Unkept Republics

I named my online persona after Gaius Acilius, a man who lived in 155 BC, in part because the history Acilius wrote of Rome seems to have reflected some of the concerns that would define what scholars like Quentin Skinner call the “Republican Tradition” in political thought.  Professor Skinner has labeled such thinkers as Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thomas More “neo-Roman” because of their preoccupation with themes that Romans like Acilius developed.  For example, all of these thinkers ask how a person can be called free when that person is dependent on the favor of others, and all of them answer with various schemes for creating compartments of social life within which people can be independent.  A couple of years ago, I suggested in this space that a way of developing this idea in a highly bureaucratized world like that of the twenty-first century might be to develop three conceptions of liberty in tandem with each other, as freedom from bureaucracy, freedom within bureaucracy, and freedom as a product of bureaucracy.  I called this suggestion “The Three Freedoms.”  So far as I can see, it is an idea which has had no influence on anyone.  I shouldn’t be surprised; I haven’t been trying very hard to draw anyone’s attention to it.  Gaius Acilius would probably be disappointed in me.

What brings all this to mind is a piece in the current issue of The Nation magazineYascha Mounk reviews Maurizio Viroli‘s The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy.  According to Mr Mounk, Professor Viroli accounts for Silvio Berlusconi’s long tenure at the forefront of affairs in Italy by arguing that “Berlusconi was able to stay in power because he transformed Italy from a republic into a kind of royal court.”  Not simply a monarchy, but a court.  Mr Mounk explains Professor Viroli’s terminology thus:

For him, a court system, far from being defined by the traditional trappings of royalty, is any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals—his courtiers—who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore. Even if it weren’t for the uncanny association with the droit du seigneur, it is clear why the label fits Berlusconi. Viroli is hardly exaggerating when he states that over the past few decades, “all of Italy’s political life has rotated around Silvio Berlusconi: all eyes turn to him, all thoughts, hopes, and fears.” He quickly became such a polarizing figure that the gulf between Italy’s left and right, which had been huge and vicious during much of Italy’s postwar history, has shrunk. What mattered most for Italians during his reign was whether one was for or against Berlusconi. In the summer of 2010, for example, several politicians on the left were prepared to fawn over Gianfranco Fini, a longtime fascist with center-right views, simply because he had broken with Berlusconi and spoken in public about his opposition to the prime minister.

Berlusconi not only made himself the Sun King of Italian politics; he acted like a Mafia don. At his word, pretty teenage girls became TV presenters, TV presenters ascended to the rank of government ministers and government ministers were offered lucrative jobs in various industries once they left office.

Mr Mounk goes on the explain the relationship between Professor Viroli’s views and those of the school associated with Professor Skinner:

For Viroli, Berlusconiland was more than a corrupt court. Drawing on republicanism, a long-neglected tradition of political thought that has recently been revived by intellectual historians and political theorists like John Pocock, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, Viroli argues that Berlusconi’s corrosive influence has deprived Italians of their liberty. On Viroli’s account, philosophers who stand in the liberal tradition worry only about actual interference with a person’s actions. “A Free-Man,” wrote Thomas Hobbes with his characteristic crispness, “is he that, in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to.” The subjects of a benevolent despot remain perfectly free so long as he does not inhibit their actions. Viroli argues that according to such a liberal conception of freedom, Berlusconi’s Italy remained a free country: “If we can rightly point to violations of liberty only in cases where fundamental civil and political rights are suppressed by force, then we Italians are, generally speaking, a free people.”

Yet for Viroli, the liberal definition of freedom, with its exclusive emphasis on freedom from interference, is too anemic. He worries that a ruler with vast, arbitrary power would have a chilling effect on the freedoms of his subjects even if he never chose to exercise his power. To emphasize this point, republicans such as Viroli like to cite the example of Tranio, the protagonist of a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus. Tranio is a slave. But because his master is often absent, and because he is so wily, no one ever interferes with his actions. As long as he continues to flatter and manipulate his master, he is free to do as he pleases. And yet, the republicans point out, a slave is surely the very opposite of a “free man.”

While slavery is now officially banned throughout the world, Viroli argues that the most salient characteristic of slavery—the relation of domination and dependence between master and slave—persists in a milder form in our societies. “Citizens who can be tossed into prison arbitrarily by the police,” for example, stand in just such a relation of dependence to an oppressive, dominating power. Even if, for now, they nominally remain at liberty, they lack real freedom. In the case of Italy, though Berlusconi never used his vast power to interfere with the lives of Italian citizens, they knew that he could, at any moment, choose to do so. This lack of real freedom, Viroli argues, limited the things Italians dared to do as well as the words they dared to say.

Mr Mounk suspects that Professor Viroli’s model takes him at once too far and not far enough in his assessment of the damage that Mr Berlusconi did to Italy:

Viroli’s account of the theory of republican liberty is attractive, but his argument that Italians were, in his own sense, unfree is not convincing. Some Italians did find themselves in a true position of dependence on Berlusconi’s whims. Journalists at the networks and newspapers he controlled knew that one honest sentence could make the difference between a lucrative job and the dole. In a country where even many junior positions in business, government and academia have long been reserved for insiders and their children, many young people knew that their career prospects depended as much on their willingness to flatter Berlusconi or his cronies as on their ability to get the job done.

Nevertheless, even on a republican conception of liberty, most Italians remained free during Berlusconi’s rule. The reason is not just that Berlusconi never chose to interfere with the lives of his adversaries by, say, throwing a member of the opposition in jail for a rude op-ed; it’s that Italians knew perfectly well that Berlusconi had no more power to do such a thing than does Barack Obama. The price that opponents of Berlusconi were afraid of paying was not, as Viroli thinks, that Berlusconi might decide to interfere in their lives in an arbitrary manner but rather that he would choose not to tempt them with favors. For all the signore’s power and influence, ordinary Italians hardly lived in fear of his wrath.

One wonders exactly when these paragraphs were written; on 31 December 2011, Barack Obama signed into law a bill which grants him the power to throw anyone in jail on any grounds whatever.  So he is a rather poorly chosen example of an official with limited power to interfere with the lives of his adversaries.  Nonetheless, no such law seems to be on the books in Italy, and no Italian leader since Mussolini has behaved as if one did.

As Mr Mounk thinks that Professor Viroli’s model drives him too far when it implies that Italians have been reduced to slavery, so he claims that it prevents him going far enough in his analysis of aspects of the Berlusconi regime that liberalism also indicts:

The weakness of Viroli’s central assumption, that only the language of liberty can adequately express the horrors of Berlusconi’s rule, may explain why his account of Berlusconiland is not fully persuasive. Other critics of Berlusconi have written damning accounts of his reign, but instead of going so far as to claim that Berlusconi made Italians unfree, they have demonstrated that his government violated the equal treatment of citizens before the law, neglected the government’s duties to further the economic interests of its citizens and condoned corruption (failings that liberals as well as republicans condemn). In The Sack of Rome (2006), for example, Alexander Stille explains that Berlusconi’s business empire was, from its first days, built on political favors and rent-seeking. A true modernization of Italy’s economy would have given his companies unwanted competition and deprived them of crucial state subsidies. Berlusconi chose instead to preserve arcane rules and bureaucratic roadblocks, or even to create new ones, to protect his business interests. He sacrificed the country’s economic well-being for his own.

Berlusconi’s influence on the judicial system was equally disastrous. Whereas in many countries the statute of limitations cannot expire after a defendant has been indicted, in Italy defendants go free if the highest court of appeals has not upheld their convictions within the allotted time. Knowing this, Berlusconi’s attorneys, whom, in a rare instance of efficiency, he made members of Parliament, shortened the statute of limitations for the most troublesome white-collar crimes and devised rules to strengthen legal tactics for delaying trials. This change had the desired effect of aiding Berlusconi’s defense in his trials for false accounting and embezzlement. It also had the unintended effect of making it more difficult to jail members of the Mafia.

Even with these strictures, Mr Mounk’s final assessment of Professor Viroli’s book is strongly favorable:

Stille and others have described the disastrous economic and legal fallout of Berlusconi’s rule in much greater detail than Viroli. But Viroli, in his own way, paints an even more memorable portrait of Italy’s new ruling class. His description of Berlusconi as a signore is on the money. And while the servility of Berlusconi’s hangers-on may have been self-imposed, it still raises the central paradox of Berlusconiland. Absolute monarchs are able to cow their courtiers into submission by wielding the implicit threat of pain, imprisonment or execution. Berlusconi never had such tyrannical powers. Even so, his underlings acted as if they were mere courtiers—apparently, the hope of getting rich was quite enough to keep them in line. This makes the Italian case all the more relevant at a time when the superrich and their political enablers seek to wield ever more influence over democracies in a climate of austerity. It seems that to achieve their purposes, our would-be masters need not impede our rights or liberties: the promise of a farthing of their vast riches might be quite enough to turn many of us into docile servants.

Elsewhere in the issue, David Sarasohn contributes a piece with the resoundingly neo-Roman title “The Treason of the Senate,” in which he looks back to a series of essays published in 1906 and concludes that all the forms of corruption that marked the US Senate in the Gilded Age have reemerged and been joined by new evils.  Sarah Wildman’s “Israel’s New Left Goes Online” promoted a webzine called +972, which presents itself above all else as independent of ideological and institutional constraints characteristic of the Israel/ Palestine conflict.  Someone like old Gaius Acilius would certainly have been alarmed at a process that empowers extremist minorities and reduces citizens to dependence on increasingly professionalized security forces, so he likely would have understood +972s goals, whatever conclusion he might ultimately have reached regarding their politics.  Chris Savage writes of “The Scandal of Michigan’s Emergency Managers,” officials appointed by that state’s governor to replace elected municipal governments of whom he disapproves.  I think that someone in the republican tradition would say that the true scandal of this system is that there is no citizenry jealous of its rights that rises up in revolt when the governor pulls this stunt.  That same governor, incidentally, is the topic of Patricia J. Williams’ column in this issue; though he is a member of something called the Republican Party, he could hardly be called an heir of the republican tradition.

I’ll mention just one other piece, a review essay by Paula Findlen called “Galileo’s Credo.”  At various points in the development of the republican tradition, Galileo has been a powerful symbol of the autonomous individual maintaining his honor by refusing to knuckle under to the overweening power of a court.  Professor Findlen notes that as a young man, Galileo and his friends laughed at literal-minded neo-Romans who favored Latin over the vernacular and went about wearing togas.  Yet in his resistance to the demands of the Vatican, surely Galileo lived as the stubbornly independent noblemen of the old Res Publica would have recommended.

No representation without taxation?

Years and years ago, I read this essay by British Libertarian J. C. Lester someplace online.  The credit here says 2001; either my memory is deceiving me or that date is in error, as I distinctly recall reading it on a computer I last used in 1997.  Anyway, it’s old.  Lester argues that people who receive more money from the state than they pay in taxes should not be allowed to vote:

Why should people who are not taxpayers be allowed to vote money away from those who are? If we must have state services, it should at least be for those who pay for them to vote for which services they want and how much they wish to pay. To allow those providing, or living off, the services to vote is like allowing a shopkeeper to vote on what you must buy from him, or a beggar to vote on what you must give him.

This would exclude state employees, people living on public benefit, and the destitute from voting.  And not only them:

So who does not pay taxes and so ought not to have an electoral vote? Judges, state-school teachers, all in local government, state policemen, all in the armed forces, all in prison, all in the NHS, all in the civil service, all employees of the BBC, all the unemployed, all in academia (except, perhaps, in the private University of Buckingham), some farmers, some solicitors, maybe some barristers, any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments, and MPs with insufficient taxed market-incomes to cover their salaries. I cannot list them all, but you see the size of the problem.

Indeed, the problem grows still further:

There are some who are on the periphery of net tax-receiving and whom it will not be possible to distinguish with certainty. These people receive most of their income from purchases by state institutions or state employees. The latter is especially hard to be sure of. For instance, those working for The Guardian and New Statesman & Society might just fit this category. But if it is too hard to prove then they might have to be given the benefit of the doubt. Though if the state sector shrinks, due to a new Taxpayer Democracy, then enterprises will decline to the extent that they necessarily depend on indirect state patronage.

I would say that this periphery is much larger even than Lester grants.  What is a tax?  Not only revenue that finds its way into government coffers, but any expenditure that we make solely because of government policy must be regarded as tax.  So, if the tax code says that we may either write a check for <i>x</i> amount to the state or give <i>y</i> amount to a particular charity, and we choose to give <i>y</i> because it is a smaller amount than <i>x</i>, we have not simply avoided tax- we have simply paid an alternative tax.  Those who receive more income from such an alternative tax would be as much disqualified from voting under Lester’s proposal as would those whom Lester identifies as state employees.

This group might be very large indeed.  Consider the USA.  Income American corporations receive is subject to a federal tax that averages a rate of 27%.  Yet the Internal Revenue Service collects very few dollars from the largest American corporations.  This is because the tax code provides many alternative ways of paying that tax.  Among the expenditures that count toward paying federal tax are payroll expenses, including not only hourly wages, but also salaries and various other forms of compensation, including health insurance premiums.  This fact goes a long way towards explaining why executives at American firms are paid so much more generously than are their counterparts in other countries.  Companies compete to hire high-powered executives, they don’t compete to see who can send the biggest check to Uncle Sam.  It also helps to explain why US health insurance costs spiral upward so much more rapidly than inflation.  The employers pay the insurance bills, but they don’t pay with their own money.

Under Lester’s system, then, if your income comes from the health insurance business, your right to vote might be challenged.  Likewise if you are a top corporate executive.  If your pay is higher than the norm for people like you in other countries with different tax regimes, and the difference between your pay and theirs is greater than the total amount you pay in taxes, then you are a net recipient of tax and would therefore expect to be disenfranchised under the Lester plan.

Lester bases his argument on the idea that people should act for the sake of their own interests.  If tax recipients no longer have the power to impose obligations on taxpayers, the resulting “Taxpayers’ Republic” will create the minimal state that he wishes to see.   Here Lester shows  that his goal is freedom from state bureaucracy.  Some time ago, I posted an idea here that, because the main characteristic of modern society is a high level of bureaucratization, to us moderns “freedom” must mean either freedom from bureaucracy, freedom as a product of bureaucracy, or freedom as a way of operating within a bureaucracy.  I call this little model “the three freedoms.”  Lester’s proposal might very well curb state bureaucracy, but it’s hard to see how it would contain the power of corporate bureaucracies generated and raised to a high level of efficiency by the market.

A very different argument, reaching a similar conclusion, recently gained a flurry of attention.  Pat Sajak, who for decades has hosted the US version of the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune, suggested on his blog that public sector employees should not vote on matters that affect their departments.  While Sajak’s conclusion is reminiscent of Lester’s, he proceeds from almost exactly the opposite premise.  Sajak writes:

None of my family and friends is allowed to appear on Wheel of Fortune. Same goes for my kids’ teachers or the guys who rotate my tires. If there’s not a real conflict of interest, there is, at least, the appearance of one. On another level, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from nearly half the cases this session due to her time as solicitor general. In nearly all private and public endeavors, there are occasions in which it’s only fair and correct that a person or group be barred from participating because that party could directly and unevenly benefit from decisions made and policies adopted. So should state workers be able to vote in state elections on matters that would benefit them directly? The same question goes for federal workers in federal elections.

Sajak goes on to grant that other voters seek their own self-interest as well, but claims that the intensity of a public sector employee’s concern for his or her continued employment is likely to make his or her voting behavior qualitatively different than the behavior of a taxpayer who wants to reduce state spending.  That taxpayer will have other interests that s/he might balance, while the state employee will not be likely to take anything else into consideration if his or her livelihood is immediately at stake.

While Lester wants to create a space free from state bureaucracy in which people will be at liberty to pursue their own interests, Sajak wants to ensure that state bureaucracy functions as an impersonal, disinterested mechanism that produces freedom for the people outside it by guaranteeing that the people inside it merely follow the rules of the mechanism.  In terms of “the three freedoms,” Sajak wants the freedom that is a product of bureaucracy.

I would suggest that the “three freedoms” model might be useful in structuring a reply to both Lester and Sajak.  Perhaps an agenda to support freedom in a modern society requires us to address all three of these freedoms at once.  Sajak’s reform might enable the state to create greater freedom for its clients, thus promoting the freedom that bureaucracy produces.  Let us suppose that Lester’s reform would reduce bureaucratization of both the public and private sectors, thus promoting the freedom that can exist where bureaucracy is held at bay.  Clearly, however, either reform would label members of the state bureaucracy and of the other bureaucracies aligned with it as a servile class.  That labeling would surely make those bureaucracies less likely to be places where people could work in freedom, which in turn would make society at large a more servile place.

The Atlantic, September 2009

atlantic september 2009David Goldhill’s piece about health policy identifies the main problem with the current US system as health insurance.  Not the fact that so many people lack health insurance, or the way health insurers operate, or any of the usual complaints, but in the sheer fact that Americans pay for health care primarily by means of health insurance.  Goldhill argues that this payment system strips patients of the ability to make informed decisions about their own care, subjects health care providers to a regime of incentives that are unrelated to the rationality of the marketplace, and inflates the costs of health care to unsustainable levels.  Goldhill proposes a far-reaching plan to replace this system. 

Under Goldhill’s plan, the government would operate an insurance plan that would provide coverage to every American who faced catastrophic health care expenses; that plan would, in time, “ultimately replace Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance.”  It would pay only for genuinely catastrophic expenses.  Goldhill acknowledges that it would be difficult to define the limit of “catastrophic,” and discusses various dollar amounts that might be used as a cutoff.  Perhaps a percentage of national median income would be a better determinant than any absolute number of dollars, but Goldhill doesn’t bring that up. 

The second part of Goldhill’s plan are Health Savings Accounts.  Already in existence, these tax-sheltered accounts would under Goldhill’s plan be mandatory for all Americans, and would be the source from which virtually all health care would be paid.  Goldhill proposes that the government should subsidize low-income Americans with direct payments to their Health Savings Accounts, so that everyone would have at least as much money in his or her Health Savings Account as any patient would likely be able to claim from Medicare or Medicaid today.  The difference is that under Goldhill’s system, the patients themselves would be the ones writing the checks to health care providers.  The providers would then have to compete for patients.  That competition would take the mystery out of health care prices, and would give health care providers an economic incentive to keep prices down and quality of service up. 

Goldhill’s system would also give health-care providers an incentive to adopt best practices, breaking down resistance from entrenched stakeholders.  As an example of such resistance, Goldhill opens the piece with the story of his father’s death from a hospital-borne infection in 2007.  Remarking that about 100,000 Americans die of hospital-borne infections annually, Goldhill brings up Dr. Peter Pronovost, who has developed a checklist of simple disinfection procedures.  Hospitals which have adopted Dr Pronovost’s checklist have seen deaths by hospital-borne infection decline by about 2/3.  Yet most hospitals have refused to adopt the checklist, backing down in the face of doctors who are offended that anyone would suggest they need to be reminded to keep clean.  Goldhill closes the piece by asking us:

Imagine my father’s hospital had to present the bill for his “care” not to a government bureaucracy, but to my grieving mother. Do you really believe that the hospital—forced to face the victim of its poor-quality service, forced to collect the bill from the real customer—wouldn’t have figured out how to make its doctors wash their hands?

(more…)

Liberty and Bureaucracy

The Rebecca Solnit piece linked below, together with some recent conversations I’ve had with LeFalcon and VThunderlad, have got me thinking about what we twenty-first century types mean when we use words like “freedom” and “liberty.”  I’m wondering if we can’t update Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” a bit.  Perhaps when we moderns talk about freedom, we are talking about how individuals relate to bureaucracies.  This sets us apart from the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Bureaucracy in the modern sense scarcely existed in ancient times; nor was the individual the  basic unit of society.  It was the household which was the locus of rights and responsibilities.  Challenges which a single household could not meet were met by groupings of households, either traditional groupings based on kinship relations or more-or-less temporary, informal relations based on physical propinquity.  In the absence of bureaucracies that could define their clients and members as parts of a community, it was the ability to form cooperative groupings that made a community.  The ancients, therefore, tended to see freedom as a property, not of individuals in isolation, but of independent households, of men acting as representatives of those households, and of concerted efforts made by collections of households.

If on the other hand we define freedom as the individual’s relationship to bureaucracy, what do we mean when we say that we want to be free? Sometimes we mean that we want to rebel against bureaucracy, to escape from the infantilizing effects of dependence on bureaucracy.  This can lead to absurd extremes; if we do not have a concept of community apart from the bureaucratic organizations that bear the community’s name, this anti-bureaucratic idea of freedom could keep us from calling anyone free but a solitary creature like the Cyclops.  And many among us do not seem to have such a concept of community; the attempt to build a communitarian movement that got so much publicity back in the early 1990s seems to have foundered on the difficulty of talking to modern people about community and eliciting a response that is about anything other than bureaucracies.  Many libertarians seem to be numbered among those who lack a concept of community as something other than bureaucracy.  Libertarians often make penetrating remarks about the dangers of state bureaucracy, but then go on to talk as if corporate bureaucracies were not fraught with the same dangers.  Indeed, if the forces of the market  make the bureaucracies that are subject to them more efficient at meeting the needs of their clients than are bureaucracis that don’t compete for clients, then we would expect market-generated bureaucracies to reduce their clients to dependence, and thus to infantilize them, more rapidly and more thoroughly than do state monopolies. 

Other times we say that we want freedom, and we mean that we want some benefit that a bureaucracy can give us.  So in the 1940s when Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the “Four Freedoms“- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want- he clearly thought of these as the products of bureaucratic efficiency.  An effective anti-poverty bureaucracy would ensure freedom from want; an effective national-security bureaucracy would ensure freedom from fear; an effective judicial bureaucracy would ensure freedom of religion and of speech, freedoms which in turn would allow people to express themselves by creating denominational bureaucracies for their religious groups and partisan bureaucracies for those who shared their political views.  When Americans today call for a public-sector guarantee of health care for all, they are asking for this kind of freedom.  When other Americans oppose such a guarantee, some are motivated by a concept of freedom as rebellion against bureaucracy, but others are motivated by a belief that the private sector bureaucracies of insurance companies offer a more efficient way of providing freedom from the fear of illness and freedom from the want that often follows illness. 

Still other times when we say that we want freedom, we mean that we want to play a particular role within a bureaucratic organization.  Academic freedom is an obvious example of this concept of liberty.  Professors are free to use their own judgment in teaching their courses and in delivering opinions about topics within their fields of expertise.  Which courses they will teach, what field of expertise is theirs, and what topics lie within each field of expertise are all questions that are answered by continuous bureaucratic activity.  The idea that freedom is a category of roles within bureaucracies can be found also at the heart of the labor movement.  What rules a union sets for the workforce of its shop is a less vital concern than the fact that there are rules in the shop which came from the union.  What deal emerges from collective bargaining is less important than the fact that management is obligated to sit down with the representatives of labor and come to consensus with them. 

Perhaps the concept of liberty as a way of operating within a bureaucracy has been very influential in making the modern world.  When there was a live controversy about whether women should go out of the household to work in bureaucratic organizations, the women’s movement put a great deal of emphasis on the freedom women would gain by participating in the workforce.  This would have been unintelligible in the ancient world, where work in the household was appropriate to free people, while work for wages was proper only to slaves.  In the modern world, by contrast, going out of the household and into wage labor is a sign of freedom, if that wage labor means an opportunity to have an impact on the operations of a bureaucracy.  

The antislavery movement may be another case of liberty conceived as something found within bureaucracy.  Abolitionism was at once a movement against slavery and a movement in support of wage labor.  While the ancient Greeks and Romans might have seen that as a contradiction, it did not seem so by that time.  The ancients would have understood the slogan “forty acres and a mule.”   A grant of land and the means to support a household by farming it would open the way to the creation of a self-sufficient agricultural household.   That would have chartered the kind of freedom they could appreciate.  The freedom merely to leave the master’s household, to venture out as an isolated individual and to enter the world of bureaucracy, whether as a job-seeker or as a client needing services, would not have seemed to them to be freedom at all.   We moderns, on the other hand, find the purest promise of freedom in the African American elected officials and government employees of the Reconstruction era, and the most natural support of freedom in the operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

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