The Planner by Tom Campbell

It’s that time of the year when think tanks, newspapers and new media start nominating their picks for best book of the year. The Grattan Institute kicked off its annual summer reading list for the Prime Minister this week, but in the last few days I’ve also seen Tyler Cowen (My favourite fiction of 2014), Noah Smith (Some nonfiction books I really like) and Nicholas Gruen (Reading list for the Opposition leader) enter the fray.

The standout novel for me this year is Tom Campbell’s The Planner, about the professional and personal experiences of a local government town planner in London. It spills over with the sort of wit, cleverness and facetious humour I associate with the likes of Nick Hornby. Yet it also overflows with insight and acute observation about cities, urban economics, bureaucracy and, in particular, the pretensions and travails of town planning.

Urbanists will love this book. And economists, who seem to be fascinated by novels informed by economic theory (unsurprisingly, mostly sci fi), should be impressed by what Tom Campbell’s come up with here. It’s not often a novelist illuminates his characters with the thinking of Kenneth Arrow!

There are so many fascinating and insightful passages it’s hard to choose. But consider this one, where the naive James (the titular planner) is taken by his upper class mentor, the pompous advertising whiz kid Felix, to score drugs.

So it was only to be expected that Felix had access to a supply of cocaine. The real surprise was where they had to go to get it. Lacking both personal knowledge and a sound economic model of spatial distribution for the sector, James had assumed that you either bought drugs on the streets of Hackney or the salons of Mayfair. But no – instead they would have to head out west, out to the very ends of the suburbs. For it was here, it seemed, that all the serious drug dealers lived and worked.

‘There are many advantages to suburban living if you’re a drug dealer of any significance,’ explained Felix. ‘A low crime rate, easy parking, good access to national road networks, neighbours who mind their own business. It’s only the small-time crooks, the ones who peddle to students and get caught all the time, who actually live near their customer base’.

And Kenneth Arrow, the youngest person to receive a Nobel Prize in economics, gets a mention for his work on information economics when Felix and James visit the former’s drug dealer and old boarding school chum, Marcus.

‘What would you like then?’ said Marcus.

‘The usual, of course, but it needs to be of the highest quality.’

Marcus shrugged. ‘It is what it is,’ he said.

‘Then we might have a difficulty. The last stuff was particularly useless.’

‘I can’t do much about that,’ said Marcus. ‘I only sell the shit.’

‘I fear that what we have here,’ said Felix, ‘is a particularly striking instance of market failure through information asymmetry.’

‘Is that going to be a problem?’ said Marcus.

‘It was the American economist Keith Arrow, who formulated the concept of information asymmetries,’ said Felix. ‘These are transactions in which one party, almost always the vendor, has more information about the product than the buyer. In such circumstances, there exist opportunities for the vendor to cheat. For while the buyer knows the price of a product, it is only the vendor who knows its true value – its scarcity, efficacy and durability.

There was a glum silence. If Felix had wanted to do some high-concept sparring over the course of negotiations then he needed to get another drug dealer. Marcus sniffed, he clearly suffered from colds pretty much all of the time, and looked bored. He reached for the remote control and started to flick through some television channels. But it wasn’t, James thought, a negotiating tactic – he just was bored. It was, he could see, probably something of an occupational hazard.

Not in the least discouraged, Felix continued.

‘There are a variety of solutions – regulation, consumer warranties. One could say that my own profession, advertising, is nothing but an attempt to address information asymmetries, or I suppose one could equally argue that the industry exists in order to perpetuate them. But none of these easily apply to the sale of illegal drugs. If your stuff is unsatisfactory or makes me ill I can hardly complain to the government or wave a receipt at you, and it’s not as if you have much in the way of a brand to protect.’

‘So do you want to buy some gear or what?’

‘Yes, but my point is – is it any good?’

‘Well, why don’t you just try some now? I’m not really in the mood for this shit.

Campbell ranges across the nature of the European sex industry, the evolution of London into a global city, property developers, and much more. The protagonist, James, deals with many of the tasks familiar to planners and architects; at one point he conducts a public consultation exercise at a local mall about his Council’s new planning initiative.

While the usual problem with the British public was that they tended not to know anything, the real troublemakers were the ones who actually did. The retired civil engineers with radical transport solutions, the autodidacts who spent their days in public libraries mastering European environment regulations. These were the ones who weren’t just wrong, but were spectacularly, dangerously wrong – wrong in ways that must be discounted but couldn’t necessarily be refuted.

Selected quotes can give a misleading impression; this is a sharp and witty novel and it doesn’t come across as didactically as these passages taken in isolation might suggest. In fact given he hasn’t produced a novel since 2009, I even wondered at one point if Nick Hornby was using ‘Tom Campbell’ as an alias in the manner of J K Rowling/Robert Galbraith (1).

Speaking of Hornby, my suggestion for the Grattan Institute’s Prime Minister’s summer reading list is his excellent novel, How to be good. (2)

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  1. As it happens, no; Hornby’s finally released a new novel, Funny girl, this month.
  2. I have a particular Federal politician in mind who I think would benefit from A long way down and it’s surely obvious which Minister should read About a boy; having trouble coming up with someone to recommend Funny girl to though.
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