The cynical politics of emissions targets and COP26. How government is poised to declare success while delivering failure.

25 Jan

Dissenters can go figure.  Yes, China is still stacking up new coal plants.  But it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables.  Meanwhile, America was pouring record amounts into them – even under Donald Trump.

Those on the right who don’t believe in man-made climate change can protest as loudly as they like about this shift in the zeitgeist.  Their own capitalist system is turning its back on them.

BP’s plan to increase its renewables twenty-fold, cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent, and not to enter new countries to explore for either is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg.

Slumps, black swans and wars could slow the pace of change.  But the direction of travel is unmissable.  Fossil fuels are out – at least as traditionally used – and renewables are in.  The rejectionists might as well seek to shout down a hurricane.

In many ways, this is all to the good.  Energy security demands decreasing our reliance on, say, Russian coal.  Emissions reduction suggests not looking to our own for a replacement.

We have no quarrel with “the science”: as Roger Scruton pointed out, “the greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half”. But giving the shift to renewables a thumbs-up in principle is not necessarily the same as doing so in practice – that’s to say, when a plan is on the table.

The Government has a series of targets for reducing emissions.  Two of the best-known are the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, and the zero emissions 2050 target, rushed in by Theresa May as a legacy policy.

We want to look at these targets, and the pace of change which they suggest, through three lenses: those of people, politics and Parliament. First, people.  Our columnist James Frayne writes on this site that he “has probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue”.

He finds a class and age divergence among support for environmental policies.  They’re important to everyone, more so to younger, urban voters – and in different ways.

To many of those people, Greta Thurnberg is a hero.  Lots of those older, provincial ones have never heard of her.  Their concerns are concrete, not abstract: “excessive use of plastics, the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.”

Yes, there’s an overlap.  But how will they react when or if governments tax their hybrid cars, bar the coal they use for their fires, hike their electricity bills, export their jobs and ban them from eating meat?

Cambridge University is blazing a trail for that last policy – a reminder that urban, younger people are concentrated in Planet Remain, and provincial, older ones in Leave Country.  Welcome to the latest version of culture wars.

Now, it’s true that voter protest so far has been muted.  Which brings us to our second p: politics.  Britain’s democracy is geared up to a five-year election cycle.

It is built into the very stuff of Parliament, therefore, for MPs to fixate on the date of the next election (due in this case to be May 2 2024) – and often to look no further.

To make a complex story simple, green technologies mean subsidies, subsidies mean jobs, and MPs want those jobs for their constituents.  Who can blame them?

Hence the rush of articles on this site, more numerous by our count than on any other subject, from backbench MPs making the case for green technologies that will mean “green jobs” in their seats.

What about the bills?  They will mostly arrive on the doortsteps of taxpayers, consumers and business in the medium-run, if not the long-run.  And “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes put it.

So, third, to Parliament.  We quoted Scruton earlier on the known factor of the greenhouse effect.  But withheld until now the context of the quote.

The greenhouse effect “implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm”, he added, before briefly citing one of those other things: “fluctuations in solar energy”, he added.

There is more detail in his book Green Philosophy, but one would have thought that this position (the greenhouse effect is a cause of global warming – even the main cause, but not the only cause), would be shared by some on the Conservative benches.

Even if not, one would certainly have imagined that, by now, a band of Tory MPs would be pointing out that the bills for this green programme will come in sooner or later – at which point, a choice may open up between mulcting the taxpayer or losing those jobs.

Perhaps we are not reading Hansard closely enough, but we can find no evidence that such a group exists.  That suggests a new dimension to change in the Commons.

It’s often said that modern MPs are increasingly rebellious (not least by this site).  But they are so in a particular kind of way.  More stand ready to put the interests of their constituents ahead of the blandishments of the whips.

But the Commons seems to be producing fewer Andrew Tyries – the awkward, angular former Treasury Select Committee Chairman, now a peer, who campaigned against climate change orthodoxy, for all his establishment status.

At any rate, climate change sceptics outside Parliament warn of terrible things to come – higher electricity bills, for example.  We take the point, but query the scale – because we suspect that rebellion will finally come when the proverbial hits the fan.

To put it plainly, try telling Robert Halfon that his Harlow constituents must pay higher fuel duty to help meet some government target.  He will revolt.  As will all those other backbenchers who have no ideological or constituency stake in the push for zero emissions.

Maybe government will manage the transition, after all.  But with COP26 coming down the tracks, and with a mass of coporates, lobbyists and cheerleaders clinging to its wagons and rooftop, this is a good moment to take stock.

Reducing emissions and securing supply are only two of a quartet of main policy objectives, the other two being keeping the lights on and keeping prices low.  Remember: the Tory manifesto promised to lower energy bills for those in social housing.

How can these objectives be squared?  Finding an answer doesn’t require a drive-by shooting of green policies.  In some cases, we need more. For example, Rachel Wolf and others have made a strong case for a carbon tax, which is robust regardless of targets.

Nor are these wrong in themselves.  For example, it would make sense to have a timetable for the take-up of Flood Performance Certificates – documents that set out the severity of flood risk for homes, and steps that could be taken to mitigate it.

And there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (“we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target”) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them).

But the landscape ahead looks to be one of conflicting policy objectives, punts in new technologies that won’t always come off, pressure on consumers, business and taxpayers, jobs that won’t always be sustaintable – and further damage to the standing of politics.

In which case, a small boy ought to halt the wheezing emperor of government policy, and point out not that he has no clothes, but that he is overdressed amidst this warming weather.  And would move more lightly were he to cast off the 2050 target.

ConservativeHome will run a mini-series on climate change policy tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.

Ryan Bourne: A reassuringly conservative speech from Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor. The Tories will need to up their game.

20 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Just in case the Conservatives hadn’t got the message: Labour under Keir Starmer is a very different beast to the party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Dueing the past fortnight, the Labour leader has parked his tanks on conservative lawns, talking first of Labour as “the party of the family,” then setting out a foreign policy vision of the UK as a “bridge between the U.S. and Europe.” Annelise Dodd’s Mais Lecture on economics was perhaps more striking still in the break of tone and type of criticisms made of Conservative policy compared with the last leadership.

Gone were the unhinged attacks on “neoliberalism” that characterised Corbynite bloviating. The fault-finding was specific and targeted. Dodds acknowledged the difficulties any government would face in a pandemic. Her surgical critique was that the UK’s Covid-19 outcomes were worsened by government foot-dragging on tightening lockdown restrictions, and Treasury attempts to fine-tune the balance between economic and public health.

Specifically, she claimed that its mixed-messaging on financial support to businesses, first delivering it and then threatening to withdraw it based on firms’ “viability,” created needless uncertainty. With the vaccines hopefully soon ending the pandemic, she argued that supporting firms until reopening was now more prudent than letting the chips fall when furlough ends in Spring. On the balance of costs and benefits, most economists would probably now agree.

There was little Corbyn-like wailing about past “austerity” either. Dodds’ criticisms of the last decade of government fiscal policy were restrained, and more plausible for it. She claimed that some spending cuts may have adversely impacted the pandemic response; that 16 fiscal targets coming and going since 2010 has created instability; that there should be more focus on the long-term public finances rather than the short-term; and that rapid deficit reduction coming out of the pandemic (including tax hikes, as Rishi Sunak reportedly wants) would be economically destructive. All these criticisms, individually, would not be surprising in ConservativeHome op-eds.

Yes, Labour still wants a bigger state than the Conservatives. Yet unlike many on the Left, Dodds appears under no illusions that running up debt is riskless or a free-lunch. “…it would be an irresponsible economic policymaker who planned on the assumption that low interest rates will continue indefinitely,” she said, while musing about a longer-term inflation risk. Her new “fiscal framework,” focused on planning to balance day-to-day spending and tax revenue, would be based on the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Now none of this is particularly exciting. The speech was littered with boilerplate progressive assertions and the usual touching faith in the power of government. But it’s telling that Dodds actively shirked the opportunity to announce some glitzy new retail offer to grab newspaper headlines. There was no promise even of a Labour government “creating” high-wage jobs, or “transforming” the economy.

Instead, the speech was quintessentially small-c conservative. Labour, we were told, would protect the independence of the Bank of England, be “responsible” with the public finances, embrace free trade, protect businesses from Covid failure, focus policy on thorny structural problems rather than chasing day-to-day media coverage, and deliver “value for public money” from government spending.

Indeed, peer through the mundane parts of the speech, and you see a rhetorical critique of the current government that wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from Conservatives a decade ago. Dodds’ subtle message was that government decisions on infrastructure and procurement contracts were often determined more by short-term, pork-barrel political considerations than sound economic judgment, bringing with them at least a whiff of crony capitalism.

The speech highlighted waste and mismanagement through Covid-19, for example, including on the test-and-trace programme and the purchase of faulty antibody tests. Any errors are more forgivable in a pandemic when there were potentially huge returns on such investments and time is of the essence.

But those types of criticisms will likely amplify with Conservatives’ newfound penchant for large regional infrastructure projects (prone to massive cost overruns) and place-based revival packages (prone to political cronyism). Again, the argument that Conservative economic decisions are politically-motivated and wasteful is a very different attack than the more ideological opposition from Corbyn and McDonnell.

None of this is to say that all of Dodds’ analysis is coherent or correct. The theme of the speech was “resilience” – that is, how the pandemic shows the need for an economy robust to future shocks. Mercifully, Labour has not jumped on the bandwagon of saying the pandemic proves we need the government to actively re-shore a whole bunch of medical manufacturing production—the braindead, yet widespread “fight the last war” recommendation of those unable to conceive of shocks originating here. Yet there was still a bit of a “this crisis proves much of what I’ve always believed to be true” about her analysis.

Dodds suggested, for example, that a lack of savings among the poor, job insecurity among gig economy workers, and “socio-economic inequality” all help explain Britain’s poor Covid-19 outcomes. Perhaps on the margins those factors did make things worse. But the overwhelming reason why the UK has performed badly so far relative to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, is surely little to do with the labour market or macroeconomic policy, and almost entirely explained, to the extent that policy can actually explain things, by public health decisions at various times.

It is within Labour’s comfort zone to say reducing inequality and strengthening workers’ rights would have mitigated the costs of this pandemic. It would have been braver for them to expose failures in government bodies: say, Public Health England, whose centralisation of testing proved a disaster; or the NHS, with its systemic rationing reducing the incentive for spare capacity; or government scientists, who downplayed the early need for tough measures and told people mask wearing was unnecessary. If they really want “resilience,” they would surely explore the future case for deregulation in medical innovation. Earlier human challenge vaccine trials, for example, could have sped up delivery or a working vaccine, negating much of the last year’s pain.

Such a broad evaluation was perhaps always too much to hope for. But this speech proved that Labour is developing a more refined critique of the Conservatives. This is not the sort of emotional “blood on their hands” or anti-capitalist screeching we saw from Corbyn’s Labour.

Instead it is a crisp focus on the need for decisiveness, competence, and propriety in delivering effective government. The upgrade in opposition may well, in time, sharpen government decision-making. But a party with half-baked plans to rebalance the economy through massive infrastructure projects and shifting around government departments, led by a Prime Minister known for making late calls, may find such criticisms difficult to shake off.

Ryan Bourne: Ministers must speed up the pace of vaccination. Here are some ways of doing so.

6 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Back in May 2020, I wrote that a high-efficacy vaccine was the biggest economic stimulus available to us. Removing whatever barriers existed to its approval and rollout, so accelerating the end of the pandemic, was worth billions of pounds per week in GDP and hundreds of lives. Stock market reactions last year implied vaccines were potentially worth 5-15 per cent of global wealth. But it’s now clear there’s a need for even greater urgency in getting the UK vaccinated.

The disease outlook is grim. As of Sunday, the number of people hospitalised with Covid-19 in England was 32 percent higher than its April peak, with new daily admissions above those seen last Spring. In the South East, the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is near double the 2020 peak. Chris Whitty explained yesterday how case curves are trending upwards in other regions. Given recent trends and mobility data less responsive so far than to lockdown one, things will get worse before they get better.

So a national lockdown was perhaps inevitable. To judge by Twitter, people were gearing up to revive their pro- and anti-lockdown talking points beforehand. But the armchair cost-benefit analysis from Spring 2020, or even November, is no longer valid. First, because we have vaccines already being rolled out that will, at the very least, mitigate against Covid’s worst effects. Second, because the new mutation appears more highly transmissible in the face of given suppression measures. Both realities strengthen the case for reducing interactions now. Both increase the urgency for rapid vaccination.

The benefits of measures that reduce transmission of the disease are more certain with vaccines available. Lockdown sceptics had a point when they said at least some “lives saved” from government mandates last year were deaths deferred until the next wave. Now, with only 20 million full vaccination courses required to inject demographic groups making up 97 per cent of cumulative deaths so far, avoiding infections today means avoiding Covid-19 deaths forever. That makes the case for breaking up social networks all the stronger, including through closing schools (evidence suggests children are seeding the virus into households).

The high transmissibility of the new strain supports this action. A more rapidly spreading virus increases the risk of “overshooting” ICU capacity. Such is the speed of spread (one in 50 people had the virus last week), each day of societal delay in reducing the transmission rate below one accelerates the crunch. So quickly are we becoming infected, herd immunity may even come this year. The choice before us is whether we achieve it through the route strewn with significant deaths and bad illnesses, or via a path where injections eliminate almost all severe cases.

It feels almost lame to say it—as if nobody ever thought of it—but both the public health and economic consequences suggest we must do everything possible to speed up the vaccination process. We are in a straight race between vaccinations and the virus, and I fear even Boris Johnson’s revised timetable is too slow.

In an ideal world, with plentiful vaccines, logistics ready, and vaccines preventing transmission, the best path to herd immunity would be to vaccinate high transmitters first in a geographically concentrated way. However, we do not know whether the vaccines actually reduce transmission yet, and Chris Whitty contends that there will be supply shortages for months. If that is true, prioritising those at highest personal risk, as the government is doing, makes sense.

The UK regulator was admirably swift in vaccine approval. But doses available have been revised down massively since November and it’s not obvious why things aren’t moving faster. Reported vaccinations in week two (through 27 December) were not even half the number of those in week 1. Sure, this was Christmas week, but why not have longer working hours on other days to compensate? With a spreading virus, delay costs lives. Oxford/AstraZeneca’s vaccine was approved last Wednesday. It was not rolled out until Monday. Why? The virus doesn’t take time off to celebrate New Year’s Eve and a bank holiday.

Yesterday, Johnson said that 1.3 million vaccinations had now been undertaken. That’s only around 350,000 in the past eight days – nowhere near fast enough given the balance of costs and benefits. By mid-February, he hopes that 13.4 million first doses will be achieved. That requires two million per week from now until then. Yet even that seems tardy given the costs of lockdowns.

We must be pulling every lever here. Constraints to early roll-outs should have been foreseen. And if there are unforeseen roadblocks, economists would advise that raising the price you are willing to pay encourages supply. If, as reported elsewhere, a lack of vials is really the problem, what incentives are being given to ensure manufacturers work round the clock, seven days per week? Making the activity more profitable increases the willingness to pay overtime, train new workers, and run machines hot. If not vials, identify the production or staffing bottleneck and apply the same logic.

Eliminating barriers to vaccinator volunteers is a no brainer. So it’s heartening that the government is “reviewing” red tape that says vaccinators must be diversity, terrorism, and fire-safety trained. But financial incentives could help too. The NHS is giving GPs an extra £10 for every care home resident they vaccinate this month, which makes sense given 36 per cent of deaths have been in homes. Yet what about financial inducements for extended hours, weekend work, and more?

This would not only help in getting more vaccinations delivered, but potentially space them out a bit too. So prevalent is the virus right now, hordes of people packed into waiting rooms could lead to infections even prior to vaccines being administered. Is anyone establishing drive-through or outdoor sites, as seen in Israel?

Nor can we afford wasted vaccines. The zero out-of-pocket price means no penalty for people or providers for missed shots. With the possibility of vaccines wasted or appointments missed, GPs, hospital workers, and (hopefully) pharmacies should have the decentralised authority to administer them to “ineligible” individuals without the threats of repercussions to avoid waste. A vaccine dose to someone is better than no one. Let’s not sacrifice lives on the altar of “fairness.”

The Government’s “first doses first” policy shows that Ministers understand inoculating more people sooner is essential, even with a potential efficacy trade-off. But this strategy only helps in the medium-term if the supply is ramped up. The economy and the public health effort require getting the manufacture, logistics, and physical delivery expanded in the swiftest time possible. It’s not easy, but the language from government sometimes treats the stated constraints fatalistically, rather than seeing them as an economic problem that prices, incentives, and regulations could affect.

Rob Sutton: Government needs advisers. But advisers need competition – not their present monopoly. As this pandemic has proved.

13 Dec

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

The combined effect of emergency measures which allow legislation to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, and a viral pandemic which requires the rapid interpretation of ever-changing and highly technical data, has exposed a troubling weakness at the heart of government: that our expert advisers, however talented and hard-working they might be as individuals, have left much to be desired.

This is not entirely due to the advisers themselves, but the internal structures and incentives which Number 10 relies upon to provide advice. Those organisations which Johnson’s administration turns to for expert opinion (SAGE, Public Health England, the Department of Health, and the Government Office for Science), hold effective monopolies within their own niches.

Despite the breadth of talent these groups pull from, and the impression of depth of available opinion, there is relatively little overlap of their briefs, and they are ultimately machines of consensus: built to produce a unified position, rather than competing proposals.

From a political communications perspective, this is ideal. Presenting a position drawn from the interpretation of ambiguous (and unstable) data as being scientific consensus gives some degree of protection from criticism.

Yet this is hardly a good approach to building policy. These problems, though longstanding, were dramatically exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the corresponding increase in the government’s reliance on expert advice. The natural monopoly of ideas held by these bodies of experts has led to a predictably narrow scope for policy debate.

This is a concern which has riled many in Parliament, who feel increasingly marginalised in favour of unelected experts who face no public scrutiny or internal competition. Steve Baker, ever the prolific organiser and influencer, has been among those leading calls for reform of expert advice in government, arguing that this should be addressed as a matter of priority in a letter to the Prime Minister.

A government which retreats from parliamentary scrutiny and has been defined by a vision of centralised control hardly encourages open discussion. Yet the importance of balancing contrasting advice has become, more than ever before, a critical requirement for effective policymaking. At the root of the problem is the question of what expert advisers should be doing. Is it their job to dispassionately report the available evidence? Or to interpret it in a broader societal and political context?

This uncertainty has been, in part, a problem of the Government’s own making. The unwavering fixation on the “following the science” assumes “the science” to be an immutable corpus of knowledge.

This is an untrue and unhelpful representation. The scientific method demands a narrow and well-defined hypothesis, from which it follows that any interpretation should have a narrow and well-defined applicability. To test that hypothesis, metrics will be proposed to observe and quantify the phenomenon under investigation.

These metrics, being a representation, not the phenomenon itself, moves us a degree away from reality (for instance, positive results does not mean number of infections; it is a proxy). Data analysis and statistical methods move us a further degree away, as does one’s ultimate interpretation of what, if anything, that analysis tells us.

The power of the scientific method is therefore also its weakness – that we get results with narrow applicability, have to apply human biases to interpret them and then apply those findings to real world situations, with all their intractable messiness.

Add predictive methods such as modelling, which are extremely sensitive to both initial parameters and the specific model used, and the problems are compounded. To assume that there is a single fountain of scientific knowledge from which the answers to all our policy queries must unambiguously flow is a political fiction. And it is designed, rather cynically, to place those answers beyond reproach from the scientific laity.

We therefore have two issues which combine to limit the effectiveness of expert advice in government: an exclusive inner circle of advisers who hold an effective monopoly on policy proposals (even to the exclusion of parliament itself), relying on research data which inevitably has a narrow scope of applicability and is subject to differing interpretations. Science can tell us much about the world as it is; it is a powerful means of answering “what,” but on questions of “should” it is silent.

Under normal conditions, Parliamentary scrutiny would serve as a means of tempering the most extreme of Government policy suggestions. But under the emergency legislation enacted in March, we no longer enjoy this luxury. This has exposed the fragility of the Government’s market on expert policy suggestions.

Without internally competitive processes to broaden the conversation and provide alternative options, there is a worrisome absence of incentives to encourage policymakers to stray from the consensus. With an effective monopoly on advice, there is little reason for ideas to be good, or even workable, as long as they are presented with an air of agreement.

This is the reason why interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary competition for policy proposals is so vital. Interdisciplinary competition would allow us to balance the public health implications of Covid-19 against broader considerations of, for instance, the economy and mental health. intradisciplinary competition would allow conflicting interpretations of data to be debated in a rigorous manner.

Yet capturing this kind of competition, which comes so naturally to the private sector, is notoriously difficult to embed within the public. There are ways this might be built into the current organisational structure. “Red teams,” groups whose primary purpose is to play devil’s advocate, and thereby exposing weaknesses and unforeseen complications would be a step in the right direction.

Baker and, ironically, Dominic Cummings (who has frequently been a source of frustration amongst those lamenting the Government’s overreliance on a small number of expert voices) are among those who have argued for their implementation.

There are few who would, I suspect, attempt to make the case that the expert advice this Government has so heavily relied upon during the Coronavirus pandemic has been an overwhelming success. But the current parliamentary term is young, and if reforms in the procurement of expert advice were implemented with determination, we should quickly see them paying off.

Ryan Bourne: First, Covid-19 lockdowns. Next, climate change ones – rationed car use, no red meat. Coming soon to a country near you?

9 Dec

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

We are at the beginning of the end. Provided vaccines prove as efficacious as trial results indicate, and absent unobserved side effects, the rollout to vulnerable groups should reduce Covid-19 death risks substantially and rapidly.

Inoculations down through the priority list will then put us within reach of a herd immunity robust to ordinary behaviour. Life, it seems, could be “back to normal” by the spring or summer of next year.

I’ve never been a “V-shaper” Panglossian on the economy. You can’t switch economic life on and off without causing permanent damage. But there is nevertheless reason to be optimistic of a robust recovery next year. What is more uncertain are the longer-term consequences of this experience on our collective psyche and politics.

American economists Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran have warned of a depressive “scarring” effect, as we use the experience to revise our assumptions on the probabilities of major shocks. If we collectively infer that tail-end risks such as global pandemics are larger, then investments become less attractive.

Think alone about the willingness of entrepreneurs to go into the travel, hospitality or leisure industries after this. Then think of the effect of the risk of having to pivot to home working again, generalised across other sectors.

Alongside that are the impacts on the role of the state. Economic historian Robert Higgs’ work has highlighted how crises generate a ratchet of government power. Wars, depressions, and emergencies see powers centralised, before receding again.

But the state never quite falls back to the same size and scope as before. After the Coronavirus, we will see more taxpayer funds for virus-related public health, vaccination research, and the subsidisation of PPE production capacity. Government will also be met with demands to maintain Covid-level welfare benefits and industry-specific stimulus as a tool for future downturns, a la Eat Out to Help Out.

Lockdowns are the obvious area where these two effects could come together most damagingly. Highly crude shutdowns had a strong logic in Spring, given the high uncertainty about the prevalence and risks of the virus, and with Italy highlighting the dangers of overburdened hospitals.

More recent national measures reflect instead an ongoing policy failure to institute better control of Covid-19, but may nevertheless have passed a cost-benefit test given the arrival of vaccines (a case that the Government did not adequately prove).

Whatever your position on the desirability or consequences of lockdowns in this particular crisis, however, it’s clear that suspending economic and social liberties today brings with it the temptation for politicians to utilise such powers again – and for businesses and individuals to suspect that they could.

Given the way that politicians throw around terms such as “emergency” or “epidemic,” it is not an intellectual leap to imagine future leaders demanding similar measures for other ambitions. And therein lies a source of economic discontent—an incalculable drag or doubt for a generation.

Already, the economist Mariana Mazzucato has pitched the idea of “climate lockdowns,” should governments not deliver the green revolution she desires. In the service of mitigating the “climate emergency,” the “state would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

Of course, we can avoid all that, she says, if we are willing to “reorient our energy system around renewable energy” and “evict fossil-fuel interests and short-termism from business, finance, and politics”—the goals Mazzucato wants to achieve with her threats warning of what might be needed otherwise.

Now, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a world where one could face fines or jail time for driving too much, or eating steak frites. But before this year, one could have said the same about meeting four households on Christmas Day, or not eating at least a scotch egg with your pint.

Madeleine Grant worries about how the example of this pandemic might normalise health surveillance or screening for colds or flu. But it’s the everyday lifestyle regulations that have been truly novel – including the forced closure of certain businesses and the bans on gatherings. The threat of repeats predicated on the ends justifying the means is what we should be most attentive to.

To mitigate this temptation requires a reaffirmation of the legitimate justifications for government interventions. From an economic perspective, there is a defensible consequentialist claim that governments should act where huge, dangerous externalities result from collective action problems. Yet in doing so they have a duty to both prove the case and to account for these externalities in the least harmful way possible, only reaching for the most extreme measures when the consequences of inaction are grave or imminent.

The climate lockdowns idea is so pernicious not just because the imminent threat is absent. The reasoning presumes that governments should go beyond accounting for the externality, say through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes, instead using the “emergency” to justify actively ignoring market conceptions of value, threatening vast restrictions on how you live your life unless the planners’ vision of the world is achieved. Mazzucato’s argument is not just about reducing CO2, in other words, but about using the threat of lockdowns to push for abandoning consumer-led markets entirely.

We have seen this type of thinking proliferate during this crisis. Last week, Jenny Kleeman wrote for the Guardian about lab-grown meat, which many see as a useful pathway to reducing the environmental impact of farming and the ethical concerns many have with meat consumption. Rather than embrace these innovations as a way to work with consumer preferences to reduce the impacts of meat eating, Kleeman simply declared it would be preferable if we “simply stopped eating meat, or ate it far less often.” Her inspiration? The sacrifices of the Coronavirus in showing the massive behavioural changes we are “able to make” in extremis.

As we exit this crisis, we must not forget that underpinning a healthy market economy is the idea of the sovereign consumer, who knows what he or she wants, and whose welfare is enhanced by acting on those preferences. The bar for curbing activities that bring us joy or happiness should be very high indeed. And to the extent that economic or social problems do require government interventions, they should work with the preferences of consumers, not treat them with contempt, lest the economic welfare costs spiral.

Lockdowns were a panic button reaction to an acute emergency. Their re-use was a signal of the government’s dismal failure to mitigate the virus in less costly ways. But we must quell talk of them becoming a model for solving future economic and social challenges, or else the expectation of them could itself be economically corrupting today.

James Frayne: Six ways of boosting local pride and identity

8 Dec

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In an excellent recent blog, my colleague Andy Westwood of Manchester University called on the Government to pursue a local identity strategy.

In it, he wrote: “Buying or subsidising a hotel, pier or football club might not sit easily with notions of the role of government, nor a faith in competition rules. It goes against the grain of markets, state aid and traditional Conservative views of the state. There are lots of arguments about why we shouldn’t attempt such an approach. But if we really want to care about ‘place’ and identity then we should put these objections aside.”

He is right. Local identity should be a defining part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda. While new investment in infrastructure and education and skills are ultimately what’s needed to improve post-industrial areas, local people will have to wait many years to reap the benefits of such policy decisions.

But the Government can do a lot in a short space of time to improve towns and cities by thinking about things through the prism of local identity. A key question should be: how do we make these towns nicer places to live? A simple question – but one which would drive different policy answers to simply asking how we deliver more jobs.

Here is what focus groups tell you people in post-industrial areas want to see. They say their towns and cities were thriving until the late 1990s, but have been in increasingly rapid decline ever since. Shops have closed on once-busy high streets, bustling markets are a distant memory, local businesses have moved out, once-great festivals have been downgraded or ceased altogether, community pubs have shut, low-level anti-social behaviour (like open drug use) has risen massively, attractive local focal points such as war memorials have been vandalised.

While the sense of malaise in these towns and cities is unmistakable, equally unmistakable is the sense of local pride people have for the places they live in. People are angry about the state of their towns because they love them. This is what the Government should be looking to tap into.

This can sound a bit vague and woolly, but it doesn’t have to be so. For a start, it’s important to acknowledge that England really is unusual in the intensity of very local identity. In a tiny country, small towns, often separated by just a few miles, think of themselves as being entirely different from their near-neighbours – and indeed they often sound completely different.

Think of the huge differences between, say, Mansfield and Rotherham. 25 miles apart and on paper quite similar, but people who consider themselves to be totally different; and remarkably, who sound totally different despite being separated by a car journey of half an hour.

Nor does renewing local identity all have to be a 30-year project. Some parts of such a project, to be clear, does: if you are going to make devolution work, revive major civic institutions and change the role of universities in their place – as well as build major infrastructure – you won’t see the results overnight. But there’s also a lot that can be done in four years, with tangible results. Here are some illustrative examples of things that a combination of national and local Government might do:

  • Keep the streets clean and safe. As well as generally increasing the visible police presence, pay for security guards to walk through the high street during the hours that the shops are open, and deploy others to walk through local parks.
  • Bring back the events. Everywhere I go, people have a local event – a carnival, a fireworks display, a special annual market – that used to bring people together and that disappeared in the last few years. The Government should help bring them back.
  • For that matter, there should be incentives to restore a local market day. Many towns still have the basic infrastructure – and certainly the space – to bring back the sorts of large markets that existed on Saturday mornings and which brought huge commerce to small towns. This basic infrastructure should be repaired or rebuilt.
  • Some transport takes decades to deliver, but regular, inexpensive buses don’t.
  • Invest in those institutions that are delivering leisure services to the local community. Long Eaton United is an example of a thriving local institution of the kind I’m thinking of. Its training facilities – partly grant-funded – are used to ensure that huge numbers of teams – for men, women, boys and girls – are all able to play. There are huge numbers of similar clubs across the country who could play a similarly important role locally.
  • Support libraries and local museums. Cultural infrastructure needs funding and supporting.

As we deliver the levelling up funds and the towns funds, plus the safer streets money, and all of the plethora of pots the government has (very sensibly) been putting into these kinds of efforts, government needs to make sure it doesn’t just go on long-term infrastructure like broadband, or local economic zones.

Important though these are, the Government needs to ensure they’re making a tangible and visible difference to towns. Without that, no one will give it permission to do longer term work – and, to be honest, this is what people care about most.