To measure the policy positions of every single person

Earlier this month I wrote about the “Rule of Suspicion Algorithms” 1. Using computer expert systems in order to predict who is more or less likely to become a criminal or a political dissident is not so different from predicting peoples’ policy positions. Michael Laver, an authority on computer-aided quantitative content analysis in political science from New York University, is enthusiastic about the prospects that the large new data troves generated by users themselves hold for political science data analysis:

There is no reason, for example, why we should not set out to measure the policy positions of every single person who uses social media and, with appropriate modeling, to make inferences from these positions about people who do not use social media. 2

While this indeed is exciting, from a normative perspective concerned with the quality of democracy I’d like to add that it does matter whether such information is generated by academics in order to inform the academic debate and the wider public or if this information will only inform the few, such as security services and corporations. If information about the many is accessible to the many — in aggregated form — societies may reach a higher degree of self-understanding. This would be on the basis of symmetric information distribution. An asymmetric information distribution, on the other hand, would diminish the quality of democracy by granting a limited set of the population privileged access to information which offers them possibilities for manipulating opinion and perception — from the macro to the micro-scale.

How such kinds of information are used will likely become a defining feature of politics over the years to come.

 

The rule of “suspicion algorithms”

The decision-making criteria of computer expert systems are often so complex that they are beyond the comprehension of their individual users and creators. For example, computer systems equipped with artificial intelligence can be used for estimating the degree to which somebody is likely to default on her credit. These days, computer programs can also be used for the large-scale monitoring of populations and for attempts at predicting who is more or less likely to become a criminal or a political dissident.

When computers start to decide who is likely to be a threat and who isn’t and neither secret services, law enforcement nor the subjects of surveillance understand how a threat assessment comes about, the shared understanding of what constitutes suspicious behaviour gets lost. Writing in the Intercept Dan Froomkin cites Phillip Rogaway, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis:

If the algorithms NSA computers use to identify threats are too complex for humans to understand, Rogaway wrote, “it will be impossible to understand the contours of the surveillance apparatus by which one is judged.  All that people will be able to do is to try your best to behave just like everyone else. 3

If people don’t understand the criteria by which they are judged anymore, one can still find it reasonable to use such computer systems. Yet, their “suspicion algorithms” themselves don’t express human reasoning anymore. People become subject to a governance by statistical probabilities instead of human value choices 4. The computers may not rule as they don’t possess true agency yet. Still, humans delegate their assessment of who is an insider and who an outsider, of who is a friend and a potential foe to systems whose calculations are beyond their comprehension. Reasoning about an essentially political decision is transferred to machines 5.

The data is there, the algorithms set in place. An ethics of the data age has yet to emerge.

How Apple keeps track of the programs you install on your Mac

It probably doesn’t come as news but I just got curious why this little program called gkoverride wants to call someone through my firewall when I try to install a patch for SPSS and I found a pretty good explanation on Zdziarski’s Blog of Things saying that Apple basically checks new program installations for security purposes. However, without asking they also keep track of the programs users install — in the name of security. Most users probably care more about security than about privacy but I think it should be made more clear and transparent and it would be important to also provide alternative security mechanisms — as suggested by Zdziarski.

The Cameron #Luxgate “I told you so” theory

Did David Cameron know #Luxgate6 was coming? We cannot know it, of course.Yet, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists states that the publication of the ‘Luxembourg Leaks’ was the culmination of a “six-month investigative collaboration“. The leaks could have probably been released in the run-up to Juncker’s election as President of the EU Commission, yet the collaborative project abstained from such meddling in daily politics.

If Cameron knew it was coming, his adversarial stance towards Jean-Claude Juncker in the previous months — even his defeat when he tried to prevent him becoming President of the EU Commission — would make much more sense. Now he can say: “See, I told you so.” He may claim that history has proven him right. Now he could wage a campaign against Juncker not only as the public face of the EU — by which he can cater to anti-EU sentiment — but he can also add tax justice to his election campaign, thereby giving it a slightly ‘anti-corporate’ streak, which could help him to neutralise some of the other parties’ reformist agenda points.

However, such a strategy would be severely complicated by the UK’s Overseas Territories and Crown dependencies status as tax havens7.

 

P.S.: The Guardian, Sunday 16 November 2014: “Tories call for Juncker to face inquiry over Luxembourg tax allegations”

Overview of EU ETS phases

Recently, I was teaching on emissions trading and the EU Emission Trading System (ETS). In preparation for this it took me quite a while to get a good overview of the different phases of the EU ETS. So I thought I’d share my overview table here:

EU ETS Phases

If you have any suggestions for improvement, I’m quite happy to update it.

 

Big cuts in France’s nuclear energy portfolio due to EDF state ownership?

A majority of French parliamentarians has signalled that they would agree to a law stipulating the reduction of nuclear energy in France’s energy mix from 75% to 50% until 20258. Instead, energy efficiency and renewables shall receive more support. The national assembly is due to vote on the new law on 14 October 2014.

France has historically seen much less public resistance to its huge nuclear power installations than Germany. Why does it now seem so easy to announce such drastic cuts?

A major factor could be that most nuclear reactors belong the EDF, an energy corporation whose vast majority of shares are still held by the French government. In the French case, the government still controls one of the “commanding heights” of the economy and is thus far less affected by private sector lobbying.

Nuclear power is a technology that corresponds well to centralisation, as it is based on big projects and needs a lot of security measures in place. The question is now whether France will follow such a centralised approach in the case of renewables, which lend themselves much better to decentralised approaches than nuclear power. If the road of decentralisation is chosen, this may well result in the emergence of a stronger lobby group for renewables.

Hopefully, the French government retains control over EDF until its energy portfolio is much less nuclear than today. Otherwise, a strong lobby force, blocking the transition from nuclear to renewable power, may result.

Were countries on target during the Kyoto Protocol’s 1st Commitment Period?

Yesterday I taught the seminar “Climate Change Policies in Comparative Perspective” and one of my students asked me whether the countries who have emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol had actually been on target during the first Commitment Period (2008-2012). I knew that they were within the target range overall, yet I didn’t have a good overview of which individual countries had actually been on target and which hadn’t. Realising this I trawled through the net and it actually took me a while to come up with a good overview. The document I finally found states that

…complete and detailed official data regarding the countries’ emissions and transactions of carbon credits in 2008-2012 was not available until April 2014. 9

So until recently it wouldn’t have been possible to produce an authoritative overview. Now that I found the document, here I provide a screenshot of the relevant overview page with a link to the original report.

Kyoto Compliance

Canada, who had the greatest overshoot, had dropped out before the end of the first commitment period. Japan, with a much smaller overshoot, has withdrawn from the second committment period.

Interestingly, Norway also had a sizeable overshoot. I wonder if that’s a factor behind the country’s heavy engagement with the establishment of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) programmes10.

Without the economic crisis Spain would certainly have been even less on target.

As I understand it, these numbers don’t take into account the use of flexible mechanisms (offsetting and emissions trading). Thus, they cannot really provide the whole picture in terms of compliance. All in all, a handy overview.

The chief contribution of formal game theory to our understanding of rationality

After a half century of extremely sophisticated mathematical work on this problem, we can say that the chief contribution of formal game theory to our understanding of rationality has been to demonstrate rather convincingly (if not mathematically) that there is no satisfactory definition of “optimal” rationality in the presence of opportunities for outguessing and outwitting.

Herbert A. Simon, Bounded rationality in social science: Today and tomorrow, Mind & Society 1 (2000), no. 1, 25–39.

A browser extension that exposes the role money plays in the US Congress

What moneyed interests support a politician? It would clearly enhance the politics section of any newspaper if that type of contextual information could be presented as an accompaniment to news articles that feature the words and voting behaviour of elected representatives. That’s probably exactly what a teenager in the USA was thinking when he developed a browser plug-in that “when you mouse-over the name of a US lawmaker, will serve up a list of which parties have donated to their campaign funds, and the quantities”.

greenhouse

 

One could think of many interesting extensions or alternative applications: For example, one could adapt it to other polities by drawing on datasets from other countries or it would be possible to switch the perspective from lawmakers to firms and represent information on firms’ lobbying history via mouse-overs.

In their book “Full Disclosure. The Perils and Promise of Transparency”, Fung, Graham and Weil (2007) call this type of emergent transparency “collaborative transparency”. In the age of big data, ubiquitous information technology and smart kids, this is going to stay exciting for a long time to come.

Climate and health: the joint case for restricting animal antibiotics use

Climate change mitigation and the preservation of antibiotics effectiveness are two of today’s greatest public policy challenges. Each call for a similar measure, wherefore they should be considered in a joint perspective:

This friendly cow is sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CH_cow_2.jpg

First, the looming threat of climate change calls for concerted action. Among the vast array of different measures, reducing methane emissions from farm animals could make a great contribution. Also, the pressure to convert land to produce food for animals reduces the availability of carbon sinks. Thus, reducing demand for animal feedstock can contribute to climate change mitigation efforts.

Second, the routine use of antimicrobials/antibiotics for increasing animal growth or preserving animal health is likely to lead to the to the development of infections resistant to antibiotics treatment in humans11. While the case for banning the use of antibiotics for maximising animal growth is particularly strong, there are also good arguments for further restricting its use even for preserving animal health. Antibiotics have been the „wonder drugs“ of the 20th century, saving immeasurable lives. Yet, today their effectiveness is becoming more and more diminished due to the development of resistant bacteria strains. Trading human health off for animal health is problematic. Even more, in today’s industrialised farming the living conditions of animals are often dismal, necessitating the standard use of antibiotics in the first place. If farm animals had more decent lives, the need for antibiotics would decline. This is reflected in the limitations on the use of antibiotics in organic agriculture12.

By looking at the joint benefits of policy responses to these problems, the argument base for taking action to address any of them is broadened and the costs calculus changes:

If antimicrobials use on animals were rigorously restricted, it would have strong implications for the dairy and meat industry. Animals couldn’t be crowded together as extremely as they are today, thus reducing feedstock input and methane emissions output per land unit. Feedstock is often sourced from abroad, the demand for which is adding pressure to turn more biodiverse and CO2 storing land into agricultural land. Letting cows graze on grassland is associated with lower emission than intensive grain feeding13. Thus, under the assumption that not simply more land will be used for putting animals on the pasture or in the barn, limiting animal antibiotics use can have a double climate policy benefit: less methane and less pressure to convert land for feedstock supply.

Happy cows, healthier humans, and a more stable climate: restricting the use of antibiotics on animals can support all of this.