7 Oct 2016

Rent Seeking

@AnnPettifor tweeted a picture the other day. It was a cutting from the 2012 Financial Times. It turns out the article is available online.

The monumental folly of rent-seeking.
The success of market economies is not achieved by policies that encourage greed. John Kay.
"The activities of Shah Jahan epitomise rent-seeking – the accumulation of a fortune not by creating wealth through serving customers better but by the appropriation of such wealth after it has already been created by other people. Both are routes to personal enrichment and the tension between them has been a dominant theme of economic history. Whenever the balance shifts too far in favour of appropriation over creation, we see entrepreneurial talent diverted to unproductive activity, an accelerating cycle in which political power and economic power reinforce each other – until others become envious of the proceeds of appropriation, and the resentment of the oppressed undermines the legitimacy of the regime. Political and economic instability are an inevitable consequence."

Extracting and paraphrasing the definition
Rent seeking is the accumulation of wealth by appropriating wealth that has been created by other people rather than by producing something. Both rent seeking and production are routes to creating wealth. 
When the balance of wealth accumulation shifts towards appropriation over creation, i.e. when rent seeking over takes production, entrepreneurial talent is diverted into unproductive activities (such as the finance industry) and away from more beneficial activities.
I'm not sure how the last part follows from the first. I think the author skipped a few steps. But we can see that if people's effort is going into accumulating wealth created by other people without contributing anything that that is a problem. And we can see that for the last 40 years or so successive governments around the world have been facilitating rent seeking at the expense of producing things. Britain, which used to be a major producer of steel and manufacturer of steel products, is now more focussed on providing services, especially financial services. The banking and finance sector has expanded rapidly as manufacturing has shrunk.

In Britain, people with spare cash do not invest it in business, they buy a house and rent it out. This is the most basic form of rent seeking. It creates a divisive situation in which most housing is primarily a source of income for the wealthy rather than a home for anyone. It leads to the situation where too many people benefit too much from high house prices and therefore high rents and this distorts the market. In Britain too over at least two decades few houses have been built to meet the demand for housing, especially in the low-cost portion of the market.

This is exacerbated by drug lords, kleptocrats, and other world-scale criminals are using the London property market to launder their money. This tends to force prices up in central London and that has a ripple effect. The housing market has inflated at between 500%-1000% of the consumer price index.

Most people can now never dream of owning their own home. A lot of us can never dream of even renting our own home and must find lodgings or live communally. Rent money, wealth created through labour, goes to landlords who produce nothing but simply accumulate wealth created by others. It might be forgiveable if there were investing in housing so that there were enough houses for everyone, but they are not. And it would be very interesting to see how much tax large scale landlords are paying.

Another form of rent seeking is lending money and charging interest on it. But that is another story.

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Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.