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Latest medium here. Explores how language policing has restricted people’s vocabulary and distorted the immigration debate to focus on economics.
Happy birthday to me.
When Labour were elected in 1997 they more or less stuck to Tory spending plans for an election. They did this to build up their reputation for fiscal responsibility with financial markets. Everything I’ve just written is wrong.
In reality from 1997-2001 Labour spent more than the Tories would have, just as they did subsequently, but they did it off balance sheet. You can see the explosion of PFI deals from 1998 onwards. That is how Labour kept to their spending plans and built and refurbished loads of hospitals.
When it comes to fiscal responsibility you paper balance sheet doesn’t really matter, it’s your real future liability and assets that matter. Or at least that’s true in finance. What really happened is that financiers knew that the British state needed to invest in infrastructure and were happy to lend Labour money.
Labour could have got this money on normal sovereign rates but they were restricted by the press and by public opinion. A similar thing is playing out with the difference between Labour and Tory spending plans for the 2015 election. Labour are promising to be fiscally responsible but to borrow for investment.
In reality there’s no clear line between current spending and investment spending. Would tens of billions of pounds spent on effective mental health care pay reduce days lost to work and pay for itself and more? Would improved child care allow more people into work and pay for itself and more? Is repairing roads that are heavily congested really a valuable investment?
Just like in 1997, 2015 Labour are dancing to a tune that only exists in the public and press’s heads. It will probably end up with things better than if the Tories were in but worse than if they didn’t have to pander to nonsense paranoia about the national credit card. I expect to be writing this post in 2035 too so don’t expect this to change any time soon.
One of the problems with the world is a shortage of safe assets, places you can put your money and come back to it later. It sounds simple but if you have lots of money then it starts to get difficult. You can see this shortage in people paying negative rates to borrow money, there’s such a lack of safety that people will lend some states money and be happy when they don’t quite get it all back.
Wealth being kept safely is very useful service all round. People want to borrow money cheaply and people want safe investments. Good times all round. At the moment there’s a global shortage but that problem is soluble even if we are obsessed with deficit reduction we don’t have to be. But what about crooks?
Crooks can be very rich, in places where property is less safe than in the UK they can be very rich indeed. But they have a problem, the same weak institutions that helped them get rich – fiddle a procurement here, expropriate a village there etc – means they need to find safe assets to purchase.
You can, presumably, see it in the chart above, with London housing being bought by shell corporations with final owners unclear. You can see it in the uninsured safety deposit boxes cleared last week in what I think has to be called a “daring raid.” Swiss watches are very expensive, but it does help you move £100,000s across borders with the minimum of hassle. I’ve never seen a £50 note, but they are easier to store than 20s, and an awful lot of them are used that way. None of these are as safe as Swiss bonds but they all offer varying degrees of safety transformation.
I don’t know what impact this has on a broad level. The super prime London properties targeted may as well be in another country for all the effect they have on me but I do wonder how. It might be annoying for the Bank of England is a big chunk of the money supply sits unused but they can adjust to take this into account.
Crooks are, presumably, more ruthless than even investment bankers so with a generalised shortage of safe assets it seems possible that more and more safe assets (the glue of the financial world) will be owned by worse and worse people. What effect this will have I don’t know but it doesn’t seem like a terribly good situation. No conclusion to this post. I’m just going to stop writing now.
A thought occurs to me, one for here rather than Medium.
Given that journalism is so dominated by Oxford and Cambridge educated, private school white people (to a greater degree than average, not totally of course, normal disclaimers apply) it is helping social mobility.
The people I know in journalism are very smart people who are earning a pitiful amount in an industry destined to terminal decline. Its entirely possible people entering journalism today could be earning thousands of pounds a year more (and on a trajectory to earn tens of thousands of pounds more) but they’re not. This downward mobility, and we normally measure mobility in hard cash, is in some ways good for society.
Maybe if we pay attention to happiness economics these people are still getting a good deal. Journalism is a job with great intrinsic rewards. Women, people of colour, poor people still find it difficult to enter journalism, so perhaps it isn’t so good for society.
In either case, I salute young journalists commitment to doing work that makes them happy and jumping on the downwards scissor of social mobility.
Hello, not dead, just tweeting.
I’ve done a couple of pieces on Medium, which is a lovely site to write on. Not going to close this blog, but will try and use this more for scrappier stuff that’s not meant to look polished and for stuff too long for twitter.
Last week I took issue with Dan Hannan’s terrible history. It really was dreadful and I recommend you read this post. It shows the danger of reading your ideology back into history rather than letting the sources tell you what really happened.
Tonight I wrote about the Tory’s doomed planned to weaponise Ed Miliband and invented the phrase “Begging the Miliband” for the tendency to presume Miliband’s unpopularity is innate, not state dependent. It’s here. Weirdly Phil had the same idea, must mean we’re right.
I wrote it be fore the bizarre revelations that Ed Miliband was dating Stephanie Flanders for ages…I believe this is meant to make him look bad, but it just makes him look cool… Even after all this time I still don’t think the Tories really get sleaze.
There’s two stories this week that interest me. They’re both about power and authority and who can wield it. They look like pretty similar to me, but the reaction to each has been the opposite. Who gets to be violent towards women with children?
It seems pretty clear the answer should probably be nobody. But sometimes violence is necessary, like in Hannibal [Spoiler alert] when Clarice Starling has to gun down a woman holding a baby to save her own life. In what ways are waitresses and Bus drivers like Clarice Starling? Should waitresses roughhouse women with babies? Should Bus drivers push them about? You might ask, as she does herself, should even Clarice Starling be able to do this?
Nobody asked these questions this week. This is what made for the stark contrast between the reaction to Claridge’s banning women from breastfeeding openly and to First Bus winning a court case saying saying women with children in buggies couldn’t be forced to give up space reserved for wheelchairs.
If Claridge’s really wanted to enforce their ban it would ultimately involve either their staff violently ejecting and breastfeeding women who didn’t comply. First Bus argued that yes, the wheelchair space is for wheelchairs, but no, their drivers aren’t authorised to force a woman to move. The first of these was greeted with incredulity, especially when Nigel Farage requested an end to ostentatious breastfeeding. Of course women can breastfeed where they like. The second was greeted with outrage. Of course wheelchair users can use the space reserved for them.
But both of these questions revolve around who gets to exercise violence. Perhaps bus drivers wrestling with mothers and newly born is a good idea, but it’s not a clear cut case. The court may look callous in its decision, but it has laid out where legitimate violence may and may not be used. This is to the detriment of disabled people, if a mother can’t be reasoned with, but I can’t see a way around this because that unreason is not a cause for violence.
Few people think about what private property means, but it means excluding people, sometimes consensually, often violently. There’s lots of advantages to this system but there’s also drawbacks and these cases sit at this intersection. Private property means being able to force people to do what you want, but society places constraints on what and who you can boss about. I think Clarice Starling was right and FirstBus was right but I think Claridge’s was wrong and those positions are perfectly coherent. Violence can be put to good use, rarely though against women with children.
Owen Jones has a video up at The Guardian on the evils of property developers. He blames them for pricing people out of their homes, but I think he’s wrong. Sure property developers are building unaffordable housing, but that’s because land is unaffordable. When land is unaffordable it makes sense to build the most expensive property you can to make the best margin you can.
In the 1930s in the UK’s recovery from the Great Depression and terrible twenties Property Developers went wild. Just like today people responded to low interest rates by investing in housing. The problem is the 1930s saw housing built that people could afford and that people liked, today low interest rates push prices go up. It was the opposite in the 1930s. As Nick Crafts explains “85% of new houses sold for less than £750 (£45,000 in today’s money). Terraced houses in the London area could be bought for £395 in the mid-1930s when average earnings were about £165 per year.”
Why was this? Is wasn’t out of the benevolence of 1930s property developers, it was because the supply of land was far less regulated. There was no incentive to sit on land and even affordable housing becomes an attractive investment when land is easy to come by. Property Developers were just as selfish then but the system channeled that to something useful. The Second World War stopped this housing boom and the 1947 Town and Planning Act made sure it never came back.
In fact, get the rules right and property developers could go from enemies to heroes. Housing expanded so quickly in the 1930s it was the primary motor pulling Britain out of its long slump. Sound familiar? That could happen today, we just need to make it much, much easier for people to use land how they want, where they want.
PS Owen talks about India too. Slum residents (not owners) are cleared out of their slums so they can be redeveloped as better quality housing. This really is something to be angry about. People without deed to their property getting expropriated by developers working (probably) with corrupt local government. This is awful and I don’t have a good solution to this, primitive accumulation accompanies the early stages of capitalist development everywhere. Solutions on a postcard please.
In 2000 we agreed that financial contributions to the EU should be linked to Gross National Product because that is a sensible way to do it. Recently these figures were revised for incredibly boring reasons, R&D became value adding instead of a cost, some services which weren’t counted properly now are, and so on and on as boring and inevitable as statistics.
These revisions are important because of VAT, value added tax. Because part of the EU budget is paid for through VAT so we have to reassess how much we owe to the EU budget , it’s laid out in this pdf, via the FT. We’ve just found out we’ve added more value so should have contributed more tax. Those CRAZY Eurocrats.
It’s clear that David Cameron will pay this charge. He’ll make a big deal out of it, but he’ll pay. David Cameron made it his government’s mission to return the UK to a balanced budget. He’s not going to do that, but he wanted to move in that direction to protect the reputation and borrowing privileges of the UK.
The UK is in an a small club of countries which haven’t defaulted. There’s an advantage to keeping your promises and David Cameron wanted to sensibly protect that. People believing you is valuable and keeping your promises is the only way to guarantee that. I think he’s gone about it in a stupid way, and that’s his prerogative, his intention was to protect the UK’s history of keeping promises.
That’s why he’ll pay this. The UK updated its 1994 agreement 14 years ago and promised to pay. So pay it we will. Paying your debt means keeping your promises. If David Cameron cares about keeping the UK’s word he’ll pay up. He thinks he can play the offended statesmen for the home media without worrying lenders and he’s probably right, but if he wants to be a proper statesman he should shut up and pay up.
- America – Neil Diamond
- Americano – Lady Gaga
- Beneath, Between and Behind – Rush
- British Intelligence – Jamie T.
- Coming to America – K’NAAN
- Deportees – Woody Guthrie
- El Coyote – Guy Clark
- För Alla Namn Vi Inte Får Använda – The Knife
- Icky Thump – The White Stripes
- Illegal Alien – Genesis
- Laugh and Be Happy – Randy Newman
- Matamoros Banks – Bruce Springsteen
- Mein Land – Rammstein
- Migra – Santana
- Miss Little Havana – Gloria Estefan
- Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) – Billy Joel
- My People – The Presets
- One In A Million – Guns N’ Roses
- Prayer Of The Refugee – Rise Against
- Refugee – Lostboy! AKA
- Sexy People (The FIAT Song) – Arianna
- Sign In Stranger – Steely Dan
- The Blanket of Night – Elbow
- The Immigrant – Neil Sedaka
- The Refugee – U2
- The Royal Scam – Steely Dan
- Ukip Calypso – Mike Read
- Waving Flags – British Sea Power
- Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall? – Tom Russell
- Without A Face – Rage Against the Machine
You may be expecting this post to be about Nigel Farage striking a deal with Robert Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. He’s a Polish MEP so right wing the Front National want nothing to do with him. He’s now in a parliamentary group with Ukip, and it’s saved them their EU funding. This post isn’t about that. This is about something more important: music.
On Songfacts there’s a list of songs that deal with immigration. It’s a bit out of date because Mike Read’s Ukip Calypso isn’t on there, but I want to set that right and place Mike Read in his proper context. Jamie T’s song is a lament for a friend who’s girlfriend couldn’t get a visa so his friend had to marry her. Woody Guthrie wrote about a plane of Mexican deportees which crashed, killing everyone. Rage Against the Machine wrote about a Mexican trying to enter the UK but finding a wall there. Tom Russell points out its probably immigrants building that wall too. And so on.
If you look at the above list you can see song after song praising immigrants or lamenting their suffering. But there are a couple which are anti-immigrant like the Ukip Calypso. Genesis’s Illegal Alien is nominally sympathetic, but Phil Collin’s does a cod-Mexican accent which is at least a little distasteful. Axl Rose is the only real contender for Ukip company, he doesn’t like “immigrants and faggots,” so he’d be perfect to be a Ukip Councillor somewhere.
So take solace, in popular music, if not popular news, immigrants are still presented as brave heroes, tragic victims, hard workers or just normal people with stories of their own. I was surprised to find any nominally anti-immigrant songs, bemoaning “illegal immigrants in every town” in a bad Jamaican accent is definitely the exception. Even Great White Records didn’t release many songs. So go ahead and Vote Ukip, vote for Cllr Rose.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman
Voting is a duty. A lot of people think it’s a right, but that only covers part of it. You don’t just have a right to vote for who governs you, but a duty to choose the right person to govern everyone. A lot of people get this and you can people voting against their own interests all the time. It’s a noble thing.
But when this sense of duty collides with the ignorance of the British public something horrible happens. Were people to vote in their own interest, we’d have a much nicer world for immigrants. When asked about issues affecting the country, immigration comes out tops, when asked about issues affecting them personally immigration vanishes.
Tuesday’s post listed just some of the ways the public are wrong about the world. If 15% of girls under 16 were pregnant each year that would be worth concern. It would imply that all girls aged over 14 were constantly pregnant. That demands action. I’m not too liberal to admit that. If we did spend more on JSA than pensions that would be worth concern.
Given current state pension spending of £74.22 billion and the over-25 rate of JSA of £72.40, we’d be paying JSA to twenty million people. That’s the population of Angola. If that was true, then I can see how people would think overseas aid was on of the top three UK budget expenditures.
People want to help their fellow citizens and immigration has become a flashpoint for many concerns. Housing, the economy, poverty, fairness, inequality. All these things converge on what the public think they know about how immigration is affecting someone else. They think 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%.
I think this concern is genuine, but misguided. A lot of what I’ve written probably makes me sound like I dislike the public and think they are scum. But that’s not true. I think they’re very caring individuals who are deeply, deeply wrong about how to help people.
They show great concern for their fellow citizens’ wellbeing when it comes to immigration, but great vindictiveness on many other matters. They think capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save a lot of money, but it won’t. They think it will work because they have a lot view of their fellow citizens, the citizens they very much want to help, are scamming them.
There’s no such thing as public opinion. You can’t collate and rank all the opinions everyone has. They don’t and can’t stack properly. But worse than this, even individuals don’t have consistent opinions. They think it’s important to protect their fellow cheating citizens from their kind immigrant neighbours.
Fighting Ukip is hard because of this. They can promise contradictory things and get away with it because people can believe contradictory things. They believe them willingly. Ukip are an anti-immigrant party with a pro-immigration MP (pro-immigration for an MP that is), who are campaigning as the champions of the UK libertarian tendency who want to protect the NHS. In government Ukip would probable deliver contradictory things and people would probably like it. People, you can’t trust ’em.
IPSOS-Mori point out ten places British public opinion disagrees with British reality.
- Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%[i].
- Crime: 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19% lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53% lower than in 1995[ii]. 51% think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012[iii].
- Job-seekers allowance: 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)[iv].
- Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100[v].
- Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn)[vi].
- Religion: we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales. And we underestimate the proportion of Christians: we estimate 34% on average, compared with the actual proportion of 59% in England and Wales[vii].
- Immigration and ethnicity: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%[viii]. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups)[ix].
- Age: we think the population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 36% of the population are 65+, when only 16% are[x].
- Benefit bill: people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+. In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m[xi], compared with £5bn[xii] for raising the pension age and £1.7bn[xiii] for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.
- Voting: we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% of the electorate actually did (51% of the whole population)[xiv].
Things like this make me not envy politicians. How do you make policy when you have to appeal people who think 15% of girl’s under 16 are pregnant, but which has to be implemented by people who know it’s nonsense?
Ukip are the party of common sense. That means the received, sensible, and wrong wisdom encapsulated in the above mistakes. It’s common sense that people are ripping off the benefits system, but really its pensioners voting for a pensioner based festive meal.
People think 31% of the population are immigrants. It’s not even like that in London. How do you make policy to confront a problem which doesn’t exist. The solutions are already rolled out. The poor can’t marry foreigners. You can’t bring your family over if you’re poor. There is no legal way for asylum seekers to enter the country.
EU enlargement is over for a generation and EU immigration numbers are now dictated by the relative strengths of different parts of Western Europe. The better the UK does relative to Southern Europe the more migration we’ll see.
Sadly, I don’t have a solution to Ukip. The deference and respect people had has evaporated. People don’t believe they live in the same world as politicians. A lot of the time they’re right. For housing, employment, cost of living, economic security things are much worse than the political establishment think. But on so many other matters it is voters who have become unmoored from reality. And in these area, these vitriolic, common sense causes, that battle lines are being drawn.
I don’t have any answers, and if anyone thinks they do, then I’ll be right behind them…about a mile or two behind them.
Subtitled “How The Economic Way Of Thinking Can Justify Your Horrible Personality”, Life Coasing is a terrific return to form for Levitt and Dubner. These two authors have done more than anyone else to bring the economic way of thinking to the attention of popular culture. Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics were cultural phenomenons which hugely influenced a generation of horrible people. I am pleased to exclusively offer extracts from their latest book.
Inspired by the saga of the knee protector, this kindle single (pictured above) introduces the ideas of Ronald Coase, and how his idea of making small side payments can totally justify your horrible treatment of everyone around you. Going beyond Coase, who focused on policy, Levitt and Dubner show that through the total disregard for other’s feelings only arseholes have, they can enable more transactions by ignoring the feelings of others. It’s going to be huge in Silicon Valley, I assure you.
Without further ado, I have a few teasers to share with you:
“Chapter 1: How is reclining your seat like buying a newspaper?”
We were shocked to hear people were using knee protectors to prevent people reclining other people’s airplane seats. I’m sure you were outraged too. But how do you solve a problem like a reasonable person trying to remain comfortable in a hostile environment? Contrary to what your mother told you, the answer is to make the environment more hostile. Every person has a price, and although some people might pretend to be moral, what they actually mean is they are expensive.
Newspapers, remember them folks? They’re expensive, not only because you have to distribute a paper parcel (not even by drone), but you have to bundle up a variety of different news items together to someone who only wants part of it. Hence you pay for a lot of information you don’t want. Conversation around reclining seats if often a lot like this. People take forever to get to what you want: the price of their comfort.
So as you have seen already, the economic way of thinking is already proving incredibly useful in justifying your horrible personality. We’ve got you a more comfortable seat and you’ve learned something along the way, but we’ve passed over something which needs explaining.
“Chapter 2: What are transaction costs anyway?”
What is a transaction cost anyway? You’re probably unfamiliar with some transaction costs because arseholes have low transaction costs. A transaction cost is a way of describing the frictions people face in life contracting. You might be familiar with lawyers fees from copyright disputes over poorly conceptualized satires. That’s an enforcement cost. I wouldn’t bother about these. Nope.
There are other costs too, searching for something you want and getting the information you need to make an informed decision are important. Most important for this book are bargaining costs. These are the costs required to come to an acceptable agreement with the other party to the transaction, drawing up an appropriate contract and so on.
In Coase’s The Problem of Social Cost he explains how property rights can enable those who suffer the pollution of a nearby factory to negotiate with the owners. If people own the right to clean air then they can sell that right for the right price. Pretty neat huh? You don’t necessarily own a polluting factory (although I’m sure some of our entrepreneurial readers actually do.), but in a way your personalities are pollutants. But just like the answer to global warming is to pollute the air in a slightly different way, your terrible personality pollution is also the answer to your problems.
Because you have low bargaining costs, because you quite literally don’t care if people hate you, you can negotiate your way out of being an arsehole. One of the largest barriers to these transactions is hurting other people’s feelings. Luckily, if you’re reading this book you probably don’t care about people’s feelings. You can facilitate many more transactions. Your horrible personality really can make the world a better place. And isn’t that the wonder of the economic way of thinking.
“Chapter 3: Out of the mouth of babes”
The ultimate coasean bargain is the extraction of lunch money by school “bullies.” (H/T) Everyday, up and down the country, 11 year olds are rediscovering Coase’s seminal work. But instead of praising them we punish them. If children did not value the services of the bully (and what else is a bully but a proto-state, a stationary using bandit), they would not hand over their lunch money. The money involved is often low denomination and usually very small fees actually exchange hands.
We could work out the cost of bullying directly if we knew the wages of children, but sadly we do not. However, thanks to these coasean pioneers we can extrapolate from these bullying fees figures to come up with the reservation wages of children. From these we can imagine what transaction fees must be like for children and develop a rough cost of bullying (Perhaps Mr Piketty thinks the only way of collecting this data is to tax children!).
If bullying mattered, don’t you think the children would have sorted something out by now themselves? Because the reservation wage of children is so very low it can’t be transaction costs which prevent them successfully preventing bullying themselves, it really is just uneconomical to do so. The bully rent is too damn low. Remember to bring this up in the next PTA meeting when someone suggests another anti-bullying campaign. Your terrible personality (and that of your demonic spawn) really will save everyone time and money. Don’t wait for any other business just shout out at the beginning of the meeting. Remember, you’re keeping bargaining costs low.
Alongside internet atheism and men’s rights activism, the economic way of thinking is among the best ways of justifying your horrible personality. But until now these advantages have not been codified. I hope in this book, “Life Coasing: How The Economic Way Of Thinking Can Justify Your Horrible Personality”, we have explained how coasean bargains and the economic way of thinking can provide cover for your horrible personality.
According to Salon, Uber is hyper-capitalist and must be stopped. Frankly I’m a bit annoyed with anything aggressive being labeled hyper-capitalist. Garment factory collapses in Bangladesh, that’s capitalist. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, that’s capitalist. Blowing up your fertiliser plant, that’s capitalist. Someone headhunting your employees? That’s hyper all of a sudden.
So SLOG, Uber’s recruitment drive, employs private contractors, disposable burner mobiles and fake identities to pick up lifts from Lyft, chat up their drivers. This results in some cancelled rides, but the purpose of the service is to pick up rides rapidly. A quick cancel ends in a quick new fare, the direct costs to Lyft are probably lower than other more common recruitment methods.
This isn’t hyper-capitalist, this is headhunting. If this was happening on LinkedIn to consultants nobody would bat an eyelid. The time taken out to interview and flirt with new potential employers isn’t seen as hyper-capitalist, just normal capitalist. I think there’s classism here too, that taxi drivers would be tricked into moving to Uber, but that consultants headhunted know what’s what.
Uber is also seen as hyper-capitalist because it’s subverting regulations. In Germany it’s just ignoring court rulings and running on venture capital. You mean….a capitalist firm…is ignoring regulations?! Colour me shocked. There are serious concerns about driver licensing and public safety, but none of this makes it hyper-capitalist. Just…normal.