Category Archives: 2010 elections

Just a Nut Job

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the right when accused Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner was revealed to be just another disturbed young man, clearly suffering from untreated mental illness. After all, conservative commentators leaped to point out, if the guy is a nut job, then all the right-wing political attacks on Democratic party office holders and candidates for office didn’t have any or much effect on the shooting.

That interpretation of events seems to have taken hold in the public mind. Most people don’t think there is any connection between the Tuscon shooting and what the pollsters call “political discourse,” according to the new ABC-Washington Post poll released Tuesday morning.

The public overwhelmingly sees the country’s political discourse as negative in tone – 82 percent say so, including three in 10 who say it’s “angry.” Still there’s a division, 49-49 percent, on whether it’s created a climate that could encourage political violence.

On the Tucson shootings specifically, 54 percent of Americans do not think the political discourse contributed to the incident, while 40 percent think it did. Those who do see a connection divide on whether it was a strong factor, or not strong.

The survey more generally finds blame for the political tone spread across a variety of groups. Half the public says the Tea Party political movement and its supporters, as well as political commentators on both side of the ideological divide, have “crossed the line” in terms of attacking the other side. Forty-five percent say the Republican Party and its supporters have done the same; fewer, 39 percent, say so about the Democratic Party.

Now, this doesn’t make much sense to me. Jared Loughner may be mad, but there’s clearly a method to his madness. He may be psychotic, but his psychosis manifested itself in a particular way. After all, Loughner didn’t attack members of his family. He didn’t go postal at the workplace. He didn’t shoot up the military recruiters or the college that rejected him. No. When he picked up his legally obtained assault weapon, he chose to try and assasinate a member of the United States Congress. And not just any old member, but one who had been targeted, singled out for political attack, reviled by the right wing. And this amidst a call by several right-wing figures for their followers to become “armed and dangerous” to defend their liberties against such Democratic party usurpers as Gabrielle Giffords. How can you say this attack is unrelated to the current American political culture?

As Lynn Parramore, editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s blog New Deal 2.0, puts it, one must  ignore that political culture, right-wing ideology, and Sarah Palin. Otherwise, one  will be taking advantage of the botched murder, and thereby contributing to a witch hunt. To avoid such accusations, the majority of the populace are willing to deny the following facts, as outlined by Parramore:

  • That a disturbed young man allegedly went on a killing rampage. That his rage did not manifest in an attack on a neighbor. Or a family member. Or a police officer. It manifested in the attempt to assassinate a member of the United States Congress.
  • That the disturbed young man recorded his ramblings on YouTube prior to the rampage. That his disturbance did not take the form of claims that he was pursued by aliens. Or expressions of a belief that he was Messiah. His ravings concerned the illegitimacy of the U.S. government and its currency.
  • That obsessions with the legitimacy of the U.S. government and its currency are not associated at this moment in history with liberals. Or centrists. Or members of the Flat Earth Society. They are the pet concerns of right wing ideologues.
  • That the target of the assassination attempt, Congresswoman Giffords, had been the object of threats, violent rhetoric and the witness to alarming incidents in public venues, including the sight of a gun dropping out of the clothing of a man holding an anti-government placard at a recent gathering. That she publicly expressed her fear of the escalation by naming a public figure, whose use of violent imagery was directed at her. The person named was not Howard Dean. Or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or President Obama. The person named was Sarah Palin.
  • That Sarah Palin, the person Giffords publicly named as a spreader of dangerous rhetoric, is a political figure. That she is not associated with progressives. Or centrists. Or moderate Republicans. She is associated with the Tea Party.
  • That over the last two years, the Tea Party has been associated with the expression of dissatisfaction towards the current state of the nation. That this dissatisfaction has not expressed itself in demands for a renewal of the brotherhood of mankind. Or a focus on peaceful protest. It has been expressed in slogans like “Don’t retreat, RELOAD” (Sarah Palin); a call for “Second Amendment remedies” (Nevada Tea Party Senate candidate); and “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” (Congresswoman and Tea Partier Michelle Bachman).
  • That the very forces in our society that might have prevented the massacre — namely strong gun laws and adequate services for the mentally ill — are precisely the forces that a certain section of the American political spectrum seeks to undermine. That this section is not the far left. Or the U.S. Pacifist Party. Or the Green Party. Those that most loudly advocate weak gun laws and austerity measures that cut off health care are typically right wing conservatives.
  • That the person who has had the task of maintaining law and order in Tucson, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, expressed his deep concern about the community just after the shooting. That the thing most troubling to him was not the real estate crisis in Tucson. Or unemployment. Or the need for looser gun laws. He specifically named violent political rhetoric as the thing that kept him up at night.

In the face of this preponderance of fact, the right has once again managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and sieze hold of the political rhetoric. That they did so in the current circumstances–while a judge and a young child lie dead, and a member of Congress struggles to recover from bullet through her brain–seems nothing short of astonishing. But then, one has to remember how completely the right has ruled the political discourse in this country for at least 30 years. 

Since the birth of the New Right  back during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the right has ceaselessly steeped its political program  in an  ideology of “principle,”  as opposed to wishy-washy Democratic pragmatism. Principle, drawn from the study of the literal Bible text and the Constitution, was to be the foundation of rightward change, from the Reagan Revolution through Bush II. The Democrats largely ignored the ideological attack, laughing it off as the work of a bunch of crackpots. They also offered no competing ideology, having denounced liberalism and abandoned traditional  Democratic principles. 

The result was the repeated loss of the presidency, of the Congress, of any control over the economy and of foreign policy. Through sheer ignorance and arrogance, plus a dose of ideological bankruptcy, the Democrats willed themselves out of power. And when they managed to get some back, with the election of Obama in 2008, they had nothing in their arsenal with which to meet the right-wing ideological onslaught that followed.

Beyond the mainstream tenets of conservative principal, the further shores of the right fired up a fresh hodgepodge of nativist politics that spurred on the revival of  new militant white power groups, the rise of the militia movement, then the Minutemen, and then the more militant members of the Tea Parties. These days, it’s hard to tell the fringe from the center right, and what we used to call “extremist” views are expressed on the campaign trail and sometimes on the floor of the Congress.

But none of this, of course, has anything to do with the shooting in Tucson.

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Obama’s Tax Deal and the Future of Social Security

It’s worth pointing out once again that  last week’s  tax deal is hardly the victory for the American people it is made out to be. One of the biggest chunks —thirteen percent of the total monies — come from Social Security and Medicare in the form of a one-year cut in payroll taxes. The government promises to pay back what it is taking from the Social Security trust fund by borrowing the money, then floating bonds to guarantee  repayment.

This one year abeyance might not seem like much. But with the coming of a right-wing  Republican House, under pressure from the further fringes in the Tea Party, it does not augur well for the future of the program. From its inception under FDR, the Republicans have dreamed of getting rid of Social Security, along with such other things as the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Department of Education and the UN.

“Social Security’s dedicated funding base is jeopardized by this deal in an unprecedented way and there is a grave risk now that the retirement benefits of America’s workers will have to compete with our other priorities for a share of the general budget,” said Texas Congressman Loyd Doggett at a press conference cheld by the National Committee to preserve Social Security and Medicare. “It would result in Social Security being as dependent on annual Congressional action as public television or our National parks.”

“If the recent debate on the Bush tax cuts has taught us anything, it is that taxes are easy to cut but hard to restore, said Florida Congressman Ted Deutch at the same press conference. “If this provision is made permanent, it will double Social Security’s long term funding gap and open a door that Democrats have long fought to keep closed – budgetary attacks on Social Security.’’ 

Cutting social welfare programs will be very much in vogue with the new Congress, especially as it ramps up for a showdown on raising debt limits this coming spring. Because the right wingers are out to get social programs and because all spending measures must start in the House, it is highly likely that Social Security and Medicare will occupy center stage in this debate, and that the proposals of various fiscal commissions will come into play. First, the suspension of a cost of living increase for Social Security recipients could well be extended. Second, the age at which one can begin to collect Social Security will most likely be raised from 67 to 69. And finally, the Bush tax cut deal digging into the Social Security trust fund certainly will be an opening for the right to further a  borrowing spree–ironically, all in the name of reducing the deficit.

However, there is a potential remedy. In 2012, the economy should be stronger than it is today, argues Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

 In addition, Congress likely will have enacted some significant budget cuts, and the nation likely will be debating the sort of further cuts that various commissions have recently proposed, including cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits for elderly widows and seriously disabled people with incomes as low as $20,000. At that point, the President will need to make clear that he will veto any legislation extending the high-end tax cuts or the weakening of the estate tax beyond its 2009 parameters, and he should use the bully pulpit to take this case to the country.

If only we could count on our president to do something like this at all, much less in an election year.

Behind the Battle Over Social Security

As the midterm elections near, the future of the Social Security system has become a hot-button issue–and a confusing one. A number of Republican politicians have hit on it as yet another way to undermine Obama and the Democratic leadership, by criticizing their supposed fiscal irresponsibility. Some must also see victory at hand in the conservatives’ longstanding battle to destroy one of the most hated remnants of the New Deal. These include the GOP’s chief architect of change Paul Ryan,who wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program and privatize Social Security. He is backed up by House minority leader John Boehner, who, if the Republicans take the House, could become the next speaker. 

Some Democrats have risen to defend the best–and most solvent–anti-poverty program the nation has ever known. But for other Democrats–including those in the White House–the response is more triangulation. It was Obama who set in motion the Fiscal Commission, supposedly to study the deficit but in fact, as just about everyone in Washington knows, to pare entitlements, cutting Medicare and Social Security. Originally, this commission was thought ready to propose lifting the limit at which one could draw Social Security from 62 to 67. Now scuttlebutt  is that the entry age should be 70. Our supposedly “socialist” president has placed the country’s premier social program in the hands of Alan Simpson, a Republican crank who views old people as the new welfare queens. 

It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of older voters don’t know what to make of it. A piece in Sunday’s New York Times reported on “tales of political burnout and withdrawal among older voters” in one swing county in Colorado. Many in this consituency, which can usually be counted upon to vote in large numbers, seemed to be withdrawing altogether from the fray. Others were preparing to shoot themselves in the foot:

Bill Benton, 79, a lifelong Colorado resident who described himself as an Eisenhower Republican, supports Mr. Buck and believes that his comments suggesting that the private sector could perhaps do a better job with Social Security were “just talk.” Mr. Buck has said that despite his comments, he would not support privatizing the retirement program. “I like him, but he says some dumb things,” Mr. Benton said.

With all the rhetoric flying out of Washington, it’s likely that some older people have come to view the whole topic of Social Security as the centerpiece in a Washington charade of boasts and lies, another turn in the game of smoke and mirrors, much in the manner of the shouting match over health care. It turns the stomach, feeds the hate against Washington, and sends people fleeing to escape a nightmare they can’t understand–sometimes, it appears, right into the arms of the Tea Party.

And in fact, people who suspect a smoke-and-mirrors game are pretty much on the money. Social Security’s elevation to a central political debate is tied to another hot-button issue: The future of the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts, which benefit the very rich—the people who pump cash into a candidate’s campaign—are set to expire next year. “In 2010, when all the Bush tax cuts are finally phased in, a staggering 52.5 percent of the benefits will go to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers,” according to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Washington-based  public interest group that follows and analyzes tax policy.

The impact of these cuts on the national treasury–and the deficit–cannot be overestimated: “The tax legislation enacted under President George W. Bush from 2001 through 2006 will cost $2.48 trillion over the 2001-2010 period,” Citizens for Tax Justice reports. “This includes the revenue loss of $2.11 trillion that resultsdirectly from the Bush tax cuts as well as the $379 billion in additional interest.’’

Obama has declared his opposition to extending the tax cuts for the highest income brackets. But some conservative Democrats will have other ideas. And if the White House’s resolve fails, as it often does, there’s another deficit-cutting alternative at hand in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a lot easier for politicians to talk about paring down entitlements than it is to attack the rich on whose largesse they depend.

Republican Right Offers Reagan Redux

The Republican right’s Pledge to America is widely being compared with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. But for those of us with long enough memories, it more clearly harkens back a decade further, to the early days of the Reagan Administration. Now, as then, the Republican agenda has two major political thrusts.

First, the Republicans are advancing a Reaganesque program based around defense Keynesianism, an economic pump-prime through military spending. It signals a victory for the Pentagon generals who have been fighting Obama to further expand what certainly appears to be a futile war in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan–one that can go on and on indefinitely. Moreover, the Republicans want to fund an expensive missile defense system. Just as with Reagan, once this kind of spending gets going, they will be congratulating themselves on new jobs making armaments. At the same time, they can talk of shrinking the deficit by reducing or eliminating domestic programs.

That’s the nub of the pledge, with one adroit addition. This document makes no mention of reducing or eliminating Social Security. This is good politics before the election, and it’s bound to undercut the Obama administration, which has created the fiscal commission to reduce deficits, and is widely assumed to have Medicare and Social Security in its sights. Reagan did his best to cut domestic programs of the New Deal sort. But in the end, he could never have entirely eliminated them because he always swore to maintain a basic safety net for the old and the poor–and such public pronouncements helped to undermine Democratic challenges.

The pledge provides a focus for Republican ambitions, but most importantly it removes any thought that the Tea Party people have or could ever have any real sway in Republican policy matters. During Reagan’s early forays into the countryside, there were plenty of what now would pass for Tea Party types, but they were largely excluded from the party’s overall direction. Gingrich and his New Right colleagues in Congress occupied the back benches of the House at the time, and they moved within the overall Republican party apparatus. There was–and is–no chance of a popular takeover from the fringes of the party. Instead, Reagan claimed the center, and then pushed that center further and further to the right, where it remains to this day.

Tea Party Gets Old People to Drink the Kool-Aid

By now, it’s common knowledge that older people make up a large portion of the so-called Tea Party Movement. My Mother Jones colleague Andy Kroll confirmed this once again in his report on the recent Faith and Freedom  Coalition confab here in Washington, where he described “the right’s geriatric game plan” for the midterm elections.

Pundits have trotted out various theories to explain the oldsters’ taste for Tea (they’re scared; they’re racists; they’re just plain dumb). Whatever the reason, I think it must involve some instinct toward masochism or martyrdom. How else to explain why these old folks would support politicians who want to dismantle the very social programs upon which their comfort–and possibly their very lives–depend? It looks to me like the aging right-wingers have been convinced to drink the Kool-Aid, and now they are sipping their way toward a mass suicide that will make Jim Jones’s endeavor seem like  a drop in the bucket.

I know. You think  these are the ravings of yet another demented geezer. But take a look at what the members of Congress aligned with the Tea Party have to say about Social  Security and Medicare, which alone are responsible for lifting millions of seniors out of abject, body-and-soul-destroying poverty. Referring to these old-age entitlements as a loathsome  form of “welfare,” Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann says that once the Tea Partiers gain power, they can get rid of Social Security in one long weekend. No need for the niceties of Alan Simpson’s entitlement-cutting Cat Food Commission; Bachmann wants to simply kill this New Deal relic once and for all. 

Bachmann made her pronouncements in Las Vegas at the  Rightonline Conference sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is run by David Koch. As Sodahead reported:

There, more than 1,000 Tea Partiers — the majority of whom are over the age of 45 — sat in rapt silence as Bachmann outlined a plan to end Social Security for all those who will be under the age of 65 at the time her potential dream Congress enacts the legislation.The growth of the federal debt and deficit require a drastic cutback in federal spending, Bachmann said. “Spending comes first, so we have to cut it first,” she explained, speaking of her plan to devastate Social Security. “And in my opinion, it’ll take us about a long weekend to get that done, and then we’ll be fine.”

For those between the ages of 55 and 65 at the time Bachmann’s Kill Social Security Plan hypothetically passes into law, there would be a means-tested program for “those who truly need it — the truly disadvantaged, those who truly can’t go forward.” For everybody else, there would be unspecified “alternatives and adjustments.” Those under the age of 55 would apparently be squat out of luck, regardless of how truly disadvantaged they are. From the assembled Tea Partiers, not a discouraging word was heard, even as Bachmann outlined a plan to essentially rob them of the money they’ve been putting into the system all their lives.

According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in April, 46 percent of Tea Party supporters fall into the 45-64 age group. (Untouched by the Bachmann plan would be the 29 percent of Tea Party supporters the poll cited as being over the age of 64.) The same survey revealed that among 47 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters, either they or a member of their household was receiving Social Security retirement benefits. When asked whether the outlay for programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the taxpayer expense, 62 percent said they were.

As if this weren’t enough, some Republicans have suggested that if they take Congress in November, they may at some point force a government shutdown, on the model of the Clinton years. As Bob Cesca points out, one of the first thing that  happens when the government shuts down is–no more Social Security checks (and no Medicare payments, either.) So even if Bachman’s radical plan fails, the Tea Party oldsters may succeed in screwing themselves–and taking the rest of us geezers along with them.

Triangulating Social Security

While on vacation for the past two weeks, I didn’t read the papers or look at TV, so I was mercifully unaware of the latest bon mot from one of the leading politcal pricks of the summer, former Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chairs Obama’s entitlement-cutting “deficit commission.” Just in case you haven’t heard about it, here’s an account from CBS:

In a letter responding to criticisms against him from a group representing older women, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson wrote that he has “spent many years in public life trying to stabilize” Social Security. However, he wrote, “Yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ’em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits!”

Simpson made his reply in response to an article on the Huffington Post penned by Ashley Carson, executive director of the National Older Women’s League (OWL). Carson had said, “Mr. Simpson continues to paint the picture that everyone receiving Social Security benefits is living the high life–driving luxury cars, dining out and living in gated communities.” She pointed out the average Social Security beneficiary gets $13,900 annually, relegating many older women to poverty–or, to put it more bluntly, throwing them into the proverbial poor house to rot out the rest of their lives.

Simpson is simply spouting right-wing crap. And I can understand the Clintonesque Democratic Leadership Council types, led by Erskine Bowles, the other co-chair of Obama’s deficit commission, wanting to play games with the right-wingers as they try to get their usual triangulation model set up. But how Obama thinks he can win votes out of the deficit commission charade is way over my head.

Up to now, the general idea has been obvious: Set up a show commission that spends billions of dollars going through the motions of investigation and study–LOL–while busily cutting deals among Republicans and conservative Dems to pare down Social Security and Medicare. These clever people then plan to announce that they can solve the deficit problem by slightly trimming Social Security and rearranging Medicare, but not so much as to hurt today’s “seniors.” God forbid! The deal is, however, to start making serious cuts as time goes on, after the current crop of do-nothing pols have long ago retired with their great pensions, splendid medical care, into profitable jobs lobbying the Congress for more cuts.

Now, nobody ever said the politicians in Washington are very swift. But you’d think that just by reading the basic demographic swing in the nation, they could see that with the tide greatly changing so that older people–not younger people–have the voting power to run the country. What they are actually doing is to doom their successors to a ruinous economics, not to mention a nowhere political future. But then, I always forget, the single greatest motivating force among the members of Congress–and I guess, sad to say, the Obama crowd, is a matter of simple greed in their own endless quest to stay in power.

This time, though, they may have miscalculated, especially by appointing an a-hole like Simpson, whose colorful pronouncements expose the deficit commission scam for the stealth attack that it is. Social Security is known as the third rail of politics, and we can at least hope that it’s lost none of its juice.

Obama’s Cat Food Commission, Alan Greenspan, and the Dancing Grannies for Medicare

President Obama’s Deficit Commission is all smoke and mirrors. Its members are making a big show of laboring over “painful” choices and considering all options in their quest to bring down the deficit. But  inside the Beltway everyone knows what’s going to happen: The commission will reduce the deficit on the backs of the old and the poor, through cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Some opponents have taken to calling it the Cat Food Commission, since that’s what it’s victims will be forced to eat once the commission gets done slashing away at their modest entitlements.

In fact, the true intent of the Deficit Commission was evident before it was even formed. That intent was only driven home when Obama appointed as its co-chair Alan Simpson, who is well known for voicing, in the most colorful terms, what Paul Krugman calls the “zombie lie” that old-age entitlements will soon bankrupt the country.

So why the big show? Because neither Obama nor the Congress wants to get caught cutting Social Security and Medicare in public, certainly not before the November elections. (Medicaid will be cut as well, but politicians tend not to worry so much about poor people, since they don’t go to the polls in the numbers we geezers do.) So instead, they are foisting off this unpleasant task onto the Deficit Commission, showing what the lawyers call “due diligence,” sucking their thumbs and pretending to study how to cut the deficit. They’ve got $1 billion in walk-around money to pay for propaganda so the PR industry ought to be plenty happy. So too, should billionaire Pete Peterson, as he and his foundation lackeys push forward towards a victory in their longstanding attack on entitlements.

Quite frankly, if the Republican Right could get itself together and shove the Tea Party nuts back into their cave–as Reagan did with the crackpots hanging around him–they too could reap the benefits of the Cat Food Commission’s work. Ever since the New Deal, the Right has been kicking and screaming about Social Security. Things just got worse in the 1960s with Medicare and Medicaid. And now, thanks to our supposedly “socialist” president, they are within a few inches of cutting a nice hefty hunk out of the largest social programs this nation has ever known.

As one Capital Hill player recently wrote me: “Unfortunately, everyone in a position of power up here knows full-well the connection between Peterson, the commission and Simpson.  They either don’t care or are too afraid to say anything because they’ll appear ‘soft on deficits.’  It’s no different than their Iraq war votes…they believe they’ll appear ‘weak’ if they don’t jump on the bandwagon. The Democrats, (with the exception of Nancy Pelosi and only a handful of others–including commission member Jan Schakowsky), have no intention of taking on Peterson’s crew.  Congress may be  a lost cause on this issue, if the voters don’t get pissed off about the Commission fast.” 

Will enough voters get pissed off enough, soon enough to slow down the anti-entitlement juggernaut? It’s a long shot, at this point. There are signs of something like a small movement growing around the Cat Food Commission idea, and scattered protests (among them a demonstration dubbed the “Dancing Grannies for Medicare.”)

But it’s going to take a lot to waylay the likely course of future events:  The Cat Food Commission will undoubtedly recommend, and a lame duck Congress will pass, legislation that looks fairly innocuous: trimming Social Security a bit, maybe by upping the age by a few years, and cutting a little from Medicare–none of it affecting anyone who is over 65 right now. That will enable the politicians now in office to look like they are protecting seniors and fending off any drastic cuts, while at the same time appearing “tough” on the deficit. But the legislation, in the usual Washington mode, will gradually widen as the years go by, so that by the time this bunch of pols are retired (on their fat pensions) and out of the fray, the new rules will be eating  into entitlements in a big way.

The other side of this Faustian bargain would appear to be Congress passing some tax increases. “In setting up his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform,” William Greider recently wrote in The Nation, “Barack Obama is again playing coy in public, but his intentions are widely understood among Washington insiders.” As Greider puts it, “The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink.”

It remains to be seen how “significant” those tax increases actually turn out to be. But even former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan seems to be on board with this general plan. Greenspan’s credentials include chairing the first major entitlement-cutting commission back in the 1980s, as well as promoting the Bush-era tax cuts that helped the deficit grow to its current proportions. He still says that reductions to Medicare benefits are necessary–but in a recent interview in the New York Times, Greenspan also says that he now wants to remove all the Bush tax cuts. Seeing as it comes from the champion of “let them eat cake” economics, this pronouncement must be seen as predictor of how conservatives could end up voting. In short, the old and the poor will have to eat cat food, but the rich might kick in a few crumbs as well.

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