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Random Thoughts for Thursday

Links, Thoughts, and Open Thread
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/24 21:05:11 (614 reads)

I've been in Scottsdale, Arizona all week. I've got to say that it's been years since I've been through the Phoenix area, but I'm really impressed with the beauty of the area. The scenic vistas are lovely, the flowers are in full bloom, everything is so beautifully landscaped. Just one request: can someone please turn down the heat?

So, I just wrapped up my fourth day on my new job. My brain still hurts, but I finally did get a chance to write some code today. It is certainly a huge and complicated piece of software that uses some of the coolest methods to accomplish the management of one of the most boring subjects to me.

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Darn Taxing Day

Links, Thoughts, and Open Thread
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/22 20:30:15 (878 reads)

My brain is mush tonight, thanks to Day 1 of 2 days of property tax training. As I've mentioned before, I just took a new job - this time as a corporate programmer rather than a consultant. The industry is property tax - I know, really exciting.

It will be one of the toughest assignmentsjobs I've taken on, I think.

It's not that I'm scared of the industry's complexity; I've taken on worse. It's not that it's a company with a huge current investment in a set of tools developed pretty much separately, but in tandem with what I've done for the past 12 years. It's not that it's a huge team, or a huge company. Maybe it's all of those things.

I guess in the past, I've been the type to sort of come in as the technical expert to help someone solve a specific technical problem. I would typically look at the technical issue first, then work backwards to determine the business needs for whatever it was I was trying to build - whether or not I totally understood the industry.

In this case, I'm sitting in on end-user training meant for professional tax people, on how to use the very software that I'll eventually be working on. As the trainers are showing screens to the class, I'm mentally piecing together data relationships without worrying too much about the semantics of the actual data. The other students are asking very specific accounting questions, and I'm bleeding from the ears as I flash back to my college days. I remember very clearly that I made A's in accounting and understood it well, but told myself that I would never, ever actually work in that field since it is just more boring than watching paint dry.

At points in the day, I wanted to find a sharp object to poke myself with so that I would keep from zoning out. During breaks, I went back to my desk to discover that not only was there no new email to stimulate me, but the guy in the next cube over was still listening to Rush Limbaugh. (My God, how many hours a day is this guy on?)

OK, gotta lean my head the other way so my brains go back into my ear.

type at ya later...

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Troops cheer Obama. He shoots, he scores

The Editor's Column
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/22 9:21:00 (1063 reads)

Check out Obama with our troops here. They're cheering just like it's a campaign rally.

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Tubes, man. TUBES.

Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/21 0:06:56 (1532 reads)

Now and then, my mind drifts off to ponder this idea that is nearly science fiction. And the thing is, it's not so much the science and engineering of it that intrigues me, but the thought of what it means.

The Idea and How It Works
In a nutshell, the idea is to replace most ground-based transportation with a set of underground "tubes", interconnecting almost everything. Unlike the traditional idea of "tubes" being something like the London Underground - a set of trains - my idea is more like the opening sequence of Futurama. Basically, everyone would have "pods", in which you would travel through these tubes in a reclining position.

As you are in transit, your path and speed are computer controlled, and you are switched from tube to tube automatically to reach your destination. You would enter your destination on a computer prior to departure.

Your locomotion is accomplished by various means, depending on local power sources to each tube. In some cases, it may be pneumatic, and in some cases by electric motors, or even by rail-gun style technology.

The way I envision it, the system would put any two locations in the continental US within 10 minutes, at just a tiny fraction of the cost of driving a car.

What It Would Mean
Just some random thoughts here, and I'll be interested to hear what you think. Maybe you'll enjoy the mental exercise as much as I have:

- Many surface roads would be reclaimed as green space (ala the "Big Dig")
- Travel would be individual, as only one adult could ride a capsule at once. Families might own several capsules. There would have to be a system to link the capsules together electronically for communications and navigation.
- All trips would be so much shorter, time-wise. In-town trips would be 5 minutes or less, and everywhere else in 10 minutes or less.
- Commerce would change drastically.

- Shopping would be more frequent, and smaller volume.
- Merchants might send pods with merchandise directly to your house on approval. Imagine how internet shopping would change.
- Billboards would be useless
- Large items like appliances and lumber would still have to be delivered by surface streets
- Airlines go out of business

- Where would you live, if you would be anywhere in the US and just 10 minutes from your job?
- Traffic cops would have a lot less work, since speeding would be impossible.
- Certain tourist locations would probably get way too many visitors until the novelty wore off.
- Garbage and recycle collection by service pod any time you feel like it. No more waiting until trash day. But they may charge you by the pod-full.
- No more car wrecks, no more car insurance, way fewer personal injury lawsuits.

Anyway, you can literally call this a "pipe" dream, but it's interesting to think about. The technology for such a thing is not a problem. It would cost a mint to get started. Maybe one of the railroads would kick it off by installing long commuter runs next to their right-of-way on a coast-to-coast run.

Have fun!

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Progressive Blog Roundup

Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/20 22:55:47 (943 reads)

It's Sunday Night, and that means it is time for yet another edition of the Texas Progressive Alliance's weekly round-up. This week, we're privileged to bring you some new members of the Texas Progressive Alliance. You'll see them added to the TPA blog roll on the left there soon. This week's roundup was compiled by Vince from Capitol Annex

The Texas Cloverleaf asks if John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison want more HIV in the global pandemic? Our TX Senators were 2 of the 16 votes against the latest HIV/AIDS bill in the Senate this week that passed overwhelmingly.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson posts on Diana Maldonado's great fundraising numbers in Diana Maldonado Has Almost 4 to 1 COH Advantage In HD-52.

WhosPlayin at WhosPlayin steped outside of his comfort zone a bit and commented on the Fannie and Freddie situation.

jobsanger blasts Republican attempts to allow offshore and ANWR drilling in Drilling Won't Make Us Energy Independent and in Bush Playing Politics With Oil.

The bar may be open, says TXSharon at Texas Kaos in Fire Water: With Compliments from EnCana, but if Encana's serving up the cocktails, it might be better to abstain.

McBlogger's own Harry Balczak has a new recurring feature, Harry Balczak's Reminder To You People. In this edition, he'd like to remind Those Of You Who Just Couldn't Vote For Kerry that your decision was, well, pretty stupid. He is nice about it, though.

Vince at Capitol Annex notes that poultry kingpin Bo Pilgrim paid to jet around Texas Governor Rick Perry's staff to promote the ethanol waver he bought and paid for with a $100,000 contribution to the Republican Governor's Association.

Mean Rachel contemplates whether Fannie and Freddie have anything to do with being raised in 78704, but living through young-adulthood in 78749 in Crashes.

The final word, for now, on the Webb County Sheriff's race says Martin Cuellar wins by 41 votes. Since the various 'official' totals for Cuellar have been +37, -133, +39 and finally +41, CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme wonders what the h*ll happened!

Off the Kuff looks at the Harris County campaign finance reports and finds good news and not-so-good news for Democratic campaigns.

The Texas Observer's Melissa Del Bosque had an observation about one of the panels at Netroots Nation this past weekend, and PDiddie at Brains and Eggs had some observations about what she observed.

BossKitty at BlueBloggin shows us smuggling humans into the US is no problem at all; From Africa to Mexico to US, Any Way They Can Immigrate.

BossKitty at TruthHugger points out the continued struggle by our soldiers suffering from PTSD and the inadequate response by the incapable VA, in But, When They Come Home ….

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The Modern Gilded Age

Posted by Kit on 2008/7/19 10:07:58 (1939 reads)

I read an article yesterday about McCain calling Obama a socialist, it really wasn’t much of an article but the comments were more to the point. The comments section was really interesting as they often are, particularly since blogging began. We seem to have found our voices, well-done Americans. Now stop acting bullies on the play ground and start paying attention to what is really important.

Most of you sound like programed robots, and I hear the same responses over and over. What is wrong with America? If you know your history then you will have read about the gilded age. America before the turn of the century (19th to 20th ) when the rich were rich and the poor were . . . really who cares. The rich were building grand estates spending money on themselves and enjoying life. A few and in comparative numbers a very few, of these rich people even worked and owned corporations they built the rail system in this country helped establish the growth of the banks and even a few philanthropic endeavors.

This is the time of the so-called robber barons, indeed. They were that. We really enjoy the stories that are super imposed on these people. We have an entire mythology about this period in history and were it not for the robber barons... Others would have no jobs. That this is not true seems to be of no consequence, just some really good stories about the fantasy life.

Don’t worry it’s all here again. Now we give out tax credits and special status to corporations and individuals. These my darlings are the reasons for the current state of affairs. These people are not care takers for the country but for themselves. Corporate greed is rampant and the collapse of the middle-class, the heart of America is strong evidence of this. Simply stated the inequity between the classes is destroying this country.

The once great infrastructure a pride of our society, built with taxes and American labor is now crumbling and in disrepair, our health system a true model of what not to do, taxes that burden those who can least afford it, veterans that are sleeping in the streets, millions of Americans that go to bed hungry every day and they have jobs. A war that is unnecessary and being financed by borrowed money, and a created gas and financial crisis, created by those who do and will profit by misery of others.

Our unions are nearly broken, the dollar like much of America, an international joke. The media, the bastion of free speech is now a wholly owned subsidiary of greed incorporated. Americans hear only what the moguls want them to hear. The counter balance to that might be the currently popular form communication found through the internet, which is more affordable and more accessible outside the borders of this country. Of course that makes sense if one doesn’t want uncensored communications leaking out to the public.

We have become so conditioned to believing what the government or corporations tell us is true that we rarely question what is said or what is valid. We really must be more cynical and more aware of the truth.

The workers made this country great and it is the workers who will rebuild this country. Unions help the workers, normally the quietest and most reluctant to fight for themselves, to gain a fair wage and honest benefits. By helping the workers the unions help to preserve the integrity of the corporation and the balance between the classes.

In the sixties the minimum wage provided about an equivalent of ten dollars of buying power, prices were in line with this and families could survive and thrive on this income. Since then although worker productivity has increased by 70+%, wages based on inflation have increased by two percent. Corporations are now exporting the better paying jobs and leaving the American worker again to carrying the burden of the greed of the wealthy.

Most of these changes in America can be traced back to a seminal moment, Reagan firing the Air Traffic Controllers, the beginning of a slow and determined movement of the wealthy to gut the best of America for the sake of their momentary satisfaction.

The so-called virtue of the free-market and how if it allowed to operate will heal all problems is the great mythology. The examples are too numerous to list, nothing happens by accident there are movers and shakers just behind the curtain. If indeed the free market simply needs to have room to operate - then why all the bail-outs? Our government is owned and operated by these people, just like at the turn of the last century corporations seem to own the senators and congressman it needs.

At the turn of the last century the religious leaders were far more concerned about poverty and the abuse of the American worker. Now I hear them ranting about what goes on in the privacy of our bedrooms, certainly more tantalizing, but over all who does this help. Maybe these religious leaders and their flamboyant life styles are just one more element of the greater problem.

I so much want to see the people of this country take back what is rightfully theirs. Yes, Americans deserve a fair wage for a days work. They deserve a fair and functioning health care system, and an honest government and please once again a press with the guts to speak up about the truth.

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Friday Night Dump: Fundraiser, Tequila, Bicycles, Batteries, Wind, and Oil

Links, Thoughts, and Open Thread
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/18 23:55:40 (1359 reads)

OK, it's Friday night and I've got a bunch of stuff on my mind just ready to dump out. Don't know whether it will be interesting to you or not, but I feel like writing.

The Job
So this week was my last week of "full time" (ha!) employment with my employer of 10 years. As I mentioned before, I've accepted a full time position with another company. My new team is in Scottsdale, AZ but I'll be working from Carrollton, TX. I'm flying to Arizona on Sunday, and will spend a week getting to know my new team, and my new job.

Of course, my current clients all had a few things for me to do before I finished, and I'm not done with it. Luckily I've got arrangements to do some of that stuff on contract.

Wednesday Night
Wednesday, I got a call from Txdemjen asking if I could volunteer that night with her for a Rick Noriega fundraiser dinner with Wesley Clark. It wasn't unpleasant, but it was one of those high-dollar VIP things that I find just a bit pretentious. The highlights of it for me were two things: Texas Senate candidate Wendy Davis was there, and folks, she is definitely as hot in person as her pictures let on. (And her assistant was pretty cute too!) And, I got to see Melissa Noriega again. She's a really nice lady. She went around personally thanking all of the volunteers, and she even complimented me on my bolo tie.

As far as Rick Noriega, I've been very impressed since I first began to learn about him in connection with his candidacy. Really there wasn't much new ground covered here. He's got my vote, and whatever cash I can afford to send. You don't have to convince me that John Cornyn needs to be fired. I pay attention to those votes.

After the Noriega fundraiser, Txdemjen and I met a couple of others for drinks at a Chilis of all places. Well, how do I put this? Txdemjen got me drunk. I would have been satisfied with just one margarita. Yessiree. But damn, that was good. The second one went faster.

Tequila does funny things to me. The first thing tequila does is to anesthetize that part of the brain that stores the warning about what tequila does. Next thing I know, I'm talking who knows how loud about whatever stupid things, and folks are laughing (with me or at me, I'm not sure). I think I "hugged" someone inappropriately even when we parted. (sorry about that, it seemed apropos at the time, but I guess you had to be there in my head!)

Thank goodness I wasn't driving, that's all I have to say. I really don't think it was just the alcohol either. I can drink quite a few beers and not get that tipsy. But suffice it to say that I paid dearly for my crime at about 5:30 am, then 5:45 am, then 6:00 am, and several more times until my stomach was empty. My poor head throbbed. I don't know how I managed to get through work on Thursday.

"We Are One" song
Aimlessness came over tonight, and we worked up a guitar and mandolin arrangement for her song, "We Are One". I'm a bit out of practice with my mandolin, but we may make it work. I felt bad that I'm just not quite good enough to be recording a song. Supposedly we'll go lay down tracks on this tomorrow afternoon. (Pray for me)

Mamask8z and I excavated our bicycles from our junk room garage earlier this week, and took a ride down part of the new Timber Creek trails that the City of Lewisville is putting in. Unfortunately, my bicycle, which is one of an endless string of garage sale rejects that I've owned in my life, had crappy tires. The tires were literally flaking off, and the tubes were leaky. So, I had a flat tire, and had to ride home on it.

I picked up some new tires and tubes this afternoon and had the truly brilliant idea to bring the bicycle in the air-conditioned house to replace the tires. When I took the old tires off, I saw that the rims were all rusted and flaky on the inside, so I got a wire brush and went to work getting it off so it wouldn't rub against the inner tube. As I was doing that, I slipped and smashed my left middle finger between my bike wheel and the bricks of my fireplace. Amazingly, my middle finger is apparently the storage place of every curse word I know, because they all came out when I hit it. And dammit, I make chords with that hand. Luckily no black fingernail this time, but it still hurts.

I know, WAH!!! Poor me.

Batteries Included
Someone explain these economics to me: These little fake tea light candles they make now that have a flickering orange LED instead of a flame - have you seen those? They're really cool for providing ambiance without fire danger. Awhile back, MamaSk8z picked up some for her massage studio, and she used them in her wall sconces.

Anyhow, I don't know what we paid - maybe $10 for 6 or 8 of them? I think she got them at Garden Ridge. They come with a button battery included. All of hers have now used up their batteries. So today I went to the battery store to get some replacement batteries. Wanna know how much they were? Come on, ask! They were $3.69 each. Yeah, that's insane. When I said I needed a dozen, they offered to sell me wholesale at $2 each. Even at that price, it's cheaper to just buy new ones. I checked Walmart, and they were even more expensive.

I just don't feel right throwing things away to get new ones, just because the battery died. And yet, that's how a lot of things work these days. For instance, if your inkjet printer is more than a couple of years old, a lot of times it's only a few bucks more to get a brand new printer with ink instead of buying all the ink cartridges. And of course, the bastards put computer chips on the cartridges now so you can't refill them yourself.

Wind Turbine School
Check out this amazing video of Wind Turbine Repair school. If you're not freaked out by heights, this may be the job for you.

Oil Drilling Mess
Do you believe that corporations will police themselves without government regulation? Well get down off of that unicorn, and read about what Ecuador is still dealing with after Texaco drilled a bunch of oil wells there 36 years ago. There are still pits full of toxic slime, and the people are still suffering. Today in Texas we have laws against many of those practices, but I ask what good are laws if they are not enforced? North Texas is playing Russian Roulette with these gas wells, I'm afraid.

Think about this: It took nature (or God) millions of years to gradually deposit most of the toxic stuff deep within the earth, leaving a relatively harmless ecosphere. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, it was intended that oil extraction be difficult? After all, a mankind intelligent enough to figure out the amazingly difficult methods of getting at the oil must have enough smarts to contain the danger and protect himself and his environment. Then again, mankind does drink Tequila... God help us.

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Time for some Campaignin'

Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/18 6:51:35 (930 reads)

Send a JibJab Sendables® eCard Today!

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Could the Oil Bubble be Deflating?

Oil and Gas
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/17 19:20:00 (1051 reads)

Via the New York Times:

The two-day decline totaled more than $10.50 a barrel, but analysts cautioned that it was still unclear how far prices would fall and that the respite may be temporary.

The drop in oil price contributed to a jump on Wall Street, with most major markets rising more than 2.5 percent. Investors were also buoyed by news that Wells Fargo planned to increase its dividend, easing some concerns about the stability of banks.

The drop in oil was also caused by new evidence that Americans were driving less because of gas prices, which hit a record of $4.11 a gallon, according to a nationwide survey by the motorist group AAA.

I guess there's a little schadenfreude for me, just thinking about speculators out there losing some of their ill-gotten gains.

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Thoughts on Fannie and Freddie

Links, Thoughts, and Open Thread
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2008/7/15 21:12:42 (2005 reads)

Let me start by saying that despite working 3 1/2 years in the mortgage industry, I don't consider myself an expert in the secondary markets. And when you hear me say I know it all about anything, just shoot me.

But today, with one Margarita down, listening to the radio on the way home from Taco Cabana, I had one of those moments were I was literally yelling at the radio, and probably scaring MamaSk8z.

Interestingly, last summer was the last time I had such a moment, also listening to NPR, and also in response to the audio clip of a Republican Senator from Kentucky.

In this case, it was Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) grilling Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson over expanding the authority of the Treasury to backstop federally chartered mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:

"Our plan is aimed at supporting the stability of financial markets, not just these two enterprises," said Paulson.

Bunning, a longtime critic of Fannie and Freddie, cited the firms' stock slide since the plan was announced. "Your plan is not being accepted," Bunning said.

Paulson responded that "there's not something any of us can do is stabilize the stock price." He pointed to more positive signs such as the fact the spread between Fannie and Freddie debt and treasury yields has narrowed.

Bunning also questioned whether Paulson's expectation that the authority to loan significantly more money or buy equity will not be used if it is authorized.

"There's a lot of us who would like to believe what you're saying," said Bunning. "But we're skeptical. Anytime we approve something, it gets used."

See, I just don't hardly know where to start in responding to this. Hopefully McBlogger will weigh in with a blog post of his own, but here's my take:

1. Fannie and Freddie are of utmost importance to the American people because of their chartered role in providing a secondary market for mortgages. The end result of their existence is to help Americans own their own homes. Whether or not these GSEs actually purchase your loan, their existence and their willingness to purchase loans like yours made your home loan a better investment for whoever holds it. They are like a lever in that way. With just a little of their capital, they can cause lots of money to be available to prospective homeowners.

2. Because of loose underwriting practices and the housing bubble of the past few years, and the resulting sub-prime and alt-A meltdown, too many of these loans have very little in the way of hard assets backing them up. The default rates are higher than they've been in a long time, and short sales are waaay up. This doesn't necessarily apply to all of the GSEs portfolios, though they have definitely shown they need to be more tightly regulated.

3. So, as my friend McBlogger has said over and over, just as loans were irrationally over-valued during the bubble, they are irrationally undervalued now. Investors are afraid to buy them. Think about it this way: It's July 15th. If you needed to buy a heavy winter coat right now, you could get a good deal. But still, do you want to buy one? OK, that's what I thought. Now what if you were in the coat business and had a huge inventory of heavy coats on the books? What if you HAD to report the market value of them as if you absolutely had to sell them TODAY? What if you needed to borrow money and use those coats as collateral?

4. Therefore, what you have right now is investor reluctance to lend Fannie and Freddie the money they need to do what they need to do. It's not terribly bad, and we're hearing that Fannie and Freddie are solvent. But still, there is value to the taxpayers in not only preventing their failure, but in further enabling their success in putting Americans into homeownership.

5. Since the market has shown itself irrational at times, it is thus inefficient in valuing the assets of the GSEs. Further, the free market doesn't take into account the intangible benefits of keeping the GSEs in business.

6. So, the government has an opportunity to serve as a backstop to these GSEs by participating in the market to lend them money, knowing that the risk is minimal and the return is near-market, but carries a lot of intangibles.

I hope that makes sense. I'm sure a mortgage banker could explain it in much more technical terms.

But here's the thing: From OUR perspective, that of the taxpayers and beneficiaries of the GSEs' chartered purpose, we define success as their solvency and fitness to continue operations as a going concern. You and I want them to keep investing in the mortgages of folks like us, so that we can stay in the middle class, and continue to own homes and stay relatively mobile.

What is NOT our goal, as taxpayers is to insure the shareholders of these GSEs. Business is business, folks. Fannie and Freddie shareholders stood to make all the gains when the industry was doing well, and it's only fair they should bear some risk when things go South. If you want a guaranteed investment, you put your money in an FDIC insured bank account, and you earn squat-and-a-half percent, just like grandma. If you're a big boy or girl, and you can take the good with the bad, you buy stocks. And if you want those stocks to do well, you vote your proxy and elect a board to make sure the company stays on track.

So, with all of this, I guess I could say it's an understatement that I'm "puzzled" at Bunning's nonsensical statement about the stock prices indicating the market's supposed rejection of the backstop.

Let me yell this like I yelled at the radio:

Repeat after me: "The market is not a living being. The market for a stock is the sum total of many individual fallible human expectations of risk versus return. I will NOT worship the 'invisible hand of the free market' as a deity. Our money says 'In God We Trust', not 'In Wall Street We Trust'."

What is happening here is that the shareholders are concerned about dilution of return. If for instance, whatever deal the federal government comes up with involves the government taking an equity position (something I think is fully justified) then the current shareholders will own a smaller share of whatever remains. They will thus receive a smaller share of the return.

Say what you will about the possibility that the dramatic slide in these stocks since last Thursday might have been brought on in part by the very news that the government was taking steps to be prepared to prop them up. There is probably some bit of truth in that, but you can also blame that on a combination of the fundamentals and the irrationality of investors. If these GSEs had been in great shape, and the federal government made similar contingency plans known - oh, lets say in February or March of 2007, I don't know if it would have gotten a second look.

We need to take steps not only to get our mortgage market back on track, but to implement regulatory reforms so that this shit doesn't keep happening. Home ownership is a cornerstone of the American Dream. Our macro-economy is just too damn important to leave to the wild fluctuations of a market that inflates and deflates mortgages on little more than a whim or a whisper.

With that in mind, I have a deal for Senator Bunning: How about we go ahead and backstop Freddie and Fannie, and do so in a way that drives a hard bargain for the taxpayers. Whatever the CBO says it will cost per taxpayer, Kentucky residents won't have to pay. In exchange, we'll just keep Fannie and Freddie from doing any more business in Kentucky then. It will be a nice scientific experiment to see what happens to mortgage rates and home values in Bunning's home state.

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