Left Out, a podcast produced by Paul Sliker, Michael Palmieri, and Dante Dallavalle, creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the Left.
The Hudson Report is a new weekly series produced by Left Out with the legendary economist Michael Hudson. Every episode we cover an economic or political issue that is either being ignored—or hotly debated—that week in the press.
Paul Sliker: Michael Hudson welcome back to The Hudson Report.
Michael Hudson: It’s good to be back. I’m just home from China, getting over jetlag.
Paul Sliker: You recently gave a paper at Peking University about the economy and what sorts of policies they should implement and what to avoid.
But Michael, because we only have a short amount of time in these weekly segments, I want to look specifically at housing in China, and then compare that to what’s going on here in the U.S. In your speech you argued that China’s most pressing policy challenge is to keep down the cost of housing and that the policies best suited to avoid what you call the “neo-rentier disease.” Can you give us a picture of what’s going on currently with housing in China, and then explain what you mean by “neo-rentier disease” and how the Chinese can avoid it.
Michael Hudson: To put this in international perspective, you could say that international competition is based on labor’s cost of living in each country. The most important expense in every country’s cost of living today is housing. What makes a country competitive in manufacturing or other sectors comes down to how much it costs to pay for housing.
20 or 30 years ago only 10 percent to 12 percent of one’s income had to go for housing. That’s about the ratio in Germany today. But in America today it’s over 40 percent in the big cities. It’s also over 40 percent in London, and and it’s rising throughout Europe. But this is not a force of nature. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s largely because banks have found that they can do to housing the same thing they’ve done to education: Housing is an excuse to get people into debt.
The most important way to get people into debt for housing is to take control of the government with your lobbyists to un-tax housing. The property tax is way less than the rise in land prices. That leaves the rising rental value available to be paid to the banks. The reason why housing prices are going up is because a house is worth whatever a bank will lend. And they are lending more and more, to enable new borrowers to bid up property prices.
You’d think that China would have learned this by looking at the West, or at least by reading Volume 3 of Capital. In fact the Peking University meeting, the Second World Conference on Marxism, David Harvey gave the opening and closing speech. His point was that the Chinese should read Volume III of Capital to understand why and how the volume of debt and credit grows exponentially. As banks get richer and richer, the One Percent get richer. They need to nurture more and more markets for their credit and debt creation. So they lend on easier and easier terms, at a rising proportion of the home’s value. So it’s bank credit that has been inflating the price of housing.
David Harvey asked how China can let the price of housing go up so high in Shanghai (the most privatized city) that almost everybody who has a house is a millionaire. How can China expect to remain competitive in exporting industrial products when the cost of housing is so high?
Unfortunately, his talk and mine were almost the only economic talks at the meeting in Peking. As one of the Russian attendees pointed out to me, “Marxism” is the Chinese word for politics. “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” means to doing what they want politically. But economically they’ve sent their students to the United States, to attend business schools to learn how U.S. financial engineering practices.
Shanghai is where Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys came in the 1970s and early 80s, because the Chinese government worried that if western Marxists came over, they would tend to interfere with domestic Chinese politics. So actually, China had less exposure to foreign Marxian economics than to U.S.-style neoliberal teaching.
I gave the same basic talk in neighboring Tianjin, which is a more interesting city in many ways. It’s where Chou En-Lei went to school. Talking to women students (about 80 percent of the economics students were women, because it’s considered a social science there) about how they planned to get an apartment, I was told that they would have to marry a boy whose parents gave him an apartment. I didn’t meet any male student who said he would have to marry a woman with her own apartment. It’s a male’s role to have an apartment for his wife. So if you can’t find a guy with his own apartment this is not going to lead to a happy married life, and there may be no marriage at all.
Some of the students that I talked to three years ago are graduating now, but are still not married. So I asked where they were going to live. One of the problems I found out – in addition to what we just talked about – was that in order to prevent a rural exodus to the big cities, people from the provinces or from small towns are not allowed to get a passport to live in these cities. They’re only allowed to buy apartments in their home town. China is trying to prevent overcrowding and the development of slums. As a result, in order to get an apartment the student decided to teach at a university or the high school that provides its own housing.
So China’s corporations, public universities and other institutions are doing much what the Russian Soviets did: Employers provide their own workers with housing.
Meanwhile, you’ve had a move in the last three years under President Xi against corruption. The way they’ve moved against corruption is to put in a bureaucracy to prevent it. That is a natural step in any country. The bureaucracy has put a short lease on what governments can spending. So most universities, if they have big conferences, need a private-sector participant to share in the cost, especially if they bring people over from abroad. At the worse, this shifts corruption from the public sector to the private sector.
Meanwhile, there’s a shift going on in China now, and the political attitude of the students I talked to is quite different from what it was a decade ago, when students really thought that they could change the country and get rid of corruption. OK, they’ve cracked down on corruption. They put in bureaucracy. But now they’re faced with a problem that their students have all been sent to America to study economics and come back and ask “How do we get a free market?”
I couldn’t believe that students in China were asking me about a free market. But that idea led President Xi a few months ago to say they’re thinking of letting in American and European banks. Well, I think this would be a disaster. If you let in the American and foreign banks, their product is debt! What are they going to lend money for?
The answer is that they’re going to lend more money to buy apartments than other Chinese banks are willing to lend. That’s how banks increase their market share – a race to the bottom, into deeper and deeper debt. The new banks will lend on easier terms, with lower down payments. That provides buyers with even more credit to bid up the price of real estate. The effect will be to start pricing China out of the market.