Political Animal


July 27, 2014 4:25 PM It’s a little late to pretend you want to govern

This would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic:

House Republicans want to use their final week in Washington before the August recess to send a signal that they are ready to govern.
As the country’s attention turns to the fight for control of the House and Senate, Republicans want to show they are capable of handling two of the nation’s toughest issues: the thousands of children crossing the border, and the veterans in need of healthcare.
“This is a crisis situation. We need to show that we can respond in a crisis in a thoughtful way,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said of the effort to move a border bill.

This is, of course, mostly internal Republican party politics. It’s less that the entire GOP is trying to prove to voters that they’re capable of governing, but rather that GOP leadership is begging the crazies to at least give the party a chance to pretend to voters at the eleventh hour that they’re capable.

But it’s remarkable to watch: even as Boehner gives his far right pro-impeachment flank a carrot by initiating a preposterous and unpopular lawsuit, he holds the stick of losing elections to persuade them to actually do something halfway reasonable on immigration and healthcare for veterans.

It’s an awkward dance, and it’s going to get clumsier as election day approaches and Democratic messaging drives wedges deeper into the Republican foundation. The leadership will pretend that the GOP really does want to be reasonable and govern, but their base wants revanchism, not reason.

And it’s a little late to be playing rebranding games in any case.

July 27, 2014 2:22 PM Selling water for profit during a record drought?

Someone will have to explain why a sane society would still allow this to be legal, because I can’t figure it out:

mong the windmills and creosote bushes of San Gorgonio Pass, a nondescript beige building stands flanked by water tanks. A sign at the entrance displays the logo of Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water, with water flowing from a snowy mountain. Semi-trucks rumble in and out through the gates, carrying load after load of bottled water.
The plant, located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation, has been drawing water from wells alongside a spring in Millard Canyon for more than a decade. But as California’s drought deepens, some people in the area question how much water the plant is bottling and whether it’s right to sell water for profit in a desert region where springs are rare and underground aquifers have been declining.
“Why is it possible to take water from a drought area, bottle it and sell it?” asked Linda Ivey, a Palm Desert real estate appraiser who said she wonders about the plant’s use of water every time she drives past it on Interstate 10. “It’s hard to know how much is being taken,” Ivey said. “We’ve got to protect what little water supply we have.”

The issue is complicated by the fact that this is Native American (Morongo) land, and Nestle is paying the tribe an unknown but presumably tidy sum for access to the aquifer. But it’s still a travesty. The southwest is in a period of record-breaking drought. No one knows just how bad it is, exactly, but it’s pretty bad.

It’s likely attributable in part to climate change, but it’s also possible if not likely that the entire southwestern United States has been experiencing a period of unusually wet weather over the last long while, and the recent drought represents a return to normalcy on the scale of centuries.

If that is the case, then the entire southwest is going to need to heavily re-examine its water usage in dramatic ways. Agriculture may need to be cut back, lawns will need to go to xeriscape, golf courses will need to be eliminated, and much else besides.

It will also necessarily put a damper on development in many areas where high real estate prices are crying out for increased smart growth infill.

And certainly, companies will have to be prevented from taking precious water resources and bottling them for profit. Continuing to allow that in this sort of environment is straight out of a science fiction novel set in an Objectivist dystopia.

July 27, 2014 2:14 PM New York State of Mind

Lord knows I’ve had my criticisms of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry in the past—her decision to bring on notorious climate disinformer Bjorn Lomborg to discuss the climate crisis in April 2014, her unnecessary apology to Mitt Romney in December 2013, etc.—but I wish I had the chance to thank her in person for her segments today on the death of Eric Garner after a confrontation with New York Police Department earlier this month. The segments moved me to tears.

I heard “The Talk” when I was 12 years old, shortly after Charles Stuart committed suicide in Boston in January 1990. In the fall of 1989, Stuart infamously blamed a fictional African-American suspect for the murder of his pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart; after Stuart’s story unraveled, and it became evident that he murdered his wife, Stuart performed an Olympic-quality dive off the Tobin Bridge.

“The Talk” was pretty simple: always be respectful towards law enforcement, always be conscious of your surroundings, always remember that people acquire stereotypes about people of color from television news, and always understand that while it may be unfair, you have an obligation at all times to try to counteract those stereotypes. “The Talk” was depressing, to be sure, but I absorbed the advice, and I never forgot it.

There will be a day when mothers and fathers of color no longer have to sit their kids down and read the sad script that is “The Talk.” As Eric Garner’s death reminds us, that day isn’t on the horizon anytime soon.

Five summers after the bizarre arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s clear that the issues of race and policing in America are nowhere near being resolved. Can we start resolving them now?

July 27, 2014 12:50 PM The Great American Melting Pot

Maybe the fundamentalists who insist that we are in the Last Days are on to something. After all, if George Will is saying something logical, that must mean Armageddon is near!

Will pushed back against the nakedly racist rhetorical assault on those who want to kick out underage children fleeing the horrors of Central America. The demented daycare dropouts who post comments on Free Republic and Hot Air will call the Washington Post columnist everything but a child of God for his expression of empathy, but those folks have a collective IQ of 5 anyway.

The border crisis has exposed, once again, the true fault line in American politics—the one separating the socially conscious from the sociopaths. Credit to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick for being on the side of morality and reality.

I hope that the folks hurling hate at those merely trying to survive ask themselves what would happen if the door of hope had been shut to their ancestors. As syndicated columnist Michael Stafford—a friend of this writer, in the interest of full disclosure—observes:

In the words of Pope Francis, America is experiencing a “humanitarian emergency.” Fleeing instability and violence in Central America, a human tide of thousands of refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, has been flooding across our southern border.
As children often traveling alone, these refugees are uniquely vulnerable. And yet their arrival has been met, in many instances, with ugly scenes including displays of rank nativism, cruelty, and hatred. They seek sanctuary, but based on the reactions of many Americans, they are clearly not welcome here…
[T]oday many among us would deny entry to those driven from their homes by fear, insecurity, and violence. We curse those who seek refuge among us with every vile calumny imaginable. We describe them as lecherous criminals, as looters, as diseased, and compare them to a pestilence, a barbarian horde, or an invading army. Ironically, our own ancestors often faced the same toxic mix of fear and hatred when they arrived in America that we now direct at others.

I’m sure it won’t be long before those who seethe with savage scorn for these children actually assert that Will and Patrick should be stripped of their citizenship and kicked out of the country for “siding with illegal aliens.” If there was a vaccine for prejudice, these xenophobes would run around saying it might cause autism.

July 27, 2014 8:45 AM The four basic American reactions to record inequality

Most people still feel that, despite recent small upticks in good economic news, things still aren’t going very well. It’s obvious why:

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.
The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.
The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years. Other research, by economists like Edward Wolff at New York University, has shown even greater gains in wealth for the richest 1 percent of households.

Among those who are aware of this gigantic moral and systemic problem, there are four basic political philosophies.

Those on the progressive left understand that at some level the takings of the top 4% constitute a theft from the other 96% who have lost over a third of their net worth. Whether it’s direct manipulation of the tax system and supply-side economic policies, or a softer product of rent-seeking and easy profits without the need to employ people at decent wages due to globalization and mechanization, it’s still money that is being pocketed by the upper crust at the expense of everyone else. There is a broad recognition within the progressive left that the wheels are increasingly coming off the train that propelled the 20th century economic model.

Those in the neoliberal/center-left camp do believe that modern inequality is a problem, but that this too shall pass and we can trudge along as usual after a recovery. They expect that middle-class incomes will surely pick up again in due time and everything will be mostly back to normal after the “black swan” event on Wall Street as long as asset prices continue to rise. This is delusional thinking, but extremely commonplace—particularly among wealthier liberals.

The biggest reason for the bitter and sharp divides within the left is that progressives are exasperated with the center-left folks who are desperate to keep status quo going. They’re trying to put more juice in the asset-inflation machine, praying that if we just send enough kids to college in STEM fields and keep the Dow Jones and housing markets frothy enough, we can keep the jobs engine humming. It’s not going to happen.

Then you have the center-right. They take rational market theory as an article of faith, believing with religious fervor that if the labor and capital markets are allowed to act unimpeded, then both labor and capital will find a comfortable, fair and balanced price. No amount of evidence can convince them that both human life and dignity are priced incredibly cheap on the open market, or that that late 19th century was not, in fact, the model of a moral or economically functional society.

Both the center-left and the center-right share the belief that at some level the edges of the system should be polished and softened to cushion the most unfortunate. But neither is comfortable with larger alterations to the balance between corporate and government power.

Finally, there is the far right. These are the True Believers: the ones who not only buy into the center-right line, but also the raw Objectivism of Ayn Rand and Fox News that says that the only economic injustice in society is the one being perpetrated by the government itself, taking money from the “deserving” and giving it to the “undeserving.” In this view, the only inequality that matters to them is redistributive taxation to “others” in society. But the far right, being mostly made up of poorer and middle-class voters, does have the saving grace of at least grasping that something is fundamentally broken in the economy, and they’re willing to take drastic measures to fix it.

This is the problem: on the center left and center right are mostly well-to-do people who have no personal incentive to alter the status quo. Whether out of genuine belief or raw self-interest, they don’t think that much needs to change, and they believe that things will be back to normal soon. After all, things tend to be going pretty smoothly for them, and there don’t seem to be any pitchforks on the horizon—yet.

Then you have the great apathetic mass of Americans, growing larger every day, who have given up believing that any change in government policy will have any effect.

Finally, you have the politically engaged on either side who understand that the status quo really isn’t working. The far right ignorantly thinks it’s all government’s fault. The progressive left gets the scope the problem and the nature of the necessary solutions, but has almost no voice at the moment.

That’s a recipe for a slow-burning political and social powder keg. It won’t be pretty when it explodes.

July 27, 2014 6:07 AM Keep On Pushing

Ten years ago today, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Illinois State Senator and US Senate candidate Barack Obama delivered the speech heard ‘round the world.

There was plenty to admire about the speech: Obama effectively made the case for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, pointed to his background as a testament to America’s acceptance of diversity, and condemned George W. Bush’s wrongheaded rush into Iraq. However, there was a segment of the speech that was manifestly false:

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July 26, 2014 8:38 PM Internet issues can provide an object lesson for Democrats

Good things do occasionally come out of Congress, even this one:

Consumers will soon be able to free their cell phones from the grip of wireless carriers thanks to legislation that Congress passed Friday allowing mobile devices to be unlocked.
President Barack Obama said he looked forward to signing the bipartisan measure that cleared the House, which the wireless industry had fought.
“The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget,” he said in a statement.

There are many issues surrounding wireless carriers and Internet circling the public policy arena, not least of which is net neutrality.

On a broader political note, though, broadband providers have made themselves such hated institutions on all sides of the American public that even Republicans have been forced to take the people’s side against them from time to time. Many libertarians favor net neutrality, and few people of any political persuasion believe that allowing carriers to lock phones is a good idea. Anger at Verizon has going viral with increasing evidence that the company has been throttling Netflix bandwidth.

Part of the challenge in politics is that so many issues seem disconnected from people’s immediate daily lives. But Internet policy dramatically affects people’s everyday lives, passions and entertainment choices. Republicans clearly seem open to taking a more populist stance on the subject, and Democrats should use it as an object lesson of how corporations abuse their power when left free to collude and engage in rent-seeking with a trapped consumer base.

July 26, 2014 12:20 PM Tyson’s Knock-Out

Tell me, what did Neil DeGrasse Tyson do to be targeted by the wingnuts at National Review?

Last night on HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher discussed the acidic attack launched upon Tyson by Charles Cooke in the magazine’s latest issue. Maher suggested that part of National Review’s resentment towards Tyson stems from the fact that the latter is “a scientist, and a black one”:

Considering National Review’s sordid race history, one can’t gainsay that point. Nor can one deny that the political right’s embrace of ignorance—what conservative writer Patrick Ruffini once called the “Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP”—is also a motivating factor in this attack; as Peter Sinclair notes, Cooke’s demonization of Tyson is reminiscent “of recent remarks by Jeb Bush that scientists and those that believe in what science says, are ‘sanctimonious.’”

Of course, there’s another pretty influential motivating factor.

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July 26, 2014 11:45 AM If corporations are people, shouldn’t they have to expatriate like people?

It’s a common complaint among American expatriates: no matter how far away you go, you can’t escape Uncle Sam’s taxes.

But that’s not the case with American corporations that move their putative “headquarters” overseas, as President Obama noted the other day:

In his toughest comments yet on the subject, he accused big US corporations of trying to play “the system” by “magically becoming Irish” through so-called tax inversion deals.
“I don’t care if it’s legal, it’s wrong,” Mr Obama said. “It sticks you for the tab to make up for what they’re stashing offshore.”
There has been a raft of such deals in recent months which have seen big American companies become “Irish” for tax purposes through buying smaller firms registered here. The same trend is happening in the UK and Switzerland. Fears America is losing out on taxes have made the deals controversial.

It’s understandable if businesses have a different tax code that subjects them to different rules to a certain extent, though shady tax dodging is still an enormous moral and financial problem.

But the issue starts to become even more open and shut once we start claiming that corporations are people. If a corporation has “free speech rights” to buy elections, then it should be subject to American taxes even if it “moves” overseas just like actual American people are. If a corporation like Hobby Lobby has personal “religious rights” not to cover its employees’ contraception, then it’s enough of a person to pay expatriate taxes if it decides to move to Ireland.

It has to be one or the other. You can’t become a person when it’s convenient to your bottom line, but not when it isn’t.

July 26, 2014 8:45 AM Basic universal income gets even more traction—from both sides of the aisle

I wrote yesterday morning at Hullabaloo about the growing momentum toward basic universal income as a mainstream policy idea. The idea is attractive for a number of reasons, and appeals to thinkers of a variety of political persuasions.

And just a few hours after my piece went live, so did Max Ehrenfreund’s at the Washington Post, who took a very different angle to get to the same conclusion:

But wouldn’t it be even more amenable to conservative principles to eliminate government interference altogether, whether federal or state? Couldn’t Uncle Sam simply write checks directly to everyone? After all, aren’t we the people best equipped to make decisions about how to use our money?
These are arguments for what’s known as a universal basic income — a check that everyone, regardless of income, would receive from the federal government on a regular basis. Economist Milton Friedman, a pioneer of contemporary conservatism, was probably the best-known proponent of the idea, which has recently been implemented with good results so far in Brazil.

This is one of the beautiful things about universal basic income: it has legitimate cross-partisan appeal, even if it seems wacky at first glance to centrists (who are often the very last people to recognize a good policy idea when they see one.)

To a conservative, a direct money grant is an opportunity to shed cumbersome government bureaucracy, consolidating a number of overlapping needs-based targeted grants with a single, universal, simplified program that costs far less to administer.

To those of a more futurist and progressive slant like myself, the basic universal income is an answer to the problems of globalization, mechanization, deskilling and flattening of the labor force. While there have certainly been myriad political decisions made to further the interests of the very wealthy over those of the middle class, there has also been a “natural” workforce shift in which a large number of jobs that used to be done by humans are either done by machine, or have simply become redundant with the advent on online business models, or have been replaced with much cheaper labor abroad.

Part of this is natural technological churn that has been with us since the industrial revolution. But the advent of both the Internet and smart machines combined with the rapid pace of globalization make the current mechanization phenomenon different from those that have come before. A huge number of manufacturing jobs are already gone as we already know. Service jobs are following on their heels both due to online business models and mechanized replacement: self-driving cars will put cabbies, truck drivers and the entire auto sales industry out of business; chain restaurants are already taking orders using tablets; etc.

Soon enough the white collar jobs will follow as big data analysis sees everyone from stock analysts to diagnosticians replaced with programs that can do their jobs better than any human.

There just aren’t going to be enough jobs to go around. That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough productive work to be done, whether it be in rebuilding America’s infrastructure, implementing an Apollo program for green energy and conservation, or just giving people the freedom to be creative, build businesses, and follow their dreams without fear of ruin. But the old model of capital ownership grudgingly needing human labor at a decent price in order to take surplus value and profit off of that labor isn’t going to work anymore for the majority of people.

Those who hope to preserve some semblance of freedom and social order, be they liberal or conservative, should be able to see the handwriting on the wall and support a basic universal income.

July 26, 2014 6:11 AM Garden Party

Speaking of George W. Bush, Al Gore, and political conventions of yore, today is the tenth anniversary of the commencement of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, held at the TD Garden (then known as the FleetCenter) in Boston, Massachusetts. On the first night of the convention, 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore delivered a tremendous speech:

Nothing against John Kerry, but looking back, one wishes that Gore had pursued a rematch with George W. Bush, despite the understandable concern about possibly being ripped off a second time. As Gore himself noted that night:

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July 26, 2014 5:09 AM American Hustle

Whatever you are selling, Sen. Rand Paul, I’m not buying—and I hope that no one of sound mind, regardless of color, buys it either.

It is profoundly irresponsible on the part of the New York Times and the Washington Post to treat Paul’s manifestly phony efforts to promote himself as the new Jack Kemp as anything but shameless political posturing. Paul—who made clear his loathing for civil rights when he ran for the US Senate four years ago—is trying to wear a mask of tolerance these days, but it’s a gimmick, just as George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was.

Obviously, Sen. Paul’s not really trying to attract blacks—not when his party is trying to stop blacks (and other Democratic-leaning constituencies) from voting, as Brad Friedman has noted for the last decade. So what’s the real angle here?

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July 25, 2014 5:30 PM Day’s End and Weekend Watch

Soon as I bragged about the temperate weather in Georgia this week, I got caught in a torrential downpour and then the thermometer hit over 90. Figures.

Here are some remains of the day:

* More bad polling news for Sam Brownback.

* At House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL) mistakes two high-ranking Obama administration officials for representatives of India, repeatedly asking them about “your country.” Glad this dude got a spot on Foreign Affairs.

* Israeli cabinet rejects Kerry cease-fire proposal, but announces unilateral 12-hour truce.

* At Ten Miles Square, James Wimberly marvels at the “principled folly of American libertarians” in their resistance to Obamacare.

* At College Guide, Daniel Luzer takes a dim view of the idea that Ivy League schools cause the moral pathologies evident all over American society.

And in non-political news:

* Fungus spread by Asian beetles killing trees across Everglades. Aren’t the Burmese Pythons enough?

That’s it for Friday. David Atkins and D.R. Tucker will be in the house tomorrow for Weekend Blogging. Let’s close with one more Big Mama Thornton tune, this time showing her harmonica chops, performing “Rock Me” in 1971.


July 25, 2014 4:51 PM The Changing Nature of What’s Usual and Reasonable

My colleague Martin Longman has an elegant and persuasive essay at Ten Miles Square today that’s one of the better rejoinders I’ve ever read to the secular religion of constitutional originalism. He notes that by using relative terms like “unusual” and “unreasonable” in the Bill of Rights, the Founders assumed changing circumstances would change the interpretation of even the most highly valued constitutional ideas. And to assume otherwise is just ridiculous:

What would James Madison think was a reasonable search in this day and age? What would he make of a microprocessor in a telephone? What would Thomas Jefferson think about women voting? What would Samuel Chase or Benjamin Rush think about the abolition of slavery? Would John Jay agree that people have an inherent right to privacy that extends beyond searches of their persons and properties? What would Benjamin Franklin make of the pill and IUD’s?
The modern world would blow all of their minds and they would probably struggle to make sense of it. Computers, airplanes, satellites, space travel, modern hospitals, cars, nuclear weapons.
My point is that you can’t decide what is unusual and unreasonable based on what the Founding Fathers thought to be so. The death penalty used to be used in every country, now only a few rogue nations and the USA still subscribe to this barbarism. It’s certainly unusual if you think globally.
Likewise, in a day and age where airplanes can be converted into missiles and suitcases can contain radioactive bombs, what constitutes a reasonable search is different from when we rode horses and fired muskets.
There’s merit in trying to ascertain what the Founders intended the Constitution to mean, but that doesn’t mean that our understanding has to be the same. George Washington wanted a well-regulated militia but he couldn’t imagine a teenager gunning down two classrooms of first graders in less than five minutes. I think if Washington took a guided tour of the Pentagon and the Situation Room, his concern about having a well-regulated militia would go out the door. If he saw what happens on a regular basis in our schools, malls, and workplaces with gun violence, I think he’d be appalled. In his day mass shootings weren’t just unusual, they were impossible. I don’t think he’d believe that the NRA was being reasonable at all.

In the end, the Founders gave us a constitutional system designed to be open to revision by multiple means. Selectively enshrining their thoughts in order to resist economic or cultural change is alien to the whole spirit of their enterprise, and a wild misunderstanding of their wisdom, which actually lay in their understanding of its limits.

July 25, 2014 4:17 PM “The Left” is the New Center-Left

Doug Sosnik, a very smart cookie, has a somewhat meandering piece up at Poltiico Magazine today with the rather lurid title: “Blue Crush: How the left took over the Democratic Party.” It mostly focuses on the rather well-established ideological realignment of the two major parties, but then suggests that the leftward movement of the party could cause problems if an HRC candidacy doesn’t fortuitously arrive to paper over ideological hot-buttons in 2016. Here’s what I found most puzzling in Sosnik’s analysis:

These progressive forces are coalescing around a populist-inspired desire to combat income inequality and rein in large financial institutions, as well as an interest in focusing on priorities at home rather than abroad. It’s difficult, in this environment, to imagine a viable Democratic presidential candidate who isn’t willing to take clear positions on issues like increasing the minimum wage, securing comprehensive immigration reform, supporting women’s health and their reproductive rights, addressing climate change and eliminating or at least curtailing fracking.

If you look at the list of issues at the bottom of that graph, it’s pretty much the agenda Democratic presidential candidates have agreed upon since 2004 (with the exception of fracking, which hadn’t yet emerged). If it’s the agenda of the “Left,” it’s a “Left” with no big differences of opinion with the “Center-Left,” particularly if you add in the commitment to expanding health coverage reflected in the Affordable Care Act, which has been almost universally defended by Democratic politicians and activists alike. As for the idea of “focusing on priorities at home rather than abroad, I seem to recall John Kerry in 2004 talking a lot about George W. Bush “opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in the United States.” There’s nothing in what Sosnik predicts as the demands of “the Left” that would be new or troubling to any kind of Democrats, aside from the energy-producing-state Dems who oppose action on climate change.

He does, however, point to a fundamental problem Democrats will face for the immediate future: the inherent difficultly of favoring an activist federal government at a time when anti-government sentiment is beginning to transcend all the old party and ideological divisions. Yes, you can get some mileage from some elements of the population by deflecting attention from hatred of government to hatred of corporations or Wall Street, and even coopting some anti-government attitudes by going after corporate-tainted public policies and practices. But in the end, unless we’re all going to become “liberaltarians,” progressivism is and will remain primarily committed to the active deployment of public agencies to promote the public welfare. So just as they did in the 1990s when hatred of government appeared to be at similar levels, showing that government can work is essential. But that means overcoming the obstruction of both the Right and of entrenched interests. And therein is the challenge.

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