Apr 30, 2011

Egypt's Shifting Geopolitical Policies: A Consequence of Democracy

The recent democratization of Egypt has resulted in a series of distinct policy changes with regards to Israel, Palestine and Iran. These changes ultimately represent a shift in Egyptian policy towards the popular opinion of many Egyptians that are becoming relevant for the first time as Egypt moves towards democracy yet present challenges to current US foreign policy.

There have been three major geopolitical policy shifts since the revolution. Firstly, Egypt has negotiated a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian factions (ignoring Palestinians living in Israel). Secondly, Egypt has pledged to open the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip thus effectively ending the near complete blockade of Gaza. Thirdly, Egypt has pledge to normalize relations with Iran and resume diplomacy. Allowing an Iranian warship through the Suez canal shortly after the revolution was a precursor to this shift. With these policy changes in mind, let us consider the democratic situation in Egypt and elsewhere.

United States foreign policy has always had a significant tension when it comes to supporting democracy. On the one hand, the US is a democratic nation and ostensibly aims to support the propagation of stable democracies. On the other hand, the US as a series of geopolitical interests that if one believes should be maintained are often perceived to be most effectively accomplished through heavily western backed dictatorships. When there is a conflict between the people of a country and US foreign policy (such as not supporting military influence which a dictatorship might support), history has demonstrated in the Middle East, Asia and South America that the US is more than willing to chose various form of autocracy over democracy in the name of supporting its geopolitical interests.
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Apr 29, 2011

Parkdale-Highpark Riding All Candidates Debate Response

This post covers the 2011 Federal Election for the riding of Parkdale-Highpark.

I recently attended the all candidates debate for the Parkdale-Highpark riding hosted by the BWVRA and wanted to share my thoughts on the debate, the candidates and various issues that were brought up. While this post will undoubtedly be specific to this riding, the themes are quite generalizable.

On the debate itself:

While it is late in the election cycle, I would encourage anyone to attend such community debates in the future. It was definitely a worthwhile experience and it is this kind of civic engagement which is sorely lacking in our society. I felt that my sense of the actual local candidates I was voting for vastly improved over my previous reading on the internet and helped to anchor the vote in terms of local candidates opposed to simply the party leaders and main policy platforms of the parties. Having effective people in governance - independent of which party they are for - that can shift the dialogue, sit on committees, take major posts and the like is important and sometimes lost in the national coverage of the leaders. One immediate demographic observation is that those attending were overwhelmingly Caucasian with perhaps less than 10% (by my very rough estimate) on other ethnicities; Parkdale-Highpark is 39% immigrant and this asymmetry represents a strong future need to try and get this missing demographic more engaged.
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Apr 27, 2011

The NDP surge and its consequences

The largest political story of the week has nothing to do about policies, it is about the fact that after months of poll numbers that stubbornly refused to budge the NDP has actually experienced a considerable surge in popularity confirmed by a half dozen different polls. The concept that the NDP may supplant the liberals as the official opposition now exist as a not quite so distant possibility.

There is reason both for and against the idea that this late game surge will translate into a meaningful number of votes. On the pro side is the fact that there is a powerful feedback mechanism. Layton has consistently shown strong opinion ratings, but the biggest dampener for NDP success is the reinforcing belief that since the NDP cannot win voting for them is a wasted vote. As this surge is reported, the possibility of the NDP making a meaningful change to the political landscape keeps removing this dampener and allows for more votes to flow to the NDP. While this effect may be powerful, many of optimistic projections for the NDP still face numerous hurdles such as the difficulty in getting people to vote for parties they have never voted for which is often difficult to account for in likely voter projection models and thus makes the projections very hazy. Furthermore, the NDP consistently polls worse than Layton does so his popularity may not be sufficient to win in specific ridings and there have not been a defining policy or values issue which is setting the NDP apart in this election; it appears to be largely a difference of trust and personality in the leaders.

An immediate danger of the NDP rise is the one always stated as a case against the NDP: vote splitting. In close races between the Liberals and the Conservatives where the NDP candidate is a distant third, the small rise of of the NDP may tip the balance from the Liberals to the Conservatives. My suggestion is as I have previously stated, which is to look at your specific riding's poll numbers and see whether strategic voting is or is not necessary. For example in my riding of Parkdale-Highpark, the conservatives are a distant third with the race between the NDP and the Liberals. One can thus chose between these parties (or the greens) as one feels best; this is the kind of race that is best for an NDP surge to potentially win.
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Apr 17, 2011

Reassessing the Libyan Intervention

As the NATO bombing campaign in Libya nears the one month mark, we can - and indeed must - reassess our previous opinions on the Libyan intervention with the new information that has become available. There is a caveat that we should keep in mind before we proceed: actions must be judged on their likely outcomes not their actual outcomes. In a world of limited information where predictions are very difficult, one can run into problems with retroactively applying new information to judge past actions. Nonetheless, this reassessment process can help guide our actions both now and in the future and given that the conflict in Libya is far from over the imperative to do just this is strong.

The ostensible goal of the "humanitarian intervention" in Libya was to prevent "a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world", as Obama put it. Let us accept this framing and discuss the war entirely from the perspective of minimizing human deaths while ignoring other geopolitical factors such as described here. My hesitation with the war on these grounds was that it was based on two assumptions which may or may not be valid. Firstly, the assumption that Benghazi being surrounded by Qaddafi forces would have led to an imminent massacre. Secondly, there is an assumption that while not explicitly stated is both implicit and necessary to justify the intervention. Namely, that the fighting that results after the initial intervention is going to be less violent than otherwise. I worried that through the limited use of force, there was a reasonable possibility that the rebels would get entrenched into a prolonged civil war whose casualties and effects on the citizens and society of Libya would be considerable worse than the perhaps overblown dangers of doing nothing in Benghazi.
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Apr 16, 2011

US government shuts down online poker; the case for legality

The US government has just launched an assault that has temporarily shut down the largest online poker operators in the US. This historic decision implements in a meaningful way for the first time the 2006 UIGEA law that effectively outlawed running a poker site and provides an existential crisis for online poker in the US with potential spillover effects into many other countries.

At peak times, a half million people are playing poker at once on the US's big three sites of PokerStars, FullTilt Poker and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet - all of which have temporarily suspended real money play for US players. The prevalence of people desiring and wanting to play online poker is simply enormous. Given this fact, the burden of proof to demonstrate why the government should be able to take this away this freedom, to demonstrate why this is a bad thing, lies entirely with those advocating for the illegality of online poker. When there is such widespread demand, the case for restricting freedom must come with compelling reasons.

Unfortunately, the illegality of online poker never got a chance to have such a burden of proof explained. The Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act was an eleventh hour act snuck into a port security bill by a few republicans literally the day before the 2006 midterms resulted in congress dissolving and eventually the Democrats taking over. In the post 911 era, no politician could afford to vote against port security during elections and there was no time to maneuver the online poker inclusion out of the package before congress was dissolved. Today, despite some movements from Harry Reid and Barney Frank in the senate and a Democratic president who is known to play poker, discussion about legalizing poker remains firmly at the fringes. It is a difficult topic to touch politically because it is largely a neutral issue or a big loser for different demographics.
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Apr 15, 2011

How we can change the political capital formula

It is a tautology that a successful politician is one who is capable of attracting votes. However the way successful politicians can attract votes is divided into largely two overlapping categories. They can enact and advocate for policies and political views that the public finds appealing. Or they can spend lots of money on advertising campaigns and the like which historically has an enormous influence on public voting. Of course, the two are not entirely separate in that one needs to still advertise views that the public finds appealing. There is an unfortunate asymmetry however because if a politician that supports a policy between elections that is not supported by the people, this only registers with the small minority of voters who are paying close attention unless it is particularly egregious so as to be highlighted strongly by the media or opposition while election season advertising is highly effective at changing votes.

Given the clear importance of advertising dollars as a strategy to procure votes, it is a more or less necessary trait of politicians to be able to attract campaign donations. There thus becomes a clear bifurcation in objectives for politicians when considering what policies to support. They can either support policies that are most effective at drawing votes directly from the people who find these politics appealing or they can support policies that are most effective at securing campaign donations. Sometimes these objectives overlap, such as a policy that is supportive of unions will induce campaign donations from unions as well as be generally supported by a large swathe of the public. However very often the two are at odds with each other where a policy such as oil subsidies is very successful in securing campaign donations but not particularly popular with the public. As such, there is an implicit balance between these two competing forms of political capital.
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Apr 14, 2011

Pharmaceutical Patent Lengths

Obama's recently announced deficit reduction proposal includes the reduction in patent lengths for brand name pharmaceutical drugs from 20 to 7 years. Let us step back and consider the case for such patents and how we might determine an optimal time length.

The reason we have pharmaceutical patents is for a single purpose: to create incentives for research into new drugs. When the drug company knows that its discovery will give them a temporary monopoly and hence high profits they are motivated to invest in research. Pharmaceuticals compared to other industries presents a particularly compelling case for patents because they have a very large ratio of investment costs to reproducibility costs. The research, testing and approval process are all very expensive but a secondary company could cheaply copy and reproduce the drug such that without the patents the profit motive is substantially reduced. For small patent lengths, a marginal increase in length results in a marginal increase in incentives to innovate.

However, one cannot make the lengths too long. Firstly there is diminishing returns for incentive to innovate beyond a certain threshold. That is, if a company already has a very long patent on a drug that is sufficient at curing some particular disease they have little incentive to expend a lot of money on researching a superior drug even if their past experience ideally positions them in the market for this research. More importantly, however, as the artificial monopolies exist for longer, the costs to consumers increases. Indeed, patents expiring mean the drugs reduce to slightly above the production costs of generics.
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Apr 12, 2011

Strategic voting depends on your ridings poll numbers.

The majority of ridings are essentially a lock before the election even happens. A minority have a good competition and a small number end up being too close for poll aggregates to predict the day before the election. There is thus a reasonable case for adjusting ones voting strategy depending on which of these cases ones riding is in. I look at why this is and then consider a rough voting strategy for the left in the coming Canadian election.

For the close races, there is going to be an immediate and direct difference in who gets elected depending on the outcome. The "lesser evil" strategy is where one votes for the better of the leading candidates and not perhaps the third candidate one really identifies with most closely. It is an acknowledgment of the realpolitik and making a decision not from principle but for accomplishing utilitarian objectives. I don't begrudge those who take an ideological stand voting for a candidate who will not win for this has value as well - as we shall see more in a moment - but I think it is a less effective strategy at implementing change.

For the races which are very well established who the winner will be, the situation is quite different. Namely, there is no immediate utilitarian value in terms of changing who gets into office. The value in voting shifts to issues of framing the political debate, to bringing certain causes and priorities into the debate and to work on longer term multi-election goals. Voting for third party candidates and independents has significant value because it demonstrates to the political class what the issues are that people care about and prioritizes those issues both in the inter-election politics and for subsequent election campaigns. The leading parties may move in the direction of the third parties when there is a strong show of support for that. I elaborated at more length on the value of voting for third parties here. Note that this value remains in close races; however, while important, it is perhaps dwarfed by the value that comes from changing which actual politician takes office.

Of course, if your preferred candidate genuinely is one of the leading candidates and the third parties are not raising issues you particularly care about then it is perfectly fine to vote for leading candidate in ridings where that candidate is the clear winner. Indeed, when a candidate is a particularly good one - breaking the conventional party wisdom in a way one agrees with, say - it benefits the political discourse by having a strong show of support. That the policies of this politician turn out to be very successful provides pressure for others to follow due to political arbitrage.

In Canada, if you lean right there really is only one established choice - much like the US. There are a few fringe parties which, if they suit your ideological beliefs, may have value in the sense described above. However for the left we actually have three established choices: Liberals, NDP and Greens. Depending on the riding and ones subjective preferences, I can see a strong case for all three of these parties to a generic left leaning individual. This 2011 election projections indicate is between a conservative minority or, less likely, a conservative majority with a liberal minority quite remote. Under this assumption, to someone who does not want the conservatives to have a majority - as I do not - the difference between a Liberal or NDP winning a seat is perhaps less important; what matters is Conservatives losing races. In races close between a Conservative and any second party, voting for the second party regardless is probably the most effective strategy. In close races between the NDP and the Liberals with no real Conservative challenger whichever one prefers of these two is reasonable. It still makes a big difference in who goes to office so there is value to making this choice. In races that are not close, the third party candidates like the NDP and in particular the Green party take value. If one wants to prioritize the issues of global warming and environmentalism, voting for the Green party is an excellent way to frame the debate and give credibility to the issues as electable issues. I can even see a case that this value even trumps in the close NDP vs Liberal case but the close Conservative vs other case makes too large of an immediate direct difference in my mind to be trumped by the indirect framing values from voting Green.

There are many reasons to vote and many different ways value can arise from it and I have certainly not covered them all. To some ideologues, my entire framing in terms of utilitarian consequences is not as important as the principled stand. This post hopes at best to provide incentives to consider the polling numbers and the realpolitik in each riding as one factor in the decision and offered some suggestions on what that might mean.
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Apr 11, 2011

Private security is a moral hazard when there is no rule of law

The rise of private security personal and war contractors - embodied by the since rebranded Blackwater - is a moral hazard that has, predictably, led to significant consequences. The profit motivation provides incentive distinct from minimizing human suffering and this discrepancy reflects the moral hazard.  As private mercenary forces command significant presence in Iraq, Somalia and many other countries we take pause to consider the ramifications.

The appropriateness of private security is inversely proportional to the standards of the rule of law. In a modern society like ours, private security is perfectly acceptable to guard, say, a building after hours. This is because our rule of law is sufficiently strong that corruption and abuses are likely to be discovered and the perpetrators prosecuted. A guard can't indiscriminately shoot a civilian, he will be locked up in all likelihood. However, in failed, war torn states the rule of law may be nearly non existent. There is no method for redress, no deterrent to prevent abuses, no system to protect or prosecute people under. In such a state, the moral hazard is able to come out where it is much harder to manifest itself in our first world societies.

When a country like Canada or the US engages in war it exports with it a strong rule of law that applies to its own people. This system of the top down authority of established lawful principles is in effect a rule of law for our soldiers fighting in countries possibly without their own rule of law. A soldier who commits abuses can be discovered and punished by the rule of law brought with us. Of course, this system is far from perfect, and the extent by which the military breaks its own rule of law and is insufficient is a much larger and important discussion. But it is nonetheless a rule of law that exists, despite its failings.

The private mercenaries don't experience the a robust rule of law in failed states nor do they experience the exported rule of law that comes with the military. It is this absence of direct accountability that allows the moral hazard to flourish. Of course, it isn't that they companies have zero susceptibility to rule of law - they do face some if their actions are particularly egregious and discovered - but it is far less than it should be and leads to significant problems. 
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Apr 10, 2011

Identity and Democracy in Single Party States

This post is an addendum to my previous post, Identity and Democracy, which discussed the role of tribal identity and loyalty in democracy. I looked principally at the comparison between democracies of the bottom billion, particularly in ethnically divided countries, and democracies in the western first world. However, after reading this excellent New York Times article on the recent sham of an election in Kazakhstan and how it compares to similar ones in Russia, I realized I neglected to consider the case of democracies in single party states which fits very well with the general thesis.

At a first glance, it is natural not to bother with such "democracies" because they are so fundamentally invalid as a method of accountability - when there is only one ubiquitous party the result is predetermined and they get 95% of the vote. However as the NYT article indicates, regular elections still have a purpose for the ruling party which is an expression of loyalty from the people. Indeed, it would seem the party works very hard to encourage (perhaps in a somewhat threatening way) that everyone actually shows up to vote. The act of voting remains, as I opened the previous post with, an expression of identity. In this case, it is the nationalistic identity of the party.

While it may well be that in a free society with ample alternatives in time there would become viable alternatives, in single party systems there usually is actually some level of popular support for the party. Having everybody come out to reaffirm their support, loyalty and identity through elections is a way of engendering a sense of legitimacy among the population. Big celebrations are held, for instance after the elections in the Orwellian North Korea which their state media delights in informing everybody that essentially everybody voted and essentially everybody voted for the party. There is of course no way to ascertain the true numbers, but it will be a boost to the sense of legitimacy however superfluously. Most importantly, it is reestablishing the existence of the nationalistic party identity and sham elections are an affirmation of membership in this identity
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Apr 8, 2011

Equalizing the Conflict Death Hierarchy

When discussing deaths in a military conflicts in foreign states there is a distinct hierarchy of importance that seems to be nearly universally accepted: western soldiers > foreign civilians > foreign soldiers.

From a tactical standpoint this is of course the case and is more or less reasonable. One does everything one can to reduce deaths for our side. Civilian deaths are minimized, but not to the exclusion of risking ones own safety nor necessarily to the aim of getting the foreign combatants. This is partially why conflicts have such high civilian casualties. Foreign combatant deaths are of course a normative goal and sought for.

The amount of press attention is significantly and discretely higher in each case as well. Western soldier deaths will get widely reported headlines with names and perhaps mini biographies. Foreign civilian dead will be given a numerical total and perhaps identification as women or children. Militant deaths may be either entirely unreported or but a parenthetical in the story. Even pacifists will strongly talk about civilian casualties and the horrors of this with much greater emphasis than the deaths of foreign militants. All of this stems from a tacit assumption that is rarely addressed: the deaths of foreign militants is not that bad or lamentable a thing.
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Apr 7, 2011

We must be most vigilant to defend civil liberties at the extremes

It is easy to wish bad things on ostensibly bad people. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the 911 mastermind, is undoubtedly such a person and Obama's recent capitulation to the congressional realpolitik that sends 'KSM' to a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay and not a civilian trial is stirring up the usual, justified, feelings of animosity towards him.

When someone is so bad, and so hated, it is natural to have a desire to slightly erode the civil liberties, the due process, the fundamental rights of humans so as to expedite and ensure a harsh punishment. The KSM case is extreme in the sense that the crime is extreme - 911 was unimaginably horrific - and that there is essentially no doubt he did it and as such it is easy to prejudge him. Given the desire for revenge and the quasi-legal status of KSM it is cases like these where the eroding of civil liberties is most likely to begin.

As such, contrary to perhaps our innate tendencies, it is these extreme ends where me must be most vigilant and forceful of our defense of fundamental human values, civil liberties and the following of due process. Since this is where it is most likely to first occur, the defense against such erosions must occur here first and foremost.
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Apr 6, 2011

Inefficiencies in Markets and Government

When discussing the relative roles of the market versus the government at providing a service, among the standard criticisms of government is that it is inefficient. This comes from a more limited accountability mechanism - voting - than the pricing mechanism of the market.  However, there are several aspects of a market provided service which ought to be considered inefficiencies yet are infrequently termed as such.

Perhaps the most important neglected inefficiency is profit itself. If x% of the revenue for providing a service ends up as profit then this is an inefficiency of x%. For a company, the goal is to maximize profit and hence profit is never considered an inefficiency (something one wants to minimize) but instead a good thing to be maximized. However, if the goal is providing a service like, say, garbage collection or health care to the people than dollars going to profit are inefficiencies at providing this service cost effectively and a smaller profit - all else being equal - is better for the people than a large one.

Secondly, we have the issue of many smaller companies doing overlapping tasks that a larger company or government program could eliminate. This is the basis for the general heuristic that larger is more efficient because commonalities and redundancies can be eliminated. Two individual small companies may each be maximally efficient with respect to itself but if combined could be made more efficient.
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Apr 4, 2011

The Economics of Democracy

How one spends their money and how one votes are, as previously discussed, two proxies for measuring the subjective valuations and preferences people have. The two social structures that result from these two proxies are markets and democracy respectively. Given how both stem from a similar idea of an expression of preferences we can expect the influences and relevant factors to be similar in both social structures.  As it turns out, many economic concepts can directly translate over into a study of democracy which aids our insight and intuition.

At the most general level we can view markets as a form of democracy and democracy as a form of market. The concepts are intricately related. A market is a social structure where one votes with dollars to represent ones preferences and receives in return benefits in the form of products and services corresponding to the way one votes. Likewise, a democratic election can be thought of as a form of market where the currency is casting votes which can freely occur in exchange for politicians who enact policies that coincide with your preferences. Thus we have a clear correspondence in terminology at the most general level.

For this comparison to be any good, it must minimally be able to translate the basic laws from one discipline to another. Take the central economic issue of supply and demand and let us see how well it corresponds in the hypothetical market of democracy. Supply and demand works such that prices increase with increasing demand and prices decrease with increasing supply.
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Apr 3, 2011

The Canadian Debates debate

For the second election in a row there is some minor controversy surrounding the public election debates. Should the green party be included? Should Harper and Ignatieff have a second, separate debate? However, the opportunity to have a larger discussion about the state of Canadian civil discourse is bring missed to our detriment.

In a society that actually embraced civil discourse public policy debates would be prominent to the public both at elections and between them. Worrying about whether there ought to be one or two public debates only exists as a relevant question when there is not a spirit of consistent public policy discourse.

Political debate does of course occur in parliament and is broadcast on TV, however it is largely ignored. This is both the product of and contributes to an apathetic public that is disengaged from the political discourse. Through a political class that attempts to convey policy decisions in a way that includes the public the public is likely to become more engaged. Conversely, the public apathy to politics keeps mainstream media more likely to present a new season of Canadian Idol than a second political debate due to financial incentives and allows for politicians to keep policy debates out of the public spotlight. The burden thus falls on us to demand a higher level of public discourse from the political class. Simply blaming the political class such as Harper's use of the RCMP to shield himself from answering journalists questions while it may be valid is only one side of the story.

The U.S. is slightly better in this regard. Presidential elections consist of three separate presidential debates on different general policy areas as well as a vice presidential candidates debate. Throughout the year there is the annual state of the union address and the president takes the opportunity as he did last Monday to spend 25 minutes on primetime to defend the Libyan bombing campaign. I think this level is still suboptimal and an engaged public ought to demand more; however, it demonstrates that Canadians can and should be able to make small increases to at least match that of the Americans.  
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Apr 2, 2011

The Value in Frequent Elections

Election season is upon Canadians once again and many are frustrated by the fourth election in seven years. Especially since a change of leadership seems fairly unlikely, there is a perception that this election is unnecessary, expensive and a waste of time.

It is my view that we need to take a perspective larger than the outcome of a single election and consider what the effect is on passed policies during the next period. Namely, frequent elections in a minority government is key to keeping accountability to the limited mandate given and sets acceptable policy within a narrow range.

Regardless of what Harper may himself believe, he cannot do things like remove marriage equality for gays or privatize healthcare because any step in this direction would result in an election. Indeed, the more trivial the willingness of the opposition to call an election should he go in a direction they don't like, the more tightly bound he is to the opposition (and hence majority) view. It is often considered that many of the parties are synonymous with each other, and to some extent this is true, but a large part of this is simply that a minority government cannot stray too far from the consensus provided there exists the election deterrent.

Like any good deterrent, the threat of an election is only as good as the perception that they will follow through. One has to actually call an election periodically otherwise the threat is empty. Simply by going through the process - as obnoxious as it may be - means that future policy proposals will be more tightly in line with the majority opposition view.

While it may be that realpolitik acknowledges the affirmation of the status quo this election, it is thus not without value. By confirming the relevance and importance of other parties in the political spectrum and preventing a conservative majority there is a legitimate accomplishment in changing future policies. 
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