Belonging is what people crave in an ever-more divided society. Can increasing their ownership of assets achieve this?
Interesting and thought-provoking blog from the RSA, asking whether there’s an answer to the question of how to increase the younger generation’s hopes for a better future, by unleashing a range of measures to put more assets - more revenue from more sources - in their hands.
They speak approvingly of current schemes like Universal Basic Income (“everyone should have a claim on a discrete sum of money that gives them a base from which to build”), and have put much work into it.
They also quote some new to us. Swedish guru Dag Detter’s idea that large amounts of money can be raised by cities to pay for their projects, if their public assets were “commercially managed” - without having to raise taxes.
A crucial first step is gaining a proper understanding of the city’s balance sheet. With a comprehensive list of assets in hand and a proper understanding of their market values, taxpayers, politicians and investors can better grasp what they are missing out on.
A professional understanding of the portfolio of assets would allow local government to formulate a comprehensive strategy for all of its real estate, including the overlooked parcels of land and neglected buildings that could be suitable for development of residential housing.
Together with the potential for further densification, local governments would not only have the financial but also the physical capacity to significantly increase the rate of public housing developed each year.
The best way to carry out these activities efficiently is to consolidate the assets under an urban wealth fund, owned by the public through the city council that would act professionally, working to a city mandate. The fund would be managed at arm’s length in a transparent, accountable manner with the dedicated professional staff needed to do the job.
This sounds challenging but it can be done. The HafenCity in Hamburg or Copenhagen By & Havn have not only increased the amount of residential housing, but also funded vital infrastructure such as the Copenhagen Metro, schools and universities. And in Hamburg, the recently opened Elbe symphony hall has been funded via a government-owned holding company.
The RSA also cite their idea for a “minimum inheritance, such as that proposed in our 2018 report Pathways to Universal Basic Income, of £10,000 for every citizen under the age of 55, can draw on this capital and be increased thereby.” They also remind us that the idea that government could grant or encourage the building of assets was a cross-party consensus, with initiatives like the Child Trust Fund and the Saving Gateway chopped by austerity-conscious Coalition governments.
There are fascinating nuggets here, which show the necessity of thinking about how wealth can be relocated to communities. We were told in the 80s that the UK would become a “shareholder society” - yet “around 10% of shares in this country are today owned by individuals, compared with 54% in 1963”. Were we invited to become a property-owning democracy? Homeowning is at its lowest level since 1985.
They have an interesting explanation:
Is this really so surprising? One of the great failures of the social democratic consensus that emerged after the Second World War was that it chose to all but ignore levels of asset ownership — of wealth — among the very poor. Instead, we focused on levels of income. The telos of the Beveridge-inspired welfare settlement, located as it was in the idea of a universal personal ‘insurance’, was ‘relief in times of hardship’. Welfare and work were inextricably linked; welfare and citizenship less so.
We are also facing a change in what counts as an asset. The RSA cite the work of Francesca Bria in Barcelona, which compels tech giants like Vodafone to make the data they take from the public collectively available after a year. How might citizens benefit, even profit, from the interaction data that writers like Shoshana Zuboff have been recently warning is being taken from us by info-corporations?
The piece finishes with a resounding vision:
Whether enabling individuals to survive, groups to thrive, or communities to take control of the things that matter to them, a continuum of individual and collective wealth-building is at the heart of our flourishing.
…We have the potential here to create a new story that is about owning and being, of personal flourishing and collective identity, that is summarised in one word: belonging. The desire to own and to be part of something unites both old and young. In our divided times we must work harder at understanding belonging, not just in its spiritual but also in its material form.
We must be hungry to understand the personal, local and national dimensions in ever greater detail, for it is through giving primacy to belonging that our deepest divisions may be overcome.
... If ever-more hoarded wealth is indeed to be an ever-greater determinant of life chances in our time, let us resolve to spread that wealth, through new ideas and better taxes, but also through the most innovative and evidenced practical interventions imaginable.
… The prize here is to do much, much better and thus define the economics of a generation. We should say to our politicians: show me your policy on wealth and I will tell you what you think of our children’s futures. We should demand of them: show me an agenda that takes seriously the economics of belonging.