Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 September 2010

Our Republican Platform (Pledge to America)

[OCTOBER 3, 2010: I AM DELIGHTED TO REPORT THAT JOHN BOEHNER HAS A SERIOUS OPPONENT, AND I HAVE FULFILLED MY PLEDGE IN THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH (BEFORE THE UPDATE) BELOW. His name is JUSTIN COUSSOULE (pronounced "kuh-SOO-lay"), and he has a perfect bio: distinguished military service, experience in small towns, small business and big business, and a focus on clean energy jobs. If you despise John Boehner and his lies and stupidity as much as I do, help Justin, too!]

You can get our platform from Fox News. But not everyone watches it. And, though we doubt it, there may be some people who don’t respond well to being shouted at by big bruisers like Buchanan, Hanity and O’Reilly.

We think people who would listen to a shrimp like Robert Reich are wimps. But we want your votes anyway. So for those wimps and shrimps out there who still haven’t decided how to vote, as well as those who still can read, we offer this summary of our Pledge to America:

1. Keeping Your Money. We want you to keep your money. Even more, we want to keep our money and see it increase.

We have a lot more money than you do. We can buy you and sell you and everyone you know. But letting everyone keep his or her money sounds so much fairer.

You won’t have all that much money left when we get through outsourcing your job and our banks get through swindling you. But at least the government won’t have your money. You’d much rather let us take it than mean, nasty, incompetent, stupid government, wouldn’t you?

Think of Barney Frank (isn’t he queer?) and Charlie Rangel (isn’t he black?). You see our point now, don’t you?

2. Reducing the Deficit. Deficits are bad. Debt is bad. You know that because, when you take on debt, you feel awful.

We feel awful, too. We feel awful because the debt is going for the wrong things. We want it to go for tax breaks, so we have more money.

We were perfectly happy when Paulson and Dubya ran up debt to bail out Wall Street and the big banks. The folks who run them are our kind of people.

But now it’s going for things like unemployment relief, infrastructure, and (frown) welfare. You don’t want those freeloaders using your money, do you? You’ll never be like them. You’re tough and big and strong, just like Buchanan, Hanity and O’Reilly. (Beck somehow can’t help looking wimpish, even in a Nazi helmet. But he tries.)

And if you ever wimp out and need help, we’ll take care of you. We’ll make sure you get a job greeting customers at Wal-Mart. There’ll be no benefits, but you’re self-reliant, aren’t you? Thought so.

Oh, you wonder how that job will let you use your master’s degree in computer science? No problem. We’ll let you write the greetings. We’ll pay you as if you were Charles Dickens, five cents a word.

3. Taxes. Now some folks think that cutting taxes will raise the deficit. Nonsense! There’s no telling what these commie, pinko liberals will think or say.

Don’t you believe a word of it. That’s just a bunch of liberal hocus-pocus. Didn’t Saint Ronald and Commandant Cheney say that deficits don’t matter?

And even if they do, don’t you worry. We’ll just cut the things that need cutting. We won’t touch defense. But we’ll privatize Medicare and Medicaid and gut everything else. We don’t want those creeps from the EPA and OSHA looking over our shoulder while we do God’s work. So we’ll just eliminate them.

Worried that your air, drinking water, streams and workplace might not ever be the same again? Don’t. That’s just silly. Just think of Barney Frank and Charlie Rangel. Maybe we can cut their salaries by eliminating Congress, too.

Then we can rule directly and get rid of the middlemen. They’re so expensive.

4. Immigration. Our position on immigration is very simple. We’re against it. Except when we import foreigners under H-1 visas to take your jobs at half the pay.

What’s that you say? We’re a nation of immigrants, starting with the Mayflower? We’ll, that may be true. But there were no Mexicans on the Mayflower. We sure as hell don’t want them.

And what about you? You want all those Mexican illegals taking your jobs cleaning toilets, butchering hogs, picking tomatoes, and making beds? If you don’t want those jobs now, you will. After we get through outsourcing all the other jobs, they’ll look pretty good.

So let’s get rid of all those illegals to make way for you. Think of all the good jobs driving deportation buses! When you drive them back to Mexico, remember that “alto" means “stop.” And don’t forget to smile at all those family members holding rocks and bottles in their hands.

And don’t worry about those H-1 visas. They are so few, and the Mexicans are so many. Do you want people in your supermarket whom you can’t even understand?

5. Religion. We love our Constitution. We know it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

But (wink, nod), we know that this is a Christian nation. We don’t have to “establish” anything for Jesus’ followers to rule. We Protestants are the majority. Catholics are welcome, too, as long as they toe the line.

What about the rest, you ask? What about Jews, Muslims, Buddists and godless atheists? Well, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about them. We all know what the Founders thought. These outliers can practice their heathenism as long as they do so quietly and don’t disturb the rest of us. They don’t even have to wear the Cross.

But what’s this about building an Islamic prayer room in a community center two blocks from Ground Zero? You know what that is. It’s the start of the First Anti-Crusade. If we allow that, Al Qaeda will soon be pouring over the walls.

We’ve got to hold the line somewhere. What better place than New York City, where 80 Muslims died on 9/11.

6. Innovation. Some of you idle dreamers may let your minds wander to windmills, solar power, nuclear power, and electric cars. Don’t waste your time.

They’re all much more expensive than coal and oil. And they always will be. Why? Because our friends make lots of money selling coal and oil, and we’re not about to let them down. If the market doesn’t let them win, then direct subsidies, tax breaks, and relaxed pollution rules will.

Coal and oil aren’t going anywhere. Don’t even think about pricing pollution into their cost.

Global warming, you say? What warming? Wasn’t last winter a cold and snowy one?

Don’t listen to the wimps and false prophets. Fill your Humvee and enjoy. And if you happen to total a Prius on your way home, just turn on your windshield wipers and keep going. That’s just collateral damage. We’ll try not to smirk.

7. Jobs. Jobs? You want a job? You don’t have a business where other people work for you? You don’t have investment income to maintain you? You pay taxes at more than the 15% capital gains rate? Poor thing! Are you sure you’re supporting the right party?

Whatever. Don’t worry! We have jobs for you!

You can be a greeter at Wal-Mart. If you have a higher degree, you can write the greetings. After we expel the Mexicans, you can have their jobs, for their pay.

But that’s not all. If you’re big and strong like Buchanan, Hanity and O’Reilly, you can work in private security. You can protect our property from the hungry masses. Don’t be concerned if they’re your neighbors. They’re not strong like you.

You can go fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and (pretty soon) Iran. If you don’t like Army pay, you can earn three times as much driving trucks through IEDs and mine fields for a private contractor. Those opportunities are dying in Iraq, but they are plenty in Afghanistan, and soon in Iran. See how we plan ahead?

And if you don’t like things here, you can go abroad and work for one of our multinationals there. You won’t earn half what you earn here, but the cost of living is far lower. And think of the pleasure of seeing your family once or twice a year! Think of the great stories you’ll tell! You can live like an Indian or Chinese.

8. Freedom. We want freedom. If we win, everyone will have freedom.

We’ll have more because we’ll have more money and won’t have to worry about keeping food on the table. We’ll have more freedom to build, to pollute, to muscle our competition aside, to make you work harder and faster under worse conditions, and to keep more of our money. You’ll have freedom to keep more of what we pay you and (if you want a job) to keep your mouth shut.

Doesn’t that sound ideal? No more wimpy liberals. No more “redistribution of wealth.” You get to keep every penny of what we give you. And if you ever feel angry or oppressed, we’ll blink if you want to beat up some of those queers, minorities or terrorist-coddling Muslims. Your recreation will be just like it was in the good old days, drinking and fighting. That’ll keep you out of real trouble, such as picketing.

Real men like Buchanan, Hanity and O’Reilly will be proud of you. They’ll smile at you from their limousines and gated communities.

So to sum it up, you’ll have your own money, which we’ll give you. You’ll have a job, when and where we give it to you. You’ll be independent of government and self-reliant. You’ll have nothing to do with those wimps who need a safety net. Do what we tell you, go to Church (which we’ll build) every Sunday, don’t make trouble, and you’ll be fine.

The government won’t take your money, except for defense, because we won’t let it. We’ll control it. We’ll also control you, and your life will be just fine. Any resemblance to medieval serfdom will be purely coincidental.

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21 September 2010

“Neglecting the Base,” or the Meaning of “We”

Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman―both of the New York Times―are the nation’s two best pundits today. Herbert covers the social and political, Krugman the economic (with a Nobel Prize winner’s quantitative flair).

Both are superb writers, able to encapsulate complex ideas in simple sentences and occasional brilliant turns of phrase. In a Twitter world of short attention spans, that’s an invaluable skill.

You could get an accurate idea of where we are as a nation if you just read those two and nothing else. But of the two, Herbert gets my nod. I disagree strongly with Krugman on trade and protectionism. I don’t believe (with him) that appreciation of the renminbi will solve our structural economic problems, let alone our political ones.

And however insightful Krugman may be in his speciality, economics is a bloodless, abstract concern, a matter of cold expertise. Herbert hits us where we live. More to the point, he writes what many are thinking but don’t dare say. On days when he writes, his column is the first thing I read. He rarely disappoints.

Today’s piece was like that. One of Herbert’s best, it dealt with a long-neglected topic, at least in the mainstream press: the President’s “base” among African-Americans. I’ve stolen his title for the first half of my heading above, which is why it’s in quotes.

Herbert argues that the President has not done enough to recognize and inspire that base. His last sentence is the most powerful: “We need to be careful not to corrode the joy and pride felt by blacks in the triumphs of African-American leaders.”

For me, that single sentence captures the agonizing sensitivity of racial politics in America today. The “we” at the beginning presumably includes all of us―the President, his mostly white Cabinet and advisors, and the still-mostly-white (but not for long) electorate. Yet when Herbert gets to the “joy and pride” part, that’s the property of “blacks.” Why?

I know, I know. Herbert was making a point about the President’s “base.” But on reading his last sentence, I felt excluded. I wondered whether he understands the immense joy and pride that tens of millions of other voters—vastly more numerous—also felt and still feel. I wonder whether the President understands, too.

As far as I know, I’m 100% white. I have already written how my own joy and pride―and hope―brought me to unstoppable tears on the night of the President’s 2008 electoral triumph. Embarrassed, I covered up the tears with a lackluster, abstract title: “Meritocracy Restored.”

The sources of those strong emotions were many. There was hope for the future. There was relief that the long nightmare of Dubya (and forty years of misrule) would soon be over. There was a sense of triumph for the intellect and education that the President represented—a sort of “Nerds’ revenge”—something I don’t think American intellectuals have felt as strongly since the election of Woodrow Wilson.

But there was more. There was the joy and pride I felt in my country at the election of the best candidate, despite persistent racism. There was the exuberance of coming closer to Dr. King’s dream. The content of the President’s character outshone Hillary’s and McCain’s, and I was glad that voters saw the light.

And then there is the underdog syndrome. Hundreds of movies attest to Americans’ sympathy for the underdog. In a country that prides itself on being “Number One” like the New York Yankees, rooting for the underdog is something of a paradox. But it’s there; it’s real; and it’s persistent. It’s part of our national character.

African-Americans have been underdogs on this continent for close to four centuries. They’ve been subject to unspeakable mistreatment, neglect and disrespect, which didn’t stop with Emancipation or with the President’s election. So why shouldn’t every red-blooded American stand up and cheer for “their” triumph, especially when the “underdog” is by far the best candidate, smart and good enough to advance and ennoble us all?

The simple fact is I, a white, would die following people like the President, Eric Holder, Colin Powell, Artur Davis and, yes, Adrian Fenty before I would live under the rancid tyranny that the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and Rove have in mind. There are tens of millions of Americans who feel precisely the same way. Such differences in character make color irrelevant.

I don’t fault Herbert for omitting this point. He did us all a great service by bringing the President’s apparent neglect of his “natural” constitutency out in the open, where all of us can examine it. That’s the kind of service he does us regularly and brilliantly.

In my essay on the President’s inauguration, I wrote that the joyful crowd standing around us near the Lincoln Memorial was more than half white. But I was wrong. I went back and reviewed my photos recently and counted. The crowd there was actually more than 90% white. All those people, of all hues, braved frigid temperatures and sardine-can subways (the only way to travel on that day) in order to share the joy and pride. (The huge crowds of African-Americans were much closer to the podium.)

That someone as savvy as Bob Herbert should, even inadvertently, divide Americans into “we” and “blacks” when writing for a national audience is a sign of our times. Fox Propaganda, the Kochs and other right-wing billionaires, racists, and demagogues have sought to divide us. They appear strangely to be winning, and the President’s seeming indifference has done nothing to call them out.

“Divide and conquer” has been the tool of the gangster class for our entire history, indeed world history. In a melting pot like ours, there are plenty of racial, ethnic and religious fault lines to exploit. Isn’t it about time we all wised up?

There is no division into “we” and “blacks, “we” and “whites,” or we and any other hue. There is only “we”―at least if this embattled Republic is to survive.

Didn’t the President make that very point in the 2004 keynote speech that catapulted him into the White House? The only ones “we” should exclude are those who want it all for themselves.

But that doesn’t mean that we should fail to recognize different constituencies with different origins, histories, and personal stories. It only means that we should inspire them all to work together for the common good. Sometimes that inspiration will take different forms for different audiences. If someone as smart and good as Herbert can fail to make this point, then maybe the President can fail to see it.

I would never presume to compare my political understanding with the President’s. I’ve second-guessed him and been wrong too many times. But I can only say with confidence what I myself feel. If the President gave his “base” more to fight for, that would inspire me, too. And that includes every element of his base: women, African-Americans, the middle class, the jobless, the foreclosed, voiceless immigrants, and the poor.

My head voted for the President's education, judgment, character and intellect, and it will again. But my heart voted for justice.

I don’t think justice has any color or gender. And I’d bet millions of Americans think the same way. So I hope and trust that the President, by inspiring his “base” among African-Americans with a call for justice for them, will inspire, not repel, the rest of us as well. At least his doing so should attract those of us who have any reasonable prospect of voting Democratic this November.

Of course the President must tread carefully and inspire delicately, without alienating anyone. But who knows how to do that better than he?

We are all waiting for the paeans to justice that still ring in our ears 47 years after Dr. King’s speech. Few good Democrats forget that, as Dr. King was martyred, he was fighting for economic as much as racial justice. He was fighting for all of us against those who want it all for themselves. Missing the opportunity to renew his inspiration at this critical time would be a grave mistake.

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19 September 2010

Cheap Culture

During the last decade or so, human-development scientists have discovered one of the most important determinants of individual success. Take a two- or three-year-old child able to understand language. Sit the child in a chair with a table and a bowl. Put a piece of candy in the bowl. Then tell the child, “I’m leaving the room but will be back in a few minutes. If the piece of candy is still in the bowl, I’ll give you another. If you’ve already eaten it, that’s all you’ll get.”

There’s now been enough time to study how children who react differently to that simple test fare later in life. Those who wait to get the second piece of candy do better on every measure of success: intelligence, marriage, economic advancement, and lifetime earnings.

What this study tests has different names. Some call it “delayed gratification,” some “emotional control.” Others call it “discipline.” Today we might call it “planning ahead.” Our Founders might have called it “prudence and moderation.” Just for shorthand, let’s call it “second-piece waiting.”

Scientists still don’t know whether second-piece waiting is genetic or cultural, inbred or learned. Since it appears very early in childrens’ character, it must have a genetic component. In fact, very recent tests show that some chimpanzees have it, too. Maybe it’s part of what makes us human. It’s easy to see how that trait could confer an evolutionary advantage, especially among social animals competing in groups.

We Americans used to have it, lots of it. If anyone can train children to wait for the second piece of candy, the Pilgrims must have. They endured decades of hardship and persecution in Europe, a months-long sea voyage in miserable conditions, and yet more decades scraping a living from wilderness with winters colder and longer than any they had known. Many suffered, sickened and died. But those who persevered built our nation.

The pioneers were much the same. They crossed a huge continent on foot or horseback. They contended with strange and sometimes dangerous wildlife and sometimes hostile natives. But they persevered, building a new life out of wilderness, all the while waiting for that second piece of candy.

That spirit lasted about two centuries. Thanks to Providence, our Greatest Generation had it too. Many were sleeping in small-town isolation when called to the most brutal war in human history. But they went, uncomplaining. With brilliant organization from leaders who knew how wait for that second piece, they beat the Great Depression and two of the most formidable military dictatorships ever devised. Then, with the patience of Job, they waited again for over forty years—all the while under threat of nuclear annihilation—until the Cold War’s end.

How we lost that spirit in just two generations is a puzzle that historians, social psychologists, and anthropologists will ponder for as long as our species exists. But nothing today is as clear as that loss.

We have the lowest savings rate in the developed world. We don’t invest—except for the quick kill. We let our infrastructure decay to the point where it will take a $2.2 trillion dollar investment just for maintenance. We no longer build. During most of the last century, the world’s tallest buildings were here. Yet for the last several decades they have oscillated between Asia and the Middle East. After nearly a decade, we’re still fighting over what to build at Ground Zero, and whether a cultural center with an Islamic prayer room can rise a few blocks away.

Our present predicament stems directly from our first-piece grabbing. We destroyed our economy and most of the world’s because we wanted to have grand homes before we could afford them. It doesn’t matter whether you blame the government accomplices (Fannie and Freddie), the bank accomplices (and predators), or the homeowners who took out loans they couldn’t repay. Every one of them grabbed the first piece of candy without a thought to the future. It was a society-wide failure of longer-term thinking.

Now our electorate is reportedly set to punish a federal executive that has been in office for less than twenty months. Why? Because he hasn’t solved problems that we all know took decades in the making.

Our farming forebears once knew that is, at most, three planting cycles. They wouldn’t expect big changes in that short a time. But we no longer have the patience of our Pilgrims, pioneers, farming forbears, or Greatest Generation. We no longer wait for results; we want them now. Corporate executives who have a bad quarter we show the door. We trade stocks of real businesses by the microsecond, just to get an evanescent advantage over rivals. People who wait decades for anything we see as suckers.

We don’t give all our children a first-class education anymore. We don’t make things; we “serve.” The vast majority of our economy involves transient services, which we aggrandize as “post-industrial.” Why? Because services are here and now; they don’t take time to build.

And they’re hard to compare and assess. If you practice law, you lose a case and move on. If you’re a “motivational speaker,” your “clients” never call you out if their lives or businesses later fail. Services are risk-free, the greatest boon to a first-piece grabber. In contrast, if you make cars and produce an Edsel, you suffer for years. We no longer have the stomach for doing hard things that might fail; we want that first juicy piece.

Modern religion is an accomplice. In its original form, every major religion on Earth taught second-piece waiting. You live a lifetime of good deeds on Earth. Then—and only then—you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (or have a better incarnation in the next life). Bliss was a reward for waiting for that second piece of candy.

Now we have all kinds of shortcuts. Preachers with huge electronic audiences declare, “Jesus wants you to be rich.” Fundamentalists think “End Times” are near, so you have to wait only a few years. If you like, you can even hurry the “Rapture” along by provoking Israel and Iran to create Armageddon right here on Earth, right now.

Relgious first-piece grabbers aren’t confined to the United States. What else are Islamist “martyrs,” who seek to enter Islamic Heaven early by killing themselves and slaughtering innocents—even other Muslims—whose fates be damned? If the truth be told, the mental gap between a suicide bomber and a car buyer on credit who knows he cannot pay is only a matter of degree. Both are avid first-piece grabbers.

The consequence of our own loss of long-term thinking is a culture of cheapness. If you grab that first piece of candy, you don’t get another. If you buy your clothes and furniture at Wal-Mart, you don’t have to wait until you can afford better; but you don’t get the best.

You also don’t get to build an industry at home that can make things dearer but better. Our auto industry nearly died pandering to first-piece grabbers. It just may be learning—and teaching its customers—that quality is worth waiting for.

Our best pundits, including Nobel-Prize winner Paul Krugman, scream for sanctions against China’s “currency manipulation.” Why? Because of our huge trade imbalance. Just adjust the currency exchange rates, they think, and the consequences of thirty years of first-piece grabbing will just disappear.

Would it were so simple! Japan and Germany don’t seem to have the same problem with China. Why? Because they take the time and effort to make things of quality that the whole world sees. They take the time to produce first-class wares that China can’t yet produce and charge more. We just grab the first piece of candy and complain that it’s sour.

First-piece grabbing now has permeated our entire society. It’s gotten so bad that people my age hardly recognize our country.

It’s not just consumers who built up debt to buy what they couldn’t afford. It’s the banks who packaged that debt for the quick fix of a bonus or stock rise. It’s not just our military-industrial-complex, that went into wars with too few troops and failed to equip them with body armor and vehicles invulnerable to IEDs. Its Big Pharma, which wants blockbuster drugs without paying the price of proper testing and the frequent failures that real innovation requires. It’s doctors and radiologists, who want to make a financial killing by doing procedures and making tests without careful evaluation of their medical necessity, costs and benefits. Its teachers and administrators who teach to the test and forget about educating the children in their charge. Its businesses that build appliances, computers and cell-phones that you don’t fix; you just throw them away when you tire of them or when a newer model comes out.

In English, the word “cheap” means both “inexpensive” and “tawdry.” Our culture has become both. We entertain ourselves by watching untrained, undisciplined amateurs embarrass themselves on screen. Then we distract ourselves momentarily by lauding the one-in-a-million rare talent or gossiping about the private lives of tortured professionals. Our youth make “friends” on Facebook in milliseconds, counting their friends’ value by their number, never learning how a single true friend can enhance an entire life. Friendship becomes as disposable as an obsolete cell phone.

The ultimate cheapener, of course, is Twitter. By broadcasting every mental fart, we cheapen the wisdom handed down to us, as well as our own better insights. Everything of value gets lost in a whiteout of trivia. My mental image of a Twitterer will always be someone having a difficult bowel movement. “Turd number two is coming out. Thoughts?”

We do, of course, still have people who wait for the second piece of candy. One of them is our President, whom we elected for that very reason but might not give the time to finish the job.

Far more numerous are those in our ruling class. Increasingly rare, they believe in their bones that their second-piece waiting makes them a superior species. Understandably, they have little respect for the cheap culture to which they have wittingly or unwittingly contributed.

Why? They didn’t do it for us, the nation, or our species. They did it for themselves and their families. They live in a different world, one made for those who wait. They have all that wealth can buy in the modern world. Their multiple residences don’t leak and are full of timeless, original art. Their cars runs smoothly and well. Their clothes last for years and can be changed on a whim.. They believe their discipline and hard work entitled them to riches and to rule. Compared to most of the rest of us, they might be right.

But soon four things may conspire to destroy their world as well. First, we have too few of them. In the long run, a culture dominated by first-piece grabbers cannot survive, let alone compete with disciplined cultures like China’s, Germany’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s. The patient among us may find the rest of society dissolving right out from under them. Or their children may have to emigrate to find a place where second-piece waiters have critical mass.

Second, modern feudalism has its dangers. Gated communities can only make gates so strong. Popular discontent among the first-piece grabbers can explode unexpectedly. The resulting revolution may be economic, social or bloody. The Tea Mob is just a tiny, pale precursor to what might happen in a decade or two, if present trends continue.

Third, modern society is interdependent in so many ways. Poverty can enter the ruling class’ homes secretly and undetected. A suffering nurse or gardener can spread a grave disease. An attractive loser can entice a child into drink or drugs, get a daughter pregnant, or infect a son with HIV. A presumably loyal hireling can turn out to be an enemy, even a secret agent or assassin.

That brings us to the final and greatest casualty of first-piece grabbing: trust. We are social animals. In better cultures and on better days, trust lets us work together enthusiastically. In less pleasant times and cultures, cooperation requires coercion, economic or physical. The difference between Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia and Western democracies is mostly trust, which (in the latter) runs both ways.

When you have a society of second-piece waiters ruling first-piece grabbers, there can be no trust. There will always be envy, misunderstanding, deception, and resentment, often both ways. So it was in Dickensian England and in our own slave era. So it may be here again, as economic bondage morphs into a new feudalism, with the corporate CEO replacing the landed lord. The new feudalism may be even worse, for the old feudal lords felt an obligation, absent today, to protect and maintain their vassals.

It’s hard to know which way things will go here. Our culture is so rotten, and our media so assiduously promote the rottenness. Fox Propaganda is not the only culprit. We may already be too far gone.

But there are admirable cultures of second-piece waiters. China is becoming one. So, it appears, is Germany. South Korea is already there; as long as the Kim Dynasty doesn’t prevent, it will be a global example for the foreseeable future. So will the overseas Chinese in our own country, whose children are replacing earlier immigrants’ in our finest universities because they study hard and know what’s important. They turn to American Idol, Facebook or Twitter only when the serious work of learning is done, or not at all.

In the long sweep of human history, culture is king. Our Constitution is just a piece of paper. If our ruling class neglects its values, or fails to adapt them to the intervening two centuries, nothing in that document can save us from historical irrelevance.

Today, no dispassionate observer can view our culture with unvarnished admiration—whether in the highest councils of our government or corporations or the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. As our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved beyond dispute, changing culture is harder than making war or winning elections. And we haven't even begun.

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10 September 2010

Why I’ll Buy a Volt II

[Leaf, Volt or Focus? For an important update on my decision, click here.]

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Why I’ll Buy a Volt.” In it, I pledged to buy one if the price is under $35,000. The actual retail price is still not clear, but it threatens to be well over $40,000.

That’s far more than I ever paid for a car, even after subtracting the government’s $7,500 incentive rebate. In fact, without the rebate it’s more than my wife and I together paid for the two Hyundais that we now own.

Much more important, the Volt has competition. The Nissan Leaf will be available in showrooms at about the same time, late this fall. It reportedly will sell for $32,780, as compared to the Volt’s over-$40,000 price. The Leaf’s electric-only range is longer―100 miles on a charge, as compared with the Volt’s 40. Built by Nissan-Renault, the Leaf will probably give GM’s Chevrolet division a run for the money on quality as well.

Unlike the Leaf, the Volt has an internal combustion engine, which charges the batteries when they get low. So it boasts a range of 600-700 miles, far greater than the electric-only Leaf’s. (Since the engine charges the batteries only, it runs at constant speed, requires no transmission or throttle, and therefore is far less complex and expensive than the engine in a conventional gasoline car.)

Others may delight in this feature of the Volt. It lets them match or exceed the range of most conventional gas cars. It therefore encourages people to buy a Volt as their sole car. But my family will keep at least one of our Hyundais for occasional long trips. So I won’t use the Volt’s long range much, if at all. I want an electric car and plan to run the Volt on electricity only.

So if I were buying on specifications and the maker’s reputation alone, I would probably buy the Leaf. It costs less and goes farther on a “tank” of electrons. The Volt’s “extra” internal combustion engine―which probably accounts for most of the price difference―will be surplus for me.

Both cars will be hard to get. No dealer in my states will sell either, so I’ll have to go to another state to pick one up, then drive it back, 100 or 40 miles per charge. The Volt is likely to be even harder to get than the Leaf, since GM reportedly plans to sell only hundreds the first year, while Nissan-Renault is gunning for about 15,000 sales.

So why do I still insist on buying the Volt? Am I a fanatic? Maybe. But I do have reasons. Here they are:

1. I want to support American manufacturing. It is no secret that our nation is in steep and maybe irreversible decline. There are many reasons, including the obsolescence of our governing document, which we still treat like fundamentalist scripture. But the most immediate practical reason is the outsourcing of manufacturing from our shores.

Tariffs and other forms of protectionism are not the answer. International trade is the greatest engine of global prosperity and world peace in human history. We don’t want to harm it―especially not as doing so was partly responsible for humanity’s greatest self-inflicted catastrophe so far.

But I’ve seen with my own eyes what national self-help can do. The economic miracle that is South Korea built a city (Seoul) that is among the world’s most modern and impressive. A principal reason, I think, is what I saw when I visited there in late 2005: a utopian boulevard with ten lanes of traffic—all filled with shiny new South-Korean cars.

I have no idea what measures caused that universal economic solidarity. But all those Koreans buying their own country’s products were impressive. For us Americans―or at least those of us who can still afford to so so―doing likewise is the only quick and risk-free way to break out of our current doldrums.

So I’m going to buy a Volt if GM will let me. I’ll implement my trade policy for one and vote for America’s future with my checkbook.

2. I want to reward the American company that started the whole thing off. For about forty years, I’ve been appalled at the lack of innovation and poor quality in the American auto industry. That lament is part of my first post, and I won’t belabor it here.

But all is not lost. The very stodgiest of our automakers, GM, was the first firm globally to announce a real electric car (with lithium batteries), and I think the first to approve production at board level. I’ve followed electric-car developments closely, and it seems to me that GM’s announcement started the whole worldwide electric-car craze off.

I admire innovation above almost all else in industry, and I want to reward the company that started the snowball rolling. The fact that it’s an American company that had been sleeping for nearly half a century only makes the admiration sweeter.

3. I still have affection for Chevy. As I wrote in my first post, I’ve never owned a new American car, although I’m now semi-retired.

But the first car I ever bought, albeit used, was a 1957 Chevy sedan. I bought it just at the end of my junior year in college, in 1964. It was big by current standards but well-proportioned and pleasing to the eye. It had marvelous cockpit visibility and, although seven years old, it ran like a watch. It had a three-speed standard shift, so it helped me perfect my manual shifting skills.

I loved that car so much that I spent much of the summer between my junior and senior years rebuilding its engine. Unfortunately, I neglected to replace the main bearings, which my tight new piston rings and reground valves apparently stressed. So the engine blew up on my way back to college, and I spent my senior years carless, learning appropriate lessons about doing jobs completely.

That was 46 years ago. I still remember with affection both the car and that long-gone era, when American manufacturing and design reigned supreme. Later this year (or maybe early next), when I drive down the road with that squished-cross Chevy logo, I will feel all the renewed pride of youth revisiting a reliable old friend. And I’ll be thinking about what might have been, if engineers—not MBAs, lawyers, and bankers—had continued running American industry.

Of course all the many other reasons for going electric will still be there. I’ll still pay less than a quarter (about 2 pennies) of what I pay per mile to drive one of our two thirty-miles-per-gallon Hyundais (about 9 cents at $2.75 per gallon). I won’t be vulnerable to future price shocks in oil. I’ll be able to “fill up” in my own garage at night, while I sleep. The electric motors and high-power solid-state electronics in my car will give me far less trouble than the Rube-Goldberg contraption that is a gasoline-powered car. I won’t produce any pollution in electric-only mode. I won’t make much more noise than a bicycle. And I won’t pollute our garage or our yard with noxious fumes or deadly, invisible carbon monoxide.

Best of all, when I drive electrically I won’t be sending a single penny to petro-states. So I won’t help deplete our collective national wealth to buy an evanescent commodity that helps finance Wahhabi madrassas and terrorist ideology. And if I can convince my homeowners’ association to install a windmill for our housing development, I won’t pay anything at all per mile to drive to town and back. The wind is free.

The Leaf, too, has all these general advantages. The competition will be fierce, the more so as Toyota, Ford and maybe even BMW enter the fray in 2012. But GM was first and got the ball rolling, and I’ll be proud to sport its Chevy logo for that. I only hope that GM and our infrastructure entrepreneurs don’t lose heart, so that our own engineers, technicians and other workers can partake of this next great global industry as producers, not just passive consumers.

Update (11/20/10 & 1/06/11)—Electric Cars: Volt, Leaf or Focus?
Nissan’s Ambitious Electric-Car Plans,
the Volt’s Obscure Multiple-Clutch Transmission,
and Ford’s Announcement of an All-Electric Focus

There are three important recent developments in electric cars, as follows:

1. Nissan-Renalt’s Public Commitment. On November 19, 2010, Carlos Ghosn (pronounced “Goan”), Nissan-Renault’s CEO, announced [details in video] his company’s medium-term plans. Over the next several years, it will add capacity—just in the United States alone—to produce 200,000 batteries per year and 150,000 electric cars. He did not say whether the excess batteries would serve as necessary spares, export items, or components for other applications, such as storing wind and solar power. Nor did he say whether the Leaf would be his firm’s only (or even primary) electric car. He viewed the added electric-car capacity as part of his company’s general commitment to “high technology, high value” products in mature automotive markets like the US, EU and Japan.

2. GM’s Not-So-Serial Hybrid. The second development is less recent. Since well before last October, there have been credible reports in the press that the Volt is not a “pure” serial hybrid, i.e., that its internal combustion engine (“ICE”) does not connect just to its generator, but also directly to the wheels. The reports suggest that this happens when the car goes over 70 miles per hour and/or when the battery reaches a certain state of discharge. They did not say whether the necessary clutches are activated mechanically or electronically, or whether the driver can delay or prevent their activation, thereby prolonging the car's use of electric-only power.

These reports, if true, are troubling for several reasons. First, the Volt may be hard to run as a purely electric car, even if the driver wants to do so. Second, avid “green” drivers might have difficulty determining how much the Volt reduces pollution, carbon footprints and dependence on foreign oil. Third, the added weight and complexity of a multi-clutch mechanical transmission may reduce the theoretical simplicity and reliability of electric-only drive. Finally, depending on how it works, the mechanical transmission could detract significantly from the ICE’s efficiency by abandoning an operating regime in which the ICE drives the generator only, at a single speed (in revolutions per minute) chosen for optimum efficiency of the ICE and generator together.

This feature is also depressing for another reason. GM’s reluctance to design a true serial hybrid may reflect its engineers’ or managers’ conservative mindset. As “car people” trained all their lives on ICEs, they may simply have been unprepared to commit fully to the auto industry’s future for short-haul people-moving. That sort of backward fixation would be most disturbing, for it would undervalue two chief advantages of electric motors—a flat torque curve and easy (and cheap!) adaptability to four-wheel drive with fully independent four-wheel suspension.

The Volt's official site is coy about this feature, describing it only as an “automatic” transmission. Perhaps part of the reason is patent protection. A patent application in GM's name has been published (on March 29, 2009), as our law now requires for any US application with foreign counterparts. It covers a design with up to three clutches, which can be “selectively” engaged “alone or in different combinations[.]” The three clutches provide “at least one forward electric only operating mode including a series mode, an output split mode, and at least one neutral mode including a purely neutral mode and a neutral battery charge mode.” The latter mode can disconnect the ICE from the wheels but allow the wheels to drive the generator when the car is braking or going downhill.

For me, this development dims the Volt’s luster considerably. I want the Volt as an electric car. Period. The ICE is a useful backup, but I’d prefer to use it only when the Volt’s short electric-only range proves inadequate. If I have to use the ICE regularly and have no control over its use, I might prefer to buy the Leaf. So I think GM should “come clean” about its secret, proprietary transmission and how it works, so that prospective customers can evaluate it and the EPA can make a reasonable determination of how it affects nominal gas mileage. Depending on its complexity, the multiple-clutch transmission might contribute significantly to the price differential between the Volt and the Leaf.

3. Ford’s Announcement of an All-Electric Focus. According to the New York Times, Ford will announce production plans for an all-electric version of its leading Focus compact on Friday, January 7, 2011 (tomorrow). Ford is late to the party, at least as compared to GM and Nissan-Renault. More important, its corporate commitment to the industry’s future is as suspect as GM’s. Its executives still don’t seem to understand that the era of the internal combustion engine is coming to a close. So I greet this announcement of an announcement with some skepticism.

Nevertheless, the Ford Focus (or was it a Fiesta?) that I vaguely remember driving in Italy some years ago was quite a car. If Ford has been able belatedly to introduce something like it into the US, there may be reason behind its leading the American industry in profitability and its not needing a government bailout.

* * *

These three developments have made me re-evaluate my decision to buy a Volt.

When I buy a car, I don’t buy just the car; I buy the company, too. I kept a Toyota Corolla for 25 years. Toyota maintained it and provided spare parts for that entire time—long past the ten years fixed by industry standards and Toyota’s own spare-parts guarantee.

Nowhere is that sort of corporate commitment to longevity and customer service more important than with electric cars. We are entering a new era, in which industry will phase out the internal combustion engine, at least for short-haul people-moving. Before I buy an electric car from any company, I need to know that its top executives and corporate culture understand the brave new world to come. If they don’t, the electric cars they sell may be just another set of casual loss leaders in a hucksterish society bent on marketing, not engineering or economic rationalism.

So far, neither GM nor Ford impresses in this regard. GM’s CEO Dan Akerson may be starting to get it. He reportedly told his top product managers “to plan for oil at $120 a barrel and gasoline at more than $4 a gallon[.]” Yet even that sudden economic insight doesn’t necessarily reflect an understanding of the limited longevity of internal combustion engines and the decisive engineering and economic advantages of electric cars. Only Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan-Renault, has yet made noises that seem to reflect that understanding, however dimly.

I would love to buy an electric car designed and made in America, so that I can drive my country’s own product with pride. But I will probably have that car until I die. So I have to know that the producer will support it—with full understanding of its importance as a symbol, an innovation, and a revolutionary new technology. And of course I want to buy the best available electric car based on technical specifications.

I still lust after an electric car, and I still would like to buy one built in America. If GM had fully supported the Volt, and if it were really a serial hybrid as advertised, my decision would be easy. But I’m no longer sure that the Volt is really an electric car, or that it represents the wholehearted commitment to electric drive trains that I would like to see, and that Nissan-Renault is apparently making. And Ford’s announcement is still just that: words.

Lack of corporate commitment has immediate practical implications, as well as long-term ones. The first GM dealer I approached for a Volt added several thousand dollars to the its universally published price, just for fun. That’s another unfortunate consequence of GM’s lack of full commitment: the Volt’s scarcity increases its market price and lets dealers gouge.

So now I’ll have to wait until April, when I return from a long trip abroad, to make my decision. Of course I’ll announce it in this blog.

I advise all other electric-car fanciers to be equally circumspect. Our auto industry has been a snake-oil salesman for far too long to view its stated commitment to something this new and revolutionary without a degree of skepticism. If Nissan-Renault wins in the end, so be it. But I want to give even slow-thinking Detroit every opportunity to reform its laggard and profligate ways before I abandon it (and my compatriots who work for it) to pursue a future that is as clear to me as the sun rising in the morning.

06 September 2010

Missing the Point, Again and Again

[For a comment on liquid fluoride thorium reactors, click here.]

Sometimes the obtuseness of politicians is frightening―even the ones you admire. The President is about to announce a $50 billion “jobs bill,” which will fund an “infrastructure bank” to invest in our decaying infrastructure and put people back to work.

The goals sounds good, and the effort is long overdue. But the amount is orders of magnitude too small. In a 2009 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that we need to invest $ 2.2 trillion in infrastructure just to repair and maintain what we have. That’s nearly fifty times as much as in the bill to be announced today. You can thank the Party of No for us having no chance of making that kind of investment.

Yet even on its own modest merits, the $50 billion bill is woefully misdirected. Its “bank” reportedly will fund roads, railroads, and airport runways.

Think about that. What do all these things have in common?

They all use oil. Roads support cars, virtually all of which now use oil. (They also cost a lot of oil to build.) While we have a few electrified railways in our crowded northeast corridor, the vast majority of our long-distance runs use diesel fuel. We owe this sad fact to our woeful lack of long-distance electric infrastructure and our relatively long runs compared to Europe’s and Japan’s. (Virtually all of Europe’s and Japan’s intercity railroads are electric.) As for airplanes, they use only special aviation fuel, which comes only from oil. There is no other source.

So unless part of the railroad money will go for building more electric railroads―a point not clear from reports so far―virtually all of the proposed infrastructure bank will entrench, not reduce, our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. Unless our railroads are electrified, we may have to convert them back to coal, a nineteenth-century fuel, as oil gets scarcer and more in demand.

Even more astonishing, this tiny bill is supposed to fund medium-term infrastructure investments. It reportedly is directed at projects for the next six years. By then, unless we are smart, we will have lost the race to develop electric cars and will be buying them, their batteries and their chargers from Japan, Korea and China.

In the meantime, a foreign private company, Nissan-Renault, will reportedly spend billions of dollars in our own country developing quick-charging infrastructure for its electric cars. If that infrastructure is incompatible with the Chevy Volt’s batteries, for example, in voltage, charging cycle, or plugs, it will give a foreign product (the Nissan Leaf) an infrastructure advantage over a native American one (the Chevy Volt). Incompatibilities like these will also retard the development of the entire industry, just as different gauges of railways did in the nineteenth century; but that’s another story.

Any smart “infrastructure bank” should do three things above all. First, it should support, build and (if necessary) convert our aging infrastructure for the twentieth century into something for the twenty-first. Second, it should do all it can to promote a resurgence of American manunfacturing in new industries, not ones that already have gone offshore. Third, by setting standards of compatibility for things like electric-car chargers, it should head off the wasted effort and mini-monopolies than can arise from things like the nineteenth century's multiple (and incompatible) gauges of railways.

The $50 billion Obama bill fails on all counts. First, it supports existing infrastructure in old industries: cars (which overwhelmingly use oil), trains (most of which burn diesel fuel) and planes (which burn specially refined oil). Second, it fails even to begin building infrastructure for the coming electric-car era. It thus looks backward toward the glorious twentieth century, not forward to the rest of our own. Finally, reports mention no effort to head off deliberate incompatibilities for private advantage and suppressing competition, even by example, let alone by standard-setting, regulation or antitrust enforcement.

Doing more would be “picking winners,” you say? Well, if so, that’s what American visionaries have done throughout our history. Every single one of our great national infrastructure investments (except education)―canals, railroads, air travel, interstate highways, and the Internet―supported an emerging technology when made. When our government invested heavily in postal air mail and military aircraft, and when it funded development of the packet-switching protocols and computer networks that drive the Internet, no one could predict what marvels would arise. But our political leaders made the investment because they looked forward, not back. And as for suppressing incompatibilities, it doesn’t pick winners at all; its whole point is to assure a level playing field on which robust competition can run.

In contrast, the “new” Obama infrastructure bank seems a modest investment in the status quo, a burnt offering to Boehner and Mitchell, who want our nation to remain just the way it is, standing still, while others pass us on the road to stem-cell medicine, locally produced energy, and the stars.

I still support the President. I continue to believe he is the best among all realistic alternatives for the White House. And I continue to harbor secret admiration for Rahm Emmanuel, who (along with Speaker Pelosi) appears to be the sole street fighter in the Administration, and who reportedly was the driver of this bill.

But by God we need some engineers and some economists who have vision in the White House and in Congress. However many construction jobs it may finance, a bank that builds bridges back to the twentieth century will not move us forward. And no matter how clever a liar John Boehner may be, he cannot make an investment in more Erie Canals restore our greatness.

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR)

While on the subject of energy—which is what the post above is really about—I could not refrain from bringing up the subject of liquid fluoride thorium reactors. These new types of nuclear power stations are so promising that they deserve an allocation of serious money in the President’s $50 billion infrastructure program.

I just discovered the LFTR concept today, so perhaps I have the zeal of the recently converted. But here are the salient aspects of these new designs that I gleaned from a year-end report on them and a series of apparently expert comments (mostly from nuclear engineers) that followed:

1. These reactors use the element thorium as their primary power source. It is less radioactive than any fissionable isotope of uranium and far easier to handle. It is far, far less radioactive and dangerous to health than plutonium, which many current nuclear reactors use. And we have enough inside the US for all our power needs for a millennium.

2. Because of these properties, the LFTR design lends itself to small reactors. Theoretically, every town, and even certain large buildings, could install a reactor and have their own power sources.

3. Not only is thorium less radioactive than other sources of nuclear power. It “burns” more cleanly, with far less radioactivity, than fuel in uranium- and plutonium-based reactors. That’s why reactors using it can be made small and used in buildings; they require neither the heavy shielding nor the isolation from people that conventional reactors do.

4. The waste products of LFTRs are far less dangerous than those of conventional reactors. They have a very short radioactive half-life of 300 years, as compared to tens of thousands of years for waste products of conventional reactors.

5. In normal operation, LFTRs have very low weapons proliferation risk, since neither their fuel nor their waste products are useful in making nuclear weapons. If is possible, in theory, to increase the proliferation risk by modifying the reactor to extract, continuously and in real time, a protactinium operational by-product, which might be useful in making weapons. But that possibility is theoretical only. As far as anyone knows, no one has used protactinium or its decay product U-233 successfully for weapons in the entire history of the nuclear age, despite apparent (and still secret) American efforts to do so.

6. The LFTR design has zero meltdown risk because natural thermal expansion of the liquid thorium fluoride salt, as it heats above operating temperature, puts the reactor below criticality and eventually shuts it down.

7. High-temperature operation with a liquid-fluoride reactant permits electric generators to run on superheated gas, rather than steam, making power generation much more efficient and requiring 50% less water to draw away waste heat. It is even possible to design LFTRs to work in the desert, with air cooling only.

8. Major potential users of nuclear power, including France, China, India and Japan, are looking at the possibility of building thorium reactors. So are major American nuclear-power-plant suppliers.

9. Although working models of the new designs have yet to be built, successful thorium reactors were built and run for years during the Cold War. The powers that be abandoned them because they didn’t generate weapons-grade material. During that time of war hysteria, they wanted reactors that would supply both electric power and fissile material for weapons.

After you read these facts, you will no doubt want to shout, along with me, “Why the hell aren’t we devoting tens of billions to bringing these wonders on line ASAP?” There appear to be only three reasons: (1) inertia in the private nuclear-power community, which has invested billions in conventional nuclear power and doesn’t want to have to invest more in “new” technology that has not yet been fully engineered; (2) a public that has been trained to freeze in fear at the mere sound of the word “nuclear” or “fission;” and (3) the small and poorly understood risk of weapons proliferation that these plants might pose, plus the time and effort it might take to explore, analyze and refute these theoretical concerns.

Aren’t these precisely the kinds of obstacles that government assistance can overcome? I would hope that money in the President’s $ 50 billion “infrastructure bank” could be set aside for an LFTR demonstration plant, plus whatever additional analysis of its theoretical proliferation risk is warranted. Did I mention that nuclear power produces no carbon? Where is Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Steve Chu?

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03 September 2010

Wall Street Journal Buys Into Electric Cars

In a review by a reporter who actually drove one, the Wall Street Journal today acknowledged the reality, value and attraction of electric cars. Coming after years of persistently nagging and ignorant nay-saying by our nation’s leading business journal, the article was, well, electrifying.

The change of attitude was so dramatic that readers will want to read the article, rather than my mere commentary. So I’ll be brief.

Suffice it to say that the reporter acknowledged the two chief benefits that I (1 and 2) and many others have been touting for several years: (1) the convenience of “filling ’er up” with an electric cord in your own garage while you sleep, and (2) the advantage of oil independence for every mile you drive on electricity, since virtually none of our nation’s electricity comes from oil.

What the reporter didn’t say―but should have―was that the marginal cost per mile of electricity beats the cost of gas handily even now. That advantage will only increase as demand for oil increases and its price rises.

Another important point the reporter missed is pollution. Electric cars emit no pollution at all. If enough city people drive them, the city will start to smell sweet. In fact, if they get their electricity from coal, they city will smell sweeter than the country, where most coal power plants are located.

The reporter had nice things to say about the quiet and smooth ride of the car reviewed―a Nissan Leaf―although not its style. He even noted that used, post-warranty Leaf batteries will retain enough power cycling ability to store power from wind and solar farms and reduce their intermittency.

True to the Journal’s sceptical form, the reporter confessed complete ignorance as to who, if anyone, would buy the car, and whether Nissan-Renault would take a financial bath for having had the temerity to produce it. But unlike virtually all his predecessors at the Journal, he didn’t predict, based on zero evidence, that no one would buy it.

Of course all the folks like me will, because we’ve been waiting impatiently for a production EV since well before GM sent the EV1 to the crusher. I have no doubt that there are millions of us, who know something about engineering, crave elegant engineering solutions, and lament the American auto industry’s awful half-century stagnation.

We will buy the Leaf―or its more versatile cousin, the gas-and-electric serial hybrid Chevy Volt―for the same reason that few today buy wind-up watches. For short-haul people-moving, lithium batteries have made the internal combustion engine obsolete. The industry just doesn’t know that yet. But it will.

Both the Leaf and the Volt are only two or three months away from showrooms. So let the fun begin! I can’t wait to see what the same reporter says in five years, when electric cars and their fast-charging infrastructure are a leading global industry. I only hope we Americans have a significant share of it.

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