Why Not Sell Cities?

Economists don’t like seeing economic inefficiency, and there’s a lot of it out there to bother us. But some of the very worst we see is in cities; there are many incredible inefficiencies in city land use and in supporting utilities. Which of course makes economists wonder: how could we do better?

Here is one idea that should seem obvious to most economists, but even so I can’t find much discussion of it. So let me try to think it through. What if we auctioned off cities, whole?

Specifically, imagine that we sell all the land and immobile property in an urban region, including all the municipal property, plus all the rights to make urban governance choices. We sell this to a single buyer, who might of course be a consortium. The winning bid would have to be higher than the prior sum of all regional property values, plus a gain of say 50%. The money would be paid to all the prior property owners in proportion to prior property values. (“Prior” should be well before the auction was announced.)

The winning buyer would control all property and governance in this region for a specific time period, say twenty years, after which they’d have to divide the region into at least a thousand property units and auction all them off again individually. Urban governance would revert back to its previous system, except that there’d be a single up-or-down vote on one proposal for a new governance regime offered by this buyer, using previous rules about who can vote in such things.

The idea here is of course to “internalize the externalities”, at least for a while. This single buyer would encompass most of the varying conflicting interests that usually cause existing inefficiencies. And they’d have the power to resolve these conflicts decisively.

OK, now let’s ask: what could go wrong? Well first maybe no bidder could actually collect enough money to make a big enough bid. Or maybe the city inefficiencies aren’t big enough to produce the 50% added value requirement. Or twenty years isn’t long enough to fix the deep problems. Or maybe the plan leaks out too early and pushes up “prior” property values. In these cases, there’d be no change, so not much would be lost.

Another thing that could go wrong would be that larger units of government, like states or nations, might try to tax or regulate this single buyer so much as to take away most of their gains from this process. In expectation of this outcome, no one would bid enough for the city. And again there’d be no change, so little would be lost. So we should try to set this up to avoid such taxation/regulation, but knowing that the downside isn’t terrible if we fail.

Finally, the new city owner might price-discriminate against residents who are especially attached to the city, and so are especially unwilling to leave. Like an old couple whose children all live nearby. Or a big firm with an expensive plant located there. If the new owner cranks up their rent high, these folks might lose on net, even if they are paid a 50% bonus on property values. Of course one might try to set rules to limit price-discrimination, though that might create the over-regulate scenario above. Also, if selling off cities whole became a regular thing, then people may learn to not get too attached to any one city.

I don’t see any of these problems as overwhelming, so I’d endorse trying to do this. But I don’t actually expect many places to try it, because I think most voters whose support would be needed would see their status as threatened. They’d be offended by the very idea of a single powerful actor having strong control over their lives, even if that actor had to pay dearly for the right, and even if they end up better off as a result. So I’d guess it is pride that most goeth before our city falls.

As I’ve mentioned before, people tend to love cities even as they hate firms, mainly because firms tend for-profit, while cities tend democratic. People now mostly accept for-profit firms because the non-profit ones don’t offer attractive jobs or products. Similarly, I’d predict that if there were many for-profit cities most people would be okay with them, as they’d be reluctant to move to worse-run non-profit cities. Also, if almost all firms were non-profit, people might be reluctant to rely on for-profit firms due to their bad public image. Multiple equilibria are possible here, and we may not be in the best one.

Added 9p: Many commentaries seem to fear private city owners evicting undesirable people from the city, in contrast to democratically controlled cities which they see as fountains of altruism toward such people. But see here, here, here, or consider that democracies regularly vote to exclude immigrants who would in fact benefit them materially.

Added 9a:

At the state and local level, government is indeed engaged in redistribution — but it’s redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy. (more)

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