Think local, act local?

Philip Blond’s interesting cover essay for this month’s Prospect, ‘Rise of the Red Tories’, advocates a new form of Conservatism for David Cameron, centred around the Tories’ new thinking on social issues (I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer says Cameron). Blond says the consensus that has emerged in British Politics – socially liberal-left, economically liberal-right – has failed on both fronts. The vice-versa, which would be a social conservatism alongside a leftist economy, seems a rather chilling prospect to my mind, but Blond thinks that an alternative could be to push through a full-blooded new localism which works to empower communities:

[Cameron] could start with four task: re-localising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets and breaking up big business monopolies.

I suppose the emphasis on market forces (albeit at the local level) makes this a nominally right-wing policy, but with an emphasis on local, community ownership and assets, its not immediately clear to me why these ideas couldn’t be labelled left wing instead (indeed, I assume that confusion is why the article is illustrated with a graphic of Thatcher-as-Che). Yes, Conventional Wisdom would have it that a Labour Party under the Authoritarian Gordon Brown would not adopt such policies. But on the other hand, these ideas seem to be precisely the sort of wings that Hazel Blears’ Community Empowerment agenda requires, to get it off the pages of think-tank reports, and into actual communities.
Meanwhile, The Economist reports on ‘For-profit activism’, that is, harnessing the power of social networking to build-up buying power, to bend markets in favour of socially acceptable or environmentally friendly businesses.

Residents of San Francisco have been signing up enthusiastically for a new green-energy campaign called 1BOG. Short for “one block off the grid”, it aims to convince homeowners to switch to solar energy one block at a time, by organising them into buying clubs. Members get a discount on solar panels, and typically try to get their neighbours to sign up too. The city has also seen several recent examples of Carrotmobs—crowds of activists who buy everything in the winning shop in a contest between retailers to be the greenest.

As the article notes, we’ve seen these sorts of enterprises before, from the Body Shop, to Bono’s RED iPods, to Fair Trade Labelling, to the expensive soaps and hemp shirts you find in charity catalogues. Only this time, its local.
However, I would note a fundamental difference. On the national level, the kind of eco-friendly, ethical capitalism has found a niche within the retail economy. It has become successful, and crucially, normalised. On the other hand, the Carrotmobs and 1BOG seem to be one-off gimmicks. Indeed, the latter only works because a large company subsidises it as part of a marketing campaign. Its almost as if those people who are actually spending the money to make this work are participating in a leisure activity, rather than an everyday participation in a market that could sustain the local economy. We won’t be able to herald the coming of a ‘new localism’ until this sort of thing can arise and sustain itself without being shepherded by a well-meaning entrepreneur, or subsidised as part of a pilot scheme. Its not clear from these examples that this is possible.

Southwark Rooftops

The rooftops of houses behind Waterloo East rail station, Southwark London.
The rooftops of houses behind Waterloo East rail station, Southwark London.

What did I tell ya? There’s the whole world at your feet. And who gets to see it but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps.

‘Bert’ (as played by Dick Van Dyke), Mary Poppins, 1964.
These Southwark Terraces are perhaps not as salubrious as 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but their rooftops are a perfect example of the secret world of London that Bert loves, the one above the rooftops.
A favourite part of my journey into London each morning, is that portion between London Bridge and Waterloo East station. Nowhere is the labyrinthian qualities of the city demonstrated better than in that mile long stretch of rail. The train snakes in between the buildings, above the workshops and Borough Market, and you get to look out onto a little piece of that chimney sweep world that is inaccessible from street level. It would be perfect for Parkour.
Its also a journey which perfectly illustrates how London is a human, organic city (this is something I’ve alluded to before):

I am entertained the thought of one set of people building something; then some other people extending it in a different archtectural style; and yet some more people knocking half the walls to reuse the space for something else. These mutated forms are what humanity has created as a collective, over centuries.

This is of course impossible in Second Life, which has no ruin value.  Via MK, I read that buildings in Second Life are being abandoned but do not decay, or worse, are being deleted wholesale without a trace.  A fundamental problem with the virtual world is that it doesn’t age like normal cities.  And what sort of city doesn’t have a history?

Against the Windfall Tax

Like Conor at the Liberal Conspiracy, I can’t really get behind this clamour for a windfall tax on oil companies. I would love to have a dig at Big Oil, but something grates.
Its not that I am like Tim Worstall, who has barrels of faith in the market to sort the problem out fairly. Oil extraction and distribution is a sort of cartel, not a free market. In any case, such a market takes time (maybe measured in decades or centuries) to do its ‘thing’, and in the meantime it is probable that excess profits will accumulate while everyone else is suffering from a recession.
No, my problem is that arguing for a windfall tax is surely another way of saying that you want to change the rules retrospectively.
Economists often argue that to change the rules, and to impose a windfall tax, simply breeds uncertainty in the market, and cause the oil companies to under-invest. Its an irritating argument against taxation, because it has an air of a threat about it: “don’t tax us, or we will mess up your economy”. In the case of a windfall tax, which everyone (even the oil companies) assumes will be a very rare occurrence, it is less believable than (say) the case of top-rate tax-payers. So I can see how the campaigners might discount this economic argument.
But leaving aside the economic risks that a windfall tax entails, surely changing the rules is simply wrong wrong wrong, no further discussion required? Imposing some kind of law (in this case, a tax law) retrospectively is the stuff of wild-eyed dictatorships, surely. Windfall taxes are short-cuts. An easy, lazy solution to a complex situation.
Play by the rules… and if you feel you must change the rules, do so only at the start of the game. If we percieve a problem with the way our country operates, its fine to legislate so that it doesn’t happen in the following tax year. Nationalise the oil companies if we must, or tax them at 99%. Whatever. Only this: we must to legislate for the future, not the past.
There’s a familiar saying, which goes something like “you can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable”. Well, an alternative might be that we should judge ourselves by how we treat our most despised. The oil giants are certainly some of the most resented institutions in the country, but to subject them to anything other than the rule-of-law is not, I would suggest, cricket. Compass should leave the oil companies with this year’s profits, and get busy lobbying for a law that would redistribute future profits. That’s the right way a democracy should approach this problem.

Update 3rd September

The only counter argument that has piqued my interest has been that a large portion of the oil companies profits have arisen because of preferences in the system of allocating carbon credits via the European Emmissions Trading Scheme. However, while this is a definite argument for going after excess profits, I’m not sure it justifies doing so retrospectively, as a windfall tax would.


I’m enjoying this idea for saving the planet while still burning tons of coal:

By capturing the CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere and piping it through natural spring water from Kent’s Kingsnorth hills, we are able to create carbonated drinking water.

More of this sort of thing on the ev-eon website.

Day Light

A street lamp ablaze at 3pm
This is a street light in Embankment Gardens, at 3.45pm on Saturday. It is fully switched on and drawing electricity, despite the clear blue skies and impeccable visibility that one might associate with a mid-summer mid-afternoon.
There must be a cheap piece of technology that solves this inefficiency. The logo on the public bins says City of Westminster Council, so I assume they’re responsible. I wonder who I should write to?
Some people may argue that excess streetlighting is barely an issue when London has so many other problems, such as gun crime and poverty. To be clear, I’m not whining from a climate change point-of-view, so much as the general administration of the thing. How can we have confidence in local authorities to tackle the more complex social problems, if they cannot tell the difference between day and night?