Cyprus and banking

Fractional reserve joyride

This is democracy in the European Union. Last week the Cypriot parliament voted down a proposal to secure the €10 billion funding needed to bail out its crippled banks that would have imposed a one off “solidarity levy” of 6.75% on bank deposits under €100,000 and 9.9% on those over. This week the Cypriots were offered the money in return for a deal which shuts the second biggest bank and scoops up €4.2 billion from uninsured deposits and moves the insured deposits (under €100,000) to the Bank of Cyprus where deposits over the €100,000 will be taxed at 40%. The Cypriot MPs, from Churchill to Quisling in seven days, accepted.

The counterproductive stupidity of the proposal has been widely noted. It’s difficult to see how the aim of shoring up Cypriot banks which have had their capital bases ravaged by haircuts on Greek government debt will be helped by a policy which is almost certain to cause a run on those very same banks.

But the strongest reaction was moral outrage that the Cypriot government, at the behest of the troika, was considering simply helping itself to its citizen’s cash. Personally I’m unclear how this is morally different to what governments do all the time. Indeed, in the age of the welfare state, big government, and redistributive tax and spending, it has become the governments raison d’être to do exactly this day in day out.

But we shouldn’t dismiss the idea so quickly. It stems from the notion that banks act as warehouses for deposits; that we go to the bank, make a deposit, and that that deposit sits there until we go back to the bank and take it out. Of course, under a fractional reserve banking system it doesn’t work like that at all. Just like the garage attendants who took Ferris Bueller’s Ferrari for a joyride round Chicago when he left it in their care, bankers lend multiples of our deposits straight out the back door as soon as we’ve taken them in the front door. In this sense, as Detlev Schlichter points out, deposits in banks are not like sticking your money in a safe; rather they are “loans to highly leveraged businesses”

You might say that no one actually thinks on that level when they deposit their money in a bank. Well, firstly, why wouldn’t they? The very fact that a bank pays interest on deposits (however small that might currently be) should be a warning sign that they are not merely humble warehouses. Ask yourself, how many warehouses pay you for the privilege of storing your stuff? They don’t because a warehouse has operating costs; it needs a building, it needs staff. It has to charge the people who leave stuff there, its depositors, a fee to cover these expenses.

A bank also has operating expenses; it too needs the buildings and the staff and much else besides. Yet, as the bank takes in your deposits and incurs these expenses, unlike the warehouse it pays you. It must, therefore, have another source of income, and it does; the yield on its assets, assets bought with your deposits. The bank is able to pay you interest because it is accumulating assets with your cash; the bankers are taking the Ferrari for a ride. That banks pay interest on deposits proves that they are not simply warehouses.

Secondly, are we sure that people don’t act like that? As a personal example, my old flatmate’s mum had money in Northern Rock and when it hit trouble she demanded a bailout. “Why did your mum put her money into Northern Rock?” I asked “Because they offered good interest rates” she replied.

Of course they did. That’s because their funding model, lending long term at typically higher interest rates with money borrowed short term at relatively lower interest rates was, ultimately, as risky as it sounds. Many Cypriot banks were offering rates of a relatively healthy 6% or more, but then they were investing 160% of Cyprus’ GDP in Greek government bonds.

One of the first things they teach you in GCSE Business Studies is that profit is the reward for risk. The high interest rates offered by Northern Rock and the Cypriot banks were indicators that they were engaged in something relatively risky. If you choose to take that risk on then I wish you all the best, but you should not expect a taxpayer bailout when things go sour to turn your investment into a one way bet; heads I win, tails I don’t lose.

The idea that governments must bail out busted banks is rarely questioned nowadays except by those who wish to be labelled some sort of economic ‘extremist’. In his book ‘How Capitalism Will Save Us’, free marketeer Steve Forbes has four index references to Joseph Schumpeter and 14 for creative destruction including one saying that “Washington should have let GM and Chrysler reorganise under existing bankruptcy laws”. Yet he answers the question of why the bailout of Detroit was wrong and that of Wall Street right by saying “The bailout was a necessary evil to avoid a collapse of the global economy”. Capitalism will not save banking, it seems.

But government bailouts of busted banks turn the investment that depositing is under fractional reserve banking into a no lose situation. This encourages risky investing and is how shaky banks become ‘too big to fail’. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were bailed out five times in the 20 years before 2008 so why wouldn’t they pile into subprime mortgage debt?

What is happening in Cyprus is undoubtedly a terrible situation for all involved. But if anyone is going to stump up for the bailout of Cypriot banks, isn’t it both fair and sensible that those who do are their investors?

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

Why is David Blanchflower so scared of the truth?

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The Michael Howard of economics

A couple of weeks back I took David Blanchflower of the New Statesman to task over the failure of his recent attempt to justify his infamous 2009 prediction that “unemployment could easily reach four million”. Blanchflower responded on Twitter: “If spending cuts are made too early and the monetary and fiscal stimuli are withdrawn “if crucial- buffooonery” (sic).

In fairness to Blanchflower he did preface his 2009 doomsday scenario with exactly those words. But let’s look a little more closely at Blanchflower’s warnings of the twin evils of tight money and spending cuts.

First, monetary policy. Who, in 2009, was advocating the tightening monetary policy? Possibly a few Austrians (though not all of them). Not many others. Certainly, as far I recall, no one in the Conservative Party as Blanchflower claimed. If I am wrong (and I have scoured the internet) and there were leading Conservatives advocating monetary tightness in 2009 then please, let me know.

But if, as I’m pretty sure is the case, nobody in the Conservative Party was advocating the early withdrawal of monetary stimuli then why on earth did Blanchflower waste anyone’s time warning them about it?

And what about the fiscal side of Blanchflower’s prediction? He loudly and regularly makes the point that ‘Slasher’ Osborne (I know, not much as nicknames go) has cut government spending and plunged Britain into renewed recession. I asked Blanchflower once or twice (or thrice) by how much ‘Slasher’ Osborne has cut government spending to send us into recession.

The answers I got ranged from “go and look it up yourself” to “go back into your hole” and “If you want to hire me to do consulting work for you I will bill at my normal high rates min 3hrs half up front”. How sad that when given a chance to engage and educate, a man who holds a teaching position chose instead to act in such a petulant and childish manner. How terrifying that someone so shifty, evasive, and brittle under pressure, was once a member of the Monetary Policy Committee.

Well, I went and looked up the numbers and the reasons for Blanchflower’s reticence quickly became apparent. In the fiscal year ending April 2010, Labour’s last in office, the British government spent £660.8 billion and in the year ending April 2012 it was £688 billion: an increase of 4.1 percent. Over the same period, however, we have had above target inflation which has given us a real terms cut in government spending of of 2.7 percent.

That’s it. After a decade which saw Labour double government spending in real terms it has been pruned by 2.7 percent. Hardly ‘slashing’ and all delivered by Mervyn King and his failure to keep inflation at 2 percent. If he had we’d have had a very slight real terms increase in spending; but that, presumably, really would have meant the monetary tightness Blanchflower was wailing about back in 2009.

I don’t suppose the monikers ‘Slasher King’ or ‘Trimmer’ Osborne would be much LOLZ for the Prof on Twitter. You can see why he was desperate to avoid giving a straight answer; his whole shtick would collapse if he did.

Blanchflower might argue that some areas of government spending have been cut quite drastically but there are two points to be made there. First, The Master himself, John Maynard Keynes, famously said that it didn’t matter too much what you spent your fiscal stimulus on, whether it’s Pyramids, wars, or burying old bottles full of cash and digging them up again. The key thing was to get the money spent.

Second, you have to wonder what else Blanchflower expects. Even with record low interest rates, British government debt, for which we are all liable, has risen so vertiginously that by 2015 it is estimated that we will be spending £70 billion a year on debt interest, up from £31 billion in 2008. To some extent we are seeing spending on welfare being cut so we can give the money to bond investors instead. Don’t like it? Don’t run up a load of debt.

Of course, Blanchflower would argue that we don’t actually need to worry. We just keep printing and borrowing the money we need. The £450 billion the coalition will have added to the national debt by April 2013 is too stingy; the doubling of the national debt over its lifetime too miserly. With views like that you can understand why Blanchflower runs scared from any rational discussion.

So, back in 2009, Blanchflower was warning us about something that wasn’t going to happen. After trying and failing to exonerate his 2009 prediction his argument now is that he wasn’t wrong, just irrelevant. But then you might find yourself asking why we should pay much attention to a slippery peddler of irrelevancies. Why indeed.

With his affected rudeness and terror of reasonable discussion with anyone who might disagree with him, Blanchflower is a sort of pound store Paul Krugman. But, without a bestselling book, a Nobel Prize, and with a column in the Independent rather than the New York Times, that’s a bit like comparing Donovan to Bob Dylan.

Labour and the public finances

The guilty men

The bad economic news which surrounded the budget yesterday seems to have given Ed Balls the confidence to tour the studios telling all and sundry that he has been ‘vindicated’. What’s worse, some intelligent people appear to be falling for this obvious rubbish.

To remember just how obvious and just how rubbish this is I’d refer to this previous blogpost. But I’d also refer you to this, an election briefing from 2010 from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The whole thing is worth a read but I’ll quote the summary in full…

Total public spending is forecast to be 48.1% of national income in 2010−11, up by 8.2% of national income from the 39.9% Labour inherited from the Conservatives. This would be the highest level of public spending as a share of national income since 1982−83.

• Most industrial countries have increased public spending as a share of national income since 1997. But between 1997 and 2007 – prior to the financial crisis – the UK had the 2nd largest increase in spending as a share of national income out of 28 industrial countries for which we have comparable data. Over the period from 1997 to 2010 – including the crisis – the UK had the largest increase. This moved the UK from having the 22nd largest proportion of national income spent publicly in 1997 to having the 6th largest proportion spent publicly in 2010.

• Spending on public services has increased by an average of 4.4% a year in real terms under Labour, significantly faster than the 0.7% a year average seen under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997. This is largely due to increases in spending on the NHS, education and transport. Since 2000–01 public investment spending has increased particularly sharply and is now at levels not seen since the mid to late 1970s. Despite large increases in the generosity of benefits for lower income families with children and lower income pensioners social security spending has grown less quickly than it did under the Conservatives.

• Estimates from the Office for National Statistics suggest that public services have improved considerably over the period from 1997 to 2007 with measured outputs suggesting a one third increase in the quantity and quality of public services. But this increase in measured public service outputs is less than the increase in inputs over the same period; in other words productivity has fallen. The relative price of these inputs has also risen, so we find that the “bang for each buck” that we get from spending on public services (output per pound spent, adjusted for whole economy inflation) has fallen more than productivity.

• If the Government had managed to maintain the “bang for each buck” at the level it inherited in 1997, it would have been able to deliver the quantity and quality of public services it delivered in 2007 for £42.5 billion less. Alternatively, it could have improved the quality and quantity of public services by a further 16% for the same cost. But perhaps service quality has improved in ways not captured by the ONS’s measures. Or perhaps we were to bound to see diminishing returns to additional spending when it was increasing so rapidly. To the extent that additional spending boosts output fully only with a lag, we may not yet have seen the full benefit.

How can you say the people responsible for that have been ‘vindicated’?

Leveson and, er, this blog

It’s a no from me too

And so the Leveson debacle reaches its latest stupid, authoritarian, and wasteful point; with the publication of the Royal Charter yesterday a coalition of sanctimonious celebrities and dimwits who think they’re going to get one over Rupert Murdoch have handed the British government a power it has coveted for 300 years; control of the press.

Indeed, already we’ve had Labour MP Jim Sheridan threatening that journalists be barred from Parliament (Sheridan had a £699.99 expences claim for a plasma screen TV exposed by the Telegraph in 2009 – he’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky hacks!) and a spokesperson from The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which usually polices elections to ensure against human rights abuses, saying

“A government-established regulatory body, regardless of how independent it is
intended to be, could pose a threat to media freedom

I still believe that self-regulation is the best way to deal with ethical lapses and failures to comply with professional standards.

The phone-hacking scandal was a criminal issue and the people involved are being prosecuted. This should not be used as an excuse to rein in all print media

The irony is that this attempt to regulate the press comes at a time when the press is becoming less and less regulatable all the time. Rarely nowadays do we get our news from a paper dropped on our doorstep. Instead we skip blogs, Twitter, and websites from around the world. Try regulating that. Indeed, the very term ‘the press’ is obsolete.

But that’s not to say they won’t try. A reading of the Royal Charter (Schedule 4, 1, b) explains that the “relevant publishers” who will be ‘incentivised‘ to sign up to the regulatory framework by the threat of vast fines and “exemplary damages” will include

“a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom:

i. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or

ii. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)

So you humble narrator finds himself and his little corner of the internet a subject of government regulation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; no one who supports this measure can call themselves a liberal.

The Spectator isn’t signing up and neither is Guido Fawkes. If Andrew Neil is to be believed several newspaper editors are also considering telling Leveson to get stuffed. Your humble narrator will be doing likewise. I don’t kid myself it will mean much in the scheme of things, unlike Eurowoof, a gay dating website dedicated to the ‘bear-like’ man, this blog is not the talk of Westminster, Fleet Street, nor even my flat. But at least I’ll be content in the knowledge that I didn’t dignify this load of illiberal rubbish.

Cyprus: The ghost of the West yet to come

Get used to it

When the European Union (with German money) mounted its most recent bailout of Greece, one of the conditions was a 75 percent write down of Greek government debt. For the Cypriot banks, which had made loans to the Greek government totalling 160 percent of Cyprus’s GDP, this was disastrous.

With their capital bases smashed the Cypriot government felt obliged to bail them out. Lacking the funds to do so (in 2011 the IMF reported that the assets of Cypriot banks totalled 835 percent of GDP) it turned to the European Union (in reality Germany again) for a bailout.

The Germans are reluctant to lend money without conditions. If the terms of the bailout are accepted by the Cypriot parliament, in return for the €10 billion corporation tax will rise from 10 percent to 12.5 percent and interest on bank deposits will be subject to a withholding tax.

But the most controversial aspect is the proposal that bank deposits will be subject to a one off “solidarity levy”, amounts under €100,000 at a rate of 6.75 percent and those over €100,000 at 9.9 percent.

This is the eurozone crisis at its most extreme but it only differs from events in Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, by degree. And in as far as  government eventually has to tailor its outgoings to suit its income it is really just an extreme version of the situation which will also eventually face Japan, Britain, and the US, probably in that order.

So what lessons does Cyprus hold for those who still have all this to come?

The first concerns the relationship between banks and our politicians. Over the last few years politicians elected to represent the people have rarely missed an opportunity to dump debts on those people in the interests of saving banks and other financial institutions which have hit trouble. We have been told that banks occupy a unique position in our economy such that the laws of economics don’t apply to them as they apply to Woolworths or Blockbuster. They are too vital, we are told, too big to fail.

Functioning banks certainly are a key part of a modern financial system but why should the same be said of the toxic zombies who are blundering round the current financial landscape?

And how did these rotten banks get so big in the first place? It’s because governments and central banks prop them up. Bad banks rarely go out of business, they just lumber on, soaking up and destroying more wealth. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were bailed out five times in the 20 years before 2008.

The second lesson is that there really is no such thing as private property. In extremis the government considers itself entitled to any amount of your property it desires even if, as in the Cypriot case, it means revoking its own commitments to protect bank deposits.

But then this is the logical outcome of taxation. If you think that a shortage of government revenue can be solved by the government simply helping itself to someone else’s revenue you really can’t have a philosophical problem with this. If you believe in the 50p tax rate this is where you end up.

The third lesson is the limits of democracy. The Cypriot Prime Minister, Nicos Anastasiades, ran at the last election on a promise to protect depositors. Now he stands behind a lectern explaining why he cannot protect depositors. The greater a country’s debts the fewer are its options and in the euro, with no possibility of devaluation, this problem is exacerbated.

The Cypriots will probably feel much as the Irish or Portuguese did to have their economic policy decided by the Troika of the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. They may feel a touch like the Spanish or French did when they elected an anti-austerity candidate only to find that they get some measure of austerity anyway. They may end up feeling like the Greeks or Italians who skipped these intermediary steps and went straight to having their governments foisted upon them by the European Union.

This isn’t just a lesson for eurozone members. Labour currently lead in British opinion polls, appealing to soft-headed types who think that we can back to the big spending and even bigger borrowing days of Gordon Brown if only we tick the right box on a ballot slip. In the United States Barack Obama won re-election last year on the promise that the Chinese will continue to lend the US the money to live it up.

British and American voters might not have been slapped in the face with reality in the same way as the bottom half of the eurozone has thanks to their ability to trash their currencies, but it will come. Sooner or later they will be faced with the fact that a country cannot indefinitely live beyond its means and that voting for snake oil salesmen who tell you there is, is a sure fire recipe for disappointment.

The final lesson though, and perhaps the scariest, is that those in charge are no smarter than the average bloke in the street. It is difficult to find the words for the stupidity of trying to shore up Cypriot banks with a policy which will cause a run on those very same banks.

Cyprus offers a grim glimpse of a possible future for the wider western world: politicians who will sacrifice the people for banks, the expropriation of private property to pay for it, the diminishing options offered by the political process, and idiots in charge. Let’s hope they aren’t coming to a crisis near you.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The relationship between welfare and immigration

Home comforts: Firuta Vasile's initial request for benefits had been rejected by the local council

You give immigrants a bad name

The influx of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants expected from January 1st 2014 has lately seen Britain’s politicians running round like headless chickens trying to prevent the obvious and predictable results of their previous actions (or inactions). The idea that people from these countries might come to the UK and avail of its generous welfare system has triggered concerns about immigration. Should we not, instead, be worried about welfare?

Classical liberals and many on ‘the right’ more generally would complain if government prevented a person from Bolton taking a job in Southampton. What right would a politician have to interfere in the mutually agreed employment decision of an employee and an employer? But if this is so, why should government have any more right to prevent a person from Juarez or Lahore taking a job in Minneapolis or Sheffield?

Indeed, if the government erected capital controls such as existed in the post war period to stop people shipping their wealth abroad, many on ‘the right’ would decry an act of confiscatory socialism. But why should the freedom of movement be granted to capital and denied to labour?

Immigration is an area of public policy rarely treated coherently. ‘The left’ frequently defend the free movement of labour (recently anyway) but oppose the free movement of capital. From ‘the right’ it is often the opposite. A common opinion, in pubs and taxi cabs at any rate, is that immigrants come here to sponge off our welfare state and take our jobs, a contradictory sentiment often expressed by the same person in the same monologue.

Some immigrants do travel to the UK to gorge themselves in the trough of its lavish welfare state. I wrote last January of Firuta Vasile, a woman who has apparently done little but leech off the British taxpayer since arriving from Romania in 2008.

Indeed, stories on BBC London about the lack of affordable housing in the capital are often illustrated with an interview with an immigrant demanding that more ‘affordable housing’ be made available by the state. But there is probably no shortage of affordable accommodation wherever they came from and the high prices of London are simply a market signal saying: This place is full up.

Immigrants like Ms Vasile give a bad name to the majority who do travel to Britain wanting to work. But, besides that, they are eroding support for the welfare state itself.

For all the noble notions of a brotherhood of man it remains a fact that people, in the main, feel more empathy with those who are more like them than those who aren’t. We generally care more about people who speak our language, dress like us, worship the same God (or none), watch the same TV programmes etc, than we do about people who don’t. This is one reason why the British or American media will devote hours of coverage to the deaths of American children in Newtown but spend little if any time on the Pakistani or Afghan children killed in drone strikes.

Regrettable as it may be, it is a fact of life that our empathy decreases as our differences with the person being empathised with increase.

The effects of this for a welfare state are as obvious as the effects of throwing your doors open while laying on a banquet of benefits. While people might be quite willing to pay towards a system that they believe is going to help people like themselves they will be considerably less willing to pay towards a system that they perceive benefits people who have very little in common with them. As Stuart Soroka writes

“Immigration has the potential to raise powerful challenges to the political legitimacy of the welfare state. Immigration can unsettle the historical conceptions of community, which define those who are ‘us’, recognized members of existing networks of rights and obligation, and those who are ‘strangers’ or ‘others’ whose needs seem less compelling. According to many commentators, the growing presence of newcomers, especially ethnically distinct newcomers, may erode the sense of social solidarity on which welfare states are constructed”

Or, as Milton Freidman put it: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The mass immigration overseen by the Labour government which saw millions enter Britain, 371,000 of whom are claiming benefits, has been one of the major factors in the decline in support for the welfare state in Britain. It has led to the serious consideration of a contributory element to welfare.

The answer is that government has no basis in rights to interfere with migration, but neither does it have a duty to subsidise it. If people want to go and work in Britain or the United States, and they can find employment, they should not be impeded. But if they cannot find employment the government should not hand them taxpayers’ money or goods and services purchased with that money.

There is a choice between immigration and welfare. The irony is that by choosing immigration a government of the left did more to undermine the welfare state than ‘the right’ ever did.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The humility of David Blanchflower

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“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view” – Obi-Wan Kenobi

In 2004 the theoretical physicist John Preskill proved that, contra what Stephen Hawking had said, information could escape from a black hole. There was, thus, no ‘information paradox’ and the laws of quantum mechanics were confirmed. Hawking took a look at the evidence and said “I was wrong”.

This sort of humility has always been lacking in the ‘soft’ social sciences. David Blanchflower, Economics Editor of the New Statesman, gave a good example of this last week.

Back in 2009 Blanchflower famously predicted that

“If spending cuts are made too early and the monetary and fiscal stimuli are withdrawn, unemployment could easily reach four million… If large numbers of public sector workers, perhaps as many as a million, are made redundant and there are substantial cuts in public spending in 2010, as proposed by some in the Conservative Party, five million unemployed or more is not inconceivable.”

Of course, since then we have seen a veritable employment boom. As Martin Vander Weyer writes in The Spectator

“Since 2008, we have had ten quarters of growth and ten of shrinkage; last year, when most of us thought recovery was imminent, we had no net growth at all despite a euphoric post-Olympic blip. And yet there were 580,000 more people in employment by December than a year earlier, taking the total UK workforce to a record 29.7 million. That’s roughly 24 million in the private sector, which added 627,000 jobs in the year to September; the public sector shed 128,000 and has now shrunk all the way back to its 2002 numbers, before Gordon Brown went mad.

“So we have an economy that is rebalancing itself favourably between tax generators and tax spenders while creating 2,000 jobs per working day”

That notorious 2009 prediction has hung round Blanchflower’s neck like a necklace made of cat poo, Daniel Hannan bringing it up again recently.

Blanchflower could, like Hawking, have held his hands up and said “I got it wrong”. Instead, with Stirling University economics professor David Bell in tow, he set out to prove that the prediction had actually been correct.

Sure, unemployment might have played out totally differently to Blanchflower’s predictions, but by concocting a measure of underemployment, they might finally locate the dark truth that simply must lay behind Blanchflower’s famous prognostication and vindicate him.

And they found… not very much actually.

Source: New Statesman

As you’d expect Blanchflower and Bell’s underemployment is higher than unemployment. When Blanchflower states that the first conclusion from his data is that “underemployment consistently adds to the measured excess labour capacity in the UK labour market” he is simply stating the obvious.

But it is his second conclusion which is more questionable, where he states that “since the start of the recession, underemployment has been contributing an increasing share of overall excess labour capacity in the UK”.

Well, that’s true, but not by very much. We do not have the data yet so these are rough estimates, but taking the figures from each January of 2001 to 2012 we can see that between 2001 and 2008 underemployment was, on average, 2.73 percent higher than unemployment. And we also see that, from 2009 to 2012, underemployment has been higher than unemployment by 3.32 percent on average. A rise, yes, but not much of one.

Yet on these slim pickings Blanchflower hangs the claim that “It is clear that the coalition is bad for jobs”. And with one bound he is vindicated!

You sympathise with Blanchflower. Faced with the comical failure of his 2009 prediction he set out to fashion a new statistic which would prove that he had, in fact, been correct. And it didn’t. One thing is clear from all this: a desperate desire to exonerate your crackpot predictions is bad for economic inquiry.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator