Author Archives: Robert Johnston

Markets, politics and tackling climate change

The government is committing to  Net Zero” greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. This is good news but the means of achieving it are critical. Global reduction is not being achieved but it would be wrong to suggest that nothing has been done and certainly panicking would not be a rational response. Global CO2 emissions per unit of GDP have been decreasing at annual rate of about 1.8 percent for the last 80 years but economic growth means that global emissions have still been increasing at 2.6 percent per year. 

The figures above are taken from “The Climate Casino” by William Nordhouse, the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics. Nordhaus presents a scientifically informed overview of the climate dilemma and the solutions to it. The efficient solution is carbon pricing. This is not a view restricted to a some academics but is the consensus of main stream economists, as Tim Harford has pointed out. Carbon pricing can take two forms, as a tax or through setting emission targets and providing tradable permits to cap the GHG emissions. According to the analysis presented by Nordhaus “Carbon Tax” is the more efficient mechanism but “Cap and Trade” is a good approach if implemented effectively. Cap and Trade is also easier to sell politically. For example the EU has implemented such a scheme but  it has not priced GHG emissions at a high enough level to drive the changes required. 

Importantly a carbon tax corrects the market failure that has allowed pollution to continue because the polluter does not pay for the consequences. The effect is not merely punitive but more significantly it allows the market mechanism to function as the principal driver of climate change mitigation as well as providing revenue to compensate hardship and to fund needed technology.  It makes renewable energy sources more competitive without the need to introduce piece-meal subsidies or other ad hoc or even authoritarian government interventions. The other important contribution of the competitive market mechanism is innovation. This is important for efficiency and essential technological breakthrough, such as carbon capture and storage.

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Beyond Brexit – Not Quite

Sir Vince Cable has published a booklet “Beyond Brexit: Liberal Politics for the Age of Identity” How well does it stand up to its billing as a roadmap for the future of liberalism? And does it indeed get us beyond Brexit? Arguably it comes rather late and could have provided a corrective to the obsession that has constrained the party over the past few years.

“Age of Identity” rather strangely labels what is called a new form of political alignment with its extreme illiberal manifestation: exclusive identity based on national, religious, racial or linguistic characteristics, implying these views dominate yet we live in a liberal constitutional order. What is important is the spectrum of opinion that sees openness and freedom at one end and a closed protectionism at the other; getting the party away for the bland centrist label.

On Cable’s own admission the booklet is not comprehensive but deals with issues that draw largely on his experience as Secretary of State and adds thoughts on, among other topics, migration, housing and the green economy. Without providing a chapter by chapter analysis, the briefest of summary is: inoffensive. This article discusses the articulation of the liberal vs. social democrat tension and the roadmap itself.

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The Digital Single Market should enable users and innovators, and not constrain freedom

In the rather dry text of the Proposal for a DIRECTIVE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on copyright in the Digital Single Market there lurks, behind the good intentions, an information restricting and illiberal set of proposals. The infamous Article 13. The objections of the technically informed and creative internet users were ignored last June by the majority in the European Parliament who passed the proposal by a sizable majority and the final vote on the directive is immanent.

Article 13 risks being nothing more than an act of corporate welfare; with big business standing to gain while individuals see little benefit and potential disadvantage. The argument that this legislation primarily benefits the creatives and other innovators, who produce content that is currently being shared on the internet without permission, is flawed. 

More often than not, copyright of such content is not owned by the creators themselves but large corporations, such as Universal Music Group, who then pay artists a percentage of the profits made from the copyrighted material. It should be the responsibility of these corporations to ensure that their artists are fairly remunerated for their work, and that responsibility should not be shifted unfairly onto platform providers such as Facebook or YouTube. In addition, there are wider, perhaps unintended consequences. According to cryptographer and security expert Bruce Schneier, “Aside from the harm from the provisions of Article 13, this infrastructure can be easily repurposed by government and corporations – and further entrenches ubiquitous surveillance into the fabric of the Internet.”

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Open Energy: information and the market

Information comes in many forms with various claims to ownership. The volume of data and the variety of contexts that transform it into information and knowledge has evolved beyond recognition since Hayek’s seminal work on “The use of knowledge in society”.  However, the importance of the availability of knowledge to the individual, whether person or business, has, if anything, increased and reinforced Hayek’s point that free but informed decisions and economic effectiveness go hand in hand. It is therefore important for policy to address the ownership and access to information to tackle the ensuing asymmetries in decision making and power as exemplified by the energy market.

This topic relates to the important work done by Jo Swinson and Ed Davey during the Coalition to make getting a better utilities deal easier. The current energy market in the UK is a morass of poorly thought out regulation, awkward implementation and skewed market mechanisms.  A move towards nationalisation is not the answer. The situation and elements of a solution have recently been set out clearly in a report sponsored by the Federation of Small Businesses. The report, “Open Energy: Using Data to create a smarter, cheaper and fairer energy market”, compiled by Fingleton Associates, covers the needs of individuals and service providers as well as businesses.

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The candidates for London Mayor – in their own words

With the selection of the party’s London Mayoral candidate imminent, the team at Liberal Reform want to ensure party members are able to make an informed choice.  So, we invited each of the candidates to discuss their experience, campaigning priorities, and policies.  Liberal Reform is not backing any one candidate and the purpose of the interviews is to allow people to compare the responses they give to a set of questions on liberal issues affecting the people of London. The topic is obviously focussed on London but as the UK’s capital city the issues have a wider significance as many are shared by other metropolitan areas and decisions in London can set a national precedent. In alphabetical order, you can find each candidate interview below:

Although neutral on the candidates Liberal Reform is committed to London as a liberal city and therefore it is important to get the candidates’ views on the same list of issues. The topics discussed with all candidates are:

  • The candidate’s own background and experience
  • Their campaign strategy
  • How they would address housing & homelessness
  • Their views on transport: both public and privately-run services (including the often controversial subject of Uber and private hire services)
  • Their views on crime in London and what needs to be done
  • How they see Brexit impacting on London and its international status
  • The environment and how they would tackle issues such as air quality and waste as well as London’s impact.

While letting the candidates speak for themselves, it’s interesting to see many of them taking a more pro-competition angle when it comes to ride-sharing and private hire than the Lib Dems have been known for previously. The scale of London’s housing crisis, and the resulting need to take-up new approaches to finding space to build new homes was also a theme across most, but not all, interviews. All agreed on the need to tackle crime, and make Brexit central to our campaign. What’s also noteworthy is the mix of experience among the candidates.

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Your data, your choice – the ALDES fringe meeting in Bournemouth

Government, business and our personal lives are increasingly driven by our personal data. Credit card transactions, location data, and health records have the potential to improve products, provide insight for policymaking, and detect security threats. But they also challenge our notions of privacy, intimacy and autonomy. How can results from privacy research be translated into policy?

The session was chaired by Richard Gomer, a researcher in Meaningful Consent. The panellists brought expertise from the areas of publishing, computer science, artificial intelligent and security

  • Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye (Data Scientist and privacy researcher at Imperial College London)
  • Luc Moreau (Professor of Computer Science at King’s College London)
  • Yogesh Patel (Chief Scientist at Callsign)
  • Leonie Mueck (Division Editor at PLOS ONE.)

Questions to the panel

  1. What could mathematics offer to address the issues? The question was taken by Yves who said that in the context of Big Data statistical and analytical techniques are important to model behaviour and understand how sensitive information can be inferred from apparently innocuous data. Luc pointed to algorithmic accountability as a major challenge for data provenance modelling.
  2. How is anonymization done and how could it be undone? Leonie addressed the context of repositories of data under pinning research. Concern is considerable in the health domain but it is also an area where regulation is quite mature. De-identification itself is an obsolete technique and not a useful basis for any privacy policy. The publishing business would welcome formulation of and clarification on the rules and regulations. Yogesh emphasised the maturity of cryptography but recognised its limitations.
  3. What is the role of data governance and its complementarity with techniques such as differential privacy? It can be hard for organisations to know what their own policies should be, though. Techniques for de-anonymisation are still being developed, so a technique applied to data today could be insufficient in the future.
  4. What is the role of accountability and techniques such as Data Provenance tracking in providing greater accountability? The panel considered the role of trust, and the necessity of building services and technology that are trustworthy. Regulation has a role here and understanding exactly what would make an organisation trustworthy could do with some exploration.
  5. What are the challenges in privacy self-management? Regulatory regimes place much of the onus on the individual. The complexity and scale of digital services makes this challenging. There are alternative to explore here are AI decision support and regulatory approaches that recognise collective bargaining from data subjects.

Discussion and recommendations

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Recent Comments

  • User AvatarLaurence Cox 20th Nov - 11:34am
    @Cim Back when Charles Kennedy was leader, there was a debate on Trident replacement at party conference; I think it was a Spring Conference at...
  • User AvatarYeovil Yokel 20th Nov - 11:20am
    Layla was interrupted so many times in that interview that it was tantamount to persistent heckling or a heated pub argument - she did well...
  • User AvatarPeter Martin 20th Nov - 10:48am
    A trade deal with the US doesn't necessarily mean drugs will be more expensive. Canada has a trade deal but the price of their "meds"...
  • User AvatarKatharine Pindar 20th Nov - 10:20am
    Splendid stuff, Chris. It's heartening to see a member of a younger generation than mine speaking out so vigorously for our beliefs and values. With...
  • User AvatarPeter Hirst 20th Nov - 10:10am
    We do need a wider geographical spread of elected members to our committees. Perhaps at least reserved members for the north, midlands, Wales and Scotland....
  • User Avatarcim 20th Nov - 10:10am
    RossMcL - fair enough on Kennedy, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have been so terse about it even if told to. "Short questions, short...