A budget is a moral document that reflects what we value and prioritize. But to most people, the budget-making process is convoluted and confusing. Budget expert Bob Greenstein joins Nick and Jasmin this week to explain how a budget is made, and how these mind-bogglingly huge numbers impact everyday life.

Bob Greenstein is the Founder and President of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute that analyzes federal budget priorities. Greenstein is considered an expert on the federal budget and a range of domestic policy issues, including anti-poverty programs and various aspects of tax and health care policy.

Twitter: @GreensteinCBPP

@CenterOnBudget

Further reading:

Trump’s budget will wreak havoc on the American economy: https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/20/perspectives/trump-budget-economy/index.html

2021 Trump Budget Would Increase Hardship and Inequality: https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/2021-trump-budget-would-increase-hardship-and-inequality

News clips from PBS NewsHour and Bloomberg Politics.

Website: http://pitchforkeconomics.com/

Twitter: @PitchforkEcon

Instagram: @pitchforkeconomics

Nick’s twitter: @NickHanauer

 

Nick Hanauer:

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Nick Hanauer:

Budgets are a reflection of our priorities and our values.

Speaker 2:

President Trump unveiled his $4.8 trillion dollar wishlist today, which includes cuts to Medicaid and other social safety net programs.

Speaker 3:

We’re increasing spending on our nuclear program. We’re going to have a very good budget with a very powerful military budget.

Speaker 4:

When budgets are being made. That’s where the power is and that’s where the important decisions are made and who gets what and why.

Speaker 5:

That’s right.

Speaker 6:

From the offices of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle, this is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer where we explore everything you wished you’d learned in Econ 101.

Nick Hanauer:

I’m Nick Hanauer, founder of Civic Ventures.

Jasmin Weaver:

I’ve Jasmin Weaver, I’m the executive vice president here at Civic Ventures and I do a lot of our policy work including our work on minimum wage.

Nick Hanauer:

Today, we’re going to talk to the amazing Bob Greenstein who is the founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He is for sure at least on the left, the authority on budgeting and how it works and what we should do and so on and so forth.

Jasmin Weaver:

He’s super well-respected. He’s won a ton of awards.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. Jasmin, you did some budgeting in your early career, didn’t you?

Jasmin Weaver:

I did.

Nick Hanauer:

You wanted to be a budget wonk? What was it and why?

Jasmin Weaver:

Early on in my career, I worked in the state legislature right out of college. I very quickly learned that budgets, when budgets are being made, that’s where the power is.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right.

Jasmin Weaver:

And that’s where the important decisions are made and who gets what and why in State government. So I went to grad school and then after grad school, I worked at Harvard in their office of planning and budgeting. Then after that, continued to work at the State level, at the federal level in city government and always tried to keep my hand on the budget because I knew that that’s how you build power.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right, and get things done, right?

Jasmin Weaver:

Get things done, help people. It is the clearest and quickest way. Even though I love policy, so much policy is done through the budget and so it’s a very important access point to actually where the final decisions are made.

Nick Hanauer:

Right, and I suppose having never done budgeting, government budgeting before, because the process is so arcane complex and, what’s the opposite of transparent?

Jasmin Weaver:

Opaque.

Nick Hanauer:

If you’re a ninja at it, well, you can either get remarkable things done or you can stop things from getting done.

Jasmin Weaver:

Yes. Well, early on in my career what I saw is that there’s all these people that are super smart policy people and they build these beautiful and perfect policies and they know the ins and outs of those policies. But then where they fall down is actually getting those policies funded and getting them through the budget process. So by wanting to understand how do you actually make things happen. Actually, part of it in all honesty, I was a college affordability activist in college.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right. I think that your start in politics was a rabble-rouser at the university.

Jasmin Weaver:

I was a huge rabble-rouser and to understand tuition policy and to understand how I wanted the State to take action, I had to understand what the university’s budget and the state budget

Nick Hanauer:

The State budget. Yeah. The thing is that, Bob has been making this argument for a long time, that budgets are a reflection of our priorities and our values and for sure I think that is the case, right? Budgets are the instantiation of our wishes and dreams or daymares or whatever it is. But I think that there’s another way of thinking about it, which I think in terms of the public narrative is even more consequential, which is that there also is a theory of growth in particular in my personal view, is that one of the reasons that Republican have been more successful in driving their budget priorities over the last 30 or 40 years than Democrats are, is because they characterize it as a theory of growth. That if you enact our budget priorities, if you cut taxes for rich people and cut programs for poor and middle class people, then the economy will grow, right?

Jasmin Weaver:

Yes. And we’ll all be at better off when the economy is growing.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right. One of the characterizations of the sort of Republican or conservative budgeting is austerity, right? That we’ll just cut, cut, cut, cut. But austerity is really just trickle down economics, but for budgets, right? It’s just the same kind of thing. And I think what’s really important is for Progressive’s to recognize that a different kind of budget in fact won’t increase the deficit, will actually increase growth almost certainly. And if it does increase the deficit better to increase the deficit, to pay for infrastructure, then to give tax cuts, more tax cuts to rich people, which is what the current budget priorities reflect.

Jasmin Weaver:

Absolutely. And I think you’re seeing that more and more, but we certainly Progressive’s can do a better job of explaining why the type of spending that they want to do not only is better for people both at the micro and the macro level, but it also helps our communities be prosperous and it’s where growth and abundance will come from.

Nick Hanauer:

Right. Yeah. So it’ll be really interesting to talk to Bob about how budgets are created and nobody knows more about it. And from there we can continue to explore how budgeting affects growth and all the other progressive priorities.

Jasmin Weaver:

Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

Bob Greenstein:

Hi, my name is Bob Greenstein. I direct a policy Institute in Washington D C called The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. We work on budget and tax issues, social programs aimed to try to improve policies to reduce poverty and reduce inequality and make prosperity more broadly shared. And we also work at both the federal and State levels through a network of independent but affiliated State policy organizations that share the same broad goals.

Jasmin Weaver:

Bob, we thought it’d be a great place to start if you could just help us understand how the federal budget is made and kind of just generally a little bit about the federal budget, kind of a federal budget 101.

Bob Greenstein:

Well, what a lot of people know about the federal budget is normally the first Monday in February, I think this year it was the second Monday in February. The president releases a budget. It usually gets a lot of news coverage, but the budget process involves far more than the president’s release of the budget in February. The budget process for any given fiscal year. Our fiscal years at the federal level run October one through September 30th.

Bob Greenstein:

So let’s take fiscal year 2021, which will start this coming October 1st. The budget process for that fiscal year actually began last Spring, in the Spring of 2019 when individual federal agencies will scrabble the numbers. They put all this material together on how much it would cost to continue doing just what they’re doing now. Additional needs, opportunities for savings, whatever they’re often given targets to hit and the agencies produce all this detailed information that then goes up through the cabinet secretaries and by the Summer at some point, late Summer perhaps, it is submitted to the Office of Management and Budget, which is right there next to the White House and this Office of Management and Budget is part of the executive office of the president of the United States.

Bob Greenstein:

OMB, as we call the Office of Management and Budget, then takes all of the submissions from the agencies. But it then adds in what it is the president wants to do on the budget. He may want new initiatives. He may want to eliminate various things and that all gets worked through when the budget then goes public in February. The congressional part of the budget process works a bit differently now than it did maybe 20 years ago. It used to be that the House and the Senate would each pass what is called a budget resolution. It’s called a budget resolution because it isn’t a law, it really lays out targets for various parts of the budget and the House and the Senate would then work out their disagreements and come up with a single unified budget resolution. And if it pass both the House and the Senate, it then had some role in putting limits on or guiding what Congress did going forward.

Bob Greenstein:

These days, if the House and the Senate are under the control of different parties, it’s virtually impossible to produce a budget plan that both chambers will agree on. So in most years, Congress really doesn’t pass a budget. And even if it does agree on a budget, it’s not a law and the president doesn’t ask to follow what the Congress agrees to. So the single biggest impact of the congressional work on the budget in most years is simply to set a ceiling for the total amount that Congress can appropriate for programs that are funded through the annual appropriations process. They’re not entitlements like social security or Medicare. They’re funded each year to put a ceiling on the total amount that can be appropriated for non-defense programs and then separately for defense.

Bob Greenstein:

But there’s one other way in which the budget can be critical and it could be really important the year from now and that’s the following. The whole budget process changes. If the president and his or her party control the White House, the House and the Senate at the same time, if they control all three of those at the same time, then they can pass with only 51 votes needed in the Senate, not 60 a bare majority. They can pass a budget plan that sets up what is called a budget reconciliation process. That means that a dig budget bill that could make major changes in entitlements and taxes can be passed by only requiring 51 votes in the Senate rather than the 60 we need for most legislation.

Bob Greenstein:

And so the biggest changes in budgeting and recent US history occur in years when the president and his party control all three of those places. It was how Ronald Reagan passed his big tax cuts for the top budget cuts for the bottom in 1981 was how Bill Clinton passed his first budget, which raised taxes back up at the top and expanded things like the earned income credit and food stamps. It’s how George W. Bush got his big tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003 and it’s how Barack Obama passed the affordable care Act. All of those things happen using this budget reconciliation process in a period in most of these years when the same party controlled everything.

Bob Greenstein:

And everybody who works on the budget here in Washington thinks that if after this November’s election, either the Republicans or the Democrats, if one party controls all three of those places, the next Spring, we are almost certainly going to have an effort for a big reconciliation bill. You could try to do climate or more on healthcare or overhauling the tax code. The reconciliation part of the budget is your opportunity to make the biggest changes, but you can only avail yourself of it if your party controls House, Senate and White House at the same time.

Nick Hanauer:

Wow. It’s such a Byzantine world, isn’t it?

Bob Greenstein:

Yeah. When you work in it for years, you start to get used to it. But it really is a Byzantine and it used to be, there were years in the old days when budget reconciliation bills could pass normally not so sweeping bills when different parties control different parts of the government, but that was when we were much less polarized than we are today. The budget process has almost ground to a halt.

Nick Hanauer:

So Bob, can you speak to where does the money come from to pay for the budget? What are the sources of federal income that offset the spending?

Bob Greenstein:

The two main sources are the income tax and the payroll tax. As you know Nick, the majority of Americans pay a lot more in payroll tax than they do an income tax. Those are the two biggest and there are a bunch of, there’s excise taxes, there’s the gasoline tax, it doesn’t bring in a whole lot or the estate tax, which has been shrunk so much, it doesn’t bring in very much. There’s the corporate income tax that was shrunk even more in the 2017 tax bill that no longer brings in so much. And then of course, since taxes are now falling about a trillion dollars a year short of expenditures, the rest of it just comes from borrowing.

Jasmin Weaver:

Why don’t we talk a little bit about your perspective on the Trump budget and what you want listeners to know about the Trump budget?

Bob Greenstein:

Well, the Trump budget is a pretty remarkable statement of values and priorities. It would push tens of millions of people who were down on their luck into or deeper into poverty and cause a lot of hardship through massive cuts in education, healthcare, environmental enforcement, you name it. And at the same time it doubles down on tax cuts for people at the top by proposing to make the highly skewed 2017 individual tax cuts permanent.

Bob Greenstein:

It has $1 trillion over 10 years in cuts to Medicaid and the support provided under the affordable care Act to help moderate income people buy coverage. It cuts 180 billion over 10 years out of food assistance for hard-pressed families by slashing what we call the SNAP program. It used to be known as food stamps. It even has significant cuts for people with disabilities. The one that really blew my mind was that it actually even cut to the national institutes of health. They have something like a 28% cut just in the first year in the environmental protection agency, you sort of name it. If it’s outside of the defense budget, it’s likely to be cut. Legal services for the poor, which we’ve had under both parties since the 1960s that would be eliminated, low income energy assistance eliminated and on and on.

Bob Greenstein:

Now those things aren’t going to pay us. They’re certainly not going to get through the Democratic house of representatives, but they’re in the budget. The single thing that stunned me the most in the budget is if we take the part of the budget, the wonky term for the part of the budget and I’m about to mention is non-defense discretionary programs. So trying to translate that into plain English, it simply means everything in the budget outside of defense, that is not an entitlement program. Entitlement programs or things like social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and the like.

Bob Greenstein:

So most of the things we often look to government for, many of them, at least, education, environmental protection, national park, scientific research, clean food and water, medical research, all those things, they’re not defense, they’re not entitlements. They’re all part of the non-defense discretionary part of the budget. So why am I raising this? Because under the new Trump budget to 10 year budget, and by the tenth year, it would reduce total expenditures for all of these non-defense programs that aren’t entitlement combined. All the education, environment, national, all that stuff combined. It would reduce expenditures for them to the lowest level as a share of the economy since Calvin Coolidge was president in the mid 1920s. This is serious. This is ridiculous. But that’s what’s in the budget.

Jasmin Weaver:

That’s amazing. Now, so it sounds like the budget as your describing it is bad for people. It’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for a whole host of things. What would it do to the economy if it’s shrinking federal spending in that way? What kind of impacts would we expect to see on the economy?

Bob Greenstein:

Well, first just from a macro perspective, to be fair to the Trump people, when they were putting the budget together, they obviously had no way of knowing about the Corona virus and the like, but here we are with the growing risks of a global economic slowdown and there’s really going to be a need to keep purchasing power up and were this budget to be enacted, which it won’t. Were it to be enacted, it would reduce consumer purchasing power as well as public sector purchases at precisely the wrong time, precisely the time when you want to make those purchases stronger to kind of counteract the negative economic effects to the degree you can from a slowing of economic activity, that’s likely going to come as the Corona virus unfortunately spreads.

Bob Greenstein:

And then beyond that the budget would significantly widen inequality and increased poverty. And since people at the top of the income scale spend a much smaller percentage of their annual income when it’s so high, then people in the middle and bottom parts of the income scale, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. So they spend everything they have. If you shift resources up the income scale, all else being equal, that’s likely to give you a slower rate of economic growth because you have less aggregate demand, less actual purchases going on in the economy and more money saved, but not necessarily invested.

Bob Greenstein:

When you just put things on autopilot and keep funding things at last year’s level, you have a less effective government and they’ll probably come up with something halfway through the here or so. But it’s not really the best way to run the government of the United States.

Jasmin Weaver:

So Bob, if you could wave a magic wand and make some changes to the budget to create a budget that promotes prosperity and growth and supports people, what would you do?

Bob Greenstein:

So let me distinguish between a budget process and what you might call budget content, the actual proposals. There certainly are some changes that might be modestly beneficial that you could make in the budget process. But the problem isn’t the process. The problem is the polarization and in my view, the misplaced values of a lot of our top officials who are involved in putting budgets together. Now, I would love to see if the opportunity arises in 2021 a budget reconciliation bill that prioritizes major action on climate, on covering the uninsured and the like. And that pays for it by essentially undoing the 2017 tax cut and putting in a real tax reform that closes all kinds of wasteful and unproductive loopholes, raises taxes on the people who can most afford it. Dramatically, reforms capital gains taxes and taxes on high income and wealth. You could, if you have the stars aligned, right, you could in theory, but a build together or go a couple of years in a row and put a couple of budget reconciliation bills together that make major changes there.

Bob Greenstein:

I think we’re not only under investing in infrastructure and things like that, we’re heavily under investing in things like low income housing, childcare, only about one out of every four low income households that qualifies for housing assistance gets it, because of limited funding. We have a growing housing affordability crisis. Many people can’t afford childcare. College isn’t sufficiently affordable. We still have 30 million uninsured. These are all issues that can be dealt with, with sound budgeting priorities and with raising substantially more revenue and we surely can raise more revenue in ways that are economically efficient. The problem is creating the political will to do it and having people in office who will pursue those values. So I get a little uncomfortable when people act like, “Oh, if we just change the procedure this way or that way.” The problem isn’t the procedures. The problem really has been the values of the policy makers, the polarization and the like.

Jasmin Weaver:

Yeah. So I think we’re almost out of time and we always like to end with a fun question, which is why do you do this work?

Bob Greenstein:

The budget is where these key decisions are made. If you really want to make ours of more just an equitable society and you feel as, I think one almost has to, if that’s your goal, that government has to play a substantial role in that. Then you got to be involved in budgeting and taxes. That’s where the resources are raised and allocated and spent and the priorities are set as to where the resources going for what. So to me it’s a fundamental part of trying to make this country live up to the noble ideals it’s had but has never really come close to meeting.

Nick Hanauer:

That was fantastic. Well Bob, thank you so much for your time. It’s such a fascinating conversation. Of course we could go on for days on this subject.

Bob Greenstein:

Well thanks. Thanks for doing it. I hate to be abrupt, but I have a meeting in 20 minutes with Cory Booker, so I have to get up to his office.

Nick Hanauer:

Okay. Well-

Bob Greenstein:

We will be about some good budgeting.

Nick Hanauer:

Okay. Say hi to Cory from us.

Jasmin Weaver:

Thank you.

Bob Greenstein:

Will do.

Nick Hanauer:

Okay. Take care.

Jasmin Weaver:

Take care.

Nick Hanauer:

Bye.

Bob Greenstein:

Bye.

Nick Hanauer:

Yikes. That was an amazing conversation with Bob and I have spent time with Bob before and when you hear him begin to explain how all this stuff fits together, you’re both in awe of his sort of knowledge of it, but also kind of terrified by just the whole process of it and how-

Jasmin Weaver:

Yes. It’s a very complex process. And there’s probably a few people that know more about it than Bob, but it also makes it very clear why it’s so hard to follow and why people just tear out their hair.

Nick Hanauer:

And why it’s so fraught and easy to manipulate and why the whole thing. It just is a little dispiriting when you hear sort of the gory details about how it is all supposed to come together.

Jasmin Weaver:

Yeah. But it was helpful, he did lay a lot of really important groundwork. I think one of the things that you said at the beginning, and it’s certainly true and Bob emphasized it was just how little we spend on all of these things that people think the federal government is spending a ton on.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Jasmin Weaver:

And how much we spend on other areas. And so people understanding those basics around, I think it’s 2% of the federal budget goes to education. Very little goes to foreign aid, very little goes to infrastructure. One of these things that we keep talking about, how important is to spend on it. I think it’s only 2% or 3% goes to infrastructure. So better understanding those big picture things, is super important for people. Then understand our government and what our government is valuing.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. And there is a sort of a movement towards understanding the budget as a theory of growth too. And our friend Michael Linden has recently written a piece which sort of suggests that hasn’t he?

Jasmin Weaver:

Absolutely. It was a great piece. It was in CNN Money, I think it was, and it was an op ed. And I encourage people to, I think we’ll have a link at the bottom of the show and you should definitely click on that link and read it because it’s a great piece and it talks not just about how our budgets are a reflection of our values, but also how they are reflections of how you can grow the economy and how the Trump budget is going to be harmful to the economy. But there are ways that you can have a budget that promotes prosperity, that promotes abundance and supports people at the same time.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. And I think we learned from Bob that the current Trump budget, which to be clear will never pass and it’s just really is a political positioning document. But it does reflect a theory of the case, which is the only thing that matters in a human society and in a market economy is making rich people richer. And if you do that, somehow it will all work out. If they even believe that, they may not even care about anything other than just making rich people richer. But it is sort of the canonical trickle down case that markets solve everything. And if rich people are job creators and if they have a ton of money, it will all trickle down to everyone else.

Nick Hanauer:

But what we know is that none of that is true, that in fact prosperity emerges from the middle. And it’s investments in middle-class and working people that actually drive the economy. And if people aren’t healthy, you’re not going to have a thriving economy. And if people aren’t educated, you’re not going to have a thriving economy. And if the roads and bridges and airports don’t work, you’re not going to have a thriving economy.

Jasmin Weaver:

And if working people don’t have money in their pocket-

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right.

Jasmin Weaver:

… you’re not going to have a thriving economy.

Nick Hanauer:

Right? And so what really drives a market economy are essentially the opposite of what they’re trying to fund in the Trump budget. And this is the great battle and the problem that the country faces is that the right has been so effective over a generation in demonizing government and demonizing the public sector. And in calling into question the wisdom of any spending collectively on these things, that huge proportion of people actually buy these arguments that if you just get government out of the way, somehow it will all work out despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s just absolutely absurd.

Nick Hanauer:

And there are no existence proofs of that theory of the case on planet earth today or in the past that all of the most prosperous places in the world make huge public investments in these things that actually lead to economic growth and the welfare of all. And it just, it is shocking. But that’s the power of neoliberalism, that power of these narratives is that people have sort of been indoctrinated into believing that if we raise taxes and spend money collectively through government, that we will be wasted and so on and so forth.

Jasmin Weaver:

So one of the things we talk about on this show is how you tell stories and how important it is that you tell stories in the right way. And what we have seen is that Progressive’s oftentimes focus on fairness when they talk about budgets and how budgets are unfair and how they are going to harm particular things or people.

Jasmin Weaver:

And those are all really important things and they’re true. But one of the things that Progressive’s I think have fallen down on is being able to tell a story about why their budgets are not only better for people, better for the environment and a number of other things, but they also help support growth and prosperity. It’s one of the things that Michael does a good job of and he actually connects the dots also in his piece around contracting of government spending and how that will impact the economy. But for the most part we don’t do a good job of that. Why do you think that is?

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, I think that in the same way that for a generation when we litigated the minimum wage and we said, “Well, a low minimum wage is unfair.” And they said, “A low minimum wage increases growth.” We lost 60-40 because most people care about growth. Not that many people care about fairness, litigating the budget in that fairness versus growth frame traps us in the same losing cycle. It’s not just that those fairness arguments, those compassion arguments won’t generate a super majority of people to support it. It’s also and perhaps even worse, that we are ratifying their theory of growth. When they say growth and we say fairness, what we’re basically saying to voters is, “They are right about growth.” That that in fact, the Trump budget will lead to growth.

Jasmin Weaver:

It’s the bad medicine. It’s like, “Take your medicine.” It’s, this is fair-

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right.

Jasmin Weaver:

It’s right. And we should do it kind of because we know it’s the best thing to do, but this other side is saying, “Look, we’re going to make your life… It’s going to be growth. It’s going to be awesome.”

Nick Hanauer:

We’re going to make you more prosperous. And this is the grave danger of litigating the budget in terms of values is that that’s not what they’re doing. And if we don’t win on growth, we cannot win this narrative fight. And so it’s so consequential I think to understand the budget as a theory of growth and to explain it to people in that way and to be confident that all of the people who care also about fairness will be happy with a budget that is fairer inaction.

Jasmin Weaver:

And the good thing is we don’t have to give up on fairness, it can be fairness and growth.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Jasmin Weaver:

And that’s the winning argument.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, absolutely. And I just think that this is so consequential and we are in this trap and have been in this trap for a generation and it’s just hard to train people to not litigate it in that way. They’re just so accustomed to it.

Nick Hanauer:

And to be clear, these are the arguments that move a lot of people, that that is certainly true, that it’s grossly unfair and unjust and we should push back for those reasons. But I can tell you for certain that in the world that you cannot win that way. You can’t generate a supermajorityrian amount of support around those fairness arguments. You have to include growth. You have to win on that too.

Jasmin Weaver:

That’s true.

Nick Hanauer:

And it’s true. Yeah, and that’s the other great thing is there’s this happy circumstance, which is that we’re also correct that in fact the economy will grow faster and people will do better under these more progressive budgets.

Nick Hanauer:

In the next episode of Pitchfork Economics, we get to talk to the amazing Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman and about his book, Arguing With Zombies.

Jasmin Weaver:

It will be a fantastic conversation.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. And I presumed that zombie he’s talking about is the neoliberal zombie. It should be fantastic.

Jasmin Weaver:

Pitchfork Economics is produced by Civic Ventures. If you liked the show, make sure to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on Twitter and Facebook @civicaction and Nick Hanauer follow our writing on Medium @civicskunkworks and peek behind the podcast scenes on Instagram @pitchforkeconomics. As always, from our team at Civic Ventures. Thanks for listening. See you next week.