Hog is dead--long live Hog!


Friday, December 27, 2013

Year in Review 2013


"We're not going to be disrespected.  We have to get something out of this, and I don't know what that even is."
GOP Representative Marlin Stutzman, during the 16-day government shutdown


Washington is unanimous: Barack Obama had the worst year of any president since 1963.  Things are so bad for him that even political obituaries seem inadequate.  The press was more bullish on Nixon in their 1973 year-end reviews.  And the Republicans?  A little tarnished, maybe, but ultimately triumphant and looking great heading into a midterm year.  When even NPR got into the act this morning, I felt it was the first time to take to the blog in four and a half years. 

The year was pretty bad by most standards.  The sequester limited the economy's recovery and year-end fanaticism cut unemployment to more than a million Americans.  The US has locked itself into cultural and political trench warfare and Americans hate Washington more than any time since the 1860s.  On the other hand, the Red Sox did win the World Series.  But in BuzzFeed-world, no one is interested in actual events.  It is politics that matter, and so we place our attention there.  And here is a reset with, I assert, a more accurate reading of the actual politics.

The Year for Obama and the Democrats
It wasn't a great year for anyone.  Almost nothing got done, which meant we're left to pick over very few bones.  In the middle-future, 2013 will be remembered mainly for the Snowden leaks, which probably had a greater effect on national policy than we realize.  Politically, they were smaller potatoes.  The blame doesn't fall neatly on either party, and the details were complex enough that they didn't sink into the national conversation--likesay the way the failure of the ACA's website did.  In the short term, this is how people will remember 2013, and it is the lens through which the entire year is now, in our ADHD mediascape, being interpreted.  But so far as anyone can tell, it was only the website that failed, not the law.  And the website is by most accounts now humming along pretty well.  Five years from now, will that same ADHD media be laser-focused on a government website?  (As a thought experiment, think back to the amount of new you heard about Iraq once we quit the place.)

Meanwhile, there were a few bright spots.  It was a banner year for gay rights.  Again, this is one of those stories that will have a much deeper impact as the months roll on.  States like Oregon are busily preparing to roll back their retrograde gay marriage bans, and the Feds are firmly out of the business of discrimination.

Although he badly mishandled Syria, the result was a rogue nation agreeing to dismantle its chemical weapons.  The US brokered and initial deal with Iran.  And Secretary of State John Kerry, working quietly behind the scenes, has put Israeli-Palestinian talks back on the front burner.

We had elections in November and they showed that despite Obamacare's horrible polling, Dems could still win in purple states like Virginia.  There are signs of a resurgent liberal wing, not just in the election of Bill DeBlasio.  Elizabeth Warren is getting a lot of attention for her economic populism and there is serious talk of raising the federal minimum wage.  Meanwhile, in the Senate, our excellent junior Senator Jeff Merkley finally got his wish when Harry Reid brought a vote to curtail the filibuster for presidential nominations.  This is yet another case in which relatively small political news will result in substantial liberal gains when new judges and cabinet nominees finally get out of their logjam.  (The GOP had quietly managed to stymie portions of government they didn't like by holding up nominations to staff key leadership positions.)

Obama's horrible, no-good, terrible catastrophe of a year concluded with his approval rating rebounding from lows in the upper thirties to the lower 40s (and Pew has him as high as 45%).  That's a 28-point lead over Congress's number.  Yeah, the year was bleak and mostly sucked, but it was certainly not the Dems who got the worst of it.

The Year for the GOP
The Republican Party had a horrible year.  It concluded with the leader of the savagely divided House GOP conference ripping members of his own party.  The GOP has a 13% approval rating, and Congress, paralyzed by GOP gridlock  is at 12%.

But leave aside the in-fighting and look at the record.  The GOP succeeded in their one aim of the year--thwarting Obama.  They produced the least productive Congress in US history, passing just 55 substantive bills.  This was a feature, not a bug.  Recall that in  July, John Boehner made it explicit: "We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal."  They managed to focus on non-scandals like Benghazi and the IRS, both of which drove them further into their own bubble of Fox outrage.

The pièce de résistance, the metaphor for the party and the political moment, was, of course, the insane government shutdown.  It illustrated two things that put the lie to the "Obama's bad year" narrative.  First, it's a party with no capacity to govern.  The shutdown didn't arise over gridlock between the two parties, but over gridlock within the party.  As the pointless shutdown wandered along for 16 days, Boehner failed time after time to pass a deal his own members would agree to, finally and humiliatingly accepting the Dem's terms and using Democratic votes to pass a continuing resolution to re-start the government.  The second point should be even more disturbing for Republicans.  It's that they fooled themselves into thinking this was a winning issue.  They bombed into the shutdown with no plan, fueled only by rage and confusion, thinking that their state reflected America's.

We're about to head into an election season with these wizards at the helm of one of our two great parties.  They are, as ever, confident of victory.  They are confident they've got the right slate of purity-tested candidates and are confident that's what America wants.  They are certain that Americans feel health care is a burden and that their plan to offer nothing in exchange for Obamacare is a winning decision.  For some reason, the media seems to agree.

I guess we'll know in ten months' time.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

In lieu of real content, I offer you my twitter feed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Quandry for the GOP

The Republican Party is in a shameful, embarrassing shambles. The leadership is divided between extremist Southerners in Congress, an ineffectual, hapless party leader, and celebrity fire-breathers like Rush Limbaugh, odious in their personal hypocrisy to most of the Americans the GOP would in other times be trying to woo.

It is an interesting paradox that, during times of political collapse, the rival party understands far more clearly how the collapsing party got there. They have spent years or decades in the political wilderness documenting the tiny oscillations in the political and world reality that might allow them the toehold they need to regain power. The erstwhile ruling party, meanwhile, has developed such a habit of setting the agenda that it has forgotten there is any daylight between its rhetoric and reality. Once the collapse comes, the fallen party has thrown away the very tools it requires to regain power--the ability to see political reality and understand the mood of the electorate, the intellectual chops to compete with the upstart party, humility, and moderation.

Of course, history doesn't repeat itself, it just rhymes. The current collapse is marked by circumstances only possible at this point in history. Let's review.
  • Cognitive dysphasia. In their minds, Republicans are still the competent, freedom-loving, small government party of Reagan. They cannot--will not--reconcile this ideal with Bush's massive government bloat, torture, and economic collapse.
  • Intellectual vacuity. It's not 1983. You wouldn't know it by hearing the unchanged rhetoric of the party. Socialism? Have the aging Reaganites forgotten that they "won" that war?
  • Corruption. Both parties have enjoyed the thuggish corruption of men like Jack Abramoff (even if the GOP had a hell of a lot more of them over the past 10 years). The real corruption that the party needs to worry about--but of course, isn't--is represented by the perversion of the Justice Department.
  • Incompetence. Sayeth Republicans: nothing to see here, la la la la la, keep moving on. See "cognitive dysphasia."
  • Anti-intellectualism. The Republican Party managed to regain power almost exclusively through the support of Christian conservatives. Books have been written about this trend--which began reasonably enough as a reaction against "moral decay"--and metastasised into Joe the Plumber, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin. (Fantastic book: American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips.)
  • Regionalism. It wasn't only the GOP that was seduced by the power of Dixie--Dems were, too. But by linking their party to culture mores represented by people who disliked or were suspicious of urban-dwellers, non-whites, and the educated, the Party now finds itself led almost exclusively by people from the South.
Every one of these elements was either masked (incompetence) or held as a virtue (anti-intellectualism, regionalism) until even two years ago. The GOP, as is the case with all recently-fallen parties, is in denial. They either don't see the fault--few Republicans will cop to their party's corruption or incompetence--or think it's a messaging problem. Most Republicans still hang on to the idea that they're the ruling party and that all they need to do is find the proper message to regain the support of the people. Democrats suffered this confusion through the 80s and 90s. They were coming around to reality in the late 90s, but it took Bush to turn them into hard-boiled realists.

The Republicans are in a bad situation. Structurally, they're being led by the most extreme, most distasteful members of the party. It's no wonder that Fox News is seeing a spike in viewership--the only Republicans left are the true believers, and they're under a siege mentality. The politicians who still have support live in places where those extreme voters remain. They're being pressured to get more conservative. The media support comes only from the most radical, whose viewers are also on the fringe. While Limbaugh can remain one of the most powerful talk show hosts with 10 million viewers, a party that adopts his approach is absolutely doomed.

I've been listening to an evolving discussion among Republicans about where they go from here, and there are two camps. One is led by the fire-breathers. The second is led by people like David Frum and David Brooks (and Utah's Jon Huntsman, one of the few elected officials in this camp), who are trying to revitalize the party's intellectual and policy bona fides. The problem is that it's no longer in their hands. Limbaugh is right about one thing: the only way the GOP gets back into power anytime soon is if the Democrats implode as spectacularly as the Bush- and Delay-led Republicans. No wonder he's rooting for failure. This is the really brutal thing about being in the minority party; your success depends on things outside your control.

I'm my cursory reading of political history is a guide, what we can expect is a continued decline by the GOP, leading to a rival faction, more moderate, more willing to accept the terms of the debate as set by the Democrats. This faction will grow in authority within the party and create a bridge to a new generation of smart, principled, authentically conservative leaders who will start coming into power after the Obama era enters its second or third decade. The pendulum will slow, eventually stop, and these new conservatives will lead the charge as it heads the other direction.

For those of us watching from the other sideline, the GOP is doing everything right to prolong their time in the wilderness. We know that reality will play a forceful role in how things unfold, and the Obama years are going to be an accelerant in one direction or another. But the GOP needs to be able to step up if reality takes a break their way. As long as they're being led by the same old dinosaurs who are blind to the problems that led to the downfall, they're not ready to step up.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Time for a Gold Watch

"I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear ... that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully."
--Chief Justice John Roberts, mis-administering the Presidential oath on Tuesday

In the moments
following this verbal fumble, righties in offices as grand as the Fox News studios and as humble as home offices began with a narrative they couldn't possibly have coordinated: Obama's not the president. Certain elaborations to the analysis were inevitable: "who's Mr. Eloquent now?", "even Bush managed to get through the oath," etc. That it was Roberts, the textualist, who mangled the phrase because he was too vain to read it--this fact was less dwelt upon.

Righties are now the loyal opposition, and they're taking to it like fish to water. With their dark view of the world, colored by fear and resentment, their natural hatred of collectivism and governance, they were never much cut out for leadership. Theirs is a destructive instinct, and it functions so much more ably when they aim it at ruling Dems. They are barbarians, and they're happiest beyond the gates.

We liberals, on the other hand, are the collectivists. We are optimists and our world is colored by the creative instinct to build and grow and change. When I started blogging in the early days of January 2003 (we passed my 6th blogoversary on the 10th), the destroyers were ruling the country and preparing to unleash the dogs of war on the wrong country. In the light and promise of Obama, we sometimes forget how dark those days were. The Bush administration was doing its best to demonize and criminalize liberalism. Speaking against him was treasonous; those who didn't knuckle under were not existentially different from terrorists ("you're with us or against us"). The religious wing of the party was regularly condemning us to hell--literally.

This blog died long ago, lacking only the sense to fall over--I know that. It has expired not so much of old age but lack of purpose. In those days of Bush's panic-fueled popularity (70% when I started writing the blog), there was little else to do but blog. The Dems were completely useless appeasers; liberals had seen their infrastructure erode for 50 years. It seemed like being a witness was the most many of us could muster. And so witness I did, for 6 years. I enjoy a sense of vindication in seeing the Bush years end in humiliation and failure. The ignorance, arrogance, and viciousness that guided the country was, after all, ignorant, arrogant, vicious--and incompetent.

For 20 years I spent election cycles jumping on the wrong horse (Jesse Jackson, Tom Harkin, Nader, Nader, Kucinich/Dean). In May 2007 I jumped on yet another unlikely horse, but this long-shot came in. Obama's election was the repudiation of a governing philosophy in ascent my entire adult life. I started blogging during the Bush years, but he was just the terminal stage of the disease.

Obama, the antidote, has made the need to blog--or anyway the inclination--obsolete. I don't know what comes next, but brutalizing Muslim countries, blind, fascist partisanship, giving all our tax dollars to the rich, establishing moral codes of behavior, reveling in ignorance at the expense of experience and education--these things are done. America finally reached a level of toxicity and like a drunk vomiting his last three drinks into a toilet, we have disgorged the Republican Party from the body politic.

I don't know what comes next, and I don't assume I'll stay away from this blog. But I'm done with it for now and for awhile. When I've discontinued past blogs, I declare them dead. From this one I'm merely retiring, and like Brett Favre, I won't consider anything permanent. Maybe there's emeritus blogging in the future.

For those who stumble buy and actually see this--my thanks to you. We did it. Bush has been vanquished, so spectacularly that a black guy named Hussein was the only reasonable alternative. We did all right.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Assessing Bush: The Divider

"I just want to make sure we don't start confining ourselves to, you know, politburo members because they happen to be a member of some, you know, psychopathic left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government."
--Brad Schlozman, second in command in the Civil Rights Division, in a report released last week. The report found that 2/3s of Schlozman's hires were "clearly conservative" and that he lied about hiring practices in congressional hearings.

This is the final of my four posts about the Bush administration's legacy, and I'll keep it brief. When Bush came into office in 2001, he arrived during a constitutional crisis following what many Americans (including this one) believed was a stolen election. Rather than try to repair the damage, George Bush immediately set about conducting one of the most vindictive, partisan administration in US history. He stocked his administration with political lackeys whose central qualification was loyalty. As the years played out, catastrophic failures of management mounted as quickly as reports of agency witch hunts like last week's report about the Civil Rights Division. Among the many quotes that capture this element of his presidency, "Heck of a job, Brownie" stands as a particular testament.

During his administration, his toadies doctored reports, fired apostates, and used the Justice of Department to assault political foes. The attack dogs of the campaigns were brought into governance and let loose against career federal employees. Bush administration officials tarred Democrats as enemies of the state or terrorists, and, during the dark days following 9/11, some in the administration threatened to silence those who disagreed with Bush policy. All of this was by way of establishing a dream of Karl Rove: to create a "permanent governing majority."

Tomorrow the United States will inaugurate a black liberal whose middle name is Hussein. He will govern a country with large majorities in both the House and Senate. And, perhaps most notably, the new president has made civility and bi-partisanship a centerpiece of his governing style. There can be no greater repudiation of the cancerous politics left by George Bush that America's embrace of Barack Obama.

That's change we can believe in.

Assessing Bush: The Divider

"I just want to make sure we don't start confining ourselves to, you know, politburo members because they happen to be a member of some, you know, psychopathic left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government."
--Brad Schlozman, second in command in the Civil Rights Division, in a report released last week. The report found that 2/3s of Schlozman's hires were "clearly conservative" and that he lied about hiring practices in congressional hearings.

This is the final of my four posts about the Bush administration's legacy, and I'll keep it brief. When Bush came into office in 2001, he arrived during a constitutional crisis following what many Americans (including this one) believed was a stolen election. Rather than try to repair the damage, George Bush immediately set about conducting one of the most vindictive, partisan administration in US history. He stocked his administration with political lackeys whose central qualification was loyalty. As the years played out, catastrophic failures of management mounted as quickly as reports of agency witch hunts like last week's report about the Civil Rights Division. Among the many quotes that capture this element of his presidency, "Heck of a job, Brownie" stands as a particular testament.

During his administration, his toadies doctored reports, fired apostates, and used the Justice of Department to assault political foes. The attack dogs of the campaigns were brought into governance and let loose against career federal employees. Bush administration officials tarred Democrats as enemies of the state or terrorists, and, during the dark days following 9/11, some in the administration threatened to silence those who disagreed with Bush policy. All of this was by way of establishing a dream of Karl Rove: to create a "permanent governing majority."

Tomorrow the United States will inaugurate a black liberal whose middle name is Hussein. He will govern a country with large majorities in both the House and Senate. And, perhaps most notably, the new president has made civility and bi-partisanship a centerpiece of his governing style. There can be no greater repudiation of the cancerous politics left by George Bush that America's embrace of Barack Obama.

That's change we can believe in.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Assessing Bush: Domestic Policy

In the third of four posts assessing the presidency of George Bush, we turn now to domestic policy. Compared to the economy and foreign policy, Bush's domestic policies can get lost in the shuffle. Yet here, too, he was an activist president who left a mixed legacy.

Bush came into office with big plans to forge a new kind of politics based on "compassionate conservatism." This was always a slightly confused governing philosophy because it fused the methods of activist liberalism--using government to craft social change--with the morals and goals of Christian conservatism. Bush wanted to reform areas hitherto considered the domain of liberals--education, social security, immigration, and poverty--but rather than putting them under the purview of government, he wished instead to farm them out to favored private sectors. When he arrived, his to-do list consisted of reforming education, creating a network of quasi-government "faith based" programs, reforming immigration, and privatizing Social Security. As I mentioned in earlier posts, these were again fairly radical new ways of thinking about problems. Bush was, above all, willing to put untested theories to work in real-world experiments.

Successes
Bush, the former governor with no appetite for "nation building," was far more successful within the sphere of domestic policy. The first months of his presidency were dominated by the passage of "No Child Left Behind," a flawed but serious attempt (co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy) to reform education and improve US performance. A devout man, his belief in faith-based programs was also wholly evident, and he was proud to get these off the ground. Finally, although he failed to get immigration reform passed (failed, in fact, to see how damaging it would be to his own party), he was genuinely invested in creating a workable fix. If he had been in office during Clinton's term, we would be focused on these efforts as the highlights, rather than forgotten sidebars, in what would be regarded as a more successful presidency.

Corporatism, Again
One of the inclinations that marred Bush's domestic programs were his unfailing effort to reward corporate interests to the detriment of the government, small business, and private citizens. Worse, this blinded him to opportunities that might have actually helped revitalize certain sectors (medical, financial, automotive, communications, airline, eco); instead, toadying up to corporate bosses resulted in bloated, consolidated industries that list along or are collapsing. A few examples. When he crafted a new energy plan, he tailored it to the oil and gas executives who alone were invited to participate in the discussions. Farm bills were designed to streamline an industrial model of agriculture that have America in the midst of an obesity crisis (see Michael Pollan for a lot more about that). In considering communication policy, Bush always deferred to behemoths more interested in gobbling up competitors than delivering quality content.

Homeland Security, Medicare Reform
Bush, the conservative, flummoxed and perhaps hamstrung his own party by passing two of the largest expansions of government in the country's history. The first was the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, the kind of agency that gives arch conservatives night terrors. It collected 22 agencies under one umbrella, the idea being that one huge agency could coordinate and communicate better than two dozen. (A hypothesis that would have gotten a great deal more attention had it not been for 9/11, the precipitating event.) The second was a Frankenstein's monster designed to expand prescription coverage under Medicare. It was a deeply flawed and unpopular bill that managed to pass the House only after Speaker Denny Hastert strong-armed his members (and perhaps bribed them). Its popularity has not much grown.

Christian Right
No president in US history enjoyed more support from conservative Christians than Bush, and they expected him to deliver. In one regard he did--he managed to get two very conservative, very young judges onto the Supreme Court, and appointed a raft of conservatives to lower courts. But the structure of government prevented the GOP from doing more during the Bush years. Early in office, he managed to limit government funding of stem-cell research, though this didn't fully satisfy his base nor stop research. Abortion laws tightened at the state level, but Roe was not overturned. Gay marriage was a reliable re-election issue, but during his eight years in office, legal gay marriage and civil unions became the law in several states (including Oregon--yay!). And as a particular low-light to the Christian era, Bush and the GOP attempted to thwart a legal process in the case of Terri Schiavo--an early and embarrassing defeat of Bush's second term.

In the end, Bush managed to do a fair amount with his time in office, but the legacy may be short lived. No Child Left Behind has recorded--at best--mixed success. Faith-based programs are likely to be downplayed and probably face a slow phase-out under Obama. The immigration legislation Bush started might have continued except for other car wrecks he left behind (the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan) that demand immediate attention. And the currency of the Christian right appears to be dramatically declining--a shocking turnaround from just four years ago, when they thought their hour had arrived. But Homeland Security and the Medicare prescription reform--those will, for better or worse, outlast Bush. It ain't much, but given everything else, maybe Bush will be happy to take it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Assessing Bush: The Economy

"It's sad to say, but we really went nowhere for almost ten years, after you extract the boost provided by the housing and mortgage boom. It's almost a lost economic decade."
--Mark Zandi, Chief Economist at Moody's

On Monday I began a series of posts on the Bush years, starting with a look at the administration's handling of foreign policy. The Iraq war will be one of a small number of major initiatives against which history will judge the Bush administration; another is the economy. There are parallels. In Iraq, Bush tested the hypotheses of a radical group of ideologues on the efficacy of "anticipatory defense." He turned the economy over to a different cadre of ideologues who tested out different hypotheses: running deficits to put money in the hands of the very rich; further deregulation of industries; hobbling government regulators to allow for more free-wheeling, Darwinian markets. The results of the economic experiment was no more successful than the one Bush ran in Iraq.

Let's start with a few key statistics, which rise like gravestones from the Bush economy, before working backward:

Bush arrived in Washington as the first "MBA president," and he promised to run the government like a CEO. How apt a metaphor. As you can see in the statistics I cite above, not everything was bad. People at the top did fine. The country got richer, and if you average all those riches out, individuals got richer, too--per-capita GDP went up nearly $4000 (11%). But median incomes were down. This tells us that the riches were spread not uniformly across the income spectrum, but collected among the already-rich. Sound familiar? CEOs spent the decade reaping obscene amounts of money even as their companies foundered, while line-workers got peanuts (or pink slips--see the rise in unemployment).

But even this doesn't tell the whole story. When he was elected, there was an operating philosophy in Washington, birthed in conservative think tanks and propagated for decades in the media, that if government gets out of the way and lets business do business, we will all reap the rewards. The idea was that this business environment would create so much wealth that we would all get a piece of the pie. (To Dems who spent the 00s moaning that infrastructure was collapsing, wages stagnating, and education declining, the GOP offered vague bromides about the riches to come.)

The irony, of course, is that the CEO in Chief had the same blind spots in running a government in this environment as Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld. The US won't go bankrupt like Lehman, but the effect was related. In the end, the CEOs got fired, but they kept the money; workers got laid off. Now tax-payers get the bill, but financial executives keep their jobs.

Bush's Corporatism
There were other elements of the way Bush ran Washington that didn't look high minded even when we could nurture the belief that the overall economy was doing fine. Now they look obscene. Chief among these was the pipeline that funneled billions to corporations (which in turned sent millions back to Bush in fundraising support). Here's one example, though there are dozens to choose from:

Agricultural subsidies were doubled between 2002 and 2005. Tax expenditures—the vast system of subsidies and preferences hidden in the tax code—increased more than a quarter. Tax breaks for the president’s friends in the oil-and-gas industry increased by billions and billions of dollars. Yes, in the five years after 9/11, defense expenditures did increase (by some 70 percent), though much of the growth wasn’t helping to fight the War on Terror at all, but was being lost or outsourced in failed missions in Iraq.

This made Bush's assault on the poor (with, in some cases, the help of Democrats) even more unseemly. Even though their wages were stagnating while their medical bills rose, Bush pushed through a vindictive, banking-industry-backed personal bankruptcy bill that made it far harder to get out of debt. As a consequence, personal debt skyrocketed 53% under Bush. At every stop along his presidency, Bush sacrificed the needs of regular (tax-paying) Americans to help bloated corporations. The nested relationship between the Bush administration, former and future lobbyists, and K Street will be remembered as one of the most corrupt in history. This wasn't an ideological feature of Bush's economic plan, it was hardball politics.

Burst Bubbles, Foreclosures, Ruin
As a coda to the Bush years, 2008 was bad for everyone. The housing bubble popped, and a million people lost their homes to foreclosure. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 4,700 points--over a third of its value. That one stung even a few in the upper income brackets. And of course, the financial sector collapsed, forcing the biggest bailout in US history. The results are written in the statistics, but the overall effect will last far longer than the the Bush recession. With the exit of Bush, a governing philosophy with mighty currency among conservatives has proved a fraud. Long after the US digs out of the massive crater left by the Bush administration's economic policies, the ideology that led us to this point will remembered as a cautionary tale of greed and corruption. So perhaps there's one silver lining.