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Monday, July 14, 2008 

George has written a sketch!

There's very little that's more attractive than a passing pop-psychological explanation for exactly why we are what we are and how to influence individuals into working towards the greater good. The latest is Richard Thaler's book Nudge, which has wonderfully bewitched the Tories: firstly because it doesn't involve throwing money around and secondly because it's American in origin.

Here then is the latest wheeze from little Georgie Osborne on how to encourage households to be more energy efficient, via the Grauniad, following their article on Saturday on Nudge:

First, social norms can be used to promote energy efficiency. A Conservative government will require household energy bills to contain information enabling families to compare their energy consumption with that of similar homes. As we have seen from pilots in America, this information can have a massive impact on energy consumption, as households who are using more than the average reduce their energy use to come into line with the norm. And as long as households that are using less than the average are given some sort of positive recognition - for example a special mark on their energy bill - they don't increase their energy use to fit in with the average. Without the use of any intrusive tax or regulatory instruments, overall energy consumption falls.

This rests on a few underlying assumptions: firstly, that householders actually care about being energy efficient. This may be true of trendy middle class families that want to boast about how low their carbon assprint is, and will want to keep up with the other Joneses in battling each other to bring it down, but will it of others who couldn't care less what their neighbours do and find it rather an invasion of privacy that their levels are broadcasted to the whole surrounding estate? Secondly, it accepts as a given that householders will compete to bring it down because of the overwhelming embarrassment of committing a crime against the environment. Thirdly, has there ever been a more worthless form of "positive recognition" than a "special mark" on a bill? To suggest this might reduce householders to infants who are promised a reward if they behave is putting it mildly. It also reminds me of a scheme that ran for the first couple of years of secondary school, where you received "commendations" from teachers for especially good pieces of work, and received a certificate when you reached a certain number. The flaw in this scheme was obvious - it rewarded the naturally bright and the hard working while ignoring those that did work hard but who didn't achieve the same level of quality in their work. Add in how those who rejected the "norm" of working hard and sneered at the "swots" laughed at the scheme and it was little surprise when it collapsed in on itself.

All of this seems to ignore the obvious reason to become more energy efficent - not to compete with the neighbours in the atypical Daily Mail style, but to bring the bills down. Moreover, the whole scheme smacks of something that I'd hoped that we'd moved on from: the incredibly flawed idea that "naming and shaming", because that's what this is, albeit in a much more subtle form, encourages people to moderate their behaviour. It doesn't; it instead makes them more defiant and in the eyes of some makes those who are worth looking up to. Crime or becoming more energy efficient, I'd wager things would be little different.

It's understandable why this is attractive to the Conservatives - not content with wanting to introduce markets to every public service around, they now think it's the perfect way to get neighbourhoods to work together. It also rests however on what they have in the past derided as paternalism, which is this undoubtedly also is. Osborne ends his weak article with:

Our work with the world's leading behavioural economists and social psychologists is yet more proof that the Conservative party is now the party of ideas in British politics. Gordon Brown needs to get on board with this new agenda, and fast. If he doesn't, he shouldn't be surprised if he gets nudged out of office sooner rather than later.

Or perhaps Brown will instead not be moved by passing crazes which change with the wind, which the Conservatives seem to be clutching at to pretend they have new ideas rather all the same old ones. It's hard not to picture the chinless George Osborne as Eric Idle and Brown as Terry Jones, with Osborne ending his tirade of innuendo by finally asking Brown what "it" is like.

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