Russian Hacking and Divisive News Cycles

In 2014, the death of Michael Brown became the focal point of first the Ferguson protests and then the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just a couple months earlier, Eric Garner had been strangled to death on Staten Island by police on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, while everything was caught on film. Michael Brown’s death had not been caught on film, but there had been video evidence of him robbing a convenience store and assaulting the store clerk moments before his altercation with a police officer. A later Justice Department investigation also found no wrongdoing on the part of the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

So the question is, why did the Michael Brown case get so much more attention than the Eric Garner case? Even Bill O’Reilly thought what happened to Eric Garner was unfair. Scott Alexander suggests the most successful stories are those that are controversial. A story that only induces frustration in one side doesn’t foment much of a debate. But on a controversial or murky topic, one can signal their loyalty to their tribe much more strongly; you really care about police brutality if you criticize the police when there’s no video evidence in Ferguson. Criticizing the police when there’s clear evidence of an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner doesn’t get you points.

Of course, even if the Michael Brown case was a bad example, the general topic of police abuse is important. I can’t say the same for the continued interest in this Russian Hacking story. For those who don’t know, the Clinton campaign accused the Russian government of hacking into the DNC’s email server, during the campaign. Trump denied that we knew for sure it was Russian state-sponsored hacking. More recently, US intelligence agencies have claimed they have evidence of Russia being involved, including high level Russian officials. They have also claimed they cannot show this evidence to the public as it would compromise their intelligence.

From top to bottom, the entire story is just so boring to me. This “hack” was apparently just a spear-phishing attack, something that is fairly easily avoided by not clicking on the wrong links in your email. Or using two-factor authentication. People are hacked this way every day, but it’s reasonable to have slightly higher expectations for political officials. But again, these weren’t political officials in office, it was the DNC in an election year. What was hacked was also not particularly valuable; we saw a bunch of emails of DNC officials being politicians. Yes, it put the DNC in a bad light, looking like they were colluding with the Clinton campaign to have her win the primaries…but what exactly is the point of a political party if not to try and win political office? The DNC obviously thought Hillary had a better shot than Bernie. That’s not a crazy idea. Moreover, most of these emails came long after Bernie had fallen behind in the delegate count anyway.

The only people these emails could have surprised are those unfamiliar with politics or those not skeptical enough (and not this blog). It seems quite possible that Russia was indeed behind these attacks; they have the capabilities and the motivation as the Clinton State Department was quite annoying to Russian foreign interests. Trump has signaled a much more dovish approach to Russia, as well as an admiration for Putin’s strong man policies. There’s some uncertainty, but the Clinton campaign, Obama administration, and now US intelligence all insist Russia was involved and trying to “influence” the US election…by releasing accurate exact transcripts of emails of DNC officials. Ok.

What if these accusations are true? Suppose Russia did sponsor very simplistic attacks on the DNC email server and then released those emails to the public in order to make Clinton less popular. Who cares? Russia doing this doesn’t change the content of the emails; what if a whistleblower at the DNC had leaked them? It changes nothing.

And while we’re talking about changing nothing, I’m under the impression that these emails changed very little. Trump voters weren’t exactly huge DNC and Clinton fans before they read these emails; neither were Bernie supporters. I doubt this had much impact on the election.

Many on the left have been shocked Trump won’t admit Russia was behind this hack, but it’s such a low stakes thing, I can’t imagine it would much change his position towards Russia. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly said much more heinous and horrific things, likely in the week prior to you reading this blog post.

To continue the absurdity, recently US intelligence agencies released a report detailing why they think Russia was behind the hack. The report is embarassing. It has no details or evidence, and it spends the majority of its pages talking about the Russian state-sponsored news station RT and how it criticizes the US government. I’m still fairly confident that Russia is indeed behind this hack, but the report makes American intelligence look completely incompetent, and its evidence of the hack purely circumstantial.

Ok, I’m going to stop talking about this non-story. The problem is that this non-story has continued for weeks without my help. I bring it up only to show the truly insidious nature of a divided outrage news cycle. This debate being had on Russian hacking is based on little and has essentially no relevance to the very real challenges we face. The president-elect has continuously vowed to challenge free trade ideas which will seriously harm the global and domestic economy. He’s planned to use executive authority in insane ways to violate civil liberties, including torturing people, committing war crimes, and depriving people of due process. We ought to be talking about those issues and what Congress will be doing to thwart him, but instead we are caught up arguing about email phishing scams.


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2017 Predictions

It’s fun to have opinions, and it’s easy to craft a narrative to fit your beliefs. But it’s especially dangerous to look back at events and place them retroactively into your model of the world. You can’t learn anything if you’re only ever looking for evidence that supports you.  However, if you try to use your model of the world to create testable predictions, those predictions can be proven right or wrong, and you can actually learn something. Incorrect predictions can help update our models.

This is, of course, the basis for the scientific method, and generally increasing our understanding of the world. Making predictions is also important for making us more humble; we don’t know everything and so putting our beliefs to the test requires us to reduce our certainty until we’ve researched a subject before making baseless claims.  Confidence levels are an important part of predictions, as they force us to think in the context of value and betting: a 90% confidence level means I would take a $100 bet that required me to put up anything less that $90. Moreover, it’s not just a good idea to make predictions to help increase your knowledge; people who have opinions but refuse to predict things with accompanying confidence levels, and therefore refuse to subject their theories to scrutiny and testability, must be classified as more fraudulent and intellectually dishonest.

First let’s take a look at how I did this past year, and see if my calibration levels were correct. Incorrect predictions are crossed out.

Postlibertarian Specific

  1. Postlibertarian to have >10 additional posts by July 1, 2016:  70%
  2. Postlibertarian Twitter to have more than 240 followers:  70%
  3. Postlibertarian.com to have >10k page loads in 2016: 50% (had 30k according to StatCounter)
  4. The predictions on this page will end up being underconfident: 60%

World Events

  1. Liberland will be recognized by <5 UN members: 99% (recognized by 0)
  2. Free State Project to reach goal of 20,000 people in 2016: 50% (occurred February 3rd)
  3. ISIS to still exist: 80%
  4. ISIS to kill < 100 Americans 2016: 80% (I think <100 were killed by any terrorists, fewer in combat)
  5. US will not get involved in any new major war with death toll of > 100 US soldiers: 80%
  6. No terrorist attack in the USA will kill > 100 people: 80% (50 did die in the Orlando shooting unfortunately)
  7. Donald Trump will not be Republican Nominee: 80% (whoops)
  8. Hillary Clinton to be Democratic nominee: 90%
  9. Republicans to hold Senate: 60%
  10. Republicans to hold House: 80%
  11. Republicans to win Presidential Election: 50% (I predicted in December, Nate Silver had Trump at 35% the day of, who’s a genius now??)
  12. I will vote for the Libertarian Presidential Candidate: 70% *
  13. S&P 500 level end of year < 2500: 70%
  14. Unemployment rate December 2016 < 6% : 70%
  15. WTI Crude Oil price < $50 : 80%
  16. Price of Bitcoin > $500:  60%
  17. Price of Bitcoin < $1000: 80%
  18. Sentient General AI will not be created this year: 99%
  19. Self-driving cars will not be available this year to purchase / legally operate for < $100k: 99%
  20. I will not be able to rent trips on self-driving cars from Uber/ Lyft: 90% **
  21. Humans will not land on moon by end of 2016: 95%
  22. Edward Snowden will not be pardoned by end of Obama Administration: 80% ***

*I didn’t personally vote for the libertarian candidate, but I did trade my vote, resulting in Gary Johnson getting two votes more than he would have had I not voted at all. I’m counting this as at least a vote for Johnson.

**Technically, I am not particularly able to get a ride on a self-driving Uber because I don’t live in Pittsburgh, but I don’t think that’s what I meant. I also didn’t expect any self-driving Uber rides to be available anywhere, so I’m counting it against me.

***Obama still has a few weeks to pardon Snowden, but it’s not looking good

So let’s take a look at how I did by category:

  • Of items I marked as 50% confident, 3 were right and 0 were wrong.
  • Of items I marked as 60% confident, 3 were right and 0 were wrong.
  • Of items I marked as 70% confident, 4 were right and 1 was wrong.
  • Of items I marked as 80% confident, 7 were right and 2 were wrong.
  • Of items I marked as 90% confident, 1 was right and 1 was wrong.
  • Of items I marked as 95% confident, 1 was right and 0 were wrong.
  • Of items I marked as 99% confident, 3 were right and 0 were wrong.

As you can see from this data graphed, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to predictions.

You’re supposed to be as close to the perfect calibration line as possible. The big problems are that I only had 2 or 3 predictions for the 50%, 60%, and 90% confidence intervals. For example, my slip-up on predicting Uber wouldn’t have self-driving cars this year means I was only 1 for 2 on 90% predictions. Clearly I need to find more things to predict, as I had 5 and 9 predictions for the 70% and 80% confidence levels, which were right about on the mark. Luckily for next year, I have almost double the number of predictions:

Predictions for 2017:

World Events

  1. Trump Approval Rating end of June <50% (Reuters or Gallup): 60%
  2. Trump Approval Rating end of year <50% (Reuters or Gallup): 80%
  3. Trump Approval Rating end of year <45% (Reuters or Gallup): 60%
  4. Trump 2017 Average Approval Rating (Gallup) <50%: 70%
  5. ISIS to still exist as a fighting force in Palmyra, Mosul, or Al-Raqqah: 60%
  6. ISIS to kill < 100 Americans: 80%
  7. US will not get involved in any new major war with death toll of > 100 US soldiers: 60%
  8. No terrorist attack in the USA will kill > 100 people: 90%
  9. France will not vote to leave to the EU: 80%
  10. The UK will trigger Article 50 this year: 70%
  11. The UK will not fully leave the EU this year: 99%
  12. No country will leave the Euro (adopt another currency as their national currency): 80%
  13. S&P 500 2016 >10% growth: 60%
  14. S&P 500 will be between 2000 and 2850: 80% (80% confidence interval)
  15. Unemployment rate December 2017 < 6% : 70%
  16. WTI Crude Oil price > $60 : 70%
  17. Price of Bitcoin > $750: 60%
  18. Price of Bitcoin < $1000: 50%
  19. Price of Bitcoin < $2000: 80%
  20. There will not be another cryptocurrency with market cap above $1B: 80%
  21. There will not be another cryptocurrency with market cap above $500M: 50%
  22. Sentient General AI will not be created this year: 99%
  23. Self-driving cars will not be available this year for general purchase: 90%
  24. Self-driving cars will not be available this year to purchase / legally operate for < $100k: 99%
  25. I will not be able to buy trips on self-driving cars from Uber/Lyft in a location I am living: 80%
  26. I will not be able to buy a trip on a self-driving car from Uber/Lyft without a backup employee in the car anywhere in the US: 90%
  27. Humans will not land on moon by end of 2017: 95%
  28. SpaceX will bring humans to low earth orbit: 50%
  29. SpaceX successfully launches a reused rocket: 60%
  30. No SpaceX rockets explode without launching their payload to orbit: 60%
  31. Actual wall on Mexican border not built: 99%
  32. Some increased spending on immigration through expanding CBP, ICE, or the border fence: 80%
  33. Corporate Tax Rate will be cut to 20% or below: 50%
  34. Obamacare (at least mandate, community pricing, pre-existing conditions) not reversed: 80%
  35. Budget deficit will increase: 90%
  36. Increase in spending or action on Drug War (e.g. raiding marijuana dispensaries, increased spending on DEA, etc): 70%
  37. Some tariffs raised: 90%
  38. The US will not significantly change its relationship to NAFTA: 60%
  39. Federal government institutes some interference with state level legal marijuana: 60%
  40. At least one instance where the executive branch violates a citable civil liberties court case: 70%
  41. Trump administration does not file a lawsuit against any news organization for defamation: 60%
  42. Trump not impeached (also no Trump resignation): 95%

Postlibertarian

  1. Postlibertarian.com to have >15 more blog posts by July 1, 2017: 80%
  2. Postlibertarian.com to have >30 blog posts by end of year: 70%
  3. Postlibertarian.com to have fewer hits than last year (no election): 60%
  4. Postlibertarian Twitter account to have <300 followers: 90%
  5. Postlibertarian Twitter account to have >270 followers: 60%
  6. Postlibertarian Subreddit to have <100 subscribers: 90%

 


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The Alternative to Trump

I’ve made a couple posts detailing that Trump’s populist ideology has no real ideas, and the ideas it has are pretty universally terrible. So how do we go about opposing Trump?

After Trump won the nomination, I thought I was going to have to write a big post about picking up the pieces on the right after Trump’s loss. Turns out, Hillary Clinton was a much worse candidate that even I suspected, and now it’s the left that needs to look at themselves. I’ve got some ideas that could help them (and at least one that advances my own agenda).

However, even I have to admit that the reality is not that dire for Democrats politically, nor progressives ideologically. At last count, Hillary was winning the popular vote by 2.5 million. It seems quite possible that if they had nominated someone who was more palatable to independents and moderate Republicans in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Democrats would have done fine. No platform overhaul necessary. In fact, had Obama been able to win a 3rd term, I’d bet a lot of money he’d have won it, were he facing Trump.

However, Democrats are doing poorly in most state-level races, including the House. In light of this, and since people are talking about refurbishing left-wing ideas anyway, it’s at least fun to discuss  ways to improve the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders stated that Democrats have to go beyond identity politics to focus on progressive ideas. I agree with this on its face, but I’m sure what Bernie really means is we should make the welfare state bigger and envelop not just retiree pensions and retiree healthcare, but universal healthcare, childcare, and free college-level education. He also seems to pair this with a strong regulatory state and reduction in some individual rights such as free speech connected to campaign financing. Rather than focusing on groups of people as representatives of ethnicities or genders, I think it’s fair to say Sanders thinks we should focus on wealth and socioeconomic status. In political coalition terms, Sanders wants to focus on revitalizing and expanding the New Deal Coalition, bringing back the white working class voters who supported Trump. This isn’t a crazy idea, but it does seem like trying to fight fire with fire, or rather, populism with populism.

Let’s take a look at a favorite libertarian tool, the Nolan chart:

The Nolan Chart splits the usual left-right spectrum into two separate political spectrums of economic and personal liberty. Theoretically, you could have as many axes as you want, with respective Nolan hypercubes.
The Nolan Chart splits the usual left-right spectrum into two separate political spectra of economic and personal liberty. Theoretically, you could have as many axes as you want, with respective Nolan hypercubes.

Sometimes this chart will be drawn with “Populism” instead of “Authoritarianism” in the bottom quadrant. “Personal freedom” and “economic freedom” are often more intertwined than this chart would like to admit, and both the left and the right can be all over this chart. When Ron Wyden argues against NSA spying and against harsher sentences for drug offenses, he’s definitely high on the personal liberty access on the left. But when Democrat Chuck Schumer supports the Patriot Act, the prohibition of aerial drones, and the banning of Bitcoin, he’s a lot lower on the personal liberty axis. Likewise, Republicans can vary from very libertarian leaning, high up on the right side (Ron Paul) to low down on the right side, ok with regulated markets and curtailing personal freedoms (Donald Trump). The problem with the new Bernie Sanders approach for the Democratic Party is that it challenges Trump for the lower middle of the Nolan chart, meeting him head-on, while ignoring the top middle of the chart. Even if there were enough voters just in that lower quadrant, The Economist points out that recently left-wing parties have struggled with populist victories, losing to right-wing populists in a litany of countries.

Rather than fighting populism with populism, I suggest a flanking maneuver for the left, countering a view of government solving most problems with a view of more personal freedom, more efficient markets, but also a government focused on solving market failures. A tolerant market welfare state, or a neoclassical liberalism.

 

I’m not the only one who has advocated something like this; Scott Alexander has an excellent Something Sort of Like Left-Libertarianism-ist Manifesto. I would really recommend reading his article on this, as the following arguments are just poor restatements of Scott’s more eloquent  points.

Markets convey valuable information and coordinate action across millions of actors with differing preferences. To quote from Hayek’s famous essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”:

The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Markets are really good at solving this problem of distributed knowledge. They can then get the most efficient allocation of resources, and even direct future production towards the creation of goods most demanded by consumers.

But markets don’t solve every problem. They don’t solve the “initial” allocation of resources, when some market actors are endowed with few goods or capital. Thus, while it’s important to allow these people specifically to trade what resources they have (likely low-skilled labor hours) in the most lucrative way possible, they still won’t be able to end up with much since they didn’t start with much. In other words, some people aren’t highly skilled and may never be. Despite a nice efficient market, they might end up with few available resources. Markets also don’t solve (by definition) externalities where market transactions harm unseen third parties (pollution is the usual example).

A solution here is to create a welfare system that assists low productivity workers, while leaving as much of the market as untouched as possible. We can thus solve the problem and also continue to take advantage of the distributed knowledge and allocation abilities of markets. To be clear, most welfare programs are pretty good at giving assistance to the poor, but in the United States, they come with far too many market regulations and exceptions. Most of the most popular Bernie Sanders ideas emphatically do not leave the market untouched. His $15 minimum wage advocacy has little empirical support. Rather than punish companies for hiring low-productivity workers, we should be either subsidizing wages for low-income earners, or giving a small basic income. The cost would not then be forced upon companies that hire low-skilled workers (the opposite of what we want), but distributed among society generally (the whole point of the welfare state). The government negotiating for Medicare rates of specific procedures and the exclusive use of government bonds for the Social Security trust fund are two more examples of welfare that shun a market based approach.

Interestingly, this pro-market-and-pro-welfare approach is actually somewhat familiar in Bernie Sanders’ favored Nordic countries. While their budgets are larger than the US, in several measures, their regulatory burden is more favorable and laissez- aire, and some indices also give them stronger contract and property rights than America.

There are other benefits to this low regulation approach too. Specifically, rather than banning things we don’t like, such as the use of coal to produce electricity or drinking alcohol, we simply tax them to disincentivize their use. As Scott states, this leaves us more options. Obviously, there are some benefits to doing things the state wants to ban; otherwise people wouldn’t be doing them. Coal is burned because it’s so cheap. The problem is that its burning has externalities. If the state increases the cost born by those who burn it to better reflect the pollutants it releases, energy from coal could still be used, just not to the same extent. This is a good thing! We should encourage behavior when the benefits exceed the costs. If the state can help create better incentives, individuals will make better choices themselves without blunt bans from the government.

This neoclassical liberal approach also means an opposition to Trump’s (and Bernie’s) protectionism and anti-immigration stances. If workers are concerned about their situation in the information economy, we need to liberalize their education opportunities, or even subsidize low productivity wages. But we can’t respond with trade barriers and stifle technological progress. The defense of classical liberal values, like tolerance, the rule of law, privacy, and freedom of expression, is also fundamental to this political position, especially as all these values all under threat by Trump.

I don’t really expect Democrats or the left generally to take this approach, but perhaps I can convince a few here and there that it would make sense. Caring about what happens to the unfortunate in society is something libertarians don’t always do well, but markets still have a vital part to play in improving society. Ultimately though, over the next four years, libertarians and progressives will have to work together on some issues, such as defending civil liberties. Hopefully, progressives will realize that libertarians are allying with them for the very same reasons they opposed them during the Obama administration, and had they listened then, our problems would not be so dire now.


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Links 2016-12-2

Added the awesome Conor Friedersdorf and Megan McArdle to the Libertarian Web Directory.

First, all the Trump-related links:

I’ve been saying this for a while, but Robby Soave at Reason articulates why the left bears a lot of the blame for Trump due to their aggressive pushing of political correctness.

Slate Star Codex talks about similar problem on crying wolf about Trump.  Even mentioned in Episode 33 of The Fifth Column.

Tyler Cowen on why Trump’s plan to keep jobs in the US is pretty awful.

Nonetheless, also read why Bryan Caplan isn’t freaking out about Trump.

The Nerdwriter, on YouTube, makes the case that Trump is a magician, using the media to distract our attention from where it should be.  Maybe I should stop reading about him so much.

Now, other related political posts not explicitly about Trump:

Megan McArdle had a good piece talking about bridging the gap between the “right-wing media” and the regular “media”. If you want to bring conservatives back into the mainstream, you have to stop politicizing everything and only hiring left-leaning news reporters who only want to cover the local food movement and how evil Walmart is.

Related: Bryan Caplan discusses that if you just talk about how great cohesion is and despair at the political divisions we see, you’ll never get outgroups to come back in, because to them you sound like you’re telling them to conform. You have to actually unilaterally reach out to them and show them respect despite how much you dislike them.

Philosopher Nick Land argues that contrary to the notion that fascism as a societal system has been largely dead since WWII, in fact almost all political philosophies in the world today are largely rooted in fascism, including the major political philosophies of the United States, progressivism and conservatism.

What is the most prominent social science debate happening at Peking University today? The most prestigious university in the still-technically-communist-party-controlled China isn’t about Maoism vs Stalinism, it’s a planned economy vs markets.  

Scott Sumner has a hopeful take on fiscal policy and specifically reducing government budgets.

Here is a terrifying story about the unintended consequences of overcriminalization, and deference to state power. A woman with a previous arrest for prostitution, was picked up and charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”. Loitering is not a criminal activity, but can be applied to anyone standing still. Loitering for the purpose of doing something else is quite speculative. Of course, prostitution itself is already a criminalization of a voluntary transaction, so now anyone who has been arrested for a voluntary interaction other people find distasteful cannot stand anywhere without being accused of a crime. In fact, if cops think women are dressed too lewdly, they can also be arrested for intent to prostitute themselves. Since this woman is relatively poor (thus the loitering for a ride outside of a trailer park), she’s forced to plead guilty to the charges and go to jail for 2 months.  

Related: Adam Ruins Everything this week is about how important prostitution was to settling the American west, and, interestingly, empowering women in that region of the country far before they had similar rights in the east.

Why build higher? This video takes a look at the history of skyscrapers, but also delves into important areas of urbanization and how humanity will live in the future. Cities are more and more important to human civilization, and improving urban areas to exploit efficiencies of concentrated living is one of the most important challenges we face.  

Crash Course has a 10 minute intro video for the philosophy of utilitarianism. Since that’s an important building block for many of the arguments on this blog, I would definitely recommend it.  

Finally, to wrap up the short videos category, Learn Liberty has a great 5 minute video on one of the most fundamental economic concepts: Opportunity Costs. Every choice we make has a hidden cost of what could have been done with those resources and time. Ignoring those opportunity costs can lead to paradoxical ideas like the Broken Window Fallacy.

For the best coverage of the death of the dictator Fidel Castro, this long piece at the Miami Herald is the most comprehensive take available.

Postlibertarian throwback: read about the politics of outrage back in 2014. Unfortunately we have…not fixed our focus on outrage yet. 2017 and the age of Trump isn’t looking so great either.


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The Election Doesn’t Change Trump’s Bad Policies

The Trump Issues

In the Trump election aftermath, many on the left have discussed how best to approach this new challenge. Many have talked about trying to understand the concerns of Trump voters. This is a worthwhile undertaking. The people who voted for Trump have several worries spanning cultural differences, economic hardship, and perhaps even existential fear for the country as a whole. First, let’s go over those concerns.

The first, and perhaps most important concern for Trump voters was that the alternative was Hillary Clinton. This blog had an extensive discussion on Hillary’s shortcoming including her flaunting of the law, her foreign policy, her defense of Obamacare, her tax increases, and her slant towards government power in every sphere. I would argue some of these flaws are also present in Trump, but many Trump voters could at least hope the Trump unknown would deliver something more to their liking than the known failure of a Hillary presidency.

Granting all of Hillary’s problems, why did they think a Trump unknown was worth risking? Broadly, one area we did know where Trump stood was on the culture wars, and for that he was initially hailed as a hero against the left. I think the left has to shoulder a huge part of the blame here, because people have been trying to tell progressives their culture is intolerant for years.  See: Scott Alexander on tribalism and tolerance in 2014, Clarkhat on Gamergate in 2014, this blog last year, another blog, and Robby Soave did a good job summing it up after the election. I don’t think there’s much to add here.

On economic hardship, the more stereotypical Trump supporters (Trump won older voters, rural voters, and uneducated voters) have something to complain about as well. If you want to be depressed, please read this ridiculously long piece called “Unnecessariat “ (or skim this American Conservative piece for some key points). The takeaway is that Trumpland is hurting because it has been economically abandoned, not just culturally isolated. With services dominating the economy, the prospects for those living outside of cities has diminished as well. We are seeing increased suicides, drug addiction, and hopelessness in these areas.

Finally, combine these worries with media that feeds panic about disasters and internet echo chambers, and you get stark existential panic about entirely separate threats.

Cracked had an interesting piece on Trumpism and how we got here, and what caught my eye was the idea of urban culture slowly making its way out to the country. Cracked claims that older, less educated, rural folks saw the abandonment of Christian traditional culture in these hedonistic wonderlands of coastal “liberal” cities and thought there would be dire consequences for the nation. Low and behold, they see: “Chaos…Blacks riot, Muslims set bombs, gays spread AIDS, Mexican cartels behead children, atheists tear down Christmas trees.”

The Trump Solutions

The problem is that many of these perceptions are just wrong. We are healthier, less likely to be murdered, and safer than ever before. Maybe we blame clickbait media, maybe we blame gullible people for believing it, but living in cities just isn’t that scary.

Last year, I met an acquaintance who had grown up in a smaller town in the South, but was now moving to another state near a major urban center. He found out I had grown up in his destination city, and despite having just met 5 minutes prior, he peppered me with bizarre questions about whether I thought it was safe to live there. I assured him that it was a major metropolitan area where millions live and work without a problem every day. He made it seem like he was moving to Afghanistan. Look, I’m sure it was pretty hairy to live in New York/Miami/Chicago/LA in the 80s, but crime rates have collapsed over the last 25 years. The amount of people murdered in the first season of Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen likely exceeds the total number of murders in all of Manhattan last year. Our perspective is all off. And if we are imagining that law and order is collapsing, our solution is going to vastly over-correct.

That’s part of a bigger point I’ve already made: Trump’s political victory doesn’t mean his supporters have any good ideas about improving the country, or even their own situations. It just means enough people thought there were enough problems for more voters to cast a ballot for Trump over Hillary in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. For instance, I think there is a real basis for complaining about the intolerant left-wing culture that has grown more bold over the last 10 years. But the Trump response has been his own version of intolerance, just copying the left and doing nothing to improve the situation.

On the economy, Trump’s plan is at best a mixed bag. Experts are mediocre at predicting economic growth, so figuring out the best economic policies to help growth may also be difficult. Trump and his supporters might blame globalism for their woes, but putting tariffs on imports and striving to shut down commerce with some of our largest trade partners will hit the poor the hardest. Price increases on low cost imported products will harm low income earners much more than upper middle class households with savings and easier means of substitution. Maybe in the long run this will spur some industrial investment, but I think it’s just as likely to speed up automation. In 4 years, many economic problems scaring Trump voters could easily be exacerbated.

More to the point, the government can’t reverse the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Short of seizing control of the economy via a 5 year plan, the world has changed. Manufacturing jobs peaked in the early 80s (BLS), and while globalization has accelerated the trend, it didn’t start it. Of course, “globalization” isn’t really an entity either; decisions that changed where firms do business were made by millions of individuals looking at cost-benefit analyses and comparing prices. The government didn’t say “move these factories to Mexico”, the government said “Technology is making it easier to communicate and do business in other countries, so we will reduce taxes and import quotas to make it easier for businesses and shareholders to do things they already want to do”. Trump can’t come back and order companies to make bad business decisions unless he wants a Soviet-style command economy with capital controls.

The United States has such a strong economy due to many factors, including its large, diverse, and skilled working populace, an abundance of natural resources, heavy investment in research and capital, and strong and interconnected financial markets. Our consumer market is the largest in the world, our trade dominates the globe in both goods and services. International economic institutions from the New York Stock Exchange to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are based in (and often dominated by) the United States.

Trump’s push to cut us off from strong trade ties will certainly harm the American centrality to the global economic system. Obviously, to many Trump fans, this is a bonus, not a problem. But long term decline in American trade would likely be connected to more sluggish growth as native industries are protected from competition; for example, Apple has pushed innovation in the smartphone market since 2007 which radically changed the status quo of what phones could do. It has had ripple effects throughout the economy as the spread of widely accessible powerful mobile computers has changed everything from transportation to social interaction to navigation and even shopping. But we should remember that the smartphone revolution was made possible by cheap global supply chains, and without them, we are likely to see stagnation.

And those older, rural, lesser educated Trump voters? No one is going to want to hire them unless the economy is clicking and demanding more workers. Sluggish growth with no competition bred by protectionist policies won’t help them.

Maybe Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation pushes will jumpstart the economy enough to overcome his bad trade polices. It’s possible, but I’m not betting on it. If it doesn’t work, in four years we will simply have the same economic problems just with tons more debt. That’s a big risk he’s taking. And it’s made more risky by Trump’s plan to expand the police state and start deporting at least two million people  (not to mention increasing military spending from the $500 billion a year we spend already).  The ACLU has gone into detail about the difficulties we face if Trump attempts to carry out his campaign promises. It’s very difficult to deport millions of people without doing away with probable cause; how do you find and arrest only the people here illegally? If they aren’t caught by the police while engaged in crime, then by necessity the police must come to them, requiring sweeps of entire residential areas, stopping people with no probable cause at all. At the very least this is grossly expensive, and more likely it will harass and catch thousands of innocent American citizens in a dragnet. And none of this even touches on registration of Muslims, continued mass surveillance, and use of torture.

In four years if the economy hasn’t improved much, debt has accumulated, and the police state has been vastly expanded, will Trump admit his policies haven’t worked? This seems unlikely as Trump has never really apologized for any stances he’s taken or mistakes he’s made. It seems far more likely that he’ll use this built up police state to harass his political enemies.

If Trump is willing to place trade barriers and dramatically reduce the world-leading $2.4 trillion worth of goods imported, how much will he be willing to use government subsidies to pay companies to “invest” in the United States? Does this sound like government direction of the economy? If things aren’t going well, will he seize more control of the economy?

I should note, I haven’t even brought up Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest, where representing American diplomatic interests may run counter to his profit-seeking ones. I also haven’t mentioned that someone who is extremely thin-skinned will be in charge of the nuclear launch codes. Many of the concerns of Trump voters don’t make much sense, many of the policy solutions of Trump and his voters are bad and would make things worse, and on top of that, Trump is irresponsible, incompetent, authoritarian, and many other things I’ve argued before. Continued opposition to Trump’s policies is vital over the next four years.


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In the Spirit of Thanksgiving, Go Shopping

In 2006 I spent one of my most memorable Thanksgivings with my parents grandparents in small town Virginia. Having just purchased a Wii on launch day, we all sunk hours into playing Wii Sports Tennis and Boxing. A few days later, my father and I collectively combed through Black Friday ads with my father trying to create a strategy to purchase hot items before they disappeared from shelves. We then woke up early in the morning to wait in line together at Best Buy.

As with many Americans, I treasure Thanksgiving as a time to spend with family and friends. However, unlike many, I anticipate the most commercialized parts of this day as a means to foster my connections to those people, not as a violation of the spirit of the holiday. Were it not for the Wii launch, I would be missing dear memories with my grandparents. Without Black Friday, I would have lost a valuable bonding experience with my father.

Capitalism is not an evil structure that obsesses us with material objects and wealth. Think about the last conversation you had with someone important to you. Chances are, it had something to do with a movie, a piece of clothing, technology, or some other commercial product. Tongue-in-cheek discussions like Apple vs. Samsung rely on markets to promote information sharing, while improved consumer photo and video devices allow us to relive memories more vividly than ever before.

So this Thanksgiving, remember the people you love, but also remember the markets that help make those memories special.


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Trump, Democracy, and Power

I’m working on a post about the political implications of Trump’s victory, but for now, let’s look at what Trump’s win tells us about democracy and government legitimacy.

I’ve seen some people on the left trying to reach out and understand the concerns of Trump voters. This is absolutely welcome, and in a future post I will talk about which of those concerns make sense, and which don’t. However, if you’re only considering other points of view because you lost an election, you may be thinking about politics and government all wrong. The goal of government policy shouldn’t be to cater to the whims and desires of the people who voted and supported the winning coalition, while crushing the unbelievers under a savage reign of public shaming and thought crime. Unfortunately, it feels like much of the social justice left adopted this mentality, and so we now might be forced under a right-wing government that has countered by taking this same governing strategy to heart. Policy should be about creating the best outcomes we can, which I think largely results from allowing individuals to make as many of their own decisions as possible with minimal government interference. That means allowing for a broad range of activities and types of commerce to occur, but it also means opposing expansion of government power.

Of course, the best way to do that right now is to point out that political victory doesn’t mean Trump supporters have any good ideas about improving the country, or even their own situations. The expansion of government action and government power Trump has promised are still terrible regardless of any democratic outcome.

I’m aware this is harsh, and it’s part of what Trump voters are complaining about when they say coastal elites are ignoring them, but I’m not (and have never) dismissed their concerns as racism and xenophobia; I tried to look at Trump’s policies themselves. The problem is that Trump never met me or anyone else on policy grounds. He has few ideas, and the ones he does have are pretty crappy. Against Trump acknowledged the left had done plenty of bad things, but Trump promised things at least as bad.

Moreover, the left (and maybe even the right) shouldn’t be saying “I live in a democracy, so apparently Trump’s ideas are legitimate because he won an election”. They should be saying “Maybe democracy is dangerous if it legitimizes tyranny, and maybe we should limit the power of the state to reduce the risks democracy poses”. In fact, they probably should have been saying this for the last eight years.

Being skeptical of democracy isn’t so bad. Democracies don’t always come to good solutions to problems. Supposing a majority of voters have elected one candidate over another, it’s several steps of logic to then say that a single rejection of one candidate in an election of dozens of issues then constitutes that the winning candidate’s stance on a particular issues is (A) popular and (B) effective. Add in that Trump did not actually win the popular vote, and, the fact that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there is no knowable community preference on any issue which had 3 or more possible stances to choose from.  And even if voters could all agree on a single popular issues, there’s no reason their favorite policy would actually work.

What I’m trying to say is that despite whatever concerns Trump voters have, what matters are the actions he takes. The problem is that the last two administrations have massively expanded the executive power of the president and increased regulatory involvement in many areas of the economy. The Department of Defense has compiled a massive database and is spying on American citizens and foreign nationals without warrants. That data is shared with federal law enforcement agencies again without oversight. The president has the power to strip you of your rights and hold you indefinitely if you are investigated in connection to terrorism. He even apparently has the ability to kill you without a trial. Trump has promised further abuses of power, including deportations of millions of people that cannot be done without racial profiling and gross abuses of due process. 

Maybe Trump won’t seize executive authority or scoff at the Constitution at all, and 90% of his campaign promises will turn out to be hyperbole. But I doubt it. Maybe he’ll try to accomplish things and be thwarted by checks from the other branches of government and the Constitution like Madison imagined. I maintain that what matters is policy, and if his policies are not that bad, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But the fact that many are worried anyway indicates that we all understand to some extent or another that we have created an imperial presidency. It’s concerning that over 60 million people voted for a stated authoritarian who has advocated war crimes including killing of terrorists’ families; it’s also concerning that almost 61 million voted for someone who advocated a war in Libya without Congressional approval, who supported and continues to support warrantless spying on Americans, and condoned drone attacks that actually killed families of terrorists. The fact that 60 million votes is enough to make us fear for our rights means our troubles started a long time ago.

Yes, Trump’s presidency will likely be worse than anything we’ve ever seen, but as a state skeptic, it’s helpful when a politician just comes out and says how horrible they are rather than everyone pretending that the Obama and Bush imperial presidencies were normal and acceptable uses of executive authority. It makes the case against state power much more straightforward. Progressives need to realize is that Trump is worse only as a matter of degree; this blog post would have been written had Hillary won on Tuesday, it just wouldn’t have had a president-elect that cared so little about his reputation.

 


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Picture Credit: Replica Oval Office by George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Against Hillary: Government Power and Criminal Justice

This is the fifth and final post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Government Power and Criminal Justice

I could go on critiquing many more topics where progressives and libertarians disagree. I’m not sure that would help, so I’ll conclude with this broad section on government power. The fundamental problem we should all have with Hillary Clinton is that she trusts the government to fix every problem we face. But the government has no competition, is slow to change, is slow to respond, and wields a massive police state. Moreover, she also seems to believe government officials should always be trusted to act in the public interest. This seems to govern her position on her mishandling classified information, on her foreign interventions and wars, on healthcare, on government spending, on our right to know that our government is spying on us, and even on the right for people to publish books and movies critical of candidates near elections.

Let’s go back to some points I made in my Against Trump post. As noted by Conor Friedersdorf, the powers of the president apparently include ordering the execution of American citizens with drone strikes (something it seems Hillary Clinton implicitly approved of), detaining Americans suspected of terrorism indefinitely, and spying on millions of Americans with unconstitutional general warrants. Quoting me from the Trump piece:

The enormous amount of statutes on the books means it’s almost certain average people break laws every single day, and so these law enforcement agencies can always find probable cause to arrest you. Then they can stack up charges to force a plea deal, all at the discretion of prosecutors.  As it stands right now, there’s a strong case that the criminal justice system is biased, slow, and unfair, and that it deprives individuals of their rights. But now imagine Trump in charge of the DEA, FBI, intelligence services, and the military.

I later compare Trump to Nixon. My intention was to show that bad presidents have existed and they did terrible damage. Of course, Nixon and Trump in reality have little in common; Nixon was an unlikeable, calculating, politically successful military interventionist who also expanded the size and scope of the regulatory state and federal government while using his power to cover up his aggressive use of the state to fight his political rivals. In other words, he was literally Hillary Clinton in 2016. Imagine putting Richard Nixon in charge of the government today where he would have access to unprecendented surveillance, secret courts, and undeclared wars. This is what we face in a Clinton presidency.

One of the biggest issues in 2016 has been the way police interact with citizens, especially people of color. The trust Hillary Clinton has in the state is simply incompatible with the reality of police abuses. Libertarians, on the other hand, have been talking about police abuse for quite some time. Some of those ideas have been adopted by Clinton including an opposition to mandatory minimums, a prioritization of violent crime over drug crimes, and better police accountability. But Clinton’s positions are mixed at best: harsher sentences in the 90s that helped create the massive prison population we see today weren’t just introduced for drug possession, but also firearm possession. Clinton hasn’t discussed liberalization of firearm ownership, and in fact has called for the suspension of 2nd amendment rights for people placed on the unaccountable and discriminatory terrorist watch list. Her support for the Patriot Act and NSA spying doesn’t really imply a worldview that wants to reduce the police powers of the state. Indeed, her stances in all sorts of areas from undeclared wars to videogames reflect a fundamental belief in civilian deference to state power. Yet as countless examples have shown, including Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and more, deferring to a powerful police state allows harm to come to innocents.

The more power the state has, the more likely there will be confrontations between actors of the state and citizens, and confrontations where there is a power imbalance leads to abuses. Even if we could end racism today, we would not be solving the problem; police that still abuse their power, just against people of all races equally are still immoral. Whether it’s the justice system broadly, government surveillance, regulatory powers, or foreign interventions Hillary Clinton does not offer a fundamental change from simply trusting in the state to fix the problem. Our military has been involved in trillion dollar middle eastern wars over the past 16 years. The justice system is so broken that prosecutors can force 95% of defendants to accept plea bargains. We are outraged at the power the police are wielding without oversight. Yet we are making the problem worse by putting a reincarnation of Richard Nixon into the White House, after she has already brazenly broken the law and gotten away with it. This is simply the wrong answer.


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Picture Credit: Public Domain Image, from National Archives and Records Administration.

Against Hillary: Fiscal Policy and Taxation

This is the fourth post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Taxation

I won’t spend a huge amount of time on this section because there’s another fundamental ideological argument here, but I want to emphasize a few key points. One is that government taxation and spending is inherently distortionary in an economic sense. Therefore, we should be biased against government policies that transfer money unless we can definitively show the benefits are significantly larger than the costs. Relatedly, the tax code should be as simple and as non-distortionary as possible. Gary Johnson has a pretty good idea here on replacing the income tax with a similarly progressive consumption tax. Similar tax holes would likely be carved out over time, but throwing out the current system in favor of one that does not discourage income earning, but only spending, would have some clear benefits. This idea is popular among libertarians, progressives, and even Bill Gates. It is not a perfect plan, especially when taking into account transition costs, but the current tax code does not have much going for it: it’s complex and creates bad incentives everywhere. Needless to say, Donald Trump’s fiscal policy may not raise taxes, but excessive government borrowing can have big costs as well, and at some point in the future distortionary taxes will need to pay for all of Trump’s out of control spending ideas.

Spending

The second point is that if we assume luck is an inherent part of wealth, then using government as a form of social insurance is pretty reasonable, even from a libertarian standpoint. But most government spending is not focused on giving money to the poor. A huge chunk is spent on the elderly in the form of social security and medicare, even though many are solidly middle class. Taxes for the programs are also fairly regressive. Other major spending categories are overseas military operations, defense spending generally, veterans spending (which we will see more of if Hillary is elected), and interest on the national debt. Together these make up a lot more than 60% of the federal budget. And that’s not even going into the costs of the war on drugs, corporate subsidies, and so on, which are a bit harder to calculate, but are nonetheless real costs which are not remotely focused on helping the poor. The problem is that Hillary isn’t really talking about reforming these areas. If anything, she’s talked about expanding them and introducing new spending areas. Again, this isn’t even mentioning the unknown costs of her future foreign policy blunders.

Free college tuition is really the most egregious. We already live in a world where college graduates are forced to take jobs that they are overqualified for. The reason is partially because government already offers huge subsidies for college tuition; as a result, colleges have little price competition. They just increase the prices, and the state just keeps paying it. Increasing the amount of subsidies in order to fix a high price doesn’t work for tulips (seriously, read it), and it doesn’t work for college. Spending lots of money to educate someone on a subject that is not in demand, whether it’s a B.A. in psychology or skills in coding fortran, is very expensive to society. That cost should be born out by the person learning the skill with no market, not by society. Incentives would then push people to either learn skills that are in demand (so they can pay back the cost of education), or to forego college and begin earning immediately without huge upfront costs. Both of these would be better for society at large. Yes, we should help those with little wealth with government support, but those receiving help should ultimately decide what to do with additional funds that will best help them. The government should not interfere with the relative opportunity cost faced by prospective applicants to college. Reducing, not increasing college subsidies is the only way to control the rising cost of college and fix the overqualification and saturation of college degrees in the job marketplace.

Finally, paying for this with higher taxes on the wealthy is a bit wishful. Firstly, the arithmetic doesn’t quite add up; the New York Times estimates higher taxes would raise only $100 billion to $200 billion depending on how broad and steep the tax increases are. This isn’t enough to cover current annual payments on the national debt. It would likely cover public college tuition today, before additional cost growth and the large influx of students that free tuition would bring. There wouldn’t be much room for a new war in Syria or an expansion of social security. Secondly, federal tax revenues have basically never exceeded 20% of GDP. It’s not that higher taxes wouldn’t raise revenue; they just wouldn’t beyond a certain level. A Clinton presidency would not be as fiscally irresponsible as a Trump presidency, but it is a bit worrisome considering the returns of this spending seem to be to get middle class votes more than to help the poor.


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Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0

Against Hillary: Healthcare

This is the third post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Healthcare

Now we’re turning to a subject where there may be an unavoidable Fundamental Ideological Disagreement. Nonetheless, I think there may be some agreement that the current healthcare system has many problems.

In 2009, the Democrats had complete control of the presidency, the House, and even had a super-majority in the Senate. Their priority was healthcare reform: the American system was prohibitively expensive, spent too much money even when patients were covered, tied your healthcare to your job, denied coverage to people with preexisting conditions and others who could not pay, and did not properly align preventative care incentives. They took a fundamentally left-leaning, centralized, top-down approach to solving these problems. The Obama administration specifically stayed out of the legislative process allowing much of the law to be patched together through Congress. They solved some of the problems in the American health system (and those steps are to be commended), some they tried to solve, but didn’t, and some they ignored altogether. Ironically, for a piece of legislation often called the “Affordable Care Act”, one of the problems Obamacare largely didn’t touch was the lack of market forces and pricing pressures on healthcare, guaranteeing the price problem would worsen.

When it comes to allocating resources, incentivizing cost saving and innovation, and producing the best quality goods for the lowest possible prices, there is no better system than a competitive free market with unregulated prices. Sellers seek to provide the best product at the lowest cost so that buyers will want to purchase them.  I’d hesitate to even call it a system, since, apart from pricing systems and private property, everything is driven by individuals making decisions, according to their own priorities and needs. Markets do have problems, but the biggest one is that poor people won’t have the money to get the product (i.e. healthcare) they need. Unfortunately, instead of just fixing that problem by giving government healthcare subsidies to the poor, Obamacare tried to solve all the problems of the entire healthcare system through legislation. Obama had an unprecedented opportunity to encourage both market reforms and increased coverage for the poor, but instead opted for the (politically easier) increased regulation on a system already heavily strained by bad rules.

Instead of making it easier to purchase healthcare as an individual, Obamacare cemented the relationship between employment and healthcare. Instead of allowing consumers and doctors to figure out some prices with high deductible insurance plans, Obamacare mandated many more items be specifically covered by insurance plans, thus hiding their costs from patients. Instead of allowing insurance and consumers to follow their own incentives to promote preventive care, Obamacare mandates one-size fits all preventative care regulations which encode waste into the system. For more critiques of the system, check out this review in the Cato Journal.

The result is a system that solved the problem of coverage for the poor and people with preexisting conditions, but did not fundamentally solve the lack of market pricing and bad incentives. The mandates on insurance companies and hospitals (besides creating waste) increased the cost of providing care. The increased cost was supposed to be alleviated by subsidies and more young people entering the system, but the costs have been higher than expected and thus fewer people have signed up than had hoped. Perhaps more subsidies would get more people to sign up, but that doesn’t really solve the fundamental issues, just puts the burden of cost onto the taxpayer instead of healthy consumers. As a result of a lack of healthy young people in the system, insurance companies are raising premiums, despite downsloping demand curves (you drop prices to bring people in, not raise them). Clearly, the problems will only continue, and we’re stuck in a political situation where some parts of Obamacare are popular and now can’t be politically taken back, despite them being unsustainable.

Hillary Clinton wants to keep much of this situation intact. This is a terrible policy. We need real market reforms or this cost growth will continue. This isn’t even to suggest that an insurance mandate would be bad policy, or that the poor shouldn’t be able to get healthcare subsidies; but if there is no price competition, no ability for consumers to choose their healthcare provider, then there are no ramifications for patient or doctor’s actions that are inefficient or unnecessary. The costs are just socialized by the system and the problems never fixed. And it’s not like we are out of ideas for fixing the healthcare system: ending healthcare ties to your employer, allowing for more widespread use of HSAs, scaling, split benefits, and reforming scope of practice laws are just some of those. Over the last 15 years, American middle class wages haven’t improved much. Yet healthcare costs (and spending as a part of GDP) has gone way up. Perhaps if these costs were better controlled (and not paid by employers), more of the productivity gains would return to middle class incomes. But we’ll never find out when Hillary is president.


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Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0