Build, Barbara, Build: Reflections on Nickel and Dimed

I finally read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and was pleasantly surprised.  Her runaway best-seller is what researchers call “radical ethnography”; to study low-skilled workers in America, Ehrenreich became a low-skilled worker in America.  Ehrenreich mostly just walks us through her experiment: how she found work, where she lived, what the jobs were like, how she made ends meet.  While there’s ideological commentary throughout, she’s less preachy than most of her competition.  My favorite part, though, comes in the final chapter.  Instead of simply complaining about low wages, Ehrenreich talks about the painful pairing of low pay with high housing costs:

Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.

The problem of rents is easy for a non-economist, even a sparsely educated low-wage worker, to grasp: it’s the market, stupid.

Confession:

For a second, I was filled with hope that Ehrenreich was going to go full Yglesias and start denouncing our insanely strict housing regulation.  And as I read the next paragraph, the same hope returned:

If there seems to be general complacency about the low-income housing crisis, this is partly because it is in no way reflected in the official poverty rate, which has remained for the past several years at a soothingly low 13 percent or so. The reason for the disconnect between the actual housing nightmare of the poor and “poverty,” as officially defined, is simple: the official poverty level is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared with rent. In the early 1960s, when this method of calculating poverty was devised, food accounted for 24 percent of the average family budget (not 33 percent even then, it should be noted) and housing 29 percent. In 1999, food took up only 16 percent of the family budget, while housing had soared to 37 percent.

Wise observations.  Housing costs have exploded – especially in high-wage areas of the country.  It is very hard for low-skilled workers to afford nice housing.  And superficially, the problem is “the market.”  Prices are high because developers produce so little housing.

Why, though, do developers produce so little housing?  Regardless of their political views, almost any economist these days will blame government regulation.  The physical cost of erecting buildings hasn’t changed much, but the political cost of erecting buildings has skyrocketed.  Serious deregulation would dramatically increase the supply of housing, and sharply reduce its price.  And don’t say, “Only for the rich.”  Much of the regulation on the books – such as minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, and bans on multi-family construction – is consciously designed to zone out the poor.

So when Ehrenreich was decrying housing costs, she could have segued to, “Despite decades of free-market rhetoric, hardly anyone wants to see a real free market in housing.  Yet almost nothing else would do more for the working poor.”  Furthermore, she could have so segued without breaking character.  There is no good reason why Ehrenreich couldn’t think everything else she thinks and advocate the abolition of a bunch of laws that deprive the poor of affordable housing.

Alas, she said this instead:

When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance. The rich can always outbid them, buy up their tenements or trailer parks, and replace them with condos, McMansions, golf courses, or whatever they like. Since the rich have become more numerous, thanks largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily been forced into housing that is more expensive, more dilapidated, or more distant from their places of work.

This is plainly false.  In a free market, the poor totally “stand a chance.”  Given current prices and twenty acres of land, developers would much rather erect a massive apartment complex than twenty single-family homes.  In desirable areas, however, getting such permission is almost impossible.  And while developers will build in remote locations if they must, most would far prefer to build up in urban centers.  Why don’t they?  Because getting permission to make your building taller is like pulling teeth.  For every skyscraper under construction in NYC, just picture all the landlords who would build a skyscraper of their own if the zoning authorities handed them permission.

What then is Ehrenreich’s solution?  More government spending:

When the market fails to distribute some vital commodity, such as housing, to all who require it, the usual liberal-to-moderate expectation is that the government will step in and help. We accept this principle-at least in a halfhearted and faltering way-in the case of health care, where government offers Medicare to the elderly, Medicaid to the desperately poor, and various state programs to the children of the merely very poor. But in the case of housing, the extreme upward skewing of the market has been accompanied by a cowardly public sector retreat from responsibility. Expenditures on public housing have fallen since the 1980s, and the expansion of public rental subsidies came to a halt in the mid-1990s.

I can understand someone saying, “Deregulation isn’t enough.”  But you could double the supply of public housing without making a noticeable dent in the housing shortage.  Rent subsidies are much easier to scale up, but subsidizing demand without increasing supply is almost the definition of crazy policy.  Furthermore, if you want to create high-paid job opportunities for non-college workers, a rapidly growing construction sector is a dream come true.

You could interpret all this as a “gotcha,” but I strive to be positive.  Yes, Nickel and Dimed overlooked the fact that government grossly deprives the working poor of affordable housing.  As far as Google knows, Ehrenreich’s continued to overlook this fact.  What’s important now, though, is that she could and should join the long list of left-leaning thinkers who champion deregulation of housing.

So how about it, Barbara?

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Teachers Who Quit to Create Schooling Alternatives

It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to experience burnout or feel demoralized by the weight of their work. Many leave the classroom and the education profession behind to pursue other careers. In fact, U.S. Labor Department data reveal that public school educators are quitting their jobs at record-breaking rates.

But some public school teachers wonder if conventional schooling may be the root of their discontent, not education itself. They are frustrated by standardized curriculum expectations, more testing, an emphasis on classroom compliance and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that a rigid schooling environment can cultivate. Rather than abandoning their passion for education, some of these teachers are building alternatives to school outside of the dominant system that nurture authentic teaching and learning relationships.

Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional

One of the pioneers of schooling alternatives is Kenneth Danford, a former public middle school social studies teacher who left the classroom in 1996 to launch a completely new learning model. Along with a teacher colleague, Danford opened North Star, a self-directed learning center in western Massachusetts. They sought to create a space for young people, ages 11 and up, that prioritized learner freedom and autonomy, while rejecting the coercion and control they witnessed in the conventional classroom. This involved building the learning center as a resource for peer interaction, optional classes, workshops, and adult mentoring while providing teenagers with the opportunity to come and go whenever they chose.

Using homeschooling as the legal mechanism to provide this educational freedom and flexibility, North Star members attend when they want, frequently using the center to supplement community college classes, extracurricular activities and apprenticeships. Full-time, annual membership up to four days per week is $8,200, but no family has ever been turned away for an inability to pay these fees. Some families choose part-time enrollment options that start at $3,250 per year for one day a week at North Star.

In his new book, Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional, Danford reflects on his more than 20 years of running North Star and the hundreds of young people who have gone through his program, often gaining admission to selective colleges or pursuing work in fulfilling careers. He told me in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m making an important difference in teens’ lives, perhaps the most important difference. And all this loveliness has social implications and can be shared.

Liberated Learners

Sharing this model with others was the next step for Danford. After receiving many calls and emails from educators across the country and around the world who wanted to launch centers similar to North Star, in 2013 Danford helped to establish Liberated Learners, an organization that supports entrepreneurial educators in opening their own alternatives to school.

One of the centers that sprouted from Liberated Learners is BigFish Learning Community in Dover, New Hampshire. Founded by Diane Murphy, a public school teacher for 30 years, BigFish allows young people to be in charge of their own learning. Murphy opened the center in January 2018 with five students; today, she has over 30. Full-time tuition at the center (up to four days a week) is $9,000 per year, with part-time options also available.

An English teacher, she never expected to be the founder of a schooling alternative. “I loved my job,” she says, but she quit to create something better. “The main reason I left is because the kids began showing up more and more miserable,” Murphy continues.

In my last few years, I was meeting dozens of students who were depressed, anxious and burned out at just 13 years old. More and more rules, more tests, and more competition had sucked the fun out of learning and truly broken many kids.

Granted more freedom and less coercion, young people at BigFish thrive—and so do the teachers. “Real teachers understand that our role is to support and lead young people to discover and uncover their talents, most especially to find their passions and their voice,” says Murphy. Working outside of the conventional school system may be a way forward for more teachers who want to help young people to drive their own education, in pursuit of their own passions and potential.

Entrepreneurial Teachers

According to Kevin Currie-Knight, an education professor at East Carolina University, it’s rare for teachers to recognize that their dissatisfaction as an educator may be a schooling problem, not a personal one. Currie-Knight, who studies self-directed education and alternative learning models, says that the tendency is for teachers to internalize the problems they encounter in the classroom. If children aren’t engaged or are acting out, teachers typically assume that it must be their poor teaching and that they must not be cut out for the job, rather than seeing it as a problem with coercive schooling more broadly.

“School isn’t challengeable,” says Currie-Knight of its entrenched position in our culture.

The teachers who leave to create alternatives have a really amazing ability to separate learning from schooling. It takes a higher level of thought and an amazing ability to detach.

Currie-Knight explains that most teachers go into education either because they really like a certain subject area or they really like kids, or both. “In the conventional environment,” he says,

teachers are going to be in rooms where the vast majority of students just really don’t care about that subject at that point.

Many of these teachers conclude that it’s their teaching that is the problem, rather than the underlying dynamics of conventional schooling that compel young people to learn certain content, in certain ways and at certain times.

Teachers who leave the classroom to create schooling alternatives can be an inspiration to other teachers who may feel frustrated or powerless. Rather than blaming themselves, entrepreneurial teachers are the ones who imagine, design, and implement new models of education. As BigFish’s Murphy proposes:

We need to flip schools to become community learning centers filled with mentors, classes, programs and materials, and we need to trust young people and let them lead.

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They Know Better

Moral reasoning is hard.  It’s so hard, in fact, that most people do little moral reasoning.  Instead, as Daniel Kahneman would expect, they perform a mental substitution.  Rather than wonder, “What’s morally right?,” they ask, “What’s socially acceptable?”

In decent societies, this seems fairly harmless.  When your society is even selectively evil, however, the substitution is disastrous.  Strictly following standard social norms in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China is murder.

Which brings us to a pressing question: How do you know whether your society is evil?  Or to make matters even starker: How hard was it for the average adult in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China to know that their societies were evil?  If people can’t readily figure that out on their own, what moral questions can they answer?

My claim: Figuring out that Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China are evil is an easy task for almost anyone – including lifelong members of those societies.  How so?  By applying two principles that a child can understand.

Principle #1: Turnaround. When a child mistreats each other, adults routinely ask the offender something like, “Would it be all right if someone did that to you?”  When you’re faced with complex moral hypotheticals, this question won’t get you far.  But when you’re wondering, “Is it all right to murder some peaceful but unpopular people?,” you really can fast forward to the right answer just by asking, “If you were a Jew/kulak/money-lender, would it be all right to murder you?”

Principle #2: Bad laws are made to be broken. Virtually everyone in every society regularly breaks the law – and they usually do so with a clean conscience.  This is clearly true when the law inflicts great suffering for no good reason.  Yet people also routinely break laws simply because the laws are obviously stupid.  A few people may claim to “Always follow the law,” but even these stubborn folk spend little time actually studying the laws to ensure they don’t accidentally break one.  Neither do they feel guilty about their lackadaisical effort to master the body of laws they’re nominally determined to strictly obey.  And since people already break the law to cut a few minutes off their commute, the idea that they should disobey laws ordering the murder of Jews/kulaks/money-lenders is only an intellectual baby step.

None of this means that ordinary people in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China were morally obliged to die as martyrs.  However, it does mean ordinary people in these societies could easily figure out that their societies were deeply evil – and they should at least covertly strive to avoid complicity.  If they failed to figure that out, it is because they culpably failed to apply moral principles they understood since childhood.

The moral standards for people who actually formed and carried out these policies were, of course, much higher.  I’ve quoted Spiderman before and I’ll quote him again: With great power comes great responsibility.  Ordinary people have no obligation to devote their lives to the study of moral philosophy and social science.  But anyone who wields political power over thousands of human beings – much less millions – absolutely does.

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Mao Is Murder

 

Mao Zedong’s most famous aphorism could well be, “Revolution is not a dinner party.”  But perhaps he should have said, “Revolution is a dinner party where the main course is human flesh.”  Here’s one gripping episode from Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation.

In April 1948, the communists advanced towards Changchun itself. Led by Lin Biao, a gaunt man who had trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, they laid siege to the city. Lin was considered one of the best battlefield commanders and a brilliant strategist. He was also ruthless. When he realised that Zheng Dongguo, the defending commander in Changchun, would not capitulate, he ordered the city to be starved into surrender. On 30 May 1948 came his command: ‘Turn Changchun into a city of death.’

Inside Changchun were some 500,000 civilians, many of them refugees who had fled the communist advance and were trapped in their journey south to Beijing after the railway lines had been cut. A hundred thousand nationalist troops were also garrisoned inside the city. Curfew was imposed almost immediately, keeping people indoors from eight at night to five in the morning. All able-bodied men were made to dig trenches. Nobody was allowed to leave. People who refused to be searched by sentries were liable to be shot on the spot. Yet an air of goodwill still prevailed in the first weeks of the siege, as emergency supplies were dropped by air. Some of the well-to-do even established a Changchun Mobilisation Committee, supplying sweets and cigarettes, comforting the wounded and setting up tea stalls for the men.

But soon the situation deteriorated. Changchun became an isolated island, beleaguered by 200,000 communist troops who dug tunnel defences and cut off the underground water supply to the city. Two dozen anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery bombarded the city all day long, concentrating their fire on government buildings. The nationalists built three defensive lines of pillboxes around Changchun. Between the nationalists and the communists lay a vast no man’s land soon taken over by bandits.

On 12 June 1948 Chiang Kai-shek cabled an order reversing the ban on people leaving the city. Even without enemy fire, his planes could not possibly parachute in enough supplies to meet the needs of an entire city. But the anti-aircraft artillery of the communists forced them to fly at an altitude of 3,000 metres. Many of the airdrops landed outside the area controlled by the nationalists. In order to prevent a famine, the national­ists encouraged the populace to head for the countryside. Once they had left they were not allowed back, as they could not be fed…

Few ever made it past the communist lines.  Lin Biao had placed a sentry every 50 metres along barbed wire and trenches 4 metres deep.  Every exit was blocked.  He reported back to Mao: ‘We don’t allow the refugees to leave and exhort them to turn back. This method was very effective in the beginning, but later the famine got worse, and starving civilians would leave the city in droves at all times of day and night, and after we turned them down they started gathering in the area between our troops and the enemy.’

What was the point of this cruelty?  Victory:

By the end of June, some 30,000 people were caught in the area between the communists, who would not allow them to pass, and the nationalists, who refused to let them back in the city.  Hundreds dried every day.  Two months later, more than 150,000 civilians were pressed inside the death zone, reduced to eating grass and leaves, doomed to slow starvation.

[…]

Soldiers absconded throughout the siege.  Unlike the civilians who were driven back, they were welcomed by the communists and promised good food and lenient treatment.

And victory was indeed achieved:

Hailed in China’s history books as a decisive victory in the battle of Manchuria, the fall of Changchun came at huge cost, as an estimated 160,000 civilians were starved to death inside the area besieged by the communists.  ‘Changchun was like Hiroshima,’ wrote Zhang Zhenglong, a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army who documented the siege.  ‘The casualties were about the same.  Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months.’

Victory, however, was the basis for decades of tyranny and tragedy.  Why?  Because the Maoists, devoted followers of Lenin, only practiced “By any means necessary” when trying to gain and hold power.  Otherwise, their motto was, “Whatever strikes our fancy.”

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Teaching Lies

I have a problem with anyone who teaches children incorrect information. When it’s intentional, that’s worse.

Such as the lie that government is good or necessary. This is part of the reason I so strongly dislike “public” (government) schools. Not the only reason, obviously, but a big one.

I also hate the bullying, the religious indoctrination (here, they indoctrinate more than just Statism), the theft-financing, and the antisocializing the kids go through.

I also hate the trends the kids spread among themselves at those kinderprisons, but that I don’t blame on the schools.

But teaching kids incorrect information– when the “teachers” ought to know better because they’ve been exposed to the correct information— is unforgivable.

Yes, I realize most of the “teachers” were also force-fed the same lies and they are just passing along what they were taught. But once someone points out why they are mistaken, and they dig their heels in, well, that’s just wrong.

Of course, they want to keep that paycheck coming, and speaking the truth would end the gravy-train– if they could live with themselves while holding such a “job”.

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Anatomy of a Frivolous Argument

While I’ve spoken about this many times, it keeps coming up so I figured I would do a formal analysis.  I’m well-aware this will have no impact on those who use this tactic to avoid discussion, such as lawyers and bureaucrats; this is for those who may be victims of this pernicious method of shouting down a valid argument.  Ironically, as will be shown, it’s those screeching “frivolous” that are usually raising a truly frivolous argument.  Yelling frivolous is a distraction technique, don’t be fooled by it.

Anyone who has ever challenged the legitimacy of government and the application of their sacred writ, called “laws,” will be familiar with this tactic.  When the accuser admittedly has no evidence, they just start shouting “frivolous argument” as if that magically creates facts to support their claim.

What is a frivolous argument?  There are usually two constants, it’s not just an argument lacking in merit or arbitrarily denied by a traffic court judge: “An appeal [argument] is not frivolous just because it has no merit” Applied Business Software, Inc. v. Pacific Mortgage Exchange, Inc., 164 Cal. App. 4th 1108, it must also be brought in bad faith:

frivolous.  So clearly and palpably bad and insufficient as to require no argument or illustration to show the character as indicative of bad faith upon a bare inspection…Strong v Sproul, 53 NY 497, 499.”  Ballentine’s Law Dictionary, 3rd Ed., page 503.

Black’s Law Dictionary adds to this (also quoting Strong v Sproul):

“…where it does not controvert the material points of the opposite pleading, and is presumably interposed for mere purposes of delay or to embarrass the opponent…”  4th Ed, page 796.

A frivolous argument has three elements:

  1. lacks merit;
  2.  doesn’t controvert the material points; and
  3.  is brought in bad faith.

Now let’s look at an argument I wrote that’s been labeled “frivolous” by an administrative law judge in California and see if it meets this criteria.

“…the legal claims made against me have no factual support, the FTB knows this, and is proceeding against me anyway.”  The legal claim referenced is the claim the laws apply because the target of the assessment is physically in California or has a California source of money.  The FTB argues their laws created an obligation, it’s a foundational claim.

We know this because several agents told us, this includes counsel for the FTB.  When asked for the facts they relied on, they admittedly had nothing, counsel admitted this was an assumption (video below).  Those are the facts my argument is based on, the argument follows directly from the facts.

1. Does the claim have merit?  Yes; the FTB and IRS operate under the same presumption, they admit it; they claim their laws apply, gives them jurisdiction and creates obligations.

My argument is based on their admissions they don’t have evidence and don’t need evidence to support their claim.  So with the FTB claim, where they admit they have no evidence and the foundation of their assessment is an assumption, there is solid factual support.  Therefore, the argument is valid, it has merit because the facts support it.

The FTB and IRS are required to have evidence to support their assessments; lacking a foundational basis is referred to as a “naked assessment” to wit:

The determination of tax due then may be one “without rational foundation and excessive,” and not properly subject to the usual rule with respect to the burden of proof in tax cases. Helvering v. Taylor, 293 US 507.” United States v. Janis, 428 U.S. 433.

The challenge is based on this principle, while my challenge is not spelled out in this or other cases I’m aware of, the legal principle is what’s relevant. The FTB’s assessment is “without rational foundation” by their own admissions.

The argument has merit because it is based on a sound legal principle, supported by the agents’ own admissions.

2.  Does it “controvert the material points” made by the FTB or IRS?  Yes; by their own admission they operate under the presumption the laws apply because you’re physically in California or have a California source of money; and by their own admission they have no evidence, it’s an assumption.  It’s logical and consistent with the facts.

3.  Is it brought in bad faith?  No; it’s based on facts, and a sound legal principle that “controverts the material points” raised by the FTB or IRS.  It’s a logically, legally, and factually consistent argument.

None of the three elements of a “frivolous argument” are present proving the argument is not frivolous; it may be wrong, but it’s not frivolous.  It’s possible the facts as alleged are not true, but that is what a hearing is for, to determine if the alleged facts are true.  In the above video you can hear the agent admit the assessment’s foundation, the applicability of the laws, is an assumption.  An assumption is not a “rational foundation.”

If it’s obvious it’s not a frivolous argument, then why do tax agents and their lawyers (with and without black robes) insist it is and threaten thousands in sanctions?   Because they have a vested interest in the system taking property by force (taxation).  They are the ones raising an argument that has no rational foundation and is brought in bad faith.  I’ve had tax agents claim they don’t need evidence.  That’s frivolous, not pointing out their claim lacks factual support.

What they are really saying is just challenging their foundational claim is somehow a frivolous argument or calling out their frivolous argument is itself frivolous.  That is proof of bad faith.

What they do is strawman the actual position claiming:

“Appellant’s inquiry is entirely nonsensical, and while we are unsure of the exact import of this statement, it appears to be based on the meritless contention that California does not have jurisdiction to impose a personal income tax on appellant.”

No, the contention is: the FTB admitted their foundational claim is the constitution applies because there was California source of money.  When asked for evidence, they admittedly had none and agreed it was an assumption.  We have never made the above claim, this is done to justify ignoring the actual issue. They know what the actual issue is because the “entirely nonsensical” argument is cited just before the above quote:

“Moreover, in her briefs, appellant states that she had previously contacted FTB staff and [FTB counsel] regarding the proposed assessments at issue, and that these individuals failed to provide evidence that the “constitution” applied to her.”

First, the claim is not “entirely nonsensical” it’s based on the FTB’s own admissions and used as an insult, they also use “legalistic gibberish.”  What this administrative law judge really thinks is frivolous, is challenging the FTB’s claim the laws apply to appellant.  Questioning the FTB’s legal claim is the frivolous argument to him.  This cow is so sacred to this bureaucrat he’s threatening a five-thousand dollar sanction for just questioning it and pointing out it’s admittedly an assumption.  Like the pope admitting he just assumes the gods are real and anyone quoting him is raising a frivolous argument.  By the way, this is the same bureaucrat allowing the FTB to lie with impunity in their pleadings.  No bias there I guess.

Some claim the courts have already ruled the argument frivolous for decades as if that changes anything, it doesn’t.  Because just as this ALJ is wrong, so are the courts for the reasons above.

It must also be noted they are not addressing this actual argument in those cases, just like the ALJ does here.  If you look at the cases, the frivolous arguments are all arguments of legal interpretation, not issues of fact.  This ALJ cites Appeals of Dauberger (82- SBE-082) 1982, as support; the type of arguments included are: wages not income without meaning of statute, not a taxpayer within meaning of statute, federal reserve notes are not legal tender, and the Fifth Amendment prohibits the requirement to file a tax return.  Not a single issue of fact cited as a frivolous argument.

If it’s truly frivolous to challenge this legal claim, then that’s proof the system is rigged.  Irrefutable presumptions are unfair and violate due process because they cannot be challenged, there is no defense, even against an assumption, Vlandis v. Kline, 412 US 441. Yes, this is about legislative presumptions, but the principle of fairness is what is relevant because due process requires notice and opportunity to defend at a meaningful hearing, Goldberg v Kelly, 397 US 254 (1970).

It’s not a so-called “frivolous argument” to point out someone’s foundational claim is admittedly an assumption, it’s a statement of fact.

So when they start chanting frivolous, call them on it, ask them what makes an argument frivolous and not just wrong.  Ask them to point out what part of the argument is false; because the underlying facts are not and since the conclusion is drawn directly from the facts, the conclusion is accurate.

The argument the FTB or IRS has failed to support their claim the constitution applies, has merit because 1) it is based on their own admissions, 2) it controverts material points because they admit to not having evidence, and 3) because it’s based on a sound legal principle and the FTB’s own admissions, there is no bad faith.

Regardless of the chants from lawyers and bureaucrats, the argument is not frivolous.

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