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Keep slinging crack rock

[ 133 ] March 12, 2014 |



One of the most predictable responses to any criticism of a heretofore socially respectable entity is that the critics have hidden and disreputable motives. The critics, it’s said, want to sell something, and/or get publicity for themselves, and/or advance their careers via perverse contrarianism, or what have you.

There are two problems with this charge: it’s too easy to make, and it’s almost always irrelevant.

Nothing illustrates the ease with which it can be made better than how easy it is to level the exact same charge on the critics of the critics.

Consider this especially ludicrous example: a professor at an 11th-tier law school, featuring sky-high tuition, a per se open admissions policy (the school admitted 83% of its applicants last year, which probably represents close to 100% of the pool of functionally literate applicants not sporting serious criminal records), catastrophic employment outcomes for graduates, and plunging enrollments (the student body has shrunk by a third over the past three years, from 525 to 350) — that is, someone employed by exactly the kind of law school that has no business staying in business if critics who claim there is a crisis in legal education in America are correct — begins an article contesting that claim by questioning the motives of the New York Times for publishing stories about the struggles of recent law graduates.

The Times, per Prof. Reich-Grafe, only published these stories because it was trying to attract readers. It should be unnecessary to point out that the explanatory power of this startling insight is somewhat undermined by the fact that the exact same claim could be made about literally any and every story the Times (or for that matter any other publication) decides is fit to print. It should also be unnecessary to point out that the Times’ purported motives in this matter would not be considered by any halfway sane person to be nearly as questionable as Prof. Reich-Grafe’s own, given his “positionality” in regard to what he refers to as the “supposed” crisis in American legal education.

In any case, the charge of disreputable motivations is not only all too easy to make, it’s also irrelevant to the merits. Law school critics and defenders may or may not be greedy self-interested publicity whores, but whether they are or not has no relevance on the extent to which their various arguments are correct. Those arguments should be evaluated not on the basis of the supposed motivations of those who make them, but on the basis of whether they’re good arguments on their own terms.

On this score, Prof. Reich-Grafe’s piece is frankly embarrassing — a series of egregiously assumed can openers, tied together with pseudo-empirical guesswork, and injected with enough optimism bias to float a Madoff-sized Ponzi scheme — in sum an argument so flimsy that it can be (and was) demolished immediately by an anonymous scam blogger, on a site normally dedicated to pointing out to prospective law students that Legally Blonde does not provide a sound basis for the decision to spend $250,000 to get a law degree.

Legal education, we are told over and over again, is so expensive in large part because law faculty must have the leisure to produce “scholarship.” In theory, that means the million law graduates extruded by American law schools over the past 25 years have been subsidizing the production of what in the academy are termed “valuable contributions to the literature.” In practice that means those graduates paid their professors to write and publish things like Prof. Reich-Grafe’s article.

But a million law graduates is merely a statistic. Here is a glimpse into the life of a single one of them: someone who could have been one of Prof. Reich-Grafe’s own students (he attended a very similar law school):

I graduated from [ ] in 2010. I am approximately $215,000.00 in debt; I’m currently looking for work and have been struggling with Major Depression and Generalized Anxiety as a result of this ordeal. After passing the bar in 2011 I tried to start a solo practice and did a little bit of lawyering during that brief endeavor, but very minimal. I helped another attorney out at one point, too, but just in a very limited way. I have not been able to find a lawyer job or any professional employment since graduation in 2010. My last job was as a cashier at a supermarket making $12/hr.

For more than a year I have been applying for various non-legal jobs, in an attempt to take advantage of my “versatile” JD. In particular I’ve applied for a broad range of HR positions I’ve seen advertised, and have even employed a recruiting agency to help with this search. Such positions range from entry level on up. During law school I took employment law and also clerked for two summers and during a regular semester for an employment law firm; I therefore have a lot of direct HR related knowledge. Here’s some correspondence I just had with the agency:

“Hi Emily – I know Gwen is handling the HR area, but I never heard back from her about those jobs that I mentioned to you I thought I’d be a strong fit for. I know I would be great in the HR arena, and am interested in this listing now on the BW site: [ ]. It notes that “We are looking for talent at every level…”; it also says: “…we are on the hunt for talented candidates with experience in a range of HR functions to fill those needs.” I have a wide spectrum of direct and detailed knowledge of HR related laws, both state and federal, and therefor I believe I’m a great candidate for one of the Human Resource Contractor positions.

Thank you.”

“Hi [ ],

I apologize that you and Gwen weren’t able to connect. I appreciate you reaching out and inquiring about the HR contract roles. Since our clients are paying us fees to fill these positions, they tend to be very picky in the experience they are looking for. Although I’m sure you are more than capable to handle many HR tasks and issues, they will be wanting to see direct HR assistant, HR manager, HR coordinator, etc. type experience in your background and resume. It is tough to make a strong argument for candidates who do not have those direct titles in their backgrounds for these positions.

I understand your goal of wanting to find work and we want to help in any way we can but we are not a great resource for someone looking to move industries, for example from Legal to Human Resources. Our clients are coming to us because they are looking for that direct experience, and although I am sure you are qualified for the roles, they are wanting that direct industry experience. Our clients have proven reluctant to hire JD candidates into non-attorney roles.

I hope my correspondent (I regularly get emails of this sort) can take some solace in the knowledge that the most advanced forms of legal scholarship have concluded that “the legal profession market is moving into the direction of close-to-guaranteed legal employment for all law school graduates over the course of the next two decades.”

60 years ago this week

[ 43 ] March 11, 2014 |


Three months later to the

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Malaysia Air

[ 117 ] March 10, 2014 |

I know nothing about aviation, but how is it possible in this day and age for a huge commercial jetliner to disappear over a very heavily trafficked body of water like the Gulf of Thailand, with still no clue regarding what happened 80 hours later?

The only rough parallel seems to be Air France 447, but per wiki:

An Air France spokesperson stated on 3 June that “the aircraft sent a series of electronic messages over a three-minute period, which represented about a minute of information. “[32][33][Note 2] These messages, sent from an onboard monitoring system via the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), were made public on 4 June 2009.[34] The transcripts indicate that between 02:10 UTC and 02:14 UTC, 6 failure reports (FLR) and 19 warnings (WRN) were transmitted.[35] The messages resulted from equipment failure data, captured by a built-in system for testing and reporting, and cockpit warnings also posted to ACARS.

Isn’t Major Kong a commercial pilot? Other LGMers?

Loans that can’t be repaid won’t be

[ 81 ] March 8, 2014 |

This guy is enrolling at the University of Miami’s law school this fall:

So I will be taking out student loans to finance my legal education. I believe I am setting myself up well to get a p[ublic] s[ervice] l[oan] f[orgiveness] eligible job as I have been interning at a government agency (that has already offered an internship after 1L) and I plan to structure the courses I take around that 2L and 3L while keeping the connections I’ve made and eventually doing my CLI there. If I take out the maximum amount possible in loans, I would seem to have $5k-$7k more than I need because I will be living with my gf which make COL a little lower and my parents will be helping out with living expenses. With my dedicated interest to public service and looking at a job that offers ibr/pslf, should I invest with the extra money on hand?

Miami’s current annual cost of attendance is nearly $70K, which means that if he’s paying sticker he’s going to owe, with interest, around $240K when he graduates. His plan to pay this money back is to not pay it back:

Unfortunately, my school doesn’t offer a l[oan]a[ssistance]r[epayment]p[rogram] program so I would have to pay the minimum $300 a month on my P[ublic]I[nterest] salary for ten years. Still not a bad deal. I really just don’t want to work in the private sector. Yes the pay is much better than working in PI but there’s so much more to being an attorney than just money contrary to typical Top Law Schools rationale. I really want to be able to make an impact in my community with the agency I’m working with now.

A few points:

(1) Getting an unpaid internship with a government/non-profit legal employer is relatively easy (although getting harder all the time). Getting an actual job that pays a salary is exponentially more difficult.

(2) (1) is a function of the fact that federal, state, and local governments are all struggling with budgetary constraints, while at the same time law schools are graduating about 15,000 people a year who are getting the same bright idea as this public-spirited fellow: rack up hundreds of thousands in loans, pay $300 per month on PSLF for ten years — which will only pay off a fraction of the interest and none of the principal — and let Uncle Sugar handle the rest.

(3) Graduate school loans now have floating interest rates, but will probably average between 6% and 9% while this guy is in law school. Good luck arbitraging that. Where do kids these days get these ideas? The Wolf of Wall Street? (Haven’t seen it but I gather it’s the new generation’s version of Gordon Gekko.)

(4) This is all going to end badly.

Obama administration moves against higher ed lobby

[ 65 ] March 6, 2014 |

Over the last few years a bunch of law schools figured out that they could exploit various changes in the federal funding of education in a way that would allow them to jack up tuition radically, while selling this price rise to potential students as a proverbial free lunch at taxpayer expense. The thought leader in this regard was Georgetown, which was so aggressive in pitching the idea that Congress had “solved” the problem of spending nearly $300,000 to get a GULC degree that the school ended up in the pages of the Washington Post last August, as an exemplar of Michael Kinsley’s dictum that the scandal is what’s legal:

Delisle and Holt found a video of Charles Pruett, assistant dean for financial aid at Georgetown Law, explaining to students that he doesn’t worry about the Feds figuring out what’s going on, since they aren’t going to dare force former law students to pay big loan bills that they were promised they never had to pay.

There’s also video of Pruett encouraging students to (legally) shelter income from the federal government so as to lower the loan payments that Georgetown Law has to make on their behalf through income-based repayment . . .

To be clear, what Georgetown Law is doing is perfectly legal. The question is whether it’s appropriate for the federal government to be paying almost $160,000 to students at an elite law school.

GULC professor Philip Schrag has also played a leading role in promoting the idea that law students need not worry their pretty little heads that it costs $80,000 per year to attend that fine institution:

“In 2007, however,” Schrag announces, “the United States Congress solved [hypothetical law student with a low-paying job and high debt] Sarah’s problem,” by creating IBR . . .

Is IBR a good deal for Sarah? That, as we shall see, is far from clear. What is clear is that it’s an unbelievably fantastic deal for law schools. You don’t need a Nobel prize in economics to figure out what will happen to the cost of law school if that cost no longer bears any relationship whatsoever to what a significant portion — indeed quite possibly a majority — of law graduates actually end up paying for their degrees. (As Matt Leichter recently pointed out, a huge percentage of law graduates going forward are going to be IBR-eligible. He also quotes the rather Zen-like economic aphorism that “debts which can’t be repaid, won’t be.”)

But let’s leave behind the world of law school administrators, who are no doubt fantasizing even now about opening taxpayer-subsidized International Environmental Space Law summer programs in Ravenna, and return to Sarah. Does IBR make law school a good idea for her? [tl;dr: no]

Law professors love to believe that their work is affecting public policy. Most of the time this is belief is pure fantasy, but in this case, it appears the Obama administration has been paying heed:

The Budget proposes additional changes to PAYE to include:

• Eliminating the standard payment cap under PAYE so that high income, high balance
borrowers pay an equitable share of their earnings as their income rises;
• Calculating payments for married borrowers filing separately on the combined household
Adjusted Gross Income;
• Capping Public Sector Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) at the aggregate loan limit for independent undergraduate students [currently $57,500] to protect against institutional practices that may further increase student indebtedness, [emphasis added] while ensuring the program provides sufficient relief for students committed to public service;
• Establishing a 25 year forgiveness period for borrowers with balances above the aggregate loan limit for independent undergraduate students.

Now this is just the administration’s proposal, and it’s very unlikely to be adopted in this precise form by Congress, but what it signals is that powerful actors all across the political spectrum are catching on to how higher ed in general, and law schools in particular, have been engaged in egregious rent-seeking in the name of improving “access” and encouraging “public service.”

Or, in less technical terms:

Understanding the crash in law school applicants and enrollment

[ 75 ] March 5, 2014 |

We’re now three quarters of the way through the current law school application cycle, and it’s possible to make a pretty accurate estimate of how many people will apply, how many will be accepted, and how many will enroll.

How many will apply?

As of the last day of February, 39,334 people had applied to at least one school. Last year 75% of all applicants had applied by this point in the cycle, which extrapolates to a final total of 52,400 applicants this year (Last year schools pulled out all the stops late in the cycle, extending application deadlines, and offering applicants various goodies, from i-tune cards, to help with moving expenses, to free Bass-o-Matic blenders, so it’s unlikely that the percentage of people who apply after February 28 will increase this year).

How many will be accepted to at least one school?

This is a bit more speculative. In response to a moderate drop in applicants between 2004 and 2007 (from 100,600 to 84,000) law schools maintained their enrollments by slashing admissions standards fairly dramatically. 55.6% of applicants were admitted to at least one school in 2004; by 2007 this percentage had increased by 19%, to 66.1%. Applicant totals were fairly stable over the next few years, and admission percentages crept up only slightly, as law schools hit an all-time high first-year enrollment of 52,500 in 2010, up from 48,200 six years earlier, when the applicant total had been 13% higher.

Over the last three years, schools have slashed standards yet again, in response to a far steeper applicant drop. Acceptance percentages climbed from 68.7% in 2010 to 76.9% in 2013. This means that law school applicants were 38% more likely to be accepted to at least one law school in 2013 than they were in 2004. How much more are schools willing to cut their admissions standards? This of course will vary greatly between schools. Some bottom tier-schools now have something like open admission standards already, accepting just about anybody with an undergrad degree and an LSAT score, while perhaps making exceptions for people with the sorts of personal histories that would subject the school to tort liability if the admit were to harm fellow students or law school employees.

Still, the percentage of applicants admitted could continue to rise if some higher-ranked schools cut what standards they do maintain. Many applicants will not apply to schools below a certain level, so the fact that some schools already have constructive open admissions policies hasn’t been relevant to the chances for admission of such applicants to this point.

I’m guesstimating that the percentage of applicants admitted to at least one school will continue its rapid ascent for at least another year, and that 79% of applicants will get in to at least one of the schools to which they apply in this cycle.

How many admitted applicants will end up enrolling somewhere?

This is easy to estimate, since for some reason this percentage has remained very stable, at between 86% and 88% every year for the last decade.

Crunching the numbers, that means we’re looking at just about exactly 36,000 matrics this fall.

One feature of the law school crash that’s somewhat under-appreciated is how it works like a series of waves, pounding on law school finances with increasing intensity each year. This is because there’s a three-year lag between a class’s enrollment and graduation (ignoring for the sake of simplicity the relatively small percentage of part-time students). This in turn means that each first year class replaces the class which entered three years earlier.

Because law schools slashed admission standards in 2011, the 2011 entering class was almost exactly the same size as the 2008 entering class it replaced, despite the fact that applicant totals began to plunge that year. But that strategy worked only once.

Speaking of waves, let’s call the present admissions cycle and its two predecessors the Three Sisters:

2009: 51,600 matrics
replaced by
2012: 44,500 matrics

13.8% decrease

2010: 52,500 matrics
replaced by
2013: 39,700 matrics

24.4% decrease

2011: 48,700 matrics
replaced by
2014: 36,000 matrics (estimated)

26.1% decrease

In nautical terms, some waves can end up being non-negotiable.

WAPO tells Obama to do something about Ukraine

[ 105 ] March 3, 2014 |


What that something might be the Editors do not say.

Seriously, very serious people get paid to write this kind of thing:

The urge to pull back — to concentrate on what Mr. Obama calls “nation-building at home” — is nothing new, as former ambassador Stephen Sestanovich recounts in his illuminating history of U.S. foreign policy, “Maximalist.” There were similar retrenchments after the Korea and Vietnam wars and when the Soviet Union crumbled. But the United States discovered each time that the world became a more dangerous place without its leadership and that disorder in the world could threaten U.S. prosperity. Each period of retrenchment was followed by more active (though not always wiser) [!!!] policy. Today Mr. Obama has plenty of company in his impulse, within both parties and as reflected by public opinion. But he’s also in part responsible for the national mood: If a president doesn’t make the case for global engagement, no one else effectively can.

The White House often responds by accusing critics of being warmongers who want American “boots on the ground” all over the world and have yet to learn the lessons of Iraq. So let’s stipulate: We don’t want U.S. troops in Syria, and we don’t want U.S. troops in Crimea. A great power can become overextended, and if its economy falters, so will its ability to lead. None of this is simple.

But it’s also true that, as long as some leaders play by what Mr. Kerry dismisses as 19th-century rules, the United States can’t pretend that the only game is in another arena altogether. Military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not. While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding. In the long run, that’s harmful to U.S. national security, too.

Notice how The Editors manage to write 800 words on the Russia-Ukraine crisis without making anything that even begins to resemble a concrete policy suggestion, while at the same time excoriating the president for failing to “lead” from his BULLY PULPIT(tm).

Race to the bottom

[ 46 ] February 28, 2014 |

Ichininosan has compiled a list of the law schools that have slashed their admissions standards most drastically over the past four years, as measured by average LSAT. I’m reproducing his work here, and adding 2004 data for comparison purposes (Note that good LSAT scores are far rarer than respectable UGPAs, because of grade inflation and variability in college quality, Note also that the “same” LSAT score in 2010 is actually a bit lower than the same score from 2004, because in 2007 LSAC allowed schools to start reporting only the highest scores of re-takers, as opposed to their average score).

The LSAT percentages are ordered 2004, 2010, and 2013.

1. Suffolk 67. 4% 67.4% 40.3%
2. Valparaiso 54.9% 44.3% 22.9%
3. Illinois 90.1 % 93.2% 80.4%
4. Arizona Summit N/A 44.3% 22.9%
5. Elon N/A 67.4% 44.3%
6. Florida Coastal 48% 40.3% 22.9%
7. DePaul 70.9% 77.6% 59.7%
8. Vermont 60.1% 67.4% 48.1%
9. San Francisco 79% 77.6% 59.7%
10. Capital 55.8% 55.6% 36.3%
11. Catholic 73.4% 77.6% 59.7%
12. American 79% 85.9% 70.9%
13. Charlotte N/A 44.3% 26.1%
14. Thomas Jefferson 54.5% 48.1% 29.5%
15. Samford 66% 67.4% 48.1%)
16. John Marshall (IL) 57.8% 48.1% 29.5%

The end of the law school epidemic

[ 82 ] February 27, 2014 |

The University of Tulsa’s law school has just announced that it is effectively cutting tuition by 54% for the incoming first year class, from $33,428 to $15,428. The cut is coming in the form of a “scholarship” which will be given to every admitted student from a 12-state region (but as a practical matter will have to be given to any admit from outside that region whom the school hopes to enroll). The “scholarship” is renewed annually if the student maintains good academic standing, which in recent years approximately 95% of Tulsa’s admits manage to do.

So in effect the law school is cutting sticker price by more than half for everyone who starts attending this fall (last year about a third of Tulsa’s students got comparable discounts, which makes one wonder what the other two-thirds of the current 1L and 2L classes will do about this development).

Note that this price cut is coming when we’re more than 70% through the current application cycle, which indicates that Tulsa is even more dire shape than the average school when it comes to its current applicant pool (nationally, applications were down 11.7% year over year as of last week, making this the fourth straight year of severe declines).

Naturally the school’s administration is characterizing this as a sudden outburst of public-spiritedness on the institution’s part:

“The ALES program directly responds to rising tuition, mounting student debt and a challenging job market for law school graduates,” said Janet Levit, TU law school dean.

She added that a recent American Bar Association report encouraged innovation by law schools to address the issues.

ALES, she said, is TU’s response to that call for action.

Currently, Levit said, there’s a growing need for more attorneys to serve rural communities, as well as to advocate for children and families, military veterans and small companies.

“TU Law graduates, with less debt, will be prepared and willing to represent underserved populations in our region,” she said.

It’s tiresome to keep repeating this but apparently my rock awaits me:

*The notion that Tulsa’s graduates will decide to take low-paying jobs to serve clients with little or no money is ludicrous on its face, since the existence of such a “choice” entails the option of taking a high-paying job — an option which practically no Tulsa graduate currently has (exactly one graduate in the class of 2012 got a job with a large (100+ lawyer) law firm).

*Even the most public-minded and altruistic lawyer can’t work for free. Under-served communities are under-served because their members don’t have the money to pay for lawyers. Cutting law student tuition doesn’t create jobs for lawyers.

*The amount of debt a law graduate carries has literally zero effect on the market for that graduate’s services. Lower debt leaves people who are unable to get a legal job better off in regard to their overall economic circumstances, but it does not make it more likely that these people will get to be lawyers.

Tulsa’s radical slashing of tuition follows on the heels of similar moves by several other law schools. And this is merely the publicly available information: many other schools are undoubtedly offering ever-more extreme discounts to potential students on a case by case basis. With first year enrollment this fall likely to total around 36,000 students (down from 52,500 in 2010) the combination of much smaller classes and lower per capita real tuition is going to prove unsustainable for some schools.

. . . a commenter points out:

Regardless of the motive this is a move in the right direction. Law schools need to end racially exploitative reverse robin hood scholarships and charge the same tuition to everyone.

I would add that reverse Robin Hood scholarship policies have a severe class bias, since the lower a student’s SES, the less likely the student will benefit from such policies. (Because lower SES students will, all other things being equal, have weaker entrance numbers than students who buy big discounts off sticker price with their LSAT/GPA scores, and because lower SES means less of the sort of cultural capital that allows high SES students to figure out how to game the system).

Total number of 1L students enrolled at Tulsa:

2008: 139

2009: 140

2010: 166

2011: 108

2012: 110

2013: 83

Total number of ABA-accredited law schools by year:

1972: 149

1982: 172


2002: 186

2012: 201

The end of the obesity epidemic

[ 87 ] February 27, 2014 |

I have a piece in TNR on the new JAMA study finding no statistical change in obesity rates over the past decade in either adults or children. (The finding that got the most headlines was a 40% drop in “childhood obesity” among 2-5 year olds, but for reasons I explain in the article this finding is probably not very meaningful in and of itself).

On a related note, here is a review of Michael Gard’s important book The End of the Obesity Epidemic (A version of this review appears in Critical Public Health): Read more…

Handbags and gladrags

[ 158 ] February 26, 2014 |

I have a piece on how the market for college and postgraduate degrees resembles that for Veblen goods.

The whole point of paying thousands of dollars for a Louis Vuitton bag is that other people can’t. If they could, the bags would instantly lose almost all value in the eyes of those who buy them. Hence, the more such things cost, the more desirable they become.

In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don’t have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one’s children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.

All of this helps explain why college tuition has increased three times faster than the cost of living over the past three decades. University administrators have discovered that, to a remarkable degree, the more they charge for what they’re offering, the more people will want to buy it.

. . . Expanding on some points not touched on in the article:

(1) Obviously higher education can and often does have value that can’t be monetized, which means that an analysis which treats it strictly as an investment in pecuniary terms is going to be incomplete.

(2) There is probably no such thing as a pure positional or Veblen good. The key question, from an return on investment perspective, is the extent to which the enhanced earning power associated with higher education is a product of ameliorating structural un-and-underemployment via enhanced human capital, as opposed to that increased earning power being a product of a positional good signaling pre-existing abilities on the part of those who acquire it. The education lobby proceeds from the axiom that substantially all of the investment value of college degrees is a product of the former effect rather than the latter. This is clearly false, and it has an invidious effect on education policy.

Epitaphs of war

[ 138 ] February 25, 2014 |

Former vice president Dick Cheney went on Fox’s “Hannity” show last night to discuss the recent plans to reduce the Army to levels not seen since 1940 — through a reduction in personnel and removing a class of warplanes from the field — in an effort to cut budgets after a decade of war, calling the decision “over the top.” He told host Sean Hannity that President Obama would “much rather spend the money on food stamps than he would on a strong military or support for our troops.” . . .

Earlier in the interview, Cheney said, “The fact of the matter is he’s having a huge impact on the ability of future presidents to deal with future crises that are bound to arise. … I can guarantee you, there’s never going to be a call from the future secretary of defense to Barack Obama, to thank him for what he’s done to the military. This is just devastating.”

I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Kipling, “A Dead Statesman”

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