Friday, August 05, 2016

Cruising the Web

Guy Benson ridicules the administration's defense of their $400 million payment to Iran.
f this was all on the up-and-up, why has the administration refused to tell Congress how this payment was furnished? Nothing screams "this is legitimate and required under international law" like flying an unmarked cargo plane packed with foreign currency into a rogue regime's capital -- conduct that the US government typically forbids and punishes. The reason that "any transaction with Iran in US dollars is illegal under US law," and that "it's so hard for them to access things in the international system" is that Iran is designated as the world's leading state sponsor or terrorism. Perhaps "lawmakers express[ed] concern" that Iran would use that money to finance terror and sow regional mayhem because that's that Iran does. President Obama even acknowledged that sanctions relief funds from his reckless nuclear deal might be used for destructive purposes. Iran has already lived up to its evil reputation on this front.

But the very best detail of the entire piece, which includes a long "official story" from the administration (what a great deal for taxpayers!), is the assertion that there was no quid pro quo whatsoever. This assurance is followed almost immediately by the following sentence: "U.S. officials also acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible." How dare you, there was no ransom, stop with the right-wing conspiracies. But yeah, their hostage release negotiators really wanted that cash. An insult to our collective intelligence. Does anyone beyond Obama's most credulous die-hards believe that those prisoners would be free today if that payment hadn't arrived? Anyone?

....Let's play along, for the sake of argument. Let's say this really was just a remarkable, cosmic coincidence. First of all, relatively few people would believe it, because the Obama administration has lied over and over again to the American people about its dealings with Iran. Their credibility is shot, as evidenced by the enduring and richly deserved unpopularity of the nuclear accord, about which we continue to discover unpleasant and unlawful surprises. Secondly, on what planet is the United States of America required to settle a decades-old dispute with Iran's former government -- on the current outlaw regimes terms and timeline, no less? As noted above, Iran is the world's top terror state, currently under sanctions from the entire civilized world for the worst sorts of misconduct. It is preposterous that the administration had no ability to forestall or reject the fulfillment of a non-payment dispute that predates the anti-American revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. Not only is Tehran actively aiding and abetting international terrorism, we've recently discovered that they're harboring senior Al Qaeda officials -- a fact the White House knew, prompting the Treasury Department to impose additional sanctions. And we're supposed to believe that amid that climate, Obama Inc. just coincidentally happened to fly giant stacks of cold hard cash on an unmarked airplane on the very day the hostages were set free? And that they had no choice in the matter, all while withholding details from Congress for some reason? Seems legit. (lots of links in the original)
And then there is the fact that the Iranian government officials themselves described the cash as a ransom payment. They have no compunction at humiliating the Obama administration and exposing Obama's deceptions aboutt the deal. They really have treated him and, by extension, the United States with total contempt. And they've been rewarded at every turn.

As Jonah Goldberg writes, the only people who don't believe that this money was a ransom are in the Obama administration. Everyone else knows what they are seeing.
Still, one wonders why, if it was such a laudable and innocent money-saving maneuver, they kept it all secret from the American people.

Here’s one possible reason from the Wall Street Journal exposĂ©: “U.S. officials also acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible.”

Catch that? The Obama administration did not think the huge pallet of Swiss francs, euros, and other currencies dropped off in the dead of night was a ransom payment — they just wanted the Iranians to think it was.

And they bought it! “Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, a Revolutionary Guard commander, boasted on Iranian state media.

Sometimes you just have to marvel at the way smart people can talk themselves into stupidity. The whole point of not paying ransoms to terrorists isn’t to save money. The reason we don’t pay kidnappers is that we understand that it will only encourage more kidnapping. So letting the Iranians think the $400 million was a ransom payment is doubly asinine, because it fooled exactly the wrong people, the wrong way. Who cares if the Obama administration “knew” it wasn’t a ransom? What mattered was to make it clear to the Iranians that it wasn’t a ransom, not give them every reason to believe it was.

Now, because of this pas-de-deux of asininity, not only have we given the Iranians untraceable walking-around money to give to its terrorist proxies, we’ve also given them every incentive to kidnap more Americans — which is exactly what they’ve been doing. But at least the folks at the State Department can sleep soundly knowing that they didn’t really pay a ransom — it just looks that way.

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I recently listened to a fascinating, yet horrifying podcast of Jay Nordlinger interviewing Hannah Dreier, the AP correspondent in Venezuela. Nordlinger started off with this story by Dreier.
The people waiting for hours in front of the drugstore were dazed with heat and boredom when the gunmen arrived.

The robbers demanded a cellphone from a 25-year-old in black shorts. Instead of handing it over, Junior Perez took off toward the entrance to the pharmacy. Eight shots rang out, and he fell face down.

The dozens of shoppers in line were unmoved. They held their places as the gunmen went through Perez's pockets. They watched as thick ribbons of blood ran from the young man's head into the grooves of the tiled walkway. And when their turns came, each bought the two tubes of rationed toothpaste they were allowed.

"These days, you have to put the line above everything," said pharmacist Haide Mendoza, who was there that morning. "You make sure you get what you need, and you don't feel sorry for anyone."

As Venezuela's lines have grown longer and more dangerous, they have become not only the stage for everyday life, but a backdrop to death. More than two dozen people have been killed in line in the past 12 months, including a 4-year-old girl caught in gang crossfire. An 80-year-old woman was crushed to death when an orderly line of shoppers suddenly turned into a mob of looters — an increasingly common occurrence as Venezuela runs out of just about everything.

The extent of the country's economic collapse can be measured in the length of the lines snaking through every neighborhood. The average Venezuelan shopper spends 35 hours waiting to buy food each month. That's three times more than in 2014, according to the polling firm Datanalisis.
As they discussed the situation in Venezuela, I was basically open-mouthed in horror at this deterioration of what should be a wealthy country. Dreier cited a statistic that, in the first three months of this year, more people were killed by violence in Venezuela than in all of the past year of Afghanistan. It's basically in a state of nature.
In discussing Venezuela, Kevin Williamson draws the contrast between welfare states like the Nordic countries and socialist countries like Cuba and Venezuela.
elfare states use taxes and transfer payments to enable higher levels of consumption among certain groups, usually vulnerable ones: the poor, the sick, the elderly, children. Welfare states are not synonymous with big government: Singapore, for example, offers surprisingly generous housing and health-care benefits despite having a public sector that is (as measured by spending) about half the size of our own and a little more than a third the size of France’s. Switzerland has a fairly typical portfolio of welfare benefits (including a health-care system that is approximately what Obamacare was intended to look like, if Obamacare hadn’t been written and enacted by fools) with a public sector that is smaller than our own.
Socialist countries are different and Venezuela is demonstrating the disaster that lies down the road for socialist countries.
Socialism, as I have written at some length, is a different beast entirely. Like the welfare state, it involves the public provision of non-public goods, but it achieves this in a different way. Rather than levying taxes and distributing checks or vouchers, the socialist government owns and operates the means of production, or, in the corporatist variant, puts the means of production under political discipline effectively indistinguishable from government ownership of them. The easiest example to illustrate the difference here is in American education: The Right advocates a welfare-state approach, with government funding education costs through taxes which are passed on to families with school-age children in the form of vouchers, which can be used at a variety of different kinds of institutions serving a variety of different kinds of needs; the Left, in contrast, advocates the truly socialist model, with government owning and operating the relevant economic assets (public schools) which function as a monopoly. The fact that you can send your children elsewhere does not make them less of a monopoly: Stop paying your school taxes and they’ll still send men with guns to your house to force the money out of you, to seize your home, or to cage you until you comply.

Violence is always at the end of the socialist enterprise, as the poor people of Venezuela are discovering. Our friends on the Left assured us for many years that Boss Hugo and his epigones in the regime of Nicolás Maduro were democratic socialists, not the mean Stalinist type, and the praises of that so-called democratic-socialist regime were sung by everyone from Democratic congressmen such as Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia to progressive celebrities such as Sean Penn.

The democratic socialists in Venezuela have just introduced slavery into their workers’ paradise....

The food shortage is especially severe right now, so the Maduro government has just passed a decree empowering itself to conscript workers — public-sector or private — into the state’s collectively run farming, food-processing, and food-distribution businesses. The pattern here will be familiar to those familiar with the history of socialism in Russia and China.
Supporters of socialism like to say that, socialism would work if it had just been done right. Alas, since 1917 and the communist revolution in Russia, it just hasn't ever been implemented properly.
Weird thing: That feckless and authoritarian kind of socialism is the only kind of socialism anybody has ever seen or heard of outside of a college dorm room. Either socialism is the unluckiest political idea in the history of political ideas and it just happens to have coincided with government by monsters, caudillos, and incompetents every place it has been tried, or there is in fact something wrong with socialism qua socialism.

Why is it that the big-government Danish welfare state, the small-government Swiss welfare state, the frequently illiberal Singaporean welfare state, and the nice-guy Canadian welfare state all seem to work, each in its own way, while socialist experiments — including the so-called democratic-socialist experiments of places such as Venezuela — go speeding down F. A. Hayek’s road to serfdom?

The critical difference is that entrepreneurship and markets are allowed to work in a welfare state — and to work especially well in welfare states characterized by public sectors that, while they may be larger or smaller, are transparent, honest, and effective. The U.S. food-stamp program has its defects, to be sure, but it’s a great deal more effective than was Soviet collective farming and state-run groceries. A dynamic capitalist economy such as Switzerland’s or Singapore’s or Canada’s can carry a lot of welfare state.
Williamson points out that leftists love to point to the Nordic countries as the model of socialism that they'd like to see here in America.
When one of our so-called progressives looks at a Nordic welfare state, what he always says he wants to replicate here is the relatively high taxes and relatively large public sector. It’s never Sweden’s free-trade policies, Denmark’s corporate-tax rate (which is far lower than our own), or Finland’s choice- and accountability-driven education system. When the American Left expresses its envy of Western Europe, it’s never Switzerland’s minimum wage ($0.00) it wants to reproduce, only bigger and more rapacious government. But the relatively large Danish public sector does different things than does the U.S. public sector, and it does them differently. A larger U.S. public sector would be a great deal like the current U.S. public sector — ineffective, captive to politics, corrupt — but bigger.

If you want to see what so-called democratic socialism looks like, turn your eyes south to Venezuela and its new slave-labor camps. What’s happening in Canada and Denmark is something else — something that is much more in tune with the approach and priorities of the free-market/free-trade Right, or at least what’s left of it.

When you have an extensive and generous welfare state, is this story any surprise?
Belgian financial investigators looking into recent terror plots have discovered a disturbing trend: Some of the suspects were collecting welfare benefits until shortly before they carried out their attacks.

At least five of the alleged plotters in the Paris and Brussels terror attacks partly financed themselves with payments from Belgium’s generous social-welfare system, authorities have concluded. In total they received more than €50,000, or about $56,000 at today’s rate.

The main surviving Paris suspect, Salah Abdeslam, collected unemployment benefits until three weeks before the November attacks—€19,000 in all, according to people familiar with the case. At the time, he was manager and part-owner of a bar, which Belgian officials say should have made him ineligible.

Many of the participants in a disrupted Belgian terror plot also had been on the dole, according to the judge who sentenced more than a dozen people in the so-called Verviers cell last month. Police thwarted the plot early last year, finding explosives, weapons and police uniforms after a shootout that killed two people.

The revelations raise a difficult conundrum for Europe.

On one hand, the modern welfare state is a primary tool for combating poverty as well as integrating immigrants. On the other, officials are working hard to find and stop potential sources of revenue for those bent on committing terrorist atrocities.

“We’ve identified that the benefit system is vulnerable to abuse for terrorist financing purposes,” said Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “What are we going to do about that?”

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The Democratic leaders are pretending to appeal to Republicans so that they can increase the divide among Republicans in this Trumpian year. They can read the polls and see that part of Trump's poll problems is that he hasn't been able to unite Republicans behind him. In the latest Fox poll, he's only getting 78% support from Republicans while Clinton has 87% support among Democrats. And he's beating her among independents. If he can't bring up that number among Republicans, he has no chance. So the media and Democrats encourage Republican leaders like Paul Ryan to disavow Trump's candidacy. How self-serving of them.
Cribbing from most pundits, and ever the moral conscience of the nation, President Obama this week emerged to wonder: “The question I think they have to ask themselves is, if you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him?”

Yes, what a mystery. Progressives would love for Mr. Ryan, Ms. Ayotte and other Republicans to become arms of the Clinton campaign, increase Republican divisions and throw the Senate and House to the Democrats. To supposedly preserve his reputation, does Mr. Ryan have to stump for Mrs. Clinton all the way through November, or would a mere statement suffice?

Mr. Ryan’s differences with Mr. Trump are obvious, not least on immigration, trade and national security—but so too are they with Mrs. Clinton. Despite claiming Mr. Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, Democrats have offered no concessions to the political center and Mrs. Clinton is running to the left of Mr. Obama.

Mr. Ryan sees his obligation as salvaging what he can for the cause of conservative reform in this dispiriting year. He can’t control Mr. Trump but he’s focused on what he can influence—namely, the House majority and down-ballot races. Despite GOP disunity, the Speaker has forged consensus around an ambitious package of reforms that could be deployed in 2017. Maybe Mr. Trump would refuse that agenda and indulge his politics of pique in the White House. But in that case Mr. Ryan’s conservative critics should prefer as large a center-right majority as he can preserve to lead the opposition.

The same applies if Mr. Trump loses as badly as the polls say he might, or as badly as his current conduct deserves. The GOP House could be the only check against Mrs. Clinton and a Chuck Schumer-Elizabeth Warren Senate. If pundits think the economic anxiety on the right that fueled Mr. Trump’s ascent is high now, check back after four more years of 1% growth and the damage that unified Democratic control of the government could do.
Of course Trump is playing into the Democrats' hands by supporting the hopeless candidacy of the guy running against Paul Ryan in his Wisconsin primary. Just another sign that Trump would prefer to retaliate against the slightest criticism or lack of support rather than focus on winning against Hillary.

As Michael Barone explains in economics terms which perhaps Trump might have learned at the Wharton School, the opportunity costs of Trump's wasting a week arguing with Republicans and insulting the parents of a US soldier killed in Iraq.
The opportunity cost for Trump and for his party is that he failed to direct attention to what he could have made Hillary Clinton's glaring weaknesses.

One was highlighted by the weak gross domestic figures announced Friday, showing very tepid growth this year. Clinton, as the candidate of the incumbent party, had to promise to continue and extend its macroeconomic policies. The GDP figures make a powerful case against that.

Another was Clinton's performance on the Sunday talk shows. FBI Director James Comey "said that my answers were truthful," Clinton said. Of course Comey said the opposite, that repeated Clinton statements about her emails were untrue. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave her a maximum four Pinocchio's for her statement to the contrary.

She also said that the multiple family members of those slain in Benghazi who said, back then and now, that she attributed the attacks to protests at a video must have been mistaken about what they heard. Sure.

Trump thus had plenty of fresh raw material to fill multiple campaign days discussing the mendaciousness of "Crooked Hillary." He might even have raised the more unnerving possibility that, surrounded as she typically has been by a sycophantic coterie, she actually believes what she said. No one wants a president who is delusional.

The third opportunity cost for the Trump campaign is time missed attacking Clinton for the most leftward party platform and agenda ever, as Ross Douthat argued in his New York Times column.
It's a double whammy for Trump. He garners scads of negative press and deservedly so. And he wastes the opportunity to expose Clinton's weaknesses. The guy who has bragged about how he can make the best deals doesn't seem able to stop himself from sabotaging his efforts to close a deal with the American people.

Lie, get caught, repeat the lie. That seems to be the pattern for Hillary Clinton. And the Washington Post is getting weary of her mendacity.
“As the FBI said, everything that I’ve said publicly has been consistent and truthful with what I’ve told them.”
— Hillary Clinton, interview with Brandon Rittiman of KUSA, Aug. 3, 2016

One would think the talking points would change after receiving Four Pinocchios from The Washington Post Fact Checker, “Pants on Fire” from PolitiFact and “false” from FactCheck.org.

But, nope, Clinton fell back on a claim that has been roundly debunked by fact checkers.

FBI Director James B. Comey did tell Congress: “We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI.” But lying to the FBI is a criminal act; it’s a rather low bar for truthfulness.

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Oh, geez. Every time you think they've gone as far as possible over the line, they go ever farther. Eugene Volokh reports on the EEOC's investigation of whether wearing a "Don't Tread on Me" hat could be considered racial harassment.
he EEOC has already ruled that coworkers’ wearing Confederate flag T-shirts can be punishable harassment (a decision that I think is incorrect); and, unsurprisingly, this is extending to other political speech as well. Here’s an excerpt from Shelton D. [pseudonym] v. Brennan, 2016 WL 3361228, decided by the EEOC two months ago:
On January 8, 2014, Complainant filed a formal complaint in which he alleged that the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEO activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker (C1) repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.” Complainant also alleged that he complained about the cap to management; however, although management assured him C1 would be told not to wear the cap, C1 continued to come to work wearing the offensive cap. Additionally, Complainant alleged that on September 2, 2013, a coworker took a picture of him on the work room floor without his consent. In a decision dated January 29, 2014, the Agency dismissed Complainant’s complaint on the basis it failed to state a claim . . . .

Complainant maintains that the Gadsden Flag is a “historical indicator of white resentment against blacks stemming largely from the Tea Party.” He notes that the Vice President of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters cited the Gadsden Flag as the equivalent of the Confederate Battle Flag when he successfully had it removed from a New Haven, Connecticut fire department flagpole.

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree. [Footnote: Shooters in Metro ambush that left five dead spoke of white supremacy and a desire to kill police....

In light of the ambiguity in the current meaning of this symbol, we find that Complainant’s claim must be investigated to determine the specific context in which C1 displayed the symbol in the workplace. In so finding, we are not prejudging the merits of Complainant’s complaint. Instead, we are precluding a procedural dismissal that would deprive us of evidence that would illuminate the meaning conveyed by C1’s display of the symbol.
Volokh points out that this is case as to whether an employer must follow rules under the pain of large financial liability. There is no indication that the wearer of the hat ever said anything racist to the complainant.
Let’s think about how this plays out in the workplace. Imagine that you are a reasonable employer. You don’t want to restrict employee speech any more than is necessary, but you also don’t want to face the risk of legal liability for allowing speech that the government might label “harassing.” An employee comes to you, complaining that a coworker’s wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” cap — or having an “All Lives Matter” bumper sticker on a car parked in the employee lot, or “Stop Illegal Immigration” sign on the coworker’s cubicle wall — constitutes legally actionable “hostile environment harassment,” in violation of federal employment law. The employee claims that in “the specific context” (perhaps based on what has been in the news, or based on what other employees have been saying in lunchroom conversations), this speech is “racially tinged” or “racially insensitive.”

Would you feel pressured, by the risk of a lawsuit and of liability, into suppressing speech that expresses such viewpoints? Or would you say, “Nope, I’m not worried about the possibility of liability, I’ll let my employees keep talking”? (Again, the question isn’t what you may do as a matter of your own judgment about how you would control a private workplace; the question is whether the government is pressuring you to suppress speech that conveys certain viewpoints.)

4. Now let’s get to the 2016 election campaign. Say someone wears “Trump/Pence 2016” gear in the workplace, or displays a bumper sticker on his car in the work parking lot, or displays such a sign on his cubicle wall, or just says on some occasions that he’s voting for Trump. He doesn’t say any racial or religious slurs about Hispanics or Muslims, and doesn’t even express any anti-Hispanic or anti-Muslim views (though even such views, I think, should be protected by the First Amendment against the threat of government-imposed liability).

But in “context,” a coworker complains, such speech conveys a message “tinged” with racial or religious hostility, or is racially or religiously “insensitive.” The coworker threatens to sue. Again, say you are an employer facing such a threat. Would you feel pressured by the risk of liability to restrict the pro-Trump speech? (As before, the question isn’t whether you’d be inclined to do that yourself, whether from opposition to Trump, or a desire to avoid controversy that might harm morale; because the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private employers, private Internet service providers, private churches, private universities, private landlords, or others, they are not constitutionally constrained from restricting speech. The question is whether you would feel pressured by the government to impose such restrictions, through the threat of being forced to pay money in a civil lawsuit if you don’t impose them — and whether the government should be able to pressure such private organizations or individuals to restrict speech this way.)
It really is a frightening thought of how such a ruling could force employers to limit what employees where or what they say simply because someone in some circumstance could find it objectionable. Should employers really be forced to stop employees from discussing politics simply because someone could possibly be offended. If the employer fears having to pay some huge fine and being branded as overseeing a racist workplace, they're going to have to establish whatever rules they think will protect them. This should be a chilling vision of what could happen and the type of lawsuits we can anticipate in the future.

Heather MacDonald has looked
at the list of 214 federal prisoners that Obama granted clemency to this week and she's found something interesting about them. A lot of them were found guilty of using a gun to commit a crime. Supposedly, this administration is outraged about the spread of guns in this country, yet somehow they don't mind granting clemency to convicted criminals who used guns during a crime. Isn't that the point of gun laws?
The vast majority of prisoners exemplify the so-called nonviolent-drug-offender category, a primary focus of “criminal-justice reform” advocates. But a search of the commutation database comes up with 156 hits for “firearms” (some of those hits are multiple counts for the same offender). Wilson Henderson, of Hollywood, Fla., for example, was convicted of “use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime,” according to the Justice Department press release. Kenneth Evans, of Fort Worth, Texas, was convicted of “use and carry firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime and aiding and abetting.” Mark Anthony Clark, of Rockford, Ill., was convicted of “possession of a firearm by a felon/fugitive from justice and aiding and abetting,” as well as of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams of meth.

Many of the commuttees possessed stolen firearms or firearms with their serial numbers obliterated. Some were in violation of National Firearms Registration, which can mean possession of a federally prohibited weapon, such as a machine gun, silencer, or sawed-off shotgun. We don’t know how many guns the offenders actually had; a commuttee during a previous batch of commutations had 40.

Nor does the Justice Department’s press release disclose the actual incidence of firearm possession by these federal convicts. Gun possession can be used to increase a federal sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines without a prosecutor’s actually bringing a formal charge. A gun charge can also be plea-bargained away.

Many advocates of criminal-justice reform believe in maximum gun control, yet the White House press releases on the president’s commutations have been silent on the widespread incidence of illegal gun possession. It would seem that once someone becomes a member of the oppressed prisoner class, the gun issue becomes irrelevant.
If he really wanted to expose how many people are incarcerated just because they violated some minor drug laws, how come his list for clemency wasn't just those people instead of those convicted of using a gun?
We have been told endlessly by President Obama and the rest of the justice-reform movement that prisons are chock-full of harmless sad sacks whose only offense is getting caught with a little weed. It should have been easy, therefore, to come up with thousands of pacific targets for commutation or pardon. That so many of recipients of Obama’s clemency were armed and dangerous shows how distorted the dominant narrative about “mass incarceration” is.