Category Archives: The System

It’s time to stop being afraid of socialism

afraid-of-socialismQuiet little Seattle made national news last week when a (very) longtime city councilman was defeated by an upstart and previously unknown candidate. The shocking part, though? She was a (gasp!) socialist!

Economics professor Kshama Sawant seemed to be far behind on election night, but in the days following the election vote-counts shifted strongly her way, eventually putting her win well outside the margin that would trigger an automatic recount. By last Friday councilor Richard Conlin conceded, ending 16 years on the city council.

Media outlets on the right and left immediately overreacted to the news.

Why is Seattle Socialist Kshama Sawant Allowed to Teach Economics?” whined a writer from Forbes after the election. Um, what??

Seattle’s election of Kshama Sawant shows socialism can play in America,” said the Guardian. Let’s not get carried away, Guardian!

The reason Sawant won, in case any of you outside of Seattle are wondering, is that she actually ran a tight, organized and well-messaged campaign. In contrast, her opponent, a very friendly (Democratic establishment-type), non-offensive guy (I’ve chatted with him several times) never viewed her campaign as a serious threat even as she was drawing crowds to her get out the vote rallies.

I’ll stay away from drawing too many broad conclusions about the meaning behind her victory. But there is one unarguable takeaway that I think is important: At the very least, the “socialist” label wasn’t something scary that would keep people from voting for her.

And I think that’s a good thing, because the hysterical fear of “socialism” is something that’s causing Americans a great deal of unnecessary misery and struggle.

Unfortunately for our country, the education system has been gutted to such a degree that I’d bet a majority of voters couldn’t give a proper definition of socialism. Because people aren’t generally educated in various economic systems, they are easy to manipulate with overwrought smears.

But when you label everything as socialism, suddenly socialism isn’t that scary anymore. One can almost imagine a voter thinking “Well, if Obamacare is socialism, then I must be a socialist.” (For the record, it’s not. I guess technically you’d have to say the Affordable Care Act, which requires buying a product from a private corporation, is part of our Corporatocracy — corporate interests running the government. Or I guess you could argue it’s Fascism, but let’s not get into that.)

It’s important that people begin to stop being afraid of socialism because socialistic programs are the strongest protections we have ensuring we enjoy a stable, safe place to live and they are some of your most important tools for leaving work at an early age.

Doesn’t this make us a bunch of freeloaders?

Pretired Baby struggling to survive under the ills of socialism at Ercolini Park

Pretired Baby struggling to survive under the ills of socialism at Ercolini Park

Let’s dispense with the trolls right away, shall we? The classic pushback against any form of socialist endeavor is that we’ll all become weak and reliant upon the expensive nanny state government. We will no longer strive to do better and we’ll have a country of deadbeats. Worse, since we’re talking about socialism in the context of pretirement, it’s easy to imagine the complaint that the government is forking over piles of money to a bunch of lazy people.

But even people in true socialist countries have no trouble working hard to make their lives better. They don’t, however, seem to have the same fear of the financial abyss as we do in America.

And it’s silly to accuse the pretired of not paying their fair share. Most of us worked very hard for several decades. Just because we would prefer to opt-out of the final few decades of pain doesn’t mean we didn’t make our full contribution.

But socialists are weirdos

We don’t need to join the Socialist Party, stop bathing and stand on the corner handing out manifestos to recognize the value in pragmatic social support systems. We’re stronger when we join together and help each other.

The two most recognizable socialist entities in America are Medicare (“free” health care for all citizens aged 65 and up) and Social Security (basically an “insurance” program providing a small pension for older citizens). Not coincidentally, these are among the two most popular government activities every time it’s polled.

But other examples of what are technically “socialism” are all around us although often the lack of socialistic programs are often more apparent.

Obvious examples include the electricity grid you’re using to read this right now (even though our lack of investment means the American power grid is in sorry shape), the roads you drive each day (falling apart under our tires), the public education system (also starved and under assault), mass transit systems (adorably out of date), police and fire departments and, of course, our military. Those public institutions are usually well-loved, even when they frustrate us. Interestingly, though, our most hated institutions are private: our outsourced renegade army (Blackwater), private health insurance companies and Wall Street, for example.

Why are we so afraid?

So why are Americans so afraid of socialism? My opinion is that it’s the aforementioned poor education combined with an easily exploited fear of authoritarianism. Mark my words: If we ever end up with a real dictator in the U.S., it’ll happen because we were falling all over ourselves out of a fear of a hypothetical dictator.

Authoritarianism is the belief among some that they are imbued with special powers and they are therefore superior to all others and we should all submit to their crazy will. Authoritarianism actually is quite dangerous and completely possible here. Note also that authoritarians are also the first to acquiesce to power. They either need to be in charge or subservient to a strong leader. (Check out Conservatives Without Conscience for more on this. Fascinating read!)

Many of the dictatorships that live most vividly in American memories arose from left-leaning perspectives (usually locations of U.S. military intervention, see histories of Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea, etc. for example). I think the images of those regimes become conflated with the perspective they originated from, when in fact the economic or governmental theory is irrelevant to how much your life sucks under a dictatorship. No matter what the political theory is behind these guys, it always ends up being a tiny group of insiders bossing everyone else around and stealing all the money. Concentrated power is the real enemy, not some theory on the role of government. A Communist dictator is equally as bad as a Fascist one. Big Government, Big Business, Big Religion — I hate them all equally. And when they work in collusion, I hate them all even more.

As usual, it’s about your freedom

But this isn’t meant to be another Pretired Nick political rant, fun as that may be. We’re talking about maximizing the enjoyment of your life here. We want to get out of the rat race as soon as possible and spend our time with fulfilling activities.

We reach pretirement when our passive income is higher than our living expenses. Which is why a true socialist government could complicate matters for a pretired person living off investments. From a strictly income perspective, making your pretirement numbers work is easier under a system designed to benefit the wealthy. High taxes on investment income could negatively affect many who live off their investments. Indeed, the pretired are basically structuring their lives like the super rich — on a much smaller scale. However, the cost side can be much higher without a good dose of socialism.

Either way, I don’t see much chance of investment income becoming a target for high taxes anytime soon. Our system is essentially geared from the ground up for raw capitalism. We have a long way to go in simply excising corporate cash out of the government, let alone shifting the entire system to a worker-based economy.

Hopefully people will begin to see social programs as a way to support our fellow citizens and not as equivalent to dictatorship. We have a lot of needs in this country and it’s a shame we’re ignoring so many of them. But beyond government policy, those seeking pretirement would be wise to consider how social institutions can help them reach their goals. A community that has invested in itself is a better and cheaper place to live.

Living where there is an adequate mass transit system, for example, could save you thousands of dollars each year. A community that has invested in smart development, professional police force, good lighting and has a healthy economy, is safer. You won’t need to seek out an expensive “safe neighborhood” or gated community to keep your family safe. You won’t need a ridiculous alarm system. You may not need the house with the big yard if you have great parks nearby. You can spend less on books and movies if you have a good library.

You may even wish to consider moving to another city (or country?) that has better support systems than where you are today. Seattle, for example, has great libraries, but a crappy transit system. But it is very safe. If you’re saving for college, public university in Canada costs a fraction of what it does in America — plus sweet, sweet socialized health care!

Hopefully the U.S. is maturing out of its adolescence and is ready to put away the inflammatory language whenever government spending is discussed. Strong social supports don’t limit our freedom, they expand it.

What do you think? Is it time to start being afraid of socialism and push for pragmatic changes that can make our lives better? Would you move to take advantage of a better social support system? 

Why have the Japanese stopped having sex?

Japanese workers at a Tokyo subway station

Japanese workers at a Tokyo subway station

A recent story in the Guardian rocketed around the internet recently. It’s not surprising how quickly the story was picked up given the provocative headline: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”

Now, obviously, a whole country didn’t completely literally stop having sex, but birth rates have been dropping and interest in sex and relationships have been measured at record lows.

The number of single people has reached a record high. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact”. More than a quarter of men felt the same way.

What is going on here?

The article lists all the usual excuses: too busy, too tired, technological substitutes, you know the story. But there are other reasons, too. Businesses feel women will quit their jobs once they have a baby. And they feel babies are likely after marriage. Thus women put off marriage to avoid triggering career suicide. But overall, those interviewed for the article make it sound like it’s just a big bother. There’s work to be done and the reward doesn’t match the effort.

One must be careful not to stereotype an entire culture when reading these type of stories. We also must avoid projecting our own biases onto these people. But perhaps we can learn something about ourselves by viewing this phenomenon from the safe perspective of our own culture.

To me, the interesting aspect is the disconnect from what is real and what is important in life. And this is where I see North Americans heading down the same road, although the exact manifestation looks different.

Capitalism is an awesome power. I love the power of money to motivate people. I love how it makes us push ourselves to do better. An unleashed marketplace is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. But it makes a better servant than a master.

The Japanese obsession with career mirrors our own in many ways.  But like many things exported from America, they’ve taken our ideas and made them more efficient. I was in Japan a few years ago and riding the subway during the evening was a stereotype come to life. The train cars are totally silent. Each and every person (except for we tourists) was glazed over and typing frantically on their cell phone. They were tired, you could tell. The kind of tired you only get from being in an office all day. Their bodies swayed gently as the train rolled along. They glanced up only occasionally to see if it was their stop. On the sidewalks, people rush quickly to and from their jobs, barely looking from side-to-side as they scurry (violent crime is almost unheard of so there is little need to glance around for personal protection the way we do here in the U.S.)

I think what Japan has created here is the perfect worker drone, or something close to it. Could this help explain the Japanese fascination with robots?

(Quick side note: I don’t mean to imply everyone we met everywhere has turned into a worker drone. It was also one of the most peaceful and calm places I’ve been. People largely were very happy, open and friendly. They believe in nature, beauty and well-designed cities. It’s just in the business districts and subways where you could really see the strain on the working class.) 

In modern times, the Japanese have an unwritten understanding of lifetime (or close to it) job security. In recent years, this is reportedly slipping with more contract workers and less security overall. However, incidences of losing one’s job involuntarily are still quite rare. This security comes with a price, however, in many unpaid hours and institutional and peer pressure to work many hours. On a societal level this obviously impacts relationships and family stability. On an individual level, the price is even higher as many lead empty, unfulfilling lives of drudgery and exhaustion. Who benefits? Well, the employers, of course, pocketing free labor and a stable workforce. What does it matter if people drop dead from overwork? Yes, it happens. It’s a phenomenon common enough there is actually a word for it: karoshi.

Are we heading this direction? Are we already there? We already have a massive labor theft problem here. We already have families falling apart under financial strain. We spend hours glazed over sitting in idling cars trying to get home where we glaze over a few hours more watching TV before stumbling to bed to do it all over again. Japan may have a low marriage rate, but we have an abysmal divorce rate. While it’s still expected that the mother stays home to raise the child in Japan, we ship our little ones off to be raised by others in large groups of other kids. Maybe we’re all just the same.

 

Naturopathic doctors often look at the skin to determine your overall health. Blemishes, rashes, pimples, etc. are all indicators of various medical issues, frequently related to diet. More fundamentally, however, clear, glowing skin indicates vibrant health. Just look up “health” in any stock image site to see what I mean.

A person’s sex life is the same way. It can be an indicator of overall health and life balance. While not as outwardly visible as your skin, it’s still acts as the same type of viewing window into your overall life — even if you’re the only one who can see it.

When something as fundamental as normal sexual interactions between people begins to break down, we know the problems run deep and have been building for years, possibly generations.

The Japanese are panicking because they are concerned about a shrinking economy (and their obsession with racial purity precludes them leaning on immigration the way other countries have done.) We don’t yet know what other problems these breakdowns in normal human interactions will have. We know pretending we can force ourselves into something beyond human causes major dysfunction — just ask any altar boy. We also well understand the strain modern life can take on us, most clearly seen when the vulnerable finally snap — all too often with weaponry in-hand.

Humans are animals as much as we like to we pretend we’re not. Allowing ourselves to be turned into machines for the sake of money is damaging to ourselves and society. Yes, we need food, clothing, shelter, rest, sex, love and emotional support to survive. And that’s just for survival. Is survival the goal? Or should the goal be to live as full and vibrant a life as possible? Society should be geared to harvest the maximum value from each individual, but that value shouldn’t be measured in money.

The important thing is that men should have a purpose in life. It should be something useful, something good.
-Dalai Lama

No one wants to give up the advancements of the modern world. In many important ways, things are better now than they have ever been. But we cannot lose who we are. Stories like this one out of Japan should be the canaries in the coal mine warning us we’re veering off-course. It’s not too late to change and individuals must lead the way by valuing their humanity more than money. Choose how much and when you’ll work. Buy your freedom as soon as possible and devote your life to what you think is important. Your society (and your spouse) will thank you.

Labor theft: How your life is stolen from you bit by bit

Worried businessman image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici. Farmer image courtesy Sura Nualpradid. Both via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Worried businessman image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici. Farmer image courtesy Sura Nualpradid. Both via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Labor theft: No one really knows when it first began. But certainly as soon as one group had the power over another, the subjugated group was put to work. There are well known examples of slavery throughout ancient history, perhaps most notably in Egypt.

While certainly the indigenous people of North and South America practiced various forms of slavery at times before European invaders arrived, it was only with the arrival of the white man that the practice became so efficient and so systematic.

The arrival of Columbus could be considered the critical turning point in this dark history. The discovery of the New World set off a fascinating economic boom with wealth extracted from the local population and shipped off to Europe.

The history taught today in the U.S. skips quickly from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. In those 128 years, however, a great deal happened. Columbus himself became a tyrant and entire tribes were completely obliterated in the Bahamas. When there were no more locals left to exploit, the import of black slaves from Africa began. This practice quickly spread to the farmland of what would become the southern United States. In South America, a conveyor belt of ships began filling up local settlements with Spaniards. The Spaniards had equally devastated the cities of that continent, wiping out the Incas and replacing their epic civilizations with adorable Colonial towns. And yes, coerced labor was widespread there, too. Tending crops, digging in mines, moving stones.

Yep, it’s still happening

In North America, we have a rich tradition of stealing the labor of others. It stains our conscience and pulls at the patchwork of our country, even today. In 1607, the settlement at Jamestown started things off with indentured servants. These people worked off their debts for a set period of time before being set free. It was a difficult life, but would seem like heaven compared to the nightmare that would come later. By the mid-1600s black slavery was fully part of the American culture, so accepted that it seemed as normal as not having slaves seems to us today. Even today there are millions living in slavery here and around the world.

We pretend it doesn’t exist even as we benefit. It’s always been this way. We think of the people living in the “free” North as against slavery back in the 1800s, but I’m sure they all wore cotton shirts. We abhor exploitation of labor in the abstract. We get all worked up about it, even as we read about it on smartphones created with exploited labor. Our fingers are encrusted with diamonds dug from mines by enslaved hands.

Our long tradition of stealing labor, of moneyed interests exploiting the work that created their wealth, crops up in new and surprising ways all the time, as much as we try to ignore it. Often it hides in the shadows and goes by other names, but it’s still with us, yes even here.

Our own workforce is frequently exploited. This modern version of labor theft comes in many forms and companies use many tactics to keep us trapped. Let’s look at a few:

Cheap overseas manufacturing

Think about it: I can say with almost 100% certainty that everything you’re touching right now was made in China. Why? Because the American appetite for low prices is a perfect fit for China’s abundant supply of untapped labor. Setting aside the exploitation of China’s workforce for a moment, the other effect of globalization has been the disappearance of America’s good manufacturing jobs. Factory workers who still have jobs in the U.S. now have to compete with very low cost workers in other countries. Countries without labor protection and safety laws.

Undocumented workers

One has to love the hubris of the American right wing as they demonize “illegal immigrants”. After all, the party obsessed with big business has been instrumental in ensuring millions of foreign workers stream into our country to find cheap work. Why? So our “expensive” labor will have cheap competition.

High unemployment rate

Want to talk about cheap competition? How about millions of people thrown out of work? Why import a bunch of cheap labor when we can just make our own, right? No, I’m not saying these criminals crashed the economy on purpose to create cheap labor. But I am saying it’s just another opportunity to drive down the cost of labor. Not only is there always someone else willing to work more cheaply, but you’re less likely to demand a raise or move to another company if there are limited opportunities out there.

Wage theft

Wage theft is a tried and true form of labor theft. It’s pretty simple. Have someone work for you, then don’t pay them. I know a lot of hired day laborers run into this a lot, especially undocumented workers who have no recourse. But others who work legally often have portions of their checks stolen by shaving hours or not paying overtime.

Debt

Taking on large amounts of debt has reached the level of sport in America. It’s like a competition to see who can rack up the most debt before they tip over. The party-time of endless shopping has a downside, though, when the realization comes that this debt has left you trapped in your job. Being trapped means you have little alternative but to keep working for whatever you can get.

Health care system

Attaching one’s health care to one’s job was always a terrible idea. It was a movement driven by labor unions — misguidedly in my opinion — to drive toward health coverage. At a time when most workers were unionized, I guess it made sense. Unfortunately this handed a massive amount of power to corporations. At its absolute worst before the Affordable Care Act was finally passed, the chronically ill were truly enslaved to their companies. Others were simply forced to work for less and less money as health costs were shifted onto workers. Many people worked many extra years, not for money, but for health coverage.

Worker “productivity”

Worker productivity is a euphemism for squeezing more work out of each employee. Now I don’t blame companies for wanting to get the most out of their labor dollars. Even as a fellow employee, I would be totally aggravated by people who took the paycheck, but did little, if any, actual work. The problem, however, is without any union framework or a balanced economy, there is no countervailing force on the employee side. I once knew a guy who worked nearly every night doing the work he didn’t have time to complete during the day. He was a director, but he sat on the couch each night instead of playing with his kids, entering new SKUs into the database. What the hell? This is an entry level job, but he was doing it for the company for free, on top of his regular job. Why? Because he had kids and a mortgage and a low self-esteem. He was terrified of taking another conference room beating for not having his work done. I don’t mind putting in a few extra hours when a project calls for it. Certainly work doesn’t always come in nice eight-hour bundles. But every night? I would have been out of there before my lips could form the words “fuck you.”

America has managed to turn the purist word in the world — “freedom” — into a brand name. We pretend we’re free as we’re forced into work by our massive mortgage, car payments and school loans. Worse, we buy “cheap” stuff made elsewhere, thinking we’re saving money and yet are taking money out of our own economy to send elsewhere, driving down our own wages.

Is your labor being stolen?

If you’ve been working for the same pay for years or are being pressured to work nights and weekends, you may not have a lot of immediate options in the short-run. However, in the long run, you do have some choices. Stay out of debt, drop the mindless spending, build up your passive income and pretire as soon as possible.

Look, if you’re regularly working 16-hour days, your company is stealing from you.  And it’s worse than stealing a few dollars from your wallet. They’re stealing your LIFE. You only get so many hours on this planet. Sell them as needed but don’t let anyone take them from you.

What can we learn from the government shutdown?

We all know the government shutdown is stupid. What else can we learn?

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As we all now know, the dipshittery in Washington, DC has reached feverish levels and the U.S. government is “closed.” (Or more specifically, many non-essential services are on furlough.)

While I could rant and whine like most of the internet is doing right now, I thought my time might be better spent taking a look at what we can learn from this latest ridiculousness. So here we go:

Our political press sucks

OK, maybe we already knew that, but give me a break! How bad does this have to get? The corporate media is simply regurgitating press releases and repeating the framing of the leadership. And worse, framing it as just another dysfunctional fight between two equally stupid political parties. This is not accurate!

For example, look at this idiocy from USA Today:

As fights go, Wall Street views the slugfest between Democrats and Republicans over the government shutdown as the undercard event. The main bout is the coming showdown over raising the debt ceiling and making sure the U.S. has enough cash to pay its bills and avoid the unthinkable: defaulting on its debt.

To frame this as a partisan infighting is completely misleading! ONE side shut down the government in an exploitative move to overturn the results of an election.

Republicans hate America

Sorry to be blunt, but it’s true. What else can we conclude from a party that is willing to injure its own country just to get its own ideological way? If Russia threatened to cause this much damage to our country unless we capitulated to its demands, we’d consider it an act of war. Why do we consider a threat from within to be any different?

Look, I don’t care if you’re a conservative person or not (we used to have sane conservatives in the Republican party once upon a time). Even a true conservative would have to look at the moves by this party as traitorous. They’re putting party over country and it’s sickening. Here’s an idea: win a couple elections and then you can do whatever you want.

It’s worth remembering that the Civil War wasn’t started because of “slavery” per se, it was because an earlier version of the tea party refused to abide by the results of the 1860 election.

Congress keeps getting paid during a “shutdown”

In one of the more disgusting moves, members of Congress keep getting their paychecks during a shutdown, even as the Capitol Police work for free to protect them. “I need my paycheck,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers in one of the more disgusting quotes to yet be made public.

One person stops this

As happy as I am to kick the Republican party in the nuts over this, in truth there are enough votes in the Congress RIGHT NOW to end the shutdown. But Speaker John Boehner is refusing to call a vote, demanding “compromise”. Again, it’s hard to figure this out from the corporate media, but it’s true.

Gerrymandering is the biggest political problem in America right now

Yes, our politics are totally screwed up right now. Repeatedly polling shows the American people are on a completely different planet than the Congress. Gerrymandering has left us with a Congress that chooses its own voters instead of the other way around. Republicans are running out of older, disgruntled white people to keep them in office so they simply have drawn lines capturing more and more bizarre boundary lines in ways to barely hold their majority. There were many more votes for Democrats in the last Congressional election than Republicans but the Rs held the majority. The system is broken. ALL congressional boundaries should be formed by bipartisan committees or by independent judges, not drawn arbitrarily by the beneficiaries.

Obama is paying the price for his earlier weak negotiating

President Obama may go down in history as one of the most ineffective negotiators with Congress. Early in his presidency, he took an overly deferential approach, while the Republicans continually moved the goalposts on him. Now in his second term, he’s realizing no one respects him and they assume he’ll cave if they just stick to it. Hopefully they’re wrong, but history hasn’t made me very confident in that.

The debt ceiling is a much bigger deal

It’s been obvious for some time that Republicans have been very anxious to destroy the economy so they can make the president look bad. It’s bizarre behavior that has never been practiced by the other party. But will they go to the extent of not paying our bills and destroying the full faith and credit of the United States of America in the process? If I was a betting man, I’d say Obama gives them some sort of face-saving way out of this and we bumble along until the next time. But if the level of crazy has gotten deep enough, this wackjobs could actually dismantle the world economy, apparently for no other reason than they want to make a point. I doubt they’ll pull the trigger, but I’m keeping my money uninvested for a while longer just in case.

It’s about Obamacare — sort of

Republicans tend to be much more strategic than Democrats. I definitely think the timing of the Obamacare launch and the shutdown are not coincidental. I’m sure they saw an opportunity to erase all the happy stories of desperate people signing up for insurance from the media. I do think they bit off more than they could chew and this could end up being their Waterloo. We’ll see. Obamacare was ALREADY funded so the idea they could stop it by using the U.S. economy as a hostage is weird, but then again, see my next point.

The GOP primaries are the driving force in American politics right now

What is making the Republican party so crazy? Well, obviously it’s gerrymandering as mentioned above, where hardly any Republican need fear a Democrat taking their seat. However, they do have one fear: Another, more right-wing Republican taking them out in a primary. Show one sign of weakness toward the black president and these guys are gone. It’s a phenomenon creating a self-selecting evolution toward more and more crazy. As long as these voters remain so easily manipulated or as long as parties can carve out seats to their own benefit, this continues.

OK, maybe that’s enough political talk for one day. I have no desire to turn this into a politics blog, but given how hard it is to figure out what’s happening by watching our national media, I thought I’d put together a short backgrounder (from my own biased perspective, of course). Thoughtful comments and opposing perspectives are welcome. Nonsense name-calling and uninformed political stupidity will be deleted. Have fun! 

UPDATE: Time Magazine gets it:

time-cover

 

 

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