: Erik Bengtsson and Daniel Waldenström/author provided.

The chart above shows the average capital share for 17 advanced economies from 1875 to 2012. This new dataset, based on work by Erik Bengtsson and Daniel Waldenström, includes more countries than Piketty’s original analysis. The figure confirms the same inverted U-shaped pattern, with high values for the capital share at the beginning and at end of the 20th century, that Piketty found for some major economies such as the US and the UK.

He argued that three major global shocks, the two world wars and the Great Depression, led to a large reduction in wealth around the world. This destruction of capital can also explain the very low capital share in the post World War II period. The recent increase might thus simply represent a reversion towards a value that is more in line with the historic long-run average.

So why is this important for workers? Well, the next chart shows the net capital share in the US from 1929 until 2012.

Image: Erik Bengtsson and Daniel Waldenström/author provided.

Some economists argue that the net share is more relevant than the gross share if one is concerned about inequality. The net share excludes depreciation, the gradual decline in the value of physical capital such as machinery, which is normally included in the GDP figures – even though it is not an income stream to anybody. The data clearly shows the recent increase in the net capital share from a low of 22 per cent in the early 1980s to a high of 30 per cent in 2010. This means that an additional 8 per cent of net national income now takes the form of capital income instead of wages.


So, why is it important if capital takes a larger slice of the pie? If the economy is still growing, surely everybody must win? Well, not quite. The answer is, of course, that capital ownership is highly concentrated. The increase in the capital share effectively means that capital incomes have grown at a faster pace than wages. This leads to a more unequal society since most of the stock market and even a significant portion of real estate is owned by a wealthy few. The more money invested in assets such as property and stocks, the less available to pay workers and boost productivity.

This can work out as a significant hit to the average worker. Net national income in the US was about $48,700 per person in 2015. Had the net capital share remained at the low value of 22 per cent, an additional $3,900 per person would flow in the form of wages instead of capital income. This translates to an additional $10,000 per employed person, certainly a sizeable amount of money.

The importance of real estate

Some researchers, including Piketty, point out that the recent increase in the capital share is related to the rising values of real estate. The next chart shows the average value of real house prices, adjusted for inflation, for the same 17 economies from 1870 until today.

Image: Jorda/Schularick and Taylor/author provided.

House prices stayed fairly constant for almost a century after 1870. However, over the past 50 years real house prices have more than tripled. In some countries such as Australia, they have even increased by a factor of ten over the same time period. Furthermore, these are just national averages. Big cities, including New York, London, and Stockholm, have experienced even larger increases in the value of real estate.

The following chart describes the impact of that and compares the median net worth of families in the US who are home owners with those who are renters. The gap widened significantly during the years of the housing boom. The net worth of home owners exceeded those of renters by a factor of about 46 in 2007. House prices have recovered from the bust in 2008 and are now as high as before the crisis.

Image: Federal Reserve/author provided.

This is a challenge chock full of concerns for policy makers – especially those politicians hoping to win the votes of home owners. But rising house prices, especially in big cities, and the rise of the capital share are both trends which decisively favour asset owners over workers and which slowly chisel out a crevice between the two. Inequality could well increase much further without adequate responses from national governments. These charts should be a simple way of explaining just why things such as subsidies for housing construction in high-demand areas, easing of zoning laws, and higher taxes on capital income should be put on the table by anyone serious about reducing inequality.

Julius Probst is a Phd candidate in economic history at Lund University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, and was co-published with the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.