Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 11, 2010

What Are We Protecting?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on August 11, 2010

Three announcements came out of the White House on Monday, the combination of which got me thinking, “What exactly are we protecting?” As depressing as this thought seemed, I managed to find one item of news heartening enough to give me hope that things might improve even if they keep getting worse.

First, President Obama, speaking in Austin, Texas, responded to growing concern about the decline in American competitiveness marked by the number of people graduating (or not) from its institutions of higher education. His speech announced no new policy initiatives. He did, however, highlight several programs launched earlier as evidence of his efforts to prepare students for success in the workplace. These include the Race-to-the-Top K-12 funding competition launched by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which asks states to throw under-performing schools and their faculties under the bus to qualify for federal financial assistance. Reforms to student loans, Pell Grant rules and college tax credits for working families were also cited as efforts to improve academic performance and economic competitiveness.

Later in the day, I received a request from President himself on my Facebook wall asking me to contact my representatives in Congress to let them know I wanted the Republicans to stop blocking progress on the jobs bill passed by the Senate on August 5, which helps states cover the costs of Medicaid and funds the salaries of police, firefighters and teachers. As Nobel-laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out in his Monday column, state and local governments have slashed spending since the beginning of the recession. Few areas of local service have been held harmless from furloughs, layoffs and service cuts. Public safety services were among the last to suffer serious budget cutbacks, but few communities can afford to maintain that position these days since local tax revenues always lag any recovery and the signs of such a rebound are weak at best.

Then, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he is taking drastic steps to reduce military spending by as much as $100 billion over the next five years by eliminating one major command, freezing senior uniformed and civilian executive appointments and curtailing spending on contractors. It should come as no surprise that Gates is interested in a strategic reassessment of our defense investment profile with the U.S. struggling to “win” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously countering threats posed by unstable regimes in Iran and North Korea despite spending what some estimates say is almost as much of its wealth on defense as all other nations combined.

Few areas of state and local government performance are harder to measure than public safety. At the same time, like defense these services have become all but sacrosanct, especially since 9/11 and the fear it provoked took hold of our society. Even those who were not moved by the threat of terrorism seemed moved enough by the sacrifices made by the men and women of New York’s emergency services to support their brothers and sister in blue elsewhere. Measuring educational outcomes using test scores, graduation rates and other objective measures has proven controversial even among those who do not consider the task all that difficult. After all, how can we truly assess the value of knowledge? Similar problems plague our assessment of efficiencies in national defense. What price can we put on our national security?

Sadly, the answer to this last question is all too clear. Our investments in government expenditures aimed at protecting us have only helped make us more vulnerable. Unlike investments in education and basic infrastructure, money invested in defense and protective services produces a very small multiplier. Even if you do not consider those who receive government salaries for delivering these services “special interests,” you would find it hard to come up with a convincing argument that these expenditures stimulate creativity, innovation or productivity in the broader economy that enhances national competitiveness. On the contrary, efforts to leverage defense spending to reduce our balance of payments deficit by exporting military technology put weapons and tactical capabilities in the hands of others who wreaked havoc in regions we consider key to our national security interests while arming those who now have become our adversaries.

Imagine how differently things might have turned out if we had invested only fraction of the money squandered on arming other nations and ourselves educating our own people and those in the countries we sought to liberate. Greg Mortensen has wondered just this. His book Three Cups of Tea has become required reading in some commands as our troops on the ground wonder how to defeat insurgents. If they follow Mortensen’s advice, this will involve building schools and educating women to develop their capacity to participate fully in shaping the future of their societies.

I know these are not either/or choices. We must spend on both defense and development. Judging by the quantum spent on security and defense compared to other programs though one might reasonably wonder what we aspire to in America. Are we a people who live in hope of a brighter, better tomorrow. Or have we been overtaken by a sense of impending doom, convinced that we are slowly sliding toward moral, cultural or environmental oblivion?

Amidst all this bad (or least not so good) news, I was heartened by one new item over the past couple of days. It seems researchers have confirmed what some might consider counter-intuitive: It seems those who identify themselves as being of lower socio-economic status are considerably more generous than those who think of themselves as better off. Researchers suggested this might be due in some small part to the fact that those who consider themselves poor are more likely to identify with those in need.

I suppose that finding should give us at least some small hope in the event the economy does not improve soon. Maybe with less to share we’ll be more willing to spread it around a bit if only so we won’t have to watch each other suffer.

I would like to believe though that we can become more compassionate and caring without suffering greater economic hardship in the short-term. But doing so will require us to rethink what we are doing and how we are going about it. For most of the post-war period, we have employed strategies consistent with a male-dominated worldview that takes an aggressive posture toward protection. Maybe it’s time we tried a more female-friendly, nurturing approach to protecting our interests? We can start simply enough by investing in the future of the world’s children and their mothers.

P.S.: It seems the former Clinton Administration Labor Secretary and University of California professor Robert Reich seems to have been thinking similar thoughts today; read his blog post at RobertReich.org.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 11, 2010 @ 2:20 am

Nice post Mark. One specific section states the following:
“Sadly, the answer to this last question is all too clear. Our investments in government expenditures aimed at protecting us have only helped make us more vulnerable. Unlike investments in education and basic infrastructure, money invested in defense and protective services produces a very small multiplier. Even if you do not consider those who receive government salaries for delivering these services “special interests,” you would find it hard to come up with a convincing argument that these expenditures stimulate creativity, innovation or productivity in the broader economy that enhances national competitiveness.”
Okay so in the actual toughest metric, personnel numbers for public safety, less than 1M are STATE and LOCAL law enforcement, of the 2.4 million in the Fire Service less than 15% are professionals, and this include EMT and HAZMATS, and less than 12,000 total EM types. Not sure about public health but overall this is not a huge investment. It is the growth of the other STATE and LOCAL operations and the growth of the number of local entities often with redundant and expensive overlaps even in the same geographic area that has caused the rise of the STATE and LOCALs as a huge claimancy on national resources. But only when you undertand that in fact much of this is administration of federal programs, functions, and activities. As always the crisis of federalism is not just funding but the inadquate analysis of what each level of government can do best. I would argue that Public Safety, including police, fire, EMT, HAZMATS, public health are bottom up functions and the real question is how does the federal government successfully ensure the quality of this bottom level of a critical pyramid? I do think however that the educational community could be doing a lot more to promote resilience and certainly post-Columbine and post-VA Tech the k-12 and college level are doing more in emergency management and security. But yes, Mark you are correct in one sense but wrong in another. Most of the educational system in the US is training not education. And the world’s largest training organization ever is DOD. Perhaps there is some way that lessons could be learned from DOD to help train our basic citizenry so that they are more resilient and make fewer demands on the government. But that probably requires first that we provide the vehicle for jobs that don’t require uniforms and weaponary.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

August 11, 2010 @ 8:19 am

Thank you for your thoughtful post. Here’s a comment or two on your theme. There is a reckoning coming with regard to defense spending and our National economic situation. Going back nearly 55 years … during the Cold War and GWOT, one can see or make the case for an exaggerated amplification of enemy strength to create a bureaucracy fine tuned to feed itself, and justify its expenditures, in terms of defense spending.

Our exaggeration of a threat justified ever increasing budgets and therefore, congressional districts jobs and pork. It’s a very, very difficult process to turn off, let alone slow down.
Chuck Spinney called it a “…habitual mode of conduct…’and a threat inflation.

Spinney, a former military analyst wrote a startling report in the 80’s called the Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch. It basically accused or demonstrated that the Pentagon recklessly pursued costly, complex, and often irrelevant weapon systems with complete disregard for costs, and their consequences. Spinney; “In a nutshell, Pentagon economics discount the present and inflate the future. Put another way, the future consequences of today’s decisions are economically unrealistic plans that reduce current ability to meet the threat in order to make room (hopefully) for future money to meet a hypothetical threat. … The across-the-board thrust toward ever-increasing technological complexity is simply not working.”.

His words were prescient in the early 80’s and even more so now. So, how do we turn it off? The honorable Mr. Gates wants to close JFCOM in Norfolk, Va and immediately, the news is a weave of money saved/jobs lost. Unfortunately, the military industrial Congressional complex is very much alive and well. So we have historical precedent that demonstrates elevating, enhancing, and/or exaggerating a threat to justify expenditure.

Are we seeing history repeating itself?

With regard to your comment about it seeming those who identify themselves as being of lower socio-economic status are considerably more generous than those who think of themselves as better off. It’s not just the lower socioeconomic status but also those claiming to be “conservative” that are generous. Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.” The surprise is that liberals are markedly less charitable than conservatives. Brooks, a registered independent argues that there are three cultural values that best predict charitable giving: religious participation, political views, and family structure.

Ninety-one percent of people who identify themselves as religious are likely to give to charity, writes Brooks, as opposed to 66 percent of people who do not. Those who think government should do more to redistribute income are less likely to give to charitable causes, and those who believe the government has less of a role to play in income redistribution tend to give more. Coupled with his other book; Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It, Brooks makes his case that conservatives are more happy than liberals. Brooks points out that the values that bring happiness are faith, charity, hard work, optimism, and individual liberty. Secularism, excessive reliance on the state to solve problems, and an addiction to security all promote unhappiness.

I tie these two points together for this purpose; I am not debating the faith and/or political affiliations part of the discussion for their respective ideologies. I am, however, going to state that the growing culture war or divide within the United States is real and it directly affects our National Security and ability to remain vibrant and future looking. The backlash against national health care legislation, spending, and redistribution coupled with the DoD’s inability as well as the Federal Government to curb their appetites are symptoms of a National Emergency.

Are we two Nations? We are either going to continue to be an exceptional nation organized around entrepreneurship, self determination and reliance combined with the principles of free enterprise, and a limited government, or become a “little Europe” shackled with expanding bureaucracies, an artificially managed economy and large-scale income redistribution; a false nation.

Our ability to be the most charitable Nation in the world will be directly impacted if not curtailed and the ability to export billions of dollars of aid will cease. I agree with you in regard to pondering what we could have done with a fraction of the monies spent on weapons around the world. We tend to see and discuss Homeland Security and the external, existential threat. Homeland Security is more than that. Its also theology, ideology, politics, and economics; if there is a more complex organism than that, please let me know!

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 11, 2010 @ 9:18 am

Bill, I can’t disagree with much in your analysis. I am less concerned with the local and state demands on the national purse than they way in which they compete for local resources and how those responsible respond. Overlaps are all too common, and those who manage these services have become too dependent on simple answers to complex and complicated problems (the Cynefin Framework again), including federal subsidies to support essentially local functions.

I know more about fire service than law enforcement, but I have watched the economic inefficiency of this service explode even as it has markedly improved its managerial or productive efficiency. Most of the economic inefficiency comes from the fact that the fire problem is being solved not by firefighters but by larger social and economic forces at work in the country. As a consequence, fire is a very small part of what most fire departments do. Until I went overseas to work, I would have had difficulty imaging how you could protect a city the size of the one I live in now with far less than half the number of firefighters employed here. But that is exactly what my brigades did in the city where I was chief.

I don’t have time right now to explore and elaborate upon my impressions of the law enforcement community, but I do think they have done a better job at looking at their situation strategically. That said I am certain some efficiencies are still possible if we look at ways to reduce overlaps across jurisdictional boundaries.

It has always seemed to me that this is exactly the role in which the federal government could provide the most and best assistance. But instead the policy agenda is firmly in the grip of people with a narrow view of what’s wrong and how to fix it. Rep. Boehner’s comments may have seemed insensitive, inappropriate or even impolitic to some, but they certainly weren’t entirely off the mark.

I agree with your final observation that the DoD is a fine training institution, and much of what we do in the so-called educational system is rightly called training and not education. I believe strongly in developing and promoting DoD’s institutional capacities in this regard. An article in Wired’s Danger Room blog yesterday contained a very pertinent quote from an Afghanistan-based MC-12 pilot in its last paragraph: ‘Warfare is a human endeavor; it always boils down to human versus human.” The same can be said for the budget process as well.

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 11, 2010 @ 9:25 am

Dan, a lot to chew on in your response and so little time to respond thoughtfully, so I’ll have to come back to most of what I would like to say later when I have more time. Your response got me thinking though about a thought experiment: What would the world look like if we did not have money as a metric?

The experimental work to which we both referred looked at measuring generosity and compassion in monetary terms (although not always dollar terms). How would we value human endeavor in the absence of money?

This strikes me as a particularly salient question now that we have equated money with free speech, especially when it comes to how we define personhood in a political sense. If we were to take money out of the equation, would we value relationships differently?

We could debate whether or not money is really the root of all evil. But it might be a better question to as whether it’s true, as they say, that money can’t buy us love. This experiment would test that theorem.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 11, 2010 @ 11:23 am

The percentage of total GDP controlled by the Non-profit sector is almost at 12%! Substantially unregulated and even often rightfully accused of self-dealing it is interesting to me how little this sector seems to accomplish with that 12% as far as improving American life. Perhaps I am way off base.

Comment by 66

August 11, 2010 @ 11:43 am

With a zeal in behalf of justice which cannot be too highly praised, the whole Chinese population have accused each other of this murder, each in his regular turn. But fate is against them. They cannot tell each other apart. There is only one way to manage this thing with strict equity: hang the gentle Chinese promiscuously until justice is satisfied. –Mark Twain

I went for a sandwich yesterday. The sandwich maker said, “only cash”. The credit card network was busted. I said, “those with credit cards starve.” I broke a twenty and ate a sandwich. It’s that time again. New York… Babylon-on-the-Hudson, sinful, extravagant, full of the nervous hilarity of the doomed. It’s a cash and carry world.

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 11, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

Bill, you made the observation in your comment that local public safety functions are bottom-up enterprises as opposed to the top-down approach taken in defense and international affairs. Why then do you suppose that local and state responders still cleave to notions of command and control in the response doctrine associated with ICS?

I have rarely seen a disaster respond to commands from anyone, and the notion of control seems completely inconsistent with the definition of disaster. The notion of coordination seems to recognize that at some point, perhaps as resources become constrained, competition for resources emerges and the prospect of conflict increases. Can we command people to cooperate? How do we control conditions so collaboration becomes more likely?

As I said, the notion that the federal government can play a constructive role here strikes me as attractive, but I have yet to see any evidence that this is consistent with the role federal officials see for themselves.

Dan, your observations about threat inflation and the vicious cycles that emerge from it sounds familiar. I grew up near Dayton, Ohio and my Dad worked for the U.S. Air Force’s Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson AFB during the Cold War. The lab he worked in was heavily involved in projects related to strategic weapons systems. In the interests of full disclosure, that means I benefited from these sorts of expenditures: They put food on our table.

I have often wondered though how my Dad would have used his education and experience had he not been employed by the Air Force. His graduate work focused on traffic safety and he eventually became a university professor at Ohio State where his work involved civil aviation safety and preparing professionals to enter the aviation industry. Nevertheless, he spent most of his summers working for the Air Force most recently, just before his recent retirement, investigating applications of UAV’s and their control by remote aircrews.

Peaceful applications of military technologies do emerge. I know creative people work on military projects, but I do wonder whether these insights would produce something more valuable or even profoundly useful in a purely civilian environment.

Yesterday’s Danger Room piece to which I referred above piqued my interest in the growing awareness that much of what we need to do to prosecute warfare is intrinsically and intimately human. Technological advantages do not remove the human element and in many ways amplify the moral ambiguities.

Morality is very much at the heart of my observation about generosity and compassion. And this is not far removed from my question about what it means to think differently about security. It has been my experience that those with intimate experience of socioeconomic deprivation have a very different understanding of crime. Even the most virtuous among the poor appreciate that the causes of crime are complex even when the effects are simple. As such, they are less likely to assume criminals are morally defective or beyond redemption even when they expect and demand accountability from criminal conduct. I think this is because see crime as a natural part of their environment and understand better its relationship to the ways people understand themselves and their place in the world.

An experience I had yesterday punctuated this for me. I attended a presentation at a Rotary meeting where the speaker recounted his experience as a methamphetamine addict and career criminal. After spending a total of 15 years behind bars on four separate occasions, he accepted responsibility for his life and his mistakes. He sought treatment for clinical depression and started looking for what he could learn from his mistakes. He got an education in computer-aided drafting and design and began seeing that he could accomplish things with a little focus and a lot of hard work. He reached out to others for help, and quite fortunately, not only for him but for us as well, received it from a family that believed in personal redemption.

Since his release in 1997 he has managed to establish a local bread baking business that employees 180 people and is still growing. His product is exceptional in every way and the philosophy behind it and his success could not be clearer or simpler: “We look for the right thing to do, the thing that makes our product and relationships better and we do it.” In other words, he measures his success not by his sales revenues or profit margin (these count too but are not his primary focus), but by the good he is managing to do with and through others.

He admits that this path is more difficult in many ways. But the consequences are much better for everyone involved. He accepts that mistakes are part of the process of learning, but now understands it is better to make small mistakes and correct them quickly that to ignore the consequence or make rationalizations to avoid responsibility for their causes.

Perhaps the most striking thing for me about this story is that it does not involve a 12-step program, a religious conversion or intensive therapeutic interventions and counseling. It began with something common to all three but it worked because the individual involved was committed to making a change in his life and convinced he could learn from his mistakes and make a better life for himself despite all the hurdles his past behavior had erected in his path. I believe there’s a message in that for all of us, both individually and collectively.

Comment by dan oconnor

August 11, 2010 @ 9:26 pm


Its ironic that you mention Dayton as Spinney was born there, a child of an officer stationed at WrightPat and was an air force officer himself. I hear you, in terms of the regular guy, doing their Nations’ work, putting food on the table. Honorable, faithful service. I don’t think there is some great puppetmaster in the sky working the levers or some man behind the curtain calling the shots.

I often think there are two military apparatus; the little “m” is the grunt, the sailor, the Marine, the folks in harms way, doing America’s work at home and abroad. Than there’s the other one, the big “M”. The big dollar, big industry machine. Within the institution there are always clashes of purpose and methodology.

As I said in the original post, this is a complex problem that needs addressing.

I aggree with you that peaceful applications of military technologies can and do emerge. Creative people work on military projects, but I think they would be creative in any endeavor and would produce universally. And since we’ve never known a purely civilian society, its hard to imagine what that creativity could do.

And morality is a huge issue; in terms of applied military force, laws of war, security posture and preformance, in conviction and justice. And crime, poverty, culture, and recitivism are seen through the eyes of the beholder. All excellent infrastructure to an argument on what are we defending, who we are supporting, and what is our civic return on investment.

There seems to be alot to talk about and culture and behavior are perhaps the mainstreet and cross street og homeland security, USA.

Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Art Botterell

August 12, 2010 @ 2:06 am

It occurs to me to wonder… has anyone ever been called unpatriotic for criticizing FEMA?

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 12, 2010 @ 5:45 am

Well all might wish to review my post today on my Vacation Lane Blog at http://vlg338.blogspot.com

The appearance of command and control at the local government level is quite different than what appears. In fact local governmental organizations involved in a large scale operation are often much more collaborative and cooperative than you might expect even when cultural clashes occur. The militarization of policing is just a reflection of the fact that some don’t want to think but rather would just apply violence, hopefully organized, against those perps using violence, hopefully less organized.

And yes, during my 20 years in FEMA, Art I was frequently criticised within the agency for criticism of its leaders decisions and policies as being unpatriotic. Of course, my brilliant career resulting in the exalted rank of a GS-15 was never dimmed by these criticisms even by bosses. And of course in the almost 11 years retired some still state that I lack patriotism by my criticisms in writings and dealings. Of course I beleive I am fair and balanced, but some don’t think so.
The disasterous fires in Russia may be far more significant than some realize. The black swans appear quite often their. Those who believe the Reagan Adminstration ended the Cold War and brought on the Soviet Union political collapse by outspending on the military and star wars have no real comprehension of the impacts of the Chenoybl nuclear core-melt disaster and the Armenian Earthquake. Glasnost and Peretroika were driven at least in part by these two significant events. A true reading of the Soviet Union’s investment in its military and in particular its strategic forces (which Russian policy still supports as far as the latter) was revealed as largely a wasted effort on Soviet Society as a whole. Almost 2/3rds of the entirety of the Soviet Unions concrete supply for almost 18 months was absorbed by encapsulating the melted radioactive reactor core. Unfortunately, it again requires a entirely new effort. The area impacted by that event was not just parts of the Soviet Union. In fact for the remainder of the 500 years necessary to reach the half-life decay much of the area impacted will have increased radiation hazards. In fact stealth farming of that area due to lack of access control probably is in itself a danger to some. Those who grow and those who eat in and from that contaminated area. I once saw a tape of a Soviet Marshall who stated flatly that responding to that event was like war fighting, both it requirements and dangers. AS many as 60 firefighter stood and hosed the core while they literally melted from the radiation and heat. Bravery still exists in Russian and the Former states of the Soviet Union. Stalingrad veterans do have modern peers.
And then of course the Armenian Earthquake where Soviet Military forces were deployed to assist. The vaunted Soviet Military that was designed to defeat the Western powers and conquer Europe. Well there are pictures of high ranking military officers in tears because not only no heavy equipment to deal with the rubble and search for survivors but NO SHOVELS. For over three weeks no shovels arrived requiring the use of hands as claws to move rubble and concrete.
And of course, the current fires could well trigger the SEVESO CONVENTION reporting requirements. The heavily radiation containing clouds that impacted the Ukraine and ByloRussian territory impacted Western Europe. In fact the Swedish government was the first to announce to the world the catastrophic event in the Soviet Union. Signed by all Eurpoean nations subsequently even Russia that Convention requires international reporting of any event that spreads environmental contamination across a nation-states boundries. And by the way the mere rumor of airborne contamination was enough to overload and drop the City of Seattle phone system.
Hey like the Disney parks theme–It is a Small, Small World!
And of course inhabited by both black and white swans.

Comment by Art Botterell

August 12, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

Good point, Bill, but I didn’t mean to confuse in-house bureau-politics with the national zeitgeist. Beyond the hallowed halls of C Street I’m afraid criticism of FEMA has become not only politically correct but pretty much mandatory on both the left and right. Whereas we see very little tolerance for public criticism of the military.

That goes, IMHO, to the original question of what we’re protecting. I’m afraid America has become a very warlike nation. Only sports… themselves largely a sublimation of tribal warfare… contribute more routine metaphors to our day-to-day language of business and governmental problem-solving. Our instinctive response to large-scale problems (poverty, drugs, inflation, crime, terrorism) seems to be to wage “war” on them, however ill-defined or poorly understood they may be. (Indeed, by framing the problem as the “enemy” in a “war” we make attempts to understand the problem seems potentially suspect as perhaps themselves signs of disloyalty.)

The persistent language of “command and control” is, I think, just another example of how pervasive the military paradigm is in our culture. Personally I find civil emergency management to be much more a project of “convince and cajole,” but that’s just me.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 12, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

I don’t agree at all but Robert Reich has interesting piece recently on military as the de facto jobs program for US with no one in leadership positions able to design a real civil jobs program. Can I have 15 minutes to do it? Infrastructure replacement? Housing? Educational assistance? etc.etc. and of course none of these would be designed to reward the middle man but instead the end user–US!
Some evidence growing that the direct bailout by Treasury Dept and indirect by FED turned into flight capital. Does DOD ever review its efforts from a flight capital standpoint? In the sense of many DOD assistance programs subsidize foreign corruption.

Comment by 66

August 15, 2010 @ 10:13 am

“People experiencing homelessness often receive citations for public nuisance offenses and then fail to appear in court.” Where do you send the summons? Then you end up wanted. Then there’s the bail problem. They can’t post bail and jails fill with homeless people. You aren’t a flight risk because the police state-aka corruption-rules. The houses are bank owned using Treasury funds. Fed funds are headed overseas to reconstruct whatever. http://new.abanet.org/homeless/Pages/homelesscourts.aspx

Comment by 66

August 15, 2010 @ 10:26 am

Maybe the empty newspaper office buildings can become homeless courthouses. Have a waste basket ball.

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