Please stop pricing us out of existence

This blogpost picks up on a number of themes written by @Penners_ in her article Living with grandma. Like may people in their late 20s and early 30s, I certainly didn’t plan on having to move back in with my parents either after university or during my working life. This blogpost amongst other things is going to look at the fallacy of composition when you start putting individual policies that in isolation may seem to make sense but when put together, make anything but.

Three of the big issues for me are housing, transport and education.

On the issue of housing, the article mentioned above covers several of the themes. There are also a number of other issues. Buy-to-let ‘investors’ are benefiting at the expense of first-time buyers on the back of the mortgage finance squeeze. There are also continuing problems of unused or under-used properties whether empty mansions or empty homes.  The fixed supply of land inevitably means that there will be limitations on what sorts of housing can be built where – to say nothing about planning laws, building regulations and the issue of who owns which plots of land and which buildings.

I’ve mentioned before that my former headmaster told us school leavers in the mid-1990s that our generation would not be in positions where we have jobs for life. We would have to reskill, upskill and change careers. The changes to how further and higher education is financed means that the cost burden has moved from the state to the individual. The rationale for replacing a system of grants and free education to one of loans is that individuals will benefit from higher incomes when they complete their education and training, enabling them to pay off any loans that they take out to pay for the tuition and other costs required. That may may some sense in ‘job-for-life’ careers, but where people have to continually retrain and switch careers, loan after loan after loan (that needs to be repaid) becomes a trap – the curse of debt.

There is then the issue of the cost of transport – something that I covered in In praise of public transport. What is the rationale for further fare rises? The Campaign for Better Transport asks this question in The Telegraph. Whitehall departments are among many employers that offer season ticket loans for their employees, such are the expense of season tickets. I commuted from Cambridge for a couple of years because I found London rents to be unaffordable. It wasn’t just the rent alone – there are utility bills too…bills that are also rising. Can’t afford a place of my own, struggling to afford the costs of getting too and from the office, repaying the loans and debts from university days…that does not leave much left.

While all of this is happening, there is an unemployment crisis – in particular with young people. It is one that goes beyond our own borders too – the Eurozone (irrespective of who is to blame) showing eye-wateringly high unemployment figures. How can people possibly pay off those loans if there are no jobs for them to go into? For those who are in work, the majority of them have had pay freezes or below-inflation pay-rises. The situation looks very bleak – in particular for poorer people who are being hit hardest by inflation.

There is then the problem of consumer debt – one that is getting worse. The desperation drives many people into the arms of payday loan companies – an issue that Stella Creasy has been continuing to go after.

While all of this is happening, the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of us is widening.

House prices are outside the reach of many of us, with rents seemingly going in the same direction. Those who do take out mortgages do so at eye-watering levels. Rents are becoming more and more unaffordable. Public transport is becoming even more unaffordable – assuming that the routes have not been cut as a result of the wider public service cuts. Tuition fees are now at the levels that people would have thought was the equivalent of the cost of a house only a generation or two ago. People are also having to spend more and more (in both time and money) on retraining for new careers as jobs demand more specialised skills. Combine that with intrusive saturation advertising exhorting people to go out and buy into the new crazes…is there any money left?

  • House prices at stupidly high levels & thus unaffordable for many people – loans
  • Tuition fees and course fees at such high levels as to be unaffordable for many people – loans
  • Public transport and season tickets getting to such high levels as to be unaffordable for many people – loans

At what point do people say “Actually, we cannot afford any of that!” Are people with the talent to go down a number of career paths already doing so? Are people who are suitable for certain jobs choosing not to go for them because of the costs of getting to/from work and/or the costs of renting close to the place of work? Because if that is the case, that cannot be good for the economy (because the most competent people best suited for the jobs/careers are not even applying for them) and it cannot be good for society (because people are being denied the opportunities to reach their potential).

Do any mainstream politicians have the vision, calibre and competency to do anything about it and stop the current system from pricing the rest of us out of existence? The number of longterm unpaid internships at the House of Commons-backed website W4MP isn’t filling me with a huge amount of confidence.


7 thoughts on “Please stop pricing us out of existence

  1. Yep – not everyone can afford nor should be encouraged to buy a home – share with others and live in cheaper areas until you can afford it has to be one answer or move back with the rents if you have to – the cheaper option and quite acceptable as long as they allow you the freedom you have been used to as a student away – allowing too for showing them some respect and living by at least some of their house rules!

    Not everyone should see a university education as a must have – back in the day degrees were reserved for certain subjects mostly academic ones or applied professions – medicine, speech therapy, architecture etc… the rest went to technical colleges or other FE establishments which were appropriate for the level of qualification studied and granted and cost alot less – often with live at home students…

    Young people graduated or qualified without the burden of debt unless they drank too much beer! (most did)

    few moved back home but most could have done – families still has some residual structure – young children usually had bed times, knew right from wrong and rarely wandered the streets after dark….
    Alas so much has changed adn it will never, ever change back – so, well we do what we can with what we have.

    Loss of sense of collective morality, the me culture, and the its not fair attitudes of so many today goes a long way to explain the horrible pickle society is in today …sad really. 😦

  2. Reading this article reminds me about a small aspect of the ENRON scandal. Fundamentally ENRON (along with their dodgy accounting) were using very dodgy sales techniques to push up the cost of energy in California at huge cost to Californian society and business. The point is there are certain services which need to be provided in a cost effective way for a society (and capitalism) to work.

    I can understand that charging for degrees may make sense to deter “dossers” and get well paid graduates to contribute to their education. However, this ignores that there are a whole raft of careers which require a degree and which benefit society in general and are not especially well paid (nurses and teachers being the most obvious examples). Likewise high costs of public transport may be justifiable in terms of enabling their operators to make a profit. However, this lack of cheap mobility and the high cost of housing in areas where there is employment and you create the problem of working simply not being cost effective for many people.

    Its difficult to see how unleashing such market forces is compatible with growth and prosperity and happiness for the general population….

  3. Great piece. It seems to me to hit at the heart of one of the most fundamental illusions of our time – that we have been getting more prosperous materially if we are in work. But let’s look at the evidence; my own upbringing is a symptom of this, my father being a skilled worker in manufacturing industry in the 1960s and 1970s earning a good wage – about a third above the national average – and our being comfortably off as a family, including being able to buy a comfortable semi-detached home, in North London suburbia, on his income alone – probably the equivalent of about £35,000 in today’s money. Today that would be the purest fantasy. Moreover, in those halcyon days there was free university education, and far more generous social provision. Objectively, we have got far poorer – the average wage buys way less than it did and increasingly families with two full-time incomes struggle.

    House prices are absolutely key to this. Yet you will read time and again, in the media, that rising house prices are a sign of prosperity. It’s nonsense, and it’s ideologically-derived nonsense. In what kind of deluded mentality can a sustained increase in the price of most basic necessity of life – far faster than rises in incomes – be regarded as prosperity? Not only is such a belief an implicit acceptance of the rightness of distributing income from young and poor to old and rich, but the fundamental instability of a housing market founded on speculation and the expectation of inflation should be obvious. House prices surge and crash – but even the crash is not enough to return prices to a level where ownership becomes affordable for millions of people. Families are impoverishing themselves in pursuit of a destructive myth.

    Social housing, and a strictly regulated private rental sector of the sort that exists in, say, Germany, have got to be part of the answer. But here’s a piece of economic sense that no politician will touch; how about making the profits on the sale of one’s principal home subject to capital gains tax? It’s a redistributive measure and would curb speculation and help restore stability to the market. It would actually help geographical mobility to the extent that it narrowed regional gaps in prices. The very fact that for any political party to adopt such a policy would be electoral suicide demonstrates the depth of the crisis of false consciousness about housing.

    As long as maintaining a housing shortage is in the interests of those who own property, and as long as playing the property market is seen as a legitimate activity while the huge destruction that speculation causes is ignored, we are in the deepest of messes.

  4. I agree with Carmel. There is no good reason why so many careers should require degrees or why so many should find that they have to get a degree to have any chance of working in the sorts of jobs that 16 and 18 year old school leavers did little more than a generation ago. Some jobs might have become more technically demanding but these are few. If anything white collar work is less intellectually demanding than a generation back – what used to have to be held in memory and experience or worked out manually is often now trivially easy to access online or compute without worrying about the underlying mechanic.

    There’s no grand conspiracy of capitalism, just a lot of ridiculous if well-intentioned policies that have resulted in making life in 2012 a harder slog than it was in 1997. Finding a way back is harder to see but would involve “denying” thousands the “opportunity” to get deeply into debt to study degrees which were of little use to them, admitting that actually we can’t all become lawyers and rake in the cash in the city and that maybe there was always going to be an impact on properly costs if we were to encourage population growth by immigration in the areas with best employment prospects. Maybe it is only right that parents of the current generation foot the bill and house their children through their 20s after having benefited by being the right age to buy cheaply in London after it had depopulated by around a million as it did in the 70s.

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