Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Japanese “Lost Decade” Redux

It certainly seems like it. Reason magazine finds the current way the US is addressing the economic crises to be pretty familiar:

The scenario was eerily familiar. A long real estate bubble that had expanded extra rapidly for the previous five years suddenly burst, and asset prices came crashing back down to earth. Banks and financial institutions were left holding piles of worthless paper, and the economy soon headed south. The national government responded to the crisis by encouraging more lending and spending previously unfathomable amounts of money on public works projects in an effort to stimulate consumer spending and restart growth.

Of course that’s where we are now and what that led too in Japan has come to be known as the “lost decade” (now three decades old).

One of the things we’ve pointed out is there is an element within this model that both Japan and now the US has used that is focused on “pain avoidance” (GM and Chrysler are prefect examples of that). Part of that is driven by the belief by those in power that the government can address problems within markets and lessen the impact. The second part of that, of course, is by convincing the public that’s the case, they then have to try to do what they claim they can do. But the law of unintended consequences has a bad habit of pushing its way into such situations and turning them sour:

The Japanese experience shows that when the government is an active participant in the market, many firms would rather accept state support than initiate the inevitable financial reckoning. Such a status quo does not provide a sustainable foundation for the economy. Instead, it restricts economic growth and creates a cycle of stagnation.

A friend, talking about the recession and eventual recovery, said that we’ll come out of it “okay” because “Americans are neurotically productive”. True. But so are the Japanese. While we have a fantastic workforce which is among the most productive in the world, even they won’t be able to overcome restricted economic growth caused by the government’s deep intrusion into various markets.

Comparing Japan’s reaction to the US reaction in similar circumstances is instructive:

When a recession began to set in after the 1990 stock market crash, Japan responded by reversing its tight money policy, cutting rates to 4.5 percent in 1991, 3.25 percent in 1992, 1.75 percent from 1993 to 1994, 0.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, and as low as 0.1 percent in September 2001.

A similar pattern took place in the United States. From 2000 to 2002, the Federal Reserve slashed the target discount rate from 6 percent to 0.75 percent. Fearing irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, the Fed then raised the rate as high as 6.25 percent in June 2006. But now that the bubble has burst and the economy contracted, the Fed has cut the discount rate 12 times, lowering it to the current 0.5 percent. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeatedly stated that he sees interest rate cuts as a way to “support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks.”

In both the Japanese and the American cases, post-bubble policy makers believed that lowering interest rates would make credit easier to obtain, thus recreating the environment that had spurred economic growth to begin with. But this meant that the supposed cure for a bubble created by easy credit was to extend even more easy credit.

These rate cuts only perpetuated the distortion of economic decisions and prevented savings, investment, and consumption from realigning with true preferences, as opposed to the illusory ones created by easy credit and artificially low interest rates. The lesson is that when monetary policy is used to “smooth” or “tweak” the market, it inevitably causes unintended consequences that in some cases can be very damaging to long-term economic growth.

Of course it is hard to say what future growth might be had the US government not done what it has done. But again, using Japan of that era vs. the US of that era, the difference is between 1.3% growth on average vs. 3.5% growth here. In economic terms that is a huge difference.

Reason also does a nice job of dismantling the “failure of regulation” argument. As they point out, what must be examined is how the regulatory environment then in place spawned the crisis vs. the claim that not enough regulation was in place.

For instance, government housing policy of the era:

The push to expand homeownership had two big effects. First, it greatly increased the number of buyers, driving up housing prices. Second, it provided mortgages to a large number of people who had a high risk of default.

That policy was further enabled by the capital reserve requirements which, in effect, encouraged heavy lending and an insensitivity to risk. Instead of admitting that and understanding that such policies are dangerous, the reaction has mostly been to ignore that and shift the blame to the private sector with calls for “more regulation”.

And then, going back to the “pain avoidance” point (justified as “too big to fail” by the government), what has happened is, as in the case of GM and Chrysler before the bankruptcies, government propping up failed businesses:

The Bank of Japan tried to ease economic pain by loaning large amounts to businesses. But the attempts to recapitalize the market ignored underlying management problems in the dying firms. It was a costly mistake. Intense lobbying from special-interest groups representing various sectors of the Japanese economy perpetuated the ill-fated loans and funneled government money to zombie businesses.

The United States has already begun to copy this policy, lending billions of dollars to financial institutions and auto companies and buying up billions more in bank equity in an effort to recapitalize the marketplace. The effect has been to keep poorly managed firms alive with taxpayer money.

Had they been allowed to fail and go through the reorganization process, those problems would have at least been addressed. They haven’t, at this point, in most of the financial sector and in the auto sector, it remains to be seen.

Of course the government’s deep involvement in these sectors and businesses sets up a natural conflict of interests. While a business is market oriented, and takes signals from consumers, governments are agenda driven and politically oriented. And it then comes down to a matter of incentives. In the first case the incentive of a business is to serve its consumer base. But that’s not the case with politicians necessarily, is it?

Lawmakers’ incentives are to serve their constituencies or their own political careers. This can put them at odds with the businesses they are suddenly attempting to manage. The more the government is involved in directing business activity, the less likely those firms will succeed in maintaining long-term growth, and the more likely they will turn into Japanese-style zombies.

While we’d like to believe that lawmaker’s constituencies consist of the people in their state or district, in reality they consist of special interests who help keep them in office. The ability to deliver to those special interests and keep their support and dollars flowing is just to much to resist for most.

Additionally:

Studies from Okimoto’s center and the Bank of Japan concluded that data revealing the scope of the economic malaise were suppressed and that regulations were developed with governmental interests in mind.

Given how the discussion has been driven here by the likes of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, there’s little doubt that regulations will be “developed with governmental interests in mind”.

In reality it all comes down to power, or the illusion of power, and politics. Short-term politics with no real eye on the future impact of actions taken today. And these actions are based in a false premise that the market is not self-correcting and that it must be both controlled and tweaked by government.

Japan bought into that premise, and so has the US:

The principle of creative destruction—the economic mutation that continuously breaks down old forms and creates newer, more productive and efficient ones—was ignored in the hope that legacy corporations could somehow save Japan. From Wall Street to Detroit, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the American government has been equally unwilling to let once-formidable companies fail.

And that, in my opinion, will see us repeat the Japanese experience, despite the small glimmers of hope we’ve been seeing in the reports in recent days. This isn’t about short term increases in home sales and construction spending. This is about the long term economic health of our economy.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not seeing moves by the government that work toward the most positive outcome in that regard.

~McQ

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Domestic Terrorism?

Picking up on Bryan’s excellent post yesterday, we now have two examples of what could be classified as “domestic terrorism”.

We have the Tiller case in Kansas where a doctor that offered late term abortions was murdered at his church while acting as an usher.

And we have the murder of a soldier and the wounding of another by a “muslim convert” who “was opposed to the US military” in Arkansas.

Each perpetrator appears to have been “a lone wolf”, i.e. someone who may have acted out of some sort of belief, but was otherwise unaffiliated with any group or movement which could be identified as a terror or pressure group.

If that’s the case, would you see each of these cases as “domestic terror” cases – i.e. do they fulfill the definition Bryan used, “the pursuit of political goals through the use of violence against noncombatants in order to dissuade them from doing what they have a lawful right to do”?

If so, what do you think the “political goals” of each given they were, or appear to be “lone wolves” (or was this simply a “crime of conscience” most likely rationalized by a rather sick mind) and do you think their acts were actually intended to dissuade others from doing what they have a lawful right to do?

And, given the new tendency toward attempting to classify crimes in this manner – were each of them “hate crimes”?

~McQ

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I Don’t Think That Means What He Thinks It Means

Dan Neil, an LA Times entertainment writer, takes this lesson from the GM bankruptcy:

The final chapter of that merger plays out this week as GM weathers a reorganization that will leave the federal government owning 70% of the company. In the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s, it’s hard not to see GM’s bankruptcy as a signal moment in a larger history. If mighty GM can fail, cannot also the United States? And the answer is, absolutely.

This is the lesson of GM’s bankruptcy, and it has little to do with market share and miles per gallon. It’s a rebuff of the notion of exceptionalism. Any organization that fails to sufficiently safeguard its means of self-correction and reform, that forsakes long-term investment for short-term gain, that piles up debt year after year, will eventually fail, no matter how grand its history or noble its purpose. If you don’t feel the tingle of national mortality in all this, you’re not paying attention.

While I essentially agree with the thrust of his point, I don’t think the term “exceptionalism” as it is used when speaking of America, has anything to do with flouting the laws of economics. They are called “laws” for a reason, and no one has yet to find an “exception” to them. We have, however, discovered over and over again that attempts to make exceptions to them fail miserably.

The exceptionalism most speak of when they use the term in conjunction with America has to do with law, ethics and philosophy of life – the foundations of the country that make it exceptional. But economics? Of course we can “fail” if we do the stupid things we’re doing. And, unfortunately, we seem bound and determined right now to prove that point. But that has nothing to do with our “exceptionalism”.

~McQ

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Feldstein: Cap-and-Trade A “Bad Idea”

Martin Feldstein, a professor of economics at Harvard University, president emeritus of the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984 has concluded that the Waxman/Markey cap-and-trade legislation is a bad idea. He comes to that conclusion for a number of reasons.

First, his understanding of the legislation and its economic impact:

The leading legislative proposal, the Waxman-Markey bill that was recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would reduce allowable CO2 emissions to 83 percent of the 2005 level by 2020, then gradually decrease the amount further. Under the cap-and-trade system, the federal government would limit the total volume of CO2 that U.S. companies can emit each year and would issue permits that companies would be required to have for each ton of CO2 emitted. Once issued, these permits would be tradable and could be bought and sold, establishing a market price reflecting the targeted CO2 reduction, with a tougher CO2 standard and fewer available permits leading to higher prices.

Companies would buy permits from each other as long as it is cheaper to do that than to make the technological changes needed to eliminate an equivalent amount of CO2 emissions. Companies would also pass along the cost of the permits in their prices, pushing up the relative price of CO2-intensive goods and services such as gasoline, electricity and a range of industrial products. Consumers would respond by cutting back on consumption of CO2-intensive products in favor of other goods and services. This pass-through of the permit cost in higher consumer prices is the primary way the cap-and-trade system would reduce the production of CO2 in the United States.

Note that he doesn’t play any games when talking about where the cost of such permits will end up – passed through to consumers. He prefers the CBO’s lower estimate of the impact per family of about $1,600 per “typical” family to some of the higher estimates in the $3,000 t0 $4,000. But they’re all estimates and they all say, even at the low end, that the impact is going to be significant.

Feldstein then looks at the possible payoff and challenges Americans to ask a very pertinent question. He also calls the plan exactly what it is – a tax:

Americans should ask themselves whether this annual tax of $1,600-plus per family is justified by the very small resulting decline in global CO2. Since the U.S. share of global CO2 production is now less than 25 percent (and is projected to decline as China and other developing nations grow), a 15 percent fall in U.S. CO2 output would lower global CO2 output by less than 4 percent. Its impact on global warming would be virtually unnoticeable.

But its impact on the American economy? Well, you don’t have to be a Harvard economist to figure that out. And a quick glance at Europe and how quickly most of the countries there figured out a way to ignore Kyoto should tell you the rest of the story.

Feldstein may or may not believe the theory that says CO2 is a pollutant and the cause of “global climate change”. But what is clear is he certainly doesn’t believe our seeming desire to strap ourselves economically without the big emitters (China and India) doing the same is a) worth it economically and b) make a bit of difference in real terms.  Doing it without those two and all others included is about as smart as committing to unilateral nuclear disarmarment.

Feldstein goes on to attack the pending cap-and-trade legislation for other reasons as well – mostly on a revenue and impact basis (and how revenue can soften the impact – yeah, subsidy – at the “payee” end – i.e. consumers.  Of course, only a certain class of consumers would most likely be eligable and it will be up to the more well-to-do to pay their “fair share”).  But the two big points of his criticism are the most important in my thinking.

1. It will, regardless of how it is structured, have a negative economic impact on every American household and thus our economy.

2. It won’t make a bit of real difference unless everyone is involved in such reductions.  Exclusion of the big emitters makes our “economic sacrifice” literally worthless in terms of the supposed overall goal of cutting CO2 worldwide.

Because of those two points alone, we should demand that such legislation be voted down.  I think the focus on CO2 is a load of unscientific nonsense, but politically that has no legs at this time.  But what does have legs is the argument summed up in those two points and opponents of cap-and-trade should use them (and Feldstein’s name) to make the argument against the pending legislation.

~McQ

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The Threshold for Political Violence

Here’s a question for readers of all political stripes:

How big would a moral outrage have to be before you turned to violence?

Imagine that you live in a place in which what you perceive as a grave moral injustice–specifically violence against innocents–is enshrined in law.  You may perceive your opponents as anywhere from mean-spirited to perfectly well-meaning, but either way they are determined to continue, and your prospects for overturning this outrage through the normal legal process any time soon are scarce or nil.  In the meantime, you believe something horrific is happening on a massive scale.

For our purposes, try to think of different governments — direct democracy, representative democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, whatever.

At what point do you decide to act against law, by an alternative code?  And specifically, I mean turning to violence: threats, destruction of property, assault, assassination, even terrorism* and revolution.

What prevents you from acting violently up to that point?

  • The high personal cost?
  • The low probability of success?
  • The fear that things will turn out worse than simply allowing the grave injustice to continue?
  • Simple aversion to personally engaging in violence, despite your belief that the status quo is violence under color of law?

I’m trying to get at what flips a switch in someone to get them to turn to political violence.  Can you imagine a situation in which you would turn to such violence?

I suppose this turned into more of a thought experiment than a question.  But your input is welcome.

___________________

* I prefer Philip Bobbitt’s definition of terrorism in Terror and Consent as “the pursuit of political goals through the use of violence against noncombatants in order to dissuade them from doing what they have a lawful right to do,” so remember, you oppose these noncombatants for supporting laws.

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Idiotarian Returns

I believe that we have a replacement for MK-Ultra showing up in the comments section.  It might even be MK-Ultra, since the commenter Dude09 seems similarly dense enough to have a noticeable gravitational field.  Apparently, he was all upset that no one mentioned the wack-job who killed the abortion doctor in Kansas today, and we didn’t put it up on the board as a topic of conversation for the Podcast today.

Since it apparently seems that we have to occasionally re-explain the facts of life to morons, I will do so again.

1. We set up the Podcast topics on Friday.  For the most part, if we didn’t discuss it on Friday, it doesn’t go on the air on Sunday.  It’s not a daily news show.  It’s a discussion about things that have caught our eye over the past week.

2.  We will not always create a post on your pet news story.  Why?  Maybe we didn’t know enough about it.  Maybe we haven’t heard the story yet. Maybe we’re busy.  Or, maybe we just don’t care.  For instance, let’s take a look at my day.  When I got up today, I got dressed and went for breakfast, and then to the grocery store.  Upon my return, I trimmed hedges and bougainvillea, sprayed Roundup on some weeds, and picked up dog crap in the back yard.  Then, I went directly into my office to record the Podcast.  Immediately after that, I worked for 1.5 hours on a client web site.  I scarfed down a quick dinner, during which I first saw an actual news report on the shooting.  I then worked until 9PM on another client web site.  So, here’s a clue, maybe I didn’t blog on your pet story because I have a life, and responsibilities that preclude me from doing so.  I mean, really, do you think we sit around all day cruising the internet and news sites to latch on to your pet story as soon as it appears.  Cripes, most of the time, Bruce writes the stories you see on the blog on the night before they appear.

3. Sometimes, your pet story just isn’t compelling.  Someone went unhinged and shot an abortionist.  So what?  I mean, it’s a terrible tragedy, but what does it tell us about…well…anything?  What conclusions are we supposed to draw?  It’s not like abortionists are getting bumped off on a regular basis.  The last one of these that occured was 11 years ago, back in 1998.  What lessons am I supposed to draw from the fact that some lunatic thinks God told him to kill an abortionist that are in any way substantively different than those I would derive when a crackpot kills his pharmacist because the Venusians sent him a command to do so via the transmitter secreted in his skull?

4.  I really hate peer pressure.  Even if I was inclined to write about a story at some point, having you kite in here and call me an ass because I haven’t done it yet is a sure-fire way to get me to ignore the story completely.  I’ll ignore it just to spite you.

5.  I don’t care what you want to hear about.  I didn’t open up a request line when I started blogging.  I did to write about things that interest me, and beleive me, the abortion issue is way down near the bottom of the list of things that interest me.  If you send me a story, and it interests me, and if I have time, I might write about it.  Or not.

I hope that clears things up.

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Dealergate and Statistics

Yet another statistical analysis of the Chrysler dealership closings has been conducted, although this one appears to be both much more thorough (albeit preliminary) and concentrated on the correct data (my emphasis):

To start with, we pulled raw donor data from The Center for Responsive Politics / OpenSecrets.org for the 2008 election cycle and extracted ~865 megabytes of 2008 individual contribution (“IC”) cycle table entries.

[...]

… this particular output is the widest available dataset on contributions. We matched this data against two Chrysler dealer lists:

First, Docket #797 “Document #3″ “Schedule of Designated Domestic Dealer Agreements and Cure Costs Related Thereto” (a list of dealers expected to survive).

Second, the famous “Exhibit A” document of dealers to be closed.

[...]

We ran binary logistic regressions across the variables. The results are interesting but the most dramatic was saved dealers v. donations by candidate and/or party.

The results of the analysis suggest that donors to Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential race received some preferential treatment. That does not mean that anyone has proven anything, nor that the statistical analysis makes any sort of unassailable case. It merely raises a concern that, given the probabilities, Clinton donors appear to have survived the dealership closings surprisingly well.

This puzzled us. Why would there be an significant noticeable (we have rightly been called out for using significant here) and highly positive correlation between dealer survival and Clinton donors? Granted, that P-Value (0.125) isn’t enough to reject the null hypothesis at 95% confidence intervals (our null hypothesis being that the effect is due to random chance), but a 12.5% chance of a Type I error in rejecting a null hypothesis (false rejection of a true hypothesis) is at least eyebrow raising. Most statistians would not call this a “find” as 95% confidence intervals are the gold standard for this sort of work. Nevertheless, it seems clear that something is going on here. Specifically, the somewhat low probability that the Clinton data showing higher survivability of Clinton donors could result just from pure chance. But why not better significance with any of the other variables? Why this stand out?

Then we got to thinking. Steven Rattner, the Car Czar, is married to Maureen White, one-time national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. What does Maureen do now? From her website:

Maureen White is currently Chairman of the Board of Overseers of The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a member of the North American Advisory Board for the London School of Economics, and a National Finance Chair of the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign. (emphasis ours)

That website looks dated, but you get the idea.

Again, we want to point out that our findings are preliminary and subject to change. But whatever the result, the Administration has made themselves very vulnerable by taking charge of the dealership closing decisions.

I’m still not sure if there’s anything to the allegations, but there seems to be more than enough anomalies to warrant some questions being asked of the Obama administration. It should be noted that the theory regarding potential shenanigans has morphed from Obama creating a Republican hit list with the closings, to Obama benefiting Democrat donors by allowing their dealerships to survive (and thrive), to Obama’s “Car Czar” rewarding donors to his wife’s favorite political candidate (Hillary Clinton). When the theory moves that much, often it’s a sign that one is fishing for a villain. And despite the evidence amassed in this case showing that an unusual number of Democrat donors are set to prosper from the closing decisions, that may be the case here.

However this all turns out, one thing is certain: by involving itself so deeply in the fate of Chrysler (and GM), the Obama administration invited scrutiny concerning its decision-making processes. Furthermore, in being so opaque about how the government is picking winners and losers (not to mention that it is making these decisions at all), the Obama administration has left itself open to attacks of favoritism. That has nothing to do with Obama or partisanship in particular, but with the fact that unaccountable power rightfully raises fears and suspicions of favoritism. If Chrysler had been left to fend for itself in bankruptcy, none of these questions would have been raised.

The government arrogated to itself tremendous amounts of power over what would normally be private business decisions. In the process, the Obama administration blatantly used its power and influence to reward a favored constituent group (the UAW). Now that statistical evidence suggests more favoritism may have been in play, it’s a little late to cry “conspiracy theory.” Instead, the Obama administration should start opening the books and answering questions.

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Podcast for 31 May 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, Billy, and Dale discuss the economy and the Sotomayor nomination.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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“Revolutions happen when a system suffers a major loss of political legitimacy.”

Amir Taheri broaches a subject that I’m sure will sound over-the-top to many. He asks, “Is England on the verge of revolution?”

Given the way the British government increasingly treats their citizens as serfs, I’ve wondered if serious resistance to such treatment would build to significant levels. I’ve only had one brief visit to Britain, so I’m in no position to venture an informed opinion. But Taheri finds some evidence that a tipping point may have been reached:

“I do sense a revolutionary mood,” David Starkey, one of Britain’s foremost historians, told the BBC. “I won’t be surprised if we did end up having a revolution.”

The current scandals of British MPs are one of the main drivers of the mood. They seem to be blatantly abusing their offices to feather their own nests (shades of John Murtha, et. al.), and simultaneously becoming increasingly irrelevant and hapless to do anything constructive because of the shift of power to the EU. Taheri thinks this has a pretty dramatic effect on the British:

Every nation has a number of founding myths. Britain’s principal myth is that it is the birthplace of modern democracy and a land where the law is supreme. The shocking realization that “the mother of parliaments” may have been acting as the rudest of street sluts is not easy to stomach. Some of the same politicians who go around the world lecturing others, especially in the “developing world”, against corruption, have been exposed as practioners of petty larceny.

I’m no expert on the British character, but I would not expect such behavior by itself to drive a revolution. However, it has a synergistic effect with a shrinking economy and significantly higher unemployment, which Britain is suffering. No one likes it when they suffer while their political elites are prospering by playing fast and loose with the rules.

Taheri points to the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as additional factors. Given that we have plenty of war opponents here, and that Britain was one level removed from the responsibility for those wars, I suppose they probably have more.

But to me, the main point was captured in the quote I used for the title. Revolutions can only happen when a sufficient numer of the people no longer believe their government is legitimate. It’s very unlikely for one single incident to cause such a shift in thinking. It more of a water-torture, drip, drip, drip process. Items such as the apparent politically-motivated dropping of charges against a serious example of voter intimidation are examples of incidents that don’t look that major on their own, but every one of them risks convincing another small set of citizens that their government isn’t playing by their own rules, and no longer cares about the welfare of the nation as a whole.

I choose that particular incident because erosion of confidence in the rules surrounding the ballot box are particularly damaging to the legitimacy of the government. I’ve talked to people who are convinced that our elections are a sham and participating in them is not only a waste of time, but actually bad because it gives a facade of legitimacy to what they perceive as an illegitimate process.

I’m not advocating revolution, but it’s worthwhile to point out that the ultimate check on an abusive, out-of-touch government is revolution. I don’t see it as a bad thing for our political elites to understand that their authority and ability to abuse us is not infinite. Since Britain is a few steps further along the path that Obama seems determined to take us, I hope our elites pay some mind to what might lie at the end of that path.

(Found via Instapundit)

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