Here Comes Barack Cameron?


President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were so “like-minded,” according to one Los Angeles Times writer, that they brought new meaning to the U.S. and England’s “special relationship.” Blair’s later embrace of George W. Bush, however, was less satisfying, leading to widespread ridicule that the PM was the Texan’s favorite “lap dog.”

President Barack Obama shares little of his predecessors’ Anglophilia; he even unceremoniously returned Blair’s gift of a Winston Churchill bust loaned to Bush after 9-11. Yet however much Obama may detest the old Tory imperialist, he might find in Blair’s successor David Cameron a role model for his troubled administration.

On the surface, the aristocratic, well-heeled Cameron, the son of a wealthy stockbroker and husband to an heiress (he is now estimated to be worth 30 million pounds), might seem a poor match for the self-made community organizer from Chicago. But Cameron’s philosophy — which melds liberal social and environmental concerns with fiscal conservatism — could prove useful to the U.S. president, particularly since Obama’s initial plan (massive expansion of the federal welfare state) has been made moot by the recent election. Cameron’s “One Nation” Toryism offers a model of governmental activism while accommodating anti-deficit sentiment that has grown in both countries.

But Cameron’s politics share more with Obama’s than meets the eye.  Like the Obama, he is articulate, attractive and young — at 44 he is five years younger than the U.S. president. And he is determined to reshape his party’s image. Cameron represents a break from what we might consider rightist conservatism. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Cameron reflects gentry, not middle-class, conservative values; much like Obama he appeals more to the well-educated segments of society. Enterprise, the breaking down of class structures and expanding opportunity and ownership do not rank among Cameron’s priorities. The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer suggests that Cameron shares some similarities with Harold MacMillan, who sought to put a more human face of Britain’s notoriously rigid class system rather than upending it entirely.

Cameron’s Conservatives, locked in a governing alliance with the Liberal Democrats, also eschew the unattractive views, common on the continental right, about immigrants or minorities. These enlightened social attitudes reflect the class consensus of the upper echelons of post-industrial Britain — much as Obama’s social views resonate with the U.S.’ academic, media and financial sectors.

The big banks represent the most important gentry constituency on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington the new Chief of Staff, crony capitalist extraordinaire Bill Daley, will strongly reflect their interests. In both countries, the financial services industry has benefited more from government largesse and monetary policy than any other sector. Less than three years from helping sink the world economy, firms in the City in London and Wall Street in New York are minting money and handing out lush bonuses. In London, developers are considering building new office complexes. The restaurants and fancy shops, from the City and Mayfair to the West End, like their counterparts in swank parts of Manhattan, are thriving.

This prosperity, of course, contrasts dramatically with conditions outside the financial sector. Like the American industrial heartland, areas outside the largely prosperous southeastern U.K. are struggling. Some of these areas, notes Conservative MP Mark Field, resemble “Stalinist Russia” in their near total dependence on government spending. Any significant cutbacks in government expenditures will hit these areas hardest.

These areas would benefit most from expansive, pro-growth policies that encourage building new plants, research facilities and business services outside London’s swanky precincts. But Cameron, like Obama, seems more interested in promoting “hip” urbanism focused on high-end services, media and cultural exports than in rebuilding Britain’s declining middle-class job base.

Cameron’s political “green act,” as Heffer calls it, reflects aristocratic attitudes and a keen reading of “focus groups.” Unlike the current crop of conservatives in Washington, Cameron’s Conservatives embrace the global warming agenda about as fully as their Labour predecessors. They embrace all the policies — high-speed rail, pro-density planning policies, massive subsidization of renewable fuel — that remain critical Obama policies.

Cameron’s Conservatives have even sought to limit the construction of new runways at Heathrow, the country’s main airport, in order to stop what the government has called “binge flying.” Of course, this usually refers to middle-class people taking cheap vacations on low-cost airlines. After all, much higher airfares won’t much affect the financial sector, which can easily absorb them.

Green land-use policy is also useful to the City, notes the pro-development group Audacity, since it serves to constrict supply and bolster the value of  mortgages by keeping prices artificially high. The U.K. suffers a perennial shortage of homes that already has reached 1 million, a number likely to double in the following decade. No surprise then that British property prices, compared to incomes, are among the highest in the world, particularly in and around London.

The City, like Wall Street and Silicon Valley, hopes to make a killing on “cap and trade” as well as a host of renewable energy schemes. For Obama, who is anxious to repair relations with big business, green politics represents a potential windfall, bringing him accolades from both the financial hegemons and parts of his enviro-focused “progressive” base.

Yet a combined policy of fiscal austerity and green regulations could also suppress growth across the broader economy outside the high-end financial and service sector. Opposition to new fossil fuel plants, opting instead for expensive and highly subsidized wind-energy could double U.K. energy by 2030. Faced with competition from developing countries willing to burn coal, oil and perhaps anything flammable, and lacking the hydro-resources of Scandinavia or the nuclear industry of France, British the U.K. will face ever great obstacles in the global marketplace

Overall Cameron’s policies, notes author James Heartfield, will likely intensify class barriers in Britain. Over this cold, snowy winter as many as 25,000 people have died from exposure, in large part because they cannot afford higher energy bills. Millions of homes, schools and hospitals face winter fuel-rationing.

Similarly, the Tory resistance to building new suburban housing will not only deprive people of the option of a decent, low-density lifestyle, but it will also strip jobs from the historically well-paying blue-collar construction trades. Under current policies, notes one recent study, prospective homeowners will face “mortgage misery” for the rest of the decade.

Of course, these policies present political risks.  Conservative poll ratings are up slightly, but Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who appeal more to centrist voters, are fading rapidly. A year after its resounding defeat, Labour has surged to a slight lead in the polls.

Yet given the current reality, a Cameron-like embrace of austerity coupled with green policies represents a positive strategy for the Obama Administration. Just as Cameron has sought to redefine conservativism with a humane face, Obama could concoct a modern progressivism that is both green and fiscally responsible.  By 2012, the radical community organizer could well morph into an entirely new persona: Barack Cameron.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

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Britain, the canary in the coal mine

It is extremely disturbing, for Britain's sake, to read that the Cameron Conservatives might do nothing at all about the "Green" strangulation of their nation. Some of the most pointed academic analysis of urban growth restraint policy, is emerging from Britain, particularly from Paul Cheshire of the LSE and colleagues like Stephen Sheppard and Christian Hilbers; from Alan Evans of "Policy Exchange" and colleagues like Oliver Hartwich; from OECD Economists like Christopher Andre, Peter Hoeller and David Rae; and from John Meuellbauer and colleagues at Oxford University. The Barker Report is also a significant milestone.

Urban growth restraints have the following consequences; it is evident that Britain is merely providing a negative example approximately "one cycle" ahead of California and Oregon.

-A price bubble and bust cycle, each one more volatile than the previous one. Britain's cyclical volatility is apparently "one cycle" ahead of California's.

-Steadily INCREASING INELASTICITY of housing supply. Supply response to each price bubble, becomes less and less, which is the cause of the increasing severity of the bubbles.

-Steadily reduced amount of employment and wealth creation in "construction" industry as such. (The "wealth creation" is more a matter of speculation and risk taking through the price "cycles"). Steady loss of industry efficiencies, including efficiencies of scale.

-Steadily increasing identifiable SHORTAGE of homes. Steady reduction in the living space per person. Older and increasingly substandard housing stock; health and sanitary issues.

-Long term TREND of rising inaffordability. The cumulative price inflations exceed the deflations.

-Falling birthrates, as childbearing is delayed until RESPONSIBLE couples can afford to house themselves. The average age of a first home buyer is said to be 37 years in Britain. (However, IRRESPONSIBLE child-bearers become a rising burden on the taxpayer).

-Social pathologies. Increasing proportions of oncoming generations are deprived of any hope of having a home in which to raise their own family. This leads to increased crime and delinquency and irresponsible sexual behaviour.

-Further contributing to social pathologies: the almost total absence of grass, lawns, gardens, and trees; in most children's neighbourhoods. These amenities end up enjoyed only by the wealthiest, who can afford the properties that have them, or are located conveniently to parks and green belts.

-Inequality. Cheshire and Sheppard estimate that the "inequality" effect of inflated land prices in Britain is now WORSE than the "inequality" that is the result of disparate incomes in the first place.

-Increasing "beggar thy neighbour" politics surrounding environment and amenities.

-REDUCED economic efficiency. Yes, you read that right. While planners shallow assumptions are that the "more compact" urban form within their growth boundaries, will be "more efficient" than "sprawl", all the objective analysis is proving the exact opposite. The terms "dense sprawl" and "dysfunctional density" are starting to be used to describe the outcomes. It is not just a matter of inadequate infrastructure to support the increasing densities. Alain Bertaud identifies "Spatial Distribution of Density" as the crucial factor.

-The "Spatial Distribution of Density" of cities with growth boundaries and inflated land prices, is DISTORTED AWAY from areas of "efficient location", and TOWARDS areas of "inefficient location". This is because the usual trade off calculation made by households and businesses, between "price of location" and "transport costs", is "swamped" by the inflated "price of location" factor. Cheshire and colleagues are doing study after study that confirms at the "sector" level, what Bertaud's analysis reveals at the "metro" level.

Politicians need to wake up. This is not a case of "pain for gain". There is NO "gain" against which the pain to households can be said to be justified. Cheshire and Sheppard calculate the NET public welfare effect of 50 years of growth controls in Britain to be equivalent to a 3.9% income tax; they also say that this is increasing as things have only worsened since the year 2000 date that the data for their study came from. The only "gain", if it can be said to be such, is for the very wealthiest people who can capture the most efficient and amenity-rich locations, which remain at unnaturally LOW densities (compared to if the land prices were lower). Also, incumbent property owners experience capital gains; the closer to CBD's, the greater the capital gains.

Nothing less than the fate of the entire economy is at stake here. Someone please tell the British Conservatives.

Growth boundaries are akin to irrational, non-objective RELIGIOUS observances of a similar kind to those formerly repudiated by our societies as they became "secular". These outcomes are particularly ironic given the prophetic warnings that abound in Christian theology, to the consequences of abandoning the faith. Was it G.K. Chesterton who said that people who don't believe in God, will "believe in anything" instead?