A Farewell to Alms, pp.1-112

1. Did hunter-gatherers really have living standards as high as people in 18th century England?  By focusing on the long run, Clark neglects the pains of equilibration.  Hunter-gatherers who survived to 30 maybe had decent lives, but population was very low.  It was kept low, in part, by lots of brutal and painful death.  We can’t just focus on the steady-state conditions in making welfare comparisons.  Modern research is also discovering that primitive societies have very high levels of war and violent death; if we’re playing time travel games, I’m opting for 1800, and not just to have a chance of hearing Haydn.  I’ll also take modern Tanzania over the hunter-gatherers, in a heartbeat, contra what Clark implies.

2. Why should we aggregate income comparisons by country (or the whole world) rather than by city?  World history looks very different if we do the latter.  Aren’t most countries relatively recent inventions anyway?  More generally, I would like a more disaggregated look at the data.  Big chunks of the urbanized human population — pre 1800 — seem to have violated Malthusian precepts for centuries on end.  "Stadtluft macht frei" was the old German saying.

3. How long is the long run?  This is one of my biggest questions about the work and about Malthusian predictions more generally.  Are we just comparing 30,000 B.C. to 1800 A.D.?  If so, we have only two data points.  If we look at times in between, there is much more scope for non-Malthusian results, even if they hold for "only centuries."

4. Violent conflict and predation are not given enough (any?) importance.  Cities that avoid violent conflict do pretty well.  Admittedly, violence is itself endogenous to Malthusian considerations, but I’m not going to reduce war to population pressures (and certainly Clark never tries to.)  Isn’t part of the historical inability to boost long-run living standards simply the result of recurring wars and depredations?  17th century European history, among other times, shows just how much war matters.

5. Should I reject the Julian Simon model I grew up with?  In that view there are increasing returns to scale within cities, where people usually don’t starve.  The countryside languishes in poor countries, in part because it is underpopulated.  Rather than having a "one population model" with an aggregate "n," labor markets are local.  The "plagued by diseconomies of scale rural folk" cannot sufficiently connect with the "economies of scale urban sophisticates," mostly because of bad institutions and backward infrastructure.  And the cities prove unable to protect themselves against all ongoing predations.  Doesn’t that model fit the data too, and fit the disaggregated and shorter-run data better?

6. I can’t find the single place where Clark directly tests the Malthusian model.  I fear he will regard this observation as unfair, since there is argumentation and data of some kind on virtually every page.  But I still am not satisfied.  I see lots of evidence for "history shows mean-reversion and population pressures are one factor affecting wages."  It is harder to find a) what "best alternative" the Malthusian model is being tested against, b) what evidence would adjudicate between models, c) what is the short-run claim about the response of population to real wages, and d) what in history are the "hard cases" for the Malthusian model and how does Clark handle them?

7. Charles Kenny argues that the Malthusian model does not explain observed short-run dynamics for population and real wages.  I don’t regard this piece as a refutation of Clark by any means, but the evidence on how well real wages predict population growth seems to me murky rather than decisively in Clark’s favor.  There’s just not a single, simple model at work here.

If you are coming to the book blind, here is a short piece by Clark.  Here is my earlier column on the manuscript.  Here is a survey paper on the Industrial Revolution and the Malthusian trap.  Here is more good background.  Peter Lindert considers how much real wages predict population growth in British history.  Read this too.

What do you all think?


I have just started the book (I got it late from Amazon) so I can't fully discuss all of the issues in the first hundred pages. But one question I do have is this: if people in industrial societies weren't really better off than those in rural backwards hunter gatherer societies up until the 1800s (which the book argues), is there any evidence of people moving from the cities of Europe to live a hunter gatherer lifestyle? If not, why not? There doesn't seem to be many barriers to entry into the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the author suggests that many hunter-gatherers lived a better life than those at the bottom of societies in cities.

Probalby because anyone opting to become a hunter gatherer in say the King of Frances private deer forest would have a very low probabilty of long term survival. Execution is a fairly standard punishment for poaching...

Let me try to push Tyler's priors on the Malthusian model explaining all human history before 1800 a little higher.

The finding that life in 1800 in England was no better than that of hunter-gatherers was a surprise to me also. But after months of reflection I concluded it was not just right empirically, but right in a deep theoretical way.

(1) Logic - think of the logic of the Malthusian model. Living standards are all about birth rates and death rates. Hunter-gatherer birth rates are no higher than in England in 1800. And they had deaths from violence to match those from disease in England - all good in creating high living standards. If you admit the premises of the model then this conclusion follows very soon. So which premise (of the three) do you want to reject? And why?

(2) Evidence - Tyler worries about violent death in the hunter-gatherer world. But look at the life expectancy figures (pp. 91-5): they are nearly as good as for England. Unless you have a preference for dying in a squalid hovel from fever or spitting up tubercular blood, compared with a sudden and probably unexpected blow to the head, why would you prefer England on this basis?

I am coming late to the discussion too and, due to new semester prep pressures, have not kept up with the reading pace. My comment may be covered in pages I have not yet read.

That said, wouldn't the Malthusian Trap occur only at the *margin* of society? That is, the poorest "strata" of society will always be at subsistence, balancing between reproductive viability and starvation. However, members of infra-marginal strata, to the extent that they exist, earn Ricardian rents, or higher incomes. Hunter-gatherer societies, I suspect, are more uniform in productivity terms, implying that more of the population are near the margin. Today, some people may still live on the margins of society, but this margin is much thinner in developed economies and the rents to the most important scarce productive assets (human capital?) are greater.

In between, as societies developed more specialized roles for their members, those who had the scarce resources that enabled them to move into more productive roles (brawn, brains, disease resistance, entrepreneurial skill), would out-produce those at subsistence levels. To the extent that division of labor has been increasingly possible and that entry into the higher echelons has been increasingly unavailable to those at the margin, *average* income should have risen even if *marginal* income did not.

I am going to have to restrain myself from intervening too often here, but let me make one more response to Tyler's comments on pp 1-112.

Those pages of the book basically have the form - technological advance before 1800 was very slow everywhere, what are the economic consequences of that?

Many of Tyler's comments are addressed to the issue "Why was technological advance so slow?" That is addressed in chapters 7-9 (where I know he will strongly disagree). But I could accept one of Tyler's alternative accounts of slow growth before 1800, and still have everything on pp. 1-112 be correct.

"Hunter-gatherers who survived to 30 maybe had decent lives"

Sorry for what might appear to be an aside, but...

What is the definition of "life expectancy"? I have always taken it to mean the total number of years lived by all members of a population divided by the number of people... so in a two-person population, if person X dies at 60 and person Y dies just after birth, life expectancy is 30. But there are other possible definitions, such as the median age of death for people who survive to age 20.

I ask the question because it has always struck me as implausible that any society in which the "average" person died at 30 could possibly survive, given the huge number of orphans that would result. (Surely this is a testable hypothesis, right?)

For a brief moment, I have to play the blithering sycophant. What a terrific moment for blogging. I am sure similar book reviews have been done elsewhere, and surely, this blog has always been something of a salon, but this may be a high point. A critical, but respectful discussion of one of the most interesting recent 'big books' led by an excellent thinker like Tyler, with the author occasionally popping in to offer his thoughts on the questioning/criticism. A great joy.

Greg, I hope you intervene often. I hope you also read this post: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2007/08/cowen_clark_and_1.html At one point, I write, "if Clark does not believe that institutions matter, then why does he choose a country as his unit of analysis? Why not choose a unit that more closely maps to his thesis of population characteristics and tipping points?"

Does it really mean nothing that there seemed to be reasonably broad acceptance of the feudal social contract? The implication here seems to be that acceptance of some form of law in exchange for a tithe was a fool's bargain.

I'm having trouble understanding how the Malthus argument maintains its power across both a case where people are killing each other over resources and a case where there is disease killing off city dwellers. Is it really the same force the keeps life expectancy low?

This discussion would benefit from more, not less, response from Gregory Clark.
I find the book so far to be tremendously stimulating, and I'm looking forward to the rest.
Like Tyler, I too would greatly prefer life in London in 1800, or Athens 450 BC. But this is because of the general benefits of civilization, not standard of living of the average person as defined by Clark. If we are just talking about caloric intake and general health, I'll be a plains Indian around 1600 -- with horses, but without Europeans.
I also happen to be reading Rousseau's second discourse at the same time. Makes for a great comparison.

Let me add a comment on the volatility of consumption in the hunter-gatherer world versus England in 1800.

I agree volatility was higher in the hunter-gatherer world. England in 1800 had the poor law to provide a minimum. No one starved, which did happen sometimes to hunter-gatherers. BUT in the Malthusian world volatility can be a good thing, producing higher average levels of consumption. Life has to be very good on average to get you through the bad patches. Since life expectancy at birth is determined by the birth rate, if that is the same in two societies, the one with greater volatility of consumption will produce higher average living standards with no cost in life expectancy.

As the book emphasizes, the Malthusian world has a very different logic from the modern.

On Arnold Kling and institutions:

I think if we debate institutions now, it will get ahead of where Tyler is in the book. When he gets to chapter 8 you can be sure that I will be there to defend myself against the unreasoned love affair most economists have with institutions.

BUT let me add that I am very sympathetic to the idea that countries are in economic terms generally bad units of analysis. India now, for example, is one country but with radically different economic conditions and living standards betweem Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh.

The reason I use them is

(a) Political units collect and publish data at the country level.
(b) Other people think in terms of countries, and so it is an easy shorthand.

I agree that the Malthusian model does not adequately explain the historical data. The reason why I think it seems to (at first glace) is that all the data in pre-industrial revolution England is completely dwarfed by the Black Death. The Black Death was not a Malthusian crisis but a particularly virulent epidemic.

A good paper on this is be JP Chavas and a co-author:

This paper indicates that because the Black Death reduced population so drastically and suddenly, a standard Malthusian model would predict a increase in population after 1350 yet population does not actually begin to rise again until 1520. In other words it attempts to test the Malthusian hypothesis against the idea that population pressure led to improvements in productivity.
One problem with city life that Tyler neglects and I think Clark mentions in the book is that they were swamps of disease and death. In 17th century Amsterdam I have seen life expectancy estimates of 23 – 24 years. In other words, there were diseconomies of scale as well as economies of scale and the high wages and living standards of the Dutch were the other side of their low life expectancies.

The lower you think GDP per capita was in 1800 the higher you must think growth was between 1800 and say 1900 when everyone more or less agrees on the numbers. Depending on what particular numbers you choose for 1800 I get that you need to almost double per-capita GDP growth rates - not to a ridiculously high number but high enough to make me doubt. Thus, if we follow Greg we must believe two things: 1) the standard if living in the UK circa 1800 was about the same as for hunter-gatherers 2) the rate of growth in GDP per capita jumped tremendously during the 19th century and approached modern rates.

Neither of these is strictly impossible but I think the standard view in which GDP per capita in say 1500 was not much different from hunter-gatherers and gdp per capita at that time began to grow very slowly rising to about 1% per year in the UK in the 19th century is more plausible.

Note that in the standard view the Malthusian model still describes most of human history pretty well.

Perhaps this is jumping ahead although I haven't read past page 115 yet. Maybe Tyler will delete me.


17th century European history, among other times, shows just how much war matters.

It surely does, yet the 17th century demonstrated, as the title of Geoffrey Parker's book has it, "Europe in Crisis", so perhaps it's enough of an anomaly that can't generalize from it. And even so, some recent scholarship says that much of 17th century Europe was untouched by war. Clark shows that in medieval England, life went on for the masses, barely noticing what the king and his armies were doing.


I am sure you realize that we can have much higher GDP per capita in London circa 1800 than in a hunter-gatherer society and at the same time have 90% or 99% of population with lower living standards than a median hunter-gatherer.

The difference is in the weighting: headcount weights in population dynamics models, wealth/consumption weights in GDP per capita calculations.

1. I think that the problem here is the economist's tendency to treat "wealth" and "welfare" as synonymous. The hunter gatherers had higher wages as measured in the cost of the goods on which they spent the majority of their time, but the set of free and extremely cheap public goods are so different as to make intersubjective utility comparisons atypically hopeless. In so far as choices do happen, migration favored colonial America over Europe and "going native" over colonial agrarian life.

4. Violence prevents you from reaching the Malthusian equilibrium, but I think that Clark would say it maintains you in a lower population equilibrium with a higher standard of living. I think really this simply has to depend on how much a person likes or dislikes violence vs. hunger. Econ is weak at evaluating preferences when choices aren't available. We can't see any evidence as to whether it's better to spend your life with jungle or medieval city as scenery, not to mention the hedonic value of beliefs, cultures and world views.

5. Julian Simon's model holds when food, transportation, and waste disposal are abundant, as they have been for 150 years. Clark emphasizes that people in cities prior to modernity *did* starve, but slowly, so they died of disease. We know that if you go back far enough in time biological models incorporating carrying capacity are eventually important, the only question is when.

I don't know if the choices michael vasser puts out are really just personal preference.

I think there is a serious difference between a society in which 30% of the population dies of disease before maturity, and one in which 30% die from violence. For one thing, there is a lot of psychological damage (see Grossman’s On Killing). Watching your sister die of cancer is a bad thing, I know. I think watching her get murdered is a whole other, much worse thing.

And in the classical era you had to seriously consider the possibility that your city would be besieged and all the populace killed or enslaved. Happened to Melos, Mytilanea, Numantia, Carthage, Corinth, Alesia, Jerusalem, on and on. And hunter-gatherer villages are frequently overrun and exterminated by rival clans (good section in Keegan’s History of Warfare). In 1800 UK, I might die and someone I love might die, but my whole extended family is much less likely to be exterminated. How much is that worth? I would pay a lot for it.

You personally might prefer one or the other, but a solid supermajority of humanity would choose a life of quiet desperation over a life of massive violence. And the death by violence numbers are far lower in 1800.

And there’s a lot more to read in 1800. I also think we can pretty easily make a broad judgment about the value of accumulated cultural capital. As some here have pointed out, there is a lot of brainwork in being a caveman. You have to know thousands of species and their behaviors. But there is a lot more to do with your mind in 1800. I bet some of those stories the cavemen told around the campfire were pretty awesome. But are they really competitive with the Sistine Chapel + Cervantes + Locke + Rabeleis + New Testament + Newton + etc, and a similar rendition for any other developed cultural package?

And I’m dubious of the colonial migration numbers. There might be different obstacles. Joining the Iroquois might be a lot easier than joining the English. Especially if functioning in English society required mastering more rules and norms, the accretion of all the cultural capital. And they might reject you. The praying Indians of Natick Mass got massacred by the whites they wanted to join during King Phillip’s War. And I suspect the rates of indigenous joining colonial society was quite different in Latin America.

I think you're being pretty culturally biased here. We handle death by disease better than death by violence because we observe it more. Have you never heard the phrase "warrior's death" or "good death"? It was a disgrace in some societies for a man to die of disease.

Infant/toddler death rates are a big deal as well, since 0's have a funny way of dragging down averages quickly.

I'm also dubious of the colonial migration numbers. The very early colonists were sometimes faces with "join or die of starvation" choices. After that, as a percentage, I think the numbers were quite low. But reluctance to join a culture can be caused by many issues. I understand that the Indians though that agrarian life was demeaning. As for art and entertainment, I think that these matters are so culturally determined that any comparison is meaningless. Yes, I have access to an unbelievable amount of culture--and the mold to show for it. But that does not mean that any of it brings me the level of enjoyment of life that I would have if "forced" to develop culture within a small group.

The measure I have seen used elsewhere which seems sensible to me is "leisure time". Average expected leisure hours might be a decent (not great) measure.

I will argue strongly that the plague was a classic Mathusian event with secondary effects. As I mentioned, the starvation at the outset was matched nicely with the death rate. The problem is that the large number of deaths itself resulted in a significant societal breakdown. At the beginning, France was importing grain from the Ukraine. With the breakdown, that source of food was cut off. My understanding is that there were other institutional failures as well. They were rebuilt, but it took time.

Several people have essentially claimed that more people is a good thing in that it allows for additional specialization. Sure. But how much good does that specialization do if it comes at the cost of everyone starving? During the middle ages, there was very little overproduction available to feed the long-term investment part of society. Moreover, many of the most aggressive areas of advancement were isolated from each other (military smiths and engineers) or the rest of society (monasteries), which means that increasing their numbers might not improve overall technology at all.

A quick comment on Mark Koyama's post about the Malthusian model not explaining what happened in England after the Black Death (1349-1520). The crucial thing is that the Black Death recurred every 10-15 years from 1349 on, slowly driving the population down (to only 2.2 m by 1450), and wages up.

"Isn't part of the historical inability to boost long-run living standards simply the result of recurring wars and depredations?"

This theory suggests that this is a major consideration -- and in particular explains why Italy, and later England and Japan, were economically favored, versus countries exposed by land to enemies on all sides were disfavored.

The discussion so far has focused on the Malthusian theory and the empirical evidence for it.
This is on a related subject that comes up in the second chapter, which is on the logic of the Malthusian economy, p. 36.

From the text:

The Malthusian model takes no account of income distribution. ... we can see that greater inequality will have little or no effect on the living standards of the landless workers, the mass of the population. The more equally land rents and capital income are distributed across the general population the more these rents will simply be dissipated in larger population sizes. If these rents were instead appropriated by an aristocratic elite, as they were in many preindustrial societies, then they could be enjoyed with little or no cost to the rest of the population. Thus while inequality could not make the median person better off in the Malthusian world, it could raise average income per person by raising the incomes of the propertied elite.

How could rent seeking activities (such as patent monopolies), a negative sum game, increase either the total income of society or the average income per person? They raised revenue for the State and they increased the incomes of monopolists, by enabling them to charge higher prices than would have prevailed under competition, and to earn monopoly rents. But how did they raise the incomes of the masses, who were paying higher prices for the monopolized goods?

In Inventing the Industrial Revolution: The English Patent System, 1660-1800, Christine MacLeod writes:

Industrial corporations were created or transformed to operate patents that conferred monopoly powers, at the price of an annual rent or pro rata payment to the crown. Major items of consumption--salt, soap, starch, coal, for example--rose dramatically in price, as monopolists sought to recoup the rents and premiums demanded by the government and to exact high profits while their political luck held.

All of this raised a hue and cry against the patent system; and it was reformed by the Statute of Monopolies in 1624. But the system lived on, monopolies still existed, and rents continued to be extracted by rent seekers.

Re: Nathan Zook, notsneaky, and Gregory Clark

Just to be clear, I'm not citing Simon to argue that the preindustrial world wasn't in a Malthusian trap. My point is that the trap can only exist if something is preventing the gains from population growth- specialization and ideas- from materializing. With that being said, there are a number of possible reasons why the preindustrial world wouldn't see these gains. I mentioned culture and institutions in my original post (culture seems to fit well with Clark's thesis), but Nathan has a couple of possibilities in his last post as well.

Doesn't the Great Divergence have a multilineal history? The lower starting point of postcolonial independent countries after decades of oppression should be a strong forcing in the divergence.

As far as China and Japan is concerned, China was ready to have an Industrial Revolution in 1400, but suffered from a stuffy bureacracy, or at least that is what Castells claims in The Network Society. How did Japan fair after the Meiji Restoration?

My other quip would be the technological schedule. Didn't the Industrial Revolution mean that production far outstripped our ability to reproduce, changing poverty into an issue of distribution? How do we tease cause and effect apart?

The question of why agrarians did not seek to become hunter-gatherers ignores a fundamental fact: After the development of agriculture, a THIRD approach became viable. This was the pasturalist or herder.

There was a great deal of cases in which agricultural peasants ran away to become herders.

The eastern European serfs escaped their masters to become herders on the steppe. This was called "cossacking" and they are known as the cossacks.

Western Europeans didn't have anywhere to go, until they could escape to the New World to become cowboys, or the Latino equivalents, or stockmen in Australasia.

There was a great deal of population shift to and fro between the settled farmers of China and the Mongolian/Manchurian/Turk sheep and horse herders.

And in most places there was a common theme in literature, story and song, to run away to sea. i.e. To beome a hunter (of fish) and gatherer (of trade) because that was the only non-settled area left.

Let us not forget the bandit and outlaw. Basically a hunter when humans are the dominant species, and so you either hunt humans (not necessarily for food) or steal their livestock.


Just to be clear, I see cultural institutions as being an integral on both sides of the equation. Private property is a bad institution for hunter-gathers, and essential for industrialization. A population shock, (usually famine, war, or disease) if sever enough, can materially effect institutions. Recovery from a sever shock can include the need to rebuild trade routes or to resettle border disputes.

Doctorpat: you are being cute, which doesn't go very far here. The sailor get his ship, metal, and twine from the agrarian society. "Running away to sea" does not mean becoming a hunter-gatherer, it means putting enough distance between yourself and your existing circumstance that you can basically forget it.

The marginal activities that you mention are essentially specialists within the agrarian society.

Notsneaky: Care to comment on lim(n->infinity) 3^n/2^n ?

Ronald Brak: I grew up on a farm, so I know this subject pretty well. We have strong instincts which correlate well with primitive hunter-gatherer activity. Don't assume for a moment that these instincts, even with the "training" of our prepubescent fellows would suffice to make the transition. We hunted old electronics. We gathered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Late marriage and a high percentage of Europeans going into convents/monasteries meant that Malthusian logic didn't work as quickly as in China, where early and nearly universal marriage meant the population boomed until government order broke down, at which point there'd be a rapid die-off.

China did indeed go through a population boom and a swift correction 1959-61. Famine mostly, infancide in the middle year 1960, quite prominent. If anyone has seen the world population annual growth chart over at the USA Federal Reserve webpage, I encourage you to look.

The Chinese lost so many people that it affected World fertility rates.

If you are familiar with chart patterns. There is a famous pattern, very common. The Head and Shoulder.

I surmise that global population annual growth rate is now in the Right Shoulder stage.

My idea works into the premises posted on this thread earlier that rising population leads to higher specialization and technological innovation. I do believe we are on the cusp of a significant technology event. However, the Right Shoulder suggests we may witness a time when changes in world population growth collapses the Head and Shoulder pattern

That time I estimate to occur 2013 through 2018

I had raised this question on my blog but this is certainly the place to be discussing the book so here it is. Sorry I'm late :)

With respect to the wills that show a positive relationship between surviving children and wealth.... Kids are expensive, right? Then men with lots of kids are probably less likely to have assets to bequeath in a will. But this is probably a larger issue for poor men than rich men. So it seems like the poor men with lots of kids are most likely to be missing from the data. If this is the case, then the true relationship might still be negative.

Page 120:

The principal advantages the fathers were transmitting to their sons were thus either cultural (the sons learned how to success economically) or even genetic (...)

I've been having problems with the frequency at which genetic heretability is mentioned in this book.

In this case he sets it up as EITHER cultural OR EVEN genetic. Even qualified this way it gives genetics way too much weight (and erroneously suggests there might not be any cultural inheritance at all).

I would fully expect children of the rich to have a similar reproductive advantage purely through the transmission of culture - literacy, trade skills, social status, etc. No need to invoke genetics where it is most certainly negligible, unless you're going to seriously back that up. It is very difficult to quantify genetic heretablity of behaviors.

The most interesting idea I've found in the book so far is that pre-industrial Europeans enjoyed a much higher standard of living compared to the Asians because they (the Europeans) were such filthy fucking pigs. Now I can explain to my wife how I'm contributing to the wealth of society...

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The ancient Red Indians had a civilization not unlike the Aztecs. I assume they were agriculturalists. But some kind of event occurred that drove them back to the hunter-gatherer in some areas long before the English settlers arrived. Thus, history is not a simple progression from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist to industrialist and onwards. It goes through stages where people re-adapt to new circumstances. Being 'better off' is a bad way to measure human happiness. Without modern medicine nobody is better off for nobody can withstand diseases in such a way as to be relatively sure of survival up to the ages of 70 and beyond.

DI instruction, hmm. I will contend that the though of teaching by script is a method which seems counterintuitive.Certainly I am not the only one who has heard that saying, "What is good for everyone, is good for no one."

Of course reading that, I think of those things that are good for everyone - oxygen, water, and love.

Bringing things back to education - I also think that reading, writing and numeracy is good for everyone. And indeed become better for everyone the more people who can use them.

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