Category: politics

To measure the policy positions of every single person

Earlier this month I wrote about the “Rule of Suspicion Algorithms” . 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.

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.

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 . 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 .

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

The Cameron #Luxgate “I told you so” theory

Did David Cameron know #Luxgate 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 havens.

 

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 2025. 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.

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) programmes.

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.

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.

Word up: quantitative rap analysis

A friend just pointed me to a quantitative text analysis of the range of vocabulary used by hip hop artists, comparing them to Shakespeare and Melville.

Screenshot of Matt Daniels' website
Screenshot of Matt Daniels’ website

I’m thinking of doing something similar to texts of different actors in environmental politics. Let’s see, if it’s gonna make “rap news“..

Enlightened public policy for the internet age

If you wanted to have journalism for the whole population, for the entire citizenry, it would require massive postal subsidies, to make it possible for the abolitionist press, for example, to come into existence, or the suffragist press. All that took enlightened public policy making, and we need another strong dose of that today.
Interview with Professor Robert McChesney

BP’s Energy Outlook 2035: betting on dangerous climate change

Will humanity be collectively able to avert dangerous tipping points for climate change? Probably not, according to BP’s Energy Outlook 2035. Sadly, this may well be true. Is it good news for BP? Yes, rather so.

Is BP’s Energy Outlook 2035 an objective assessment of reality? Only to an extent.

BP Energy Outlook presents itself as a realistic assessment of reality, yet it is

  • a reality that BP actively shapes and
  • it creates a perception of reality that is beneficial to BP.
  • It also wittingly or unwittingly aids the perception that industrialising countries are responsible for emissions reaching a level that makes dangerous climate change likely, thus generating a sense that climate action in OECD countries will only have a limited impact.

When presenting the BP Energy Outlook 2035 at University College London on 1st April 2014, BP’s Group Chief Economist and Vice President, Christof Rühl, left no doubt that he considers climate policy to be low on the agenda of policy makers. According to the Outlook climate change policies will remain too lax for staying within the emissions confines recommended by scientists: “Global CO2 emissions from energy use grow by 29% or 1.1% p.a. over the forecasting period. Policies to curb emissions continue to tighten, and the rate of growth of emissions declines, but emissions remain well above the path recommended by scientists.”
What if climate policies would become stringent enough for staying within the 2 degree limit? Following HSBC 25% of BP’s proven and probable reserves would be ‘‘unburnable’’ under a low carbon policy environment consistent with a scenario (‘‘450’’), which limits global warming to 2C, with “BP’’s value at risk from unburnable reserves [being] equivalent to only 6% of its market value as most of the ‘‘lost’’ reserves are low margin. “ . This doesn’t sound too bad. Yet BP is still investing into more exploration and extraction, ensuring that their interests continue to be pitted against the successful implementation of a low carbon regime with extensive coverage.

BP does’t just assess what would be the most likely future developments in energy markets, it also actively shapes them. According to BP its Outlook “is based on a “most likely” assessment of future policy trends.”Is BP just responding to markets signals and expectations of regulatory developments? Past investments, “sunk costs”, mean that “oil companies are unlikely to stop extracting oil, even if they invest in renewable energy”. If “exit” is not likely, “voice” is: lobbying and the shaping of perceptions. Standard economic approaches treat firms as solely responding to government intervention. Yet firms such as BP actively invest in politics . Big oil and energy intensive industries want a world with a low carbon price. Others, e.g. renewable energy companies, energy efficiency pioneers and the concerned public, want a high carbon price. What BP tells us in its Outlook is that they think they will win.

BP’s Energy Outlook creates a perception of reality that is beneficial to BP. BP is a publicly traded company. A threshold carbon price can benefit BP as oil and gas gain in desirability when coal’s higher carbon intensity drives it to the sidelines. While a carbon price high enough to stay within a tolerable degree of global warming would also hurt BP it would still hurt oil and gas companies far less than coal companies. BP could probably manage the transition. Its suggestions of substituting gas for coal in the mid-term make sense. However, for BP loosing 6% of its market value doesn’t sound like an enticing proposition. A scenario compatible with a reasonable likelihood of averting dangerous climate change threatens the profitability of BP’s assets. Acknowledging this would presumably not have the most benign effects on its share price. Concerning the argument that some of BP’s assets may prove to be unburnable, they write “we believe that the unburnable carbon approach to assessing the impact of potential climate regulation on a company’s value oversimplifies the complexity of the issue and overstates the potential financial impact.” Creating an impression that the future will be benign for big oil may yet turn out to be delusional for investors at large but is still good for current shareholders. The situation could be overdetermined: BP may not have much of a reason to assume that stringent climate policies will be put in place. Yet, even if they had reason to assume it, it wouldn’t be in their interest to admit it. Currently, the markets don’t price in the risk that climate regulation stringent enough to ward off dangerous climate change could impact on fossil fuel companies’ share prices. If BP recognised a low carbon scenario in their outlook as a realistic possibility, it would raise the question of how such a scenario would impact on their assets, entertaining the prospect that some might become unburnable or “stranded”. This could change market perceptions, with some investments moving out of more and some into less carbon intensive forms of energy. If BP included the possible impacts of a low carbon scenario on market demand in its Outlook it would become apparent that BP is actively investing on the assumption that this is not going to realise — that they bet on a future that entails dangerous climate change.

Taken from BP Energy Outlook 2035, p. 80
Taken from BP Energy Outlook 2035, p. 80

The Outlook can also be interpreted as suggesting that industrialising countries are responsible for emissions reaching a level that makes dangerous climate change likely. When commenting on Christof Rühl’s talk, environmental economist Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy and Director at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, pointed out that the BP forecast graph depicting emissions by regions (see above) may be taken to suggest that the emissions cuts (compared to a baseline scenario) necessary for being in line with the International Energy Agency scenario “consistent with the goal of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2°C” (IEA 450 scenario) would need to come from non-OECD developing countries. Yet, in order to make limiting emissions palatable for developing countries, OECD countries clearly need to take the lead.
Considering that the OECD member countries have a joint population of 1,257 million in 2012, with the global population exceeding 7 billion , a mere stabilisation of OECD emissions seems hardly adequate. Differences in capabilities as well as historical responsibility clearly mandate a pioneering role in decarbonisation for industrialised countries. While lower demand from industrialised countries for fossil fuels makes them cheaper and thus raises incentives for industrialising countries to rely on them, lower prices also make future exploration and extraction efforts less attractive. As investment for renewables increases in industrialised countries, prices also fall for industrialising countries. It is far from clear that OECD countries’ climate action would be insufficient for remaining below the 2C target. Even if the target was exceeded, such action would be far from futile. If rich countries pioneer low carbon infrastructures, this will also help industrialising countries to rein in their appetite for fossil fuels.

The BP Energy Outlook 2035 suggests to solely give a realistic forecast. Yet BP forecasts a reality it helps to create. And its forecast further bolsters investments into this kind of reality. BP’s sense of realism is a confidence in its own prospects. While much can be learned from the data, the way it is presented supports fatalism, helps to keep up share prices and aims to provide legitimacy to further fossil fuel exploration and extraction. It provides the rationale for betting on dangerous climate change.