Judges break the unwritten rule of environmental agreements

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
July 9, 2021

Even though it concerns the first-ever climate case against a company, the court ruling against Royal Dutch Shell is part of a wider trend of a demand for more action against climate change. Yet, while the intentions behind them are clear, these rulings may actually be counterproductive. They break the unwritten rule that international agreements on climate action are taken with a grain of salt. Such agreements tend to be either abstract or focused on the long term and leave a lot of room for interpretation with respect to short-term action.

The resulting wiggle room allows politicians to sign these agreements and adopt a wait-and-see strategy afterwards. By now it is clear that the courts will no longer accept this and intend to force governments to take action today in order to meet the long-term goals they agreed upon. Looking ahead, the question is whether these rulings will indeed lead to much-needed action, or rather prevent politicians from signing any new agreements that could lead to similar court cases in the future.

Burning questions:

  • Will companies anticipate future court rulings and speed up their own plans of action?
  • Will companies flee to countries where judges are less likely to make similar rulings?

We need more downward mobility

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
June 16, 2021

We often gauge inequality by looking at income distributions and complain about the lack of equal opportunity in society. To fight inequality, governments are in search of social measures to ease the path upwards and close the income gap. For example, better education is widely held to be the great equalizer and the best way to move up on the social ladder. Although this is presumably true, it is only half the story. Income distributions only offer a static snapshot of equality.

To fully comprehend inequality, one should also look at the dynamics of the population. Equally important is the capacity of the population to constantly change positions, keep moving from time to time, including the rich and arrived (i.e. downward mobility). Mathematically, this is called the ergodicity of the system and, more intuitively, this tells us whether the rich stay rich and lock in their privileges and wealth or if one has a good chance to become rich(er), but still end up poor(er). From this point of view, Europe may be more unequal than the U.S., because, according to Nassim Taleb, Europe excels in non-ergodic systems. So, often neglected, the path to equal societies is not only to empower the lower classes, but just as much to add some skin in the game for the richest decile of the income distribution, to increase the chances some of them actually slide down the social ladder.

Burning questions:

  • Is the current surge in “public executions” based on someone’s private behavior a symptom of our non-ergodic system and lack of downward mobility by other means?
  • How do we make our central and bureaucratic organizations, companies and governments have more skin in the game?
  • Can the decentralized architecture of Web3 increase the ergodicity of the system in the future, or will it establish new, unforeseen mechanisms and patterns of absorbing wealth and sticky wealth in a decentralized economy?

The G7 tax deal is all about American geo-economics

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
June 16, 2021

The G7 reached a historic agreement for a global corporate tax rate of a minimum of 15% in which corporations must also pay taxes in nations where they sell (and not just where they’re headquartered). If we take the deal at face value, it seems that power is shifting from corporations to states. After all, since the 1980s, the global corporate tax rate had been dropping from 50% to 24%, as developing countries built growth models by attracting foreign investors with lower taxes and some developed countries also took part in the ‘race to the bottom’ (e.g. Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore).

However, behind the deal of the G7, more forces are at play. Although it is a multilateral deal, hailed by many as the return of responsible U.S. leadership, it is primarily the U.S. that will benefit. First, it is expected that the biggest share of taxes will be paid by U.S. big tech companies to the U.S. itself. Second, in exchange for its concessions in the deal, the U.S. has demanded the removal of the Digital Services Taxes of European countries. It shows that American multilateralism is still a ‘geo-economic’ instrument to wield power across the globe.

Burning questions:

  • How will the EU adjust to U.S. demands to drop digital services taxes?
  • Will there be a G20 tax deal in July?

Lifestyle politics in the planetary age

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
June 3, 2021

Lifestyle politics refers to the politicization of everyday life choices and is closely tied to our self-actualization in late modernity. This form of political participation has become a strong political weapon in these times of complexity, uncertainty and pressing global issues. In late modernity, various new forms of extra-parliamentary politics are arising to mitigate the (perceived) weakening of state-oriented politics.

On the one hand, lifestyle politics fit the ideal of subsidiarity in our planetary age. To battle planetary challenges such as rising sea levels and pandemics effectively, we have to delegate governance to the lowest level possible. The individual becomes the first “governing institution” of the globalized world. At the same time, if everyday life choices become so central to politics, this dependence on lifestyle could further alleviate the polarization and fragmentation of societies within nation-states. Furthermore, contrary to the expectations of some advocates of lifestyle politics, the pandemic has made us realize that state-oriented politics is anything but obsolete. The inward orientation of lifestyle politics combined with strong nation-states might lead to what the philosopher Tocqueville calls “soft despotism”, meaning that the will and freedom of man are “not shattered but softened, bent and guided”. Individuals are not oppressed, but are subject to the tutelary power of expanding national bureaucratic states and institutions.

Burning questions:

  • How do we align global lifestyle politics with the representative institutions of the political systems of nation-states?
  • Is the tutelary power of the bureaucratic welfare state a serious threat to our post-coronavirus world?
  • How do we prevent lifestyle politics from degenerating into trivial forms of lifestyle consumerism?

The European Deep Transition Strategy

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
April 2, 2021

A lot has been written about the unfolding European Digital Strategy to reclaim the digital sphere from private interests and make it more equitable and fair. However, the EU is also becoming a regulatory superpower in the non-digital realm. This month, for example, the European Parliament paved the way for new European legislation that stresses corporate accountability and due diligence for human rights within value chains.

Furthermore, the ECB aspires to become a pioneer in fighting climate change, by slashing bond purchases by heavy carbon emitters and advancing “green bonds” and integrating climate risk in its stress tests for the banking sector. And last year, the EU adopted new “eco-design measures” that should make it easier to repair – rather than replace – old household appliances, such as washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators. All these measures are meant to create more equitable and sustainable consumer practices, production processes, and value chains in the real economy. As such, the EU is leveraging the “Brussels Effect” to begin to establish the meta-rules of the Second Deep Transition.

Burning questions:

  • Will other countries follow Europe’s example or will this legislation cause more geopolitical friction?
  • Does the EU have the coherence and unity to push and enforce all legislation?
  • What is the goal or set of meta-rules that the EU has in mind?

Does the future belong to Keynes and Mazzucato?

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
January 14, 2021

In the past year, Keynes made a comeback into the soul of European economic policy. First intended to keep the economy going, then with a view to establish a sustainable and inclusive economy in the future. In order to facilitate the latter, Keynes was modernized with the mission-oriented innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Together, they provide a substantial economic policy framework for governments to combat the “wicked problems” of the 21st century.

Our observations

  • Because of the coronavirus crisis, for the first time in twenty years, poverty is on the rise again. Depending on the severity of the economic crisis, an estimated 150 million people will join the ranks of those living below the poverty line, making the sum total nearly 10% of the global population. A wealthy continent such as Europe, despite there being more social security than elsewhere, is no exception to this trend.
  • In the past, crises have sometimes been great equalizers: In wartime, equity and capital evaporated more quickly than gunpowder. This does not apply to the coronavirus crisis, which has only exacerbated social and economic inequality in several ways.
  • CO2 emissions decreased by 8% in the past year and we’re unlikely to ever again reach the global peak levels of 2019. The main concern is now whether emission levels will be reduced fast enough, and which part of the population will “bear the brunt” of the decreased emission rates.
  • With the coronavirus as a tipping point, governments are now striving for a more active role in the economy to deal with the abovementioned “wicked problems”. In the course of the year, aid packages came to be accompanied by recovery packages meant to correct the unbridled neoliberalism of the past years. These recovery packages are largely made up of investment funds with a lot of reference to mission-oriented innovation policy, which gradually seems to be gaining ground in Europe.
  • The recovery plans and investment funds are crystal clear in one respect: sustainability is the main goal. The German government devised a green recovery plan of 130 billion euros which focuses mainly on hydrogen. The French government, unwilling to lag behind, presented a 100 billion euro plan soon after, of which 30 billion is reserved for the ecological transition. And recently, regulations on spending the European recovery fund of 672.5 billion euros were tightened, so that a significant percentage of the subsidies and loans would have to be used for sustainability purposes. The same applies to the Dutch growth fund of 20 billion euros, which initially incurred much criticism for the gray and traditional economic set-up of the investment fund, but has now become much greener.

Connecting the dots

Economists generally disagree. Put two economists in a room and you’ll get three opinions, the old economic saying goes. The consensus among economists about the global aid policy of governments was therefore surprising. Economists have rarely been this unanimous in their agreement on the necessity of government intervention. Moreover, with the financial crisis still fresh in our memories, central banks are asking governments not to start phasing out financial aid too soon. The rising government debt has been taken for granted so far; the fear of long-lasting economic stagnation unequivocally takes precedence over the fear of inflation. Initially, the emphasis was on keeping the economy going. Now, we’re becoming concerned about the future. The government wants to stimulate economic growth as well as realize societal goals such as reaching sustainability and social justice at the same time.

This will be one hell of a job. Classical Keynesian undifferentiated innovation policy is no longer the solution, as not all innovation is good and not all consumption is wanted. Keynes needs an update. The neoclassical economic idea that innovation is ultimately best judged by the market, is abandoned in the innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Her ideas include a preceding process of elimination by civilians and the government, who join hands in formulating ambitious societal goals, or “moonshots” as Mazzucato likes to call them.

In Europe, in part because of the coronavirus crisis, Mazzucato’s ideas have gained much momentum. Following the Green Deal, governmental aid packages often contain clear references to mission-oriented policy, with social justice and sustainability as the most prevalent missions. These societal missions are ambitious and this is precisely the point, according to Mazzucato, so that passion will return to government policy, which otherwise is at risk of becoming uninspired and providing a culture with little direction. Yet, the economic reality presents a challenge for European policy makers. Mission-oriented innovation policy is a three-fold struggle in which crises from the past, present and future influence each other.

The legacy of the past is a financial system in which capital is (too) profitable. Indeed, private savings abound: in the year of the coronavirus, European savings accounts and nest eggs were amply stocked. Moreover, central banks are copiously adding to the money supply with their extensive buy-back programs. Because of this, collecting money isn’t the problem, but, eventually, this money should be flowing into the real economy, which has been an issue for over a decade. The way the financial system is organized ensures that returns on stocks and capital are often more interesting than risky innovation. It speaks volumes that in the year of the coronavirus, more young people opened a private investment account than ever before, and house prices merrily kept on rising during the crisis. Speculation counters innovation and discourages companies from making daring long-term investments.

The legacy of the present is simply the economic damage of the current crisis. Inequality has increased in many domains. The crisis greatly divides society, resulting in clear winners and losers. Consequently, we’re witnessing increasing resistance against some forms of public spending, especially where climate policy is concerned. Economists therefore advocate a joint approach to reaching sustainability and economic equality. Their approach boils down to higher (environmental) taxes for the upper class, and tax exemptions or financial compensation (e.g. for road pricing) for the lower and middle classes to restore their disposable income. According to economist Dirk Bezemer, tax and wage measures should be in one and the same package as sustainability laws, otherwise, the intended acceleration of the green transition in Europe would be completely unrealistic.

Our “legacy” for the future is the advance we’ve taken on this future and the necessity of growth to be able to pay this back. With sufficient economic growth, government debt becomes lower in relative terms and tax income rises, so that it becomes easier to pay interest charges without this affecting other expenses. And it’s not just government debt that makes economic growth desirable. The future pension costs and increasing healthcare costs of an ageing population, make economic growth essential to Europe.

Economic growth is thus very desirable, but to what extent are economic growth and societal missions reconcilable? This is a controversial question, especially as regards sustainability. Too much emphasis on quick recovery in the form of a single-minded focus on economic growth would have disastrous effects on, among other things, absolute emission rates. Yet, an economic downturn, is not the time to experiment with economic paradigms that do not center around growth. The fact that societal missions are still mostly framed as interesting investment opportunities for growth is exemplary of the dilemma governments face. Innovation, it is still felt, is mostly meant to be interesting economically, and only to benefit society by derivation.

Thus are government policy-makers forced to struggle with the legacy of a financial system marked by perverse incentives, with the economic downturn of the current crisis, and, finally, with the considerable loan we’ve taken out from future generations. If Mazzucato’s ambitious mission-oriented innovation policy is to have any chance of success, this threefold legacy will have to be taken deathly seriously.

Implications

  • There are risks involved in a more active role for government. If we fixate too much on the promises made, we’ll lose sight of the fact that in the past decade, many companies have become too dependent on the government, with dire effects on innovation. Economic renewal requires the creative destruction of old and lumbering companies that should not be able to keep getting handouts from the government or obtaining debt obligations at extremely low cost. Economists have long feared the rise of zombie companies, that are all too eager to look to the government for bailouts. Like unbridled neoliberalism, this “sunflower capitalism” (i.e. these companies turn to the government as a sunflower turns to the sun) creates the wrong conditions for innovation.

Transatlantic troubles

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
December 18, 2020

Since the U.S. election victory of Joe Biden, there has been a widespread expectation of renewed transatlantic cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. However, while it is likely that the Biden administration will reinvigorate some alliances, as opposed to Trump and his strategic pressure on both adversaries and allies, it is unlikely that the U.S. and Europe will grow as close together as is widely expected.

The main issue is hegemonic shift. The rise of China is primarily a threat to the U.S., but while Europe is cautious and also feels threatened by China in several domains, it is much more open to the strategic opportunity of a rising China. An implication is that the U.S., aware of Europe’s position, will not allow Europe to freeload off U.S. security while refusing to follow American policy towards China. Overall, although we should expect policy proposals such as transatlantic strategies and agendas to emerge, they will be much more difficult to implement than is widely expected.

Biden: neither friend nor foe to big tech

Obama’s presidency was paradise for big tech. After that, Trump was a gift from the gods, tax-wise, but caused some rocky and restless years in Silicon Valley nonetheless. Biden will partly restore peace in the Valley, but we shouldn’t expect a return to the heyday of the Obama administration. During Biden’s first term, we will see a relationship with big tech that is less than clear-cut in terms of amity or enmity. Big tech and Biden need each other and don’t appear to want to make life difficult for each other, but the tension between big tech and society and Silicon Valley and Europe won’t be easily resolved.

Our observations

  • For tech companies, there will be a large contrast between Trump’s fiscal policy and that of his successor Biden. Trump’s tax reforms were a present to big tech, which was able to withdraw money from abroad at low cost and drive up its own share price by buying back shares with this money. Biden wants to tax large companies more heavily by raising corporate taxes to 28%. In addition, he may want to make it more difficult to deposit money on offshore accounts untaxed or to transfer it to tax havens.
  • As a consequence of Trump’s immigration policy, tech companies struggled to attract foreign talent. Biden is a proponent of a friendlier immigration policy and has promised that, during his presidency, it will become easier to apply for a permanent visa again.
  • Under Biden, we can also expect a reintroduction of net neutrality. He has repeatedly expressed approval of net neutrality, which was instated by Obama but subsequently repealed by Trump. Without net neutrality, telecom providers are able to discriminate between content providers and slow down access to certain websites or platforms or charge differentiated fees.
  • Trump and Biden are different in many respects but both of them want big tech to take more responsibility for content moderation. The debate centers around Section 230. In the early years of the internet, Section 230 was devised to give digital platforms legal immunity regarding the content posted on the platform. The law is widely criticized now, though it’s helpful to understand it in the context of the rise of the internet as a free public space.
  • The left flanks of the Democrats have long advocated the forced sale of business units to tackle market concentration and big tech monopolies. Biden is less eager to break up tech companies and has indicated that it’s still too early to discuss this.

Connecting the dots

During the Obama presidency, big tech companies were given a free hand regarding growth and the president frequently sang the sector’s praises. Obama was (too) friendly with big tech. Under Trump, things became a bit more ambivalent, leaning towards hostility. Trump often expressed criticism of tech platforms. Moreover, he became the key player and catalyst in the societal problems that currently characterize the industry (e.g. misinformation, polarization, foreign interference, etc.). At the same time, it’s mostly tech companies who seem to have reaped the benefits of Trump’s fiscal policy (e.g. cheap repatriation of foreign cash and lower taxes). Societal criticism became immensely widespread, but the share price rose with it. With Biden, we’re starting a new chapter that’s more difficult to define in terms of amity or enmity towards big tech. The consensus is (see observations) that Biden will implement stricter regulation of big tech and higher taxes, so it would appear as though there’s some hostility. But in other respects, Biden and big tech are completely on the same page and mutually dependent.

First, to expect that big tech has some rough years ahead because of the extra regulation would be misguided.  After all the (internal) unrest and increasing societal criticism, more regulation, even if it affects companies’ profitability, may even be desirable within the sector. The fact that big tech, despite Biden’s campaign promises of fiscal reform, made prodigious donations to the Biden campaign, supports this theory. Moreover, Biden and Harris have close ties with the tech sector, so there might be an assumption that in (a divided) Congress, the lobby will have enough room to water down propositions. And perhaps regulation might benefit big tech anyway: the GDPR is widely held to serve the big players, who are far better able than their smaller competitors to build the necessary infrastructure. For smaller companies, this is likely to be very expensive and time-consuming.

Big tech welcomes Biden but the reverse is true as well. Among other things, Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate deal and seems to be of a mind to revive multilateral institutions. But in other domains, he will want to continue Trump’s protectionism and protect big tech. Commentators all agree that stricter regulation of big tech will play into the hands of Chinese competitors, and this will certainly be taken into consideration by the Biden administration. It looks like Biden is aiming for a softer, more differentiated version of Trump’s America First policy, so the trade-off between protective industry policy and restrictive competition policy could work in big tech’s favor.

There is, then, enough amity and/or mutual dependence in the relationship between big tech and Biden, but under the surface, hostility and tension remain. Breaking up big tech is one of the most radical plans of the Democrats and was a spearhead in the campaign of other candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren. Because Biden has never made any such extreme statements and there was no “blue wave”, this plan doesn’t seem to be a priority. Nonetheless, CEOs will not rest easily after their recent hearings with the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee. In a lengthy report, the latter considers the monopolies or market forces of big tech proven and urges the forced sale of business units or subsidiaries. It will be difficult to get this through Congress, but the battle for the Senate is not over yet, as a new voting round in Georgia will decide who gets the last two seats in the Senate. It should be noted here that not all big tech companies are the same. Especially Mark Zuckerberg will have sleepless nights, because Biden and his tweeting deputy communications director seem to have set their sights on Facebook in particular.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t set too much store by Biden’s current intentions and campaign promises and stay attuned to what happens societally and ideologically. Societally, in his close-to-victory speech, Biden presented himself to the world as the president of reconciliation. But in the unfortunate case that the power concentration, misinformation, polarization and societal tensions in the digital realm continue to increase, so will the pressure to act on this. Finally, we are in the midst of an ideological reappraisal of the internet itself. Among academics, politicians, organizations and platforms, there’s a growing push for an overhaul of the digital economy, with the foundation of a decentral and open infrastructure of the internet. At its core, this ideology criticizes the way tech companies have been able to privatize the open space of the internet in the past decades and seeks technological alternatives. The strength of this new ideology could have more severe consequences for the revenue model of big tech than Biden’s policy.

At this point, it’s not easy to draw any straightforward conclusion about the consequences of Biden’s first term for big tech. Despite stricter regulation, big tech seems to be headed for a period of amity under Biden, but with subterranean long-term insecurities that could result in some heavy blows for companies.

Implications

  • Compared to Trump, Biden will undoubtedly be more eager to cooperate with Europe, but this doesn’t pertain to tech policy. In this regard, the EU and U.S. have drifted apart in the past years, among other issues because of privacy and data regulation, and Biden apparently doesn’t intend to change much about that.

  • In addition, though at first glance Biden seems tougher on big tech fiscally and appears to comply with Europe’s desire to tax American tech companies more fairly abroad, when we look closely, it’s clear that he plans to give big tech free rein in certain fiscal areas to remain a strong competitor of foreign counterparts. European countries, for instance, have been pressing for years for a tax on digital services that would affect mainly American tech companies, but Biden – like his predecessors – isn’t likely to respond to this call. Biden, it seems, wants to limit the power of big tech somewhat, without inordinately weakening Silicon Valley economically.

  • Nevertheless, there is still agreement and room for mutual inspiration. Europe is able to indirectly exert influence with its own tech policy. The European model of internet and the local legislation that’s derived from it could inspire other democratic countries (e.g. GDPR, Digital Services Act, etc.), including the U.S. In 2018 the GDPR, for example, led to similar privacy legislation in California, which, in one fell swoop, gave forty million Americans the right to request their data, correct it if necessary and prohibit its sale to third parties.

Carbon border tax

What do semiconductors and artificial intelligence have in common? Both have great impact on the economy as well as national security. Historically, such “strategic technologies” trigger a predictable pattern of politics, as shown by Jade Leung. The pattern pertains to the role of the state, firms and researchers, whose roles change in each phase of technological development. During the first phase of emergence, there is primarily synergy between them as the state supports its firms.

However, in the second phase of commercialization, fearful images arise as the impact on security gains more attention, and in the third phase of maturation, a big shift occurs as the state attempts to take back control to prevent foreign actors from gaining access to its strategic technology. We have seen this happening in the semiconductor industry and it is likely to happen in AI as well. Part of the pattern is that some firms will cooperate with the state (e.g. Palantir), whereas others publicly distance themselves from the state (e.g. Google). Overall, the politics of strategic technology will shape the future of semiconductors and AI.

Trump is making opposition media great (the platform becomes the bubble)

On November 5th, CNN interrupted a speech by President Trump because he was making unfounded claims about electoral fraud. Twitter and Facebook have also repeatedly labeled statements by Trump as misinformation. Moreover, Twitter has announced that it will not grant him anymore special treatment when he is no longer president and will delete his account if necessary. Supporters of Trump and his ideas have long sought alternative news sources and platforms where they can freely express their views.

When Trump began retweeting Newsmax, a conservative American news and opinion website that refuses to acknowledge Biden winner of the elections, it saw its visitor numbers soar (from an average 500,000 to 7.3 million a week). Conservative Twitter alternative Parler is currently even the most downloaded app in the U.S. Trump may start his own media outlet, but in any case, his departure from the White House will considerably boost these existing “opposition media”. Slowly but surely, completely separate universes will arise, even more so than now, with different groups each inhabiting their own platforms.