I am not going to drag you through the details of R.Florida's theory, but I do recommend you read a recent article by him (before or after reading this blog).(foot#1) I have been underwhelmed by the arguments both for and against this theory: questionable statistics, speculative causality from dubious correlations, puffery, transparent ideological agendas and favored alternatives cast as inevitabilities.(foot#2) Arguing for the importance of dense urban cores with "bohemian" culture, R.Florida attributes the economy of Silicon Valley to the cultural influence of San Francisco. Similarly for the Boston suburbs along the Route 128 beltway.(foot#3) Politicians are included in his "Super-Creative Core" -- I suspect this was done to have the economy of the Washington DC region fit his theory. And I leave it to you to judge the value of finance people being "creative".
Given all these difficulties with the theory, I am going to focus on just the theory's impacts on local policy-making.
A pernicious part of this theory is expressed in the subtitle of the recommended article: "They are not just the places where the most ambitious and talented people want to be--they are where such people feel they need to be." (emphasis added) Locally we see this expressed as people being harmed if they can't easily move to specific cities to take advantages of opportunities there (created by others).(foot#4) University Urban Studies departments have acquired reputations for not educating students, but rather indoctrinating them, that is, promoting studied ignorance. One claim I am increasingly encountering is that Detroit never considered the limits to growth during the heyday of the automotive industry.(foot#5) Wrong. Growth caused the auto industry to geographically disperse manufacturing throughout the mid-West (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois) and beyond, facilitated by the railroad network.(foot#6) The auto companies had to deal with intense competition for skilled workers and the limits of public transit (trolleys) serving their huge factories (sound familiar?).
Geographic dispersion of successful industries are common. For example, Silicon Valley has seen several dispersals of successful industries, most notably Semiconductors and Computers.
Another example: What is the most common CPU architecture (by quantity sold)? Hint: It isn't from Intel. It is ARM, because of its prevalence in chips used in mobile devices, but also embedded devices. It is descended from the Acorn RISC Machine which was inspired by research on RISC computers at UC Berkeley, but created in Cambridge UK which is a medium-sized city (currently 125K). Cambridge and many other university towns provide contrary examples to R.Florida's claims about non-superstar cities not being able to compete as centers of innovation and being highly productive. One of the problems with the superstar-city theory of innovation is that it overstates the advantages of physical proximity and understates the disadvantages. For example, high concentrations often engender group-think, prioritizing incremental improvement, and "yet-another" pseudo-innovations. Innovation is often a long slog, and having a degree of isolation can help keep a team together and focused.(foot#7)
In the manufacturing of physical things, it was (is?) regarded as highly advantageous to have the designers in close proximity to the manufacturing engineers. It was not uncommon for a design to have components that were expensive, difficult and even impossible to manufacture. Sometimes trivial tweaks to the design produced major cost savings. Getting feedback from the manufacturing engineers during the design process could greatly reduce time-to-market. Design documents in a common electronic format have allowed more physical separation between the groups, and allowed outsourcing--including off-shoring--of the manufacturing of a design (ignoring the risk of unintended technology transfer).
Bohemianism is typically defined to include not just being unconventional, or rejecting conventions, but having few permanent ties (and often wandering off). R.Florida's theory extols bohemianism as a crucial factor in creating the social climate necessary to attract the highly mobile young professions that he claims form the core of his superstar cities. The presence of such job-hoppers may seem advantageous to companies seeking to staff up quickly by luring them from other companies, but when "Here today" becomes "Gone tomorrow", they rue the situation. Employees looking to jump to the next big thing or wanting new challenges may be appealing to theoretical economists, but a headache for managers.
Note: The discussions of R.Florida's theories often refer to "high bohemians". That seems to be the conventional definition: bohemians with money (well-paying jobs or other financial security).
R.Florida's linkage of commercial innovation and productivity to the presence of bohemian culture and artists and entertainers has been challenged by other analyses of the data. For me, his sense of that culture seems to strongly allude to the Cafe Society of the 1920s (Paris, New York, London...). Locally, the linkage between the University Avenue restaurant scene and economic prosperity keeps popping up in the advocacy for substantial densification. Although such statements would be trivialities in isolation, a pattern can indicate broader underlying beliefs.(foot#8)
While the "visionaries" and other evangelists promote the "gig economy", the view from managers and workers is quite different. And it is very hard to build a serious tech company using mercenaries or having the company treat its employees as easily discarded temp workers.
----Claim: significant harm to economy----
R.Florida cites a study "Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation" by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti which claims "...Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by more than 50% from 1964 to 2009...".(foot#9) I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to dissect their modeling. However, my scientific training is to do sanity checks by making modest changes to model parameters. For example, suppose we change the granularity of the economic unit from superstar cities into superstar companies, for example Google, Facebook, Apple, Netflix,... Has the economy been harmed by such companies not hiring all the people that want to move from companies with lower productivity? Recognize that the choice is the worker's not the company's. That the company is assumed to be able to absorb an unlimited number of new workers without diminishing its overall productivity. And that the worker is assumed to (automatically? magically?) become more productive at the new company, even if doing the same job as at the previous company.
This problem with granularity makes me highly skeptical of their results. It seems to discount reallocation of labor within the superstar cities to more productive uses, and of companies within those superstar cities reallocating activities with lower returns to less expensive locales, as happened in earlier booms here in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Instead the authors seem to treat reallocation as people migrating into the superstar cities.
Another check is to apply the basics to analogous situations. For example, if people with degrees from the superstar universities--Stanford, Harvard...--are judged more productive (on average), then are these superstar universities hold the economy back by not granting many more degrees? Or providing not just the credential, but the networking and education?(foot#10)
In working with data, one of the early lessons is to not assume that the average for one sample will persist in smaller and larger samples. Actually, the lesson is to assume that the averages will be different, and that treating them as invariant (within a range) requires proof, or at least a strong argument. A related early lesson is to not expect something to scale-up smoothly. This is illustrated by the classic puzzle question "Why aren't there ants the size of elephants?" The mathematically-inclined point to the legs as being unable to support a body that large: The strength of the legs (cross-section) grows as the square of body size, but the weight grows as the cube. Alternatively, those who remember their biology class point to larger animals needing increasingly sophisticated infrastructure, such as a circulation system, to move nutrients to, and wastes away from, cells that are increasingly further from the surface.
The study's authors Hsieh and Moretti seem to have significant pro-development biases. They favorably cite another economist saying "In the 1960s, developers found it easy to do business in much of the country. In the past 25 years, construction has come to face enormous challenges from any local opposition. In some areas it feels as if every neighbor has veto rights over every project." What happened circa 1990 (25 years before the quote)? My guess is that it was the increased available of computer networks for discussion group, both on the Internet and in "walled gardens" like AOL of that era. The technology allowed the citizenry was becoming more effective in local politics.(foot#11) The 1960s and 1970s had seen significant expansion of legal protections for ordinary citizens, but too often the answer to "How much justice can you afford?" was "Not much". Various aspects of this technological shift lowered those costs and thereby helped fight the notion that the property rights of the rich and powerful preempted the rights of ordinary citizens, for example, the notion that one was entitled to enrich himself by polluting everyone's air and water, or imposing other externalities. Or building industrial facilities using hazardous materials next to residential neighborhoods and schools. Of course, those attitudes are not overturned, but merely diminished. For example, our City Hall allowed such a hazardous materials operation to move from an industrial park to a site immediately next to my neighborhood.
OK, and notice the gross exaggeration in the statement, which is characteristic of coming from a shill. This sort of advocacy by economists is so well known that it spawned a joke: Interviewer: "How much is 1+1?" Economist: "How much do you want it to be?" Interviewer: "You're hired."
----Growth more than pays for itself?----
The recommended article is unlike the other R.Florida articles I have read (a sample, not the extensive set). In this one he acknowledges the costs of expanding and upgrading infrastructure to support increasing populations. However, he waves this off on the belief that the additional income to cities from larger populations will pay for this. Really? Failure to maintain existing infrastructure has been a problem for all levels of government nation-wide because of a mix of revenue problems and other demands on the budget. And recent history is that increased population has not led to corresponding increases in infrastructure. However, R.Florida gives no indication of why things will be different in the near future. Locally: Since circa 2000, City Hall has produced estimates for the revenues and costs to the City of various types of development, with denser housing being a net negative.
Aside: The balance of rentals to condos affects the calculation because of Prop 13: Condos tend to have higher turnover rates which resets the valuation for property taxes.
----What is meant by high-density?----
R.Florida and advocates of similar theories tend to treat "density" as a slippery term. In the recommended article, R.Florida says "too much density can actually deaden neighborhoods" and "...walkable, mixed-used neighborhoods in ... filled with mid-rise buildings, factory and warehouse lofts, and the occasional high-rise..." with the definition of mid-rise buildings varying widely between cities and groups--if you do a web search you will see definitions on the first results-page starting as low as 4 stories and others starting much higher. For the upper bound, for some definitions it is 6 stories, while others include up to 15 stories. Elsewhere R.Florida seems to be advocating for many high-rise buildings.
In reading the articles, you need to be aware of apple-to-oranges statistics. Sometimes the stats are for the urban core of a city, and sometimes they extend far out into the suburbs and even into exurbs. Sometimes there seems to be an intent to mislead; other times it seems to result from simply using the easily available stats and failing to make needed adjustments.(foot#12)
R.Florida, citing various economists, portrays property owners, large and small, as preventing the building of more housing: "While there is certainly a place for neighborhood preservation and environmental conservation, NIMBYs do more than that: Well-intended or not, when they reflexively block any and all development,..." (emphasis added) This is one of the clearest demonstrations of R.Florida's disregard for facts. Going on, he states it "isn't just selfish; it's destructive" and "NIMBYs hold back the urban innovation that powers growth."
R.Florida goes on to quote a columnist summarizing a paper by a economics grad student: "It's landlords, not corporate overlords, who are sucking up the wealth in the economy." However, R.Florida ignores what came 3 paragraphs earlier in that column: That simplistic treatments of physical capital growth ignore the costs of maintaining, renovating and replacing those assets.(foot#13) The paper's example is for high-tech corporations, but the same applies to land. The value of land comes from what you use it for--or have the opportunity to use it for--and that use has costs, such as building construction and maintenance. Plus property taxes ... (Aside: The term "land-poor" describes the trap where you own land, but lack the resources to generate adequate income from it, potentially resulting in loosing ownership).
Let's think about the claim that the large landlords are blocking growth in housing in order to benefit from increased rental prices resulting from scarcity. But it is also claimed that freed from current constraints, large property owners would willingly build higher density to profit from that. Notice that the large landlord are also large property owners, so we seem to have the claim that they are working to block themselves from having higher profits.
Add to that the implicit claim that higher density would result in housing being more affordable. Experience in multiple superstar cities contradicts this, as does R.Florida's theory. Since he argues that the superstar cities will continue growing, the ongoing increase in demand will likely overwhelm the increase in supply. R.Florida has come to acknowledge that the winner-take-all economy means that his "creative class" will inevitably displace more and more of those cities' current inhabitants: "...ensures that the winner cities will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy."
R.Florida and others prominently accuse homeowners of blocking more housing in order to raise, or maintain, high prices for their homes: "...the efforts of urban landlords and homeowners to restrict what is built, and in doing so to keep the prices of their own real-estate holdings high." There is a frequent claim, without supporting citation, that starting in the 1980s, homeowners started seeing their houses as more of an investment than a place to live. My experience is that this is false in multiple ways. Promoting home ownership was part of the New Deal (late 1930s) and was a big part of the post-WW2 boom. The home-as-investment was a big part of this. The "more of" is contrary to my experience: I can't remember hearing anyone saying that they sacrificed quality-of-life to live in a house because it had greater potential for appreciation.
The actual motivations of homeowners is another distortion going on in these portrayals. When homeowners worry about a project's effect on their quality-of-life, all these economists and urban theorists (choose to?) hear is that reduced quality-of-life would reduced the capital value of their houses. This distortion is often followed by another distortion: That the purported concern about reduced value is actually a strategy to further increase the value of their houses. Locally you will see these distortions from groups like Palo Alto Forward, even as many of their leaders are, or seek to become, owners of single-family houses.(foot#14)
The attack on homeowners carries with it an implication that they are undeserving of the increase in property values. In local forums, I see postings portraying homeowners as being lucky to already be living here when the technology boom occurred. Unfortunately, this sort of arrogance and (studied?) ignorance of recent history is too common. They seem clueless that many of these homeowners were the people who built this area into being a technology center, including the computer and networking technology that made the current boom possible. And it is depressing that, as Jeffrey Hammerbacher said about why he left Facebook, "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks."
After decrying the amount of capital appreciation for homeowners, what does R.Florida advocate? "...a shift from single-family homes to rental housing". That's right, he wants to shift these assets from the middle and working classes to the investor class. And has he forgotten what he wrote but a few paragraph earlier, blaming the large landlords (investor class) for blocking the building of more housing?
----Biases and insults----
R.Florida characterizes the pejorative "NIMBY" as "too benign-sounding" and offers the term "New Urban Luddite". He uses the false characterization promulgated by the investor class of that time: That the Luddites were smashing machines because they opposed progress. The actual history was that those weavers were skilled workers who had been using machinery for generations, and the Luddite movement was an early "industrial action", similar to the later strikes of the early labor unions, including lethal force against strikers by factory owners and the government. The revolt against the factory owners was a result of increasingly automated machinery to replace skilled workers with unskilled, low-paid workers. R.Florida dismisses treating workers as disposable with "Over the course of the next century, though, those factories would lift living standards to higher levels than the Luddites could have ever imagined."(foot#15) R.Florida's characterization of people who don't share his values and priorities as being against progress has prominent local correlates, most notably from Palo Alto Forward and the Gang-of-Five City Council majority.(foot#16)
R.Florida also seems unwilling to consider what some people find attractive and worthwhile about suburbs and single-family homes. From another recent article: "Silicon Valley proper is soul-crushing suburban sprawl."(foot#17)
Basic awareness of R.Florida's theory is useful for understanding the source of various advocates for what the "correct" policy is, and for making connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of that advocacy. There are other aspects of this theory and its offshoots that I hope to return to in a later blog, but enough/too much for now.
1. Recommended article by R.Florida:
Subsequent references to this article will be handled by repeated references to this footnote (rather than ibid.).
"Why America’s Richest Cities Are Pulling Away From All the Others" by Richard Florida - The Atlantic, 2017-04-12.
Subtitle: "They are not just the places where the most ambitious and talented people want to be--they are where such people feel they need to be."
Earlier title: "Richard Florida: Winner-take-all new urban crisis".
2. Problems with the arguments: Examples:
The calculation of R.Florida's Bohemian Index for 2006 (latest I could find) ranks Salt Lake City at #7, San Francisco at #9, and New Orleans third from the bottom, below cities like Birmingham AL, Houston and San Antonio.
Review of Richard Florida's "The Rise of the Creative Class" (PDF) by Edward L. Glaeser presents statistical analyses that undermine R.Florida's claims about the data.
Puffery: "The most important and innovative industries and the most talented, most ambitious, and wealthiest people are converging as never before in a relative handful of leading superstar cities that are knowledge and tech hubs. This small group of elite places forge ever forward, while most others struggle, stagnate, or fall behind." (paragraph 3 of recommended article). Is he unaware of imperial capitals and similar cities throughout history, and their lessons? European examples: Rome, Paris, Vienna, London.
Misrepresenting history: "Big, populous cities develop thriving industry clusters, like finance in New York and London, movies in LA,...".
- When the movie industry migrated from New York City to LA, LA had only a tenth the population of NYC--opposite the direction predicted by R.Florida's theory.
- London developed its finance industry because it was the capital of an empire, not because of its teeming slums. The centers of innovation and industry were elsewhere in Britain (closer to the coal fields).
- New York City's finance industry developed because of its dominance in import-export between the US and Europe. It had an excellent natural harbor, it had good access to the expanding interior, and its location made it a trans-shipment point to/from Europe. And its businesses and government greatly reinforced and expanded those trading advantages.
3. Influence of the urban core:
R.Florida claims that people tend choose to move to areas because of the culture established by their urban cores and then look for a job in that area. This is counter to the experience of most people I know, although that may be a biased sample. However, how would you explain someone who lives in Morgan Hill and works in a tech company in south San Jose having made that decision based upon the presence of San Francisco? If you include Morgan Hill as part of the SF region, would you include Tracy (most answer "No"). But Tracy is closer to San Francisco than Morgan Hill, with similar travel times depending on time of day, and much closer by BART vs Caltrain. Furthermore, Tracy is only 11 miles beyond Livermore which is widely regarded as part of the Bay Area (and Livermore is getting a BART station). Note the use of transit to argue against there being a transitive fallacy (X close-to Y and Y close-to Z does not imply X close-to Z).
Laugh test: Ann Arbor, home of The University of Michigan, has a thriving tech community. This theory would lead you to believe that many of them settled for jobs there to be part of a vibrant downtown Detroit scene. Really? Similarly for many other non-urban university towns.
Aside: The travel time between Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit is about the same as Palo Alto to SF and Cambridge to London.
4. Move to opportunities:
"In my view, cities help increase and unlock social cultural economic and human potential. The 'opportunity' of the city should be shared." - Councilmember Adrian Fine (on Twitter).
5. Detroit growth:
Example from Twitter exchange involving Councilmember Adrian Fine (Masters degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania):
- @wmartin46: "Changing smartly"--what does that even mean? Time and again you (and yours) are asked: "how many people can live here"--never an answer!
- @adrianfine: It's a challenge many cities and regions have faced. Do you think Detroit ever asked "how many people?" That's not the point
6. Auto industry dispersion:
Some of the dispersion involved incrementally transferring the manufacturing of components, including large ones such as transmissions. Some of the dispersion involved setting up remote assembly plants: Look as "Assembly" on the Model T's Wikipedia Page. Ford's mammoth River Rouge Complex was an example of where components continued being manufactured centrally while assembly of some models was dispersed.
7. The long slog of innovation:
The current computer interface originated from the work of Douglas Engelbart at SRI. It was demo'ed in 1969, but it didn't become realized in a mainstream computers until the early 1980s, with various workstations (Sun, SGI...) and the Apple Macintosh (1984), and later Windows 95. Xerox PARC had the first computer in this class, but they "fumbled the future".
Apple's Siri (2010) has an even longer history, with the basic system coming from Apple's purchase of an SRI spin-off. The speech recognition component came from multiple companies with origins in the late 1970s and early 1980s (eg, Nuance and Dragon). The Natural Language component began in the late 1970s, enabled by improved availability of computing power (more powerful microprocessors) and had many threads. It went from querying a single well-structured source of data (a database) to querying disparate sources (starting mid-1980s), to integration with speech recognition, to using the Web as a data source (late 1990s), to a major change in Natural Language Understanding technology enable by the Web providing the volumes of data to make statistical learning practical. The reasoning components also had long and tangled histories.
These sort of durations often cause innovators/developers to talk about "waves" within which there are generations.
8. Linkage of restaurant scene to vibrancy:
Example: In Palo Alto Forward's letter to Council opposing an annual office development cap ("Smart Solutions to Parking and Congestion: Addressing Palo Alto's problems head-on", 2015-02-16), "Growth brings some positives...: a more vibrant (more shops, restaurants, employment opportunities), diverse community...".
Alt source: Palo Alto Online/Weekly news article: "Palo Alto Forward joins opposition to office-space limits: Citizens group joins Stanford, high-tech giants in taking a stand against proposal", 2015-02-26.
Example: In the Council meeting discussed in my blog entry, "Listen for Yourself: An index into 'A Conversation on the Future of the City' " (2013-12-13), Councilmember Liz Kniss used the availability of a restaurant to her liking near City Hall at 10:30pm as a metric for the "vitality", or "vibrancy", of Palo Alto. (in segment starting @2:54:45). I have heard similar statements from her many times over the years, but it was hard to tell if this might only be because restaurants are often locations for informal political discussions.
9. Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation:
The official paper itself is behind a paywall, but a free version (PDF) is available from author Moretti's website.
10. Effects of college choice:
Some years ago there was a study that claimed that the correlation to success was much stronger for the colleges that a student applied to than for the one s/he attended. In a related vein, there were studies claiming to have found that many top undergraduate students would be better off in an Honors Program at various Enormous State Universities than at the prestige colleges, even before factoring in costs. All to be taken with a grain of salt.
11. Internet facilitating citizen involvement:
My favorite local example of this comes from the 2003 State of the City speech by then-Mayor Dena Mossar: "Neighborhood associations have banded together to create large and small e-mail communication networks that have changed the lobbying landscape significantly from the days--but six years ago--when a neighborhood typically fought its battles in solo mode. The business community, in an attempt to level the playing field, is trying to find an effective way to respond."
Usage note: In this context, "business community" means developers and their allied businesses, such as architects.
12. Easily available stats: Examples of difficulties:
One of the problems comparing cities is that some of the best collections of data for each city can be incomparable to similar collections for other cities. Many stats on cities use the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), with some cities having multiple MSA grouped into a Combined Statistical Area (CSA). The New York metropolitan area, aka the Tri-State Area, has a core MSA comprising New York City and nearby areas of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York State. Its CSA has about a 20% larger population, adding MSAs from Connecticut and more distant portions of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. These MSAs seem to be natural groupings of the cities.
In contrast, the boundaries for MSAs for the Bay Area are heavily influenced by county lines. The CSA has 6 MSAs, with the largest two being San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose. The latter includes not just Santa Clara County but San Benito County (starts south of Gilroy). It doesn't make sense to me that any part of San Benito warrants being treated as part of the SF Bay Area.
Similarly, statistics for European and Asian cities can be based on terminology and boundaries contrary to what would be expected by someone unfamiliar with that city. A good example is that the City of London is only a tiny part of the city of London.
Then there are the parochial biases of the speakers and writers, for example, I often hear "New York" used to mean the portion of Manhattan starting from Columbia University and going south. However, Stamford CT is part of the New York CSA and home to many New York financial firms, especially hedge funds (although that is declining).
13. Landlords sucking up wealth:
"Piketty's Three Big Mistakes: Thomas Piketty's theory about income inequality has taken a triple hit from an MIT graduate student" by Noah Smith, Bloomberg View, 2015-03-27.
The paper referenced by this column is also directly referenced later in R.Florida's article:
"Deciphering the Fall and Rise in the Net Capital Share: Accumulation or Scarcity?" (PDF, 69 pages) by Matthew Rognlie in Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2015.
14. Local distortion of homeowner motivations:
Councilmembers Adrian Fine and Cory Wolbach are prominent in this regard. See my earlier blogs:
- "The 'You're despicable' style of politics", 2016-09-22
- "Disputing a Council Endorsement on Attitude toward residents", 2016-10-25
These articles have similar basic coverage:
"When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites: What a 19th-century rebellion against automation can teach us about the coming war in the job market" by Clive Thompson, Smithsonian Magazine, 2017-01.
"Luddites have been getting a bad rap for 200 years. But, turns out, they were right" by Michael J. Coren, Quartz, 2017-04-30.
"What the Luddites Really Fought Against: The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn't really the enemy" by Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine, 2011-03.
16. Contempt for other values and priorities:
See my blogs cited above under "Local distortion of homeowner motivations".
17. Soul-crushing suburb sprawl:
"The Unaffordable Urban Paradise: Tech startups helped turn a handful of metro areas into megastars. Now they’re tearing those cities apart" by Richard Florida, MIT Technology Review, 2017-06-20.
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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