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Horatio Alger Matters

The traditional—or at least doctrinaire—response of conservatives and libertarians to the phenomenon of income inequality has been, “So what?” The common attitude of many on the Right is that, in a free-market economy, individual differences in ability, skill, and effort will lead to inequality of income. James Madison summed up the sentiment nicely in Federalist 10 when he stated that the “first object of Government” consists of “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” which “immediately results” in “the possession of different degrees and kinds of property.” In a free society, it is often believed that unequal results are inevitable—for some, even desirable

Charles Murray challenged the sanguinity of that position in his 2012 book Coming Apart, which documented a large and growing wealth gap between America’s highly educated elites and the blue collar workers who formerly comprised the middle class. Even more troubling than the yawning economic chasm was Murray’s depiction of the accompanying cultural decay among working class whites, reflected in their rising display of the illegitimacy, unemployment, criminality, and drug use that burden the black underclass in this country. Over the past 50 years, our society has become highly stratified, and the trends Murray identified in the “new lower class” four years ago have only gotten worse.

And that was the year (2012) when a lackluster President Obama exploited the rhetoric of class warfare to win reelection. His use of the income-inequality issue brought him a comfortable victory over a patrician Republican opponent who was perceived as out of touch with disgruntled voters.

The Republican frontrunner in this year’s race for the White House—a billionaire with a common touch and incendiary rhetoric against the powers that be—has tapped into the festering discontent with this social divide, and related economic immobility, among GOP and independent voters. The conventional GOP coalition is disintegrating in a sea of anger about America’s ailing middle class beset, many are claiming, by globalization, one-sided trade deals, and uncontrolled immigration.

To address this political sea change, it would behoove conservatives to overcome their reflex of dismissing the idea of income inequality and seriously consider the causes, extent, and consequences of the current economic and social situation. Helpful in that effort is the timely and thought-provoking new book by George Mason University law school professor Frank Buckley, The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America.

Buckley, always adept at lacing his political/legal analysis with literary allusions, begins with a panegyric to Horatio Alger’s character Ragged Dick, the plucky urchin of late 19th century fiction who rises from the streets of New York City to a position of respectability by dint of honesty, thrift, and hard work. To Buckley, the rags-to-riches parable of Ragged Dick exemplifies the core value at the heart of America: upward mobility. The extinction of this national type in our time forms the theme of the book. “The level of income inequality today is higher than at any time in the last 90 years,” he warns; and to make matters worse, “there’s even less mobility in America than in most First World countries.”

The Way Back makes a powerful empirical case that this is a serious problem, even a crisis. American society, Buckley argues, is trending toward a caste system, in which one’s future economic prospects are largely dictated by the status of one’s parents. The American Dream depends on the realistic possibility of achieving Horatio Alger-style success in real life. Like Nixon was able to go to China, Buckley—who in his Acknowledgments section makes clear his grounding on the political Right— advocates an agenda to restore upward mobility with sensible free-market reforms, which he drolly calls “socialist ends through capitalist means.”

Buckley believes the current sclerosis is largely caused by government policies, not technological change. Specifically, he sees a de facto aristocracy having struck an unholy bargain with the lumpenproletariat to conspire against the middle class. Using historical examples from 19th century Britain (the author, a Canadian native, is an unabashed Anglophile), Buckley posits that America’s wealthy (and mostly liberal) elites support “policies that preserve their privileges and those of their children at the expense of a rising middle class.”

He observes that uncontrolled immigration produces cheap labor, which is good for Big Business but bad for unskilled American workers. Globalization and “free trade” outsource once-lucrative manufacturing jobs, but produce cheap goods and increase corporate profits. Buckley doesn’t dispute that globalization “has proven an astounding blessing for most of the world’s people,” but makes the sometimes overlooked point that “it has also meant the loss of low-tech, middle class jobs in America.” Ultimately, he resigns himself to the inevitability of globalization and does not propose restrictions on free trade, but he points to it as a contributing factor to inequality and immobility. He is not a Canadian version of Pat Buchanan or Donald Trump.

In fact he makes what are often mainstream conservative (and familiar) points: Big Government inhibits upward mobility through crony capitalism, barriers to entry, a loophole-ridden tax code (though he says it favors the rich), and impediments to aspiring entrepreneurs. (He illustrates the difficulty a modern-day Ragged Dick would have in navigating the myriad business and occupational regulations to climb the economic ladder today.) Cheap money generated by Federal Reserve policy benefits Wall Street at the expense of retirees and middle class investors.

As surely as contract law spelled the end of feudal serfdom, the rule of law is indispensable to upward mobility. But the rule of law has been hobbled by an overly-complicated legal system that empowers unscrupulous prosecutors, enriches elite lawyers, and reduces the certainty and predictability of everyday commerce.

Simultaneously, our education system (K-12 and higher education alike) fails to equip America’s youth with the requisite skills and learning to succeed—primarily serving the teachers’ unions and swollen ranks of administrators who drive the cost of education ever upwards as student achievement consistently declines. The New Class cynically “buys” the acquiescence of the “peasants” (and their leaders) with generous welfare benefits, plentiful government jobs, affirmative action, and Progressive policies that wreak havoc on the middle class, but which largely spare the New Class, ensconced in its gated enclaves, cloistered communities, and private schools.  In Buckley’s telling, stagnant mobility in the United States relative to the rest of the developed countries has produced a “Legacy Nation, a society of inherited privilege and frozen classes.”

The thesis explains many things, including why Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financiers so lavishly support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and why the political leadership of both parties is so indifferent to the interests of middle class Americans. (Opinion polls show, for example, that the public overwhelmingly favors significant reductions—if not outright cessation—of immigration levels, yet Congress refuses to act.) The solutions Buckley offers—reforming education (mainly by adopting school choice), paring back government regulation, simplifying the tax code, adopting a Canadian model of immigration (focusing primarily on the skills of the immigrant and the needs of the host country), tort reform, and so forth—are sensible whether or not they would solve the problem of inequality and immobility.

Some other reforms he suggests (requiring mens rea for all criminal offenses, for example), and his closing (and uncharacteristically gloomy) ruminations about the demise of the American Empire and the superiority of the parliamentary system (a familiar theme from his 2014 book The Once and Future King), seem off-topic but do not diminish the impact of the analysis.

Many conservative intellectuals hostile to Trump have tended to discount the predicament of middle class Americans, in effect blaming them for their own hapless plight. This is a grave mistake. Trump appeals to a large swath of the electorate that is understandably angry at the Washington establishment. The only way to navigate out of the current political morass is to address that anger constructively. The Way Back does so.

Call it conservative populism. Let the conversation begin.

Reader Discussion

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on April 27, 2016 at 09:35:37 am

Over at the American Enterprise site:

https://www.aei.org/publication/blog/

One can scroll down and around or use the search box or click on Charles Murray's name when it appears and continue some *very* interesting (and recent) up dates on his "Coming Apart" thesis.

That, incidentally, is confined to the WHITE segments of population.

While I hope to offer more later after some reflection, I think people tend to miss what is at the base of the "social" issues that in turn impact the economic and political issues; that is:

How the members of our society look upon one another; how they **have come to** look upon one another; how those considerations of one another have changed - and why.

More later - particularly on "going back?" What a concept !

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 27, 2016 at 12:36:59 pm

There is no doubt that in the scheme of things,the Political Class needs a constituency of dependency to achieve elective political power. So we now have a nation with a large "entitlement" class that goes about their lives acting irresponsibly knowing that the government will bail them out. With that said,yes it is true,many of the good "middle class" jobs have disappeared over the past half century or so. This is due to the many factors listed above plus automation. !00 years ago it would take 10,000 workers to run a steel mill. 50 years ago more steel could be produced then in previous years but it took only 1000 workers to run that same mill. Today even more steel can be produced,but because of automation,only 300 workers are needed. So what happens to the other 700 workers of 50 years ago? The answer is that they go into other productive fields. As an aside,I was at a meeting of the owners of automobile repair shops and much of the conversation was about hiring competent auto repair technicians (mechanics). These jobs start with a salary of 50k per year and within 2 or 3 years earn over 80k per year plus benefits. The problem was that these shop owners couldn't find many if any qualified applicants.

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libertarian jerry
on April 27, 2016 at 14:43:32 pm

(This is a blog comment in which I review a book I haven't read: Frank Buckley's The Way Back.)

Just from reading a brief description of Buckley's proposals, we can already see why they will not work.

The problem isn't that the proposals are wrong or unproductive. The problem is that they are effects of causes. If the cause isn't changed the effect will repeat, perhaps in a different form, but it will repeat. Buckley's proposals are reactionary. Realistic reforms must be proactive and go after the causes of the problems.

The causes lie primarily in the way government operates. Correct a problem in that dynamic and its symptoms will go away. Address just a symptom and it will come back.

The Way Back is another book of reactive, and non-proactive, reforms. I look forward to not reading it again some day.

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Scott Amorian
on April 27, 2016 at 14:49:12 pm

(In case you didn't get the reference:)
http://www.libertylawsite.org/2014/05/14/in-which-i-review-a-book-i-wont-read/

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Scott Amorian
on April 27, 2016 at 15:38:21 pm

Without so specifying, both Messrs. Buckley and Pulliam, referencing Horatio Alger, identify a (if not the) major element in the transitions of social orders-
Motivations.

As has been posited here before, where sufficient commonality of motivation is established in a social grouping, a culture is formed. Where there are sufficient commonalities of cultures amongst groupings a social order may be formed and where there is sufficient commonalities amongst those orders a civilization may form. The cohesions of these "units," cultures, social orders and civilizations all rest on motivations of their members, they are all in constant transitions, probably because the factors that form and develop individual motivations (in multitudinous conditions)change constantly (if erratically or imperceptibly).

Many (most?) of the factors that formed and developed the motivations of the individuals of precedent generations no longer have their same effects (if they even exist) at this stage in the transition of our social order and the civilization of which it is a part. We can't "go back," because "back" is not there (or re-creatable) anymore. Even so, the "we" has been changed as well. As Thomas Wolfe noted over 75 years ago, "home" changes and "you" change. You can't go home again. We can't go "back;" we can (usefully) only go forward, picking off our leeches as we push our African Queen through some current swamp to the open lake.

We are avoiding the true nature of the factors of change to say simply that government through regulations is a major impact affecting the relationships between social groupings. Government does do anything - people, humans, use the mechanisms of government for objectives. Those objectives are formed from motivations. To deal with the effects, we must understand what those motivations are (or have been), how they have been formed; and, particularly how they find commonalities with, or suppressions of, other individual motivations.

To become familiar with Murray's "Fishtown" and "Belmont," one should consider the motivations of their populations -and- how those motivations are being formed and developed (in addition to how they have been)

We might also consider why, just from the standpoint of social structures (not just economics), do we have or need what we refer to as a "middle" class. What **is** that social grouping at this stage in our transitions, what are its functions. Did it exist in a different format in the previous stages of the transitions; have different functions? Should we "go back" to some prior stage? Probably not - those functions may not be needed.

It may be wiser to consider how we are to go forward, rather than how we can restore the past.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 28, 2016 at 10:58:12 am

Huh? Isn't it Trump who is championing the cause of the Horatio Alger's in the working class?.

What this article and Buckley's book omit is any discussion of economic culture (not economics or culture but economic culture). According to Charles Murray the upper middle and upper class have a culture that emphasizes college education and inbreeding that has resulted in their economic advantage and their self isolation from the working class. So the basis of the social divide is not purely structural as Buckley contends but cultural. How to get upper class kids in the same soccer team or league as, say, Mexican immigrants part of the issue. How to get those who golf to go to bowling leagues with the working class is also part of the problem addressed by Murray. Not mentioned is that (in my objective observation) Evangelical Christian churches are one of the very few meeting grounds for the working and middle classes that is a voluntary association. Max Weber saw Capitalism emerging from the Protestant Ethic; Alexis de Tocqueville saw democracy emerging from Protestant churches. Religion is institutionalized culture. Part of the social class divide is magnified by elitist churches that want to minister to the poor, gays, and elitists in the Knowledge Class but want to have nothing to do with the unwashed, "Fundamentalist" Christian working class. You won't get any sociologist (or even Murray) addressing this phenomenon. The working class is tired of fighting America's wars and being left out of the Global trade equation. There is more upward mobility than can be found in official data but part of the problem is that there aren't institutions in place where social classes can mix or intermarry. Even a Black President sends his children to private schools. Those with cultural resources self school their children due to the abject failure and politicization of public schools. Buckley's book sounds like it is filled with all the buzz words that have been heard before. The book is a product of yet another think tank that is out of touch with the social basis of the problem of inequality which Trump has found a way to tap into.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on April 28, 2016 at 12:02:03 pm

Richard:

You are quite correct: Not only can you not go home anymore, home doesn't exist, having been converted into a community garden (true story, BTW) while immediately adjacent to it, a once flourishing small farm has been converted into 34 homes. What does it mean?
Government action? or simple motivations of government bureaucrats?

Government issues a directive that causes the zoning in a neighborhood to change to "high density" from previous single family zoning.

A few members of the neighborhood attend a hearing. The plan goes through.

Not one single member of the neighborhood group even questions the "motivations" of the people creating and implementing the policy other than in whispered utterances alleging "big business" corruption. (This may or may not have a factual basis, but is beside the point).

What is important is that the reaction / perception of the neighborhood folks is that the GOVERNMENT did this and that ultimately the neighborhood must yield. As recompense, the government buys the adjacent home and converts it to a community garden.

One wonders what would be the response of the neighbors if they were to recognize the the motivations of the petty bureaucrats / ideologues devising these policies. Would they be less likely to accept the change in their "Home"? Would they be satisfied with their little garden?

Now expand the survey area into what have come to be known as "welfare" rights / benefits. Consider how much more extensive are the "little gardens" provided by (in the peoples minds) government.

It becomes clear that after a time, the concept of "government" as a living, breathing (and beneficent) organism may become real. It is real BECAUSE people choose to think of it as real.

Yes, it is a fiction, but it is a mutually agreed upon fiction and in that sense people are affected by "Big G" government.

Then again, this, too, is a sign that "You Can't Go Home Again" - it simply ain't there, buddy!

Well The Trumpster is a builder. Perhaps, he can build HOME again!!!

Yeah, right!

(now back to my building project).

It may also be said that given an unending series of such government interventions

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gabe
on April 28, 2016 at 13:36:12 pm

Actually, Buckley is a good political scientist. I read his Once and Future King. The science in it was solid.

Buckley is rather given to challenging Americanism, usually by arguing for the superiority of British roots. (He makes an interesting political science argument in King.) He wants you to counter his arguments.

But he doesn't usually go for the cliche.

If I were to read The Way Back I would expect to find the good research and analysis and analysis of a generally rational and knowledgeable political scientist. But if Buckley resorts, as Pulliam describes, to proposing reactive measures instead of proactive measures to address political problems, I would only read it for the science. Reactive measures don't interest me because those are always short term fixes to long term problems that make it more difficult to correct the long term problems.

The rest of your commentary I agree with though.

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Scott Amorian
on April 28, 2016 at 14:32:20 pm

Not just motivation, but very important, lack of motivation.

Two groups interact. One group is motivated to take advantage of the other. The other group is not motivated to stop the first group. Why?

The discovery of the number zero was very important in the development of math. The understanding of non-motivation is also important in politics.

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Scott Amorian
on April 28, 2016 at 14:40:50 pm

Now that I'm thinking about it, perhaps the mathematical equivalent of negative numbers, counter-motivation, is important also. That would be reactionism.

So there are activists and reactivists. The zeroes would be people who insist on no action at all; those would be conservatives.

Then there are the nonactivists, who would the people who don't care one way or the other.

That's an interesting model. I wonder if anyone has developed this. (There are very few original ideas in the world so I doubt this is a new approach.)

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Scott Amorian
on April 28, 2016 at 15:07:44 pm

Wayne (et al.),

Most of what passes for "positions" or "championing" in the utterances of what have come to be candidates are nothing of the sort.

Given your perspectives, Wayne, you might be intrigued by the scholarship of Edward C. Banfield (1916-1999) if you are not already familiar with it.

From the readings you cite, you might also consider what are the factors FOR social cohesion, which are sufficient and which necessary. What do people have to have "in common" for a "binding" or cohesive association?
It is not clear from your comments whether you think economic factors are the (or a) principal factor in the cohesion of one social group [but not the other??] That is, that economic factors, rather than personal motivations, dominate the cohesions that exist in the separate segments. What has gone missing in those factors FOR social cohesion.

One thing that has occurred (in part due to increased urbanizations and mobility with migrations) has been the displacement of inter-personal relationships with impersonal intermediations through politically determined, for political objectives, means. "There are programs for **those** people."

But then, to the thesis of an "economic culture," in the lowest segments of society, do the economic factors determine the motivations (hence the "culture") of its members; as seems to be assumed occurs in the upper segments? Or is it the culture and motivations in that lower segment which determine its economics?

How would Horatio Alger answer that?

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 28, 2016 at 17:07:51 pm

Richard:

Again, we come upon the perceptual difference(s) (perhaps) that may cause, and / or be caused by motivations (or lack thereof) of a particular segment of a social organization.

" in the lowest segments of society, do the economic factors determine the motivations (hence the “culture”) of its members ....Or is it the culture and motivations in that lower segment which determine its economics?"

It would not be unreasonable to answer BOTH and to add that the economic factors, perceived as benefits to and by the lower segments, are nothing more than the manifest expression of the power elites motivation toward, and to sustain, power. Yet, it is interesting to note how that particular expression made manifest via all manner of "benefits" has had the effect of significantly modifying (destroying, to employ Scott's allusion) the previous motivational complement of the lower segments of society. Indeed, we have seen here, on numerous occasions, advanced the assertion that this is simply *rational* economic behavior on the part of this segment of the population. Perceptually, they have come to believe that it is not only better, but it is something to which they are entitled, to be proffered all manner of "goodies" in exchange for relinquishing their power / independence to the power elites. And this phenomena is made more pronounced by the fact that *perceptually* this segment (and other segments as well) views these benefits as emanating from the Government which is empowered to "care for them" - no doubt, this perception has also been fostered by the same power elites whose motivations are effectively masked from the people.

So while it is certainly correct that Government does nothing, only people do, it is essential that efforts be made to destroy, or at least counter, the mask presented by THE GOVERNMENT. Without that, Government will always receive the benefit of the doubt (and the goodies will keep flowing).

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gabe
on April 28, 2016 at 20:10:36 pm

Richard, there is so much I could say in response, but I have to take care of my kid so I have to keep this short.

I grew up in the lowest segment of society. We lost a farm. My dad lost his logging job when the forests ran out of old growth. We got kicked out of a rental and moved into another rental in a rural town on the east side of the Oregon cascades. While we were on a trip one winter and an honest-to-god mountain man with leather clothes, three dogs, substantive b.o. and lots of facial hair house sat for us. Dad lost his next house. At one time we lived in an abandoned motel on the outskirts of town. At another time we lived in a house without running water that was too small for us. I slept in a camper shell outside in the middle of winter in the Cascades.

In other words, I grew up in that "lowest segement."

The quick answer to your question is that most poor people are poor because of two reasons. They are antisocial or nonsocial. Or they were gifted by god with other good qualities, I'm sure, to compensate for their general lack of ability to reason. The form of their antisocial character or the circumstances of their acquaintances is what makes them poor.

From that mix of character comes various subcultures. In the place I grew up we hated welfare and looked down on welfare people with disdain. It was only when in the most dire of straights that we would take charity, and then it was preferred that it would come from friends. Even when living in an abandoned motel we did not take government welfare. It was considered evil.

In other subcultures, such as urban areas, welfare is highly desired.

People in poverty are just trying to adapt to their environment and survive in it, often when they lack the sensibilities needed to rise out of poverty (as I eventually did). That leads to dependencies of various sorts, if not on the government, then on local charities and local connections. There is your "motivation."

If you are looking for some kind of rationale from the poor, forget it. You ain't findin' it. It's all reactive behavior. A lot of it is finger pointing so the person doesn't have to own up to how nuts or unclever they are. "I'm poor because of that a-hole over there!" is the general theme.

If you are looking for the displacement of interpersonal relationships, look to the internet first. Look at how dating is done today. It's through web sites. The main problem I have with my son is keeping him off internet connected devices. Remember the old quilting bees? My wife quilts and she is in a quilting guild. It's internet based. That's how they meet and organize now. The internet creates one set of connections, but it breaks many others.

Gotta run. Kid's concert start shortly!!!

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Scott Amorian
on April 29, 2016 at 10:01:13 am

Nostalgia for "Going Back"

People, just ordinary people, can better perceive and understand the relationships that existed in the past, and have a sense of the past circumstances in which they occurred, than they can “unravel” the myriad of current relationships or grasp the factors shaping the circumstances in which they are occurring.

Once things are past, they are set and observable, whilst they are ongoing they are fluid and changing.

We can look back and see how things were changing, have changed; and why. Being “inside” and part of the transitions we sense only dimly that how and why.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 30, 2016 at 16:57:02 pm

[…] growing class divide in America. Mark Pulliam, writing at the Library of Law and Liberty (“Horatio Alger Matters“), comments on a new book by George Mason University law school professor Frank Buckley, The […]

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Bubbling Along | The Cheerful Crosspatch
on May 02, 2016 at 13:32:31 pm

[O]ur education system (K-12 and higher education alike) fails to equip America’s youth with the requisite skills and learning to succeed—primarily serving the teachers’ unions and swollen ranks of administrators who drive the cost of education ever upwards as student achievement consistently declines.

What this article and Buckley’s book omit is any discussion of economic culture (not economics or culture but economic culture). According to Charles Murray the upper middle and upper class have a culture that emphasizes college education and inbreeding that has resulted in their economic advantage and their self isolation from the working class. So the basis of the social divide is not purely structural as Buckley contends but cultural.... Even a Black President sends his children to private schools. Those with cultural resources self school their children due to the abject failure and politicization of public schools.

As far as I know, American students perform at par with, or better, than, students anywhere else in the world from comparable economic circumstances. True, the typical student in an American public school may not fare so well in competition with the typical European or Japanese student -- but since 2013 the typical American student lives in poverty.

So you could say that public schools have "failed" these kids. Or you could say that our economy has failed these kids, and then trust the problem upon the public schools. Similarly, you could say that the public health system failed Prince; or you could say that Prince died and the public health system proved incapable of resurrecting him. I don't know if I'd characterize any of these statements as false -- but I'd say that some statement more clearly illuminate the issues than others.

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nobody.really
on May 02, 2016 at 13:50:15 pm

To clarify: Since 2013 the typical American student qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch -- which isn't the same standard as the federal poverty guidelines.

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nobody.really
on February 07, 2019 at 06:01:33 am

[…] that focuses on preserving America’s middle class. Only recently did the American dream of upward mobility and the goal of secure blue collar employment become disfavored in conservative circles—a […]

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Escaping Our Ship of Fools

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