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August 26, 2014 10:35 AM Ending the Euro: An Impermissible Discussion?

By Keith Humphreys

The Eurozone remains an economic basket case, creating neither jobs nor economic growth. The Eurocracy is now abuzz with more policy proposals that will allegedly save the common currency. To this outside observer, the most remarkable aspect of each subsequent round of Europanic is how few policy insiders are willing to revisit the fundamental premise that Europe needs this floundering banknote at all.

Economists have noted that from its conception the Euro was deeply flawed. Giancarlo Corsetti argues that the Eurozone does not actually protect against the “original sin” of borrowing in a foreign currency while ability to pay is in a domestic currency. NYT columnist Paul Krugman puts it more sardonically:

the euro was best understood as a plot by Italian technocrats to get themselves German central bankers.

This was not, it turns out, a good idea.

I am not an economist, but my own discipline of psychology would support another fundamental critique of the Eurozone: it falsely assumes that re-arranging the consequences of and responsibilities for financial decisions would not affect subsequent financial decisions by participants (be they individuals, businesses, elected officials or bankers).

Not incidentally, European economies can prosper without the Euro. Eurozone non-members Sweden, The Czech Republic and The United Kingdom currently have employment and growth levels that put the Eurozone to shame.

But if you talk to many Europeans policy elites and chattering class members, to even broach the possibility of ending the Euro is apostasy. Part of this reaction stems from the usual culprits when a big government program is not working: Sunk costs, inertia and insiders not wanting to lose power and face. But if you dig not far below that, you often find intense emotion that comes from the memory of Europe’s traumatic 20th century.

If I put my Euro-devoted friends’ concerns into a few sentences it would go something like this: “Never again must Europe be divided. History teaches us that ever-greater European unity is all that stands between us and the rise of right-wing populist movements and war.” The more candid ones would add “Restraining Germany’s desire to control Europe is critical for peace”.

We should learn from history, including its horrors, but this argument doesn’t hold together. First, far-right populist political parties are doing well across the Eurozone, and the Euro’s economic squeeze is part of the fuel that feeds them. Second, abandoning the Euro would still leave intact the European Union, which ties together its member states in many profound ways that increase interchange, understanding and the prospects of enduring piece. Third, Europe attained over a half century of peace before the Euro was created. Last, in terms of fear of German domination, could anyone in Italy or Spain or Greece give a speech with a straight face arguing that the Euro is lessening German influence in those countries?

I have neither sufficient knowledge nor expertise to be certain that the Euro should be abandoned. But I am quite sure that reflexive, strident refusal to even allow that option to be seriously discussed is a disservice to the continent’s interests.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

August 25, 2014 9:08 AM Why Gun Makers and the NRA are Driving the Militarization of the Police Even More Than the Pentagon

By Peter Mancuso

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have awakened Americans to the alarming degree to which our nation’s police departments have become militarized. As media reports have made clear, much of the combat-grade hardware that even small suburban police forces now possess—the bullet-proof vests, mine-resistant vehicles and so forth—is the result of a deluge of “army surplus” equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan. But this military-to-law-enforcement transfer process tells only a part of the story of how our police became so heavily armed. That larger story begins many years before our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves a tit-for-tat escalation of armaments between criminals, citizens, and police departments that has been egged on by America’s arms manufacturers and gun rights groups. That escalation has led to a breakdown of essential republican understandings among ordinary citizens and government officials alike, and it will continue even if Washington manages to turn off the spigot of surplus weaponry from the Pentagon. As a former Marine combatant, weapons instructor, and career law enforcement official, I am hardly gun-shy, but it’s clear to me that something has gone terribly wrong.

By the early 1980s, there was a growing perception among law enforcement officers and portions of the public that America’s police were being out-gunned in encounters with criminals. This perception was supported by a small but highly publicized number of individual violent incidents along with more mundane everyday policing experiences. Although there were rarely incidents of law enforcement officers being literally outgunned in firearms encounters, routine arrests for illegal gun possessions were increasingly turning up weapons more powerful than those carried by the officers making those arrests. As law enforcement officers, their families, and police unions began naturally voicing their concerns, the call became louder to increase police officers’ “firepower” (a military term). It was argued strenuously then that this would require replacing the highly reliable revolver, which had been carried by most departments for over a half-century, with a rapid fire, more powerful, semi-automatic side arm.

Of course, this call to increase police officer fire power was further exacerbated by the fact that state legislatures failed miserably in the face of the gun lobby to curb the sale of some of the most powerful and lethal firearms that posed threats to police officers across the country in the first place. As this dichotomy, of the availability of more powerful weapons in the face of police officer safety took hold weapons manufacturers finally broke through and hit real pay dirt. The true irony in all of this is that the huge fortunes realized by their marketing more powerful weapons to American law enforcement, was actually the result of them having already made a fortune selling these more powerful weapons, easily acquired by criminals, to the public to begin with.

In some places, gun manufacturers worked feverishly to help get laws passed, mandating the new powerful side arms for law enforcement. This, sometimes, occurred over the objections of law enforcement leaders and elected officials, who had the responsibility of balancing officers’ safety with the safety of the public. One example of this was the enormous public spectacle starting in 1992 involving the union for the nation’s largest police department, the Police Department of The City of New York (NYPD) when it understandably sought to protect its members by overriding the resistance of its mayor, its police commissioner and its top police commanders (including one who would be the next commissioner) by lobbying the New York State Legislature to acquire a new 9-millimeter, higher ammunition capacity, semiautomatic pistol.

The scene at the legislative chambers at the state capitol in Albany according to the New York Times had, “become ferocious” with police union representatives visiting the offices of every state lawmaker waving a copy of a report issued and supplied to them by the gun manufacturer. Although, New York City’s mayor later managed some non-gun related concessions from lawmakers, his Safe Streets Act (which increased the size of the NYPD) the new semiautomatics immediately became the standard sidearm for 30,000+ NYPD officers (and that of all officers subsequently hired) at approximately $500 per weapon. Naturally, powerful semiautomatics are now a staple of American law enforcement and to suggest something less lethal would be pure heresy in law enforcement circles; and understandably unwise without some counter balance to reduce the number of such powerful weapons in the hands of the public.

This was also a time when weapons’ manufacturing was being revolutionized, resulting in new, higher profit margins. Many manufacturers were already marketing these cheaply mass produced weapons to our own, and foreign, militaries as well as to the “police forces” of authoritarian governments around the world. Now, their marketing sights would be firmly fixed on a steady flow of approximately one million American law enforcement personnel for decades to come.

With more guns in circulation the firepower of the criminal element grew, and subsequently that of law enforcement. These same weapons were now flooding the pages of America’s “gun bibles” and the tables at gun shows. With gun enthusiasts salivating over the sleekest, fastest, and most powerful new models being offered them, the vicious cycle was underway. New huge profits for weapons makers meant increased contributions from these same firearms manufacturers to the National Rifle Association, (NRA) the largest gun lobby in the world. The NRA’s unabated, vigorous, and highly successful marketing strategy, wrapped the whole sales pitch in “Second Amendment” parchment and a “Red, White, & Blue” ribbon for the American public market. Even after the horrific gun slaughter on twenty kindergarteners in Newtown, Connecticut, the pitch for more weapons (read, sales) not only went unabated, it increased.

We are now more than three decades down the weapons strewn highway to uncivil hell. With the help of a few wars (unsuccessful, but well funded for new weapons) and the unending threat of terrorism (an unending military-intelligence-surveillance-security-industrial complex) our military looks like the “Empire” in “Star Wars”; our police departments look more and act more like our military (weapons and tactics); and our ever more fearful, self stylized “defenders of liberty” are all, collectively, locked in the vicious cycle of an internal All-American arms race.

The buzzing over the latest “innovations” from the ever larger, more deadly, and more diversified weapons inventory is deafening. Somehow, such warped development of technology is viewed by many as something that makes America, and, in turn, Americans, think that we are invincible. Whether on the hyped-up, global “Waropoly” game board, or in fantasized “Stand Your Ground” encounters, the weapons industry has duped us en masse. Remember, the “shock and awe” that would guarantee easy victory in Iraq and the burning question of whether Trayvon Martin had the right to stand his ground, even while unarmed.

Naturally, violent career criminals and mentally deranged individuals are also wading in this American river of hundreds of millions of weapons. Through countless means, a frightening portion of these weapons end up in the hands of people who can really accelerate the deadly epidemic of both legal and illegal gun acquisitions. These means can be as simple as house burglaries or direct and straw weapons purchases, or they can be as complicated as international arms smuggling. Abetted by the intentional or unintentional marketing strategies of our highly developed entertainment industry, and by the high drama of “entertainment journalism”, the whole deadly matrix gets a final push to break neck speed toward a society in which firepower overrules the principles and characteristics of a democratic republic.

America, her people, and her government, have been seduced into a false sense of invulnerability, built on a gun myth promulgated by the very merchants who profit hugely from the manufacture and sale of these deadly weapons. Their corporate front men, including the lavishly paid leadership of the NRA, have mastered a rhetorical sales pitch - a mix of fear and patriotism, to squeeze the Second Amendment for every nickel they can get out of it. Anyone who doubts this hypothesis should do what all thinking Americans, (in or out of government) do: Follow the money.

It is time for all Americans to gather around the disarmament table. It is time to hammer out an All-American arms reduction plan, with both citizens and government agreeing to limit the size and power of their respective arsenals. It is time for an All-American d├ętente, a new page in the social contract between a people and their government. It is time to guarantee the democratic characteristics of our law enforcement institutions. And, most of all, it is time to take back control from the weapons merchants. Leaving them the measure of control and influence that they have mastered is a threat, not only to our democratic republic, but to the very existence of humankind as well.

August 24, 2014 7:53 PM Public Universities Need to be Nurtured, Protected as an Investment for All

By Janet Napolitano

For the nation’s colleges and universities, this is a time for reflection and deliberation. From President Obama to state legislators, political pundits to concerned parents, people are raising significant questions about American higher education. Many question pedagogical models, and wonder whether online education is a magic silver bullet. Others question the worth of a university education, the value of going to college at all. And still others debate the disciplines that students study, some arguing that the point of a college degree is to get a job, and others arguing that the point is to pursue a passion (personally, I think you can do both).

Parts of this dialogue will lead to real change, and this is appropriate. There have been changes in higher education throughout its history; little from 21st century campuses or course curricula would look familiar to a 14th century student from Oxford or Heidelberg. But some of the fundamentals have remained constant for good reason. One of these fundamentals is that our nation’s public universities and colleges matter—in fact, they matter tremendously. Another is that these institutions need to be nurtured and protected as major investments in our collective future.

Public universities and colleges educate nearly three-quarters of all the college students in this country. These include students who are fresh out of high school, and students who enrolled after serving overseas in our Armed Forces; students who attend part-time while raising children or caring for aging parents, and students who graduate early, heading straight to law school, or that Ph.D. program with the Nobel Laureate.

By virtue of their student populations alone, public universities and colleges are critical to America’s societal and economic well-being. At the same time, a subset of public higher education—public research universities like the University of California—conducts research that creates new knowledge, and undertakes public service that benefits communities near and far.

These universities and colleges are also the defining institutions for the states they serve. So it is troubling to consider that at some point in the last six years, 41 state legislatures in the United States slashed funding for their public universities and colleges.

Sadly, funding remains constrained for public higher education, despite an economy that slowly grows more robust. Only 14 states have re-invested in higher education at levels equal to or above their pre-recession levels. Last year, 20 states actually cut more funding from their public universities and colleges. UC today enrolls more than 6,000 California resident undergraduates for whom it has never received state dollars.

When states under-invest in public higher education, bad things happen. Tuition goes up. Student debt goes up. And the public begins to think that higher education is a private luxury, not a public necessity.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This country’s public universities and colleges foster an active, thinking citizenry. They enhance public spirit. They educate—and more importantly, elevate—vast numbers of young people. These institutions are public goods, through and through, that benefit all of us, and not just the students who attend them.

As a former governor of Arizona, I am familiar with the dilemmas presented by competing demands when resources are limited. And I understand return on investment.

Clark Kerr, one of my predecessors at the University of California, famously said the following with regard to keeping the doors of the university wide open:

“The best investment that any society makes is in the education of its young people, and this shouldn’t basically be looked upon myopically as a ‘cost;’ it should be looked upon as the best investment that any society can make.”

Kerr’s words serve as an important reminder of what is at stake for our country. So much of the dialogue surrounding higher education has become transactional, when in fact, public universities and colleges are transformational.

At the University of California, transformation happens every day. It begins on an individual level with our students.

Of the university’s more than 180,000 undergraduates, 44 percent are first generation college students. Thirty percent are transfer students from California community colleges. This fall alone, one quarter of the freshman class comes from homes where English is not the primary language.

Forty-two percent of our undergraduates receive federal Pell grants, meaning that they come from very low-income families. And here is an interesting fact: Within five years of graduating from the University of California, those students as individuals are earning salaries that are higher than what their families’ combined incomes were before they went to college.

This is a number that underscores the powerful social mobility at work in a public university. These graduates are growing California’s economy. And they should give everyone great hope not only for the state of California, but for the future of the entire country. California is America, to quote Wallace Stegner, “only more so.”

Transformation at UC also happens at a broader, societal level through the university’s public service.

UC students themselves are ambassadors for contributing to the public good. And they give back in ways that are noted by the Washington Monthly annual rankings. The Washington Monthly stands alone in its inclusion of public service as a crucial metric in its ranking system—not only public service undertaken by the institution, but also public service by the students who attend it.

More than half of all UC undergraduates perform community service. They tutor elementary school students, lead beach clean-ups, run food pantries. They travel the globe, working to solve problems in impoverished countries near and far. In that same spirit, more than 10,000 UC alumni have served as Peace Corps volunteers, more than any other university system in the country.

As a university, UC is on the ground in hundreds of high schools across the state, guiding students on how best to prepare for college—not just public colleges, but any college. UC online programming trains teachers throughout the state in new course curricula, and UC offers free online high school courses for California school districts with limited access to college preparatory course materials.

UC trains nearly 50 percent of the medical students and residents in California. It operates the nation’s largest health science education program. And UC plays a critical role in the state’s safety net, with hundreds of millions of dollars in unreimbursed and charity care recorded at its hospitals and medical centers each year.

UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources serves tens of thousands of California youth through 4-H, and all Californians through school and community gardens, and agricultural, nutritional, and resource management education across the state. Farther afield, UC agriculture researchers are at work in more than 130 countries, problem-solving and working with local populations on complex agricultural challenges.

Fostering social mobility, and contributing to the public good, are hallmarks of public universities and colleges like UC. It is true that private universities and colleges in this country do what they can on these fronts as well. Ultimately, however, they possess different markets and different models. And at the end of the day, they simply do not educate numbers of young people on the same scale as do our public universities and colleges.

Behind all of the numbers and statistics are students with compelling life stories. I’d like to tell you about just two:

First, Mike Drake.

Mike joined the U.S. Army right out of high school. He turned eighteen when he was in basic training. Not long after, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as a combat medic. In one firefight in 2007, he stabilized eleven injured soldiers.

When Mike returned to the United States, however, finding employment was difficult—even for a veteran who had been awarded an Army Commendation Medal with Valor. So Mike went back to school, and ultimately enrolled at UC Berkeley. When he graduated in May, Mike became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. This summer, he worked as a Legislative Associate Intern for a veterans services organization called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. Mike’s goal? To help others—veterans as well as other individuals—succeed on the path to their dreams.

Second, Axana Rodriguez-Torres.

Axana is a political asylee from Colombia. Once she made it to the US, she fought through health issues as she figured out how to make a life in a new country. She cleaned houses. Served fast food. Babysat children. Worked as a tax preparer for other immigrants.

None of her Colombian academic credits transferred to an American university. So she worked her way through a community college near Sacramento. Ultimately, she made it to UC Davis, where today, Axana is earning a master’s degree in Public Health. Her goal? In Axana’s words, “As I’m pursuing my dreams, I’m helping others to pursue theirs.”

The stories of Mike and Axana are really the story of the American Dream. And today, they in turn are helping others create their own American Dream story. That’s because fundamentally, the University of California, like the country’s other public universities and colleges, is in the dream-making business.

We are fortunate that this country is already home to renowned public educational institutions that other nations are just now starting to emulate. But unless we invest in them, they will not stay renowned for much longer.

Funding our nation’s public universities and colleges is a matter of priorities, leadership, and knowing the difference between a cost and an investment. It is a fiscal challenge for some, and a moral challenge for all. These are public goods that work for the public good; they deserve the stewardship that public goods demand, and that the young people of this country deserve. We must not let the American Dream die with the Baby Boomers. We must, instead, preserve the institutions that have made that dream come true—for students like Mike and Axana—generation after generation.

August 24, 2014 11:30 AM With Apologies to Cicero

By Martin Longman

When, O Maureen, do you intend to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Does not the biweekly mockery of the populace—does not the laughter throughout the city—does not the scorn of the people, and the union of all good men and women—does not the precaution of writing behind a firewall—do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you? Do you not feel that your plans are detected? Do you not see that your conspiracy is already arrested and rendered powerless by the knowledge which every one here possesses of it? What is there that you wrote last night, what the four nights before— where is it that you were—what demented muse that you summoned to meet you—what design was there which was adopted by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted?

Shame on the age and on its principles! We are aware of these things; we see them; and yet this woman lives and writes. Lives! aye, she even appears in public! She takes a part in the public deliberations; she is watching and marking down and checking off for sub-mental analysis every individual among us. And we, gallant men and women that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of her frenzied attacks.

You ought, O Maureen, long ago to have been led to retirement by command of the Ochs-Sulzbergers. That destruction which you have been long plotting against us ought to have already fallen on your own head.

What? Did not that most illustrious man, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the Pontifex Maximus, in his capacity as the newspaper’s publisher, put to death Howell Raines and Gerald M. Boyd, for but slightly undermining its reputation? And shall we, who are the readers, tolerate Maureen, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with bile and snark? There was—there was once such virtue in this republic, that brave men and women would repress mischievous columnists with severer chastisement than the most bitter enemy. For we have a resolution of the people, a formidable and authoritative decree against you, O Maureen; the wisdom of the republic is not at fault, nor the dignity of this body. We, we alone,—I say it openly, —we, the people, are waiting in our duty.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

August 22, 2014 3:01 PM Catch of the Day: Who Believes in Crazy Conspiracy Theories?

By Jonathan Bernstein

A catch to Andrew Gelman for correcting an attempted but inaccurate catch by Alfred Moore, Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski, who thought they had caught Paul Krugman in an error on the always-fun topic of conspiracy theories. Not so!

Here’s Krugman’s original assertion:

Unlike the crazy conspiracy theories of the left — which do exist, but are supported only by a tiny fringe — the crazy conspiracy theories of the right are supported by important people: powerful politicians, television personalities with large audiences. Moore, Parent and Uscinski take that quote and attack it on the basis that both liberals and conservatives are equally likely to believe in crazy conspiracy theories. That part, as Gelman agrees, is correct. Plenty of examples in both items for those liberals who are skeptical of it, but I’ll add one more anecdotal one: the belief among liberals in 2003 and 2004 that George W. Bush had dead Osama bin Laden on ice somewhere and was planning to drag him out just before the 2004 general election. I’ve never seen polling on it, but I’m fairly sure that one was widespread … and of course totally false.

However, as Gelman points out, Krugman explicitly endorsed the idea that both sides have nonsense; his assertion is that Republican elites have “supported” crazy conspiracy theories while Democratic ones have not.

And for that, the evidence is absolutely clear. Whatever the equivalent of climate change denial might be for liberals, there’s just zero support for it among Democratic politicians. One certainly cannot say that about Republican politicians and climate denial (and that’s without even getting to the Republican-aligned media). The fact that many rank-and-file Democratic voters believed nutty things about voting machines a decade ago had zero political importance now or then, while various nutty things Republican voters believed about climate change really did have important effects.

In other words, it takes more than research into cognitive biases and the susceptibility of various people to conspiracy theories to understand what’s going on; we also need to know about how partisans pick up their views from opinion leaders, and we need to understand a lot about the incentives driving party actors. We also need to have some practical understanding about what’s gone wrong with the Republican Party.

It’s good to be reminded that there’s nothing inherent in conservative thinking that traps people in conspiracy thinking, but it’s not the whole story. Not at all.

And so: Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

August 21, 2014 3:47 PM Promises, Promises in Foreign Policy

By Jonathan Bernstein

Dan Drezner stuck a fascinating hypothesis about presidential politics down at the end of a post about foreign policy, and I want to highlight it because as far as I know no one has ever addressed this question.

Here’s Drezner:

This brings me to the final reason that I’m a bit more sanguine than Beinart about recent foreign policy rhetoric: it doesn’t matter all that much. Statements about how one would do things better on the foreign policy front are among the best examples of cheap talk you’ll find in Washington. Why? Because the world will look different in January 2017 than it does today. So of course these proto-candidates can say they’d do things differently. No one will hold them to these claims if they’re elected, because the problems will have evolved.

We know that politicians tend to keep their promises, or at least try to. Is foreign policy different than other issues? I don’t know.

One problem with Drezner’s hypothesis is that it’s possible that specific promises don’t matter much, but general approach does. Politicians do more than make promises about specific issues (“I will go to Korea” or “I will end the war in Iraq”). They also make implicit or explicit promises about all sorts of future behavior; John McCain may not quite have promised to be a foreign policy hawk or specifically committed himself to any particular intervention in 2008, but anyone watching him believed that they knew his general foreign-policy orientation.

Of course, politicians don’t always keep their general promises (remember George W. Bush’s interest in foreign-policy modesty?). But they usually try to, unless there’s an awfully strong reason that they shouldn’t. Perhaps, however, the connection between general approach and specific actions leaves enough wiggle room that it doesn’t really constrain presidents. A President McCain may have promised to be a hawk, but he still might have chosen not to intervene in Syria or Ukraine or any other specific crisis without breaking his overall promise.

Even so, out-of-date specific promises can also constrain presidents when they are close enough analogues for new situations. Campaign comments about a conflict between Russia and Georgia might be irrelevant by 2009, but dragged out during a new conflict in Ukraine. No two situations are identical, but they’re often close enough (that’s true for domestic policy too).

Presidents are also constrained by party ties. That’s actually a two-fold bind: Candidates are forced to make promises along party lines, and then modern, party-centered presidents staff their administrations with partisan governing professionals (secretaries of defense for Democratic presidents notwithstanding). So at the elite level, the dominance of party almost certainly reduces the president’s choices. Partisanship, however, cuts both ways: A president can generally count on strong partisans to stick with him even if he embraces an unfamiliar position. Thus, in some cases Democrats approved of Barack Obama’s foreign-policy choices, even though they had hated similar policies from George W. Bush.1

My guess is that the real reason foreign-policy talk is cheap is that it’s even more likely than other campaign rhetoric to be cliche-ridden mush. Politicians want to be tough with whichever enemy is in the news this week. They all want peace in the Middle East (but fully support Israel). They all want to everything resolved peacefully without surrendering anything to anyone.

Sure, an actual foreign policy conflict can break out on the campaign trail, but it just isn’t all that common. So my guess is that the true reason that we can ignore a lot of foreign-policy rhetoric from campaigns is that there’s not enough real content about which to worry.

1 It’s possible to overstate the size of those effects in polling, but some of it definitely happens. Nor is it entirely irrational. Rank-and-file voters have little way of knowing, for example, how serious a foreign-policy threat is to national security; if they trust the president on other issues, it’s not unreasonable for them to trust him on these issues as well.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

August 20, 2014 3:38 PM Mitch McConnell Doesn’t Want a Shutdown

By Jonathan Bernstein

Oh, c’mon. I know we’re well into the campaign silly season, and I suppose that Republicans have earned what they’re getting today with their ill-considered government shutdown strategy last fall and other brinkmanship since taking the House majority in the 2010 elections, but reactions to Mitch McConnell’s latest comments are totally ridiculous.

Here’s what the Republican Senate minority leader said to Politico: “We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy.”

That was then transformed in the story into “Accept bills reining in the administration’s policies or veto them and risk a government shutdown.” The headline became “McConnell’s plan to shut down Obama.” First Read’s summary ran with “Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that Republicans, if they win control of the Senate, would possibly threaten to shutdown the government to force policy changes from President Barack Obama.” And there are more examples.

These articles have produced cries from Democrats that McConnell is going to shut down the government.

Look, I have no problem at all with Democrats reminding voters that Republicans shut down the government and suggesting that it might happen again.

But McConnell did not, in fact, say he would shut down the government to get what he wanted, and the “neutral” news media shouldn’t imply that he did. There’s nothing wrong with a congressional majority including veto-bait in bills, including in must-pass spending bills. In the normal course of things, the next step is that Congress either removes the offending provisions after a veto, or perhaps negotiates with the White House over which measures the president can actually accept. The president would have some leverage here, but Congress — especially in a party-unified-Congress scenario McConnell is talking about — hardly needs to automatically roll over for presidents.

McConnell, at least according to his quotes in Politico, doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it shutdown threat. It’s just as likely he intends to push Republican issues as far as he can take them, and then hold Obama and the Democrats responsible for whatever they oppose — and force vetoes to generate publicity over their differences. All McConnell says when pressed about a shutdown is that the president “needs to be challenged, and the best way to do that is through the funding process. … He would have to make a decision on a given bill, whether there’s more in it that he likes than dislikes.”

The real question is whether Republicans would (as they did last year and during the 1995-1996 shutdown) seek a shutdown as a way to gain more leverage. Government shutdowns don’t happen by accident. As long as Republican Senator Ted Cruz and other radicals are involved, that’s a real possibility, and fair game for Democrats to run on. But there’s nothing wrong with what Politico calls “confrontation” as long as it stops short of deliberately going over the brink.

Nor is there anything wrong with using reconciliation as a tactic, despite Politico’s clear and inaccurate suggestion that there’s something unusual or illegitimate about it. For clear-headed budget analysis that assumes that Republicans would use reconciliation — but that also foresees the difficulties that the party will face if it does have House and Senate majorities — see Stan Collender’s solid column today. It’s an excellent antidote for the media hype and the campaign talking points being tossed around.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

August 20, 2014 12:15 PM Rush to Judgment on the Rick Perry Indictment

By Mark Kleiman

I don’t know whether Gov. Rick Perry is guilty of anything, or - assuming he is - whether the special prosecutor has the goods to prove it, let alone whether the right-leaning Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would sustain such a conviction. (Since Perry isn’t an innocent person on Death Row, the court will tend to give him all the breaks.)

I do know that most of what has been written about the case since the indictment has been nonsense, with Blue and Red pundits competing to see who can say the nastiest things about the prosecutor. See Simon Maloy and Kevin Drum on the Hack Gap.)

Worse, everyone seems to be ignoring the obvious fact that, even if Perry can’t be convicted of a crime, his conduct in this case ought to disqualify him for the Presidency.

Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer offers some facts and analysis in rebuttal, and Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker demolishes the “But Mom, all the kids do it!” defense.

Here are the facts, as currently understood:

1. The Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County (Austin) DA’s office prosecutes public corruption cases involving the Texas state government, since Austin is the capital. Since that unit carries out what is in effect a statewide function, it - unlike the rest of the DA’s office, which is supported by local taxes - is paid for by a special appropriation from the Texas Legislature.

2. One of the cases brought by the PIU involved a grant of $11 million from a scandal-ridden state cancer research fund to a politically-connected company owned by donors to Perry and Greg Abbott, the AG and Republican candidate to succeed Perry. The grant application had not been adequately reviewed, and allegedly that fact was kept from the grant-making committee.

3. Travis County is Democratic, while the state government is solidly Republican. Neither the legislature nor the state Attorney General is going to hold Perry and friends accountable. So if Perry were to gain control of the Public Integrity Unit, he and other Republican office-holders could commit crimes with impunity.

4. The Democratic DA of Travis County got nailed for drunken driving, and the post-arrest videotapes don’t show her in a very good light.

5. If she were to quit, the Governor would appoint her successor.

6. Perry demanded the DA’s resignation. She refused, and the county officials who could have fired her decided not to do so.

7. Perry threatened to veto the appropriation for the Public Integrity Unit if the DA didn’t resign. She didn’t. He did.

8. That veto had the effect of shutting down the cancer-institute investigation until the Travis County board voted to support the Public Integrity Unit with local tax money.

8. A local NGO demanded and got a judge appointed to look into the matter. He appointed a special prosecutor. Neither is an obvious partisan; the special prosecutor had the backing of both Texas Senators for appointment as United States Attorney.

9. After months of grand jury proceedings, the special prosecutor indicted Perry for abuse of power. The indictment makes two charges - coercion of a public official and abuse of office - and does not specify the underlying facts.

So much for the facts. Now some comments.

1. In contemporary practice, white-collar crime indictments often read like the prosecutor’s opening statement, laying out all of the evidence to be introduced. That’s a good way for the prosecutor to get good press, and perhaps poison the minds of potential jurors who have read press accounts of the indictment. But it’s not legally necessary, and may not be good courtroom tactics, since every fact alleged in the indictment must be proven at trial.

2. The fact that Perry had the lawful power to issue a veto, and therefore to make a veto threat, is not dispositive. Lawful powers can be used for criminal purposes, and doing so is a crime. The Saturday Night Massacre was the exercise of President Nixon’s lawful power order his Attorney General to fire Archibald Cox.

3. If in fact, as Forrest Wilder hints, Perry through an intermediary promised the DA to give her a cushy job if she would resign, that seems to me like straight-up bribery, and obviously criminal. Yes, that sort of thing happens all the time. But as Toobin points out, that’s not a legal defense. No, I don’t know why the indictment doesn’t include a bribery count; maybe that’s covered by the abuse-of-office and coercion charges.

4. Assuming for the sake of argument that Perry is innocent in law, or alternatively that he is guilty of an attempt to obstruct justice but that the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to prove that charge (that is, he might have intended to interfere with the criminal probe of cancer funding, but have been careful enough not to leave fingerprints), his attempt to take over the one agency that could hold him and his cronies accountable constitutes an outrageous abuse of power. And doing so in the context of stealing millions of dollars from cancer research to enrich political cronies makes it morally disgusting, to boot.

Look, I’m glad and proud that the Blue team prefers accuracy to partisanship, but would it really be too hard to add that Perry is, at best, a legally innocent scoundrel, grossly unfit for the office he holds, let alone the Presidency?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

August 19, 2014 3:15 PM We Are Spending Way Too Much to Raise Our Kids

By Megan McArdle

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its annual report on the cost of raising children, and the upshot is what you probably already know: It’s expensive.

This does not — as every article on the report has emphasized — include the cost of college, just the cost of raising them from birth through age 17. What struck me, however, was not the cost, but what parents are spending their money on:



Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
SOURCE: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

The last 50 years have seen a massive shift away from the basic expenses of keeping your kid alive and toward competitive expenses. Now, those education expenses are a bit misleading — as the report points out, many families basically have no expenditures in that category. Still, it’s remarkable how the averages have shifted. And that reflects a great difference in how we view the basic task of launching a child into the world. It’s no longer enough to make sure they’re fed and clothed; you also have to make sure they can beat the other kids in the education race.

If you’ve ever watched “19 Kids and Counting” and wondered how the Duggars (and families like them) do it, the answer is: They don’t do much beyond the basics. They spend a huge amount, more than $2,000 a month, on food. But before they became television personalities, the Duggars were living in a three-bedroom house with 14 kids. They buy all their clothes at thrift shops. They vacation in an RV. They home-school, and no one’s on a sports travel team or in dance classes. If they buy toys, it’s at a secondhand store. If average-size families did this, no one would be complaining about how expensive it is to have kids.

The problem is that it’s dreadfully hard to do this unless you’re in a very tight-knit subculture in which all this looks normal. If your kids go to school with other kids who aren’t wearing thrift-school clothing, they’ll be made fun of. They’ll learn to long for all the new toys the other kids have. They’ll want to join expensive activities, and you’ll want to get them tutoring and enrichment programs to increase their shot at getting into a good school. You certainly won’t want to cram them into a three-bedroom house. In other words, raising kids cheaply is only possible if you think there’s something even more important than socializing and getting a good education — or if you’re so poor that you simply lack the cash to help your kids compete in our society’s various status competitions.

What we have, in other words, is a collective-action problem that is steadily ratcheting up the amount we spend on our kids. Unfortunately, like many collective-action problems, it’s hard to imagine what sort of collective solution we could put in place. As long as it’s possible to spend money to give their kids a leg up, people will do just that — and other parents will do their utmost to spend even more.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

August 19, 2014 11:58 AM Abandoning the Democratic Script

By Julia Azari

President Obama’s remarks this afternoon dealt with two distinct crises, the situation in Iraq and the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. The two problems differ in many ways, but one characteristic that they share is that both have required Obama to abandon the ways in which he, along with fellow Democrats, have approached the issues at stake.

The foreign policy dilemma has been evident for some time. Like many Democrats from the center left on out, particularly those who wanted to run for president in 2008, Obama sought to differentiate himself from Bush and from Democrats who had gone along with the Iraq War. (Ok, maybe one Democrat in particular - one whose name rhymes with Schminton.) Candidate Obama’s emphasis on repudiating Bush’s foreign policy has repeatedly left him in a tough spot when it comes to the Middle East. Few could have anticipated the Arab Spring in 2011, which created a whole bunch of ongoing questions about how the U.S. should approach the region. But this illustrates the dangers of contemporary mandate politics - that is, relying heavily on the idea of doing what you promised to do - which has a certain intuitive appeal but doesn’t leave leaders much slack to deal with unexpected problems. Obama has also been forced, by virtue of when his presidency has fallen in both the broader arc of history and the cycle of political time, to contend especially with what looks to me like a persistent problem with Democratic foreign policy ideology: it’s pretty easy to criticize opponents for acting unilaterally and being hawkish. It’s harder to develop and execute an alternative set of policies, based on different values - our nation’s own security, respect for human rights, and respect for the international community (not all of whom share our view of human rights).

Where race issues are concerned, Obama’s dilemma cuts even deeper. The president’s own racial background has brought the topic closer to the surface of political discourse in a number of ways. His speech, “A More Perfect Union,” in 2008 received praise as both an honest confrontation of racial mistrust and a reaffirmation of basic national values. But since then, Obama has attracted criticism for engaging in “respectability politics” in his remarks about black fatherhood, and more recently in his response to the tragic events in Ferguson. Obama is in a difficult position. In the past five years, when Obama’s rhetoric has turned to race, the tone of the response has been especially antagonistic. Furthermore, Obama’s usual approach - which emphasizes colorblind ideals and economic inequality - reflects the way his party handles those issues. The 2012 Democratic platform has a section on civil rights, but it focuses heavily on employment and poverty (as well as other important civil rights issues, including LGBT rights and equal pay). The document acknowledges the “disproportionate effects of crime, violence, and incarceration on communities of color” and mentions fairness in drug sentencing as an issue. But these are presented as anomalies in a just and colorblind system, and as impediments to equality of opportunity that would otherwise lift all citizens. The 2000 platform is similar - its civil rights section refers to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, affirms equality and suggests commitment to affirmative action. In other words, you could read these platforms and come away with the idea that racial disparities could largely be explained away in economic terms, and that racism persists only as part of a few discrete issues, .

But racism isn’t just about economics; anyone who actually read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocatively titled piece this summer has seen that the relationship between wealth and race is far more complex and even less rosy than the colorblind opportunity narrative would suggest. I’m hesitant to look for a lesson in the death of a teenager. But it seems to me that after this, Obama and other Democrats, including whoever tries to succeed him, will need to change their narrative about race and racism.

[Cross-posted at the Mischiefs of Faction]

August 18, 2014 6:21 PM “Bad Cess”

By Henry Farrell

Patrick Nielsen Hayden on Twitter today wished bad cess on a Hugo nominee apparently belonging to the richly-deserving-of-the-worst-cess-possible class. ‘Bad cess’ is an Irish expression; I suspect Patrick got it from Flann O’Brien, but I wouldn’t put it past him to have come across it somewhere else. This reminded me that I’ve been meaning for years to record a couple of Irish country expressions, mostly from my father and through him, from Gid, a Westmeath woman who worked at the farm he was born on, and who died when I was ten or so.

Gid was fond of two maledictions. One is a little opaque to me; “May the curse of Scotland be on you.” If I were to guess, it was a reference to the fact that multitudes Irish farm labourers had to go to Scotland to find seasonal work; many of them stayed and ended up, sooner or later, in the slums of Glasgow or other cities. The other is more transparent; “May the curse of the seven snotty orphans be on you.” ‘Snotty’ here means ‘badly behaved and presumptuous,’ rather than with noses in need of a good wiping. It wasn’t unusual for relatives to have to take orphans in unexpectedly- my own father’s father was brought up by two bachelor uncles after his parents died when he was an infant. And of course, he was very lucky - the history of orphanages in Ireland is a wretched one indeed.

Gid would also say that someone was “that hungry, he’d eat a chap’s arse through a chair,” a chap being country argot for a small child. Stephen King uses the word “chap” in a similar way in one of his novels, suggesting that the slang made its way to Maine (and of course, ‘chappie’ is a somewhat dated English diminutive for a very young boy). And of someone knocking on death’s door for a long while, but never quite managing to expire, “it’s the creaking door that hangs the longest.” This last seems from an Internet search to have had some circulation in nineteenth century England, where likely it originated.

I like these sayings; there’s some flavor to them. Feel encouraged in comments to provide your own, if you have any.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

August 18, 2014 6:14 PM Hillary’s Wealth Won’t Matter

By Jonathan Bernstein

Yesterday, Annie Lowrey considered Hillary Clinton’s recent (and continuing) stumbles over her wealth. She concluded that none of this “Mitt Romney problem” will matter because Democrats have a proven rhetorical flourish on the subject — Lowrey suggested, “Yes, we’re really lucky. And I know first-hand that we don’t need a tax break for our millions in earnings or our private jet.” It’s certainly, as she pointed out, language that Bill Clinton has used repeatedly since leaving the White House, and that Barack Obama also uses.

Whatever. The real reason wealth-related blunders won’t hurt Clinton is that she apparently isn’t going to be seriously challenged in the primaries and caucuses, where this sort of thing could matter. Personal characteristics, gaffes and clever rejoinders just aren’t all that important for the general election, when partisanship and partisan trends kick in and swamp almost everything else.

Those things can matter a lot in the nomination fight because voters and party actors alike are trying to differentiate among candidates who, in many cases, have virtually identical positions on policy.

But when it gets to November, most people vote based on party. Most of those who really don’t have party ties will usually be swayed by their assessments of the current president and of the nation’s well-being. Everything else isn’t completely irrelevant — for example, perceived ideological extremism can hurt a candidate — but it’s unlikely to make a significant difference.

Moreover, to the extent that gaffes could possibly matter at the margins, it’s almost impossible for summer 2014 flaps to have any effect in fall 2016. Unless Republicans decide to campaign on it (and the odds are that they will also have a wealthy candidate as well, so that’s not probable), whatever Clinton says this summer will be long forgotten by the election. Well, it will be forgotten by most political junkies. Ordinary voters are barely paying enough attention now to the faraway presidential election to know about this in the first place.

And even if Republicans do decide to run on it, the function of that kind of campaigning isn’t to win votes; it’s to activate the partisanship of those who are predisposed to vote for the party all along. To educate, that is, regular partisan voters about what it is they should be disliking about the other party’s candidate. And there’s never any shortage of reasons available to dislike the opposing party’s candidate — so if it’s not this, it will certainly be something else.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

August 18, 2014 6:03 PM Off-Cycle Elections and the Parties

By Seth Masket

In a recent Monkey Cage post, Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve, and Ray LaRaja seek to explain why towns like Ferguson, Missouri have such a disparity between the percent of the population that is African American and the percent of the city council that is African American. (For more on this, please see my response at Pacific Standard). Part of the story, they say, is turnout. Ferguson has off-cycle city elections; they’re held in April of odd-numbered years, instead of coinciding with presidential elections. As a result, turnout is far lower for municipal elections, and also seems more biased in favor of white residents. (Between the 2012 presidential elections and the 2013 city council elections, white turnout in Ferguson dropped from 55% to 17%; black turnout dropped from 54% to 6%.)

There’s certainly some logic to this. If elections are held far from presidential ones, they’ll tend to receive a lot less media attention, which usually means that poorer and less educated voters will be less likely to participate. And those trends disproportionately affect Democrats and African Americans.

So we should probably expect to see Democratic leaders opposing off-cycle elections and Republicans supporting them, right? After all, it’s Democrats who tend to support efforts to increase voter turnout, while Republican leaders are willing to accept lower turnout in the name of fighting voter fraud (even if that pretty much never happens). Are Democrats trying to end off-cycle elections?

Far from it. Sarah Anzia recently wrote a dissertation on election timing (I haven’t read the book version yet), and the findings are pretty fascinating. In short, interest groups have an easier time dominating the low turnout, low media exposure environment of off-cycle elections. In cities that have off-cycle elections for city councils and school boards, we tend to see police officers, firefighters, and teachers receiving higher pay and better benefits. After all, it’s these local public employees (and their immediate friends and families) who often have the most at stake in municipal elections; they’ll vote no matter what. Most of the rest of the population simply sees no need to participate. That drop in voter turnout makes a huge difference in terms of policy.

And this has an important relationship to the parties. The unions and public employee groups that tend to benefit from these off-cycle elections also tend to lean Democratic. As a result, it is Republican state legislators across the country who tend to push to synchronize local elections with presidential ones, while Democratic legislators protect the off-cycle elections where they exist. That is, Republicans are pushing for higher turnout while Democrats want to keep it lower for municipal elections.

You could label this hypocritical, but basically, it’s just parties advocating for their constituent interests, which is as old as democracy. Voter turnout, after all, is simply a means to producing certain policy ends, and the parties will tend to push whatever rules help reach those ends.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

August 18, 2014 9:31 AM Should We Compensate Organ Donors?

By Keith Humphreys

Over 100,000 Americans are currently on a waiting list for an organ donation, but the number of living and dead donors this year will not remotely approach that number. As a result, 18 people die every day while on a waiting list. Sally Satel, a physician and organ donation recipient, has argued that we will only solve this problem if we begin compensating organ donors. Bioethicist David Magnus in contrast believes that incentivization would risk creating a morally suspect seller’s market in organs. These two scholars were joined by Tom Mone, a national leader in organ transplantation, at a fascinating health policy forum that I had the privilege to facilitate recently at Stanford Medical School. We’ve been doing these health policy fora for five years now, and this was one of the most engaging discussions:

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

August 17, 2014 7:11 PM Can Millennials Reverse America’s Declining Rates of Entrepreneurship?

By Dane Stangler and Jordan Bell-Masterson

There has been considerable hand wringing in recent months about research (pdf) showing a decline in American entrepreneurship, a fall in “economic dynamism” (the turnover of companies and jobs), and an overall aging of U.S. businesses. In the face of pessimistic long-term growth forecasts from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Federal Reserve, these findings are worrying.

The founding and growth of new businesses has always been key to innovation, and young companies have been shown to be more prolific sources of job creation than their older counterparts. The velocity with which these firms move in or out and up or down is what economists call economic dynamism. It is critical to rising living standards.

But, according to research by the Brookings Institution and economic research published in leading journals, the United States has been on the wrong trajectory when it comes to these things. The rate of business creation has been falling for several years, even predating the 2008-09 recession, and the average age (pdf) of U.S. companies has been rising. The share of the overall population of firms accounted for by older businesses—those 16 years and older—rose by more than 50 percent from the early 1990s to 2011. Partly as a result, economic dynamism has diminished.

These trends are not necessarily new and have been covered before in the Washington Monthly, but recent discussions have brought new urgency to the issues. Why is this happening, and can we expect it to continue?

First, let’s dispense with two potential explanations. One possibility is that the sectoral composition of the US economy has changed, with more economic activity in sectors that inherently have lower rates of entrepreneurship. For example, if the health care sector has historically had less business creation than other sectors, its rising economic share could explain macro trends. University of Maryland economists Ryan Decker and John Haltiwanger, experts in this area, have disproved (pdf) this explanation.

A second potential culprit, as noted by Robert Samuelson recently, is public policy: either an increasing number of unfriendly policies, or the absence of policies that would boost entrepreneurship. Research is not abundant on this, but we think it is an unlikely explanation. The overall trends of falling entrepreneurship, slowing dynamism, and aging businesses have been relatively uniform across states, metropolitan areas, and different time periods. There aren’t many federal policies that could account for that uniformity.

It is possible that public policy has played an important indirect role in shaping the environment in which new and young companies operate. But changes in public policy wouldn’t appear to be a direct cause of falling entrepreneurship.

So what’s behind these trends?

One possibility that must be considered is that the data are incomplete. For one thing, the data used in these analyses only go through 2011. It is difficult to reconcile the findings on declining business creation with the explosion of efforts to promote and support entrepreneurship in the last few years. So, it is entirely possible that the downward trends are already in reversal (although likely not fully reversed).

This raises another possibility: perhaps we are undercounting entrepreneurship. The Census Bureau data used in recent research cover employer businesses. We know, anecdotally, that entrepreneurial activity takes many forms, and that in recent years the diversity of such forms may have been widening. What one colleague calls “fractional entrepreneurship” appears to be on the rise: ventures nestled inside other organizations, side projects that do not need incorporation, and so on.

Using a wider definition of entrepreneurial activity, other Census data indicate that new business creation actually rose during the Great Recession. Thus, our measurement methods could be lagging behind an increase in different kinds of entrepreneurship.

These issues also highlight the relationship between entrepreneurship and economic health. In a new book, The Innovative Entrepreneur, Northwestern economist Dan Spulber analyzes the lifecycle dimensions of entrepreneurship and finds that the decision to start a new venture depends on the range of opportunities and constraints facing a potential entrepreneur. One such factor, demonstrated by Rob Fairlie at UC-Santa Cruz, is the availability of wage and salary work. The opportunity cost of entrepreneurship depends on the labor market alternatives available to someone and their expected returns from those alternatives.

This explanation would not apply to recent years when the labor market has been sluggish. But since the fall in business creation identified by the Brookings research goes back 20 years, it could reflect better wage and salary opportunities available to many who, in different circumstances, might have started companies. Entrepreneurship trends need to be properly situated.

A third explanation could be demographics. The volume of business creation in the United States was actually rather steady (pdf) from the early 1980s up to the Great Recession, with an average of 500,000 new businesses created each year. Because the overall population of businesses was increasing—firms don’t exit at the same rate as they enter—the rate of business creation steadily fell.

We must be careful with casual empiricism, but one other factor that was steady during this same period was the American working age population. The labor market entry of baby boomers and women meant that the working-age share of the population held remarkably steady from the early 1980s to the late 2000s. Correlation is not causation, but the relationship between demographics and entrepreneurship cannot be ignored.

So what can we expect in the future? Will the purported decline in entrepreneurship continue? In a forthcoming paper, the Kauffman Foundation analyzes different trends and scenarios for why entrepreneurship may rise or fall. We can briefly canvass some reasons for optimism here.

Returning to demographics (pdf), over the next 20 years we will have more thirty-somethings than ever before. This matters because the “peak age” for entrepreneurship is the late thirties and early forties. While we might not expect an outright entrepreneurial boom, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias suggests, we are more optimistic than 538’s Ben Casselman, since the decline of the prime-age entrepreneurial population has coincided with the decline of high-tech entrepreneurship (as opposed to the big-box retailer driven decline in the decades prior).

Likewise, we might expect that the proliferation of entrepreneurship education and training programs across the country could translate into more new businesses over the next several years. And, the expansion of crowdfunding sites should encourage a higher level of entrepreneurial activity.

The present state of entrepreneurship, at least according to recent research, may not seem particularly healthy. But there are reasons to think that picture may be incomplete, and plenty of reasons for expecting an entrepreneurship boom in coming years.

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