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October 17, 2014 9:22 AM Rick Scott and Fangate: The Limits of Ignorance

By Mark Kleiman

[See update below]

Apparently the rules of the Florida gubernatorial debate forbade the contestants from using electronic equipment.  Rick Scott refused to participate (until his handlers told him how silly he looked) because Charlie Crist brought a fan on to the stage.

Yes, I know that there’s no legal minimum IQ required to become the governor of a state. But really, is it too much to expect the the former CEO of a big health-care company to know the difference between “electronic” and “electrical”?

Update Well … not perzackly. A reader points out that the debate rules banned “electronic devices (including fans).” Now, I still insist that passage is nonsensical, since a fan is an electrical device, as opposed to an electronic device such as a cell phone. I suppose there might be some sort of fan with semiconductor controls that was, to that extent, electronic – in which case the rules would bar such electronic fans, as opposed to normal fans,  but an ordinary air-moving machine with an electric motor is not, by any normal definition, an “electronic device.” So to me, the phrase is about equivalent to “birds (including bats)” or, in Lincoln’s example, “legs (including tails).”  To make sense, the phrase would have had to read “electronic devices or fans.”

Apparently Crist’s penchant for cooling himself was well-known.  And apparently his handlers didn’t agree to the conditions as suggested by the organizers, but added to the signature page *with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”

My understanding of the law is that when one party modifies a contract before signing it, the other party has the choice of accepting the contract as amended or refusing it. So it can’t, I think, properly be said that Crist broke the rules he had agreed to. Clearly, the organizers were remiss in not bringing the amendment to the attention of Rick Scott, which left Scott’s handlers believing that Crist was breaking a rule.

It was, still, I submit, unbelievably foolish to try to use that as an excuse to duck the debate, and it’s remarkable that it took the Scott corner six long minutes to figure out they couldn’t get away with it. But the original post wasn’t right to suggest that Scott doesn’t know that a fan isn’t a cell phone. After all, what are the odds that someone who cheated the federal taxpayers out of most of a billion dollars and never went to jail for it is actually that stupid?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 16, 2014 2:36 PM An Interview With the Repo Man

By Megan McArdle

Writer Jake Halpern, whose work has appeared in most of my favorite magazines, has written a terrific new book called “Bad Paper,” in which he dives into the seamy, gray-market world of the people who collect old debt. I sat down with him for an instant-messaging interview yesterday. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Megan McArdle: Normally I’d ask why you wrote this particular book, but in this case, it seems obvious: It’s completely fascinating. So I’ll ask instead: How did you get started?

Jake Halpern: My mom was getting hounded by a debt collector for a bill that she did not owe. She eventually paid it just to get him to stop harassing her.

I started investigating and found out that much debt-collection activities were in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I ended up writing a profile on a Buffalo-based debt collector who bought and sold and collected on debt for pennies on the dollar; that story ran in the New Yorker.

That New Yorker story got optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company. So I went back to Buffalo with the screenwriter.

No one wanted to talk to a journalist back when I was doing the New Yorker piece, but now that I was with Brad Pitt, everyone talked. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, New York.

MM: Share your favorite moment from your reporting. What was the most interesting/amazing/crazy thing you learned or saw?

JH: There were a few moments. One was when I first had dinner with Aaron (Siegel) and Brandon (Wilson) at the Buffalo Club. The one guy is telling me how he used to run banks, and the other guy is telling me how they used to rob banks, and now they are happily in business together. It was like the best odd couple of all time. Aaron is wearing a $2,000 suit and talking about his ski trip to Tahoe, and Brandon is pulling up his shirt showing me where he got stabbed and talking about prison, and the two of them are happily toasting glasses. It felt like a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Another favorite moment is when I go to this mosque in the east side of Buffalo and meet the machete-carrying Muslim polygamist debt collector Shafeeq. He was awesome. He is the one who told me that by having multiple families in the inner city of Buffalo, he was role modeling on an exponential level, he was “Xeroxing righteousness.”

MM: You would think it would be hard to get people in this gray market to talk to you, but they seem to have spoken quite freely. Are they proud of what they do?

JH: On this note I think I owe a great deal of thanks to Brad Pitt. Throughout the time that I was writing this book, Brad Pitt’s production company was trying to develop an HBO television series based on the material. In the end, the television show seems to have stalled, but in the meantime I was able to talk to all of these characters. So many of these guys were enamored with the TV show “The Wire.”

I think that Brandon (the former armed robber) is proud. I think that for him, collections was redemption for him. It gave him a new life.

MM: Yeah, there is something about the idea of yourself on television that seems to captivate even the most ordinarily reticent folks.

JH: I told them that this was a nonfiction book, but I think the prospect of the TV show at least got them talking, and once they started talking, they just kept on going. I actually got very close with almost all of the subjects in the book.

MM: They seem likable as you write them, even though it’s not a very likable industry. Sort of Runyonesque, with less hepcat jargon.

JH: Yes, I tried to depict everyone as the complicated beings that they are — flawed, heroic, detestable, endearing, all at once. That is, I suppose, what it means to human. I wanted to avoid cardboard cutouts of good and evil.

MM: That’s hard to do well, which you do: to show them as people, without glossing over the fact that they’re mostly doing something not very nice. Did it make you uncomfortable, to be around folks who are dunning the desperate for debts of dubious provenance?

JH: Yes, it did, but I tried to write the entire book in a way that I did not pass judgments and I didn’t let my own biases and my own opinions cloud the way I portrayed these guys. I also resisted any temptations to sanitize them. After he read the book, Brandon called me up and said, “You told it like it is. It’s not all pretty, but it’s fair, you showed me warts and all. You done me right.” I appreciated that so much.

MM: That’s one of the nicest compliments a writer ever gets, I think.

JH; It’s true. Because you don’t want someone calling up and saying, “I loved every single word that you wrote, it was all fantastic.” Because that probably means you have succumbed to flattery and have rendered them in a way that they are entirely happy with. I think what you want is for them to have some misgivings about what you wrote but in the end feel that it was all fair.

MM: Did you come to see any virtue in what they’re doing? Is there an upside to the existence of this industry?

JH: Any virtue? Hard to say …

Most of the people they were calling were quite poor and had limited means to repay what they owed. It was hard to feel good about collecting from such people. It was the downtrodden versus the downtrodden in many ways. I understand that in order for the system of credit to work, you need to repay your bills. That is fair and right. The problem so many people are broke.

You may have seen this, but according to a recent Federal Reserve survey, only 48 percent of respondents would be able to cover an emergency expense of $400 without having to sell something or borrow. About 43 percent said they wouldn’t be able to afford a major medical expense out of pocket.

MM: Yes, America likes to live close to the edge, financially.

My sense from talking to people who have done collections calls is that many of the people are lying to you, and also that you sort of have to pretend that they’re not really people to be any good at the job. You see this a lot in people who provide financial services to the marginal — tote-the-note car lots, payday lenders. Normal people would give everyone a break, and then they’d lose all their money and get out of the business, which wouldn’t necessarily make the poor worse off. So you end up with people who act pretty callous, because they’re the only ones who can stand it.

JH: Yes. I tried my hand at collecting and I called people who I felt certain was the right person and they ducked out of it. I understood why they did that, but I also saw how it could be so frustrating to be a collector and how you could get very cynical.

MM: Can you talk about the industry a bit? What happens to, say, a bad dentist’s bill that turns into an entry on a spreadsheet that gets sold for pennies on the dollar?

JH: Right. Well, when an account goes unpaid for 180 days, typically the original creditor can no longer deem that as an asset because, at that point, it is no longer reasonable to expect that it will be repaid. At that point, many creditors sell these debts off for pennies on the dollar. What they sell off are just spreadsheets …

There is little in the way of additional data … the absence of such documentation is striking. In 2013, an FTC study found that six of the nation’s largest debt buyers typically receive very few documents at the time of purchase. When purchasing debts, the FTC noted, these buyers received the “account statements” — that is, the actual monthly bills where charges appear, with dates, on an item-by-item basis — for just 6 percent of the accounts that they purchased. And the debt buyers received copies of the original account applications — the documents proving that consumers opened the account and agreed to the terms — for less than 1 percent of the accounts that they purchased. What’s more, debt buyers often did not receive a breakdown of what debtors owed in principal, interest and fees.

Anyway, so what they sell is spreadsheets. A debt buyer buys one such spreadsheet, collects what he can, and then sells the uncollected accounts to the next debt buyers, again and again, until the debt works its way all the way down the food chain. At the bottom of the food chain, you often have the shops that are using the most hard-hitting and illegal tactics. This is especially true in payday loans, but it is true in credit card as well. And because there is no supporting data, there is no way to verify the amount of the debts, as Brandon told me recently: “There is no way for us, who buy the debts, to confirm for certain whether the amounts owed are accurate.”

The consumer has the right to ask for more information and to verify and validate the debt, but that information is often just not available. Sometimes the banks don’t even have that info. I called Chase about the documentation for one debt linked to the package, and their PR people couldn’t find the original records and thus just had to dismiss it as fraud.

MM: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered writing this book?

JH: I was amazed at the notion that a banker and a former armed robber might go into business together, become loyal partners and friends. These were my two main characters. Aaron Siegel was the banker and Brandon Wilson was the former armed robber. When I expressed my surprise to Aaron, he told me: “I have a lot of trepidation about Brandon, but he will always pay you, unlike Wall Street types who may have a suit and talk nicer but will hire a lawyer so they don’t have to pay you.” And here is the thing: Their relationship wasn’t actually as unlikely as it may seem at first glance. In the world of debt collections, the marketplace is fraught with peril. Aaron repeatedly got burned by con men who sold him “bad paper” — debt that, for one reason or another, proved uncollectible. The industry was filled with hucksters and charlatans. And he learned, the hard way, that he couldn’t rely on the authorities — or even the courts — to protect him. That’s why he needed someone like Brandon who — in Brandon’s words — could keep the “sharks” at bay.

MM: What opinions did you change as a result of your reporting?

JH: I never expected that I would like, or feel any sympathy for, a debt collector. In my mind, I saw them as ruff, gruff, fairly ruthless repo men. That changed as I reported the book. In particular, I was moved by the story of Jimmy, a former cocaine dealer who — after going to prison — tries to reinvent himself as a legitimate business man, but the only business that he could get into was debt collection. And his business was doing very badly when I met him. In fact, I was sitting with him one night, in the parking lot outside his office, when he realized that he didn’t have enough money in his bank account to make payroll. Not just that, he didn’t have enough money to take his kids to see ‘Shrek.’ He literally broke down and started to sob. “They deserve to go see ‘Shrek’ tomorrow, man,” he told me. “My son has got the highest average in the fourth grade. I got good kids, man.” At that moment, my heart kind of broke for him. I really saw him as a person.

MM: What do Americans need to know about debt collection that they don’t?

JH: The person who calls your house and demands that you pay your debt is not necessarily to be taken entirely at his word. The amount of the debt might be wrong, his company might not legitimately own that debt, or the debt may be so old that it is no longer legally enforceable. Consumers should be very careful and circumspect before they open their wallets.

MM: Are there policies we need to change about debt collection?

JH: Yeah, there are several things that need to change. First, banks and other original creditors need to start providing detailed documentation — like monthly statements and original signed contracts — so that BOTH collectors and debtors have accurate, reliable information about what is owed. Second, judges need to be very careful not simply rubber-stamp default judgments against debtors for debts that are suspect and that lack proper documentation. Third, we need a system in place to keep track of who owns what debt. Can you imagine a world where cars — for example — were bought and sold and there were no VIN numbers, no reliable chains of title and no DMVs to keep track of everything? It would be INSANE. But that is, to a great extent, the way the buying and selling of consumer debt operates in the U.S. Finally, I would boost the budget of the CFPB. Here is some context: The CFPB’s budget is equivalent to just 2 percent of what JPMorgan Chase set aside in reserves for its litigation expenses in 2013.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 16, 2014 8:50 AM Cheap Power is Progressive

By Mark Kleiman

According to a statistic I just made up, 97.3% of all technical “breakthroughs” trumpeted in press releases turn out to be either wrong or minor. Moreover, it’s well known that fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be. When I was ten years old, economically relevant fusion power was thirty years away, and that number hasn’t changed in the half-century since.

Still, the folks at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works aren’t very likely to be either fools or hoaxers, so when they say they’ve figured out how to make magnetic-confinement fusion practical and that they think they can have a prototype in five years and a production model in a decade, that’s worth paying attention to.

The gimmick, if it works, would have all the features that have made fusion such a dream: no greenhouse-gas emissions, no meltdown risk, no waste-disposal problem, no weapons-proliferation issue, and effectively unlimited fuel supply. Even better, they’re talking about 100-megawatt reactor that fits on a flatbed truck, not a 1000-megawatt behemoth like the current generation of fission reactors. That would make producing the devices a manufacturing problem rather than a construction project. (Even more so if you could retrofit a power plant now running on coal by simply substituting half a dozen of the new gadgets.)  With luck, this could put a big hole in fossil-fuel production and the environmental and political disasters it creates.

Of course the Lockheed Martin folks could turn out to be wrong about the physics (though that doesn’t seem especially likely), or (much more plausibly) one of the ancillary problems such as materials development could turn out to be insoluble or too expensive to be economically practical.

But the only reasonable reaction to this from someone not invested in Exxon or Koch Energy or Putinism is a (somewhat hesitant, because the idea is still more likely to fizzle than to work) “Yippeeeeee!!!!”

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will. Since there’s no way a patent-holder could possibly internalize the social gain from making this work, the case for public funding is overwhelming. The social value of the discovery, if it can be perfected, couldn’t possibly be less than $10 trillion,  so spending $10B or so on even a 1% chance of success is an obviously positive-expected-value gamble.

Of course, if we have to triple energy prices in order to prevent a global-warming disaster – which might well prove to be the case – we should accept that, and the economic disruptions that would result, rather than accepting a 3-degree-Celsius rise in average surface temperature and the catastrophes that would result from that. But I’d rather not, thanks.

If cheap energy gets to be real again, that will be a tremendous boon to the planet, and especially to its poorest inhabitants. And if as a result we have to stop saying that 40,000-square-foot mansions are environmentally unsustainable, and have to go back to saying that they’re grotesque and vulgar, is that really such a steep price to pay?

A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 15, 2014 3:38 PM Why the Right Loves Ben Carson

By Francis Wilkinson

Phil Mattingly has an excellent profile of retired surgeon Ben Carson on Bloomberg Politics today. Carson’s overt forays into Republican presidential politics are compelling for several reasons, not least that he’s another in a string of utterly implausible candidates who generate great enthusiasm among the Republican base. Carson leads Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register Iowa poll.

What exactly does the right find so appealing about Carson?

The familiar tropes are evident, including reluctant patriotism (running for high political office is “about the last thing I ever wanted to do,” Carson told Mattingly) and a double-barreled shot of crazy (“People hate each other and I am not 100% sure that it’s not planned,” he explained).

“One Nation” is the title of Carson’s autobiography. In case that’s too subtle a signal of political ambition, the subhead forges ahead: “What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.”

No doubt, some Americans can best save the future by running for president. Carson casts himself not only as a brave truth teller but as a wise man above the partisan fray. “I refuse to engage in the grade-school-yard tactics of name-calling and mean-spirited comments when we have so many important issues to solve,” he wrote.

Of course, it can be tough to maintain such high-minded equanimity in the face of “secular progressives” who have no regard for fundamental principles such as freedom of speech and “distort words and meanings, and then cling to the created lies in an attempt to destroy enemies.” (Not that anybody is calling anybody names.)

Should Carson run for president, his candidacy promises to be a (traditional) marriage of Michele Bachmann’s personal loopiness and Herman Cain’s professional ignorance of public policy. In his book, Carson called the Affordable Care Act “the biggest governmental program in the history of the United States.” (So much for Social Security, Medicare, the Pentagon.) And if he can’t be bothered to learn much about government, he has an all-purpose rationale: “I would choose common sense over knowledge in almost every circumstance,” he wrote. It’s just too much to ask for both.

Carson, who is poised to be 2016’s premier novelty act, is already following the script from Cain’s 2012 Republican presidential run. He is a successful black man who tells conservative white audiences that there are no meaningful structural impediments to success: There are only character failings. That should be enough to keep him on the stage, at least until the Iowa caucuses.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 15, 2014 10:53 AM Gobrey, Smith, Hume

By Henry Farrell

I wanted to note this disagreement between P.E. Gobry and Noah Smith because it allows me to pull out my favorite underappreciated David Hume quote.

Gobry:

Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different. … Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers.

Smith:

One way of systematically understanding the world is just to watch it and write down what happens. “Today I saw this bird eat this fish.” “This year the harvest was destroyed by frost.” “The Mongols conquered the Sung Dynasty.” And so on. All you really need for this is the ability to write things down. This may sound like a weak, inadequate way of understanding the world, but actually it’s incredibly important and powerful, since it allows you to establish precedents. … A second way of systematically understanding the world is repeated observation. This is where you try to make a large number of observations that are in some way similar or the same, and then use statistics to identify relationships between them. … The first big limitation of empirics is omitted variable bias. You can never be sure you haven’t left out something important. The second is the fact that you’re always measuring correlation, but without a natural experiment, you can’t isolate causation. Still, correlation is an incredibly powerful and important thing to know. … Experiments are just like empirics, except you try to control the observational environment in order to eliminate omitted variables and isolate causality. You don’t always succeed, of course. And even when you do succeed, you may lose external validity – in other words, your experiment might find a causal mechanism that always works in the lab, but is just not that important in the real world.

Hume:

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

October 14, 2014 9:22 PM Voter ID Math Finally Adds Up for Judge Posner

By Noah Feldman

Liberal observers are astonished and thrilled that Judge Richard Posner, the most influential judge sitting on the federal bench, has written a scathing condemnation of Wisconsin voter ID laws. Posner was appointed by Ronald Reagan, and his law-and-economics approach with its libertarian overtones can in a certain sense be described as conservative. Notably, Posner wrote a 2007 opinion upholding Indiana’s strict voter ID law — an opinion subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court. Now, it would seem from the headlines, Posner has reversed himself. Newsworthy, right?

Well, sort of. A close reading of Posner’s opinion indicates that the judge hasn’t so much reversed his earlier view as he has taken seriously data that were unavailable in 2007. The numbers, as Posner now interprets them, do strongly suggest that the purpose of voter ID laws is to make it more difficult for poor people, especially blacks and Latinos, to cast votes. According to Posner, he wasn’t wrong in 2007. It’s just that then, there was no basis to assume that Indiana was trying to exclude minority voters. Now, there’s evidence in favor of that view.

A careful look at Posner’s opinion is an object lesson in how a rational person should reconsider initial presumptions in light of new evidence — an approach pioneered by the British statistician Thomas Bayes in the 18th century and now dubbed Bayesianism. When Posner had to analyze the Indiana statute, he made much of the fact that, as he now puts it, “there was no evidence that the Indiana law was likely to disenfranchise more than a handful of voters.”

One of Posner’s then-colleagues, Bill Clinton-appointee Terence T. Evans, depicted the Indiana voter ID law as “a not too thinly veiled attempt to discourage election day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.” But, as Posner pointed out in his most recent opinion, Evans “cited no evidence to support his conjecture.” In Posner’s current view, Evans was “prescient” — but prescience is a form of prophecy, not a form of reasoning based on evidence. Posner believes that he was correct not to take account of his colleague’s speculations in 2007.

Since then, the nature of the evidence has changed. According to Posner, in the 2007 case, 1 percent of Indiana’s population lacked the relevant ID. Yet 9 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin lacked the documents required by its state law. Posner went on to describe the extraordinary “litany of practical obstacles” a person would have to overcome in order to vote without a driver’s license in Wisconsin. He added that although Indiana’s voter rolls were inflated by as many as 1.3 million people, “there is compelling evidence that voter-impersonation fraud is essentially nonexistent in Wisconsin.” Posner was apparently impressed by an expert witness who had “studied Wisconsin elections that took place in 2004, 2008, 2010, and 2012 [and] found zero instances of in-person voter-impersonation fraud.”

Then Posner moved on to the macro-level data. He noted that “all the strict photo ID states are politically conservative, at least at the state level.” The pattern might have been intuited in 2007, but it was not yet systematically established. Posner was dismissive of what he used scare quotes to call the “evidence” of voter impersonation fraud. In terms rarely used by appellate judges, he called the fake evidence, “downright goofy, if not paranoid.”

Finally, Posner, who is noted as a theorist not an empiricist, offered his own take on why voter-impersonation fraud should be very unlikely. His reasoning was characteristically blunt: Individual voters get almost nothing out of casting their votes. He wrote: “Voting is a low-reward activity for any given individual, for he or she knows that elections are not decided by one vote.”

Why waste the time and take the risk of getting in trouble if you’re only getting one vote at a time for your preferred candidate? What’s more, Posner added, it would be too risky for most politicians to orchestrate “a massive campaign of voter-impersonation fraud.” They would probably get caught, and the punishment would be severe. Strictly speaking, this theorizing went beyond the evidence, and Posner could have relied on it in 2007. But nobody’s perfect. Most likely, Posner just couldn’t resist overlaying some theory on the evidence he gathered.

The main takeaway is that Posner has now allowed evidence of discriminatory effects to overcome his initial belief that the state of Indiana should not be assumed to discriminate. Does this logical progression merit praise?

By Posner’s own lights, it shouldn’t. He is, and has always been, a staunch advocate of following the facts where they lead. By temperament and philosophy, the judge has always been a kind of pure embodiment of abstract reason, seemingly untouched by ordinary humans’ sympathies or passions. His most egregious views — to be fair, mostly expressed in lectures and books rather than judicial opinions — have always shocked precisely because of their apparent unfamiliarity with human emotion. (Think of his notorious, and morally outrageous, economic analysis of rape.)

So if we asked Posner whether he deserved special approbation for relying on newly available evidence, he would certainly say no. A Bayesian judge updates information constantly, Posner would say. Don’t give him a medal for it.

Yet in this time of partisanship, perhaps we can be excused for praising a man who lets the data do the talking. But let’s be careful not to do so only when we like his judgments.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 14, 2014 6:20 AM Surprise! Political Reporters Are Shallow

By Jonathan Bernstein

A catch to Kevin Drum for his analysis of why the national media clobbered Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is challenging Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, for ducking a question about whether she voted for President Barack Obama. Why is the “neutral” news media going easier on some Republican Senate candidates who have ducked questions on far more substantive issues? Drum asked.

It isn’t an issue of political bias or about reporters’ interest in supporting their predictions of a Republican landslide. Instead, Drum said, it’s all about “process over substance” — “reporters feel free to go after that.” Contrast the coverage of Grimes’s clumsy handling of that gotcha question with how reporters have covered the “crafty” (Drum’s word) approaches taken by Joni Ernst of Iowa on environmental and health-care policy and by Cory Gardner of Colorado for his views on abortion and contraception:

That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don’t want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy — or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate’s policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.

Had Grimes merely parroted well-rehearsed nonsense about voting for Obama but whatever and such-and-such, she might have been praised, not ridiculed.

Maybe this isn’t so much about the self-interest of reporters (although that is certainly part of it), but their self-absorption. If you spend most of your time watching how politicians interact with the media, then it’s easy to inflate the importance of that comparatively small part of the job of an elected official or even a candidate. Relations with the reporter and his or her colleagues become a stand-in for everything else.

In any case, looking at media norms — as opposed to ideological bias — as an explanation for media behavior is the correct analysis here. Republican whining notwithstanding, we know one thing pretty well: The biases of the “neutral” news media are products of how they go about doing their jobs, not of partisanship or personal policy preferences.

Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 14, 2014 5:56 AM More Tinpot Dictators in Schools

By Michael O'Hare

Some educators think the point of school is to get students to do their own thinking.   Others, not so much: the little Caesars in Bucks County seem to think their school is about sports and (for example) the school newspaper is there to gin up pep rallies so the high school players can do their job, which is to amuse ignorant white grownups.

Seriously, how messed up is this: students learn journalism by having their copy dictated by racist administrators?  Who obviously haven’t read a newspaper in twenty years?

More generally, there seem to be no limits to the degree that sports, especially football, can corrupt a community and degrade its culture (can you say Steubenville?) if the grownups go infantile; the good people of Sayreville seem to be more upset about missing a season of football than an epidemic of sexual assault (though in that case the school leadership is on the ball).

School team nicknames have many strange conventions, especially the taste for war and predation. A game isn’t a war, or a fight!  I always liked MIT’s choice of a beaver (your cougars or whatever may occasionally have a beaver for lunch, but they will end up working for them after graduation).  More mysterious to me is all the Trojans; why would you name your teams after history’s most famous losers?

Florida State (and Tallahassee) have plenty to work on about football and bad behavior by players. But the school took care to get the Seminole Nation to OK their team name.  I think that’s OK, especially as the Seminole are local to the institution, and Seminole is not a derogatory word.  As to Neshaminny, while the logo itself doesn’t have the particularly vile quality of the Cleveland pro baseball team’s, the idea that it has some aroma of local pride only demonstrates that the district’s curriculum doesn’t have much of a unit on Native Americans. He’s wearing the headdress of people who live a thousand miles away, a ludicrous inconvenience for eastern forest people trying to get around in trees and brush.

Oh well, seen one Indian, seen ‘em all, and there’s a game Friday night.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 13, 2014 2:52 PM Democrats Aren’t Deniers on Polls

By Jonathan Bernstein

No, Democrats aren’t venturing into the kind of polling denialism that turned “unskewed” Republicans into a joke two years ago. That, you remember, led Karl Rove and other party strategists to dismiss unfavorable opinion surveys as politically biased against them.

The Hill’s Niall Stanage tried to make the case this morning that 2014 Democrats are in danger of heading off the same cliff that Rove did when he famously refused to accept the forecasts on Election Night 2012 — results reported by the Fox News desk, no less. I don’t think Stanage has the goods, though.

It’s one thing for politicians who are losing to urge their supporters to ignore the polls; after all, we can’t expect them to just give up. And there’s no “unskewing” in saying, as Stanage reports Bill Clinton as saying, that polls showing Democrats losing could be wrong if more young people vote than pollsters expect. There’s a difference, that is, between claiming that pollsters are wrong about the composition of the likely electorate, on the one hand, and urging voters and activists to change that electorate, on the other. The former is usually wishful thinking; the latter is a call to action — which is always reasonable, whether or not it turns out to be effective.

That said, there is nothing wrong with thinking about the reasons that polling might be off. Just remember that it might be off in either direction.

It’s important to understand what the polls (and Election Night forecasters) are actually saying. As of today, five of the six forecast models give the Republicans a 57 percent to 66 percent chance of winning at least 51 seats in the Senate. If those are correct, only the Washington Post model (at 94 percent) has strong confidence about the outcome. If Nate Silver’s model (with a 58 percent chance) is correct, then Democratic chances of retaining 50 seats and, with Joe Biden’s tie-breaker vote, hanging on to the Senate are quite good.

Why is that? Think about a penny weighted so that it should come up heads 60 percent of the time. Over millions of throws, that’s what will happen. But if you only flip it 10 times, it won’t be a big surprise if, say, six of those tosses are tails or if eight are heads. We only get one toss - there’s only one election - so unless the odds are closer to that Monkey Cage 94 percent, then neither side has a reason to consider Republicans anywhere close to a lock. So emphasizing uncertainty in the polls isn’t denialism at all; it’s exactly what Nate Silver and most other forecasters are saying.

Mainly, however, the goal of any party down in the polls should be to win voters, not to win arguments over the polls. I don’t think Democrats are focused on the latter, but if they go down that path, they will find very little reward there, as the Republicans learned in 2012.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 13, 2014 4:45 AM How UKIP Differs From the Tea Party

By Keith Humphreys

Americans who have heard of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) often assume that its members are roughly analogous to those of the U.S. Tea Party, i.e., disaffected conservatives who want the right-most party to move even further right. Some fine political journalism has shown this is not correct, and a remarkable election result this past week underscores the point.

The setting was Heywood and Middleton, a Mancunian constituency in which Labour politicians have literally never lost a parliamentary election. I was acquainted with the late Jim Dobbin, who used to represent this pocket district, and he was with respect neither a scintillating orator nor entirely in step with many of his constituents on some social issues. But still, he was Labour, so like his predecessors he too always won, and by large margins.

Given this context, it is remarkable indeed that Jim’s Labour Party replacement almost lost the by-election to a UKIP candidate. In the 4 years since the last parliamentary election, UKIP increased its vote-share by a stunning 15-fold. If UKIP were truly just a party of disaffected Tories, this simply could not have happened in a Labour stronghold.

This fine political analysis website did some revealing shoeleather reporting and data crunching regarding how UKIP did so well. They posted this photo of a UKIP voting neighborhood (that’s an “estate”, i.e., public housing) and point out that its not exactly the dwelling place of the horse and hound set.

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Now take a moment to consider whether you think UKIP are just a problem for the Conservatives. Because this doesn’t look like a Conservative area to me. And consider that in May of this year UKIP took 42.3% of the vote here…..on these streets. Because at some stage somebody in Labour high command is going to need to explain to me how on earth they find themselves in a position where their bedrock supporters, the believers in ‘good old religion’ as I heard John McTernan call them last week, have simply stopped believing.

The whole analysis is worth reading. It reinforces my sense that the 2015 UK election is “everyone’s to lose”, by which I mean that, give the fracturing of old alliances and perspectives in the UK, there is an excellent chance that regardless of who wins the majority of people who went to the polls are going to feel alienated from the new government from day one.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 12, 2014 11:43 PM Athletics at Berkeley

By Michael O'Hare

In late spring, big-time sports at Berkeley hit bottom on several dimensions, but things may be turning around. In the last few anni horribili,  the Intercollegiate Athletics program saddled the campus with about $400m in debt to rebuild the stadium and construct an accessory building that is about a third conditioning space for athletes, a third party venue for boosters and possibly players, and a third coaching offices.  A scheme to play the spread between tax-exempt bond interest rates and market returns on endowment, plus selling premium seats on long contracts (the ESP program), to retire this debt is in some trouble (ESP sales are steadily declining year by year).  At the same time, we were humiliated by the worst graduation rates in the country (football) and in the conference (men’s basketball) along with on-field performance in those money sports (1-11 in FB, 7th in the conference in MBB) that, let us say, does not sell tickets or open donor wallets.

We sent our athletic director packing (she wound up at Penn State…the world is a strange place in many ways) and the football team is no longer an embarrassment, 4-1 so far even though we did not beat the point spread in last week’s squeaker. More interesting, a task force stood up by the chancellor last winter has come out with a report, focused on “the academic performance of student athletes and the overall quality of their campus experience”,  that he has pretty much accepted.  It has a lot of good stuff in it and deserves a careful read.

It’s worth noting, indeed essential: almost nothing meaningful can be said about “student athletes”, at least at Cal. The graduation rate problem afflicts eight out of 29 teams: FB, MBB, softball, men’s water polo, men’s soccer; and to a lesser degree, women’s track and field, WBB, and baseball; the others have admirable academic records.  From a business perspective, the program has to be thought of as two cash cows (FB and MBB, sports people will pay to watch and are reported to earn almost $13m between them), and all the rest, that lose $20m (IA gets a campus subsidy of about $7.5m).  The linked P/L doesn’t completely smell right to me, for example the “Direct Facilities Cost” cannot be the real operating cost of the stadium and basketball arena, and a lot of administrative and medical money that really belongs to the 100+ football squad seems to be loaded into the Non-Program-Specific overhead  category , but it will do for the nonce. Note, incidentally, that debt service on the stadium/performance center boondoggle more than wipes out the FB/MBB ‘profit’.

In principle, we could keep the two money teams plus about 140 players on women’s teams (to meet federal Title IX constraints) and actually make money.  But the politics of closing down teams is very dicey; when the last chancellor tried it, the sky fell on him, and the annual IA subsidy remains above the target everyone has been promising for years.

The task force has a lot of interesting findings about the challenges athletes on all teams, but especially the money sports, face to keep their scholarships and pass courses. Practice times interfere with labs, travel to meets conflicts with classes, and so a lot of majors (particularly “capped” majors with GPA requirements) are closed to them. Furthermore, many of these sports take a lot of time from homework or study no matter when  scheduled, and one of the requirements of being in shape is to get a lot of sleep. It is simply wrong to say that an athletic scholarship allows these kids “to get a Berkeley education”: in many sports, even those who graduate are getting that in name only.

A lot of these athletes feel disrespected and excluded from college life, according to surveys, and that’s just one more abuse the NCAA system subjects money sports players to. One reason for this is that they are herded together in dorms with other athletes, at least in their first two years, and the task force suggests that this should stop.  Another is that, in our desperation for stars who will pay our sports bills, athletes are regularly admitted with credentials (test scores, GPA) far below the cutoff for all other students.  Personally, I see no problem fudging a standard academic cutoff for people, like artists and, yes, athletes, who bring skills and resources not measured in grades and test-taking.  But a lot of these admits, it turns out, are far beyond a fudge or a reasonable adjustment: in the end, Cal students have to pass Cal courses and tutoring and remedial support can only overcome so much native ability and preparation deficit.

Still another, particularly poignant as regards the black athletes who predominate in the money sports, is  the quintuple whammy: (A) Black kids go, in large part, to neglected and underfunded K-12 schools, full of students with sketchy family and community support. (B) We are forbidden to admit by affirmative action, so that impulse converges on sports.  (C) The academically prepared black kids, athletes or not, are such a small percentage of all black high school seniors that private schools mostly buy them away from us with scholarships. (D) Berkeley is not just any college, but a selective, academically demanding one; we have some ditzes, stoners, and not-all-that-smart coasters, but on the whole, Berkeley courses are hard and our students academically outstanding. (E) Less than 4% of undergraduates are black, less than half the state’s population percentage and way below the percentage, given the segregation of our cities, of most of their home communities. The school’s climate has such a toxic reputation among blacks that 60% of those admitted don’t matriculate.  In FBS schools, the ones whose teams we see on TV, 57% of MBB and 43% of FB players are black; if that applies at Cal (and the team pictures don’t contradict it), it means those two sports comprise almost one in five of the 350 black male undergraduates.

What the task force report doesn’t really engage are the constraints of operating a competitive FBS program in an R1 university.  It is not enough for kids to have fun playing sports and getting good at them; the money (TV eyeballs and seat sales) is in winning and the industry is both professional and ruthless.  Note the headline on this interesting story, in which there is not one word about any good UCLA’s football might be doing for the rest of the university.  In our conference we now have Oregon, for whom Phil Knight will spend whatever championships cost, two very rich private schools, and a UCLA that has set its cap for a championship.  Graduation rates can be fixed in many ways, of which admitting students who can actually do the work is only one, and one that can seriously compromise your W/L. The power of big-money sports to corrupt not only universities but a whole city government, including the police department, should not be underestimated.

I wish the chancellor and his project well, but I do not believe this circle can be squared.  FB and MBB aside, there’s no reason athletes can’t get a real Berkeley education (not just graduate) and excel on the field.  But those are the $port$ that wag the dog and feed it, and the competitive environment will not let us put up numbers like Stanford’s.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 10, 2014 8:31 AM When Political Gaffes Matter

By Jonathan Bernstein

Ed Kilgore has a nice item about the Georgia Senate race:

In the endless argument between political scientists and “traditional” political people about how elections are decided, I’m with the Poli Sci crowd more often than not, and don’t much believe individual “moments” in campaigns usually matter all that much. But there are obviously exceptions; nobody really thinks Todd Akin was done in by “fundamentals” in 2012.

No disagreement from this political scientist.

Here’s the deal: The more information is out there, the less any particular news item will matter. Make sense?

So in presidential general elections, gaffes extremely seldom move voters. That’s even more likely to be the case when an incumbent is on the ballot. After almost four years of Barack Obama in the White House, even low-information voters had plenty to go on in deciding whether they wanted him to be president for another four years. Some events could have changed their view, but a gaffe probably wouldn’t.

Senate campaigns are different, however. For one thing, they don’t generate as much information as presidential elections. And with less other information available, a voter in a Senate contest might give more weight to a gaffe, an event or a bit of opposition research packaged in a TV ad.

For most voters, the single most important information about candidates is party affiliation, and it takes quite a bit for that to be displaced by any other consideration. An unfortunate comment six months before the election, when few voters and even fewer swing voters are paying attention, won’t be enough to change perceptions in most cases. Still, in this highly charged political context, an insipid comment could be repeated widely enough to reach those swing voters and make a significant difference.

Note, however, that gaffes can also work indirectly. That was surely the case with Akin and his comments about “legitimate rape.” Many Republican elites rushed to distance themselves from him, providing a powerful signal that he was a pariah. (That signal was undoubtedly magnified by the media, which feels it can still be objective when turning on a candidate who is being denounced by his own party.) I’m not aware of any study of these effects in the Akin case, but I’m certain that there’s more to the story than just voters hearing what he said and deciding to vote against him.

Senate general elections occupy a middle ground in U.S. politics: even though they aren’t subject to the saturation coverage of presidential elections, there can be sufficient news media coverage and advertising for campaign events to make a fairly large difference.1

The general point is that political scientists don’t think all elections turn primarily on fixed, pre-campaign fundamentals; the political context is everything. Not all elections are alike. A gaffe in an otherwise very close Senate election could matter, though it has a lot more impact if opinion leaders in the errant candidate’s own party denounce him.

1 In House elections and many other downballot contests, campaigns can make a huge difference because in many cases the incumbent has a campaign, and the challenger doesn’t.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 10, 2014 8:28 AM The Only Interesting Thing About Meet the Press

By Keith Humphreys

Kevin Drum’s piece altered me to the fact that Jon Stewart was considered to be the next host of Meet the Press. I googled on “Meet the Press Jon Stewart” and found that Kevin’s was one of a tidal wave of pieces weighing in on this earthshattering revelation. The New York Times, Washington Post and US News and World Report were just a small set of the outlets that analyzed this Cuban Missile Crisis-Level near miss that might have destroyed our country forever. The Stewartgate coverage of course followed a good twelve months of virtually every political journalist in the country writing about how then-MTP host David Gregory was in trouble, and who would replace him, and would this person plunge the nation into peril or redeem its lost greatness (Lest you think that the recent spate of Meet the Press-related coverage was just because of Jon Stewart’s media profile, check out the non-Stewart-related MTP coverage at, to name only a few, New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and FoxNews). God, the suspense of having our species’ future hinging on who — Dear Lord tell us, who? — would take the throne as Meet the Press host and thereby do something apparently quite important.

Or not. Seeing all these articles actually made me throw up a little in my mouth because I cannot take another round of journalists treating anything and everything that happens on MTP as more than remotely newsworthy. There are contests to name the most undercovered stories of the year in journalism. The goings-on at Meet the Press deserve the prize for the most overcovered story for several years running.

In the days when Lawrence Spivak walked the earth, Meet the Press developed an innovative concept in television: Have political journalists talk to each other and to politicians about the political events of the day. Since that time, this format has been copied to the point that one could literally watch such shows 24 hours a day every day if one were that masochistic. By Sunday everything momentous and everything trivial in the week’s politics has been chewed over 100 times already, and seeing the soggy orts remasticated on MTP et al. is the television version of experiencing “harsh interrogation methods”.

And alert to journalists: Almost no one other than you watches Meet the Press anymore. The many stories making a big deal about which of the Sunday morning shows is ranked first are analogous to making a big deal over who has the best batting average in Professional Baseball’s Double AA minor league system. Hit shows in the United States draw 10-20 million viewers per broadcast; you can be first among the not-so-vaunted Sunday morning talk show competition with less than 3 million viewers tuning in, counting all the people who are dozing off in the nursing home’s common room.

The only thing interesting about Meet the Press is that so many smart journalists think it’s interesting to anyone other than journalists. Please folks, find something more important to write about, like the war, the economy or what you did on your summer vacation.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 10, 2014 8:22 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler

By Keith Humphreys

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Following Johann’s recommendation of Manhunter last week, I keep our RBC Halloween month tradition alive by focusing in the coming weeks on horror films. When Jean Kent died late last year, I decided to watch one of her films that I had never seen, and came away happy that I did. In one of her many roles as a naughty British lass, Kent is a chanteuse/madam threatened by a serial killer apparently risen from the grave in this week’s film recommendation: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler).

This 1958 film has a wonderful backstory involving Boris Karloff. Alex and Richard Gordon grew up loving Karloff in the classic Universal horror films made before the war. When the Gordons were young adults, Karloff’s cinema stardom had faded but he was still working on the London stage. The two fanboys approached their idol, and ever the gentlemen, Karloff treated them kindly. When the great man was 70, the Gordons had the chance they had always dreamed of to produce a movie for him.

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The plot is spooky and engaging, mixing elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and even Frankenstein. You can also see the beginnings of a return to sexual explicitness in British cinema here, particularly in the scenes in Kent’s bawdyhouse (the champagne spill scene with pinup model Vera Day has to be seen to be disbelieved). But those elements work well in the story, which concerns a moralistic late-Victorian Era social reformer (Karloff) who believes a strangler of attractive women is still at large in the streets of London. He’s a hothouse flower of a man who faints when he sees abuse of prisoners, is terrified of rats and is extremely ill at ease interacting with a woman of Kent’s sensually confident ilk. Yet he is also unaccountably obsessed with the strangler’s brutal sex crimes.

It’s not a big budget film, but you largely wouldn’t know it. Director Robert Day started his career as a cinematographer and clearly learned how to use shadows, fog and lighting to keep the audience from noticing any economies in set design and art direction. The professionalism of the cast helps a good deal too. There are some actors who can’t seem to do a B-movie without somehow conveying to their fans “wink wink, I’m phoning in my part just so you know I’m above all this”. But such self-indulgence was unheard of in this era of British film and the result is a much better movie.

Kent is clearly at home in her showy part, even though it is unfortunately smaller than it could have been. Karloff is nothing less than brilliant, conveying the admixture of desire and repression, rage and sadness present in his character.

This is not a widely-known film outside of the horror film buff community. But it has captured some important supporters, most notably The Criterion Collection, who have made a pristine print available for you to enjoy.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: Karloff’s physical transformation is even more impressive when you learn that he did it without makeup!

[Cross-posted at Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler]

October 09, 2014 2:40 PM The Triumph of the Democratic Party

By Francis Wilkinson

With the midterm elections weeks away, the Democratic Party’s minority status in the House is virtually assured and its majority status in the Senate is in jeopardy. Democrats are anxious: “Democrats start to point fingers” is the kind of headline that accompanies a skid into the ditch.

But don’t feel sorry for them. Look around. This is a moment of triumph for the party.

The Obama era, which is almost certainly how these days will be known a few decades hence, has seen the most consequential advances in history on two of the Democratic Party’s paramount objectives. The first is the erosion of white male privilege and the consolidation of a multiracial political coalition dedicated to leveling power relations among races and sexes. The second is the quantum leap forward in the quest for health-care access as a right of citizenship.

It has been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson risked his party’s future on civil rights, and Democrats appear to have made it through the most treacherous stage. The nation’s key social evolutions — civil rights, the women’s movement, gay rights, a demographic revolution driven by historic waves of immigration — all bear a Democratic brand. The party has been an agent of the change sought by women and minorities and a mediating force in the conflicts that evolving power relations inevitably engender.

This is a serious achievement in the face of gruesome history, lingering cross-resentments and a sizable, if steadily dwindling, population of whites who (consciously or not) perceive racial privilege as the natural order of heaven and earth.

It’s more than plausible that the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 will pass from a black man to a white woman. That’s not an accident of history; it’s the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bella Abzug, John Lewis, Barbara Mikulski. It’s a linear inheritance from all those inner-city political machines where power migrated in begrudged fits and tense starts from white men to black men and beyond. (And then, in places such as Chicago and New York and Detroit, back to white men — this time, however, as reward, not birthright.) The party responded imperfectly but ultimately successfully to the demands of its constituents and its time.

The expansion of health insurance to millions — and eventually tens of millions — is another towering achievement, this one with party origins rooted in the New Deal. The Affordable Care Act is a complex piece of business, and it will require adjustments over the short and long term. But it continues to defy glib predictions of catastrophe while sheltering more Americans under the umbrella of health insurance. How many Democrats over the past half-century would have traded a future Senate majority (especially one stymied by a Republican House) for a landmark expansion of access to health insurance? Quite a few, I suspect.

Progress on the party’s 20th century agenda highlights Democrats’ struggles to respond to 21st century challenges — especially the erosion of wages and the collateral damage to working class Americans from globalization and technology. But the battle to secure Obamacare, the big missing piece of the welfare state, might carry the party for a couple more years. (Hyperbolic attacks from Republicans helpfully obscure the diminishing stock in the Democrats’ policy larder.) Meanwhile, the Obama presidency has confirmed, in a way that only a nonwhite president could, that at least among Democrats, the exclusive white lock on power is broken.

Democrats may well lose the Senate this year, making Obama’s final two years an even more bitter partisan slog than the past four. The experience will probably be dispiriting for everyone in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike. I’m not sure history will care.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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