Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 4)

August 16, 2015

How gold production drives expansion of the market

Here I assume that gold bullion serves as money material unless I indicate otherwise.

In a previous post, I indicated that there cannot be an overproduction of gold in its role as money material. This has been more or less the received view among Marxist writers over the years.

However, in thinking about this question more carefully I think my earlier post was incorrect on this point. I was correct in stating that from the viewpoint of capitalists as a whole there cannot be “too much” gold as far as the realization of value of (non-gold) commodities is concerned. The more gold there is relative to the quantity of other commodities, everything else remaining equal, the easier it will be for industrial and commercial capitalists to sell their commodities at their prices of production and thus realize the surplus value contained in them in the form of profit.

But what is true for the non-gold producing capitalists is not true for the gold producing capitalists. Indeed, from the viewpoint of an individual industrial capitalist there can never be too much of the commodities produced by their suppliers. As a productive consumer, industrial capitalist A can hope for nothing better than that supplier industrial capitalist B overproduces as much as possible. When B overproduces, all other things remaining equal, A gets to pocket some of the surplus value contained in B’s commodities. But from B’s point of view, the overproduction of B’s commodity is an absolute disaster.

True, the (non)gold producing capitalists do not consume gold, insomuch as gold serves as money material as opposed to raw material. But it is absolutely essential for them that gold is produced in adequate quantities if the value, including the surplus value, contained in their commodities is to be realized.

Even if gold bullion played no role whatsoever as raw material, a certain level of gold production would still be necessary for capitalist expanded reproduction to proceed. And capitalism can only exist as expanded reproduction.

How much gold capitalism needs—with the development of the credit system, banking, clearing houses, and so on being given—depends on the level and vigor of expanded reproduction at a particular time. The greater the possibilities of exploiting wage labor and the higher the rate of surplus value and the potential rate of profit in value terms, the higher the level of gold production must be if the process of expanded capitalist production is to proceed unchecked.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 3)

July 19, 2015

Secular stagnation and the Greek crisis

Many on the left have expressed acute disappointment that the Syriza government has agreed to accept more “austerity” in the wake of the No! vote of the Greek people. We must remember that the Syriza government is not a revolutionary socialist government—a dictatorship of the proletariat—and a socialist revolution is not, or rather is not yet, unfolding in Greece or anywhere else in Europe at the moment. The logic of the class struggle does point in the direction of a European socialist revolution, but we are not yet there. This blog will not attempt to lay out strategy and tactics for Greek revolutionaries during the present acute crisis.

Instead, I am interested in another question: Why is the “troika” so unreasonable in its dealings with the Syriza government? The government leaders have made it clear that they are determined to remain within the European Union and the Eurozone. Their program has always been quite modest—an end to the relentless austerity that has led to a depression worse in terms of both the unemployment rate and duration than the early 1930s super-crisis was in the United States or in Germany.

The super-crisis proper of the early 1930s lasted “only” three and a half years in the U.S. and Germany. The Greek crisis has lasted six years. A brief rise in the Greek GDP late last year had already given way to renewed recession before the crisis that shut down the Greek banking system for two weeks. The agreement between Syriza and the troika for still more austerity in exchange for loans that will enable the gradual reopening of the Greek banks threatens to further prolong the Greek slump.

It has been almost 50 years since the May-June 1968 General Strike in France. The French government of the day, headed by General Charles de Gaulle, largely conceded the economic demands of the strikers in order for the ruling class to hold on to power. The French government was prepared to do this through civil war if necessary. De Gaulle’s willingness to wage civil war to uphold capitalist rule combined with a willingness to make concessions in the economic sphere prevented a prolonged social and political crisis in France in 1968 of the type that is now unfolding in Greece. Why isn’t the troika, the de Gaulle of today, following the same policy for Greece that worked so well for de Gaulle and the French capitalists in 1968?

Last week, in a special post on Greece, I explained that behind the hard-line policies pursued by the troika lies the current “tightening” phase of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board monetary policy. This tightening phase is, in turn, rooted in the extraordinary policy of “quantitative easing” that the Fed followed in response to the near collapse of the U.S. banking system in the fall of 2008. But they could not continue this policy indefinitely without incurring a fatal crisis of the dollar system sooner or later.

As the quantity of U.S, dollars has begun to grow relatively more scarce than in the years of quantitative easing, there have been a few shocks—for example, the recent Chinese stock market panic. But for now, the crisis in Greece is the most dramatic. So in order to understand the deep roots of the Greek crisis and the troika response to it, we have to understand the causes of the crisis of 2008 and the quantitative easing it led to. The “Great Recession” itself was embedded in a more chronic problem of prolonged slowing economic growth that economist Larry Summers calls “secular stagnation.”

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Crisis in Greece Only the Tip of the Iceberg

July 7, 2015

The following is a special post on the current crisis in Greece. I hope now to return to the regular monthly schedule of the blog, subject of course to further developments in Greece or elsewhere. —Sam Williams

On Sunday, July 5, the Greek people gave their answer to the blackmail of the “troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. It was the answer workers and oppressed throughout the world wanted to hear. Oxi! In Greek, no!

The financial markets, so convinced they would have their way, were shocked by the no vote and fell sharply in pre-opening trading. Later, markets were calmed somewhat when Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who had become a symbol of resistance to the troika demands, announced he was resigning in order to smooth the way for renewed negotiations with the troika.

However, the price of oil, which had gradually recovered from its crash late last year, reaching over $60 a barrel, fell sharply on news of the Greek vote, closing at $52.53 on July 6. This indicates fears of a near-term recession and consequent drop in demand for oil. If the price of oil were to remain down, it would increase pressure on the oil-producing countries, especially Russia and Venezuela. The recession in the U.S. oil industry would also deepen.

As is usually the case in a crisis, the interest rate on U.S. government bonds fell as money took refugee in the relative safety of U.S. Treasuries. We can be sure the central banks, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve, have plans to step in if panicky reactions develop in the markets and things seem to be getting out of hand.

The capitalists had figured that with Greek banks closed for a week the threat of starvation—not through lack of food but of money—would teach the Greek people a lesson once and for all. Wall Street and the other big capitalists had been having things go their way at least since the 1980s. But they were not to have their way on July 5.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 2)

June 21, 2015

Recently, I have been looking at Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Piketty, a French bourgeois economist, created a sensation by pointing out that over the last 45 years a growing proportion of national income—wages plus surplus value in Marxist terms—has been going to profit at the expense of wages. Piketty is alarmed that if this trend isn’t reversed capitalism will be seriously destabilized.

The title of his book is, of course, inspired by Marx’s great work “Capital,” though it predictably rejects Marx’s anti-capitalist revolutionary conclusions. Naturally, I was interested in what Piketty had to say about Marx.

What I found striking was that Piketty did not understand Marx at all. The reason is that he views Marx through marginalist lenses. Essentially, Piketty treats Marx as a fellow marginalist. Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, so completely at odds with the marginalist theory of value and surplus value, is literally beyond Piketty’s comprehension.

In examining the current debate about “secular stagnation” among economists like Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, we must never forget how deep the gulf between their economic theories and Marxism really is. This is true even when their terminology is similar. This month, I will contrast the theories of two economists of the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes, regarding capitalist growth and stagnation. Both men were marginalists, even if not the most “orthodox” ones, and therefore had much more in common with each other than with Marx.

Next month, I will begin to contrast their views with Marx and the views I have been developing in this blog. (1) But before we reach the “Marxist mountains” we will have to slog through the plains of modern bourgeois economics. Only when we begin to ascend into the Marxist mountains will we be able to explore whether any of the ideas of Schumpeter can be integrated into Marxism. I have already dealt with Keynes quite extensively in this blog. (See, for example, six-part series beginning here.)

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) was the most famous marginalist economist to deal with the question of technological changes, or “innovation,” under capitalism. Schumpeter was an Austrian economist in the sense he came from Austria, though he spent his last years in the United States as a professor at Harvard University. He was certainly influenced by the “Austrian economists” as well as other schools of post-classical bourgeois economics current in his day. Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter preferred to communicate his ideas in natural language as opposed to mathematics.

Also like the Austrians, he was a hardcore supporter of capitalism, disliked “socialism”—proposals to reform capitalism in the interest of the workers—and was an opponent of the “Keynesian revolution” in bourgeois economic theory of the 1930s. He was what would be called today a “neo-liberal.” Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter took a dim view of democracy, which he was convinced would inevitably lead to socialism. Yet he was a friend of Paul Sweezy and therefore had a certain influence on the Monthly Review school.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’

May 24, 2015

A debate has broken out between economist Larry Summers (1954- ), who fears that the U.S. and world capitalist economies are stuck in an era of “secular stagnation” with no end in sight, and blogger Ben Bernanke (1953- ). Blogger Bernanke is, no less, the Ben Bernanke who headed the U.S. Federal Reserve Board between 2006 and 2014. Bernanke claims that the U.S. and world economies are simply dealing with lingering aftereffects of the 2007-2009 “Great Recession,” which broke out while he was head of the Federal Reserve System.

In effect, Bernanke is saying that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with capitalism and that healthy growth and “low unemployment and inflation” will return once the lingering aftereffects of the crisis are fully shaken off. Bernanke is, however, alarmed by the rapid growth of German exports and the growing share of the world market going to German industry.

Last year, we “celebrated” the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Bernanke’s concerns show that the economic fault lines that led to both World War I and II have not disappeared. Instead, they have been joined by new ones as more countries have become industrialized. And the prolonged period of slow growth—and in some countries virtually no growth—that has followed the Great Recession is once again sharpening them. Competition both among individual capitalists and between capitalist countries is much sharper when world markets are growing slowly. World War I itself broke out when the early 20th-century “boom” was running out of steam, while World War II broke out after a decade of the Depression.

The debate between Summers and Bernanke on secular stagnation has been joined by other eminent U.S. economists such as Joseph Stiglitz (1943- ) and Brad DeLong (1960- ). Summers, Stiglitz and DeLong are Keynesian-leaning economists, while Bernanke, a Republican, leans more in the direction of “neoliberalism,” though like most U.S. policymakers, he is thoroughly pragmatic.

The debate began with Summers’ speech to the IMF’s Fourteenth Annual Research Conference in Honor of Stanley Fisher. Summers noted that the panic of 2008 was “an event that in the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009 … appeared, by most of the statistics—GDP, industrial production, employment, world trade, the stock market—worse than the fall of 1929 and the winter of 1930. …”

At the very least, this was a major defeat for “stabilization policies” that were supposed to iron out the capitalist industrial cycle and abolish panics. But the problem extends far beyond the 2008 panic itself.

“… in the four years since financial normalization,” Summers observed, “the share of adults who are working has not increased at all and GDP has fallen further and further behind potential, as we would have defined it in the fall of 2009.”

The highly misleading unemployment rate calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor notwithstanding, there has been a massive growth in long-term unemployment in the U.S. in the wake of the crisis, as shown by the declining percentage of the U.S. population actually working.

In the days before the “Keynesian revolution” in the 1930s, the “classical” neoclassical marginalist economists, whose theories still form the bedrock of the economics taught in U.S. universities, were willing to concede that some “outside shock” to the economic system (for example, a major policy blunder by the central bank or a major harvest failure) might occasionally create a severe recession and considerable amount of “involuntary unemployment.” But these learned economists insisted that since a “free market economy” naturally tends toward an equilibrium with full employment of both workers and machines, the capitalist system should quickly return to “full employment” if a severe recession occurs.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 3)

April 26, 2015

The Cuban Revolution

As the Cuban presidential and congressional elections of 1952 approached, it appeared that the democratic-nationalist Party of the Cuban People, more commonly known as the Orthodox Party, was about to capture the Cuban presidency. This set off alarm bells in Washington. The U.S. government feared the election of a democratic-nationalist government in Cuba would encourage democratic anti-imperialist forces throughout Latin America. In response, Washington supported a coup d’etat by another presidential candidate, one who had no chance of winning a democratic presidential election.

That was Colonial Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973). Batista had headed the Cuban military during the 1930s and 1940s, dominating the Cuban government from behind the scenes. Between 1940 and 1944, Batista served one term as elected legal president of Cuba. After completing his term, Batista left Cuba and moved to the United States. He later returned to Cuba to run what appeared to be a doomed presidential bid. In reality, Batista was preparing with Washington’s support to seize power illegally to block a victory by the Orthodox Party. Batista’s coup cut off any hope for democratic change in Cuba through electoral methods.

The young Fidel Castro (1926-), a former radical student leader, had run for Congress on the Orthodox ticket during the aborted 1952 election campaign. Castro, a lawyer by profession, then sued Batista for overthrowing the legal government of Cuba, but that failed to dislodge the dictator. Fidel then organized, along with other young Cubans, an uprising on July 26, 1953, at the Moncada Barracks, hoping it would develop into an island-wide insurrection that would bring down the Batista dictatorship. Many of Castro’s associates were killed in the abortive uprising, but Fidel survived.

The Batista government then tried Castro on the charge of attempting to overthrow the Cuban government by force and violence. Castro’s defense was brilliant. At the trial, he pointed out that the Batista government itself was guilty of precisely the charge that it made against him. Fidel’s defense was published under the title “History Will Absolve Me” and circulated within Cuba.

While Batista’s judges found Castro guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, Batista effectively lost the case before the Cuban people. As a result, in 1955 the Batista government was forced to release Castro. Unable to do much within the legality of the Batista dictatorship, Castro went into exile, where he was to meet a young left-wing Argentinian medical doctor named Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967). Guevara went by his Argentinian nickname “Che”.

The young Guevara had been in Guatemala when the democratically elected government of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1913-1971) was overthrown in a Washington-organized coup in 1954. President Arbenz, who had won the 1951 Guatemalan elections, had attempted to carry out a land-reform program that was bitterly opposed by the infamous U.S.-based United Fruit Company. United Fruit had long dominated the Guatemalan economy and was bitterly opposed to President Árbenz’s reforms.

In response, Washington falsely claimed that the democratically elected Arbenz government was “communist.” The CIA-organized coup that overthrew him resembled the Cuban coup of 1952. The result was decades of brutal dictatorship that cost the lives of thousands of Guatemalans. The experience of witnessing a Washington-organized coup against a democratically elected government further radicalized the young Che Guevara.

In 1955, in Mexico, Guevara met Fidel Castro, who had just been released from prison in Cuba. In 1956, the two men and a few supporters including Fidel’s younger brother Raul rented a yacht called the Granma. They set sail to Cuba with the intention of launching a guerrilla war aimed at overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. To accomplish this, Fidel had organized a multi-class organization, the July 26 movement, that combined militant young workers and bourgeois democrats who were prepared to struggle arms in hand against the dictatorship.

At first, the landing proved to be a disaster, but Fidel, Raul, Che and few other survivors managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountain range and began to organize the peasants who lived there into a rebel army.

Though in terms of numbers and arms the guerrilla forces were no match for the far more numerous professionally trained forces of Batista’s army, the latter had one disadvantage that was to prove fatal to them. Most of the rank and file had no desire to die for the cause of the Cuban “pseudo-republic,” which had lost all pretext of legitimacy as a result of Batista’s 1952 coup. As a result, toward the end of 1958 Batista’s army began to disintegrate. As New Year’s Eve approached, the dictator prepared to flee the island with as much loot as he could take with him.

There were last-minute attempts to save the Cuban military and police apparatus by setting up a junta that would negotiate with the rebel army. However, Fidel insisted on the dismantling of the so-called Cuban army that failed to defend Cuba from its only real enemy—the United States—but instead served as a police force—and a very brutal and corrupt one at that—for U.S. imperialism. Therefore, when Batista fled on New Year’s Eve, not only did Batista’s personal dictatorship collapse but the entire, thoroughly rotten, military-police apparatus of the Cuban bourgeois state as well.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 2)

March 29, 2015

Bourgeois value theory after Ricardo

As I explained last month, the rising tide of struggle of the British working class obliged Ricardo’s bourgeois successors to abandon the concept of value based on the quantity of labor necessary on average to produce a commodity of a given use value and quality. They were forced to do this because any concept of labor value implies that profits and rents—surplus value—are produced by the unpaid labor performed by the working class. The challenge confronting Ricardo’s bourgeois successors was to come up with a coherent economic theory that was not based on labor value. Let’s look at some of the options open to them.

Malthus, borrowing from certain passages in Adam Smith, held that the capitalists simply added profit onto their wage costs. Like Smith and Ricardo, Malthus assumed that what Marx was to call constant capital could be reduced to wages if you went back far enough. Therefore, constant capital really consisted of wages with a prolonged turnover period—what the 20th-century “neo-Ricardian” Pierro Sraffa (1898-1983) was to call in his “Commodities Produced by Means of Commodities” “dated labor.”

Malthus held that since capitalists are in business to make a profit, they simply added the profit onto their costs—ultimately reducible to the price of “dated labor,” to use Sraffa’s terminology.

The idea that profits are simply added onto the cost price of a commodity is known as “profit upon alienation.” This notion was first put forward by the mercantilists in the earliest days of political economy. In this period, preceding the industrial revolution, merchant capital still dominated industrial capital. After all, don’t merchants make their profits by buying cheap and selling dear?

But what determined the magnitude of the charge above and beyond the cost of the commodity to the capitalist? And even more devastating for Malthus, since every capitalist was overcharging every other capitalist—as well as working-class consumers who bought the means of subsistence from the capitalists—how could the capitalists as a class make a profit? If Malthus was right, the average rate of profit would be zero!

But perhaps we don’t need the concept of “value” at all? Why not simply say that the natural prices of commodities are determined by the cost of production that includes a profit? But then what determines the prices of the commodities that entered into the production costs of a given commodity? Following this logic to its end, the natural prices of commodities are determined by the natural prices of commodities. This is called circular reasoning.

We haven’t moved an inch forward from our starting point. To avoid a circle, we have to determine the prices of commodities by something other than price. There is no escaping some concept of value after all.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value

March 1, 2015

This March marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of general secretary of the then-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At first, the election of Gorbachev seemed to involve a long overdue shift of power to a new generation of Soviet leaders. As we now know, it involved a lot more.

A process was unleashed that was soon to be called “Perestroika.” In the name of “radical economic reforms,” the Soviet planned economy was progressively dismantled. Perestroika ended not only with the restoration of capitalism but the breakup of what had been the Soviet federation.

The combined process of the restoration of capitalism and breakup of the Soviet federation was accompanied by a massive collapse of both industrial and agricultural production. The living standards and life expectancy of the working class plummeted. A generation later, the economies of not only the Russian federation but the economies of the other former republics are yet to recover.

Perestroika led to a wave of capitalist counterrevolutions that in 1989 swept through eastern Europe with the active support not only of imperialism, as would be expected, but also the Gorbachev government. As part of this process, Germany was reunited on a capitalist basis while staying in NATO. The former socialist countries that had been members of the now dissolved Warsaw Pact joined NATO as did the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Georgia Republic—Stalin’s homeland—is very close to NATO and openly striving to become a formal member, while the new right-wing government in Ukraine has joined NATO in all but name.

Perestroika, therefore, resulted in a massive expansion of the U.S. world empire into the one area of the planet—the Soviet Union and its allies—that remained outside the Empire after World War II.

The destruction of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc and their planned economies would have been enough if that was all that was involved. But it was not. The capitalists and their spokespeople everywhere pointed to the Soviet collapse as final proof that “socialism had failed.” The result was a wave of demoralization that spread through a workers’ movement that was already in retreat before the neoliberal capitalist offensive symbolized by such political figures as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

National liberation movements were also pushed back, though the hopes of political figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that the old-fashioned colonialism that had dominated the world in 1914 would return—with the difference that the United States and not Britain or France would be the chief colonizer—has not been so easy to achieve.

Between November 7, 1917, when the Bolshevik-led Congress of Soviets seized power, and the election of Gorbachev as general secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in March 1985, the peoples of the oppressed nations got accustomed to the idea that they should be independent and not colonial slaves of the West. Therefore, attempts by the U.S. world empire to push these nations and peoples back into something like pre-1914 colonial relationships have met, to the chagrin of the imperialists, unexpected and growing resistance.

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Update on Status of eBook

February 13, 2015

Back in 2010, I announced my intention to begin drafting an ebook based on the posts in the main section of this blog. See here for the initial announcement.

Subsequently, I reported on the status of this project here.

Late last year, a reader asked about the current status of the project. So here is an update.

The first draft of the book is finished. It consists of 37 chapters divided into seven sections plus a general introduction and introductions for each section. Editing of the first draft is more than half completed. This editing will continue while work begins on a final draft. The second draft will then undergo a final edit.

I hope this project can be completed and the work published sometime next year (2016).

Sam Williams
February 12, 2015

David Harvey, Michael Roberts, Michael Heinrich and the Crisis Theory Debate

February 1, 2015

Recently David Harvey, the well-known writer on Marxist economics, criticized Marxist economics blogger Michael Roberts’ views on crisis theory. According to Harvey, Roberts has a “monocausal” crisis theory. What Harvey objects to is Roberts’ emphasis on Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (FRP for short) as the underlying cause of capitalist crises.

Harvey goes further than simply criticizing Roberts’ FRP-centered crisis theory. He says that he is skeptical that a tendency of the rate of profit to fall even exists. He indicates that he agrees with the views of the German Marxist economist Michael Heinrich on the invalidity of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. Heinrich’s views are developed in “An Introduction of the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” (Monthly Review Press, 2004). He elaborated them in this article.

In this work, Heinrich tries to demonstrate that Marx himself in the final years of his life moved away from his own theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Heinrich holds that an examination of Marx’s manuscripts that form the basis of Volume III of “Capital” show that Marx had moved toward a theory of crises centered on credit. Heinrich accuses Frederick Engels of editing the manuscripts in such a way as to hide Marx’s alleged movement away from an FRP-centered theory of crises to a credit-centered theory of crises.

In his defense of the falling rate of profit school from the criticism leveled by Harvey, Roberts makes an indirect reference to this blog: “… recently, one Marxist economist from the overproduction school called me a monomaniac in my attachment to Marx’s law of profitability as the main/underlying cause of capitalist crises (see Mike Treen, national director of the New Zealand Unite Union, at the annual conference of the socialist organization Fightback, held in Wellington, May 31-June 1, 2014, and a seminar hosted by Socialist Aotearoa in Auckland in November 10, 2014 http://links.org.au/node/4156).”

Mike Treen, a New Zealand Marxist, is indeed an organizer of the New Zealand trade union Unite (not to be confused with the U.S. trade union of a similar name, UNITE HERE, which also organizes fast food and other low-wage workers). The “overproduction school” Roberts refers to is actually the position of this blog, of which Mike is an editor.

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