Michael Lind is in the midst of a three-part series over at Salon on the rise of rentier capitalism in America, with some pretty unambiguous headlines (yesterday: “Private sector parasites”; today: “How rich ‘moochers’ hurt America”). His premise is that the true “takers” in America are not the impoverished families on food stamps or the retired workers using medicare. They are, among other people, the landlords who've been sitting comfortably on the other end of the astronomical uptick in rent prices we've been wringing our hands over here, here, here and here.
Last spring, The New York Times reported that rents in Manhattan had reached an all-time high. By September, our own Richard Florida noted that it had become cheaper to own a home than to rent one in every one of the country's 100 largest metros. Earlier this year, it appeared as if the average rent for an apartment in San Francisco had finally leveled off... at $2,741 a month.
We've thought a lot about what all of these numbers mean for families and young professionals who would like to move into (or stay within) increasingly unaffordable major metros. But Lind's writing puts a whole different perspective on the problem: What about all of the landlords who are now depositing this windfall, and without lifting a finger or remodeling a bathroom to get it?
While productive capitalists — “industrialists,” to use the old-fashioned term — need to be active and entrepreneurial in order to keep ahead of the competition, “rentiers” (the term for people whose income comes from rents, rather than profits) can enjoy a perpetual stream of income even if they are completely passive.
Landlords aren't the only "rentiers" in our economy. Lind uses the acronym FIRE to reference the broader sector of rent "takers" in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors. The fact that all of these people are doing so well right now means that massive flows of wealth in our economy are changing hands without the production of new tools or services or products, or really without the creation of any new value. Wealthy rentiers are growing wealthier without producing anything. Meanwhile, while you sit in your $3,000-a-month Manhattan studio, you're not funneling that money into sectors of the economy we would ostensibly like to spur, like technology (buy a new computer) or local business (try a new restaurant).
All of this suggests that, if we want a technology-driven, highly productive economy, we should encourage profit-making productive enterprises while cracking down on rent-extracting monopolies, whether they are natural products of geography and geology (real estate and energy and energy and mineral deposits) or artificial (chartered banks, professional licensing associations, labor unions, patents and copyrights). This is a valid distinction between “makers” and “takers.”
In the United States, he laments, we tend to view all money-making enterprises "as if they were equally productive and socially useful" simply because they make somebody money somewhere. And we seldom distinguish between wealth accumulated through passive means like rent collection or active (and riskier) efforts at doing... anything productive.
The fact that your rent is rising is hardly the fault of greedy landlords. They're extracting what the market will pay, and the market has gotten a lot tougher as more job-seekers have moved into certain cities, and as many people have been scared off of homeownership. But it's worth noting that as you dash off your next rent check, you're not the only one hurting. This isn't good for the economy, either.