Tuesday, 14 June 2016

An open letter about the EU referendum

I have watched with growing alarm and disbelief as the EU referendum campaign has unfolded these past months.  As a parent, citizen and professional economist I am filled with dread at the prospect the UK will vote to leave the EU.

It seems to me that the general population’s distrust of ‘the Establishment’ is now so complete that there are no institutions or individuals whose arguments to remain will be believed.  How else to explain the latest polls?  It seems that a hundred or so MPs, fronted by a handful of high-rhetoric, low-fact politicians, are proving more persuasive than the IMF, the IFS, the Bank of England, the President of the United States, the UK government, the leaders of all major UK parties…

I am determined that, should the worst occur, I shall not look back and say: I did nothing.  I am therefore writing to ask every reader to remember that the EU referendum is not about Boris or immigration or short-term economic discomfort.  It is a profound geo-political choice between being alone or being with friends.  Once, perhaps, this was a sufficiently mighty nation to countenance such isolation; now, confronting the challenges of climate change, globalisation, terrorism and ceaselessly disruptive technological change, it is only by working closely with others that we can realistically hope to prosper in the long run.

So, I ask: please do not allow your distrust of ‘them’ to justify a vote to leave the EU.  Instead, reflect on how much better it always is, when trying to get difficult things done, to work with friends and colleagues; and vote Remain.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Tackling obesity - big fish and small fry

It is in the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true.
Gore Vidal

The McKinsey Global Institute produced a terrific report in November 2014 called “How the world could better fight obesity”.

The report sets out the scale of the obesity crisis, and its costs.  Obesity is up there with smoking and war as a global killer.  It costs billions and billions, both directly and indirectly.

The McKinsey report identifies 74 interventions to tackle obesity that have been discussed or piloted somewhere in the world; and presents analysis for 44 of these where there is “sufficient evidence to estimate what might be the potential costs and impact”.

The report’s first and headline conclusion is that:

“Based on existing evidence, any single intervention is likely to have only a small overall impact on its own. A systemic, sustained portfolio of initiatives, delivered at scale, is needed to address the health burden.”

I think the key phrase here is “based on existing evidence”.  It is supposed to make us think that the conclusions drawn are credible and correct.  Who, after all, can refute the ‘evidence’?

The problem, however, is that all the evidence comes from inside a system-wide failure.  Each individual intervention may, as the report points out, be ‘cost effective for society’, but there is no reason to suppose that adding up a small hill of beans will make anything other than a hill of beans.  Their conclusion misunderstands the nature of complex systems. 

Sometimes, as I once heard Michael Grade put it, you have to slap them in the face with a fish.

Bad Habits, Hard Choices proposes negative VAT on healthy foods and high VAT on unhealthy foods.  There is no ‘pilot’ for this; and McKinsey are not in a position to assess the ‘evidence’.  But it is a system-level intervention, designed in light of what we know about how real people behave in the real world, requiring only the courage to pick the thing up by the tail and swing it hard.

If it fails – we’ll have wasted a few million pounds, maybe a few tens of millions of pounds, on a deliberative exercise and some administration.  Given the scale of the current crisis, this may be no more than a couple of weeks’ worth of current annual health spending on obesity.

If it works – we might just jolt the whole system onto a new trajectory, one in which virtuous cycles of health replace the vicious cycles of obesity in which we have become trapped.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

New Poem - Soul worm

the towpath grew too dense.
Thick scallops hewn from summer light
were scattered like forgotten charms
across the gravelled lane
befuddling the eye and
hobbling the feet.

Only then
the craft appeared,
its curious and gawdy prow
a portent of the carnival
in tumult on the longboat's roof.

Exotic plumes of ancient smoke
sang skyward from a mighty grill
where dripping cuts of unseen meat
surrendered to their final flame;
and someone from the labyrinth,
perhaps enchanted by the light,
called clearly to the nervous bank:
Some soul food, friend?

From on the deck
we know that life
is but a dream
glimpsed fleeting and
either side of our canal.
Look! we cry
from time to time - 
it's me!
And laughter like a long-lost friend
erupts before condensing
into hazel seeds of hope.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Bad Habits and Commitment Devices

In my new book Bad Habits, Hard Choices, one of the key elements of my argument – an argument that says we should apply negative VAT to healthy foods and high VAT to unhealthy foods – is that we should re-cast VAT not as simply a tax, but as a ‘commitment device’.  My thinking on this has been crucially informed by two books in particular:
  • “The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain Since 1950” by Professor Avner Offer of Oxford University
  • “Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays” by Professor Thomas Schelling of Harvard University

With these in mind, I found myself contemplating the idea that, to all intents and purposes, everybody already knows that it really isn’t a good idea to drink all those sugar-in-suspension fizzy drinks, to eat so much salt and red meat and doughnuts.  But they all seem so tempting!  Our fragile animal brains, still driven by all those evolutionary millennia, guiding us remorselessly to the decision: just one more chocolate…

We don’t succumb all the time, of course; virtually all of us have had the experience of ‘resisting temptation’.  To a greater or lesser extent, we assert ‘self control’ – see Offer - in the face of the marketing onslaught.  Sometimes, on an idle Tuesday, we have had enough; and we pledge to stop smoking, drinking and eating ready meals.  We pledge to stop giving in to our children’s demands for the latest ridiculous drink they’ve seen advertised; we pledge to give them apples instead of chocolates; we pledge to cook them a proper meal rather than throw some sauce-smothered, additive-riddled, fat-laden ready meal in the microwave.

And, wonderfully, sometimes we succeed.  How?

The name for what we do is a ‘commitment device’.  Coined by the aforementioned and marvellous Thomas Schelling, the phrase refers to a mechanism by which the You of Today imposes a constraint on the You of Tomorrow.  Setting your alarm for the morning is a commitment device: Today You knows that, unless something stops you, Tomorrow You will sleep blissfully until lunchtime.  By setting the alarm, Today You imposes an obligation to wake at a particular time on Tomorrow You.

Taking a shopping list to the supermarket is a commitment device.  (My first economics teacher explained that going to the supermarket without a shopping list was tantamount to ‘economic suicide’.)  The you that sits calmly at the kitchen table to write a list of things you need is sending instructions, and thus restrictions, to the you that will be ambling up and down the aisles of enticement in an hour or two.

Limiting your options for spending too much by visiting your local stores rather than Oxford Street is a commitment device.  Setting yourself a spending limit before you even leave the house is a commitment device.  Writing on your hand the words ‘Buy the low fat version’ is a commitment device.  Cutting up your credit card so that you are simply unable to indulge in some retail therapy is a commitment device.

Commitment devices come in differing strengths; and different behaviours require different devices.  Head to the supermarket with a scrappy list and you are only lightly defended against the onslaught; you will still need considerable will power to enforce the commitment.  Head to the Mall without a credit card, and it will be really quite difficult to spend much money.

Head to the supermarket without any plastic, on the other hand, and feeding yourself and your family would become difficult, which is rather the opposite of what one might be after.  Similarly, heading to the Mall with a list that says ‘Handbag. Watch’ is unlikely to protect you from all those luxury brands.

Schelling himself thought first about smoking – indeed, his own smoking – and extended initially to other compulsive behaviours that we humans seem so keen on.  Virtually everyone has some sort of ongoing battle, with smoking or chocolate or gambling or alcohol or picking their nails or [insert your own personal demon here, should it not already have been listed].  And virtually everyone will have, on one or - more probably - many occasions, invented some sort of commitment device in an attempt to restrict or abandon their ugly behaviour.  The you of yesterday tried really hard to come up with a cunning plan – but the you of today still found a way to have a crafty fag or slip in a bonus doughnut.

As we also know, however, sometimes these commitment devices actually work.  And it turns out there are some relatively straightforward features that distinguish effective devices from ineffective devices.  They need to be easy to use, for example; and they need to have their effect at the right time.  By some margin the most important feature that distinguishes the effective from the ineffective, however, is the extent to which it is public rather than private.  In general, a commitment device that is devised by a group and then operates in a public fashion will be more effective than a device devised by an individual and applied in isolation.

If we think about food again, for a moment, simply consider the difference between you personally deciding to reduce the number of ready meals you eat each week and a decision by your entire household to eat fewer ready meals.  You can immediately feel that not only would you individually find it harder to continue eating so many ready meals if no-one else in the household was doing so, but the whole household would find it easier to stop eating such rubbish if they had all agreed together than if each of them decided separately.

Schelling took this line of thinking the whole way.  He re-presented ‘law’ as commitment devices.  A legal statute – let’s say something like ‘it is illegal to drive a car whilst under the influence of alcohol’ – is the people of yesterday imposing a restriction on the people of today (us).  Social institutions, too, have this character, he suggests: the way a museum presents a particular cultural view of the world, the way a parliament presents a particular way of conducting debate, the way money presents a particular way of conducting exchange – all are inventions of past peoples, and act to shape or constrain the ways that the peoples of today and tomorrow see, think and behave.

And, in the same way that your shopping list or diced credit card may or may not work, may or may not be appropriate, so too with human laws and institutions.  Sometimes the people of yesteryear got it wrong and we need to amend or replace their commitment devices; the progressive repeal in recent years of the various laws against homosexuality would be a good example.

Thinking about it from this slightly bigger and longer term perspective gets us towards the idea of a ‘commitment strategy’.  Stopping an entire country smoking, for example, is the kind of thing that you can’t really do in one go.  You are probably going to need a whole host of mechanisms or ‘interventions’ or commitment devices.  A commitment strategy is a plan for such a situation, where a range of commitment devices will be necessary and where it will be important to think about which devices get used to achieve which outcomes at which times.

Note, again, the importance of the group dynamic in all this.  The commitment device known as ‘banning smoking in public places’ would have been impossible in the UK ten or twenty years earlier because smoking was still too prevalent: it was still sufficiently widespread to have the character of an injunctive norm.  By 2007, when the ban actually came into effect, smoking rates had fallen to levels whereby a sufficiently large majority of people did not smoke, to the point where the injunctive norm had flipped.  The story had changed.

Throwing all this together, and this thing we call ‘British society’ looks like a tangle of inherited commitment devices, broadly devised and implemented in a public fashion, evolving slowly, and carried around in our heads as a more-or-less tangible story that contains the rules of how to behave.  In general, and certainly if they’re going to be successful, new rules – new commitment devices – are considered and devised by our better selves, with the specific intention of trying to restrict the weaker selves that we know we will at some point be tomorrow, or the day after.

Which gets us back to shopping and unhealthy foods.  Millions of us believe, and routinely tell the nice researchers when they ask us in surveys, that our health is our top priority.  Yet we buy and eat a simply astonishing amount of food that makes us ill.  We eat food that harms our hearts, clogs our arteries, gnaws away at several vital organs and makes us fat.  The main reason we do this is not that we’re stupid; it’s not even that there is always a gap between what we say and what we do.  It’s because we are subjected unremittingly to a sophisticated assault from all sides, a surround-sound of interwoven stories that has been saturating our mammal minds for so long that we barely even notice any more.  We inhabit an environment in which ever more aspects of our lives require us to fulfil the role of consumer, a role in which we experience an intoxicating sense of choice, but in which only choices that serve the interests of capital are presented.  The asymmetry is acute; and we have not yet put in place the strategies, devices or tools to redress the imbalance.

So what if, rather than each of us battling on our own to eat the right amount of fruit, avoid the fatty rubbish, cut back on the chocolate, stop drinking the sugar-in-suspension drinks, and so on and so forth, what if instead we decided to do it together?  What if, as citizens today, we agreed on some commitment devices to control our consumer selves tomorrow? What if we could use a reformed VAT as just such a device?

In, out, in, out, shake it all about

I have two dominant anxieties about the EU referendum.

The first is encapsulated in the comic strip character Mayor Johnson.  Clever, well-educated and dangerous, Johnson has grafted a public persona of bumbling haplessness onto a private personality modelled on his hero, Winston Churchill, to whom he bears a striking and steadily increasing physical resemblance.

Great though Churchill undoubtedly was – as Johnson’s own biography of the man attests – he and his myth are inextricably linked with the narrative of Empire.  To recall Churchill is to recall the War, and Potsdam, and an England that still, just, ruled the waves.  To cite Churchill as an inspiration is to imagine that a mighty nation still exists, a nation soon to rouse from its slumbers and capable of once again shaping the world.  To imagine such a nation is to deny the challenges confronting the world of the twenty first century, and to deny, too, the realities of the past fifty or sixty years.

The denial is not Johnson’s alone, of course.  Every day, and especially every Sunday, our televisions positively groan with export-oriented costume dramas, dramatic re-creations of re-factualised pasts and pastiche documentaries about long-dead kings, queens, murderers and cults.  Seemingly terrified by an uncertain and bewildering future, huge numbers of Britons appear to take refuge in the re-imagined past, a past of certainties and authenticity, of simplicity and honour, of power and glory.  Once upon a time we were Great; and, when we were, everything else was great too.  We all want a great future – so let’s get back to being Great again.

Johnson both physically and figuratively embodies this belief.  (Trump is the American version.) He is the manifestation of a myth.  The mythological term upon which he – and others – rely is ‘sovereignty’.  And my anxiety is grounded in the potential power of that myth.

In the bright light of the facts, a few densely populated islands just off the north western seaboard of the continental landmass known as Europe are about to make a decision with fifty-year consequences.  The only – the only – rational thing to do is to remain intimate with our friends and neighbours.  To cast ourselves adrift – to have sovereignty over our own little boat as the storms grow ever fiercer – would be folly of an extreme kind.

And yet, and yet, it might actually happen, through the power of myth.

My second anxiety, reinforcing the first, comes from my experience a dozen or so years ago when I facilitated a series of discussions about whether the UK should or should not join the Euro.

London First, a business-led lobbying and campaigning group, wanted to explore whether the Euro would be good or bad for London.  I suggested that there were four possibilities:

- the UK joins the Euro, and it’s bad for London
- the UK joins the Euro, and it’s good for London
- the UK doesn’t join the Euro, and it’s bad for London
- the UK doesn’t’ join the Euro, and it’s good for London

As a half-decent economist, I was able to construct an argument in support of each of these positions.  Why not, I suggested, hold four ‘business breakfasts’.  I’ll pitch one argument – one scenario – to each breakfast. Four breakfasts, four scenarios.  We'll prompt debate and discussion, which will in turn help businesses, and London First, decide on what position to adopt.

And so it came to pass.  At each breakfast, a group of a dozen or so business folk, all pretty senior, all from major London-based businesses, all with responsibility for dealing with the issues associated with the Euro.  At each breakfast, I gave an opening presentation, setting out just one of the four possibilities – in, good; in, bad; out good, out bad.

My expectation had been that debate and discussion at each breakfast would reveal the various pros and cons, would elicit insights and perspectives from the various participants and would bring into the light the facts and figures upon which a rational decision could be based.

In fact what happened was that each and every meeting ended up agreeing with my initial presentation.  Irrespective of which scenario it was.  What became clear was that the very people who one might most have supposed would have some useful insights, perspectives, facts and figures in fact had no idea at all.  What became clear was that a single persuasive argument – a single story – could fill the vacuum.  It didn’t actually matter what the story was, so long as it was a good one.

And thus my second anxiety.  Most people, I suspect, have little or no idea whether staying in the EU is better than getting out, or vice versa.  On top of that, the people who ought to have the facts and figures probably don’t know either.  In such a vacuum, what matters is – the story, the myth.  And who tells it. If a comic-book character – quite literally, a person from a story – tells an easy-to-understand story to millions of people for whom such stories are already central to how they cope with the vicissitudes of day-to-day life, then the myth really might win.

I can hardly bear to imagine it.  So much so, I’m off to consult with the goblins and the leprechauns to see if they’ve got any bright ideas.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Kant, Chips and Future Generations

The confession with which I wish to begin the year is: I eat meat.

Not only that.  When I cannot be arsed to meet my own usual standards (organic, free-range, locally-sourced, well-read etc) I occasionally indulge in a burger. Ready cooked.  From a high street provider.

On one such recent occasion I happed upon Steers, a brand previously unknown to me.   Their advertising was enticing; and the burger was good.  So were the chips.

The chips came in a cardboard envelope, the front of which explained just how good the chips were, the back of which encouraged me as follows:

“Please do not litter and help save the planet
so that future generations will also be able
to enjoy our flame-grilled burgers”

Leaving aside the ambiguous grammar (am I being asked not to save the planet?) we are confronted here by a very interesting piece of irony.  It is clearly expected that I already know that I should be behaving in an environmentally-friendly fashion; and, further, that I know the reason why I should be behaving this way.  But why should I really care about these future generations?  I, after all, will not be around.  And the answer?  So that they can enjoy one of these burgers!  Just as I have!  Marvellous!

It’s possible, of course, that no irony is intended, and that Steers really does believe that its customers are more likely to dispose of the waste cardboard envelope in a responsible fashion if they conjure, for a moment, a vision of a future burger-eating human.

Either way, the question is firmly on the table: what is the best way of motivating the typical Steers customer – or, indeed, anyone else in the act of eating some food – to act responsibly?

The ironies multiply.  As my opening confession reminds us, eating meat is itself difficult to justify on environmental grounds.  The most environmentally responsible choice would in fact be not to have eaten the burger at all, in which case I would not have been exposed to the motivational message in the first place.  Less of an irony, more of a paradox akin to the old chestnut ‘The statement on the other side of this card is true/The statement on the other side of this card is false’.

No matter.  The question remains.  Why should we bother with any of this stuff?

The mainstream response, as the Steers encomium acknowledges, is that we have some sort of responsibility to the future.  Normally this is expressed in terms of our, or the, children.  Most parents have a bit of a soft spot for their children, so the assumption is that an appeal to the welfare of our children will motivate us to act.

Hmm.  The evidence suggests that, whilst we may have good intentions when it comes to our children, we’re not so good when it comes to the follow up: just look at how fat they’re all getting! It’s too straightforward to make the easy decision today and leave the tricky action stuff until tomorrow.  (Economics does this all the time.  Why should we pay to stop climate change, when future generations will be much richer than us and will be able to afford to clear up the mess much more easily than we can?)

The appeal to future generations is simply a way of shifting the responsibility.  It’s not our problem, it’s theirs.  It lets us off the hook.

So, what sort of reason would be enough?

One sort of answer would be, pace Cameron, that it’s ‘the right thing to do’.  This is obviously inadequate.  Cameron’s automated utterance, crafted as it has been by that recently knighted Sly Bony Corn, is utterly bereft of content and is in reality an opportunity to repeat the word ‘right’ so as to subliminally reassure the relevant political wing.  (It also, heinously, traduces Spike Lee’sDo the Right Thing’.)  The notion of ‘right’ is entirely subjective, possibly even arbitrary.  My definition of right might well include eating thousands of burgers and throwing many tonnes of cardboard on the planet’s funeral pyre.

The subjectivity issue here is, of course, the very stuff of ethics, about which a very great deal has been written and only a small fraction of which has ever been read.  I am in no position to summarise even the vanishingly small portion of that small fraction with which I am familiar, so will hazard instead some possible one-liners:

The golden rule – we could rely on the maxim that we should treat others as we ourselves expect to be treated.  This is obviously classy in general terms, but I don’t immediately see the connection to an empty bag of chips; and when I think about it for a bit longer, I can’t be sure that a future burger eater will mind that much about throwing away an empty chip bag, so probably won’t mind if I do either.

Kant’s categorical imperative – which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, and is again a classy formulation, and would certainly act as a motivation if you understood it, but I’m not convinced the average Steers customer would be too impressed if they discovered it written on the back of the packet.

The Allen Carr model – who, in his classic “The Easy Way to Give Up Smoking” framed smoking as self-evidently bad by posing the question: would you wish it for your children?  It borders on being a universal test: if a behaviour you’re thinking of is one you hope your children would never do, then it’s bad; if it’s something you’d be proud of your children doing, then it’s good.  The weakness, again, is the peril of subjectivity: you and I might be ashamed if our children threw their empty chip packets to the floor, but there may be others who simply don’t give a monkeys.

I wonder, then, if the answer lies in something more cunningly social, of the form:

Is it civilised?

We perhaps don’t have to worry too much about exactly what is meant by ‘civilised’ and can actually exploit the vagueness: the civilised thing to do is clearly that behaviour which respects the fact that we are civilised people living in a civilisation. We don’t have to worry too much about the children or the future, or how my individual action relates to the individual actions of others: throwing an empty packet of chips on the floor is clearly not very civilised. Don’t do it.

Even this formulation is flawed, however.  Is driving a car civilised or uncivilised?  Travelling on an aeroplane?

Maybe we should simply let Cameron and Lee slug it out:

It’s only the right thing to do if you actually do the right thing.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The show's not uber til the fat lady sings

I don't know when they disappeared but, once upon a time and surely not that long ago, each London bus sported upon its right butt cheek a simple injunction: Please let the bus out. I was fond of the message, yet also disappointed: it was a clear and simple request, but painfully obvious, too: who needs to be reminded that the bus should be let out?

Presumably an incredibly detailed and expensive evaluation came to this conclusion - that London's road users were indeed aware that they should let the bus out, and that going to the extraordinary lengths of stencilling a short message on the right butt cheek of every London bus did not represent value for money and/or deliver the appropriate return on investment.

(An alternative explanation is suggested by the subsequent appearance on the left butt cheek of every London bus the warning to cyclists that attempting to pass the bus on its left hand side was a potentially lethal activity since - the message says - the bus 'stops frequently', it presumably being the case that London's road users would be profoundly disoriented if they had somehow to pay attention to two omnibusular butts simultaneously and that, all things considered, preserving the lives of the astonishingly stupid cyclists who think they can muscle their way along the inside of a twenty ton metal object is more important than supporting the smooth flow of the daily journeys of millions of Londoners.)

It is my observation, however, being variously a driver, cyclist and pedestrian on London's roads these past twenty five years that the disappearance of the LetMeOut butt sign has coincided with a marked deterioration in the quality, safety, efficiency and politeness of road use in our capital.


Visitors and other new arrivals to London often conclude that Londoners are an impolite and unfriendly bunch.  This seems to reflect their initial experience of the density and intensity of London folk as they go about their business - so many people! Moving so quickly! Through such small spaces!

All of us who choose to stay, however, soon discover that Londoners are merely intent upon their business and assume that everyone else is, too.  They ignore you, in what appears to be an unfriendly fashion, until you need some help - at which point Londoners are remarkably supportive.  As a road user, particularly a car driver, this manifests itself in a very striking fashion: when joining a main road from a side road, particularly when traffic on the main road is moving slowly (as, of course, it usually does), the Londoner will allow their fellow Londoner to fold into the traffic.  This behaviour is not some highly infrequent occurrence which brings a warm glow of surprise at the residual civility of humanity; it is, in London, normal.  (That is not to say it happens all the time, of course; but every time I find myself driving in some other part of the country I am shocked to discover how needlessly discourteous the majority of road users are in these kinds of situations, or how, when I fold into the traffic, London-style, they become enraged that they are now some 6 or 7 metres less further forward than they would otherwise have been.)

Or so it was for many years.  Most recently I have noticed a marked increase in whole range of dis-civilised road behaviour in London: jumping red lights, sneaking along bus lanes, artificially creating an additional lane so as to gain some minor positional advantage, not allowing fellow road users to fold into the traffic, not allowing pedestrians to cross the road - and, for sure, not allowing the bus to pull out.

All the fault of a bare bus butt?

Of course not.  Tis a mere coincidence.  There is a much more obvious answer: London is now a much more crowded place than it used to be, its population having soared over the past decade or so, and the attempt to squeeze more road users into the same finite space inevitably increases the pressure, and thus the tension, and thus the 'bad' behaviour.

Except that this, too, is not enough.  The real culprit is the increased number of minicabs in London.  Their number has risen by more than 50% in the past decade, and by more than a quarter in just the past couple of Uber-years.  Unlike a black cab, which charges a fare based on a combination of distance and time, a minicab charges a fee based only upon the distance it travels. To make money, a minicab driver must make each journey in the shortest time possible, so as to be free as soon as possible to get the next fare.  The only way to make a journey of a fixed length shorter is to attempt to drive more quickly - which, in London, means driving more aggressively.

The price competition accelerated so dramatically by Uber (friends that have used the service report fares that I can scarcely believe) reinforces this trend significantly: with less money per customer, the minicab driver needs to make even more journeys to generate a worthwhile income, so is impelled to drive even more quickly, even more aggressively, even more dangerously.

These vehicles are always on the road, of course, so very visibly 'set the tone', changing the descriptive norms that govern the behaviour of all the other road users, thereby dragging down the whole system.

I predict, on this basis, that there will be an increase in accidents, road-rage incidents and collisions between road users; that a rise in road traffic injuries is already underway (the stats always lag reality) and will worsen over the coming months and years; and that one of London's key strengths (often omitted from the strategies and policy documents), namely its deep capacity for conviviality, is under threat.

It is one of the wonders of complexity that overall system conditions are invariably dependent on just a handful of key elements within the system; and that, just as typically, one or some or even all of these elements can be very small relative to the overall size of the system.  Could it really be that Uber jeopardises not merely the livelihood of our black cab drivers, but the entirety of London's culture?

Legal challenges having failed, it seems unlikely that Uber's free-market methods will be restricted to any significant degree anytime soon.  I propose, instead, that we go back to the bottom and start from there: the right butt cheek of all Uber vehicles and all minicabs should be obliged to sport the message:

but I earn less than
the minimum wage