These houses are the source of a great many problems in the world

I was driving by a new housing development in Brampton the other day and I just had to pull over and take a picture. I’ve seen big houses before, but these ones just blew me away. I mean, just look at the size of this thing. It’s more like an institution than a house. (You can look at the double garage in order to get a sense of the scale.) Also, even though you can’t see it very well in the picture, these houses aren’t spread out on one or two acre parcels. It’s a dense development (as these things go), I would guesstimate that they’re building over a hundred of them.

big house

I haven’t written much about consumerism lately, mainly because I have it worked out to my own satisfaction, and there doesn’t seem to be very much new on this front. And yet seeing houses like this reminds me of how central the problem of competitive consumption is, how it lies at the root of so many other problems in the world that we live in.

In my view, the biggest “political economy” discovery of the 20th century is that you can increase the wealth of the population by a factor of eight or nine times, and not have it reduce the level of possessiveness, or of resistance to redistribution, by one iota. This never ceases to amaze me (much as it would have amazed Karl Marx, who just assumed that once people were rich beyond the dreams of avarice – which at least 95% of us are, by the standards of the 19th century – that we would become less preoccupied with “mine” and “thine”).

Even during my own lifetime, GDP per capita in this country has more than doubled. My children are growing up in the country where the average person is twice as wealthy as the average person was when I was their age. (And that’s not even taking into consideration technological change.) Yet there is no discernible change at all in how people feel about their financial situation, or their consumption. The suggestion that we might want to have a carbon tax to combat global warming, or a road toll to reduce congestion, or even just a more progressive income tax to help the poor, is met with howls of outrage. We are told that hard-working Canadian families are just taxed out, they can’t possibly shoulder these additional burdens. Apparently there are just so many other bills to be paid, there is no room at all to solve these pressing social problems.

Now I happen to believe that this is actually how most people honestly feel. It’s not just a made-up thing. The average Canadian family does feel financially pressed. The question then is how it could be, given that these hard-working families are approximately twice as wealthy, on average, as families were when I was young. How is it possible to double the wealth, and yet not create any slack?

(And don’t say it’s because median incomes are stagnant, the 1 per cent have taken it all, etc. This is Canada, not the U.S. — the income trends are different. Plus anyone who’s been in an average suburban home of late knows full well that people have a pretty elevated consumption level. Just take a look at that house above, which is being sold to people probably in the upper 60-80% income range, definitely not upper 10%.)

The answer is that people are stuck in a race to the bottom, involving various forms of (implicit or explicit) competitive consumption. House size is one of them. Houses just keep getting bigger and bigger. (In Luxury Fever, Robert Frank cites the factoid that the bottom income quintile in the United States enjoys the same amount of living space as the average European.) I recall once asking one of my in-laws, who had just bought a new suburban home, which model she had chosen. “The biggest one,” she said. I love that answer. It’s one thing to buy the biggest one, but to buy it under that description is just awesome. Let the race to the bottom begin!

These big houses illustrate several things. First of all, they reinforce the old point about the impossibility of a purely technical solution to our environmental problems. Part of the reason we can build them so big is that they are so much cheaper to build and to heat. Notice all the particle board construction – everything but the roof. Also, this thing has 6” walls, probably R40 insulation, a 98% AFUE natural gas furnace, and a vapour barrier so hermetic you have to turn on a fan if you boil a kettle. In other words, technologically it’s an ecological fantasy home. Yet if these new houses were drafty like the ancient one that I live in downtown, no one in their right mind would buy one so big. So we should not be under the illusion that better insulation and high-efficiency furnaces are going to help us with our carbon footprint. People have a certain amount they are willing to pay to heat their houses, and the houses expand to fit that budget. And if they have some slack, they’ll go and install a heated driveway or something. It’s like there’s some principle of waste homeostasis at work.

Second, people who buy a house like this are basically locking themselves into a lifetime of additional consumption, above and beyond their mortgage. Most importantly, a lot of people buy these giant houses without quite realizing just how much stuff you need in order to fill them. I’ve been to quite a few that are almost comically empty. It not just that people don’t have the money to fill them – although a house like this probably costs about $300K to fully furnish – it’s that they also just don’t have the time, or the mental energy to coordinate consumption on that scale. (I mean, how do you go about picking out a 12-seat sectional sofa for the family room?) Plus this house has probably 5 bathrooms – the new rule in home construction is each bedroom has its own bathroom. So they wind up buying, and buying, and buying… It becomes a lifetime project.

Also, I find that people tend to keep buying until their house is full, at which point they stop. This is particularly true of children’s toys. You just keep buying more until it’s all piled up and you can’t find anything anymore, at which point you say “that’s it kid, no more toys.” But with these big gigantic houses, it takes forever to get to that point, so people just keep piling stuff up. They even fill the garage, winding up parking their cars in the driveway.

In any case, I have to say that for me, a lot of big questions of political ideology, particularly about the appropriate size of the state, are driven by my awareness of competitive consumption in the domain of private goods. When the Conservative government announces with pride that they are cutting this tax or that tax, “so you can keep more of your hard-earned money,” the picture that goes through my mind is of houses like this. Even though people don’t experience it as waste, the fact is that most of the money gets wasted.

Also, it reminds me of just how utterly outrageous this country’s stand on climate change is. We desperately need to persuade countries like China, India and Brazil to curtail their emissions, and yet right now we’re saying “we can’t possibly cut our own emissions… our economy is too fragile, we can’t afford it.” And yet this is what a single-family dwelling looks like in this country! Can you imagine how risible and self-serving our stance sounds, to people around the world?


These houses are the source of a great many problems in the world — 17 Comments

  1. Quick nitpick/request for clarification: do you really mean top 60-80% here, or top 20%-40%?

    “Just take a look at that house above, which is being sold to people probably in the upper 60-80% income range, definitely not upper 10%.”

    (Genuine question; I know nothing about the Canadian housing market and less about Brampton, but the idea that someone at the fringe of the bottom income quintile could buy a house like that is surprising.)

    • I meant people in the 4th income quintile, not the 5th (top 20%), but the one below (so people who are not in the bottom 60%, but not in the top 20%) — hard to explain! Also, for what it’s worth, these houses will almost all be bought by first-generation immigrants.

  2. I see exactly the same thing on the way to work each day. A new subdivision is filling up with houses that look pretty much like two copies of my 1970 house – a typical example of what was built in this town back then – stacked on top of each other.

    And the families who bought houses like mine 45 years ago had fairly recently voted in governments that created the CPP and made Medicare a national program. Now, of course, we can’t afford a national drug plan, or proper homecare for the elderly, or ……

    re: “principle of waste homeostasis” – this sounds a lot like Jevons’ paradox, first proposed 150 years ago (see )

  3. This was a great read, and I think you’ve nailed the issue here. That being said (and admittedly this isn’t the main thrust of your piece): is it true that young Canadians today are significantly wealthier than those a generation ago?

    The above article in the Globe had some interesting data comparing the costs of University and home ownership in the early 1980s to now, and both of these things have grown considerably less affordable. In 1984 you could easily pay your university tuition with a minimum-wage summer job, but not so today. In 1984 the average Vancouver house cost $236k in 2012 inflation-adjusted dollars.

    I don’t exactly know how to square these two things, because I absolutely agree with your point – we seem intent on squandering any gains we get, whether from environmental efficiency or elsewhere. But it seems to me that we’re doing this at the same time as the world around us gets less affordable. Am I wrong about this?

  4. I wonder if you are familiar with this book, “Spent”, by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller? He too is into Veblen and Franks (the Robert H. and a couple of lesser ones) and his thesis is similar to yours, though he analyzes what is being shown off in terms of dimensional personality psychology, and believes that waste per se isn’t necessary and that this whole game could be restructured and played in ways that diminish negative externalities.

    • Thanks, I hadn’t seen that — I’ll take a look. On your last sentence, my go-to reference on this topic is here: (probably gated, sorry!)

      Incidentally, in the post I didn’t mention the whole “adaptation” story, which in many ways runs parallel to the competitive consumption story, and is not always adequately differentiated (e.g. in R. Frank).

  5. It is not just the house – it is also the land use planning. There is a huge investment in Toronto right now in unsustainable places. It is impossible to get decent public transit there, everyone needs to drive a car, and we are all stuck paying for the infrastructure to maintain the roads etc… needed to keep these places running.

    It is a collective insanity, driven by individual choices to try to keep up/do better on each front.

    In terms of how we get to this point, one interesting thing is that we do not necessarily even end up better off. The example given above is that houses in certain cities have quadrupled in price (in real dollars). This means that part of the competitive consumption ends up being rent payments to landowners.

    • As to what it’s driven by . . . let’s not forget that the beginnings of urban sprawl did not come about organically through demand, they were planned, partly by people intending to make lots of bucks off the development itself, partly by “scientific” government planners who were sure they knew what was good for people, partly by car companies who took an active hand in influencing urban planning and of course were notorious for crushing many existing transit networks such as streetcars and whatnot.

      Certainly there’s something in people that responds to the idea of competitive consumption. But it’s nonetheless not really people-driven, to this day. Capitalism has gotten very good at manufacturing demand, prompting people to want shit that it would never have occurred to them they wanted if they weren’t told they wanted it and weren’t (cool, successful, whatever) if they didn’t want and ultimately have it. Hence the original post’s mention of the great contrast between square footage between Europeans and North Americans. It’s not like the US poor are richer than a middle class Dane. Nor are Danes apparently upset about their smaller living quarters, or trying to move en masse to the US to get bigger digs. They just haven’t been sold that particular vision of what the good life is supposed to look like.

      Maybe I’m seeing something that’s not there, but there’s a certain feeling of inevitability in the post that I don’t buy. For instance, that increases in energy-efficiency of housing will (absent social change, yes, but the post also seems to doubt the possibility of that as well) inevitably lead to increases in housing size that will eat up all gains from such efficiency. But clearly the example of Europe breaks that rather; Europe is capitalist, has the same technological base and roughly the same wealth level, and yet is not seeing the same increase in housing size, ergo that increase must not be inevitable.

      As to homes, it’s true that detached houses seem to be getting bigger. But, well, I dunno where Mr. Heath is living, but in greater Vancouver where I am, they’re also a smaller and smaller proportion of the housing mix. Whether it’s little townhomes crushed together in dense developments, more and more high rise apartment buildings, basement suites, laneway “houses”, homes in shipping containers, or simply largish houses getting split among multiple families who share rent, the big trend I’m hearing about is densification. Not instead of sprawl and big houses, but very much alongside it and probably all told a bigger trend. It’s much like the trend in retail: More and more dollar stores and Wal-marts, more and more trendy expensive boutiques, fewer and fewer middle-class-oriented department stores and such in between. Incidentally, my judgement of a house like that one is that it’ll be bought by someone about 10% up from Mr. Heath’s impresson. That is, not the top 1%, not the top 10%, but in the 11-20 or maybe down to 30%; nobody down at 40%, only 10 above median, can afford a place like that. I have two sets of kids in the 40% range and they totally can’t afford standalone houses no matter the size, let alone one of those things.

      I also think the claims of wealth increase are vastly overstated and in many cases just wrong. On wealth . . . Mr. Heath disputes talk of the 1% taking it all by pointing to differences in Canada, but for one thing those differences are not all that stark really and for another he’s trying to make a universal case . . . that applies, what, only to Canada? Not only not to Europe, but not even to the 10-times-as-populous US? That’s getting to be a mighty limited universal thesis. OK, so then I’ll make the faux pas of raising a US example: A recent rather huge survey found that 47% of Americans would have difficulty coming up with $400 to meet an unexpected expense. That is, not only do they not have the cash in their bank account, they aren’t in a position to put it on a credit card either.
      So if we’re supposedly twice as wealthy now, what, am I to believe that however-long-ago, twice that percentage wouldn’t have been able to come up with a couple hundred bucks in a pinch? Really, someone making serious arguments about the nature of consumerism is the last I would expect to see making claims about average GDP per capita equating to wealth!
      People don’t feel wealthy today because most of them live more precariously than people did then. They are closer to financial disaster, have more reason to fear losing their jobs, are in more debt, have more expenses. Some of these expenses are optional, that they take on because they’ve been sold the idea. Some are theoretically optional but in real life not so much, like internet access or tuition fees. Yes, people now have more better toys, but these toys represent a pretty small share of living expenses; we notice them because they’re flashy and seem to represent something new and different, not because they’re important financially or indicate much about wealth.
      Meanwhile, general GDP data masks not just class differences but generational ones. Mr. Heath talks about “people” now being better off than “people” were back then. But what that’s mostly about is that we older people are better off now than we were back then, and we older people can afford to buy big houses because we have prospered over the years. The young people now, on the other hand, are distinctly worse off than we were when we were young, and they can’t afford to buy jack, and they have few prospects of prospering over the years because all the new work is part time and temporary and non-union and anyway all their money is going to pay off student loans. And yet we often have the gall to denounce them as “entitled” and whatnot.

      The funny thing is, I completely agree that competitive consumption is a scourge and a snare and doing a great deal of damage. But I disagree about much of what the article builds on that and draws from it and I find the poo-pooing of class issues being used to bolster the argument downright dangerous, in that you’ll never be able to stop competitive consumption if your frame involves ignoring class.

  6. Competitive consumption is certainly a big part of it. The other part, I think, is that because we always get used to a given level of comfort (house size, screen resolution, whatever) what we end up seeking is not an absolute level, but rather the process of increase itself. What satisfies us is not a house of a certain size, but a house bigger than our last one, not a phone with a certain screen size, but one that’s bigger than our last one (or lighter, or faster, or whatever).

    With respect to house size in particular, while certainly suburban mansions continue to grow, the overall picture is more mixed, as per this old article:

    • Sorry, didn’t see you’d mentioned this (adaptation) already in the comments, never mind then…

  7. Suburbia and its discontents.

    The thing about it is, if you’re going to live in suburbia, you have to embrace it for what it is. I grew up in small town Ontario and for a long time after moving here, I resisted integrating. I still don’t own a home, instead I have prioritized investing for retirement over home ownership, so I rent.

    People, who I will refer to as “downtowners” decry the lack of good transit in suburbia have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is. Of course transit in the suburbs is terrible, it wasn’t designed for it. Frankly, I think suburban cities like Mississauga should abandon transit and let other market solutions like Uber take care of peoples needs.

    I once plotted out using transit to get to work and calculated that it would take twice as long and would cost more than the gas to drive. Sure, the idea of an LRT to move people up and down Hurontario St. would serve the most densely populated condo strip with a major hub being at Square one, but I think buses in the outer reaches are a waste of resources.

    In terms of resources and carbon footprints, the environmentalists dream of electric cars but I have yet to see a plan where windmills and solar panels power all of this. Noticeably absent from their dream is that other zero carbon energy source, nuclear power. If they want to get rid of the ICE, fine, build a decent electric that works within the paradigm of the preexisting suburban buildout and come up with a solution that powers it without trying to turn suburbia into downtown Toronto.

  8. Ryan, Mississauga is a traffic nightmare. How is Uber going to help? Transit (and cycling/walking) gets cars off the road. Uber/google will just substitute personally owned vehicles for business owned. Unless you can reduce the number of cars, it won’t help.

    Mississauga was built for the car, wide streets, left turn lanes, and it doesn’t work. Hazel’s utopia is a bust, and if it can’t work there, it can’t work anywhere else.

  9. One thing that irritates me is the illusion that the suburban Big Box retail sites provide cheaper goods. Maybe a box of corn flakes is 23 cents cheaper than at a corner grocery store (if you can find one of those), but that environment forces every family into owning more than one car, thus negating any savings. The distributors have off-loaded their transportation costs onto us.

    Just wait till millions and millions of us are 80+ and cannot drive anymore. Already I’ve heard of publicly subsidized grocery vans that visit retirement homes in the Montreal area, because there are no food stores within easy reach.

    It’s madness. Shouldn’t we design our living spaces for the convenience of people? Is the purpose of society really just to be a support system for the business class? Is that really why we’re here?

  10. Before WWII Keynes estimated that by the end of the century people will be working 15-20 hours/ week. Instead the whole thing spiraled into overconsumption-overproduction breeding yet more of the same…

  11. It is their life and their choice. In buying these houses and furniture and toys they similarly enrich all the billions of people producing these goods. Maybe the entire process even funds the efforts to create new forms of cleaner energy or to create recyclable 3D printing or carbon sequestration processes or tidal powered desalination plants. My take on the last 250 years is that this is exactly what has been happening and I perceive clear trends that the same type of advance is occurring around us now.

  12. this is interesting

    I don’t know about Canada, but in most of the US it’s +/- illegal to build anything inside major city limits. I live in Tijuana because SD rents would not permit me to save much money. I think non-elective expenses like housing eat big chunks of most paychekcs, and my at-will employment doesn’t seem as reliable as my need for a roof. granted, I am not especially smart or skilled, tho expensively educated.

    I pay 2 for a house, while in greater SD I would pay 5 to share an apartment a sketchy hood. Tijuana has sweet public transit: shared vans with fixed routes r available at all hours very cheaply, passing frequently even in sparsely populated areas. taxis without fixed routes and r also numerous and inexpensive. To me it seems that public transit solutions r not in higher tech but in lower wages and higher taxi supply via a low-wage labor caste a la Gulf states Of course we’d have to legalize new housing builds and old housing formats, so they’d not live in their vans

    I work in elder care, and I notice the cost of my labor straining the finances of my clients. I’m paid near the minimum wage. Labor-intensive services and housing r costly, relative to most household incomes. Housing, childcare, elder care and medcare (the latter of which significantly distorts GDP gains – Prof Heath’s premise – above utility gains, especially in USA but thruout OECD)

    neoliberal social planning / tax collection difficulties converge on hi consumption taxes? in US, Dems believe in global warming (carbon tax) while Rs believe in lower taxes on capital gains, biz, hi incomes. a trade?