Left/right is not as important today as authority/democracy

How Far Conservatism Has Changed
[Via Contrary Brin]

All right, it is an important U.S. political season.  As a registered Republican and a frequent speaker at libertarian gatherings, I remain hopeful that this will be the year that several million temperamentally conservative-but-calmly-rational Americans will wake up to the way their movement and the GOP have been hijacked. And that only a shattering drubbing at the polls will send the American right back to the drawing boards — learning to do politics again. Including negotiation about real problems. 

Oh, but it will be so hard! 
The oligarchs who have done the hijacking have ordered up so many narratives, from “birther” paranoia to climate denialism, from preaching “oligarchy is gooood for you” to utter lies about U.S. history. I will explicate the best and most hilariously most damning example below — the George Soros Effect.  
thats-not-austinBut first — In That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right WingProfessor Michael Austin examines dozens of books, articles, speeches, and radio broadcasts by such figures as Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Larry Schweikart, and David Barton to expose the deep historical flaws in their use of America’s founding history. In contrast to their misleading method of citing proof texts to serve a narrow agenda, Austin allows the Founding Fathers to speak for themselves, situating all quotations in the proper historical context. 
What emerges is a true historical picture of men who often disagreed with one another on such crucial issues as federal power, judicial review, and the separation of church and state. As Austin — whom I met last week, at Newman University, in Kansas — shows, the real legacy of the Founding Fathers to us is a political process: a system of disagreement, debate, and compromise that has kept democracy vibrant in America for more than two hundred years, but that regularly comes under attack. How extreme has been the veer off any path of sane conservatism?  

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I feel that the real battle is not between left/right economic divides but between hierarchical authoritarian/distributed democracy. The GOP may have a preponderance of the former but there are quite a lot in the leadership of the Dems. We are out of balance, but luckily have very strong tools now to leverage distributed approaches to regain our footing.

The Founding Fathers had to deal with exactly the same imbalances. We saw liberals and conservatives then come together to develop an entirely new set of tools to deal with the imbalance.

I am confident we will again. 

The question is how long it will take to regain the balance, how much it will be delayed by the authoritarians and how many millions die in the meantime

Unbreakable Apple encryption – 80 milliseconds may be key

System Lock 

 Why can’t Apple decrypt your iPhone?
[Via A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering]

Last week I wrote about Apple’s new default encryption policy for iOS 8. Since that piece was intended for general audiences I mostly avoided technical detail. But since some folks (and apparently the Washington Post!) are still wondering about the nitty-gritty details of Apple’s design, I thought it might be helpful to sum up what we know and noodle about what we don’t.

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Nice explanation of how Apple has secured the iPhone. No backdoors. Apple holds no keys. The phone takes your password, mixes it with a specific number for each phone (UID), and runs it through a slow derivation function to get the passkey used for all on phone encryption. What does the slow derivation function do?

The Apple Key Derivation function ‘tangles’ the password with the UID key by running both through PBKDF2-AES — with an iteration count tuned to require about 80ms on the device itself.** The result is the ‘passcode key’. That key is then used as an anchor to secure much of the data on the phone.

Apple used a dedicated line on the chip to put the key into the secure enclave. Software can put it in when you change a password but cannot extract it out. The only thing that can be done is to brute force the password by trying every single combination.

Now, normally, the authorities can use a class F supercomputer, capable of trying a billion passwords a second. This means that even if your password mixed lower case, upper case and special symbols and was 8 characters in length – 96 possible characters and a whopping 7.2 quadrillion possible combinations – the class F could find it in less than 3 months.

The authorities know that any phone they want to crack can be with a brute force approach. Well, that used to be true.

See that 80 ms requirement. Since the only thing to do is brute force the password, that 80 ms becomes important, as I wrote before. It slows down even the Class F. Instead of a billion tries a second, it can only do 12.5. 

This means that even an 8 digit passcode using only numbers would now take 3 months. Instead of instantly.

Before, they could just ask Apple to crack it for them. Because it held a backdoor key. But now Apple no longer can do that.

It means that pretty much no one can get the data off your phone, especially if you use even a simple password with 6-8 characters.

And Apple lets you use a passcode up to 37 characters long.

The only way to get an iPhone cracked is to get a warrant requiring the owner to open it. No more being able to use a third party to do it for the authorities.

So we are back to what used to be the status quo.

Apple wins at Global Thermonuclear War by refusing to play the game the FBI wants it to.

 War Games (1983)

iPhone Encryption and the Return of the Crypto Wars
[Via Schneier on Security]

Last week, Apple announced that it is closing a serious security vulnerability in the iPhone. It used to be that the phone’s encryption only protected a small amount of the data, and Apple had the ability to bypass security on the rest of it.

From now on, all the phone’s data is protected. It can no longer be accessed by criminals, governments, or rogue employees. Access to it can no longer be demanded by totalitarian governments. A user’s iPhone data is now moresecure.

To hear US law enforcement respond, you’d think Apple’s move heralded an unstoppable crime wave. See, the FBI had been using that vulnerability to get into people’s iPhones. In the words of cyberlaw professor Orin Kerr, “How is the public interest served by a policy that only thwarts lawful search warrants?”

Ah, but that’s the thing: You can’tbuild a backdoor that only the good guys can walk through. Encryption protects against cybercriminals, industrial competitors, the Chinese secret police and the FBI. You’re either vulnerable to eavesdropping by any of them, or you’re secure from eavesdropping from all of them.

Backdoor access built for the good guys is routinely used by the bad guys. In 2005, some unknown group surreptitiously used the lawful-intercept capabilities built into the Greek cell phone system. The same thing happened in Italy in 2006.

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WarGames was a prescient movie. The scene above could almost be used today, with authorities complaining about iPhone security.

We have fought this battle many times. Personal security always wins and the authorities find other ways to legally do their business.

All this means is that the authorities can no konger go around the user and seek out third parties to threaten, third parties who seem to have no skin in the game,

But, in the post-Snowden age, this approach has signifiant and detrimental effects on the business models of the third parties. Now they do have skin in the game as countries where they sell their goods become suspicious.

So, Apple takes the very smart path – simply remove itself. The only way for it to win is to not play the game.

Now the FBI and others still have lots of access to data – anything on the cloud or in teleco servers.  They just need to get a specific court order to access a smartphone from Apple.

Distributed democracy wins again. For now.

Afghanistan from the inside – a culture in transition and a country with no culture

Afghanistan 

Absurd in Afghanistan
[Via The AmCon » Articles]

Five American troops moved briskly through the streets of Kandahar, their weapons at the ready. It was not yet mid-morning, and things had already broken down. Separated from their convoy, they were following an Afghan prosecutor to the city’s judicial headquarters. Afghanistan is generally not kind to foot patrols or improvisation, and that July morning in 2011 was quickly acquiring an aura of misadventure. Their mission was to kiss the ring of an Afghan judge to obtain the release of a young boy who had been arrested for no other reason than that a police chief found him attractive. Joseph, one of the Americans from that patrol, later explained that it was a uniquely Afghan problem requiring a uniquely American solution: “Begging for a favor while carrying a gun.”

While in police custody, the boy would be dressed in girl’s clothing, made to dance suggestively, and then sexually abused in a ritual practice known as bacha bazi (literally, “playing with boys”). The community had come to the U.S. battalion commander, pleading with him to intervene and secure the boy’s release.

“The commander was a rising star who’d spent months building schools and digging wells to win the loyalty of the village,” Joseph recalls. “He gathered us in a room. Everyone knew the stakes. We were risking our lives. He was risking his career. A firefight on an unauthorized mission in another regiment’s battle space is a quick route to early retirement.” A firefight on a crowded street where the enemies are indistinguishable from civilians would be a quick to route to the front page of the New York Times—and a court-martial.

“This is the tribalism of Afghanistan,” he says. “There is no public consensus on how to act in any situation. Everything is personal. That’s what ‘tribal’ means—it focuses on who is involved: Ask this guy to do you a favor to help you with that guy. Everything is about relationships and demonstrations of power. Who can protect you? Who can pull strings to deliver a favor? Every soldier in Khost and Zhari and Nangahar knows this.”

Joseph—whose full name is being withheld due to his ongoing affiliation with the military—had virtually no combat training prior to his arrival on the streets of Kandahar, but he was more seasoned than most of the soldiers around him. After a classical education at elite schools, his early career on Wall Street was followed by law school, JAG, and then Afghanistan. By the time he arrived, he was in his late 30s—the same age as British novelist Evelyn Waugh when he saw combat in World War II, and every bit as unlikely a soldier. Over an espresso in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the autumn of 2011, I begin a conversation with Joseph that continues off and on for three years, in which he reflects on the military’s helplessness in the face of violence and absurdity, particularly the violence of that July morning at the hands of America’s allies.

“We lacked the confidence even to say, ‘You may not rape little boys.’ All we had to offer was administration and technology, and they sensed this.”

Joseph believes that, in a peculiar way, this parallels America’s institutional system. “We have no consensus either. Nobody can agree on any normative reason to do anything,” he says. “So we default to an institutional structure. Our tribalism is institutional. Afghanistan was an encounter between these two systems. The first lieutenant leading a foot patrol stands square at the pressure point between these two tribal systems: one fluid, personal and violent; the other rigid, impersonal and violent. A quarter mile away from any soldier is a guy in a grape hut who wants to cut his head off. Nine thousand miles away is a guy in an air-conditioned room with video screens contemplating his pension who wants to drop a bomb on the guy in the grape hut.”

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An intriguing discussion. I think it hits some important points – especially about America being in a place where normative behavior is in transition, thus allowing institutional systems to dominate.

We have no consensus because the world is changing too rapidly. America’s historical balance between hierarchical authority and distributed democracy has been put under a lot of stress trying to respond.

Democracy, while often eventually providing the wise solution, usually takes a long time to respond. This has allowed the institutional aspects of authority to dominate. Because authority really only exists by taking actions.

So when we go to a country with no real unifying culture, one where distributed approaches extend so far that authority changes by the minute, we have balance to offer. 

Authority is blind to the complexity of these problems – often sub-nation state in size. Afghanistan is all sub-nation state tribes. It would be a difficult nut to crack even if we did understand  and could bring the balance needed.

Authority wants to fight the old battles, ones it knows how to win, ones involving national governments, laws, justice and culture. That is not going to happen.

These battles will not involve lines on a map.

Because we mostly won that battle. Most nation-states today want to see the benefits of a balanced government,  one with strong authority and democracy. In the early 70s, there were only 40 democracies in the world. By 2000 there wee 120. Roughly 60% of the countries today are democracies. 

Authority wants to keep fighting that battle, a war between nation-states. Distributed democracy sees the problems but keeps talking about possible solutions, not accomplishing any of them.

This is the battle of this generation – seen at all sub-nation state levels, even at the state and local levels here: Finding the balance between the actions of hierarchical authority and the wisdom of distributed democracy.

We are slowly finding it.

 [corrected title. Know I should not write that late at night ;-)

The chart that shows why the S&P finally noticed wealth inequality

11111Lifeboats

S&P: Wealth gap is slowing US economic growth
[Via The Seattle Times]

Economists have long argued that a rising wealth gap has complicated the U.S. rebound from the Great Recession.

Now, an analysis by the rating agency Standard & Poor’s lends its weight to the argument: The widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has made the economy more prone to boom-bust cycles and slowed the 5-year-old recovery from the recession.

Economic disparities appear to be reaching extremes that “need to be watched because they’re damaging to growth,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P.

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Shorter post: not surprisingly, the S&P only cares about the income gap when the wealthy are no longer seeing increasing incomes.

The S&P states: “A lifeboat carrying a few, surrounded by many treading water, risks capsizing,

Finally a metaphor from Wall Street to counter the rising tide raises all boats.

The S&P is correct and the increasing disparity between the wealthiest and the rest of us distorts the economy. The small number of wealthy exert different incentives on an economy than the multitudes of a middle class.

From the article:

Adjusted for inflation, the top 0.01 percent’s average earnings have jumped by a factor of seven since 1913. For the bottom 90 percent of Americans, average incomes after inflation have grown by a factor of just three since 1917 and have declined for the past 13 years.

And almost all of the increase for the bottom 90% came between the years of 1947 and 1980, when their income doubled. A three-fold increase in 100 years when it went up two0fold in the post-War boom.

Things get skewed. This has been going on for 100 years, with no notice by Wall Street.

But why hasn’t the S&P said something earlier. I believe this chart shows why.

NewImage

I’ve written about this graph before but this one has it broken out into wealth categories. The wealthy and the middle class saw incomes rise in lockstep from 1947 to the early1970s.

They both went up two-fold. During this period,  the middle class grew at rates never seen in our history.

Something happened in the early 70s. For the top 5%, the growth in income continued. For the rest of us, income growth stopped.

But, look at the top 5% since 2000. Their incomes have been flat for the last 14 years. All those Bush tax cuts had little effect on the incomes of the wealthiest families. We hear about increasing CEO salaries but even that is not enough.

So while the bottom 20% actually saw their incomes drop over the last 14 years, the wealthy have been treading water.

Or to use the S&P metaphor. the wealthy are now treading water like the rest of us, with fewer people remaining in the lifeboats.

No wonder the S&P has finally started to care. Maybe something will be done to get more Americans in the lofeboats.

But I’m not counting on it coming from most of the politicians we currently have. They are mostly minions of the wealthiest to begin with.

The American Revolution was fought between authority and democracy, not tax rates

NewImageBen Franklin at the Lord’s Privy Council

The True Origins of the American Revolution
[Via Contrary Brin]

A few weeks ago, I was one of the headlined speakers at Freedom Fest, the big libertarian convention in Las Vegas. Do I seem an odd choice, given my past thorough and merciless dissections of Ayn Rand?

In fact I’ve done this before, showing up to suggest that a movement claiming to be all about freedom might want to veer away from its recent, mutant obsession — empowering and enabling the kind of owner-oligarchy that oppressed humanity all across the last 6000 years. Instead, I propose going back to a more healthy and well-grounded libertarian rootstock — encouraging the vast creative power of open-flat-fair competition

COMPETITION-1…a word that libertarians scarcely mention, anymore. Because it conflicts fundamentally with their current focus — promoting inherited oligarchy.

With that impudent, contrary attitude, would you believe I had a fine and interesting time? My son and I dined at the VIP table with publishing magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Along with humorist P. J. O’Rourke and John Mackey (Whole Foods and an avid SciFi reader.) Also at the table? Grover (I kid you not) Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a guiding force beyond the American right’s current-central obsession — that government of/by/for the people must perish from the Earth.

Would you be surprised that I was the most-liberal voice at this gathering? And yes, I managed to poke without being rude. (I’ve been known to poke in other directions, too!) I even learned a few things. See an addendum, below, offering more about the Freedom Fest event.

Foremost, though, I want to focus on one piece of polemic that Grover Norquist thrust upon us over dinner, concerning the origins of the American Revolution.

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History does not repeat itself. But it does rhyme” – Mark Twain.

Brin encapsulates much of what I also feel is true. There were many reasons for the Revolution, but almost all derived from Age of Enlightenment/Reason thought – some of it economic in nature, but not focussed on tax rates per se.

  • Monopolies that cut out American merchants and put the yoke of colonialism on American industry while funneling cash to the richest of the British – a process denounced by Adam Smith.
  • Absolute control of money by the British, making a robust American economy almost impossible. At one point, the colonies wanted to be taxed so as to have some cash of their own.
  • Another thing denounced by Smith – rent-seeking by the British rather than opening up new markets.
  • If they were to be taxed, the colonies wanted an equal and representative say in how this was done. 
  • Control of the frontier, preventing anyone from leaving the rule of the British.
  • A primary and radical idea of the Enlightenment  era – all people were equal. So why should a hereditary lord have more power than a freeborn American?

All of these deal with the power of inherited and hierarchical authority as it combats a distributed democracy.

If one wants a quick synopsis of the effects these sorts of policies had on Americans, the utter failure of landed gentry and hereditary authority to understand the American spirit, read about Franklin’s hour in front of the Lord’s Privy Council in 1774

The attempt to utterly humiliate the smartest and most brilliant mind the world knew at the time is shameful. And all it really accomplished was to take that brilliant mind and turn it away from the hierarchical authority of Britain, to focus it fully on the distributed democracy of America.

Franklin was silent in the face of authority but he quickly made his new point of view clear, helping frame many of our most important political efforts. Then, in a truly distributed approach, Franklin would also make sure Britain paid for the insults he took silently when he negotiated the peace treaty.

He found a great way to route around the damage of inherited wealth and hierarchical authority. Destroy its wealth and  disavow its authority.

This is a solution we have done again and again when this battle has been engaged.

Today we find ourselves again fighting a battle between hierarchical authority and distributed democracy. Like then it cuts across parties. In the same way Adams and Jefferson could come together, so too will we see something similar happen.

Because this is at the heart of being an American, as Brin wrote: (his bold):

The colonies were already home to a new spirit and ethos – part cantankerous, part ebullient and hopeful, and part-scientific, with all those portions combining to demand one core question:

“Why should I have to bow down, or be bullied, by another mere human… just because of who his father was?”

The irony is rich. Those today citing the Founders most often are folks who are most vigorously helping propel us back into a world of inherited status, dominated by clans and cartels of aristocratic families.

I’d add “ or how rich he is?” We created the first modern democracy – of, by and for the people – not to just see the top 1% control our economic and political future.

As Brin states our ‘secret sauce” is an open and mutual accountability to and by others,. It is a social contract, something that every ruling class has attempted to destroy.

Make no mistake. The Charleston tories became Confederate plantation lords, who aimed to re-establish inherited-landed-ownership nobility, the classic human pattern that ruined competition and freedom and social mobility in every society other than ours.

And that torch is now carried by hirelings of a new oligarchy, diverting libertarian passion away from flat-open-fair competition over to worship of absolute property rights, no matter how inherited or how much this re-creates the Olde Order that sparked our Revolution.

One conflict Brin omits because it was not directly an American civil matter is World War II. Here, in many ways, the battle between authoritarian rule by a fascist elite and the distributed approaches of Western democracies was again won by those who have been winning these conflicts since at least 1776.

So, every 80 years or so we Americans have been involved in a tremendous battle over the same things, over hierarchical authority’s need to destroy the benefits of distributed democracy.

I expect they will lose once again. And lose big because we have new tools that support distributed democracy to an extent not seen in perhaps 10,000 years.

Arthur C. Brooks is a conservative who really understands Adam Smith

Adam Smith

Web Extra: The Conscience of a Compassionate Conservative
[Via BillMoyers.com]

This week on the show, Bill spoke with the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks. Their conversation was so interesting that they kept talking, and we kept our cameras rolling after the broadcast interview ended. In this web extra, the two talk about the failures of capitalism, who is to blame for the 2008 financial crash, food stamps and a whole lot more.

 

BILL MOYERS: You once wrote, that you shouldn’t talk about the poor unless you’ve been out among them and listened to them before you listen to experts at Brookings or AEI. And I’ve done that as a journalist.

And capitalism is not getting down to them.

ARTHUR C. BROOKS: That’s true. It’s absolutely right–

BILL MOYERS: Capitalism is not getting down–

ARTHUR C. BROOKS: It’s absolutely right. And that’s why we all need to be hawks for the free enterprise system.

And until we’re warriors for opportunity, pushed all the way down to the bottom, until we understand that entrepreneurship exists as a moral force for poor people, for my grandparents and yours, unless we understand that then we’ve repudiated the promise of our founders.

BILL MOYERS: Did you read the book “Winner-Take-All Politics” by the political scientist Jacob Hacker and–

ARTHUR C. BROOKS: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Paul Pierson?

ARTHUR C. BROOKS: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: They describe how Washington made the rich richer and turned its back on the middle class. They showed clearly to me how our political system, which once served the interest of the middle class, has been hijacked by the very rich.

That the great explosion of wealth inequality which preceded Barack Obama, of course, was politically engineered in Washington by decisions taken under both parties, in both parties, by the people who make policy, in response to the powerful interests. Have you seen that playing out since you got to Washington?

ARTHUR C. BROOKS: Yes, sure. Absolutely. Look in the increasingly bureaucratized social democratic state that we’re building. You have greater levels of intricacy and complication. You have an explosion of statist ideas in Washington, D.C.

And what this is effectively is, metaphorically that’s a trough. And who comes to the trough? It’s people who feed there. And people who feed there are the sophisticated, they’re the wealthy, they’re the people who are well connected. We have an explosion of cronyism because it’s the illegitimate spouse of statism. If you want to get rid of cronyism that creates as winner-take-all politics, if you want a true democratic polity, you have to take away the pervasive statism that creates all of these incentives.

You know, the interesting thing is that the two populist movements that we saw over the past five years were the Tea Party and Occupy. They were both right. I mean the Tea Party talked about statism and Occupy talked about privilege and crony capitalism largely. I mean they– all of their solutions were wrong. You know, the problem with, you know, excesses of capitalism isn’t getting rid of capitalism. You need true free enterprise. That’s actually the solution to it, which is a highly populist thing to do.

So what’s happened effectively is– not for any ill intention. No. We have public policymakers, we have a president who loves his country. We have a Congress that’s gotten together and said, “What can we do to solve some of these terrible problems?” They’ve expanded the state. They’ve created greater complexity. And who has showed up to reap the rewards of that? It’s the most well connected citizens and corporations. And it’s left poor people, it’s left small entrepreneurs, it’s left ordinary citizens behind.

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This was a real discussion, something that needs to be seen much more. They talk about where their views overlap and what underlies the problems/ I may not agree with everything but I can see where he is coming from and he is mostly correct.

That said, imagine if on the conservative side we have an examination of conscience where every night before we go to sleep we say, “Did all of my work go for the benefit of people with less power than me?” Then that could be a profoundly moral movement. I bet it’s one that even you could get behind.

I think that if you and I band together with all of our friends on the right and left, and we demand this collective examination of conscience, then we truly can have a better politics where we’re fighting in the competition of ideas specifically to help those who are the least advantaged.

If most of America could come together like these two, recognize the problems and come up with mutually useful solutions, much of our current problems would be fixed. Those in power recognize this and have worked so hard to keep the American people divided.

We have an explosion of cronyism because it’s the illegitimate spouse of statism. If you want to get rid of cronyism that creates as winner-take-all politics, if you want a true democratic polity, you have to take away the pervasive statism that creates all of these incentives.

You know, the interesting thing is that the two populist movements that we saw over the past five years were the Tea Party and Occupy. They were both right. I mean the Tea Party talked about statism and Occupy talked about privilege and crony capitalism largely. I mean they– all of their solutions were wrong. You know, the problem with, you know, excesses of capitalism isn’t getting rid of capitalism. You need true free enterprise. That’s actually the solution to it, which is a highly populist thing to do.

The statists, the reactionaries, are found in both parties, just as we find authoritarians. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street saw the right problems. But as he discusses, the solutions of both were wrong. The solution to the excesses of government isn’t getting rid of the government. You need a truly democratic one, truly beholden to the people, not to the connected, wealthy elite. Government is important and necessary. And capitalism is important and necessary.

He believes in government but recognizes it needs to be firmly controlled so that it does not become a feeding trough for the wealthy and connected, as we see today.

I will have to remember the name. He hits so many of the same points I feel.

The moral code of our free-enterprise system is neither profits nor efficiency. It is quote, “creating opportunity for individuals who need it most.” 

That could have come directly out of The Wealth of Nations. The creator of capitalism felt that empathy and sympathy would be driving the moral code of capitalism.

As Brooks notes, this is not happening today.

Opportunity does not mean food stamps. I believe in food stamps. I believe in them. I believe in the safety net. But it’s not the same thing. Why do we forget that entrepreneurship is not earning a billion dollars, it’s the dignity to live your life as an individual, to build your life up yourself. And why do we talk about dead-end jobs as opposed to making all jobs pay, and remembering that all work is dignified.

[…]

The problem that we have is that we’re actually not practicing capitalism. The problem is that the free-enterprise system is not allowed to flourish.

The main thing I disagree with him is that government was mostly at fault first. It’s a symbiotic one, a degraded collaboration between sociopaths. Running race to the bottom with little regard for the ability of people to have a living wage, much less any dignity.

He is absolutely right here – government is a problem but it comes down to people:

And I will not defend corporate governance. Because people– it does not matter how bad the incentives are and how corrupt the government is and how big and corpulent and immune to good ideas and morality the government is. We still as individuals, no matter what we do, we have a responsibility to not do dangerous things and to be stewards of both a good culture and the resources at hand.

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