Why We Get Paralysis

Why can’t we have a smoothly-functioning democratically representative government? Because those other guys won’t compromise!

I can see how the linked poll creates a perception that there is equivalency of fault for paralysis in government such as we see now in Washington. But this is not necessarily the case. Impasse is possible in negotiations with all permutations of reasonability. Nevertheless, complex, difficult decisions induce paralysis when presented to the public at large — whether this presentation be made through free market or democratic mechanisms.

Resolved: sooner rather than later when the body politic is confronted with problems that require selection of the least bad amongst several bad options by way of analysis of deferred benefits and expenses, the public lacks the sophistication necessary to navigate such decisions and therefore those individuals who hold public office must stop simply trying to represent their constituents and start exercising their best independent judgment, and this point is reached sooner rather than later when confronting these tough decisions.*

I’ve got to be in court for the rest of the morning. So discuss amongst yourselves, although it’s become obvious to the casual observer that in present circumstances, we’ve passed this point. Also: I intend the above observation to have application beyond the current mess in Washington; I think it’s a generally universal truism that small groups of decision-makers are more likely to break out of impasse in tough decisions than large groups of decision-makers.

 

* Damn, that’s a long sentence. If I had more time, I’d have written a shorter one.

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50 thoughts on “Why We Get Paralysis

  1. The USA don’t want to empower anyone to make the tough decision. We elect these folksy Man of the People types for this reason. We don’t like smart people and never have. Look at that dumbass Ronald Reagan or his zombie revenant George W Bush. These guys can get elected and re-elected. Bush41, a thoughtful guy, sense of duty and even — horrors! — the good sense to compromise for the sake of good government and doing the needful, such as these cannot be re-elected. The only reason Bush41 was elected in the first place was because he had better oppo and slimers on his team.

    Most of this country genuinely like dumb people. That’s because they are dumb, too. Fox News has made fortunes pandering to these pillowheads. Americans like being told what they want to hear, comforting stuff, simple answers to tough problems, tub thumping about the Way Things Oughta Be.

    Politics has become a sport. I’m a sports fan, after a fashion. I enjoy keeping up with cricket, the Packers and LSU football. But for me, it’s more like a chess game, I’d rather see a well-played game between good players than a blowout. American football is great: a wily quarterback, fast, elusive receivers, a well-executed plan which never survives the first few seconds of the play, watching everyone adapt, struggle, succeed or fail. Skill and luck. Fortune favours the prepared. Hugely intelligent game, football.

    American politics used to be far more interesting than it’s become in the last two decades. You’d think, as emotions rose and the stakes got higher, we’d see a better game. It’s only gotten dumber. Are these Congress Critters more stupid than they used to be? I don’t think so. I think it’s We the People who’ve gotten dumber, more bitter, less amenable to taking our opponents seriously. In sports, nobody has the luxury of taking their opponents for granted. Bad pass coverage and even a third string guy can get a touchdown. Football has evolved under pressure. Politics hasn’t.

    We elected these partisan dumbasses. That’s the bad thing about democracy, the government reflects the people. Voter participation hasn’t been good lately, so the only people who vote are the Single Issue Johnnies. Lately, it’s become popular to run against government itself — is there anything more callous and ignorant? Yeah, send me to Washington to become part of government — so I can sail the entire nation up onto a reef, put the nation’s finances in peril — because Barack Obama is trying to solve the problem of health care.

    The gods answer prayers. They answer stupid prayers first. This nation isn’t paralysed. It’s frozen in catatonic rage.

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  2. We get paralysis because the structure of our democracy allows the minority party to successfully obstruct the majority party (unlike England) and because in the current environment, at least, the GOP minority has every incentive to do so (it’s better for fundraising, they get cheered by Fox news et. al., and they won’t get primaried).

    While we have always had the structural issue, the incentive issue is fairly new. You can pick your reason for it (segregation and the southern democrats blurred party lines, politicians used to have shared respect from their service in WWII and other wars, etc.) but it’s an admitted fact that the GOP minority now wants to deny Obama everything he can’t pass with pure Democratic support. And Obama hasn’t been able to pass anything that way since Kennedy died.

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    • Parliamentary systems seem to encourage the creation of numerous parties, some of which have easier times ideologically forming coalitions than others. But those coalitions seem to be relatively unstable — governments collapse and reform with great frequency in places like Italy, Israel, and (recently) Australia.

      Australia seems a poignant example as the root cause of the Aussies’ recent spate of governmental re-permutations appears to be a fissure within the Labour Party rather than either the Tories gaining popularity or third parties fragmenting out of coalition with the Labourites.

      When a Parliamentary government suffers a no confidence vote, there is a different kind of governmental paralysis — Parliament dissolves, and little other business gets done on anything other than an interim basis until there are new elections and a new government results.

      So I don’t think a switch to a Parliamentary system cures the disease; I’d agree that it changes the symptoms somewhat, but the basic problem of resolving difficult questions in a democracy remains.

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      • It should be pointed out that in Australia, there are basically two coalitions: The Labor Party, and the Liberal/LNP/National coalition. It’s different than the truly multi-party (3+) democracies, despite the preferential vote.

        What I find interesting is that if we had a system more conducive to third parties, it would actually probably end up looking like Australia’s. If there was even that much deviation.

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      • Sure, but in that system when a party wins it actually enacts its agenda. If people hate that agenda, they hold another election.

        It’s hard to see how anything significant gets passed in our country again, since neither party is likely to have 60 senators AND the presidency AND the house and there is no effing way the Democrats won’t abuse the filibuster the way the GOP has if they’re in the 41-49 member minority.

        I know that seems strong, but we’ve had a MUCH longer run under a presidential checks/balances system than anyone else, and I’m having trouble seeing how we govern much longer.

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      • @burt-likko;

        is right, the reason so many parliamentary systems have many parties is because they tend to have proportional or semi-proportional voting systems. The UK is strictly First Past the Post and they have three large parties. New Zealand was a two-party country until we introduced a Mixed-Member Proportional voting system.

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      • ,

        I don’t dispute that parliamentary systems tend to have more and smaller parties.

        Duverger’s law. The more important distinction is not parliamentary or presidential systems but the electoral method. Single member districts with first-past the post voting tends towards 2 party systems (or at least tends to punish third parties). Proportional voting systems, multi-member districts, and preferential voting systems tend to be more accommodating to more parties.

        I think it is not necessarily about better or worse, it is about a series of tradeoffs one makes when designing a democratic system. Chiefly in this instance between representativeness and clear lines of accountability. For voting systems that means the more preferences you allow the people to express at the ballot box, the less clear the lines of accountability system-wide. Even in parliamentary systems, multiple parties can mean third parties hold decisive power, as kingmakers, out of all proportion to the percentage of votes they obtained.

        For parliamentary vs. presidential systems, the tradeoff between representativeness and accountability is similar. A party in government in parliament is responsible in a way that a US president, even supposing his party controlled the Senate and House, is not. In parliamentary systems, parties can be expected to carry out their platforms in a way that is rarely the case in US politics. Hence, the increased the prospect in parliamentary governance of providing decisive answers to difficult questions. Whereas the US tends towards creating omnibus Christmas tree monstrosities that take a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

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      • I think I understand, and . Based on ‘s remark (“…the more preferences you allow the people to express at the ballot box, the less clear the lines of accountability system-wide.”) then is the contention that as compared to a direct-representative, first-past-the-pole system of choosing legislators, if legislators are chosen in a way producing less clear lines of accountability rendered more free to make unpopular decisions without fear of reprisal, and consequently such legislators are more capable of tackling difficult questions?

        This is a clever idea. And it could be implemented, albeit at a state-by-state level, right now in the United States. No Constitutional amendment needed, if it could survive a challenge under what’s left of the Voting Rights Act. The trade-off would be, as you say, less clear lines of accountability to voters — voters who claim to already despise and distrust their legislators as a whole.

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      • if legislators are chosen in a way producing less clear lines of accountability rendered more free to make unpopular decisions without fear of reprisal, and consequently such legislators are more capable of tackling difficult questions?

        It’s not that so much as who is held responsible, individual legislators or the party. If we in the U.S. all loved our own legislators while despising their party–or at least how the legislature is functioning and it’s output, our legislators would still be accountable to us, but elections would produce no change despite massive discontent.

        Change the system so that we vote for parties instead of individuals, and then the discontent effects a change in party control of the legislature.

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      • if legislators are chosen in a way producing less clear lines of accountability rendered more free to make unpopular decisions without fear of reprisal, and consequently such legislators are more capable of tackling difficult questions?

        No, I think I’m arguing the opposite. Clear lines of accountability means greater ease at answering difficult questions. The way I’d put it is there are fewer places for policymakers to hide in first past the post, parliamentary systems. The executive being fused to the legislature, and there being two major competitors for votes, you can’t blame the filibuster, or minority party intransigence for failing to answer difficult questions. The executive is continually accountable for the conduct of government, and it is fairly clear who made what decision. First past the post, parliamentary systems exert strong pressure towards crafting coherent policy approaches, with far less need to bring onboard competing viewpoints. You can sensibly say the UK Prime Minister is responsible for government policy from top to bottom that isn’t really true of a US President. That’s my take anyway.

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      • You still seem to be stuck on proportional representation rather than a parliamentary system. A parliamentary system is one with an interlinked executive and legislature, and they typically have strong party systems. Also in a Parliamentary system being able to control the Budget is a prerequisite for being the government.

        Parliamentary systems lack paralysis because they are engineered not to get paralysed on critical issues. If the government does freeze up it gets rebooted (through a new election) rather than staying frozen until the existing government can sort itself out.

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      • The trade-off would be, as you say, less clear lines of accountability to voters — voters who claim to already despise and distrust their legislators as a whole.

        The Jameses and Creon have mostly covered the topic, but to chop it a little more finely, the way a preferrential ballot system with party preference votes and multi member districts works, is that essentially you get a lot small parties that act in the way that the various factions in the political parties act right now.

        So instead of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul being Republicans, you’d see a Assertion of State Sovereignty Party, and an Objectivists for Democratic Defiance Party.

        Now in turn one of the things that a PR system generally creates is extremely disciplined parties. It’s very rare for backbenchers to go and hijack a party’s agenda like the GOP’s are doing right now. In turn, it then becomes easier for voters to put the entire party membership responsible when their preferences aren’t met. Hence why you have shifts in coalition membership.

        It’s worth remembering that Single Member Distrct, First Past the Post systems with non-transferable votes in the US essentially create “accountability” so much as blame shifting away from your individual congressman. Remember that the approval ratings for generic congresses or generic ballots don’t take into account the fact that voters are likely to treat their own representatives much more leniently than others in their party. As a consequence, even when that party fails to produce results, they’re likely to excuse the individual politician’s culpability and transfer their animus to someone else. In a PR system, it’s more likely voters will blame the party instead, and simply vote them out of office.

        And yes, constitutionally there’s nothing that’d prevent a state from apportioning representatives through preferential voting in multi-member districts. HOWEVER, there is actually a federal statute that prevents it. (Partly because SMDs have higher incumbency advantages).

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  3. Resolved: sooner rather than later when the body politic is confronted with problems that require selection of the least bad amongst several bad options by way of analysis of deferred benefits and expenses, the public lacks the sophistication necessary to navigate such decisions and therefore those individuals who hold public office must stop simply trying to represent their constituents and start exercising their best independent judgment, and this point is reached sooner rather than later when confronting these tough decisions.

    I will take the negative, if I am reading the premise correctly.

    The overwhelming trend in American history is to defer hard choices for as long as possible, until the point of irresolvable crisis is thrust upon everyone, and then becomes a near (or total) existential threat to Nation.

    The first, and of course, most famous, was the existence of slavery, which informed most of the big compromises in the Constitution, and then led to 80 years of further political compromises to kick the can down the road in order to keep the United States together at all costs. Until at last the irresistible force finally met the immovable object and we got the Civil War. Which in turn was followed by a 90 year coda of second class citizenship for black Americans, rooted in a bargain to restore ostensible national unity and keep political coalitions together.

    But at every point on the way, everyone was indeed representing their constituents. Even – especially – the giants that are considered statesmen today, like Webster, Clay, and, yes, Lincoln.

    You ‘win’ in American politics when your policy preferences can support a constituency that enable you to achieve your goals. You win in American history when those goals are the right thing to do.

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    • I’d say that slavery was an intractable problem, susceptible of delay rather than solution for so long, precisely because it appeared that there were no good solutions for it. So political decision-makers had to instead select the least bad solution, and found that they could only rarely summon up substantial support for “least bad” responses. Result: paralysis, manifesting in the form of delay.

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  4. I’ll argue that scale has something to do with it. Representative democracy works up to a certain scale and then falls apart. I’ll pick two states at random: Massachusetts and Mississippi. They have different geography, different weather, different degrees of urbanization, different histories, different cultures… and as a result they’re not going to agree on the proper approach to many problems. Given a sufficiently large geographic span, such differences and the resulting frictions are inevitable. The Euro zone is giving us another good example: a single set of currency and fiscal policies for Germany and Greece seems like a good idea, but in practice the differences in those two makes it difficult.

    In the past, people have argued against this with, “But California, 1850…” In 1850 there were few national policies outside of the military and manifest destiny. States were largely left to themselves, or to work out some things with their neighbors. A few years after that we decided that there would be one national policy on slavery, and killed 750,000 people making it so. There are a lot more national policies today, and the list continues to grow. Increasing friction and paralysis over them seems inevitable.

    You can’t deal with fundamental regional differences with state-level policies under the current rules. There have been a number of posts lately about national health care policy and adverse selection. The state-level version of that is people living in low-tax states while they’re healthy and then moving to high-tax states with universal (or at least much more generous) coverage when they’re seriously ill. If I move to Massachusetts, register to vote there, register my car there, and get a Massachusetts drivers license, I’m a citizen within a month or so. Sell me that guaranteed-issue community-rated-premium policy and treat my cancer.

    Bust the US up into three or four countries and watch a bunch of the paralysis disappear inside the individual countries.

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    • Of course, there are those who deny that regional differences are as significant today as they were in the 1850’s. I’m agnostic about that question; I perceive more cultural homogeneity now than then, but I think geography itself imposes similarity in approaches on a regional basis — the large arid spaces of the west play out in all sorts of policies that make less sense in better-watered and more densely-populated areas as one moves east, among other things. Personally, I’m particularly interested in water policy but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other sorts of differences that manifest geographically too.

      I think the test of this might be whether scale itself is the issue or whether scale overlaps with other incidents of geography. Let’s say we had the Constitutional ability to reconstitute states and fragment the United States into smaller, independent nations, in which we would reconstitute states without much regard for existing state boundaries. How would we do it, and would those new nations have functioning democracies? Marrying, say, Texas and Oklahoma that way, or Wisconsin and Minnesota, seems like it would likely work well (sports rivalries aside, there’s a lot of economic and geographic common ground between those neighbors), but would a consolidated California, Arizona, and Nevada be able to form a functional autonomous democratic government (maybe it would still be too large)? How about a consolidated Georgia and Florida?

      The living experiment for this, I think, is Europe. Europe has been straining at and failing to form democratic consensus for a pan-European constitution for fifteen years or more now. The various supranational European governmental entities are only intermittently effective, and each individual European nation has policies that are on a grand scale similar to one another but at the granular level are often quite different in intent, implementation, and effect. It may be easy to get from France to Germany these days, but it isn’t long before you’re reminded that you have indeed crossed a national boundary even disregarding a difference in the prevailing vernacular. So how functional are European democracies?

      My opinion is that they all seem to become less functional as the choices become more difficult. Take even a very strong system of government like Germany’s, and confront it with a difficult issue like whether or not Greece should either be bailed out or expelled from the EU. A decision got made, which was probably the least bad available choice from a long-term perspective, but it was difficult and took a heavy hand by Chancellor Merkl, for which she suffered a loss of internal political standing.

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      • Whenever I spend time with my rural Kansas in-laws, I become convinced that cultural homogeneity in the US is greatly overstated. Yes, same language, same clothing, same holidays, some commonality of music. But two radically different views of what’s happening in the country. On their side, a view that the country is rapidly abandoning all of its important principles. On my side, that the country is slowly learning lessons that the rest of the developed world figured out a considerable time ago.

        One critical cultural difference: I’m sorry, rural Kansas, but “Budweiser and Miller Lite” is not an acceptable answer to the question of what’s on tap.

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      • Unlike Europe, though, we completely support HUGE wealth transfers from richer states to poorer ones. You don’t have Californians or New Yorkers taking to the streets to protest the fact that their taxes pay for services in other states. Europe’s problems are very different.

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      • Actually, California is a break-even state the last time I checked.

        Traditionally, the urban states are money-makers, and the rural states are money-losers. But California is basically an urban state with a rural state or two bolted onto it’s side–excess tax money from LA and the Bay area goes to Bakersfield, Stockton, and Redding.

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      • The borders really wouldn’t have changed that much since the civil war. Why would they be less stable now? Granted, I’d favor maintaining the current state borders and allowing for like minded coalitions that could be more or less fluid.

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      • Maybe I’m confused about this, but why wouldn’t you just get the exact same type of paralysis in those newly formed countries? I don’t see how ensmallening geographic regions will prevent paralysis. That’s a function of the structure of our government, it seems to me.

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      • Undoubtedly this would be true of some places. The more purple or equally balanced the more the struggle would continue. The NE and the South, not to mention the PNW, would become very different rather quickly I’d think.

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      • Still, I think the idea is that despite their very different political leanings, Idaho and Washington would be better able to iron out their differences without the involvement of Alabama and Massachusetts. At least, if that’s not MC’s idea, I think it’s true.

        Cascadia, as long as you make it state by state (some of which you could maybe cut in half), you’d probably be okay. Doing it like congressional districts, though, where you are slicing through neighborhoods based on some mathematical formula… bad idea. People move, things do change (particularly within states). Beyond that, there are considerations beyond politics: water access, energy concerns, etc.

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      • The borders really wouldn’t have changed that much since the civil war.

        A hundred years ago, the rural areas of the prairie and upper Great Plains states were solidly progressive: expanding the voting franchise, true believers in the need of the federal government to protect people from predation by large corporations, etc. Today, not so much — which is a pretty gross understatement.

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      • That’s also true. People forget the progressivism of ruralia past. Montana’s employment laws are a throwback to that era. North Dakota has a fascinating history that would seek almost alien today (“State ownership of the mills!”). Sometimes, ideology follows politics, rather than vice-versa.

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      • Trumwill, during the late 19th and early 20th century rural America was often at the forefront of leftist politics in America in many ways. The Populists were a rural movement and the Socialist Party did decently in local and state elections in the Plains State. West Virginia was never what you could call urban but it had some of the most militant working class population in the United States.

        Than the Civil Rights movement came along.

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      • The Civil Rights movement was more integral in some parts of the country than other parts of the country. Movement towards the GOP started earlier in the plains and Mountain West. Nationalism played a role (socialism became Communist became that thing that Soviets believe). Eisenhower vs Stevenson started setting the stage for parts of the country, from a cultural standpoint. The politics followed the culture. The ideology followed the politics.

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      • (socialism became Communist became that thing that Soviets believe)

        Many years ago when I was a lad, my rural Iowa grandfather would tell me stories from the Great Depression. I was always fond of the ones about the respectful hearing the Communist Party representatives would get at the Grange Hall, advocating violent overthrow of the federal government. Iowa had documented instances of sheriffs getting tarred and feathered for attempting to foreclose on farm properties. Worth noting that rural America was in pretty sad shape even before the Depression — the Roaring 20’s was very much an urban phenomenon.

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      • People forget the progressivism of ruralia past. Montana’s employment laws are a throwback to that era.

        Colorado still has a public pension written into the state constitution. If you are poor enough and a legal resident of the state, you qualify. A few years back there was a small scandal because legal immigrants brought in under a federal program, where a sponsor agrees to be responsible for the immigrant’s financial needs, were filing for the state pension within a month of arriving. The pension doesn’t pay enough to really matter these days; but if you qualify for the pension, you automatically qualify for Medicaid under a state waiver.

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      • Alaska used to a Democratic/purpleish state. In the 70’s when oil was discovered and the cash started to flow we set up our PFD ( the fund that takes some oil wealth and distributes it yearly.) I’ve heard a number of Republicans say if we tried to do that now it would never pass. The oil companies wouldn’t put up with it.

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      • Still, I think the idea is that despite their very different political leanings, Idaho and Washington would be better able to iron out their differences without the involvement of Alabama and Massachusetts. At least, if that’s not MC’s idea, I think it’s true.

        To amplify on Will’s point here with an example of regional solidarity, consider the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. It said that public lands in the West — about 45% of the area of the 11 contiguous western states, even more of Alaska — and the water, fire, and development decisions that went with that land ownership would remain in federal hands in perpetuity. The Act passed without a single vote from the Congressional delegations of the states it was intended to affect. Regionally, it was regarded as a slap in the face: “You’re not responsible enough to be trusted with those decisions. We may let you express an opinion, but the decisions will be made by people 2,000 miles away. People, the majority of whom’s constituency will never set foot on any of those large land holdings.” Liberal and conservative didn’t matter — they all voted against the Act.

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      • “You can’t deal with fundamental regional differences with state-level policies under the current rules. ”

        The assumption seems to be that fundamental regional differences necessarily need to be dealt with, rather than allowing different regions to have differences.

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    • If I move to Massachusetts, register to vote there, register my car there, and get a Massachusetts drivers license, I’m a citizen within a month or so. Sell me that guaranteed-issue community-rated-premium policy and treat my cancer.

      States have this issue with subsidized college tuition. Many solve it by requiring students to live in the state for a certain amount of time in some capacity other than as a college student. They could solve this issue similarly. Make new residents ineligible for community rating for the first few years of living in a state, or charge them rates equal to what they would have had to pay for the same coverage in their prior state of residence.

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      • It’s been tried, in all sorts of different ways. Outside of divorce proceedings and in-state tuition, the Supreme Court has taken a very dim view of state attempts to create two classes of citizens. This would seem to be particularly relevant in a case, like Massachusetts, where there’s an individual mandate that citizens must purchase health insurance.

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  5. When somebody throws out all the food in the house except for shit sandwiches, it is not a compromise to eat a shit sandwich instead of going to the store for more food.

    It is also not negotiating to hide the car keys and stop anyone going to the store.

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  6. “…individuals who hold public office must stop simply trying to represent their constituents and start exercising their best independent judgment…”

    I’ve long wondered which of these we really ought to see as the primary role of an elected official. Do they serve as the mouth piece of their constituents? Or do they serve to work in their best interests? The common understanding of “representative”, a term which we often use to describe these people (sometimes formally and sometimes informally) points towards the former, but can just as easily and accurately apply to the latter.

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    • Because, the reality is, if we really do mean the former… than the only qualifications a voter ought to consider is, “Does this person agree with me?” Everything else would really be secondary.

      Which might be what most people ultimately do. But we waste so much breath talking about qualifications and experience and background and the like that I have to assume there is at least some idea that we must pretend that stuff matters.

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    • I don’t need or want someone to do things for my own good. I have found that when someone says they are doing something for your own good it usually means it is for their own good in the end. We do things for and make children do things for their own good. If as an adult I am being told that this has to be done for my own good, I am being told that I can not think for myself or reason for myself.

      There is a difference in my estimation when electing someone whose judgement we respect, who we give the authority to negotiate laws on our behalf. We are telling them that we don’t have the time or resources to know the nuances on every issue that our government faces. We are not telling them that we are too stupid to make those decisions for ourselves. If they want to pay me to take the time to research, network and make the connections needed to be able to really govern intelligently so be it. But they don’t so I will hire the best person I think for the position. I hired them. I did not adopt them as my parent to make all decisions for me.

      I will question their decision’s, I will critique their decisions. I will fire them if needed (or attempt to).

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