Monthly Archives: September 2017

Price Gouging is Bad

With Texas recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and Florida and the Carribean from Hurricane Irma, the internet is blossoming with takes on how actually price gouging is good. It’s not.

The Econ 101 argument offered in favor of price gouging is that higher prices provide a market signal to entrepreneurs to figure out a way to increase the supply of the desired good. This is indeed the very basic version of how supply and demand works. However, it’s a terrible way to allocate resources during the short term impacts of a natural disaster.

The point of the profit motive is supposed to be to reward people for doing things that benefit society, not to hand them windfall profits for just happening to be in the right place at the right time. This is why few people complain about Apple’s huge profits, since smartphones and laptops are generally considered to be good products. Creating the iPhone was hard and took a lot of time and money, and people generally accept that Apple has earned its profits. Apple also faces fairly robust competition in smartphones from other innovative companies like Samsung.

On the other hand, Martin Shkreli is widely and rightly considered to be a villain, who bought the rights to produce and distribute a drug created by someone else’s hard work and innovation, and then used a market distortion, a government-granted monopoly, to jack up the price. People see that Shkreli is just trying to enrich himself by squeezing sick people in need of medical treatment, and is not really interested in doing anything socially beneficial. In addition, the structural barriers to market entry created by the government-granted monopoly make it nearly impossible for anyone with entrepreneurial spirit to deliver to Shkreli the market smackdown his fiendishness so richly deserves.

The short-term supply shocks and demand panics induced by natural disasters are not quite the same as government-granted monopolies, but they create similar outcomes. For example, the airline industry did not do anything innovative to greatly increase the demand for air travel upon the approach of Hurricane Irma. There is not a large amount of slack in the airline industry that can be brought to market by enormous price increases, a fact revealed by the very ability of the airline industry to increase prices by an order of magnitude in advance of the storm.

Because their occurrence, in both time and space, is unpredictable and their impact is very short-lived, the incentives created by natural disasters align very poorly with good profit motives. No one expects that Delta raising prices to over $3,000 will lead to a burst of innovation or capacity growth in the airline industry, just as no on expects that Jet Blue’s $99 flights to flee Irma will have a long run impact on airline industry capacity or profitability.

Investment in expanding capacity of any industry requires time, money, and other resources. The unpredictable nature and short duration of natural disasters results in there being little long-term incentive to invest in capacity to overcome their short-term impacts. Nobody is going to build an oil refinery and gasoline distribution infrastructure that is only useful and profitable for the two weeks after the time a hurricane happens to hit a major American city.

In addition, many shortages caused by natural disasters are not structural shortages caused by lack of capacity in the supply chain, but panic-induced shortages similar to bank runs caused by fear of future shortages and a resulting desire to hoard. I happened to be in Fort Worth during Hurricane Harvey, and every gas station had a line out into the street, with many running out of gas, despite there being no real supply disruption in the area.

A large increase in the price of gas in such a situation is not the proper response. Again, no one is going to build extra refineries & distribution infrastructure for these random occurrences. A large increase in prices plus hoarding behavior will just lead to unearned profits for “first to the well” hoarders and inability of low-income people to afford resources they may really need.

The proper policy response to short-term disruptions caused by natural disasters is rationing, to ensure everyone has fair access to enough resources while normal supply chains are repaired.

The finance industry understands this, of course, when it itself is subject to short-term panics such as bank runs or similar events in markets for financial instruments. These situations are handled by limiting or suspending withdrawals, i.e. rationing, until the institution can find a way to overcome the panic.

A similar response to natural disasters is appropriate. Rationing, not price gouging, is the right way to distribute resources during short-term shocks.

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Failed Housing Policy: Venice Edition

There’s currently a proposed project in Venice that will replace a 5-unit apartment building with a single-family home (with four parking spaces). The existing building was constructed in 1965, meaning that its demolition will result in the loss of 5 rent-stabilized units. It is worth asking how, in a city with a severe housing affordability crisis, we are getting projects that are reducing the amount of housing.

Contrary to what one might think, this outcome is exactly what we as a city have asked for through our planning and zoning. Decades of planning have been controlled by opponents of development, and have resulted in a set of policies that encourage the replacement of modest apartments with luxury single-family homes.

The existing 5-unit building is on a 2,520 square foot lot in the C1 zone. This building is illegal today for the following reasons:

  • It is too dense. The current zoning only allows 3 units on this lot (R3 uses are permitted in C1 zones, and R3 requires 800 SF of lot area per unit).
  • The lot is too small. The current zoning requires 5,000 SF minimum lot sizes for R3 uses.
  • The building setbacks are too small. The existing building is built close to the lot lines, while the current zoning requires 10’ front yards, 3’ side yards, and 15’ rear yards.
  • There is not enough parking. The building appears to have 3 parking spaces for 5 units; even if they are all studios, 5 spaces would be required today. If there are tandem spots not visible from the street, they are non-conforming.
  • As a 5-unit building, it falls just below the threshold for needing private open space on-site, so it does not fail on that count.

Therefore, it is not surprising at all that someone is proposing to demolish this building. Current city policy says that this building is bad and should never have been built. Buildings like this, constructed in 1965, are what helped launch the “homevoter revolution” in LA politics around 1970. Changing the zoning and community plans to stop more buildings like it was part of their goal and they succeeded. Now, 45 years hence, they are finally getting their wish that renters and apartment buildings be driven out of their neighborhoods.

If we are going to solve LA’s housing crisis, policy needs to be aligned with that goal. Much of Venice is zoned RD1.5 or R1, only allowing low density development. Denser zoning, combined with widespread use of the density bonus program, would create the opportunity to produce both the luxury units in demand by the region’s growing tech sector and the dedicated affordable housing that is needed to help prevent displacement. But as long as policy is aligned towards demolishing apartments & building single-family homes, that’s what’s going to happen.

Company Towns Are Bad

This is one of those things that should be surprising to even have to mention, but the concept of company towns pops up from time to time in discussions on California’s housing crisis, so here’s a summary of why they are bad.

The specific proposal often takes different forms, but they are all variations of Gilded Age company towns (or Communist countries with internal movement controls if you like):

  • Workforce housing: because California’s housing crisis is so bad it’s impacting middle class professionals like teachers, some liberal communities have begun to feel embarrassed that people with “respectable” jobs can’t afford to live in the city where thy work. This generosity rarely extends to people who do things like work at 7-11, who are expected to have to endure long commutes as the price of their insistence on working in the service industry.
  • Company housing: misdirected anger at the tech companies that are a big part of California’s economy results in calls for these firms, which certainly have the profits to do so, to build housing for their employees to take pressure off the local housing stock.
  • Tying new office development to new residential development: this is a proposal to force cities to permit enough housing to accommodate the employees in new office space that they permit.

The first two proposals are similar enough to discuss as one, with the main difference being that in the first the government provides housing for its employees, while in the second the private sector provides housing for its employees.

These proposals are bad because they demote the employees to second class citizenship, where the ability to secure housing is contingent on employment with a single employer. It is not hard to see how this will easily lead to employees surrendering their rights and not speaking out against institutional problems, because of the fear of losing their housing. It also implicitly creates a third class citizenship, occupied by the elderly, the unemployed, government employees whose jobs are not deemed important enough to get them housing, and people employed by businesses that do not have the huge profit margin needed to provide subsidized housing.

Simply put, people’s ability to find housing should not be dependent on them staying at the same employer.

The third proposal may seem appealing because it targets recalcitrant municipalities like certain Silicon Valley cities that permit new office space and see a large amount of job creation, but allow almost zero new housing to be built. The idea here is to force these cities to build more housing, to relieve pressure on the housing stock in nearby cities that have not had the same amount of job growth.

The unintended consequences of such a policy are likely to be bad. The recalcitrant cities are just as likely, if not more likely, to respond by stopping or slowing office development. This will lead the high-profit industries to outbid small businesses and lower margin industries for office space, hurting the region’s economy and the people who work for those smaller or less profitable places. If we want to make cities that don’t build enough housing build more, we should just do that and not make it any more complicated than it needs to be.

History suggests that jobs-housing balance can only be achieved on a regional level. While coastal communities like Santa Monica and Venice complain about too much job growth (oh, the entitlement!), cities towards the edge, like Santa Clarita, Palmdale, and Moreno Valley worry about a jobs-housing imbalance in the opposite direction – too many houses and too few jobs. Employment always seems to like to concentrate to a greater extent than housing, perhaps because the efficiencies achieved are greater. It seems likely that we will always have more jobs than housing near the employment centers and more housing than jobs on the edges. In addition, policies to try to achieve jobs-housing balance at a local level ignore the fact that people changes jobs from time to time, and many households have more than one income earner.

There are a few places where company towns or workforce housing make sense. These are generally isolated towns where the economy is dependent on one enormous employer or one dominant sector. Examples are mountain resort towns, island resorts, and remote mining towns. Resort towns often feature a large number of second homes, owned by people with much greater means than local service industry workers. They may also face serious natural or imposed constraints on development, such as very limited space suitable for building, limited water, or business development plans that place a high priority on keeping the town to a small size or maintaining the appearance of natural surroundings.

These unusual circumstances certainly do not apply to any city in California (except maybe Avalon due to water availability, a desalination plant would be expensive for a city so small). People in California already face precarious housing situations due to the high cost of owning and renting; many would have a hard time keeping their housing upon loss of a job. The solution is to make housing cheaper for everyone in California and reduce people’s dependence on any particular employer for housing, not increase it.