Why the loss of middle class jobs will usher in the rise of political extremism

Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. After four years of recession in Western economies, a new theme is beginning to emerge: this time things really are different. It appears that we are not witnessing a conventional recession where over production results in excess supply, resulting in collapsing prices, resulting in mass layoffs, resulting in dramatic contractions in supply and run down of excess inventory, resulting in insufficient supply, resulting in increasing prices and then increased employment to increase production.

Why this recession is different

One of the reasons why this recession is different is because the world in which we live is different compared to during previous recessions. Your traditional oversupply, cutting of supply, increase of supply recession was typically confined to one economy (eg the US) or to one particular region (eg parts of the EU) and whilst they had knock on impacts on other economies or regions, the market that they affected was primarily internal.

This recession was caused by regulatory changes in the finance sector that has enabled spectacular levels of household and government debt. This has enabled many in the finance sector to become spectacularly rich, whilst encouraging companies to focus on clever financial engineering at the expense of real engineering.

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Simultaneous to this, the run up to the year 2000 resulted in significant investments in data connections to places like India, where Indian engineers were put on dull IT work trying to ensure that there were no Y2K bugs that would devastate Western IT systems, and China entered the World Trade Organisation in 2001. This set off a subsequent wave of IT outsourcing to India, followed by other countries, and a wave of manufacturing outsourcing to China, followed by other countries, all financed by Western companies and, ultimately, the Western middle class.

The impact of India and China, and countries like them, on Western economies is being accelerated during this recession. Cost conscious managers of Western companies are shifting increasing parts of their business to low cost countries for both higher end intellectual work and lower end manufacturing work. From the perspective of a Western manager, this makes perfect sense: with the mantra “flat is the new growth”, the only way that they can increase profits is by reducing their cost base. Since mangers get compensated as a result of their profitability, the more they offshore, the more profit they will make.

But this does have an impact back home, on the numbers of jobs that are available for Westerners. The conventional recession cycle described at the beginning of this column has shifted to one of over production resulting in excess supply, resulting in collapsing prices, resulting in mass layoffs in Western economies, resulting in dramatic contractions in supply and run down of excess inventory, resulting in insufficient supply, resulting in increasing prices and then increased employment in India and China and other countries to increase production. The lost Western jobs are not only not coming back, but they are spawning new competitors in Asia.

Phillip Brown and Hugh Lauder wrote an interesting article earlier this month called The great transformation in the global labour market” in which they describe a number of major trends in the global labour market which reinforce this perspective. It is worth reading in full, but some key points are as follows:

First, the globalisation of high skills. Not only has the global workforce increased, but university enrolments have doubled – to about 140m worldwide as of 2007. There are more students in higher education in China than in the US and while education quality varies, it is worth noting that over half of those taking post graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – key subjects for economic growth – in British and American universities are foreigners. Western university graduates are competing with a significantly larger talent pool.

Second, the quality cost revolution. Emerging economies are producing “oasis operations” within their own borders which can provide high tech factories, offices and research facilities even in countries that are generally poor with bad infrastructure. Many global banks now use Indian sub contractors to perform not just menial call centre jobs but also complicated high value system design work. This is enabling Asian companies to compete higher up the value chain for goods and services, undercutting Western competitors. They can do things at higher quality and at lower cost.

Third, the rise of digital Taylorism. Digital Taylorism is the concept of turning high value intellectual work into a smaller, less complex, blocks of activities, in the same way that Taylorism enabled complex, integrated, highly skilled artisanal work to be transformed into repetitive work done by unskilled labour in factories. This trend is emerging and many of the clever programmes developed by Western computer programmers are making it increasingly easy and cost effective.

The combination of these three trends makes it easier to outsource relatively complex service sector jobs, such as law, accounting and movie making, to less educated or talented counterparts using digital Taylorism, and very complex work, such as materials science and biotechnology, to high tech oases where it can be done more cheaply by a deeper, more talented, and motivated resource pool.

Putting things into historical perspective…

In many respects, the West has only itself to blame for the radical changes that are currently afoot in the labour market. Cheap finance created a wealth bubble, which helped provided capital for developing economies, and the short term benefit of outsourcing low cost manufacturing and information technology to developing countries would inevitably lead to those countries to move up the value chain to compete head to head with advanced manufacturing (see article on China and high tech trains and aircraft here) and research and development.

Equally, however, the West’s dominance is arguably a historical aberration, which it has exploited and enjoyed for almost 500 years. Most Westerners do not understand the unique circumstances which enabled the West to succeed for so long and why those circumstances are not permanent: Jared Diamond’s superb Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years describes the macro factors on why Eurasia and then Europe dominated over Africa, the Americas and Australasia; Ian Morris’ Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future picks up off Diamond’s book and highlights why the West, rather than China, dominated over the past 500 years; and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power describes specific advances that made the West dominant over the past few hundred years.

Ultimately, whether it is due to self inflicted damage or bringing the West back to a historical norm, what is clear is that significant structural changes are afoot which will change the nature of the West’s middle classes, who have enjoyed years of steadily increasing standards of living.

…and what we can expect for the future.

New developments in artificial intelligence, robots and 3D-printing are likely to have significant impacts on jobs as well: not just in the West but also in newly industrialising economies, as described in Where are all the jobs going? Lessons from the first Industrial Revolution and 150 years of pain.

The consequences for the middle class in the West are going to be devastating. Youth unemployment in Europe and America is at an all time high. In Spain and Greece, over 50% of young people are jobless, millions of whom also have university educations. In a world where more people are better qualified for work than ever before in history, a BA or BSc is no guarantee of entry into the workforce, let alone a well paying job.

But the consequences for wider society are going to be even worse, as the major engine of tax revenue – the middle class- shudders to a halt. This will have significant economic and political repercussions.

First, it is the middle class who pay the greatest amount of tax in any Western society. The very rich can offshore their income and hide it through clever accounting practices. The very poor pay little tax, if they are employed and if you include Value Added Taxes and payroll tax.

If the middle classes are competing head to head against millions of workers with whom they never had to compete with historically, you can expect wages to either stop rising above inflation, or to decline relative to inflation. Either way, long term government forecasts should budget for lower tax income from the middle class and an increase in the numbers of people who are claiming unemployment insurance.

Second, as government income receipts go down, expenditure will have to follow. The economic costs of our social security programmes and health care are enormous (see article: Renewable energy: victim of subsidy discrimination?). Throw in the education budget and a few other “non discretionary” items such as interest on debt, and the UK has about 15% of its budget remaining for other activities, such as defence, public order, industry and housing. It is inevitable that these expenditures will decline, impacting the quality of schools, hospitals and size and security of pensions.

Third, the percentage of foreign ownership of our debt will go up. As middle class household incomes decline, domestic funds available for insurance and pension funds will fall. This will mean that fewer Westerners will be able to purchase government debt. This will mean that as a percentage, more of our government debt will be owned by foreigners. In order to keep funding our debts and rolling them over, foreigners will demand increased assurances that their debts will be repaid. This is the issue that Spain and Greece are currently going through, with heavy cuts to traditional expenditures – such as education – being made to pay interest and capital repayments.

Fourth, power projection will decline. The European Union’s expenditure on its military is already low compared to that of the United States. They already struggle to project power onto the other side of the Mediterranean, let other regions of the world. As military budgets are cut, you should expect an increase in rhetoric and a decrease in the usage of military power. While some in the West may welcome this, the loss of even the potential to use force will have knock on consequences – especially in places like North Africa (see article: How climate change will drive new barbarian hordes into Europe).

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The rise of political extremism

Finally, you should expect a decline in the influence of centrist parties and a rise in political extremism, on both the left and the right. Both will have policy ideas that will promise to solve the middle class crisis.

The left will make aggressive moves to tax and expropriate wealth from the rich. Foreign rich should expect to be targeted first as they are politically less powerful and subject to anti-foreigner sentiment. The left will justify these expropriations as a “rebalancing” of previous levels of insufficient taxation on the rich. This will result in a temporary tax income bump, but ultimately will prove futile as the rich get taxed out or get out. You should also expect calls for defaulting on public debt obligations as unemployed voters weigh up the pros and cons of default vs getting unemployment insurance.

The right will call for more free market legislation, reduced labour market regulations, reduced taxation levels and a reduction in payments to the poor and needy. They will argue that this will spur investment and encourage employment. These policies would result in a reduction in expenditures, but also result in a significant rise in social inequality, resulting in a large underclass. There would be a rapid race to the bottom as workers would be fully exposed to foreign competition. You should expect a significant drop in the value of assets ranging from housing to company share prices as income levels would not be able to keep up with mortgage payments, unless there was a large scale propping up of the housing and equity markets by foreigners.

You should also expect a rise in nationalist parties, either linked to left and right wing parties, or as independents. These will vote for legislation that will freeze new immigration and deport foreigners, hoping to increase employment at home. Nationalisation of foreign owned companies might be promoted, bringing higher end jobs back to their home countries. This will not solve the issue of work being sent offshore and so you should also anticipate legislation that will try to push back the tide of history and restrict offshoring of brain and brawn work.

Balance of payments is likely to be an issue and so a preference on products being made at home is likely, resulting in a decreased appetite for unfettered free trade. Bizarrely, wind, solar and nuclear power are all likely to make it on the nationalist agenda as they cut off, or reduce dependence on imported oil and gas, as is organic farming as it reduces the need for foreign imports of fertilisers, seed and oil.

While this crisis caused by the collapse of the middle class is unfolding, it is worth remembering that the environmental issues of population growth, fresh water shortages, food shortages and migration pressure are all expected to be move up a gear over the next 5-10 years (see article: Standing on the shoulders of toddlers- why we have never grown up and what this means for our future).

This toxic mixture of global environmental problems and political extremism does not sound pleasant. As such, it is hard to believe that this might happen.  It is worth remembering, however, that change happens all the time, and sometimes not pleasantly.

What do you suggest policymakers do about it?

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  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/245228293618561024/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Article: the loss of middle class jobs is a major problem and is likely to lead to rise in political extremism. Read on http://t.co/EBp4jhHk

  • http://twitter.com/robpatrob/status/245251875618816000/ @robpatrob

    Why the loss of middle class jobs will usher in the rise of political extremism – History, Future. Now. http://t.co/vhtIHJJN

  • Patricia Herlevi

    I’m hearing this mantra a lot too and it usually sides with the fossil fuel companies, even in otherwise sustainable communities.
    Posted by Patricia Herlevi

  • Michael Holster, PE, LEED AP

    Tristan, another interesting article. I hope everyone reads it.

    It seems these changes will continue no matter what and everyone needs to role with them. Can we cooperate rather than compete and still create a win-win situation?

    I firmly believe that we can have a robust economy and full employment in the U.S. if the government can make some bold changes to shift things in the right direction (rather than the incremental baby steps that we are now taking) to promote energy efficiency first, renewable energy second, and environmental preservation third. For the most part, I really cannot see other countries taking over these industries, unless we just wait too long to get started. This path would also seem to negate the political extremism that you talk about. The problem is getting it started.
    Posted by Michael Holster, PE, LEED AP

    • Tristanfischer

      That is very kind of you to say so.

      I think that you are right – in many respects one of the issues we have is that our political and cultural leadership spend so much time fighting each other that they forget that they should be looking out for the best interests of their countrymen.

  • James McGowen

    I am surprised we haven’t seen more political protest than we’ve seen up to this time.

    I was aghast to read an article in Time magazine last month that highlighted comments by members of both Democratic and Republican parties on blocking legislation proposed by each other so they would be in disfavor with the American people. They are not pushing compromise to bring the things that millions of people need to keep their houses, save their jobs, have healthcare, or give their children a better world. They politicians brazenly tout their commitment to sabotage the other party so that they can insure that the next election will be the death knell for their political foes.

    And these games last for YEARS! Meanwhile American families are devastated as friends and loved ones are deprived of the homes that they worked years to build or buy.

    Old folks become sicker, or die, as they cut back on their medicines or just plain don’t have them for lack of sufficient medical coverage.

    Young people who took out loans, or whose parents took out loans, for college educations work at burger joints or sweat shops (if they can find even those jobs) while their knowledge fades through lack of use and depression.

    But, oh, those politicians still stand up there and tell us “Elect me to the mayor’s, the governor’s, the congressman’s, the senator’s, or even the President’s office and I’ll make a difference for YOU!” And then they get there and it’s party agenda, party agenda, party agenda!

    It’s at that point that the American voter becomes a vague presence to be cajoled when necessary but primarily ignored as a novice at best who knows nothing of what is really good for him or herself. And perhaps the politicians are partially right in that. A great many voters may be only reacting to the blurbs and generalizations that flow from an election campaign and making a sort of knee jerk choice as they cast their vote in favor of a certain candidate.

    But one thing is certain. The voters know that they have asked someone who claims to want to work for them to go to the office to which they are elected and make decisions that will bring purpose, promise, and security to the lives of the people. OF THE PEOPLE, NOT THE PARTY. Is it too much for us to ask the politicians to do what they said they would do? When they are running for office do they say “Don’t worry folks, I’ll protect you from those lying, stinking Republicans.”? Or “Elect me to this office and together we will crush the Democrats!” They say something more like “Put me in office and I will tear down the walls of partisan politics and bring you there change you want!”
    I know I haven’t said anything new here. This note is more a venting than an epiphany. But I would like to see just one politician stand up and say that if he or she really does compromise with the opposing party to get big things done the whole country will go down the toilet. Because right now we are pretty close to the bottom of the bowl from years of party politics.
    Posted by James McGowen

    • Tristanfischer

      All very valid points. Politicians need to work for us, not against their political opponents.

      I guess a major question that needs answering is whether politics has always been like this – politicians fighting to keep their jobs and their opponents out. They can do this by providing better policy options and by condemning their opponents.

      I do believe that a multi channel world with advertising being used to fund TV station programming has made the US political system more extreme. Each channel needs to stand out – to be extreme- in order to capture a certain demographic that can then be sold to advertisers. In order to reach those people politicians need to permanently raise money from donors to pay for advertising on the media platforms. This has a side effect of making the US political system endemically corrupt because major donors do not donate without the expectation of getting something in return.

      When the US only had ABC, NBC and CBS it forced politicians to speak to the main body of Americans and was thus naturally centrist. Unfortunately, with so much political money flowing through the media system it is hard to imagine advertisers, media outlets, donors and politicians ever wanting the system to end, which suggests that extremism will only grow in America.

      • Michael Stavola

        Very valid points.
        Posted by Michael Stavola

      • Adewumi Opeyemi

        Its the sme everywhere, the electorates only matters in the game of numbers called election. once fulfilled, the party agenda is supreme.
        Posted by Adewumi Opeyemi

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/245417253212913664/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Tuesday Read: Why the loss of middle class jobs will usher in the rise of political extremism. Read on… http://t.co/EBp4jhHk

  • Pingback: News flash: bad things happen, even to English speakers - History, Future. Now.

  • Patrick Opitz

    Extremism is in the eye of the beholder. Noninterventionism, for example, was once the norm in the United States, but is know considered extreme by the political elites.
    Posted by Patrick Opitz

  • Sean Creighton

    Too many MPs are cogs in party machines. If they rebel or ask awkward questions they are marginalised. The world of Parliament is corrupting in its widest sense, divorcing them from their constituents. The ridiculous Cameron boundary changes would have made things even worse.

    Then there are MPs who are more interested in what they can do in bed than what they can do for us. We live in the period of The New Corruption. Like the Old Corruption this is not just about money, but a whole ruling culture. It set in with the Thatcherite agenda of monetarism, privatisation, competitive tendering, forcing wages down, destroying local economies, loosening credit controls. Blair/Brownism added financial, alcohol and gambling de-regulation. Money has been poured down the drain in foreign military intervetions. The ConDems have not learnt which is why they took sides militarily in Libya and would like to do the same in Syria.

    Where next? Ministers have no control now that most things have been privatised or given over to regulators and agencies. Most regulators who have been appointed were more wedded to competitive than social objectives. The ConDem leadership are punishing the people at the bottom of society, while not exercising control over the banks which caused the economic crisis. As a result the adverse effects are creeping up society’s ranks into the middle class (most of whom if they realised it are actually working class). Even the maverick Labour MP Frank Field, has at last seen the light of day re-Duncan-Smith’s reforms. We have seen how the ‘corruption’ went wider into the Met Police and into journalism – at least the News Corporation scandal will run and run to remind us all of the ‘web of corruption’ that was weaved.

    Last year in the August riots we heard the voice of largely marginalised and demoralised people whose world view has been shaped by ‘there is no such thing as society’ and ‘consumerism as a right’. The riots were acts of nihilism but should not be dismissed because of that; they can happen again if the spark ignites the growing number of tinder-boxes around the country.

    It may not be much but the booing of Osborne at the Olympics says something about the mood of many people; elated by the Olympics and the achievements of individuals and teams but expressing a view about the more important problem of the collapse of the economy and the damage to their lives. By leaving Osborne in post in the reshuffle Cameron shows that he does not understand this. Bringing back Laws shows a contempt for the public despising of MPs who were caught out in the expenses scandal. The ‘let’s control everyone else’ monitoring cultures put in place by Tory and Labour Governments have distorted the role of public services and civil society organisations, and damaged our education system. with loosening of planning controls is another form of ‘corruption’ giving developers whose sole aim is’ high density towers for profit not for social value. We are seeing other forms of ‘corruption, hypocrisy and cynicism: e.g. the honouring of Para Olympians while people with disabilities are being forced off benefits with the private contractor assessor meeting quotas; e.g. the changing of exam gradings that adversely effect the opportunities of young people.

    All these things will add further to public cynicism with politicians. Cynicism and nihilism coupled with increasing attacks on the poor and migrant workers could lead to the re-emergence of a new right wing political movement out of the declining BNP and EDL.

    While mainstream politicians will weep crocodile tears they will only have themselves too blame. But watch out the rest of us. Who will be next on the hit list? Yes it would have been nice to see bigger protests. 20 October’s TUC Day of Action is the next opportunity. See you there? And mass petitioning through campaigns like 38 Degrees have shown that there can be some successes.

    Have you been signing?
    Posted by Sean Creighton

    • Tristanfischer

      All very good points. Your comment about Osborne being booed reminded me of Boris Johhnson’s closing speech the other day at the end of the Paralympics. People in the crowd were cheering his name “Boris, Boris, Boris!” repeatedly.

      So clearly some politicians are still popular.

      Cameron looked distinctly uncomfortable standing next to him.

  • Sean Creighton

    Too many MPs are cogs in party machines. If they rebel or ask awkward questions they are marginalised. The world of Parliament is corrupting in its widest sense, divorcing them from their constituents. The ridiculous Cameron boundary changes would have made things even worse.

    Then there are MPs who are more interested in what they can do in bed than what they can do for us. We live in the period of The New Corruption. Like the Old Corruption this is not just about money, but a whole ruling culture. It set in with the Thatcherite agenda of monetarism, privatisation, competitive tendering, forcing wages down, destroying local economies, loosening credit controls. Blair/Brownism added financial, alcohol and gambling de-regulation. Money has been poured down the drain in foreign military intervetions. The ConDems have not learnt which is why they took sides militarily in Libya and would like to do the same in Syria.

    Where next? Ministers have no control now that most things have been privatised or given over to regulators and agencies. Most regulators who have been appointed were more wedded to competitive than social objectives. The ConDem leadership are punishing the people at the bottom of society, while not exercising control over the banks which caused the economic crisis. As a result the adverse effects are creeping up society’s ranks into the middle class (most of whom if they realised it are actually working class). Even the maverick Labour MP Frank Field, has at last seen the light of day re-Duncan-Smith’s reforms. We have seen how the ‘corruption’ went wider into the Met Police and into journalism – at least the News Corporation scandal will run and run to remind us all of the ‘web of corruption’ that was weaved.

    Last year in the August riots we heard the voice of largely marginalised and demoralised people whose world view has been shaped by ‘there is no such thing as society’ and ‘consumerism as a right’. The riots were acts of nihilism but should not be dismissed because of that; they can happen again if the spark ignites the growing number of tinder-boxes around the country.

    It may not be much but the booing of Osborne at the Olympics says something about the mood of many people; elated by the Olympics and the achievements of individuals and teams but expressing a view about the more important problem of the collapse of the economy and the damage to their lives. By leaving Osborne in post in the reshuffle Cameron shows that he does not understand this. Bringing back Laws shows a contempt for the public despising of MPs who were caught out in the expenses scandal. The ‘let’s control everyone else’ monitoring cultures put in place by Tory and Labour Governments have distorted the role of public services and civil society organisations, and damaged our education system. with loosening of planning controls is another form of ‘corruption’ giving developers whose sole aim is’ high density towers for profit not for social value. We are seeing other forms of ‘corruption, hypocrisy and cynicism: e.g. the honouring of Para Olympians while people with disabilities are being forced off benefits with the private contractor assessor meeting quotas; e.g. the changing of exam gradings that adversely effect the opportunities of young people.

    All these things will add further to public cynicism with politicians. Cynicism and nihilism coupled with increasing attacks on the poor and migrant workers could lead to the re-emergence of a new right wing political movement out of the declining BNP and EDL.

    While mainstream politicians will weep crocodile tears they will only have themselves too blame. But watch out the rest of us. Who will be next on the hit list? Yes it would have been nice to see bigger protests. 20 October’s TUC Day of Action is the next opportunity. See you there? And mass petitioning through campaigns like 38 Degrees have shown that there can be some successes.

    Have you been signing?
    Posted by Sean Creighton

  • Stephen Russell

    Same thing occured after 1929 depression hit, right?
    Rerun history
    Posted by Stephen Russell

  • Evan E. Filby

    Interesting window on how the current economic pain and rising cynicism about politics is playing out in a parliamentary system. Here in the U.S., only the details are different, as to where the extremism, corruption, etc play out.

    While I realize it will probably just bring new problems to the fore, one (hopeless) cause my wife and I contribute to is the campaign for term limits for members of Congress. (If, by some miracle, we could manage that, then we could work on the judiciary.) Presidents are limited to two terms for a variety of good reasons. Most of those reasons also apply to the legislative branch. But an entrenched Congressman — especially in the Senate — is now almost impossible to unseat, such is the power of incumbency. If they were required to go back into the “common” work force after a set period — like two consecutive terms — they might be less likely to lose touch with the realities of “ordinary” life.

    But … not gonna happen. Sigh.
    Posted by Evan E. Filby

  • Renee Guzzardi

    Much like term limits, a cause I would champion would be that Congress cannot exempt themselves from the laws they pass. As it stands now: they have their own medical insurance (no Obamacare for them), their own pension – no social security, the are even exempt from Insider trading laws and sexual harassment laws. It is ridiculous that theyhave set themselves above the citizens they are suppose to serve.
    Posted by Renee Guzzardi

  • Evan E. Filby

    Renee … excellent point about the way Congress exempts itself from laws they impose on the rest of us. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is not far off in this case. With such exemptions, Congressmen (and women) — by definition — separate themselves from the voters they are supposed to represent. A political history of how that started, and how the “slippery slope” to the current travesty would probably make fascinating reading.
    Posted by Evan E. Filby

  • http://twitter.com/DesignCanada/status/250209579332407296/ @DesignCanada

    Digital Taylorism… do you need to be worried? #HistoryFutureNow http://t.co/fxKIirWp via @tristanfischer

  • http://twitter.com/nellleo/status/250570721716228096/ @nellleo

    Interesting read->Why The Loss Of Middle Class Jobs Will Usher In The Rise Of Political Extremism http://t.co/lijMDDn3 via @TheCodeFactory

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/254474446713270272/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Saturday Read. Middle class job losses will herald in the rise of political extremism. This is bad. Read on. http://t.co/EBp4jhHk

  • Pingback: Why do we need the military? Securing energy supplies and trade routes - History, Future. Now.

  • Pingback: The new rise of European political extremism – Greece today, where next? - History Future Now

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/267247518537093120/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Saturday Read: Greeks are firebombing the police outside parliament. Loss of middle class jobs will usher in extremism. http://t.co/EBp4jhHk

  • http://www.facebook.com/remco.degroot1 Remco de Groot

    wauw. Wonderfully written. Great analysis skillfully put together. Myself I have observed the developments you mention, but I could never have put it all together as you have.

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