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”.



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 humans1. 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 agriculture2.

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 feeding3. 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.





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 20354. 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.”5
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. “6 7. 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.”8Is 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”9. If “exit” is not likely, “voice” is: lobbying and the shaping of perceptions. Standard economic approaches treat firms as solely responding to government intervention10. Yet firms such as BP actively invest in politics 11 12. 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.”13 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 prices14. 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)15 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 201216, with the global population exceeding 7 billion 17, 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 forecast18. 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.

Fisheries: voluntary self-regulation as a model for bold trade policy reform

Voluntary self-regulation by organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council promises to make fishing more sustainable. While self-regulatory efforts are a great start, it is questionable whether they alone suffice to tackle the task of making the world’s fisheries sustainable again. But they have a great – as of yet underappreciated – potential: complementing and facilitating government action by providing orientation for bold trade policy reforms.

Overfishing has led to the depletion or even collapse of many fish stocks. States have found it difficult to respond to the challenge of overfishing. Even within the EU, with its extraordinary level of inter-state cooperation, until recently fishing reform had been an extremely sluggish process 19.

While state inaction left the seas free to overexploitation, in the 1990s a private initiative promised to provide the much-needed responsibility. It took the collapse of fishing stocks to alert Unilever, one of the world’s biggest buyers of frozen fish, to identify overfishing as a threat to its business. Unilever soon teamed up with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) to initiate what would become the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): a non-profit organisation which sets a standard for sustainable fishing and allocates the right to use its label to those found to behave in accordance with it 20.

According to the MSC its certification scheme now covers “over 10% of the annual global harvest of wild capture fisheries” 21. While there has been criticism levied at MSC standards and compliance with it, it is largely considered to be a successful scheme.

Personally, I always look out for the MSC label when I buy fish but I’m never quite certain whether this actually makes much of a difference or just has a feel-good effect. For while my individual purchase might come from more sustainable fisheries it would still add to the aggregate global demand for fish. When the MSC’s Chief Executive, Rupert Howes, gave a presentation at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (20 Feb 2014) I raised the question if, instead of consciously limiting my fish consumption, he would actually encourage me to buy more (certified) fish. He replied along the lines that increased demand for MSC certified fish actually makes MSC certification and thus the adherence to sustainable fishing standards more attractive to fishing companies.

Feeding the world and maintaining the productive capacity and integrity of marine eco-systems Rupert Howes, Chief Executive, MSC

I think his point is a very good one. Yet some doubts persist. While buying MSC certified fish may help to raise incentives for fishing companies to comply with sustainability standards, its purchase still keeps alive what I would call “a culture of fish consumption“: people will praise the taste of fish dishes, put up photos of them on the internet and floods of saliva will pour forth from their friends mouths. Now the saliva is there, moral virtue is supposed to rein it in. More expensive, certified fish is deemed “good”, while the cheap, “dirty” and unsustainable fish is “bad”. Those who can afford or prioritise “sustainable” fish can feel good about themselves, at ease with the world, while the consumers of non-certified fish should — in order to boost the market for sustainable fish — at least feel some slight unease around their taste buds. While ecological economists don’t tire to preach that the environmental costs of products should be reflected in their prices, here — like so often — the reverse holds true: one has to pay a premium for sustainably sourced fish.

Will consumers shift to certified fish quickly enough to save fishing stocks from collapsing and maritime life from severe disruptions? Perhaps it’s going to work. But it’s a risky bet. And if it doesn’t work – who is to blame? Consumers, because they didn’t buy the right fish? Or not enough of the right fish?

The success of the MSC labelling scheme shows that consumers are not just interested in the mere physical qualities of fish but also in the process by which it landed upon their platter. It demonstrates that market pull in one place can change fishing practices in another. It’s a testing ground for standardisation and monitoring activities.

All this makes a good case for revisiting the possibility of applying trade measures against the import of fish which sourcing doesn’t qualify as sustainable. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is extremely wary of the introduction of “discriminatory” measures whose rationales can be interpreted as fig-leafs for protectionism. This translates into strong scrutiny towards restrictions on the basis of the process or the method by which a good is derived rather than by its mere physical qualities. Yet, the jurisdiction on the possibilities for enacting import restrictions based on “non-product-related processes and production methods (PPMs)” is far from exhaustive. Private standard setting and monitoring exercises such as those conducted by the MSC can help to demonstrate that “non-discriminatory” import restrictions on the basis of “non-product-related processes and production methods (PPMs)” can be designed and monitored 22 23.

What I suggest here is an appreciation of the pioneering role of private sector initiatives such as the MSC. Governments should draw on these foundations and insist on the adherence to similar standards as a precondition for market entry. The regulatory “pull” from a giant market such as the EU’s would be able to exert beneficial effects at far greater scale than what can currently be accomplished by private sector initiatives.

Once the, admittedly, giant leap of making the adherence to criteria of sustainable fishing a condition for market-entry is taken, fishing companies all over the world might develop an interest in lobbying governments to strengthen regulation and to cooperate in order to make their fishing grounds pass sustainability criteria.

Voluntary private self-regulation can be a model for the introduction of sustainability criteria in trade policy. Once private initiative is followed up by trade policy, the main worry about fish will hopefully be of culinary nature.



WhatsFace? Still not liking it.

Today it was in the news. Facebook snapped up WhatsApp. I never really feel comfortable communicating privately via Facebook. I feel Facebook knows too much about us, while we know too little about what Facebook knows about us.


Now WhatsApp. When my old Smartphone broke a few years ago I didn’t really bother to replace it. I’m sort of glad that it spared me the choice of installing WhatsApp. I thought, well, surely the technology is great but here comes yet another monopolising service that snaps up all our data, and can pass it on to people that run network analyses on my friends and colleagues and content analyses on my messages.

Of course, Facebook has much of that data already. I never believed you could trust them. But well, nearly everybody uses it and in a way we are all in this together, generation „friend“ and „like“ and „tag“. I just didn’t like the idea of once again succumbing to the seduction of a company that makes money by me connecting to it, by me pouring information about me and everyone around me into it. Now it’s basically one company. I still don’t like it.

There are other, more private and secure services as well. But when you load them it feels like an empty corridor. No one is there. You hear your own echo. Still, I don’t wanna give up on it.

You can set up free and encrypted chats on your mobile phone with apps for Android and iOS. You can also connect to them from Windows, Mac and Linux computers. It take some more effort than WhatsApp and might not develop as fast. But you won’t be bugged so easily either. You will be free. At least a little bit.


A renewed focus on predistributive outcomes

Today I read an opinion piece by Tristam Hunt, UK Labour MP, that spoke to my heart. In it he critizises the narrowed down focus of social democracy on redistribution and its relative neglect of predistributive outcomes. As such he scolds Labour for having “neglected our associationalist heritage as a movement of democratic grassroots activists: our history of co-operatives, mutual societies and unions.”

Tristam Hunt, Labour MP

How exactly a Labour government would support such bottom-up initiatives is left open in this short, edited opinion piece. I would be interested to know more about it. For there are many cases in which co-operatives and mutual societies can bust monopolistic structures, contribute to more equal predistributive outcomes and abate principal-agent problems.

Take for example today’s network effects on the internet: How does Ebay make its money? It’s the biggest online market place. Why is it the biggest online market place? Because most market participants know it’s the biggest market place — so it’s the place to go. Once a firm dominates a market place like this, there is no real competition anymore. The prospect of monopoly rents may have given an incentive to set up the website in the beginning — a laudable quality — but after a while remuneration for the service provided is not determined by competitive markets but by possibility for extracting monopoly rents.


Recently a very interesting initiative has come up in Berlin, Germany, that seeks to scale up its business model to the global level: Fairnopoly. It’s strives to deliver the functionality of Ebay but with an emphasis on filters for fair and ecological products. Even more: It’s a co-operative. That way a global market place could come into being that is in the hands of its users and that delivers its services without extracting monopoly rents — and even if it did, it would probably use such proceeds in the interest of its users-owners.

Such business models may be seen as an expression of a renewed social democratic movement. However, it would also be interesting to hear how social democrats in government may support such bottom-up initiatives as well.


„Intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.“

It’s been a while since a sentence has struck me with such insight. It instantaneously helped me to accept my predilections in a way that is expressible and intelligible and yet profound. I’ve been struggling with this issues for more than ten years by now. While its grip has loosened, this sentence, written by Susan Sontag more than 50 years ago, feels like it cut open the Gordian knot that has so long strangled the flow of my thoughts.

„You are far too analytic!“

I was 21, working in a care home for special needs children in England. She was working there, too. Perhaps two years younger than me. I adored her. „Far too analytic“. Me? She was probably right. I tried to impress and to bond with her by being witty and thoughtful and geekily funny and that’s what I got: „too analytic“. It didn’t sound loveable. As it turned out, she wasn’t that much into me, indeed.
As a good-bye present she gave me a collection of fragments from the Dalai Lama’s speeches. Buddhism.
I took that away: It’s not sexy to be analytic.

When I started uni I once again got thrilled by ideas. Sometimes, it got a bit much: During term paper weeks, my small talk got stiff. I felt helpless and uneasy. The rewards, however, outweighed these temporary bursts of nerdiness. The rewards came in grades, of course. But even more so, in thrill.

I was never so much into systematic inquiry. I was into ping pong, into compression and expansion. Thinking had to be dynamic: alive and always on the move, ready to change perspective. Conversation was a way of jointly exploring possibilities. With one of my best friends, I could be that way – without feeling overly analytic (I perhaps was, but it felt good.). That was one of the things I appreciated most in her.

I wasn’t so much into it for functional reasons.
I was driven by wanting to pursue something with a purpose. Yet, with readings accumulating, the more arbitrary such pursuit became. Towards the end of my studies, my taste in ideas had taken precedence over this yet existent but diffuse feeling of purpose. If intellectual curiosity had initially been fed by political ambition, by now curiosity had evolved into an appetite distinct yet not dependent on any specific diet.

I despised people of who I had the impression that they were just pursuing their academic careers, just assembling their arguments in order to drive forward the professed advance of reason. Reason, it seemed to me, could be inhuman. It could take hold of people, narrow their perspective and turn them into adjuncts of monstrous assemblies of technology, infrastructure and ideologies. Knowledge promises liberty — but it can also perpetuate slavery.
I felt like I had climbed a tower, only to look into the abyss.

The bureaucrats had taken ideas to build their fortresses. To perceive of ideas as being dense as stones — that was fetishism. You can’t play ping pong with stones. I didn’t want to become a bureaucratic fetishist.

A connoisseur, instead, does have a taste in ideas, he can discuss the merits of one idea over the other, but he will not forget, that what he seeks is pleasure.