Category Archive: Government

  1. College and Housing Bubbles

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    Remember the mid-2000s housing crash that wiped out homeowners? Well, there’s another bubble getting ready to pop, and this one’s in student debt. Prof. Antony Davies explains.

  2. 10 Myths About Government Debt

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    Myth 1 is that the government owes “only” $20 trillion. (In reality, it’s much more.) But luckily, Myth 10 is that there’s no way to fix this problem…

  3. DEBATE: Incarceration in America

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    Why does America put so many people in jail? Is it because we have lots of guns? Lots of criminals? Or lots of laws turning nonviolent people into criminals? Watch this UNSAFE SPACE debate featuring Heather Mac Donald and Prof. Thaddeus Russell.

    UNSAFE SPACE is a live show and podcast where comedians do standup on controversial topics, then have a discussion with experts and the audience. See more at UnsafeSpaceShow.comTo view the debate in its entirety, see the full episode here.

  4. FEMA should not favor zoos over houses of worship

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    When a disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) swoops in to provide assistance. Like many readers of Learn Liberty, I get nervous when someone says, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    When the government makes a benefit generally available, it cannot discriminate against religious citizens or institutions. However, according to attorneys from Becket, a public interest law firm, FEMA does exactly that.

    FEMA’s Public Assistance Program provides relief to a wide range of private nonprofit organizations that sustain damage from natural disasters. Institutions such as museums, libraries, and zoos are eligible for relief. According to the same Becket document, “FEMA’s policy provides that “facilities established or primarily used for…religious…activities are not eligible.”

    Ironically, FEMA has recognized that “the local church, the local synagogue, the local faith based community, [and] the local mosque” are often among the first responders to disasters. Indeed, one of the three churches challenging FEMA’s policy is still being used as a “shelter for dozens of evacuees, a warehouse for disaster relief supplies, a distribution center for thousands of emergency meals, and a base to provide medical services.”

    FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and constitutional law

    It is bad public policy to exclude houses of worship from this sort of aid. And, according to attorneys from Becket, it is unconstitutional in light of last summer’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer.

    This United States Supreme Court case involved a state program that provided safe playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Forty-four nonprofits applied for the program. Trinity Lutheran Church Preschool Learning Center’s application was ranked fifth, and 14 grants were awarded — but Trinity Lutheran’s application was rejected. It was denied solely because of Missouri’s constitutional provision prohibiting state funds from going to religious entities.

    Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, contended that the “Free Exercise Clause ‘protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment’ and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for ‘special disabilities’ based on their ‘religious status’.” In this case, Missouri discriminated against an entity simply because it was religious, and it made no effort to explain why it had a compelling interest in doing so. This sort of discrimination against an organization “simply because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution” and so it “cannot stand,” Roberts wrote.

    Many court-watchers expected the decision to be 5-4 and were shocked when it was decided 7-2 in favor of the church. Most justices, though, understood the bedrock American principle that governments cannot discriminate against religious citizens and institutions.

    FEMA’s role in religious discrimination

    No one is arguing that churches have a right to government funding — only that when a program is made generally available, governments cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

    In this case, however, FEMA does not only discriminate against religious institutions. Indeed, the relevant policy reads in full: “facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities are not eligible” for funding. FEMA might reasonably argue that a whole range of facilities, not just religious ones, are excluded from its program. Such an argument may well withstand constitutional scrutiny.

    Still, there is something wrong with a federal program that treats zoos more generously than it does churches, synagogues, and mosques.

  5. Of Confederate monuments and tinfoil Christmas trees

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    The current controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces is producing a great deal of rancor and strife. People on both sides seem to feel that their identity is under attack, and frequently react with anger or dismay.

    And yet, oddly enough, the emotional reaction that I had on hearing of the controversy was neither anger nor dismay, but nostalgia. The question of what public displays should be supported by the government immediately made me recall my days as a young boy growing up on Long Island in New York. This unusual reaction requires some explanation.

    I grew up in Woodmere, a suburb of New York City, in an extraordinarily insular environment. The population of Woodmere and its neighboring communities was almost entirely Jewish. My elementary school had 600 students, 599 of whom were Jewish. (The only one who was not was the gym teacher’s son.)

    Many of my prepubescent contemporaries were, like me, second generation Americans: the grandchildren of immigrants who came to America to escape the persecution they suffered as Jews in Eastern Europe. Our parents were raised in poverty during the Depression, and had to overcome the effects of widespread anti-Semitism to earn their living. When they finally amassed enough wealth, they moved to the luxury of the suburbs and started their families.

    Given their past experiences, my family, not atypically, had a rather paranoid view of the world. They saw the world as divided into two groups; the Jews and the gentiles (goyim) who wanted to kill us. As a result, they had a somewhat stilted view of “Christianity.” (No distinctions were made between Catholics and Protestants. If they all want to kill us, what is the difference?) Christian symbols that bring a warm glow to the hearts of most people were perceived by my parents as disturbing reminders that we should never fully unpack our suitcases.

    Public vs private Christmas

    This unease with Christian symbols became acute each December. Every year as Christmas approached, the county government put up its Christmas decorations. The streetlight poles suddenly sprouted Christmas trees, candy canes, Santa Clauses, and reindeer. In our local “Central Park,” a large Christmas tree appeared festooned with lights.

    These public displays were in stark contrast with the private homes in the area. If Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas, then house after house would be lighted by a memorah of candles placed in a front window. If it did not, the houses would be dark except for one or two with Christmas lights every couple of blocks.

    My feeling of nostalgia arose because the Confederate monument controversy caused me to remember a day when as a little boy I was driving with my mother. We had just passed the Christmas tree in Central Park and were driving under a green tinfoil outline of a Christmas tree protruding from a light pole when I asked, “Mommy, who puts up the Christmas things?”

    “Nassau County,” she responded.

    “But who pays for it?” I asked.

    “We do,” was her sour response.

    After thinking about this for a moment, I asked, “But if almost everyone is Jewish, why do we pay to put up Christmas decorations?”

    At this point, my mother employed her traditional method of ending unwanted discussions by saying, “Will you stop being such a noodge?”

    I recall thinking that I never minded the Christmas lights in the one or two houses that had them. They seemed kind of pretty. And yet, the decorations on the public streets always made me vaguely uncomfortable. At the time, I did not understand why. I was too young to understand that they sent the message that we were outsiders; that we did not conform to the accepted societal norms; and perhaps, that we were not quite the social equals of Christians. So while there was nothing disconcerting about the private displays of faith, the public displays were always a little unsettling.

    Now, of course, the officials who put up the Christmas decorations in our neighborhood did so with no ill will. They were simply celebrating the holiday in a way that gave them a warm feeling.

    But that did not change the fact that they were celebrating with symbols that had a wholly different association for us; symbols that called to our minds not happiness, but memories of past oppression.

    Confederate monuments and minority memories

    As the nostalgia occasioned by the memory of driving with my mother (sitting in the front seat with no seat belt, by the way) passed, I reflected that a similar dynamic is probably at work in the current controversy over the Confederate monuments. I am sure that not all those who support retention of the monuments do so for racist reasons. For some, the monuments may simply be symbols of their distinctive Southern culture and heritage. For others, they may be a Civil War analog of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC that commemorates the soldiers who fought in Vietnam without necessarily endorsing the purposes of that war. This attitude should not be difficult to understand, given that today many of the opponents of the Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan nevertheless honor the soldiers who fought or are fighting there.

    Like those who put up the Christmas decorations during my childhood, I am sure that most who support retaining the Confederate monuments do so with no ill will. And like the Christmas decorations, the monuments probably have a vaguely pleasant emotional association for them.

    But, of course, like my family and the Christmas decorations, that is not the case for African-Americans in the states of the former Confederacy. For them, the monuments are unpleasant reminders of past oppression. And again like my family and Christmas decorations, the fact that they are displayed on public land and maintained at taxpayer expense sends the message to African-Americans that they are outsiders, and perhaps, that they are not quite the social equals of Caucasians.

    In my opinion, the solution to the problem of the Confederate monuments is as simple as it is untenable. Just don’t have them on public property. If private citizens want to erect monuments to Confederate generals or soldiers on their own land or at privately maintained cemeteries or parks, I see no reason why they should not be permitted to do so. It is reasonable to expect African-Americans to tolerate expressive conduct that others take at their own expense. What is not reasonable is to expect them to have to encounter such monuments to use public streets, parks, or government facilities and to have to pay for them with their taxes.

    When I was a boy, Christmas decorations at private homes never bothered me. It was their inescapable ubiquity on the public streets that was annoying. I suspect that most African-Americans feel the same way about the Confederate monuments.

    The liberal commitment to value neutrality

    But, of course, this simple solution is obviously untenable. The politically dominant interest always views its values as benign and sees nothing untoward in celebrating them at public expense. The liberal commitment to value neutrality is, for most citizens, a terribly unnatural one. The move from “upholding one’s values” to “upholding values” requires overlooking only one word, a fact I am reminded of each year when the president of the United States throws the switch lighting the Christmas tree on the White House lawn.

    Besides, it should be obvious that my proposal is politically unpalatable. If taxpayer funding could be used to memorialize only those things which almost all taxpayers valued, there would be very few monuments on public property. Not only would there be no public monuments to Confederate generals, there would be none commemorating any historical figure that was offensive to a significant portion of the population. Statutes of General George Custer and Christopher Columbus would be gone. The statue of Ronald Reagan at National airport would certainly have to come down. And how persuasive would it be to argue that statutes of Thurgood Marshall or Martin Luther King should not be maintained on public land because taxpaying members of the alt-right find them offensive?

    And besides, who, other than me, would want to live in society with no tinfoil Christmas trees on lamp poles in December?

  6. Reddit AMA with Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University

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    Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy.

    Professor Somin has written extensively on constitutional theory, federalism, political ignorance, property rights, immigration, and a wide range of other important policy issues. He is a prolific contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy blog hosted by the Washington Post, and his work has been featured in other major publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNNUSA Today, and Forbes. He’s also the author of several well-received books, including Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, Second Edition, 2016), and The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

    Fans of Learn Liberty will recognize Professor Somin as the star of our popular video, I Can’t Breathe: How to Reduce Police Brutality, and as a regular contributor to our blog, where he has written about the politics of sci-fi and fantasy series such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones.

    Mark your calendar for Tuesday, September 19th at 3:00pm ET and join us for a conversation at Reddit.com/r/Politics where you can ask him anything!


    Update: The AMA is now live!


  7. How the government makes natural disasters so much worse

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    Many of the most expensive flood and storm disasters in US history have occurred in recent decades. The glib response is to blame the severity of these catastrophes on climate change, but are we looking in the wrong direction?

    Almost 20 years ago, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report on this subject, Higher Ground. It argued, among other things, that federal flood insurance was amplifying the impact of storms by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in areas prone to flooding.

    Higher Ground revealed a home in Houston that was valued at $114,480, but which had been flooded 16 times and thus received $806,591 in federally subsidized flood insurance payments.

    Michael Grunwald, writing in Politico, sums up the issue:

    Houston’s problem was runaway development in flood-prone areas, accelerated by heavily subsidized federal flood insurance.… Congress often discusses fixing flood insurance to stop encouraging Americans to build in harm’s way, but the National Flood Insurance Program is still almost as dysfunctional as it was 19 years ago. It is now nearly $25 billion in the red, piling debt onto the national credit card. Meanwhile, cities like Houston — as well as New Orleans, which Higher Ground identified as the national leader in repetitive losses eight years before Hurricane Katrina — continue to sprawl into their vulnerable floodplains, aided by the availability of inexpensive federally supported insurance.

    Those who advocate for insurance subsidies might say that every great city was once small and population growth requires building. The same subsidies advocate might say that to take a position against subsidies is to prevent growth and push people into rural areas where they prefer not to live.

    But the case against subsidized flood insurance is not a case against growth; it is a case against distorted growth. Federally supported insurance overrides the risk-reducing incentives that insurance premiums provide and results in building in vulnerable areas. For example, wetlands are lost to distorted growth.  From 1992 to 2010, Northwest Houston lost more than 70% of its wetlands.

    Grunwald is clear that it is subsidized flood insurance, not climate change, that is responsible for Houston’s disaster:

    Two relatively modest storms that hit Houston in 2015 and 2016 — so small they didn’t get names — did so much property damage they made the list of the 15 highest-priced floods in US history. But Houston’s low-lying flatlands keep booming.

    Given the subsidized flood insurance, should we be surprised that millions of Americans live in harm’s way, on flood plains? In short, as Grunwald observed, “Floods are not really natural disasters. They are natural events, but they are mostly man-made disasters.”

    How insurance works in a free market

    Every day we make decisions based on risk. You may not know it, but insurance premiums provide incentives to reduce risk. In a free market, insurance premiums on cars, for instance, tend to settle toward an “actuarially fair price.” This is based on the insurance companies’ estimates of the chance you’ll make an insurance claim on your car, as well as the possible loss to the company if you do.

    If you have a history of drunk driving, that increases the chances you’ll make an insurance claim on your car — so your premiums will be higher, and that encourages you not to drive in the future (or to drive sober in the first place).

    If you bought a fancy sports car, that would increase the loss to the company if your vehicle gets damaged — so your premiums would be higher. That might encourage you to buy a less-expensive vehicle.

    If governments subsidized car-insurance policies the way they do with flood insurance, we’d see more drunks driving Ferraris around, at the expense of taxpayers.

    Getting the government out of the flood insurance business and having insurance companies determine actuarially sound premiums is the only way for homeowners, businesses, and builders to know the real risk they are assuming. If the risk is high, premiums will be prohibitive, and building will migrate to areas less prone to flooding.

    Unfortunately, the prospects for reform are low. Eliminating the National Flood Insurance Program is impossible politically. How likely are even modest policy reforms about premiums or redrawing flood plain maps to better reflect real risk? Such proposals are drowned out by politicians who score easy points by blaming the damage on climate change and passing popular rebuilding bills.

    The sad, but most likely, prospect for the near future is that taxpayers will spend hundreds of billions rebuilding Houston in areas prone to suffer flood and storm damage again and again.

  8. Will voters punish Republicans for not changing health care?

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    Republicans are fretting over their failure to repeal Obamacare. President Donald Trump claimed Senators who voted against its replacement, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) had “let down Americans.”

    The Club for Growth and Tea Party Patriots are targeting Republican senators like Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Rob Portman, who opposed one or more versions of the GOP bill. Several others face serious primary challenges from irate activists. A Republican donor from Virginia Beach has even sued the party, claiming its inability to terminate Obamacare constitutes fraud.

    This all presents an interesting question. Will the failure to expunge President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement cost Republican candidates in elections for federal office over the next few years?

    It’s just one bill … right?

    If we think of this episode as merely the inability to pass a single bill, it is difficult to imagine the AHCA’s defeat making much of a difference. As elected representatives are wont to do, Republican legislators gauged their constituents’ views and voted accordingly.

    Most of the 20 House GOP members who voted “no” came from districts with relatively few conservative voters, and the rest of those Republicans already had a history of bucking the party — just like John McCain in the Senate. In other words, the specific Republicans who voted “no” probably did so because they think a large number of their voters actually wanted them to.

    But Obamacare hurt Democrats at the polls — will it hurt Republicans too?

    Democratic politicians who voted for Obamacare in 2009–10 suffered at the polls in the 2010 midterms, costing them votes and, by one analysis, around 25 seats — enough to give Republicans the majority.

    But Obamacare repeal is different from Obamacare passage in two important regards.

    First, non-repeal is the absence of action and therefore a failure to change the status quo. Republican voters might be upset that their congressional party did not kill the policy, but that surely is not the same as establishing it in the first place. It was Democrats who did that, and they presumably maintain significant “ownership” of any future problems in the health-care sector.

    Second, President Obama signed the Obamacare bill (the Affordable Care Act) in March 2010, only eight months or so before the midterms. Republicans aborted their effort much earlier in the Congress and therefore at a point considerably more distant from future elections. A lot can happen between now and November 2018.

    But Republicans tied themselves to repeal!

    Still, this wasn’t just a vote. Republicans have been trying to reverse Obamacare for seven years. There have been over 50 votes in the House to repeal one aspect or another of it. Getting rid of the ACA was a central feature of the legislative agenda of the current 115th Congress, and the failure has had significant negative effects on the remaining items the Republican leadership and White House would like to see passed, particularly tax reform.

    Research shows majority parties in Congress pay a price at the polls for failing to pass their legislative agenda. The public expects the legislature to be productive and use policy to solve economic and social problems. Over the past 40 years, as the parties have polarized and Congress become more partisan, Americans have increasingly associated the institution’s collective performance with its majority party. If the Congress isn’t doing anything to change the country, it must be the Republicans’ fault. Obamacare repeal was a pivotal test of the party’s capacity to govern.

    Or do voters mostly care about their own lives and wallets?

    But there’s also an argument that it is the effects of government action that really matter to voters. A veritable library of research reveals the electoral performance of a governing party is closely related to the country’s general health, largely the state of its economy. By virtue of its partisan connection to the president, during unified government the congressional majority will pay for bad times and be rewarded for good ones — although these effects tend not to be symmetrical (the American public prefers retribution).

    Policy is nothing but an instrument, and Americans respond to the impact it has on their lives. They do not pay particular attention to the process of making it.

    In this way, Obamacare caused Democrats problems in 2014 and 2016. Many Americans were clearly pleased to gain coverage, but much of that feeling was dampened by the high premiums, deductibles, and co-payments that accompanied the introduction of the ACA. For those who already had insurance, these cost hikes were especially bad news — average policy premiums more than doubled between 2013 and 2017 in 24 of the 39 states that use the national healthcare.gov exchange.

    The danger for Republicans here is that Trump now has an expressed strategy to let Obamacare die through neglect. His administration plans to do nothing to prevent insurers hiking premiums and leaving many markets across the country. Despite his assertions to the contrary, many Americans may now believe he and his party are responsible for health care policy.

    And — exhibiting their innate status quo bias and temperamentally conservative approach to change rather than a deep love of the program — Americans are increasingly saying they like Obamacare. A July Gallup poll reported that for the first time a slight majority of respondents approved of the ACA.

    Would the GOP have been better off passing any kind of ACA repeal?

    In the long term, a health care system that increases competitiveness by allowing insurers to cross state lines and that uses cost-containment rather than mandates and taxes to broaden coverage would probably be more popular than Obamacare. But passage would have meant short-term disruption and problems for Republican candidates in 2018 and 2020.

    Given that “repeal and replace” now seems dead, it’s not certain how voters will treat Republicans, especially those who voted against it, in 2018 and beyond. Will they think of the failure to repeal as a failure to govern? Will they punish Republicans for high health-insurance prices? Or will voters have more pressing issues on their minds when the next election rolls around?

  9. Why a Canadian city tore down the staircase its residents had always wanted to build

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    Toronto city officials recently threatened a man with fines for building an unlicensed staircase in a local park. Then they tore down his staircase, which had cost him $550 to build, and replaced it with one that cost $15,000.

    Now, there’s a lot going on in the world. So you’ll be forgiven if you missed these events in Canada. But there’s a lesson to be gained here about why government workers do the seemingly strange things they do.

    The brief version of the story goes like this. A lovely section of wooded Tom Riley Park, right along Mimico Creek in Toronto, had a steep, rocky, muddy slope. But it was the shortest path from the parking lot down to the community garden lot and soccer fields, saving at least 100 yards of walking. For more than a few elderly guests, or women wearing fashionable shoes, this path was treacherous, and folks fell or slid down the slope. One garden club member recently broke her wrist.

    Apparently Toronto had studied the slope as a candidate for a staircase, but determined that it would cost $65,000 (CAN) to build. That’s a lot for a staircase, so the plan was shelved.

    Don’t you dare do it yourself.

    But the residents of Toronto are civilized. It’s not some redneck hangout like Mississauga, where sliding around in mud is date night. An elderly gentleman, Adi Astl, a retired mechanic, decided to take matters into his own hands. Enlisting the aid of a local homeless man, Mr. Astl built a stairway, with sturdy 4×4 timbers and a handrail. It wasn’t a perfect stairway, but it worked and it was much safer than the muddy slope it replaced. The whole thing appears to have been less than six vertical feet, just eight stairs.

    And then all heck — it’s Canada — broke loose. The city blocked the stairs, and hung yellow CAUTION tape, because “the railing is unsafe, the incline is uneven and there is no foundation.”  They also threatened Mr. Astl with thousands of dollars in fines for “building without a permit.” All this even though the stairs seem to have made the spot less dangerous than before.

    Some days later, the city tore up Astl’s wooden stairs, and put in some poured, reinforced concrete stairs with metal railings.  And they did it for $15,000. You can see it here.

    Now, you may think that the city’s inspectors or bylaw officers or the parks department in general behaved badly here, because (1) they didn’t act until they were embarrassed, (2) they threatened Mr. Astl and destroyed the useful stairs he built, and (3) their replacement stairs cost 27 times more than his did. Why couldn’t the city officials just use some common sense, leave Mr. Astl alone, and let park users enjoy his donated staircase?

    Public officials are no worse, but also no better, than the rest of us.

    Well, here’s the problem. Officers of the government don’t have discretion in these matters, and in fact they shouldn’t. Some folks probably just think, “That’s petty. They should have left the stairs up.” But that’s wrong: if we give discretion to bureaucrats and the police, they will impose their own biases and sympathies. They’re just human, after all. And that is one of the key insights of public choice: the recognition that public officials are no worse, but also no better, than the rest of us because they are us, just human.

    The rule of law requires that the law applies to everyone, equally. Discretion allows the representatives of the government to indulge their racism, their sexism, or to give privilege to those they favor.  So, we’re stuck. We’re stuck with rules that seem blunt and clumsy and we have to enforce those rules without discretion or exception. That is the very nature of the state, to restrict the discretion of bureaucrats and law enforcement. They have to enforce the law. And the law is cumbersome and inefficient.

    Here’s the bad news.

    The people who work in Toronto’s parks department may actually do a pretty spectacular job, given the restrictions on the ways bids can be taken, plans drawn up, and work executed. But if they don’t follow the rules about railings and foundations and the intricacies of the bid-procurement process, they get fired.

    The problem, in short, is not that those funny bureaucrats are lazy, or dumb. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. Many of them are well-educated and actually dedicated to public service. But don’t you see? That’s the bad news, right there: even good people can’t fix a bad system. And centralized state provision of goods like parks and staircases is often a bad system. There are too many rules, and control is too far removed from the citizens who, like Mr. Astl, have exactly the right local knowledge to do what needs to be done.

    Edmund Burke had it right, then, when he said, “In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!”

    Blaming people is a mistake. The system is the problem. If you want things provided by the state, you can’t complain when that provision is slow, expensive, and hard to manage.