Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Friday, June 27, 2003
    Australian Political quiz
    The Liberal Democratic Party (of Australia) has just posted a newly developed Australian political quiz. To my surprise I took it and still got a reasonably high 'libertarian' score - 18 on the economic freedom index and 16 on the social freedom index. Some bloggers' scores are being recorded in the comments facility below this.

    Thursday, June 26, 2003
    More on Shiller
    John Quiggin has posted an extended review of Robert Shiller's ideas on risk management. An important excerpt:

    Shiller’s third proposed innovation is referred to as inequality insurance. As he observes, this is a framing device to focus attention on the risk management aspects of what would normally be seen as a specific form of tax indexation. Shiller proposes automatically adjusting tax rates in response to changes in the total revenue required and the distribution of income. The object of this adjustment would be to maintain a stable level of inequality in the distribution of after-tax income.
    This is certainly a relevant suggestion in considering the current debate over the possibility of a return to tax indexation, either formally or through annual discretionary changes in tax brackets. As in the United States, though not to so great an extent, most of the gains in income over the past decade have gone to those in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution. Within that group, the top 5 per cent, and even more so, the top 1 per cent, have benefited disproportionately.
    If Shiller’s suggestion had been adopted a decade ago, it would have implied an increase in the progressivity of the tax system to offset the increasing inequality of pretax income. In reality, particularly in the United States, changes in the tax system have favoured the rich and acted to reinforce the growing inequality of market incomes.
    The prospect of having the wealth gains of the 1990s stripped away will no doubt appal the political right. On the other hand, such a policy would permanently rule out the traditional left strategy of redistributing income through union action to raise wages at the expense of profits. The key idea of the risk perspective on public policy is that both sides would be better off settling on an agreed distribution than taking their chances on unpredictable future developments.

    The inequality insurance part of Shiller's proposal is the one that has always puzzled me. Why not just agree on some guaranteed minimum income that can be raised a little more evetytime the economy grows and then work on a means of making sure that people can attain this mandated level of security by subsidising them directly? In that way, even the underclass has a guaranteed stake in economic growth. Why the concern with ensuring the other levels of income maintain their specific shares? Perhaps it is my nascent social democratic instincts here - I'm willing to concede a role for income distribution but only for the most bottom part of the distribution - and I'm even willing to be generous here since what is envisaged is a safety net that rises with economic growth (and therefore takes account of relative poverty - but only for this group).

    However John seems to be making a significant and intriguing concession here in framing the 'inequality insurance' as truce idea - if what he is saying is that the Left give up its plans for intervening directly in the setting of prices *and* wages if such a measure were put in place. Now, if Shiller's scheme is feasible it does sound intriguingly like a rule-based method of dispensing 'social justice' in the broader sense of indeed engineering a specific pattern of income distribution (rather than my more modest plan of a safety net that becomes more generous as the wealth of society grows) - and Hayek's main objection to this more ambitious 'social justice' idea is that it would set a precedent for constantly tweaking in markets directly to freeze particular outcomes. But if Shiller's proposal is as rule-based as it sounds, it would seem quite compatible with a Hayekian liberalism after all, and would not lead to the dangers of a rent-seeking society - indeed if the bargains were sustainable it would spell the end of the rent-seeking society. So it's certainly worth thinking about. In return for subsidising the purchase of these 'livelihood insurance' policies by the poor, and the implementation of 'inequality insurance', would the Left be willing to give up all direct interventions in the market place (including minimum wage regulation but there are many others - for instance legislated cross subsidies in pricing of various infrastructure services) that are there simply for poverty-prevention or favouring particular 'deserving' groups (e.g. the bush, pensioners)? It sounds like an almost acceptable bargain on my side.
    Gerard Jackson directs his wrath at the Right
    Gerard Jackson formerly of the New Australian is back on a fresh new news site and has a contrarian but totally consistent take on the dole diary:

    Apart from the fascist ring that attends the phony concept of "mutual obligations" it is the rest of the country that is obligated to the unemployed, not the reverse.

    The Government's idea of a diary for the unemployed is stupid, costly and lacks compassion. It assumes, against overwhelming evidence, that there is a large body of dole recipients who are not really seeking work. Yet how can Howard, Costello and Vanstone, possibly suggest such a body of parasites exist when the ratio of unemployed greatly exceeds the number of vacancies?

    The best that can be said for these ministers attitude is that it reveals a stunning ignorance of the cause of our widespread persistent unemployment.

    Quite simply, the unemployed have been priced out of work. So long as markets are allowed to clear the present type of unemployment cannot persist. Instead of kicking the unemployed, Vanstone should start kicking union leaders and their mates in the arbitration commission who are responsible for the present level of unemployment.

    It follows that if politicians and the electorate are going to support job-destroying policies then they have an obligation to compensate the victims of these policies. Bullying and slandering them is inexcusable and despicable. But not according to Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Family and Community Services, who said: "For the vast majority of people on welfare, the current mutual obligation requirements are appropriate."

    Really? Well I've got news for Vanstone: she and her political ilk have no moral right to implement fascist sounding policies like "mutual obligations" until they fully liberate the labor market. To attack the unemployed because unions and the arbitration commission have priced them out of work is cruel and cowardly.
    The stupid party?
    In addition to being unpopular with social workers, literati and artists, according to this article the US Republicans have also been losing the scientist vote over time. Why does this not surprise me if even my right wing geneticist friend Godless capitalist campaigned for Gore at the last presidental standoff?

    Perhaps the most pro-science president of the last century was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former West Point mathematics and engineering student, and later president of Columbia University. Eisenhower established the post of White House science adviser, allowed top researchers to wander in and out of the West Wing, and oversaw such critical scientific advances as the development of the U2 spy plane and federally funded programs to put more science teachers in public schools. At one point, he even said that he wanted to foster an attitude in America toward science that paralleled the country's embrace of competitive sports. Scientists returned the affection, leaning slightly in favor of the GOP in the 1960 election.

    The split between the GOP and the scientific community began during the administration of Richard Nixon. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, protests against the Vietnam War captured the sympathy of the liberal academic community, including many scientists, whose opposition to the war turned them against Nixon. ... The GOP further alienated scientists with its "Southern strategy," an effort to broaden the party's appeal to white conservative Southerners. Many scientists were turned off by the increasing evangelical slant of Republicans and what many saw as coded appeals to white racists.

    Scientists also tended to agree with Democrats' increasingly pro-environmental and consumer-protection stances, movements which both originated in academia. Gradually, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira show in their recent book The Emerging Democratic Majority, professionals, the group of highly skilled workers that includes scientists, moved from the Republican camp to the Democratic. Yet that transition took a while, in large part because most professionals were still fiscally conservative, few sided with pro-union Democrats, and the Republican Party had not yet been overtaken by its more socially conservative factions. In the mid 1970s, for example, Republican President Gerald Ford showed a moderate streak while in the White House and reinstated the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    Ronald Reagan oversaw a widening gulf between the Republican Party and academic scientists. During the 1980 campaign, he refused to endorse evolution, a touchstone issue among scientists, saying, "Well, [evolution] is a theory--it is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it was once believed."

    George H.W. Bush tried to walk the tightrope. He pushed the Human Genome Project forward and elevated the position of chief science adviser from a special assistant to assistant. Yet he served during an acrimonious public debate about global warming, an issue that drove a wedge between academic scientists and the interests of the oil and gas industry--an increasingly powerful ally of the GOP ...

    George W. Bush embodies the modern GOP's attitude toward science. He hails from a segment of the energy industry that, when it comes to global warming, considers science an obstacle to growth. He is strongly partisan, deeply religious, and also tied to evangelical supporters. And, like Reagan, he has refused to endorse the scientific principle of evolution. During the 2000 campaign, a New York Times reporter asked whether he believed in evolution. Bush equivocated, leading the Times to write that he "believes the jury is still out."

    Bush has also learned from his father's experience that siding with scientists gains him little politically, and often alienates conservatives. Bush and Rove have tried to woo portions of other groups that traditionally trend Democratic--steel tariffs for unions, faith-based grants for African-American ministers--but scientists are different.

    Speaking of stupid people, check out this Ann Coulter interview:

    John Hawkins: In chapter 1 of "Treason" you say, "Why can't we ask: Who is more patriotic -- Democrats or Republicans? You could win that case in court." Who would that winner be (I think I know =D) and can you give us a short synopsis of why you think that?

    Ann Coulter: Republicans are historically more likely to defend the U.S. against its enemies, foreign and domestic, whereas the Democrats are historically one of America's domestic enemies.

    John Hawkins: If you had to name 5 people on the American left who you found most contemptible, who would they be?

    Ann Coulter: Right off the top of my head I'd say Bill and Hillary Clinton and Hillary's three ghost writers.

    John Hawkins: Was the timing of the release of "Treason" related to when Hillary's book was coming out?

    Now, one thing that has always puzzled me is why the American 'intellectual' conservatives hate Clinton so much. Clinton made many of the worthier Republican goals (you know, the ones they like to talk about but don't actually implement) a reality - welfare reform for one, trade liberalisation another - and in comparison to Bush, Clinton is looking like the real economic globalist. And what is more, Clinton is meritocracy incarnate, the American Dream in action, high IQ poor white boy made good. And underlying their rhetoric don't the Republican aspire to the meritocrat image? Of course we all know that in reality that isn't the case. Look at the conservatives' recent line-up of 'hot young things' or even not so young things - Ann Coulter is one, Michelle Malkin, who writes for racial collectivist/economic collectivist website Vdare is another, then there's the whole host of mediocrities who write for sites like World Nut Daily- and what do you see? As Maureen Dowd points out in another context, all clear beneficiaries of affirmative action and clear examples of its folly.
    On the taxononomy of social groups
    Peter FitzSimons puts the boot into 'metrosexuals', who are better known in Australian terminology as 'F***ing yuppie wankers'. Except for all the comments about the 'footie' which I'm not really into I agree wholeheartedly with what he has to say. I'd probably self-identify as a Bobo (bourgeois bohemian) in some respects but the 'metrosexual' is another species altogether, an airheaded brand-names enthusiast of silly frills, so please don't mistake us for each other. For instance, unlike the metrosexuals, not only do I only own two pairs of shoes and think that paying more than $10 a haircut is a waste of money (though I can't do anything about the latter given where I live - the price of mens' haircuts has probably been bid up by all those metrosexuals, bloody wankers), I also like my milk-bar hamburgers.
    The Telstra debate again
    Right on cue, my boss Henry Ergas kicks off the umpteenth debate on Telstra's privatisation. The argument of course isn't one about maximising government revenues (in that sense the sale price is almost irrelevant) but one of political economy:

    SENATOR Richard Alston's announcement that legislation will be introduced to sell off the 50.1 per cent of Telstra that is government-owned could create a more dynamic and competitive telecommunications market.

    This is first and foremost because ownership matters. There are many things that governments can be good at, but owning the means of production ... is not one of them. All too often, when these assets are in government hands, they are used not to produce wealth but to consume it – most notably by shifting resources from consumers and taxpayers to powerful constituencies with a claim on public resources...

    More recently, substantial sums have gone to providing services that make for good headlines but not for the good use of scarce resources. For example, the mandated extension of coverage for the Integrated Services Digital Network imposed high costs for a technology that was obsolete when its more widespread roll-out was made into a regulatory requirement ...

    Obviously, private ownership does not prevent governments from taking silly decisions. But it does mean they have to make those decisions explicit and when they reduce value, compensate shareholders accordingly. In this area as in others, private property provides important safeguards against wealth destruction.

    The partial privatisation of Telstra has already gone some of the distance in this respect. The need to protect the interests of minority shareholders has helped ensure that the Government, when it wants services to be provided on a non-commercial basis, more frequently uses explicit subsidies.

    He also reminds trenchant privatisation critic Lindsay Tanner of Labor reformist precedent that has been all but lost:

    Labor's communications spokesman Lindsay Tanner, for example, plainly sees it as a key virtue of public ownership that it allows governments to use public assets to ends that they determine. Telstra, he says, is "too big to regulate". What this means is entirely unclear. The reality is that Telstra is no bigger, relative to the Australian economy, than its counterparts overseas – counterparts that are effectively regulated, quite regardless of their ownership. And even if Telstra is in some sense "big", meddling by government owners is likely to make for outcomes that are worse rather than better.

    In thinking otherwise, Tanner has clearly forgotten what his Labor predecessors well knew. When the Hawke and Keating governments embarked on the reform of government business enterprises, they were all too mindful of the harm that the use of those enterprises to political ends had wreaked. The rigorous separation of ownership from regulation, most notably in the reforms Sen ator Gareth Evans led in his period as communications minister, made clear Labor's understanding of the need to keep politics out of the on-going management of the nation's infrastructure.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2003
    Sorry, Jack but no cigar
    My co-blogger Jack 'Machiavelli' Strocchi can finesse his theories and arselick the Bushies till the cows come home, but he hasn't convinced me of anything. And pictures of phallic symbols don't do it for me either.

    The fact of the matter is I haven't yet given up on the possibility that the Bushies were telling the truth about WMDs but my patience is wearing thin. I'll own up. I was one of those who ended up supporting the war in good faith that there was a 'clear and imminent danger' - if there are no WMDs I'm going to be mighty pissed off, and there might well be others who feel the same way.

    And this is the point. Preventing another S11 - this should be the priority, not wild adventures in the Middle East driven by the rabid fantasies of AEI scholars. And anything that reduces the capacity to do the former by international cooperation - such as by 'crying 'wolf' - does not help. It's not a matter of whether it's moral or immoral to occasionally tell a lie. I accept that in diplomacy/foreign policy you sometimes have to lie. But you only lie when you're not likely to be found out and it doesn't undermine your interests in the long run. Now, if there really are no WMDs, this is stupid lying. The loony left are going to have more fuel to fan the flames of distrust when there might next be a legitimate case to intervene. The US capacity to elicit cooperation from security and military forces in other countries to get rid of Al Qaeda will be diminished.

    All these costs in addition to the problems of governing Iraq which might have been worth the gamble if it really was the case of forestalling an imminent danger - and now it turns out there might not have been any such rationale in reality. If there were other grounds for intervening in Iraq, the US should have made them openly and saved the 'imminent danger' one for when it is truly needed.

    Update 24601 at the Australian Libertarians does a perfect parody of the 'invade Iran' idiots. What is wrong with these people? Why is the American Enterprise Institute publishing such trash?
    Financial innovation and the Third Way
    Alan Wood summarises the very important research by US economist Robert Shiller into the potential for new financial products to manage risk. When people talk about innovation they tend to think about whizz-bang things like broadband but some of the areas of financial innovation that Shiller envisages would, if they got off the ground, reap far more beneficial and wide ranging social changes:

    What Shiller proposes is a series of radical and not-so-radical ideas for risk management that would allow people to protect themselves against loss of their jobs and incomes (livelihood insurance), and the value of their houses against falls caused by economic and social change (home equity insurance), among other things. Such proposals require a lot of work to set up the necessary databases, and marked changes in the attitudes of financial institutions and individuals, as Shiller acknowledges.

    His more radical ideas include vast international markets that trade in macroeconomic aggregates such as the total gross domestic product of countries from the US to Singapore, or indexes of single home prices in New York, Paris or Sydney. He envisages international markets for human capital and occupations, such as markets for medical and scientific professionals and common labour that would facilitate the creation of livelihood insurance policies on every major career and job category.

    All this will democratise finance. "Democratising finance means effectively solving the problems of gratuitous economic inequality, that is, inequality that cannot be justified on rational grounds in terms of differences in effort or talent. Finance can thus be made to address a problem that has motivated utopian or socialist thinkers for centuries," Shiller claims.

    Now one of the things that we have learnt over the years is that, as noble as the ideal of the welfare state is, it hasn't turned out so well in practice. An honest observer of whatever ideology will acknowledge that the conservatives have been partly right - the interaction of elements of taxation and welfare (for instance high effective marginal tax rates) can create demotivating poverty traps. But just as important as high EMTRs is arguably the sense of a lack of ownership of one's own outcomes which socialises the very poor into a learned helplessness. Imagine if these revolutionary financial products that Shiller is talking about are viable. Imagine these can be properly certified and regulated on prudential grounds, and that the governments can create a viable framework of managed competition between providers of these products that properly tradeoffs prudential considerations against proper incentives for responsiveness to consumer demands.

    Then the role of the welfare state could be reduced to one of ensuring that everyone makes some minimum provision for such insurance arrangements and subsidising the purchase of such products by the poor. This isn't just a matter of cutting costs and administrative overheads - it's a matter of creating a sense of ownership by the poor in improving their outcomes (they get the benefit of lower premiums the less reliant they are on their purchased policies) while still ensuring that there is a social safety net in place. Could the disincentives one observes under a welfare state be substantially reduced where there is a sense of private ownership in livelihood insurance (albeit subsidised ownership)? Wouldn't one expect to see the same sorts of incentive improvements here as would be expected if public housing tenants had a chance to buy their own homes?
    Posner's new book
    The ever prolific Richard Posner has a new book out called Law, pragmatism and democracy which will offer lots of food for thought for liberals. Here is the description on Amazon:

    A liberal state is a representative democracy constrained by the rule of law. Richard Posner argues for a conception of the liberal state based on pragmatic theories of government. He views the actions of elected officials as guided by interests rather than by reason and the decisions of judges by discretion rather than by rules. He emphasizes the institutional and material, rather than moral and deliberative, factors in democratic decision making.

    Posner argues that democracy is best viewed as a competition for power by means of regular elections. Citizens should not be expected to play a significant role in making complex public policy regarding, say, taxes or missile defense. The great advantage of democracy is not that it is the rule of the wise or the good but that it enables stability and orderly succession in government and limits the tendency of rulers to enrich or empower themselves to the disadvantage of the public. Posner's theory steers between political theorists' concept of deliberative democracy on the left and economists' public-choice theory on the right. It makes a significant contribution to the theory of democracy--and to the theory of law as well, by showing that the principles that inform Schumpeterian democratic theory also inform the theory and practice of adjudication. The book argues for law and democracy as twin halves of a pragmatic theory of American government.

    It looks like Posner has nailed his colours to the pragmatist mast for good. Greg Ransom has some extremely critical views of the book.

    Monday, June 23, 2003
    Mahathir forgets to take his medicine again:

    One thing you can say about the old man- he always gives good copy:

    The 77-year-old medical doctor, who has attained almost mythical status in this former British colony, predicted Thursday that he would be condemned as a racist, but said he needed to warn his people that the Europeans wanted "to control the world again."

    Spelling it out so there would be no mistaking his racial profiling, he said Europeans included "those who migrated and set up new nations in America, Australia and New Zealand."

    At the same time he insisted: "I am not anti-European. I have many friends and acquaintances who are Europeans.

    "They are very clever, brave and have an insatiable curiosity."

    But "unfortunately they are also very greedy and like to take forcibly the territories and rights of other people." ...

    Mahathir said Europeans also wanted to impose their cultural values on the world, including "unlimited freedom for the individual" and "the practice of free sex including sodomy as a right."

    "Marriage between male and male, between female and female are officially recognised by them. What we call incest is not regarded as serious by them."

    Quick! Someone tell Bill Heffernan and Brent 'Bozo' Bozell
    Stan Lee vs JK Rowling
    Jenny Bristow doesn't seem to like Harry Potter:

    For all the original artificial hype of Potter's literary qualities, it is self-evident that their readability, not their quality, is what made them popular with children. Yet while Enid Blyton was actively resisted by school libraries in the past, on the grounds that it might distract from the better quality stuff, Rowling's equivalent has all but formed the basis of English exams.

    In recent years, it seems that our expectations of children, and of the books that they should read, have plummeted: so much so that when the last Potter book was published three years ago, many even complained that it was too long for Rowling's young fans ..

    It's not just about children. An even more unsettling development in early Potter-mania was the way Rowling's books took off among adults - not just parents reading them for the sake of their kids, but young professionals reading the books for their own sake. It was this that prompted Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury, to produce distinct 'adult' editions with grown-up covers.

    Sales of these editions have been lower than the children's editions - although a startling proportion of young adults happily confesses to reading the books. Presumably anybody who is not embarrassed to read a children's book in public is not going to feel humiliated by a children's book jacket. In fact, the nature of our times means that aspiring to the infantile is positively cool ...

    The latest instalment of Potter-mania, however, has taken our cultural infantilism to a new low. Having grudgingly accepted that the books' appeal is probably due to something other than their literary merits, there is an earnest attempt to distil their unique qualities or failings in terms of the moral and social values that they promote. This gets closer to the point - but not for the reasons that commentators suggest ...

    But the fact is, we do live in a morally confused world - and the mass escapism to Potter-dom only highlights the depths of this confusion. In order to promote such virtues, Rowling has to locate her novels in a society that is morally black-and-white; where there are few dilemmas, only right and wrong choices. It all makes for a rollicking read, but how such values translate to the more complicated Muggle-world that Potter's readers inhabit is anybody's guess.

    Here! Here! I agree completely, and am probably more annoyed by the rash of adults who claim to find it intellectually fulfilling to read such tripe of the kind I hated even as a child. Whatever floats your boat.

    When I was a child I found the whole idea of 'children's literature' a bit demeaning. My parents read Grimm's Fairy Tales to me when I was 4 or 5, and I went through a phase around age 11 when I was into Hardy Boys mysteries, but aside from that, I never much enjoyed children's literature even as a child. I remember most of my book reading as consisting of RL Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott (especially into that whole knights and outlaws stuff), Tales of the Monkey God and other such Chinese classics (although translated into English), Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, and then much later science fiction.

    My first introduction to reading was actually Marvel comic books from ages 5 to 9. I found DC comic books at the time more childish and preferred Marvel - Marvel had Spiderman (my favourite) who was struggling with his moral dilemmas and teenage anxieties, DC had Superman who was from another planet and just knew what his duty was. Marvel comics covered a lot of themes - moral dilemmas (a lot of its superheroes were reluctant heroes or even anti-heroes of a kind e.g. Incredible Hulk and they weren't shy about the fact that a lot of their heroes were engaged in possibly illegal vigiltanism), scientific ethics (a lot of their heroes gained powers from ill-done scientific experiments involving nuclear energy), the plight of the handicapped and excluded (their hero Daredevil was blind; another bunch of heroes - Cloak and Dagger were ex-junkies), questions about the morality of retribution and so on. For all the trashing that comic books have received there is probably more subtlety, ambiguity and good literary art in them than in most silly children's books - they had some pretty brilliant writers then (I haven't followed the comic books scene since then, it's changed a lot, DC comics are now a lot darker and so on). I was so inspired that I wrote and illustrated my first comic book (based on the Battlestar Galactica TV series) at 5 and until age 10 or so my ambition was to be a comic book creator. Now that's educational.

    Sunday, June 22, 2003
    Public intellectuals and blogging
    Lefty intellectual blogger Tim Dunlop has written a paper for the Evatt Foundation on public intellectuals and blogging . It's well worth a read and I'm not just saying that because Tim has very kind things to say about this blog.
    Demolishing the Nanny State

    (this article was originally published on the now defucnt LF Times web site. It is republished here as LF Times had a policy that permitted republication once an article had moved from the current edition to archive edition. Since the site is now offline I thought it might be interesting to republish some of the articles written during the period LF Times was around. This article is from the later half of 2001. p.s. - links at the end of this article may no longer all work.)

    Hollywood action movies aren't the place you would typically expect to find libertarian messages being passed on. But the movie Demolition Man, whilst not overtly libertarian, is an interesting look at how anti-authoritarian messages do sometimes slip into mainstream cinema.

    Let's get something straight from the start though. Demolition Man isn't a great movie. For instance, the main plot is relatively simple. It begins in 1996 (the film is (c) 1993) , with the one-man police force of John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) being sent in to rescue a group of hostages from the L.A. hideout of the criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). Predictably, for this is the start of the movie, the rescue goes wrong. The hostages are found dead in the wreckage of Phoenix's hideout and so both Spartan and Phoenix are sent to cryo-prison. Flash forward to the 21st century. Phoenix makes a miraculous escape from prison during his parole hearing and flees into the peacenik world of San Angeles. Of course the 21st century cops aren't cut out for catching Phoenix and so unfreeze Spartan to bring him to justice. This being your typical Hollywood action movie, it is fairly obvious that the ever escalating series of gun battles and fight scenes is going to culminate in a showdown between the good guys , Spartan and his sidekick Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), and the assorted terrorists who Phoenix reanimates to help him take over San Angeles.

    Along the way however, Demolition Man questions and pokes fun at the Nanny-state of 21st century San Angeles. And what a Nanny-state the 21st century has become.
    Speech is tightly controlled. A 'verbal morality code' is enforced by a citywide network of microphones and fine dispensing machines. Don't say 'crap', don't say 'god-damn' and certainly don't say 'fuck' - or you'll land a fine, even in the privacy of your own home. One of the movie's more humorous moments is Spartan letting fly with a string of obscenities in order to produce a wad of fines for use as toilet paper.

    Then there is the nanny state intrusion into what people can eat. The defacto ruler of San Angeles, the "benevolent Dr Cocteau " (Nigel Hawthorne) has declared off limits anything which is deemed unhealthy. Meat, alcohol, caffeine - all have been deemed 'bad' and therefore illegal. When Spartan ventures into the subterranean world occupied by those who have rebelled against the nanny-state , one of his first acts is to enjoy the delight of a rat-burger and home brewed beer.

    The whole system is of course overseen by a massive network of eavesdropping devices and privacy invading cameras. When the police want to see the destruction caused by Phoenix during his escape, they zoom to a camera in the cryo-prison to watch the dying moments of the former warden. The impression the viewer is left with is that these cameras are so pervasive that individual privacy has almost ceased to exist in San Angeles..

    The world of San Angeles is the nanny-state taken to extremes. It is so clearly an overblown parody of the nanny-state culture that it is tempting to simply dismiss it as a fanciful joke. But a simple search of the net and a scouring of recent news headlines suggests perhaps San Angeles, if not just around the corner, isn't that much further down the street.
    Free speech it seems, is under almost daily attack. After threats of regulation and censorship by the Federal Trade Commission, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is tightening up its own 'self-regulatory' code to "ensure the industry follows marketing guidelines to avoid discs with violent and lewd lyrics being sold to children." (Zeidler) Not wanting to be left out of the effort to sanitize society, the Federal Communications Commission has issued new guidelines on what it will tolerate on television and radio. Occasional profanity is apparently 'ok' , but Howard Stern talking "about lesbians, his genitalia and animal sex" (Taylor) is unacceptable. Across the USA, and increasingly across the globe, college 'speech codes' stifle the free speech of students and academics alike. Meanwhile in Australia, the Victorian state government has put forward laws to jail or fine those found guilty of taunting others on racial or religious grounds. The "be well" verbal morality code of San Angeles is perhaps not as far-fetched as it first seems.

    But surely the government isn't going to dictate what we can and can't eat? Oh isn't it? That depends on to what extent the Bush administration and other governments hear out the various do-gooders concerned about our health. At the 'Center for Science in the Public Interest' (CSPI) for example, the call has gone out for all levels of government to increase the tax on foods 'high in calories, fat or sugar'. In an editorial in The Boston Globe, Derrick Z. Jackson criticizes the concept of tax breaks for the heath conscious.
    "Rip soda machines out of the schools. Ban soda sponsorships of sports programs." cries out Jackson. "Ban candy racks at checkout counters at supermarkets, and levy taxes on grocers who give more space to snacks than vegetables."

    Caffeine has also come under attack by the food do-gooders. Tim Gannon, (Executive vice president of Outback Steakhouses Inc) has pointed out in an editorial in The Baltimore Sun that the "new wars on caffeine and fat are mirror images of the anti-tobacco crusade." According to Gannon "There is no doubting the coercive nature of this crusade." The food-nannies want the government to become the food police. Of course, it's all for our own good and that of our children.

    The ever-present surveillance of San Angeles is perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the 21st century world portrayed in Demolition Man. Yet in this respect we are perhaps closer to San Angeles than most of us realise, or would care to imagine. A recent article on security cameras in schools (Hetzner) noted that despite objections by the ACLU and a walkout of students at one high school, the schools district went ahead with a plan to install up to 20 cameras at the school. At Arrowhead High School, despite early objections "students have grown to accept them [cameras]" (Hetzner).

    It is this growing acceptance of surveillance which is as disturbing as the growth in the technology itself. Security and surveillance cameras are now such a common part of our everyday lives that many people no longer notice their intrusion and appear untroubled as more cameras invade our public and private spaces. Buses, trains, train-stations, malls, public streets, schools and college campuses, even our workplaces. At present, such surveillance is carried out by individuals organizations. But as the ability to transfer larger and larger amount of data via networks grows - the possibility of governments and the police linking these disparate systems together into an integrated snooping network will also grow.


    The nanny-state of San Angeles portrayed in Demolition Man is in some ways still a bit off, but in others, closer than we think. Free speech, at least in the USA, continues to enjoy constitutional protection, and may therefore yet prove resilient to 'verbal morality codes'. When it comes to food and security cameras however, it seems that the government and nanny-state interest groups have gained the initiative and appear set to lead us down the path to San Angeles. We might not be able to demolish the nanny-state with the pyrotechnic style of John Spartan, but we must at least do something. In the end, it is up to each of us to come up with own way of saying 'Pass the beer and rat-burger'.

    Further Reading & Sources
    'After cigarettes, get ready for the attack on fat and coffee', Tim Gannon, 8 September 1998, The Baltimore Sun Online, Available:

    'Am I on Campus Camera', Amy Hetzner, 28 May 2001, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, Available:

    'FCC offers broadcasters guidelines to avoid on-air indecency' Phillip Taylor,, Available:

    'Liberals discuss Government's proposed vilification bill' 5 June 2001, The Age Online, Available:

    'More Absurd Fat Tax Proposals' The Guest Choice Network, Available:

    'Recording industry forms task force', Sue Zeidler, Excite.News, Available:

    'This Tax Proposal is Full of Flab', Derrick Z. Jackson, The Boston Globe, Available:




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