State of the Union

As Detroit Prepares for Clear-Cutting, Signs of Hope

Yesterday an Obama administration-convened task force released what the New York Times called “perhaps the most elaborate survey of decay conducted in any large America[n] city,” detailing the pervasiveness of perceived blight in the Motor City. The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force surveyed 377,603 properties, and recommended 40,077 for demolition, 38,429 for further review. Task force leader Dan Gilbert set the stakes somewhat colorfully, saying, “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.” In order to fully follow the task force’s clear-cutting recommendations, Detroit would need to spend at least $850 million, almost twice the $450 million the city has already planned to spend on blight.

The Times story, and its accompanying infographics, follow a traditional script in discussing Detroit: staggering back before the enormity of the city’s failure, peering in at the ruin porn lining the city’s streets. Yet even as the city has gone bankrupt, has been placed in the hands of an appointed manager, and now faces the prospect of spending enormous sums it doesn’t have just to tear down tens of thousands of its properties, there are local kernels of hope blossoming out of the void.

In a recent discussion on the EconTalk podcast, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns pushed back against the idea of Detroit as pure desolation:

If you go right now, today, to the core of Detroit, it’s actually one of the most exciting places in the world. And largely because of the absence of government. There’s nobody there telling people: You can’t open this business, or, You have to get a permit to do that or inspections to do this. There are very few barriers for young people to start a business and get things going.

Likewise, the famed New Urbanist architect and urban planner Andrés Duany wrote earlier this year that “Detroit is going to be the next ‘Brooklyn.’ Perhaps not all of Detroit. But certainly a portion of the city has the potential to become as rich and thriving as New York’s trendiest borough.”

How could Detroit, poster child for post-industrial urban decay and dysfunctional governance possibly be characterized as “one of the most exciting places in the world,” or seen as holding—even in part—the potential to rival “New York’s trendiest borough”? Precisely because the city’s governance has collapsed in on itself, and the area is so incredibly cheap. As Duany recounts, Read More…

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Why Sprawl Goes Broke, but Cities Rebound

Suburban sprawl often comes under criticism for a variety of aesthetic, environmental, and social reasons, but one criticism rules them all, Aaron Renn writes. They aren’t financially sustainable:

new suburbs look attractive for a number of transitory reasons: everything is new, state of the art, and exactly in line with current market tastes; no legacy costs; no legacy institutions, deals, political dynasties, etc; few low income residents and thus low social service costs; deferred infrastructure development; the efficiency of large lot development; and scale economics in public service provision in a growth environment.

Eventually though, your shiny new suburb fills up and so growth comes to a halt, then often about the same time it gets old. This send all of those positive factors into reverse, triggering a cycle of decline that will ultimately cause major problems in vast tracts of suburban America that aren’t either a) wealthy communities or b) in markets that have tight restrictions on new building (which preserves these communities at the expense of rendering them unaffordable).

Renn recounts the experience of his current home of Indianapolis, where the city chased after its fleeing tax base by annexing the surrounding suburbs and forming a truly sprawling metropolitan government. As the shine wore off, however, the suburbs declined, and sprawl’s short-sighted design began to take its toll. As Renn wrote,

The bottom line is that the type of development that’s been ongoing in Indy and most American communities can’t ever generate enough tax revenue to pay to provide the infrastructure, amenities, and services necessary to support it.” Even the old city was comprised of widely-spaced single-family houses without so much as curbs, much less sidewalks. Suburbs are built because the land is cheap, as is generic development. There is simply no tax base to fund infrastructure developments that could revitalize the dragging sprawl.

Contrast Indianapolis’s infrastructure dilemma with the rapidly developing neighborhood of NOMA in Washington, D.C. Located north of Union Station, NOMA has seen an explosion of multi-story business and residential development over the past few years, with rooftop views of the Capitol obstructed only by the sheer number of cranes at work. The neighborhood has conspicuously lacked “open space,” or parks, in the eyes of its residents and developers, but that will soon change as the city has allocated $50 million to build NOMA some parks. Why does NOMA get park space when Indy can’t afford sidewalks? It has the tax base to pay for it. Although for accounting reasons the money is coming out of general expenditures, the NOMA neighborhood now contributes $49 million more per year to the city in tax revenue than it did in 2006. By building dense communities with businesses and residences intermixed, urban development can go where decaying sprawl fears to tread.

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Transit Gives Millennials an Off-Ramp From Cars

For generations of young Americans, a driver’s license stood as the ticket to freedom, freeing teenagers from the watchful parental eyes that accompanied being dropped off at bowling alleys, bookstores, and boyfriends’ houses. Living in a sprawling, vast country, particularly one whose postwar planning consensus had been dedicated to subsidizing suburban sprawl, a car was often the only feasible way to connect their geographically disparate destinations. Recent years, however, have seen millennials deserting the car in startling numbers. While the drop is certainly driven in part by the economic pinch of soaring gas prices and the increasing burden of graduated license regimes, an accompanying trend has given young would-be drivers a transportation off-ramp that preserves their mobility: the revival of transit.

One of the latest and clearest examples of transit’s poaching of the young comes from just north of the border, where the Vancouver metro region has seen the percentage of residents aged 20-24 even possessing a drivers license to have dropped from 70 percent 2004 to 55 percent last year. As Kenneth Chan describes the data,

The greatest declines were seen in the municipalities that are the most urbanized and served by a substantial level of public transit. …

Burnaby and New Westminster’s proportion declined from 68 per cent to 50 per cent, likely due in part to the increased accessibility to transit following the construction of the Millennium Line.

Richmond also saw a similar drop of nearly 20 per cent from 2003. Metro Vancouver’s data shows that the biggest year-to-year drop for both Vancouver and Richmond was in 2009 when the Canada Line opened for service.

While driver’s license data likely wouldn’t reflect changes in older cohorts that had already procured licenses (indeed, those were mostly flat, even increasing among the over-65), the Vancouver’s aggressive push to increase the accessibility of transit in its region has clearly started to capture the rising generations.

The trend is well-documented below the 49th parallel, as well. Last year Brad Plumer over at the Washington Post noted that the average yearly miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds fell 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. Over that same period, public transportation use per capita rose 40 percent, and bicycling rose 24 percent.

While these data sets do certainly overlap with significant economic pressures that could be depressing the results, transit has started to shake off any perceptions of it as the poor person’s transportation of last resort. As Amy Crawford describes at Atlantic Cities, transit has become so popular in many places that the announcement of new transit extensions will drive up nearby real estate prices, and neighborhoods with newly-installed transit saw people with incomes over $100,000 disproportionately flock to them. And while the youth migration to cities may have once been seen as a luxury of unattached twenty-somethings who would once again return to the suburbs when it came time to settle down and nest, the New York Times recently reported that even stalwart suburbs like those of New York’s Westchester County were starting to get anxious at the failure of younger adults to boomerang back out to the ‘burbs.

While the exact numbers will continue to shake out, the trend seems reasonably clear: once famously sprawl-friendly Americans are flocking to dense communities, and are willing to ride the rails to get there.

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When Seized Land Lies Fallow

The now-vacant Fort Trumbull neighborhood where Kelo’s house once stood. Daniel / cc

When then Justice John Paul Stevens handed down his now infamous ruling in the eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, he insisted that the seizure of a Connecticut neighborhood “was not intended to serve the interests of Pfizer, Inc., or any other private entity, but rather to revitalize the local economy by creating temporary and permanent jobs, encouraging spin-off economic activities and maximizing public access to the waterfront.” The public use taking he approved was a public enterprise designed to serve the city and its people, not the state seizing and transferring private property for the benefit of other, wealthier, more powerful private hands.

Should Justice Stevens make it up from his Florida retirement to the town of New London, he could behold the revitalized local economy, with its temporary and permanent jobs, encouraged economic activities and maximized public access to the waterfront. He’ll have to squint, though. There’s nothing there.

As Charlotte Allen found on her tour of the area a few months ago, the Fort Trumbull area of New London is now “a vast, empty field​—​90 acres​—​that was entirely uninhabited and looked as though it had always been that way.” You see, the private entities whose interests were not the core justification of New London’s taking pulled out of the project: the developers failed to find funding; Pfizer engaged in a merger that allowed it to close its New London facilities, not expand them, and to get out just before the tax incentives the city gave them ran out and they would have had to pay full fare for their property.

New London’s latest mayor has another plan in the works for Fort Trumbull, as the city’s coffers remain empty thanks to a missing tax base, this time “a national first​—​a green, integrated mid-rise community. There would be green tech, LEED-certified buildings, solar power. It would be a green, self-sustaining neighborhood.” Even that remains in the wispy aspiration phase at the moment, however. The only actual occupants of the Fort Trumbull development area since the seizure, and the clear-cutting, have been piles of garbage and waste, piled there in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Oh, and there have been reports of feral cats. Read More…

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The Stillness of Saturday

It’s Saturday—the day of waiting, the day of quiet. The day when disciples quaked behind closed doors, and darkness covered the lands, and the Son of God lay in a tomb. The day of aching, grieving, seething pain.

That 24-hour cycle of numbness and fear throbbed through Jesus’ disciples, through the people who were “looking for the kingdom of God,” like Joseph of Arimathea. It was after Jesus was dead that Joseph and Nicodemus finally exposed their allegiances—they took Jesus’s body, wrapped it in a linen shroud, wrapped it in 75 pounds worth of spices. They wrapped his body in their own allegiance and love, telling the world who they followed.

And the women followed and saw—the women who had cared for Jesus, ministered to his traveling troupe—they followed him from road, to cross, to tomb. They didn’t fear the blood or turn away. They didn’t run and hide. They followed and watched, then went to prepare their spices and ointments for His body. But first, on the Sabbath, “they rested according to the commandment.”

How do you rest when your hopes and dreams are lying in a grave?

We live in a culture of pain. So often, our response to the world’s pain and death is either cynicism or despair. Author Leslie Jamison writes in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” that we live in a post-wounded culture (she limits this to women, but I think it could apply to much of our world):

The post-​wounded posture is claustrophobic: jadedness, aching gone implicit, sarcasm quick on the heels of anything that might look like self-​pity … Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever.

This is a world that has screamed with the pain of genocide, holocaust, terror and war. It’s a world in which 55 million babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade in 1973. It’s a world of shunning and racism, hate and abuse, violence and fear. We grow accustomed to the stories—we look back on anniversaries and shrug our shoulders: What could we have done differently? Perhaps nothing. We sit in the silence and nurse our aching wounds. We begin to believe the lie: we were made for this bleak, hostile, hurting world. We were made for death and destruction.

But no—“death is an abomination and an obscenity,” says blogger Tony Woodlief. We are right to lament, to protest, to reject the bleak blackness of death: Read More…

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How to Run Virtuously

James McWilliams wrote an interesting but disappointing piece on exercise addiction last week. The piece shows how engrossing—and potentially damaging—the sport of running can be:

Potentially addicted runners will cheat family time to run, sneak in runs without telling people, design vacations around exercise opportunities, will (if injured) count the days since their last run like an alcoholic counts the days since his last drink, and forgo sex to run (we often joke that nobody spends a Saturday morning running 20 miles because they have a great sex life). It seems certain that, if these symptoms are in any way common, running addiction will become an official disorder in due time.

Yet, in conclusion, McWilliams decides that perhaps these obsessed runners aren’t wrong, or even disordered—rather, they’re in tune with the physicality enjoyed by “pre-industrial people,” our ancestors who would not have been as inactive as modern Americans. “What if the real addicts are those who seek to be sedentary,” he asks, “While the crazed athletes are the ones who are seeking the deeper wisdom and capacity of the human body?”

McWilliams has a point here. American’s desk-bound, inert lives are rather abnormal and harmful to the human body. New research shows that commuting alone can promote higher cholesterol, depression, anxiety, back pain, and sleep discomfort (among other symptoms). Also, as a runner, I can understand the benefits he describes: the feeling of being “at ease with the world,” the sense of accomplishment and renewed purpose with each mile.

But at the same time, the sort of exercise McWilliams advocates for—the constant 10-plus mile runs, sacrifice of time, family, and health—does not seem to foster true excellence. At least, it would not stand up to Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which functions as a mean between excess and defect. Aristotelian virtue does not consist in obsession to the point of bodily harm—he said a warrior who purposefully put himself in harm’s way was not courageous, but careless: he has fallen into the “excess” side of the equation, thus falling short of true virtue. Similarly, McWilliam’s crazed runner falls too much into excess to be truly virtuous.

Yet McWilliam’s runner is no stranger to us, whether we be runners or no. Most modern Americans feel compelled to develop an expertise—be it a career, hobby, or sport. The “specialist” or “expert” always receives greatest respect, while those who “dabble” in various trades or interests are less likely to garner acclaim. Indeed, in education, fields that teach breadth over depth are seeing less students and less interest. Take the humanities, or philosophy: as philosopher professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein told the Atlantic, interest in philosophy has declined as students “want to get good jobs and get rich fast.” Money and renown goes to the specialists, not to the holistic scholars.

This isn’t meant to denigrate experts, professional athletes, and the like—most careers require a good depth of knowledge in a given subject. But it is important to consider whether we are practicing virtue in our trade, and whether we ought to “branch out” in order to become more healthy and well-rounded human beings. Perhaps the politician should pick up art (like Winston Churchill), the “foodie” should study literature, the economist should take dancing lessons. It isn’t that specialization is bad, so much as that specialization can often lead to obsession—and obsession leads to personal and societal disorder.

St. Augustine called such obsession a “disordered love.” The concept springs from his beautiful Confessions: disordered love seeks ultimate happiness in temporal, earthly objects or pursuits, “an action which engenders all kinds of pathologies in human behavior,” writes David K. Naugle.

“For wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to you [God], it clasps sorrow to itself,” wrote Augustine. “Even though it clings to things of beauty, if their beauty is outside God and outside the soul, it only clings to sorrow.”

Running can be a thing of beauty. Waking early and jogging to a measured cadence, watching the sun illumine a dark sky, etching new trails in the soft earth—it’s an exhilarating, delightful sport. But if it’s all we cling to, we will ultimately become disillusioned, disordered, and unhappy—just as with any realm of love and interest. Much as I enjoy running, I never want this “thing of beauty” to become a disordered love.

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Of Binge-Reading and Libraries

Think that public libraries are dying out? Not so fast: the Pacific Standard’s Anna Clark believes that “the best-kept secret about America’s libraries is that they are wildly, deeply, and incontrovertibly popular. They are as actively used as ever, if not more.”

The American Library Association and Pew Research Center have the stats behind this claim: according to ALA, public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials last year—the greatest amount in 10 years. Circulation for children’s materials increased by more than 28 percent, and 60.5 million children attended library-hosted programs. Pew Research Center confirmed these numbers: they found that 94 percent of 6,200 surveyed believed a public library improved quality of life. A full 81 percent said they prized libraries for the book access—not just for the free Internet.

Clark encouraged readers to take a stand for libraries, so that these bastions of culture and learning have the funds necessary to stay alive: “Again and again, libraries have been there for us,” she writes, “to the point of becoming almost an invisible part of the civic fabric … It’s our moment to stand up for our libraries: to count them as essential to civic life, and to make sure that those making funding decisions in our community know it.”

If book publishers’ latest scheme is successful, growing demand may remove any final worries for the fate of the library—or it may bring a severe blow to their business. The Atlantic Wire reports on the latest “trend,” or hopeful trend, for the book business: “…Book publishers are looking to make “binge-reading” a thing. Call it ‘a TV approach’ to publishing, as editors at St. Martin’s Press did to the The New York Times. While developers and companies looked for the ‘Netflix for Books,’ the real contribution of Netflix to the book publishing world has been its all-at-once rollout.”

This would mean “closing the gap between book releases”: releasing series over the course of a few months, rather than a year (or longer). This would enable fans to get hooked, and stay hooked. “With the speed that life is going these days, people don’t want to wait longer for a sequel,” Albuquerque bookseller Susan Wasson told the New York Times.

This scheme is an interesting study in venues and audiences. While Netflix may inspire the development, a book is different from a TV series, and a library different from an instant-watch website. With the caveat that writers’ style and quality should not suffer (due to the pressure of speed), it’s not a bad thing to release books in quick succession. It seems a wise and marketable scheme. But while all-at-once rollout may foster book buys, it may favor online sales over library or bookstore visits. If you want to buy the next book in your teen vampire series, will you wait for your local library to buy the latest copy—or will you grab the Kindle edition from Amazon? Netflix has drawn audiences away from the traditional television by offering endless hours of entertainment without the hassle. An onslaught of binge-targeted titles may have a similar effect on libraries. Read More…

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How Over-Classification Hurts the Fight Against al-Qaeda

Last week Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank, hosted a panel on the current state of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The panel included senior fellows Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn, with Georgetown’s Director of the Center for Security Studies Bruce Hoffman. FDD’s Vice President for research Dr. Jonathan Schanzer moderated.

The most dismaying portion of this talk was the knowledge that information at our fingertips is not publicly available. At the time of bin Laden’s death, hundreds of thousands of documents were recovered that likely contain invaluable information concerning al-Qaeda’s organization and bankrollers. To date, only seventeen of them have been declassified along with a handful of videos. The panelists, particularly Joscelyn—who became visibly more agitated as he related these numbers—were all in agreement that this was unacceptable. Gartenstein-Ross estimated that 90 percent of the documents were not harmful to U.S. national security, and must be declassified to perform open source research.

When asked what they thought that drop-in-the-bucket statistic of the declassified documents meant in terms of the United States Government’s attitude towards classifying documents vis a vis their war on terror strategy, Joscelyn offered, “What was offensive to me was…that you could see a change in the narrative in what the documents said.” The first version claimed bin Laden was heavily involved, only to be reversed a year later. He continued, “That says to me we need transparency…because if we’re going to have that sort of flip in the narrative, then the American public needs to see for themselves what the evidence is, because we have such competing claims here.” He asserted that the minimalist interpretation of the paltry amount of documents is false, and that given the time and resources devoted to battling al-Qaeda, the public should have a better idea of who America has been up against for the last decade.

Hoffman’s point was more direct—and pessimistic: “What it says about our attitudes?” he asked. “Well, the main thing is that history doesn’t matter.” He lamented that the few documents had been released were ambiguous, rendering any analysis gleaned from them woefully incomplete. The “historical blindness” resulting from the attitudes about declassification and war deprives the U.S. the opportunity to examine details on how al-Qaeda operated and how it might evolve under future leadership.

Joscelyn’s insightful observation made a compelling national security case to declassify those documents: if Edward Snowden’s actions could disrupt national security initiatives, couldn’t releasing al-Qaeda’s documents have a similar effect?

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The Great Society’s Great Cost

Lyndon B. Johnson signing Medicare into law.

The Congressional Budget Office did not exactly say Obamacare would cost the nation 2.5 million jobs.

But what it did say is vindication of what conservatives have preached since Barry Goldwater stood in the pulpit 50 years ago:

The more liberal the welfare state, the greater the disincentive to work and the more ruinous the impact upon a nation’s work ethic.

The CBO has just given us a statistical measure of that truth.

The Obamacare subsidies, it said, will cause some to quit work, others to cut back on the hours they work, and others to hold off going to work, so as not to lose the benefits.

The cumulative impact of all these decisions will be equal to the loss of 2.5 million jobs by 2024. A devastating blow to an economy where the labor force participation is at a 30-year low.

The CBO has put a number on what everyone knows to be true: If people don’t have to work to provide the needs of their daily lives, some will drop out and become permanent charges on the public purse, deadbeats.

The father of modern liberalism, FDR, never disputed this. As he warned in 1935, welfare is “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

This used to be called common sense. Growing up, we all knew or read that those who inherited great wealth often ended up never holding a “real job” and spent their days in a life of self-indulgence.

However, a related and larger question is raised by the CBO: If Obamacare alone will cost the equivalent of 2.5 million lost jobs to the U.S. economy, what is the impact of our entire welfare state on the vitality and dynamism of the U.S. labor force? Read More…

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A Cheney Vet Takes Aim for the Next War

John Hannah here argues that Saudi fear and loathing of Iran destroys the case for negotiating with Tehran. He proposes that we walk the Saudis “back from the ledge” by promising to bomb Iran if Tehran doesn’t surrender virtually entirely its nuclear enrichment program. Inadvertently, he provides a textbook example of a superpower being led around by its “allies”—if we don’t do what they want, they will destabilize the region, find other partners, acquire their own nuclear weapons, etc.

Perhaps here one should recall a salient part of Hannah’s biography: he is one of several low profile but highly placed Bush and Cheney aides who worked to set the stage for the Iraq invasion. Hannah was instrumental in channeling (“stovepiping” is the term of art) false information from an anti-Saddam Iraqi exile group into the White House, circumventing regular US intelligence vetting. He wrote the original draft of Colin Powell’s famous pre-invasion U.N. speech, in which Powell made a false but tragically effective presentation about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. So we aren’t speaking here of a random neocon bloviating about Neville Chamberlin; Hannah is a man with an actual track record in making wars happen, one who understands that facts, or “false facts,” can acquire a life of their own within a complex government bureaucracy if you know how to insert them and get them repeated in the right places. It is a process somewhat analogous to money laundering, a sort of information laundering: if you get a lie reported as fact in New York Times, you can then uses it as source, and perhaps get Colin Powell to repeat it before a global audience. And the lie (Saddam’s nuclear weapons program) assumes a life of its own.

You might think that a record like this would be detrimental to one’s career. Not really. In Washington, a neoconservative hawk never has to say he’s sorry. After his “government service” as a Cheney aide, Hannah was snapped up by the Sheldon Adelson-financed Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he now works to set the stage for a war with Iran. (It should be pointed out that the Saudis vociferously opposed the Iraq invasion. What did Hannah think about Saudi concerns back then?)

The Beltway worry used to be that Iran would get a nuclear bomb, which would would set off a “cascade of proliferation” throughout the Middle East. But any successful diplomacy with Iran will ensure that Iran not have a nuclear bomb, but a scaled down and tightly monitored uranium enrichment program. Nevertheless, Hannah deploys the same overheated language, as if it makes no difference whether five Security Council members (plus Germany) had just reached agreement to allow Iran a bomb program, or, as is actually the case, not. Hannah rails against Iran’s “march to the bomb”; he refers to John Kerry’s “stab in the back” diplomacy (a trope oft-used in early Nazi propaganda against the Weimar government; one wonders if Hannah is aware of that).

In all candor, we don’t know what the Saudi reaction to an eventual American rapprochement with Iran might be. Serious people who study the matter doubt that even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon the Saudis would try to do the same. It’s not clear how they would acquire one, even if they wanted to. It’s not as if Saudi Arabia produces a lot of nuclear physicists.

Reduced to its essence, Hannah’s argument is that American diplomacy should be tied, apparently forever, to the fears and ambitions of a reactionary medieval monarchy. But why on earth should it? Hannah invites us to share Saudi remorse that the United States didn’t “strike” Syria, as the Saudis hoped, in order to overthrow Syria’s tyrant and replace him with some Saudi-favored jihadists. Why is that an American interest? When one reads counsel like this, from someone who was once, and may be again, highly placed in Republican foreign policy circles, one can only note how far America has strayed from George Washington’s admonition about “entangling alliances. ”

The Foreign Policy comments following Hannah’s article are caustic and often illuminating. There is clearly an informed public that won’t get fooled again. One wishes one could say the same for elected Republicans.

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