Category Archives: City Life

Berkeley, CA and the $15 – oops – $19 living wage

Berkeley, CA’s labor commission – in what should be an unsurprising move at this point in Berkeley’s history – has proposed raising the city’s minimum wage to an astounding $19 per hour by 2020! The labor commission’s argument in a nutshell is that Berkeley is an expensive place to live so worker’s need more money. And while Berkeley may be an expensive place to live, mandating that employers pay a certain wage doesn’t necessarily mean that the workers will get that money. As one Berkeley restaurant owner noted:

“We can raise our prices. But you can’t charge $25 for a sandwich,” said Dorothee Mitrani, who owns La Note. “A lot of mom-and-pop delis and cafes may disappear.”

The article states that Ms. Mitrani’s

…. full-service restaurant now subsidizes her take-out shop, which she said is running in the red as a result of the increases already in place. If the minimum rose to $19, she expects she would have to shut it down.

Of course, there are some politicians – and unfortunately some economists – who insist that raising the minimum wage doesn’t have adverse effects on employment, despite sound theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence to the contrary. My Mercatus center colleague Don Boudreaux has compiled an extensive collection of blog posts at Café Hayek debunking and refuting every pro-minimum wage argument out there, and I encourage interested readers to check them out.

The minimum wage most adversely effects low-skill, inexperienced workers, such as those without a high school degree, below the poverty level, between the ages of 16 – 19, and with some type of disability. So how do the people who fit into those categories currently fare in Berkeley’s labor market?

The table below shows the labor force rate and percentage employed for people 16 and over in each of those categories in the city of Berkeley in 2013 and 2014. The data is from the ACS 1-year survey. (American FactFinder table S2301)

berkely min wage employment 2013-14

As the table shows the labor force rate and the employment rate for each of those categories is already low compared to the overall labor force rate in Berkeley of 67% and employment rate of 62%. From 2013 to 2014 both the labor force rate and the employment rate declined for people without a high school degree, while the employment rate increased in the other categories. Nothing in this table leads me to believe that it would be a good idea to make the workers in these categories more expensive to hire, as it seems it is already difficult for them to find employment and it’s getting more difficult for some.

The table below compares Berkeley to the surrounding San Francisco MSA using only 2014 data.

berkeley min wage emp vs SF MSA

This table reveals that compared to the surrounding area, workers in these categories fare worse in Berkeley. The percentage of people with less than a high school degree who are employed was 11 percentage points lower in Berkeley, while the percentage with a disability was 0.8 points lower and the percentage below the poverty level was 1.5 points lower. Out of the four categories only 16 – 19 year olds had a better chance of being employed in Berkeley than in the surrounding MSA.

Hopefully Berkeley’s city council reviews the labor market reality in their city and thinks about actual consequences vs. intentions before deciding to increase the price that low-skill workers are allowed to charge for their labor. It’s already difficult for low-skill, inexperienced workers to find a job in Berkeley and making it harder won’t help them.

Teenage unemployment in cities

New research that examines New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) finds that participation in the program positively impacts student academic outcomes. As the authors state in the introduction, youth employment has many benefits:

“Prior research suggests that adolescent employment improves net worth and financial well-being as an adult. An emerging body of research indicates that summer employment programs also lead to decreases in violence and crime. Work experience may also benefit youth, and high school students specifically, by fostering various non-cognitive skills, such as positive work habits, time management, perseverance, and self-confidence.” (My bold)

This is hardly surprising news to anyone who had a summer job when they were young. An additional benefit from youth employment not mentioned by the authors is that the low-skill, low-paying jobs held by young people also provide them with information about what they don’t want to do when they grow up. Working in a fast food restaurant or at the counter of a store in the local mall helps a young person appreciate how hard it is to earn a dollar and provides a tangible reason to gain more skills in order to increase one’s productivity and earn a higher wage.

Unfortunately, many young people today are not obtaining these benefits. The chart below depicts the national teenage unemployment rate and labor force participation rate (LFP) from 2005 to 2015 using year-over-year August data from the BLS.

national teen unemp, LFP

During the Great Recession teenage employment fell drastically, as indicated by the simultaneous increase in the unemployment rate and decline in the LFP rate from 2007 to 2009. From its peak in 2010, the unemployment rate for 16 to 19 year olds declined slowly until 2012. This decline in the unemployment rate coincided with a decline in the LFP rate and thus the latter was partly responsible for the former’s decline. More recently, the labor force participation rate has flattened out while the unemployment rate has continued to decline, which means that more teenagers are finding jobs. But the teenagers who are employed are part of a much smaller labor pool than 10 years ago – nationally, only 33.7% of 16 to 19 year olds were in the labor force in August 2015, a sharp decline from 44% in 2005.

Full-time teenage employment is unique in that it has a relatively high opportunity cost – attending school full time. Out of the teenagers who work at least some portion of the year, most only work during the summer when school is not in session. Some teenagers also work during the school year, but this subset of teenage workers is smaller than the set who are employed during the summer months. Thus a decline in the LFP rate for teenagers may be a good thing if the teenagers who are exiting the labor force are doing so to concentrate on developing their human capital.

Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. From 2005 to 2013 the enrollment rate of 16 and 17 year olds actually declined slightly from 95.1% to 93.7%.  The enrollment rate for 18 and 19 year olds stayed relatively constant – 67.6% in 2005 and 67.1% in 2013, with some mild fluctuations in between. These enrollment numbers coupled with the large decline in the teenage LFP rate do not support the story that a large number of working teenagers are exiting the labor force in order to attend school full time. Of course, they do not undermine the story that an increasing amount of teenagers who are both in the labor force and attending school at the same time are choosing to exit the labor force in order to focus on school. But if that is the primary reason, why is it happening now?

Examining national data is useful for identifying broad trends in teenage unemployment, but it conceals substantial intra-national differences. For this reason I examined teenage employment in 10 large U.S. cities (political cities, not MSAs) using employment status data from the 5-year American Community Survey (ACS Table S2301. 2012 was the latest data available for all ten cities).

The first figure below depicts the age 16 – 19 LFP rate for the period 2010 – 2012. As shown in the diagram there are substantial differences across cities.

City teenage LFP

For example, in New York (dark blue) only 23% of the 16 – 19 population was in the labor force in 2012 – down from 25% in 2010 – while in Denver 43.5% of the 16 – 19 population was in the labor force. Nearly every city experienced a decline over this time period, with only Atlanta (red line) experiencing a slight increase. Five cities were below the August 2012 national rate of 34% – Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York.

Also, in contrast to the improving unemployment rate at the national level from 2010 – 12 shown in figure 1, the unemployment rate in each of these cities increased during that period. Figure 3 below depicts the unemployment rate for each of the 10 cities.

City teenage unemp rate

In August 2012 the national unemployment rate for 16 – 19 year olds was 24.3%, a rate that was exceeded by all 10 cities analyzed here. Atlanta had the highest unemployment rate in 2012 at 48%. Atlanta’s high unemployment rate and relatively low LFP rate reveals how few Atlanta teens were employed during this period and how difficult it was for those who wanted a job to find one.

The unemployment rate may increase because employment declines or more unemployed people enter the labor force, which would increase the labor force participation rate. Figures 2 and 3 together indicate that the unemployment rate increased in each of these cities due to a decline in employment, not increased labor force participation.

The preceding figures are evidence that the teenage employment situation in these major cities is getting worse both over time and relative to other areas in the country. To the extent that teenage employment benefits young people, fewer and fewer of them are receiving these benefits. From the linked article:

“The substantial drop in teen employment prospects has had a devastating effect on the nation’s youngest teens (16-17), males, blacks, low income youth, and inner city, minority males,” wrote Andrew Sum in a report on teen summer employment for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. “Those youth who need work experience the most get it the least, another example of the upside down world of labor markets in the past decade.”

Unfortunately, in many cities the response to this situation will only exacerbate the problem. Seattle and Los Angeles have already approved local $15 minimum wages, and a similar law in the state of New York that applies only to fast food franchises was recently approved by the state’s wage board. While many people still question the effect of a minimum wage on overall employment, there is substantial empirical evidence that a relatively high minimum wage has a negative effect on employment for the least skilled workers, which includes inner-city teenagers who often attend mediocre schools. Thus it is hard to believe that any of the seemingly well-intentioned increases in the minimum wage that are occurring around the country will have a positive effect on the urban teenage employment situation presented here. A better response would be to eliminate the minimum wage so that in the short run low-skilled workers are able to offer their labor at a price that is commensurate to its value. In the long run worker productivity must be increased which involves K-12 school reform.

Pennsylvania taxpayer’s new “boutique” apartments

Eric Blumenfeld Realty Management (EBRM) recently secured $44 million in financing to restore the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia. According to the article:

“EBRM will renovate the 9-story property into a boutique residential community comprised of 109-rental units to sit above 20,000 s/f of restaurant and retail space.”

But Blumenfeld did not receive ordinary financing. Instead EBRM largely circumvented the private sector capital markets and received a substantial portion of its financing courtesy of the Pennsylvania taxpayer:

“The hotel’s revitalization involved coordinating with an array of state and city governmental agencies and programs, including the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority which provided a $2,500,000 loan and $1,000,000 grant, the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program which provided a $3,500,000 RACP grant, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. which provided a bridge loan for the state grant, and the parks department which is anticipated to provide $8,000,000 in historic tax credits financing.”

In total EBRM received over $15 million in government grants, loans, and tax credits, including a RACP grant, which my research shows simply shuffles economic activity around Pennsylvania and puts taxpayers on the hook for paying back the bonds that fund the program – with interest.

I appreciate the renovation of historic landmarks but I don’t think taxpayers should have to help with the financing. Boutique apartments are a private good and as such their provision is best left to the market, without assistance from public funds. Some businesses choose to pursue government grants and subsidies rather than create a business plan that private investors are willing to finance – and who can blame them? It’s often easier to work with local governments that are just waiting to throw money at any business venture that promises jobs than to go through the trouble of creating a profitable business capable of attracting investors.

If you’re a Pennsylvania taxpayer thinking about moving to Philadelphia I recommend a new unit in the remodeled Divine Lorraine. At least that way you might get something for your money.

Scranton, PA and the failures of top-down planning

City officials in Scranton, PA are concerned that a recently released U.S. census map used as a basis for distributing federal grant money doesn’t reflect reality. The map was created using 2010 census data and identifies which neighborhoods meet the U.S. government’s criteria for low-to-moderate-income classification. Such neighborhoods are eligible to receive Community Development Block grant (CDBG) funding.

Scranton Councilman Wayne Evans stated that:

“A lot of us feel that the map is inaccurate, knowing the neighborhoods like we do,”

The city is hoping to conduct their own survey of the area and then use the results to petition the federal government to change the designations of the areas city officials believe are misclassified so they can receive funding.

This situation is a great example of the importance of local knowledge. Economist F.A. Hayek wrote the seminal paper on the importance of local knowledge in 1945. In his book Doing Bad by Doing Good, economist Chris Coyne builds on Hayek’s idea and defines the “planner’s problem” as “the inability of nonmarket participants to access relevant knowledge regarding how to allocate resources in a welfare-maximizing way in the face of a variety of competing, feasible alternatives.” The primary goal of the CDBG program is to create viable urban communities. In order to accomplish this a top-down planner needs to take certain steps: 1) the place to be developed needs to be identified and the goals of the development need to be established; 2) the availability of the resources needed for the development project needs to be confirmed and the resources need to be allocated; and 3) a feedback mechanism needs to be identified that can confirm that the goals are met. If any of these steps are not taken effective economic development will not occur.

As the example from Scranton shows, sometimes the planner – in this case the Department of Housing and Urban Development – fails to carry out step 1 effectively: Scranton officials and HUD can’t even agree on the place to be developed. Instead of letting the local officials who are knowledgeable about the area allocate the CDBGs, HUD officials in Washington bypass them by identifying the areas that need help via census data. Sometimes this approach might work, but when it doesn’t resources will be given to relatively prosperous areas while poorer areas are ignored.

The misallocation of resources will be an issue as long as the ability to allocate the funds is severed from the people with local knowledge of the communities. Cities and municipalities are receiving more and more of their revenues from the state and federal government, as seen in the graph below for Pennsylvania, and this contributes to situations like the one in Scranton.

PA intergov grants

As shown in the graph, total intergovernmental revenue and state intergovernmental to local governments in Pennsylvania increased in real terms from 1992 to 2012 (measured on the left vertical axis). In 1992, total intergovernmental revenue to local governments was equal to 59% of the revenue that local governments raised on their own (the orange line measured on the right vertical axis). In 2012 it was equal to 69%, an increase of 10 percentage points. This means that local governments became more dependent on higher-level governments for funding.

Funding from higher-level governments usually comes with restrictions and conditions that must be met, which prevents local citizens from using their local knowledge to alleviate the problems in their community. The further away decisions makers are from the region, the more likely they are to misidentify the problem areas. In Scranton’s case, city officials now have to expend scarce resources conducting their own survey and petitioning the federal government to change the neighborhood classifications.

Local knowledge is important and it should be utilized by decision makers. State and federal governments should limit intergovernmental transfers and allow local communities to keep more of their own tax dollars, which they can then use to address their own local issues.

The cost disease and the privatization of government services

Many US municipalities are facing budget problems (see here, here, and here). The real cost of providing traditional public services like police, fire protection, and education is increasing, often at a rate that exceeds revenue growth. The graph below shows the real per-capita expenditure increase in five US cities from 1951 to 2006. (Data are from the census file IndFin_1967-2012.zip and are adjusted for inflation using the US GDP chained price index.)

real per cap spend

In 1951 none of the cities were spending more than $1,000 per person. In 2006 every city was spending well over that amount, with Buffalo spending almost $5,000 per person. Even Fresno, which had the smallest increase, increased per capita spending from $480 to $1,461 – an increase of 204%. Expenditure growth that exceeds revenue growth leads to budget deficits and can eventually result in cuts in services. Economist William Baumol attributes city spending growth to what is known as the “cost disease”.

In his 1967 paper, Baumol argues that municipalities will face rising costs of providing “public” goods and services over time as the relative productivity of labor declines in the industries controlled by local governments versus those of the private sector. As labor in the private sector becomes more productive over time due to increases in capital, wages will increase. Goods and services traditionally supplied by local governments such as police, fire protection, and education have not experienced similar increases in capital or productivity. K-12 education is a particularly good example of stagnation – a teacher from the 1950s would not confront much of a learning curve if they had to teach in a 21st century classroom. However, in order to attract competent and productive teachers, for example, local governments must increase wages to levels that are competitive with the wages that teachers could earn in the private sector. When this occurs, teacher’s wages increase even though their productivity does not. As a result, cities end up paying more money for the same amount of work. Baumol sums up the effect:

“The bulk of municipal services is, in fact, of this general stamp [non-progressive] and our model tells us clearly what can be expected as a result…inexorably and cumulatively, whether or not there is inflation, administrative mismanagement or malfeasance, municipal budgets will almost certainly continue to mount in the future, just as they have been doing in the past. This is a trend for which no man and no group should be blamed, for there is nothing than can be done to stop it.” (Baumol, 1967 p.423)

But is there really nothing than can be done to cure the cost disease? Baumol himself later acknowledged that innovation may yet occur in the relatively stagnant sectors of the economy such as education:

“…an activity which is, say, relatively stagnant need not stay so forever. It may be replaced by a more progressive substitute, or it may undergo an outburst of innovation previous thought very unlikely.” (Baumol et al. 1985, p.807).

The cure for the cost disease is that the stagnant, increasing-cost sectors need to undergo “an outburst of innovation”. But this raises the question; what has prevented this innovation from occurring thus far?

One thing that Baumol’s story ignores is public choice. Specifically, is the lack of labor-augmenting technology in the public-sector industries a characteristic of the public sector? The primary public sector industries have high rates of unionization and the primary goal of a labor union is to protect its dues-paying members. The chart below provides the union affiliation of workers for several occupations in 2013 and 2014.

union membership chart

In 2014, the protective service occupations and education, training, and library occupations, e.g. police officers and teachers, had relatively high union membership rates of 35%. Conversely, other high-skilled occupations such as management, computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations, and sales and office occupations had relatively low rates, ranging from 4.2% to 6.5% in 2014. Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations were in the middle at 14.6%, down from 16.1% in 2013.

The bottom part of the table shows the union membership rate of the public sector in general and of each level of government: federal, state, and local. The highest rate of unionization was at the local level, where approximately 42% of workers were members of a union in 2014, up from 41% in 2013. This is about 14 percentage points higher than the federal level and 12 percentage points higher than the state level. The union membership rate of the private sector in 2014 was only 6.6%.

In addition to the apathetic and sometimes hostile view unions have towards technological advancement and competition, union membership is also associated with higher wages, particularly at the local-government level. Economists Maury Gittleman and Brooks Piece of the Bureau of Labor statistics found that local-government workers have compensation costs 10 – 19% larger than similar private sector workers.

The table below shows the median weekly earnings in 2013 and 2014 for workers in the two most heavily unionized occupational categories; education, training, and library occupations and protective service occupations. In both occupation groups there is a substantial difference between the union and non-union weekly earnings. From the taxpayer’s perspective, higher earnings mean higher costs.

union median wage chart

There needs to be an incentive to expend resources in labor-saving technology for it to occur and it is not clear that this incentive exists in the public sector. In the public sector, taxpayers ultimately pay for the services they receive but these services are provided by an agent – the local politician(s) – who is expected to act on the taxpayer’s behalf when it comes to spending tax dollars. But in the public sector the agent/politician is accountable to both his employees and the general taxpayer since both groups vote on his performance. The general taxpayer wants the politician to cut costs and invest in labor-augmenting technology while the public-employee taxpayer wants to keep his job and earn more income. Since the public-employee unions are well organized compared to the general taxpayers it is easier for them to lobby their politicians/bosses in order to get their desired outcome, which ultimately means higher costs for the general taxpayer.

If Baumol’s cost disease is the primary factor responsible for the increasing cost of municipal government then there is not an easy remedy in the current environment. If the policing, firefighting, and education industries are unreceptive to labor-augmenting technology due to their high levels of unionization and near-monopoly status, one potential way to cure municipalities of the cost disease is privatization. In their 1996 paper, The Cost Disease and Government Growth: Qualifications to Baumol, economists J. Ferris and Edwin West state “Privatization could lead to significant changes in the structure of supply that result in “genuine” reductions in real costs” (p. 48).

Schools, police, and fire services are not true public goods and thus economic efficiency does not dictate that they are provided by a government entity. Schools in particular have been successfully built and operated by private funds for thousands of years. While there are fewer modern examples of privately operated police and fire departments, in theory both could be successfully privatized and historically fire departments were, though not always with great success. However, the failures of past private fire departments in places like New York City in the 19th century appear to be largely due to political corruption, an increase in political patronage, poorly designed incentives, and the failure of the rule of law rather than an inherent flaw in privatization. And today, many volunteer fire departments still exist. In 2013 69% of all firefighters were volunteers and 66% of all fire departments were all-volunteer.

The near-monopoly status of government provided education in many places and the actual monopoly of government provided police and fire protection makes these industries less susceptible to innovation. The government providers face little to no competition from private-sector alternatives, they are highly unionized and thus have little incentive to invest in labor-saving technology, and the importance of their output along with the aforementioned lack of competition allows them to pass cost increases on to taxpayers.

Market competition, limited union membership, and the profit-incentive are features of the private sector that are lacking in the public sector. Together these features encourage the use of labor-augmenting technology, which ultimately lowers costs and frees up resources, most notably labor, that can then be used on producing other goods and services. The higher productivity and lower costs that result from investments in productive capital also free up consumer dollars that can then be used to purchase additional goods and services from other industries.

Privatization of basic city services may be a little unnerving to some people, but ultimately it may be the only way to significantly bring down costs without cutting services. There are over 19,000 municipal governments in the US, which means there are over 19,000 groups of citizens that are capable of looking for new and innovative ways to provide the goods and services they rely on. In the private sector entrepreneurs continue to invent new things and find ways to make old things better and cheaper. I believe that if we allow entrepreneurs to apply their creativity to the public sector we will get similar outcomes.

Rent control, housing supply, and home values in Seattle and Houston

In my recent op-ed about rent control I point out that Houston, TX  permitted more home and apartment building than Seattle, WA from 2005 to 2014. The graph below shows the magnitude of this difference. The bars are the number of permits each year (the left axis) and the line is the ratio of Zillow’s home value index (numerator) and the average single family home construction cost for each city (denominator). The right axis reports the ratio. (Seattle’s data are here, Houston’s are here, and permit data are here).

houston, seattle permits graph

As seen in the graph, the orange bars (Houston) are much taller than the blue bars (Seattle). Also, Houston’s home value to average cost ratio was relatively flat during the period shown despite the fact that Houston grew by 163,000 people during this time period. This is because Houston’s high level of building kept pace with demand. During this 10 year period Houston’s home values were roughly 1.6 times average construction cost.

In Seattle, where less building occurred, home values reached nearly 2.5 times average construction costs in 2007 before falling to approximately 1.8 in 2009 due to the housing bust. Home values decreased even further from there, reaching their low point in 2012. Since 2012, however, they have been increasing while in Houston it appears the ratio has leveled off. The difference between the two ratios is not driven by relative cost changes either. The graph below shows the cost per unit in each city over this time period. They are fairly similar in dollar amounts and the ratio between them was relatively constant during this time period.

houston, seattle cost per unit

Seattle’s building restrictions are contributing to the high price of housing in that city. And because prices in Seattle are primarily driven by demand, home values are much more volatile: When demand increases they rise and when demand falls, like from 2007 – 09, they decline quickly.

For more information about the negative consequences of rent control, see here and here.

Education, Innovation, and Urban Growth

One of the strongest predictors of urban growth since the start of the 20th century is the skill level of a city’s population. Cities that have a highly skilled population, usually measured as the share of the population with a bachelor’s degree or more, tend to grow faster than similar cities with less educated populations. This is true at both the metropolitan level and the city level. The figure below plots the population growth of 30 large U.S. cities from 1970 – 2013 on the vertical axis and the share of the city’s 25 and over population that had at least a bachelor’s degree in 1967 on the horizontal axis. (The education data for the cities are here. I am using the political city’s population growth and the share of the central city population with a bachelor’s degree or more from the census data linked to above.)

BA, city growth 1

As shown in the figure there is a strong, positive relationship between the two variables: The correlation coefficient is 0.61. It is well known that over the last 50 years cities in warmer areas have been growing while cities in colder areas have been shrinking, but in this sample the cities in warmer areas also tended to have a better educated population in 1967. Many of the cities known today for their highly educated populations, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., also had highly educated populations in 1967. Colder manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Newark had less educated workforces in 1967 and subsequently less population growth.

The above figure uses data on both warm and cold cities, but the relationship holds for only cold cities as well. Below is the same graph but only depicts cities that have a January mean temperature below 40°F. Twenty out of the 30 cities fit this criteria.

BA, city growth 2

Again, there is a strong, positive relationship. In fact it is even stronger; the correlation coefficient is 0.68. Most of the cities in the graph lost population from 1970 – 2013, but the cities that did grow, such as Columbus, Seattle, and Denver, all had relatively educated populations in 1967.

There are several reasons why an educated population and urban population growth are correlated. One is that a faster accumulation of skills and human capital spillovers in cities increase wages which attracts workers. Also, the large number of specialized employers located in cities makes it easier for workers, especially high-skill workers, to find employment. Cities are also home to a range of consumption amenities that attract educated people, such as a wide variety of shops, restaurants, museums, and sporting events.

Another reason why an educated workforce may actually cause city growth has to do with its ability to adjust and innovate. On average, educated workers tend to be more innovative and better able to learn new skills. When there is an negative, exogenous shock to an industry, such as the decline of the automobile industry or the steel industry, educated workers can learn new skills and create new industries to replace the old ones. Many of the mid-20th century workers in Detroit and other Midwestern cities decided to forego higher education because good paying factory jobs were plentiful. When manufacturing declined those workers had a difficult time learning new skills. Also, the large firms that dominated the economic landscape, such as Ford, did not support entrepreneurial thinking. This meant that even the educated workers were not prepared to create new businesses.

Local politicians often want to protect local firms in certain industries through favorable treatment and regulation. But often this protection harms newer, innovative firms since they are forced to compete with the older firms on an uneven playing field. Political favoritism fosters a stagnant economy since in the short-run established firms thrive at the expense of newer, more innovative startups. Famous political statements such as “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” helped mislead workers into thinking that government was willing and able to protect their employers. But governments at all levels were unable to stop the economic forces that battered U.S. manufacturing.

To thrive in the 21st century local politicians need to foster economic environments that encourage innovation and ingenuity. The successful cities of the future will be those that are best able to innovate and to adapt in an increasingly complex world. History has shown us that an educated and entrepreneurial workforce is capable of overcoming economic challenges, but to do this people need to be free to innovate and create. Stringent land-use regulations, overly-burdensome occupational licensing, certificate-of-need laws, and other unnecessary regulations create barriers to innovation and make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to create the firms and industries of the future.

Rent control: A bad policy that just won’t die

The city council of Richmond, CA is thinking about implementing rent control in their city. Richmond is located north of Berkeley and Oakland on the San Francisco Bay in an area that has some of the highest housing prices in the country. From the article:

“Richmond is growing and becoming a more desirable place where people want to live, but that increased demand is putting pressure on the existing housing stock.”

It is true that an increase in the demand for housing will increase prices and rents. Unfortunately, rent control will not solve the problem of too little housing, which is the ultimate cause of high prices.

rent control 1

The diagram above depicts a market for housing like the one in Richmond. Without rent control, when demand increases (D1 to D2) the price rises to R2 and the equilibrium quantity increases from Q1 to Q*. However, with rent control, the price is unable to rise. For example, if the Richmond city council wanted prices to be at the pre-demand-increase level they would set the rent control price equal to R1. But with the increase in demand the quantity demanded at that price is Qd, while the quantity supplied is only Q1. Thus there is a shortage. This is the outcome of a price ceiling.

What this means is that some people will find a place to rent at the old, lower rental price (Q1 people).  But more people will want to rent at that price than there are units available, and since the price cannot rise due to the price control, the available apartments will have to be allocated some other way. This means longer wait times for vacant apartments and higher search costs. It also means lower quality apartments. Since the owners know there are more people who want an apartment than available apartments, they don’t have an incentive to maintain the apartment at the same level as they would if they had to attract customers.

With rent control, only Q1 people get an apartment. Without rent control, as the price rises more units are supplied over time and the new equilibrium has Q* (> Q1) people who get an apartment. Yes, they have to pay a higher price, but the relevant alternative is not an apartment at the lower price: The alternative is that some people who would have been willing to pay the higher price do not get an apartment.

Since Richmond has strict land-use rules like many communities in the San Francisco metro area (you can read all about their minimum lot size and parking space requirements here), rent control is adding to the housing woes of Richmond’s renters and any person who would like to move there.

rent control 2

Land-use restrictions decrease the amount of buildable land which subsequently increases the cost of housing. This is depicted in the diagram above as a shift from S1 to S2. The decrease in supply leads to a new equilibrium rent of R2 > R1 and a reduction in the equilibrium quantity to Q2 (< Q1). So land-use restrictions have already decreased the amount of available housing and increased the price.

If rent control is implemented, depicted in the diagram as the solid red line at the old price (R1), then the quantity supplied decreases even more to Qs. Again, with rent control there is a shortage as the quantity of housing demanded at R1 is Q1 (> Qs). So all of the same problems that occurred in the first example occur here, only here the quantity of housing is decreased not once, but TWICE by the government: Once due to the land use restrictions (Q1 to Q2) and then AGAIN when the rent control is implemented (Q2 to Qs). Restricting the amount of housing available does not help more people find housing, and restricting it again exacerbates the problem.

Trying to find an economist who doesn’t think that rent control is a bad idea is like trying to find a cheap apartment in a city with rent control; it can be done, but you have to spend a lot of time looking. In a Booth IGM poll question about rent control, 95% of the economists surveyed disagreed with the statement that rent control had a positive impact on the amount and quality of affordable rental housing. Yet despite basic economic theory, the agreement among experts, and the empirical evidence (see here, here, and here) rent control remains in some places and is often brought up as a viable policy for increasing the amount of affordable housing. This is truly a shame since what places like Richmond need is more housing, not less housing with artificially low prices.

More reasons why intergovernmental grants are harmful

In a recent blog post I explained how intergovernmental grants subsidize some businesses at the expense of others. But that is just one of several negative features of intergovernmental grants. They also make local governments less accountable for their fiscal decisions by allowing them to increase spending without increasing taxes. The Community Development Blog Grant (CDBG) money that local governments spend on city services or use to subsidize private businesses is provided by taxpayers from all over the country. Unlike locally raised money, when cities spend CDBG money they don’t have to first convince local voters to provide them with the funds. This lack of accountability often results in wasteful spending.

These grants also erode fiscal competition between cities and reduce the incentive to pursue policies that create economic growth. If local governments can receive funds for projects meant to bolster their tax base regardless of their fiscal policies, they have less of an incentive to create a fiscal environment that is conducive to economic growth. The feedback loop between growth promoting policies and actual economic growth is impaired when revenue can be generated independently of such policies e.g. by successfully applying for intergovernmental grants.

Some of the largest recipients of CDBG money are cities that have been declining since the 1950s. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBG dollars given to nine cities that were in the top 15 of the largest cities in the US by population in 1950. (Click on graphs to enlarge. Data used in the graphs are here.)

CDBGs 9 cities 1950

None of these cities were in the top 15 cities in 2014 and most of them have lost a substantial amount of people since 1950. In Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Buffalo the CDBG money has not reversed or even slowed their decline and yet the federal government continues to give these cities millions of dollars each year. The purpose of these grants is to create sustainable economic development in the recipient cities but it is difficult to argue that such development has occurred.

Contrast the amount of money given to the cities above with that of the cities below:

CDBGs 9 cities 2014

By 2014 the nine cities in the second graph had replaced the other cities in the top 15 largest US cities by population. Out of the nine cities in the second graph only one, San Antonio, has received $1 billion or more in CDBG funds. In comparison, every city in the first graph has received at least that much.

While there are a lot of factors that contribute to the decline of some cities and the rise of others (such as the general movement of the population towards warmer weather), these graphs are evidence that the CDBG program is incapable of saving Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc. from population and economic decline. Detroit alone has received nearly $3 billion in CDBG grants over the last 40 years yet still had to declare bankruptcy in 2013. St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Milwaukee are other examples of cities that have received a relatively large amount of CDBG funding yet are still struggling with population decline and budget issues. Place-based, redistributive policies like the CDBG program misallocate resources from growing cities to declining cities and reduce the incentive for local governments to implement policies that encourage economic growth.

Moreover, if place-based subsidies, such as the CDBG program, do create some temporary local economic growth, there is evidence that this growth is merely shifted from other areas. In a study on the Tennessee Valley Authority, perhaps the most ambitious place-based program in the country’s history, economists Patrick Kline and Enrico Moretti (2014) found that the economic gains that accrued to the area covered by the TVA were completely offset by losses in other parts of the country. As they state, “Thus, we estimate that the spillovers in the TVA region were fully offset by the losses in the rest of the country…Notably, this finding casts doubt on the traditional big push rationale for spatially progressive subsidies.” This study is further evidence for what other economists have been saying for a long time: Subsidized economic growth in one area, if it occurs, comes at the expense of growth in other areas and does not grow the US economy as a whole.

Local land-use restrictions harm everyone

In a recent NBER working paper, authors Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh analyze how the growth of cities determines the growth of nations. They use data on 220 MSAs from 1964 – 2009 to estimate the contribution of each city to US national GDP growth. They compare what they call the accounting estimate to the model-driven estimate. The accounting estimate is the simple way of attributing city nominal GDP growth to national GDP growth in that it doesn’t account for whether the increase in city GDP is due to higher nominal wages or increased output caused by an increase in local employment. The model-driven estimate that they compare it to distinguishes between these two factors.

Before I go any further it is important to explain the theory behind the author’s empirical findings. Suppose there is a productivity shock to City A such that workers in City A are more productive than they were previously. This productivity shock could be the result of a new method of production or a newly invented piece of equipment (capital) that helps workers make more stuff with a given amount of labor. This productivity shock will increase the local demand for labor which will increase the wage.

Now one of two things can happen and the diagram below depicts the two scenarios. The supply and demand lines are those for workers, with the wage on the Y-axis and the amount of workers on the X-axis. Since more workers lead to more output I also labeled labor as L = αY, where α is some fraction less than 1 to signify that each additional unit of labor doesn’t lead to a one unit increase in output, but rather some fraction of 1 unit (capital is needed too).

moretti, land use pic

City A can have a highly elastic supply of housing, meaning that it is easy to expand the number of housing units in that city and thus it is relatively easy for people to move there. This would mean that the supply of labor is like S-elastic in the diagram. Thus the number of workers that are able to migrate to City A after labor demand increases (D1 to D2) is large, local employment increases (Le > L*), and total output (GDP) increases. Wages only increase a little bit (We > W*). In this situation the productivity shock would have a relatively large effect on national GDP since it resulted in a large increase in local output as workers moved from relatively low-productivity cities to the relatively high-productivity City A.

Alternatively, the supply of housing in City A could be very inelastic; this would be like S-inelastic. If that is the case, then the productivity shock would still increase the wage in City A (Wi > W*), but it will be more difficult for new workers to move in since new housing cannot be built to shelter them. In this case wages increase but since total local employment stays fairly constant due to the restriction on available housing the increase in output is not as large (Li > L* but < Le). If City A output stays relatively constant and instead the productivity shock is expressed in higher nominal wages, then the resulting growth in City A nominal GDP will not have as large of an effect on national output growth.

As an example, Moretti and Hsieh calculate that the growth of New York City’s GDP was 12% of national GDP growth from 1964-2009. But when accounting for the change in wages, New York’s contribution to national output growth was only 5%: Most of New York’s GDP growth was manifested in higher nominal wages. This is not surprising as it is well known that New York has strict housing regulations that make it difficult to build new housing units (the recent extension of NYC rent-control laws won’t help). This makes it difficult for people to relocate from relatively low-productivity places to a high-productivity New York.

In three of the most intensely land-regulated cities: New York, San Francisco, and San Jose, the accounting contribution to national GDP growth was 19.3%. But these cities actual contribution to national output as estimated by the authors was only 6.1%. Contrast that with the Rust Belt cities (e.g. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc.) which contributed -28.5% according to the accounting method but +6.1% according to the author’s model.

The authors conclude that less onerous land-use restrictions in high-productivity cities New York, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, and the rest of Silicon Valley could increase the nation’s output growth rate by making it easier for workers to migrate from low to high-productivity areas. In an extreme migration scenario where 52% of American workers in 2009 lived in a different city than they actually did, the author’s calculate that GDP per worker would have been $8,775 higher in 2009, or $6,345 per person. In a more realistic scenario (only 20% of workers lived in a different city) it would have been $3,055 more per person: That is a substantial increase.

While I agree with the author’s conclusion that less land-use restrictions would result in a more productive allocation of labor and thus more stuff for all of us, the author’s policy prescriptions at the end of the paper leave much to be desired.  They propose that the federal government constrain the ability of municipalities to set land-use restrictions since these restrictions impose negative externalities on the rest of the country if the form of lowering national output growth. They also support the use of government funded high-speed rail to link  low-productivity labor markets to high-productivity labor markets e.g. the current high-speed rail construction project taking place in California could help workers get form low productivity areas like Stockton, Fresno, and Modesto, to high productivity areas in Silicon Valley.

Land-use restrictions are a problem in many areas, but not a problem that warrants arbitrary federal involvement. If federal involvement simply meant the Supreme Court ruling that land-use regulations (or at least most of them) are unconstitutional then I think that would be beneficial; a broad removal of land-use restrictions would go a long way towards reinstituting the institution of private property. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is what Moretti and Hsieh had in mind.

Arbitrary federal involvement in striking down local land-use regulations would further infringe on federalism and create opportunities for political cronyism. Whatever federal bureaucracy was put in charge of monitoring land-use restrictions would have little local knowledge of the situation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already monitors some local land use and faulty information along with an expensive appeals process creates problems for residents simply trying to use their own property. Creating a whole federal bureaucracy tasked with picking and choosing which land-use restrictions are acceptable and which aren’t would no doubt lead to more of these types of situations as well as increase the opportunities for regulatory activism. Also, federal land-use regulators may target certain areas that have governors or mayors who don’t agree with them on other issues.

As for more public transportation spending, I think the record speaks for itself – see here, here, and here.