Moon Struck

by Don Boudreaux on July 17, 2009

in Complexity & Emergence

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Washington Post:

While I share Charles Krauthammer’s admiration for the scientific brilliance that put men on the moon and returned them safely to the earth, I disagree that “the wonder and glory” of manned lunar exploration is a sufficient reason for Uncle Sam to again undertake such missions (“The Moon We Left Behind,” July 17).

Such “wonder and glory” is funded with money forcibly taken from taxpayers.  This process inspires no awe and is decidedly inglorious.  Moreover, achievements even more wondrous and glorious than moon shots surround us daily – for example, New York City is fed day in, day out, without fail.  Millions of people from around the world work to grow, process, warehouse, deliver, cook, and serve food so that eight million New Yorkers eat well each day.  No one plans this wondrous achievement, and no one is forced to contribute toward its realization.  It’s the happy result of hundreds of millions of persons peacefully pursuing their own self-interests within markets.

Is a moon shot really as wondrous as the intricate coordination of the plans and actions of these countless suppliers and consumers?  Is putting a human being on the moon really as glorious as the fact that hunger has been all but eliminated everywhere that markets operate?

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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Tom July 17, 2009 at 9:01 am

Well said.

Justin Ross July 17, 2009 at 9:21 am

Even if we agree that it was wonderful to put a man on the moon, what is the marginal glory from subsequent trips? Is it really that great to demonstrate NASA still can do something it did in the 1960's? It seems very "been there, done that."

SaulOhio July 17, 2009 at 9:26 am

Building a sustained lunar colony is whats going to be really glorious. But its going to take the same kind of organization that feeds New York every day. In other words, markets, not government planning.

vidyohs July 17, 2009 at 9:40 am

One quibble, this:

"No one plans this wondrous achievement, and no one is forced to contribute toward its realization."

is not entirely true. No one plans it, yes; but, yes we are all tasked with subsidizing it in one way or another. Our forced contributions may be small when spread out over the population, but we make 'em!

dg lesvic July 17, 2009 at 10:05 am

Wow!

Metre July 17, 2009 at 10:09 am

Scientific progress is necessary to advance human knowledge and create new technologies, oppotunities, and markets. Wherever science has led, markets have followed, and that is a formula that has worked very well and from which we all have benefitted. But it is naive to think that markets will go to the the moon on their own; the risk is too great.

dg lesvic July 17, 2009 at 10:11 am

Metre,

Why don't you actually read what Boudreaux wrote?

Bret July 17, 2009 at 10:26 am

Besides, the private sector might be able to do space exploration and moon colonization on its own if government got out of the way.

Gil July 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

It'd be nice if a new Moon landing was planned because new rocket technology was being used that as efficient as today's computers are relative to those forty years ago. Unfortunately, rocket technology has hardly changed in the last forty years. Therefore it's going to be merely 'more of the same' or 'it's been done already'.

Metre July 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

@ dg lesvic

There is money to be made in space but the technological cost is great, the risks are greater, and the profits may not happen for decades or even centuries. Good luck finding investors with pockets that deep and the patience to wait that long.

S Andrews July 17, 2009 at 10:53 am

Metre,

For the second time, Read what Prof. Boudreaux wrote.

Martin Brock July 17, 2009 at 10:57 am

Is putting a human being on the moon really as glorious as the fact that hunger has been all but eliminated everywhere that markets operate?

Not by a long shot.

Sam Grove July 17, 2009 at 11:00 am

Please, Metre, tell us what you got out of Don's post.

You appear to be making a point irrelevant to the post.

As for your point, we know that anything government does is always more expensive than when done in the private sector and the resources used to send men from the moon where taken from private hands in the first place.

Bob Kozman July 17, 2009 at 11:05 am

We expect (and take for granted) the well-ordered self-regulating markets, since that's the way they are supposed to work. But when we reach beyond our comfort zone into new and uncharted areas we expand the boundaries of our human capabilities. If man had never reached for the stars we wouldn't have science today, and without science we wouldn't have many of the wonderful market items which we enjoy.

LowcountryJoe July 17, 2009 at 11:08 am

>>There is money to be made in space but the technological cost is great, the risks are greater, and the profits may not happen for decades or even centuries.<<

So, there's actually money to be lost in space?

>>Good luck finding investors with pockets that deep and the patience to wait that long.<<

This is where taxpayers come in, right? But the minute someone like Boudreaux comes along to say "Danger, Danger, Will Robinson" the true automatons come along and poo-poo the idea that there's any danger at all and that the spending and losses are more than justified by the 'benefits' — benefits that investors cannot see but just have to be there long-term. And then you get people like this guy who misses the point in what really was behind innovation.

Gil July 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

"There is money to be made in space." – Metre.

Unless you're talking of interstellar travel – i.e. more life-bearing planets like Earth then: no there's not a great deal of money to be made in space. Well, maybe some from mining but that be about it. Terraforming Mars or Venus sounds about as technologically difficult as interstellar travel. Of course, humanity could slowly migrate across the Galaxy in a 'slowly but surely' way just as people can colonise the world in boats and by foot. However, real local space travel requires speeds close to light and there's no obvious way of doing it. True space travel requires speeds faster than light or the ability to warp from one place to another and then space travel seems nigh on impossible. It was a bummer that ion engines turned out to be a fizzler but oh well what can you do.

TrUmPiT July 17, 2009 at 11:39 am

Man does not live by bread alone. Except perhaps in the base existence of the unfortunate, downtrodden, neurotic or the seriously infirmed such as the clinically brain dead who must be force-fed to keep them alive. I hated this post of yours, as I do so many. The fact that most people have to work to eat is an inglorious, artless, tasteless waste of one's life in many instances. Many people hate their servile jobs and as a consequence live unfulfilled, worthless lives. A trip to the moon is out of reach for all but the vain rich beside being out of sight soon after takeoff. A cheap LSD trip is not a safe alternative. Delving too deeply into crass libertarian theory is also a waste of one's scant, precious time on Earth, in my humble opinion.

erp July 17, 2009 at 12:04 pm

In the words of the immortal bard, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Hamlet, I.5)

It's in the nature of man to explore the unknown. That's why there is a New York where the miracle of people going about their business is happening.

I don't know that we should return to the moon exactly, but we should spend our treasure reaching toward the stars not on Chicago thugs who are distributing it to their supporters so they can be re-elected in perpetuity.

Snarky July 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm

TrUmPiT, the fact that you're not from outer space comes as a bit of a surprise.

S Andrews July 17, 2009 at 12:49 pm

the fact that you're not from outer space comes as a bit of a surprise

He lives in a place called blackhole.

EKH July 17, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Donald,

Would you also be against the DARPA funding that resulted in the internet? Or perhaps you would do away with the NASA research that gave firefighters fire-proof clothing.

Markets are indeed wonderful and they are magnificent at meeting short to medium term demand. But research that has a marginal chance of paying off in the long run does not have a place in efficient market theory. I would much rather spend government money on scientific research than say a 500 mile long fence in the desert.

Alexei July 17, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Geez guys. I'm normally in agreement, but I have to take exception to this particular letter. What happened to your sense of curiosity and adventure. EVERYTHING doesn't always have to come down to what makes financial sense, and while Big Brother is a jerk, he does occasionally do something worthwhile. IMHO, the whole Apollo episode is one of those things.

There was no immediate economic reason to go to the moon (although there was a lot of economic benefit from all the research and development that went into it). There were legitimate scientific reasons though, and some good political ones (when viewed through the prism of the Cold War). Lets face it, you're not going to get private funding for a venture like this because there's no real prospect for profit from it. Not then, and not for a long time from now. Sure, you can mine asteroids and the like, but that's a pretty pricey project. There's no way to make profit until 1) resources on Earth become really scarce and 2) propulsion technology becomes a whole lot cheaper. Given that, while I (and many others) am inspired by the fact that men have been to the moon, that inspiration isn't enough to convince venture capitalists and the like to contribute billions and billions of dollars to this sort of effort.

I have no problem with my tax dollars going to ventures in space travel and inspiring scientific research. If all the government did was things like this, I'd be one heck of a lot happier with my government. Now granted, I'm totally biased because I grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek and I studied Astronomy and Engineering in school. Sue me. :)

Don, I love you. But with this one, you sound like a total stick-in-the-mud.

John V July 17, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Trumpit, I'm not sure if your "bread alone" quote is supposed to be a reference to Deuteronomy, Jesus' quote of it, or some vague reference to Maslow's pyramid.

"The fact that most people have to work to eat is an inglorious, artless, tasteless waste of one's life in many instances. Many people hate their servile jobs and as a consequence live unfulfilled, worthless lives."

That people have to work to eat is not, as you seem to imply, a complaint against the market or the Prof. It is, instead, a complaint which has forever been complained against nature. Not much we can do about it. Perhaps you're complaining about the particular people who work for food.

John V July 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Alexei, would you offer up cash for another space flight? Or, how much would you offer?

JohnK July 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Is a moon shot really as wondrous as the intricate coordination of the plans and actions of these countless suppliers and consumers?

To this I would have to say yes.
Is it as worthwhile? No.

S Andrews July 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I have no problem with my tax dollars going to ventures in space travel and inspiring scientific research.

I have a problem!

Lets face it, you're not going to get private funding for a venture like this because there's no real prospect for profit from it. Not then, and not for a long time from now.

That's conjecture.

More over, funding doesn't happen in a vaccum. Funding actually takes scarce resources ( land, labor, capital ) away from more profitable, hence more useful to society, projects. The things that were not made, discovered or invented, because of the space odyssey remains hidden from the public – which evidently includes you.

Billy July 17, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Like one commenter asked, did anyone actually read the letter. Dr. Boudreaux is arguing against space exploration that is funded by theft, not against space exploration, per se.

And consider this: almost every nation that has made a determined effort to reach space has been able to do so through a centrally planned program. Every nation that has attempted to centrally plan how its citizens are fed has failed miserably.

S Andrews July 17, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Further more, considering the fact that Governments waste a lot more resources than the private sector, the society would have benefited a lot more if the moon shot had never happened.

Alexei July 17, 2009 at 1:35 pm

John:

Sure. I don't have all that much free cash to give, but I think space exploration and development is something worth doing. So yes, I'd pony up what I could.

Yeah, I know, I guess that means I really ought to buy stock in Virgin Galactic and the like, or send them some contributions. I guess I'm a slacker for not doing that yet. I'm already contributing to the government's program, so I guess I'm not a complete slacker though.

:)

John Dewey July 17, 2009 at 2:39 pm

s andrews: "society would have benefited a lot more if the moon shot had never happened."

That's probably true from a strictly economic perspective. But perhaps not so true if you accept the existence of a national psyche.

Sputnik was a wake-up call. As we watched the blinking light move across the sky, we could see in our parents both fear and wonder. They wondered what marvels the future had in store for their kids. They feared the propect of a totalitarian world.

The fear part of Sputnik had to be answered. We could not let the Communists dominate space. We could not let them use their satellites to conquer the free world.

Fear of nuclear war with the Communists was very real in my childhood. The wealthy built bomb shelters. The rest of us pretended that hiding under our schooldesks during air raids would somehow protect us from a nuclear firestorm. We were damn scared, and Sputnik didn't leave much room for optimism.

JFK raised our hopes with his challenge. Going to the moon may not have made economic sense. But it did give us a psychological win over Communism. To me, that made it worthwhile.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 2:56 pm

It is incredible to me that a professor steeped in the regulation literature wouldn't even reflect on how issues like barriers to entry, economies of scale, and uncertainty might differentiate the task of feeding New York City from the task of manned space exploration.

This is really less a statement about the economics of space exploration than it is a philosophical statement about taxes and the state that is beefed up with a broad paean to the market; a paean that does little to engage the actual realities of space exploration.

Metre July 17, 2009 at 3:05 pm

WARNING: TANGENT ALERT!

You guys say taxes are theft. Taxes are not theft – they are payment for services provided. Any creditor will take action (e.g. force) if you do not pay for services rendered. Try not paying your mortgage or rent and see what happens. Yes you may choose which home to live in, but you have to live somewhere so you either pay or end up living in a cardboard box under an overpass. The invisible hand can be just as heavy as government's hand.

Granted, government tries to do too much and overburdens all of us with taxes, but funding big science is one of the good things it does. Markets won't do it because the expense is large, the risk is high, and the pay-off (if any) may be in the distant future.

Yes the "invisible hand" of free markets is a thing of wonder, but so is the remote control on my key chain. Heck I can unlock my car when I'm 100 feet away from it! Talk about an "invisible hand"! I guarantee you that James Clerk Maxwell did not envision that when he codified the laws of electromagnetism in 1860. Where science leads, markets follow. And when it's big science like the Hubble space telescope, the large hadron collider, or space exploration, government must fund the trail blazers until the markets are able and willing to take over.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Gird your loins, metre – you're in for an earful (from them I mean, not me).

I personally think it's a little more complicated than "payment for services provided" because it is a collective effort to raise revenues that may not always be voluntary. We have to recognize that involuntary facet (indeed – we have states precisely because of the benefits associated with raising funds, sometimes involuntarily). But you're right insofar as that is not the same thing as theft at all. We don't vote for thieves to take money from us with no public discussion of the goals of those funds or the level of funds to be appropriated. Thieves just take it. It's what "theft" is.

Somewhere along the line – I don't know where – a contingency in this country decided to trash "no taxation without representation" and replace it with "no taxation, no matter what the hell the people want". It's a subtle form of dictatorship and certainly not consistent with our founding liberties – which included the right to establish our own form of government over ourselves to levy these taxes and provide necessary and proper services.

John Dewey July 17, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Daniel Kuehn: "It is incredible to me that a professor steeped in the regulation literature wouldn't even reflect on … "

There are tactful ways you could make your point, Daniel. Yet you choose to present yourself as an arrogant youth. Do you think such a posture adds credence to your remarks?

Many of us who comment here have deep respect for Professor Boudreaux. It's difficult to remain unbiased toward your comments, which too often come across as disrespectful.

I'm not meaning to preach to you – just offering an opinion about why you will continue to face impassioned resistance.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 3:27 pm

John Dewey –
I have a deep respect for Dr. Boudreaux. Why do you think I keep up with this blog despite being insulted on a daily basis by many of the commenters?

But Dr. Boudreaux is a professional. He's an adult. And the fact is, in this post he didn't reflect on those issues which are fundamental to considering the role of the market in supplying food relative to the role of the market in putting a man on the moon (and there is obviously some role for the market there).

I didn't insult Dr. Boudreaux's intelligence. I didn't even accuse his letter of being disingenuous (an adjective that's been attached to me frequently) for omitting these considerations from the letter. I simply expressed my surprise that those issues weren't prominent for them. It was an incredible omission.

Since I didn't insult him, and since I just registered my disbelief, I'm confident that Dr. Boudreaux – as a professional and as an adult – will either address the point or not, but that he won't be insulted by the point. He certainly raises these issues with muirgeo often enough – of not engaging or understanding very basic elements of a question – that I think he can handle me posing a similar line of questioning.

It's too bad it bothered you so much, but this is real life John Dewey. If someone was giving a presentation on this and I was sitting there face to face with them and they omitted discussion of those points and assumed space exploration was comparable to food supply, I would stand up and state point blank during Q&A "I find it incredible given your past work in regulation that you're not even addressing these issues which have been fundamental to every argument over the economics of space".

Is that really so off-putting to you? If it is, you have thin skin, because it's a quite valid question.

BoscoH July 17, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Going after the space program, in the libertarian playbook, is a signal that we're about to win the drug argument. From sheer fiscal desperation, California might just legalize and tax growing, sales, and use of marijuana. The playbook says we have to move on to an even more anti-establishment issue to ensure that drug legalization looks reasonable.

John Dewey July 17, 2009 at 3:50 pm

daniel,

Your response does not surprise me. I fully expect you to defend yourself when criticized. I do that as well. But please reflect later on what I wrote. If you want to sway the opinions of others, a little tact will go a long way.

Have you considered that others may view your youthful confidence as arrogance? and that such arrogance might be why they are motivated to respond with what you see as insults?

Daniel, I'm trying to help you.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm

John Dewey -
If somebody didn't randomly ask my age last time you wouldn't know it even was "youthful" confidence. I often have a different view from people on here. Because of that, I take pains to be polite when I present it, even if I present it assertively. There's no reason to take it as arrogance. Again, we should all be professionals here and we should all be adults. There wasn't a single insult in what I wrote, and I don't see how it's any less tactful than what was initially written by Don. You really need to consider whether I wrote something inappropriate or tactless or whether it's just hard to handle a pointed observation sometimes. I'm sorry, life isn't all cream-puffs and sugar plums and not putting things forcefully. And life also isn't all about insulting people who disagree with you (not accusing you of that).

Again, sorry it bothers you – but in the last couple days I've found an infinitely more mature libertarian blog to have REAL discussions on and it's really highlighted for me how hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and juvenile the discussion can be here sometimes. I've been guilty of that every once in a while too, but you are really divorcing your read of my post from the way the real world works if you think there was something wrong with it, or if you think it was any more arrogant than Don's initial letter.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 4:02 pm

And I should add – I like the libertarian blogs because I used to consider myself one, I still admire markets, and I think the perspective has a lot to offer. I respect Don and Russ immensely, which has kept me here. And I respect a lot of the discussion that goes on here.

I don't seek out a libertarian blog as an attempt to crash a party – I seek it out because it's an important school of thought to engage. But I'm tired of the faux-outrage combined with diatribes and insult-hurling that goes on in the comment section of Cafe Hayek sometimes.

SaulOhio July 17, 2009 at 4:03 pm

EKH: You are assuming that the Internet would not have been created without that DARPA money, and that firefighters would not have demanded fireproof clothing if NASA hadn't given it to them. The truth is that the government doesn't pull resources out of a black hole or the quantum vacuum. What it does is give some people money which is a demand for resources that already existed. The government is moving resources around, and claiming credit for their creation. All the people hired with that DARPA money weren't brought into existence by the money. They would still have been doing important work in computer science and networks, or maybe some other worthwhile field. The computer industry was already making larger and broader networks which were merging and growing, and they would have evolved into something a lot like our present internet, but maybe without the 90's tech bubble.

muirgeo July 17, 2009 at 4:17 pm

New Yorkers eat well each day. No one plans this wondrous achievement, and no one is forced to contribute toward its realization. It's the happy result of hundreds of millions of persons peacefully pursuing their own self-interests within markets.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

No one plans??? Speaking of space travel on what Earth do you live?…. sewers, water systems, roads, traffic lights, security, mail, public health, public education, zoning, public parks … no planning??? The market is NOT happening in a vaccum and it is not happening in spite of "theft form the government". It works because of the government and there is no evidnece that a market with out a government wouldn't result in starvation and no evidence that it would be anywhere near as efficient as New York is. Any Dickens novel or review of Karl Marx's writing (directly from governmental reports) on conditions during the industrial revolution will show plenty of starvation, deprivation and toxic effects from an unregulated economy.

And still by no means is hunger a resolved issue in America.

Finally the list of technological spin offs from the space program has easiliy paid for itself many times over in developement of new technologies we use everyday.

home security systems, smoke detectors, flat panel televisions, high-density batteries, trash compactors, food packaging and freeze-dried technology, cool sportswear, sports bras, hair styling appliances, fogless ski goggles, self-adjusting sunglasses, composite golf clubs, hang gliders, art preservation, and quartz crystal timing equipment.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 4:17 pm

BoscoH -
The ridiculously mismanaged and fiscal irresponsibility of the California state budget warms my heart if only for one reason: it seems to be hastening the process of drug decriminalization :)

I suppose in light of my exchange with John Dewey, though, I should also again point out that the market for illict (currently) drugs bears much closer resemblance and behaves much more akin to the market for food in NYC than either of them do to space exploration :)

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 4:20 pm

muirgeo –
Good points, but something to be pointed out – roads, sewers, etc. are planned by the state because they involve many very well understood market failures, just like space exploration does.

The object of road and sewer planning is the provision of roads and sewers. There is nothing inherent to the market for food that requires planning. And that's the point. There are things inherent to roads, sewers, and space exploration that make planning worth serious discussion – and I think we've found fairly conclusively, probably actual public provision as well (and I should add – there's absolutely no reason to think space exploration will always require public provision).

BoscoH July 17, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Let's quote Don's first paragraph:

While I share Charles Krauthammer's admiration for the scientific brilliance that put men on the moon and returned them safely to the earth, I disagree that "the wonder and glory" of manned lunar exploration is a sufficient reason for Uncle Sam to again undertake such missions

Repeat: "…to again undertake such missions…". Don is addressing whether the government should spend money on a future moon colony, not rehashing whether the first moon missions were worth it.

Just remember… The same "national greatness" agenda that Krauthammer is leaning on to promote future moon missions brought you the Iraq War.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 4:31 pm

RE: "Just remember… The same "national greatness" agenda that Krauthammer is leaning on to promote future moon missions brought you the Iraq War."

As has been said here before, even a broken clock gives the right time twice a day…

… not exactly sure what the second Bush accuracy is, though. Oh ya! TARP! ;-)

John Dewey July 17, 2009 at 4:39 pm

daniel kuehn: "I don't see how it's any less tactful than what was initially written by Don."

Then you really do not understand.

Don Boudreaux has been teaching economics and law for 25 years. His work has been published in scholarly economic journals as well as in mainstream publications such as Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, and Reason. Professor Boudreaux has lectured on three continents. Don Boudreaux has earned the right to forcefully criticize the work of Nobel Laureate economists, Fed chairmen, and just about anyone else on their economic thinking.

Professors Boudreaux and Roberts may not agree with me, but neiither you nor I have the credentials which would justify arrogance in our criticism of learned men of the world.

You can speak all you wish about "life" and "the real world". I've been in this real world more than twice as long as you have. You would be smart to consider advice from those who may have been where you now are.

S Andrews July 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm

No one plans???

Who is it that plans food for 8 million new yorkers?

It works because of the government and there is no evidnece that a market with out a government wouldn't result in starvation

Strawman, that has been repeated by muirgeo gazillion times.

And still by no means is hunger a resolved issue in America.

Quite possible, I am sure there will always be somebody hungry in this country. But the epidemic that is gripping the country is obesity, affecting disproportionately larger numbers of socio-economically backward people. Here is a clue – obesity is 180 degrees opposite a problem to hunger.

Finally the list of technological spin offs from the space program has easiliy paid for itself many times over in developement of new technologies we use everyday.

That's conjecture, and might be possibly true.

But it doesn't change the fact that space exploration cost us resources with multiple use – which includes human talent ( scientists ) who could have dedicated their time inventing other things than attempting to shoot @ the moon.

It also doesn't change the fact that elites were using their discretion with confiscated money.

Daniel Kuehn July 17, 2009 at 4:46 pm

John Dewey -
And you don't understand.

RE: "Professors Boudreaux and Roberts may not agree with me, but neiither you nor I have the credentials which would justify arrogance in our criticism of learned men of the world."

It was not arrogant to raise the issue I did. It is a valid point and because of his background, which I do respect, it is all the more urgent a point for me to raise. This is how people have conversations about big issues. I'm sorry that bothers you so much. I'm not going to pull my punches for your sake.

S Andrews July 17, 2009 at 4:49 pm

But perhaps not so true if you accept the existence of a national psyche.

I don't have a use for national psyche. It is a creation of the state.

As for the fear of Sputnik, I would rather not comment since I didn't live in that era. However, I am not convinced that the US need to feel threatened by it, any more than, let's say, the Swiss.

Sam Grove July 17, 2009 at 5:14 pm

If somebody didn't randomly ask my age last time you wouldn't know it even was "youthful" confidence.

Actually, I could tell long before then. Numerous clues led me to think you were rather youthful, but I didn't think it pertinent to the discussions.

You have a faith in the political process that is more often found in youth than older folk. I think it's about learning from experience.

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