It’s been almost a year since I wrote Hell, Titles, and Houses in July 2016. In this amount of time things have gone from crazy to ludicrous and now, finally, to precarious. I’ve been a fan of Garth Turner’s blog The Greater Fool for a while now, much longer than it has been fashionable to question the sustainability of an economy based on perpetually increasing house prices. Reading that blog every day might be a weird thing to be passionate about, but it helped me build confidence in the belief that not being in a position to buy a house doesn’t make me a loser or a victim. I had to change my beliefs. I knew the “responsible adult” thing to do was to get an education and a good job, pay back debt as fast as possible, then make the most important purchase of my life. But after putting in the work to get the education, the job, and slay the debt I came to realize that I had been doing the right things for the wrong reasons. I was being a responsible adult because I saw a game with winners and losers, and I intended to be a winner: the guy who owns a modest-but-nice house and therefore never has to suffer the indignities of pet restrictions and rent increases. I was to become wealthy over many years by virtue of owning, a sort of petit-bourgeois privilege afforded to me on account of being smarter and more clever than my less responsible peers (aka the losers).
Of course, a number of things are wrong with that way of thinking. It was based on erroneous assumptions about economics, as the month of May 2017 has shown us that things are starting to turn sour for everyone who has gone all-in on real estate in Canada’s hottest markets. But even if it remains the case that buying a house at any cost is a sure way to win, I now have to admit that it would be morally repugnant to “win” that way. Think of the board game that every self-respecting board game geek loves to scoff at: Monopoly. That’s the game where you throw dice and compete to see who can extract the most wealth just by being lucky to land on the right places at the right time but passing your combination of malice and good luck off as big league business savvy.
The object of the game is to bankrupt the other players through charging ever-increasing rents. There are a lot of things that make this game less fun, and one of them includes keeping other players in play. To properly play the game, it’s not enough to “add value” to the board by assembling your sets and building houses. You have to kick the ladder out from underneath you if you want to score a timely victory. This is all fine at the board game table; nothing is wrong with some make-believe wheeling and dealing among friends and family. But could you really feel good about yourself if, in real life, you aspired to play like a Monopoly player, whether by swift domination or by squeezing your opponents slowly by keeping them in the game just so you can get more from them later? I wouldn’t think so. I would give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don’t wish that reality was more similar to Monopoly than it is. If managing to buy real estate meant winning, and being among those who never caught the right break meant destitution, that’s not a game I would want to win.
Fortunately, the economic game in the real world doesn’t work like that. I am writing about this topic now because the markets in Vancouver and Toronto are faltering. May 2017 looks like the zenith of the madness that inspired people to blame foreigners for domestic problems in Vancouver, push and shove each other to scramble into an open house guarded by a police officer in Greater Toronto, and for people my age to feel like this music video is the most relatable thing we have heard in a long time. It is a cultural sickness we have in Canada that enables us to rationalize that behaviour in the face of a reality that is quite unlike Monopoly. It makes me hope that Garth Turner’s daily posts in this past month are accurately chronicling the unravelling of the economic assumptions that fuel the madness of this Monopoly mindset.
It wasn’t too long ago that conventional wisdom held that rants such as this one were pointless and esoteric. But nowadays, Canadian politicians (especially in BC and Ontario) seeking to maintain their positions in their own political game are scrambling to be seen as “doing something” to cool the market. Of course, I doubt that they want to succeed: almost 70% of Canadians own homes now. Successfully bringing prices back in line with incomes would be logical, fair, and absolute political suicide due to the number of people who have a lot to lose if the measures actually work. I don’t know what the politically tenable solution to our national housing crisis is. All I can do is take care of my own home, stay grounded, and hope that the storm of fear and greed eventually subsides and people start seeing houses as places to live again rather than get rich quick schemes. Life isn’t Monopoly.