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How Big Was David Cameron’s Big Idea?

February 11, 2010

I’ve just come back from a TED event in London. It was billed as a “secret” coming out party for David Cameron, the leader of the UK’s Conservative Party and the PM-in-waiting. I had never heard of TED before and honestly, when I received the invitation in my inbox, my first thought was that it was a scam to get my credit card details.

This invitation has gone out to 250 carefully selected individuals. It is not transferable and is for you alone. [My interpretation: You sucker. Let's see if appealing to your ego will make you fall for this scam.]

Please RSVP at your earliest convenience by filling in this form. [My thoughts: Click on the link provided so we can steal your credit card details.]

The exact location in central London and practical details will be sent to registered attendees a few days before the event.... Finally, please note that David Cameron's planned presence at TED is a secret and we want to keep it that way. [My thoughts: a secret speaker and a secret location-- I bet you want my secret PIN number too!]

Please keep this invitation strictly private. Do not forward, blog, publish or tweet! [My thoughts: You don't want the police involved.]

I admit that I may be overcautious about what shows up in my inbox, but when unsolicited email arrives from a strange looking address, my first thought is SPAM. Probably from Nigeria. But this time, in spite of myself, I read the email carefully and checked out the organization. The whole thing began to look more legit.  (I.e., there were no serious grammatical errors) I recognized some of the other speakers: Daniel Kahneman was a professor of mine at Princeton, and Esther Duflo, is an experimental economist whose work I admire.

A few google searches later, I decided to click on the link– even though I still did not know how they would have gotten my name. When they didn’t ask me for my credit card information, I decided to sign myself up- after all, how often does one get to be part of the chosen few?

The Program:

Daniel Kahneman (by satellite in Long Beach, CA)

David Cameron (at our secret location in London) followed by Q&A

Esther Duflo (in Long Beach)

Michael Shermer (in Long Beach)

For me, Esther Duflo gave the best talk. Hands down. In a future post, I’ll write more about the research she does and why I think she and her colleagues will probably win the Nobel Prize for Economics one day.

But right now, I’m going to resist the lure of writing about research I’m passionate about and focus instead on what David Cameron had to say. I expect him to be the next British PM so it seems important to evaluate his remarks.

First, for those who don’t follow UK politics, it’s important to remember that even though the Conservatives are considered right wing here, they look nothing like the Republican Party in the US. Labour and the Conservatives share the political centre, but what is considered centre here is really the Left in the US. In other words, the UK Conservative Party probably has more in common with the Democrats than they do with the Republican Party. To make the Canadian comparison, I’d say that Cameron is slightly left of Harper, but not much.

More caveats: In spite of the organizers’ best efforts, it was still a political speech; he danced around the questions during the Q & A, as politicians are apt to do.

Here is the Coles’ Notes version of Cameron’s talk– this is not exactly as he presented it, but it’s what you need to know:

How do we make things better without spending money?

Use technology to empower individuals in 3 ways.

1. Improve Transparency. E.g., make budget figures public and accessible

2. Provide Choice. E.g. Give patients control over their health records so that they choose which doctor to see.

3. Facilitate Accountability. E.g. Produce crime maps and stats so that individuals can hold the police to account

As an Oxford tutor, I would have given him an A- for delivery (he’s slick, but no Obama) and  a B- for substance. And this is coming from someone who believes that fiscal belt-tightening can create the space for much-needed change. Where was your originality David?? (As an aside, several audience members that I spoke to afterwards said that Gordon Brown’s TED speech was much better.)

The one thing that he said that surprised me was that his concern with intergenerational poverty in the UK; he felt that this was an issue that deserved attention. Now, the emphasis he put on solving the problem was not surprising: create more jobs (and while he didn’t say this, I presume this means coddling corporations in some way).

But I still want him to answer these questions for us. Without the BS.

1. Do you support the Tobin Tax (a.k.a the Robin Hood Tax)?

2. Given that there is an income threshold below which well-being clearly suffers, do you support heavier taxes on the rich to support the poor?

3. Do you have concrete policies for eliminating intergenerational poverty? Are you willing to devote real money on the problem? [Esther Duflo would then ask: how do you know if you are choosing the most effective way for that money to be spent?]

4. Will you support the Stiglitz Commission’s recommendations to reevaluate GDP (in a way that accounts for environmental externalities)?

5. Give us the straight story on the deficit– your recent waffling has left us confused. Cuts or no cuts? If cuts, how deep? Focused on what areas? What is sacred?

For those of you who were at the talk with me, I’d love to know what you would have asked him if the Q & A was allowed to continue.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 6:09 am

    Thanks Christine, agree about the David Cameron’s dancing – personally I found it annoying, and his talk in general so glib and self satisfied I nearly slid off my seat.

    And the Big Idea . . um, remind me , what was it?

    Yes I too wanted to ask him does he support the Tobin Tax, It was all over in a flash.

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