Waste Not

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In Japan, you discover ways of economizing that are entirely different from ours. Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, but in this place, unlike Hong Kong, the people do not all live in apartments. Most of Tokyo is a sea of single-family houses — and different houses, each one individual. The Japanese manage this by cramming them together, with no yard to speak of. They will often have a place to shoehorn a car, and always right at the edge of the property. They don’t waste real estate on driveways, at least not where I was.

The streets, too, save space. Where I stayed in the suburb of Kichijoji, there were no shoulders and no parking on the street. The arterials had sidewalks separated from the road by a railing. The side streets had no sidewalks and no lawns — just streets and houses, crammed tight. But if the alternative is to have a cave in the sky with lots of open space below, the Tokyo way is certainly more comfortable for an individualist.

I had a question, though: If you have a party, where do the guests park their cars? I forgot to ask my host and never did figure it out. In Hong Kong, where people live in tiny apartments, if you want a big party, you rent a room at a hotel.

Across the street from the house where my family and I stayed was a city park where people picnicked and walked their dogs. It was big. In the midst of it my host pointed out a fenced-off area about the size of a family garden back in the States. There was no garden in this enclave; it was unkempt. But it was private. In Japan, my host explained, private owners can’t be compelled to sell, so the property sits there, in this case unused.

The Japanese are big on recycling. My host has several rooms full of stuff he’d like to get rid of, and there is no easy way to do it. “You can’t just take it to the dump,” he said. Sometimes he sneaks stuff into the dumpsters in the park across the street.

In this park, however, I saw no trash cans other than the dumpsters at the food concession. In my short time in Japan, I was constantly looking for a trash can. They were not to be had — yet the Japanese do not throw garbage on the ground. What do they do with it? Do they carry it with them? Did the people I passed on the street have a stash of crumpled-up wrappers in their purses and pockets?

The Japanese are also fastidious about their dogs. I thought we had reached the apex of fastidiousness in Seattle, where dog owners pick up their pets’ poops from the ground by reaching for it through a plastic bag. In the park in Japan, I saw a woman do one better. She was holding a plastic bag under her dog in anticipation.




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A Living Wage?

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Ever since Fidel Castro’s retirement from all official positions of power in Cuba in 2008, and his brother Raul’s accession to the presidency, the island and its concerned neighbors, trading partners, assorted NGOs, and inquiring observers have been atwitter with the possibility of “hope and change” erupting.

Throughout this period, dominated by much informed speculation about the course of future events but overshadowed by the ever-present ball-and-chain of the still-living Fidel — the "conscience" of the Revolution — I have tried to separate the wheat from the chaff for Liberty’s readers. The winnowing has included accounts of the official transfer of power, the character of Raúl (according to his sister’s memoir), quotidian life on the island, the role of corruption, evolving US policy, and even Fidel’s admission, in a Gramma editorial, that yes, mistakes had been made.

But the big news has always been the projected microeconomic reforms and the ministerial-level reforms where grandiose plans for investments through joint venture agreements between foreign corporations and the regime are being concocted.

Well, Gallus economicus is slowly slouching homeward, with an eye to roosting.

Self-employment in over 180 professions is now legal — though with some restrictions and paperwork. Last month, the buying and selling of homes and cars also became legal (as per above). The biggest splash is being made by the 3,000 executives from over 60 countries, prospective joint commercial enterprisers, at Havana’s annual trade fair last month. But that splash has overflown the verge of the little pool and is soaking an awful lot of people.

According to The Economist, several foreign managers have been arrested and three joint ventures have been closed. One British and two Canadian executives have been held for questioning without charge, the former for over one month and the other two for several months. “Perhaps,” the article speculates, “because some of these steps are controversial, he [Raúl] is also cracking down on corruption, which the cash-strapped state can no longer afford to fund.” Since the government never set up tender guidelines for its corporate partners, kickbacks for contracts are rife. But rumors of the allegations extend way beyond bribery and push the definition of "corruption" into territory it is only now exploring.

In an era when foreign corporate investment in third world countries is subject to the scrutiny of such fuzzy concepts as “a living wage” and “social justice,” used to criticize pay scales based on local customs (pay scales that often provide income for people who might not otherwise be employed, that are perfectly legal and welcome, and that produce a product affordable to a wider audience), Cuba is adding a new and thought-provoking twist to the debate.

Some of Cuba’s new foreign venture partners, in an effort to attract dedicated employees and avoid meddling outside criticism, are sweetening employee contracts with bonuses and perks, such as extra-tasty lunches. Unfortunately, the Cuban government requires firms to hire workers through a state employment agency that pays meager salaries. Any remuneration above state mandated levels is considered corrupt. Some of the foreign managers’ arrests and joint venture closures, according to the rumored allegations, are attributed to the "overcompensation" of employees.

If you truly want to help the poorest coffee growers, stick with the “exploitation coffee.”

But the door swings both ways. Cuba’s comptroller general has had dozens of employees in the sugar, mining, telecom, and tobacco industries jailed for graft. For Castro, developed world market wages are a step too far. One European businessman, who pays bonuses to his entire local staff under the table, says, “My people help run a business which brings in millions of dollars to Cuba. I need to pay them a salary which is rather more than the price of a taxi ride home.”

Aside from the health consequences of exercise vs. smoking, which is the greater evil: Nike's legal and welcome $1.25-a-day Indonesian wage to sub-adult employees for the manufacture of athletic shoes, or another international corporation’s illegal and prosecuted near-first-world compensation to Cuban tobacco workers?

One irony is that the debate about "sweatshop" economics has mostly been settled. Even Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman states in a 1997 article for Slate that “as manufacturing grows in poor countries, it creates a ripple effect that benefits ordinary people. ‘The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.' In time average wages creep up to a level comparable to minimum-wage jobs in the United States.” Similarly, economist Jeffrey Sachs said, "My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few."

More controversially, Tyler Cowen, in Discover Your Inner Economist, tackles “fair trade” goods:

“Fair trade (coffee) sells a premium product at a premium price, under the premise that the workers are treated better and paid more. It sounds so nice. But will those purchases benefit the poor?

“It depends. How about a product called “exploitation coffee”? You pay less, and they promise to treat the workers especially poorly. That wording is a less effective marketing ploy, but that is what the concept of fair trade boils down to. Whether we upgrade one option or downgrade the other is just semantics. We can either have two classes of coffee (and workers), or one class of coffee and workers. Splitting up the market into classes is good for the workers at the higher end, but it does not always help workers at the lower end. In fact it may hurt them. The jury remains out on this idea.”

My idea is, if you truly want to help the poorest coffee growers, stick with the “exploitation coffee” (without promising to treat them "especially poorly"). The more you buy, the more they earn. The greater the demand, the higher the price will rise and the better off they’ll become.

But the biggest irony in the Cuban government’s wage depression and generosity prosecution is its complete obliviousness to basic and current economic theory. It is truly pushing the dismal science’s frontiers into terrain that no one has ever explored before.




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The Impact of It All

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So many Niagaras of words have flowed from the Penn State sex scandal that, unpleasant though the task may be — and it is plenty unpleasant — Word Watch needs to comment on them.

There’s no good place to start, so let’s just dive into the notorious email that Penn State Athletic Flunky Mike McQueary sent to a friend, denying that he had failed to take action when he (allegedly) saw Very Important Coach Jerry Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the showers at the football building:

“I did stop it, not physically . . . but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room . . . I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police . . . no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30–45 seconds . . . trust me.”

Surely Mike McQueary deserves a promotion. The language of this note is much more appropriate to a university administrator than to a low-level munchkin. First, there’s the strong assertion (“I did stop it”); then there’s the telling admission (“not physically”); then there’s that curious kind of statement that makes one pause, read it again, and speculate about what it really means, without ever knowing how one could tell if one had actually found the meaning.

“Made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room.” Does that mean you really, personally stopped it? If so, how? But maybe you mean that you let it go on, but when you went back and checked, you found it had stopped, possibly because of whatever it was you did, or didn’t do, before. Is that it? Should we ask for the floor plans, so we can see where the locker room was, in relation to the showers? Was the interval between the time when you saw something happening in the shower and the time when you left the locker room the same as “those 30–45 seconds”? Or what?

But the thing that really puts McQueary in the higher administrative or political realm is his chain of self-references: “No one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes . . . . trust me.”

On this one matter, I do trust him. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But I can well imagine his thoughtswhen he was confronted with the need to protect a child from sexual abuse by a high-ranking operative of the “educational” institution he worked for. I believe he was thinking, “Damn! This is gonna get me fired!”

How does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?

That thick vein of self-regard, and the obfuscating style that is its inseparable companion, runs into McQueary’s next remarks: “I am getting hammered for handling this the right way . . . or what I thought at the time was right . . .” Silly me. I thought this mindless jock was “getting hammered” for doing something wrong. Now I have to consider the possibility that he thought he was right. Gosh. What about that? I guess if he thought he was right, I’ll have to feel sorry for him. Won’t I? Won’t you?

Uh, maybe not, but it was a good try, planting that logic tree: either he’s right — or he’s wrong, but in that case he’s right anyway, because he thought he was right. . . .

The McQueary statement that galls me most, however, is the following: “I had to make tough impacting quick decisions.” Fascinating — what were those decisions? I would like to know. Once more, either he did something right, or he did something he thought was right — but what was it? Whatever it may have been, it was “quick” (45 seconds? In 45 seconds you can get halfway through the Gettysburg Address), “tough” (on whom?), and “impacting” (again, on whom?). Apparently it wasn’t especially impacting on Coach Sandusky, or on Penn State University, or on its head football coach, or on its president, or on McQueary himself, or on anyone else involved in this mess. All of them went on their merry way, for the next nine years. One imagines that McQueary’s decision might at least have been impacting on McQueary. But what was the impact? No one knows. Nonetheless, McQueary wants everyone to care and sympathize.

Sadly, impact is not just a flunkeyism. Itis the word of choice for all those high-class people who specialize in, well, impacting public opinion. First marketed to congressmen and corporate CEOs, it soon passed to all other professionals, including professional educators such as McQueary and his associates. The Penn State scandal alone has registered as many impacts as the surface of the moon.

We are all impacted now, and no one more than The Second Mile, the organization for disadvantaged kids that Sandusky founded, and which he reputedly used as a means of identifying his sexual targets. On Nov. 6, soon after the scandal broke, Second Mile canceled a fundraising event, explaining, “While we are providing our children’s programming as scheduled, The Second Mile has decided, out of respect and compassion for all impacted by the allegations from the Attorney General’s office, to postpone The Second Mile’s Reverse Drawing . . .” If you push your way through this thicket of words, you will discover that what has made an “impact” on the unspecified “all” isn’t any actions of Sandusky himself but simply the force of the Attorney General’s “allegations” about such actions.

Coupled with this announcement was a carefully worded narrative intended to exculpate The Second Mile. It started with the all and impact boilerplate: “Our prayers, care and compassion go out to all impacted.” I suppose that includes the leadership of Second Mile, people who have certainly been impacted, if not deprived of their jobs, by the events in question. But in their case, prayer has been unavailing. Eight days after the message just quoted, the organization’s CEO resigned, modestly stipulating that any further statement on his part would take “the focus from where it should be — on the children, young adults and families who have been impacted. Their pain and their healing is the greatest priority, and my thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with them.”

In other words, he’s not talking. But this word impacted . . . it’s a curious expression. It used to mean that something had smashed into something else, and the latter had been seriously damaged, perhaps destroyed. Now, under the influence of obfuscating politicians, officious or embarrassed educators, and illiterate journalists, impacted can mean anything within the range of “affected in some way.” Dude! Your beagle is impacting my front lawn. Dude.

Surely, kids who have been seduced or molested by sex-greedy adults have been seriously impacted, but the more you use that word, the less it means. The image of a crater, or a tooth in trouble, seems less significant, and less humane, the more you hear it applied to humans. It’s an easy word, isn’t it? No one can claim that you aren’t caring enough, if you use such an emphatic term. Especially when you couple it with a standard reference to thoughts and prayers.

I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but when I tell someone that he is in my thoughts and prayers, I mean that I am actually thinking about him and praying for him. That’s simple enough. But what do you think is happening when the normal public figure says that people are in his thoughts and prayers? Do you believe that presidents respond to earthquakes, plane crashes, droughts, floods, and deaths in battle by actually thinking and praying about those who have been impacted? They say they do, but I don’t think they’re telling the truth.

He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young.

Listening to this jargon, I picture the president abruptly leaving his golf games, lobbyist shakedowns, and reelection strategy sessions to rush up to the family quarters and kneel in prayer on behalf of every person endangered by all those floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and military defeats about which he has publicly extended his thoughts and prayers during the past 24 hours. That’s what we’re supposed to imagine, isn’t it?

I don’t deny that even a president may sometimes pray, and pray for someone other than himself. Many presidents have done that. Until recently, however, they haven’t made so many confessions that they are always busy thinking and praying about people in the news. Every religious person should oppose such pretense at piety, instead of leaving it for the atheists to ridicule. One reason why this is especially important to debunk is that the hypocrisy of the official class has a way of seeping down, like fluids escaping from a corpse, into the language of everyone else. In other words, as President Obama would put it, official smarm impacts us all in a negative manner.

On November 11, on Fox News, Juan Williams — a journalist who knows and respects the English language — had the unenviable task of reporting on events at Penn State, where students rioted because the trustees overthrew the local god, Joe Paterno, the head coach who failed to act in the Sandusky case. The insurrection happened just when the university was most vulnerable, facing, as it did, an invasion from Nebraska on the coming Saturday. So after the first night of orgiastic grief, the Penn State patriots decided that smarm was better than violence. Without relinquishing their support for JoPa, they decided to take strong moral action — by holding a candlelight vigil. Huh? Yet this is exactly what you would expect from the disciples of an ersatz religion, such as college football. Light some candles, and everyone will know you’re devout. They may even confuse your worship of fuhbawl with the ceremonies of one of the higher religions.

But let’s see . . . there had to be a vigil, but what would be the point of it? What would it ostensibly be for? Of course, it was “to show support for the children who were allegedly abused” — an interesting use of the word support. One supports a football team by screaming slogans in a stadium. These verbal oblations are assumed to have a magical effect on the prowess of the team. But how does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?

This question must have occurred to someone besides me, because the vigil organizers got more specific. They said that their show of support was aimed at “raising money for victims of sexual abuse.” That sounds good — but of course, the actual victims weren’t going to receive any of that money. Oh no. Contributions would go to “groups fighting child abuse.” Again, it sounds good. But how do you use money for something like that? Is this how we deal with other crimes? Do we give money to groups fighting burglaries? How about murder — do you think we should donate money to groups fighting that?

Please don’t accuse me of being insensitive to victims of burglary, murder, or any other actual crime. But guess what? We already have an organization that’s designed to fight such crimes, including child abuse; and it is very well funded. We all contribute to its maintenance. That organization is called the police.

Now back to Juan Williams. He had to interview two young women, students at Penn State, who were involved in the mighty candlelight vigil. These young people loved Penn State. They pitied its sorry plight. They viewed it as an innocent lamb, deprived of its shepherd (Joe Paterno). But this religious devotion to alma mater seems to have made them especially vulnerable to leakages of pomposity from the upper administrative levels. When Williams asked one of them a softball starter question, she declined to answer before she had pounded all the rivets into the official boilerplate. “First,” she intoned, “I just want to take a moment to extend my thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families on behalf of myself and all the Penn State family.”

Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance.

Williams reacted to this extraordinary statement in the only way in which a courteous gentleman could react: he tried to make sense of what the young woman was saying; then, failing that, he contented himself with a few pacific, grandfatherly remarks, which neither of the students appeared to understand. He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young. But for God’s sake, what kind of culture is it that inspires a 20-year-old with the notion that a university is a “family,” that she is empowered, by her proffered feelings, to speak for that “family,” and that she has thereby achieved the sacramental role of thinking and praying over other people, personally unknown to her — on television, yet? Her effortless assumption of the official attitude was bizarre, and unsettling, though hardly unprecedented.

Is this what universities teach? I’m afraid they do.

I should add that Penn State students were advised, at the candlelight vigil, to go to the Nebraska game wearing blue, which for some reason has been identified by someone as the color of “child abuse awareness.” Awareness? Does that word have a meaning? Is there a non-trivial sense in which my awareness of child abuse does something for its victims? In any event, the slogan of the day was, "Stop Child Abuse, Blue Out Nebraska." A strangely assorted pair of sentiments! But yes, the stadium was full of blue on Saturday, though Nebraska was not blued out. Nebraska won.

Winners and losers . . . one sadly revealing episode of the Penn State scandal was college president Graham Spanier’s official statement (Nov. 7) about the arrest of two of his fellow administrators: “The protection of children is of paramount importance. The university will take a number of actions moving forward to increase the safety and security within our facilities and make everyone aware of the protocols in place for handling these issues."

From time to time, it is given to mortals to view a work of human artifice so perfect, in its way, as to lie beyond all analytic criticism. The Taj Mahal. Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.”The final movements of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems. Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance. One stands in awe of it: it is a perfectly pompous, perfectly empty statement. It is perfect in that way, not because it says nothing at all — it says a lot of things — but because it claims to mean something, and simultaneously withdraws all its purported meanings, thus arriving, in this most challenging of contexts, at the nothingness it pretends to reject.

The university will take actions. What actions? A number of them.

The university will increase safety and security. How? Somehow.

There are protocols in place for handling these issues. What protocols? What issues? What does “issues” mean, anyhow? Never mind; we will make everyone aware.

Meanwhile, we are all moving forward. Does that mean . . . just possibly . . . that there was something wrong in the past, which we are now moving away from? That’s a possibility. Exploring it, however, would ruin the effect.

But here’s the good part. The statement didn’t work. Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were fired. Of the fallen Dr. Spanier, said to have been the most highly paid university administrator in America, the governor of the state opined: “People lost confidence in [his] ability to lead.”

The word wasn’t “talk.” The word was “lead.” There’s a difference. And no heap of words can cover it up.




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The Golden Years Really Are Golden

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A recent AP story caught my eye, since it bears upon an issue on which I have oft written — the coming pension tsunami, caused by the retirement of us Infamous Boomers.

It tells the news about the wealth gap between the Old and the Young. The gap is now the widest in American history. Despite occasional lurid stories about a grandmother eating cat food shortly before being wheeled off a cliff, the wealth gap favors . . . the old!

And the gap is enormous. Census data reveal that households headed by someone 65 or older have an average net worth 47 times greater than that of households headed by someone under 35. The median net worth of households headed by a person 65 or older is about $170,000, compared to a pathetic $3,662 of those headed by someone 34 or younger.

Moreover, the gap continues to widen. It has doubled over the past six years, and has increased fivefold during the past 25 years — even after adjustments are made for inflation. Astonishing, no?

There are a number of reasons for the declining relative fortunes of the young. One is that the Obama recession has totally creamed the young, especially young men. It is not for nothing that this has been called the “he-cession.” Besides that reason (though related to it), is the fact that young people are taking longer and accumulating more debt to get their degrees. And of course others are still paying mortgages on homes that have fallen disastrously in value.

The disparity is bleak, and in a way — considering all the granny-eating-cat-food propaganda — ironic. But the trend is decidedly the friend of the elderly: over the past quarter century, the wealth of households headed by the elderly rose by a whopping 42%, while the wealth of households headed by the young (under 35) declined by a dizzying 68%.

As if that weren’t bad enough, 37% of households headed by the young have a zero or even negative net worth! That is an increase of over 100% since 1984 (when the census first started keeping track of this happy stuff), and it is massive compared to the only 8% of elderly-headed households so cursed. And the median income of elderly-headed households has grown at a rate 400% greater than that for younger-headed households.

Net worth is here defined just as you would expect: by adding the value of homes, personal possessions, stacks, bonds, savings, and other property (such as cars, boats, and vacation properties), and subtracting credit card, auto, home, student loan, and other debts.

Now, how does the AARP — those redistributionist pirates who are always so intent on transferring assets from the young to the elderly — respond to the news that the 47 to 1 gap in net worth favoring the elderly is the highest in history? Of course, it greets it with greedy denial.

One Nancy Holland, a propagandist — pardon me, an executive vice-president — of the AARP puts it in the typical AARP spit-in-your-face-avariciously-aggressive fashion: “Millions of older Americans today continue to struggle to make ends meet. Many older Americans do own their homes, but plummeting housing values — along with dwindling savings, stagnant pensions, and prolonged periods of unemployment — have taken their toll.”

In short, screw the young people. As if their own homes and savings hadn’t been hard by this progressive liberal recession. As if they too hadn’t suffered unemployment. As if they had freaking pensions to rely on!

Our country is, alas, headed into the fiscal dustbin of history. Its aggregate national debt is approaching the dimensions of Greek tragedy, if not of Greece itself. But the AARP continues to wage a jihad against all entitlement program reforms. Future historians — if there are any who aren’t progressive liberals, hence wedded to the ideology of the redistributionist state — will record with incredulity the bizarre structure of a politico-economic system that in defiance of biological reality systematically starved the young to glut the old.

Maybe we need ads showing the grandkids eating cat food as they are pushed from a cliff.




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Who Let the Dog Out?

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Police are routinely judged by a different standard, a double standard under the law that allows them to violate the civil liberties protected by the constitution. The police do so with impunity. They can (and they do) get away with murder while the average, non-uniformed person is tossed into jail for forgetting to pay a traffic ticket.

A recent news story from WFMJ (Campbell, Ohio) and the Youngstown Vindicator illustrates how deeply embedded this double standard has become. An “off-duty” police dog was enjoying a walk with his partner when he spotted an 8-year-old boy playing hide-and-seek with his cousin. The dog attacked the running child, dragging him to the ground, shredding his sweatshirt, puncturing his T-shirt and leaving marks on the boy's arm.

What is the police response? They praise the dog's record as a crime-buster and drug-sniffer. No mention is made of sanctioning the police officer or taking the dog off the street. Any other dog would be put down for attacking a child without provocation; any other owner would be liable in civil court. But this dog was excused with the explanation that he could not distinguish between a fleeing suspect and a playing child. In short, the dog was just doing his job.

"They're [police dogs] trained that anything running could be a potential threat, and all he's doing is reacting and doing what he was trained to do," explained Sergeant John Rusnak from the Campbell Police Department. “He has caught three armed robbers. He has located numerous amounts of drugs. He has tracked down suspects. He’s been a vital, vital part of our police department.”

The libetarian commentary site The Agitator makes an interesting observation about the incident: “And if someone had come to the kid’s defense and shot the dog, as on- and off-duty cops routinely do, that person would be in custody right now. Of course, the problem isn’t the dog, it’s the handler. And when cops kill the family pet, the problem also usually isn’t with the dog.”

It is my understanding that no police dog attacks without a verbal command. If I am incorrect, then every police dog out there is a standing menace to every child it encounters. There is no mention of any sanctions or repercussions for the officer who let the dog in question get away. Apparently leash laws do not apply to everyone. As in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell was speaking of swine. So am I.




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