For Climate Interventionists, New Taxes are Only the Beginning

For Climate Interventionists, New Taxes are Only the Beginning

[Editors Note: After days of rioting in the streets of Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to backtrack today on proposed gas taxes. While this episode demonstrated the unpopularity of trying to raise taxes in the name of fighting climate change, Mises Institute Senior Fellow Robert Murphy recently noted at IER that this is only the start for "climate interventionists."]

Say what you will about the climate policy discussions at Vox, but they don’t mince words. They come right out and tell you how much they want to micromanage every last detail of your life. Vox’s resident expert, David Roberts, recently interviewed policy wonk and author Hal Harvey, to discuss which areas of society government should regulate in the name of slowing climate change. Everything was on the table—ranging from building codes to auto fuel efficiency to diet to family size—with the only debate being over the relative results from the various interventions.

Among other results, this peek into the interventionist mentality should serve as a wake-up call for the few writers who keep charmingly calling on libertarians and conservatives to strike a carbon tax deal with progressive leftists. As the Roberts/Harvey discussion says quite plainly, a carbon tax is just one arrow in the quiver of those championing aggressive government intervention to slow climate change.

A Carbon Tax Is Not Enough

Let me validate the carbon tax claim first. Here’s the key exchange from the Vox interview:

David Roberts: These days, people across the political spectrum are talking about carbon pricing. How does it fit into the larger effort?

Hal Harvey: The thing about carbon pricing is, it’s helpful, but it’s not dispositive. There are a number of sectors that are impervious to a carbon price, or close to impervious.

A carbon price works when it’s part of a package that includes R&D and performance standards. It does not work in isolation. It helps, but it doesn’t do nearly as much as is required.

Harvey elsewhere in the interview explicitly criticizes the standard “market solution” rhetoric behind a carbon tax when he says:

[Government-mandated performance standards] have a bad rep from an age-old and completely upside-down debate about “command-and-control” policy. But we use performance standards all the time, and they work really well. Our buildings don’t burn down very much; they used to burn down all the time. Our meat’s not poisoned; it used to be poisoned, or you couldn’t tell. And so forth. If you just tell somebody, this is the minimum performance required, guess what? Engineers are really good at meeting it cost-effectively.

In addition to their (naïve) promises of revenue neutrality, those pushing for a carbon tax swap deal also promise conservatives and libertarians that a “price on carbon” would allow for the dismantling of the existing top-down regulations. Yet we now have several lines of evidence to show just how naïve this hope is: (1) Harvey in the quotation above throws them under the bus. (2) The recent Curbelo carbon tax bill contained no *meaningful* regulatory relief. (3) Economist Paul Krugman is fine with outright bans on new (and existing?) coal-fired power plants, and (4) the people at Vox have said for yearsthat a carbon tax would only work in conjunction with other anti-emission government policies. Notice that I am not scouring obscure subreddit threads to find Marxists posting from a hipster café, I am quoting from quite mainstream sources who are openly declaring that putting “a price on carbon” will not do enough to reduce emissions.

The Interventionist Mentality

The reader should also realize that Roberts and Harvey don’t merely consider fuel economy standards and building efficiency codes when it comes to “command and control” regulations. Everything is on the table, and the only reason to refrain from pursuing certain strategies is the dilution of political capital. The following excerpt illustrates:

David Roberts: The book also has nothing about behavior change — no turning off lights or going vegetarian. Do you find that lever unrealistic? 

Hal Harvey: It’s a policy design book, and there aren’t many policies that have people change their diet. Michael Bloomberg taxed sugar, so there’s one. But we’re not gonna have the tons-of-barbecue-per-capita tax in North Carolina…

We have limited political bandwidth. If you’re serious about change, you have to identify the decision makers that can innovate the most tons the fastest….There are 7.5 billion decision makers on diet. There are 250 utility commissioners in America — and utility commissioners control half the carbon in America.

Trying to invoke behavior change on something as personal as eating en masse is morally sound, it’s ecologically a good idea, but as a carbon strategy, it doesn’t scratch the surface.

Indeed, even when they give a nod to basic human rights, Roberts and Harvey sound creepy. Consider this exchange:

David Roberts: Paul Hawken’s Drawdown Project looked at options for reducing greenhouse gases and found that educating girls and family planning were the two most potent. 

Hal Harvey: When I was at the Hewlett Foundation, we sponsored a study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research that asked the question: Globally, if you met unmet need for contraceptives — that is to say, no coercion whatsoever — what would it cost and what would the carbon impact be?

We found large-scale abatement at less than a dollar a ton. So I’m completely in favor of that. [Bold added.]

It’s the part in bold that is chilling. For starters, I point out that this is the one area of life—the decision on how many children to have—where Harvey apparently feels that the government should not be using coercion to alter people’s behavior; coercive interventions in every other arena—from building design to diet to urban transit—were only tempered by pragmatic considerations.

Beyond that, the reason Harvey had to stress that his approach would be voluntary is that historically, this wasn’t taken for granted. There is a long and sordid history of wiser-than-thou social planners forcibly restricting how many children others could have, all in the name of some higher social good.

Indeed, Vox’s founder—Ezra Klein—recently got himself into an awkward spot when the website originally promoted his discussion with Bill Gates using the following tweet:

vox_bm_0.png

Vox quickly deleted the tweet after outrage and advertised the interview in a more sensitive manner, but the whole episode offered another peek into the interventionist mindset.

Conclusion

On these pages I have tirelessly pushed back against the small but vocal group of pundits and scholars who call on conservatives and libertarians to accept a carbon “tax swap deal” with leftist progressives. Beyond their failure to appreciate some of the technical nuances in the tax literature, these pleas overlook the simple fact that the mainstream thought leaders among the wonkish progressives have long since moved beyond the idea of a simple “price on carbon.” Every aspect of our lives, from our cars to our meals to our family sizes, affects global emissions—and therefore the interventionists want every tool at their disposal to control others.

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The Transportation Boom Ends

02/16/2019Doug French

Sales of Class 8 trucks (18-wheelers) hit the ditch in January, with orders down 58 percent from a year ago hitting a level not seen since October 2016, near the end of the transportation recession, “when Class-8 truck orders had plunged to the lowest levels since 2009, and truck and engine manufacturers responded with layoffs,” writes Wolf Richter.

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The other day I posted about the plunge in the Baltic Dry Index and now news is the Cass Freight Index dropped in December. The Cass “index covers shipments of merchandise for the consumer and industrial economy but does not include bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. It was the first year-over-year decline since the transportation recession of 2015 and 2016 — and trucking companies have seen this coming for months:”

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Baltic Dry Index

Shipping indexes provide a barometer for how the economy is doing. Less shipping means less buying, selling, and producing. Government interference in the form of low interest rates and the threat of tariffs pulled economic activity forward. However, now the economy is digesting that bubble (malinvestment) of activity. Richter explains,

The trucking business is a barometer of, and dependent on, the goods-based economy. In late 2017 through the summer of 2018, demand for transportation services, such as shipping by truck, surged under the simultaneous impact of a strong goods-based economy led by red-hot e-commerce; a buildup of inventories; pandemic front-running of potential tariffs, a resurgence of drilling activity in the oil patch that required equipment and supplies to be trucked in, etc. Freight rates spiked. Squeezed shippers wheezed in their earnings reports about these spiking transportation costs, while truckers were on Cloud-9 and ordered new trucks to meet the demand, and truck manufacturers were swamped with orders.

Now shipping activity has cooled off and trucking capacity has improved.

freight.PNG

The Flatbed Monthly Load-to-Truck Ratio by DAT tracks demand-capacity imbalances. After skyrocketing, the industry figured out how to deal with ELDs just as a slowdown in the industrial sector set in, particularly oil & gas. Now, the average load-to-truck ratio has plunged, down 41% from December a year ago.

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Donald Trump's Democratic Wall

02/15/2019Tho Bishop

After a month of “will he, won’t he” drama fitting for reality television, Donald Trump has announced his plans to declare a national emergency in order to get the funding he desires for his border wall. While the wall itself invites debate on subjects such as practical immigration policy, eminent domain, and government contractors – the use of a national emergency has brought a renewed look at executive power.

For weeks Trump has been warned by Republican leadership about the dangers of the precedent being set by such a decision. Nancy Pelosi has already suggested that a Democratic politician could use a “national emergency” to enact gun policy.

While such concerns are justified, it’s amusing to see such objections being raised by conventional beltway-types as the long-standing trend within Washington has been the gradual expansion of the executive branch. What is the practical difference, for example, between a president going around Congress for a border wall and a president going around Congress for military action? Or President Obama’s own immigration-related executive order that granted protection to “Dreamers” after Congress refused to bend to his will?

One does not have to support Trump’s wall to identify hypocrisy. Once again, we see that Trump is at his worst when he simply continues long-standing political trends.

While the gradual expansion of the executive leviathan is concerning, it is also predictable given the 20th century deification of American political democracy.

After all, if we are to buy in to the idea that political action is validated through participation, then it makes sense for the single political office voted on by the entire country to gradually expand its power – particularly given the obstructions to majority rules the Constitution purposefully placed on the legislative branch. The preference for general majority rule at the expense of state-based representation is also what motivates the modern lefts interest in effectively abolishing the senate and Electoral College – both of which act as checks on the imperialism of democratic excess.

While the 20th century set the stage for the modern state, it was Andrew Jackson who was the first American president to understand how the promotion of democracy could directly feed an imperial presidency. While Jackson could be praised for his views on central banking and federal debt, his presidency offered some of the most flagrant examples of hostility towards both states rights and limits to executive power.

In his first address to Congress, he outlined his vision of a truly democratic executive. He called for the abolishment of the Electoral College, and criticized the role of a large legislature in frustrating popular rule. In his view, “the first principle of our system…[is] that the majority is to govern.” As the best representative of what he saw as the will of the people, he placed his own interpretation of the Constitution as equal to all other branches of government – best illustrated by his rejection of John Marshall’s decision regarding the property rights of Native Americans leading to the Trail of Tears.

While Trump has gone the furthest in openly inviting comparisons to “Old Hickory,” Jackson’s view of the democratic presidency has long prevailed. In the words of John Yoo, “Jackson remains one of the greatest Presidents because he reconstructed the office into the direct representative of the American people.”

Unsurprisingly, it was Yoo who provided the legal defense for many of the excesses of the George W. Bush presidency.

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A Family Connection

02/14/2019David Gordon

Mr. Mark Lautman has given me permission to share the following letter:

When I started reading Rothbard’s book, I gave the three-line summary to my wife. “It’s a book written by Murray Rothbard in the 1950s about libertarian economics. It’s published by the Mises Institute. Rothbard was a disciple of an Austrian economist Mises.”

“Mises?” she asked. “Ludwig von Mises?”

“Yes. Do you know about him?”

“Do you know who Ludwig von Mises was? He was my grandfather’s cousin!”

Sure enough, Paul Lourie, my wife’s grandfather, mentions Ludwig von Mises in his memoirs!

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Central Banks Buy Gold, Baltic Dry Index Sinks

02/13/2019Doug French

David Rosenberg tweeted a graph of the plunging Baltic Dry Index with the comment, “Is there a more deflationary chart than the Baltic Dry Index of global freight rates?”

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Perhaps, or there is the New York Times business headline, “ Some Central Banks Have Gold Fever, and It Might Be Sensible .”

However, central banks are notoriously bad in timing gold purchases.

Swaha Pattanaik slams gold enthusiasts while praising central bankers.

Gold bugs aren’t always rational. That’s not the case for central banks, whose purchases of the yellow metal last year were the highest since the United States broke the link between gold and the dollar in 1971.


Pattanaik gives us the numbers.

Central banks bought 651.5 tonnes of gold in 2018, the second highest annual total on record and up 74 percent from the year earlier, according to the World Gold Council. As in the past three years, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey were significant buyers, but were last year joined by the likes of Hungary, India and Poland.

Gordon Brown’s infamous sale of UK gold cost the Bank of England nearly £5 billion.

Christopher Hope wrote for The Telegraph in January 2009,

The sale of more than half of the country's gold reserves between 1999 and 2002 has proved to be deeply controversial. Critics say that signalling such a large sale of bullion to gold traders helped to drive the precious metal to a 20-year low. In 17 auctions, Mr Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer sanctioned the sale of 395 tonnes of gold.

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Markets are About Freedom, not Competition

02/12/2019Ryan McMaken

I really enjoyed Antony Sammeroff's article last month about how the distinguishing characteristic of markets is free and voluntary exchange. Although many people like to speak of "competition" as the defining characteristic of markets, they're wrong. There is competition for resources in every political and economic system. In markets, however, that competition for resources is more free and less violent than in other systems.

Sammeroff explains more in a recent interview with Tom Woods:

 

Ep. 1339 The Wrong Way to Argue for the Free Market

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Mark Thornton on Why Socialism Is Deadly and Dangerous

02/12/2019Mises Institute

Mark Thornton explains why socialism can never work, the history of the death and misery its caused and we discuss a better way to help everyone live a more free, peaceful and prosperous life. We need look no further than Venezuela.

The Chronically Human Podcast Ep 11 - Dr. Mark Thornton

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Powell Claims No "Elevated" Risk for US Recession, NY Fed Models Disagree

02/12/2019Tho Bishop

Today Jerome Powell got out of the beltway and enjoyed some southern hospitality at Mississippi Valley State University, speaking at the Hope Enterprise Corporation Rural Policy Forum.

Most of the Fed Chairman’s talk was dedicated to talking about how the Fed could the financial needs of rural areas, a questionable claim considering the direct role central banks have played in increasing wealth inequality. He did, however, provide some additional thoughts on the strength of the US economy as a whole.

In particular, when asked about future risk, he said he did not “feel that the probability of recession is at all elevated.”

What’s interesting is that this claim does not follow the models published by the NY Federal Reserve which shows the current risk of recession at the highest they’ve been since 2008.

NY Fed Recession Probability 2.12.jpg
(H/T @TexarkanaFed via Twitter)

Of course, given the poor track record of Federal Reserve models, perhaps more useful is that this rosy view of the US economy seems to contradict the recent policy trends from the Powell Fed.

This includes changes to recent FOMC statements and projections about the rate of future rate increases, as well as indicating a willingness to stall the slow normalization of the Fed’s balance sheet that is currently in process. As he said in late January:

We’re listening carefully with – sensitivity to the message that the markets are sending and we’ll be taking those downside risks into account as we make policy going forward...If we came to view that the balance sheet normalization or any other aspect of the normalization was part of the problem, we wouldn’t hesitate to make a change.

Though the statement was made in carefully managed “Fed Speak”, the message it communicated couldn’t have been more clear – particularly since Powell has long been an inner Fed voice concerned about the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.  The market understood that Trump finally got the Dovish Federal Reserve that he has spent the last year campaigning for. The day of the announcement was the first in Powell's tenure that the market reacted positively to one of his rate-setting announcements. 

Unfortunately for Powell, none of the arguments for “normalizing” monetary policy has changed since Powell first outlined his desires for a slow and gradual wind down. The economic data that the Fed claims to make its decisions off of continue to look strong and the dangers of facing a crisis with the monetary interventionists tools they desire have not gone away. So what has changed? Maybe, just maybe, it’s the perceived risk of a future recession that the Fed’s models, other signals, and a growing legion of economists are projecting.

Of course, in the Chairman’s defense, it would be a mistake to see the Fed’s top role as one of truth teller. The Fed’s job is necessarily a political one, to project an air of confidence and try to maintain confidence in the system. Unfortunately, hot air only goes so far, as Bernanke learned in 2007. 

Luckily for Powell, it pays to play the role of Baghdad Bob for the US economy, as Bernanke’s $1 million book deal and speaking fees illustrate.

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Rothbard and Salerno Quoted on Modern Monetary Theory

Brian Maher of the Daily Reckoning quotes Murray Rothbard and me in his incisive critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which has lately been embraced by proponents of the "Green New Deal."

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Study Shows Government Social Programs Create Dependence, Idleness

When I write about Social Security, I normally focus on the program’s huge fiscal imbalance ($44 trillion and climbing).

But it’s not just a fiscal crisis. Social Security is also an increasingly bad deal for workers. Especially minorities with lower average lifespans. When compared to what they would get from a private retirement system, people are paying in too much and getting out too little.

There’s also another major problem with the program.

Academic experts have quantified how older workers are lured out of the labor force when they get money from the government. And since economic output is a function of the quality and quantity of labor and capital, this means we’re sacrificing wealth and reducing prosperity.

Here are some excerpts from a study by Professors Daniel Fetter and Lee Lockwood.

Many of the most important government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, transfer resources to older people… Standard economic theory predicts that such programs reduce late-life labor supply and that the implicit taxation reduces the ex-post value of the programs to recipients. Understanding the size and nature of such effects on labor supply and welfare is an increasingly important issue, as demographic trends have increased both the potential labor supply of the elderly and its aggregate importance, while simultaneously increasing the need for reforms to government old-age support programs. …We address these questions by investigating Old Age Assistance (OAA), a means-tested program introduced in the 1930s alongside Social Security that later became the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Here are charts illustrating how people are retiring earlier in part because of government payments.

Feb-11-19-Fetter-Figure-1.jpg

And here are some calculations from the study.

Our estimates indicate that OAA significantly reduced labor force participation among older individuals. The basic patterns that we explore in the data are evident in Figure 2, which plots male labor force participation by age, separately for states with above- and belowmedian OAA payments per person 65 and older. Up to age 65, the age pattern of labor force participation was extremely similar in states with larger and smaller OAA programs. At age 65, however, there was a sharp divergence in labor force participation between states with larger OAA programs relative to those with smaller programs, and this divergence continued at older ages. Our regression results, which isolate variation in OAA program size due to state policy differences, imply that OAA can explain more than half of the large 1930–40 drop in labor force participation of men aged 65–74. …Our results suggest that Social Security had the potential to drive at least half—and likely more—of the mid-century decline in late-life labor supply for men. …Taken as a whole, our results suggest that government old-age support programs can have large effects on labor supply, through both their transfer and taxation components.

This chart captures how old-age payments in various states were associated with varying degrees of labor force participation.

Feb-11-19-Fetter-Figure-2.jpg

By the way, I’m not sharing this information because it’s bad for people to retire at some point.

I’m merely establishing that there’s academic support for the common-sense observation that people are more likely to leave the labor force when there’s an alternative source of income (though it’s worth noting that there should be a sensible and sustainable system for providing that retirement income).

Moreover, people are likely to stop working when government systems give them money before age 65.

Three academics, Andres Erosa, Luisa Fuster, and Gueorgui Kambourov, have a study quantifying this problem in European nations.

There are substantial differences in labor supply and in the design of tax and transfer programs across countries. The cross-country differences in labor supply increase dramatically late in the life cycle…while differences in employment rates among eight European countries are in the order of 15 percentage points for the 50-54 age group, they increase to 35 percentage points for the 55-59 age group and to more than 50 percentage points for the 60-64 age group. In this paper we quantitatively assess the role of social security, disability insurance, and taxation for understanding differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (age 50+) across European countries and the United States. … The social security, disability insurance, and taxation systems in the United States and European countries in the study are modelled in great detail.

Here’s a sampling of their results.

The main findings are that the model accounts fairly well for how labor supply decreases late in the life cycle for most countries. The model matches remarkably well the large decline in the aggregate labor supply after age 50 in Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. The results support the view that government policies can go a long way towards accounting for the low labor supply late in the life cycle for these European countries relative to the United States, with social security rules accounting for the bulk of these effects… relative to the United States, the hours worked by men aged 60-64 is…49% in the Netherlands, 66% in Spain, 44% in Italy, and 29% in France. …government policies can go a long way towards accounting for labor supply differences across countries. Social security rules account for the bulk of cross country differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (with its contribution varying from 50% to 100%), but other policies also matter. In accounting for the low labor supply relative to the US at ages 60 to 64, taxes matter importantly in the Netherlands (6%), Italy (6%), and France (5%); disability insurance policies are important for the Netherlands (7%) and Spain (10%).

And here’s one of their charts comparing hours worked at various ages in Switzerland, Spain, France, and the United States.

Feb-11-19-Erosa-Fuster-Kambourov.jpg
The good news is that we don’t push people out of the labor force as much as the French and the Spanish.

The bad news is that we’re not as good as Switzerland (probably in part because the Swiss have a retirement system based on private saving, so they have the ideal combination of good work incentives and comfortable retirement).

But it shouldn’t matter whether other countries have good systems or bad systems. What does matter is that America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer children and our system of entitlements is a mess.

We should be reforming these programs, both for fiscal reasons and economic reasons.

P.S. It’s not just Social Security. Other programs also lure people out of the job market and into government dependency, with Obamacare being an especially harmful example.

Originally published at International Liberty
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AOC's Green New Deal Is Absolutely Absurd, but That's the Washington Status Quo

02/08/2019Tho Bishop

This week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a preliminary summary of her grand vision for a Green New Deal. Prior to its unveiling, the youngest rising star of the Democratic Party had already managed to get the support of leading members of Congress, including all of the party’s current leading Presidential candidates. Unfortunately for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the document was met with widespread ridicule for advocating policies such as building high-speed rail to Hawaii, eliminating combustible engines, and guaranteed government jobs – even for those “unwilling to work.”

Like FDR’s New Deal, the proposal would be a total disaster for the US economy. Also, like its spiritual predecessor, it’s a great illustration of what F.A. Hayek warned of his classical work the Road to Serfdom: a grand utopian plan for a military-like mobilization of the entire US economy, the inevitable result of which is economic ruin and loss of liberty.

The most refreshing part of the Green New Deal’s proposals though is how honest and transparent the document is – a rarity for Washington. The proposal makes its own comparisons to military plans, stating its objective is “to mobilize every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War 2” and remarking at the government’s past success of outperforming expectations when it comes to the manufacturing of war machines. It doesn’t try to downplay the revolutionary vision outlined in the brief, nor even try to act as if this is some sort of policy that will pay for itself, instead it explicitly advocates for it to be financed through the monetary magic of the Federal Reserve.

It is in her honesty in which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s true weakness as a politician lies.

After all, the very same class of political pundits and politicians – on both the left and right – that have decided it is safe to laugh at the freshman Congresswoman’s proposal are almost all guilty of promoting and supporting plans that are similarly absurd.

For example, AOC’s embrace of the idea that “we’ll just pay for it!” – a crudely articulated version of Modern Monetary Theory which has gained its own following in recent years  –  is certainly deserving of ridicule. Is it, however, all that more outrageous than the idea of negative interest rate or the massive expansion of central bank balance sheets that “serious” central bankers have embraced around the world?

Similarly, the sheer hubris of thinking that Washington central planners – in just 10 years – can re-arrange the entire US economy in a way to eliminate all carbon emissions is something so insane that it shouldn’t be seriously discussed in civilized society.  Yet is it really all that more delusional than the idea that the US military could transform the entire Middle East into a bastion of neoliberalism, a view passionately defended by a number of “serious” pundits and policymakers who continue to get paid for their opinion?

Yes, anyone with a basic grasp of economics can recognize the amazing fallacies that exist within the idea of guaranteeing everyone, everywhere a job, food, healthcare, and housing – totally regardless of merit. Yet the current operations of the US government actively dismiss the well-understood consequences of prohibition, government subsidies, unfunded social programs, and arbitrary insurance mandates.

So yes, Rep.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is guilty of promoting stupid policy she doesn’t fully understand, the consequences of which will have very negative consequences for Americans of all types. She is deserving of public ridicule and in a better world would be soundly voted out for her severe ignorance.

She should not, however, be treated as a beltway outlier.

 Her complete ignorance of economics simply means she fits in perfectly with the rest of Washington and most legislators around the world. 

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