One thing I'd like George Osborne to do in Wednesday's "emergency" Budget is to end the something for nothing culture.
I know someone who has made almost £400,000 tax-free without working - equivalent to almost 20 years of getting the maximum welfare benefits the Tories are considering. Thanks to this, he is looking forward to a prosperous early retirement. This is surely unfair, given that so many younger people might have to work until they drop.
That someone, of course, is me. And the £400,000 is the tax-free profit I made from rising house prices.
In this respect, I am typically British. Just look at the TV schedules. Antiques Roadshow, Homes under the Hammer, Cash in the Attic and anything starring Phil & Kirsty or Sarah Beeny testify to our desire to get money without working. The idea that something for nothing culture is confined to benefit recipients is utterly wrong.
It is, however, economically damaging in at least four ways:
- It diverts finance away from productive uses. For every pound UK banks lend to manufacturers, they lend almost £36 to home-buyers: £35.3bn vs £1264.8bn (pdf). It might also contribute to financial crises as bank periodically learn that mortgage lending isn't as safe as they think.
- As Andrew Oswald and Danny Blanchflower have shown (pdf), it contributes to unemployment, in part because the deadweight costs to home-owners of moving house slow down the extent to which people can move to where there are jobs.
- It creates a large constituency with a vested interest in loose monetary policy and higher inflation; inflation favours home-owners but hurts renters. The cost here isn't, perhaps (pdf) merely the werlfare costs of high inflation but the malinvestments, bubbles and increased risk of financial crises that result from low rates.
- If people are looking to get rich merely from rising house prices, they'll be diverted from productive activity. Granted, my early retirement won't be a devastating loss to anyone, but across millions of people such early retirement - and the diminished need to make full use of their human capital event whilst they are working - might well represent a big loss.
These mechanisms are consistent with a big fact - that across countries, high home ownership is associated with poor macroeconomic performance; Greeks and Italians are far more likely to own houses than Swiss or Germans*.
Which brings me to the Budget. In proposing to cut inheritance tax on housing George Osborne will exacerbate all these problems by further increasing the constituency with an interest in house price inflation and in getting something for nothing. This is not just inegalitarian - most of those who stand to inherit a £1m house are rich already - but also, I'd suggest, inefficient not just for the above reasons but also because lower tax on inheritances mean higher taxes elsewhere.
What it is not, though, is unpopular. Which reminds us that a big obstacle to a more just and efficient economy is public opinion.
* Of course, the causality doesn't just run from home ownership to shonky economies, but this is suggestive of some link.