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The Adaptive Value of Human Institutions:* Building a Better (Secular) 'Religion'
April 25, 2009 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Keynes & Marx thought "that productivity would grow sufficiently to allow our needs to be met with very little labour," and that humankind's biggest preoccupation in the future would be leading lives of comfortable (or comparative) leisure. Obviously, that has not yet come to pass. But why?** Yochai Benkler (previously), for one, is working on it...

*just saw jared diamond on the evolution of religion (and was inspired ;)

**e.g., one could say the social utility of the enclosure movement has reached its limit (or a local logical maximum) and that the means of (re)production might now be (self-)organised not by the state and/or market per se, but (at long last!) by a conscious collective cultural aesthetic :P
posted by kliuless (37 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I took a crack at this myself, in an article entitled "Freud's Bastards".

In that piece I argue that Adam Smith could never have imagined the complex world of the future, and the seminal role Freud would play in both uncovering the falsity of rational man, as well as laying the foundations for global consumerism.

At the heart of the issue is that our economic thought is locked in an age that bears no resemblance to our own.
posted by Aetius Romulous at 12:06 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Americans are obsessed with work, and making sure that people are "paying their due". I think it's counterproductive, because in order for people to be productive, they have to have something to do. But what else do we need? I have to wonder if a big part of the recent market crash isn't just the result of popping of the credit bubble, but also the final popping of the 'growth' bubble as well. A bubble popped not by exhaustion of natural resources, but also of human desire.

I mean, so much 'consumption' these days isn't even related to any kind of necessity or even of what I would call utilitarian desire. I mean things like a car, a computer, a camera, etc. Instead people buy status items that are pretty useless. Expensive purses, expensive coffees, designer clothes, etc. How much of the economy is propped up by those superfluous desires? How many jobs are related simply to creating status items and expressive products?

If people stopped buying those things, all of those people would be out of work. But I have to wonder if that's really a bad thing at all. I mean, I would imagine that as a society would easily provide the basics of life for people directly, rather then having them work to create status items for the wealthy. Is that really worse? I think that it would be better for the planet. And it would make life more enjoyable for those people as well.

But the problem is that Americans, at least in terms of politics, are obsessed with work. I think because of all the anti-welfare rhetoric over the past few decades.

I think reducing work hours, shorter retirement ages, and an increased social safety net makes sense as society moves forward. Because frankly we don't need half the crap that is produced.
posted by delmoi at 12:09 PM on April 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


I dunno. I make a comfortable living sitting in front of a computer 8 hours a day. I have a hard time considering that "labor". My life is nothing but leisure, comparatively.
posted by empath at 12:10 PM on April 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


There's some great quotes in "Your Money or your Life" about folks in the early part of this century working to create a consumption based leisure culture to provide a ever growing demand for the engine of the economy.

I'll take more hours of leisure over more stuff any day.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:23 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the december auctions... a story of two first editions.

SMITH, ADAM.
AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. FOR W. STRAHAN; AND T. CADELL, 1776

Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 63,650 GBP $94,667


MARX, Karl (1818-1893) & ENGELS, Friedrich (1820-1895). Manifest der kommunistischen Partei. Veröffentlicht im Februar 1848. Londres: imprimé par la "Bildungs=Gesellschaft für Arbeiter" de J.E. Burghard, 1848.

Price Realized, Price includes buyer's premium €97,000 $127,115
posted by R. Mutt at 12:25 PM on April 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


> Americans are obsessed with work, and making sure that people are "paying their due".

I've had a few completely pointless jobs in my time. When I say "pointless," I mean that I was just pushing paper around, paper that got shoved into filing cabinets or metaphorical paper that got stored on a hard drive somewhere, in either case to be read by no-one, ever. What tortured me more than anything else about the gigs, even more than the relatively low pay and torturous boredom, was the knowledge that if I'd been paid to stay home it would have been a net gain to society.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:58 PM on April 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


If I can overgeneralize horribly here, the people who are most caught up in American consumerism these days don't have what I'd call a Protestant work ethic.

I think a lot of it, at this point, isn't a love of work at all, but a fear of what the people who are currently poor might do if they weren't busy and exhausted.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:29 PM on April 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


R. Mutt: Oh, ironies of ironies. Rare physical objects pertaining to Communist thought from hundreds of years ago are deemed valuable for having survived the ages and are sold at great value at auction.
posted by hippybear at 1:29 PM on April 25, 2009


Why has it gone from being the "puritan work ethic" to the "protestant work ethic"? What, like prior to Luther nailing his stuff to that church door, the fields just plowed themselves?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:32 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Blame Max Weber.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:44 PM on April 25, 2009


Mind, I wasn't trying to say anything about Protestants in particular. "Puritan" woulda worked just as well. But, yeah, it's because of Weber that "Protestant work ethic" has become the sort of stock phrase that lazy writers like me reach for when we're trying to talk about the idea that work is always good, even when you've got all you need.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:47 PM on April 25, 2009


Obviously, [the life of leisure] has not yet come to pass. But why?

This is a simple question, one needs to just look at their monthly budget.

The dominant expense for most working stiffs is rent, either to the landlord for temporary use rights or incorporated into the mortgage that facilitated their acquisition of permanent land use rights.

The richer the laboring class gets, the hungrier the All-Devouring Rent becomes. This is basic economics driven by the relatively fixed supply of land vs. the unlimited demand for its use.

cf. Progress and Poverty (1879), and The Corruption of Economics for one argument of how this simple dynamic was intentionally elided from modern Economics.

I know I've said this here a million times but this observation so fecking obvious to me that it demands my contribution. If you're annoyed, imagine my annoyance at being captured by this cursed knowledge.
posted by mrt at 2:04 PM on April 25, 2009 [16 favorites]


I think that rents are, to some extent at least, regulated in most democracies. Rent can only become so high before home ownership becomes a more attractive option. There is some balance.

Personally, I think we all need to work towards a class-less existence: I don't know how, since we tend to construct social hierarchies fairly naturally. Perhaps just a hierarchy based on achievement instead of inherited capital.
posted by chrisgregory at 3:44 PM on April 25, 2009


At a fundamental level, it is pretty simple. Payment for goods and services is determined by the market (artificial manipulations notwithstanding, but we are talking about the fundamental level). If some people are willing to work really long hours, then that drives the average value of labor down - it's an increased supply of labor. Then, in order to have an "average" lifestyle, we all have to work harder.

You can see this happen as women entered the workforce in the post WW2 era. In the 1950's it was common to have a single income household. As more women entered the workforce over the next four decades, the housing market responded by demanding equilibrium. When the average household is a two income household, the market will demand two incomes to have an average lifestyle. Now both partners have to work in order to maintain a home. Gotcha.

We are like a giant mound of rats...those who either work the hardest or are simply fortunate are on top of the pile, and those who can't work, don't work, or are unfortunate, are on the bottom. As the pile of rats gets larger, the weight of the rat pile on the lower rats increases.

Now, there are many complicating, compounding and mitigating factors, but at the most basic level that's pretty much it. Add now the fact that we are or soon will be facing the effects of limited resources - space, water, energy - it's only going to get much, much uglier.
posted by Xoebe at 4:38 PM on April 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


We are like a giant mound of rats...those who either work the hardest or are simply fortunate are on top of the pile, and those who can't work, don't work, or are unfortunate, are on the bottom. As the pile of rats gets larger, the weight of the rat pile on the lower rats increases.

This picture doesn't do much for me. Your example of the two-income household driving up land values is of course spot-on, but overall the more heads and hands a society has, the wealthier it can become, Malthusianists be damned, because "working" is literally the act of producing wealth.

One key direction to pursue in any economy of rats is to cull the unproductive that live parasitically off the labor of others. In communist rat economies these unproductive members are the party elite, in pure capitalist rat economies the parasites are (by definition) the rentiers, in the pure welfare rat society they are the idle on the dole.

it's only going to get much, much uglier

Going forward into the 21st century it is going to be interesting to see how much virtual wealth we consumers can enjoy -- virtual wealth being goods that satisfy our needs and wants without consuming physical goods -- prime examples being the latest console game or the webpage we are all reading now!
posted by mrt at 5:10 PM on April 25, 2009


there's also the modern equivalent of the rent treadmill (of social control, cf. ;) -- the web of debt, viz!

so like the modern version of the property tax that george espoused would be like a tobin tax (or pigouvian) on net worth: "Far better that we should get true tax reform, where the clever rich who have hidden their assets from taxation so long, like Mr. Buffett, should pay their fair share. Washington, you want real tax reform? Tax us all on the increase in net worth, and listen to the wealthy scream. They have gamed the system for too long."

but even then, i'm not so sure how satisfactory this would be; i think Aetius Romulous puts it well...

our economic thought is locked in an age that bears no resemblance to our own

like if the loci of production has shifted from land, labour & kapital to 'the (social) network' why pretend otherwise?*** we need not limit ourselves to SVUs -- "maybe the world could live without a single reserve currency. Currencies could compete against each other, and gold, and other commodities. This is an age of computers; I'm not sure why there would have to be one standard of value, particularly, when the standard of value varies so much..."

so like to put it in economese (or PCT) the role of (good) government (or NGOs for that matter) is to first be able to somehow gauge, or at least recognise, a social welfare function -- you know, to promote the general welfare -- and then be responsive in trying to maximise that (under constraints) which is really hard, esp if there are no prices, while weighing (utilitarian) opportunity costs and externalities with imperfect information; it might just be, as delmoi implies, that we eventually just get fed up with the way things are, notice that the pendulum has swung too far, don't make sense anymore, and make the tradeoffs for things like leisure, education, health care and the environment that somehow got lost along the way (to consumer utopia)... then, if enough people agree, the system will shift to reflect this change in community standards, values and practices! in theory :P

---
***which is benkler's point -- "The big question now is how we cover that distance between what we know very intuitively in our social relations, and what we can actually build with." -- cuz it does seem like we're trying to impose conditions so that a false theory is true in practise, but that's just the equivalent of mistaking your model for reality (map/territory etc.) and then, realising reality is messy, (unsuccessfully) trying to make the facts/data fit because it's so much easier than, mixing metaphors, looking for your keys in the dark
posted by kliuless at 5:38 PM on April 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?
-- Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness," 1932
posted by futility closet at 6:10 PM on April 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


At one point, we anticipated that industrial and technological advances would reduce the amount of work that needs to be done and ultimately obsolete the concept of work. The problem with this is that it assumes that advances will be used for the betterment of humanity. This fails because the advances are generally owned wholesale by the rich and powerful, and said advances end up being used to benefit them and them alone, with improvements to the rest of the world being ancilliary side effects.

We could have used automation and robotics to allow human beings to produce more in shorter periods of time and reduce the amount of work that everybody has to do. Instead we used automation and robotics to reduce the amount that needs to be paid to the workers, firing the excess.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:16 PM on April 25, 2009 [5 favorites]


We are like a giant mound of rats...

The Capitalist Pyramid, as seen in 1911.
posted by hippybear at 6:23 PM on April 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


We are like a giant mound of rats...those who either work the hardest or are simply fortunate are on top of the pile

I don't know what the solution is at at societal level, but in U.S. society anyway individuals are perfectly able to basically "check out" of the system, step off the treadmill, and live perfectly well.

To extend your metaphor, you just wriggle out from under the rat pile and head for somewhere a little ways away where none of the other rats seem interested in going.

Just for example you can find places to live where the cost of living is a fraction of high status areas. You can get by with buying automobiles that have 90-100K on them, getting half their useful life at about 1/10 the cost (and walk/bike/transit/carpool as much as possible to stretch its lifetime and associate expenses even more). You can get by without the latest gadgets, cable TV, grow and/or fix your own food rather than eating at restaurants. And so on for most every area of life.

You give up items with high status (ie a succession of brand-new SUVs vs a 1996 Ford Escort that gets you everywhere you need to but doesn't look all that great) but you're living perfectly well, not working yourself to death, and actually enjoying life from time to time.

The insoluble problem in the U.S. is we don't have a real "safety net" so if you come down with some kind of disability or serious chronic health problem, you're screwed. But that is basically true whether you are working yourself to death to have the neatest toys or not, so it's really a wash there as well . . .
posted by flug at 6:27 PM on April 25, 2009


The insoluble problem in the U.S. is we don't have a real "safety net"

It is my understanding that Canada has a mandatory health insurance model -- every wage earner is required to pay health insurance taxes out of their paycheck.

One's first reaction to this would be to think that this is an unfair burden on the working poor; however, if the "All-Devouring Rent" idea is true then this tax is taking money out of everyone's paycheck before the landlord can claim it, which results in reducing rents dollar-for-dollar.

I believe Obama's Five Year Plan being worked on now will include this mandatory health insurance scheme. Hurrah!
posted by mrt at 6:50 PM on April 25, 2009


It is my understanding that Canada has a mandatory health insurance model -- every wage earner is required to pay health insurance taxes out of their paycheck.

No, we have a single payer system whereby health care costs are paid for out of the provincial budget, which itself comes from progressive income tax and federal transfer payments (themselves paid for by a progressive income tax). There has been a recent health care premium added in Ontario which I believe is not progressive enough, but there is at least a little bit of difference by income, I believe. The lowest rate is $300/year, per tax payer (not per family member). The costs are far more progressive compared to incomes than health care costs in the US. I pay $4500 a year right now to insure my husband and I; my income last year was about $19,000. If I had made a similar amount in Ontario, I would have paid income taxes of about $2000 (federal and provincial) and a health care premium of $300.

So yeah, health just comes out of our regular taxes. And as a country we spend something like 1/2 as much per person as the US does (in public and private), and have better health outcomes. Lower overhead/admin costs too. It's working very well for us.
posted by jb at 7:44 PM on April 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sorry - I should have been clearer: when I say that I am paying for health care insurance right now, that is because I live in the US, though I am a Canadian.

Ask most Canadians who have lived in a country without health care, and they will say that one of the things they miss most is not worrying about health care. The only exceptions to this rule that I have met have been scions of very wealthy families.
posted by jb at 7:47 PM on April 25, 2009


It actually seems to me that Marx at least was not really that far off, since he was talking in terms of a late 19th century standard of leisure. If, say, eight people share an entire house and own a washer and dryer and dishwasher and other appliances that are somewhat equivalent to having a servant doing these chores for you in the 19th century, it seems to me that the way they live might well be regarded as leisure by people of that era. Sure they wouldn't have cable or healthcare but I don't think those things would have actually been regarded as a necessary part of a life of leisure. (And actually, even if they were, you can pretty well get something as good as 19th-century healthcare for free... or 21st century healthcare, as jb points out, if you live in Canada.)

Isn't this why some Africans are ready to drown paddling to the Canaries and some Central Americans lose limbs smuggling themselves North hobo-style on cargo trains (and when they recover from the amputation they just climb back on the train)?

I think it says something about progress that our terrifying, civilization-shaking crisis of the early 21st century here is essentially some single-digit growth numbers in global economies - *gasp*, maybe negative single digits! - rather than, like, a plague or a famine or a war where the majority of the population dies, which is what passed for divine fury during the rest of human history.

If we're always saying, "But I want the masses to have all the stuff the rich and powerful people today have!" that's simply never going to be satisfied, period. Too bad, social justice. (But I don't think that's really what social justice is, I'm just sayin'.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:11 PM on April 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


"But I want the masses to have all the stuff the rich and powerful people today have!"

My idea of social justice is access to that which is necessary to become and remain a productive member of society. Womb-to-grave health and disability insurance, lifetime subsidized education, an efficient local mass transit system, iMacs in the library, law & order established by the local constabulary . . . that's about it, actually.
posted by mrt at 10:17 PM on April 25, 2009


I think Richard Layard gets it. Displayed wealth is a sign of status. Status is relative, not absolute, so you need to work to compete with your neighbours.

You can't be happy now with a measly 20-inch TV, even if decades ago it would have been fine, because now your neighbour has a 40-inch TV, and that would mean you have an inferior status to him. So, you need to keep working long hours to keep up with him. And he needs to work long hours to keep up with you.

It's just the rat race. Nobody gets anywhere, but you can't stop or you'll fall behind and lose.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:22 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just for clarity -

"So yeah, health just comes out of our regular taxes. And as a country we spend something like 1/2 as much per person as the US does (in public and private), and have better health outcomes. Lower overhead/admin costs too. It's working very well for us."

JB was exactly right, and that just about sums up the fact of the matter. Would like to point out tho, that in Ontario Employers carry the burden of health care. There is a sliding scale that is a % of payroll, and employers remit this on behalf of employees. This is an employer tax and cannot be passed on to the worker. It's called "EHT" - Employer Health Tax. It never exceeds 1.95% of the total employer payroll, and is progressively less if your payroll is less than $400,000.00 per year. Most small business don't pay it at all.

JB's math however, is correct regardless.
posted by Aetius Romulous at 6:12 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


The first version of the matrix was a failure. then they got Edward Bernays to build the 2nd one.
posted by yoHighness at 9:06 AM on April 26, 2009


Aetius Romulous: It's worth noting that a payroll tax does not magically make money appear, so saying that 'it cannot be passed on to the worker' is just silly. It is passed on to you, because for the business paying money to you or to the gov't is the same result, an expense.

It's still a tax out of your potential paycheck, it's just intended to be more palatable because it's hidden. In fact, EHT would tend to be a regressive tax, because the rate is flat across all of payroll. (the phase in between 200K and 400K of payroll really only applies to very small businesses, and is noise to a medium sized company)

It's a less regressive tax than, say, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) tax in the US, which is 12.4% per employee, cut off at ~102K income. (half paid visibly, half paid 'by the employer'), but that doesn't make it great.
posted by zeypher at 12:27 PM on April 26, 2009


flug: (and walk/bike/transit/carpool as much as possible to stretch its lifetime and associate expenses even more)

The fact that "places to live where the cost of living is a fraction of high status areas" also tend to be remote, spread out, and utterly lacking in public transit is only the first issue I take with this somewhat pie-in-the-sky utopian suggestion. Not to say you're totally wrong, but I have to wonder if you realize just how much effort - work - it takes to sustain the lifestyle you espouse so (seemingly) blithely.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:11 PM on April 26, 2009


Supplemental Security Income (SSI) tax in the US, which is 12.4% per employee, cut off at ~102K income. (half paid visibly, half paid 'by the employer')

12.4% covers the entire Social Security program, not just SSI.

but that doesn't make it great.

Actually mandatory payroll taxes for pay-to-play services like health insurance are arguably "great" when looking at the long-term economics.

In the first analysis it appears payroll taxes reduce disposable income, but they in fact reduce takehome pay, and when looking for a place to live we bargain with the landlord how much of our takehome pay is left over as "disposable" after writing the rent check (when buying a home we bargain with the bank as to how much takehome pay we get to put towards the mortgage).

Economists generally agree that where there is rent there is taxable surplus. So the more taxes we can front-load onto paychecks the better.

This is economically counter-intuitive and horrible politics but oh well.
posted by mrt at 2:29 PM on April 26, 2009


The insoluble problem in the U.S. is we don't have a real "safety net" so if you come down with some kind of disability or serious chronic health problem, you're screwed.

Amen.
posted by millardsarpy at 4:05 PM on April 26, 2009


So, you need to keep working long hours to keep up with him. And he needs to work long hours to keep up with you.

You mean, new systems have to be brought online at all the factories in the eastern region to increase the per unit profit margins by automating manual processes and laying off workers, or the factories have to be shut down and their functions outsourced to Malaysia where workers can be paid wages approximately 1/100th of those formerly paid to American workers.

Since when do executives have to work harder or more effectively to get bigger bonuses?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:24 AM on April 27, 2009


Since when do executives have to work harder or more effectively to get bigger bonuses?

Hey! It was hard work for someone to sit and think about ways they can milk the masses to do more and receive less for doing it. It was quite a jump of logic that someone came up with to ditch the American worker altogether and realize that economies of scale mean that it can actually cost LESS to ship raw materials halfway around the globe and then back again as completed products than simply assemble the product domestically...

Not saying that I agree with the conclusions, but I'm sure whoever came up with that worked "really hard" to come up with it.
posted by hippybear at 8:15 AM on April 27, 2009


The fact that "places to live where the cost of living is a fraction of high status areas" also tend to be remote, spread out, and utterly lacking in public transit is only the first issue I take with this somewhat pie-in-the-sky utopian suggestion. Not to say you're totally wrong, but I have to wonder if you realize just how much effort - work - it takes to sustain the lifestyle you espouse so (seemingly) blithely.

I'm glad to hear I'm living in some kind of utopia, because actually I'm describing with some fair accuracy my own life and that of quite a few other people I know.

We don't live in some far off and remote place and we don't work any harder than anyone else.

But we also don't buy a new car every couple of years and my own house--which is quite perfectly adequate for everyday living--cost exactly 1/4 of the U.S. average sales price of new homes when we purchased it in the early 1990s.

When you're paying 1/4 or less of the amount the average American spends on automobiles and 1/4 what they spend on housing, it really opens up a lot of possibilities.

(House + transportation makes up more than 50% of the typical working family's budget.)

My point is, when you live in a wealthy and consumer-driven society there is a lot of low-hanging fruit around. Or maybe we should say, fruit that's fallen off the tree and is still perfectly good to eat, but nobody else wants it just because it fell on the ground.
posted by flug at 9:47 AM on April 27, 2009


flug: I'm glad to hear I'm living in some kind of utopia, because actually I'm describing with some fair accuracy my own life and that of quite a few other people I know.

You must be, because in my own experience such places are rare. Either that, or we're completely misunderstanding each other.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:40 PM on April 27, 2009


re: layard and idleness

here're my previous posts on them fwiw :P

  • Now is the time for a less selfish capitalism
  • Idle Theory

    ...from which bob black's class typology in his critique of jeremy rifkin's _end of work_ -- "The creation and management of an underclass is already a done deal." -- reminded me of The Capitalist Pyramid, cf...

    leading inexorably to zombie nation and marxist revolution:
    Despite the depth of our current predicament, Marx would have no illusions that economic catastrophe [1,2] would itself bring about change. He knew very well that capitalism, by its nature, breeds and fosters social isolation. Such a system, he wrote, “leaves no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Indeed, capitalism leaves societies mired “in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” The resulting social isolation creates passivity in the face of personal crises, from factory layoffs to home foreclosures. So, too, does this isolation impede communities of active, informed citizens from coming together to take up radical alternatives to capitalism.

    Marx would ask first and foremost how to overcome this all-consuming social passivity. He thought that unions and workers’ parties developing in his time were a step forward. Thus in Das Kapital he wrote that the “immediate aim” was “the organization of the proletarians into a class” whose “first task” would be “to win the battle for democracy.” Today, he would encourage the formation of new collective identities, associations, and institutions within which people could resist the capitalist status quo and begin deciding how to better fulfill their needs.

    No such ambitious vision for enacting change has arisen from the crisis so far, and it is this void that Marx would find most troubling of all...
    cheers!

  • posted by kliuless at 8:24 AM on April 28, 2009


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