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10 February 2008


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Jim Schmidt

"I think the belief that philosophers are an elite, carriers of dangerous truths subversive to the social order, which can only be articulated to the fellow members of the elite in a kind of code, applied in his view to liberal societies, quite as much as others." DH

Dick Cheney:

“Just as we’ve monitored the communications of enemies at large, we’ve also gotten information out of the ones that we have captured. The military has interrogated terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. And in addition, a small number of terrorists, high-value targets, held overseas have gone through an interrogation program run by the CIA. It’s a tougher program, for tougher customers. (Applause.) These include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. He and others were questioned at a time when another attack on this country was believed to be imminent. It’s a good thing we had them in custody, and it’s a good thing we found out what they knew. (Applause.)”

Vice President's Remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference
Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC February 7th, 2008


The tougher program Cheney is touting is water-boarding. The same water-boarding described by a somber CIA Head Micheal Hayden, in recent testimony before Congress.

"We used it against these three detainees because of the circumstances at the time." Micheal Hayden


The official transcript notes the applause lines during Cheney’s presentation. “Applause” understates the audience enthusiasm for the rough stuff. They loved it. Rule of law? Not in this crowd. Such is the success of the sophistry infecting the salons of the haughty Straussians.

Cheney's speech was a cock of the walk strutting brag, a sure I did it, I’d do it again belligerence and contempt for the law. A thug's contempt.

Under this new theory of governance, laws bind only liberals, not the Machiavellian artisans who truly understand and wield power. Now, we’ve walked this slippery path to the point where Dahlia Lithwick, Slate Senior Editor can write:

“It's been a banner week for water-boarding.”



The crowd cheered.

"For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind."
Hosea 8:7


Sort of similar to the advantages enjoyed by insurgents or any fourth generation type warfare--creativity.


Can I assume that the sentence

"So 'Ravelstein' -- Bloom -- explains that 'the war aims of the Kaiser in 1914 were no different from those of the Kaiser in 1914.'"

should read something like

"So 'Ravelstein' -- Bloom -- explains that 'the war aims of the Kaiser in 1914 Hitler in 1939 were no different from those of the Kaiser in 1914.'?

Very interesting piece, considering we've been suffering the follies of Strauss's intellectual descendents these past 7+ years.


To paraphrase Lord Keynes, one must judge the thoughts and beliefs of the past through the prism of the beliefs and values of the day, not our own (todays) values.

My simple belief is that Strauss simply internalised what happened in Germany from about 1914 onwards towards 1933. My favourite reference for these days is "Confronting Hitler" by "Sigfried Hafner".

Between the wars Germany was chaotic, Communism was not then a discredited ideology and there was a real possibility of a socialist revolution in the country. The battle between socialists, communists and various right wing groups was fought regularly in the streets and thousands died.

Is it any wonder then that Strauss believed that "wide-open, uncensored public disagreement" was unproductive? It certainly was in Germany between the wars. Is it any wonder that he believed that an elite must rise above the rule of law if necessary? The evidence he would have seen in Germany would have led many people to exactly the same conclusion.

However, America in 2008 is not Germany in 1932. I regard Leo Strauss and his philosophy as an artefact of the time 1900 - 1932, and with no relevance to 21st century thinking, or even 18th, 19th or 20th century thinking at all.

It of course has suited the American ruling elite to dust off this artefact and present it as a new revelation. It will be interesting to see how far they are willing to take their toy. If they follow through, then their obvious action must be to gut the Constitution (the prime enlightenment experiment), stage a coup and govern by decree.


Great stuff.

With the Straussians presently in control and causing mayhem and breakdown, one could argue that the liberal intelligensia has simply gone on strike and is biding its time til common sense once more prevails.

But I also agree that the Liberal Intelligensia, unchecked, can be a pretty unappealing monster itself.

Pragmatism based on knowledge.

john in the boro

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” John Maynard Keynes

I retired a few years ago and found the time to read and, more importantly, to ponder. DH’s essay about Leo Strauss comes at an opportune time for me. A few weeks ago I finished his “History of Political Philosophy” (Strauss and Joseph Cropsey editors). I am neither an expert nor a philosopher. The transferal of European liberalism to the United States was and is problematical while European conservatism seems to make the trip rather intact. An illustrious group of German thinkers made the trip to the United States. Of these, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, and Leo Strauss all taught at the University of Chicago. Talk about a meeting of the minds. Despite their differences the three shared an underlying commonality: They saw the West in crisis. Nietzsche perhaps captured the crisis with his famous revaluation of all values. The West suffered from a break between the past and the future. That is, the traditions of the past were being lost, questioned, or refuted as the West discovered industrialized war and genocide. At the same time, the failure of tradition to fasten itself in the present resulted in the loss of authority. Not authority in the sense of “authoritarian”, but authority had lost trust and faith. The breakdown in authority had/has many causes and many manifestations but the result directly attacked tradition—moral and religious. Vicious cycle.

Arendt, Heidegger, and Strauss concerned themselves with the question of what next? They all went back to the past, the ancients, to search for answers (Nietzsche’s genealogy). Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave” and “Myth of Er” captures the West’s crisis. On the one hand philosophers were unable to convince the people of the transcendent truth that they had embraced and found themselves in mortal danger. On the other hand a myth that threatened eternal regeneration or suffering sufficed for transcendent truth. Equality and science challenged both traditions. As a result, we see or at least sense the degradation of our civilization. Strauss saw communism as the greatest threat to liberal democracy and conservatism as a bulwark against it. Strauss apparently got the idea of gentle and brutal nihilism from Heidegger. As I understand it, Heidegger posited the existence of nothing. If nothingness is then nothingness is possible. This is not to say that nothingness is necessarily desirable. But this does suggest the potential for totalitarian regimes to destroy traditions which, as a reminder, are already under extreme duress. So, this is an existential struggle that, as Strauss conceived it, in my opinion, contradicts Socrates’ dictate: “It is better to suffer harm than to do harm.”

Be that as it may, as Keynes notes, such theories and thoughts have a profound effect in the real world. Heidegger became associated with the Nazis, Strauss will be associated with the neoconservatives. What seems evident is that the neoconservatives in general and the Bush administration in particular have played loose with factual truth in the pursuit of goals which they feel the rest of us are unable to comprehend: We are still living in the cave. Because they have identified an existential threat—they want to kill us because they hate our freedom—the noble lie is a permissible means to the end of survival. Thus, facts are not truths, they are opinions, and who is to say one opinion is any better than another? Saddam Hussein had/wanted WMD, we only monitor the communications of terrorists, torture is legal because the DoJ said so . . . . Intelligence constantly runs up against this issue: facts v. opinion. Historical possibilities are legion as are historical interpretations. Strauss, as Keynes and Walrus observes, is an “academic scribbler of a few years back.”

William R. Cumming

Wow! Do you really think that the current political leadership has an overarching philosopy? Or the political liberals?
Situation ethics has run its logical course for those with no moral or religious foundation. Americans in the 21st Century had better understand the sources of public and private morality before its too late ( I think it may already be too late). I argue for "natural Law" (not manmade law) for which Catholicism once spoke the clearest, and I am a Gaian. Capitalism and the market economy are not such a source of morality. Unfortunately, as the super-churches take over management of social services for their parishioners and most are being run by MBA's the same group that "financialized" the corporate world based on the principles of MAMMON(we are rapidly headed to more than 5000 churches with more than 5000 parishioners); the American Catholic church (yes its links to Rome diminish each year) founders on pedophilia and sexual harrasment; and other organized religions turn away from thoughtful analysis (women now dominate Protestant seminary student populations although don't read that to mean that women cannot think) it becomes clearer that the public intellectuals on all sides have failed maybe because they tried to popularize their analysis for filthy lucre, or maybe because they cannot think. The fact that Harvey Mansfield tries to pretend to be the leading Straussian acolyte is itself an indication of his robust fantasy life and the decline of intellect in his univeristy. How many philosopy majors are their now in U.S. colleges and universities? More importantly who teaches them and what is their background? English as a major is now 60% of undergraduates and what does that say? What would the subjects of their undergraduate papers suggest to intellectual life in American? As Franklin stated when asked after leaving Consitution Hall and the Constitutional Convention (a secret conclave by the way) "We have a Republic, if it lasts."

Katherine Hunter

paragraphs, please

Charles I

Same old same old. Not about about philosophy or knowledge, but dominion over others to the perceived personal advantage of altruist and absolutist alike.

Shamans in scary masks dancing in peyote ceremonies dispensing "magic" and collecting virgins. Popes in absurd getups blathering on about the one true faith, rest of us are going to hell, but God Bless you all, I have the greatest pornography collection in all of Creation. Bewigged, black-robed judges dispensing Justice from on high bench/altar, with the aid of acolytes schooled in the deciphering of the Code for its application to the hoi-polloi. The censorious cop glaring down from under his visor. Straussian fascists pontificating on the esoteric thought that allegedly sustains their ideology whilst befuddling the masses to the point of easy pickings.

Cheyney shaking his head dismissively, saying "You just don't know. You cannot know. These are matters about you, for you, but beyond you, AND MUST NOT BE EXAMINED TOO CLOSELY LEST THE MAGIC WE WEAVE ON YOUR BEHALF BE RENDERED INEFFECTIVE."



Canaris is a case study in how one might conceivably behave when gangsters seize the levers of power and the rule of law becomes warped to the point of destruction. (Heydrich took a different tack.)

When awaiting execution in Flossenberg Canaris interrogated his guards by saying "foolish" things on the progress of Allied forces so that his guards were quick to correct the "silly" old man.

Visiting his chum Franco, Canaris is supposed to have surprised his hosts by saluting derelicts and spivs -- his reasoning was that he could not be absolutely certain they were not ministers or exalted officials of his own government or, possibly, any government.


"This kind of privileged wisdom did not turn out too well." Indeed. Neocons tout their "exceptionalism" together with that of the United States. Yet as the years drag on without anyone able to ascertain exactly why we attacked Iraq, it is almost certain that the "exceptionalist" rhetoric was mere cover for crass commercial interests.

Therein lies the conundrum: is the "privileged wisdom" sound, and do its proponents actually believe what they say? Or is it just noble rhetoric to justify ignoble interests?
After all, good hired pens are a dime a dozen filling opinion pages and network "news" slots.

But in the end it doesn't really matter: anyone who seizes absolute power will be corrupted absolutely. Commercial self-interest reigns supreme. For evidence, look no farther than today's Republican Party and their enablers among the Democrats.

frank durkee

I'm not sure that one needs a conspiracy theory to account for the neo-cons actions. the Republican tendency during the cold war was always to attack any moderate position from the right by speculating on 'potential possibilities'. this became noticably more noticable after Kennedy's "Missle gap" charges in the '60 election. "National Security" issues can always be speculated upn to overide cusom and/or the rule of law much less the rule of prudence. some of these actors training at the University of Chicago may well have provided and entrance into this kind of thinking, but it extended to many others than graduates of that institution. It's been a Republican stock in trade for at least 40 years with frequent success.
Further we have a tendency to forget the clear sense that this administration massively dropped the ball around the 9/11 attack. As a result they had every incentive to appear as tough as they could and as active as they could to overcome and blur that massive failure.
One of my observations from doing assesments of various programs in various stages of completion is that it is almost impossible to actually go back to the state at the time of initiation and the itentions with in that contest. You always end up evaluting more fromthe present and reading back than one should. It seems to be an inevitable distortion and one which is rarely compensated for adequately.
I am in no way a supporter of this administration. However if we are to learn from it we need to be as thorough as we can be.


>To paraphrase Lord Keynes, one must judge the thoughts and beliefs of the past through the prism of the beliefs and values of the day, not our own (todays) values. (Walrus)

Whenever I meet members of the neo-connish tendency, it always amazes how a-historical their thinking is. They judge history and the values of people in a particular time entirely by their values of today.

It is the same when they judge contemporary cultures other than their own. Only their values count. They are entirely unable to see things from angles other than their own.

I suspect one of the virtues the liberal intelligensia brought to the table during the Second World War was the imaginative ability to understand how the enemy thought.

One of the reasons the present wars (American and Israeli) in the Middle East are getting nowhere is the fact that no one in America or Israel has the remotest idea how the other side thinks. Whereas one gets the impression that the other side understands how we think perfectly - even though they completely disagree with it.

David Habakkuk

Katherine Hunter,

I did try to split the piece up into paragraphs, but Typepad cut out all the breaks.


As you say, it should have read '"Ravelstein" -- Bloom -- explains that 'the war aims of Hitler in 1939 were no different from those of the Kaiser in 1914.' I apologise for the slip.


I think you are right up to a point. Chaos does commonly lead people to accept strong authority, and in polities where there is no underlying consensus it may be perfectly fair to fear that freedom of thought may produce catastrophic collapse. I would in no dispute that this is part of the background to what happened in Germany after 1933 -- as in Russia after 1917 (or indeed after Yeltsin.)

But it is interesting to contrast the political evolution of Strauss with that of the novelist Thomas Mann, who like him was deeply rooted in German conservative currents of thought, and whose 1916 polemic Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man had repudiated 'Western' political values. Following the murder of the (Jewish) Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau in June 1922 by two extreme nationalists, Mann abandoned this position and came round to the kind of scepticism about political absolutism which is conspicuous by its absence in Strauss's 1933 letter. Looking back in his 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, Mann recalled discussions among intellectuals in the Twenties:

'The cited de Tocqueville, who had said that out of revolution as out of a common source two streams issued, the one leading men to free arrangements, the other to absolute power.' In free arrangements, he commented, none of these intellectuals any longer believed -- they saw as ineluctable the coming of 'despotic tyranny over the masses'.

This was apt, in that a central argument of Tocqueville's in America had indeed been that the disintegration of old hierarchies was ineluctable, so that the real alternatives were either the kind of combination of equality and liberty he believed had been achieved in the United States, or what he called 'democratic despotism'. In the second volume of Democracy in America he focused chiefly on a kind of soft despotism -- pervasive and enervating, but not violent. But in the first, he conjured up a nightmare vision of a return to what he called the 'hideous eras of Roman oppression' -- not Augustus, rather Nero or Caligula.

What brought Mann round to supporting the Weimar Republic was precisely his realisation, in the wake of Rathenau's murder, that in practice, a German absolutism was likely to have elements of the nightmare Tocqueville had conjured up. If this was the case, the notion of some kind of benevolent 'fascist' version of 'Caesarism', distinct from the kind of 'Caesarism' represented by Hitler, which underpins Strauss's 1933 letter, was a retreat into fantasy.

In Doctor Faustus, Mann recalls the 'blithe satisfaction' with which many German intellectuals regarded a 'mounting barbarism'; he himself would have been 'endlessly grateful' if 'they themselves had been more alarmed over their findings or had opposed to them a little ethical criticism.' But he also thought that people should have been less ready to believe that what appeared to be coming was ineluctable. It would have been better, in his view, if they had said: 'Unhappily it looks as though things would follow this and this course. Consequently one must take steps to warn people of what is coming and do one's best to prevent it.'

Much of the novel is indeed an appalling vision of an intelligentsia which has both succumbed to an obsession with power, and blinded itself to where that obsession was likely to lead -- and also retreated from forms of extreme individualism into catastrophic forms of collectivism. I think these obsessions from the interwar period in Europe are carried over into 'Ravelstein'/Bloom's description of Caesar as 'the greatest man who ever lived within the tides of time' and Fukuyama's bizarre vision of the triumph of the imperialistic despotism of Napoleon at Jena in 1806 as representing the victory of the principles of equality and liberty. More consequentially, I think they are carried over into the Defense Planning Guidance that Wolfowitz, Libby, and Khalizad prepared for Cheney back in 1992.

As to the whole Straussian style -- this is 'Caesarism' translated into the world of the academy: people who don't like the burden of independent thought finding a quasi-deity to take the burdens of thinking for themselves off them.

Cold War Zoomie

...people who don't like the burden of independent thought finding a quasi-deity to take the burdens of thinking for themselves off them.

This seems to sum up where we are as a country pretty well. Even though our quasi-deities known as our Founding Fathers fought hard against a monarchy, many of us American's crave one. I am always surprised by how much we Colonial Cousins love having British royalty come for a visit!

The more I come to understand our history, the more it appears that we've always been this way. Lots of us prefer following rather than leading. I know I do in most things in life. Following is usually easier.

Clifford Kiracofe

David Habbakuk,

Good stuff. Few things:

1. Strauss' dissertation was on F. H. Jacobi, I can recommend a brief monograph by Norman Wilde, "Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi" Contributions to Philosphy, Psychology and Education, Vol. 1, No. 1(New York: AMS Press 1996, reprint).

2. Just what kind of Caesarism and Esoteric Writing? Well... Alexandre Kojeve, "The Emperor Julian and his Art of Writing," Ancients and Moderns Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss ed. Joseph Cropsey (New York: Basic Books, 1964.) Decode: the Emperor Julian persecuted Christians, restored a multiplicity of pagan cults, and started a project to rebuild the Temple (Jerusalem). Julian as Neocon cult god ... see Gibbon on Julian. Neocon alliance with US Fundamentalists justifiable as the premillennial Dispensationalist Fundamentalists are a heretical cult, hence for all intents and purposes pagan...jointly rebuild the Temple. And what about those illuminated "Prophets" and "Knights" over at Skull and Bones?...322.

2. On Neocon foreign policy:
Gary Dorrien, Imperial Designs. Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana (New York: Routledge, 2004), and
Halper and Clarke, America Alone. The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

3. Mowrer is excellent. Another American with deep knowledge of Europe and the who may be of interest:
Stephen Rauschenbush, The March of Fascism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939). Important.

4. W. M. Knight-Patterson, Germany From Defeat to Conquest 1913-1933. Foreward by Lord Vansittart (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1945). Brilliant and essential.

5. Fritz Stern's, The Politics of Cultural Dispair (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963) seems to capture the intellectual climate leading to Carl Schmitt and one of his star pupils: Leo Strauss. The European 'conservative revolution' and all that..Lagarde, Langbehn, Moeller van den Bruck and assorted twisted types...Neocon heroes no doubt. But for Mike Ledeen I suppose we throw in those Italian Fascists and proto-fascists say Enrico Corradini of the "National Greatness" school....the Libyan venture "transvalued" to the Iraq War....

6. For Cheney and Rumsfeld as Straussians (the "Gentlemen" level I presume) note the role of the Straussian Robert Goldwin as mentor. For his papers see the Gerald R. Ford Library:

Cold War Zoomie

...independent thought...

Is there really such a thing?

The older I get, the less I believe so.

David Habakkuk

Cold War Zoomie,

A story in this morning's Daily Telegraph might amuse you.

It is headed 'Crowds "pick leaders to follow"', and reports that 'people in crowds behave just like sheep, scientists claim, by blindly following one or two people who seem to know where they are going.'


I would not dispute that in general we are more sheep-like than we like to pretend.

However, there are distinctions. Here is Saul Bellow's description of Allan Bloom's 'crowd', from 'Ravelstein':

'But Ravelstein knew the value of a set. He had a set of his own. Its members were students he had trained in political philosophy and longtime friends. Most of them were trained as Ravelstein himself had been trained, under Professor Davarr and used his esoteric vocabulary. Some of Ravelstein's older pupils now held positions of importance on national newspapers. Quite a number served in the State Department. Some lectured in the War College or worked on the staff of the National Security Adviser. One was a protégé of Paul Nitze. Another, a maverick, published a column in the Washington Times. Some were influential, all were well informed; they were a close group, a community. From them Ravelstein had frequent reports, and when he was at home he spent hours on the telephone with his disciples. After a fashion, he kept their secrets. At least he didn't quote them by name.'

The 'protégé of Paul Nitze' is Wolfowitz, who did as much as anyone to get us all into the Iraq disaster; 'Ravelstein' is Allan Bloom; 'Davarr' -- meaning 'Word' in Hebrew -- is Leo Strauss.

This is a portrait of a collection of academic sheep, who could be expected to be completely unreceptive to any information not coming from fellow sheep! Academic sheep are often the worst kind of sheep -- precisely the kind of people one should not let near intelligence analysis.

Clifford Kiracofe

Thanks for the references. Like Sidney Smith, I find myself sometimes failing to note down books you cite in time! However, I am about to order the diary of Ambassador Dodds. I will also try and track down the Kojéve essay on Julian.

I find myself baffled by the precise role of religion in all this. The anti-Christian message of Strauss's 1933 letter is I think quite clear. I had tended to think that the alliance with the Fundamentalists was purely a matter of political expediency. Whether of course it makes sense, even in terms of pure expediency, is another matter!

Clifford Kiracofe

David Habakkuk,

1. Exoteric level:

Irving Kristol is explicit in his "The Political Dilemma of American Jews" in Commentary, Vol. 78, no. 1, 1984. He argues in this Election Year piece that the Jewish community's alliance with the American African-American community is finished because of leaders such as Jesse Jackson who became pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab and anti-Israel.

Says Kristol,"Jesse Jackson has substituted Arab money for Jewish money. In foreign policy he is pro-Third World and anti-Israel -- and he is on the way to making this the quasi-official foreign policy of the black community."

So, for Kristol in 1984, expediency is the thing and the schwartzes getting out of line means finding another bloc vote ally. Says Kristol, "...the Moral Majority is strongly pro-Israel...what do such theological abstractions matter as against the mundane fact that this same preacher is vigorously pro-Israel?"

2. Esoteric Level;
The eschatology of the Fundamentalists (premillennial Dipsensationalism) was concoted in the UK in the 1820s-30 by some cultists...it is not recognized today by historic Christian Churches: mainline American, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and various other traditional Eastern Christian churches. Thus it is a pagan heresy one can and might conclude. Hence, Kojeve's Julian the Apostate would be pleased.

It is hard to get accurate data but some estimate that about 70 percent of US "evangelicals" [Fundamentalists narrowly defined, Pentecostals, neo-Pentecostals, Charismatics] are Dispensationalists. John Hagee, probably the leading pro-Israel "evangelical" is a neo-Pentecostal preaching Dispensationalism to millions. Estimating conservatively, those believing in Dispensationalism might be about 10 percent of the total US population perhaps 15 percent. A substantial voting block in some areas as we see demonstrated by Rev. Huckabee, a Southern Baptsist who recently preached in Hagee's San Antonio megachurch. Huckabee seems to be getting about 70 percent of the evangelical vote, according to some exit polling data I have seen in the press, which tracks pretty well. The other 30 percent would be considered politically "liberal" evangelicals rather than conservative. (Sojourners, for example, falls into the liberal category; see their website http://www.sojo.net/ ). Note bene Hagee's speech to AIPAC convention 2007.

3. I agree per the Strauss quote. In the US context, one could argue that the Fundamentalists etal. are parallel to Rosenberg's Deutsche Christum...the "patriotic" national cult (Jesus as Wotan). I think Strauss very well understood the utility of the Hakenkreuz for mass mobilization behind the "Leader-Decider."

Cold War Zoomie

Thanks for the link, David.

I clicked on the "Ants" hyperlink in the article. Here's the first line:

"When it comes to being misled, humans are no more sophisticated than ants or fish."

Got to laugh! (The alternative is too despressing).

Why am I not surprised that the "Sheep study" was done in Leeds?

Speaking of Leeds:

It's the home of this great northern brew.

I could murder a pint right now, luv. (Isn't Leeds where everyone is "luv"...or do they call everyone "old duck?" It's been too long.)

But my favo(u)rite Yorkshire brew is this:

John Smith's

OK - Time to stop. I'm drooling too much.


Nattering naybobs of negativity! How is each and every individual of a society going to know and understand EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING? We are a republic for good reason! There is no perfect government - we have no choice but to trust those in power - imagine explaining every aspect of every precise and well-learned decision you make in your highly skilled and sought after cubicle of the Division of Labor. And thanks to Walrus for the Lord Keynes notion, koo-koo-kachoo... (channeling Strauss while whistling some Beatles)

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