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Jul. 28 2010 — 4:02 pm | 236 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

The sunset state

I'm going into town after Set

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra

look out Set   here i come Set
to get Set     to sunset Set
to unseat Set  to Set down Set

               usurper of the Royal couch
               imposter RAdio of Moses' bush
               party pooper O hater of dance
               vampire outlaw of the milky way
~ from Ishmael Reed’s poem, I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra

Responding to my post on institutional self-preservation, Andrew writes:

But since government is also necessary, the task is to determine what institutions need to be done away with, how to sunset them so they do not strangle the whole, rather than to rail at all of them. My thoughts on this inevitably stray to special interest groups as well. At what point do, say, HRC and AIPAC and the NAACP end up simply perpetuating themselves and their own leaders (invariably factions of the large, amorphous groups they claim to represent) rather than remaining focused on the task in front of them?

Since I have to concede that anarchy is at best a pipe-dream and at worst something more akin to Lord of the Flies, I have to also concede that government is necessary. Indeed, I in no way intend to rail against government blindly. I think government fulfills a vital balancing role in society, whether through enforcing laws or providing essential safety nets.

What leapt out at me in Andrew’s response, however, was the notion of sun-setting institutions. I like the idea of writing sunset provisions into as many laws and spending proposals as possible. Milton Friedman famously wrote that nothing is quite so permanent as a temporary government program. Sunset provisions help us avoid this to some extent (though obviously, in politics the sun also rises…)

In any case, I like the idea of sunset provisions for government institutions themselves. I’m not sure if this has ever been tried. But wouldn’t it have been wonderful to write in not only a sunset provision for the Patriot Act, but for the entire Department of Homeland Security?

Too often our government is a self-serving, bloated mega-institution incapable of ever cutting off any of its outgrown limbs. Making more if it temporary – or at least writing in the possibility of temporariness when constructing it – would at the very least give these big government institutions a reason to try to remain relevant.

Of course, the downside would be an even more concerted effort to self-preserve, but at least there would be a conversation going on about whether survival was in the best interests of the nation at large.



Jul. 28 2010 — 3:14 pm | 42 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Confusing race and class again

I understand the tendency among liberals to make just about everything a question of race* but I prefer looking at most issues through the prism of socio-economic class instead. Here’s Jamelle Bouie on the race-gap in the finance world, riffing off of this provision in the new financial reform law which gives the federal government the power to cut off contracts with firms that “fail to ensure the ‘fair inclusion’ of women and minorities”:

Conservatives are predictably infuriated by this provision, but if you’re okay with idea of minority-hiring preferences, it makes perfect sense given the demographics of the financial service industry — particularly at the management level. As of 2008, according to a report released this year by the Government Accountability Office, white males held 64 percent of management-level positions in the financial services industry. White women held 26 percent of those positions, with the remaining 10 percent filled out by minorities.

[…]

This is all speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you could trace the targeting of minority communities with subprime mortgages to the fact that there are vanishingly few minorities working on the management level in the financial services industry. By encouraging companies to change that, it’s possible that the provision could help prevent a recurrence of the past few years.

Of course, having a more diverse workforce in any given industry is preferable if only because diversity increases the wealth of knowledge and skill for any company or industry. Having people from a diverse set of racial and cultural backgrounds is simply smart business, because these people will bring knowledge and experience to the table that rich white guys might not be able to provide. Hiring women and minorities makes sense from a business standpoint, and I think we’ll see that trend continue regardless of government intervention.

The problem with Jamelle’s assessment is that when it comes to finance, the real gap – as usual – isn’t a racial gap at all, but a socio-economic one. Wall Street and the movers and shakers in the banking and investment world are plucked from the upper crust or at least the upper-middle-crust. The Ivy League is the lifeblood of the investment banker class. I don’t see that changing even if more women and minorities join the ranks. They’ll just be Ivy League women and minorities. The poor blacks and whites and Hispanics will still be completely unrepresented.

Whether there’s any way around that gap is a much harder question. It’s one thing for the government to mandate racial or sexual ‘fairness’ and another altogether to bridge the class gap.

 

*Conservatives are often guilty of this as well but for different reasons than what I’d like to discuss here.



Jul. 28 2010 — 1:49 pm | 35 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

The case for open borders

Read Mark Thompson on the case for open borders. We’re on exactly the same page, but he says it better than I could:

In short, to the extent the American-specific “model” is indeed fragile and complex, its success has long been predicated on the dynamism of the constantly changing demographic makeup by large-scale immigration.  There is often a tendency, when one discusses the old “melting pot” analogy, to view the US as a giant assimilation machine.  What I think we tend to forget about this is that, although immigrants to the US do typically assimilate, this process is made significantly easier by the fact that the US tends to adopt part of that immigrant culture as its own.  American culture is, quite often, little more than the amalgamation of various immigrant cultures.  Limitations on the number of immigrants we can accept thus do more harm than good to the American “model” by depriving it of some of the oxygen upon which that model has thrived, perhaps even causing it to stagnate.

And, as they say, you should read the whole thing.



Jul. 28 2010 — 1:41 pm | 258 views | 1 recommendations | 9 comments

Judge blocks controversial sections of new Arizona immigration law

Well this is tentatively good news:

A judge has blocked the most controversial sections of Arizona’s new immigration law from taking effect Thursday, handing a major legal victory to opponents of the crackdown.

The law will still take effect Thursday, but without many of the provisions that angered opponents — including sections that required officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws. The judge also put on hold a part of the law that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times, and made it illegal for undocumented workers to solicit employment in public places.

Mind you, these provisions are only on hold. They haven’t been struck down entirely. I’ll cross my fingers on that front. Meanwhile, Sheriff Joe continues to break the law in order to enforce it:

The hardest-line approach is expected in the Phoenix area, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio plans his 17th crime and immigration sweep. He plans to hold the sweep, regardless of any ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton.

Arpaio, known for his tough stance against illegal immigration, plans to send about 200 deputies and volunteers out, looking for traffic violators, people wanted on criminal warrants and others. He’s used that tactic before to arrest dozens of people, many of them illegal immigrants.

“We don’t wait. We just do it,” he said. “If there’s a new law out, we’re going to enforce it.”

He said that the space he made in the complex of military surplus tents can handle 100 people, and that he will find room for more if necessary.

Must be nice to sit so far above the law. Then again, the people in Maricopa County just keep electing Arpaio time and time again. The law must not be as important as the fear.

It’s interesting to me to hear all the misrepresentations of the border problem. My parents were up in Montana visiting family recently when SB 1070 came up in conversation. “We hear there’s just a slaughter on the border down there,” my relatives told them. They were under the impression that the drug gangs – which compose almost 100% of all illegal immigrants according to Arizona governor, Jan Brewer – are just murdering good, decent hard-working Americans right and left down here. There’s this bizarre vision of mayhem and death along the border that simply isn’t true.

Then again the widespread public opinion that immigration hurts the economy is even more troubling than these outrageous tales of death and violence. Immigration is overwhelmingly a net gain to any economy, and the freer the movement of labor the better for everyone. Then again, I’m a crazy open-borders type. That radical amnesty-granting president, Ronald Reagan, understood this. I wish Americans could come around to his way of thinking.

And perhaps they will. Free trade faced similar obstacles, but Americans have become much more open-minded on that front. Free movement of labor is a very similar concept, and is similarly beneficial to the well-being of people across the globe. These things take time. Hearts and minds change.



Jul. 28 2010 — 12:51 pm | 71 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Those rich progressive tax-dodgers

Daniel Foster has the latest on John Kerry:

So Senator Kerry cut a $500,000 check to the government, money he may or may not have owed, to mum this talk about his $7-million yachts as quickly and quietly as possible.

Whenever I see something like this I feel the need to remind folks that John Kerry is the fifth-richest member of Congress, with a net worth in 2008 of up to $258,959,049 according tothe Center for Responsive Politics. That’s a lot of ketchup.

It is also worth noting that eight of the top ten, and 15 of the top 25, richest MOC are Democrats.

For a host of reasons, I tend to think that the charge of hypocrisy in political discourse carries more weight than it rightfully should (a man’s convictions should be assessed independently of whether he has the courage of them). But in instances like this — and there are many — where a man who has a robust predilection for raising our taxes is caught apparently engaging in behavior to avoid paying his own, a little bit of righteous indignation is in order.

I think when you’re used to playing with so much of your own money, playing with other people’s money just comes naturally. Kerry also likely has very little concept of how high-tax policies drive unemployment up, given that he has very little fear of actually joining those ranks. He does, however, understand how to dodge paying sales tax on a $7 million dollar yacht and he certainly understands the benefits of not paying those taxes to John Kerry. But let’s see – $500,000 to a man worth $258,959,049 is about a tenth of a percent of his net worth.  For someone making $50,000 a year, that’s about $50 bucks.

Just for some perspective.



Jul. 27 2010 — 12:36 pm | 165 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Institutional self-preservation

This is a remarkably cogent passage:

Institutions, like organisms, seek survival for themselves and their descendants. One of the conceits at the heart of most theories of government, which has perhaps reached its apogee in this age of technocratic, managerial liberalism, is the idea that institutions are fundamentally instrumental. To an anarchist, this is a flatly silly proposition. (An analogue might be a Christian trying to get an atheist to concede that life has a “purpose.”) Institutions aren’t simple tools. Organizations aren’t implements. And when a sufficient number of institutions coexist, they function like an ecosystem. They neither work nor do not work. They survive, reproduce, replace, predate, evolve, alter, consume, and grow. They are no more responsive to the individuals contained within than a person is to a single cell.

IOZ focuses on the CIA in this post, noting that the CIA is an organization which seeks to protect its own existence first, and serves to gather intelligence second. A couple years ago I read The Secret History of the CIA which was a fascinating book and a really startling look at this very concept of institutional self-preservation. From its beginning the CIA existed to keep a select group of people working in intelligence. In fact, the CIA was founded as a private company by former members of the OSS after World War II. They essentially forced the government’s hand by getting into the intelligence business whether Uncle Sam approved or not. Since then, the CIA has been one of the most opaque institutions in Washington, and has done whatever it could in order to survive. In many ways the CIA and the presidency have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The CIA has been the secret arm of the president for decades – from the Kennedy brothers who used it as an assassination racket, to the last president’s secret prisons and back full circle to assassination under the Obama administration.

But the CIA is hardly alone when it comes to institutional self-preservation. All government institutions operate this way. Indeed all institutions whether private or public seek their own self-preservation. The problem with government institutions is that they persist because of politics rather than any rational decision-making process. The big public unions exist and grow in strength because they are so important electorally. The big federal departments exist because politicians must always do something to survive the next election cycle (read: spend more!). Cutting the Department of Education may not have much of an effect on the educational outcomes of most American children, but the act of cutting it is pretty much heretical nonetheless, even though those dollars might be better spent at the local level than on the inflated salaries of a bunch of Washington bureaucrats.



Jul. 27 2010 — 12:23 pm | 52 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Investing in freight rail could help curb climate change

This is extraordinary:

In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 83 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation’s carbon emission by 39 percent and oil consumption by 15 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 10 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.

There’s more over at Reihan Salam’s digs, where he goes into some detail on a new Economist report on the logistical tension between freight and passenger rail investment, but I wanted to focus on the above passage for a moment.

Developing the infrastructure of the future strikes me as a much better idea than crafting legislation which would, in an effort to curb carbon emissions, create a vast, expensive and easily captured trading system for carbon (cap and trade). While the focus has largely been on creating new high-speed rail for passengers, investing in freight rail may be even more important. As fuel costs continue to rise in the coming decades, the cost of goods will be dramatically effected by the increased shipping costs. Laying the rail necessary to improve our freight rail lines would drastically improve our logistical prospects for future generations.

Furthermore, many of the nation’s roads are already overcrowded, and some are becoming dangerously so, a state of affairs exacerbated by the volume trucks on the road. This creates an immediate burden on local infrastructure across the nation that could be alleviated to some degree by increased rail capacity.

Nor are we simply talking about the rail lines themselves. More investment in rail spurs is also necessary if more and more freight is going to start moving this way, as well as technological investments. Many of these investments will need to come from the private sector, but modernizing and expanding the railways themselves can be a smart way to use public dollars to free up rail companies to invest in other areas.

A combination of increased freight and passenger rail makes sense to me in the long haul – certainly as a way to combat climate change, this is a much smarter move than cap and trade since it would use tax dollars to actually create something. America is a big country, and to keep our economy running at full steam, public investment in infrastructure is perhaps one of the best places to spend.

Reihan is concerned that an increased investment in passenger and freight rail capacity would create an unnecessarily high tax burden. This may be true. If I had to pick, at this point I’d say that freight – which is already largely in place – is the right place to start. But I’m a supporter of passenger rail as well. It may not make a huge amount of sense now, but I do see gas prices topping four and five dollars in the not-too-distant future, and as we move in that direction, it wouldn’t hurt to anticipate some of the new infrastructure needs our economy will face as more people turn toward public transportation.

Yes, teleconferencing and the internet can make many workplaces ‘virtual’ and can keep many commuters off the road entirely, but much of the future’s service economy will be unable to telecommute.  For much of the economy, driving to work – or taking the bus or train – will still be necessary.



Jul. 26 2010 — 12:49 pm | 11 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

The National – Runaway live

This is a great live one:



Jul. 26 2010 — 12:32 pm | 15 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Mr. November

The National has a way of getting a song stuck deeper and deeper into my head. I had this one in my head as my wife went into labor two weeks ago. These words rattling about in my head:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November.

I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over.

I wish I believed in fate.

I wish I didn’t sleep so late.

I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders…



Jul. 26 2010 — 12:04 pm | 331 views | 1 recommendations | 6 comments

The false narrative of the ‘Country Class’ and the ‘Ruling Class’

Ross Douthat takes a similar approach to Angelo Codevilla’s critique of the American elite – which Codevilla describes as essentially a left-wing, meritocratic mob of essentially not-very-bright Democrats – as I did to the calls Arthur Brooks has made for starting a new culture war over free markets in his book, “The Battle”.

But while I focused on keeping economic issues as far from the culture wars as possible, Douthat picks apart Codevilla’s assertions – which are similar to those made by Brooks – that the country is far more conservative and pro-free-market than the administrative class.

Yes, most Americans hate taxes, but the line between statism and small-government conservatism runs through many human hearts, rather than cleanly dividing Ivy League graduates from Tea Partiers and Middle Americans. And it’s essential to recognize that there are economic issues on which the American overclass — which, after all, includes the corporate as well as the political and intellectual elite, and thus tends to be center-left and Clintonian rather than deeply left-wing — sits to the right of the country as a whole. There’s a lot more support for free trade in Wall Street and Georgetown than in Topeka or Little Rock, for instance, and historically (though this may be changing somewhat) the same has been true of entitlement reform as well.

The whole notion of a ‘ruling class’ is a little bizarre. I imagine some members of that ruling elite at least tend to be extraordinarily rich corporate executives and the like, many of whom I imagine are members of the Republican party. I don’t think either side has a monopoly on elitism or political power, as evidenced by our rather divided country and its rather divided politics.

Douthat points to this piece by Arnold Kling, who describes Codevilla’s outlook as ‘neo-reactionary’ “because it is sort of like neoconservatism with the gloves off.”

Kling lists items he shares and items he disagrees with the neo-reactionary crowd over. He agrees that progressivism is ‘an ideology of power’; that progressives are ‘intellectual bullies’; and that American government has become ‘structurally less libertarian’ and less democratic’ over the years.

Items he disagrees with: He thinks Brink Lindsey ‘has a point’ and that progressives are ‘not wrong on everything, and conservatives are not right on everything’; he thinks Tyler Cowen has two good points – that ‘Manichean, confrontational politics is a dubious project’ and that – like Douthat argues – the majority of Americans are not, in fact, libertarians at all.

On those points I agree entirely. But I have a harder time believing that progressivism is ‘an ideology of power’ any more than any other political ideology is – at least in practice – which is why our system of government had a number of checks and balances written into it, and why we as a society continue to experiment with checks and balances in many other arenas.

Progressivism, like any other ideology, may also produce bullies, but it is not inherently a bullying ideology, even if I think that it is nonetheless inherently wrong in its approach to government.

Indeed, I would argue that most Americans are simply not all that politically minded. Of course most Americans hate taxes and complain about government; most, however, still want government when it benefits them. And few refer to the ‘administrative class’ in the sort of terms that Brooks or Codevilla prefer.

Culture and economics are inextricably wound together, true, but the free market culture war isn’t going to be fought between the ‘country class’ and the ‘ruling class’. It’s going to be waged between different factions within the elite class. Actual culture wars – like abortion and gay marriage – will burn on in middle America, but the big economic questions will be handled by the big economic players in industry and government and between members of the pundit class.

In the mean time, conservatives would be wise not to delude themselves that two-thirds of Americans are ready for some radical free-market, small government revolution.

If Republicans really can introduce limited government reforms, decentralize the power structure in America, and learn to be the party of small government once they’re actually in power then I may change my tune. Until then, Republicans should focus on positive ideas for reform rather than creating delusional narratives about ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’



Jul. 23 2010 — 4:40 pm | 26 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Deficit watch 7/23/2010

Via Doug Mataconis, these are some grim numbers:

The federal budget deficit, which hit a record $1.4 trillion last year, will exceed that figure this year and again in 2011, according to a White House forecast released Friday.

The $1.47 trillion budget gap predicted for 2010 represents a slight improvement over the administration’s February forecast. But the outlook for 2011 has darkened considerably, primarily due to a drop in expected tax receipts from capital gains.

Doug writes:

I start to sound like a broken record when I say this, but it’s true, this is simply unsustainable.

Remember when a billion seemed like a big number? One trillion is a whole lot bigger. Closing this gap will take higher taxes and some steep spending cuts. It’s coming, whether or not we want to talk about it.



Jul. 23 2010 — 3:43 pm | 32 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

I and Love and You

This is a nice version of the big Avett Brothers hit:



Jul. 23 2010 — 3:38 pm | 76 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Creepy dead-animal wrapped beer costs $765 a bottle

This is weird:

You’d expect a lot from a bottle of beer costing $765. What you get is 55 percent alcohol — and served in a squirrel.

According to Scottish firm BrewDog, “The End of History” is the “strongest, most expensive and most shocking beer in the world.”

Just 12 bottles were made and the company has already sold out. They will be shipped out to buyers in the United States, Canada, Italy, Denmark, Scotland and England next week.

The dead animals which were used to create the beers’ unusual appearance were four squirrels, seven weasels and a hare. All were roadkill, James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, told msnbc.com.

The name of the blond Belgian ale is taken from the title of a book by philosopher Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man” which the company said had been chosen to imply “this is to beer what democracy is to history.”

Watt said the beer should be treated with care when drinking.

“It tastes more like a whisky and you have got to handle it in that way as opposed to the way you would handle a normal beer,” he told msnbc.com.

I’ll stick with my Fat Tire, thank you very much.



Jul. 23 2010 — 3:34 pm | 33 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

John Kerry dodges the taxman

Daniel J. Mitchell found this little gem in the Boston Herald:

Sen. John Kerry, who has repeatedly voted to raise taxes while in Congress, dodged a whopping six-figure state tax bill on his new multimillion-dollar yacht by mooring her in Newport, R.I. Isabel— Kerry’s luxe, 76-foot New Zealand-built Friendship sloop with an Edwardian-style, glossy varnished teak interior, two VIP main cabins and a pilothouse fitted with a wet bar and cold wine storage — was designed by Rhode Island boat designer Ted Fontaine. But instead of berthing the vessel in Nantucket, where the senator summers with the missus, Teresa Heinz, Isabel’s hailing port is listed as “Newport” on her stern. Could the reason be that the Ocean State repealed its Boat Sales and Use Tax back in 1993, making the tiny state to the south a haven — like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Nassau — for tax-skirting luxury yacht owners? Cash-strapped Massachusetts still collects a 6.25 percent sales tax and an annual excise tax on yachts. Sources say Isabel sold for something in the neighborhood of $7 million, meaning Kerry saved approximately $437,500 in sales tax and an annual excise tax of about $70,000. …[S]tate Department of Revenue spokesguy Bob Bliss confirmed the senator “is under no obligation to pay the commonwealth sales tax.”

Why vote to lower taxes when you’re rich enough to simply evade paying them?



Jul. 23 2010 — 3:26 pm | 75 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Economic mobility in America

David Frum has an excellent, thought-provoking post on child poverty and economic mobility up at his site FrumForum. It does – and it should – make you question our assumptions about how we’ve set up our social spending programs for the poor as well as our faith in markets solving all our social problems. In America, expensive middle-class entitlement programs all but ensure that not enough will be spent on the poor, or at least that not enough will be spent in the right ways on the poor.

Our health insurance system ensures that when you lose your job, you also lose your health care. In purely economic terms, this is crazy. The employer-based tax break is expensive and puts employees at the mercy of their employers. Even with the tax break, health costs are weighing down businesses, making them less competitive in the global economy, and making employers less likely to make new hires. There’s nothing wrong with American health care but everything wrong with our system of insurance, which is uncompetitive, expensive, and largely unattainable without an employer. This has a major impact on economic mobility, and is one reason why, as David points out, the Scandinavian nations have much better mobility numbers than we do.

David writes:

“Only the UK does worse than the US among the 9 countries surveyed – and the social democratic countries of Scandinavia all do better.
This is not an argument in favor of the European way of doing things. I agree with Lowry and Ponnuru – and Charles Murray too – that American freedom and individualism are important national values to be celebrated and defended.

But let’s not flatter ourselves: Those values exact a social cost – and they would be easier to defend if the cost were less high. And the fact that this cost is not being paid by my children or (probably) yours does not make the cost less real to the one-third of America whose children do pay it.”

Policy-makers on the right need to combine their faith in free markets and the prosperity that the American system generates, with a real push to reform entitlements to make them more effective engines of social security for those who need them most: not the middle or upper class, but the working poor and the unemployed.

Consider this a project for positive conservatism. Social engineering and central planning are ultimately very ineffective tools, so we need to come up with safety nets rather than entitlements and focus on putting money directly in people’s pockets rather than erecting even more of an endless bureaucracy of red-tape and government stagnation.

Furthermore, we need to construct our safety nets so that they are most effective when they are also most needed. Losing one’s job should not mean the loss of one’s health care. Republicans did not address this conundrum when opposing the Democrats’ healthcare reform legislation. If conservatives ever hope to reform that law or any other entitlement, they will need to address how they can help the poor, the unemployed, and they will need to address the question of economic mobility.

Food stamps are actually a pretty effective social welfare program – basically they’re vouchers for people who can’t afford groceries. Why not reform health insurance so that it’s actually a competitive industry and then give people who can’t afford it health stamps?

Personal savings accounts to replace Social Security are one way to bring wealth to a much broader cross-section of the American people; vouchers for catastrophic insurance are a good first step to reforming health care and can later be worked into Medicare and Medicaid; and cutting red tape for the unemployed to fast-track their benefits and extend their health coverage can also help with economic mobility and social security.

David is entirely right – the social cost of our unsustainable, inequitable system is being paid by one-third of America’s children. That number is far too high. This is not an indictment of free markets or social welfare programs. It speaks to the importance of striking a sustainable, efficient balance between prosperity and social security which creates long term employment and helps catch those who fall through the cracks. We have certainly not found that equilibrium yet. I suspect this will be the major project for conservatives and liberals alike moving into the 21st century.


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