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Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Neg. Rebuttal)


Since this is my last entry in the debate, I’d like to thank Bernard Finel for what I think has been an excellent, interesting, and informative debate. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when I was moved to propose this debate: I’ve established that complete disengagement with the Middle East (the resolution of the debate) would be imprudent and Bernard agrees with me:

Engagement and disengagement are not binary values. My call is not for zero presence, but rather for a diminished visibility of our role in the region

That’s not what I drew from Bernard’s article that prompted my suggestion nor is it what I drew from his affirmative case. I still don’t have a clear idea of what Bernard is proposing. I do see that he’s dissatisfied with things as they are, a view I share.

I also believe that he and I agree that we should de-emphasize our military commitment to the Middle East somewhat. Where we appear to differ is in what the nature of our continuing engagement with the Middle East should be.

I’ll now consider some of Bernard’s arguments seriatim.

Oil

Let’s dispense with the oil issue first since it’s the easiest. The spreadsheet of oil prices that Bernard produced is highly informative but rather than proving his case it proves mine. Policies aren’t arrived at by averages but by events. The price spike of 1979-1980 was produced by the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East I sketched in my argument. The price spike of 1986 was caused by the so-called Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq War. That each of those was followed by an increase in U. S. military involvement in the Middle cannot mean that they were caused by that involvement although that increased involvement may have had increased hostility to the United States as a secondary effect. I think the message is rather clear: if the states of the Middle East want us to reduce our military engagement

There is currently no way for us to avoid dependence on oil. Even if we produced every single drop of oil that we consumed, since oil is fungible, the Gulf states are major oil producers, and they are the lowest cost producers we would still be dependent on Gulf oil. An oil price shock would affect us under those circumstances as much as it would now. The quantified effects of closing the Straits of Hormuz are estimated to be around $200 billion per year, i.e. more than the cost of the military engagement that Bernard has cited.

There is no alternative to oil at hand and will not be for the foreseeable future. There is no production-ready electric car, there’s no reason to believe that a practical one will be producible in production quantities at a reasonable cost for the foreseeable future, and if neither of those were true we’d still remain dependent on oil for the foreseeable future for two reasons.

It rarely makes discussions of oil independence but even if a production electric car were ready it will take twenty years for us to turn over the complete oil-burning vehicle fleet. That’s a matter of mathematics and economics as well as logistics. 100 million vehicles at $40,000 a pop (on average) cost $4 trillion. If you can produce the batteries in those quantities which nobody knows how to do yet. A price shock in oil would be an economic catastrophe for us for every year of those twenty years.

And even that’s not the whole of it. Our current electrical grid doesn’t have the excess capacity to handle the additional load required to recharge all those electric vehicles, it will take us decades to update our grid, and it will cost trillions more.

But that’s a parochial view. Our investment in stability in the commerce in oil through the Gulf maintains price stability not only for us but for our European and Asian allies and, equally importantly, for every poor country in the world that is far less willing to pay for turning over its vehicle fleet or upgrading its electric grid than we are. Our investment keeps those countries stable and the world at peace.

Terrorism and security interests

There’s little reason to believe that disengagement from the Middle East will result in a reduction of the threat from terrorism. As my good friend Mark Safranski put it, that’s not merely counter-intuitive, it’s lacking in real world evidence. Terrorists have their own intrinsic motivations; they aren’t merely responding to our actions although those may be among the explanations they present for their actions.

The most dangerous, awful anti-American regimes in the world aren’t those with whom we have high levels of engagement, they’re those, like Iran and North Korea, with whom our engagement is very limited.

It isn’t disengagement that will lead to a more positive view of America and Americans but more engagement as the polling data I’ve linked to suggests. Here’s an additional example.

Recent arrests in Belgium have rounded up members of a terrorist ring who apparently were planning an attack in Brussels. Belgium hasn’t been part of the coalition in Iraq and its military involvement in Afghanistan has been nominal. Both its footprint and its fingerprint in the Middle East are quite small. Nonetheless the Belgians are a target for terrorist activities.

Israel

Israel doesn’t figure prominently in my own calculus of American interests in the Middle East and I wish that the nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States were somewhat different than it is now. Howsomever it remains that Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East, there is a substantial constituency in the United States that would render major disengagement from Israel politically impossible, and I have little reason to believe that such disengagement would produce more security for us, the Israelis, for the Middle East, or for the world. In particular I don’t see how major disengagement from the Middle East would motivate the Israelis to arrive at a settlement with the Palestinians nor do I see how relinquishing our strongest bargaining chips—our engagement with the Middle East—would strengthen our hand in achieving such a settlement.

Increased engagement

Bernard wrote:

Our embassies are massive concrete structures, set back from the road, with triple rings of security barriers. Our businesses operate behind barbed wire and are protected by private security. Americans travel in armed convoys and stay in secluded hotels that also feature fortress-like precautions.

Does that describe Egypt, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates? Or many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa? Perhaps someone better informed than I could comment.

I think that’s a description of Iraq. We can’t undo the harm to our long term interests in the Middle East that our invasion of Iraq has caused. Nor am I prepared to argue that on net the invasion was a good thing.

Over the next several years we’ll be removing something like half of the troops we have in Iraq which I support as the security situation there has clearly improved substantially.

Bernard scoffed at the possibility of trade with the Middle East. Let’s take a single example: Jordan. Currently the European Union does something like $4 billion per year in exports to Jordan. The U. S. does something like $650 million, only about 6% of the total. It certainly looks to me as though there’s a market there and room for improvement on our part. There’s a similar pattern throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Emphasis on trade liberalization and increased trade with the Middle East will not only improve the people who live there’s opinion of us but it will improve their way of life, making them more prosperous and happier. And that in turn will make all of us more secure.

Conclusion

The reason I proposed a debate on the subject was simply because the format of a debate calls for the burden of proof to fall on the affirmative. That’s not a trick; that’s the definition. Debating requires the affirmative to meet the burden of proof. I’m not surprised that Bernard doesn’t much care for the format because the real world evidence points the other way.

In the final analysis it actually appears to me that Bernard and I have many points of agreement: we shouldn’t disengage from the Middle East completely, our military engagement with the region is too great. I see no way to reduce our “fingerprint” on the region for the foreseeable future and think that our best interests lie in increased engagement. That’s our historical experience and that’s what the opinions of people all over the world support.

We need to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it and the Middle East is no exception to that but the engagement should not be so heavily in the form of military engagement. More butter, fewer guns.

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About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    Nice analysis. I haven’t thought of it this way before! Good job!

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  2. I don’t think I have been as opaque as Dave makes it seem. From my posts, there are several clear arguments:

    (1) Reduce oil dependence to the point that it no longer justifies intervention in the region.

    (2) Only work with regimes that make an affirmative case for it to their own people in the own language.

    (3) Reduce our presence on the ground. No 3000 man embassies and no permanent military forces on the ground (at sea is a separate issues).

    (4) Don’t take a leading role in trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

    (5) Let Israel defend itself.

    This would allow us to have normal diplomatic relations, trade, participate in multilateral initiatives. But by the same token this is not an incremental change. My proposal is a dramatic reassessment of the U.S. role in the region.

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  3. caj says:

    There will never be any peace in the Middle East until we stop backing up Israel at every turn.
    The US have always taken sides over this conflict in the favour of Israel…..I just don’t get it, they have a large army with high tech gear, planes and tanks etc and yet we have to back them up and what do the Palestinian people have as regards weaponry…very little!!!
    This on going love for Israel by us is what kills any peace talks as far as I’m concerned….how can we be an honest broker in this when we favour one side no matter what??

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  4. Bithead says:

    The US have always taken sides over this conflict in the favour of Israel…..I just don’t get it, they have a large army with high tech gear, planes and tanks etc and yet we have to back them up and what do the Palestinian people have as regards weaponry…very little!!!
    This on going love for Israel by us is what kills any peace talks as far as I’m concerned….how can we be an honest broker in this when we favour one side no matter what??

    Because in the end, an honest person will have to pick a side as being the right one.

    That you disagree with the choice seems obvious. Less than obvious is the question of why.

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  5. caj says:

    That you disagree with the choice seems obvious. Less than obvious is the question of why.

    Posted by Bithead | December 22, 2008

    I totally disagree with Israel thinking they are the keepers of the castle, they have planted themselves onto land that does not belong to them.
    They just think they can ride rough shod over the Palestinian people and force them off their own land as if they were ordained by God himself.
    No, I have no time for the Israeli government and their holier than thou attitude, that they can do whatever they like and it’s condoned by us every time.
    The Holy Land is not just a place that belongs to Israel, that is what they would like it to be though and I just find this constant backing of them just sickening.
    Of course we see Israel as the “right” choice to use your words, simply because we never want to talk to the other side….as they are always deemed as terrorists.
    I’m all for talking to BOTH sides whether we agree with them or not and work out a solution to suit both sides….this constant “no negotiations” which in this case is the Palestinians is unjust!!!

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  6. charles johnson says:

    what the hell has gone wrong with this blog? this is a conservative blog, get it? So to get back in your prime, let me suggest the following topics:

    1 Barack Obama is a secret muslim
    2 Gay people will destroy marriage as we know it
    3 having less government will somehow work out for the best
    4 regulations are always best abandoned, Citibank and Goldman know better than regulators

    you’re welcome.

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  7. tom p says:

    what the hell has gone wrong with this blog? this is a conservative blog, get it? So to get back in your prime, let me suggest the following topics:

    Ha!!! Charles, thanx for setting me back on the path of the straight and narrow…

    On the (slightly more serious side) I am firmly back in the middle… Way to go Dave. Thanx a lot for bringing up pertinent facts only meant to confuse me.

    Once again I am doing the splits, one foot firmly on one side and the other on the opposite… C’mon guys, my hamstrings ain’t that strong… Have some mercy, please….

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  8. Bithead says:

    I totally disagree with Israel thinking they are the keepers of the castle, they have planted themselves onto land that does not belong to them

    Actually, it was provided them by the UN.
    Odd thing; It seems we’re supposed to trust the rulings of the United Nations, in all but this.

    Of course we see Israel as the “right” choice to use your words, simply because we never want to talk to the other side….as they are always deemed as terrorists.

    Tell you what; When you hear of Jewish women wearing bomb belts to blow themselves and as many Palestinians as they can with them, get back to us.

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  9. Brett says:

    Let’s dispense with the oil issue first since it’s the easiest. The spreadsheet of oil prices that Bernard produced is highly informative but rather than proving his case it proves mine. Policies aren’t arrived at by averages but by events. The price spike of 1979-1980 was produced by the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East I sketched in my argument. The price spike of 1986 was caused by the so-called Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq War. That each of those was followed by an increase in U. S. military involvement in the Middle cannot mean that they were caused by that involvement although that increased involvement may have had increased hostility to the United States as a secondary effect. I think the message is rather clear: if the states of the Middle East want us to reduce our military engagement

    What’s your point, Dave – that instability in the Middle East raised oil prices, which increased harm to the US and necessitated US involvement? I don’t really see an argument here as to whether or not the US is playing a positive role in stabilizing oil prices – some, including Joseph Stiglitz, have actually been arguing the latter, that recent US involvement in the Middle East (read: Iraq) caused increases in oil prices. I’m skeptical of Stiglitz’s argument, but nonetheless, you need to really make an argument that the US involvement has been stabilizing oil prices and preventing economic harm.

    There is currently no way for us to avoid dependence on oil. Even if we produced every single drop of oil that we consumed, since oil is fungible, the Gulf states are major oil producers, and they are the lowest cost producers we would still be dependent on Gulf oil. An oil price shock would affect us under those circumstances as much as it would now. The quantified effects of closing the Straits of Hormuz are estimated to be around $200 billion per year, i.e. more than the cost of the military engagement that Bernard has cited.

    This is a bit of a misrepresentation of the argument, in my opinion. The point is not that we’re going to suddenly reduce our dependence on Middle East oil – rather, the point is that we can take steps, like raising gas taxes significantly and promoting alternative fuels (an investment in natural gas refueling stations would go a long ways towards stimulating a market for those cars, if I recall correctly), that will reduce gasoline consumption (one of the major sources of demand for oil in the United States), and therefore make us less vulnerable to an oil shock. We already know that gasoline consumption is elastic, to some degree; it declined in 2007 and 2008 because of high gas prices.

    There’s little reason to believe that disengagement from the Middle East will result in a reduction of the threat from terrorism. As my good friend Mark Safranski put it, that’s not merely counter-intuitive, it’s lacking in real world evidence. Terrorists have their own intrinsic motivations; they aren’t merely responding to our actions although those may be among the explanations they present for their actions.

    But do those motivations alone lead them to attack the US or American interests when we aren’t poking our nose directly into Middle East political affairs? That’s the key question, and I’ve argued that generally speaking, no, they won’t. They don’t generally bother the Chinese, for example, even though the Chinese are actively repressing a large group of muslims in their own territory. Safranski didn’t really present any examples or proof of that – he simply argued it as if it were intrinsically true.

    You brought up the Belgium example, but I can point out the Chinese example, as well. Furthermore, there are a whole host of complications with the Europeans, who are much closer to the Middle East with very large muslim populations.

    I’m not denying that there are some fanatics like Qutb out there who see things in the “Clash of Civilizations” format and act accordingly. I’m pointing out that the general support for these types of actions, in the form of people supporting them and giving them funding, is heavily exacerbated by heavy US involvement. If weren’t so involved, then we could simply use intelligence and police work to crack down on the few whackjobs, who would have little support for attacks on outside powers from the Middle East population as a whole (or the muslim populations in the Developed World).

    In particular I don’t see how major disengagement from the Middle East would motivate the Israelis to arrive at a settlement with the Palestinians nor do I see how relinquishing our strongest bargaining chips—our engagement with the Middle East—would strengthen our hand in achieving such a settlement.

    I don’t necessarily agree with this part of Finel’s argument, but from what I’ve read of it, the argument is basically that without the US holding their back, the Israeli government would be forced to pull back to a more secure position in the pre-1967 borders, and take measures to both cut-off and ameliorate the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories.

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  10. Franklin says:

    Because in the end, an honest person will have to pick a side as being the right one.

    This sort of black-and-white logic is what has failed us the last eight years. You’re either with us or against us, right?

    The fact is, it’s just a wee bit more complicated than either you or caj can seem to admit. But hey, instead of studying the reams of history on the subject, let’s just pick one side and bomb the crap out of the other.

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  11. mannning says:

    For a few reasons, I have found this debate most unsatisfactory. It seems to be too ethereal and unrealistic with regard to several aspects of Middle East involvement.

    First, the trivialization of the short and long term goals of Islam and Islamic leaders appears to remove what many see as the prime motivation for the conflict between Israel and the Islamic nations surrounding them. As Dave Schuler pointed out, and Bernard Finel repeated, there have been many significant hostilities in the area from 1948 till today.

    The reality is that we are doomed to repeat this pattern because of the complex but religiously driven hate memes on both sides dating far back in history, and reinforced in successive generations by the more recent conflicts. Also, because of the aggressive motivations of Islamic leaders, who have considered cease fires and treaty arrangements as temporary rest and rearm periods, and opportunities to tap the US treasury for “protection money”, or Russia for more equipment.

    I assert, then, that the US is not a primary cause for these periodic battles between Israel and their neighbors, and that Islam and its ambitious leaders are a primary cause. Such attacks were initiated despite any large, small, or no US military, diplomatic, civilian or business presence and attempts at mediation in the area, and despite their certain knowledge that the US would indeed support Israel logistically, if not militarily. Further, without our intervention with needed military equipment and supplies, Israel may well have been overrun on at least one occasion: the Egyptian/Syrian attack of 1973, which was a close call.

    Second, the facts and history seem to support the idea in the ME that the US will come to the aid of Israel if they need the help. Israel is considered a major US ally by the nations of Islam. At this time, lowering our profile in the area would not, in my opinion, have any significant effect on this perception on the part of Islamic nations. We have proven our support for Israel many times.

    It is my opinion, then, that the current US involvement in the ME is now, and can be an improved stabilizing factor in the future, especially as long as we have a strong military presence nearby on land, sea, and air. An agreed, permanent military presence in Iraq or Kuwait and in the UAE in particular is, or would be, very important because of their central, strategic, geographical placement in the area. This would ensure a more rapid military response time to flare-ups in the region, or, conversely, would act to deter adventures by ambitious and deluded Islamic leaders. There seems to be a goodly supply of such leaders and aspiring leaders in Islamic nations and ad hoc groups.

    Third, is the treatment of the possibility of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel. The concept of mutually assured destruction or MAD assumes that both parties will act rationally and humanely. Those in leader positions in Islamic nations do not convince me that they meet these conditions now, or that they ever will, because of Islamic goals. Thus, we are by definition involved in a major way in the case of Iranian nuclear weapons development.

    It is my opinion that Israel will act on this development in the near future, and that the US will be forced to come into the conflict, if only because of possible or actual Iranian retaliation against US assets and citizens worldwide. Here again, the image in the Islamic world, and in Iran in particular, is that the US has given Israel significant help in acquiring a substantial number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Thus, we are complicit in their eyes with Israel if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. To reduce our footprint or fingerprint in this situation is, to put it mildly, foolish, IMO.

    Increased commercial and cultural exchanges are absolutely worthwhile objectives, but to trade increasing those for decreased US military presence, which is what would be asked for, is a bad deal, if only because we will most probably have to return in force a few years downstream, thus negating the good things instantly and at a much higher cost.

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  12. caj says:

    Tell you what; When you hear of Jewish women wearing bomb belts to blow themselves and as many Palestinians as they can with them, get back to us.

    Posted by Bithead | December 22, 2008

    The Jewish women don’t need to wear bombs as you put it, they have all the help they need with us condoning every attack they make on Palestine and condemning right away away any retaliation from Palestine.
    Maybe, just maybe these women see that act as awful as it their only way of getting revenge in some way….the rest of the world turn a blind eye to their plight.

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  13. fester says:

    Dave — $40,000 per vehicle — really? Can I see a cite for that number as I just don’t think that is a reasonable estimate of a per vehicle replacement cost. Secondly, you throw out 4 trillion dollars to electrify the US vehicle fleet overnight — what is the marginal cost of replacement of the US vehicle fleet with electic vehicles instead of gas powered vehicles (remember the US gas powered vehicle fleet turns over every seven or eight years as it is)

    I think you are analytically reaching with unsound methods on your cost estimates here to make a fairly weak point.

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  14. Bithead says:

    This sort of black-and-white logic is what has failed us the last eight years. You’re either with us or against us, right?

    and…

    Maybe, just maybe these women see that act as awful as it their only way of getting revenge in some way….the rest of the world turn a blind eye to their plight.

    Hmm. So much for ‘open discussion’ You appear to have made up your mind, having made a choice and yu’re quite willing to use strong words to make your point. Makes one mindful of another thread we had here just recently.

    and it’s as I said yesterday:

    Because in the end, an honest person will have to pick a side as being the right one

    I’d like to give you points for being honest, here, but I cannot, since you seem to think yourself ‘neutral’ in the matter.

    Eric Blair, white courtesy phone please.
    Eric Blair, white courtesy phone please.

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  15. caj says:

    I’d like to give you points for being honest, here, but I cannot, since you seem to think yourself ‘neutral’ in the matter.

    Posted by Bithead | December 23, 2008

    I’m not neutral in this matter, I do think Palestine get the short end of the stick and I have always thought that.
    So let’s put that to rest….I still do believe however that if any kind of peace is to be achieved, talking to both parties is essential and it can’t be on our terms or the Israeli terms!!
    We have to talk with whomever the Palestinian leader may be…whether we or the Israeli government like them or not….that’s my whole point here…the US and Israel can’t dictate who we will or won’t talk to, if that is the chosen leader of that country.

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  16. Bithead says:

    I’m not neutral in this matter

    Yes, so I have observed. You suppsoedly see value in talking to both sides, so long as you only listen to one. Yet, you complain about the supposed lack of an ‘honest broker’.

    Thus, my dig at you vis a vie neutrality… You apparently value neutrality, but only so long as it advances your view. Past that, it’s unfair, and a roadblock to peace.

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  17. Bithead says:

    mannning:

    Well put, and exactly right.

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  18. Bithead says:

    Dave — $40,000 per vehicle — really?

    Well, I’ll tell you my Rainier went for $44 and change, new a few years back. It’s no Caddy, but I get by.

    But by definition, newer technology tends to cost more for a while, particularly if you’re going to do a whole fleet replacement ina short period of time, thereby creating artificial shortages of the product. So even for minimally equipped vehicles, yeah, $40k isn’t all that far out of line.

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  19. caj says:

    You apparently value neutrality, but only so long as it advances your view. Past that, it’s unfair, and a roadblock to peace.

    Posted by Bithead | December 23, 2008

    You are talking a load of nonsense here…if I say I would want talks from both sides how does that make it an advantage to my view!!!!
    I’m not advocating one side or the other here in that case, it has to be fair hearings on both sides and an agreement by both sides.
    So any notion of this point of view making it an advantage to my view is plain stupid.

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  20. Dave Schuler says:

    The price of a Chevy Volt is estimated to be $40,000 (including the subsidy). My estimate is extremely fair considering we’re talking about both passenger vehicles and trucks.

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  21. Bithead says:

    You are talking a load of nonsense here…if I say I would want talks from both sides how does that make it an advantage to my view!!!!

    (Sigh… there is none so blind…)
    Fine. Let’s look at your own words. (How else but these would I draw any conclusion at all on your position?)

    talking to both parties is essential and it can’t be on our terms or the Israeli terms!!

    Whose terms do you suggest?
    Ah. The side you’ve been arguing for, hmmm?

    FAIL.

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  22. Bithead says:

    The price of a Chevy Volt is estimated to be $40,000 (including the subsidy). My estimate is extremely fair considering we’re talking about both passenger vehicles and trucks.

    True. And I’d add my previous point, that if we’re doing a complete turnover, the price would go up based on shortages caused by that mandated turnover.

    And should we make mention of the fact that the volt only works for singles or couples without kids? Nah. Facts only make things that much more complex in our attempts to sell the mantra to the masses.

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