Political Animal


July 26, 2014 12:20 PM Tyson’s Knock-Out

Tell me, what did Neil DeGrasse Tyson do to be targeted by the wingnuts at National Review?

Last night on HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher discussed the acidic attack launched upon Tyson by Charles Cooke in the magazine’s latest issue. Maher suggested that part of National Review’s resentment towards Tyson stems from the fact that the latter is “a scientist, and a black one”:

Considering National Review’s sordid race history, one can’t gainsay that point. Nor can one deny that the political right’s embrace of ignorance—what conservative writer Patrick Ruffini once called the “Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP”—is also a motivating factor in this attack; as Peter Sinclair notes, Cooke’s demonization of Tyson is reminiscent “of recent remarks by Jeb Bush that scientists and those that believe in what science says, are ‘sanctimonious.’”

Of course, there’s another pretty influential motivating factor.

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July 26, 2014 8:45 AM Basic universal income gets even more traction—from both sides of the aisle

I wrote yesterday morning at Hullabaloo about the growing momentum toward basic universal income as a mainstream policy idea. The idea is attractive for a number of reasons, and appeals to thinkers of a variety of political persuasions.

And just a few hours after my piece went live, so did Max Ehrenfruend’s at the Washington Post, who took a very different angle to get to the same conclusion:

But wouldn’t it be even more amenable to conservative principles to eliminate government interference altogether, whether federal or state? Couldn’t Uncle Sam simply write checks directly to everyone? After all, aren’t we the people best equipped to make decisions about how to use our money?
These are arguments for what’s known as a universal basic income — a check that everyone, regardless of income, would receive from the federal government on a regular basis. Economist Milton Friedman, a pioneer of contemporary conservatism, was probably the best-known proponent of the idea, which has recently been implemented with good results so far in Brazil.

This is one of the beautiful things about universal basic income: it has legitimate cross-partisan appeal, even if it seems wacky at first glance to centrists (who are often the very last people to recognize a good policy idea when they see one.)

To a conservative, a direct money grant is an opportunity to shed cumbersome government bureaucracy, consolidating a number of overlapping needs-based targeted grants with a single, universal, simplified program that costs far less to administer.

To those of a more futurist and progressive slant like myself, the basic universal income is an answer to the problems of globalization, mechanization, deskilling and flattening of the labor force. While there have certainly been myriad political decisions made to further the interests of the very wealthy over those of the middle class, there has also been a “natural” workforce shift in which a large number of jobs that used to be done by humans are either done by machine, or have simply become redundant with the advent on online business models, or have been replaced with much cheaper labor abroad.

Part of this is natural technological churn that has been with us since the industrial revolution. But the advent of both the Internet and smart machines combined with the rapid pace of globalization make the current mechanization phenomenon different from those that have come before. A huge number of manufacturing jobs are already gone as we already know. Service jobs are following on their heels both due to online business models and mechanized replacement: self-driving cars will put cabbies, truck drivers and the entire auto sales industry out of business; chain restaurants are already taking orders using tablets; etc.

Soon enough the white collar jobs will follow as big data analysis sees everyone from stock analysts to diagnosticians replaced with programs that can do their jobs better than any human.

There just aren’t going to be enough jobs to go around. That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough productive work to be done, whether it be in rebuilding America’s infrastructure, implementing an Apollo program for green energy and conservation, or just giving people the freedom to be creative, build businesses, and follow their dreams without fear of ruin. But the old model of capital ownership grudgingly needing human labor at a decent price in order to take surplus value and profit off of that labor isn’t going to work anymore for the majority of people.

Those who hope to preserve some semblance of freedom and social order, be they liberal or conservative, should be able to see the handwriting on the wall and support a basic universal income.

July 26, 2014 6:11 AM Garden Party

Speaking of George W. Bush, Al Gore, and political conventions of yore, today is the tenth anniversary of the commencement of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, held at the TD Garden (then known as the FleetCenter) in Boston, Massachusetts. On the first night of the convention, 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore delivered a tremendous speech:

Nothing against John Kerry, but looking back, one wishes that Gore had pursued a rematch with George W. Bush, despite the understandable concern about possibly being ripped off a second time. As Gore himself noted that night:

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July 26, 2014 5:09 AM American Hustle

Whatever you are selling, Sen. Rand Paul, I’m not buying—and I hope that no one of sound mind, regardless of color, buys it either.

It is profoundly irresponsible on the part of the New York Times and the Washington Post to treat Paul’s manifestly phony efforts to promote himself as the new Jack Kemp as anything but shameless political posturing. Paul—who made clear his loathing for civil rights when he ran for the US Senate four years ago—is trying to wear a mask of tolerance these days, but it’s a gimmick, just as George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was.

Obviously, Sen. Paul’s not really trying to attract blacks—not when his party is trying to stop blacks (and other Democratic-leaning constituencies) from voting, as Brad Friedman has noted for the last decade. So what’s the real angle here?

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July 25, 2014 5:30 PM Day’s End and Weekend Watch

Soon as I bragged about the temperate weather in Georgia this week, I got caught in a torrential downpour and then the thermometer hit over 90. Figures.

Here are some remains of the day:

* More bad polling news for Sam Brownback.

* At House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL) mistakes two high-ranking Obama administration officials for representatives of India, repeatedly asking them about “your country.” Glad this dude got a spot on Foreign Affairs.

* Israeli cabinet rejects Kerry cease-fire proposal, but announces unilateral 12-hour truce.

* At Ten Miles Square, James Wimberly marvels at the “principled folly of American libertarians” in their resistance to Obamacare.

* At College Guide, Daniel Luzer takes a dim view of the idea that Ivy League schools cause the moral pathologies evident all over American society.

And in non-political news:

* Fungus spread by Asian beetles killing trees across Everglades. Aren’t the Burmese Pythons enough?

That’s it for Friday. David Atkins and D.R. Tucker will be in the house tomorrow for Weekend Blogging. Let’s close with one more Big Mama Thornton tune, this time showing her harmonica chops, performing “Rock Me” in 1971.


July 25, 2014 4:51 PM The Changing Nature of What’s Usual and Reasonable

My colleague Martin Longman has an elegant and persuasive essay at Ten Miles Square today that’s one of the better rejoinders I’ve ever read to the secular religion of constitutional originalism. He notes that by using relative terms like “unusual” and “unreasonable” in the Bill of Rights, the Founders assumed changing circumstances would change the interpretation of even the most highly valued constitutional ideas. And to assume otherwise is just ridiculous:

What would James Madison think was a reasonable search in this day and age? What would he make of a microprocessor in a telephone? What would Thomas Jefferson think about women voting? What would Samuel Chase or Benjamin Rush think about the abolition of slavery? Would John Jay agree that people have an inherent right to privacy that extends beyond searches of their persons and properties? What would Benjamin Franklin make of the pill and IUD’s?
The modern world would blow all of their minds and they would probably struggle to make sense of it. Computers, airplanes, satellites, space travel, modern hospitals, cars, nuclear weapons.
My point is that you can’t decide what is unusual and unreasonable based on what the Founding Fathers thought to be so. The death penalty used to be used in every country, now only a few rogue nations and the USA still subscribe to this barbarism. It’s certainly unusual if you think globally.
Likewise, in a day and age where airplanes can be converted into missiles and suitcases can contain radioactive bombs, what constitutes a reasonable search is different from when we rode horses and fired muskets.
There’s merit in trying to ascertain what the Founders intended the Constitution to mean, but that doesn’t mean that our understanding has to be the same. George Washington wanted a well-regulated militia but he couldn’t imagine a teenager gunning down two classrooms of first graders in less than five minutes. I think if Washington took a guided tour of the Pentagon and the Situation Room, his concern about having a well-regulated militia would go out the door. If he saw what happens on a regular basis in our schools, malls, and workplaces with gun violence, I think he’d be appalled. In his day mass shootings weren’t just unusual, they were impossible. I don’t think he’d believe that the NRA was being reasonable at all.

In the end, the Founders gave us a constitutional system designed to be open to revision by multiple means. Selectively enshrining their thoughts in order to resist economic or cultural change is alien to the whole spirit of their enterprise, and a wild misunderstanding of their wisdom, which actually lay in their understanding of its limits.

July 25, 2014 4:17 PM “The Left” is the New Center-Left

Doug Sosnik, a very smart cookie, has a somewhat meandering piece up at Poltiico Magazine today with the rather lurid title: “Blue Crush: How the left took over the Democratic Party.” It mostly focuses on the rather well-established ideological realignment of the two major parties, but then suggests that the leftward movement of the party could cause problems if an HRC candidacy doesn’t fortuitously arrive to paper over ideological hot-buttons in 2016. Here’s what I found most puzzling in Sosnik’s analysis:

These progressive forces are coalescing around a populist-inspired desire to combat income inequality and rein in large financial institutions, as well as an interest in focusing on priorities at home rather than abroad. It’s difficult, in this environment, to imagine a viable Democratic presidential candidate who isn’t willing to take clear positions on issues like increasing the minimum wage, securing comprehensive immigration reform, supporting women’s health and their reproductive rights, addressing climate change and eliminating or at least curtailing fracking.

If you look at the list of issues at the bottom of that graph, it’s pretty much the agenda Democratic presidential candidates have agreed upon since 2004 (with the exception of fracking, which hadn’t yet emerged). If it’s the agenda of the “Left,” it’s a “Left” with no big differences of opinion with the “Center-Left,” particularly if you add in the commitment to expanding health coverage reflected in the Affordable Care Act, which has been almost universally defended by Democratic politicians and activists alike. As for the idea of “focusing on priorities at home rather than abroad, I seem to recall John Kerry in 2004 talking a lot about George W. Bush “opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in the United States.” There’s nothing in what Sosnik predicts as the demands of “the Left” that would be new or troubling to any kind of Democrats, aside from the energy-producing-state Dems who oppose action on climate change.

He does, however, point to a fundamental problem Democrats will face for the immediate future: the inherent difficultly of favoring an activist federal government at a time when anti-government sentiment is beginning to transcend all the old party and ideological divisions. Yes, you can get some mileage from some elements of the population by deflecting attention from hatred of government to hatred of corporations or Wall Street, and even coopting some anti-government attitudes by going after corporate-tainted public policies and practices. But in the end, unless we’re all going to become “liberaltarians,” progressivism is and will remain primarily committed to the active deployment of public agencies to promote the public welfare. So just as they did in the 1990s when hatred of government appeared to be at similar levels, showing that government can work is essential. But that means overcoming the obstruction of both the Right and of entrenched interests. And therein is the challenge.

July 25, 2014 3:04 PM Work That Doesn’t “Work” For Working Families

Regular readers know that headlines like this one over a piece by The Atlantic’s Molly Ball make me a bit crazy: “The One Number That Will Decide This Year’s Election.” There’s never “one number” that decides any election, unless maybe it was the number of Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices in December 2000. A vote is a vote, and you can double-load statistics all day long to “prove” this or that performance-level in this or that demographic is the only thing that matters. Yes, there are in any given election certain categories of voters unusually susceptible to persuasion or mobilization, and smart parties and candidates place emphasis there. But tunnel-vision is generally a bad idea.

Now that I’ve ranted a bit, I’ll note that the “one number” Ball cites is the performance of Democrats and Republicans among voters earning less than $50,000 a year. It should be pretty obvious without thinking about it too deeply that this is a vast group of people with widely varied characteristics: race, ethnicity, religion, geography, occupation, age, family status, etc. etc. Carrying any group so large will naturally be associated with a successful campaign cycle. But the idea that there’s one way to appeal to this broad swath of the population is questionable.

As it happens, I agree with the campaign emphasis Ball’s muse in this piece—AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhoretzer—is encouraging Democrats to embrace: economic issues affecting low-to-moderate income voters. But the idea that people making under $50,000 a year are going to shift monolithically to the Donkey Party because it announces itself to be “populist” misses the myriad ways in which a winning voter coalition is assembled.

Some of you may remember when Dick Gephardt headed up the House Democratic Caucus and perpetually announced campaign “messages” that were sometimes parodied as “work that works for working families.” It never “worked” all that well; nor will any other simplistic message that ignores or discounts the many issues on which progressive governance can have a positive impact.

July 25, 2014 2:47 PM A Token Attack on Corporate Welfare

National Review’s John Fund trumpets the big approaching moment:

It seems like decades since Republicans have been able to permanently zero out a government program of any size. The tea-party base often doesn’t take seriously the GOP’s commitment to shrinking government and has accused the GOP of ladling out benefits to the elite and well connected.
If Republicans in Congress simply do nothing, the New Deal-era Export-Import Bank, which guarantees loans so that American multinationals can sell products overseas, will vanish at the end of September. Last year, the bank backed $37.4 billion in loans, loan guarantees, working-capital guarantees, and export-credit insurance, the vast majority of which went to mega-companies such as Boeing, General Electric, and Caterpillar.

It is a pretty big shift for congressional Republicans to go after Exim, albeit in a passive manner that rewards inaction. But assuming they don’t succumb to lobbying from Exim’s clientele, you can expect the significance of the moment to be exaggerated for the benefit of the Tea Folk and the general electorate. After all, if this is, as Fund calls it, “the moment of truth,” that takes the pressure off all sorts of other corporate welfare items, particularly in the tax code.

I can understand the impulse to exercise tokenism here. Back when I used to do policy work, I constantly suggested that congressional Democrats find some federal program to kill (my usual proposed victim was the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, a small and crony-ridden local development grant program in constant search for a new mission). It wasn’t that I thought such gestures would or should depict Democrats as “anti-government,” but instead that separating sheep from goats would indicate they had some sense of priorities, instead of just level-funding everything in sight forever, as congressional appropriators and other Hill Barons tended to do in a perpetual back-scratching arrangement.

Still, even if Exim expires, sooner or later Republicans—and for that matter, the supposedly anti-corporate-welfare Tea Folk—will have to come to grips with the massive and variegated ways in which federal policy accommodates the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Tokenism just won’t cut it.

July 25, 2014 1:52 PM Lunch Buffet

For once, I’m actually eating lunch while I write this post: the kind of Tex-Mex food that’s abundant in Georgia but not in California. I miss it now and then.

Here are some midday savories; plate may be hot!

* New CNN/ORC poll provides more evidence of rightward shift on immigration policy due to refugee crisis.

* WaPo’s Aaron Blake suggests Sen. John Walsh conducting a seminar on how not to respond to a scandal.

* RCP’s Tom Bevan attacks Scott Walker’s “cynical trek into populism” in ads hammering Democratic opponent Mary Burke’s family company for outsourcing.

* At the Plum Line, Paul Waldman blasts the F-35 project as a sign defense hawks never interested in reducing deficit.

* TNR’s Brian Beutler optimistically suggests Arkansas’ decision to continue the Medicaid expansion an example of what some red states might do if Halbig decision by DC Circuit panel upheld.

And in sorta non-political news:

* Authorities in China’s Zhegiang province tearing down crosses at 130 churches for alleged building code violations.

As we break for lunch, here’s Big Mama Thornton with her version of “Hound Dog,” which she recorded well before Elvis did:

July 25, 2014 11:06 AM Who Decides Congressional Intent?

The whole hep conservative policy world (or at least the portion not burning incense before the image of Paul Ryan) is abuzz today with the discovery of a 2012 video in which Jonathan Gruber, the Massachusetts health plan wizard and consultant to the Obamacare architects, seems to be suggesting people in states who didn’t set up exchanges would be denied purchasing subsidies. TNR’s Jonathan Cohn reached out to Gruber for a reaction:

Among those who say they are surprised by the statement is Gruber himself, whom I was able to reach by phone. “I honestly don’t remember why I said that,” he said, attempting to reconstruct what he might have been thinking at the time. “I was speaking off-the-cuff. It was just a mistake.” As evidence that it was not indicative of his beliefs, he noted that his projections of the law’s impact have always assumed that all eligible people would get subsides, even though, he said, he did not assume all states would choose to run their own marketplaces.

While the Gruber video may cause heartburn to those who have maintained absolutely nobody could have possibly thought the subsidies weren’t available to people in the federal exchanges, it really doesn’t tell us much about congressional intent, as Cohn points out:

What do I think? As I’ve written before, I had literally hundreds of conversations with the people writing health care legislation in 2009 and 2010, including quite a few with Gruber. Like other journalists who were following the process closely, I never heard any of them suggest subsidies would not be available in states where officials decided not to operate their own marketplaces—a big deal that, surely, would have come up in conversation.
It’s certainly true that plenty of people who wrote and implemented the law preferred states to be in charge of their own marketplaces—in part, the thinking went, because state officials would have a better feel for the idiosyncrasies of their insurance markets. It’s also true that, under the law, states that created their own marketplaces had access to some extra funds to carry out the task. But nobody made threats of withholding subsidies, which were much larger and essential for expanding coverage, as far as I know.

It’s going to take more than one video from one wonk to contradict that reality.

July 25, 2014 10:51 AM Has Ryan Regained His Pointy-Headedness?

Aside from the policy implications of Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan, and its collision with the fiscal priorities he so recently championed, Ross Douthat raises the internal GOP question of whether he’s now assumed leadership of the reformicons who had more or less given up on him. The answer from Ross is a pretty emphatic “yes:”

Taken as a whole, this document basically eliminates the daylight that existed between “Ryanism” and reform conservatism on safety net reform. As I discussed two weeks ago, the reformocon quasi-movement has tended to view some of the projected discretionary cuts in the Ryan budgets as implausible and/or unnecessary, and generally prefers a revenue-neutral overhaul of the safety net that spends more on some programs (an E.I.T.C. expansion or wage subsidy, most notably) while cutting others and devolving others to the states. That’s basically what Ryan is proposing here, in a more detailed form than we’ve seen from any other figure of his stature to date, which means that there is now pretty clear unity (on this set of issues) between the House Budget chairman and the wonks who have praised him on entitlement reform, health care reform and other issues in the past.
At the same time, Ryan’s blueprint synthesizes “reformocon” ideas with proposals that fit pretty easily under the other possible rubric for a renovated conservative domestic policy — libertarian populism, a framework associated with writers like Ben Domenech and Conn Carroll and Tim Carney, and one that’s been much discussed in this space. That is, in addition to the safety-net overhaul, Ryan includes proposals for criminal-justice reform, cuts to corporate welfare, and an attack on “regressive regulations” like occupational licensing — all areas where libertarian ideas might help move the G.O.P. away from its “party of the rich white people” brand, and/or where a libertarian critique of state power is plausibly connected to the interests of the working class and poor. (Utah Senator Mike Lee has also been working toward this kind of synthesis; it’s his sentencing reform proposal that Ryan endorses.) It’s always been clear, I think, that the two varieties of reform can overlap in productive ways; this is a case study in what that might look like.

Douthat even gives Ryan credit for creating the “policy space” for reformicon ideas by going after Medicare and (back in 2005) Social Security, showing where the money would come from for “reformed” social spending. So I guess all the nastiness associated with him was just a big prelude to this moment.

I expect to hear renewed talk about Ryan ‘16 any day now. And he didn’t even have to make a trip to Iowa.

July 25, 2014 10:09 AM Impeachment and the Goldilocks Principle

The first polling I’ve seen comparing public attitudes towards the ideas of impeaching or suing the president is out from CNN/ORC. And it helps explain why the House GOP is pursuing the latter course, unprecedented as it may be.

A majority of Republicans (57/42) favor impeaching Obama and removing him from office for his alleged crimes and misdemeanors, most of them having to do with implementing laws Republicans don’t like. But independents (35/63) and the public at large (33/65) oppose impeachment by roughly two-to-one margins.

The lawsuit idea gets significantly higher Republican support (75/22), and attracts 43% of indies. It does not appear the idea beloved of some conservative opinion-leaders that a suit is too weak a remedy for Obama’s “tyranny” has caught on among the GOP rank-and-file. It’s also far less dramatic, since it doesn’t involve triggering an inherently high-profile constitutional process. So it’s the vengeful gesture Goldilocks would prefer—not too hot, not too cold.

July 25, 2014 9:32 AM The Truth About Devolution

A key feature of Paul Ryan’s new “poverty plan” is what he calls an “opportunity grant,” which is basically a mega-block grant with the main strings being a universal work (or movement-towards-work) requirement. Here’s how reformicon Reihan Salam describes it at National Review:

The Opportunity Grant would consolidate several existing aid programs into one funding stream to states, which states would then be required to offer to recipients of means-tested welfare benefits as part of a consolidated recovery and mobility plan. Disadvantaged Americans would each be pared with an individual case worker, with whom they would agree on personalized short and long-term goals (e.g., apply for child support or begin drug counseling) set out in “contracts.” Most important, Ryan is building on the success of the 1990s welfare-reform laws here: A key element of the contracts would be encouraging work, which, currently, only cash welfare requires. Food stamps, federal housing aid, utilities assistance, and more don’t have work requirements — this would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements.

Now as those of us who went through a parallel debate over “federalism” or “devolution” back in the 1970s can attest, there are block grants that simply consolidate programs while continuing to insist on the use of funds for certain broad purposes, and there are block grants that really just abandon policy-making to states and localities, usually as a way station to the abolition of federal funding altogether. The block grants in Paul Ryan’s original budgets appeared to be of the second variety, aimed primarily at reducing federal fiscal obligations. For the Opportunity Grant to be taken seriously, it would have to be of the first type.

But even if there are specific performance requirements for state and local governments, any big “devolution” scheme relies on their good will and competence, and when it comes to poverty programs, that can be a big problem, as Emily Badger of Wonkblog points out today:

In reality, some states have worse track records — and differing commitments — to caring for the poor, to providing them health care, to lifting children and families out of poverty, to educating them. While block grants would recognize that a state like Texas has different needs from Minnesota, it would also place greater control in combating poverty in the hands of local governments with weak records on this front.

No kidding.

One more general observation: the whole rationale of treating states as “experiment stations” or “laboratories” for social policy is that lessons learned will be implemented in future federal policy. But that suggests all the free-lancing by the states will at some point come to an end. You don’t ever hear conservatives talk about taking back state and local discretion once it’s extended, at least in the social policy arena (federal preemption of corporate regulation by the states is another thing entirely!). All the rhetoric about “seeing what works” is usually forgotten, and devolution becomes an end in itself.

I haven’t gotten sufficiently into the details of the Ryan plan to see how clearly it signals its seriousness or unseriousness when it comes to these questions, but “devolution” is a big, and often bad, deal.

July 25, 2014 8:39 AM Cali Rally

It’s not really news any more that all the conservative doomsaying about California has turned out to be wildly off-base. But Paul Krugman decides to rub it in today, particularly in terms of the actual impact of Proposition 30, the 2012 ballot initiative that authorized a more progressive income tax structure, and Obamacare implementation, which California took on agressively:

Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. A representative reaction: Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.” Meanwhile, Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute and Forbes claimed that California residents were about to face a “rate shock” that would more than double health insurance premiums.
What has actually happened? There is, I’m sorry to say, no sign of the promised catastrophe.
If tax increases are causing a major flight of jobs from California, you can’t see it in the job numbers. Employment is up 3.6 percent in the past 18 months, compared with a national average of 2.8 percent; at this point, California’s share of national employment, which was hit hard by the bursting of the state’s enormous housing bubble, is back to pre-recession levels.
On health care, some people — basically healthy young men who were getting inexpensive insurance on the individual market and were too affluent to receive subsidies — did face premium increases, which we always knew would happen. Over all, however, the costs of health reform came in below expectations, while enrollment came in well above — more than triple initial predictions in the San Francisco area. A recent survey by the Commonwealth Fund suggests that California has already cut the percentage of its residents without health insurance in half. What’s more, all indications are that further progress is in the pipeline, with more insurance companies entering the marketplace for next year.
And, yes, the budget is back in surplus.

Krugman concedes that California still suffers from high housing prices (boy, does it ever!), and suggests that those complaining of “too much regulation” in the state should really focus on local land-use restrictions that boost housing costs in myriad ways.

Personally, I’m just glad that I’m not actually living in the dystopia I’ve been reading about from practically the moment I arrived in the Golden State.

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