Much has been written about how high house prices are reducing (pdf) home ownership and depressing real incomes. This is an economic menace: it depresses productivity and increases economic instability (pdf). But I wonder: does it also retard cultural and technological change?
I ask because the emergence of youth culture as we know it in the 1950s was the product of the fact that the post-war economic boom put money into the pockets of young people. As Billy Bragg says:
What happened in 1955, '56 was the first generation of British kids who were born during the war left school. And they left school at a time of high employment. So they were able to find work pretty quickly. So they were getting paid more, sometimes more than their parents. And they, you know - the only expense they had was giving housekeeping to their mom. So they had a lot of money to spend things on. So sales of cosmetics, of records, of clothes kind of took off in the mid-'50s. And this generation really is the first generation to identify themselves as distinct teenagers.
Friedrich Hayek said a similar thing. In The Constitution of Liberty he wrote that economic progress takes place “in echelon fashion.” New goods at first are “the caprice of the chosen few” and they then spread. He thought the “chosen few” were the rich. But they can equally well be younger people who are more open to new products and experiences: grandparents, for example, have iPads because their children and grandchildren got them first.
All this implies that if the incomes of the young are squeezed by high housing costs then we’ll see less cultural or technical progress. And this, I suspect, is just what we’ve got. The distinctive products and experiences we associate with millennials are small beer – literally so in the craft beers served in what we oldsters call short measures: coffee, avocado toast and free apps. This is not the stuff of cultural dynamism.
There’s more. Art and culture, as much as industry, benefits from agglomeration effects – the ability of creative people to live near each other. In the 60s and 70s countless musicians moved into rundown New York apartments where they could live cheaply whilst they honed their craft and waited for their break. Today, this is no longer possible in New York or London unless you have rich parents. As Chris Stein has said:
The biggest shame is that everybody’s gotta have a job to live in the city now. There’s no time to make art. How can you keep your credibility if you have some stupid job you hate and still be a radical?
What it gives us in greater numbers, though, are drones - commute, work, sleep: repeat for 50 years. I know that PR-based surveys are unreliable, but it’s not wholly surprising that so many millennials are suffering quarter-life crises.
In this sense, expensive housing has totalitarian tendencies: it enforces uniformity. For some, this might be a feature not a bug. For those of us who value diversity, however, it is certainly not.
Now of course, all this is necessarily speculative. It’s a story about what hasn’t happened. But then, that is the very nature of opportunity cost: we don’t see the road not taken. And the road closed by high housing costs might well have been a pleasant one.
* I’m not saying that a rich background precludes musical genius; Nick Drake and Townes van Zandt are obvious counter-examples. It’s just that if you draw your talent only from the rich then you have much thinner pickings.