05 May 2017

The Pinch: house prices and student debt

David Willetts’ The Pinch (2010) made what amounted to a single point, fluffed up into over 200 pages of discursive ramble. The single point: capital and income differentials between older and younger Brits appear to have increased over recent decades. The resulting book was a readable but somewhat vacuous moan about the alleged deterioration of the “intergenerational contract”.

The book caused a stir at the time because hand-wringing about inequality had previously focused on class, rather than age, differences.

There is no a priori reason why there should be financial equality between any two social groups, or why a given level of financial inequality should be bad, or wrong. Similarly, there is no a priori reason why an increase in such inequality should be bad, or wrong. (Perhaps the previous level of inequality was too low.) This is more obviously relevant when looking at young versus old, since there are statistical differences in financial requirements for different age groups.

Such observations don’t deter writers like Lord Willetts from trying to score emotional points. As education spokesman, Willetts opposed grammar schools, which gives some indication of the type of equality espoused by him.

In The Pinch – as in most writing about inequality – the supposed unfairness aspect is mostly presumed or insinuated. The reader is simply expected to be shocked that one group is better off than another, or more so than at some earlier time. It is taken as axiomatic that any trend in inequality should be in the direction of less rather than more.

Because Willetts is a Conservative, his suggested solution to the supposed problem (to the extent one can be inferred from the book) seems to involve calls for more cooperation and less selfishness, rather than for direct intervention.

The Pinch received a re-mention recently because it superficially links to the ongoing issue of Britain’s runaway property market, which has meant that young people face difficulty making their first house purchase.

As is usual, the possibility that distortions caused by leftist tinkering might be the main culprit is not considered. Could the massive rise in the welfare state have changed things for the worse for those who come after it? Could inflation of university degrees have led to the appalling student loan scheme, crippling the young with debt? Could an over-enthusiastic immigration policy, leading to a shortage of housing, have generated a bubble? Commentators like Willetts tend to ignore such questions, preferring to blame popular bogeymen such as individualism.

The above is a brief commentary on a complex issue.
Additional funding would facilitate a more detailed analysis.