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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Can Officially Kicked Down the Road
      •  The Federal Government Is Raking It In...
      •  ...Even Though People Keep Quitting Their Jobs
      •  The Murky Crystal Ball, Part IV: Progressives vs. Centrists
      •  Facebook Is the New...Tobacco?
      •  Today's Culture Wars Battle: Jon Gruden
      •  Don't Know Much about History: Liberals and Columbus

Can Officially Kicked Down the Road

The Senate passed the bill increasing the debt ceiling last week, and the House gave their approval yesterday, on a straight 219-206 party-line vote. The bill now heads to Joe Biden's desk, where it will undoubtedly get a signature. So, the crisis is temporarily resolved.

Obviously, nobody knows what will happen in two months, when the treasury once again bumps up against the ceiling. That said, we'll point out the following:

  1. The Democrats know what is coming, and have two months to maneuver.

  2. The infrastructure reconciliation bill will likely be signed, sealed, and delivered by then.

  3. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blinked this time, and revealed that threats against the filibuster are his Achilles' heel.

  4. Further, McConnell's real goal was to force the Democrats to use reconciliation on the debt limit so that they would not be able to use it on infrastructure. Now that Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough has said two bills will be acceptable, McConnell's plan has been dashed.

  5. Few members of the Senate will relish the thought of crashing the economy at Christmas time, or of missing their own winter break.

Our best guess is that this won't be quite as soap operatic next time, and that one side or the other will cave fairly quickly. Time will tell which side that is, though we continue to believe that this is inside baseball enough that it won't actually matter come midterm election time. The Republicans are going to attack the Democrats for being reckless spenders regardless of what happens, and that attack might very well work, but if it does it won't have anything to do with the debt ceiling. (Z)

The Federal Government Is Raking It In...

There may be a pandemic going on, and there may be a lot of Americans who are not working, and there may be big-time supply-chain issues, and gas prices might be insane, and there might be a lot of businesses that have gone under recently. However, that has not stopped Uncle Sam's wallet from getting fatter. In fact, the government's revenues jumped a staggering 18% in the fiscal year that just ended. That is the biggest increase since 1977.

There were a whole bunch of articles about this yesterday, and none of the experts who were interviewed can make any sense of it. Revenues usually drop a bunch during times of crisis and economic turmoil. What they don't do is jump by double figures. There are going to be a lot of journal articles and conference papers written about this.

Meanwhile, it gives the Republicans some great talking points. They can argue that the 2017 tax cut is working as advertised, and also that increasing taxes on rich people and corporations is not fair, since they were responsible for most of the surge in revenues (which is true). On the other hand, it also gives the Democrats some great talking points. They can argue that dumping Donald Trump and replacing him with Joe Biden was great news for the economy, and also that the government's bottom line is so healthy right now, spending a few hundred billion a year on infrastructure is no big deal. The latter point could be useful in persuading: (1) 100 million or so voters, or (2) Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). These days, both of those commodities are of equal significance.

This story didn't actually get all that much attention yesterday, but given the opportunities it presents both major parties, it's surely going to get a fair bit of play in future campaign commercials. (Z)

...Even Though People Keep Quitting Their Jobs

The economic surge is real, but so too is the "Great Resignation." Not only are people not snapping up all the jobs that are currently available, but many of those who are employed are quitting the rat race, at least temporarily. In August, roughly 4.3 million people, or 3% of the workforce, told their bosses to take this job and shove it. This applies to every sector of the economy, from food service to retail to health care to manufacturing.

The general trend of the last half-century or so has been greater leverage for employers at the expense of employees. That was accomplished through regulations adopted by business-friendly politicians, and also by gutting labor unions. In 1970, nearly 40% of Americans were unionized; now it's about 6%. It would seem that the pandemic has caused many workers to conclude that the pendulum swung too far, and to decide that they want jobs that are more satisfactory, whether in terms of wages, or safety, or workplace culture, or enjoyability, or flexibility. Since the supply of jobs far outstrips the supply of willing labor right now, it means that the proles have a fair bit of leverage right now.

Where will things end up when all the dust has settled? Nobody knows, but there are two things that appear to be unavoidable. The first is that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) & Co. are going to indirectly get their wish, as paying people the federal minimum wage (or anything close to it) largely doesn't cut the mustard anymore. The second is that remote work is going to become much more common. That, in turn, could have very profound consequences in terms of housing opportunities, traffic congestion, the environment, and maybe even the red-state/blue-state balance. If urban professionals no longer need to be urban, they could head to the cheaper-to-live environs of, say, a Montana or a Wyoming. It would not take all that much population movement to drag those states back into purple territory. (Z)

The Murky Crystal Ball, Part IV: Progressives vs. Centrists

On Monday, we wrote about the New York Times article on David Shor, the former Obama administration insider who warned that the Democratic Party is out-of-touch, and needs to focus on "popularism"—talking about the issues "real people" care about, rather than the issues that the white, progressive, college graduates who actually run the Democratic Party care about. Shor's warning spurred a deluge of response pieces, mostly agreeing with him, and often addressing various aspects of the alleged problem. The general presumption is that the blue team is headed for disaster.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, we had three items about Joe Biden's supposed "demise," and how it's a little too early to be predicting doom and gloom for him and his presidency quite yet. We'd like to give the Shor debate the same treatment now, making the case that his crystal ball, and those of the folks who agree with him, is murkier than it may seem.

To start, we would propose that there were four basic ideas running through the Shor piece, and the others he inspired (some of which we also mentioned in our writeup). Here they are:

  1. The rival progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party are struggling badly to get on the same page.

  2. This struggle might plausibly wreck the infrastructure reconciliation bill.

  3. This struggle is also one over strategy; the Party is going to have to decide between winning back some of the white, working-class Obama voters (the centrist position) or else firing up the base and making sure turnout is very high (the progressive position).

  4. The Democrats must get their heads out of their far-left cloud, stop talking about social justice and things like that, and start talking about things actual voters care about.

Let's now take those one by one:

  1. Internecine War: It is easy enough to conclude that the Democrats are deeply divided, and that an intra-party civil war is coming. After all, everyone remembers Hillary vs. Bernie, and everyone knows that the Republicans were so badly split that they got just one major bill passed while they had the Trump-led trifecta (while also failing to repeal the ACA). Furthermore, there's a lot of sniping going on right now, with folks like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on one side, and folks like Bernie and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) on the other.

    It is certainly possible that the party will succumb to internal strife, and will become as dysfunctional as the House Republican Conference has been for years. But does that really seem plausible? Yes, there is plenty of dirty laundry being aired right now, but posturing and potshotting is part of the sausage-making process. What really matters is the final vote on the infrastructure bill, or any other piece of legislation. And despite their razor-thin margins of error, is there a single bill where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have failed to whip their caucus into line? Debt ceiling, short-term budget, COVID relief, etc.—the sausage always seems to get made. It's probably best to wait for some actual dysfunction before concluding that the Democratic caucus is on the verge of being completely dysfunctional.

  2. Reconciliation: One major reason we would expect the Democrats' fate to be different from the Republicans' is that the fringe members of the Republican Party are True Believers. If they can't have 100% of what they want, then they would prefer 0% over some compromise. Even the most devoted lefties in the Democratic caucus aren't really like that. Bernie Sanders may want $7 trillion, or $3.5 trillion, but if he believes his choice is between $1.5 trillion and $0 trillion, he will take the $1.5 trillion. So will Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and most or all of the other progressives. It's true the centrists could torpedo things, but most of them want their pork, and it is improbable they would be willing to become outcasts in their party by rebelling against the reconciliation bill.

  3. Strategy: Yesterday, in one of the pieces about Biden, we mentioned an opinion piece by Josh Marshall of TPM. He observes, quite rightly, that "increase turnout" vs. "win back white, working-class voters" is a false dichotomy. The Party should be trying to do both. In some places, the former option is more viable, and in some the latter. But the party doesn't have to choose "the progressives' strategy" or "the centrists' strategy."

  4. Messaging: Shor effectively accused his Democratic strategist brethren of living in a bubble, and being out of touch with reality. There is some irony in that, since he lives in something of a bubble, too.

    Truth be told, we—and, in particular (Z)—don't think that the atypical political viewpoints of the people who run the DNC matter all that much. When candidates run for office, they largely take their own counsel about what issues to focus on, since they know their home state/district better than the DNC does. It is hard to imagine that a Democrat running in west Texas, or Kentucky, or southern Ohio, or the Florida panhandle is going to keep hammering on the fact that men sometimes need abortions too, and that police departments really need to be defunded, and that Christopher Columbus was a genocidal maniac, just because the staff of the DNC holds some (or all) of those views.

    Let's put it another way: (Z) lives in one of the bluest districts in the country (D+36), and has heard several local politicians speak, including the district's representative in Congress, Ted Lieu (D-CA). He is subjected to dozens of political ads a week, even in the offseason for elections. And he has never once heard an ad, or a politician, mention any of these supposed out-of-touch lefty issues, much less dwell on them. If that rhetoric is not to be found in a sapphire-blue district, located within a sapphire-blue state, then is it to be found anywhere?

    There is, of course, a related problem: that the Republicans will try to paint the Democrats as fanatical, far-left social justice warriors who want to erase gender, and shut down all police departments, and tax the rich to the point that the U.S. becomes a communist paradise. But that has little to do with what the Democrats actually say. Consider how effectively the GOP has hung critical race theory around the necks of Democrats, and no Democrat was talking about that. This is not a problem of being out of touch, it's a problem of out-messaging the Republicans. We'd agree that this should be a major concern for the party, but it's not exactly what Shor was talking about.

As we wrote yesterday, Joe Biden may indeed be toast. And as we write today, the Democrats may indeed be about to fly apart at the seams, or to sleepwalk into an electoral disaster. But let's hold off on predicting a demise just yet, because that crystal ball is most certainly murky. We'll have one more item on this general subject on Friday. (Z)

Facebook Is the New...Tobacco?

Yes, they both spread very rapidly, and they both are quite addictive, and they both came with unexpected consequences, but that isn't exactly what we're talking about here. No, what we are talking about is regulation. Just as the tobacco industry wasn't going to be unfettered forever, Facebook and the other social media platforms were eventually going to come under the government's watchful eye. And now, thanks to whistleblower Frances Haugen (and possible second whistleblower Sophie Zhang), along with other unsavory revelations, the regulating process appears to be on the cusp of commencing.

Given the similarities between the two industries, quite a few politicians see the battle against Big Tobacco as a roadmap for the battle against Big Tech. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, the tobacco example provides a roadmap to follow. On the other hand, the process of regulating tobacco was long and difficult, and took many years to pull off.

There are also some factors that make Big Tech different, and very possibly more difficult to clamp down upon, than Big Tobacco. To start, Facebook, et al., have more money than Croesus, and employ a vast army of lawyers and lobbyists. Further, regulating them involves First Amendment issues that aren't a concern with tobacco. Also, as with pretty much every issue these days, Republicans and Democrats don't see eye-to-eye. With tobacco, most members of Congress agreed it's unhealthy and causes cancer and heart disease (unless they were elected from North Carolina or Kentucky). With tech, the Republicans think the issue is censorship, while Democrats think the issue is propagating lies and misinformation. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the tobacco companies ultimately surrendered because they wanted some protection against all the lawsuits being filed against them (and that protection was granted). There's no equivalent leverage to be used against Big Tech.

In short, it would appear that the U.S. is commencing a new chapter when it comes to social media regulation. However, the final chapter of that book is still a long way from being written.

On account of First Amendment issues, regulating Facebook will be a struggle. However, there is another approach the government could take that might be easier: Use antitrust law. The government could claim that Facebook is a monopoly and force it to sell WhatsApp and Instagram, thus immediately creating two serious competitors in the social media space. They might or might not also decide to carry misinformation, but in any event it would eliminate the one-stop-shopping option people trying to spread lies now have. Also, this step need not be the only one. There could be others.

Also, conservatives are constantly yelling about Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which they claim hurts conservatives. Congress could repeal it. That would mean if a Facebook user posted an obvious lie and someone was harmed by it (because, for example, they decided to overdose on horse dewormer and ended up in the ICU with COVID) then they could sue Facebook for publishing dangerous information. The result of repealing Sec. 230 would be to force Facebook to vet all postings extremely carefully. In the worst-case scenario, postings would only be visible to people who had confirmed they were your actual friends.

Finally, Congress could force Facebook to abandon anonymity. To become (or stay) a user with posting privileges, people would have to upload some official government document proving who they were. This would open many cans of worms, but even the threat of it might put the fear of God in Facebook. (Z)

Today's Culture Wars Battle: Jon Gruden

On one hand, we don't need to give oxygen to every grievance that right-wing politicians and pundits flip their lids over. On the other hand, we know many readers want to know what's going on in the world of politics, and yet are not sports fans. So, after some debate, we decided to write this one up.

Today's "victim" is Jon Gruden, who is one of the more prominent people associated with the NFL and who was, until Monday, the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. As it turns out, however, his hair was just a wig, and underneath that wig was supervillain Lex Luthor. Well, when bisexual Superman found out, he snatched Gruden from practice, dropped him on the pointy part of the Luxor Hotel, and that was that.

No, wait, we're confusing culture wars stories. What actually happened is that Gruden had a somewhat close relationship with the Washington Football Team (WFT) for several years, largely because his brother served as head coach for several years. During that time, Gruden exchanged many e-mails with key team personnel. Not too long ago, over half a million WFT e-mail messages were seized by the NFL as part of an investigation into a hostile workplace culture. And some of those e-mails involved Gruden saying some not-so-nice things.

Now, the e-mails are roughly 10 years old, and so it's likely that the coach did not see any danger in them, assuming that he even remembered writing them. However, last week, one of the Gruden e-mails was leaked by someone in the NFL's headquarters. It had the coach describing DeMaurice Smith, who is head of the NFL Players' Association, and who is also Black, as having "lips the size of michellin [sic] tires." That is, of course, a racial slur.

In response to that original e-mail's release, Gruden managed to come up with a pretty plausible explanation: that where he comes from "rubber lips" means "dishonest." So, he was ostensibly attacking Smith's integrity, and not his race. Gruden might have weathered the storm, until The New York Times printed a few more choice e-mails, in which he slammed the NFL for trying to reduce concussions, blasted kneeling football players, shared adult photographs of WFT cheerleaders, said women were incapable of serving as NFL referees, called NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell a pu**y and a fa**ot, and said that the Los Angeles Rams—after they drafted openly gay player Michael Sam—like to draft "queers."

Gruden clearly has an enemy in the league office, though it's not yet clear exactly who is responsible for the leaks, or what their motivation is. There's actually a fair bit of intrigue, since he not only stepped on a lot of toes over the years, he also had an overly long, overly expensive contract that the Raiders likely regretted (he was owed about $65 million as of this week). Anyhow, it's unfortunate that e-mails that were supposed to remain private ended up public. That said, the insurance policy against that problem: Don't write those things in an e-mail, ever. And once Gruden's words were out there, well, there are few jobs where you could get away with saying any one of those things, much less all of them. So, he "resigned." One imagines he was given a bit of a golden parachute—or, really, a silver and black parachute—to walk away from $65 million without putting up an embarrassing-to-the-league fight. However, that is just supposition, and the details of his final hours as Raiders coach are not yet known.

And now we move to the response from the right wingers. While LGBTQ Superman didn't get much attention, the right-wing punditry had a field day with poor, poor Coach Gruden. In fact, let's do a pop quiz, focusing on one of those pundits, namely Newsmax's Greg Kelly. Which three of these did he invoke in order to make the case that what Gruden said was no big deal?

  1. The TV show Queer Eye
  2. Wrestler and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
  3. Bisexual Superman
  4. The comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes"
  5. The book Lolita
  6. The Nirvana song "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
  7. The movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  8. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man
  9. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger
  10. The television show "Seinfeld"

While you ponder that, we'll give you some additional examples. Clay Travis and Buck Sexton lamented how Gruden was a victim of the NFL's "Cancel Culture," while Charlie Kirk decreed that Gruden was forced out because "he's a white, Catholic, conservative male who speaks out."

As to Kelly, the answer is numbers 1, 7, and 9. Queer Eye and Fast Times were invoked because they used the word fa**ot, and it was ok for them to do it, so why not Gruden? This overlooks the fact that the former involves gay men, and the latter is 40 years old, and that the word they both used was actually "f**," and not "fa**ot"; "f**" is not great but it's not nearly as bad as "fa**ot." As to Mick Jagger (white), he was invoked because Eddie Murphy (Black) once made fun of his large lips. And, ipso facto, if a Black guy can do it to a white guy, then how come a white guy can't do it to a Black guy?

In any event, Gruden's out of work, and is presumably done working in any NFL or NFL-adjacent job. Meanwhile, we would be remiss if we did not point out that former quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been unemployed for 5 years because the same folks who are defending Gruden insisted that he be canceled for kneeling during the national anthem. (Z)

Don't Know Much about History: Liberals and Columbus

Let's do our second pop quiz of the day. Which of these four portraits of Christopher Columbus is closest to how he actually looked while he was alive?

Four picture; Columbus as a middle-aged
guy in an explorer's costume, a second of an elderly man who looks like a scholar, a third of an elderly man who looks more like
Martin Luther, and an engraving where he has very dark coloration

We will get back to this.

Anyhow, yesterday, prompted by Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples' Day, we had an item about how conservatives tend to lionize Christopher Columbus in a manner that is both ahistorical and revisionist. This is not to say that all conservatives do this, but some do. Including some of the loudest and most prominent conservatives, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Meanwhile, there is a lefty interpretation of Columbus that is also pretty extreme. As with the conservatives, not all liberals embrace this interpretation. But some do, and they do it loudly. And the interpretation is that Columbus was guilty of genocide. There was less of this on Monday than there was Columbus-worship. But there was some of it. For example, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) described the explorer as a "genocidal maniac." San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who used to be something of a moderate, concurred, accusing Columbus of initiating a genocide and comparing him to Adolf Hitler.

Now before we continue, let's talk a little bit about Columbus and his career. When it comes to honoring him, it is common to say things that are not true—we saw a fair bit of that from the Republicans this week. He most certainly did not discover the Americas; they had been discovered by the Natives, and by the Vikings, and possibly by others well before Columbus arrived. Nor was he a successful entrepreneur, or a keen thinker, or a scientist ahead of his time. In fact, he basically screwed up everything he ever did; he just got lucky that one of his screw-ups (bumping into the Americas) was of enormous interest and value to others.

So, what was his significance? Did he even have one? Yes, he did. In contrast to, say, Leif Ericsson, Columbus' voyages persuaded people in Spain and elsewhere that there was utility in sailing west, and that there were riches there to be had. In other words, though he made a bunch of huge mistakes, including never realizing that he had not reached India, he initiated the Age of Discovery. But it was a slow process. The answer to the pop quiz at the start of this item is: There is no answer. Nobody actually knows what he looked like, because there were no portraits made of him while he was alive (or anytime close to his death). This speaks to the fact that his significance was not recognized during his lifetime (and, in fact, wasn't really recognized for about a century after his passing).

So, he is an important historical figure. At the same time, he was most certainly a real bastard—by our standards, but also by the standards of his day. He enslaved many Natives, and was not shy about torture, cutting off hands, or cutting off heads, both Native and Spanish. He suborned rape and pillage, including the rape of children. But there is a far distance between "bastard" and "committer of genocide." So, does Columbus deserve the latter descriptor?

To answer that, we will have to put him aside for a moment, and review the history of genocide as a concept, a subject we've written about before. During and after World War II, a Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin was writing about what had happened to his people, and found that there was no word available that he considered satisfactory. While there had been large-scale killings in the past, he felt that the Nazis had committed a particularly atrocious crime against humanity. Not only did they engage in mass murder, they did so knowingly and intentionally, and their purpose was to wipe out an entire race, culture or ethnic group. And in the absence of a word to describe this special, and unusually heinous crime, Lemkin created his own. Writing in 1944, he explained himself:

New conceptions require new terms. By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homicide, infanticide, etc. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.

So again, he is concerned with three things: (1) scope, (2) the existence of intent, and (3) the underlying motive.

Lemkin pretty much abandoned his legal career as he worked on this analysis, and became an anti-genocide activist. He played a key role in shaping the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted in 1948, and defines the crime thusly:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Again, the elements of scope, intent, and motive are all present. And to this day, these are the two most commonly used definitions for "genocide," despite being more than 70 years old.

That now puts us in a position to evaluate Columbus. When it comes to scope and intent, you can ding him with one, or you can ding him with the other, but you can't plausibly ding him with both. That is to say, he—and people acting on his orders—killed between 500 and 1,000 people, most of them Native American. They most certainly intended to do it, but that is nowhere near the scope envisioned by Lemkin and/or the U.N. declaration.

Alternatively, you can argue that Columbus deserves responsibility for everything that came after his voyages. It's probably not the best argument, but you can make it. If you do, then you reach the scope that Lemkin and the U.N. were thinking of, since tens of millions of Natives ultimately died thanks to European diseases, weapons, mistreatment, etc. However, intent falls away. One cannot plausibly say that when Columbus put ashore in Hispaniola, he intended that, say, 150,000 natives in California would be killed 350 years later.

So, you have intent without scope, or you have scope without intent. And then you have the question of motive, which deals a final blow to the case for Columbus as committer of genocide. It is true that he placed little value on the natives, and that the more he could plunder the better. It is true that he did terrible things to them. But it is simply not the case that his motive was to eliminate "in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Since he only encountered a few tribes, he didn't have the opportunity to do this. Further, he most certainly didn't want the natives wiped out. This wasn't out of a humanitarian impulse, mind you, it was because he wanted them to be available as laborers, and also needed their knowledge of local flora and fauna.

Lemkin was a lawyer and, consistent with that, wanted a very precise term for a very precise crime. And in Columbus' case, the term doesn't fit. Just as one can recognize his significance without inappropriately turning him into Jesus Christ, one can acknowledge his venality without inappropriately turning him into Satan. Columbus was not a nice man, but he was not Adolf Hitler, either.

And now we are set up to answer the question we've been wanting to get back to for months: Was the United States government guilty of genocide against the natives? You'll have our answer on Friday. (Z)

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Oct12 The Murky Crystal Ball, Part I: Joe Biden Is Toast--The News
Oct12 The Murky Crystal Ball, Part II: Joe Biden Is Toast--The Polls
Oct12 The Murky Crystal Ball, Part III: Joe Biden Is Toast--The Virginia Gubernatorial Election
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Oct12 Don't Know Much about History: Conservatives and Columbus
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