In a recent piece at the New York Times, a writer laments:
Real estate developers are indeed fraught characters in city life. . . . And the history of American development certainly includes shady land speculation schemes, racist intentions and bloated egos. . . . But at its best, development has also meant progress in America. And that possibility has been banished from recent debate.
The worry is that “developer” has become a dirty word, and that our mostly negative perception of developers and development is off-base. While urban politics demonizes developers, we ought to be grateful there are people who work to develop and build our cities, the thinking goes.
This assessment is both right and wrong.
It’s right inasmuch as developers shouldn’t be demonized for providing what consumers demand through market forces. People need housing and space for their businesses, and developers provide just that. Just as we shouldn’t lambast farmers and grocers for “profiting off” our hunger, we shouldn’t bemoan developers for profiting off of our need for homes and office towers. (Indeed, we all profit off of someone else’s needs through the exchange of goods and services for money.) As Adam Smith remarked in his Wealth of Nations, it is incredible that, without any sort of orchestration, the market is full of goods and services we need and want. What Smith said about butchers, bakers, and brewers is equally true of developers.
But the Times article also misses the mark in some ways. While there is nothing wrong with providing housing by chasing profits, there is something wrong with advocating that the public subsidize projects for private gain. Developers don’t invest just their own money; they often invest taxpayer money as well. Through subsidy programs like tax-increment financing, abatements, and special taxing districts, developers reduce their private risk. And since policymakers are often generous with these subsidies, for some developers it pays—and pays very well—to chase down subsidies and ensure they continue to flow for years to come.
The economist William Baumol, in his famous paper “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” argues that market agents are after profit, and they will try to get it through productive means or unproductive means. He thought that when governments have the power to pick winners and losers in the economy, entrepreneurs will chase government favor instead of working to meet consumer demand competitively. Many developers, like many market agents, have become infatuated with government handouts, and that is deserving of criticism.