Dominic Cummings’ trillion dollar tech fantasy

We all got a laugh a couple of weeks ago upon learning why Dominic Cummings, the Dick Cheney of Boris Johnson’s government, wants the UK government free to provide state aid to companies (it’s one of the principal reaons for wanting to violate the EU Exit Agreement Johnson had pushed through Parliament just last year). The reason, as Robert Peston quotes Cummings, is:

Countries that were late to industrialisation were owned/coerced by those early (to it). The same will happen to countries without trillion dollar tech companies over the next 20 years.

The most obvious response to Cummings is best put by the inimitable Marina Hyde, who asks us to imagine a friend of Cummings looking him in the eye and saying ““Mate, with the best will in the world, what on EARTH about the last six months makes you think you can build the next Apple?”

Others have allowed mere doubt about Cummings’ competence rather than denial of it, and then given him the benefit of that doubt; instead, they criticise his trillion-dollar tech company scheme on the grounds that the countries usually classed “late industrializers” – from Germany and the USA in the late 19th century to Korea in the late 20th – are often reckoned to have done pretty well for themselves, and to have avoided ownership and coercion by Britain. In this regard, though, I think Cummings assertion is entirely correct, even if (for reasons I’ll get to) his idea is bad. Britain did use its position as the first industrial power to both own and coerce much of the world, and it did so successfully for over a century. And Britain’s success in this does offer some parallels with America’s, and the trillion-dollar tech companies of the Silicon Valley and Seattle, today. But does that mean Britain can, or should, try to follow that model today? Let me tell you why not.

From the late 18th century through the early 20th, Britain strove to keep its industrial head start by protecting the position of its manufacturers in international markets, in ways familiar to any student of history. For many decades, when it was the workshop of the world and controlled most of the cutting edge technologies, it forbade both the export of industrial machinery and the emigration of people who knew anything about making it. Eventually, the secrets leaked out anyway and Britain began to lose its manufacturing monopolies to rivals like Germany and the USA. Britain responded by building a larger empire, so that the sun never set on its captive market. Within the empire there was a strict division of labor, with manufactured products coming from the home country; parts of the empire had already developed internationally competitive manufacturing industries, and those had to go – India’s textile and shipbuilding industries, for example, were destroyed so that they would no longer threaten Britain’s industrial (and military) monopoly. So, yes, plenty of control and coercion, as Cummings says.

Today, the international monopolists are American the tech giants. These giants – the trillion or near-trillion dollar companies – are not the foremost technological innovators, but are companies which have become as rich by carving out monopolies in software and the Web, digital gardens large or small with walls to keep competitors out. Google dominates search, Amazon online retail, Microsoft office applications and personal computer operating systems, Google and Facebook online advertising, Google and Apple phone apps, and so on.

It is important to distinguish between what these tech giants have done, and technological innovation. There are many, many tech companies in the world, but only four (Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft) at or near the trillion dollar mark in market capitalization (Facebook is also very valuable, the fifth most valuable tech company, but in this league it’s mini-me). Take phone apps as an example. Google’s and Apple’s phone operating systems are based on sophisticated open source software others have written and given away; the phones, marvels of electronics and miniaturization, are made by others; the apps on the phones are written and sold by thousands of individuals and companies around the world; Google and Apple, in their positions as gatekeepers, take generous cuts from each sale of an app. Many, many tech companies are involved in phones, phone software and phone apps, but only two are anything close to being trillion dollar companies; that’s because they’ve established strong monopoly positions, just as Britain did for its world-serving workshop about two hundred years ago.

When he says “trillion-dollar tech companies”, that is the sort of business Cummings wants to get.

Cummings’ fascination with trillion-dollar tech companies, then, does fit nicely with the characteristic Brexiteer’s nostalgia for empire; he is seeing, accurately, today’s analogue. The question then is, should the UK try to join in the game America is playing?

Some would say not on the grounds that, in the long run, the imperial-monopoly strategy left Britain weak. To succeed in a world dominated by Britain, its late-industrialist rivals devised superior industrial systems: Britain was out-produced by the USA, out-engineered by Germany, out-managed by many countries; sheltered behind its imperial market and the returns from previous overseas investments, it clung to a strong pound to prop up the value of a diminishing stream of income from overseas. Many would say that the US is doing something analogous today, its considerable diplomatic powers devoted to protecting Silicon Valley and a few other sectors, at the expense of hollowing out the rest of its industries (see Dani Rodrik on this point). But is that really failure? Nothing lasts forever; Britain had a very good run, as now America has had as well.

But Britain is not going to be able to do it again.

One thing Cummings has right is that if the UK were to attempt this strategy, it’s probably good that it’s left the European Union, because Brussels – the European Commission and all those nasty bureaucrats – are the only force on the planet making a serious effort to tame and regulate the monopoly power of Big Tech. That’s not the game Cummings wants to play.

But, being out of the EU leaves the UK with the problem of having a relatively small domestic market. The classic late industrializer response to Britain’s power was to use a protected domestic market as a greenhouse in which to develop new firms, which can then compete globally when they’re big and strong. China is doing exactly that for its own web giants. The UK domestic market, however, is nowhere near big enough to do what China is doing.

An alternative version says that the UK’s imagined tech titans would neither be exposed at birth to the fierce storms of global competition, nor confined in the UK’s too-small domestic market, because the post-Brexit UK will somehow become part of a new Atlantic or Anglo-zone economy – Airstrip One, as Orwell had it. This vision of course gets a reality check every time Nancy Pelosi has to remind the British government that it won’t have any trade deal with the US if it allows its Brexit extremism to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the government can solve the problem of creating a hard border around the UK without creating one on the island of Ireland and, following further triumphs of diplomacy, the UK’s emerging tech companies find themselves within a very large protected market which includes the United States.

Now, one place Cummings’ thinking does make contact with reality is in understanding that the UK – and in particular, London, Cambridge and the Southeast of England generally – does have great strengths in the tech giants’ sectors – software, web applications, business services; it has the skills, the financing, the start-ups, and the very close links with the American tech giants themselves. It is already part of that industrial eco-system. Surely all it lacks is to itself be the home base of couple of very rich companies? Perhaps, as the West Coast becomes uninhabitable due to smoke from forest fires, opportunities to form the next generation of tech monopolies will shift back to the mother country?

Many places, though, offer themselves up to become the new center of tech gravity, should it ever shift; if there were a new center and it were not in Asia, it would more likely be someplace else in the United States; Boston, New York, or even North Carolina would be more likely than London, even if the UK were part of a seamless Atlantic market. That’s because UK has never been good at building big businesses. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the US, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, and Switzerland all have been better at building big companies with sustained internal programs of innovation and investment, and with global reach; in recent decades, Korea and China have joined those ranks. We have seen this in steel, chemicals and electrical equipment in the 1870s-1890s; in automobiles and other mass production industries in the early to mid twentieth century; the computer, semiconductor and telecommunications industries in the late twentieth century. We see it again in the software, web and business service giants of today.

The roots of Britain’s relative weakness at building and sustaining big companies lie in institutions which served it well as an empire: powerful financial institutions which invest with a focus on short-term gains; financial and govenment decisions in the hands of a narrow national elite with generalist educations and little grounding in the particulars of any industry – but born to rule; companies which stay light on management, on capital investment, on training, and on research and development.

That these proclivities stay stubornly in place is a classic problem of path dependency, of the interlocking and mutually supporting nature of any set of established institutions which restrict the range of choices as things change. However you understand the reasons, however, the fact is that the US is far, far better at building and sustaining big companies than the UK, and if the UK is operating within the US sphere it is not the UK that will be the home of the trillion dollar companies.

Is it a bad thing that the UK will not become the home of several trillion dollar tech companies? Not really. America’s tech empire, like Britain’s empire of yore, is a system of appropriation which makes one corner of the world rich at the expense of the rest. And it can’t even be said that it makes the US, as a country, rich: within the US, these tech monopolists and their financial and political enablers enrich particular places – particular cities and regions – at the expense of the rest of the country, as Maryann Feldman, Simona Iammarino and I discuss (with lots of nice maps) in this paper. There’s a similar pattern in the UK, with divides between South and North; between those paid well enough to live well in overpriced gentrifying tech+finance cities, and everybody else. Becoming home to one or more trillion-dollar tech companies would only exacerbate these divides. Cummings and his ilk would do well in that bargain, but for the UK as a whole it would not be a good thing, so we can be glad that Cummings is wrong.

Unfortunately, with Cummings’ strategy out the window, we are left with the question of what sort of post-Brexit economic strategy would work for the UK. I can’t answer that one.

 

Name droppers

My friend Don Cushman is one of the few people I know who actually liked the third Godfather movie, but this has to do with Don’s views about the Vatican and all its works, views hanging over from his years as a seminarian. On that topic, I preferred Don’s 1996 novel Visitation, though perhaps Coppola had simply set too high a bar with I and II. About the Vatican I know almost nothing beyond what I see in such popular sources, but I did know an obscure trivium, namely that the American magazine editor Norman Cousins had once been sent by JFK to feel out both the pope (John XXIII) and Nikita Khrushchev about some matters of world peace. I knew this from reading the dust jacket of the book Cousins wrote about it; in the early 1970s, I worked for a while for an organization called the World Federalists, in whose ranks Cousins was a luminary, and our storeroom had piles of unsold copies. “I knew Norman Cousins”, I said.

Now this is a name I should have dropped long ago, since most of the people who would be impressed by it are by now no longer with us. Timing has never been my forte. Don and his wife Joann, however, being American intellectuals somewhat older than myself, were the right audience and it seemed to make an impression. Joann could probably drop the names of most of the civil rights leaders of the early 1960s if she wanted, and then I’d use them second hand, but she’s too modest and self-assured to help out in that way.

Cousins was much better about sharing names. Having been evidently bored in a meeting he said, when it came to a break, like a player hoping to be asked to bring out the cards, “Have I told you about my meeting with Arafat?” Arafat was then, as they used to say of Dick Cheney, in a secure location, presumably somewhere in Lebanon. The US government was not openly talking to him; somebody had asked Cousins to do so. We sat spellbound. All I remember of the story – probably, all he could tell us – had to do with being blindfolded and driven around for a while so that he would have no idea where he was when the meeting took place.

After dropping his name I figured I ought at least to read Cousins’ book, The Improbable Triumvirate. After fifty years, nearly-new copies remain available at remarkably reasonable prices, as if the World Federalists’ storeroom had just been emptied. It’s a funny book, for two reasons. One is that the famous literary editor had written something which seems to have been composed mainly from his old appointment books and memoranda from meetings – the clunkiest narrative I’ve ever read. The other is that the big character in the book is Cousins himself, the only real energy amongst all these minutes of meetings is him setting both Kennedy and Khrushchev right (he doesn’t actually meet with the Pope, and whatever he said to Vatican diplomats can’t leave the same impression). Underneath this is a remarkable story – and the behest of JFK, he’s staying with Khrushchev at his Black Sea retreat, talking about capitalism, communism, war and peace, I’m all ears – but the surface is just an advertisement for Cousins.

Luther Evans could drop a name with more finesse. I have just dropped his, a name which the passage of time might have rendered worthless were it not for Wikipedia, which will fill you in if your really must know. Working in the cause of world peace we often found, as in any political organization, that our most menacing enemies were rivals within, and some of us youngsters were perhaps rash in our plans for thwarting one such person. “I am reminded of something Macleish once said to me”, said Luther to us: “don’t kick a dog ’til you know it’s dead.”

Location can help. Walking through Berkeley with Stuart Hampshire and Nancy Cartwright, we came across a notice – as one would, those days, in Berkeley – for some event involving Ivan Illich. “Illich”, quoth Stuart, “old chum of mine. Went a bit off the rails with that Medical Nemesis stuff, I’m afraid.” And then – I want to make this the same walk, though that seems too lucky – upon seeing a notice for an event celebrating EE Cummings, almost the same: “old chum of mine. Terrible reactionary, really.” These opportunities would not have presented themselves had we been walking through Omaha. But then, we would not have been.

Push comes to shove: COVID and active travel on Harringay Green Lanes

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GreenLanesTrafficMay2020

The lack of safe space for cycling on Green Lanes, the imposition of rat-run status on Wightman Road, the tortoise pace of buses on Green Lanes … all are due to two things: parking and loading on Green Lanes, and traffic going in and out of the Arena Shopping Park (Sainsburys/McDonald’s/Homebase).

There is now a recognized need for quick creation of a safe cycling network as the COVID lockdown eases: people are afraid to ride buses or trains, there’s not space on the road for more cars, and many people – most people, in Haringey – don’t have cars anyway. Plans are mooted for emergency cycle tracks, some of which could be made permanent. Is it going to become safe to cycle on Green Lanes?

A ray of hope comes from Transport for London’s Analysis on Temporary Strategic Cycle Network, part of its larger Streetspace for London package. There’s a map there showing existing cycle routes, and proposed new ones; the new ones are colour-coded to show Highest-, High-, and Medium Priority. There are two new routes shown in the borough of Haringey which get the Highest Priority rating. One of those routes comes over Couch End Hill from Kentish Town via Archway; the other is Green Lanes.

Green Lanes has, despite truly fearful traffic and no cycle tracks, become a major cycle route anyway; to the north, Enfield has installed a segregated cycle track on Green Lanes; to the south, Hackney is preparing one. Will the missing link through Harringay and Wood Green now be found? You can register your views by adding a comment, or a “like” on existing comment, on this great map the Council has posted.

Please do it, and also contact the councillors in your ward: it’s not to be taken for granted that the Council will solve the Green Lanes problem. Consider: on 2nd June Haringey Council followed up TfL’s announcement with its own on Active travel to aid social distancing. Go to that link and, towards the bottom of the page you’ll find a positive note from Councillor Kirsten Hearn, Cabinet Member for Climate Change & Sustainability (her portfolio includes Strategic Transport), telling us

… we are working in partnership with TfL to provide more active travel options through temporary walking and cycling facilities in Haringey as part of a funding bid … We will also aim to bring forward east to west and north to south cycling routes, so that more residents can be confident that cycling is a safe, clean and efficient way to get around and have also identified low traffic neighbourhoods to discourage use of cars.

Hearn’s message is excellent, though general. What worries me is what is included in (and what is missing from) the specifics at the top of the page, in the unsigned announcement from Haringey Council. The announcement mentions three particular cycle routes, but neither of TfL’s Highest Priority ones. They mention improvements to CS (“Cycle Superhighway”) 1, which meanders more or less parallel to Tottenham High Road; the proposed CS2 from Tottenham Hale to Camden Town, which the TfL document gives High (not Highest) Priority; and “Quietway” 10, which goes from Finsbury Park, over the rather steep hill between Stroud Green and Crouch End, and on to Bowes Park. All are worthy, but why are TfL’s highest priorities left out?

Now, in the past, in the bad old days, Haringey Council promoted Quietway 10 as the alternative to a cycle route on Green Lanes or Wightman Road. Anybody who rides a bike and considers both the topography of Quietway 10 and the paucity of places to take a bike across the railway knows that this is not serious, and that anybody who does propose Quietway 10 as a substitute for a Green Lanes cycle route either is not well informed or is taking the piss.

Thus the Council’s failure to mention Green Lanes worries me. It does not surprise me, though. The Haringey Council has long been institutionally reluctant to face up to the problems created by traffic on Green Lanes. A few years back it spent a large sum on a study of the problem and in the end found that all solutions were impractical. Times do change, and I am confident that at this point there are mixed views of the question both among elected members of the Council, and among Council officers. But the failure to mention the most obvious and important route while still name-checking Quietway 10 says to me that this battle is far from over. Hence, my pitch to you here.

Green Lanes gets heavily congested in the stretch between Manor House and St Ann’s Rd. Beyond the general sea of motor traffic in which we live, there are two specific reasons for this congestion. One is that some years ago the Council allowed the construction of a traffic magnet in the form of the Arena Shopping Park – Sainsburys, McDonald’s (complete with drive-thru), and a collection of other chain stores. All of these chains are operating on business models which require surrounding neighbourhoods to subsidize their corporations by bearing the burdens of traffic congestion, road hazard and bad air produced by people each driving their ton of steel to pick up a few groceries, or a single burger. This is not the best way to get groceries or burgers to people in a place as dense as Haringey, and it should be shut down when and if possible (permits or leases or something do expire in the not terribly distance future, I hear); in the meantime, the Council and TfL should get tough on the traffic flows. For instance, they could:

  • install a southbound bus lane ouside the Arena Shopping Park;
  • eliminate the left turn exit lane from the Shopping Park which now feeds cars right into the bus stop outside Homebase (that’s not to say no left turns, just sharper left turns, crossing quickly over the bus lane);
  • forbid right turns by motor traffic from Green Lanes onto Endymion Road; and
  • filter Wightman Road to stop through motor traffic (and thus rat runs between Green Lanes and Wightman along Ladder roads)

That’s half the problem, but only half. The other half is parking and loading on Green Lanes itself: loading and parking needs to be moved onto side streets or – in the case of loading – given very restricted hours.

Most people travelling along Green Lanes, and most customers of the businesses there, go by foot, bus or bike. Buses sit in traffic, cyclists take their lives in their hands – or, in most cases, just don’t ride. It’s beyond a joke. The space required to solve these problems will not, cannot, be obtained without getting parking and loading off of that road. (It’s more complicated, actually, than just space: drivers pulling in and out of roadside parking spaces, or driving slowly looking for spaces, slow things down a lot.)

You might say “but why Green Lanes – couldn’t we just put the cycle route down Wightman Road?” Well, we could – it’s not quite as good, both because of hills and because it doesn’t meet up with the Green Lanes route used by Enfield and planned by Hackney, but it would be better than what we have. The problem: to make Wightman a good cycle route you would need to filter it to take the through motor traffic off of it, and doing that puts extra traffic onto Green Lanes; not much, but in its present state  Green Lanes already has more traffic than it can accomodate. To filter Wightman without making Green Lanes worse, we need to sort parking, loading and the traffic from Arena Shopping Park, anyway – there’s no getting around it.

The merchants of Green Lanes have always protected parking and loading on Green Lanes itself. It is of course well established that merchants over-estimate the share of their customers who do come by car; there are plenty of cases testifying to the attraction, to customers, of places less dominated by cars. Parking on a side street gets you as close to the shops as using a car park gets you to a superstore or shopping mall. Still, it’s a frightening a risky change to make.

Provision of parking on the side roads would also be opposed by some residents, who see parking supply already exhausted. To address this, the Council should reduce parking demand by raising resident parking permit rates in the Green Lanes area, and then rebate the increase to households as a credit on rates – i.e., residents would pay more if they parked, but get the rebate whether they had a car or not. (There may also be a case for separate CPZs East and West of Green Lanes; I’m told that some people from the East side of Green Lanes drive the short distance to the Harringay and Hornsey rail stations and park on the street there before get the train, something we can do without.)

Both sorting the traffic outside of the Arena Shopping Park, and sorting the parking and loading on Green Lanes, would be big steps, and politically difficult. Whoever writes announcements like the Council’s “Active travel to aid social distancing” knows that. That, I expect, is why, despite TfL’s rating of Highest Priority for an emergency bike route on Green Lanes; despite the actions of Enfield to the north and Hackney to the south, which make us the missing link; depsite the growing Green Lanes cycle traffic which occurs despite the congestion and evident danger; despite the pathetically slow buses; despite the geography which makes this such an obvious route both for cycle commuting and for cycling to local shops, services and schools – despite all of this, a Green Lanes cycle route is not mentioned by the Haringey Council at this time.

We should be able to cycle safely, to work or to school or to go shopping. And people riding on buses should not have to sit patiently in traffic so that a few people can park right where they want. This has long been an pressing problem – for reasons of air pollution, diseases of inactivity, carbon footprint and so on. Now, as we emerge from the COVID lockdown, it has become an unavoidable one.

San Francisco, New York, Washington: Iron Triangle of Rent

This map show where the higher paid jobs in the USA were concentrated in 2016.

top20incwage_2016

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Transitioning to desert

Carr-fireWe were back in California for a visit last year. It was the end of a road trip, across the US in June. There were fires in New Mexico and Colorado as we passed through, but it was California that was a shock. We crossed the Sierra Nevada at Mamouth to visit Devil’s Postpile, and immediately we were in smoke an ash from a fire in the John Muir Wilderness a short way away. Helicopters, fighting that fire. We saw the great postpiles…

Devil-postpile

Devil’s Postpile: worth seeing

then walked, through smoke and a drizzle of ash, across the scar left by the Rainbow Fire of 1992. There was a forest here before that fire; will there ever be again?

Rainbow-fire

In the midst of that scar, we came to Rainbow Falls, from which the fire got its name. Still worth a visit.

Rainbow_fall_at_Devils_Postpile_National_Monument

The next day, we crossed Tioga Pass and headed across Yosemite into the Central Valley. From the western boundary of the park, for the rest of our visit – another month – we were in smoke and haze, rarely seeing fire but knowing that there were active fires in every direction.

Much is made of houses and even towns burning, and of the problem of houses built scattered in woods on the urban fringe. Yes, that’s a problem: the fire damage is greater, both because houses burn and because the priority of protecting houses can compromise that of minimizing the spread of the fire; insurance companies, the state legislature & local planning commissions will need to sort it out. But, for the houses amidst the trees, we can miss seeing the bigger picture: we are watching the creation of deserts. These Mediterranean climates, which have always been warm and dry, are now getting drier, and hot. The vegetation, live and dead, which had before been part of a healthy landscape, is now just fuel. Mature deserts don’t burn so much, because there’s not much to burn. These places will keep burning, year after year, until there is nothing left to burn.

 

Malicious protagonists

A nice pair of evasive narrator-villains: in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko, an old woman who lives in the forest and attributes a string of murders to vengeful animals, seeing them (retrospectively) in the stars. Philip Bowman in James Salter’s All That Is: we see through his eyes a lifetime of bad luck in love and money until in the end we see that we’ve been listening to a man who does not know himself, who can shock us but not himself. Salter’s slow reveal of all this is astonishingly well controlled. Duszejko is differnt – it turns out she’s just lying about events, and the interest in the book is more her perceptions of the people and place around her than either mystery or narrative performance.

Unreliable narrators are a dime a dozen, and my pairing these two in particular may just show that I don’t read enough. Or more to the point, didn’t pay much attention to fiction I read in my first fifty-odd years.

I’ll double down on this arbitrary match-making by claiming to see a family resemblance between Duszejko, Bowman, and such psychopaths as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, and Mary Katherine Blackwood in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The latter cases are different in that, from early on, we know the characters for what they are; what they are, though, is so strange to us that an excellent story can be made from their continued ability to shock us by simply responding, in character, to new developments.

 

Your town center needs a public market

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San Benedetto Market, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy (Google it, then click Images). This 8,000 sq metre market is the largest of four municipal markets in a city of just 150,000 – less than a London borough.

Traditional markets for fresh foods – fruit and veg, meat, fish, cheese, baked goods, local specialties, plus a few places to eat or get take-way, with many stalls in one place, can be beautiful and welcoming public places, a value to the community. They can provide channels by which small local producers can get their products to market, and also opportunity for a number of small traders.

In some places such markets thrive, but there are fewer and fewer, many of them faded and many being pushed out by new development. Is the public market an obsolete model, or are we just doing something wrong?

Public markets are not an obsolete model; in fact, they are one of the best ways we have of bringing life back to our town centers. They are killed off by two things. One is that it is in the financial interest of town councils, property developers and large retailers to kill them off, even when they provide great benefits to both consumers and producers. The other is that good market management doesn’t happen automatically – it’s something the market vendors and the local government need to work together to maintain.

A good public market creates value by bringing many consumers and many producers together in one place. Marketplaces in towns have done just that for thousands of years. But, as with any other market, there are people who can benefit from taking control of the marketplace, raking off some rent. Once upon a time that would have been a king or a feudal lord; today it is superstores and shopping mall developers, who bring a single space under one ownership. This can be a profitable business because, once you are there, having parked your car or gotten off your bus, the business controlling that space has a kind of monopoly on your business.

(Notice that this happens with virtual marketplaces as much as with material ones: twenty years ago, the World-Wide Web seemed a place where anybody could freely connect with any business, and sages actually worried if it could ever be made profitable, or “monetized”; now we can’t figure out how to prevent Amazon and Google from monetizing our every move).

In Britain as in much of the world, public markets have been allowed to decay, shrink, and often disappear altogether, replaced by these privatized spaces. In many places, we see evidence of a community’s thirst for public markets from the persistence of street markets. Consider that many of these persist despite the logistical costs of requiring vendors to set up and break down their stalls and move all their goods daily, and to operate without plumbing or refrigeration. Cities around the world long ago solved this problem by creating indoor markets with stalls, electricity and plumbing. Similarly the proliferation of farmers’ markets, which get custom despite being high priced, exposed to the weather and open just once a week, show how much we miss a real marketplace.

Why do local governments allow this? One reason is that the privatisers of the prime town centre space – the superstores and the shopping mall developers – can offer more, because of what they will earn from their monopoly control of that little space. Councils are short of money, and the property developers will give them a price.

The other reason is that, all too often, it is easy for developers and local governments to kill markets, because many are poorly run.

The management of a public market is not simple: many traders depend on it, but all have their own businesses to run. And, the interests of a single vendor often conflict with the interests of the market as a whole: if I am, say, the one butcher in a thriving market of greengrocers, and a stall becomes vacant, I would probably say that it should go to another greengrocer because we already have plenty of butchers (i.e., me). The grocers are likely to think there are plenty of grocers already – nobody really likes to have more competitors. Perhaps the butcher-greengrocer disagreement will be settled by letting the stall go to somebody selling cheap luggage instead. You may be able to picture markets – once, thriving fresh food markets – which have gradually degenerated in this way. Similar issues arise with the maintenance of quality standards, and with finding traders and community members who are willing to devote some time to market governance. Technically, this is what economists call a collective action, or free-rider, problem. The world is full of such problems – you get similar problems in the use of parks and streets and libraries and public toilets and stopping global heating: in each case, if the community wants a public good (in this case, a well run marketplace), it needs to ensure that good management is maintained.

We see town centers dying, and think they’re being killed off by Amazon and other Web vendors. That’s part of the story, but they were already wounded, often mortally, by supermarkets, the privatizers of the public marketplace. Regular food purchases create foot traffic, and bring customers for other businesses. Put substantial indoor public markets with a good selection of fresh food and other daily necessities, in good central locations, and they will serve as the best anchors for thriving town centers.

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Here are some good information sources:

Municipal Institute of Barcelona Markets Website (English version) of the governing board for Barcelona’s municipal markets. Shows a bit how it’s done.

Urbact Markets: markets are the heart, soul and motor of cities. This is the report (2015) of the Urbact Markets European project to promote urban markets, in which several cities and regions took part: Attica (Greece), Dublin (Ireland), Westminster (United Kingdom), Turin (Italy), Suceava (Romania), Toulouse (France), Wrocław (Poland), Pécs (Hungary) and Barcelona.

Understanding London’s Markets. Mayor of London (2017)

Saving our city centres, one local market at a time. Julian Dobson, The Guardian (2015) This is an excerpt from his book How to Save Our Town Centres.

Gonzalez, S., and G. Dawson. 2015. “Traditional Markets under Threat: Why It?S Happening and What Traders and Customers Can Do.” http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/102291/.