That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
…step back and consider two 19th-century “classical economists” who focused on high rents: David Ricardo and Henry George. Both built models where land is so scarce that the cost of renting land absorbs most of the social surplus. We are not (yet?) at that point, but these models give insight into where today’s most expensive cities are headed.
Consider an increase in the quality of public services — say, garbage collection, or perhaps in San Francisco the elimination of public urination. You might think that would make life much better for everyone. But in a Ricardo-George model, that is not the case. Mainly what happens is that rents go up and landowners capture most of the newly created surplus.
How would this work? Take the example of San Francisco; with nicer streets, even more people might want to move there. That would push up rents by an amount roughly equal to the value created — putting the gains from the higher quality of life into the pockets of landowners. In a normal market economy, those higher rents would then induce more construction and, eventually, a corresponding decline in rents. But San Francisco is a “not in my backyard” locale where the amount of new construction just isn’t that high, for legal and regulatory reasons. Again, as both Ricardo and George realized, the incidence of the benefit falls upon the very scarce factor, namely land.
The political economy problem now should be obvious: Why exactly would non-landowners press for improvements in their cities? The value of those improvements will be captured mainly by other parties.
There is much more at the link.