The Buffalo News: From Butler to Buffett

“News, to put it simply, is what people don’t know that they want to know. And people will seek their news – what’s important to them – from whatever sources provide the best combination of immediacy, ease of access, reliability, comprehensiveness and low cost.”

— Warren Buffett, 2012 Annual Letter to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders

Human beings have an innate curiosity and desire to know what is happening in the wider world beyond their immediate circle of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. In peaceful and prosperous societies, the type of information most people seek might be mundane details about a vote in the city council, the fortunes of the local high school football team, job openings at the new factory, what’s on sale at the supermarket, or the weather forecast for their picnic on Saturday. In times of crisis, we have a desperate need to know the current state of affairs in order to take action ourselves or just to understand what is happening around us.

From the end of the Second World War until almost the end of the twentieth century, almost all Americans got this type of information from one of three sources: television, radio, and the local newspaper. Events of the day were curated by professional journalists who, for the most part, attempted to report the news accurately. The news was disseminated by large organizations that, while not without occasional controversy, were mostly trusted by the majority of people. Some of my earliest memories as a child include the evening ritual of my parents turning on the television to watch Walter Cronkite provide his summary of the news. In the morning, I would hear the familiar CBS Radio chime and know it was the top of the hour. As a teenager, I delivered the local newspaper starting with the afternoon edition and later moving to a larger morning route. Serious people took the news very seriously.

Then the internet changed everything.

Suddenly, in the final years of the twentieth century, anyone with a computer and an internet connection had an unlimited supply of news provided first by hundreds and soon by thousands of publishers. Not only did we have access to newspapers from around the world but we gained access to less formal sources of information written by ordinary people. For the most part, this information was not only abundant but was also free. Within the span of a few years, the comfortable culture of journalism was completely upended, never to be the same again.

The massive upside of diversity of sources, freedom of speech, and lower economic costs were initially all that we focused on but it slowly became apparent that something has been lost as well. Whereas society previously relied on journalists to decide what constituted information as opposed to mere noise, we now must take much more responsibility for differentiating between the signal and noise for ourselves. Journalism became too insular and comfortable and did not react quickly enough to make the case for its crucial role in a free society. With few exceptions, newspapers have been unable to charge customers for content online and total circulation (print and digital) has fallen precipitously to levels not seen since before 1940 when the U.S. population was less than half of today’s level.

Source: Trends and Facts on Newspapers via Pew Research Center

Not surprisingly, the drop in circulation has been accompanied by a precipitous decline in advertising revenue for almost all newspaper publishers. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. newspaper advertising revenue peaked at $49.4 billion in 2005 and dropped to $14.3 billion by 2018. The decline in circulation revenue has been less severe, peaking at $11.2 billion in 2003 and coming in at just under $11 billion in 2018. In inflation adjusted terms, of course, the circulation revenue decline has been more significant.

Newspapers face a vicious cycle: As circulation declines, they must increase the price of papers to customers to maintain circulation revenue, but the subsequent decline in readership dissuades more advertisers who gain access to fewer and fewer eyeballs every year.

Not surprisingly, newspapers have made major cuts to newsroom staff over the past twenty years.

Source: Trends and Facts on Newspapers via Pew Research Center

Cutting investment in staffing inevitably results in degradation of the content needed to attract readers. Newspapers then must decide whether to attempt to maintain circulation revenue by raising prices for die-hard readers, who might be on the older side and continue subscribing simply by force of habit, but at the cost of losing less committed readers. Then as circulation counts drop again, advertisers will cut their orders since fewer eyeballs will see their promotions, and the vicious cycle continues.

A Man of Unlimited Confidence

The cacophony of views prevalent on the internet today has no equal in human history, but there was a time when traditional print newspapers were far more numerous and competitive. From Butler to Buffett: The Story Behind the Buffalo News provides a great example of the evolution of newspapers from the late nineteenth century up through the consolidation of the industry that was largely complete a hundred years later. Murray B. Light, who worked for the Buffalo News for a half century starting in 1949, provides a fascinating account of how the paper transformed from a scrappy startup founded by Edward Butler in 1873 into the only surviving newspaper in the city 110 years later. Light, who passed away in 2011, was asked to write a history of the newspaper by Warren Buffett who had purchased the Buffalo News in 1977. The book is both a history of the newspaper as well as the personal memoir of a longtime veteran of twentieth century journalism.

When Edward H. Butler arrived in Buffalo in 1873, he saw an opportunity. Although the city had ten newspapers, none of them published a Sunday edition. This might seem odd in light of the much expanded Sunday newspapers that seemed to grow larger and larger during the twentieth century. Obviously, people would have more time to read on weekends. But 1870s Buffalo was a weird mix of vice — there were nearly a hundred saloons, numerous gambling parlors, and plentiful houses of ill repute — and virtue, with religious ministers united in saying that any commercial activity, including newspaper publication, on Sundays would degrade the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Butler, who was only 23 years old at the time of his arrival in the city, plowed ahead anyway. He firmly believed that any enterprise would succeed under his leadership. He was a man of unlimited confidence. So on December 7, 1873, the first issue of the Buffalo Sunday News was published despite the vociferous opposition. Unlike most the newspapers of his era, Butler took a non-partisan position. He was determined to not serve as a political party organ and he wanted to provide information relevant to everyone in the family. Butler’s strategy was immediately successful with rapid gains in circulation which brought about a virtuous cycle that would attract more advertisers, and in turn even more readers. Although Butler did not take an overtly political posture, his affiliation with the progressive politics of the era caused the paper to pay special attention to the plight of the poor at a time when few labor protections were enshrined into law.

By 1880, several competing newspapers had started Sunday editions and Butler decided to aggressively move into the market for daily newspapers. Employing a bold strategy, Butler rolled out his daily evening newspaper, named The Buffalo Evening News, at a bargain price of one cent per copy at a time when competitors were charging five cents. This highly promotional pricing attracted readers and the readers attracted advertisers — the classic economic model for newspapers that would last for another century. Butler was a man of seemingly unlimited energy who was involved in every facet of the enterprise until his death in 1914. By 1897, his paper claimed to have a larger circulation than the combined circulation of all competing Buffalo daily papers. Although this claim was somewhat dubious, Butler did have nearly twice as much circulation as his nearest competitor and dominated the field.

During the final decade of his life, Butler became more involved in politics and, in 1912, he turned over management of the paper to his son, Edward H. Butler Jr., who would run the newspaper until his death in 1956. The Buffalo News would remain in the hands of family members until Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger purchased the paper in 1977. Murray Light entered the scene in 1949 as a young copyeditor and, from that point forward in the chronology, the story benefits from his own eyewitness account of major developments within the company and the city of Buffalo.

Although the early history of Butler’s founding of the newspaper is fascinating and should hold any reader’s interest, Light’s later description of the many characters who shaped the paper from the 1950s into the 1990s is likely to be of more interest to a reader who is specifically interested in the individuals involved. Much of the narrative involves what could be thought of as “inside baseball” — stories of newspapermen who were “characters”, politics within the organization, and the many promotions and controversies that exist within any large organization.

Enter Buffett and Munger

After remaining in family control for over a hundred years, the estate tax finally compelled the Butlers to put the newspaper on the market following the death of Kate Butler in August 1974. Kate Butler had taken over management of the newspaper in 1956 when her husband, Edward H. Butler Jr., passed away and she stubbornly refused to transfer control of her interest in the paper prior to her death. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger enter the narrative almost exactly halfway into the book where Light provides a summary of the steps the family took to sell the paper and how it came to be purchased by Blue Chip Stamps on April 15, 1977 for $35,509,000.

Blue Chip Stamps was one of the corporate entities that was partially owned by Berkshire Hathaway during its early years. Charlie Munger served as Chairman of Blue Chip Stamps, but both he and Buffett were actively involved in the decision to purchase The Buffalo News and had a role in dealing with the difficult early years of their ownership. Although Light does tell the familiar story of Berkshire’s troubles with the newspaper during the early years, a reader who is more interested in the specifics of the story would be well served to read Charlie Munger’s letters to Blue Chip shareholders that have been helpfully compiled by Max Olson.

Although Butler started out in Buffalo with a Sunday only publication and only later moved to daily publication, his successor decided to eliminate the Sunday issue in 1915. By the time Buffett and Munger took control, The Buffalo News had lacked a Sunday offering for over sixty years. Instead of a Sunday edition, The Buffalo News published an expanded Saturday “weekend” edition but this was a poor substitute for readers with leisure time available on Sunday mornings who did not want to read stale news. By 1977, Buffalo was a city with two newspapers — The Buffalo News which published in the afternoons from Monday to Friday as well as its Saturday weekend edition and The Buffalo Courier-Express which published a morning edition seven days a week. Buffett and Munger were convinced that to remain relevant, their newspaper had to publish seven days per week.

Warren Buffett is well known for his love of newspapers and he obviously took great pleasure in helping craft the advertising and circulation pricing strategy prior to the rollout of the Sunday paper. At the same time, Light says that Buffett took an entirely hands-off approach when it came to setting newspaper editorial policy. As Buffett wrote to a friend at the time, he was “having so much fun with this it is sinful.”

Publication of the first Sunday issue was set for November 13, 1977, but two weeks before launch, the Courier-Express filed an anti-trust lawsuit alleging that The Buffalo News was using its strong position during the week to subsidize a loss making paper on Sunday, with the intent of eventually driving The Courier-Express out of business. The Courier-Express was fortunate to find a friendly judge who imposed onerous conditions on the rollout of Sunday paper and this caused several years of struggles for The Buffalo News before an appeals court rejected the lower court’s findings. However, the troubled early years were not over for Buffett and Munger. They faced a strike in 1980 and an additional three years of heavy losses until The Courier-Express finally ceased publication in the fall of 1982. At that point, The Buffalo News started a morning edition and Buffalo became a one newspaper town.

It is doubtful that Buffett and Munger in any way expected the kind of turmoil they faced immediately after purchasing the newspaper. For several years, Charlie Munger warned Blue Chip shareholders that The Buffalo News could be forced to cease publication and liquidate if the legal situation did not improve and labor relations worsened. Even in his valedictory letter to shareholders in early 1983, on the eve of Berkshire acquiring full ownership of Blue Chip, Munger characteristically refuses to brag about the turnaround that was already underway and states that he and Buffett might just have been lucky:

Finally, our shareholders should recognize that if our 1977 purchase of the News has now worked out acceptably from their viewpoint, which contrary to our prediction last year may now be true even after taking into account time delays, the conclusion does not follow that we made a sound managerial decision buying the News when we did for the price we paid. In retrospect, we were strongly influenced because we liked the newspaper, its people and the city, and we may simply have gambled shareholders’ money against the odds and won. Our stewardship may have been, at best, dubious in this instance. We know that the financial outcome we now report could with slightly different breaks just as well have been either (1) a large loss on closure of the News or (2) the expectation of much more money-losing in continued operation, as part of the only defensive strategy with reasonable prospects.

Charlie Munger’s 1982 Letter to Blue Chip Stamps Shareholders

Charlie Munger was being modest. From 1983 through the end of the century, when Berkshire stopped breaking out reporting for the newspaper in its annual reports, the business provided consistently excellent results when viewed in light of the initial acquisition cost:

Nothing Lasts Forever

Berkshire continued to own The Buffalo News for another two decades after the newspaper became too small for the growing conglomerate to break down its results in a granular manner. Buffett and Munger, although fully aware of the internet and the changing competitive landscape, never ceased to love the newspaper business, perhaps due to the wonderful economics that The Buffalo News eventually produced along with Berkshire’s experience owning shares of The Washington Post. During the early 2010s, Berkshire began purchasing additional newspapers at distressed prices, as Buffett discussed at length in his 2012 annual letter. His hope was that the acquisitions were made at prices that fully reflected the inevitable continued decline that he regarded as inevitable.

From 2012 to 2017, Berkshire reported circulation figures for its newspaper properties, and the tabulation of this data confirms the decline. During this period, The Buffalo News saw its daily circulation drop by nearly 27 percent. The table below is a compilation of circulation data taken from Berkshire’s annual reports before the presentation was discontinued in the 2018 annual report (click on the image for a larger view):

Finally, in January 2020, Berkshire announced that its newspaper holdings would be sold to Lee Enterprises for $140 million, marking a rare instance where Warren Buffett has sold businesses within the Berkshire conglomerate. Lee had previously taken over management of Berkshire’s newspapers in 2018 with the exception of The Buffalo News. However, The Buffalo News was included in the sale to Lee which closed in March. Berkshire continues to have an interest in the success of the newspapers having extended Lee $576 million of long-term financing at an interest rate of 9 percent.

Taking the long view, it is clear that Berkshire Hathaway is far better off because Buffett and Munger saw the enviable economics of the newspaper industry back in the 1970s and decided to get involved in a big way, both directly via The Buffalo News and indirectly as a longtime shareholder of The Washington Post. This early positive experience clearly influenced Buffett’s decision to purchase his collection of papers in the 2010s, but these purchases were made at distressed prices that discounted continued decline. However, the decline obviously proceeded faster than Buffett anticipated and the media group might have become a distraction. Berkshire has not so much exited the newspaper industry as exchanged its equity ownership position for high yielding debt in the form of financing to Lee. Time will tell whether this commitment works out for Berkshire shareholders in the long run.

Murray Light clearly loved The Buffalo News and spent his entire professional career at the newspaper. The rough and tumble of the internet in the 21st century makes the world Light inhabited seem almost foreign in comparison. We should not necessarily wish for a return to those times. The concentrated nature of news delivery in the twentieth century provided the impression of greater stability, but only because fewer voices were being heard.

The chaos of the internet in the 2020s produces tremendous noise but also an unlimited variety of perspectives. However, it is our jobs as consumers of the news to separate the wheat from the chaff. And lately, it seems like there has been an abundance of chaff and little wheat when it comes to feeding our daily need for information.

Buffett and Munger, circa 1977

Disclosure: Individuals associated with The Rational Walk LLC own shares of Berkshire Hathaway.

Summer Book Recommendations for 2020

Summer is a great time to get away from the business world. Although taking a vacation during a pandemic can involve overcoming a number of issues, it is always possible to take a virtual vacation through the pages of a great book. This idea was the inspiration for a list of book recommendations published a decade ago. The Rational Walk has published many book reviews over the years, most of which have to do with business in one way or another. The following mini-reviews cover a range of topics, most unrelated to the business world, and hopefully a few of them will spark an interest this summer.

The Odyssey

Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey makes Homer’s epic poem more accessible to readers who might have been intimated by prior English translations. I first read Homer’s epic poems as a student but I did not take the time to fully appreciate these classics. More than two decades later, I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both are very readable and enjoyable but the language and interpretation still presents somewhat of an obstacle to modern eyes. Wilson’s ingenious translation, in contrast, can be read with as much ease as a modern novel. It is important to note that Wilson has not in any way “dumbed down” the book, but she has used much more direct language requiring less interpretation. Reading her translation is a very enjoyable experience.

The Pilgrimage

Paulo Coelho’s book about his pilgrimage on The Camino de Santiago is a classic on par with The Alchemist which appeared in last year’s list of holiday book recommendations. Coelho is a natural storyteller and his pilgrimage story is a combination of autobiography and elements that will strike many readers as embellishments. But no matter how you approach the book, or whether you view it from a religious perspective or not, Coelho’s account of the Way of Saint James is a classic travel adventure story. I had an opportunity to walk part of The Camino last year on a trip to Spain and I passed through many of the small towns and villages that Coelho describes. Much has changed since he wrote the book. The way is more crowded and there are far more services for tourists but the path retains its charm.

The Wright Brothers

Warren Buffett often jokes that investors would have saved billions of dollars if someone had shot down the Wright Brothers’ plane back in 1903. Buffett is well versed in the woes of the capitalist who enters the airline industry but no doubt admires the life story of Wilbur and Orville Wright. At a time when the idea of aviation was thought of as a fantasy or science fiction, these men had a dream and were determined to succeed despite limited formal education and access to capital. Their work with bicycles and endless tinkering convinced them that heavier-than-air aircraft could be built and controlled by human pilots. I read this book a few years ago and found it well researched and a quick read. It is a very good choice for younger readers given the topic and the relatively brief length of the book.

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Walter Isaacson is one of my favorite biographers and his account of the life and times of Albert Einstein is one of his best books. Attempting to delve into the mind of any accomplished human being is a huge challenge, and that is even more true when describing a genius who is most known for his extensive scientific contributions. Isaacson manages to do justice to the life of Einstein and the basic outlines of the science while keeping the book accessible to the average reader. Isaacson’s biographies of Steve Jobs and Leonardo DaVinci are also well worth your time. Isaacson’s books are long and detailed but fascinating enough to avoid getting bogged down or intimidated. My notes indicate that I read the Einstein book in just under a week in the fall of 2017.

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I

I recently read William Shirer’s account of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I mentioned in a related article on World War II. I have long been fascinated by World War II and Shirer’s book provides many answers regarding how Hitler came to power. However, it is not possible to fully understand the rise of Hitler without studying World War I. Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, is an account of the first month of World War I. Tuchman wrote this book in the early 1960s at a time when the First World War was still not ancient history. She was not an academic historian and wrote compellingly for a general audience. Her work influenced President Kennedy and many others around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps Tuchman’s narrative of the human follies that led to the outbreak of war in 1914 prevented the outbreak of war in 1962.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit’s family history in Israel dates back to 1897 when his great-grandfather visited Ottoman-controlled Palestine on a Zionist-organized tour. Shavit recounts this personal history which is intertwined with Palestine’s history under British control followed by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. I read this book four years ago and found the author’s approach to be honest and not at all dogmatic. It is difficult to gain an appreciation for the small size of Israel without visiting the country. As an American visiting Israel in 2012, I was struck by how quickly I was able to drive from Ben Gurion Airport to the far northern reaches of the country in the Galilee. For readers seeking a more complete history of Israel, I recommend Israel by Daniel Gordis.

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs

I recently published a long-form essay on Robert Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s book, The Power Broker. Jane Jacobs was one of many citizens of New York who saw the problems associated with the road building and slum clearance programs that Moses advocated and imposed on the region from the 1930s through the 1960s. Jacobs was difficult to pigeonhole into any broad political ideology but I think it is fair to say that she was an advocate of localism. She had disdain for “master plans” developed by people who did not have an understanding of the fabric of the communities that would be irrevocably altered and, in many cases, ruined by such “master plans”. This collection of essays is a good introduction to the philosophy of development and planning advocated by Jacobs which strikes me as a far more enlightened and balanced approach to city planning.

The Jazz of Physics

Stephon Alexander is a tenor saxophonist and physicist. Based on reading his book, it is difficult to tell which subject he finds more fascinating. Perhaps that is because he views music and physics as, in a very real sense, two sides of the same coin. Heavily influenced by both Albert Einstein and the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Alexander makes some fascinating discoveries regarding the structure of music and how it might relate to the structure of the universe. Alexander’s book is not always an easy read but it is accessible and comprehensible to the reader with limited scientific background who is willing to expend some effort. The book will be most appealing to readers who have an interest in music, specifically jazz music, and at least some desire to explore how music, science, and the universe might be related.

The Sage of Monticello

Dumas Malone spent a lifetime researching and writing about Thomas Jefferson and The Sage of Monticello is the final book in his six volume biography. Malone himself was elderly when he wrote about Jefferson’s final years and perhaps one of the reasons the book is so fascinating is because the biographer could more fully relate to his subject. Jefferson’s retirement years at his beloved Monticello estate were probably the most creative years of his life. Jefferson was a planter and a politician but also a scientist and a family man who delighted in the presence of his daughter and grandchildren. Jefferson also had many human flaws and his spendthrift ways over a long lifetime, combined with some bad luck, marred his retirement years due to oppressive levels of debt. When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he knew that Monticello would eventually have to be sold to satisfy his massive liabilities.

The New Girl

Daniel Silva is the modern master of the spy novel, as the popularity of his Gabriel Allon series attests. The New Girl is the latest book in the nineteen volume series and will not disappoint enthusiasts of the spy genre whether they have read prior books in the series or not. Silva provides enough background in each book to make them stand on their own. Gabriel Allon is the Israeli version of James Bond, except much more of a Renaissance man, quite literally. Allon’s “cover” is that of an art restorer which was his trained profession before being recruited into the Israeli spy game as a young man. Silva’s books are entertaining and quick to read. I picked up this book before leaving on a trip to Europe and finished it during the long flight and subsequent train ride. Book twenty, The Order, comes out on July 14.

For additional book recommendations, check out the full archive of book reviews that have been published on The Rational Walk since 2009. For ten additional book recommendations in a format similar to this post, take a look at Holiday Book Recommendations for 2019.

Disclosure:  The Rational Walk participates in the Amazon affiliate program and receives a small commission for all products purchased via links on this site.

The Evolution of Robert Moses

“You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra or Brasília, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”

— Robert Moses 1

Nature versus nurture? To what degree is our character defined by our genes compared to the circumstances of our upbringing and the events of our lives? The question is an interesting one to ponder but it seems self-evident that human beings evolve based on their life experiences regardless of the heritability of their character traits. Most of us can identify major changes in our own outlooks on various topics and it is even more clear to see changes in people we are particularly close to.

People invariably change as they are shaped by life experiences. It happens to all of us. Some of us change for the better and some change for the worse, but no one can possibly remain the same as their choices and experiences mold their identity in ways that may be too subtle to perceive in the short run while being too obvious to ignore in the fullness of time.

Robert Moses (1888-1981) lived a long and fascinating life, coming of age at the dawn of the twentieth century and shaping the New York metropolitan region in ways that continue to have profound impacts on the lives of its inhabitants to this day. As his biographer, Robert A. Caro, points out in the introduction to The Power Broker, it is impossible to say that New York would have evolved into a better city if Robert Moses never lived. But it is possible to say that New York would be a very different city. Few men have ever had a more profound impact on the evolution of a major city which, in many ways, he shaped like clay through the sheer force of his genius and immovable will to “get things done”. Yet Moses himself evolved over time, from an idealistic young man determined to bring better governance to his city, to a pragmatist who made sometimes questionable compromises to achieve his objectives, and finally to a man who came to believe that his end goals justified any means necessary to bring them to fulfillment.

From our standpoint early in the twenty-first century, at a time when major infrastructure projects often take decades to complete, it is amazing to contemplate how much Robert Moses was able to get done over relatively short periods of time. Just as his namesake parted the Red Sea to facilitate the escape of his people from oppression, Robert Moses genuinely had the power to reshape the landscape to bring to the people of the New York region beautiful parks, beaches, sports facilities, parkways, expressways, bridges, and playgrounds. He did the seemingly impossible and was unwilling to let anything get in his way.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had public servants like Robert Moses today who could cut through the red tape and endless bureaucracy to just “get things done”? To bring to fruition the endless list of infrastructure that our country badly needs and that politicians merely play lip service to decade after decade after decade?

There are plenty of people who would enthusiastically welcome a reincarnated Robert Moses to the twenty-first century and put him to work. But there was a dark side to what Moses did in New York over the more than four decades that he held power, from the 1920s well into the 1960s. Moses himself evolved over this period, slowly but surely, and by the end of his reign, the costs of his methods of operations could simply no longer be ignored. The dark side of his work was laid bare for all to see.

“Getting things done” by steamrolling over all obstacles that get in the way has a steep cost in a free society – a cost that cannot and should not be ignored. The massive sweep of the life and times of Robert Moses is chronicled in epic form by Robert A. Caro and no “summary” can possibly do the book justice. But there is much we can learn from examples of his work, drawn from very distinct periods of his life in which he applied very different approaches to achieve his goals.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly see how the evolution of the man himself impacted the evolution of the New York metropolitan area. In this article, we will take a look at three examples of the works of Robert Moses in terms of how they shaped the man himself as well as his city. But first, we will briefly survey the background of the man and how the mood of the times shaped his early years.

Robert Moses in 1956 (Source: The Atlantic)


The Progressive movement in America had its roots in the populism of the 1880s and 1890s when Americans focused on the growing concentration of power in the hands of large corporations. Government was seen as a necessary counterweight to the growing problem of monopolies and trusts and legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 inaugurated a period of idealism and hope for a more equally shared prosperity. Although the size and scope of government at the turn of the twentieth century seems quite small from our perspective more than a hundred years later, any restraint on laissez-faire capitalism was seen as novel and radical at the time.

As the size of government grew, it was inevitable that rent-seekers would gravitate toward the new seats of power and seek to influence decision-makers. Progressives of the era were not blindly in favor of larger government nor were they naive about the risks of substituting a concentration of power among businessmen for a new concentration among politicians. Just as the Progressive movement sought to reform corporations in the late nineteenth century, many in the movement recognized the corruption of patronage and the spoils system that had infiltrated governments at all levels early in the twentieth century.

Robert Moses was a third-generation American born into a family of considerable wealth. By the time his family moved to New York City in 1897, the Moses family was worth approximately $1.2 million2, a figure equivalent to over $30 million in 2020 dollars3. Descended from German Jewish immigrants, the family embodied the American dream and Bella Moses, Robert’s mother, was active in charities designed to assist Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were flooding into New York’s Lower East Side around the turn of the century.

Bella’s form of charity was decidedly of the noblesse oblige variety — she viewed it as her responsibility to help unsophisticated immigrants who she found embarrassing and lacking in social graces. Caro paints a picture of Bella as a sincere woman dedicated to improving social conditions, but also as an arrogant elitist who had no tolerance for considering views contrary to her own or for making compromises. Robert was particularly close to his mother.

When Robert Moses returned to the United States from his studies at Oxford in the summer of 1912, he was a twenty-three year old idealist who passionately believed in the cause of reforming government and serving the public. Moses had graduated from Yale prior to pursuing graduate studies in England and felt that the higher ranks of government service should be populated exclusively by men who had graduated from Ivy League colleges.4

According to the picture Caro paints, Moses was by all accounts sincere in his desire to bring the benefits of good government to his fellow citizens, but no one could characterize his attitude as particularly democratic. He had a clear belief in the virtues of government being controlled by the elites of society — a group that he was now firmly established in through his family wealth and elite education.

Moses saw the inefficiency and corruption of the civil service in New York City. He saw it, he was outraged by it, and he intended to do something about it — quickly. He was a member of the progressive elite, had paid his dues, and was ready to make his mark on the world.

New York City Skyline – Circa 1914 (Source: Reddit)


New York City’s government at the turn of the twentieth century was characterized by chaos and corruption. During this era, most American cities lacked basic accounting controls, such as budgets, and it was impossible for reformers to make any headway even when voters “threw the bums out” and elected men who were amendable to change. Reformers who were elected to office invariably failed and voters returned corrupt party bosses to power, often because those party bosses were the source of jobs and patronage in the community.

In 1913, Moses joined the Bureau of Municipal Research, a non-governmental organization funded by the city’s businessmen in order to study the operations of government so that future reformers, once they gain power, would be in a better position to bring about effective change. The goal was to study the existing patronage-ridden system and to then root out the corruption so that voters would be able to see more results in exchange for their tax dollars.5

At the time, the Tammany Hall political machine ruled New York City primarily by having control over the 50,000 jobs the city provided. These jobs were not allocated based on merit — far from it. The jobs were allocated based on political connections and the local ward boss could not only dole out jobs but had wide latitude to set pay. The city did not have a budget, positions were not standardized, pay was haphazard, and there was no way to control or even to understand the roles and responsibilities of the people employed in these civil service positions.

Moses was put in charge of a group of ten men who were given a mandate to conduct a detailed study of the civil service. His group observed city workers performing their jobs and attempted to systematically break down each job into tasks and sub-tasks. Moses came up with mechanisms to grade each part of a worker’s job performance using specialized forms that supervisors were supposed to fill out on a periodic basis. Pay, promotions, and continued employment would no longer be based on patronage but on merit.

Caro characterizes the Moses system as “the proposal of a fanatic”. Moses divided all government service into sixteen categories, with every job assigned to one category and each job being divided into specific functions. Managers would evaluate employees based on dozens of functions and a precise mathematical formula would be used to grade overall job performance. All job examination results would be posted publicly and all employees, as well as the general public, would be able to learn how an individual was performing and, by extension, how much he or she was paid. Seniority would be entirely abolished. Poorly performing employees would face demotion and pay cuts. In fact, more than 10,000 employees were likely to face immediate pay cuts as soon as the plan was put in place! Unnecessary employees would be “eliminated”.

The Moses system was designed to be a pure meritocracy.

Most readers are probably are shaking their heads by now because anyone who understands human nature knows that “perfect objectivity” in an employee performance system is simply impossible. Not only would supervisors have to use subjective judgment on many job functions, political factors would necessarily impact the grades employees would receive.

The reception to the Moses plan was predictable: Panic, scorn, outrage, and hysteria. Moses volunteered to defend his plan in front of irate groups of civil servants — he had briefcases full of facts and figures that he was sure would convince people that his plan was logical and wise. But he spoke from a position of elitism which was reflected in his self-confidence and arrogant demeanor. When challenged, he simply kept talking and he utterly refused to compromise. He was adamant in not making any exceptions.6

Although Moses had the support from Mayor Mitchel, who himself was a reformer, Tammany Hall steadily sought to undermine any remaining support Moses had within the government. Moses was forced to make numerous revisions to his plan during 1916 before anything could be implemented. Then, the meticulous evaluation forms that Moses painstakingly designed were simply not used, or used in farcical ways.

In 1917, Tammany politicians succeeded in ousting Mayor Mitchel and Progressivism in New York City was dead. Moses and his Bureau staffers were dismissed. All of his plans and years of work amounted to absolutely nothing. Moses, not yet thirty years of age, had utterly failed to take into account human factors such as greed, power, and self-interest.

Above all, he failed to understand incentives.

Moses did draw a very important lesson from his failed civil service reform efforts: The importance of raw power. As a member of the Bureau of Municipal Research, he was not in a position of real power. He was not in a position of executive authority. He could write reports, make policy proposals, make speeches, and harangue those who were in power, but at the end of the day, he himself was powerless.

Moses never forgot that lesson. He had learned that idealism without power was useless. And for the rest of his life, he never forgot that lesson and never relented in his pursuit for more and more power.

Map of Long Island (Source:


If the ends don’t justify the means, then what does?

— Robert Moses

Having a base of power is a pre-requisite for the man who wants to “get things done” in a hurry. But having enough sense to make compromises — to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good — is equally essential. It took Robert Moses a long time to come to the realization that even though, in his mind, he had all of the right answers, he nevertheless had to make pragmatic compromises if he was going to move beyond writing voluminous reports and get anything accomplished.

The early twentieth century were years of massive change for New York City. The population of the city increased from 4.8 million to 5.6 million between 1910 and 1920 and the rate of increase was only accelerating further with much of the growth outside Manhattan and encroaching on the formerly undeveloped forests and meadows of Queens and the Bronx. At the same time, technology was making it possible for more production to occur with less labor, and the Progressive movement had succeeded in shortening the factory workweek from seventy hours prior to World War I to sixty hours in 1920, and this trend also continued into the 1920s.7

People had more free time available and the booming economy of the 1920s made automobiles accessible for people in the middle class. The combination of all these factors increased the desire of people to get out of the city and escape into the countryside. There were public parks in New Jersey, but getting there required a long ferry ride followed by more driving. Westchester County had parks, but most were restricted to county residents. This left Long Island as the destination for many drivers, but the roads were atrocious and there were few facilities open to the public. But people still braved the bad roads, heavy traffic, and other obstacles in exchange for a few hours of respite from the stresses of urban life.

By 1924, Robert Moses’ education at Yale and Oxford had been supplemented by the school of hard knocks — his experience with the failure of civil service reform in New York City convinced him that he had to establish a power base of his own. Now in his early thirties, Moses had grown close to New York Governor Al Smith. During the summers of the early 1920s, Moses was drawn to the vast expanses of Long Island where he was captivated by the rolling farmland, forests, bays, beaches, and the ocean. As one of Smith’s closest advisors, Moses lobbied for funding to establish not only one park but an entire park system for Long Island. Smith not only appointed Moses as President of the Long Island State Park Commission, but also allowed him to write the legislation that would create the commission and define his own role. He essentially wrote his own ticket — and that ticket came with unprecedented power that he held for nearly four decades.8

Robert Moses was a developer and a builder, not a wilderness conservationist. For Moses, parks were for people and recreation. The parks themselves had to have parking lots, bath houses, pools, restaurants, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, and other amenities, all built to a scale needed to accommodate thousands of people. But Moses was not primarily concerned with providing facilities for all of the people of New York. He was focused on the rising middle class and their appetite for using automobiles. As a result, his vision included not only parks but parkways designed to provide access to the parks from New York City.

Although Moses was able to obtain rights of way for many of his parkways through the powers he wrote into the legislation establishing his commission and ingenious use of existing lands owned by the New York City water authority, eventually the powers that he relied upon hit a brick wall when he sought to establish a route for the Northern State Parkway, a road that would give access to the northern part of Long Island and the beaches along Long Island Sound.

The brick wall was both figurative and literal. The much vilified Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century had established massive estates in northern Long Island buffered by hundreds of acres of open space, in many cases bordered by impenetrable fences and walls. Names such as Morgan, Baker, Pratt, Harkness, Phipps, Frick, Woolworth, and Vanderbilt were what Caro describes as “feudal lords” of the New World who sought, above all else, to keep the world they had created to themselves.9

The “feudal lords” of the north shore did not control all of the land. There were still places that the public could legally access, but the county officials who were heavily influenced by the landowners purposely kept roads in a state of disrepair in order to discourage public use. Charles Pratt, who made his fortune at Standard Oil, bought enough stock in the Long Island Rail Road to control its policies and ensure that north shore lines were not modernized to facilitate greater access.10

Robert Moses had the intelligence to manipulate governors and legislators and the resulting power needed to steamroll over local opposition from ordinary citizens, but he had met his match when it came to dealing with the lords of the north shore. The original path of the Northern State Parkway took a logical and aesthetically pleasing route but cut directly through the estates of many powerful men.

Moses quickly found that most of these men were not even willing to discuss the parkway let alone provide voluntary easements. Acting with characteristic rashness, Moses plowed ahead anyway and began surveying on private land, threatening to run the road right next to their grand mansions if they refused to voluntarily provide easements along the borders of their estates. It was essentially a strategy of using blackmail against men who were used to giving orders, not taking them.

The thrust and parry between Moses and the wealthy interests along the route of the Northern State Parkway continued for a number of years in the courtroom and the halls of power in Albany. By 1927, Moses had become aware of the massive power of incentives when it comes to influencing human behavior. The wealthy men who were blocking his path also came to see the parkway as inevitable and began to negotiate with Moses to ensure that the road would remain at the very edges of their properties and have limited means of entry and exit — controlled access — to keep the masses away. Moses would also ensure that roads were patrolled to the point where no one could even stop along the side of the road for an unauthorized picnic lunch.

Traveling the path from a naive and arrogant idealist to a thoughtful pragmatist is healthy and necessary, so long as one observes certain ethical lines. But during the 1920s, Moses grew increasingly willing to cut deals that bordered on corruption. Flirting with corruption is dangerous business and Moses eventually succumbed to its temptations.

The sad case of James Roth demonstrated the increasing willingness of Robert Moses to trample on the powerless. The original route of the Northern State Parkway was set to run through the middle of an eighteen hole golf course on Otto Kahn’s Cold Spring Harbor estate. When Kahn discovered these plans in 1926, he offered to secretly “donate” $10,000 to the Parks Commission for creating an alternate survey that would take the road away from his land. Moses, starved for funding by an unfriendly Republican legislature in Albany, agreed to take the money, perhaps partly influenced by the additional fact that Kahn was a distant relative.11

The map below shows the result of the new survey which miraculously did find a way around the Kahn estate. Not only did Moses move the road from the most direct and aesthetically pleasing route, he utterly trampled over the land of James Roth.

Roth had purchased his forty-nine acres in 1922, cleared the woodland, carried away rocks, and through hard work using horse drawn plows, had created a profitable small farm that brought enough income to support his small family. Most of his land was fertile and suitable for crops, except for the southern fifteen acres which were left fallow.

In 1927, a parks commission representative appeared at the Roth farm and simply announced that the state would condemn fourteen acres of his land, right through the center of the fertile part of the farm, thus bisecting the land into two segments. Given the controlled access nature of the parkway, the Roths would have to make a round trip of nearly one hour to plow the side of their farm cut off by the road. Moses would not agree to move the road so that it would go through the infertile fifteen acres at the southern end of the farm. Indeed, he would not move the road even one foot. Nor would he offer the Roths a bridge or tunnel to cross the road where it bisected the farm.12

The Roths were not the only small farmers who were ruined when the Northern State Parkway finally was constructed. Most of them believed that the road was simply inevitable and, since they had no money or power, they were resigned to accept their fate. No one at the time had any idea about the deal that Moses cut with Otto Kahn. Indeed, when Caro interviewed the farmers who were still living four decades later, none of them understood that the road had not originally been planned to cut through their properties.13

As he entered his forties, Robert Moses had traveled the path that so many young and idealistic men of his era traveled. He realized that idealism and good intentions were not enough to “get things done” and that pragmatism and compromise were necessary as well. He sought and secured a base of power for himself through his genius for navigating the political process and his unmatched work ethic. And he was able to bring a great deal of improvements to Long Island and open vast spaces to the general public that pined for recreation.

But Moses also revealed a hunger for power itself, a willingness to strike corrupt deals to achieve his objectives, and a growing disregard for ordinary people who were harmed by his policies. Perhaps even worse, he revealed not only disregard but glimmers of meanness — of contempt for his fellow man — contempt that would allow him to refuse to compromise with the powerless even when it would cost him little or nothing to do so. These tendencies would only grow more pronounced in the coming decades.

Northern State Parkway vintage photo (Source: Cornell)


I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.

— Robert Moses

The pursuit of more and more power was the relentless force driving Robert Moses as he entered middle-age, and his youthful energy and work ethic never seemed to wane over the years. As Moses discovered during his failed campaign for the governorship of New York State in 1934, his overall temperament and arrogance was not suited for seats of power that required consent of voters. So Moses continued to amass power behind the scenes, and as he obtained new powers, he did not give up those that he already held.

By the mid-1930s, Moses was running not only Long Island’s state park system but had been named Parks Commissioner for New York City and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, along with several other roles. He would later gain control over most of the road construction in New York City as well as authority over the city’s public housing. By the time his career was over, Moses built 627 miles of roads in and around New York City.14

For decades, Robert Moses held a position of high esteem with the New York City media and the general population. He was the man who could “get things done”, whether it meant parks, pools, playgrounds, or roads. Plenty of politicians disliked him and some hated him, but none could bear the political costs of removing him. His arrogance and abrasive demeanor did not hurt his image.

Moses liked to say that it was impossible to make an omelet without breaking some eggs. He had to break some eggs when he built his Long Island parkway system, but the game was far different when it came to building massive multi-lane expressways through the heart of urban New York City. There was simply no way to build roads on the scale Moses envisioned without destroying entire neighborhoods. Caro estimates that Moses displaced over 250,000 people.15 Moses had to break hundreds of thousands of eggs, and he did not even try to understand the nature of the neighborhoods he was tearing apart. He did not walk the streets of the city, speak to residents, or try to understand the fabric of society on a block-by-block basis. To the extent that he visited neighborhoods at all, it was in the back of a long Triborough Authority limousine.

Moses also repeatedly demonstrated racist attitudes, particularly against black people, and deliberately built fewer and lower quality facilities in areas of New York City that were predominantly black. Moses also had a longstanding aversion to public transportation, especially on Long Island, because making access accessible only via automobile meant that poorer people would find it difficult or impossible to use the facilities he was creating. He was also not above resorting to outright ridicule. When he developed Riverside Park, the building standards of the Harlem section were substandard and, as a finishing touch, he decorated the wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playground comfort station with monkeys.16

As revolting as his attitudes were toward black people, Moses had a general antipathy toward all people who were in lower socioeconomic groups. Such people had limited economic power and almost no political influence. But even the worst bigots usually treat their own demographic group better than others. As the descendent of Jewish immigrants, Moses saw firsthand the efforts that his mother put into improving the life of new immigrants who landed in the slums of the lower east side around the turn of the century. Many of these Jews grew more prosperous during the first decades of the century and escaped the slums. Such was the case for the lower middle class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx known as Tremont.

Caro tells the story of the Tremont neighborhood in a chapter entitled One Mile. It was just one mile of the hundreds of miles of roads Robert Moses built in the region during his career, but the story of that one mile is both fascinating and tragic. Moses chose to divert the Cross-Bronx Expressway from its most logical course adjacent to parkland — a course that would have condemned only six dilapidated buildings — and instead insisted on driving his meat ax through one mile along East 176th Street that contained fifty-four apartment houses each of which housed between thirty and fifty families.17

Source: The Power Broker, p. 864

The people who lived in the East Tremont neighborhood in the early 1950s were predominantly lower middle class descendants of the Jewish immigrants who had fled from the ghettos of Eastern Europe and were often victims of persecution in their homeland. They had found success in America over the preceding half century, but they were not rich. The apartment buildings they lived in were clean and affordable, but they had no elevators and there were maintenance issues. Nevertheless, they were hardly the “slums” that Moses characterized them as, and the neighborhood had a cohesive sense of community. It was also a self-contained community that provided all necessary services for the growing elderly population.

The neighborhood was also slowly integrating, with 18 percent of the population being non-white by 1950.18 Unlike many other integrating neighborhoods, the whites in East Tremont did not leave and everyone seemed to get along. The neighborhood was a viable place to live and raise a family in a city with an increasing number of problems.

During the decades that followed the Second World War, New York City faced chronic housing shortages, especially for affordable housing. The rents that the people of East Tremont were paying were the most they could possibly afford, especially because most families aspired to send their children to college. Caro does an excellent job of describing the texture of the community — suffice it to say that the stakes were very high for the people of East Tremont when they received notice on December 4, 1952 that they had just ninety days to move out.

The people who lived in the condemned buildings could not understand why Moses insisted on tearing through their community rather than taking the logical route adjacent to Crotona Park. They mounted a vigorous opposition campaign and enlisted local community leaders and politicians who largely agreed with their cause. The people were naive enough to think that the democratic process provided some recourse and due process.

They were sadly and tragically mistaken.

The machinations of Robert Moses to obtain nearly dictatorial powers in New York City takes up the bulk of Caro’s epic 1,169 page tome; the complexity involved in how he obtained and held power through multiple city administrations is the core element of the book. Despite obtaining superficial sympathy and words of encouragement from numerous officials at City Hall, the efforts of the people were doomed to fail.

The residents had no power and held no cards. Moses did.

Moses mounted a furious counterattack. He threatened the borough president, who tried to intervene, with withdrawal of funding for the expressway and falsely claimed that it was perfectly feasible to move the residents to equivalent or better housing elsewhere in the city. At a public hearing a short time later, the borough president suddenly and mysteriously changed his mind and claimed that he had supported the Moses route all along.19

In addition to causing turmoil for thousands of people, the Moses route made no economic sense. In addition to condemning and demolishing the mile of buildings which would involve an incremental cost of over $10 million, families would have to be relocated and close to $200,000 per year of real estate taxes would vanish from the city rolls.20

Why did Moses insist on destroying a neighborhood when there was a clearly superior option that could avoid so much human misery and financial cost? Caro writes about a conversation that he had with a New York Times reporter who claimed that Moses wanted to avoid condemning a piece of property of one of the relatives of Bronx borough President Jimmy Lyons.21 Another possible reason could have been a desire to avoid moving a terminal owned by the Third Avenue Transit Authority in which key borough politicians were well known to hold hidden financial interests. Caro also believes that Moses might have insisted on his route just due to pure stubbornness.

Whatever his reasons, Moses needlessly destroyed a neighborhood, and not just any neighborhood but one populated by people from his own socio-economic and religious background, the descendants of the very people that his own mother tried to help through her charitable work half a century earlier. Although Caro does not use the word, the character traits that Moses displayed in this case seems to have all the hallmarks of narcissistic sociopathy.

Cross Bronx Expressway at 176th St & Southern Ave (Source: Vassar)


Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

— Lord Acton

Robert Moses was at the peak of his power during the 1950s. At an age when most men would be slowing down, Moses kept on going well into his 70s, but cracks in his empire slowly began to form. Caro chronicles a series of events that began in the late 1950s with a scandal related to a “slum clearance” project that Moses was in charge of. This episode, brought to light by several young and enterprising reporters, publicized the downside of the meat ax approach that Moses took to all of his objectives. People started to question his methods and objectives during the 1960s and he slowly lost control of various agencies. Yet Moses managed to remain in control of the core of his empire — the Triborough Authority — until 1968 when at the age of 80 he was finally pushed out of power by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

It would be easy to vilify Robert Moses, but doing so would blind us to the lessons we can still learn from his life nearly forty years after his death. Moses was not merely a cartoonish caricature of evil. He was a complex and flawed human being who evolved over a long lifetime from an idealist to a pragmatist to a misanthropist. He was clearly, despite all of his flaws, a genius who had a nearly inexhaustible capacity for hard work and for “getting things done”. He saw problems and undoubtedly made improvements to the New York metropolitan area that were badly needed and neglected by men of lesser talent.

But his accomplishments were almost certainly outweighed by the costs of both his methods and his blind devotion to his objectives even in the face of massive disconfirming evidence. Moses grew out of touch with his fellow citizens over time and failed to understand how their needs were evolving. He ignored mounting evidence that building roads without mass transit options ended up creating more traffic problems in the long run by encouraging automobile oriented suburban sprawl. He insisted on retaining a romanticized vision of the automobile as a means of recreational touring long after it primarily became a means of getting to and from work.

Moses was never motivated by a desire to accumulate money. Although he came from a wealthy family, he ended up lacking significant financial resources by the end of his life. He never engaged in corruption that lined his own pockets, although he did much to facilitate that type of corruption for others if it meant an increase in his own power. The supreme irony of the life of Robert Moses is that he became the king of patronage — he doled out jobs and contracts to his friends and associates for decades, all in a quest to accumulate more and more power.

In the final analysis, Robert Moses let power corrupt his character. He discarded his youthful idealism and made moral compromise after compromise over many years, each of which might have been imperceptible in terms of its impact on his character but, in aggregate, turned him into exactly the kind of old man he would have despised as a young man.

The life of Robert Moses is actually a tragedy of epic proportions, a tragedy that we can all learn from when it comes to guarding against traveling down the slippery slope of moral compromise that will inevitably tempt us all in the long run.

RFK Triborough Bridge (Source: Wikipedia)

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  1. The Power Broker by Robert Caro, 1974, 14th printing, hardcover edition (2019), p. 849 []
  2. Ibid., p. 34 []
  3. The BLS CPI Calculator only goes back to 1913. $1.2 million in 1913 dollars is equivalent to over $30 million in 2020 dollars. []
  4. Ibid., p. 55 []
  5. Ibid., p. 61 []
  6. Ibid., p. 80 []
  7. Ibid., p. 143-144 []
  8. Ibid., Chapter 10. Caro goes into significant detail explaining how Moses went about drafting the bill that established the State Council on Parks. The details are too complicated to describe here, but Moses was able to bury obscure language in the bill that not only made it easier for him to acquire land but also insulated himself from political pressure for decades to come. []
  9. Ibid., p. 149-151. []
  10. Ibid., p. 151 []
  11. Ibid., p. 278 []
  12. Ibid., p. 278-281 []
  13. Ibid., p. 282 []
  14. Ibid., p. 850 []
  15. Ibid., p. 19 []
  16. Ibid., p. 560. The photo included in this paragraph is, of course, very disturbing but I felt it important to include it because these “decorations” were still apparently in place as of 2012. According to Christian Hincapié, the monkeys are still present as of mid-2020. []
  17. Ibid., p. 850. Caro cites figures provided by Moses that he believes are far too low. Those figures claim that the plan demolished 1,530 apartment units housing 5,000 people. []
  18. Ibid., p. 857 []
  19. Ibid., p. 867 []
  20. Ibid., p. 869. These figures are, of course, presented in 1950s dollars. According to the BLS CPI Calculator, the incremental $10 million cost in 1952 dollars is nearly $97 million in 2020 dollars. The lost annual property taxes of $200,000 in 1952 dollars is over $1.9 million in 2020 dollars. []
  21. Ibid., p. 877 []

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