Privatizing Sovereignty, Socializing Property: What Economics Doesn’t Teach You About the Corporation

This post is part of a series on the Methods of Political Economy.

David Ciepley – 

We imagine we live in a bourgeois capitalist economy, in which the means of production are owned by natural persons, the “capitalists” of capitalism.  On this, the Marxist economist, the liberal economist, and the neoliberal economist agree.  But we do not.  Ours is a corporate economy.  Overwhelmingly, the means of production are owned, not by natural persons, but by abstract legal entities—corporations.  Marx was thus right in predicting that the fetters of bourgeois, individually-owned property would be burst asunder to be replaced by socialized property.  But it is not at the level of the state that productive property has been socialized.  It is at the level of the corporation.  It is, notes Paddy Ireland, “capitalism without the capitalist.”  The implications of this are manifold and take us outside the confines of what conventional economics can illuminate.

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Exploitation Entrepreneurialism

NB: This post is part of a series in our Race for Profit symposium. Read all posts here.

Mehrsa Baradaran–

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit is an essential read not just for anyone interested in racism, housing segregation and post-Civil Rights era racial politics, but for anyone interested in understanding the American economy. It is impossible to understand contracts, property deeds, government guarantees, homeowner’s associations, or lending without knowing how each of these building blocks of the market can be used for race-based exploitation.   Taylor describes the relationship between exploitation and inclusion as real estate players shaping government policies “in ways beneficial to the industry and not the public.” Throughout the book, Taylor comes back to further refine her exploration of exploitation that differentiate and contrast her theory from other theorists who link exploitation to the higher prices, higher interest, or worse terms offered to Black homeowners.

As I highlight in my book, the definition of exploitation was pivotal in Alan Greenspan and President Nixon’s rejection of claims for reparations. Greenspan explained that because lending in segregated Black neighborhoods was “higher risk,” the lender had to charge more in interest and thus claims of exploitation were unjustified. Whether this was a cynical rhetorical move or not, this limited view of exploitation was adopted by Nixon and most administrations thereafter and was used to block remedial demands to rectify unequal housing. Taylor’s definition of exploitation is both more refined and more expansive. She finds exploitation in the government-guaranteed avoidance of risk in lending to and insuring low-income black buyers and exploitation in government programs that targeted Black homeowners with products that produced more debt rather than wealth.

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Addressing Race and Gender Inequities at the Root of Housing Injustice

NB: This post is part of a series in our Race for Profit symposium. Read all posts here.

Rasheedah Phillips–

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demonstrates in Race for Profit, housing exclusion, instability, and segregation are all racialized in nature, and sewn into the very fabric of American institutions, policies, and value systems. During the height of redlining in the mid-20th century, for example, a single black household in a middle-class area could make the whole neighborhood “risky” for mortgage loans in the eyes of the federal government. Black families – prohibited from buying homes in the suburbs in the 1940s, 50s, and into the 60s by the Federal Housing Administration – gained none of the equity appreciation that suburban whites gained over that crucial period.  Denied mortgages, Black people were often involuntarily driven into the rental housing market, where they faced ever more scarcity and less affordable rental housing.

Today, more than fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968’s prohibition against housing discrimination, we find that exploitive real estate practices and the inequities that flow from them are not merely artifacts of history. Instead, these inequitable practices, particularly in the rental context, continue to show up in any number of permutations. They may appear as realtors showing Black renters fewer options (a 2013 study by the Urban Institute and HUD for example showed that Black renters saw about 11 percent fewer rental units than others). It may appear as “exclusionary zoning” practices that discourage density and multifamily buildings in wealthier, whiter areas. It may take the form of tenants with housing choice vouchers unable to rent in higher income neighborhoods, causing a concentration in so called “low opportunity” districts.

Through my work as a housing attorney, I’ve seen the continued impact of structural housing injustice on low-income tenants, particularly for Black women in Philadelphia, the site of much of Taylor’s powerful book. Although the focus in Race for Profit is on the role of systemic racism and predatory inclusion in the context of home ownership, the aftermath of those failures has led to exploitation in the rental context. Below, I focus on one issue – eviction records – and highlight some large-scale and individual approaches to ameliorating the problems Taylor encourages us to confront.

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Predatory Inclusion: A Long View of the Race for Profit

NB: This post is part of a series in our Race for Profit symposium. Read all posts here.

K-Sue Park–

The ascending slope of our current housing crisis is a good vantage point from which to think about Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new history of the federal response to an earlier point of crisis: she gives us reason to reconsider the role of the state in historic housing inequality, and new tools for demanding systemic change from the government going forward. At its core, Race for Profit is a rich and dense account of the government’s effort to finally include black people in its New Deal homeownership initiatives after decades of redlining erupted in riots over – among other grievances – housing starvation. In a literature that has focused principally on the history of racial segregation and formal exclusion through redlining, restrictive covenants, and racial zoning, Taylor instead highlights “predatory inclusion” as a principle mode of the American real estate market.

By focusing on this dynamic and the public-private partnerships that enabled it, her critique of the real estate system runs to its very foundations. As I elaborate below, this analysis resonates profoundly with other patterns of the real estate market’s development over a long historical arc—in particular, the government’s reliance on energies unleashed by incentives for private actors to accomplish public goals, its elevation of businessgrowth over social provision, and the way that real estate value continues to hinge on the race of the people present in a place, and to rise based on white presence and white desire.

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Symposium: Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

NB: This post is part of a series in our Race for Profit symposium. Read all posts here.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

In Houston’s upscale Galleria-Uptown neighborhood, the mall known simply as “TheGalleria” is, according to its website, “Texas’ largest and most luxurious shopping destination.” A local real estate website confirmed the value of the location, pointing out that housing values in the neighborhood sustained a “55 percent appreciation rate from 2005 to 2014.” The prize of rising property values was the promise to keep the neighborhood as white and middle class as possible.

In 2015, the Houston Housing Authority proposed building two hundred and thirty-three units of affordable housing in Galleria-Uptown, a neighborhood that is eighty-seven percent white. Swarming to the public meeting the way Texans flock to Friday night football, hundreds of mostly white residents packed public meetings to register, not just their disagreement, but their vehement opposition to building “affordable” housing units in their neighborhood. When a 281-unit apartment complex had been built two years earlier, there had been no outcry, but also no affordable units in that development.

White residents, two decades into the twenty-first century, have long perfected the art of talking about race by way of cues and codes to avoid talking specifically about Black or Latinx people. In this meeting organized to discuss the future of affordable housing in the Galleria district, residents complained about traffic, overcrowded schools, the construction costs of the project, and, of course, the potential effect on property values. But in a fit of frustration, one resident set aside time to write to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and she wasted little time getting to the unvarnished point. Her opposition to the new, affordable development because it threatened to introduce “an unwelcome resident who, due to poverty and a lack of education, will bring the threat of crime, drugs, and prostitution to the neighborhood.” The woman writing the letter went on to extol her personal virtues as a hard worker, while disparaging those who she believed to were not, “I will fight very hard…before I give up that privilege and dignity to those who, either from lack of initiative or misfortune, don’t deserve to be [here].” These views may seem extreme in our era of coded and duplicitous double talk, but the sanctity of property value extracts a deeper truth that might otherwise remain hidden. Consider the comments of Galleria’s City Councilman, Greg Travis. His opposition to the affordable housing development that would bring Black residents to this white neighborhood was that, “People of different socioeconomic status sometimes have different values based on their socioeconomic status. Some people can afford things that other people cannot.”

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Law and Political Economy of Commodity Rushes: Reflections on “Land Grabbing” in the Global South

Lorenzo Cotula –

A few years ago I travelled to central Ghana, in the fertile farmlands west of Lake Volta. A global land rush was in full swing: large agribusiness plantation deals – “land grabs” for the critics – were announced at a dizzying pace in many low- and middle-income countries. This transition belt between Ghana’s forest zone and the northern savannah proved popular with international agribusinesses, and I came to understand the deals’ local impacts.

One day I spoke with a farmer who, until then, had made a living growing maize and yam. Shaded by a rough straw hat, the grey-bearded man retraced how a jatropha plantation took much of his land. He thought the compensation was not enough to get land elsewhere, and felt too old to establish a new farm anyway – or take a job with the plantation. He had some land left but knew they would come for that too. When that happens, he concluded, he would just stay at home.

I asked him how he felt about these developments. “I am unhappy about what happened”, he said, “but there was nothing I could do”. As a long-term migrant, he did not own the land: the power to allocate land rested with the traditional chief, who signed a lease with the company. Behind the farmer’s life-experience lay the way law structures property, territory and decision-making power. Confronting the issue alone seems impossible: it calls for a bold agenda of action and research that ties the global with the local.

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Money and Property

Money and Property

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Lua Yuille and Rohan Grey —

Money and property law are mutually constitutive. Property rights are defined and valued in terms of their relationship to monetary instruments, while whether something counts as a monetary instrument for this or that purpose is itself a result of bundling property rights a certain way. Yet property law treats money as opaque: a neutral measuring stick that happens to prove useful in the process of doing the real work of property.* This is partly because money is grossly under-theorized and misunderstood by property law scholars. In property law, “money provides the unit in which prices appear, supplies a medium of exchange, and acts as a store of value”, but it does so as if by magic. Unlike students of economics, who are introduced to money through the self-consciously ahistorical fable that money evolved as an evolutionary response to the inefficiency and inadequacy of barter, American law students are not formally introduced to money at all. Money is taken as an idea that needs no articulation or unpacking. The result is a  ‘functional monetary illiteracy’ that fails to conceptualize the complicated relationship between money and property law, serving to obscure the role of the state and of private power in defining each.**

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Black Proprietorship and Crises of Value

Shirley E. Thompson –

9780674970953By shedding historical light on the development and practices of black banking, Mehrsa Baradaran’s excellent and thought-provoking The Color of Money demystifies some fundamental free market myths and strongly cautions against the widespread faith, among policymakers and activists alike, in banking as a means of overcoming long-entrenched and worsening racial disparities in wealth. In this response, I suggest that the history of black banking, even for its many failures, holds a unique perspective on property and its contradictions of value. It also contains a deep lesson about how economic strategies generate and are reinforced by affective practices—and how racist economic laws rested on public feelings of their own. The personal and the structural are closely interlinked.

From the debacle of the Freedmen’s Bank, to the rise of black-owned banks under Jim Crow, to the promotion of “empowerment zones” in more recent times, economically isolated black communities have consistently been urged to engage in “capitalism without capital.” Because black banks were cordoned off from their mainstream peer institutions, Baradaran shows, they could not effectively tap into the money multiplier effect, the means by which a bank stood on the good credit, financial security, and proprietor status of its patrons and generated value by lending its deposits through the system more broadly. Because black people did not own large stores of property, any wealth accumulated by black banks swiftly left black control as it sought greater prospects elsewhere: “once in the banking system,” Baradaran writes, “money flows towards more money.”

It is difficult to overstate the policy implications of Baradaran’s work. The story she tells of the institutional segregation and siphoning off of black wealth disarms the widely held premise that black poverty derives from some sort of cultural deficiency or a lack of personal financial literacy. By exposing the lure of “for-us, by-us” banking and “community empowerment” as “a decoy,” “an empty promise,” and a faulty basis for banking legislation and activism, she paves the way for a bolder vision and more creative experimentation in attempting to remedy a seemingly intractable racial inequality. Indeed, proposals such Darrick Hamilton’s and William A. Darity Jr.’s endorsement of “baby bonds” and Baradaran’s own call for the return of postal banking flow from such an understanding of the structural impact of racism on US political economy.

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It’s Mine, and Yours

Rashmi Dyal-Chand –

I teach in a law school where most students and faculty pride themselves on falling somewhere along a spectrum of progressive, extremely progressive, socialist, and left anarchist. Thus, every year, usually within the first month of starting my first-semester property law course, I find myself surprised that the vast majority of my students appear to be intuitively and deeply committed to the idea that property ownership is and should be fundamentally about exclusion. Many of the same students who demonstrate depth of understanding about issues of discrimination, inequality, and power, voice the intuition that exclusion is somehow essential to those of us in the 99% (including their family and friends) without really considering the ways in which exclusion produces and maintains maldistribution.

Regularly, the first instance when students voice this commitment during class is when we discuss Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, in which an elderly couple sued a manufacturer of mobile homes for trespass when the defendant crossed an unused portion of their land for the purpose of delivering a mobile home to their neighbors. I have long used Joe Singer’s casebook, and I start my course with a unit on trespass that begins with State v. Shack. Thanks to Singer’s pioneering analysis of public accommodations law as central to understanding the principle of access in property law, I spend much of the trespass unit discussing the balance in trespass law between exclusion and access. Yet when we get to Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, students voice their intuition that the Jacques had the right to exclude the mobile home company from their property. “Why?” I ask, “Their property was in no way harmed by the defendant’s use of it.” They typically answer with some version of: “Because the defendant is a big corporate entity and the Jacques have very little power. The only power they have is over their property. We can’t take that power away.” “Well,” I ask, “what about the fact that mobile homes are a major source of affordable housing in this country? What if the company was doing its best to limit the costs of installing affordable housing on the neighboring property in order to avoid transferring those costs to the Jacques’ neighbors, who may not have been able to afford those costs?” For years, when we had this conversation, the students remained resolute. They said, for example, that the larger point still remained that corporations have too much power in this country and that property rights are our defense to such power.

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The Racial Wealth Gap and the Question of Time Zero

Michelle Wilde Anderson

Each year teaching Property Law, I have taught many of the big cases and topics on race and property law, such as M’Intosh and Dred Scott; segregationist turbulence in rights of reasonable access; public accommodations law; racially restrictive covenants; the Fair Housing Act. I never quite had a cohesive idea about this—they each seemed formative.

Meanwhile, evolving case law and politics have made it clear that we still have a basic disagreement at the heart of American law and politics, and my students carry that question with them into class: On matters of race, did we reset the playing field of property to start a merit system where fair access to markets would govern? Did we create a new Time Zero—for instance, when LBJ signed the Fair Housing Act as a gesture of solace and appeasement seven days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination?

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