The folly of basing government tax policy on ‘fairness’

Any parent who has watched kids play has watched while one kid will do something incredibly unfair and then appeal to the parents to impose his sense of fairness.  For example, at Joe’s birthday party, Mike will immediately take Joe’s brand-new toy, and when the toy is returned to Joe, Mike will say, “that’s not fair!”

Appealing to “fairness” is silly and childish because fairness is by its very nature subjective.  What you perceive as fair, another doesn’t.   Throughout history, kings thought it was “fair” for them to own most of the land because they organized armies to protect the country.  Slaveowners thought it was “fair” for them to buy and sell human beings.  Stalin thought it was “fair” to send millions of counterrevolutionaries to the gulags to protect the Soviet system.

It should seem self-evident that we don’t base society on subjective goals of fairness.

And in fact, this is what the best philosophers in history realized when trying to create the framework for a just society.  They discussed at length the fact that fairness is subjective, and there really are three natural laws on which a society should be based.  These three laws are: protection of life, protection of liberty and protection of property.  The great Roman philosopher Cicero recognized “true law” as natural law.  In pondering just government, Locke said:

“To properly understand political power and trace its origins, we must consider the state that all people are in naturally.  That is a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own posessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature.”

When the Founding Fathers formulated the Declaration and the Constitution, they were relying on the philosophers before them who had developed theories for how a free and just society should exist.  They recognized that abstract concepts like “fairness” were useless because a tyrant could determine something was “fair” and then take away the rights of others in his pursuit of fairness.  Instead, the Founders appealed to laws that were given to men by their Creator.  This is why Jefferson appealed to “self-evident” truths in the Declaration:  these natural rights cannot be taken away because they are given by God and are therefore “inalienable.”

When it comes to property, the Constitution reminds us that it is protected under natural law, both in the 5th amendment and again in the 14th amendment.  And of course in D&C 134, we are reminded again that the purpose of good government is to protect life, liberty and property.   As Jefferson said:  “A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned – this is the sum of good government.”

Why must government be “frugal” and “leave men free to regulate their own pursuits?”  Because history has shown that governments always want to expand, and in so doing the majority begins taking away the rights of the minority in the name of “fairness.”  Jefferson again:  “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. ”

Madison agreed:  “In Republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.”

Today, appeals to “fairness” are always used by the majority (those with less) to take away the natural rights of the minority (those with more).

I should intercede here that emotional appeals to “fairness” certainly have an appropriate place in voluntary, religious actions.  The scriptures clearly point out that equality should be promoted through voluntary giving, and the scriptures make it clear that those who refuse to give voluntarily are under condemnation.

But, just to give one example, D&C 134 makes no such claim on just government.  In fact, D&C 134 establishes that “no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will security to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.”  Then D&C 134 goes on to clearly divide between religious laws (which include voluntary giving) and just government, which should not interfere with religious devotion and should protect the “inalienable rights” of the governed.

It is self-evident that appeals to “fairness” are contradictory and hypocritical.  Today, we are hearing that a rich person must pay his “fair share” and that a “fair share” would be returning to the Clinton-era tax rates of 39.6 percent.  In addition, “millionaires and billionaires” should pay their “fair share” with an additional tax.  As Jefferson and Madison warned, there is no place in a Constitutional government for a majority determining what is fair for a minority.

Let’s take this position to its logical extreme.  If 39.6 percent is “fair,” why allow somebody to keep 60.4 percent?  In fact, during the 1950s, the top tax rate was 90 percent or more (note to the greedy and covetous:  nobody paid this because of deductions).  But if 39.6 percent is “fair,” why isn’t 70 percent “more fair” and 99 percent “fairest of all?”

But that is not far enough.  Even the poorest American is rich compared to the poor in Latin America or Africa.  Why aren’t they being “fair?”  If we want to create a truly fair society, all Americans who have one dollar more than anybody in Africa should be forced to sell all they have and send it to the poorer people in Africa.  But even such a system would not be “fair.”  The Americans would have a higher salary than the Africans.  Therefore, they must continue to give nearly all of their salary to everybody worldwide for the rest of their lives.

There is a name for this kind of “fairness.”  It is called “slavery.”

Indeed, progressives today are lauding a ridiculous quotation from Harvard Prof. and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren on the wonders of the “social contract.”  Let’s take a look.

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

 Prof. Warren is a candidate for a federal office, but almost all of the things she lauded are the result of local taxes.  Roads, schools, police and fire:  these are all mostly paid for by local taxes, which are, by the way, constitutional and supported in theory by almost all people.  So, she is fighting against a classic straw man:  almost nobody, including me, is saying that government should not help pay for roads, schools, police and fire on the local level.  And, by the way, Madison and Jefferson would have no problem with local and state governments paying for such things, and this is exactly the America they imagined in the future.

Their concern was a massive central federal government in which a majority would force a minority to pay for things like endless wars and the forced redistribution of wealth. 

And even Prof. Warren admits that factory owners should be able to “keep a hunk of it.”  Well, how generous of her!  So, how do we arrive at what a “fair” hunk is without going down the logical road to slavery as described above?  it is literally impossible.

No, government is not based on determining what is “fair” when it comes to your property.  Government is based on the natural laws.  Government should protect your life, your liberty and your property.   The Constitution, if you re-read it, was clearly laid out to protect your rights, not to give excuses for other people to come up with new ways to make you a slave.

If this is so, what should government do?

1)Return government funding to the local level as much as possible.

2)The federal government should remain confined to its enumerated powers, which are laid out right there in the Constitution.

3)Taxation that helps the government remain within the confines of its enumerated powers on a federal level is constitutional.  We can discuss federal taxation, at a much lower rate than today, that maintains a much smaller government.

4)Remember, nobody is saying such a policy can be introduced tomorrow.  There will have to be a transition period back to constitutional government.  But this should be our goal.

I could go on for years on this subject, but I will end here for now.  Notes to commenters:  we have no problem with disagreement.  Snarky, nasty comments will be deleted faster than you can say “I love Elizabeth Warren.”


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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

50 thoughts on “The folly of basing government tax policy on ‘fairness’

  1. Beautiful post. My DH and I have been studying natural law for a while now, and have determined that if we got back to this principle, things would be so much better for the country right now.

  2. Let’s look at another hypothetical fairness issue:

    Some kids get 4.0 GPAs, while others barely rate a 2.0. Fairness says that the kids with the 4.0 should give some of their high score to those without. Two kids could have a 3.0 if the one with the perfect score were to just share one point.

    Or in sharing his 4.0 with 3 others with 2.0, they each could each have a 2.5, which fairly lifts all boats. Do you think Elizabeth Warren would have happily shared her high college scores with those that partied and barely squeaked by? Of course, if she ended up with a 2.5 GPA after sharing her “excess” GPA points with others, do you think she would have had the opportunities in life that has her where she now is?

    Would you want to hire someone with a 3.0 GPA, if you didn’t know for sure if that person earned the entire score by him/herself?

  3. The logical conclusion of a Rawlsian “fair and equal” world is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” Here is a plot summary:

    “The plot is set in the year 2081. Due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution of America, all Americans are mandated equal. “They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.” In America no one is more intelligent than anyone else, no one is better looking or more athletic than anyone else. In order to stop any sort of competition in society these measures are enforced by the United States Handicapper General. The current Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, and her team of agents have developed several forms of “handicaps.” Beautiful people are forced to wear masks, athletic people have to carry weights, and intelligent people have to wear radios in their ears that interrupt thoughts with loud noises.”

  4. Isn’t it pretty clear that the Founders were worried about justice and that fairness is part of justice? Freedom is not freedom without justice. Even you note that they want a free and just society.

    Now all that said I favor consumption taxes rather than income taxes with exclusions for certain categories of goods that are necessary for all (like milk, eggs, etc.) However I just don’t find the line of reasoning you are presenting as that helpful at really dealing with the issues.

    The problem with inter-national comparisons is that while they might be poor there’s not a shared set of laws. So it seems silly to expect something akin to welfare without asking for the responsibilities that come with it.

  5. Clark, what is a fair and just level of taxation? We are all part of the human family – shouldn’t fairness apply to all? Even if you don’t use an intl standard, the same principle stands – how can it be “fair” for anyone to have one dollar more than anyone else?

  6. I don’t know what a just level of taxes is. Probably there is a range. Is the level of taxation of Canada or even some European countries really unjust? I’m far from convinced. I prefer smaller government but I have a hard time seeing it in terms of justice.

  7. Clark, that’s exactly my point. You don’t pick your tax policy based on “fairness” or “justice.” Such terms are meaningless. Personally, I think any income tax over 10 percent is “unfair.” Elizabeth Warren may think the rich should pay 80 percent or more. Fairness is subjective.

    You build your tax policy based on 1)a realization that taking money from some people and giving to others is a necessary evil for running government and therefore 2)you should approach it with a sense of humility and maintaining a “frugal” goverment and 3)an awareness that taxes that are too high don’t work and drive producers either underground or to other countries. You yourself have commented that corporate taxes are ineffective — they are nothing but punishment for “evil corporations.” A flat 10 percent corporate rate would probably earn more tax money than a 35 percent rate because corporations that are keeping their money overseas would repatriate it, and corporation like GE that pay nothing today would have to pay at least something. As for the personal rate, we need to lower the rate and widen the base and keep on cutting government so that we can continue to lower taxes over time (which is exactly what the Obama debt commission proposed, btw).

    As for the consumption tax, it is OK in theory, but I would be against it at the same time we have an income tax because it would simply be used by future Congresses to raise both consumption and income taxes, to the detriment of everybody. I also think another Constitutional amendment would be needed for a nationwide consumption tax — remember no income tax was allowed without a constitutional amendment.

  8. Geoff, you are right that appeals to “fairness” are meaningless. Let’s call it what it really is: redistribution of wealth.

    It is true that natural law, as articulated by the founding fathers, includes an unequal distribution of the world’s goods and services.

    But do you believe that a nation has any obligation to a social contract to promote the common good? You differentiate between Local (good) and Federal (bad), but in principle, this shouldn’t really make a difference in how you articulate your philosophy. Federal is just a bigger version of Local. Is there a place in your views of government for a “social contract” in the philosophy of a nation (or state) that would include taxation (which is by definition a redistribution of wealth)?

    If you believe even in a limited social contract, then how can you fault Elizabeth Warren’s quote, which was simply articulating what a social contract is? Perhaps you object to using the quote as a justification for raising taxes, and “evening the score,” and maybe you would be right about that.

    Warren’s quote reminds me of King Benjamin’s who said that we are nothing without God. President Kimball said that it is through others that God serves us, including nation, culture, and family. So it is exactly true what Warren is saying.

    Additionally, how do you justify your appeal to “natural law” when in the D&C God said, “it is not meat that one man should have more than another, therefore the world lieth in sin,” and “the natural man is an enemy to God.”

    In my mind, the redistribution of wealth, applied to the common good, is a true and good principle. We can argue that it is often applied ineffectively, and often doesn’t promote the common good. But would you agree that the principle itself, can (even in theory) be true?

  9. Nate, kudos for understanding the point of this post. To answer your question, no, I simply don’t believe that FORCED redistribution of wealth is “a true and good principle.” It is a false, evil principle. Christ meant us to freely give of our own free will, and forcing people who don’t want to give does nothing for the giver or the person who receives. Satan wants to force us to be good, Christ offers us a way to be progress and draw closer to God, which includes charity and love for all humankind.

    Now, as I say in the post, I am not saying that we should end all social programs tomorrow. It took us 100 years to build up the welfare state — I would suggest it will take us many years to overcome it and help people learn principles of self-reliance and voluntary charity again.

    In terms of practical proposals, I favor political changes in the short run that would maintain almost all of the welfare state for the forseeable future. Tax proposals that I favor would bring in more money, not less. I favor reforming Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid by returning them to the states. These changes would actually maintain these programs rather than destroy them. Our fiscal and monetary crisis is so deep that without these reforms we may be forced into reckless changes that would destroy these programs for good. So, in reality, the people whose policies would destroy entitlements are those who claim to want them most.

    But I will insist that we must have humility as we confiscate other peoples’ money. There is nothing noble about stealing from some to give to others. It is simply a necessary evil given our current fiscal situation.

  10. I find it interesting how much our understanding of Satan’s plan in Moses 4:1 influences this discussion. I can’t think of any other scripture that justifies your philosophy that government redistribution of wealth is a “false, evil principle.” Can you think of other scriptural justifications for this view?

    It’s true that having agency here on earth allows us to progress and become like God, and that without agency, there is no growth. But I don’t see how government taxation for the general welfare takes away that agency in any kind of eternal or significant way. Ultimately, Christ’s plan to bring agency in the world concerned the knowledge of good and evil, and the ability to choose between the two. This agency is granted to all men, whether they are prisoners in the gulag, or capitalist titans. I see little relation between wealth redistribution and Satan’s plan to take away the ability to recognize good and evil.

    So while I respect the efficacy and power of free-capitalist forces, I don’t see how regulation and taxation of those forces can be dismissed as “evil and Satanic.”

    While not all taxation has positive effects, I think we can all agree that some taxation has been good. It’s just a question of where and when, and how much. But dismissing the principle of taxation entirely because, like Satan it “seeks to take away the agency of man,” is not a convincing argument for me.

  11. Nate, I have written extensively on this subject. I think the contrast between King Benjamin (voluntary, one-on-one giving) and King Noah (forced confiscation) is instructive. In both the Bible and the BoM we read of people who lived at peace when they were ruled by judges, but we are warned that kings would confiscate their money and set up evil systems of taxation to support warfare. The word “tax” in the scriptures ALWAYS has a negative connotation. Joseph Smith knew about socialism and rejected it. Every 20th century prophet has written about problems of high taxation and loss of free agency caused by the welfare state. I would challenge you to look up some of the Conference talks from the 1930s. As “the dole” spread in Utah, the Church was constantly warning members about the evils of the dole because it takes away willingness to work and self-reliance. These warnings continued with every prophet until President Hinckley, who warned about “amitious and scheming leaders who (oppress) with burdensome taxes.”

    Christ instructed the Saints while he was alive to give voluntary on a one-on-one basis. He never asked them to give to the Sanhedrin or the Romans (who were the government) so these governments could give to others. One-on-one giving or giving to the Church allows for direct, personal charity; governments necessarily have middle men who skim off the top for their own purposes.

    Until 1913, when the income tax was introduced, government averaged about 2 percent of GDP. Most of the taxation was in the form of a tariff on foreign imports, which was not even paid by US citizens. Now, government is 25 percent of GDP, and there are literally hundreds of different taxes. Think about this: without massive taxation, the United States simply could not have afforded all of the (non-defensive) wars of the 20th century. Taxation and growth of government allowed these wars to take place. If we cannot agree that massive government to pay for endless war is not evil, I am at a loss.

  12. Imposing equality of result by force of law requires exercising the exact opposite of justice. Justice prohibits theft, and imposing equality of result requires it.

    Frederic Bastiat wrote a nice little book called “The Law” on this subject many years ago. He makes the point that the law is based on the natural right of self defense. You have a natural right to protect your own life, liberty, and property, even by force if necessary, and the government is merely the collective expression of those rights.

    If you don’t have an individual right to steal from your neighbor, for example, can any group of individuals have the right to do so?

  13. “If we cannot agree that massive government to pay for endless war is not evil, I am at a loss.” We can agree on that. So leaving out war, let’s focus just on the welfare state.

    I agree that the welfare state often creates entitlement mentalities and can lead to the dole. I can also agree that with constant government bailout for the poor, there would be a reduction in charitable giving. I agree that there are government bureaucrats who “skim off the top” in exchange for less than effective labor.

    But I don’t think the solution is going back to the economic jungle of 1913, when government was 2% of GDP. In our day it is nearly impossible to comprehend the crushing poverty and grotesque economic inequality of that day. But reading the life histories of my grandparents and great-grandparents has been instructive for me. While tycoons burned dollar bills for pleasure, my great-grandparents literally were starving, and not because they were lazy. They saw FDR as a savior.

    While the welfare state has created a culture of entitlement, it has also helped create a middle class, and has given dignity to millions of hard-working (and semi-hard-working) people. (Not everyone is a hustler in this life, and not everyone is smart and savvy, and I don’t think these people should be left in the street.) My next door neighbor is an elderly, hard-working, single woman with MS, who just lost her low paying job due to economic circumstances. She took out early social security, and with the help of medicare, she is able to live a dignified life, still poor, but with her basic needs taken care of. If she lived in 1913, she would be standing in a line at the soup kitchen every day, in excruciating pain, on decaying hips that had not been replaced by medicaid.

    We can all agree that the welfare state needs serious reformation, and that government should do all it can not to create a culture of entitlement. But I don’t think we can make wholesale judgements about the evils of government programs which do so much good for so many. If my great-grandparents could see the “kinder, gentler nation” we now live in, they would say it is heaven compared to the hell they lived in.

    So when a prophet speaks of the evils of the dole, I agree. Government welfare should be reformed to be more like our church welfare. Book of Mormon style taxation, in which leaders glut themselves on the labors of the people is bad. But the welfare state championed by FDR, LBJ and others was not inspired by King Noah-style greed. It was inspired by compassion for the common man, and a desire to create a nation where everyone could live in dignity, regardless of the intellectual and material capacities they were born into. To me, that is a Christian motivation.

    Can we agree that at least so some degree, these government programs have done some good, as badly as they do need reform?

  14. Nate, I think the reality is that capitalism created the middle class, not welfare. Hong Kong has never had any kind of welfare state, yet it has a thriving middle class today. It was the free market that created businesses that paid people more. In the U.S., it was the free market that created the middle class. Henry Ford paid his workers middle-class (actually upper-middle class) salaries without a need for unions or welfare — he did it because he wanted to attract the best, most motivated workers. Google and Apple do this today — they don’t need government telling them to pay $150k/year. They must pay this much to attract the best workers.

    I will agree that the government programs cannot and should not disappear overnight because people have become dependent on them, and there is very little right now to replace them for people like your neighbor. But I would point out that over time, with the right policies, we would create voluntary charitable societies (like the Masons, the Lions, our own church and other voluntary self-help societies) that would replace the welfare state. This should be our goal. I just don’t agree government welfare has done good — but I do agree that voluntary charity and mutual aid organizations are good.

  15. Nate, another point: it is very difficult to separate big government welfare from big government warfare. We saw this during the Bush administration, and it was very alarming for most people. But even Reagan was guilty of this: he talked a lot about cutting government but did very little actual cutting while massively increasing military spending. Every period of war has also included an expansion of the welfare state in one way or another: Wilson did it in WW1, FDR in WWII, Truman in Korea, LBJ/Nixon in Vietnam, Reagan during the Cold War and Bush/Obama in recent times. Our models should be the presidents in between who had more modest foreign and domestic policies (Harding/Coolidge, Eisenhower and Clinton).

    This new phase of national life started with President Wilson. Please read this for some of the dangers of what Wilson called “war socialism.”

  16. I think a lot of people miss the real issue and point regarding taxes and government spending. For the first time in our history, we are facing a nearly intractable problem of significant and increasing deficits in the foreseeable future, summarized as follows by the Congressional Office of Management and Budget:

    Beyond the 10-year projection period, further increases in federal debt relative to the nation’s output almost certainly lie ahead if current policies remain in place. The aging of the population and rising costs for health care will push federal spending as a percentage of GDP well above that in recent decades. Specifically, spending on the government’s major mandatory health care programs—Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and health insurance subsidies to be provided through insurance exchanges—along with Social Security will increase from roughly 10 percent of GDP in 2011 to about 16 percent over the next 25 years. If revenues stay close to their average share of GDP for the past 40 years, that rise in spending will lead to rapidly growing budget deficits and surging federal debt. To prevent debt from becoming unsupportable, policy makers will have to substantially restrain the growth of spending, raise revenues significantly above their historical share of GDP, or pursue some combination of those two approaches.

    This budget problem is so big that it is hard to imagine that only restraining spending will solve the problem, especially when the spending is for the baby boomer’s social security and Medicare which due to demographics alone will increase. This problem is further compounded with the fact that medical expenses have historically increased faster than our GDP and show no signs of decreasing. This old age caused deficit problem is so large and ingrained that even substantial reducing or eliminating so called waste or discretionary spending (i.e. military, education, etc.) does not stop it. In my opinion, at some point we as a nation will be forced to both raise taxes and control social security/Medicare spending or suffer a national financial melt down due to our unsupportable federal debt.

  17. Bruce, you are of course correct that entitlement spending is a potential disaster. There are three possible courses: 1)the one you mention, raising taxes and cutting spending 2)doing nothing, which will mean eventual bond market collapse and forced austerity and 3)cutting spending only. I favor 3. After World War II, the last time we were spending more than 100 percent of GDP, we were warned we couldn’t cut spending and we needed to raise taxes. Instead, we cut spending massively and lowered taxes. The economy boomed. Cutting spending is the solution.

  18. Geoff, I think I understand your point of view. You do see the value of social safety nets, but you also believe that charitable organizations and private businesses can do a better job of providing these for people than the federal government. Whereas, I’m not so optimistic about capitalism naturally fostering these safety nets without the federal government.

    This gets down to the fundamental difference between liberals and libertarians on this issue. Liberals are pessimistic about human nature, and libertarians are optimistic.

    Bruce, I also absolutely agree that the issue of runaway spending has to be addressed, and I think a lot of what my party advocates is foolhardy. But fundamentally, as a liberal, I don’t believe in drastically cutting some of the basic social safety nets we have in place. For me, the only solution to balance the budget is to raise taxes. Will this hurt the economy? Sure. But only to a certain degree. The economy got along fine with higher tax rates in the past, and there is no reason why it won’t in the future as well. Tax breaks may help the economy, but it’s not a silver bullet either. It’s all a question of degree.

    So the political reality is that you have to deal with millions of people like me, who want to keep entitlement programs, and we vote. How are you going to deal with us? You have to compromise. We’ll compromise to cut some from entitlement, but libertarian dreams are just dreams. We have to keep the welfare state. Maybe as Geoff says, we can slowly kill the beast. This seems to be the strategy of Republicans right now: force cuts by refusing to compromise on any new taxes.

    But the sooner Republicans accept the reality that entitlement is here to stay, the sooner we can get a workable approach to balancing the budget that includes significant tax increases and budget cuts. I see no other way forward. Everything else is “dead on arrival” as Harry Reid often says.

  19. I also think Geoff’s idea of trying to push entitlement off to the states is one that I think may hold some promise. As a liberal, I like the idea of more a more localized government, but I don’t know if others in my party would agree, as I have not studied much the state vrs. federal debate.

  20. Geoff, I recommend that you carefully read and analyze the non-partisan Congressional Office of Management and Budget analysis I cited which clearly shows that the magnitude of the deficit arising from social security and medicare for baby boomers is so large that it is nearly impossible to cure the deficit by cutting social security and medicare alone, given the demographics and high health care costs. Although in principle I agree that cutting spending is the first priority, the math does not work out with that alone. Also that report relies on recent, relatively high historic economic growth during the last several decades which many economists believe may not occur in the future. It easy to argue in principle that cutting spending is the answer, but the simple economics and baby boomer demographics show that cutting alone will in all probability not solve the problem.

  21. Bruce, already done it. There are three different budget proposals that include that data and show ways of reforming without raising taxes. The Ryan plan is one (google “Paul Ryan budget plan”). The Republican Study Committee also has such a plan (google Republican Study Committee budget plan). The best plan of all is Rand Paul’s budget plan, which is actually pretty difficult to find, so I’ll give you a link.

  22. Geoff, although as a conservative I applaud Representative Ryan for making a thoughtful proposal for handling the future budget problems, there are still many unanswered questions about how and whether the plan will work as advertised, especially since it shifts part of the costs to individuals and states, which may be politically impossible and shifts, rather than reduces, the costs.

    My point is that the pure mathematical budget projections are so bad due to unchangeable demographics and high health care costs that some form of compromise between controlling spending and increasing taxes is the only way I believe it can be realistically addressed both politically and practically. Of course the politicians on both the left and right will stubbornly cling to their no new taxes or no cut in government benefits pledges to advance their political theories, but the pure mathematical realities overwhelm both of them. This is why serious, non-partisan studies of the budget problem, such as the report submitted late last year by the Simpson-Boles committee, conclude both approaches are necessary. Thanks for your thread.

  23. The concept is, if we move things to the states, they can experiment on the best ways of doing things, and the best practices will win. This is important, because it allows people to live in an area that meets their belief system.

    If liberals want an invasive government system, they can move to Massachusetts or other liberal states. If a person wants a conservative or libertarian approach, those can be offered in states, as well. However, with a grand federal program, if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to kill it. If it does work, inevitably bureaucracies enter the fray and bog the program down until it no longer works. Or it becomes a boondoggle for Congress to get votes. Social Security worked well, until Congress borrowed money from it and made more and more people eligible for benefits. Medicare was working until it was expanded bigger and bigger, such as with Medicare Part D, and other unfunded mandates.

    We have tried raising taxes before, and all it has done is make spending grow faster. Cutting taxes will probably not help, either, because it doesn’t stop Congress from still spending. What we need is to cut spending. Look at your own lives. You can only get so many “second jobs” to pay bills, before you run out of time and ability. And it doesn’t help you if as you work more, your expenditures increase. Michael Jackson made almost $1 billion in his life, but went bankrupt. Classic example that one must cut spending, otherwise there is no amount of money sufficient to make ends meet.

    That several of the plans offered by the Republicans seek to modernize systems and have them work according to market supply/demand (such as medical vouchers), is a good thing. We let the market control costs, rather than government just pumping ever more money into a ravenous system.

    So, I just do not believe we need to increase spending. We need to teach the American people to be more self-reliant, use free markets to contain costs, and get the feds out of many of the things they are currently doing.

  24. Clark, that’s exactly my point. You don’t pick your tax policy based on “fairness” or “justice.”

    But surely we can agree that there are unjust or unfair taxes. For instance if there were simply a flat tax of $10,000 for all people we’d agree that was unjust. So while I don’t think taxes are purely an issue of justice neither do I think we can completely exclude justice from the discussion.

    As I said I think we’d be far better off with consumption taxes rather than income tax but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of public sentiment for it despite a lot of economists favoring it.

    Regarding moving things to the states, I’m actually a big proponent of that. I do think that sometimes Conservatives go a little overboard in their zeal. I think there are far too many federal criminal laws for instance and would like to see many eliminated (since there are almost always existing laws covering the same crimes on state books). But I think the FBI has been a pretty big success against things the states failed at such as organized crime. While I don’t like the Education Department I do like there being some federal standards. And so forth.

  25. Clark,
    You are begging the question. Judging fairness is completely subjective. Not all people would consider $10,000 flat tax as unfair. Perhaps their thinking is: this is an incentive for people to not be poor, but to get educated and move up.

    Or what if we decide that being “fair” means everyone should be a millionaire? Or that everyone should be able to live in homes worth at least $500,000? Or that everyone must be indoctrinated in atheism?

    This would be the exact opposite of many today, who think it is fair to live on welfare, even though they are capable of working and jobs are available.

    As a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I cannot define pornography, but I know it when I see it” is a wholly subjective concept.

    The real difference here is if we consider taxes and government a necessary good or a necessary evil, or somewhere in between. Those who are strong proponents of freedom and liberty tend to consider it a necessary evil, which needs constant watching. Those who are not so big on liberty, and more on social justice, will think that the more government the better.

    The concept of delivering most power back to the states allows a person to leave or live in a state that represents their personal view of liberty vs social justice. The “fairness” factor can take place here, as it is not forced upon anyone who does not share that concept. If Massachusetts wants a health care program and Texas wants none, I can choose to live in one or neither of those two states. But if the Federal government is involved (including education standards like “no child left behind”) then there is no way to escape a bad program, or something I disagree with. It means that religion and liberty get quashed everywhere, rather than in just a few select states, whose people want it.

    This is where “fairness” comes in. People can elect fairness in the states, which keeps it from being forced on others. Some states can be “fair” to homosexuals and allow them to marry, while other states can be “fair” to conservative heterosexuals, and keep marriage between man and woman.

    What is “fair” social justice for one, may not be for others.

  26. Rameumption I don’t think I’m begging the question at all. Further the fact that our judgments about fairness are subjective isn’t a critique. Our judgments about all political issues are subjective. Even when you get to economic issues the difference between conservatives and the stronger Keynsians is ultimately a subjective decision. So it’s not as if eliminating talk of justice somehow eliminates subjectivity. Further if we have to eliminate all subjective talk from politics effectively we are saying democracy doesn’t matter since democracy is inherently about these subjective issues.

    So I just don’t quite understand the critique you are offering here.

    Regarding talk of liberty or social justice. I think the issue is much more complex than that since of course there’s no agreement over what liberty consists of. I see no reason why conservatives should concede this debate to the libertarians. I would simply note that consumption taxes should defuse most of this since you don’t need to purchase from others and I think it unarguable that the Federal government can tax interstate commerce.

    Regarding complaining about fairness due to not being able to move states strikes me as odd also. Why doesn’t that apply to other rules? Further I honestly don’t get the idea since if you oppose fairness surely it’s just as much a problem at the state level as federal? (Indeed I think that state laws are more often far more pernicious since for various reasons people don’t pay attention to state laws and regulations)

  27. Clark,
    Fairness is subjective. While imperfect, politics and economics are sciences that can be studied via historical data and content. Yes, subjectivity gets slammed into them all the time, but the data is still there. For example, we can study the outcome of the Stimulus package and see where it did and didn’t work, effectiveness, and how efficiently/inefficiently the money was used.

    Leaving most things at the state level allows for the fairness factor, and deals with subjectivity. If a liberal thinks taxing the rich is fair, he can do so in a state. They can tax Warren Buffet to the max. Meanwhile, a libertarian or conservative that thinks such is nonsense, can live in a state that believes in low taxes or “fair” taxes (consumption, 9-9-9 across the board, etc). In such a scenario, each person gets to have his “fair” factor, or at least close enough to want to remain in that state. Anyone who does not like it, will move.

    And, if the fairness factor in a state causes the state to go belly up, we then have data to show that such “fairness” is not substantive economically.

  28. Clark, let me try to convince you of the folly of “fairness” by telling you a real-world story. When I lived in Brazil, I experienced first-hand an incredible class culture in which basically 1 percent of the people have 60 percent of the money, 10 percent are middle-class and have 30 percent of the money and 89 percent of the people have 10 percent of the money. But of course voting is obligatory so you get people always voting to find new ways to take away other peoples’ money. Is it “fair” that 1 percent of the people have 70 percent of the money? Well, for some it is, and for others it is not. I was good friends with a family that had started out as immigrants 40 years ago and built up a chain of supermarkets that was one of the biggest in Brazil. They were honest-to-goodness entrepeneurs who were providing jobs and doing good things. And then of course I also met rich people who had gotten rich from government contracts and connections and were complete slime.

    But the bottom line is that the “rule of law” is mostly meaningless in Brazil. So, let’s say you have a maid (everybody in the upper classes and middle classes has maids) who steals $1000 from you. You ask the police to arrest the maid. The police will arrest the maid, and then the maid will turn around and go to a judge and accuse you of beating her (this didn’t happen to me, but it did happen to people I knew, and of course they never beat her). The maid will have no proof, but the judge will then say that it is not “fair” for you to accuse the woman of stealing because you are rich and she is not, and she deserves the money more than you do, and by the way, didn’t you beat her? So, you have two choices: you either drop the case, or you pursue it by paying off the judge $500. And of course you never get your money back.

    The point is that “fairness” is completely subjective in this kind of society. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem very fair that you have $1 million while the maid had $1000 to her name (the $1000 she stole from you). But that is not the issue at hand. You simply can’t go around stealing money from other people. And this is what a society based on random ideas of “fairness” gets you.

    You need to base a society on firmer stuff than “fairness.” This is why the natural law is so important. In a natural law-based system, there are no arbitrary appeoals to “fairness.” Your property was stolen, the woman was guilty and must give it back. End of story.

  29. I think we’re talking past one an other over the phrase “basing a society on…” I don’t think we should base taxes or even society primarily on fairness but neither do I think we can exclude the topic just because there are other important factors.

    Put an other way I think you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Once again to illustrate this one need only think of unjust taxation or unjust laws to recognize we can’t exclude justice.

    Regarding fairness, I guess I just don’t see the connection between local control and fairness. Sorry, I just don’t. I recognize you see this as obvious. But perhaps if you could sketch out an argument for why local control entails more justice? Because frankly looking at the southern states for most of the 20th century I think the evidence is strongly against that view.

  30. Geoff and Rameumptom,

    I’m curious to hear what you think about Rawls’s notion of the veil of ignorance:

    As Clark notes, there is always a degree of subjectivity in these kinds of things, but not to the point that notions of fairness can be tossed out. I do think Rawls, here, refutes the strong claim of subjectivity you seem to see in much liberal reasoning.

  31. I have no problems with Rawls’ thought experiment. However, I find it unlikely in the real world, otherwise slavery would not have required a war to end.

    The concept of slavery, though, does not directly apply. The concept that does apply is there are absolute rights of God: life, liberty, pursuit of property/happiness that are God given and should not be taken away by government. In establishing the Constitution, slaves were counted as 3/5 person, not because they were only part human, but to keep Southern slave owners from having too much power in Congress. That slavery was designed to eventually go away in the Constitution can be seen in this, and in the concept of slave trade being ended in 20 years.

    Freeing slaves, allowing blacks to vote, etc., is not an issue of fairness, but an issue of providing liberty to all people.

    The problem with social justice, as opposed to providing liberty to people because it is their right, is that social justice is subjective. To allow such to occur on a state level prevents all people from having to suffer from someone’s view of fairness. One can always move elsewhere (another state) to escape such. As it is, slavery is not a fairness issue, but a liberty issue. Still, during the slave period, what did slaves do who did not want to be slaves? They escaped to free states! Had the entire nation been a slave nation due to fairness, rather than liberty, just where would the slaves have gone to escape to freedom?

    Therein lies my definition of the phrases, and I’m thinking Geoff would also agree with the definition, as well.

  32. RG, I addressed Rawls way up in comment #3. I find his philosophy frankly simplistic because it ignores centuries of work done before him by Locke, Montesquieu and the like on how to deal with the subjectivity of tyrants. Locke refuted Rawls long before Rawls was born. You cannot create a Rawlsian world without somebody, an elite, deciding what is fair and just for all. I trust the Savior to make such decisions in a future Zion — I don’t trust any earthly king or group of govt bureaucrats to make such decisions in our current world.

    Rame is exactly right that the issue of slavery is not an issue of fairness. Of course it is unfair for human beings to enslave others. But the unfairness comes from tyrants of one kind or another violating a natural law, which is the principle of liberty.

    Here is a reverse “veil of ignorance” test for anybody who believes in Rawlsian theories: if you really believe in “social justice,” please sell your house and cars and all your possessions and send me the money, and I will give it to the poor. I travel to Latin America nearly every month. I can guarantee you that I will give it to people who are poorer than you. I will give you a complete accounting of my charitable efforts and have it certified by a CPA. I have offered this to dozens of people so far, and nobody ever takes me up on it. How could that possibly be? Well, it turns out that liberty is more important in the end than arbitrary ideas of social justice and fairness. I honor your liberty to spend your money, and give away your money to charitable causes if you wish, as you see fit. Unless you are willing to put your money where your mouth is — today — you should honor others’ liberty to do as they wish with their money.

  33. I think we can take this idea from Rawls without taking his whole system. You claim that fairness is subjective; well in discussing slavery, we can ask the question is it fair? Any sane person standing behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance would say no. That sounds pretty objective to me. How much more “objective” are those natural laws you cling to?

    As far as your reverse veil of ignorance test is concerned, you’re making fairness the be all and end all, which I’m not sure anyone discussing this topic is advocating. I think we’re calling for a position that recognizes the claims of fairness/justice, not one that kowtows to it unquestionably.

  34. Perhaps I can find some space for agreement by saying that there is room for “fairness” in some areas of law and society. But when it comes to fiscal policy — taking money from some and giving to others — the driving features should be humility and efficacy and fairness should really not be a prominent feature. If we start from the position of all of the Founding Fathers, even Hamilton, that it is wrong to take from some and give to others, but we also realize, as Locke and Madison and Jefferson and Adams did, that government needs some revenue to operate, we can arrive at the proper position, which is that the federal government needs to be small and frugal and to use tax revenue extremely wisely. This was our position until about 1913, and it is a position we need to return to as a country.

    “Fairness” should be the driving principle of personal, voluntary charity and perhaps, as others have noticed, policy on a local or state level. This is the vision the Founders had, and it is a good one. “Fairness” is clearly more important to California voters than it is to Texas voters — fine, if you want fairness, move to California. Of course, your “fair” policy is bankrupting the state, leaving massive bills for future generations, but what the heck, we’re being fair, right?

  35. RG noted: “Any sane person standing behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance would say no.”

    Can you really say that for certain? Can there absolutely be no sane person who wouldn’t say yes?

    The thing about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is that as long as you are not trespassing on my right to have the same, you are welcome to seek these any way you wish. That is very objective. If someone robs or harms me, they have inflicted damage to my right to these three unalienable rights. This is very different from “fairness” in fiscal or other matters, because then there is an expectation of taking from some to give to others, whether the receivers have merited receiving it or not.

    As it is, how many people, before making a decision, think “what would Rawls have me do in this situation?” Many sane people make bad decisions each and every day, obviously because Rawls lives in Utopia, while the rest of us dwell in reality.

    The reality is, Southerners used the Bible to justify slavery. They weren’t thinking about whether they personally would/wouldn’t like to be a slave. The Bible is from God and it stated that enslaving blacks was alright with God. So, Rawlsian theory would not work with them. No, they would not want to be slaves. However, they were not African and since God justified enslaving the race of Canaan, it must be okay. THAT was their justification. So strongly was this concept felt that the American Baptist Church split into two, creating the pro-slavery Southern Baptist Convention.

    So, pleading Rawls just doesn’t work for me in this sense. We could use Rawls to justify many, many things, including things that are against the laws of God as we now have them. Does that suddenly mean we should toss out such things, in order to satisfy a Rawlsian vision? Not gonna happen.

  36. Geoff (35) Clark, please define fair and unfair taxation.

    I can’t. Wasn’t that part of my point? (If you’d like an argument for why I think them inherently undefinable I can do it – I think a lot of the most important conceptions are undefinable)

    Are you saying that something that can’t be fully defined doesn’t matter? That’s what I’m arguing against.

    Rameumption (33) The problem with social justice, as opposed to providing liberty to people because it is their right, is that social justice is subjective. To allow such to occur on a state level prevents all people from having to suffer from someone’s view of fairness.

    I must still be missing something obvious. Why is it wrong to “suffer” someone else’s view of fairness? There must be some premise you accept as obvious that I don’t see in all this. It sounds like you want a nation of rule of law wherein everything is objective and there is no democracy. That’s fine if you want it but I think it a pure nonsensical and unobtainable utopian dream.

    I’m all about science but nothing in the social sciences gives me any confidence whatsoever that we can base government on anything “objective.” At best there may be some facts that the hard sciences can arrive at. Although looking at that I’m pretty skeptical of the place of facts within politics. They’re too easy to deny.

    What’s wrong with acknowledging that justice is important, acknowledge no one has a good idea what justice is as some pure concept, and instead just allow that we’ll all negotiate what is just in a somewhat fallible way?

    To add, since you seem to be appealing to “liberty” (in either a Libertarian or Randian way?) but to me that’s just as problematic and undefinable a term as is justice. And, I’d argue, just as important a term.

    Rameumption (39): The thing about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is that as long as you are not trespassing on my right to have the same, you are welcome to seek these any way you wish. That is very objective.

    I honestly can’t see how you can say that with a straight face. Consider something simple like speeding. Am I trespassing on your right of liberty and life? If it’s true at some speed (say 200 mph driving through the city) at what speed did this transition occur?

    I can’t believe you honestly believe what you are saying here when it’s trivial to find examples where it fails. I could give you dozens of real world examples where it’s pure subjectivity. What you call objectivity is, I suspect, merely the agreement of most of those you converse with. It’s not objective in any sense of the word as I use it (say the way physics is objective)

  37. Geoff: (37) “Fairness” is clearly more important to California voters than it is to Texas voters — fine, if you want fairness, move to California. Of course, your “fair” policy is bankrupting the state, leaving massive bills for future generations, but what the heck, we’re being fair, right?

    Come on now Geoff. Surely you see that this is a straw man. Isn’t the real critique of California that it’s not being just in the least in terms of how it organizes it’s finances? It’s rewarding special groups with lucrative retirement funds and benefits at the cost of future generations and the effective running of the state. It’s weird that you make an argument against fairness by appeal to statements about justice “leaving massive bills for future generations.”

    This is what I mean. A real conservative view of economics and finances is all about justice and the idea that we should live within our means is a claim based on justice.

  38. Wow, Clark, I can’t believe you are not understanding my points here. You can’t come up with a definition of “fairness” because it is subjective and should not be the criteria on which tax policy is based. This is the contention of this post. Now, you could argue that juries consider the issue of “fairness” all the time, and this is true. I was just on a jury, and in considering the amount of money given to the plaintiff we spent a lot of time talking about “fairness.” So, I will cede the point that fairness is an issue in applying laws.

    I will also cede that “fairness” is discussed today in applying “fair” tax rates. One side says 40 percent is too high, another percent says 20 percent is too low, and so clearly the issue of “fairness” comes up. But my point is that “fairness” is meaningless when discussing what to do with other peoples’ money, and the fact that you cannot come up with a definition of fairness is exactly why.

    Correct tax policy, as I have said several times, is a matter of 1)recognizing you can’t take money away from people unless you have a tremendous amount of humility about it (this accepts the natural law principle that people have a right to property); 2)recognizing that taxation is a necessary evil and 3)recognizing that taxation should be efficacious, meaning if you tax people too much or in the wrong ways you will defeat the purpose of taxation in the first place.

    A correct tax policy clearly recognizing the role of natural law (the right to property) in society, while “fairness” does not. And I can define liberty very easily: you have a right to do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anybody else. If you drive 100 mph on a road and don’t harm anybody else, I could care less. It only becomes an issue if you crash into somebody else, in which case you should be sued and if perhaps thrown in jail.

    As for the California issue, I was pointing out that “fairness” brings you the anarchy of the current situation of California, which is unfair results for future generations, whereas basing tax policy on natural law brings better results for all.

  39. Geoff B.,
    it seems to me that it would be wrong to tax someone at 100% even if you could do so efficaciously. And my reaons for so thinking look a lot like fairness.
    That said I agree with you that ‘fairness’ as a concept is overplayed in our debates on tax.

  40. Geoff (42) I can’t believe you are not understanding my points here. You can’t come up with a definition of “fairness” because it is subjective

    Judgments of fairness may be subjective but then judgments of physics can also be subjective. (Quick – is global warming true or false?) You are conflating the state of judgments which are always subjective with the nature of the thing judged. I am perfectly able to say that both justice and fairness are objective but that our judgments of them are not. Further if I think justice is both objective and real (i.e. as opposed to objective and created such as most defined concepts) then it should be of no surprise that we have trouble grasping what justice is. That’s to be expected when the thing we seek to understand exceeds our grasp.

    So it’s not that I don’t understand your points. It’s that I think your points are demonstrably false.

    Geoff A correct tax policy clearly recognizing the role of natural law (the right to property) in society, while “fairness” does not.

    Why? I don’t see that at all. I must confess I don’t buy natural law theology in the least. It’s right up there with the quasi-religion put under the rubric of social justice in my book.

    To me a good conservatism need not appeal to artificial laws from medieval Catholicism (natural law) based upon questionable philosophy (Aquinas) but rather recognizes with humility that we are still learning what the ideals are to which we seek to follow.

  41. Clark, hmmm medieval Catholicism. That must be why it’s in the Constitution in both the 5th and 14th amendments and in D&C 134. That must be why Jefferson, Madison and many other founders discussed natural law theory and why it continued to be the foundation of legal theory for many decades until the progressive era. Sorry, Clark, on this issue, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I will be arguing a lot using natural law in the future, and I think I’m on excellent ground.

  42. To clarify so that there is no confusion. I’m not rejecting the idea of justice beyond law as a human consensus. That sense of natural law I agree with. What I reject is the idea that this is a clear, known, defined set of laws that fully represent this justice. In effect my statements about justice hold the place natural law does for you. I just think that justice is higher than law.

    The reason I don’t say justice rules or dominates in such discussions is because (a) we disagree upon what it is and (b) there are other practical considerations that typically dominate. i.e. justice might cry out for there to be no hunger on the world but that’s not helpful for a law if we have no practical way of achieving that with our resources.

    I am deeply skeptical of appeals to natural law beyond the idea that there are great oughts and calls of justice to which we must respond but which we do not fully understand. Thus the founders can fall far short of their ideals with things such as slavery because of the practical consideration (forming a union of people who disagree about justice) and because they don’t understand what is just themselves. (What does it mean for all people to be equal? Do we go by their limited understanding or do we see it as an ideal expressing a demand of nature or God in excess of their ability to comprehend?)

  43. Geoff (45), do you think he founders accepted in full the Catholic conception of natural law as understood? (My sense is that you think they did and that this law forms both a trump over the constitution and democratic process – but I’m hoping that’s not true) That is do you think natural law gives a determinate answer to all these questions?

    With regards to D&C 134 I’m not sure what you are referring to. There is nothing about natural law as I understand the term.

    Please note once again that natural law theory is not the same as claiming there are real laws in the universe independent of our comprehension of them. That I accept. (I’m a physicist after all) However natural law theory is a particular conception of what natural laws there are and their makeup. That I reject as an apostate doctrine of the dark ages although one that was helpful in leading towards some truth. (Much like Protestantism enabled the restoration) The idea that we are bound by laws independent of us is quite important. The idea that they are known (and worse yet determined by a bunch of monks from medieval times) is to me ludicrous.

  44. Dang. That means my setup won’t work. (I had something somewhat Socratic planned – but I’m a lousy Socrates so I don’t know if it would have worked) Just to let you in on my line of thinking in preparation for your posts (which I look forward to):

    My line of reasoning is basically we can divide natural law into the ideal natural law versus what individuals (Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson) claim it was. If we appeal to what is claimed about the natural law then we are no longer talking about natural law but mere agreement over the law. But that agreement over the law isn’t natural law at all but positivistic law. (Law by convention) So to appeal to natural law by appeal to Jefferson, Locke etc. is fundamentally to not do natural law. For natural law what counts is the justification. But the justification of natural law is that it is Justice. (Even Locke and Jefferson saw that – natural law is the system of justice common to all) So to reject Justice (and by association fairness) from discussion is really to reject natural law proper in preference to the conventional and thus positivist conception of law.

    The argument basically is those making these sorts of natural law arguments to eliminate discussion of justice are in fact arguing against natural law.

    Natural law simply can’t be seen purely in terms of what a few individuals thought it was. So for instance Jefferson famously saw both Newton and Locke as laying the foundations of natural law. However clearly science has moved on from Newton and while his origin was important the fact is his understanding was highly flaw. We recognize that natural law isn’t what Newton thought it was and that we have to go on inquiring in order to understand natural law. Thus Einstein in certain ways trumps Newton not because Einstein is more recent but because Einstein is more correct.

  45. ..or CERN trumps Einstein by “proving” that particles can travel faster than the speed of light. 🙂

    Anyway, you will have plenty of opportunities to hone your socratic skills on me in the years ahead. I will try to address your arguments in my next post on natural law, which should come in the next few weeks.

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