The policy ratchet and the erosion of civil liberties

by John Quiggin on May 21, 2010

Apropos of recent proposals to stop giving Miranda warnings to terrorism suspects, Glenn Greenwald observes[1]

, the reaction is still exactly the same to every Terrorist attack, whether a success or failure, large- or small-scale. Apparently, 8 years of the Bush assault on basic liberties was insufficient; there are still many remaining rights in need of severe abridgment. Even now, every new attempted attack causes the Government to devise a new proposal for increasing its own powers still further and reducing rights even more, while the media cheer it on. It never goes in the other direction.
This kind of policy “ratchet” is quite common, but I haven’t seen a fully satisfactory, or general, analysis of either the metaphor or the phenomenon.

The crucial feature of a ratchet is that, at any time, the mechanism is a locally stable equilibrium, which can be shifted in one direction, with a moderate energy input, but can’t be shifted the other way without breaking the mechanism.

The metaphor hasn’t been used in political discussion as much as I would have expected. The most notable example is that of Huber and Stephens who apply it to social democratic reforms, with the idea that welfare state measures, once implemented are too popular to repeal. Certainly, the welfare state has proved far more resilient, through decades of market liberal dominance, than might have been expected, and the passage of Obama’s health plan suggests the possibility of further movement. But equally, the regular upward movement implied by the metaphor ended some decades ago.

One aspect of the policy ratchet that isn’t quite as clear to me is that, for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement. The success of the social democratic policy ratchet depends on general acceptance of a policy ideal that could be described as the end of poverty.

So, how does all this apply in the case of the erosion of the US constitution? The operation of the ratchet mechanism is clear enough. But what is the end state? And will the process be stopped before it gets there? The constitutional theories put forward by John Yoo and others, along with general conservative criticism of “judicial activism”, provide a pretty clear answer to the first of these questions. That is, the end state is an expansion of police powers in general, sufficient to ensure that anyone who is, in the police view of the matter, definitely guilty, can be convicted with no concern about “legal technicalities”, combined with an essentially unlimited presidential power to override the law in the interests of national security.

The critical test might come when the new rules are applied (or not) to white Christianist terrorists like the Hutaree. [1] . This could happen either because such a group mounts an actual attack, or because the state decides (as it could have done, but hasn’t so far in the Hutaree case) to use its full powers against a group that is planning, or maybe just talking about, something like this. At this point, the number of people potentially affected by the next upward ratchet would suddenly become much larger – the militia movement, for example, and then the more rhetorically bloodthirsty elements of the Tea Party crowd. Or, more plausibly perhaps, a Tea Party government could project its fantasies on to its opponents and use the powers inherited from Obama against Democrats.

That sounds apocalyptic, so presumably the ratchet will stop at some point before this. But where is the political force that will stop it?

fn1. It’s striking, as Greenwald has pointed out quite a few times, that this ratchet effect seems to be confined to the US. Other countries have restricted civil liberties in various ways, but there has been nothing like the continuous pressure seen in the US, and there have been notable steps in the opposite direction (in Australia, for example, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 removes some of the most objectionable features of anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2005, as well as repealing sedition laws that were seen, until recently, as dead letters). By contrast, Obama’s one big announced measure, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, has gone nowhere.

fn2. Assuming for the sake of argument that the government’s case is factually correct, there’s no doubt that their alleged actions constitute terrorism)

{ 67 comments }

1

Barry 05.21.10 at 11:06 am

Aside from switching to driving in the middle of the post, I feel that the following sentence is problematic:

“One aspect of the policy ratchet that isn’t quite as clear to me is that, for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement.”

It really just takes a majority elite view that moving in a certain direction is desirable. Factions within that elite can have different desired end states – from ‘just a little more’, or ‘do what’s needed in this cause’ [e.g. Alan Derschowitz turning out to be a torture supporter in the cause of Israel], all the way to the full Yoo.

2

Barry 05.21.10 at 11:09 am

As for the power of the ratchet in the USA, I’d place the cause as empire – the ratchet serves the empire, in that domestic policies become more similar to foreign policies.

3

John Quiggin 05.21.10 at 11:28 am

@1 Fixed the stray bit of the driving example (left from an earlier draft).

To defend my formulation, people who want “just a little bit more” ought to be cautious in the presence of a policy ratchet, since there is no remedy if they get too much more. Of course, that assumes a degree of rationality that may be absent.

4

Dan 05.21.10 at 11:28 am

Although its main focus is the growth in the size of government (and not the gradual erosion of civil liberties) Robert Higgs’ book Crisis and Leviathan contains the single best general analysis and explanation of the ratchet effect that I’ve ever seen.

5

Marc 05.21.10 at 1:03 pm

I think that the analogy is badly misplaced in the case of the USA. We have had drastic episodes of political repression in the past – McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Palmer raids in 1919-1920. They have always led to counter-reactions. Anxieties about crime fueled a lot of civil liberties restrictions in the service of the War on Drugs; plunging crime rates are changing the dynamics, and we’re seeing a re-thinking of our policies on things like prison sentences. And we have the real prospect of legalization of pot in California; in much of the US there is de facto legalization via the medical marijuana movement.

I get annoyed by people like Greenwald because they don’t bring in any historical context at all. They didn’t learn about our history of panics about anarchists, Bolsheviks, communist threats, and so on. They didn’t pay attention to the drastic *reduction* in government powers in the 1970s as a reaction to Watergate. History started with the Internet for a lot of these folks.

6

Dennis 05.21.10 at 1:38 pm

I think “elite consensus” is actually the last thing that comes to mind here. If you assume, I think reasonably, that policy in its natural state fluctuates a little in either direction about the status quo, the key feature of a policy ratchet isn’t that elites want a move in the direction it goes — it’s that low information voters resist (or can be made to resist) moves in the opposite direction. US drug policy, the US welfare state, and US national security spending have all existed in this position for a long time and the reason isn’t that most elites on both sides agree, it’s “soft on drugs, soft on defense, they’ll cut your medicare” all the way.

7

chris 05.21.10 at 1:46 pm

That sounds apocalyptic, so presumably the ratchet will stop at some point before this.

It can’t happen here? That doesn’t just sound apocalyptic, it sounds like the actual history of some other countries.

The end state is a police state. Whether we will stop short of that, I would like to know.

The counterforce is our traditional reverence for freedom as an ideal, and people who draw analogies between the witch hunts of the present and the generally discredited witch hunts of the past (e.g. _The Crucible_). Edward R. Murrow has been quoted a lot in the last 9 years.

ISTM that the point of no return comes when opposition parties are violently suppressed and/or elections cancelled so that the ruling party cannot be voted out of power. We haven’t reached that point yet in the U.S.

8

Hogan 05.21.10 at 1:52 pm

The success of the social democratic policy ratchet depends on general acceptance of a policy ideal that could be described as the end of poverty.

Similarly, the policy ideal of the civil liberties ratchet may be the end of Islamic terror attacks, or recreational drug use, or urban riots, or whatever the criminal bete noire du jour happens to be.

9

politicalfootball 05.21.10 at 2:08 pm

They have always led to counter-reactions.

Such a counter-reaction took place in the election of Obama, yet the policy hasn’t appreciably changed, certainly not for the better. Greenwald is right to be alarmed.

I get annoyed by people like Greenwald because they don’t bring in any historical context at all.

It is true that a lot of appalling things have been done by the United States government. It’s also true that when those appalling things were stopped, they were stopped by people with attitudes like Greenwald’s, and not by the folks who wanted to make sure abuses were kept in their proper historical context.

10

cbisquit 05.21.10 at 2:22 pm

Not that the content of the argument is necessarily agreeable, but Robin Hanson made an extremely similar point about political ratchets (those in regulation) just the other day
http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/05/regulation-ratchet.html

11

Doctor Science 05.21.10 at 2:29 pm

for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement

I don’t see that *at all*. It seems to me rather that, for the people implementing the ratchet, there needs to be pressure in the direction of the ratchet movement but none in reverse. No-one needs to be thinking of the policy or end-state, it’s just a matter of “what works for you” being unidirectional. In fact, the less anyone is thinking about the end state, the better.

For instance, Sebastian posted at Obsidian Wings last month about not understanding why, under Obama, we are still using sensory deprivation during transport of the Gitmo prisoners. In comments, Turbulence explained:

My guess is that the Navy as an institution is structurally incapable of dealing with security rationally. Every officer that runs any part of Gitmo has nothing to lose by erecting more and more pointless security rules, even if they make no sense. But any officer that decides “this policy makes no sense — let’s scrap it”, will have his career ruined in the unlikely event that somehow, someway, a detainee manages to take advantage of a security restriction he removed. More to the point, if any detainee ever does anything bad, there’s a chance blame will fall on the last officer to push for reduced security, even if it isn’t their fault. So officers have no incentive to ever reduce down security restrictions, but occasionally crazy paranoid officers ratchet them up.

To keep with the ratchet metaphor, the problem isn’t in the way pressure is applied, it’s about the structure of the teeth.

12

ajay 05.21.10 at 2:29 pm

the key feature of a policy ratchet isn’t that elites want a move in the direction it goes—it’s that low information voters resist (or can be made to resist) moves in the opposite direction.

I’d say this is a very good point. Look at policy areas where there isn’t a ratchet like, say, VAT rates. They can be raised a bit and then lowered again if it turns out they’re too high. The point about the ratchet is that, if a policy wobbles too far one way in the heat of the moment, there’s no way to bring it back once the heat’s died down.
In a way, the point about a ratchet is that there is an absence of consensus about what the desired end state is, or even which direction it’s in, but policy’s going to keep going in one direction only anyway.

A good example of a ratchet might be the Vietnam war in the 1960s: there certainly wasn’t an elite consensus in the US in 1959 that what Vietnam needed was half a million US troops. But there was a ratchet effect – if things weren’t going well, you could escalate in the hope that they might go better, but if that didn’t work you couldn’t then de-escalate again without being accused of running away from a fight.
People tended to talk about it as a quagmire (easy to get into, not to get out of) but I think the ratchet metaphor works quite well.

13

akatsuki 05.21.10 at 2:43 pm

for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement

Why? Also it seems more to be a faceless mechanism driven by fear of the masses and pandering by the “elites”. Combined with typical power-hunger.

14

alex 05.21.10 at 2:43 pm

Self-interested cowardice about one’s own position and a callous willingness to let bad things happen to people you don’t care about/might be afraid of go a long way in explaining most of this. Finding people who have moral courage and the willingness to give a damn about total strangers is what will bring a political culture back from the brink. And, as it has happened, so it will happen again and again. People can be made ashamed of their cowardice and contempt for human dignity, but it takes hard work. And, I suspect, with the internet creating ever-wider and more rapid circles of reinforcement for groupthink and moral panic, that work is geting harder all the time.

15

piglet 05.21.10 at 2:46 pm

I think the observation in 11 is to the point. There simply is no incentive to those who have the power to do so to ever repeal any rule that is vaguely associated with security. Security has a “more is better” appeal. It is not, of course, required that the rule in question is actually effective in improving security (it usually isn’t). All that is required is that enough people believe it is. It is an interesting question whether the movement against civil liberties emanates more from elite power hunger or from mass panic. Reasonable arguments can be made both ways, I think, but in most cases probably both reinforce each other. In the US as in other countries, “the people” do not hold their rights very dear and are usually more than willing to agree to increased police power. Of course they also believe that these powers will never be used against themselves, only against dark-skinned islamic others.

16

Dennis 05.21.10 at 3:16 pm

In a way, the point about a ratchet is that there is an absence of consensus about what the desired end state is, or even which direction it’s in, but policy’s going to keep going in one direction only anyway.

Ajay: also a good point — ratchets develop in areas where there is a lack of elite consensus on what levels should be that could stop political forces pushing in only one direction. This is in some sense the primary good use of bipartisanship.

I would add at this point taxes in the US to the list of ratcheting policies. Tax raises have been made incredibly difficult, but nobody who wants lower taxes cares to specify what the “right” level would be — just “less.” Certainly there are people (see Grover Norquist) working very hard to make sure this ratchet stays fixed and what you see them doing is mostly pressuring elites, which they wouldn’t need to do if there were truly a consensus on levels.

17

alex 05.21.10 at 3:21 pm

“dark-skinned islamic others.” Or seven-year-old African-American girls.

18

Marc 05.21.10 at 3:39 pm

The claim that the US has a ratchet, always in the direction of more government power and erosion of civil liberties, is demonstrably wrong as a matter of fact. That’s what is so annoying about this discussion – it is premised on a falsehood. For example, look at the legal changes – major ones – from the investigation of the Church committee (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Committee).

I’m not disagreeing on the serious current erosion of civil liberties in the USA; I’m noting that this is part of a historical back and forth and that we can actually learn from the past on tactics that were, you know, actually effective in inducing change. Self-righteous posturing doesn’t work. Making enemies out of friends doesn’t work (hello Greenwald!) Forming coalitions helps. Highlighting excesses, and making people aware that “good folks” can suffer from the police state, is essential.

19

Sebastian 05.21.10 at 3:53 pm

“One aspect of the policy ratchet that isn’t quite as clear to me is that, for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement.”

Especially in security issues, I don’t have any idea why this statement should be true. Or if it is true, it is for a vague and impossible end state like “we will be secure” or “people will stop trying to alter their minds” or “the feeling of relative poverty will be eradicated”. The desired end state doesn’t have to be rational or likely. It is more of an emotional appeal than anything.

I’m also not sure there has to even be an elite majority view. What you need is a few key decision makers (they probably don’t even need to be high level) with particular incentives and very few key decision makers who have incentives to put political capital up to resist.

If polled, I suspect that a very large majority of the political elite would say that the sensory deprivation at Gitmo was silly. But the key decision-makers at Gitmo are extremely risk averse, so once new ‘security’ measures are in place there is almost no way that they are going to reverse them. No one else in the political world has enough invested in it to reverse it so it ratchets.

In this sense it shares many of the characteristics of a public choice problem except that the dynamics take place almost entirely within the government. Like farm subsidies, you have a very small group that has strong political incentives to act one way, and while the steps are negative sum for the country, the incentive to resist any particular step doesn’t exist for the population as a whole.

Or to borrow from another branch of economics, this is about externalizing costs. The benefits of security are touted (and probably over-marketed) while the costs are minimized and paid for by ‘other’ people.

What you seem to be suggesting with your Christian terrorist example is that at some point the ‘other’ people group may become too large and we will see resistance. That might be true, but it might not be pretty.

Another feature of analyzing it as a public choice problem paired with externalities is that it resolves the problem alluded to of whether or not it is risk aversion or power-hungy action. It is probably both. Risk aversion pushes some small step further, and the power lust of enough politicians saps political will among some of the elite to bother reversing it (they feel that they want to keep the power available ‘just in case’ and they can be trusted not to misuse it). Risk aversion among other politicians makes reversing the beauracrat unlikely–the poltical upside is low and the downside while remote is very high.

20

Rich Puchalsky 05.21.10 at 4:05 pm

“Making enemies out of friends doesn’t work (hello Greenwald!)”

I wholly don’t see the point of this comment by Marc. If you believe, as Marc claims, that there is a historical back and forth and no automatic ratchet, then the really striking thing about Obama’s term is that he not only continued Bush policies, he expanded them. Even Bush didn’t claim a Presidential right to assassinate at will. Obama is not “a friend” on these issues. The delusion that he is appears to me to be the primary reason why there hasn’t been any effective pushback so far.

21

Kaveh 05.21.10 at 4:06 pm

The critical test might come when the new rules are applied (or not) to white Christianist terrorists like the Hutaree. [1]

I don’t think this will make much of a difference. While some white Christians might experience a loss in civil liberties, that loss won’t amount to the same thing as being part of a visible minority and having your civil liberties curtailed. In the latter case, simply being a member of the minority is a reason for people to assume you are guilty, so you have a greater need for civil liberties than you would otherwise. Even if white people are affected by the loss of civil liberties, most white people have no reason to fear being selectively targeted, so the loss won’t matter as much.

22

ajay 05.21.10 at 4:16 pm

Even Bush didn’t claim a Presidential right to assassinate at will.

He did, however, assassinate at will by means of Predator strikes. This started in 2002, with the killing in Yemen of Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi. Obama’s been doing a lot more of this sort of thing but he didn’t invent it.

23

Glen Tomkins 05.21.10 at 4:22 pm

@Marc

Of course you’re right about the current trend towards a police state being temporary. The law of gravity hasn’t been abolished, and what goes up, must still come down. So, yes, the present US excursion in the direction of a police state will indeed end at some point.

What has the rest of us worried is that that end point may look like the point at which the Third Reich ended. It didn’t last the expected thousand years, either. It too came crashing down as its drive for rigid and complete internal consistency made it incapable of dealing realistically and competently with the outside world.

What has us worried is that the forces internal to our political system that in the past acted to limit these forays towards extreme and abusive statism so that they reached a reversal at some point well short of the sort of total failure and defeat that will end every sublunary empire eventually, seem to have failed us. Your recitation of past reversals doesn’t refute our concern, it heightens it, precisely because a mild, internal, reversal such as those you remind us of from the past, doesn’t appear on the horizon.

We don’t see a latter-day Church Committee taking shape. Instead we see every political tendency embrace more extreme measures of “security”. We don’t see that the wild swing towards a police state assocoated with the GWOT has generated any of the political pushback we saw after the hysteria associated with Lincoln’s assassination, or after the Palmer Raids, or after the White House Horrors of the Nixon era. That’s exactly the ratchet effect, the one-way, asymmetrical nature of this latest swing towards a police state, that is of concern.

Where are the internal constraints, the pushback from within our political system that can alone reverse this drive towards a police state before it becomes so malignant as to bring down our government at the hands of external forces, going to come from?

24

Malaclypse 05.21.10 at 4:35 pm

The other area that the ratchet seems operative in the US is taxes. Ask a US conservative if it is even theoretically possible for taxes to be too low, given how much they have been cut since the 1960s.

Where are the internal constraints, the pushback from within our political system that can alone reverse this drive towards a police state before it becomes so malignant as to bring down our government at the hands of external forces, going to come from?

I’d argue that the pushback on Arizona is a source of encouragement.

25

T. Paine 05.21.10 at 4:39 pm

The delusion that he is appears to me to be the primary reason why there hasn’t been any effective pushback so far.

This is one of the enduring mysteries of the Obama Administration (that I voted for). I venture that it is because Bush combined empire abroad with utter incompetence and venality at home (Katrina, gutting the regulatory state, etc.) while Obama is competent at home while expanding empire abroad. He’s playing “all politics is local” on the national scale: It appears as though rat feces will once again be kept out of the food supply and the domestic civil rights laws will once again be exercised (however imperfectly) on behalf of the historically disadvantaged, even the banksters are getting hammered. The message, broadly, to the great White American middle class voter is “everything is ok, we are making the system run smooth again.” In the face of that, other than a few ideologues and professional civil libertarians, it’s not much of a surprise that the body politic doesn’t care that some crazy Islamicist with a weird beard and angry speeches is the target of assassination (despite his citizenship).

26

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.21.10 at 4:54 pm

Is it anything like the sunk cost fallacy?

27

Clod Levi-Strauss 05.21.10 at 4:56 pm

“The crucial feature of a ratchet is that, at any time, the mechanism is a locally stable equilibrium, which can be shifted in one direction, with a moderate energy input, but can’t be shifted the other way without breaking the mechanism.”

That mechanism you describe fits more with prices going up faster than down or taxes going down faster than up, or the drift of policy to the right over the last 40 years, though it doesn’t describe the origin. In this instance the engine is simple fear. Strange that you make no mention of emotion. The question becomes how people become united in fear.

The ground is set for the weakening of freedoms by the redefinition of democracy, from a society of multiple competing and conflicting interests to a single unifying one. An “open society” defined only by individual economic interests is less open than one defined both by individual and collective choices, economic and otherwise. The streamlining of social life towards one function leads to a sense that threats to that function are threats to society itself. If openness is the logically best defense of a free society [the response to bad speech is more speech: first amendment near-absolutism etc.] The logically best defense for a streamlined functionalist society is to put up barriers. If “progress” is the most important thing than “progress” takes priority over openness. A people united in one way are easily united in another, in this case fear.

Read Tony Judt on Robert Reich. “Change happened.” Beware the passive voice and passive observation. Reason alone can make nation of adults into a nation of children.

28

Marc 05.21.10 at 4:58 pm

Well, the point I’m raising is that you have to understand the prior context to develop a solution. A part of the problem is that there are distinct classes of erosions of civil liberties:

1) Police state powers related to crime. The poster child is probably the steady increase in police power related to the war on drugs. But extensive UK-style video surveillance is a bad trend too.

2) Security theatre, e.g. the pointless and degrading air travel rituals now in place and steadily being expanded.

3) Panic about terrorism and the resulting abuses: torture, indefinite detainment, and the like.

I think that the prospects for reversals on the first two fronts are actually good. Things like videos of thuggish police drug raids drain public support, and initiatives relaxing drug laws are a growing trend. The key is to emphasize that these laws don’t just target “the other”, they target “normal folks like you”. On the second level I think that we’re poised for a strong counter-reaction, because everyone hates the security theatre and the elites are inconvenienced more than most. Abuses of the full body scanners, which are as predictable as sunrise and sunset, will likely be the spark.

The third class is what I *think* much of the conversation is about, and that is tougher. Part of the problem is that the opposition party has gone nuts. Remember, Obama came into office closing Gitmo, advocating regular trials, and renouncing torture. And he got badly bloodied for doing so – we witness the sickening spectacle of republicans fantasizing about torturing every suspect we catch. They’d probably prefer it to be done on live TV. Add in the natural tendency of leaders to accumulate power for themselves (because they are good of heart and will use such power properly)…and you get where we are.

So a part of the solution is to focus on the actual problem – you know, the crazy torture enthusiasts. I’m honestly at a loss as to how we can do better when we have a torture-loving opposition urging the president to take more power. The only good historical example would be strong evidence that police state tactics were being used against political foes or sympathetic victims – which would lead to reforms, e.g. Watergate.

29

Omega Centauri 05.21.10 at 4:59 pm

I don’t really think it has much to do with a consensus of elite opinion. It is more the case of asymmetries as seized upon by opportunistic political forces. And the low information voter is a key to these asymmetries. As is a cowed press who fears loss of market should they choose to go against the grain of popular opinion. Like Glen above, I’m not so reassured by the past reversals. If we cast our historical net wider, we can find examples where the ratchet only ended catastrophically. And closer to home we have a very large prisoner population whose growth was feed primarily by the ratchet effect applied to substance abuse.

If you posit that a brave free press is instrumental in bringing about the popular change of heart, then the conjunction of the strong ratchet, and the destruction of the traditional press business model is not a coincidence. Rather the pressures from the imploding of the journalistic buisness model, feed into the lack of courage needed to counter the trend. The huge changes in the way the public information and opinion making sphere functions brought about by the internet may mean that past system behavior is no longer a good quide to future system behavior.

30

Uncle Kvetch 05.21.10 at 5:03 pm

The message, broadly, to the great White American middle class voter is “everything is ok, we are making the system run smooth again.”

I used to think it was a little too pat to think of US politics as essentially a case of Life Imitating Python — a Sensible Party and a Silly Party. But it’s the best description of the state of affairs at the moment that I can think of.

The broad policy outlines are increasingly indistinguishable, and more and more it’s simply a question of whether you prefer your crumbling empire seasoned with bland, technocratic competence or gut-level faux-populism.

31

Jim Harrison 05.21.10 at 5:04 pm

Elites in the United States and elsewhere have come to view human rights and legality itself as a series of archaic constraints on bureaucratic rationality. Reading Supreme Court decisions I’m frequently struck by the poorly concealed irritation of justices obliged to finesse the inconvenient provisions in the Bill of Rights. How many jurists and administrators would favor introducing the protections in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments if they were proposed for the first time now?

The restoring force that would turn the ratchet into a pendulum is a living belief that justice is as important as administration. That’s what’s missing.

32

Pat 05.21.10 at 5:19 pm

You get stability in a system from negative feedback. So the question is, what are the possible feedback mechanisms?

We get a lot of our protection from law enforcement abuse from personal responsibility. E.g., there’s an inquiry every time a policeman fires his weapon, let alone shoots someone. Conversely, you see a greater willingness of anonymized riot squads to beat on people.

Thus I guess I’m primarily worried that this trend of absolving everyone involved, either before or after, of any responsibility. As was argued during the torture debates, if you’re in the ticking time bomb scenario and you feel the only recourse is to torture, do so, but you have to defend yourself afterward.

Now that I think of it, out of context, this plea for personal responsibility sounds like orthodox conservatism. I guess the difference is I’m looking for responsibility from those given power by the state rather than the powerless.

For other abuses, like the NSA rooms in the telco switching facilities, I don’t really know. Maybe it has to affect the elites?

33

Glen Tomkins 05.21.10 at 5:41 pm

Mechanical causes

Stating the problem of our recent drive towards a police state as if it were a problem of a defective mechanism, somehow one of the gears has developed a ratchet effect, seems to me helpful only at demonstrating that we need to look beyond the formal mechanism to understand what is happening.

The formal mechanisms of our politics were designed to keep any one tendency from carrying all before it in any unimpeded drive in any particualr direction. And the way that design has evolved, some would say devolved, has, if anything, tended towards even greater checks and balances in practice than the written Constitution requires. The actual, in practice, mechanism, is even more biased towards no one tendency being able to dominate, than the mechanism prescribed by the written rules.

If we see this one exception, the national security state, or police state, move against that tide, I don’t think we can blame the mechanism. This is the same mechanism that keeps us from moving more than a millimeter without almost perfectly countervailing pushback, in even the most obviously salutary and needful directions, such as towards universal affordable health care. If that same formal system goes a mile in the direction of a police state just from the light impetus presented by the “threat” of the Underpants Bomber, there’s obviously something from outside the formal structure driving that phenomenon, by somehow elevating “security” questions into a different plane.

The problem is that we no longer think of our security, external or internal, as a need for which the formal mechanisms of government apply at all, have any use or place. We haven’t, yet, made a formal break, so the old shibboleths still apply, in theory, and formally, but they have no force in practice.

I don’t think that we’re seeing an actual devolution, a trend, towards a police state, when we see ever more egregious violations of the old, formal standards. We’re just seeing theory catch up with practice. We’re seeing our public discourse become more comfortable with the existing reality of the national security state, not an actual movement in that underlying reality. Insofar as we are seeing formal changes, we’re just seeing an evolution of the expressed ideology that is merely recapitulating the evolutionary course of the underlying reality, much as we can see ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny, and thus the evolution of species, in the natural world.

If you want a bracingly shocking idea of how far we have come in this respect of the role of formal limits on the national security state that we have devolved into, read The Federalist on the national security rationale for a United States (#3). I had never read this work except in lengthy extracts, and so was quite shocked to see the matter presented so baldly by John Jay. The number one, leading, security reason for the seperate states of North America to become one, is not at all so that the resulting Union would be more powerful. No, the whole point of the Union is to put the strongest limitation possible on these states from the unjust wars they would otherwise tend to inflict on the world if not calmed and stabilized by inclusion under a Union. Instead of the one area of governance designed to be untrammeled by checks and balances so as to allow maximum effectiveness against all enemies foreign and domestic, the new Union’s security arrangements were in fact seen as the one area most in need of checks and limitations. The whole point of the Union was to avoid becoming the New Carthage, the Beast we had defeated in 1783.

Why did the Founders hate America? More accurately, why have we let the Union become that which the Founders hated most, an empire whose security apparatus has grown to displace the institutions of representative democracy?

All of the checks and balances of the formal mechanism will inevitably be treated as mere pointless veneer unless and until we abandon the mad project of world domination, and return to the humbler concept of our place in the world in which checks and balances and formal mechanisms of any kind have a point. We’re not going to restore checks and balance until we come around to the radical notion that we are not God’s representatives on Earth, but that we actually need to be checked and balanced.

34

mds 05.21.10 at 6:01 pm

For example, look at the legal changes – major ones – from the investigation of the Church committee

The same Church Committee that was publicly accused of treason at the time. And another President, with an administration containing people who worked for Nixon and Ford, pretty much did what he liked, Church committee changes or no. FISA has since been effectively gutted by bipartisan Congressional consensus. The Executive has asserted the right to ignore oversight of intelligence gathering. There is a movement afoot in Congress to strip US citizenship from terrorism suspects detained on US soil.
Meanwhile, Senator McCarthy is still regarded as a maligned hero by much of the American Right.

See, the problem is, one can have all the committees and commissions one wishes. People can declare “Have you no decency?” as a crushing soundbite. But there is no real punishment for the perpetrators. AG Palmer remained a respected figure after leaving office. Nixon was pardoned, members of his administration moved on to further high political positions, and even those few convicted of crimes are active Republican partisans to this day. Everyone involved in Iran-Contra waltzed off into the sunset without sanction, and one can currently hear Ollie North lecturing us about how much Democrats hate the Constitution and limited government. A perjurer who violated his own oath to the Constitution in order to provide material support to Khomeini’s regime is a conservative hero? Private firms that aided the government in illegal wiretapping have been retroactively immunized from any legal action. And now we must look forward, not back, so no one who violated the law during the previous administration will ever be held accountable, from the proud self-admitted war criminals at the top, to tenured law professor John Yoo. Even Scooter Libby has his sentence commuted. So if laws aren’t enforced, how does a legal backlash ever help restore the previous status quo? It’s just a matter of pushing the envelope more each time.

35

Anthony 05.21.10 at 6:27 pm

Taxes are absolutely not subject to a ratchet effect in the U.S., despite lots of politicians attempting to make it so. Every administration has raised some taxes and lowered others.

There are two main forces acting on tax levels on the U.S.: First, the nearly insatiable appetite for more government programs and more funding for existing programs exhibited by government and its lobbyists. (There is no well-defined end state here, because there will always be problems to be solved by government. The desire isn’t for higher taxes per se, it’s for more government revenue. But there is some political pressure against increasing the budget deficit.) Second, the perception among nearly all taxpayers that at least their own taxes are too high. (This perception does not necessarily have an end state of “my taxes are zero”, as there are plenty of people who would apply political pressure to make their own taxes negative.)

The end result is that taxes are sometimes lowered on broad classes of people who support the current government coalition, and raised on small groups of people who weren’t going to vote for the current leadership anyway, or, alternatively, there’s a big spasm of “tax reform” where everything gets shuffled around and nobody knows if they’re a winner or loser until next April 15.

36

Rich Puchalsky 05.21.10 at 7:16 pm

Marc: “Remember, Obama came into office closing Gitmo, advocating regular trials, and renouncing torture. And he got badly bloodied for doing so – we witness the sickening spectacle of republicans fantasizing about torturing every suspect we catch. “

This comment is nonsensical. Obama did not get bloodied for holding these positions. He held the positions before his election, and then he won his election. Yes, Republicans said he was a bad person for holding these positions, but they also said that he was an Islamofascist Kenyan, to equal effect.

No, let me offer a different description, one that actually conforms to observeable events. Obama held these positions *during the primary*. They were one of the reasons that he won over Clinton. As soon as he got to actual governance, he didn’t just drop them or not care about them, he insisted that he was holding to them while investing direct Presidential effort into continuing or increasing torture, illegal detention, and assassination.

Why did he do this? I don’t know. He certainly didn’t need to. As the Bush years proved, the opposition party can protest all it likes, to no effect. Only political force matters. Obama could have stopped torture etc. and Republicans could have said whatever they liked and it wouldn’t matter. The Tea Party protests are just as ineffective as the anti-war protests were.

But for whatever reason, he’s doing it. Blaming his actions on the Republicans somehow making him do it is stupid. Blaming Greenwald for turning friends into enemies for telling the truth goes beyond stupid.

37

Martin Bento 05.21.10 at 7:51 pm

If we look at how this has actually gone down, it supports the “elite will” model more than the “popular panic” model. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but I think those above who are arguing that this is effectively bottom-up are substantially wrong. Consider:

1) Even the NYT concluded, based on the speed with which it was presented, that the Patriot Act was written and ready to go before September 11th occurred. There were powerful forces in the government who wanted specifically to undermine civil liberties and were waiting for an event like this.
2) Much of what has been done is secret or vastly underpublicized, so it is not the result of public outcry. For all the hooha about Gitmo, it is probably less abusive than the much more shadowy secret prisons that are rarely discussed and whose locations none of us could even name, though there is some evidence that some are in Poland (nice historical resonance there, eh?).
3) Some of this stuff is not actually new, but is being done in a more freehanded way. For example, the US has engaged in ubiquitous surveillance contrary to our own laws for decades: we had our allies do the spying for us and reciprocated for them. This was Echelon and the UK/USA agreement. The big change was establishing an ability to do this independent of our allies. This was due to the covert machinations of elites, not any popular demand.
4) Many of the key figures in the Bush administration had served in previous administrations that had also been hostile to civil liberties.
5) In supporting Obama, the voters were implicitly at least consenting to his stated positions – regular civilian trials, closing of Gitmo, no torture, etc. Obviously, this was not the only thing that determined how people voted, but if the war on civil liberties is actually to be considered a product of popular demand, it has to be important enough to the public to determine how they vote. Otherwise, there is no great pressure. Yet clearly, on such grounds, McCain would have won along with down ticket Republicans, rather than the guy with the loudmouth black nationalist preacher and the hippy terrorist associate from the old days, along with the “soft” Democrats. The majority either supported civil liberties or did not care enough to vote against them. What has happened is that the political elite in the form of Obama has failed to deliver what it had promised.

38

chris 05.21.10 at 7:58 pm

As the Bush years proved, the opposition party can protest all it likes, to no effect.

The 2006 and 2008 wave elections are “no effect”? Or are you going to argue that they had nothing to do with some of Bush’s most controversial policies and the political attacks on those policies? I think that’s going to be a tough position to defend.

Obama could have stopped torture etc. and Republicans could have said whatever they liked and it wouldn’t matter.

The first two parts are probably true; I’m not so sure about the third. And even if I were sure (as you seem to be), that doesn’t prove Obama would be.

It’s probably true that the Republicans are going to attack him anyway and that he should expect that. But those attacks may be more effective at persuading persuadable voters if they run alongside stories about Obama policies that can be plausibly spun into a “soft on terrorists” narrative. So naturally Obama wants to avoid handing more ammunition to his political enemies.

Now, if you think that makes Obama a moral coward, that’s fine. You might even be right. (Certainly the idea that he’s allowing, let alone authorizing, people to be tortured, some of them innocent, in order to preserve his political career and/or influence is repulsive, to say the least.) But acting like he has *no* self-interested reason to try to keep these issues off the national radar and/or avoid making obvious waves is silly.

The Tea Party protests are just as ineffective as the anti-war protests were.

Aside from the fact that the anti-war protests may not have been all that ineffective in the first place (see 2006, 2008 argument above), it seems oddly confident to say this before, at the earliest, the day after Election Day 2012 (or even 2014-2016, to follow through on the analogy). It may well turn out to be right, but it may not, too.

39

Martin Bento 05.21.10 at 8:00 pm

I also endorse Chris’ view that there is no reason to presume that this trend must stop short of “apocalyptic” consequences. Recent world history has seen such trends go “apocalyptic” many times.

40

Anthony 05.21.10 at 8:18 pm

Chris -

Rich Puchalsky is just shorthanding a little too much. As the Bush years (and the Clinton years, and the Reagan years, and the Carter years, and the Nixon years, and the Johnson years, etc.) proved, the opposition can protest all it likes, to no effect on policymaking between elections. It’s only when the government’s supporters protest that there will be effects before the election. (“Protest” can mean worry about alienating too many swing voters.)

41

Pat 05.21.10 at 8:31 pm

And perhaps this is a bit of a digression, but how much of this is ratcheting of each particular policy of the state, and how much of it is a general ratcheting of the power of the executive? For which I suppose the end must be Rome?

I mean, if I became President and suddenly found out I could search through everyone’s phone calls and emails, I might be a little slow about reform too. (And given that google phone will transcribe your voicemail in real time, I assume that’s easily within the realm of possibility.) In other words, I think relying on the personality of the executive is doomed to fail.

The only on check that general ratcheting would seem to be the legislative, which seems to be going through a voluntary ratcheting in the other direction. So as the Last Angry Whig, is there some way to get Congress to reassert its power? Setting it up so egomaniacs run hasn’t seem to work.

42

pdf23ds 05.21.10 at 8:55 pm

It seems obvious to me that the end state of this terrorism-prevention ratchet, at least nominally, is the prevention of all future terrorist attacks (by the evil brown people; white wingnuts need not apply). Obviously, again, this is both unrealistic and bad policy.

Bruce Schneier has brought up repeatedly the phenomenon of security departments in corporate environments getting repeatedly cut because it’s so hard to measure success in the department, since success is the prevention of bad things. How do you know when you’ve secured it enough? There’s no way to tell that the amount of security isn’t correct unless there’s a breach. Of course, in the corporate context this leads to insufficient security, while in the political context it leads to excess security.

43

Phil 05.21.10 at 9:37 pm

It’s striking, as Greenwald has pointed out quite a few times, that this ratchet effect seems to be confined to the US.

I’ve got a lecture on anti-terrorist legislation under Labour which I could let you have for a very reasonable price.

44

Ben Alpers 05.21.10 at 10:36 pm

@Phil – As Greenwald points out today–and despite Chris Bertram’s 1832-related snark–the new government in the UK appears to be making the repeal of Labour’s “anti-terrorist” legislation a major priority. So however grotesque New Labour’s authoritarianism was, it was not a ratchet in the sense being discussed here.

Also: Rich Puchalsky (@35 for the moment….though one never knows whether that will last on CT) has won this thread.

45

pdf23ds 05.22.10 at 5:30 am

As soon as he got to actual governance, he didn’t just drop them or not care about them, he insisted that he was holding to them while investing direct Presidential effort into continuing or increasing torture, illegal detention, and assassination.

Why did he do this? I don’t know.

As I remarked at the time, this Sinfest comic seems (and seemed) quite prescient.

46

Philip 05.22.10 at 7:52 am

Surely as a metaphor one man’s ratchet is just another man’s slippery slope.

47

Phil 05.22.10 at 9:11 am

the new government in the UK appears to be making the repeal of Labour’s “anti-terrorist” legislation a major priority

Well, it’s true (for whatever reason) that Labour has historically been far more spook-friendly than the Tories. On the other hand, the words ‘Tory government’ and ‘expansion of civil liberties’ really don’t go together. What Clegg actually said in his Biggest Reform Evah! speech – which is unlikely to be exceeded by what the government does – was only that they’ll introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorist legislation. When, as a minimum, the ‘information likely to be of use’ clause is repealed, then I’ll concede your point (and open a bottle) – but I’m not holding my breath.

48

Phil 05.22.10 at 9:13 am

Philip – the thing about a slippery slope is that at some unspecified point you lose control completely and descend into the abyss at ever-increasing speed; they’re even worse than ratchets, in other words.

49

Philip 05.22.10 at 10:55 am

Phil, yes but if someone tries hard enough they can climb back up a slippery slope. If you try and change the direction of a ratchet, as JQ says, the whole mechanism breaks, though I’m not sure if that distinction is always intended by people using the metaphors.

The way I see it they both describe a situation in one direction makes it easier to make further changes in that direction and harder for further changes in the opposite direction. With the ratchet it is assumed that the person or institution implementing the change is aware of the ratchet effect it will have, and the writer may or may not see it as a good thing. With a slippery slope the person or institution implementing the change may not be aware of the negative consequences of the change but the writer is.

50

Bart 05.22.10 at 3:23 pm

” for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement”

Is there a ratchet effect with respect to continued lowering of taxes? The desired end state for many would seem to be little or no taxes for anything save defense.

51

Pat 05.22.10 at 4:28 pm

The thing about slippery slopes is you wind up with man-on-dog marriage.

52

Alice de Tocqueville 05.22.10 at 5:44 pm

Having read this whole thread so far, it seems to me that the ‘ratchet’ concept isn’t particularly helpful in discussing real-world political problems; this discussion seems only tangentially related to the real world.

It’s pretty clear that this discussion is being carried on by elites who mostly don’t have to worry about a police state existing here and now. One exception being ‘alex’, who at #17 pointed out the murder of a 7 year-old by over-protected, over-zealous police. No discussion ensued.

An intellectual elite protected from the consequences that befall the masses may not be a bad thing, but I think that the masses being unsullied by erudition is a bad thing.

53

Danielle Day 05.22.10 at 9:36 pm

“2) Security theatre, e.g. the pointless and degrading air travel rituals now in place and steadily being expanded.” Having flown recently, i guess i agree, but what’s the alternative? Israel conducts what is pretty much an extended personal interview with (selected?) travelers. Their flights are as tight as a drum, but imagine the delay, to say nothing of expense, if we go down that road. Our flight was from NY to Orlando. A NYPD officer escorted a rather normal-looking family on the plane, and they were met at the other end by a contingent of (for a change, seemingly competent) TSA personnel and the Orlando cops. We were also subjected to a random TSA frisk at both airports. Everyone who would know was tight-lipped about what was going on (I know: i’m a pest). Shoes off, full-body scans, endless lines… Yes, i’d like to able to have someone say good-bye and meet me at the gate, but those days are gone. I’m open to suggestions.

54

Martin Bento 05.22.10 at 10:23 pm

Alice, I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly protected from any of this. We are looking ahead beyond the “here and now”. That’s part of the point of the rachet metaphor; it addresses not only what has happened but the parameters of what could happen. As for Alex’s comment, I don’t know what he’s referring to, and he didn’t provide a link, so what am I supposed to say about it?

55

etbnc 05.22.10 at 10:39 pm

Last weekend in Detroit a 7 year old girl died in a police raid

I think that’s what Alex and Alice refer to.

56

Alice de Tocqueville 05.22.10 at 11:27 pm

I’m just trying to say, respectfully, that though I respect scholarship, I sense a real disconnect here from the nitty-gritty of what’s going on outside of the ivory tower. I started reading this discussion, and noting the ‘ivory tower sorts of opinions, but soon I had too many to take the time to post.

Just a for instance was a certain cavalier dismissal that police powers aren’t out of control, but they are, and it seems a co-ordinated thing. Arrests of elementary school children are becoming widespread, police using deadly force and just plain brutality is everywhere. A young man was shot and killed in Oakland, CA while he was handcuffed and lying on the ground with his back being crushed by a transit company cop. He bled to death because the cops spent the time trying to confiscate witnesses cellphone cameras before calling an ambulance. The cop claimed he confused his taser with his gun. The transit company’s response was to take away their cops’ tasers. . When I tried to make a brutality complaint against the local sheriff’s dept. no one, even the state attorney general’s office claimed any authority over the sheriffs.

I could go on for pages and pages.

Also, though, there’s what I see in the general populace as a disregard for scholarship and knowledge for its own sake, a lack of intellectual curiosity as well as a basic grounding in general knowledge. I had two supposed nuclear chemists try to tell me that ‘depleted’ uranium isn’t radioactive. A college professor asked his students if they even knew when the Vietnam War happened and a girl raised her hand and asked if it wasn’t ‘after the Crimean War’. Arrgh!

57

John Quiggin 05.23.10 at 2:15 am

Alice, I agree that the expansion of police powers in “ordinary” criminal matters is unlikely to affect most people here directly, by virtue of their social class.

But intellectuals as a class are, if anything, more likely than others to suffer the effects of an expansion of national security powers: they’ve certainly been prominent among the victims of previous police states. At a relatively trivial level this has already started: running a conference in the US is much more problematic than it used to be because of visa restrictions and similar. It doesn’t seem impossible to me that academics with radical views could be targeted for extraordinary rendition or assassination under current policies or plausible extensions of those policies.

58

Rich Puchalsky 05.23.10 at 2:39 am

It may be worth noting that the one guy known to have an Obama death order out on him, Anwar al-Awlaki, is an intellectual. See here, for instance. This article says that “‘The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,’ said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity. ‘He’s gotten involved in plots.’” But of course there has been nothing resembling a trial. The trustworthiness of anonymous Americal officials being what it is, I think it’s safe to say that he’s slated for death because of words.

Now you could say that intellectuals here feel safe because they aren’t Muslim intellectuals. Maybe so. But as John Quiggin says above, it’s not really a safe bet for any intellectual to rely on positive racial profiling on the part of the security services.

59

Clod Levi-Strauss 05.23.10 at 3:32 am

Alice de@#52
“An intellectual elite protected from the consequences that befall the masses may not be a bad thing,”
It is in fact a very bad thing, above and beyond what’s usually called reactionary. That you feel the need to begin with a caveat of that sort shows us how far we’ve come.

60

Hidari 05.23.10 at 8:59 am

FWIW it is not in actual fact true that everyone who posts here (even the main posts) is an academic.

Also it is not in actual fact true that everyone who posts here is wealthy and ‘middle class’.

And it is not even, in actual fact, true, that all those who self-identify themselves as being ‘academics’ or ‘intellectuals’ are wealthy or middle class (or white).

Moreover with the labour market ‘developing’ the way it is, these things are less, not more, likely to be the case.

61

Guido Nius 05.23.10 at 10:04 am

Wouldn’t it have been much wiser for the US government to have been on the side of abusing its powers with respect to the BP oil spill? Imagine the advisors going: “No, Mr. President – you are not to intervene because if you do the liabilities won’t be clear anymore!” Can you imagine them going thusly in the case of an individual civil liberty case? No. Ratchet it is then at least in heads of policy advisors.

62

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.10 at 11:02 am

Now you could say that intellectuals here feel safe because they aren’t Muslim intellectuals.

Surely it’s not Judeochristian vs Muslim, but rather conformist vs. disloyal.

63

Tim Wilkinson 05.23.10 at 2:17 pm

I don’t think the stuff about ivory towers is at all useful. I’m no friend of the Filth as a group (nor for the most part as individuals), but I don’t go on about it unless one of them comes on to throw his weight around as with that Brandon character some time ago. Not because I’m particularly concerned about offending the lilywhite sensibilities of professional scribblers, but because there just isn’t much useful to say. Plenty of people had already referred to the police state before Alice’s accusation.

I’m sure as Hidari points out there are plenty of other people who are directly acquainted with the increase in police power, aggression and militarisation, and even more who are sufficiently endowed with imagination (and its subspecies, compassion) to get the idea without necessarily having gone through the unpleasant formality of actually having the shit beaten out of them etc.

Back on topic, what about the role of the Supreme Court? To the extent that it binds future Supreme Courts, it’s potentially the ultimate ratchet mechanism (leaving aside the fairly remote possibility of constitutional amendments).

For one thing, is there not a bias built into the drift of precedent, which acts in favour of the state as against individuals (I don’t know about the federal v state govt thing)? The state is (I think) in a privileged position to cut its losses and in one way or other settle or concede unfavourable cases without prejudice, while taking cases that it thinks it will win all the way to the SCOTUS, in the hope of getting (a) victory in the case, and (b) – more relevantly – an expansive ruling in favour of the state. Or maybe there is some formal or informal mechanism that prevents that?

More generally, what role has SCOTUS had in all this, and how expansive, and how likely to remain entrenched, has their essential reasoning been?

64

Tim Worstall 05.23.10 at 4:22 pm

“Look at policy areas where there isn’t a ratchet like, say, VAT rates.”

Seriously? VAT in the EU isn’t subject to a ratchet?

Various non- and zero-rated goods are grandfathered in but if you’ve had something that does carry VAT you cannot make it zero or non rated without permissions from Brussels (and this ain’t easy, Brown tried to get VAT taken off tampons for a number of years: can’t remember whether he suceeded or not). But you can make anything that is currently non or zero rated carry VAT anytime you like.

Sure sounds like a ratchet to me, in favour of more or all goods carrying VAT.

“Ask a US conservative if it is even theoretically possible for taxes to be too low, given how much they have been cut since the 1960s.”

What tax cuts since the 1960s? Federal revenue has bounced around between 15% of GDP and 19/20% of GDP since the 50s. Much of the bouncing being about recession (and the associated drop in revenues, like today) and booms and the associated boom in revenues.

There’s certainly been a change in the composition of taxation, in the marginal rates of taxes, but “tax cuts” as a whole there don’t seem to have been all that much of.

65

Tim Worstall 05.23.10 at 4:37 pm

On “tax cuts” again. Here:

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/48/27/41498733.pdf

Tax as %ge of GDP in OECD countries 1975-2006.

Just doesn’t seem to have been that much “tax cut” there, given that in almost every instance tax revenues as %ge of GDP were higher at the end of the period than at the beginning.

The only one of the figures that actually falls over the period is the average for OECD Americas….and that seems to be an artefact of using Mexico’s 0% (ie, info N/A) to compose the average for 1975.

So much for that neo-liberal slashing of the State then….

66

David 05.23.10 at 8:37 pm

I have to thoroughly disagree with Marc. I, for one, am rather annoyed with people who are annoyed with Greenwald. So much more pleasant if he would just shut up (or ratchet it down). Invoking history in the form of McCarthy and the Palmer Raids is inapt. Those were both major, brutal eruptions on the national scene. What has been happening over the last eight years, and is continuing under Obama, is more akin to boiling the lobster: throw it into a pot of water and ever so gradually raise the temperature. At a certain point the lobster notices/figures it out. Rather too late as it turns out. I feel safer with the Greenwalds of the world than with the Marcs.

67

Clod Levi-Strauss 05.23.10 at 8:55 pm

Jack Balkin on SSRN: The Processes of Constitutional Change: From Partisan Entrenchment to the National Surveillance State

And Tim Worstall @65 : Neoliberals didn’t slash the state any more than they did the university, they just changed their function.

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