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The Media Refuses Accountability For Its Own Malpractice

[ 145 ] November 28, 2016 |

I generally admire Lynn Vavreck’s work, but this apologia for the media’s gross malpractice in its coverage of the 2016 campaign is, to say the least, unpersuasive. I completely reject the general assumption that the media essentially lacks agency and can only follow the lead of campaigns. But aside from that, the analysis has a lot of problems:

I compared the content of campaign ads with the content of news articles about two specific topics: candidate traits or characteristics, and the economy or jobs. Both the candidates and news organizations spent more time discussing the candidates’ fitness for office (or lack of it) than they did the nation’s economy.

Note the choice to focus solely on ads rather than on ads and speeches and candidate websites, etc., which obviously stacks the deck against policy appeals. And it also obscures the fact that Clinton’s campaign paid much more attention to policy and in much more detail.

The candidates’ controversies received more coverage, on average, than their views on the economy. From June until Election Day, 38 percent of the stories mentioned Mr. Trump’s various missteps, and 35 percent mentioned Mrs. Clinton’s email.

Let’s just stop here and note that this data reflects a grotesque failure on the part of the media to inform the public.

Closer to the election, from Oct. 8 on, the numbers got even more lopsided. This was an important date — just after the release of the “Access Hollywood” video and a few weeks before F.B.I. Director James B. Comey’s letter to Congress. From this point, 53 percent of the campaign articles mentioning either controversies or the economy discuss Mrs. Clinton’s email, while only 6 percent mention her alongside jobs or the economy. As for Mr. Trump, 31 percent mention his entanglements, while 10 percent mention him related to jobs and the economy.

Again, this is extraordinary. Clinton’s EMAILS! were receiving constant attention and being treated as the equivalent of Trump’s many actual scandals, even when there was no actual news about Clinton’s EMAILS! happening. What is being described her is just staggering malpractice. And yet:

These choices have consequences. According to the Gallup Organization, Americans’ reports of what they heard or read about Mrs. Clinton between June and September were mainly references to her handling of emails during her time as secretary of state. In contrast, mentions of Mr. Trump changed week by week, tracking what was happening on the campaign trail.

But before anyone blames the news media, it’s important to examine what the candidates themselves were talking about over the course of the campaign. If media reports reflect candidate discourse accurately, then it is not merely the media choosing to report on scandals. It might be at least as much the candidates’ choosing to campaign on them that results in unending coverage of traits and characteristics.

Leaving aside the implicit denial of agency to the media, conflating “what candidates are saying” with “advertising” is obviously very problematic. Clinton spent a lot of time talking about policy; the media just chose not to cover it. (For this reason, I also find the implicit empirical assumption that the media would have spent significantly less time focusing on EMAILS! if Clinton had run more policy ads massively implausible. I think Clinton running more policy ads would have been a good idea, but that’s a different issue.) And the denial of agency to the media shouldn’t be left aside.

I will concede that when it comes to covering Trump, the media had a legitimate dilemma. There is no precedent for a major national candidate engaging in one ordinarily disqualifying act after another throughout a campaign. The sheer number of scandals had the perverse effect of diluting the impact of any one. But each one of the scandals were news, and the media couldn’t refuse to report on one because it would dilute the impact of other stories. There were problems with the coverage of Trump but he didn’t receive the kind of fawning coverage George W. Bush did in 2000.

But what can’t possibly be defended is the media’s relentless focus on EMAILS!, an utterly trivial pseudo-scandal featuring no significant misconduct by Clinton, and implicitly equating it with Trump’s frauds and alleged sexual assaults and boasts about sexual assaults and serial dishonest. The media wasn’t forced to engaged in this false equivalence. It wasn’t forced to provide this extraordinarily disproportionate amount of coverage. Nothing forced the media to report non-stories like “donor asks Huma Adebin for a meeting and doesn’t get one” as the equivalent of Donald Trump refusing to pay contractors or conning his fans out of tens of millions of dollars. As Krugman says:

Prominent media outlets made choices about what to cover and how to cover it. They weren’t compelled by the candidates or the campaigns. These choices have to be defended on their own merits. The editors and journalists involved want to deny their agency precisely because these choices cannot possibly be defended, and the consequences of the malpractice will be horrific in many respects (not least for the free press.)


On the Extremely Limited Value of Campaign Tactics Tautologies

[ 330 ] November 28, 2016 |


After every remotely close election campaign, there are almost as many just-so stories about how there was one perfect campaign tactic that could have changed the outcome as there are pundits. And the problem is that the vast majority are just unfalsifiable tautologies with no retrospective or prospective value:

Like most pundits, I have my theories about how the Clinton campaign might have screwed up. In retrospect, for example, it seems like the campaign made a mistake in making so much of its advertising negative attacks on Donald Trump’s character. Given that Trump always had high personal negatives these attacks had diminishing returns, and Clinton missed an opportunity to highlight economic policy differences where public opinion favored her position. While it was not unreasonable to think Trump’s particular unfitness for office created an opportunity to peel off suburban Republicans, it didn’t work.

This is a plausible story, but to be frank it’s just that: a story. Would Clinton using a more positive, policy-focused advertising campaign in the last month have allowed her to hold enough of the Rust Belt states that handed Trump the Electoral College? I have no idea, and there’s no meaningful way to address the question.

Consider an example from the last election involving the popular vote winner failing to take office in January. For 16 years, I have been hearing people assert with the most sublime confidence that Al Gore’s decision to distance himself from Bill Clinton cost him the 2000 election. There’s no way of testing this theory directly, of course. But 2016 presented us with an indirect one. Hillary Clinton had a popular incumbent, one of the greatest political talents the Democratic Party has ever produced and without the scandal baggage and reputation for dishonesty that made deploying Bill Clinton a much more complicated question than Gore’s critics will acknowledge, stumping hard for her. And, as a bonus, the incumbent’s extremely popular and charismatic wife was also out on the campaign trail for the first major-party woman to be nominated for president. What was that worth?

Well, apparently, not much. Either the Obamas failed to move the needle, or they had an impact but it was swamped by other factors which can’t be meaningfully measured. When it comes to campaign tactics, for the most part, nobody really knows anything. Be wary of assertions that there was One Magic Trick a candidate could have used to win an election, and be doubly wary when this magic bullet is an argument that the candidate advancing the policy ideas the pundit agrees with is also by remarkable coincidence always the best political strategy as well.

A huge percentage of campaign analysis consists of two basic and related categories:

  • “The losing candidate had worse messaging, which we can tell because he/she lost.”
  • “The losing candidate would have won had she emphasized issues x/y/z in exactly this way, which entirely coincidentally aligns perfectly with my own ex ante policy views.”

Both of these arguments are abjectly useless the vast majority of the time.

But even when the arguments are a little more concrete, there’s an obvious danger in relying to heavily on the mistakes of the past:

One rejoinder might be that while Michigan and Wisconsin ended up not being decisive, they could have been. Had Clinton carried Pennsylvania or Florida — both roughly within a point — then the decision to largely ignore Michigan and Wisconsin while investing in Ohio and Iowa, both of which Clinton lost by more than 8 points, would look really bad. It’s a fair point. But the blunder the Clinton campaign made was to fight the last war, to be too slow to pick up on the particular threat that Trump posed in the Rust Belt.

This isn’t to say that Democrats shouldn’t analyze and try to learn from the defeat. But it’s crucial to remember that the 2016 election is never going to be run again. We’ve learned for sure that Hillary Clinton should not be the Democratic nominee again, but I don’t think that’s something to worry about. Trump will presumably be on the ballot again, but as an incumbent with a record. What message and strategy the Democratic candidate should use will depend on who wins the nomination, what Trump’s record looks like, and what the salient issues are. The 2020 election will be its own thing and should be treated as such. As Hillary Clinton now knows all too well, what we think we know about politics can be turned on its head very quickly.

What messaging and resource allocation will be optimal in 2020 will depend on the candidate — the opportunities and limitations presented by, say, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris and Sherrod Brown would be different. There will presumably be an incumbent on the ballot and depending on how that goes the Democratic candidate could be a mortal lock, drawing dead or somewhere in between. Which, of course, brings us to a crucial point: the ability of congressional Democrats to drive down Trump’s approval ratings by obstructing and refusing to give bipartisan cover to what they can’t stop is far more important than the campaign tactics adopted by the 2020 nominee.

NFL Open Thread: Thank You For Not Coaching Edition

[ 208 ] November 27, 2016 |


A couple of notes on peonage ball before we get to the real thing. First, this story about how Brian Kelly “is exploring options to possibly leave the Fighting Irish program” is an absolute classic EPSN beat-sweetener. Yes, it will be entirely his decision should he decide to leave a program that is surely thrilled with his performance. And second, the OSU/Michigan game yesterday was excellent, and the while the officiating was terrible it was no worse than, say, the Steelers/Bengals playoff game last year. But the NCAA overtime system is an utter abomination. And I particularly can’t stand the “but TIES!” justification for abominations like the NCAA football OT and the NHL shootout. Yes, ties. Ties in regular season are better than arbitrarily designating a winner by suddenly switching to radically different rules. It’s a shame that a game couldn’t have been finished with proper OT that would conclude with a tie if nobody could score after a period without getting the ball automatically spotted in field goal range.

Anyway, are you ready for some EXOTIC SMASHMOUTH:

Mike Mularkey made some mystifying mistakes in the Titans’ 24-17 loss to the Colts. But his fake punt early in the third quarter was so daffy that he must have found it in an old file cabinet labeled “DO NOT OPEN” in Jeff Fisher’s handwriting.

After Brett Kern motioned out of punt formation to telegraph the play, rookie safety Kevin Byard took the snap and handed off Wildcat-style to backup cornerback Antwon Blake, who was easily stuffed. When it’s 4th-and-2 and your team has a great offensive line, two great running backs and a mobile quarterback, it may not be the best idea to put matters in the hands of two backup defensive backs, Coach.

The coaching “talent” in the AFC South is really something, isn’t it? The other obvious source for Mularkey’s trick play is Chuck Pagano’s archive of failed high school trick plays from the Eisenhower administration, and Pagano is probably the best coach in the division. Not only is Gus Bradley’s NFL head coaching career over this December — well, I guess there’s always a chance the Titans or 49ers will like his track record — before this year his defenses in Jacksonville were so bad I’m not sure I would even have been interested in him as a defensive coordinator unless he could bring Pete Carroll with him. And QUARTERBACK GURU Bill O’Brien, currently presiding over the NFL’s worst passing offense with an expensive, handpicked acquisition at QB, punted on 4th-and-5 with 3 minutes left and 1 timeout against the Raiders, predictably never getting the ball back. And, ladies and gentlemen, this is how you get zero good teams out of a division with two franchise QBs.

And to follow up, I was amazed to see some people defending Minnesota’s extremely dumb decision to trade a 1st rounder for Sam Bradford. The thing is that Bradford has actually been better than could have been reasonably expected — he’s remained healthy and Turner and Shurmur gave him conservative enough plays to finally play like the poor man’s Alex Smith — and the Vikings still have a lousy offense, and now they don’t have a first rounder they could have used to plug one of their many holes on offense. Just an awful trade.

Fucking Politics, How Does It Work?

[ 73 ] November 27, 2016 |


“School reformer” Eva Moskowitz is optimistic about Donald Trump:

The next day, Moskowitz held a press conference, where she announced that she would not be joining Trump’s Administration but that she nevertheless felt hopeful about his Presidency. “I’m troubled by what I see as a sort of rooting for Trump’s failure, because that is rooting for our own failure,” she told reporters assembled in front of New York’s City Hall. “There are many positive signs that President Trump will be different from candidate Trump.”


I called Moskowitz on Sunday morning to ask her how she thought Trump could help the charter-school movement, and what she had heard from the President-elect that led her to believe he would change. (The conversation took place before Wednesday’s announcement that Trump had picked Betsy DeVos, a Republican school-choice philanthropist, to be his Secretary of Education.)

“I’m an American historian by training, and I’ve cited this example: Lyndon Johnson spent thirty years fighting against civil rights, and then became the President who passed the most sweeping civil-rights legislation this country has ever seen,” she said. “Often, governing is different from running. Look, I’m an optimistic person. I wouldn’t be educating children if I did not believe in human potential.”

There are…many flaws with this analysis, but at least Moskowitz was angling for a job. What excuse does Tom Friedman have?

Well, that was interesting … Donald Trump came to lunch at The New York Times. You can find all the highlights on the news pages, but since I had the opportunity to be included, let me offer a few impressions of my first close encounter with Trump since he declared for the presidency.

The most important was that on several key issues — like climate change and torture — where he adopted extreme positions during his campaign to galvanize his base, he went out of his way to make clear he was rethinking them. How far? I don’t know. But stay tuned, especially on climate.

Moskovitz and Friedman have, at least, achieved a level of political analysis more sophisticated than Freddie deBoer’s theory that political change comes from the unfettered individual will of presidents with a career-long devotion to unshakable principles. But, really, they’re still making the same fundamental mistake of failing to understand that presidents lead coalitions. Donald Trump doesn’t know anything about anything, including climate change, but it’s doesn’t matter — his entire party is set up (whether opportunistically or out of conviction on the part of individuals) as a tool of climate denial and environmental regulation, and that’s how Trump will govern: his choice of Myron Ebell to lead that EPA transition team is far more relevant than what he tells gullible journalists. I’m not sure he could name all nine members of the Supreme Court, but he’ll nominate Federalist Society hacks to the federal judiciary because those are the names that people will give him. Trump will have some influence on the priorities addressed within the Republican agenda, but the content will mostly be determined by Ryan and McConnell (and, hence, be terrible.)

It’s not actually accurate to say that LBJ governed differently than he ran. He governed like he ran in as a senator and he governed like he ran as president. He was much more progressive in the latter role because he was advancing different goals for different constituencies in a different political context. That’s how politics works. President Johnson was closer to the “real” LBJ than Senator Johnson — the New Dealers didn’t just get lucky when they favored him in the 1948 primary, even if Robert Caro fails to understand this — but it’s largely beside the point. Nobody would remember LBJ as a great president for civil rights or a transformative one for domestic policy had he been elected president in 1952. To the extent that Trump governs differently than he ran, it will be in the direction of Republican convention.

The Trump Administration in One Cabinet Appointment

[ 59 ] November 26, 2016 |


As Paul recently noted, Ben Carson initially turned down a cabinet appointment because he was massively unqualified. (His obvious inability to run even a second-tier cabinet department didn’t stop him from running for president, of course.) But now he’s changed his mind, and why not?

Ben Carson has demonstrated the ability to do two things at a world-class level: perform surgical operations, and run lucrative scams. By his own admission, he is patently unqualified to run a federal agency. Nonetheless, he is apparently on the verge of accepting a job as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a policy field in which he has no experience or expertise. One might think that this background makes Carson uniquely unsuited for the role of HUD secretary. But from another, more cynical perspective, he is absolutely perfect for the job.

If you’ve ever wonder what it would be like if the executive branch of the federal government was run by people with Michael Brown’s competence and Jeffrey Skilling’s ethics, you’re finally going to find out! But, it must be acknowledged that Hillary Clinton did use a private email server.

The Recounts Are Far More Likely To Help Trump Than Hurt Him

[ 80 ] November 26, 2016 |


The Clinton campaign has released a statement about the recounts that are being requested in Wisconsin and perhaps Michigan and Pennsylvania. And this time I actually think their judgment — that there was no point in calling for the recounts but they will participate now that they’re happening — was sound.

Here’s the thing: the chances that the outcome in the three decisive states will be overturned are almost nil. The odds are against Trump losing the Electoral College votes of even one state. And when the recounts validate his Electoral College in his victory, this will serve to legitimize his presidency. There might good-government reasons to do the recounts anyway. But contrary to a lot of arguments I’ve seen, one thing these recounts are not is good hardball politics. They will almost certainly work to Trump’s benefit by suggesting that the election was on the square and serving to mask the many ways in which the election was, in fact illegitimate.

For example, here’s a neener-neener from Alex Pareene’s latest kidding-on-the-square anti-Clinton piece:

Your side spent the last month of the campaign attempting to troll Trump by asking him to preemptively accept the results of the election, assuming he’d lose and claim it was rigged. In doing so, you guys also argued—persuasively!—that rigging a presidential election would be extraordinarily difficult, if not completely impossible. So, sorry, you kinda walked right into this one.

 If you buy this story, though, and you’re not just clinging to the comforting fantasy that the horrible thing you saw happen didn’t actually happen, you’ll have to explain how the apparently suspicious results that gave Trump his crucial upset victories in those key swing states seem to pretty clearly match up with the results in demographically similar counties in states that didn’t swing Republican. Were the Russians attempting to rig Minnesota and New Hampshire, too, and just came up short? Did they swing a couple upstate New York counties Trump’s way just to make his Pennsylvania victory look more plausible? Maybe! Or maybe you just lost.

Hahaha, you wanted Trump to accept the vote count results as legitimate and now the shoe’s on the other foot SUCK IT LIBS!

But, of course, it is nearly impossible for an election to be rigged in the way that Trump and Republican vote suppressors claim that Democrats rig elections. The recounts are not going to reveal a lot of voter-impersonation fraud or ballot-stuffing.  But this isn’t the point. The 2016 election was, in fact, a massive fail for American democracy:

Focusing on one, narrow element of the election that probably wasn’t severely dysfunctional is a great way to conceal and stifle discussion about what really went wrong. Trump will get to trumpet that the election was fair when it was anything but. If this is hardball anti-Trump politics it couldn’t be any more illogical.

To be clear, for once I don’t think Stein is trying to help Republicans here. Given that she’s a sucker for conspiracy theories, she may well think there’s a real chance that this will help Clinton. But, as usual, she’s wrong. The recounts will almost certainly help to legitimize Trump rather than undermining him.


Republicans Are Worse Than Democrats On Everything, An Ongoing Series

[ 46 ] November 26, 2016 |


Education policy is an area where a lot of Democrats, including the outgoing president, can be pretty bad on a lot of issues. It is nonetheless true that that Republicans can still be an entirely different universe of bad:

But DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, represents the most conservative corner of the movement. She and her husband have funded a series of efforts to turn public school funding into vouchers for students to attend private schools. They have also fought to prevent charter schools, including for-profit charter schools, from being more tightly regulated.

The DeVos appointment signals that Trump is serious about the $20 billion school voucher plan he rolled out on the campaign trail. The proposal would redirect huge swaths of the federal education budget away from school districts and toward low-income parents, allowing them to spend a voucher at a public or private school of their choice, potentially including for-profit, virtual, and religious schools.


Public school student achievement in New Orleans has improved in recent years, in part because of increased family choice among nonprofit charter schools. But according to Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, “We’ve never seen an effect as negative as the private school voucher program.” Harris doesn’t expect this evidence to dissuade Team Trump. “Of all the ideas I’ve heard bandied about in various policy areas, this is the one most likely to happen. Trump is talking about it and clearly thinks it’s a good idea. Republicans love this. Most policy is going to be driven by Congress, probably even more so under Trump than any previous administration. This is what they want to do. The stars are aligned.”

A pyramid scheme multilevel marketing heir-in-law wanting to funnel money to largely unregulated private schools. What could possibly go wrong?


[ 91 ] November 26, 2016 |

Finally, the embargo on Cuba achieves its objective. A policy success!

I’m sure Trump will, like Obama, work to make U.S./Cuba relations more rational as there’s not a dime’s worth of difference and all.


[ 64 ] November 24, 2016 |

Trading a 1st round pick for Sam Bradford was a really dumb idea.

I did enjoy the fact that Bradford’s sub-mediocrity managed to wake Simms from his usual slumber after some non-era and non-yardage adjusted completion % stats were put on the screen. “Daunte Culpepper completed 69% of his passes and HE WASN’T THROWING CHECKDOWNS JEEEEM.”

As requested by a commenter, Thursday football open thread.

The Airing of Grievances V: Jill Stein

[ 150 ] November 24, 2016 |

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Kara Brown had a loving tribute to Jill Stein:

Without ever possessing even a sliver of a chance of maybe possibly ever becoming President of the United States, Jill Stein continued her farce of a campaign drawing attention and support away from the only goal any of us should have had: defeating Donald Trump.

Now, she has the nerve to post these janky-ass Martin Luther King, Jr. memes.

[click through for infuriating-in-context meme]

I’m guessing MLK would not be thrilled with you right now, Jill! He’d probably wonder why you didn’t rally your supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton so, I don’t know, maybe we could avoid Donald Trump unraveling eight years of Obama gains and appointing two Supreme Court justices. I DON’T THINK HE’D FIND YOUR FUCKING MEME VERY HELPFUL.

I know that white people are not familiar with the concept of voting for survival and my god was that apparent this election. I of course blame myself for absolutely none of this, but I do feel like an idiot for even believing, when faced with this test, that this country would do the right thing.

Stein has apparently raised $2.5 million for recounts in WI, MI, and PA. I guess this is supposed to be a mitigating factor, but it pisses me off even more. What could be more Green than investing in almost-certainly-futile recounts to stop Trump rather than just, you know, telling your swing state supporters to vote for Clinton, the vastly superior candidate from any point on the left spectrum?

To me, Stein’s after-the-fact attack of conscience just underlies the extraordinary bad faith behind her entire enterprise. Nobody who knows anything really thinks that there’s no meaningful difference between a competent, moderate liberal and a grotesquely corrupt and unfit authoritarian committed to Coolidgnomics. Nobody can claim with a straight face that “1. Running an ill-informed buffoon for president every 4 years. 2. That’s about it” represents some kind of serious theory of social change that would justify putting the much worse candidate in the White House. The vast majority of Stein voters (or people on the left who just wouldn’t vote for Clinton) were just free riders who didn’t want Trump in the White House but expected this not to happen. This kind of thing works until it doesn’t.

To be clear, I don’t think that in the end Stein swung the election; like most such counterfactuals, it founders in Pennsylvania. I also don’t think this is much of a defense. In a period of political crisis, she ran a campaign whose only possible material effect would be to put Donald Trump in the White House, and spent her campaign reinforcing the ridiculous narrative that this was a race between to equally corrupt candidates who were similar ideologically. We can be extremely confident that this campaign was dishonest as well as counterproductive. When you willingly join a firing squad set to execute much of the New Deal and Great Society, it’s not much of a mitigating factor that you were ultimately given a blank.

The Irreplaceable SEK

[ 27 ] November 23, 2016 |

Like most of my colleagues, I never met Scott in “real life.” Although it’s an increasingly odd thing to say; after all, I interact more with most of my closest friends from “real life” online, and it’s not really less real. His horribly premature death is a tragedy I haven’t even begun to process yet (on top of the other such tragedies November 2016 has given us, tragedies we needed SEK to write about.)

I’m glad that Erik linked to Scott McLemee’s tribute to Scott. As it happens, when I heard that Scott’s health had taken I severe downturn I was also thinking of the “Ivan Tribble” controversy and Scott’s inability to attain the academic position he merited. The hollowing-out of This Thing Of Ours has many dimensions and has been caused by many things. But it was kind of remarkable to see a self-appointed Gatekeeper Of Intellectual Standards 1)make one transparently specious argument after another about a medium he didn’t understand and 2)openly boast about basing decisions for precious tenure-track positions largely on random personality trivia. Scott’s body of work was, in addition to its many other virtues, a compelling rebuke to assumptions that writing for a general audience is somehow “unserious.” Had he focused on writing jargon-filled articles that would sit permanently unread he would have had a better chance at economic security, but the world would have been much poorer for it. As Paul and Rob both said, something has gone seriously askew when a talent like Scott was ultimately forced to write clickbait for a living.

He was a good man and a great talent who produced a body of work I will never stop coming back to or learning from. It was a privilege to have him here and I am deeply saddened by that he will not be adding to it. The most sincere condolences to his family and friends.

More Please

[ 110 ] November 21, 2016 |

ryan is a working man

This is more like it:

Hopefully this is the sign of a serious push by the left flanks on Schumer.

I’m finding all of these discussions what to do if Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell offer decent legislation that advances progressive ends faintly surreal. I mean…”Paul Ryan” we can stop right there. At best you’re going to get terrible legislation, like the Trump infrastructure proposal, framed in a concern trolling manner (“you said you wanted infrastructure! Now you don’t want to vote for a bill that mostly consists of tax breaks for projects that would be built anyway! Make up your mind!”) Should we be worrying about what to do if Trump nominates Pam Karlan to fill Scalia’s seat too?

This really isn’t complicated. The default position for Democratic legislators is “don’t vote for anything, because this is right both substantively and politically.” If there’s ever an exception we can deal with it then.

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