Author Archives: B.K. Marcus

About B.K. Marcus

Father of Benjamin, husband of Nathalie, BK Marcus works from Charlottesville, Virginia, as a publishing consultant. He is the founder of Invisible Order and former managing editor of Mises.org, where he selected and altered images for every Mises Daily article for eight years. He has also been responsible for developing the Mises Institute's ebook program (now selling more than 250 books at Amazon.com and iTunes) and the ebook program for the Laissez Faire Club at LFB.org. BK focuses on developing electronic books and beautiful imagery for libertarian publishers, such as FEE.org, Reason magazine, and others. His own blog is at bkmarcus.com.

Announcing the New Freeman

20150413_freemancoverspring2015coverWe are exceedingly proud to be a part of the relaunch of the new Freeman.

We’ve been working with FEE for the last 6 months, and it’s been a constant pleasure.

What a delight to see the new magazine in print at last, with a new, professional look on par with the most modern magazines for thinking people.

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Hayek’s “Rejuvenating Event”

HayekNobelFreeman
Today is the 40th anniversary of F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize. My article in The Freeman tells the story behind the so-called Nobel, the controversy around Hayek’s winning it (and sharing it with a socialist economist), and what the prize did for Hayek’s personal life, his reputation, and his impact on the fall of European communism.

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Liberty.me’s House of Refuge: Fiction for a Future of Freedom

HouseOfRefuge-CoverIOThis week Liberty.me adds Mike DiBaggio’s award-winning novella House of Refuge to the Library.

I was very excited by the opportunity to release a Liberty.me edition of this story, as my editorial preface should make clear:

Editorial Preface by B.K. Marcus

I became a devotee of seasteading — the creation of autonomous communities out at sea — during the summer solstice of 2014, while seated in the Austin Music Hall, surrounded by hipsters half my age.

We were at Voice & Exit, an event, “built around a simple idea: human flourishing.”

The hipsters were waiting, I suspect, for the liberty-minded lectures to end and the arts festival portion of the evening to begin.

I was there to hear about the end of the era of coercion. They were there for collaborative wall painting, group yoga, and the electronic violin of soundscape guru Govinda (né Shane Madden).

Maybe the alien setting made me more receptive to new ideas — or even some not-so-new ones. Seasteading, in particular, was not a new idea for me. Yet something opened me up to the visionary talk given by “aquapeneur” Joe Quirk, director of communications for the Seasteading Institute.

Joe talked about the technological benefits of seasteading and the untapped potential of the oceans for healing the planet and feeding the world. His focus, however, was on the unique opportunity uncolonized waters present for escaping the crippling strictures that land-based monopoly governments impose on both freedom and innovation.

The American Founders saw the future of freedom in the idea of federalism: small governments that would have to compete for citizens, akin to businesses having to compete for customers. It was, after all, such freedom of movement — of “voting with one’s feet” — that had allowed individual liberty to grow, however imperfectly, in late-medieval Europe. The Founders looked to the model of Greek and Italian city-state republics as a way to keep the state (coercive territorial monopoly government) from growing in America the way it had done in the Europe of their recent ancestors.

But federalism among territorial governments requires small political domains. As Sheldon Richman said in a recent session at Liberty.me U, the smaller the jurisdictions, the cheaper it is to vote with your feet.

It’s hard enough to uproot your family and move to the next town or county in the hope of lower taxes and fewer illiberal laws. It’s much harder when the laws and taxes become ever more centralized over ever vaster territories. As the enemies of freedom seek greater international “cooperation” on banking, taxation, and regulation, how do we recover the liberalizing power of exit?

Those of us with a fondness for science fiction — especially written science fiction — may see our salvation in the colonizing of space. While Star Trek has its Federation and Star Wars its Empire, author Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love) offered a different vision of the future, one in which new pioneers could push new frontiers to keep the option of individual liberty alive. Innovation, Heinlein understood, happens at the outer margins of coercive authority, not in the capital cities or central planets of interstellar governments.

But as Joe Quirk put it that solstice day in Austin, “First the ocean, then outer space.”

However unfamiliar, challenging, and even dangerous the oceans may be for 21st-century pioneers, they are far safer and more familiar than the irradiated vacuum outside our gravity well. And ocean colonization will be cheaper. In fact, it will be profitable. The seasteads will innovate both technology and systems of community, law, and governance. If you don’t like how your current ocean city is being run, just sail on to a more compatible arrangement. You can leave the government without leaving your home.

And knowing the tenuous grasp any floating city will have on its citizens, each government will finally face the appropriate incentives to serve the governed — to provide the legal infrastructure to allow maximum private innovation, the best environment for secure wealth creation, and a civic culture that is respectful of privacy and individual autonomy. Talk about human flourishing!

Why did this vision finally take hold for me that day? I’d heard about seasteading for many years. I read about it soon after Patri Friedman began to evangelize for the idea. So why hadn’t I caught the bug before Voice & Exit? Why am I now fired up by the potential for real human freedom offered by “voting with our paddles,” whereas before, seasteading was just one of the many topics buzzing around the liberty movement?

As I said, it might have been that the culture shock of Voice & Exit had disoriented me to the point where my mind was more open to radically different perspectives. But I’m not quite as excited about biohacking, smart drugs, 3D printing, or other disruptive technologies that were discussed that day.

Maybe Joe Quirk just found the right way to bypass my defenses. He is an effective speaker, and his quiet passion and deadpan delivery probably match my aesthetic better than the energetic enthusiasm of most evangelists.

But I suspect much of the credit goes to the science fiction story you are about to read.

House of Refuge is first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story,” author Mike DiBaggio writes in his special introduction to the Liberty.me edition. “And I think it is fully capable of being enjoyed by those who don’t agree with its anti-war and anti-statist undercurrents, or for those who don’t care to look too deeply for lessons in their literature.”

I first read the ebook last spring, shortly after it won second place in the Students for Liberty/Libertarian Fiction Authors 2014 short fiction contest. After starting to talk with Mike about releasing a special edition to Liberty.me members, I very much had his story on my mind when I rediscovered seasteading in Austin. Had Mike’s fiction been my catalyst?

After the Austin event, my family visited the Houston space center on our way out of Texas. The visitors center exhibit that my eight-year-old son and I were most excited by wasn’t anything from the past, present, or future of NASA. It was Star Trek’s Galileo shuttlecraft, restored by fans and donated to the space center. Surrounded by a well-financed propaganda program to promote government funding for centrally planned space exploration, I found that the high point of my visit was instead this fan-restored TV stage prop from the original 1968 science fiction series.

It may seem inappropriate to include a television prop among the exhibits promoting real science and real exploration, but the connection between science fiction and the early history of NASA is an important one. I’ve heard more than one post-Apollo-era astronaut or NASA scientist say that it was Star Trek that turned their imaginations — and later their studies and careers — toward the stars. In the original Cosmos series, astronomer Carl Sagan had similar things to say about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi pulp hero John Carter of Mars.

Science fiction captured hearts and shaped imaginations, making the idea of space exploration more and more mainstream — less and less, well, science fictional.

If a government agency can benefit so significantly from imaginative literature, why can’t the advocates of peace and freedom?

We have to help people imagine alternatives to monopoly government before we can hope for any popular support for those alternatives. Heinlein and other individualist science fiction writers have helped more than one generation of libertarians imagine long-term alternatives, but humanity’s future in space is too remote. Joe Quirk is right to point out that we skipped a step: before we leave the earth, we need to leave the land.

And if seasteading’s radical experiment in thousands of competing governments on myriad ocean cities succeeds, we may yet find the call of outer space less alluring.

Mike DiBaggio’s story of adventure and heroism, set entirely at sea, exemplifies the sort of fiction I think the freedom movement needs much, much more of — a tale that demonstrates the evils of force and the virtues of freedom without ever allowing an ideological agenda to distract the reader from the action and drama.

Enjoy House of Refuge and let me know if you agree. Will it draw you into the blue revolution, as it helped do for me, or is it just a ripping good yarn?

Mike and I are both available to continue the conversation on Liberty.me.

BK Marcus, Chief Bookworm
Tannersville, New York
July 2014

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Texan heroes of liberty

One great benefit of traveling down to Texas for Voice & Exit was getting to hang out with some Texan heroes of liberty.

Before V&E with Albert Lu, host of The Power & Market Report:

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

At V&E with John Papola, creator of my favorite hip-hop video, “Fear the Boom and Bust” a Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem:
bkPap

After V&E with Jeff Riggenbach, the voice of liberty, author of “The Libertarian Tradition” and Why American History Is Not What They Say:
bkRigg

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Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies

FaultyPremisesCoverWe at Invisible Order are proud to announce our most recent publication: Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies, available in Kindle edition and paperback (and also as a free ebook with a Liberty.me membership).

Jeffrey Tucker calls it “an incredibly good guide to showing precisely what is nonsensical about political debate.”

How many times have you watched a public policy fiasco and been mystified as to how the politicians can believe their own rhetoric? They talk about how raising the minimum wage is going to make the poor better off, even though there is no mechanism in the nature of things to bring about that reality; about how some new war is going to rid the world of despotism, despite knowing that the history of war tends in the opposite direction; about how some new healthcare mandate is going to bring freedom from disease, and yet you know that legislation can’t actually achieve anything like this.

There always seems to be a missing step in the chain of logic. Politicians and pundits actually seem to believe that passing a law will generate a certain wonderful result, even though the relationship between cause and effect is nowhere present. It seems like a giant exercise in fantasy.

Galles has provided an outstanding tool for navigating your way through the sea of folly that is the politics of our time. There is no anger in his prose, and there doesn’t need to be. He has the arguments, the analytics, and the facts — those alone make the case.

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The Waters of March

WatersOfMarchIn the final days of the month, as the sky opens and empties an ongoing downpour on the riverside Liberty Liberty Fest (so nice, they named it twice), the bossa nova song stuck in my head offers itself as a theme: "The Waters of March" by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

And the riverbank talks

Of the waters of March

It’s the promise of life

It’s the joy in your heart.

I’m probably most familiar with the David Byrne rendition with Marisa Monte on the 1996 album Red Hot + Rio. But I listen to enough bossa nova to know Brazilian versions as well. That is, I know the sound of them, but I don’t speak Portuguese, so I just imagine the English version as I listen to the Brazilian singers. After all, Jobim wrote both sets of lyrics.

For years the song has lifted my spirits and helped me endure the feeling of unending late winter. Yes, March is dismal, with trees still skeletal against a steel-colored sky and unending mud underfoot, but spring is on its way. The waters of March signal the promise of life and let joy return to my heart.

But, silly me, I’d never thought before of how different March is in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed. March, in Jobim’s Brazil, marks the onset of winter, not spring.

"The inspiration for ‘Águas de Março,’" Wikipedia informs us, "comes from Rio de Janeiro’s rainiest month. March is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds that cause flooding in many places around the city."

A stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, these seemingly random bits in the lyrics are examples of all that gets churned up and washed away in the floods. The Brazilian waters of March are full of refuse. It is not a washing away of the detritus so much as a threat of chaos before the oncoming cold.

Wikipedia explains: "All these details swirling around the central metaphor of ‘the waters of March’ can give the impression of the passing of daily life and its continual, inevitable progression towards death, just as the rains of March mark the end of a Brazilian summer."

Did I just get it backwards? Is my song of hope really a song of despair, misinterpreted because of cultural narrowness?

Apparently that’s not the whole story. Jobim added additional phrases to the English lyrics to make them fit better with the Northern Hemisphere’s conception of March: "the joy in your heart" and "the promise of spring."

As I’ve written in a different context, "the message sent is not always the same as the message received," but in this case, we have multiple messages at the source. The life-affirming lyrics are Jobim’s gift to his English-speaking audience, and I’m grateful for them. After an unusually long and cold winter, when I find myself standing in mud, huddled among my comrades, discussing liberty in the downpour, I need the waters of March to speak of hope for a future that is no longer some abstract distance on the calendar, but just around the next bend in the deep river.


[Cross-posted at bkmarcus.com.]

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A Note from a Freeman Reader

One very pleasant aspect of publishing in the Freeman is that I get to see the online article first, then a couple of months later I receive the print magazine (seeing my stuff in print still has a special appeal, much as I advocate digital), and then a few weeks later I sometimes get the more thoughtful notes that come from print readers:

Subject: Black Death and Taxes

Dear Mr. Marcus:

I have been reading The Freeman for fifty years or more now, and even though it is reaching the point that nearly everything in it is something I have heard before, every once in a while it supplies me with a new insight or piece of enlightening information. That was the case with your article in the most recent issue. When I read it I immediately rushed across the anteroom in the social science complex here at MSU-Northern to see what my colleague, a historian of libertarian inclination thought, and he confirmed everything you said.

Thanks.

James R. Edwards, Ph.D. (Economics)
Montana State University-Northern

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Price Theory a la Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch was buying up online properties in the mid 1990s, trying to do with the newly commercial Internet what he had done with FOX television during the previous ten years or so. One of his new acquisitions was a gaming company here in Charlottesville. My friend and I became the two “web guys” for the company. It was my first full-time job in the private sector.

When I was discussing my yet-to-be-submitted laugh-track article with Paul Cantor and I mentioned that it was competition from HBO and FOX that pushed canned laughter into retreat, Professor Cantor recommended the book The Fourth Network: How FOX Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television by Daniel M. Kimmel.

He says it was his main source for this lecture:

“When Is a Network Not a Network?” (It’s a great talk!)

I said, “You know, I used to work for Rupert Murdoch.”

“Don’t you realize,” Cantor quipped, “at some point EVERYBODY has worked for Rupert Murdoch.”

Charlottesville, perhaps like most university towns, is famously left-wing. Rupert Murdoch was infamously right-wing long before FOX News became the unofficial media arm of the Republican Party. So I sensed a definite ambivalence, sometimes defensiveness, among my co-workers about the guy in charge. One thing I remember people saying with great respect, however, was that Rupert Murdoch had built his media empire by paying not what property was worth but rather what it was worth to him.

That struck me as profound at the time.

What they meant was this: Rupert Murdoch didn’t think of a newspaper as just a newspaper, a TV station as just a TV station. He thought about them as nodes in a network he was building. This meant he outbid his competitors who saw these organizations as single units of profit and loss, whereas Murdoch saw them as part of a bigger picture: what would they contribute to the larger plan?

FourthNetworkCoverFrom the The Fourth Network:

If there was a single turning point in the history of the FOX network, a moment when the Big Three became the Big Four, it occurred in December 1993 with the simple announcement that NFL football was coming to FOX the following season.

One of the NFL’s attorneys recalled,

“What FOX offered us, the league, was the potential of having a bidder who needed the games, wanted the games, and was willing — in a sense — to overpay for them.”

Why would a savvy entrepreneur overpay for anything?

As FOX exec Lucie Salhany later recalled,

“When Rupert took over, Rupert was his most phenomenal. ‘I want it, I have a vision, I’m willing to pay for it.’”

The author comments,

As he had with so many other properties, Murdoch had paid more than the market thought it was worth because he saw a greater opportunity there.

What was his vision? It turns out that 70 percent of the NFL’s viewing audience had never watched FOX.

Salhany again:

“So, in the end, it was actually a bargain to acquire the rights to the NFL to promote the rest of [FOX’s] schedule. It was cheaper. If you went out and spent the same amount of money to promote it, it wouldn’t have been as effective.”

What strikes me now is not how brilliant Murdoch was as an entrepreneur (although he was and is) but how my game-company colleagues worded their praise for the man — and what it revealed about the people giving the praise:

Rupert Murdoch didn’t pay what something was worth but rather what it was worth to him.

Notice the unstated assumption that there is such a thing as value independent of an individual evaluator, almost as if “worth” is objective, but Murdoch had the genius to see it as subjective.

Only when I started to read economics almost a decade later did I come to understand that all value is subjective. Consumers pay whatever they feel will benefit them more than the next best thing they could have done with that money, whatever seems better than the opportunity forgone. The difference between consumers and entrepreneurs is twofold:

  1. Consumers pay for things as direct ends in themselves, goods that will directly satisfy their subjective needs (consumers’ goods); whereas entrepreneurs pay for things as the means toward achieving other ends (capital or producers’ goods).

  2. Consumers can make direct price comparisons between, say, a cup of Starbucks coffee and a cup of diner coffee, or between a MacBook and a Windows laptop, but ultimately the comparison isn’t much of a calculation — it remains a subjective preference for the thing purchased over the forgone option; entrepreneurs, however, need to combine the objective data of recent prices for all their factors of production and compare the result to their personal predictions for what people will pay for the final product.

The successful entrepreneur is the better predictor, the more innovative producer, or both.

When my co-workers praised Rupert Murdoch for pricing factors more presciently or using them more innovatively, they were just saying, in essence, that he was a good entrepreneur. Maybe they understood that. Maybe what they meant by “what it’s worth” was what the current market consensus is for this factor’s future earnings, discounted for time, and assuming no innovation.

I certainly didn’t understand that they were merely describing what an entrepreneur does, and admiring Murdoch for doing it so much better than everyone else.

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Capitalism and Spirituality

DollarSunriseOne advantage a libertarian author has when working with Invisible Order is that we in the Order are well read in the relevant literature and have worked extensively with both scholarly and popular texts.

For example, one writer recently asked us what Ludwig von Mises would have to say about a passage he had found online:

Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological complexities of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to “democratic” capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.

Here is my reply:

I don’t know anything about Schelling beyond a quick perusal of his page at Wikipedia. I’ve searched Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism for his name and found nothing, so I don’t know what Mises had to say about Schelling’s philosophy or whether or not the student you quote is accurately representing Schelling’s thinking. But he seems to be making a claim that Mises does address at some length — that capitalism promotes materialism and diverts our thinking from more important spiritual concerns:

It is assumed that there is little connection between the two aspects of civilization, that the spiritual is more sublime, deserving, and praiseworthy than the “merely” material, and that preoccupation with material improvement prevents a people from bestowing sufficient attention on spiritual matters. (Theory and History)

According to Mises, this assumption

serves the American socialists as a leading argument in their endeavor to depict American capitalism as a curse of mankind.… Reluctantly forced to admit that capitalism pours a horn of plenty upon people and that the Marxian prediction of the masses’ progressive impoverishment has been spectacularly disproved by the facts, they try to salvage their detraction of capitalism by describing contemporary civilization as merely materialistic and sham. (Theory and History)

Implicit in this position on capitalism and materialism (and, I believe, in the Schelling student’s claims about capitalism making people “forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground”) is a claim about history: “They bemoan the passing of a way of life in which, they would have us believe, people were not preoccupied with the pursuit of earthly ambitions” (Theory and History).

But this implicit historical claim is false: “It is hard to find a doctrine which distorts history more radically than this antisecularism” (Theory and History).

“Modern Western civilization is this-worldly,” Mises concedes. “But it was precisely its secularism, its religious indifference, that gave rein to the renascence of genuine religious feeling” (Theory and History).

“Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples” (Theory and History).

“[T]the drop in infant mortality, the prolongation of the average length of life, the successful fight against plagues and disease, the disappearance of famines, illiteracy, and superstition tell in favor of capitalism” (Theory and History).

And here are a couple of passages from Human Action on the classical-liberal belief that laissez-faire promotes the higher concerns:

They [the market liberals] do not share the naïve opinion that any system of social organization can directly succeed in encouraging philosophical or scientific thinking, in producing masterpieces of art and literature and in rendering the masses more enlightened. They realize that all that society can achieve in these fields is to provide an environment which does not put insurmountable obstacles in the way of the genius and makes the common man free enough from material concerns to become interested in things other than mere breadwinning. In their opinion the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. (Human Action)

The nineteenth century was not only a century of unprecedented improvement in technical methods of production and in the material well-being of the masses. It did much more than extend the average length of human life. Its scientific and artistic accomplishments are imperishable. It was an age of immortal musicians, writers, poets, painters, and sculptors; it revolutionized philosophy, economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. And, for the first time in history, it made the great works and the great thoughts accessible to the common man. (Human Action)

I hope I correctly understood the PhD student’s claims and your question about their connection to Misesian thinking, and I hope these passages prove helpful in addressing that question.

Thanks,

BK

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The Power of Habeas Corpus

HabeasCorpusCoverMy friend and comrade Anthony Gregory, whom I blogged about here, has written a big, scholarly book: The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

I’m sorry to say I have not read it yet. It lists for about a hundred bucks, but you can get a copy from the Independent Institute at a steep discount.

I knew that Anthony was writing it, and I knew the general topic, but it wasn’t until I read Allen Mendenhall’s review in the Freeman that I understood how radical, and how very Gregoryesque, the book turns out to be:

Sometimes it takes a non-lawyer like Gregory to remind lawyers of the philosophical implications of the practical and everyday functions of the law. Likewise, it takes a philosopher, again like Gregory, to show that a series of small legal victories is really one big loss in a larger scheme.

The foundational legal principle of habeas corpus is really one big loss? The principle that the state can’t hold you without cause, the one that Sir William Blackstone called “the most celebrated writ in the English law”? Does this mean that Thomas Jefferson was wrong to say, “Habeas Corpus secures every man here, alien or citizen, against everything which is not law, whatever shape it may assume.” How can libertarians oppose a legal doctrine that limits state power and secures individual rights?

Mendenhall writes,

Gregory’s scope is wide. He maps more than 400 years of legal history in roughly 400 pages and reminds us that the origin of the habeas remedy was not libertarian: “The king’s courts developed habeas corpus to centralize judicial authority and collect revenue.” His impressive sweep of history recognizes that “it took centuries before the writ was genuinely turned against the king’s oppression.” Ever since the Norman conquest, if not earlier, the writ of habeas corpus has been tied to royal or governmental prerogative. In the seventeenth century, in fact, the writ served as a procedural mechanism for ensuring that prisoners remained in prison rather than being released from prison.…

“For every vindication of a custodian’s power,” Gregory explains, “the authority to detain is upheld. For every undermining of a custodian’s power, there is the affirmation of another official’s power — a judge’s power, to say nothing of the state’s general power to decide whom to detain.”…

At once a tool of liberation and authority, the writ of habeas corpus undermines State authority even as it validates and solidifies that authority. In other words, it enables the very power that it subverts. Because it destabilizes institutionalized power ultimately to sustain that power, the writ is, in Gregory’s words, “mythical” and retains an “idealistic mystique” … a “tool of usurpation and centralization.”

Mendenhall lauds Gregory’s approach and recommends it to “libertarian jurists and jurisprudents who appear to be moving toward stodgy consensus on a number of pressing legal issues.”

It might be that other pet favorites of these legal libertarians — say, incorporation of the Bill of Rights against the states — are really short-term techniques serving as vehicles to long-term, centralized power.

The book review is well worth a thorough read, as is, I’m sure, the book it reviews.

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