I had a water meter installed in my flat a few months ago. I looked at it just now and it said ‘13’. I didn’t know what ‘13’ meant, so I went online to check. Apparently, in a few months, four of us have used 13 cubic metres of water, or 13,000 litres.
The £40 I’ll pay for this seems rather a bargain: £40 is highly preferable to carrying 13,000 litres up two flights of stairs. But in any case I needn’t worry about overpaying, because there’s an organisation called Ofwat which keeps an eye on Southern Water to check that they don’t charge me £1 too much for my 13 cubic metres.
Then there’s my electricity bill; that seems fairly good value too. They write me a letter every month which effectively says, ‘You can either pay us £100 and live in the 21st century or you can not pay us and live in the 19th.’ Call me a gullible old neophile, but I’ve always gone for the 21st–century option myself. I suspect my wife, who is an Anglican clergy-woman, has doubts: she’d like us sitting round a piano singing hymns by candlelight or embroidering the Lord’s Prayer on a sampler but, for me, the fridge, the TV and the Sky package win out every time. In any case I don’t have to worry because there are people called Ofgem who keep an eye on the leccy folk to make sure they don’t charge me £1 too much.
And then there’s my broadband. I now get the fibre-optic kind, which means I effectively have a miniature British Library in my own home. I can watch on-demand arty French films in high definition, or hold live face-to-face conversations with people in Australia for free. Back in the 1990s I happily paid £20 a month for 56K dial-up access. This meant that if you wanted a 3MB song, you made a cup of tea while you were waiting for it to download. I now pay about £4 more each month, and get 60Mb a second: it costs 20 per cent more but is 1,000 times faster. So I’m not grumbling, but if I do, there are people called Ofcom who make sure I don’t pay £1 too much for the three terabytes of data we use every year.
So there’s a lesson here for anyone starting a business. Whatever you do, don’t start a business which does something really useful — because if you do, the government will step in and make sure you aren’t making too much money. If I were you, I’d start something totally fatuous instead — maybe a jewellery chain or a high-end women’s shoe brand. Because that way you can produce complete rubbish and charge anything you like for it.
There are two industries I would regulate, mind you. First of all the camping equipment industry. There is a reason why 8,000 tents are abandoned at Glastonbury every year, which is that all camping equipment designers have a policy of supplying everything they sell — tents, sleeping bags, chairs — in a bag which is 20 per cent too small for the items they are intended to contain. In order to make the item look deceptively small in the shop, camping equipment designers therefore force you to risk an ischaemic attack every time you need to put them away. A new Ofcamp regulatory body would ban this practice immediately.
Oh, and the oil industry. It’s only a small thing, I know, but if I can pay extra for Fairtrade coffee or free-range eggs, why can’t I pay a few pounds extra for petrol that comes from countries whose rulers aren’t paying people to kill me? I just wondered, that’s all.
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Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.
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