Archive | Trends/Studies/Research

Tips For Adulthood: Five Facts About Social Mobility

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the hallmark features of adulthood is believing that you have the means to better yourself. As you step outside the comfort zone of the home in which you were raised, part and parcel of your newfound freedom and responsibility is harnessing that independence towards making something of yourself.

In the American context, at least, there’s the added belief that where you start doesn’t affect where you end up. Describing the putative American Dream, Horatio Alger wrote that we live in  “a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

In other words, people of my generation – and those before me – were all raised believing that, regardless of where we started, we could achieve a life for ourselves that was as good as – if not better than – that of our parents.

What a bummer to discover that this great national mythology that’s sustained us for so many generations may no longer be true. Indeed, a spate of recent studies suggests that Americans – unlike many of their European counterparts – are no longer upwardly mobile.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Social mobility is declining in the U.S. The basic data are startling. According to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths. Meanwhile, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths. Pew further found that nearly one third of individuals raised in middle-class families couldn’t hold on to their status when they reached adulthood. Yikes.

2. Increased Income inequality is a major culprit. In a recent article in The Atlantic on this topic, Timothy Noah talks about one of the major causes of downward mobility in America: rising income inquality. Drawing on data by labor economist Alan Kreuger and others, Noah notes that during the American industrial revolution, growing income inequality was the price the United States paid for growing economic mobility. In the present era, in contrast, income inequality may be choking off opportunity. If you want to see this in comparative perspective, have a look at this graph of this so-called Great Gatsby Curve on Paul Krugman’s blog at The New York Times which shows quite clearly that the U.S. is both more unequal than other comparable developed countries (as measured by its Gini coefficient) and also has quite limited social mobility (as measured by income heritability). Kreuger further predicts that the persistence in the advantages and disadvantages of income passed from parents to children will rise by about a quarter for the next generation as a result of the rise in inequality that the U.S. has seen in the last twenty-five years. (The U.K. exhibits a similar trend.)

3. The Higher Education System is also to blame. Another culprit is America’s higher education system, which – despite efforts to broaden its applicant pool – remains highly exclusive. A Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges showed that of entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution, while sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. (Again, you see a similar trend in the U.K.) Another study showed that recruiters for the best firms in investment banking, law and consulting hire disproportionately from only five top schools. With a year’s worth of higher education clocking in at near $50,000, is this at all surprising?

4. Race and Gender matter too. The Pew Study on Economic Mobility also showed that a number of factors have impacted adults’ ability to earn a middle-class income like their parents. Among them are marital status, educational attainment, race and even gender. For instance, those who are divorced, widowed or separated are more likely to fall out of the middle class, and women face a greater likelihood than men. Also, Americans who don’t attend college are likely to face downward mobility, with African American men the most likely to drop out of the middle class.

5. Class tension is also on the rise. In light of all of the above, it should come as no surprise that class conflict is also on the rise. According to a different study by Pew, conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society.

 

Image: HIP_339628104.219198 by Steve Rhodes via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Determinants of Emotional Health

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve been thinking a lot about middle age of late, and what it is – exactly – that makes us more or less happy as we round this phase of life.

It might be that my 46th birthday looms on the horizon next week, which makes me feel like I’m already entering the second half of my existence. (For reasons I can’t explain, I have apparently decided that I’m going to live to 90.)

Or it might be that Blue Monday (the third Monday of January, purported to be the saddest day of the year) just passed. Fictitious or not – that milestone always prompts me to reassess my emotional state and decide if I’m happier or sadder than I was at this time last year.

To that end, I’ve taken a keen interest in recent research on emotional health in adulthood and what makes for happier grown ups:

1. Maternal Care – While the research is still confined to rats, it looks like maternal care influences brain chemistry into adulthood. Most of us would probably agree that this statement is likely true. But scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg have demonstrated that intensive maternal care during infancy promotes the development of a specific hormone in the brain, which in turn controls the development of anxiety and stress responses. While the study still needs to be extended to humans, the preliminary results suggest that how much your mother dotes on you when you’re very young may be key to understanding things like post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders as you age. Ditto the adverse effects of maternal favoritism.

2. Religiosity – Another important factor in determining emotional well-being in adulthood is how religious you are. Modern happiness research leaves no doubt that religious people are happier than their contemporaries. This is something that has been born out both within societies and across them. Interestingly, however, American Jews scored the highest of any religious group on a “well-being” index within the United States, even though more than half of Jews are non-religious. So disregard all that kvetching and moaning; behind it all, Jews are actually feeling OK. (Perhaps that’s why I identify so much with them?)

3. Imaginary Friends – Oh! How excited I was to learn this:  a recent study out of NYU shows that having imaginary friends in childhood lays the groundwork for a more stable emotional adulthood. And that’s because through these imaginary friendships, what you’re actually doing is practicing how to express your emotions without fear of censorship or derision, all the while bolstering your creativity and verbal skills. As someone who grew up with a best friend called Con Brick Chair – and must listen endlessly to my own daughter chattering away in her imaginary play – I’m so pleased to hear that this behavior may actually be functional!

4. Early Sex – On the less encouraging end of things, research also suggests that early sex could trigger mood swings in adulthood. Again, the research has so far been conducted only on animals. But it implies that there may be an appropriate “age” to begin having sexual relationships, and that adolescents begin too young, this may have negative consequences for anxiety and depression later on. (Interestingly, being sexually active doesn’t seem to affect their school performance.) Something tells me that – if born out on real teens – these results might be of interest to politicians!

5. Choosing Happiness – I was delighted to happen upon a summary in the New York Times of a new book by Karl Pillemer called 30 Lessons For Living Well. In it, Dr. Pillemer – a human development scholar at Cornell University – interviewed more than 1,000 Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata to get their personal views on what has made them happy throughout life, ranging from marriage to careers to aging itself. The article is fascinating on many counts, but one particular result stood out. Almost every single one of the interviewees concurred that happiness is a choice, not the result of how life treats you. So regardless of what happens to you early on in life, the consensus from those who’ve been there is that you are in charge of how you react towards those stimuli and for adopting a pro-active approach to being happy.

It’s nice to end on a positive note, no?

 

Image: Self Portrait by kasi metcalf via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Wanted: Another ‘Iron Lady’ To Take Britain In Hand

Britain has had quite a time of it over the past few months. Between sluggish growth and persistent unemployment, riots, strikes and the Euro crisis, many are wondering aloud whether what this country really needs is another Margaret Thatcher-style leader who would restore order and stability.

With Meryl Streep’s face plastered all over bus and tube stations advertising the new film “The Iron Lady,” it almost feels like Baroness
Thatcher herself has returned to save the day.

Many of us remember Mrs. Thatcher for her lengthy and dramatic stint on Downing Street in the 1980s, during which time she privatized state-owned industries, crushed trade unions and went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

But there’s another way in which Mrs. Thatcher made herself a household name the world over: she exemplified an unapologetic model for how to be a prominent woman in public life.

Read the rest of this article on The Washington Post’s She The People Blog

 

Image: Baroness Thatcher portrait by Downing Street via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Tips For Adulthood: Five New Facts About Generation Y

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

As an arm-chair scholar of adulthood, I like to collect facts and figures about the different phases of adulthood. Even though I’ve said before that I think the stages of life are defined less by a number than by a feeling, I still think it’s worthwhile to examine what the data are telling us about a given cohort. (Most recently, I did this when I presented five new facts about teenagers.)

In that vein, today’s topic is that much-discussed Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation, young adults, under-30s or just “Gen Y.” Gen Y is defined loosely by those people born between 1982 and 1991, which makes them (roughly) between the ages of 18 and 30.

About six months ago, the New York Times Magazine broke a feature story about the “new 20 somethings” who seem to be taking forever to grow up: delaying marriage, changing careers several times, failing to achieve economic independence and other milestones of adulthood. Ever since then, there’s been a lot of interest in this age group – both what’s driving their delayed adulthood and what else we know about this demographic.

Here are five new facts about Generation Y:

1. Living at home longer may not be so bad. While one might be inclined at first blush to condemn Gen Y for failing to get its act together sooner, two new studies suggest that there may be advantages to delayed adulthood. One, from the University of Minnesota, argues that parental assistance in early adulthood actually promotes progress toward autonomy and self-reliance. The researchers found that while almost half of the young adults in their sample received either money for living expenses or lived with their parents (or both) in their mid-20s, only 10-15 percent received financial or housing help when in their early 30s. Moreover, as young adult children took on adult roles such as earning higher incomes or forming families, parental support began to taper regardless of age. Two sociologists from Oregon State additionally found that living at home longer may also foster closer bonds with one’s parents.

2. Millennials care more about parenting than getting married. A 2010 Pew Research survey found that 52% of Millennials say being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life, while just 30% say the same about having a successful marriage. In other words, there is a 22-percentage-point gap in the way Millennials value parenthood over marriage. When this same question was posed to 18- to 29-year-olds in 1997, the gap was just seven percentage points. Wow. Pew Research surveys also find that Millennials are less likely than adults ages 30 and older to say that a child needs a home with both a father and mother to grow up happily and that single parenthood and unmarried couple parenthood are bad for society. Given that we also know that young men are lagging behind young  women vis a vis jobs, income and graduate degrees, these attitudinal shifts may make a lot of sense: if these smarter, higher-earning young ladies want a kid, they may need to do it on their own.

3. Gen Y is isolationist. The Brookings Institution recently surveyed more than 1,000 young leaders about their views on foreign policy. Among the more striking findings was how solidly isolationist this group was in its foreign policy leanings. A full 58 percent of young leaders say that America is “too involved in global affairs” and should focus more on issues at home rather than things like building a stronger military or reducing poverty in the rest of the world. I found these results to be particularly fascinating in light of a recent study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research,which  found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979. According to the findings, today’s students are generally less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or to have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. They are more likely, meanwhile, to admit that “other people’s misfortunes” usually don’t disturb them. In other words, while this is far the most connected generation vis a vis technology and the like, all that connectedness doesn’t seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.

4. Generation Y is changing its workplace priorities. While the initial take on Gen Y was that it was coddled, lazy and work-averse, that may turn out to be wrong. It’s true that 40% of 18-29 year olds either lack a job or underemployed. But according to an article in the Miami Herald, those who are working seem to be embracing a new more humble and realistic attitude towards work, one fueled by the hard reality of the recession. In today’s harsh, new economic climate, millennials realize that they can’t make the demands for raises, promotions, time off and training that they might once have done only a few years back. Nor are they reaching for the brass ring; they’re happy to do their best wherever they are on the corporate ladder and recognize that it may take awhile to reach the top. This sea change is consistent with a recent article in the New York times noting that millenials are embracing different kinds of careers these days, often “doing good” in the public sector (where the jobs are) rather than trying to score high-paying, high-powered jobs in the corporate sector.

5. Gen Y is More Confident and Optimistic. Another Pew Study – this one released last year – found that 18-to-29-year-olds remain optimistic, despite a job-killing recession, two wars and the threat of terrorism. In light of all the negative publicity around this generation, I, for one, was quite happy to hear this.

Image: ANC Young Adults Social CG Social 012 by roger_mommaerts via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

New Antidepressant Won't Harm Sex Life

Here’s some good news that should brighten up this cold and snowy January: The FDA has just approved a new antidepressant with minimal sexual side effects.

The most commonly used class of antidepressants — called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — has quickly risen to the top of the charts for their ability to treat depression. These include such household names as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft. But there’s one problem with SSRIs: Many of them cause sexual dysfunction, including problems with achieving erection, delayed orgasm and loss of libido. As a result, patients frequently abandon their medication.

The new drug, vilazodone, was developed by the company Clinical Data and will be marketed under the brand name Viibyrd. (Yes, that’s right.) In clinical trials, it did not have a negative impact on sexual desire or function.

Read the rest of this story at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Prozac Sprinkles by Lushbunny via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Keep Your Brain Active As You Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I had a senior moment the other day. I was talking to my daughter about my elementary school, and I started listing my teachers one by one. But when I got to fifth grade, I drew a complete blank. I could envision the lady perfectly – plump, jolly, liked to wear purple – and even remembered that her name began with an “F.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name.

I can be forgiven this lapse, of course. It was, after all, 35 years ago (cough.) But it was another sign that as we age, our memories aren’t quite what they once were.

In that spirit, here are five tips for keeping your brain active as you age:

1. Work. Pay no attention to all those French people behind the curtain, striking their hearts out because Nicolas Sarkozy is about to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. New research reported in the New York Times last week shows that postponing retirement is actually better for your brain. Coining the phrase “mental retirement” to capture what happens when your brain is no longer getting regular exercise, the study shows that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive and memory tests than people who are still working.

2. Walk. But in case you’d still prefer to be living on the beach at 65 rather than toiling away in an office cubicle, be sure that you walk a lot in paradise. Another study out last week shows that walking at least six miles a week may be one thing people can do to keep their brains from shrinking and fight off dementia. Which is good news for me, even in my new-found hip, urban status as the owner of a collapsible bike. One thing that not owning a car really does is get you used to good, vigorous walks.

3. Be Social. Back when I wrote about five reasons to be optimistic about middle age, I referenced some new research showing that  – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. (See #1.) Turns out that one of the things that keeps the brain developing as we age is being social. In addition to getting out and meeting people, people who volunteer and help kids also seem to age better and help their brains.

4. Use the Internet. OK, this one is controversial, especially coming from someone who warned you not to get an e-reader lest it chip away at your capacity to engage in sustained, concentrated thought. But there are two sides to every story. And a lot of scientists – Harvard’s Steven Pinker, for one – think that far from damaging our brains as we age, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales. Colin Blakemore, a British neurobiologist concurs. As he notes – reacting to the prevailing “internet ruins our minds” thesis:  “At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus, the pocket calculator or the Sinclair Z80.” So by all means, grab that new Kindle, Grandma. And get a Twitter account while you’re at it..

5. Eat lots of fish. Many parents will be familiar with the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs) for brain development in utero and in young children. (Neurotic parenting confession #346b: Until my son – who was born allergic to just about everything – was two, we regularly spiked his rice milk with flax seed oil for precisely this reason.) But it turns out that these so-called “good fats” are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting cognitive decline during aging. Fish, for example, is a great source of EFAs. Flax-soaked salmon, anyone?

*****

On Monday, I was over on www.PoliticsDaily.com talking about reform of the British welfare system.

Image: thyme salmon with leek coulis by elana’s pantry via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Divorce Hits Prime Time At HuffPo With Nora Ephron

Well, here’s a sign of the times. The Huffington Post is launching a new section devoted to divorce. It was conceived by writer/journalist/filmmaker Nora Ephron, who will also serve as founding editor.

In some ways, one’s tempted to ask: What took you so long? After all, as my colleague Bonnie Goldstein reported last week, marriage is at a historic low in the United States. And while U.S. divorce rates have declined slightly with respect to their all-time high in the early 1980s, they are still high by international standards. According to The National Marriage Project’s State of Our Unions 2007 report, for the average couple marrying for the first time, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains between 40 and 50 percent.

But, of course, it’s one thing to know that divorce is in the air and it’s another to say that out loud, as my colleague David Gibson noted last week with respect to divorce within Christian communities. Which is to say that when a mainstream publication like The Huffington Post makes divorce a special focus — on par with, say, “religion” and “politics” and “education” — that’s really saying something. (Full disclosure: I also write for the Huffington Post’s Living section.)

Read the rest of this post on www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: Redesign At The Huffington Post by jessabean

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The Kindness of Strangers: It's A Small World After All

I was struck by an article in The Guardian last week about lost wallets.

The article reported on a recent study in which a company “dropped” 20 wallets containing £10 in cash, a photograph, tickets, receipts, stamps and several business cards in shopping centers, on public transport, in museums, cafes, and on the street in five British cities: London, Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow. Only two in ten of the wallets were returned to their owners and only around half of those (55%) contained the original sum of money.

The study caught my eye because I was recently one of those lucky 20%. I didn’t exactly lose my wallet, but I did lose an envelope containing 15 pounds (roughly twenty-three dollars). And here’s the kicker: the envelope didn’t have my name and address on it.

All it had was a hand-scribbled note that I’d written to a woman – we’ll call her Kelly – from whom I was buying a (British) Dustbuster before she moved back to America the next day. The note read something along the lines of “To Kelly from Delia. Thanks and Good luck!,” with the cash stuffed inside.

While walking to her house to pick up the Dustbuster, I’d apparently dropped the envelope on the ground along a busy London street. Because I couldn’t find the envelope when I got to her house, I assumed that I’d lost it for good and went to a bank machine to get some cash. But the next day, a stranger contacted me (and Kelly) by email to say that she’d found the envelope and because she knew that Kelly was moving (and vaguely knew that Kelly knew someone called Delia) she figured that it was us.

Can you believe it? I mean, what are the chances that this woman would a. see the envelope on that particular street, which is quite commercial and heavily trafficked b. bother to read my chicken-scratch and c. return it on a hunch? Bear in mind that I’d never met her before and barely knew Kelly either.

She is obviously a very nice person. To whom I am most grateful. (If you’re into this sort of thing you must listen to the This American Life episode entitled The Kindness of Strangers.)

I love this story because it illustrates the humanity in all of us. (OK, in 2/5 of us.) But it’s also a great small-world story. Sometimes I really do believe the whole Six Degrees of Separation thing (even if I’m not connected to Kevin Bacon. Sniff.) A friend of mine just posted on Face Book that her son is about to go off to college and it turns out he’ll be living right down the hall from his best friend in Kindergarten (whom he hasn’t seen in 13 years.) Again, what are the odds?

OK, so now it’s your turn to dish. What’s your best kindness of strangers and/or small world story?

C’mon folks. It’s a light news week. Let er’ rip…

Image: Castanza Wallet by rbieber via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Money And Happiness in Adulthood: The Value of Experience

“It’s amazing how many things in life would be better if you just had more money,” a friend of mine once observed. She wasn’t particularly sad when she said it, or even particularly wistful. In her view, it was just another of those life lessons you pick up along the way.

I’ve given her comment a lot of thought over the years because – let’s face it – we all give in to the temptation from time to time to imagine what we’d do if a boatload of money suddenly rained down upon us. In my current life stage, I’m quite certain that I’d purchase some additional childcare to help me with the daily schlep around North London between 3 and 5 p.m. Then there’s always that second home in Southern France I’ve coveted (and maybe another one in Hawaii…hey, why not? Live large.) And as a newly card-carrying member of the biking brigade, I’d sure love some of that fancy schwag that goes with the whole cycling thing.

Despite the apparent perspicacity of my friend’s casual remark – the relationship between money and happiness isn’t quite so straightforward after all. According to an article in The New York Times over the weekend, just getting more stuff doesn’t actually make you any happier. What counts is how you spend your money.

It turns out that spending money on experience-related purchases – the article cites things like concert tickets, French lessons, and sushi-rolling classes — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff. As a scholar interviewed in the article sums it up: “It’s better to go on a vacation than to buy a new couch.”

The article goes on to say that over the past few years, consumers have been gravitating more and more towards experience-rich expenditures. Indeed, one study by Thomas DeLeire of The University of Wisconsin and Ariel Kalil of The University of Chicago showed that the only category of consumption to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles. (Full disclosure: DeLeire and Kalil are both former colleagues.)

While much of that shift has been driven by the global economic downturn, many analysts are predicting that these changes are likely to last. Simply put, people have discovered – albeit by circumstance – that they actually prefer their pared down, leisure-oriented purchases to the more lavish consumption patterns of yore.

Which brings us to the staycation. I wrote last week about the rise of the staycation as a lifestyle choice in advanced, industrial countries like the U.S. and the U.K. But what the Times article is suggesting is that part of the staycation’s appeal is precisely that it gibes so well with leisure- (read happiness) oriented purchases like barbeques and movies and board games that enhance the value of experience over mere acquisition. Particularly over at The Huffington Post – where I also blog – commenters noted that their choice to “staycate” (is that a verb?) was driven less by financial squeeze than it was by the fact that were actually happier just staying home and hanging out doing simple things with their families.

I once wrote a post where I asked readers where they drew the line between what counts as a luxury vs. what counts as a necessity in their daily lives. (The post was occasioned by the acquisition of a new rice cooker in our household.) I confessed that for me, at least, a New Yorker subscription constituted a necessity, even though many would probably term it a luxury. But now that I’ve read this article, I’m thinking that the reason that I continue to value The New Yorker so highly is actually that it brings me so much happiness.

So I’m curious. As you narrow your spending to focus on what counts – (if you are, in fact, doing that) – what sorts of things do you find bring you the most happiness?

Image: I.T barbeque by alliance1911 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Stress Management: Can I Rent A Wife?

My colleague Joann Weiner recently wrote a post on Politics Daily in which she described the blissful, stress-free summer week she just enjoyed in Washington, D.C., while her family was out of town. She exercised . . . she went out to dinner . . . she tried beer ice cream . . . she even — gasp — took time to smell the proverbial flowers.

I’m happy for Jo. Truly I am. It’s just that after I read her post, I took one look at the way I’ve spent the last seven days and thought: What’s wrong with this picture?

You see, I’m having a different sort of week. I call it a “Calgon” week.

Don’t remember Calgon? Among other things, it’s a line of bath and beauty products. When I was a kid, there was this marvelous commercial in which this harried housewife in a pink bathrobe stood in the middle of her kitchen overwhelmed by various demands: the kids . . . the dishes . . . the dinner . . . the telephone. She’d throw up her hands and shriek: “Calgon! Take Me Away!” and, presto! She was magically whisked into a soothing bubble bath.

Pink bathrobe notwithstanding, that shrieking lady in the kitchen pretty much captures how I’ve felt this past week. It’s a week that’s featured, in no particular order: a major schlep to and from son’s camp located in absurdly difficult-to-access section of North London (Remind me, again, why we decided not to get a car?), reduced work time due to said schlep, husband on deadline whose frazzled hair increasingly resembles Albert Einstein’s, acute case of hostess anxiety brought on by not having entertained in four years because we lived in a closet, but somehow managing to schedule two events at my new apartment in one week (Should we do Red? White? Fizzy? And what is a tapanade, anyway?). Oh yeah. And did I mention the pink eye that’s now making its way through the house?

Read the rest of this post on www.PoliticsDaily.com

*****

I’m was also over on Politics Daily this week talking about David Cameron’s revolutionary approach to ending big government in the U.K.

Image: Calgon, take me away! by yourFAVORITEmartian via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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