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Democratic Senate candidate: Greg Leichty

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By Stephen Lega

Greg Leichty, 58, and his wife live in Louisville. They have two daughters, who are 29 and 26 years old.

Leichty grew up on a farm in southeastern Iowa, but he came to Kentucky in 1978 as a community service volunteer in the Hazard area. He went on to complete his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Kentucky. He taught at the University of South Alabama briefly before he was hired at the University of Louisville in 1991. 

Leichty stressed that the views he expresses during the campaign are his alone and do not represent the views of U of L.

Website: http://leichtyforsenate.com/

 

1. Why are you running for Senate?

GL: Well, among other things, I'll admit I was increasingly displeased with the disfunction in Washington and particularly with Senator McConnell. And among other things, I just wanted to inject some ideas [unclear] to break the logjam in particular with the gridlock in Congress. The gridlock in Congress has gotten systematically worse. It's a systematic problem. And, it's the polarization is being driven by the money there. But I'll talk about that a little bit later. 

That's actually my primary issue, or should I go on here?

 

That's fine.

GL: Well, as I started trying to understand why things seemed to be so much at a standstill, I went to a community Congressman [John] Yarmuth, who is the congressman for the Third District. Someone asked why isn't anything getting done? He said, well, you have to understand that the degree of overlap between the most conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, which has always provided the basis for some common ground, has disappeared. Then he went on and cited some research that's been done the National Journal, which I confirmed. You go all the way back to 1982 in that gap, in that overlap, there were about 350 members of the House. By 1994, that had shrunk somewhat to 250. But now, it's gone down to four.

And with that kind of dramatic decline in the overlap, the ability for party members of both parties to compromise [unclear]. Something systematic has to be driving that. You say, could it be gerrymandering? Well, but it also happened in the '70s with virtually the same kind of trends in the Senate over the same time. Something like 45 senators back in 1982 to zero today.

And here's what Yarmuth said in a little bit of confirmation on this, he's pretty much on target. He said you have to understand that members of Congress spend about 20-plus hours a week calling strangers in other states for money. And — because in their own states they don't have they kind of deep pockets to fund campaigns, especially Senate campaigns. 

A Senate campaign in 19– in 2012 costs, for winners, costs $10 and a half million. Spread out over six years, that's almost $6,000 a day that they almost have to raise in order to cover the cost of the next campaign. So, spending 20-plus hours a week doing that we have highly paid telemarketers. The question is what are people on the other end getting? They're calling people in basically four places that I can figure out. Hollywood, we hear a lot about that, right? Wall Street, Las Vegas and Silicon Valley. There's some other places they call, too, but those are four hotspots. What are people on the other end getting? Well, what they're basically getting are straight party line votes on issues of interest. So what we have is a government that doesn't represent any more. It doesn't represent the constituents of the particular state or the particular district that they're elected from very well because we have a bidding war of millionaires. 

Now, with the limitations of Citizens United [Supreme Court decision], you might ask the question: what can be done about this? And a lot of people said we can change Citizen United to say that money is not speech. That's fine and good, but I get 15 of those that have stacked over 225 years. So, we have to begin finding some ways to address some of these issues — the issue of polarization and to reduce the distorting influence of money.

And it's getting worse. I'm not claiming that people are buying particular favors, so much as I'm just saying the polarization in Congress is a whole lot greater than it is in the country as a whole. And understanding that as the costs of campaigns goes up, it just drives that dynamic even further. It's been a revelation to me, so I've determined to see if we can do something about that. 

In terms of solutions, it's going to take a number of things working together, but one of the things we can do is certainly try to do some things that make the costs of campaigns a little, somewhat less. Or at least give all candidates that are qualified for federal races more opportunities to participate in the public deliberation. Among other things, our broadcast stations operate "in the public interest" using a public resource. They have to run public service ads. Why not just formalize  that and say that their primary obligation is to provide access to forums and media in debates or federal candidates during elections. We could also ask the public broadcasting stations, which are subsidized with public money, to do the same thing. They do some of it, but they don't do near as much as they could.

I could go on, but I think it's probably time that we move our, do things to expand the proportion of people that actually vote in elections because the current apparatus is aimed at driving down voter participation of those people who are not members of parties. We have a very sophisticated set of calculus, if you will, that are provided to us by our political scientists and other researchers on how to motivate the base through the use of negative advertising, in particular, but to really discourage people that are [unclear] of politics. 

So, I think there's some things we could do to promote greater participation. One is simply to move the voting to the weekend, on Saturdays and Sundays. It makes it so ordinary working people have a chance to vote without having to worry about all the [unclear] of work. In France and other countries that make use of that, you have voting rates that are 10-15 points higher than what they are in the United States. I think it's probably time for a national voter I.D. card. We have a lot of controversy about things like voter fraud and so forth. I don't see a whole lot of evidence of it, but a lot of countries, and I'll just use one for example, India and others voter cards that have picture I.D. and so forth that make voting fraud very, very difficult, but they also make it much easier for people to vote when they move. They don't have to continually, when they move from one state to the other or move within a territory. It makes it so much easier for people to verify who they are and to check for fraud.

I could go on. I'll let you go on to the next question.

 

2. Why do you feel you are qualified to serve as a senator?

GL: Why do I feel I'm qualified to serve as a senator? Well, first of all, I'm a citizen. I've been long interested in public discourse. I've studied it, and I'm make no claims that I'm more intelligent than a  whole lot of people in Kentucky or even better informed. I just have a solid conviction that of the people in the race, I think that my qualifications are as good or better than many in that respect. 

But mainly, I think my main qualification is that I come in as an outsider with a disinterested perspective. In trying to get our, the mechanisms of legislation moving again. One of the problems that people really don't acknowledge comes from our current gridlock is that it dramatically expands the responsibilities and the powers, discretion of the president. So if people are concerned about liberty and maintaining your Constitutional forms of our government, then they need to be concerned about have a legislature that works. Because as it is now, we can get anything done with immigration, so the president cobbles together some executive orders and we get a halfway done job. We can't get any kinds of means of addressing issues related to climate change and energy, and so the president uses the clean air act to try and accomplish some of those goals with regulations. But that's a very costly and very inefficient way of doing that. And so, I could repeat that with other examples, but my main point is we need to have three functioning branches of government, and at this point, you could arguably say that Congress in particular, the legislative branch, is missing in action.

They're missing in action because they are spending too much time fund-raising but they're also missing in action because of the voting dynamics that I talked about earlier.

So, I'll let you go on to the next question.

 

3. The Affordable Care Act, also referred to sometimes as Obamacare, has been controversial since it was passed, and the public remains divided over whether it will be beneficial or detrimental in the long run. What are the next steps the government should take regarding health care?

GL: OK. Let me make an analogy to Medicare Part B that was passed under President Bush. There were a lot of problems with that on the rollout. There were some amendments. Bipartisan cooperation made that program work. So we need comparable things to be done to tweak in some significant ways what has been brought forward in the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act, that is what we have, but there are still some significant issues that I think most people would acknowledge. For instance, we have some risk pools in some states that are too narrow. The access to providers, the risk pools are too small, and so the premiums are going to be higher because you can't spread the risk out over a large number of people. Why don't we allow states to negotiate with neighboring states to broaden those risk pools. And, oh, by the way, let's take the federal workers that are covered an put them into the same pool so that we can broaden coverage. 

Another problem that we have that really wasn't addressed. I actually think the Republicans do have a point in that we need to do something about medical malpractice insurance. I'm not sure that tort reform is the best way to do that. An intermediate step that I think that everyone can agree on is let's set up alternate review boards, resolution boards, sort of as a first step for anybody that wants to bring, is thinking of bringing a lawsuit, to have their cases reviewed by a nonpartisan board that includes experts, legal experts and medical experts, to give people some feedback on, regarding what would appear to be a just solution in each particular case, and see if we can't use mediation to dramatically reduce the number of cases that go to court.

This has been tried in all kinds of other venues such as divorce mediation and so forth. And the fact of the matter is, a lot of cases end up being settled by the parties themselves without going to court. And, I think that we see that there are significant costs there that can probably be taken out of the system. I don't know if they're as great as some suggest, but it is a cost driver, I think, and so, it should be addressed.

We should also work very diligently to expand the use of medical databases to decrease ... to do an analysis of and decrease medical mistakes and, therefore, some of the ancillary costs associated with that. A long-term issue I think as well is going to include the need to be sure that we have the expanded number of general practitioners and also physicians assistants, physical therapists and nurse practitioners that practice basic medicine as a general practice medicine as opposed to in a [unclear]. Because we presume that there's going to be some expansion in the number of people that actually, now that they have access to medical care, that we're going to see that need may be a problem. The ACA has some of those provisions, but we need to be very careful with monitoring. I think that putting in place, working with states for those things like nurse practitioners' licensing requirements that ensures that we have a flexible system that is able to accommodate the load that I think is supposed to come.

 

4. The economy has shown signs of improvement, but it hasn’t bounced back as quickly as many would like. What, if anything, can the federal government do to help create more jobs?

GL: Well, let's start with one thing that we should do to be sure that destroy jobs like we did back in 2007, 2008. We really need a broad reform of our financial system. Dodd-Frank did some things, but what it really did was put in place, again, a very complex regulatory structure in place of something that we had for 50 years. For 50 years, we had the Glass-Steagall Act. We separated commercial banking from investment banking, and that worked very well. As Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, we had a more stable financial system during that period than we have had at any point in the history of the United States. But that was removed in 1997. It was on Bill Clinton's watch. He signed it. We began to see, you know, all these distortions coming in because of that.

So, I would say the first thing that we really need to do is to be sure that we get the banking reform right because among other things, until we do that, we're just waiting for another disaster to happen. In terms of, you know, everybody wants to talk about taxation, especially at the corporate tax rate level. I would very much be in favor of tax simplification. And tax simplification means why is our tax code so complex? Well, it's not complex because of, you know, let's say on the personal income side because of the progressive tax system we have. It's very complicated because Congress is always- we reform the tax code. We did it back in 1986, and then the next year, Congress starts making exemptions for this, making exemptions that, and in the process, they make it more complicated. We can significantly reduce tax rates at the same time that we increase revenue a little bit, and I think, with a flatter tax structure that has many, many fewer exemptions both on the business side and on the personal side. We can probably begin seeing that much of the economic activity that is now centered around trying to reduce taxes would be put to use in a much more productive manner. However, there might be some reduction of employment among tax accountants and tax attorneys. We could to on and on, but it would be fairly dramatic.

Another thing that I think we need to do on the basis of jobs is take a very close look at our system for patents. Because the patent system, at least in recent years, has become a haven for what economists call [unclear]-seekers. They're people who buy up patents and then they get into the game of suing any other company that gets close to what they call an infringement. Look, some things, especially in the area of software, perhaps we should just look at withdrawing patent protection from software completely. They've done it in New Zealand, to my understanding. I'm not as familiar with all the details about what has happened there recently. But I have a couple brothers who are engineers, and one of them works for a firm, and he was telling me some stories about how patent protection has been made much easier in the last [ten?] years to get patents. It's also been made it much easier for companies to abuse patents as well. And in fact, in place of spurring innovation, the current patent system, if anything, in many cases, is a disincentive or a barrier to new research and new innovations. 

Another thing that we need to do with regard to jobs in the long-term is to make sure that we [unclear] fund scientific, basic scientific research. The long-term return on basic scientific research for the American economy and the health of individual Americans is very good. But what are we doing during budget times? Well, we cut discretionary spending, and what gets cut in discretionary spending? We cut in discretionary spending money for NIH funding, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation. People say, well, you know, nobody missed it. Yeah, nobody missed it. Well, one of the things that we're in dire, that is is a dire danger for us in the coming years is that we don't have enough antibiotics in our system. We're really running the risk that, you know, 15, 20 years from now that people may begin dying routinely from just regular kinds of infections. My wife is a nurse. She tells me about, you know, about a whole bunch of drug-resistant or antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are, you know, any emerging concern. And it gets a little bit worse each year. 

That's a little bit off topic, but looking long-term, I think we need to do all kinds of things to make sure that we don't have things in our economic system that don't allow some to ... to make it, in a sense- I think we need to be sure that we increase levels of competition in certain sectors of our economy. And because what have now is one of the reasons for increasing levels of inequality is some people have been able to figure out in areas like banking and so forth that, means of manipulating the system and diverting some of the common wealth.

 

OK

GL: But in terms of specific job programs, one of the things that I would say that we ought to do. Our economy now sort of runs on a manic-depressive scale. We run too hot, we ran too hot during the 1990s, and we're running too pessimistic, too cold after the financial crisis. We should work out some arrangement where we balance the budget over the business cycle. We need the government, the federal government in particular, to spend more money during periods of economic contraction. That would be a good time for us to spend more on infrastructure and so forth. We should be cutting back during periods of economic expansion, when economic growth is going at full speed, because at that point extra government spending contributes to inflation. And so, I would much like to see a systematic national plan for infrastructure both on the grid, our electric grid, our airports, our highways, our bridges and so forth, where we had in place what particular projects we're going to fund in the future when unemployment and economic growth hit certain targets. You know, when unemployment hits a certain level and when economic growth has declined to a certain level where we automatically kick in and begin doing the stimulus. So, we'd have shovel ready projects, you know, pretty well ready to go in the beginning. 

The other that I think we should do is, currently, our unemployment system is set up in a way that we're always differing about when to extend unemployment insurance benefits and so forth. Well, let's work out a compromise that just sets those rates automatically. And by that, I mean when economic growth is at, let's say, you know, three and half percent and inflation is, you know, at three percent, well then unemployment rates should reduce down to some base level and then they should rise under circumstances when those indicators have, you know, hit again certain benchmarks.

Then, we wouldn't in every economic cycle be going through this business of haggling and negotiating what is going to happen. It would be preset. Now, that's going to require for Congress to be willing to negotiate with each other. But we need to have a much more rational system for working our national budget, and in doing that what we would do is take the top of the manic side of economic expansion and reduce the depth of the depression side in economic contractions. Financial crisis like we just had in 2008 and 2009 are considerably more complex, then, you know, the regular recessions that we had say, back in 2002 or in 1990. I guess, I would focus a lot, at least on the Senate side, on macroeconomic features. 

If you're talking about employment for depressed areas like Eastern Kentucky, I think I would be very interested in working very strongly with state economic development officials for whatever would best work for Kentucky. But that needs to be done in a collaborative sense, and Mitch McConnell has taken a lot of heat for saying, well, you know, state economic development's not my primary area of responsibility. And in one sense, I think that we would have to say that that's probably true. I mean, the big cabinet. for economic development in Kentucky is the primary one that is, that is the primary party that is responsible for working plans for particular areas. But as a federal official, I would want to collaborate with those programs to whatever extent possible and provide whatever assistance that I could. 

You know, Alison Lundergan Grimes has a jobs plan, but those ideas are all incumbent, so to speak, on a national, some of it's, much of it's state, but if you're talking about getting a jobs program for a particular part of the country by your senator, there's a little bit of disconnect there in terms of the policy level.

 

5. Along those same lines, wages remain a concern for many people who are already working. Should we raise the minimum wage? Why or why not?

GL: We should raise the minimum wage, and not only should we raise the minimum wage, we should tie it to productivity increases in the economy. The reason for that is that, among other things, unemployment again is one of those things we need a more rational permanent solution for rather than only raising the minimum wage during those periods in which one particular party is in power. In particular if we indexed the minimum wage to productivity increases, that means it's not going to be inflationary. And among other things, it [unclear] maintains, you know, something that in fact, if the American economy expands significantly beyond levels of inflation it would actually add to the welfare and benefit of the low-wage workers. 

Frankly, you know, a lot of companies are able to provide wages that they do these days only because of public support for workers through food stamps and through the earned income tax credit. And I could go on and on about, you know the number of working poor that we have who are working full-time and still be getting wages that are just barely at the poverty level. You know, say a full-time worker at $7.25 an hour by my calculations for 2,000 hours a year, you're coming out about 14 and a half thousand dollars. At some point, we need to be concerned about maintaining some element of our social contract. And employers have to pay some sort of wage that at least approximates what people need to live. And we shouldn't be subsidize that, I don't think, through the taxes or through the federal government as a whole. And that's what we're doing right now. It's a subsidy.

 

6. The Bluegrass Pipeline has been another source of controversy. Proponents say it will bring jobs to the our state, while opponents are concerned about its potential effect on the environment and private property. What is your view of this and other proposed natural gas liquids pipeline projects?

GL: Well, my understanding is they cancelled it because they lack the customers. It seems to me to be kind of a moot point, you know, the Bluegrass Pipeline at this point. I see that primarily as a state issue. Some of the concerns I have about the Bluegrass Pipeline in particular are that it is going through regions — I was just looking at the map last night [April 29] — it's going through regions here in Kentucky where we have a lot of karst. We know what happened down at the museum, down in Bowling Green. So, there are obviously a lot of safety concerns that go along with that.

I wouldn't be in favor of using eminent domain to build pipelines at the very least. And I'm very skeptical about the feasibility of the project and the financing of the project. And that's seems to have been born up in the announcement yesterday [April 29] that they were canceling, that they were postponing it, at least for now.

The Keystone Pipeline out in the Midwest, again, this is something that the President's going to decide. It's not primary a federal issue, but I can tell you this, the number of long-time permanent jobs, of full-time permanent jobs that's it's going to create is pretty small. And yes, the price of gas in the Midwest is going to go up because that resource is not going to be piped down to the Gulf Coast. And it's going to be sent overseas.

Now, having said that, I haven't seen a close analysis of how much threat, if any, it's going to pose to the aquafirs in the Midwest, and I'm not really up on the issues related to eminent domain in places like Nebraska either. So, I just have to give a qualified answer there. I'm not ... necessarily totally against the building of the Keystone Pipeline, but I'd have to look very closely at the mixture of safety concerns because one of the alternatives is that if these liquids at least from some fields and aren't being shipped via rail, and we blew up- there's one town in Quebec that was incinerated by a derailment a couple years ago, and we almost had one in North Dakota. So, if you take all of those complex factors together, all I can say is that I'm pretty skeptical, but as a part of a larger deal that addressed, you know, climate change, in particular, I might be open to some negotiation. But then again, it's not primarily a concern that comes down to people in the Senate. A decision's made first by the president on the advice of the State Department.

 

7. American reliance on foreign oil remains a concern. While some groups are advocating for the construction of the Keystone pipeline, other groups are pushing for a greater focus on alternative and renewable fuels. How should the United States address its energy needs?

GL: Well, let's make some deals. Some people are overly opposed to opening ANWR up in Alaska. I'd actually be willing to do that if we had compromises in the area of, to reduce our dependance on foreign oil and our dependence on [unclear] fuels, in particular in the long run. I think we need a national energy policy, and I certainly would agree with Alison Lundergan Grimes in that area. I think that our energy policy should include steps to conserve energy as well steps to, at least on the short run, expand our efforts in all areas.

Now, oil is on an international market, but I think we can safely say probably in the coming years that oil prices are generally are going to trend up, and we need an all-of-the-above sort of approach. In particular, the cost of solar is coming down dramatically. There are a whole series of really exciting steps that are underway around the world in terms of basic research.

And here's one place that I think the government can plan a role, and that is funding basic research at a higher level than we are now, but doing so in a way that doesn't try and pick particular technologies in the marketplace. You know, let the marketplace sort out, but let's dramatically expand our research in areas such as, I mean, we need to look at carbon sequestration among other things, but we also need to fund things like, there's a project out in Utah right now being funding, modestly funded by the national highway institute on building solar roads where you build the roads out of, the parking lots and roads out of glass and you embed solar collectors in them. There's a whole series of interesting benefits that could come from that including the ability of people to travel and to recharge their electric cars along the way. You know, is that going to work out? That's not really for the federal government to decide. In terms of providing seed money, we need to work on a lot of different things and  then we'll see what's next because in the long run we really do need to do something about climate change.

 

8. What role should coal play in meeting America's energy needs?

GL: In the short run, it's going to continue to play a role. In the long run, due primarily to [unclear] market factors among other things, it's going to play a decreasing role. And you know, we should begin making plans for that transition. 

Coal employment in Kentucky has declined from 80,000 back some 60 years ago to 12,000 today. And most of that decline has occurred before the present administration. It continued in the present administration, but you know, among other things, the primary reason is that coal employment has decline because of increasing productivity. Then you add natural gas to that mix, fracking in particular, and you know, the reasons for the decline of coal in Eastern Kentucky are primarily driven by those factors and only secondarily by the proposed regulations. I will say this, as I said earlier, I think that regulation as a means of addressing climate change is a very inefficient method for doing that. I'd prefer just using, most economists, even conservative economists say if you're going to do something then you should probably do it in the most transparent way possible. And that would be to include a carbon tax, which can be made non-regressive through some kind of rebates through the earned income credit, which could be phased in over a number of years. 

But we really need to begin planning for a transition away from coal because, I mean, coal is going to be around for a long time, but we shouldn't be placing our economic hopes on expanding that area of employment in the future because I just don't see that in the long run, the coal economy is likely to expand very dramatically in the employment that it offers to people even if, because of the increased levels of productivity that we keep seeing introduced every year.

So, we really need to drive economic diversification in all areas of our state. That said, at least in the short term until solar and other technologies become available and become cheaper, we're going to continue to need coal. And so one of the things we can use to certainly address climate change is to dramatically expand our efforts in the area of energy conservation. Here at the University of Louisville, they've done that and they've reduced the carbon dioxide output over the last seven years by 27 percent. 

Eastern Kentucky in a lot of areas that have the highest, that have the lowest prices, also have the highest energy use. Why don't we use state bonds and maybe federal bonds to bring our government buildings and via low interest loans to businesses and individuals to increase our energy efficiencies, especially in areas where energy prices are getting spikes. That kind of program would pay for itself in the long run because, you know, businesses can use, can pay off those loans with savings they are having with their energy bills.

 

9. The NSA’s data collection programs are also a  concern for many Americans. What procedures should be in place to protect privacy while allowing data collection when warranted?

GL: Congress needs to take a very, very careful look at everything it did with the Patriot Act. And Congressional oversight really needs to, needs to be tightened. And that's, my short answer to that is Congress needs to do its job. It needs to relook at the previous legislation and figure out what the best mechanisms are for doing that, doing exactly what you mentioned. I am, I share many of the same concerns that Rand Paul does in this particular area. And in particular, because of 9-11, we passed a lot of stuff that was more threatening to the liberty of Americans than it needed to be, I think, than it needs to be in more normal times. 

And, you know, we need to go back and rescrutinize the [unclear] provisions of the Patriot Act, and in particular, I would be, you know, after an 18-month period, you know, the collection and the holding of this information that's now done by companies anyway, I think that we need to look very carefully at the kinds of things that would require a warrant from a judge in order to do searches and so forth.

It shouldn't be- those decisions shouldn't be at the, simply, at the discretion of, you know, people in the National Security Agency. There needs to be oversight [unclear].

 

10. What other issues do you believe will be important during the next six years, and how should we address those issues?

GL: There's only one issue that's important in the immediate term, and that is, we need to address ways to make our campaign system more rational and less driven by the polarizing effect of money. Because right now very little is getting done because the middle has disappeared. We need to re-enfranchise the average American voters in our political process again because the level disconnect that has come about really is pretty frightening. When the legislature doesn't do its job, the power of the presidency expands by default. And that's my challenge to Kentuckians to take a careful look at because we have a lot of people who say a lot of things about these very, concerned about liberty, but at the same time, some of those same people are advocating the use of every means, and every possible means, for really creating gridlock at the national, at the level of the national government.

And so, we need to get our political process unstuck because in the long run, I see some very, very dire consequences coming from a failure to do that. I think some of it can be done at the state level. Some of it cane be done at the federal level, but we need a very systematic attack on that in ways that re-enfranchise political participation, including voting and including small donations from a broad variety of citizens because the system is broken. We're not going to change that system by simply electing, changing who's there. We can re-elect, we can elect Alison Lundergan Grimes and replace Mitch McConnell if people think he's a problem. But he's not the problem. It's a systemic problem, and you need a systemic approach to deal with that.

And I- the first, the absolute first thing that you need is a representative to recognize that articulate it and commit to fixing it. And I welcome anyone else in the race to pick up that particular issue because I don't think it's, I'm pretty sure it's not a partisan issue. I've given some speeches in some very red parts of the state, and I've gotten a very respectful hearing for that particular message. I don't think that's a right thing. I don't think that's a left thing. I think it's simply a pragmatic thing about how we begin to re-engage people, to begin to rebuild some trust in some of our institutions.

 

11. What else would you like voters to know about you?

GL: Oh, I think I've said enough. Some of my answers got kind of long.